Things around me were always changing.
Now I know what you’re thinking. That’s life. Time moves forward. Things change. But that’s not exactly what I mean.
As far back as my memories go, there have been Changes (yes they are so significant as to be capitalized).
My earliest memory of a Change was from when I was about four years old. It was vague and blurry in that way that early memories tend to be. All it was, really, was this image of a horse figurine that kept changing color. It started off brown then faded, becoming white with brown spots, then fading to black and shimmering back to silvery gray.
The Changes were small like that in the beginning. Colors changing, items moving around, pictures on the wall showing one image then suddenly another. I didn’t think much about it after a while, because it was a harmless thing.
Or so I thought.
It was a Saturday morning like any other. An ordinary day. But I would remember every detail of it. I remember the plot of the cartoon I was watching. I remember the way the air felt on my skin, light and cool. I remember the house smelled of fresh gardenias that Mom had just brought in from the garden.
I was six years old and was downstairs watching TV, waiting for my parents to wake up. I didn’t go in to get them up anymore after I had walked in on something that had resulted in a very long, uncomfortable talk with Mom.
At 9:30 my dad came down, kissed me on the head and asked me what kind of waffles I wanted. I told him chocolate chip, which were my favorite, and he smiled and assured me they would be the chocolate-chippiest waffles I’d ever had.
He was a dork like that.
He went into the kitchen and I went back to my cartoons. My show ended and I realized that Dad hadn’t come to tell me the food was ready. I got up and went into the kitchen, where I found Mom sitting at the counter smoking a cigarette.
She would’ve had to walk past me to get to the kitchen, and I didn’t remember her doing so.
“Mommy, why are you smoking?” I asked with shock. She didn’t smoke.
She looked at me funny as she blew out a long plume of smoke. “Are you feeling all right, sweetie?”
“Yeah, I just…” I looked around the kitchen but saw no sign of Dad. “Where’s Daddy?”
She stamped out her cigarette, came over to me and felt my forehead. “Ellie, did you just ask me where Dad is?” She knelt down, cupping my face in her hands and looking at me with concern.
“Yeah, he said he was going to make me chocolate chip waffles. Where’s Daddy?”
She took me to the emergency room.
She said my father had been dead since shortly after I was born. So the fact that I’d seen him that morning and he’d said he would make me waffles was cause for concern.
When it was determined I had not suffered a stroke or ingested a household chemical, it was suggested she take me to a head doctor. Which became a series of head doctors.
We started with psychologists, but when they couldn’t figure out what was wrong, we moved on to psychiatrists.
Dr. Klinghoffer asked me a lot of boring, easy questions, like what was my name, when was my birthday, what was my phone number, did I have many friends, did I like school?
“Do you ever feel different, Elle?”
That was when I made the mistake of telling him that his clothes kept changing.
“What do you mean my clothes keep changing, Elle?” asked Dr. Klinghoffer.
“Well, you were wearing a yellow shirt with a blue tie when we came in. Now you’re wearing a blue shirt and no tie.”
Dr. Klinghoffer narrowed his eyes at me. “No, Elle, I’m wearing a green shirt with a red bow tie.”
“Well yeah, now. But you weren’t a second ago.”
“But I didn’t change my clothes. Certainly not in front of you and your mother.”
“No, I know. It just Changed. Stuff Changes all the time.”
“What kind of stuff changes, Elle?”
Being only six, I spoke the truth to the doctor.
I spent the next ten years of my life in weekly therapy sessions, at which the good doctor prescribed me one drug after another to try to make things stop Changing. Paranoid delusions, that’s what he called them. They could all be fixed with this drug or that drug. When they weren’t, we tried experimental drugs. The side effects of which were sometimes not pretty.
Mom detached herself at that point. I guess she couldn’t handle having a loon for a daughter. Oh, I still lived with her, but she stopped coming to my doctor’s appointments and kind of checked out.
The only constant in my life was Will Wainwright. When I first met him, he lived next door. Then there was a Change and he lived down the street. Another Change and I met him at school. Another Change and we’d met in a park. Etc., etc.
Though details of our relationship changed, the core of what we had did not.
Sometimes he knew about Changes, sometimes he didn’t. Sometimes we had been together since we were kids; other times we didn’t get together until high school, or even college.
The only thing that didn’t change was that we loved each other.
He held back my hair when I threw up from a new medicine. He helped me walk from the couch to the bathroom when a drug made my legs feel like rubber bands. He called 911 when one of the experimental meds made me bleed from my nose and ears.
Finally I’d had enough. When I was sixteen, after ten years of living in a doped-up haze, I decided to take control of my life.
“Hello, Elle. What would you like to discuss today?” asked Dr. Klinghoffer as he scratched his clean-shaven chin.
“I finally understand, Doctor, that my insistence of the existence of this false reality has hurt everyone around me, most importantly myself.”
He looked surprised. “Oh really, Elle?”
God, why did the douchebag say my name so much? Was he afraid I would forget it?
“So you’re telling me you don’t see things changing around you anymore?”
“Nope,” I said as I tried not to look at his now full beard.
“Really. No more moving objects? No more changing colors?”
The bookshelves behind him were now a blue wall with framed documents hanging on it.
“Everything is where it should be, sir.”
“So for the first time in the history of our sessions, my shirt has not changed color?”
“No doctor, your shirt has not changed color during the session.”
Which was actually true. But Mr. Dr. Klinghoffer was now Miss Dr. Klinghoffer.
“Good. I’m very happy to hear that, Elle.”
“Yes ma’am, I’m happy too.”
It was an exceptionally ordinary evening. The restaurant in which The Traveler sat, with its rather plain country decor on its white walls, was ordinary. The few customers that were scattered around the room were ordinary-looking people. Even the coffee he sipped as he fingered the gun in his pocket was ordinary.
And truth be told, he didn’t need to be there. He already knew everything he needed to know, but he wanted to see her. He didn’t want to just sneak up on her in the dark alley and do what had to be done without getting a good look at her.
He didn’t take lightly what he had to do. But all other options had been exhausted. He’d tried very hard to find another way. A way for Elle Coleman to live. He hadn’t wanted to take her life.
But it had to be done. There was simply no other choice.
He finished his coffee, threw a few bills down on the table, double-checked to make sure they were correct for the time period, then walked out before he started to second-guess himself.
The rear of the restaurant bordered a narrow, one-way alley with a chain-link fence running along the opposite side. Her rusty heap of a car was parked in a space against the back wall of the building.
He’d chosen the spot because it was quiet and desolate, with not even a window overlooking the area. The most important reason, however, was that exactly seventy-two seconds after he pulled the trigger, an elderly woman would drive down the alley and find her in time to save her life.
But not in time to catch even a fleeting glimpse of him.
She came out the back door alone. As expected.
She slung her purse over her shoulder and pulled the rubber band from her hair. She ran her hand through it and let out a long sigh, her other hand resting on her belly.
He slipped from the shadows and pressed the gun against her stomach.
“Take my purse, take whatever you want, just please don’t shoot me, I’m pregnant,” she whimpered as she thrust her bag at him. He let it fall to the ground without even a glance.
“I’m so sorry, but there really is no other way,” he said. And then he pulled the trigger.
When I woke up that morning, I noticed I wasn’t wearing my wedding ring.
Great. That meant today was a “not married” day. It wasn’t always the case but, strangely, most of the time when we weren’t married, Will wouldn’t have sex with me. Every version of him was religious to some degree.
He was never a kook or anything, but his adherence to orthodoxy varied from Change to Change.
With a big yawn, I sat up and stretched. I’d actually slept really well the previous night, which was uncommon for me. I wasn’t sure if it had something to do with the Changes, but I usually slept fitfully. Last night, though, I’d slept through the entire night.
I looked around the bedroom, trying to determine what my life was today. The first thing I noticed was the four cats on the bed. Which was strange; neither Will nor I had ever had any pets, because Will was very allergic to most animal dander. This was an unexpected Change.
The shower went on in the bathroom just off the bedroom.
“Will?” I called out.
There was no answer, but I could hear Will rustling around in there. Some Changes resulted in my waking up without Will, but I’d never woken up with someone other than him.
“Will, I’m having a really weird morning I…” I didn’t finish my statement, because when I opened the bathroom door I found myself face-to-face with the naked crypt keeper.
No, not the crypt keeper. A very, very old woman.
I screamed; she threw a cat at me and told me to “get my whore ass” out of her apartment.
Who throws a cat at someone? Who has a cat in the shower?
I reflexively caught the poor cat, then as a thank-you, the asshole beast scratched me across the face. I put it down only to be hit in the face with a bar of soap.
“Please! Stop throwing things at me!” I yelled.
“Then get your whore ass out of my apartment!”
“Ma’am, I’m so confused, this is my apartment!”
“Oh lovely, you’re a cracked-out whore! This neighborhood is goin’ to hell in a cracker box!” she screamed as she threw a damp rag at me. I swatted it down before it could hit me, and a puff of little hairs exploded into the air and fluttered to the ground.
I didn’t want to find out what she was going to throw at me next, so I turned and ran. I waded through the sea of cats in the living room and went out the front door.
The apartment was on the second floor, which was open to the courtyard below. I bolted down the stairs past the swimming pool half full of green filmy water, and out to the street.
Every time a car drove by, the driver honked their horn. A carload of teenage boys cruised by, catcalling. I looked down at myself and realized I’d unfortunately worn the sexy lingerie to bed last night.
It wasn’t anything weird or with holes in private places, but it was sheer. Sheer enough that you could easily see my breasts through it.
No wonder Grandma Crypt Keeper had pejoratively accused me of engaging in the oldest profession.
I had to get out of there. I looked around trying to get my bearings. There’d been big Changes where I’d suddenly found myself in a new city, or a new apartment, or in a different job.
But it was always my apartment or my office or my car. It was some variant version of my life. I’d never experienced a Change like this, where I was completely displaced.
I needed to find a familiar place—a familiar person.
I recognized the street I was on. I was still in the same town I’d been in yesterday, but given this big Change, I couldn’t be certain where Will was living. He tended to move around a lot during these episodes. There was one place that tended not to change, though; it was a crapshoot but I had to take it.
No matter how much I didn’t want to.
Her place wasn’t far from where I’d woken up, so I stuck to back alleys and walkways concealed by trees and bushes as I made my way quickly but carefully to my mother’s house. And I noticed something incredibly strange as I traveled: everything had stopped Changing.
The plants didn’t fade from alive to dead. The buildings didn’t move, nor did the shops within them. The few people I saw walking around all stayed in the same outfits. The colors didn’t change; nothing shifted around; the world felt still and stable in a way that I struggled to grasp.
Although I knew that the lack of change was the biggest Change of all, I couldn’t stop and process it.
When I got to Mom’s, I knocked on the door and waited. Thankfully there was a small porch that concealed me from the street. It was a small bungalow home built in the 1950s, in a neighborhood that Changed back and forth between being run-down and being gentrified. Today it was gentrified.
As I waited for her to open the door, I took in my appearance on a mirrored wreath thing she had hanging up. My natural hair color was blonde, but sometimes I woke up brunette. In high school and college I even had a couple of wild Changes to pink and blue. The lengths had been anywhere from pixie cut to down my back. Today it was honey blonde and layered just below my shoulders.
I rang the bell again and crossed my arms over my chest, not only because I wanted to cover my nearly exposed breasts but because it was really cold.
The door finally opened, only as far as the still attached chain would allow, and I saw my mother’s face peek through.
“Oh Mom, thank God!” I said, my voice cracking. “Please let me in, I’m freezing!”
“I’m sorry, you have the wrong house,” she said as she tried to slam the door closed.
Thankfully I reacted quickly and managed to keep her from getting it closed all the way.
“No, please Mom! It’s me, Ellie. Just please let me in, then I’ll tell you what’s happening.”
“I don’t have any children. Now I don’t know what you’re on, but you have the wrong house!”
“Wha—what do you mean you don’t have any children?”
When we were young, there had been a few Changes that had resulted in Will’s not knowing me yet. But it had been years since that had happened. Now that he and I were in our late twenties, we were always in a relationship to some degree. Even if there was a big Change.
My family situation varied over the years. My dad had even popped up alive again here and there, which was incredibly painful. Especially because the few times he’d been back, Mom had been so much better. When Dad was alive, we were a happy family.
But mostly Mom was alone and bitter; about Dad’s being gone, about my being crazy. There were a few times she’d been dead, once by suicide, but the worst was when she had become a hardcore drug addict. I’d found her homeless, diseased and living in an alley near the shipyards.
On the flip side, one of the best times without Dad was when she’d become involved with a local church and become devoutly religious. That version of her knew everything about Changes and what I’d been going through. We’d sat in her kitchen and had hot chocolate at the nook table and talked and cried and hugged.
It had been very difficult to lose that version of Mom to a Change.
But that was the thing: she was always my mother. She hadto know me.
“No! That’s not possible! My name is Mirielle Mallory Coleman. You are my mother, Janice Burwell Coleman. My father is Benjamin Coleman.”
I heard the rattle of the chain as she unlatched it, and the door opened the rest of the way slowly. She stepped out and stared at me, her eyes shiny and wide.
Then she slapped me across the face so hard, I was sure her handprint would be permanently molded into my cheek.
“I don’t know how you got all that information,” she said, her voice hard. “But you are not my daughter. My daughter died in my womb when I was shot in the belly by a maniac after getting off work twenty-eight years ago. So get the fuck off my property before I call the police.”
Then she went back in and slammed the door behind her.
I’d had to develop a kind of mental disconnect in order to cope with the constant uncertainty caused by the Changes. I’d learned to live in the moment, to fully embrace whatever I had while I had it. Then be able to let it go without looking back.
But this was something else entirely. Because so much of my daily existence was so transitory, I clung to the few constants I had. With Mom sometimes it wasn’t good. But she was there.
When my friends and coworkers, and even some days Will, looked at me and saw a stranger, my mom never did.
Because she was my mother.
No matter what Changed, she had to be there for me to exist.
Then it dawned on me.
The biggest Change of all had happened.
I no longer existed.
This thought caused my stomach to twist and my legs to buckle. I stumbled down the steps and threw up in the bushes that lined the porch.
When I pulled myself back up, I sat back down on her steps and tried to regain my bearings. My eye caught on the thick, white scar that ran across my left knee. I’d gotten it falling down some stairs when I was ten. Well, technically I’d been walking down some stairs when a Change happened, then the stairs were suddenly gone. I fell four feet into a planter and caught my knee on something sharp.
Even though many Changes had happened since then, effectively eliminating that fall from my life, I still had the scar.
I didn’t know how long I lay there crying in the front yard of the woman who used to be my mother. But it was long enough for her to follow through on her threat to call the police.
The officer was an older man, who was very nice to me, especially considering the circumstances. He apologized for handcuffing me and was careful about loading me into the back of his car. He even got me an emergency blanket and put it around my shoulders.
He took me to the hospital, where they gave me a gown to change into, put me in a bed in a space made private by 270 degrees of curtain, and took my temperature and some blood.
Then a soft-spoken older woman who identified herself as the hospital psychiatrist asked me if I’d consumed any alcohol or drugs that day. I told her no and answered her other questions as politely as I could.
The officer had informed her of the circumstances surrounding my arrest. So she asked me questions about that, and I took a page from my old playbook with Dr. Klinghoffer.
I wasn’t sure what I was going to do, what with not existing and everything, but I knew I didn’t want to be placed in a psych ward and drugged into a vegetative state for the rest of my life. Which was what they would do if I started talking about the Changes and whatnot.
After she finished questioning me, she and the officer left me alone. Alone with my thoughts. What would I do now? I wouldn’t be going to jail; at most they had me on trespassing and maybe harassment.
I had no money, I had no home, I had no job. Hell, I didn’t even have my name anymore, nor anything that went with it, like my social security number. Without which it would be impossible for me to get a job or rent an apartment or open a bank account or anything really that I would need to try to rebuild a life.
One of the things I loved about Will was that he was the perfect mix of practical and idealistic.
Every version of him was a planner, which was funny because I didn’t plan for anything, because I couldn’t. I never knew when a Change was going to happen and what circumstances it would bring with it. Which was one of the many reasons he and I were so perfect for each other.
No version of Will had ever doubted me when I’d explained to him about the Changes…
That was what I needed to do!
I needed to find Will.
If my own mom didn’t know me, Will wouldn’t know me either, but he would believe me. I knew he would.
After all, I was his “First Cause.” Because his universe began when he met me.
It was one of the only things that survived through the Changes. Our little secret name for each other.
I was filled with an urgent, antsy need to get out of the bed and run from the room to find Will. I needed to see him, to talk to him, to hear his voice.
The police officer was still out of the room; I could hear his booming voice and could tell he was a ways away. He’d been kind enough not to handcuff me to the bed since I wasn’t being uncooperative; I hoped he wouldn’t get in trouble for losing me.
I got up and peeked out from behind the curtain, confirming that the officer was down by the reception desk. It was busy in the emergency room, so I slipped out and went down the hallway opposite from the officer.
An orderly asked me what I was doing out of bed, and I told him I needed to go to the bathroom. Fortunately he pointed me in the direction I was already going. It was quieter on the other end of the hall, and I slipped into a room and found some scrubs.
After quickly changing into a pair two sizes too big, I checked to make sure the stairwell door wasn’t alarmed and went through it.
I closed the door carefully behind me, trying to be silent. As soon as I turned around there was a man on me, his forearm against my throat, the rest of his body holding me back against the door.
The man was probably in his fifties, quite a bit taller than me and very strong. His sharp jaw was a stark contrast to his kind blue eyes. His skin had a Mediterranean hue, and his hair was dark with just a dash of salt and pepper at the temples. He leaned back slightly, and I could see he was wearing a well-worn sweatshirt and jeans.
“What is it about you, Mirielle Coleman?” he asked more to himself, as he pulled out a gun and put it to my forehead. Which pretty much confirmed he wasnot here to help.
“Don’t worry,” he whispered gently. “I won’t make you suffer. This will be instant; you won’t feel any pain.”
“Why?” I asked. “Why do you want to kill me?”
“Because you’re the reason that the world ends.”
Well, I’ll be honest, that was not what I was expecting.
“I—I don’t understand,” I sputtered.
“I know. And I really am very sorry.” He said it with such sincerity that I almost felt guilty that my murder would make him feel bad.
I saw the muscles in his hand and wrist tighten as he began to squeeze the trigger, when suddenly he crumpled against me and slid to the ground.
Standing before me was the same man. Or at least, it sort of looked like the same man. Only his salt-and-pepper hair was longish, and though he had the same kind blue eyes, his were tired. He wore a T-shirt and jeans that bore rumpled lines from sleeping in them.
Before I could speak, he grabbed my hand and tried to pull me with him, but I dug in my heels.
“Who…who are you?” I asked.
“We have thirty-four point two-five seconds to get out of here before he stands up and shoots us both in the backs of our heads.”
I looked back and forth between the unconscious man on the floor and the nearly identical one standing in front of me.
“Now we have twenty,” he said.
Either the other guy would kill me here or this guy would kill me elsewhere. I had nothing to lose at this point.
So I went.
My rescuer told me his name was Desmond Alondra; I could call him Desi and he would answer my questions after we were safe.
He took me to a roadside motel across town from the hospital. It wasn’t a skeezy place but neither was it a five-star joint.
He told me to take a shower and gave me some clothes and shoes. He must have seen the fear on my face, so he offered to leave me both room keys and go for a walk. Then he would wait for me to let him back in.
I couldn’t be certain he didn’t have another key stashed on him, but after he left, I figured if he’d wanted to rape me or kill me or whatever, he’d have done it already.
So I took a blissfully hot shower and put on the jeans, shirt and sweater he’d given me. Everything fit perfectly; even the sneakers were the right size. Finding out how he knew my sizes was just one of many questions I posed to him when I let him back in.
I started peppering him with questions, but he placed his hands on my shoulders and spoke.
“Why don’t you sit down, Mirielle, and we’ll start at the beginning?”
I went silent at his strong touch. It was strange; being close to him seemed…well, not familiar exactly but not entirely unfamiliar…if that makes any sense. I could smell his scent and again there was this unsettling feeling—not a tangible memory really—more like a ghost of a memory.
He led me to the bed by the door, then he pulled out the chair from the desk and sat facing me. He’d closed the curtains, so no one could see inside, but his posture conveyed the sense of danger he obviously still felt we were in.
“Mirielle…is it all right if I call you Mirielle?” he asked.
Nobody called me Mirielle. I hated it. It sounded like an old lady’s name. Like, “Hey, Mirielle! Did the doctor look at that hairy thing growing in the skin fold on your neck?”
When Desi said it, though, it sounded beautiful. Like it was a delicate treasure.
“I am a time traveler. My twin brother Dominic—the man who tried to kill you—and I came here from the future.”
I laughed. “Did you come here in a DeLorean? Or was it a phone booth? Ooh! Maybe a police call box?”
“No, I came here with this,” he said seriously, holding up his wrist.
“With a smart watch? I knew Apple was coming out with a new model soon, but that’s impressive.”
He ignored my snark or possibly didn’t get it, tapped his watch a few times, put on a pair of goggles that looked like steampunk cosplay and then vanished.
I blinked. I looked around the room. I knew he hadn’t just gotten up and left. I’d seen him disappear right before my eyes, but it was like my brain couldn’t accept such an impossible thing.
The door opened and Desi walked in.
“I traveled outside the door, one minute into the future,” he said.
I’m embarrassed to say I passed out.
I came to in Desi’s arms. Which were a little too comfortable for…well…comfort.
I shot up abruptly and cleared my throat.
“Sorry,” I said quickly. “It’s just…well…time travel…you know…”
He nodded. “Yes, I understand. I didn’t believe it either.”
“Did you pass out?”
“No. But I did have an accident the first time I traveled.”
“You peed yourself?”
“Yes. Time travel isn’t easy on the body.”
“That makes sense.” I nodded. “So…um, you said you’re from the future. When?”
“One hundred fifty years.”
“That’s a lot.”
“So your brother said I’m the reason the world ends. Care to clear that up for me?”
“I know you don’t know me…” he said, studying my face. “But do you feel you can trust me?”
It was strange, but I did. And not just because he’d saved me earlier. There was something else…something in the way he looked at me. I nodded.
He slipped the time travel watch off his wrist and gently placed it around mine.
“Wait, I don’t know how to use this,” I said.
“I’ll set it on a timer to bring you back here. You’ll only need a few minutes.”
So I let him attach it firmly to my wrist. He slipped the goggles over my head and set them firmly around my eyes. I was surprised how heavy they were.
“You’ll be there for ten minutes. But you’ll come back to me only one minute from now.
“Where are you sending me?”
“To the future.”