One one-thousand, two one-thousand, three one-thousand, four one-thousand, five one-thousand.
Realistically, just how much can you do with five seconds? Take a few breaths. Walk about twelve feet, if you are a man of my height. Pull a remembrance out of the depths of memory. Find the last beer in the fridge.
That morning we’d had a fight and I couldn’t spare five seconds to admit I was wrong, say I was sorry, and say ‘I love you’. I walked the twelve feet across the kitchen and out the garage door instead as if my job at the Save The Future non-profit was more important.
Over the next six months I struggled with the pain as Gretchen’s smiling face would leap into my thoughts. I tried to run from her memory, to wash it all away with cheeseburgers and beer. I succeeded only in putting on enough weight that I could walk just nine feet in five seconds.
One morning my cotton-mouthed brain concluded that the weight gain was a physical manifestation of survivor’s guilt. If I had walked only nine feet that morning at least I would have died with her when the stove’s gas line split wide open and the kitchen exploded. Only then did I realize I didn’t have survivor’s guilt. I had the old fashioned kind. The idiot who hurts the one he loves kind.
I drove my car off the Brae Gorge Bridge. It was five seconds to the bottom at the speed I was going. I’m pretty good with math, and I did the math as I was topping off the gas tank.
Five one-thousand, six one-thousand, seven one-thousand.
I was snatched from the instant of death and given a second chance at life by Save The Future, Inc. It turned out that they were actually an honest-to-goodness temporal police agency. They must have liked my creative problem solving for their non-profit facade.
They had good drugs and psychologists that helped me forget about those five seconds for a time. I learned how to live again. I even lost the weight.
There were tough times. Like when I was waiting for my extraction shunt at the Andersonville civil war prison. The shape of a cloud reminded me of Gretchen and my heart shattered all over again. Tough Union infantrymen crying at Andersonville was actually more common than any of the diaries and memoirs reported. I just let loose with the emotions, confident in the knowledge that I wasn’t creating a temporal rift.
I had fast become one of the star operatives, the “go-to” guy. I’d saved the timeline dozens of times. After operatives reach a certain level of success and trust, Save The Future lets us devise our own research missions. Operatives are forbidden from devising missions for personal gains or objectives because that is where the worst boondoggles happen. The operatives get so caught up in the moment they accidentally start a time rift. My best work involves fixing a few of these. The obvious historical research like JFK’s assassination, Hitler’s gravesite, and where Amelia Earhart landed, were no longer mysteries. Most of the operatives’ requests were dips into the past for genealogical or esoteric academic research.
I was ready with my request. Since I only asked for five seconds, they didn’t ask many questions.
There was a serial killer whose M.O. was to randomly blow people to smithereens with homebrewed explosives. My trip’s official plan was to check if the explosion in my kitchen was truly a gas leak accident, or if it had the signature of this killer’s homebrewed bomb.
I didn’t think it was the serial killer. I just wanted those five seconds back.
My meticulous plan called for the shunting of my past self to a Save The Future soundstage mockup of my kitchen complete with a superb character actor with a holo-face playing the role of Gretchen. I would be shunted into his place and drop the baby black box on the counter beside the refrigerator where it would have a clear view. The past me would be shunted back into the garage just as I closed the door between it and the kitchen and was shunted safely to the mission debriefing room. Past me, and the baby black box, would experience the explosion. Past me would continue thinking that he just walked past Gretchen with hateful words still hanging between us. The box would keep recording video, audio, atmospheric pressure, inertia, temperature, air particulates and whatever the hell else it records, for thirty more minutes before it too would be shunted to debriefing, arriving at the same time that I did. Time travel is fun that way. The trustees called it fool proof.
This fool had no intention of following the plan.
I was shunted into the kitchen. “I was wrong.”
The palmed baby black box dropped carelessly onto the counter. “I am so very sorry.”
Our eyes met. I stopped walking. “I love you, Gretchen.”
I hugged her. She hugged back.
I expected them to let me die and I would have been okay with that. They couldn’t shunt only me because of the hug. Gretchen gasped “Jimmy!” when we appeared in debriefing. The baby black box rattled a bit as it settled onto the conference table, it was dusted with soot and sizzled a little.
The director was in his chair sipping iced tea. “Damn, you gave us a scare, Whitcomb! You could have been killed for real, you know.”
I looked at him, defiant.
He shook his head, a stern scowl on his face. “You know the trustees have to approve recruitment.”
He didn’t understand why I’d driven off that bridge in the first place. I eased Gretchen into a chair and got down on one knee to look her in the eye. At some point while I explained what had happened and answered Gretchen’s questions, the director left the room.
Gretchen hugged me. I hugged back.
Deven D Atkinson is a computer programmer living in rural Southern Ohio.