I kept my eyes closed as I drifted awake, letting my other senses feel out my surroundings first. I was someplace clean, which was wonderful, and it had a nice homey smell, like a house or an apartment. And the silence was equally wonderful: no people coughing, muttering, or worse, tripping over me.
The smart thing to do would have been to open my eyes right away, but waking up with a nice, safe, warm feeling was something that happened rarely, and I wanted to make it last. I luxuriated in those few moments of peacefulness, trying to ignore the fact that as soon as I opened my eyes, I’d have to figure out where I was. I lay still, shoring up my strength to face reality. Or whatever it was you could call my life, which was probably as far from reality as a person could get.
I wished I could draw out my enjoyment of the moment, but there was a little thing called survival demanding my attention. Tentatively, I opened my eyes. I was lying on a sofa in someone’s living room, with gentle sunlight streaming through the window. A crocheted blanket covered me. It was an ugly blanket, at odds with the modern décor of the rest of the apartment. There were lots of wooden surfaces and plants, and light gleamed off the polished, pale wood floor. I pushed myself up on one elbow to look around.
The lack of ornamentation told me it was a guy’s apartment. There were shelves with books and CDs (CDs, okay, first clue as to what decade I was in), a desk with a computer that looked like an old 486 — already, I was picking up on the rest of the clues.
And then, on the coffee table in front of me, was the best clue of all: a newspaper. Happily, I reached for it. Saturday, September 20, 1992.
The early 1990s — an okay place to be, I supposed, although in a way it didn’t make much difference. The plus side was that clothing-wise, I wouldn’t look like I’d stepped out of the wrong decade; pretty much anything went in the nineties. The downside was that my money wouldn’t go as far as it did in my last switch. I only had a few dollars in my purse, which would get me coffee and maybe a donut if I went someplace cheap.
Then again, I was in an apartment, which meant there would be food! Was I alone; could I go rooting through the kitchen?
I heard footsteps, and before I had time to prepare myself, a door opened.
The guy gave a shout of surprise when he saw me. I almost did too; he was naked.
The door closed again. I sat up, making sure I was fully clothed. I was, of course; I never let myself fall asleep any other way. The strap of my backpack was hooked around my ankle, as it should be. My heart always skipped a beat when I checked to make sure it was there.
Quick, think up a story, I told myself.
The door reopened and the guy stepped out, this time wearing jeans and a rumpled, gray T-shirt. He hadn’t bothered to put on socks.
“Who are you?” he asked. He had dark, floppy hair, about cheekbone-length, still messy from sleeping. His eyes were a nice, warm brown color, but a little bloodshot. Hopefully that meant he was hung over. “I mean… sorry…” He put his hands to his head and rubbed his temples. “I don’t remember…”
Hangover, perfect. I exhaled a sigh of relief. “I’m Terry,” I introduced myself. “You said I could crash here. You don’t remember?”
“No…” he said, looking confused. “I mean, I remember being at the bar, but I don’t even remember meeting you. Was I that drunk?”
“Um,” I said, wondering what would make the most believable story. “You didn’t seem that drunk…”
“Oh, man,” he groaned, running his fingers through his hair. “I guess I must have been, because I don’t even remember leaving. I mean, wait, I do… but I thought I left alone…” He looked more confused.
“Why don’t I make us some coffee?” I offered, hoping I could forestall any more recollections of the previous night. Like the fact that he probably had left the bar alone, and not only that, had walked through his front door alone. It was best to move the conversation along, even though he was unlikely to guess that a stranger had appeared on his sofa in the middle of the night without coming through the door.
I got up and walked into the kitchen, which was small but clean. He followed me in. Seeing him in the daylight, I noticed he had a bit of a rough-night kind of look. Thank goodness for hangovers. On other people, that was; I’d never had one myself. Besides the fact that I had no ID, getting even a little bit drunk would be a massive risk. Waking up in random times and places was difficult enough without throwing in even more disorientation, not to mention potentially bad decision-making.
I located the coffee maker and went about putting in a paper filter and a scoop of coffee. “So, um…” Drat, I didn’t know his name. “Do you want me to… make some breakfast?” Please say yes. My stomach was already growling.
He groaned. “I don’t think I can face food right now.” He sat down at the small table and put his elbows on the table, head in his hands. “Maybe just an aspirin.”
“Well, uh, would you mind if I had some? Breakfast, I mean. Not aspirin.”
“Oh, right! Sorry. I… guess I should offer to cook you something. But I honestly don’t know if I can handle that right now.” He raised his head and blinked widely a couple of times, as if that might clear his hangover. “How does cereal grab you?”
“Um, no, I’ve only got the sugar-free kind.”
I stared at him for a second before understanding the mistranslation. That was yet another thing about jumping decades – words changed. “Oh, that’s okay, I didn’t mean… what I meant was, cereal would be great.”
I poured him a mug of coffee, which he accepted gratefully. Then I set about finding cereal, milk, a bowl, and a spoon.
I brought them to the table and sat down. While he sipped his coffee, I devoured three bowls of cereal. He squinted at me through his floppy hair. “Hungry?” he asked.
No, I’m inhaling three bowls of cereal because it’s Sunday and this is my religion. But answering would have meant pausing, so while continuing to eat, I merely nodded.
He put his head down again and ground the heels of his hands against his eyes. When he looked up, he said, “I’m going to take a shower. Unless you want to go first?”
I considered this quickly. The guy was really nice, and I hated ripping people off, but I was pretty desperate for money. And I could hardly steal bills from his wallet and then take a leisurely shower. “I’ll go first if that’s okay,” I said. Unable to think up a reason why, I left the table before he could answer.
Thankfully, the bathroom door had a lock on it. I hated ones that didn’t. After stripping off, I ran the water and stepped into the shower. The hot water was so wonderful; I wanted to stay there forever. Showers were something that didn’t happen enough in my life. Someday, I told myself. Someday, when all this craziness stops, I will get myself a place with a huge bathtub and take hour-long baths. With candles and bubbles and everything.
I’d forgotten to ask him for a clean towel, so I used the ones that were there. For me, clean towels or not, this was the equivalent of the Ritz. With a big brown towel wrapped around my body and my hair wound up in a dark green one, I wiped a circle in the steam on the mirror and surveyed myself. My black eyeliner had gone all raccoon-like, so I scrubbed it away with the corner of the green towel. I always wore eye makeup. Without it, I looked about sixteen or seventeen. With it, I looked maybe eighteen or nineteen, which was a lot safer in general, and definitely better in this kind of situation. I didn’t want to panic guys by making them think they’d invited an under-ager into their apartment.
Not that I did this often; it was too risky. And not that anything ever happened with the guys. Besides the fact I didn’t even know how old I was, that would be a gross amount of sleeping around just to have a roof over my head.
No, I only did this when I couldn’t face going to another homeless shelter. And when I needed a cash refill. I knew this was about as morally wrong as I could get, but your morals get a huge shakedown when your sole focus becomes survival.
There was the personal safety issue of crashing at a stranger’s apartment, too. I had a pretty good radar for trustworthy people — in fact, a highly developed one — but it was not knowing whose place I’d wake up in that was the bigger danger. So far, so good: I tended to wake up in the same sort of situation I fell asleep in. Fall asleep in a homeless shelter, wake up in a homeless shelter. Go home with a nice guy who’s letting me crash on his sofa out of kindness or pity, that was the kind of person whose apartment I’d wake up in. Fall asleep in a jail cell… I sighed. That had been the toughest one yet.
I toweled myself dry and began to brush out my long, chocolate-brown hair. Now I’d have to plan my escape. It shouldn’t be too hard: grab some cash while he was in the shower, then slip out the front door, not forgetting my backpack. That had been my worst mistake to date. It wasn’t the embarrassment of having to go back for it after I’d left without saying goodbye or even thanks that was so bad, it was the heart-stopping panic of knowing that everything I owned was in that pack.
Which only consisted of a spare pair of jeans, two T-shirts, several pairs of socks and underwear, a brand-new, never-worn pair of pajamas (I longed to wear them, but waking up fully clothed was safer), a change purse with whatever money I had left, and my diary. The diary was the most important thing in my life. In it, I kept a record of every time and place I’d been. Every chance I got, I’d pore over the dates, looking for a pattern, looking for some clue as to where I was from, when I was from…
A knock sounded at the door, making me jump. Slowly, I unlocked the door and opened it a crack, ready to slam it shut if need be.
“Um, listen Terry, I’m so hung over I’ve got to go back to bed. I hope you don’t mind…?”
“No, that’s okay, I’ll… let myself out.” I assumed that was what he was asking.
He looked so sweet, like such a nice guy, I was tempted to ask, Please let me stay another night. Please. You have no idea how much I want to stay for more than one night in this nice apartment, where there’s food and a shower. Where I can pretend, just for a few days, that I have a home…
I opened my mouth to ask, but sadness and guilt clamped my throat shut. In his bleary state, he didn’t see the tears that sprang to my eyes.
“Okay,” he said. “…see you.” He stumbled off towards the bedroom.
“Sure,” I whispered. I exhaled hard, willing the tears to stop. No staying in the nice apartment. It was time to move on. Again.
Closing the door behind me, I breathed a guilty sigh of relief.
I felt horrible about not only stealing cash from him, but also taking a half box of granola bars, a bottle of juice, and two apples. Not that he’d likely notice the food, but it felt like I was piling insult upon injury. To my surprise, there had been a hundred dollars in his wallet. That was pretty unusual for a guy in his early twenties, not to mention one who’d just spent the night getting drunk in a bar. I had taken three twenties, wincing as I did it. That was probably the most I’d taken from any one person. I had a kind of sliding scale for how much I’d take, depending on how wealthy the person seemed. But guilt always bit at me, no matter how wealthy they were, and I was often tempted to leave a note. What would I say, though? I’m deeply sorry for taking the money, especially after you’ve been so nice to me, but I’m homeless. I would pay it back if there was some way I could, but it’s kind of hard to hold down a job when you jump decades every week or so. Maybe I’ll run into you a few days from now… the thing is, you’ll be ten years older and I’ll still be broke and homeless.
I descended the staircase quickly, lightly, like I always did. I looked around as I made my fugitive’s escape. The building was cool, really retro: restored 1930s or 40s, with a wide, curving wooden staircase complete with red carpeting down the center and a wrought iron handrail. At least, I guessed the building was 1930s or 40s; I didn’t know much about building design. I’d learned to identify the times I was in by cars, clothing, and electronics mostly, and I hadn’t had time to learn about architecture because it didn’t help me out. But someday it would be a neat thing to study.
The air in the lobby felt heavy, like it had sat there through the ages as different generations came and went. It made my lungs ache, and I was happy to push open the heavy wooden door and emerge into daylight and fresh air.
I loved autumn, and this was one of those perfect, early fall days when the leaves were beginning to change color but it was still warm outside. I paused at the top of the red brick stairs to breathe in the scent of the trees and enjoy the moment. And to figure out where the heck I was.
The neighborhood was pretty: there were lots of old-style buildings with brick steps, iron handrails, and wood-paned windows. The sidewalks were wide, and although there was no grass boulevard, the small trees grew closely enough together to provide lots of greenery. Some buildings had potted shrubs on the porches, too.
I occasionally woke up in different towns, but generally I stayed in Barrington. Which made it all the worse, somehow, that I couldn’t get home. Given that all of my switches were in Barrington, then surely I was from here, which meant I didn’t have to search the whole world to find where I was from, just when. But my searches had been unsuccessful so far.
I spent most of my waking hours trying to find out when I was from, but there wasn’t much to go on. Unless I were to end up in a time later than the one I originally came from, there would be no mention of me in a newspaper, because no missing persons report could be filed, obviously, until after I was gone. And there would also have to be people who noticed I was gone, and went to the trouble of reporting it.
My throat grew tight at the thought of this. How could I know about things like missing persons reports, but not remember whether or not I had a family? Why could I not remember how old I was, where I grew up, or even my name?
I’d tried to work out when I was from in other ways, like trying to remember who the president was. But even though I knew tons of things like how food is grown, the names of flowers and animals, or the fact that you get money from an ATM and a light bulb is powered by electricity, I couldn’t remember anything that gave me clues about me.
My feet pushed away from the porch, as if of their own accord, and I ran down the steps, like I could run away from all this craziness.
I always had to walk fast or run when I started thinking too much, which was most of the time. As a result, I was pretty fit. Even though I didn’t have my bearings yet, I headed down the street. It didn’t matter where I went, as long as at some point during the day I could find a shelter, and I knew all the homeless shelters in this city by now, in every decade from the nineteen seventies to the two-thousands. And with sixty bucks in my pocket, I could eat wherever I wanted today. I knew I should make the money last, though; it meant less stealing later on.
Even though I’d just eaten three bowls of cereal, I made a beeline for the first café I saw. It would be neat to sit at an outdoor table in this cool neighborhood and pretend, just for a little while, that I lived here. Plus, I was hungry again. I wasn’t sure if this was the normal metabolism of a teenager or some weird side effect of time travel, but I was always hungry. I wasn’t even sure I was a teenager, but I felt about sixteen or seventeen. Plus, I was pretty sure I didn’t know how to drive.
I pushed open the heavy glass door of the café and stepped inside. The place was busy, with small tables occupied by cool-looking couples or people on their own reading newspapers. A few people stood off to the side, waiting for their coffees. There was a long glass countertop with cases of pastries underneath, and a big espresso machine at the end. The place had a nice feel to it. The person in front of me finished paying for their order and stepped aside, and the guy behind the counter turned towards me. I almost took a step back. He was incredibly good looking. A little older than me, and Asian, with cool, streaked hair. I wished I could flirt with him, or that there was any point to it. But it’s kind of hard to have a conversation when one person can’t answer simple things like “what’s your name?”, “where are you from?” or “what do you do?”
I call myself Terry, I’m from a time when all the single people in this café would have laptops with them, and I wake up in different times and places. How about you? You get around much?
“Hi there,” the guy said, smiling. “How are you?”
“I’m okay,” I said, wishing I could think of something cool to say, wishing I could spend time chatting to him and having an almost-friendship or (sigh) an almost-boyfriend. However, considering how I adept I was at talking my way into crashing on strangers’ sofas, or explaining how I’d gotten into a room that was locked the night before, I was horribly awkward when it came to situations like this. Maybe because the closer I got to ‘normal,’ the more afraid I was that I’d break down in tears right in front of the other person. ‘Normal’ didn’t play a huge part in my life.
I looked towards the pastry case instead. “Coffee and a Danish, please.”
I sat at one of the small, outdoor tables, savoring my large coffee. I would have preferred a latté, but I couldn’t afford expensive drinks like that, even with sixty bucks burning a hole in my pocket. Still, I was happy with what I had in front of me. I loved coffee. I loved everything about it: the taste, the warmth, and mostly, the fact that it kept me awake.
There was little chance I’d feel drowsy today, not after such a good night’s sleep and with such gorgeous weather to keep me occupied and alert. But most days, if I hadn’t slept well (which was most of the time; homeless shelters, with their rank smell of bodies and people coughing everywhere, didn’t encourage a peaceful sleep), I’d hit a lull around three o’clock, when I’d get so tired I wanted to crawl behind the bookshelf of a library and fall asleep right on the floor. But I could never let myself do so, because falling asleep in the daytime was like playing time-travel roulette.
Waking up in a different homeless shelter was fine, because generally people didn’t even notice there was a different person lying in the adjacent bunk in the morning. Waking up in a different apartment was something I could usually talk my way out of, although there were a few times when I’d been accused of breaking in and had to make my escape before the owner called the cops. But suddenly appearing next to someone on a park bench in the middle of the afternoon, or on the floor of a supermarket — that was way more difficult to explain. Usually I just got up and ran.
Today felt like a good day, and I wanted to enjoy it, because good days were on short order in my life. I unzipped my backpack and pulled out my diary and pen. Even in the daytime, whenever I sat down, I’d hook my ankle through one of the straps of my backpack, just out of habit. And I kept a copy, a shorter version, of my time travel records in my jacket pocket, in case I ever lost the backpack. I couldn’t risk losing those records.
I wrote down today’s date — assuming that the Saturday newspaper I’d seen was yesterday’s — and the address of where I’d stayed. Then I took out a sheet of paper, separate from the diary, and unfolded my chart. This was a big, grid-lined piece of paper with years and decades running up the left hand axis, and my version of time running along the bottom. I plotted each switch — that was what I called my time-changes — with a bar, then connected the newest to the previous with a line. I ended up with a strange zigzag running along the sheet of paper. I looked for patterns in it, any clue, any idea of where I might end up next, or any meaning to it. What I’d found was that about ninety percent of my switches sent me one to five years away, and whether I went backwards or forwards was totally random. Then for about ten percent of the switches, the time differences were much greater: I’d suddenly shoot back twenty years, or ahead fifteen. But there was no particular set of years that I spent more time in, at least none that I could see.
The length of the bar showed how long I’d spent in each switch. Most times it was about a week, sometimes two. A very few times, I’d had switches as short as one day, and the longest ever was three months.
That one had been the hardest to take. Or the hardest to leave, I should say; it lasted so long that I became convinced I was back in my ‘real’ time. I spent the duration searching for any trace of my home or family, but came up with nothing. I scoured the city looking for neighborhoods that seemed familiar; I went to the library and looked up the name of every high school in the city, hoping I’d come across one that sounded familiar; I even read the entire phone book one day, looking for surnames I recognized.
Because I stayed there for so long, I even checked myself into social services, got sent to a care home, and started going to school. It almost felt normal, except that I couldn’t really make friends (too many lies), and besides, I spent all my free time in libraries or on buses. I kind of knew, at the same time, that it wasn’t really my home, because to me the technology — computers, cell phones, music players, stuff like that — seemed dated. Nevertheless, I was gutted when I left. It was the most solid hope I’d ever had, and it dissolved away like a dream, just like all the others.
I stared at my chart, tears pricking at my eyes.
Why could I not remember anything previous to eight months ago? That question seemed to plague me even more than ‘Why do I time travel?’ It seemed likely that the two were related: some kind of accident or experiment had sent me bouncing around through time, and had messed up my brain in the process. There were days when my thinking was so fuzzy, I had a hard time connecting one thought to another. Those were the bad days, when a brutal headache would hammer at the right side of my head; sometimes it was so painful, I could barely stand up straight. The rest of the time, apart from my eight-month memory limit, I felt lucid. At least, I thought I was lucid, but maybe my brain wasn’t the best yardstick for ‘normal.’
Admittedly, I wasn’t great at coming up with a plan for what to do about all this. But I didn’t think this was due to my sometimes-brain-fuzziness; I mean, what could I do? If I kept ending up in the past, there was no way I could find out about the future.
I also wondered, why me? Why would a teenager be part of some bizarre science experiment? Or was time travel a normal occurrence where I came from, and it was just bad luck that mine had gone horribly wrong? Was I stuck in the time equivalent of a riptide, while other people time traveled regularly and problem-free, like it was a vacation or something? Did they come home saying, “Wow, that was a neat trip, I can’t wait to do it again next year!”
I was pretty sure I didn’t come from a place with hover cars and teleporters, so that theory seemed wrong… but there was no point to all this wondering, anyway, because no matter how many questions I had, there was no place to get answers. All I could do was keep looking for clues, patterns, some way to get home… all the while, knowing there wasn’t really much I could do about it. Even if I figured out when I was from, how would I get there? All I could do was hope for a random switch that would take me home.
In the meantime, I kept searching because it filled my time and made me feel less helpless, as if I had even the tiniest bit of control over my life. It was a pretense, I knew, but on the days when I felt like I couldn’t take this anymore, like I was teetering on the precipice of a depression so deep I might completely give up on life, it was the only thing that kept me from plummeting.
I was thinking too much again, which meant I needed to get moving. Downing the last of my coffee, I slung my backpack over one shoulder and snatched up the remains of my Danish. I would finish it as I walked.
On days when the weather was good, I’d hang out in a park. I had to squeeze every bit of enjoyment I could out of sunny days, because winter ones are miserable when you’re homeless.
I had developed a pretty good sense of direction, and was familiar with most parts of the city by now. I headed down the street, and within blocks I recognized a subway entrance. Okay, so now I knew what part of town I was in, which meant it was either a long walk or a short bus ride to the main park in the city. I was feeling rich, so I decided to take the bus, until I remembered it was Sunday. Buses were random on Sundays no matter what decade you were in; some things never change.
I’d walk, then, and explore what was going on in 1992. Over the thirty-year span I’d been traveling, some things in the city remained constant — like big department stores. Restaurant locations usually remained, although the names would change. Little boutiques came and went like soap bubbles. Pet stores, strangely, were another constant, and I found myself stopping to gaze longingly into the window of one. Three puppies were playing in an enclosure, and my heart welled up as I watched them. Time traveling was lonely beyond belief, and I would have given almost anything to have had a dog. Then I would have a friend, a companion, a loving creature to snuggle up with at night. Except that I couldn’t have one, of course; they’d have an owner for a week or two, and then I’d be gone.
I turned and continued on before the sadness caught up with me. As I passed a video store, I scanned the posters of new film releases. That was one of my winter pastimes: I watched every time travel film I could find. Little, independent video stores were the best for this, as I usually could talk the staff into letting me perch on a stool in the back corner and watch whatever movie I begged them to put on. The geekier the guy working there, the better; girls who watched Sci-Fi movies were like goddesses to them. My favorite time travel movies were the serious ones. There were too many funny ones, and they frustrated me rather than made me laugh. Not that I thought I’d get actual answers from a time travel movie, but I might at least get ideas.
The main thing I noticed about these movies was that the characters were all really concerned with whether they would change the future by interacting with people in the past. I didn’t give a rat’s ass about that, because now was my problem. Future problems consisted of ‘where will I sleep tonight?’ and ‘do I have enough money for dinner?’ And if I permanently changed someone’s life by buying a slice of pizza from them, well, they’d just have to deal with it. Not much I could do about it.
My favorite time travel movie was called ‘Somewhere in Time.’ It was actually a really lame love story; the only part I liked, and the reason the movie was my favorite, was that at one point the main character, who’s been back in time for a while, reaches into his jacket pocket and pulls out a penny from the year he’s from. Just touching it sends him back home. I loved the idea that something so random could suddenly send me home. For about three weeks after seeing the movie, I would rake through my change looking at the dates of all the coins. But, surprise surprise, no future-year coins. I eventually gave that up, although I still clung to the idea of something random suddenly sending me home.
When I got tired of movies, my other favorite place to hole up on cold, miserable days was the library, because it was one of the few places I could stay for hours without anyone getting ticked off that I wasn’t buying anything. Plus, of course, there were all those time travel books. Sometimes I’d buy books from second hand stores, because I didn’t always get to finish the ones I started reading in a library, and that was frustrating. I couldn’t take the library books out; besides not having a library card, I would have felt guilty taking a book knowing they might not get it back for fifteen years. And I needed books to while away the evenings. Evenings were the loneliest of all, and the hardest to keep warm. I didn’t want to spend any longer in homeless shelters than I had to, but most of the libraries shut at five or six p.m., and there weren’t many places I could go that didn’t cost money. Movies cost a lot; so did restaurants. Plus, I hated the conspicuousness of being alone while everyone else was in pairs or groups. Bus and train stations were free, but often cold, and I hated their feeling of transience. My life was transient enough. Still, they were often the only option, and so I’d take a book to read, to avoid going crazy from watching people coming and going — it reminded me too much of switching — and from the jealousy of knowing they had somewhere to go.
I had to be careful when I was reselling second-hand books, because people tended to notice things like a book’s publication date being 2000 when the year was 1990. Although sometimes I got more money for them that way, because a ‘misprint’ like that made the book more collectible.
I walked on, eager to get to the park, until something in the window of a second-hand store caught my eye. It was a sleeping bag, the small, ultra-light kind. I stopped to look. I’d had a sleeping bag before, but I lost it during one of my switches. (Hot night, and in my sleep I’d kicked the sleeping bag off me.) I’d wanted to replace it, but carrying a big one around was such a hassle; it wouldn’t fit in my backpack, so it meant carrying an extra bag. The ultra-light ones would fit in a backpack with room to spare, but they cost a ton, even if I was in a year when they were more commonplace. I’d never seen one in a second hand store before, so I opened the door and went on in.
A girl with light brown, bobbed hair and a military-style jacket over a floral dress sat behind the counter, reading a magazine. Even though she wore Doc Martens, she looked incredibly feminine, and I found myself wishing I were brave enough to wear an outfit like that. But jeans and a denim jacket are the uniform of a homeless person.
“Hi,” I said. “How much is the sleeping bag in the window?”
She put the magazine down and looked up at me with an expression that was bored but not unfriendly. Her eyes were a beautiful, pale green color, and I instantly wished I had eyes like that.
“I’m not sure, I just started here. Let me take a look.” She hopped down from her stool, walked to the window, and moved the bag around, looking for a price tag. “I can’t see a price,” she said, giving a kind of helpless shrug. “Sorry.”
I stood there looking at her, waiting for her to figure something out, until she finally said, “I can call the store owner, I guess, and ask him.”
“Okay,” I said. “I’ll wait.”
The girl walked back behind the counter and picked up the phone. While she made the call, I wandered over and poked my finger around in a box of collector pins. There was one pin that was really neat: it was a little electric guitar with the head shaped like Africa, and a knot in the neck shaped like an ‘8.’ “Oh, Live 8,” I murmured out loud, recognizing the symbol. It had been a big worldwide concert, and I’d watched it on TV. What was funny was that I’d seen the original Live Aid concert that had taken place twenty years previously, only the day before.
And then my heart gave a lurch. Live 8 had taken place… I couldn’t remember exactly, but it was definitely in the twenty-first century. And this was 1992.
The girl put down the phone. “I can’t get hold of him.”
I could barely hear her over the sound of my heartbeat in my ears. I must have looked as shocked as I felt, because the girl said, “Oh hey, don’t worry… if you really want it, I’ll sell it to you for… let’s see… how about twenty bucks?”
I could barely focus on what she was saying; I was thinking of that movie where the guy touched the penny and it sent him home. This was 1992. And the pin was from sometime in the twenty-first century. Slowly, slowly, I reached out for the pin. Then, holding my breath… I touched it.
Maybe clutching the pin in my hand would do it, then. I was still holding my breath, my heart still pounding in my ears, as I put my fingers around the pin and picked it up. I closed my eyes.
When I opened them again, I was still in the store. And the girl was staring at me like I was a complete loon.
“Are you okay?” she asked.
No. Quite frankly, I was devastated; my heart felt like it was going to break. I’d finally found something from the future — well, a future, maybe not my future — and it hadn’t taken me home. But then, why would it? Movies are just movies, I reminded myself.
“Uh…” I managed to get out, trying to remember what we’d just been talking about. Sleeping bag. A hundred and fifty dollar sleeping bag for twenty bucks; I should feel excited. “Yeah, I’ll take it. Thanks.” Trying to take a deep breath and force some air into my lungs, I held up the pin. “Where did you get this?”
The girl leaned closer to take a look, sunlight catching her green-gold eyes as she studied it. “I don’t know. Like I said, I just started here.”
“Is there… will someone be here soon, who does know?”
“The owner’s in tomorrow, so you can come back then if you like… but I doubt he keeps records of little things like that. I mean, unless they’re worth something.” She indicated the small sign on the box that said ‘Pins $1.’ “Why?” she asked. “Is it?”
“Um, no,” I said, still feeling like I might pass out. “You heard of Live Aid?”
“Oh. It was a big concert. In the eighties.” Except this pin isn’t from then, it’s from another concert that hasn’t taken place yet.
She gave a half-shrug. “Well, it’s in the dollar box, so…”
“Oh, it’s not worth anything really,” I said shakily. “Just sentimental value.” I put it on the counter. “I’ll take it, too.”
I sat on the park bench, my heart pounding so hard I thought I might pass out. I clutched the pin in my hand.
I tried to go over it all in my head, slowly, because all the way to the park, my thoughts had been flying so fast, I almost stepped out in front of oncoming traffic.
The pin was from 2005; I’d checked my chart to figure out what year Live 8 had been. And this was 1992. I’d checked every other newspaper, in case the date on the newspaper I’d seen in the morning had been a misprint, but they all said the same thing.
How had the pin got here?
Pins didn’t travel back through time on their own, right? Which meant… someone had brought it here.
My insides churned, my head felt dizzy.
Were there others like me? Were there other people also looping through time, unable to get home? Or, if I came from a place where time travel was normal, then was it a normal time traveler who’d left the pin? Did that mean there were lots of people like him or her; were they all around me, enjoying little visits to the past before returning home in time for dinner? Sitting next to me in the café, or on the adjacent park bench? I’d considered it before, but didn’t believe it was possible. But now I had evidence… and if I could identify one of the time travelers, I could get word back that I needed help!
I somehow knew, though, that time travel was not normal where I was from. But it didn’t matter; if there were others, whatever the reason they were here, I had to find them!
I was still too shocked to think clearly. Come on, Terry, I told myself. Put your brain into gear. If I wanted to get in touch with people but didn’t know who they were or where they were, how would I do it?
I’d need something that everyone could see. Like a billboard.
Well, I couldn’t afford that, and anyway, it probably took weeks to arrange, by which time I’d be gone. That was the biggest hitch of all: unless there were hundreds of these people, all going to different decades and years, what were the odds I’d be in the same week as another traveler? Which meant I had to leave something that people could still see at a later time.
Newspaper ad, I thought. It was simple, and I could probably afford it… but it was so small. Would people really trawl back through years’ worth of newspapers?
They might if they were looking for me! I thought, and suddenly realized how much effort I’d wasted in the past eight months. I’d been searching for some way home, but I hadn’t thought to leave a trail so that they could find me.
Stupid, stupid! I told myself. Why did my brain not work properly, why hadn’t I thought of such a simple idea?
Okay, focus. Ways to leave word that I was here: I needed something that even ten years from now, people would see or remember.
National TV! It was so simple, I wanted to hit myself for not thinking of it sooner. All I had to do was walk into a TV station and tell them my story. Of course, they’d think I was a complete loon, but that was okay, there were plenty of shows that welcomed loons. It was called daytime TV. I’d spent enough time in the electronics section of department stores, avidly watching the news for anything that might help me, to have caught lots of talk shows. Daytime TV was consistently awful through the decades, which meant that as long as I could find a show that interviewed people about things like alien abductions, they’d probably consider me. Then all I had to do was convince them to film me sleeping for several nights in a row. When I disappeared right in front of them, surely that would be a TV event that would be replayed for years. Everyone would keep asking, Who was she? Where did she go?
And then when I reappeared, either two years or a decade later, I could walk back into the TV station and say, Hi there, remember me? Have any others contacted you? In fact, the TV station might send the footage on to NASA or something, and they’d have top scientists researching it!
I pressed my fists to my eyes. How had I not thought of this before? How could I have wasted all that time? Oh, I hated that my brain was so messed up!
Of course, I’d considered walking into a hospital or police station and telling them my story, but I always figured they’d write me off as another homeless crazy. And even if I found someone who believed me and wanted to help me, they’d only have a few days to try — maybe a couple weeks — before I was gone.
There was also the risk that if I told my story to some kind of authority, they’d throw me into a nice, quiet, padded cell. Not that it would matter; they’d open it one morning and I’d be gone… but then I might wake up in another cell. And that would be a lot harder to talk my way out of than an apartment.
I rubbed my hands over my eyes again as I began to imagine the possible reactions to a TV talk show: Hoax. She’s a fake. She’s just doing it for attention. Of course the footage can make it look like she disappeared; they edited the film!
Unless I were to disappear right in front of a live audience… but there were plenty of magicians who could do stuff like that, right? So they’d still think hoax.
It didn’t matter if people didn’t believe me at first, as long as word got out. I just needed the people looking for me to hear about it.
But even if they did hear about me… where and how would they go about finding me? Especially if I kept switching every week or two?
I groaned. My brain was obviously more messed up than I’d suspected, because I couldn’t seem to follow one line of thought. I stood up and bounced on my heels, hoping some movement would help me think. I looked around at the park, at the trees that were just beginning to turn color — the very tops were tinted with orange, like someone had given them one swipe with a paintbrush — and at the pond, now deserted except for one lone duck. Why hadn’t he flown south with the rest? Was he hurt and unable to fly, or had he simply been away in another area of the park when the rest had upped and left, and now he didn’t know where to go?
I know how you feel, I thought. I’d have to remember to come back and feed the duck. But of course, that would only help it for a few days.
I looked at the pin in my hand. Come on, think, Terry. How to leave some kind of sign for the others…?
Maybe I should go ahead and put some ads in newspapers. Even if it was one chance in a million that the right people would see it, at least there would be some notice of where I was for a week. What would I say in the ad? Terry, time traveler, arrived September 21st, 1992, staying at ____ shelter. Terry probably wasn’t even my real name. But maybe I could put a photo in with the ad… How much would an ad with a photo cost?
Tucking the pin safely in my inside jacket pocket, I got up and headed for the main park exit, where I knew there was a newspaper box. I’d take a look at the classifieds section, see if there was any pricing listed, and then phone the newspaper tomorrow. As for the TV station… I wouldn’t go today; I needed to plan it better so that they didn’t just send me away with a “Sorry, kid, we cover alien abductions, but not time travel. That’s just ridiculous.”
I put a quarter in the slot and took out a newspaper. It was yesterday’s Saturday edition, which meant it was huge and heavy. I wanted to start reading right away, but my stomach gave a loud growl. Lunchtime already? I glanced at the big clock on the Lohman building across the street. Twelve-thirty. I’d already had cereal and a Danish, but I needed something with substance; maybe that was why my mind was having a hard time focusing.
There was always a hot dog vendor in the park, so I hurried to the stall and bought two from him. (Two! Oh, the joys of having excess cash.) With the newspaper tucked under my arm, I carried the hotdogs back to my bench. They were precariously loaded with toppings, because I always got as much food as possible for my money. Some people might not consider hot dog toppings a food, but I couldn’t be picky about nutrition when I had constant gut-wrenching hunger to stave off. Hot dogs were cheap, and more importantly, filling. I ate mine carefully, trying not to spill toppings on my clothes. I was seldom able to do laundry.
When I finished, I felt better. My brain didn’t feel so loopy anymore. I wiped my hands on my paper napkin, then pulled out the Classifieds section of the paper. First, I tried to find the pricing for the ads. The prices weren’t listed, which meant I’d have to phone the newspaper on Monday. Then I scanned the various ad sections, wondering where I would put my ad. Personals? I smiled wryly when I saw the ‘Lost and Found’ section; I was definitely lost.
I read through the personals. They were mostly dating ads, things like ‘Single guy seeks outgoing gal,’ and then there were a few random ones like ‘We met at the bus stop on 8th, wish I’d got your number, please call.’ I had never given personals ads much thought before, but reading them now, they filled me with sentimentality. The thought of people seeking a stranger out of thousands, hoping they would stumble across the ad and reply, struck a chord.
I continued reading down, until I came to one that made my heart skip a beat.
T. Travelers. Meet Tues Sat Lohman café 4pm WHENever possible.
My heart almost stopped.
T. Travelers? Time travelers!
Someone had already thought of putting ads in newspapers, and I’d been too stupid to go looking for them all this time!
I didn’t know if I could take any more shocks in one day. All these months of being completely alone, almost giving up hope… and now everything was rushing at me.
It can’t be this easy, it can’t, I thought, afraid to believe it. T. travelers could mean something else… Tibetan travelers? Tourist travelers? Or maybe it was some kind of club.
But the ‘WHENever possible,’ with the ‘when’ in capitals… wasn’t that a clue?
And if you were going to pick a place to meet, you’d need to pick a place that would always be there. Lohman’s was the biggest department store in the city, and it had been there since the 1930s. I’d hung out in the electronics department countless times watching TV, because in my thirty-year switching span there was always a sofa in front of the wall of TVs where I could hunker down and not be noticed. Had there been others like me, just a few floors down in the café, while I was glued to the news? Tears sprang to my eyes. It hurt too much to think that I’d been suffering needlessly all this time, when right in the same building were people just like me!
I got up, turfing the other sections of the newspaper into a trash can as I ran back to the park exit. There was the Lohman building, right across the street! I sprinted across the road, a few cars honking at me as I dodged in front of them. I ran to the main doors and pulled… but the doors wouldn’t budge.
Right in front of my face, stenciled onto the glass, were the opening hours: Closed Sundays. Dammit! I’d ended up in one of the few time periods when Lohman’s wasn’t open on Sundays. In the eighties it was, and I knew it would be again in the late nineties and 2000s. I felt like bursting into tears. Now that I was so close, I wanted to find these people right away!
Okay, stop, think, I told myself. The ad had said Saturdays and Tuesdays, so even if Lohman’s was open, the people who placed the ad wouldn’t be there today. Would there be anyone in at all, this week? How could they even plan a week ahead? Were their switches longer than mine?
I couldn’t get answers yet. All I could do was wait for Tuesday.
I leaned my back against the glass door and slid down to the ground, until I was sitting on the cold, marble step. I was tired of waiting, and now, post-shock and post-food, I could feel exhaustion washing over me. Don’t fall asleep, I commanded myself, hooking my backpack strap around my ankle just in case. I’d go get an extra-large coffee as soon as I had the energy to move.
I unfolded the newspaper and read the ad again.
T. Travelers. Meet Tues Sat Lohman café 4pm WHENever possible.
Why not just put ‘Time travelers?’ I mean, they’d hardly get random people showing up out of curiosity, would they? Although who knew, maybe half a Star Trek convention would show up.
I took my chart copy from my inside jacket pocket. I hadn’t added today’s switch to the copy, only the main chart. And I still had to write all of today’s events my diary. But it would be better to do so when I was sitting with a coffee in front of me; I needed a table to write on and a caffeine hit capable of waking the dead. I put the chart back in my pocket, my finger touching the Live 8 pin as I did. I was afraid to wear the pin in case it fell off — next to my diary, it was now my most precious possession — but I suddenly felt the need to see and feel something that proved I wasn’t just fantasizing about the other travelers’ existence. Just for this afternoon, I’d wear it.
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