I don’t know anyone who doesn’t have regrets. I know I have my share.
Some are little. Small things done poorly. People I hurt or wounded with words or deeds. Things I did that brought pain either directly or indirectly that I still carry around today.
But none weigh on me like the one that has shaped my life and put me on a course that I never would have predicted. Or chosen.
What if? What if you could change that decision? What if you could undo an action that sent your life careening down a path you didn’t really choose but nevertheless is yours. Would you change it? Could you change it?
I write personal interest stories for my town paper. It’s clear that with advances in technology, economic upheaval and increasingly short attention spans that the future for a small town newspaper reporter is an uncertain one at best.
But I like my job for the most part. I get to meet interesting people. I get to tell their stories and, if I do my job well, I can represent them well and hopefully not as eccentrics who are disconnected from the world. My fear is that if I don’t do my job well I just become the guy who tells stories about crazy people doing crazy things, telling the stories to entertain folks who can then feel better about themselves as long as there is someone out there who is more messed up than they are.
I’m divorced now. Have been for more than a decade. It wasn’t a good marriage. We were too young and dumb to see the truth of where we were broken and lacked the tools to do anything about it at that age.
But, out of that marriage came two wonderful kids who I am immensely proud of. My son and daughter turned out better people than I am. They have careers that will support them, partners that love them and they are people I would be proud to know as friends. I am proud to be a part of their lives. Sometimes it feels as though they are the only thing I truly did right.
My job affords me the opportunity to meet a variety of people. Not just the interesting people who I usually end up profiling. I get to meet folks going through hard times, folks who behaved heroically in demanding conditions, folks who did the right thing when no one was watching. I really enjoy meeting people like that and I enjoy telling their stories, giving them attention they might not otherwise get.
But I also get to meet the occasional crackpot. Or hoarder. Or survivalist. Or entrepreneurs with ideas that haven’t yet been smacked down by reality. Those folks can be pretty interesting as well.
I believed the latter group included Joshua Brandon.
Joshua didn’t have any advanced degrees. He had to drop out of college – a good college back East – when his father’s health began to fail and he came back to care for his parents and their small electronics business. But it was clear from school records that Joshua had been something of a star. He was a standout through all his years in school and his nearly three years in college. He had top marks and had been invited to participate in research with one of his Professors as an undergraduate, something that doesn’t happen very often.
Joshua’s field of interest was Advanced Physics and his work with his Professor was related to quantum mechanics. If you look up his name you’ll find his name attached to several papers that I couldn’t understand. Perhaps you can and more power to you if you can.
Joshua reached out to me a few months ago after he read one of my profiles about a Librarian who with little support had started a local program which had successfully introduced a Maker Space in the local library and drew in lots of kids and introduced 3-D printing and electronics to the library.
Joshua contacted me and said he’d been working on something which he thought he might be ready to talk about. He said he believed that I might give him a fair shake when he started to explain his work.
I got Joshua’s address. He had a space in a commercial area on the outskirts of town. His space was located between a motorcycle repair shop and a small Korean church.
I left a message for my editor letting him know where I was going – a good practice when you’re visiting the more colorful of our local denizens – and headed out in my 10-year old Toyota.
It was a short drive – our town isn’t that big – so roughly 20 minutes later I was pulling up before an unmarked door with only the space number (15A) over the door. There was no business name or other markings on the space.
I pulled the door and found it open. I went inside to find a man who looked to be in his mid-30s. He was average height but looked to be in good shape. He wore work boots, jeans and a flannel shirt.
As I came in he walked towards me and said “Mr. Andrews?”
I nodded my head and shook his hand, he had a firm grip, but not overpowering.
“You must be Joshua Brandon.”
“It’s nice to meet you, sir. Thanks for making time to talk with me.”
“Well, I don’t usually make a habit of taking meetings in unfamiliar locations, but you sounded like you might have an interesting story to tell.
I did a bit of checking on you before I came over here. You were quite the rising star back in college. It was a shame you had leave college. Why didn’t you go back and finish?”
“Well, when my father passed, the store was my mother’s only source of income and she couldn’t run it on her own. By the time she passed it just seemed easiest to keep running it. It allows me a fair bit of freedom to work on my own projects.”
“What kind of projects?” I pulled out my notebook and turned to a fresh page to start taking notes.
“I’m going to tell you, Mr. Andrews, but before I do can I ask you a question?”
“Sure,” I replied, “call me Jim”.
“Jim, do you have any regrets in your life?”
“Of course. We all have regrets. Things that we can’t change. Choices we made that can’t be unmade.”
Joshua was watching my face closely. Tentatively and with some hesitation he asked, “what if you could? Could make different choices. Unmake those choices and go down a different path. Would you do it?”
Before I responded, I thought for a moment.
I didn’t think I would be where I am in my life. I was pretty smart in school. Near the top of my class. I loved science and math. I was going to be an engineer. That all changed during my senior year.
In the fall of my senior year of high school, I’d gone to a football game. I wasn’t a big fan of football but I went with my best friend Sam. There was talk of meeting up with some of our friends and one of those friends was a girl that I liked but had been too shy to pursue. I thought maybe this might be a good place to spend some time with her and perhaps I could overcome my difficulty with the fairer sex. Or so I hoped.
The night went well. We hung out with friends and rooted for our team and yelled till we were hoarse. It was a great evening. I even talked to the girl and it seemed as if we hit it off. I was pretty sure I was going to ask her out on a date the following Monday.
High on the adrenaline of the evening and the success of nearly maybe having a date with a pretty girl, Sam and I headed out from the stadium back towards town. I was driving my crappy yellow Pinto, but at least it was my car. It was never a fast car and never would be, but it got me from place to place.
As we exited the stadium we had to stop at a traffic light. Next to us another car pulled up and it turned out it was full of our friends. I heard a revving engine and looked to my right. Our friend Ben was grinning like a maniac and continued to rev his engine. My car was never going to win any kind of a race but we were feeling silly and so I revved my engine and all four cylinders whined like a pack of maddened squirrels that might live under my hood, powering my car.
The light turned green and we both stepped on the accelerators of our cars and took off laughing.
The other car was much faster than mine but I managed to catch up and pace him and in just a short period of time we were flying down the road at more than 70 miles per hour, faster than I thought my car could even go.
Ben started to fall back, more out of common sense than anything else.
Sam and I continued to laugh and cheer as we slowly pulled ahead thinking we were winning.
Ahead of us was the only other light before we got back in to town in another mile or so. And it was red.
To this day I don’t know why. Maybe it was that we were winning. Maybe it was the adrenaline or the hormones of a 17-year old boy but whatever the reason it never really was an option to slow down and stop for the red light.
As we entered the intersection, the last thing I remember was a bright light and a loud crash. Four days later I woke up in a hospital bed and was told that I had killed my best friend.
“Yes. Yes, Joshua. I have regrets. There are things I wish I could undo. But I can’t. I have to live with those choices for the rest of my life.”
Joshua replied, “What if you didn’t?”
I shook my head uncomprehendingly.
Joshua turned and walked through an open door to the back of the space. As he entered that space he flipped a light switch to one side.
I entered behind him, accepting his exit and the open door as a tacit invitation to join him in the other room.
As I entered I saw … I don’t know what I saw. There was some sort of contraption. There was lots of steel, lots of thick cables which I guessed carried power. If Doctor Frankenstein were rebuilding his lab in the early 21st century, he might have been very happy if it had turned out looking like what I saw before me.
Joshua looked over at me, bowed his head a bit and said quietly “It’s a time machine.”
I couldn’t hide my initial reaction so Joshua could tell this wasn’t going well so he was began speaking quickly.
“It’s a time machine. But it only goes back. Because you can’t go forward because the future is not there to go to yet. But you can go back. There are still some issues, but you can go back in time for up to two hours. Almost. 105 minutes. Roughly.”
“Mr. Brandon. I’m sorry. I think I’m wasting your time as well as my own. I don’t write fiction. I didn’t write about the guy who claimed to have been probed by the UFO. Or the lady who said she’d managed to cross her cats with her goats. I think I should go.”
“Wait, Mr. Andrews! Jim! Please. Can I show you what it can do? It’ll take 10 minutes. Please!”
“Mr. Brandon, I’m not a patient man and I don’t appreciate being part of this. I’ll give you 10 minutes and then we’ll part and I don’t want to hear from you again. Deal?”
“Sure. Okay. You can watch from there. I won’t waste your time.”
Joshua walked by a central dais that most of the machinery surrounded and made some adjustments on a keyboard and some machinery nearby and turned to me.
“Here’s what’s going to happen.”
He walked over to an open area about 10 feet from the machinery and pointed at a small X painted on the empty concrete floor.
“This is where it’s going to happen. Please watch this spot very closely for the next minute. What time do you have?”
I looked on my phone and told him “2:13pm. No, 2:14pm right now.”
“Okay, exactly one minute from right now I want you to watch that area very closely.”
“What am I going to see?”
“Time travel,” he replied quietly.
We stood looking at each other, neither moving, neither saying anything.
I asked him “Don’t you need to do anything?”
He said “I will. But not yet.”
I glanced down at my phone again. “I don’t undersand, but you have about 15 seconds before 2:15pm”
“Watch that space closely.”
I turned slightly and watched where he had earlier indicated. Mentally I began to count down. 10 … 9 … 8 … 7 …
Before I reached zero it happened. One moment there was nothing and in the next there was a small crate with a white rabbit on it where before there had been nothing.
There was no flash. No noise. One moment there was nothing and the next there was a white rabbit. On a small crate.
“What the hell! What just happened?”
I walked over to the box, walked around it. I touched the box. It was solid. I reached down and picked up the rabbit. The rabbit looked at me with his (or her) pink eyes and wiggling nose as if nothing more interesting than our meeting had just happened. Around his neck was a small collar. Affixed to the collar was what looked to be the body of a small digital watch. Where the rabbit had been sitting was a small yellow envelope which had been taped shut.
“Jim, would you take the rabbit over there and grab that envelope but don’t open it yet”, indicating where I’d been standing previously, “and what time does it say on the watch on the rabbit?”
Confused and with some hesitation I looked at the watch on the side of the collar and read it out loud “2:30pm. It’s got today’s date. Are you trying to tell me this rabbit traveled through time?”
“Yes, Jim. But please hold on a bit, I have a few things to do and only 15 minutes to do them in.”
Joshua moved quickly to the crate in the center of the room, picking it up and moving it to the center of the dais.
He next came over to me and indicated a small table which held some 3×5 cards, a marker, some tape and an envelope identical to the one in my hand but this one was not sealed with tape.
“Jim, I’m going to ask you to suspend your disbelief and do something. I’d like you to write something on this 3×5 card that only you know. Some small detail that I couldn’t know. It might be a birthday, some detail of your life, something unique to you.”
I handed him the rabbit, transferred the envelope to my back pocket and grabbed the marker. I thought for a moment and wrote down a date and a time. That date and time are embedded in my head more firmly than nearly any. The was when I killed Sam back in high school. I recall the time because it was on the police reports and it stuck with me the rest of my life. I could more easily have forgotten my own birthday.
“Now put the card in the envelope and tape it shut. After that, would you please hand it to me.”
Feeling more than a little skeptical about what was going on, before I put the card in the envelope I folded it in to quarters, more or less. Then I taped the envelope shut and gave it to Joshua.
He moved briskly to the dais, envelope in one hand, rabbit in the other. He set the envelope in the middle of the crate. He looked over to me and said “I’m going to set the watch to the current time. Right now it’s showing 15 minutes fast. What time is it now?”
“2:24pm”, I replied.
He fiddled with the collar, presumably adjusting the watch. He then set the rabbit down on top of the envelope and stroked a few times to calm it. He seemed to whisper something to the rabbit. The rabbit sat placidly with his little nose twitching as if all this was the most normal thing imaginable.
Next, Joshua walked to the computer keyboard and started typing while occasionally looking at some dials on the console in front of him. He looked again at his watch, looked over to the crate and back over to the spot on the floor as if determining that all was as it should be.
He looked over to me and said “We have three minutes left. In exactly three minutes you need to watch where the rabbit is sitting on the crate. There will be some humming and the noise level will rise a bit but not painfully.”
As we waited, I felt my back pocket to be sure the envelope I had earlier removed from the crate was still in place. I fingered it nervously wondering momentarily if what I was being told could possibly be true.
What if Joshua had really created a way to go back in time? How far could it go? He had said you could only stay for less than two hours. What could you do in that time? Could someone kill Hitler? I was pretty sure that wouldn’t be me. I had received a C in high school German. And someone like me was very unlikely to blend in with the locals.
Could I go back to the birth of Jesus to see what was going on in Bethlehem? Could I see Jackie Robinson play his first game in the major leagues? Could I march with Dr. King?
I stopped thinking about impossible things and watched the dais.
Exactly ten seconds later, with the noise rising as Joshua had said to a noticeably but not painful level, there was an almost visible *pop* and the dais was suddenly empty again.
The machinery wound down, the noise abated and Joshua started walking towards me again.
“What do you think?”
“I think you are, at the very least, a very impressive magician, Joshua.”
“It’s not a trick! Do you still have that envelope? Can you open it, please?”
I reached again to my back pocket and opened the envelope. Removing the tape and reaching inside I found what felt like a folded up card.
With shaking fingers I unfolded the card I took out of the envelope. On it was the date I had written earlier. It was clearly written in my hand writing exactly as I had written it just minutes before.
“Joshua,” I said quietly, “Where’s the rabbit?”
“The rabbit is now fifteen minutes in the past. It, along with the crate and the envelope were transported there just now. The earlier version of you just saw it appear right on that X on the concrete over there, exactly as you remember.”
“But how? Why?” I couldn’t seem to put together a sentence. This was impossible.
“With my machine I can move anything in the target area back in time. So far I can only get go back about 35 years. I don’t know why, yet. And only for about 105 minutes. Any longer than that and whatever I send back snaps back to the time and place it was sent from. Again, not entirely sure why but I have some theories. The amount of energy required seems to be a function of the amount of time and the distance I am transporting the target. In fact, the distance is a real issue right now. I can’t seem to get more than 8 to 10 miles without burning out my machine and the components are not cheap to replace.
“Jim, this is real. I’ve sent back cameras. I’ve gone back myself and collected newspapers. You can go back in time.”
I thought about this for a few minutes. I asked him, “Why did you ask me if I had regrets”.
Joshua replied, “Because you can change the past! Do you recall reading stories about going back in time and changing things? Where you go back and keep your grandfather from meeting your grandmother and you aren’t born as a result? It’s all wrong! You can change the past.”
“I don’t understand. If you go back and keep yourself from being born, don’t you disappear, never having been created?”
“No! It’s not that simple. There will be one time track where you did go back and you aren’t born but the track where you WERE born still exists. You can change the past! Well, I guess really you’re creating a new time track. The one where you were born still exists but now you’ve also created a track where you were not!”
I sat in stunned silence, overwhelmed with what I was being told, unable to accept the possibility that what I was seeing could be true.
“Could you send me back? Could you send me back in time?”
“When? And where?”
I handed him the card. The date on the card was about 27 years in the past.
“The date on that card, but one hour earlier. And right here in town.”
“How much time do you need?”
“An hour. No more. Can you get me out to the football stadium outside town?”
Joshua did some quick calculations on his computer.
“No, but I can get you within a couple of miles.”
“You need to send me to that time.”
“So, you believe me?”
“If you can send me to that time and bring me back, I will believe you. I’ll help you find support for your work. I’ll tell your story.”
I couldn’t believe what was coming out of my mouth. It was as if my brain had split. Part of me was watching in disbelief as the other half behaved in a way that was reckless and dangerous and entirely out of character for me.
“Let’s do this now. Before I lose my nerve.”
Joshua looked at me with concern. “Are you sure about this?”
“No, but if what you say is right, I need to see it for myself.”
“Alright. Please stand in the middle of the dais with your hands at your sides.” Joshua turned his head from me and began clattering away on his keyboard.
I moved over to the dais. There were bright lights mounted on the machine that illuminated the dais. I squinted as I entered the glare of those lights. I put my hands at my side and asked “Will it hurt?”
“You won’t feel anything. One moment you’ll be here, the next you’ll be somewhere else. Bend your knees a bit. I’ve calculated the location I want to send you to but to be safe, you’ll appear roughly a foot above ground. If I transport you right to the ground level and I’m off even by a few inches – well, the results are not good. So, you’ll drop a foot or so down to the ground on the other side. Are you ready?”
“No! I’m not ready but do it before I change my mind. Where am I going?”
“You will be transported along route 10 outside town. You’ll be shy of the stadium by just under two miles and roughly 200 yards from the road. One last thing. I’m sending you for one hour. At the end of the hour your link to that time will destabilize and you will be yanked back to this time no matter what you are doing at the time. So, try to not be in the middle of the football field or, preferably, where anyone can see you. Is that clear? Okay, here we go! Ten seconds… Five, Four, Three, Two, One!”
His last syllable was cut off and suddenly I was falling!
Very quickly I hit the ground and barely caught myself from falling to my knees.
There had been no feeling at all! One moment I was in the lab and the next I was in a field. It was cold and felt like fall. The fields had been harvested and nothing remained but stubble. I looked around and not far away could see what I presumed was Route 10 and began moving to the road.
As I walked it began to sink in. I was clearly somewhere else so at a minimum Joshua had invented something that moved me from one place to another. If he was not lying about the time travel, then not only had I moved in space, I had moved in time!
If Joshua was correct, I was back in time the night that I was in the car accident. The accident that occurred because of my stupidity. The night Sam was killed.
If Joshua was telling the truth, especially about changing the past, I could give Sam his life. He could live the life I had taken from him. I could change the single biggest regret of my life.
I made my way to the road and walked away from the lights of town towards where the stadium was just down the road.
Joshua had said that I could change the past. Sam could live. And my life, at least the life of the 17-year old me, would change as well.
I would never be found guilty of vehicular homicide. I would be able to go to college. I could be the person I was supposed to be.
It would be simple. I felt in my pocket where I keep a small folding knife. All I would have to do is puncture the tires on my Pinto. No tires means no racing. No racing means no accident. Everything would be made right.
I thought about the possibility of the younger version of me walking a different path, not having to experience all the guilt, the stares of my peers, the broken bones. There would be no funeral for Sam, which I had missed anyway, as I was still laid up in the hospital. He could go live whatever life I had robbed him of because of my poor decisions. I could make it all right.
I was approaching the intersection where that accident occurred all those years ago. Where the accident would happen once again just an hour from now if I didn’t do something to change it.
As I entered that intersection where my life had taken the wrong turn, I had a thought. For all the horrible things that happened, not everything in my life was bad. I had two wonderful children. They are everything a parent could ask for in children. They make the world a better place for being in it. They make me proud.
My kids are one of the products of the life that followed from that accident.
I met their mother. I fell in love or what I thought was love at the time. We had kids we loved. There were vacations and school sports and school concerts. There were times of laughter mixed in with times of sadness and anger. It wasn’t all bad.
I became a part of my community again. I learned to write. I told stories about the folks who we don’t hear enough about. I worked hard and I think I bring more good in to the world than bad.
The stadium was getting close. I could see the lights in the distance. I glanced at my phone. It wasn’t getting a signal. No big surprise there. But it still worked as a clock. Based on when I left I still had about 35 minutes left. I picked up my pace.
I thought back to when my kids were born. Learning to walk and talk. Turning from babies to small people. People I enjoyed and loved spending time with. People who would grow up and live their own lives. Eventually, they would have families and kids of their own.
That would all change for the younger me. I wouldn’t meet my wife. There would be no kids. My kids would never exist. That thought filled me with a palpable sense of regret that caused to stop walking for a moment.
I was in the parking lot now. I knew more or less where I had left my car so started wandering in that direction. There were not many yellow Pintos in the world, let alone in the parking lot of the stadium, so it was pretty easy to find.
I reached out and touched the hood of my car. I looked in the window and it was just as I recalled it down to the tear in the seat of the passenger side where Sam had accidentally ripped it when something in his back pocket had caught in the fabric and tore the cover of the seat. We had “fixed” it with duct tape.
It would be simple. All I had to do was plunge my knife in to a tire. Two tires, actually, since I knew I had a spare in the back. Just two small cuts and there would be no accident. So easy to set things right again. Two cuts and walk away. In twenty minutes I will return to my time and my younger self and Sam can continue down a new road filled with possibilities.
But it came to me again, harder this time, that while the younger version of my self would have a different life, and Sam would simply HAVE a life that he hadn’t had, that life would not include the friends I counted on and who counted on me. I wouldn’t be the person who I am today, for all my faults, not a bad person. But the thing that kept coming up in my head, stronger each time, is that my children would never be in that new world.
While I wanted to right the wrong that haunted me the most in my life, was I willing to do that at the cost of who I became and the lives of my children?
I reached in to my pocket and pulled out the knife. I opened the blade. I put it against the rubber of the front right tire near where I stood. Just one easy motion and everything would be different.
There was a brief feeling of vertigo and suddenly I was back in the room with Joshua looking at me from behind the consoles of his computers.
He looked at me with concern. “How did it go?”
I walked to a chair nearby and sat down.
I told Joshua why I went back. What had happened and what my intentions had been.
I told him about the car and the knife and the tires of that old Pinto.
I told him about my kids and how changing my past would mean a future that didn’t include two of the people I am most proud of in the world.
He asked, “So, what did you do?”
I looked back at him and asked, “What would you do?”
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