Ervin was queasy enough from the time jump. The winding two lane country road was not helping. There’d be no tuna triangle sandwiches or microwaved supermarket meatballs at the wedding reception for him this time.
The alarm clock in the back seat belted out a dozen bars of Time in a Bottle. Whenever Ervin hoped its battery had run down, the clock repeated the snippet.
“Can’t you shut that thing off?” Sylvia, his wife, asked.
“Not without unwrapping it.” He wished he had taken care of the gift when he jumped back in time, but it just slipped his mind. In the first timeline it hadn’t seemed so annoying.
“I can’t believe you let the store wrap it without checking the alarm.” She stared at the doublewide trailer that was all too slowly being dragged up the mountain, as if she could somehow will it away. “You’re going to make us late.”
In the rear view mirror Ervin saw a line of cars, fellow prisoners of the slow-moving trailer. His tuxedo jacket lay beside the wedding gift. “I can’t go any faster.”
Sylvia glared at him. “Why’d you take Route Nine? The interstate’s faster.”
“Last time you said I shouldn’t listen to the GPS.”
Her voice rose. “Last time? We’ve never been here before.”
He had to keep his timelines straight. “Sorry. Not sure what I was thinking. There’s probably construction on the interstate.”
“How exactly would you know that?”
He knew, because in the other timeline they had arrived fifteen minutes late to Sylvia’s cousin’s wedding, thanks to two closed lanes.
Sylvia crossed her arms. “You never think things through. You’re always in your head, worrying about quantum physics.”
“It’s my job.”
“You were probably thinking about something at the lab.”
“No,” he lied. He wished there was a better way to disprove the theory of predestination instead of reliving this hellish day trip. It was too late to pick another event. Driving two different routes had seemed the simplest way.
“You should pay attention to the road.”
“I was paying attention.” He pointed to the trailer. “You think I missed a chance to pass?”
She gave him a look like he was a small child who hadn’t cleaned his room. “If you were paying attention, you wouldn’t have taken this route.”
His stomach lurched. No more time jumps for him, especially in an untested quantum accelerator. The contraption had smoked and sputtered before it flung him into the past. He was lucky he didn’t burn down the lab. Or maybe he did. He’d find out tomorrow when he caught up to his departure time.
The trailer turned into Heisenberg Mountain Estates. A cat darted across the road and disappeared into the woods.
“Hope that cat’s okay,” Ervin said.
Sylvia rolled her eyes. “Cat’s fine.”
Ervin gunned the engine. “You know, the other route takes just as long.”
Sylvia harrumphed. “It can’t possibly take this long.”
Ervin drummed his fingers on the steering wheel. “With two routes, you can never conclusively prove which is faster, because everything varies from day to day. The only way to know for sure is to drive both routes at the exact same time.”
Sylvia flipped down the visor and adjusted her makeup in the mirror. “Save the theoretical analysis for your grad students.”
The small country church was ahead. He glanced at the dashboard clock. Both routes had taken precisely two hours and ten minutes.
“Don’t forget the present.” Sylvia opened the door and paused. “Make sure the alarm’s off.”
Ervin glanced at the pristinely wrapped gift. The alarm hadn’t gone off in a while. “I think the battery died.”
“Don’t mess up that wrapping if you don’t have to.” She slammed the door and ran into the church, fifteen minutes late.
Ervin was in no hurry to again hear Sylvia’s aunt strangle her way through an off-key rendition of Ave Maria. He slipped on his tuxedo jacket.
He hadn’t noticed the alarm at the wedding in the other timeline. But maybe he just hadn’t been paying attention.
Should he open it? As long as the present was wrapped, he and his wife could both be right about the battery. He picked up the gift, careful not to crinkle the bright silver bow.
They were making good time on Highway Ten. They wouldn’t be late to the wedding this time.
Sylvia turned around and studied the present in the backseat. “That wrapping’s all torn. Why’d you unwrap it?”
He did not tell her that in the second timeline the alarm had gone off and disrupted the ceremony. “The alarm was on.”
“You shouldn’t have let them wrap it that way.”
He wanted to say, if the time machine had a range of more than two days, he would have taken care of that. “I know.”
He was groggy from the nausea medication. The morning was a sleep-deprived haze. He had trouble even knotting his tie. He was starting to have his doubts about the clock. Had he flipped the right switch to disable the alarm? He just wanted to lie down.
His eyes fluttered shut for an instant. He heard the screeching of brakes and the sound of metal slamming into metal.
“Stop!” Sylvia shouted.
He slammed on the brakes and the car skidded to a stop, less than a foot behind a rusty pickup. The truck had barreled into a semi that now blocked the highway.
Sylvia patted his hand. “You okay?”
Ervin’s heart was pounding. “Yeah. How about you?”
“I’m okay.” Her voice quivered. “That truck’s brake light didn’t work.”
“Jesus Christ,” Ervin said.
The drivers of the two trucks seemed to be unharmed. They surveyed the damage.
“I guess we’ll be late.” Sylvia sighed. “Doesn’t seem like such a big deal all of a sudden.”
Ervin finally saw a difference in the timelines. He leaned over and grabbed Sylvia’s hand. “Yeah, it’ll be fine, honey.”
Then the clock alarm went off.
Ervin and Sylvia laughed.
Peter Wood is an attorney in Raleigh, North Carolina where he lives with his surly cat and patient wife. He has had stories published in Daily Science Fiction, Bull Spec, Stupefying Stories and Every Day Fiction. In 1994 he drove from NC to Georgia for a wedding with a wrapped present in the back seat — a clock with an alarm that wouldn’t stop going off. He unwrapped the present and shut off the alarm before the wedding.