“A time travel story unlike any I’ve read.” – Black Gate
Time travel always has rules. These rules bend to nothing but the will of the narrative.
It is not the case in real life. In real life, I am told, time travel has one un-bending, un-breaking rule: you cannot come back.
Lawrence did his best to make sure I understood this: “We cannot come back, Lisa. We go, we are gone. We live our lives there, in the past.”
He said this with such urgency, such gravity. His usual lectures are never so pointed. When he stands before a classroom, he speaks with the rhetoric of a philosopher. He speaks like a man in love.
What he loves is the Middle Ages. He discovered this in the hall of academia, plaid-shirted and guileless in the pursuit of truth. He discovered this when we were together so long ago now.
Those years broke away in aimless reverie of that period of life that can only be called post-youth. While he grew a beard and photocopied journals, I drifted. He looked out and I looked in. Lawrence placed great symbolism in the death of Chaucer while I placed great symbolism in the memory of my first visit to a library, hand clasped inside my mother’s.
It was the day they were selling off the old card catalogue drawers. Confused my mother was for a moment, abandoned by her intentions. Together we both stood by while the librarian pointed to a computer screen. This memory would come to contextualize my vanished adolescence as the last one the western world to remember life before the internet. I have always supposed this means I will be one of the last people left alive with the knowledge of that distance, remembering what it truly is to be disconnected.
But Lawrence does not know disconnect. He finds something of himself in everything. He finds something of himself in people worlds away, in people who lived millennia ago.
He found something in me once.
I suspect now he pities me.
His face fell when I gave him my address. A studio apartment, I said: brick walls and cracking plaster, exposed pipes, sirens in the air and a metallic tingle in the water. I live on the border: one side a memory of industry marked by empty lots and cheap warehouses; the other a prophecy written by bohemian artists. They predict ten years until gentrification. The neon signs are like banner men: each faux-dive bar and restaurant a noble house of those young, educated and poor.
When he came over, I wondered how far he had to travel. I do not even know where he lives now. He stepped inside as though holding his breath. The way his shoulders sheepishly hunched forward told me he’s not proud of what he holds behind his lips.
I laughed at him as I said, “Hippie,” wanting to reach for his blond beard. But the distance between us was too vague.
“How are you?” He ignored the distance—I should have suspected—and pulled me in.
“Fine.” His body pressed quickly against me; his hand patted my back.
Moments like this remind me so starkly of our genders. When I feel a man pat my back, even a man as level and familiar as Lawrence, I remember I am a woman, in the most biological sense. Even Lawrence does this to me and he is only slightly taller than me and not stocky but lean. But his hand feels so big in the brief moment it sits against me and I cannot help but feel small. I feel weak: fashioned into an object of pity and concern, someone to be taken care of. And I hate it.
I pulled away. As I looked him up and down, it all became apparent. He’d barely slept by the looks of his eyes. That pert boyishness was gone. And that moment where I felt weak and pitiable disappeared. He looked like a child knocking on the first door of Halloween, not knowing what horror mask hides behind. “Lisa,” he said, eyes dark and sallow, “We can start over.”
As he sat on my sofa, sipping green tea from a china mug, I flipped through samples of the documents they had for him as if these were paint samples for a house we would build together. This first wave of artifacts—historically crafted bills of exchange, manuscripts, stamped coins pilfered from a museum cache—was like blueprints. He had everything but a Lonely Planet guide.
Months of lessons would await me if I decided to go. Or so he tells me. I would learn the language of English before a vowel shift. I would prepare a backstory. I would have to learn to wield a sword. Time travel is tedious, I thought.
Despite his insistence otherwise, Medieval London hardly feels like a place for a rebirth. I know what looms on the horizon.
Thus Lawrence’s nonchalance scared me. That rule stood out blindly: you cannot come back. The finality is terrifying, but Lawrence seemed to enjoy his idea of a one-way ticket.
Here was a man with a lingering question: who killed a Geoffrey Chaucer? So used he is to the easy answers of the Internet age that mysteries frustrate him. Some things are simply lost to history and that infuriates Lawrence.
He has always wished that the answers were like a missing set of keys: turn over enough couch cushions and they show up eventually. Time travel is just another text book to him, another primary document.
But he does not want to do it alone. Perhaps that counts for something.
While Lawrence grew his blond beard I drifted: I floated penniless across the expanse, taking up ventures Romantic and painful: picking grapes in the south of France, teaching English in Spain.
But there was always a notion of home, of a place that could be returned to if desired. Because the mind builds things into fantasies; it is naïve to think otherwise. The world becomes an impossibly perfect universe of Eiffel Towers covered in Instagram filters where no one is lonely and it never rains.
But life, the life that haunts you daily, carries on just below the surface. Other worlds are two months of culture shock and then the norm.
I tried explaining this to Lawrence as he sat uncomfortably on my sofa, picking idly at an old afghan. Stubbornly, he shook his head. “You don’t believe me,” is all he said, “You just don’t believe me.”
“You’re right,” I replied, “I don’t. But it wouldn’t change a thing. Even if this were true, what can you expect of me?”
His smile peeks out, sheepish and coy: “That you wouldn’t let me go alone.”
“Lisa,” he lowers his voice, placing his hand on my knee, at once both intimate and innocent, “You’re the only one.”
It took a long time for me to even consider believing him. I thought that he was playing some elaborate practical joke. Then I thought that years spent in libraries and lecture halls had melded his obsession into a waking daydream—that he’d slipped into Shakespearean madness.
At last he’d become the something to rescue. The thought of his hand, strong and commanding against my back, awoke some feeling of spite, or superiority. I would play along, I decided, and let him take me to visit the facility.
The facility is in a part of town I’d always thought full of discount textile stores and auto-body repair shops; where the rent is so cheap it feels like the early nineties.
Walking through the side streets, you could almost believe it was. A sign on a corner store was broken plastic. Fading fluorescent light bulbs shone through. Old adverts hung in the windows hawking things I remember from when I was a kid: Astro Pops and Bagel Bites.
I passed a salon. A cardboard woman, faded from the sun, had blue eyeshadow and sprayed bangs. Behind her, frail, immigrant women gossiped, giggled, and wiped their onion paper hands on their smocks.
Nothing here had changed in years, except everyone was older now than they once were.
As the corner store faded behind me, I nearly tripped over a sandwich board with the daily news. I ignored the headline as I have since Lawrence’s proposition. Nothing seemed new after that, as though the world stopped turning.
We just tell the same stories over and over and pretend we haven’t heard them before. At first, we think we’re perfecting them, as if every tales has a right way to be told and we just need to unlock it, chipping away slowly like Michelangelo discovering David.
If we ever get there, there’s barely a thing left resembling truth. It’s all about the nuance: did we get our comedic timing right? Are the details perfect? We tell it like this, and we keep telling it, over and over. The lies we applied as gloss become truths: a flourish of a brush, a slightly adjusted camera angle. We tell it over and over. We forget what is the lie and what is the truth. And after a while, the story becomes boring. It becomes a routine, just another banal circumstance of our existence.
Is this what Lawrence wants so desperately to strip away, the lacquer that hides just how boring it all is?
Perhaps I did believe something of his story after all. Perhaps I just wanted to. Perhaps the image of Lawrence as a victim sat poorly with me. Perhaps the idea of time travel became comforting, like an escape route, even.
As I arrive at the warehouse, Lawrence waits, hands stuffed in pockets, leaning against a wide hangar door. The door takes up a side of the grey building, but it is closed and locked and looks like it hadn’t been opened in years.
There is nothing to indicate a business: no sign, no mail slot, no buzzer. Dust collected in the corners and weeds poked through the broken concrete. The sounds of the city faded: I’m not supposed to hear anything distinct anymore; it’s all ambient.
I point to the door. “It’s in here?”
He nods. “They’re so secret. Can you imagine if they weren’t?”
“Yes,” I say, “I imagine they’d be exposed as the frauds they are.”
Lawrence stares. I see the resignation in his eyes: the redness, the lack of sleep. “They convinced me, Lisa.” And now he wants to convince me. He wants me here to witness it too, to tell him he’s not insane. “I need you to see it too, Lisa. I need you to hear it. I need you to witness it. I need you to believe it too.”
“In time travel?” I laugh.
He takes both my hands in his. “Please.”
Inside the warehouse it is dark. False walls have been propped up as if to preserve a mystery. A man greets us at the door. He is tall and broad-shouldered; his eyes are near black and his skin brown. He tells us his name is James and then he leads us on. He speaks with a shrouded arrogance that leaves me sceptical, but Lawrence is impressed.
“Just follow him, Lise,” he says, gesturing up the corridor. The ceilings are low; it almost feels a tunnel: dark walls and floors. The corridor twists: we turn left, we turn right. At the end is a single door: a halo of light stretches through the cracks.
“This way,” James says. He knocks on the door, “It’s me.”
On the other side is a woman in an ochre suit. She says nothing but lets her narrow eyes drift up and down Lawrence and I. “Mr. Stone,” she says to Lawrence, “Welcome again. You’ve brought your companion at last.”
“Lisa,” Without looking at me, Lawrence places his hand on the small of my back and steers me in towards the room. Instinct digs my heels into the floor. The room is four blank walls and a single desk with a single stack of papers and two pens: one presumably for signing, the other a spare.
These people have shaky faith in ballpoint pens yet they want to send Lawrence back in time.
I say nothing and Lawrence still will not look at me. The woman starts: “Ms. McLean—“
“Stop,” I say, “How does she know my name?”
“I’ve told them about you,” he says, “I needed to clear you before you could see in here.”
The woman smiles; her lips are like earthworms curling on hot tarmac. “We have something for you to sign. Just some simple non-disclosure agreements.”
“And if I refuse?”
“Then it falls on me,” Lawrence replies. At last he looks at me, his stare a plea.
And so I pick up a pen.
I only need one.
The woman dismisses James, my signature in his hand, and leads us from the room. From here on, the doors are steel. They clang as they open and close. The echoes seem designed purely for their contribution to the ambience.
Single file, we make our way down the corridor. I follow the woman with Lawrence’s hand on my back. His fingertips rest gently, only in reminder he’s there, nothing more.
For thirty seconds, no more, we walk like this and I find myself thinking this is the deepest prolonged physical contact we’ve had in years: fingertips quiet on my back. What is it as you age that makes you less easy to the simple intimacy of touch?
In college, we’d collapse against each other as nothing more than a greeting. We’d sling arms around one another, link arms on jaunts across campus, spend whole nights with limbs entwined. There’s a cavalier ephemerality to the motions of relationships at that age, because everything one imagines of permanence had yet to happen. Everything feels transition, a pathway. You’re groping along in the dark.
That path never felt like it led anywhere but one day I awoke older, aware I’d lost the pretensions somewhere along the way.
Lawrence’s fingertips disappear as we arrive at another door. The woman, whose name I still do not know, punches in a code. As the steel lurches open, I realise suddenly that those long corridors have slowly been sloping downwards. Before us is an open tract, easily three times the size of the warehouses. Spinning on her thick heels, the woman faces us; her worm lips struggle to repress an eager smile.
“Ms. McLean,” she says, “This is where it happens.”
“Where what happens exactly?”
The room is lined with glass concealing panels of machinery, like a space shuttle control room. It all seems so markedly scientific. From the ceiling hang bars and cords and lights and pathways, like a fly gallery. In the centre is a hollow, sealed chamber. All contributes to the feeling of a set designed by a grade schooler. Lawrence smiles painfully; I grimace in return.
The woman purses her lips. “The actual science would take hours to explain, days if I had to go back to elementary physics—“
“No useful, one line analogies?”
She frowns. “If you want to hear it, we can go back to the beginning. We have people who can do that.”
“Lise,” Lawrence whispers.
“What? I’m sorry. That just seems the easiest way to package bullshit. I think I have a right to be skeptical.”
The woman laughs; such a haughty laugh she should know does little for developing trust. “Ms. McLean, you need proof, don’t you?”
And proof she provides: enough to convince me at last.
To convince me, it did not take Lawrence’s word; it did not take examples of drafted artifacts for the life we would lead; it did not take seeing the facility; and it did not take the briefcases full of pages of ten-point type spelling out waivers and wills.
All it takes is a calico cat.
The woman holds the cat out to me, pointing out the distinctive markings, letting me run my fingers through her fur. “About six months ago, this cat appeared one instant inside the chamber, as a kitten. I don’t know if you know this, Ms. McLean, but cats have this genetic quirk. You can manipulate their DNA all you like, you can clone a cat, but you will never get the exact same markings in the fur. That is something unique to each cat alone.”
“I did know that actually,” I fold my arms, “What point that does that prove?”
The woman grins as James comes back into the room, a small kitten in his arms. “Then how do you explain this?” As she takes the kitten from him, she presents it to me: a smaller, younger version of the older cat. “This kitten was born just a few weeks ago.”
“That’s not the same cat,” I stutter.
“It is, and it isn’t,” she says, “Time is not a loop, Ms. McLean, it is a line, an arrow. When that cat came to us, we split from whatever line it came from, just as this kitten will split into another.”
I swallow as she places the kitten into the chamber, works some magic with the controls, and the kitten disappears.
“That’s why we can’t come back.”
“Precisely,” the woman says, “Time travel is complicated. In fact, ‘travel’ is a bit of a misnomer. ‘Travel’ implies coming and going. What we do, I’m afraid, is provide a one-way trip.”
I look to Lawrence and the sheepish sadness behind his eyes. “One way? So you meant it? You would never come back? You’d be gone forever?”
He swallows; behind his blond beard he could be almost a little boy again. His blue eyes twinkle. He takes my hand and I let him; it feels like years ago.
“That’s why I want you to come with me. The decision is yours,” Lawrence says, although he does not have to. Of course the decision is mine. “But I’m going anyway.”
I stare plainly at him. He avoids the hard truth of my eyes as his toes shuffle against the cement floor. “Laurie,” I insist, “This machine will kill you.”
But as I look at him, I see such excitement. I see the simplicity with which he will twist the medieval world to his will. I see how he has the great mysteries ahead of him to solve. I see him fantasizing about the world at a crux, a world in 1399 where Henry Bolingbroke showed the true way to make a ruler, where divine right dissolves in the face of strength.
I see me, at his side, no more than Cassandra. Where it feels to me a transformation, a submission, to him it is a quest, a self-actualization. He has the battle-ready glee of an astronaut. It is worth it, I think, to go to the moon if you can’t come back for the parade in your honour?
I reply: “It is impossible to ask me to choose this, Lawrence. I cannot believe you would be so selfish.”
“How is this selfish, Lisa?” he retorts, “This is the opportunity of a lifetime.”
“For you. You’ve yet to tell me what I get out of this, other than the pleasure of your company.”
He replies and I retort, and on it goes in that funny way where old patterns thought lost to the years reassert themselves, almost like time travel itself. Lawrence’s inability to realize what he is asking of me takes me back to the moment he assumed I’d move to Berlin with him for grad school, no questions asked. And that realization turns me back into a twenty-three year old.
“We can start over, Lise,” he murmurs, the quiet words of his thin lips like something from another realm.
“Laurie, please,” I whisper, “You can’t ask me to do this.”
As I step out of the room, escorted by James, the calico cat begins to purr.
James leads me in silence down the length of the silent grey hallways until we reach the front door. As daylight cracks through again, I turn to give him my thanks. His smile, nothing more than a polite reflex, nearly sets me to tears.
“It is all right,” he says simply, “And I probably shouldn’t say this, but you’ve made the right choice.”
I gaze up at him, at his tailored suit buttoned carefully over a crisp shirt. His eyes meet mine and hold them. “Would you ever do it?” I ask.
James gestures up to his face with a hand brown on one side, pink on the other. “What do you think? When or where would I go?” As he steps nearer to me, his voice lowers, “I am speaking in confidence now. I see all manner of men come through here, waving their cash. They think they can manipulate the world. They want to get rich on the stock market, invent the steam engine, fuck Cleopatra, throw themselves parades, be king of Europe—and maybe they will.”
“But we don’t get to do that,” I say, “you and I.”
He presses his lips together. “Nope. We certainly don’t.”
We stare at each other, James and I, a shared resentment is momentarily relieved by our mutual commiseration.
I will never see Lawrence again.
I will only be able to assume he travelled in time as promised: without me.
The past will always be so for me, but that is nothing to lament; the past is gone and I must let it go.
Originally published in the anthology Redwing: Speculative Fiction Takes Flight (December 2014).