Mrs. Ticktock spreads a tarp on the floor and places a machine of her own invention at the center of the room. The tall yellow cylinder with three silver gooseneck limbs ending in red, blue, and yellow funnels could be mistaken for plumbing as readily as art. It is neither. It’s a time machine.
The grey-haired woman adjusts the goosenecks with knobby fingers, moves to the doorway to watch with me, and presses a button on a remote control. Triangles pop out of the blue funnel, splay across the ceiling, and stretch into stars. She touches a green button and the green funnel shoots vertical streaks along the walls and splotchy masses above them that resolve into grass and rolling hillsides.
“What’s the red funnel for?” I ask, rubbing the finger that used to wear my engagement ring.
She pushes the red button on her remote, but nothing observable happens. The grin she shoots me is somewhere between a cat with the family goldfish behind its teeth and pure evil.
“You have to bring a child in here for the rest to take effect,” she says. “Any child will do. Pre-school age is best. All they have to do is walk in the room.”
“Is that some kind of a joke? Or riddle?”
“No riddle, Carla. You have to bring something to it, that’s all. There’s absolutely no way around it. Just borrow one if you have to.”
She turns around and walks away and I’m out fifteen hundred bucks.
The whole point, after all, is: I don’t have a child. I want one. My heart is space-dust spinning toward chaos, my yearning for a child a malignant black hole at its center, sucking everything else into oblivion. This hunger is why I’m susceptible to crackpots like Mrs. Ticktock. She claims to be a time-traveling shaman. Or is it sorceress? Some kind of mumbo-jumbo I’d never go for were I not turning forty next month, with my application to adopt denied by social services over one tiny white lie.
The crash wasn’t my fault. I asked Jeff a hundred times to wear his seat belt. My blood test came back just below the legal limit, so I won the case on appeal. Now the family we planned will never be. Now there’s only the hole.
Mrs. Ticktock says she can get me a child from the future. One who won’t be missed.
I’ve gone this far. It wouldn’t hurt to invite the next-door neighbor’s little girl in to show her the room, ask her if she likes the paint job. Her mom wouldn’t even notice. At least, I doubt it. I’ve barely seen the single mom who rents the place next door, apart from the occasional glimpse of her slumping from car to house at the end of the workday. I know the daughter because we talk sometimes when she plays outside.
The next day, I spot the girl riding a purple bike, turning figure eights in the cul-de-sac. Her name is Lily, a name I love. She’s a lively child, quick to smile, with brown hair and big eyes. I wave, she waves. She rides over to me.
“Like my new bike?” she says. “I got it for my birthday. I’m five now.”
“Happy birthday! I love your new bike. Since you’re old and wise now, maybe you can help me decide.”
“I painted a room with stars and stuff and I’m trying to decide if I should keep it this way.”
“Sure, I’d be great at that. Show me.”
Lily walks her bike up to my front porch. The bell jingles as she drops it on its side in the grass and tromps up the steps behind me.
I lead Lily to the painted room. Her eyes track from the stars above down to the green hills, her lips making an O. She hesitates just inside the doorway and I get the warping sensation of time slowing down, like when I wrecked my car last year and the windshield fractured into a web of cracks before my eyes in slow motion. I realize what’s happening.
As Lily enters the room, time is fragmenting like the windshield. Right away I wish I could take it all back, but I waver, the black hole inside me sucking hard, squeezing the last light from my heart. A shriek from deep in my gut tells me it’s already too late.
I grab Lily around the waist and yank her back, out of the room. We land with pained grunts, side by side on the hardwood floor of the hallway.
“Are you okay, Lily?”
“Never better, Carla. Thanks so much for your help. My machine can’t do it alone.”
From Lily’s face shines the wicked, secretive smile I’ve seen on only one other person.
I gasp. “What about Lily?”
“She’s in here. Somewhere. In truth, I don’t need the machine for my kind of time travel at all. But it’s much easier when someone brings a child right to me. Now, let’s get me back out to my bike.”
I stand and help “Lily” up. Questions race through my mind, but I can’t catch hold of them.
She places her tiny hand in mine. Its warmth reassures me. Lily leads me out the front door and down the porch steps. She picks up her bike, jingles its bell twice and shocks me free of my thoughts. We both laugh.
Lily is beaming. “I can’t wait to move into my new room! We’ll pretend I was yours all along.”
My gaze falls on Lily’s house. “What about—”
“If you empty the brake fluid from my mom’s car tonight, I could move in as soon as tomorrow.”
We’ll pretend she was mine all along. This could work.
“By the way, your fifteen hundred went straight into my college fund. Thank you for the donation. Bye-bye, see you tomorrow, Carla!”
She silently mouths the word “mom” and my heart soars.
Dawn Lyons writes dark fantasy and science fiction, and pens lighthearted fiction under the name Julie Leo. Her debut novel, The Last Four Digits, which Publishers Weekly called a “fresh, funny, romantic mystery,” was a finalist in the 2017 San Diego Book Awards. Spell Crazy, a lighthearted paranormal romance written as Julie Leo, will come out in 2019.