Thank you, Charlie Finlay, for believing in this story.
Marley and Marley
by J. R. Dawson
I never wanted to turn out like her.
When I met her, I was twelve. There was no one else to take care of me. Before she showed up, she was preceded by this man in a pinstriped suit. A harbinger. He sat me down in his sterile office and he said, “Time Law is not a joking matter.” He told me all the horrible things that would happen if I broke any Time Laws. Worlds would collapse. I would turn inside out. Important people would die and important things wouldn’t happen. And that’s when I first felt that clutching sensation in my chest. Like he had his fingers inside my rib cage and he was squeezing my lungs. Do not fuck this up.
“So are you the one I’m going with?” I asked. Because I was a newly coined orphan and I needed someone.
The pinstriped-suit man shook his head. “No,” he said. “The system is hard on children so we’ve come up with a better option. But you can’t go live with her. She must come to you.”
Because she lived in the future.
She agreed. She got in the time machine, she met me at the port, and she took me home. She set up shop in Mom’s room and she didn’t leave until my eighteenth birthday, when, like some sort of Mary Poppins, she up and disappeared back to the future.
She was old, a whole twenty-eight years when she first showed up. She was a disappointment. I asked her where she lived, and she said, “Oh, I live right here in Omaha, just like you.” I told her I was going to hang myself that night.
“I’m not going to lie to you about it,” she said.
“I’m not going to end up in Omaha,” I told her. “I was born here. I’m going to move away.”
“Okay,” she said, although it sounded like she didn’t believe me.
“What happened to you singing in New York?” I said. “I want to be a singer!”
“You’re twelve,” she said. “When you’re nineteen, you’ll go to New York on a trip and you’ll hate it.”
“It doesn’t matter if I hate it, it’s where I’m going!” I said.
“Aren’t you sassy,” she said. She started making horrible turkey burgers. Her favorite dish. My least favorite.
“I’m going to New York,” I said.
“So go,” she said.
So goddamn smug.
“How much of a loser do you have to be in order to spend six years here with me?” I said.
“They’re going to send me right back to the day I left,” she said.
“You’ll be older, though,” I said.
“We don’t have anyone else, Marley,” she said.
We were both named Marley. We were the same person, actually. And it got confusing at times. So she became Old Marley, and I was Little Marley. I hated Old Marley. I swore to never see her in a mirror or a window once she disappeared back to her own time. I would not be her. I would prove her wrong.
But Old Marley was right. When I was nineteen, I went to New York and I hated how crowded it was. Flying back, I felt defeated. No matter what I did, at twenty-eight, I’d have to go be a mother to a little girl. I would be a loser, an angry and sad old woman who ate turkey burgers.
My life was set out for me, with some sort of pinstriped time cops staring through the wrinkles and tears of chronology. I felt like they were watching, making sure things went according to plan. They were the ones who made sure my field trip to New York was horrible.
But there were things Old Marley hadn’t told me. There was Jason. And I learned that I didn’t like singing parts I had no interest in. Seeing as most parts available for size 14s in New York were scheduled for people with big names and people in ensembles, I didn’t feel like eating cardboard dollar pizza the rest of my life. So I bought a house with Jason. It was blue skies on our wedding day. We were happy. While I was in his arms, the time cop man couldn’t touch me. We were beyond laws, beyond time, beyond our own selves. She never told me any of that.
She also never told me that he died. She didn’t tell me the bank foreclosed on their house and she moved into a one-bedroom apartment close to the cemetery to be nearer to Jason. And she certainly didn’t tell me how absolutely horrible it was to wake up in the morning and realize I had to get through a whole twelve hours of sunlight where I was still expected to function.
So when the foster service time cop knocked on my door that day, I didn’t adhere to my original plan: rigging up a flame-thrower from my kitchen utensils and laying waste while screaming, “Begone, evil spirits!” No, I let him in.
The man was the same man I’d met when I was little. He was dressed exactly the same, and I realized I didn’t know if he was from my time or Little Marley’s time or a different time altogether.
“How have you been?” he asked.
“Do you remember me at all?” I asked.
“Yes, Marley, I remember you,” he said. “I just met with you a few hours ago—my time, of course.” He said this with a little smile that was supposed to be friendly, but I felt that clutching in my lungs. He had said it to remind me where he stood and with what power, and where I stood and with no power.
“You remember how much you needed someone after your parents died,” the man sat on the couch and reminded me. Like he had to remind me. Dad died of cancer; Mom hanged herself a year later. I had been alone. Sort of like now, with my husband rotting away in a cemetery down the street and not able to come home. Sometimes I woke up in the middle of the night, sweating from a nightmare where I saw him being picked apart by moles, his jaw now disintegrated, his guts spilling out and into the mouths of rats.
“I hated Old Marley,” I told him. “Little Marley doesn’t want me.”
“It doesn’t matter if she wants you,” the man said. “There is no one in her time who can care for her. Your little self will end up in the foster system. This is a better alternative. You knew as soon as you were twelve this was inevitable for your adulthood.”
“Ah,” I said. “So you didn’t really give Old Marley a choice to go raise me, did you?”
“Our policy is that it’s entirely up to you,” the man said.
“Right,” I said. That was a lie.
That night, I looked in the mirror. I saw the bags under my eyes, because I’d been crying so much. I saw my glasses. I remembered shouting at Old Marley, “I’ll never wear glasses! I’ll take care of my eyes or I’ll get contacts! You’re so ugly! Why did you make us so ugly?”
Old Marley hadn’t been old. She’d been twenty-eight. But she seemed so much older.
“Can I ask a question?” I asked him.
He raised one brow, that’s it. People in suits barely move their faces. Probably because their bodies are so constricted.
“You work for the Time Law Department,” I said.
He nodded, just slightly. “A branch of the TLD—we handle foster services.”
“There are a lot of rules, and a lot of surveillance, yes? Things happen for reasons and you make sure of that.”
He nodded again.
“So you knew my husband was going to die?”
He did not nod. But he didn’t do anything else, either. After a moment of awkward silence, he said, “It’s an inopportune time for you to return to the past. We nearly decided against it. We are worried you’ll go looking for Jason, or you’ll try to twist the events that have already happened in order to save him.”
“He’s not in the Important People of Interest index,” I said. “It wouldn’t matter. We’re nobodies.”
“Time isn’t yours to change,” he said. “Now, before we let you anywhere near a port, you need to review the relevant Time Laws and sign these documents.” He plopped a folder on my coffee table. “We’ve included a list of individuals from the Important People of Interest index with whom you have come into contact. Your interactions with these people are recorded word for word, action by action, and must not be altered. Now, as for Little Marley, you are not to tell her anything about the future. No lottery numbers, no presidential elections, nothing.”
“I know how it works,” I said. “I’ve been through it before.”
“You were a child,” he said. “A petulant child, from the reports. For your own sake, I would not test the boundaries.” Heartless. “You’re right, Marley. You are a nobody.” Correct. “You keep your head down and fulfill the time loop, that’s all you need to do. There are real consequences for everyone, especially you, if you go off-script. Do you understand?”
I did. I understood. I’d always understood. But there was still one question that had always terrified me.
“And you do this a lot, don’t you?” I said. “Find foster parents like this?”
“Yes,” he said.
“And what happens to the people who do try to change things?” I said.
He stared at me very seriously. “No one ever has.”
My life had been controlled by the chronology bogeymen ever since I first saw the Time Law people. They knew everything, they had everything chronicled. Once, I saw a mission statement on some paperwork Old Marley had: “We all play a part in keeping order.”
My part was set. No matter what I did, I would never live in New York. I would never have Jason back. I would waste six years with a little girl who hated me.
Maybe I could lie to Little Marley. Maybe I could tell her we grew up and became astronauts.
So I packed my things. I showed up in a little wicker brim hat, as a joke. Old Marley was gonna look just like ol’ Mary Poppins when she came rolling in. But I knew the joke would be lost, because I didn’t remember Old Marley coming in a hat like this and that meant I hadn’t been paying attention.
I didn’t say goodbye to anyone, mostly because everyone I knew was dead. I traveled to the port station, high above the world—a small white circle spinning around the Earth below—where the pinstriped man helped me prepare. As we orbited, every time we hit the set point below, the whole port exploded with a ringing alarm. I was settled into my pod when the ringing came later that afternoon. The pod stretched, rolled, ceased to exist, and still existed everywhere. In my head, I saw all these moments from all over my timeline. I saw my mother, I saw a trip to the Rockies, and I saw days when a math test was my biggest problem. I smelled my high school gym. I felt the carpet of my old pink bedroom.
And then I was grounded again. With a deep breath, the world pieced me back together and I stumbled out of the pod, in shock. The welcome team was ready, and they wrapped me up in a blanket and gave me hot cocoa. They told me what I was feeling was normal.
“It’s like dying,” the welcome team lady said. “When I came back, I puked for days.”
“Are you going to vomit?” the welcome team man asked.
“No.” I vomited.
They rushed me to a recovery room where I slept and watched television. It was relaxing; the robe was comfortable. Then it was time to return to Earth and meet Marley.
I remember meeting Old Marley when I was twelve. A non-Time Law social worker picked me up in her car and we drove all the way to the pickup port. I guess the suit man couldn’t be bothered. We waited a long time, and I got impatient sitting behind the social worker in the hot car. The thing about social workers was that they meant well, and their hearts were in the right place, but a lot of them didn’t have kids of their own and they were ill-equipped to work with a little girl who found her mother dangling from a rope in the bathroom.
I hadn’t been a dark kid. My bedroom was pink. But after all of that nonsense, I started writing stories at school about killing myself. No one wants to read that, and my harshest critic was the principal.
When I met Old Marley, she stepped out of the port onto the sidewalk looking refreshed and quite pleased with herself. I hated her on sight because she was fat. I wasn’t fat. How did I get fat? I would never be fat.
“You’re fat,” I told her immediately. Maybe she would glance down at herself and say, “Oh, well, look at that, you’re right. I’ve really let our waistline go. I’ll get on that.”
But instead she just stared at me, her eyes narrowing the way hawks zone in on little mice. She removed her hat—yes, she did have a hat, I remember now—and she placed it on the empty seat space between us, like a barrier.
“You’re a little shit,” she said.
Thus our mutual understanding began.
So now, standing at that port in my hat, I knew what was going to happen. I knew what the little shit was going to say. Looking at my waistline, I had to agree with my former self’s impending assessment: I was probably a lot fatter than I thought.
I breathed in, seeing the social worker’s car drive up to where I stood in my prim boots. The social worker took my bags and I sat in the back seat as if getting ready to take a puppy home for the first time. Although the puppy was taking me back home.
I didn’t want to look over at the warm body next to me. She was little, I could tell. I heard her shifting around, unhappy and tired and uncomfortable. She gave out a deep sigh, just like the sigh I give when I’m done with everything.
So I looked at her.
The sensation of looking at yourself is somewhere between finding an old favorite poster from college in a box in the garage and hearing a recording of your own voice.
She was scrawny and haggard. Her skin was soft and smooth. Her hair was unbrushed. Her eyes were strained from squinting so much. She needed glasses. But good God, I had no idea I was ever that skinny.
She stared at me in complete horror.
“You’re fat!” she barked at me.
There it was. There was my fear, right there in the open. I’d turned into the woman I hated, and nothing had changed. The next six years would be full of an unyielding current of events.
I set my hat down on the space between us. “You’re a little shit.”
The house was how I left it. When I turned eighteen and Old Marley disappeared, I tried to keep it up by myself. But I eventually went off to college and had my parents’ lawyer sell off the property and everything inside it. My home decomposed and was picked apart while I stayed the hell away from it. But here it was, the everyday humdrum I’d forgotten.
The air conditioner was too loud in the bathroom, and you had to hold the toilet handle down for five seconds for it to actually flush. The kitchen tile looked like instructional footprints for dancing robots. When I was a kid, I’d line my feet up with the blocks and jump forward, then sideways, backward, then forward. The old clunky cell phones sat in their charging stations. And of course, the smell of dog, although Spot Spot was given away years ago.
Or wait, no. At this point it had only been a few weeks.
“Move.” Little Marley pushed past me. She couldn’t look at me. I remembered I never wanted to see Old Marley because of how old she was. I was terrified of getting old.
Little Marley was only twelve. Spot Spot the dog had only just left. We had only just returned home.
I still had the whole story to plod through.
Before Old Marley came and screwed everything up, I was still a kid and would sit in the corner of my room surrounded by my Barbies and think about all the things I’d be when I got older. I could move to New York and be a singer. I could be a cowboy, although I wasn’t sure what a cowboy did other than sit around campfires and play harmonicas. Sounded like a sweet life.
I would be thin and beautiful. I would be smart and have a thousand boyfriends, or maybe just one good guy I loved so much to pick out of everyone. I would travel the world.
But then Old Marley arrived, and I saw no matter what I did, I would wear glasses. I would have a paunch. I would never smile. I would hate myself.
And now I sat across the dining room table, eating wet spaghetti and watching Little Marley pick at it, because we both knew how bad it was.
“I can make something else,” I said.
“No,” Little Marley said. “Please don’t.”
“We’re not a total loser in the future,” I said. “I just can’t tell you anything, you know that.”
“If the best thing you could do with your time is sit here with me, you’re a total loser,” Little Marley said.
I put my fork down. “Look, I know the food sucks. I don’t make good spaghetti. But you could be a little more grateful. We’re all we got right now—”
Little Marley rolled her eyes so hard, I wanted to knock them back into her skull. Little shit. She hadn’t helped with dinner. She’d watched TV the whole time.
It wasn’t her fault, I tried to remind myself. She was twelve. She was an orphan.
I should have made turkey burgers. I’m better at turkey burgers.
I stopped. I looked to the spaghetti. I laughed. Little Marley stared at me as if I was as stupid as her dinner.
“What?” she said.
“I made spaghetti!” I said. “I didn’t make turkey burgers!”
“Old Marley made turkey burgers for me on the first night!” I howled. “Oh my God, you know what this means?”
“No,” she said.
But then I stopped laughing, because I must have been remembering wrong. I remembered Old Marley saying the words I’d just said, laughing for no reason, and I remembered suffering through her spaghetti.
But I thought we’d had burgers.
“Hello?” Little Marley waved at me. “Can we order out pizza?”
My brain scattered from one first dinner to another. Which one had it been?
Spaghetti. It had been spaghetti, although I knew it used to be something else. I’d changed it. Or maybe not.
Little Marley was a pill, but a good amount of her time was spent in school. I had to get up early to drop her off, and I tried to remind her that we were only making it to college if she kept her grades up.
“I’m not an idiot, I know,” Little Marley scoffed from the back seat. I was not this horrible when I was a kid.
“No, but I’m telling you, Marley, you need to pay attention in math,” I said.
“If I don’t do exactly how well you did,” Little Marley said, “I’ll end up going to a better school than you, and then what? Maybe a piano falls on my head because I happened to be at Yale walking under some dorm room window at the right moment. You could’ve died if you did better at math.”
“I don’t know what dorm would have a piano in it,” I said.
“If you die,” Little Marley said, “I end up in some rotten split-level in Ralston with some construction worker dude and his Avon wife and the other ten foster kids they’ve got in bunk beds in a room with crappy blue and green wallpaper. And then I die. So no thanks. Rather just suck at math.”
She was a smart bugger. She was snappy.
“And besides,” she added, grabbing her plastic backpack. A vinyl decal of a vintage cartoon movie’s poster was wrapped around the front of it. Toys “R” Us exclusive. It looked brand new. Because it was. It wouldn’t be vintage for a long time. “Besides,” she said again, “you did all these stupid classes already. Why didn’t you just bring like six years’ worth of homework and test answers with you?”
“Wasn’t on my priority list,” I said.
Little Marley snorted. “Goes to show how not-twelve you are.”
She slammed the door behind her.
I spent the day trying to figure out what to do in a year I’d already lived. There wasn’t much to do but stay out of everyone’s way. I decided to look over the Important People index, and I found out that in fifteen minutes, I would meet the President-fifty-years-from-now. She checked me out at the Walmart counter when I went to pick up some Tylenol.
“Hello,” she said, tired, not looking at me.
I already had my lines memorized. “Hi,” I said, trying not to let her see I was staring at her.
She was just a kid, like nineteen. Her hair was pulled back with little bobby pins. She chewed gum. There were bags under her eyes.
“That’s five-fifty,” she told me.
I paid it. “Thanks,” I said half-heartedly.
“You need your receipt?” she said, handing it to me.
I did want my receipt, but I had to say, “No thanks,” and leave at a pace of two steps a second.
I checked the index again. The next Important People index encounter wouldn’t be until five months from now.
What makes an Important Person? If the girl at the Walmart had been a rock star or a teacher, would it have mattered if I took the receipt?
What if she had been Jason?
Every day, after Little Marley got off school, we’d eat dinner and go do our own things. She’d curl up and watch television, and I’d walk through the rooms, touching all of the stuff that had been lost throughout the years. Sometimes I’d just sit in my parents’ room and do nothing but smell my mother on her clothes. I didn’t use the master bath, though. I shared the main bathroom with Little Marley.
She never asked why. She knew why. She asked other things.
“So,” Little Marley said one night as we ate ice cream in the den, “you remember how she did it?”
“Yup,” I said.
Little Marley poked her ice cream with her spoon and nodded, like we were our own sorority of two, the only ones who could see the same image in our heads. A woman with long, matted hair, her feet dangling above the lime-green-shag bath mat.
“Let’s think about something else,” I said.
“Tell me how it gets better, then,” Little Marley said. “You’re depressing. Please tell me you’re secretly some CIA agent on a covert mission.”
“Nope,” I said.
“Well, do we get another dog?”
Old Marley had not gotten me another dog. I shook my head.
“Could we get another dog?” Little Marley said.
It had been stupid that Old Marley hadn’t let me have a dog. But there must have been a reason, something I wasn’t seeing in the space-time continuum of it all. What if I drove us to the pound and killed us both? What if the next John Lennon was supposed to pick out the dog we’d choose and was never inspired to write some ballad that would make him famous?
“I don’t know if we can,” I said.
“You act like there’s some Big Brother watching us all the time.” Little Marley scooted up in her La-Z-Boy. “No one is here except us. If we want a dog, we can get a dog.”
“How do you even know who Big Brother is?” I said. “You haven’t read 1984 yet.”
“What are you talking about? It’s a TV show,” she said.
“Okay.” I looked at her. “You know that the pinstripe suit man is tracking us, right? That’s still a thing.”
Little Marley slowly lost all color in her face. She picked at her melting ice cream. “Yeah,” she said. And I knew she felt that clutching sensation, too. The anxiety. The eyes all around her, peering into our living room. A weight on her shoulders not to step out of line.
And she was already so alone.
I would look like that for the rest of my life. Every time I wanted something, Old Marley would say that’s not how it was. I would eventually stop asking and just allow things to happen the way they were supposed to fall.
But not yet. She was still only twelve. And she’d had less time to learn how to be afraid.
“Fuck it,” she said, and she set her ice cream bowl on the mantel and bounded up the stairs. “Let’s go get a dog.”
It occurred to me, after we picked up Rufus the Dog (full name) and no men in black strode out from behind a tree to time-cop arrest me, that maybe the universe didn’t care if I had a dog. Nothing changed. Maybe Old Marley had gotten me a dog. Yes, of course she’d gotten me a dog. Little Marley didn’t know this yet, but Rufus the Dog would grow up to be three years old and he brought Old Marley and me together. At three, Rufus the Dog had to go away to a rescue because he would be happier with other dogs. It had been the day after my fifteenth birthday and I was devastated. When Old Marley left, I ended up adopting Rufus the Dog the Second, and he’d been a good boy until he died in Jason’s and my arms.
Although Old Marley sent him away, if it hadn’t been for Rufus, I don’t know how Old Marley and I would have bridged the gap at all. And as I watched Little Marley wrap her arms around his scruffy mutt neck and he licked her face, I promised myself I would not send the poor guy away.
Three years passed. Little Marley turned fifteen with a big birthday bash that was part-goth, part pinky ponies. Her best friends came over (I was Aunt Marley, so they weren’t my best friends anymore). I bought her a new collar for Rufus the Dog. The little girls went out in the back with the big lumbering galoot. At one point, the nerd had been able to lie on my lap, and now he barely fit on the couch. Then there was chocolate cake for all.
That night, I tucked Little Marley in bed. I kissed her good night even though she was now fifteen. The last three years had their ups and downs, but they were also full of trips across the country, tree climbing, eating pizza for breakfast, and of course the stupid mutt.
“I love you, Old Marley,” she said.
“Love you, too,” I said.
I went back into the kitchen to feed Rufus the Dog and found him lying on his side, moaning. He didn’t need to make a sound for me to know something was wrong. And even before we got to the car, I knew what was going to happen.
Rufus the Dog didn’t come back home.
Little Marley woke up, bounding into the kitchen to see her puppy. But the kennel was empty and it was eerily silent. She asked where he’d gone.
I remembered what Old Marley told me.
I understood now.
But Old Marley had been wrong. Little Marley was smart and quick. Little Marley had loved this baby, and now Little Marley would know the truth.
I told her, and immediately saw that my choice this time around was almost as bad as it was the first time.
I told her Rufus was gone. I told her Rufus had gotten into some chocolate cake in the trash can. And she was quiet for three days straight. She woke up screaming in the middle of the night. A week later, she came home and flopped on the couch to watch more television.
“Where are your friends?” I said. “They usually come over on Friday nights. I’m making pizza.”
“They’re not coming,” Little Marley said.
As I watched her on the couch, I recognized that vacant stare. This was the day Heather and Jolie asked if we were going over to my house tonight for dinner with my Aunt Marley. I had said, “No. And I think we should stop doing it forever.”
Because mothers die. Dogs die. Friends will die. The only person I knew who would stick around is myself. So best to stay at home with Old Marley and get used to being alone.
Heather and Jolie never did come back to my house. That was the end of our little trio. I missed them. It had been good to see them again, and now I felt a great sadness that we’d hit that mile marker.
“Can I have a list?” Little Marley asked me later that night as we cleaned up the pizza.
“A list of chores? Christmas presents? Cute dudes?”
“No,” she said. “People who are going to die.”
“I can’t do that,” I said. “You know I can’t.”
“I don’t have any relatives left,” she said. “So what, do you never have a boyfriend? Girlfriend? Nothing? A cat? You’re here with me, for six years.”
“Yes, and they’re sending me right back to when I left,” I said.
“Yes, but you still have to live six years without whoever is in the future,” she said. “That means there’s either no one or there is someone that’s dead. I know you, I know us. You ran away from something.”
She was too smart. Why had I never realized that?
“Stop,” I said. “You want some ice cream? There’s no one dead.”
“That’s a lie,” she said. “That’s an absolute lie. I’m not a baby, and it’s my life, too. I have a right to know.”
I left. The puppy trainer taught us that when Rufus the Dog started barking, we should walk away.
But Little Marley just followed me into the kitchen. “There’s someone! Who dies! Tell me! Who dies!”
Ah, now I remembered. This fight. I walked away again.
She grabbed my hand. She pulled it to her. I didn’t remember that happening. “What are you doing?” I pulled it away.
“I want to see if there’s a tan around your ring finger,” she said.
“You need to calm down.”
“There is a line! There was a ring and now there’s not, and it’s been three years and it’s still there? That means you wear it when you’re not around me.”
“Other things can happen besides death, Marley.”
“But it is death,” she said. “I would never marry anyone I could just leave. We’re not like that. We would have to really trust someone to be with them.”
“What the hell do you know?” I said. “You’re a child. I know everything you know, and I know more. I know exactly what is going to happen next, I’ve known for much longer than you, so don’t sit there and tell me what I would do.”
Little Marley watched me, her eyes big, her messy hair around her small pale face. She looked like the photographs I’d kept, of a sad, sunken-in child. But there was something the photographs hadn’t caught.
When she spoke, she commanded.
“Tell me what I do next, then,” she said. “If you know how this all ends, and our life is all figured out, you tell me what I do next.”
I did try to tell her. I remembered this fight. Old Marley came up with an excuse about how she was divorced. I told Jason about that when we first met and he just laughed. “Divorced,” he said. “Jesus, I hope not.”
We almost hadn’t married because of it. And we’d always been afraid he’d end up like Rufus. But when someone is alive, you can’t imagine them dead.
“I tell you it was a divorce,” I say to Little Marley. “You don’t want to believe me, but you do, because it’s better than the alternative. And then you stomp upstairs and watch some television.”
Little Marley nodded. “Well, you’re right. I don’t believe you. He or she or they dies, right? Fine. Tell me how and I’ll stop it.”
I shook my head. “No. No, it’s against the laws.”
“You think every single thing we’ve done all these years is exactly how it happened before?” Little Marley said. “Who the hell will know what we did? Did we always get a dog, or did we change that? I don’t know! But think about it—if I don’t leave right now like you say I do, if I stay here instead of watching television, then the past changes, right? Who the hell would know the difference?” She sat down in the middle of the room. “So make this the moment you tell me how they die.”
“No,” I said. I was shaking. I could feel those pinstriped eyes everywhere; I could feel that rising panic. I could feel the world turning too fast.
“Fine,” Little Marley said, tucking her hair behind her ear. “Tell me their name.”
I burst into tears.
Little Marley waited. “Fine,” she said. “Tell me how you met.”
How many things had changed since I’d come back? How many times had we changed the timeline? Had we changed anything?
We couldn’t change anything.
But then I looked at Little Marley. And I realized she wasn’t twelve anymore. And she was alone now, but in only a few years she would go to a college dorm after this house had wandered away from her. She would go to an RA-mandated pizza party, where she would meet the students on the same floor. And that’s where she’d see this boy with curly hair and an old popular cartoon on his T-shirt. The same one on her backpack when she was a kid.
“You watch that show?” I asked him, and he nodded.
“Don’t care what anyone says,” he said. “The old shows are the best. You watch Saturday Morning Meltdown?”
“Hell yes, I did,” and we sang the main theme: “Saturday Morning Meltdown. Four hours of freedom. Come on in and come on down. We’re all waiting to begin.” It was a stupid song, but it reminded me of early mornings when my dad, in his thick black robe, lounged sleepily on the couch behind me while Mom was in the kitchen, making my cereal.
“We should get dinner sometime,” I said. God, I was so outgoing.
He nodded, enthusiastically, more enthusiastically than any other boy I’d spoken to. “I’m Jason. I’m sorry, what’s your name?”
And the day we married, it was only us and a piece of paper and two witnesses out at Standing Bear Lake. He held me and there was a boat that went past with people peering out to see our hands in each other’s hands and the wind rushed and I looked at him and his eyes were speckled with green and brown and I said, “They look like their own little worlds.”
Our marriage was sewn together with cartoon quotes and horrible screechy music from boys with floppy bangs and sad relationships with their suburban parents. We shared books, we popped popcorn and watched our favorite old movies on Friday nights. I could sleep through the night, especially if Jason was there.
Time doesn’t heal people. People heal people.
Little Marley still sat in her spot on the floor, watching me like a patient school counselor. And I felt this anger, deep inside, rumbling forward like a train. I saw that man in his pinstriped suit, not moving and not caring when I asked him if it could have been stopped. If Jason could have lived. Because lying on the bed, wrapped in his arms, feeling his heartbeat … that man in his suit had deemed it unimportant.
“Jason,” I said.
Little Marley nodded. “And how did… how will he die?”
“I know what you’re thinking. It may not work,” I said. “It may make everything worse.”
Little Marley shrugged. “Anyone we would marry would be worth the risk.”
The way she looked at me, the way she spoke to me, I now realized why I always hated Old Marley with such vehemence. It had nothing to do with New York or her glasses.
She was a coward.
Little Marley turned eighteen. I threw her a big party. We ate all of our favorite foods. We watched all of our favorite shows. We got up at six the next morning and made cereal together.
Then the man with the pinstriped suit came to collect me.
He was still sick from his arrival in the past. But although he was completely green, he still barely moved. I couldn’t imagine him vomiting.
I hadn’t seen him for six years. Maybe nothing had changed. Maybe the Jason secret was the only little wrinkle we could create, or maybe he would stop us.
“Say good-bye,” he said to both of us.
“It’s cruel to leave her alone so quick,” I said.
“If you didn’t teach her how to take care of yourself, that is not Time Law’s issue,” the man said.
Little Marley shoved past the man and said, “I need time with her by myself.”
The man waited outside.
“Don’t worry,” she said. “By the time you get back, I’ll have taken care of everything.”
“It’s too dangerous,” I whispered. The man was only on the other side of that door.
“Marley,” Little Marley said, “the time cop people don’t have anything we don’t have. They don’t own the cosmos. No one does.”
I gave her a hug. “Remember, it’s December twenty-fourth and he goes to work in that snowstorm. Slash his tires if you need to. But if you can’t stop him,” I said, “don’t blame yourself.”
“Hey, Marley?” she said. She punched me on the arm. “If Jason’s alive when you get to the other side, go live in New York.”
“We’ve talked about this,” I said. “You take a trip and—”
“And whatever whatever,” she said. “It still bothers you that you don’t live there. So take Jason and go live in New York. We don’t know what’s gonna happen to us. You’re not that old.”
I felt pride. I felt like I couldn’t let go of her, like we needed to keep this up for the rest of our lives, me always a couple steps ahead of her and she leaps and bounds beyond us both.
But I left. I returned to the port and got in the pod. I went forward.
I got out, vomited.
“Welcome back,” the man in the suit greeted me. It was the same man. It had only been a couple of seconds.
We took a ship back down the Earth. I collected my bags. Jason met me at the pickup curb. It’d been so long since we’d seen each other, and the man in the pinstripes had allowed no correspondence during my time away.
For me, it had been years. For Jason, it had been a couple of hours.
“Do I look old?” I asked. “How old do I look? Don’t you dare lie to me.”
Jason laughed. “You look beautiful.”
“Lies. But thank you.”
He put the car into drive. “I’ll make you those turkey burgers tonight.”
I never heard from the man in the suit again. The loop was done. We were nobodies with no significance. And that was okay. As we pulled into the Lincoln Tunnel, we melted into a million random faces.
“So you didn’t ruin the space-time continuum.” Jason laughed. “Congratulations.”
“You know things can’t be changed,” I said.
“Yeah, well,” Jason said. “It would have been nice to win the lottery. Or meet you when we were younger. You didn’t look up my old address while you were there?”
I shook my head. I held his arm and rested my head on his shoulder while he drove in the dark, the lights hitting us one by one in a rhythm while we crossed under the Hudson. It had been a long time since I’d held him. And I knew he wanted me to find him back when we were kids, cross the river and knock on his door and introduce myself. “So we wouldn’t have been alone,” he said.
But I didn’t, because I didn’t want to change a thing.
About the Author
Dawson has been published in F&SF, DSF, Escape Pod, and has a forthcoming story in Lightspeed in 2020. She lives in Omaha with her spouse and three dogs, where she works for The Rose Theater and Nebraska Writers Collective. She’s currently working with the Institute for Holocaust Education and Circle Theatre on a new play, “When We Go Away.”
About the Narrator
S. Kay Nash is a writer, editor, and bibliophile. Raised by a cabal of university professors, anthropologists, and irritated librarians, she holds two degrees as magical wards to protect her from being hauled back into the ivory tower. Her short fiction has appeared in See the Elephant, Wicked Words Quarterly, and Road Kill 2: Texas Horror by Texas Writers. Her nonfiction appears at Horror-writers.com and Buzzymag.com.
She lives in Texas with a Mad Scientist and a peaceful contingent of cats and dogs.