A r t i c l e
Never before in print
TWENTY MINUTES -- TWENTY YEARS
The old man was almost screaming. "Listen, son, my mind is made up and that's it!" He made a chopping motion with his hand for emphasis and almost hit the boy.
As the door of Reading's Sci-Fi Book Store swung open, the little fake brass-plated bell that hung above went into epileptic seizure. The musty smell of old paper rolled out, and the highly agitated man and his son stepped in.
"Besides, what difference does it make to you whether or not we get divorced. You'll be out of school and on your own before long anyway." Old man Stanley Reading turned on the wall switch. He squinted from the bright fluorescent lights in his little shop, punched his wire-rimmed glasses up on his nose, and, in the same motion, wiped imaginary bits of food and dried spit from the corners of his mouth. He reset his lips in a hard, straight white line across his clenched teeth. This was not his kind of discussion. He pushed the door shut. The glass rattled in its frame and the bell twitched madly.
"Well . . . it just doesn't seem right, that's all." Alan gnawed at his lip nervously. "You and Mom have always gotten along so well. . ."
"Now that's where you're wrong, son!" he snapped, swinging around to glare straight into the boy's face. Alan stepped back in surprise, and he seemed to shrink just a little. With delight, his father noticed the response to his "new self". It gave righteous fire to his anger, and he seemed to grow just a little.
"Just because I never talked back to that . . . that . . . woman, doesn't mean I never wanted to. Nag, nag, nag." He punched his glasses up, wiped his mouth, and made his whiny voice a little higher to mimic her, "'Why don't you get rid of that stupid book store and get a normal job? Maybe you can still make something of your life.' Why do you think I started reading these books all the time? It seemed like the only way I could get away from her nagging. Until I read this." He pulled out a dog-eared copy of "Stand Up, Speak Out, Talk Back!", slapped it down on the counter, punched his glassed and wiped his mouth. "And now, by God, I'm ready for some changes!" A couple tiny bubbles of spit shot from his mouth and landed on Alan's shirt.
The boy recovered a little of his composure, but he still spoke softly. "I really think you and Mom can work it out."
The bell went into another spasm, interrupting what was the start of another laser-like glare from Stanley. The mailman came in and set a few envelopes on the counter.
Punch and wipe, Mr. Reading's anger clicked over into professional pleasantness. "Uh, morning Jim."
"Good morning, Stanley. You sure are looking good today. Like a new man." Mr. Reading looked at his son and straightened up a little taller. "I know what it is, ya gotcher hair cut. No, that's not lt. I believe ya just got a little more color in your face. Makes you look more rugged."
Stanley nodded smugly to his son. 'See!' he thought.
"Oh, I almost forgot. Got a package for ya. Came all the way from Detroit, Michigan." He gave Stanley the package and, with a wink he turned and went out. "Toodle-loo." The bell went nuts.
Stanley looked at the return address and reached for his letter opener. Alan could see his father had a very excited look in his eyes, and that he was breathing faster.
"Son, if this is what I think it is, you'll have your way. I won't divorce you mother . . ."
"I'll never marry her!"
"Wha? What are you talking about?" Alan said, beginning to wonder if his father was having a nervous breakdown.
Stanley slit the packing tape and dug out a slightly oversized calculator with a typewriter keyboard and an instruction booklet out of the plastic-scented, white Styrofoam peanuts in the box. "It's a time machine."
(Oh Jeez, he really is losing it. Probably something else from the back of one of his comic books. How's Mom gonna buy groceries this week? A time machine. C'mon, Pop, everybody knows that's not what a time machine looks like anyway.) Alan frowned, absently running his tongue into a canker sore on his lip. It tasted like metal. (Yeah, but computers used to be as big as a house, too. Besides, time machines are only in books. So who really knows what a real one would look like anyway?)
"Says here that all you have to do is type in the place, the date, and the time and make sure you're dressed for the weather." Stanley punched, wiped, and poised his hands over the keyboard. "Oh, this is gonna be great," he whispered in a shuddering voice, shaking his head gleefully and rubbing his thumbs in little circles against his fingertips like a safe-cracker when he's cooking.
"Wait a minute, Dad!" Alan grabbed one of his father's hands. "What are you gonna do?"
"What do you mean, what am I gonna do?" He jerked his arm away from his son's grip. "I'm gonna go back and make sure I don't marry you mother. That's what I'm gonna do."
"But, Dad, you've spent years with Mom. I know you guys have arguments, who doesn't. But you always get things worked out."
"That's right! But I'm always the one who has to work it out. I'm the one who always has to give in. I want things my way for once. And this little thing is gonna be my ticket. Alan, do you realize the potential of this," his voice cascaded upward and he shook the box for emphasis.
Alan needed time. He'd run out of arguments, so he asked some questions while his mind raced down the dim, file-cabinet lined memory-tunnels on auto-search. "OK, OK. Let's say this thing really works. What exactly happens? Will you meet yourself when you were young, or will you become yourself back then or what? And what about . . ."
"What difference does it make?" Stanley punched and wiped. "If I meet myself when I was young, I'll warn me. And if that's not possible, I'll leave me a note. I'm gonna go back and fix all the things that went wrong with my life, one by one. First, I won't buy this store. That's one thing I sure won't need the second time around. And then, I won't marry your mother. I'll invest in some stocks and get rich. No, better yet, I'll sell information about the future to other people and then . . . I could bet on the fights or horse races or . . . Oh God! Am I gonna be rich! Yeah, there's gonna be some changes all right."
"Dad . . ."
"Forget it, Alan. Now go sit down and read the new Spider Man comic book or something." Punch and wipe.
"But, Dad . . ."
Panic swept over Alan, weakening his legs. (Of course time machines aren't real. Everyone knows that) , he tried to reassure himself. He thought his father was on the verge of going over the edge. What could he do to get control of the situation? Blindly he asked, "C-can I look at the instruction booklet?"
Alan's quiet manner of asking reminded Stanley of his contemptuous "old self". He clicked his tongue, rolled his eyes, and sighed sarcastically as he tossed the booklet to his son and waved him away like a fly. "Go! Sit!"
Alan knew he'd better sit. He'd never seen his father like this before. This anger was so out of character that it really scared Alan. In his father's hands it seemed sort of oversized and dangerous, like a baby with a loaded shotgun. Blankly, he backed into the beat-up, split plastic and rusted chrome eye-sore of a chair on the customer side of the counter and sat down. Maybe it was some sort of male menopause or something. He had no idea that his father was this unhappy. His folks did have an occasional spat, but except for his father's periodic, severe, blinding migraine headaches that the family doctor blamed on tension, this was the first time he'd even hinted at problems with his mother.
Maybe that was the problem. His mother had told him, in one of their many wonderful talks, that part of finding the right girl is looking for someone who lets you know how they really feel about things. "Find a girl who doesn't make you play guessing games. It's hard enough to make someone you love happy, but it's almost impossible if they don't let you know what they want." Maybe she'd been talking from experience extremely close to home. Still, he felt so strongly that his mother was someone very special that it remained A mystery where his father could have gotten such a low opinion of her. Slowly, he rubbed his forehead listening to the crunching sound of his hair rolling under his finger tips.
Alan watched his father's face alternately frown in deep thought and then melt into smiles of ecstasy. Somehow he had to get through to his father about this divorce thing. Maybe if he waited until he was done playing with his new toy. Well, at least he's not pushing any of the buttons, yet. He still doubted it was a real time machine, but if it were, there was something about his father's not wanting to marry mom that was even worse than the divorce. But what was it? Alan put on his own frown, tasted the metal of the canker sore, and looked down at the booklet. He decided to read it quickly. He didn't want his dad pushing any of those buttons just yet . . . just in case.
The instruction manual really didn't have any pages. It was more like a single sheet of heavy paper folded in the middle. It had kind of a glow to it, not like what you could read by in the dark, but ethereally reflective. What interested Alan was the printing. It was like none he had ever seen, and he had seen a lot of type face since he was in charge of selecting all the fonts for his high school paper. No, these characters were very different in shape, although they were still legible. A transparent blue, they weren't so much printed on the page as they were sort of floating on top of it. Most fascinating of all were the words TIME MACHINE, INC., which were in a shaded block form. They not only appeared to be three dimensional, but when he looked across the page edgewise (instead of down at it) the letters stuck out about a half inch from the page. When he tried to touch the letters, his fingers went right through them. He looked up at his father. He really wanted to have him look at the book, but the old man looked so manic, he still didn't dare disturb him. Alan's neck hurt. Realizing how tense he was, he rubbed it and tried to relax.
Inside the cover was the same half-inch high type, only this was in bright red. It said: "Important! Read all instructions carefully prior to operating your new time machine!"
Oh man, he shook his head, I know he didn't read the whole booklet.
It talked about all the buttons, with special emphasis that you need to be very careful about where you want to go. Otherwise, you might end up (on the wrong date, in the wrong place) in the middle of a fire or some other such catastrophe. Other than that, the machine will make sure you don't get set down in the middle of a wall or fifty feet in the air, etc. The button marked "return" brings you back at precisely the moment you left so you don't end up sharing a slightly past or future "present" with another you. Just before the small print of the warranty, it had some more of that bold 3-D stuff that read: "Be careful what you wish for. You just might get it."
The warranty guaranteed that the machine would work or your money back, etc., etc., but that the company wasn't responsible for any legal trouble or physical injury the user might get into while using the machine, except as promised not the put you in a wall or in the air, etc. But the next part really startled Alan. It read: "Send all complaints to:
Time Machines, Inc.
2520 Ashe Court
Exclusive Earth Representative for Time Machines, Inc.
And then, in neat address form there were four lines of the strangest symbols Alan had ever seen, followed by:
Holy shit! He mouthed the words. This thing is for real! He looked up absently in the direction of his father and then back down to the line in the booklet that read: "Be careful what you wish . . ." and then suddenly he knew what had been bothering him about his father's plan. Now he had to interrupt him no matter how mad it would make him!
And that's when he smelled the leather. It kind of crept up on him, not like he wasn't paying attention because he was reading, but like the old musty book smell faded and the leather crept in. That's also when he fell flat on his butt. Real hard, too. So hard it knocked the wind out of him and gave him one of those instant neck-snapping headaches. He jumped up angrily, rubbing his behind, and looked around to see who had pulled his chair out from under him. The beat up chair was nowhere to be seen, and all the book shelves were filled with . . .shoes!
The man behind the counter looked up. "Oh, I'm sorry, sir. I didn't hear you come in. May I help you?"
Embarrassed, Alan stopped his massage and then peered with increasingly intense confusion at the stranger. "Whawhere . . . he started, and then demanded, "Where's my father?"
"I don't know," the man said politely, looking around. "Did he come in with you?"
"Yes, I mean, no. I mean, he owns this store."
"Oh he does?" asked the man amused. "Well, I'm sure my wife will be interested to hear that. Just exactly when did he buy the place?"
"Ah, wah-well . . . he owns, I mean he bought it in, let's see . . . I was born in . . . so, ah . . . 1966!. Yeah, that's it, 1966!" suddenly sure and then just as suddenly not so sure again.
There was no question in Alan's mind that this was the same store. All the shelves were the same, it's just that the books had been replaced by shoes and a few full-length mirrors were here and there between the shelves. The counter was the same, except that it was painted white, and a real cash register sat on top instead of the cigar box that his dad kept in the drawer. The ceiling lights were exactly the same fluorescent fixtures he knew. The floor that had been cement (when his father had owned it?) was now covered with a nice brown carpet, and a few shoe display racks were scattered about. It was the same store all right, only a lot different.
"Well, that's pretty interesting," said the man, "Because my wife and I have owned this store since 1960. Yeah, I build all these shelves myself. Used to be a carpenter you know, but this outside Oregon weather was too hard on me during the winter, so I started selling shoes. In fact, the shelves are the reason I still own the place. I almost did sell it in . . . let's see . . . yes , I think it was '66, but when the guy told me he was gonna put paperback books and comics on the shelves, well, I just couldn't bring myself . . ."
The little bell above the door of Zimmerman's Shoe Store jerked violently on it's spring and a lady customer came in.
Alan didn't even notice that the man had stopped talking and was waiting on the lady. He was too deep in desperate thought. The time machine was real. How else could he explain what was going on? And if it was real, that meant that his father had already "unbought" the store. And then he was going to . . .to "unmarry" his mother. And if his father never married his mother . . (his eyelids flew open as wide as they could without popping out the eyeballs), he'd never be born!
That's what he'd been trying to think of! Alan had wanted to keep his folks together, but now keeping them together had a whole new meaning. He looked around frantically and closed and rubbed his eyes hoping that when he opened them the shoes would be books. He almost let out a hysterical spasm of laughter when he thought about clicking his own shoes together and chanting "There's no place like home, there's no place like home". He opened his eyes. No, it was still a shoe store.
It wasn't hot, but he felt beads of sweat pop out on his forehead, in his armpits, down the middle of his back, and glue his jeans uncomfortably to his legs. His mouth was dry, and the room started to look too bright and far away. He took a deep breath to help clear the oncoming rush of claustrophobia and panic, and he sat down in one of the wood and Naugahyde chairs.
His life was almost over. But it wouldn't be like real death, would it?
There'd be no pain, just sort of , never having been. He couldn't think of any way out of it, unless . . .! He jumped out of the chair exactly as if his life depended on it, and ran behind the counter. The lady customer looked in Alan's direction and shuddered, afraid he might be a thief with a gun. Fortunately for Alan, the salesman was in the back room. Alan didn't notice any of it, and it really wouldn't have mattered much to him anyway. The time machine hadn't been left behind. Of course it hadn't. How could anyone get back to their own time if they didn't have the machine with them.
God! He ground his teeth. If I could only get my hands on one of those damned things. . .What was the name of that company? He looked back across the floor toward his chair, but the manual had disappeared just as cleanly as everything else had. Even if he could remember the address, delivery would take at least a day, and he didn't have a day. Any time now his life would be over. But if everything else had changed, why had he been left here? And why wasn't his memory cleared of the past along with his dad and the book store? Why didn't he end up in a present where his memories were consistent with his father never owning the store?
Alan just didn't know. The rules he'd lived his whole life by just didn't seem to apply anymore. It made him feel even more lost and scared. His stomach felt like showing him what his breakfast looked like. Maybe he Could be better off never having been born. "Be careful what you wish for . . . Ha!" he thought sarcastically. If he had one of the gadgets, there'd be a few things he'd want to change himself . . .
Alan jerked his head toward the voice. His first thought after his
eyes made contact was "This guy's got bucks." Then recognition set in. It was his father. Yes, it was his father, but a very changed version of the man Alan knew. He looked ten years younger. Gone were the wire-rimmed glasses, and without them, his eyes shone a bright blue. His hair was darker and carefully styled, and he wore what had to be a custom-tailored three-piece suit crossed by a gold watch chain. He stood straight and tall, looking like a confident man in control of his world. No more punch and wipe. He looked great. He held a terribly familiar button-covered box in his hands.
"Dad! Oh, thank God you're . . ."
"Alan, listen to me son. I can't get back to the right place in time. Everywhere I go, there's another me. Now listen carefully. Did you read that whole booklet? Do you know what I have to do to get back to the right time?"
It only took him a second to remember it. The button marked "return" brings you back at precisely the moment you left.... "Yes, I do know."
Alan said contemplating his own life and the tin foil taste of his canker sore. 'But before I tell you, I have to know if you're going to straighten everything out with mother''
The answer was swift and angry, "Now that's never gonna happen!"
"Then I can't tell you."
Stanley was trapped, and like any good big businessman, he called into play the rules of his (brand new?) twenty years experience. Very calmly he said, "I'm sorry, Alan. I've been so excited about this time machine thing that I haven't been paying any attention to what you were trying to tell me. Now, son, what is it you want?"
Alan was surprised, so it took him a few seconds to get his mouth into gear. "I . . . I want you to work things out with mom."
"OK. Is that all?"
"I guess so . . .Ya see, Dad, if you don't marry Mom, I'll never be born."
"Oh, no wonder you've been so worried!" he laughed. "Well, I can't say as I blame you for that. But is that all you want? I mean, this time machine could make you rich. Why, you could have your own house, cars, anything you want. You just name it and it's yours." He was warming up. ("Show the opposition how he benefits from your plan. It's all just a game.") He had grown so fond of saying that over the past ten minutes/twenty years.
"Well, sure some of those things would be nice. But all I really want is for you and Mom and me to be happy. That's all. Hey, I'll bet you could use that time machine to go back and make everything OK between you and Mom. Each time you had a fight you could change what happens. Yeah, you could do it, Dad. Why not?"
"That's a great idea, Alan," he said enthusiastically. "But first, I am going to have to know how to get back to the right time, after I fix everything up, of course."
"Oh, yeah," Alan laughed in a spasm of relief. "Uh, all you have to do is push the button that says return. Oh, Dad, it's gonna be great, you'll see. Everything will be just like it was. . . .No, better! I only wish I'd-a known how things were for you before. But everything's gonna be . .
"You're a stupid boy, Alan," Stanley spit savagely. He was working his hands over the blue-gray box. "Did you really think I'd give up my new life for you and that revolting mother of yours?"
Sudden realization clamped down on Alan's smile, pinching it off. He bolted toward his father, arms flailing to keep him from pushing any of the keys. "NNNOOOOOOOO!!!"
Mr. Zimmerman and his customer turned toward the shout as. . .
. . .the door of the shoe store slapped the little bell ferociously.
"Who you talkin' to Robert?" asked the mailman.
"Oh, nobody," Mr. Zimmerman answered with a chuckle as he looked through his empty store at Jim in his familiar uniform. "I guess I was just daydreaming about the time I almost sold the store to that guy and his paperback books. I was thinking that I decided not to sell to him but now that I remember it, it was him who changed his mind at the last minute and put his money into stocks or something."
"Oh, then you haven't heard."
"That guy, the one who almost bought the shop, Stanley Reading, he was killed this morning in a plane crash.''
Mr. Zimmerman's jaw fell open half in surprise and half to be a polite, attentive listener. "How about that."
"Yup. Cops think somebody mighta had that plane crash accidentally on purpose onna counta all the people he ripped off on the way up."
"Yeah?" Zimmerman nodded thoughtfully.
"Ya know, they had him on "60 Minutes" a couple of months ago. Called him one of the new rich or something like that. Got more money than you'd ever figure out how to spend."
"Sure nuff. Me, ha, I'd be happier'n a pig in shit with all that dough. Only thing about this guy though, he didn't seem too happy about it. More like the money owned him. He acted kinda haunted by it. Ya know?"
"Yeah, I think I do. Sure like to give it a try though."
"The wife got a real kick out of it, too. She almost married that guy."
"That so?" That honestly did surprise Mr. Zimmerman.
"Yep, but she's great. She's not impressed with all that money. Kinda like she could see right through to his sadness. You can tell she doesn't have an ounce of regret about loosing him. Hell, I'm not sure I'd feel the same way if I was in her place. I mean, look at me. But I was askin' her about it, and she sat right there and squeezed my hand and said that she's got everything she ever wanted. And I really believe her."
"Hum . . . that's nice." A little doubt about his own wife swept over Zimmerman and disappeared. "Say, how's that son of yours?"
"Alan? Oh, that's what I was gonna tell ya." Jim laughed, slapping the forgetfulness out of his forehead. "That's the best part of it. Reading was engaged to my wife when I met her, back before he made all that money. We haven't told many people this - - we usta be kinda embarrassed about it, but I guess it doesn't matter much these days - - but Reading was Alan's real father and . . ."
The door hit the bell so hard that it bounced up and hit the door-jam muting the clapper.
"Oh . . . Dad." The boy paused breathlessly, closing the door behind him. "I'm glad I found you."
As Alan walked up to the two men, Jim laid his arm casually around his son's shoulder. "Lord, boy, how'd you know where to find me?"
"I. . ." he gasped and swallowed what felt like sandpaper down his sprint-dried throat, "I ran all the way . . . A guy from the Reading Corporation . . . He called and said that I'm the only living heir . . ."
Jim slid his arm from around the boy and grabbed him not so casually by the shoulders "What are you sayin', son?"
"Dad," his voice and his eyebrows rocketed in delight, "I'm going to inherit ten million dollars!"
After all the excitement and congratulations had died down, Jim said, "Well, I guess I'd better get going, and do something for the money they're payin' me. Ha," he laughed at the irony, "I guess that's more of a joke now, huh?"
Alan looked out the side of his face with mock arrogance, "Who said you're getting any of the money.'' Then he showed his "just teasing" smile and poked his father in the ribs with his elbow.
They all laughed and worked their way toward the front of the store. As Jim pulled the door open, Alan froze, looking up at the bell.
"What is it, son?" asked his father.
"I don't know," he answered slowly. "Something really familiar about that bell. Kinda like a deja vu. Like I've been here before."
"Well, of course you have, son. We've been buyin' our shoes here since you were born."
"Yeah. . . .Yeah, I guess that's it," Alan said quietly, not completely convinced. His mind was far away, and then he was back. "Well, good-bye, Mr. Zimmerman."
"Bye, now, you lucky sons o' guns," Robert waved, smiling and shaking his head. "Let me know if you wanna buy a shoe store."
"Toodle loo!" Jim said with a laugh as he pulled the door shut.
The bell twitched like a fish on a line.
© 1998 Jonathan Stars
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