Subtle Ways Each Time
By Y.M. Pang
A man loses a woman.
It’s happened a thousand times before and it’s phrased like this nine hundred times. A man loses a woman. As if she were car keys, an umbrella, a scraggly doll in the arms of a child. A literal and grammatical object to be lost. Let’s find a truer cliché. It takes two to tango. Let’s try again:
A woman discards a man.
Raised voices in a summer-boiled attic. Old records, lovingly collected, smashed up like jagged pieces of skyscraper windows. They’re in his mother’s house, gazing down at the familiar yard, the scent of peach blossoms wafting through the window. They’d played there on wobbly toddler legs, cussed out teachers as teens wearing cut-off jeans and crooked baseball caps, shared their first kiss in the shadow of the peach tree and afterward neither could say who initiated it or who was more surprised. Little fights dogged them throughout those nineteen years, but children’s minds are better at forgiving and worse at carving scars.
Only during that fateful day in the attic did they say things that couldn’t be unsaid, voice words their adult brains forgot how to forgive.
Let’s be dramatic. Let’s say they never speak to each other again. Let’s lie, in other words, because that couldn’t be true. Depending on her mood and his, they’d say hello when passing by in company hallways. They go to the same high school reunions, though awkward silences follow when Anton asks what happened to them–no, not her and him, them. Eventually she leaves the company–it’s always she who leaves–and soon the emails slow to a trickle then stop.
She joins some solar energy company. Her marriage he hears about from mutual friends. Perhaps he should’ve emailed her a congratulations, and maybe then she’d email back with an invitation, and then they’d talk like old friends again though nothing more. But he cannot. He doesn’t want to see her unveiled by another man (or woman, or alien, or cardboard cut-out of a fictional character, it doesn’t matter to him). He fantasizes about re-establishing contact, about sweeping her away from her fiancé, but the thought is ridiculous even inside his head. He’s not equipped for the task. Inadequate charm. Deplorable thinness of skin.
He wonders if she still collects the same records (if anyone collects records these days, though vinyl’s making a return). He wonders if she still laughs at the same jokes, if she’d still straighten his crooked baseball cap through force of habit if given the chance.
(Then he remembers he doesn’t wear a baseball cap anymore.)
Most of what he hears about is how she works, works, works. She stays in her office from dawn ’til midnight. Old friends say her texts hint at some new technology, some renewable resource, some breakthrough that’ll save humanity and the planet they live on. Anton says her husband never complains about her work, and maybe that’s why she married him.
The man–our man, the one who lost her–never marries. He also works dawn to midnight, but he never finds an understanding partner. He climbs the ranks of the company. Becomes project manager. Head of R&D. Chief Operating Officer. Before board meetings he refuses to buy a donut, a coffee, or a candied hawthorn when the Chinese place opens downstairs. He hoards every nickel, then every dime when the royal mint stops pressing nickels, and finally we run out of sayings when it all goes digital.
He listens to melancholy pop songs before drifting off to sleep, and between thoughts about how she’d laugh at him, how his musical tastes have become so cheesy, he mouths along to if I could turn back time and money can’t buy time machines and thinks, why not?
He set ups his own department in the company. It’s halfway illegal and full-on shady but no one stops him. He fills it with trusted and talented staff and pours money into research. His own money. All those hoarded nickels and dimes and digital dollars finally funnel somewhere.
It takes a lot of energy to send a person back in time. Sending the mind however…
He calls it the TimeCap, after the baseball cap he used to wear. He places it on his head and it transports his mind away, until he wakes up in his twenty-four-year-old body minutes before the attic argument. He nearly cries out when he sees her in front of him, so close and so close to discarding him. He pulls himself together in time to say all the right things. He nods along to her criticism, doesn’t aim barbs back at her. It takes a few tries to make her happy, to not have her call him patronizing or sarcastic, but finally the conversation ends well. She leaves with a smile.
His mind travels back to the lab.
He knows something went wrong. He’s still here, still trying to change things. An hour of calls, texts, and holo-messages plus a scouring of his phone and email history and he has some idea what happened: They avoided the argument in the attic but ended up fighting a few weeks later, and his idiotic twenty-four-year-old self said all those things he’d said the first time. Stupid. So stupid. But no big deal. He could fix this one too.
He locates the argument. Sends his mind back. His team has increased the maximum amount of time his mind can spend in the past from two hours to four. He puts the extra time to use. He does more than avoid the argument; he instigates the first hour of an evening date, sipping piña coladas on the patio of Murray Reef Bar & Grill. By the end his shaken confidence is refilled. No way he’d lose her this time.
But he wakes up in the lab again, and this time an hour of texts and calls and holo-messages can’t clear up why. He can’t locate an argument this time. Just a gradual diminishing of her emails in his inbox, the slowing of her texts from a flurry to a trickle over multiple years. One day his emails stop calling her by endearments and he can only assume she discarded him. The last email between them, from him to her, asked whether she was going to SoundFest. It received no reply.
Seems they just drifted apart, grew disinterested in each other. Maybe she never loved him that much. Maybe her brain is hardwired to change in tastes, and that included outgrowing him.
He puts on the TimeCap again and again. He flips through old calendars and circles days he hadn’t spent with her. He sends his mind back and cancels other plans or calls in sick for work, then messages her and asks if she wants to hang out. Some days she says she’s busy, other days she admits she doesn’t feel like it–never one to lie, was she, never one to sugarcoat the truth to spare his feelings–but often they’d spend an afternoon playing badminton at the local church for a $3 rental fee, or splitting a pineapple shaved ice at the dessert place down by Yule Street. Over and over, he says the words he once hoarded, that he’d used sparingly as a ninety-five-year-old miser who would rather die with an impressive bank account than live in luxury. Not this time. He would tell her everything in his heart, make sure she had no doubts.
I love you.
You’re the most important thing to me.
If I ever lost you, I’d spend the rest of my life trying to get you back. So don’t you think about running away.
She smiles and pats his cheek and kisses him, but to her it must all be clichés, nothing to take seriously. Because every time his time runs out, he wakes up back at the lab, the TimeCap weighing on him like some too heavy, unwanted crown. He’d glance at his smartphone, swipe through his emails. Realize he’s still without her and still trying to get her back.
His lab changes in subtle ways each time. The holo-messages are sharper, clearer. The news changes. The European Space Exploration Coalition has unveiled the first-generation ship. The Mars settlement, instead of ending in failure as in the first timeline, has been chugging along successfully for decades. Her name pops up in the news, and with every timeline she’s less attached to renewable energy and more to space exploration. The rhetoric goes from Protect this Earth to Reach the stars.
A part of him, searching for a concrete explanation, wonders if those anthropologists were right. Maybe the Westermarck effect kicked in and in-built incest resistors proved too strong her, him, them. But he’d seen many opposing examples in his circle of friends alone, and besides, if their childhood friendship interfered with their love, what could he do? He couldn’t go back to his five-year-old body and choose to never play with her. He end up not knowing her at all. At least now he had memories and what time they did spend together. Change too much and even those become lies. In the worst-case scenario, he could erase everything and find himself in a different life entirely, with no longing for her and thus no time machine to get her back.
There lies the crux of the problem. If he doesn’t lose her, he doesn’t build the time machine. Then he can’t go back to fix what caused her to discard him in the first place. Time paradox. Another cliché.
He puts on the TimeCap a few more times. He scrolls through news reports, mouths her name. Stares at holograms of the generation ship and brushes a hand through them, because marvelling at what she created is the closest he’d come to being with her.
His mother’s peach tree is in full bloom the day he boards the ship. His mother hugs him and wishes him goodbye and he knows it’s the last time. She’s too old to board. Heck, even he failed aspects of the physical, netting his place by pulling strings with his money and COO status.
She, the ship’s engineer, will be on board too. She insisted. This caused some controversy, but there are others on earth who can replicate her designs, improve them even. She is talented, but not irreplaceable.
The world is good, he thinks. Livable earth. Working spaceships. Only a selfish man would want to change this.
He deletes all the data. Takes the TimeCap with him. Swears his team to secrecy. Words aren’t reliable, but each of them only worked on parts of the project and probably couldn’t construct another TimeCap without the others’ cooperation. Or so he hopes.
He greets her on the spaceship corridor. She smiles, and all his heartbreak crashes back, but he holds in his tears until he reaches his cabin.
There he puts on the TimeCap but doesn’t activate it. He just sits there, staring at the dark interior, then suddenly he is somewhere else. A desert. He doesn’t know if it’s a dream or a vision or an insight granted by so many forays in time. He just knows she’s beside him and he holds her in his arms as tears course down both their faces, and she tells him she loves him, she loves him, she loves him. She looks younger than she was in the ship’s corridor, early thirties at most, but her face is weather-beaten and the ground beneath them parched and cracked and devoid of vegetation. Buildings rise from the sand, glass windows hollowed out. Gaunt children crawl on all fours, crying. The two of them walk through the lost city, and she helps him when he stumbles and he promises her they’ll always be together. She nods and says, I believe you. I’ll never leave you. Hunger gnaws at his belly and she can’t stop coughing, but a little dark happiness blooms in his heart because her hand is in his and she loves him in a way she never, ever did.
Then he’s staring at the darkness of the TimeCap interior. Removing it, he finds himself back in his ship cabin. He turns the TimeCap over and over in his hands, then places it inside his gym bag. He rides the elevator to the ship’s bottom level, walks to the waste recycler. He hesitates for a moment, then throws the TimeCap inside and presses the breakdown button.
About the Author
Y. M. Pang spent her childhood pacing around her grandfather’s bedroom, telling him stories of magic, swords, and bears. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Book Smugglers Publishing and Polar Borealis. She dabbles in photography, listens to music in a multitude of languages, and often finds herself debating the merits of hermitism.
About the Narrator
Peter Adrian Behravesh is a writer, editor, musician, and the audio producer for PodCastle. He has narrated for PodCastle, Escape Pod, and Beneath Ceaseless Skies. When he isn’t crafting, crooning, or otherwise consuming stories, you’ll most likely find Peter hurtling down a mountain, sipping English Breakfast, and brushing up on his Farsi (though usually not all at once). You can read his sporadic ramblings at peteradrianbehravesh.com, or on Twitter @pabehravesh.