It felt like I’d frozen. Then like I was on fire. Then what I imagined it felt like to be a square peg being shoved violently through a round hole.
Then I was there.
I was on top of the Washington Monument, but the top was gone, so I could see all around me. Although there wasn’t much to see. Just miles of rubble into the horizon, like a giant had crumbled up all the buildings in his hand and spread them around like demonic confetti.
There were a few things still standing: the sculpture of Lincoln sitting on a bed of debris, the White House rotunda columns like skeletal fingers poking out of the ground, the dome of the Capitol collapsed on its side in a pile of wreckage. Through it all wrapped the Potomac River, blood red, like something out of the Old Testament.
The ten minutes passed quickly, and I was pulled back to my time.
It was difficult to speak at first. “I don’t…I don’t understand…” I said, my voice cracking.
He sighed heavily. “I know.”
The watch had taken me to a few other places around the world: London, New York, St. Petersberg, Red Square, Tokyo, the Grand Canyon, the Panama Canal…everywhere was the same as D.C.—ruins. Everything in ruins.
“I…I caused that?”
“How is that possible?” I asked quietly. “I work stupid, pointless jobs. I do nothing of consequence. Because of the Changes, I’ve never done anything permanent. I’m nobody.”
He took one of my hands and lifted my chin to bring my eyes up to his. “Never say that, Mirielle. You’re not nobody.”
The intensity of his gaze unsettled me, so I looked away and slid my hand out of his.
He leaned back, and we sat awkwardly for a long moment.
“Dominic and I were teenagers when the war began,” he said. “Our family, our friends, our world was…gone. Not in an instant, but very quickly. You see the violence ‘over there’ and you think, ‘That could never happen here.’ Until it does.”
He paused, a far-off look in his eyes…
We were underground when it happened.
“Dom,” I called out, my echo swirling down the tunnel.
Dom’s headlamp was all I could see; it bobbled around in the darkness like a drunk firefly.
“Dom!” I yelled again. “Come on! I’m hungry. I want to get home!”
“Don’t get your collar in a twist, friar!” snapped Dom.
“I’m not a priest yet, dude. I’m only one semester into seminary.”
“Yeah, yeah, whatever,” he said. “Just hold on; I found something cool.”
“Whatever it is, it’s not worth it,” I said, trying to swallow away the gagging sensation in my throat.
“Sure it is. It’s—” A scream leaped out of him.
I rushed over. But as I ran, his scream got farther away.
When I got to where he should have been, water was dropping into what was basically a sewer pipe waterslide.
“Dom! Dom, are you okay?”
There was a groan, then his voice echoed from below. “I’m all right…”
I was trying to think of a way to get him out, and the shaking came again. The tunnel shook, and bits of dirt and debris began to drizzle down and splash into the water and onto me.
Then it crescendoed. Like the finale of a fireworks show—a constant and terrifying stream of explosions. The brick beneath my feet moved violently, throwing me over the edge as the tunnel behind me came smashing down.
I slid down the sewer slide. The rumbling continued, and bricks rattled out of the walls and plopped into the water.
Dom grabbed my arm and yanked me up.
“We have to keep going! This place is going to come down!”
There was no time to argue, and I took off after him.
We turned a corner, but before we could move forward, the tunnel collapsed. Right in front of us.
We changed course, dodging falling bricks and explosions of water. A chunk of rock came down and struck me. Then the deafening sound ceased. So did the shaking.
We both stopped dead in our tracks.
“What is happening?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” he said. His voice was shaking.
Above us, a spiderweb of rusty rebar poked out from the walls. The quiet was eerie. The only sound was the gentle flow of the water beneath our feet.
That’s when the sound began to be noticeable.
“It sounds like…birds…” I said.
“Birds wouldn’t be underground,” Dom said.
“Bats?” I asked, swallowing the lump in my throat.
The chirping sound grew more high-pitched as it got closer.
We shined our flashlights into the darkness and saw the ground undulating unnaturally.
At the same time, we both screamed. A nauseating wave of rats at least three feet deep was barreling toward us.
Dom’s head darted around frantically. “The rebar!”
We dropped our flashlights and both leaped, but neither of us got high enough. We couldn’t see them now, but the squeal of the rats came toward us. The sound itself seemed to have gained a physical body.
We leaped again, managing to grab hold of the rebar and hold ourselves up above the tsunami of rats. My arms burned as I held on. If I let go, the rats would consume me or carry me away—either way was death.
It went on for an eternity. Finally, the rats cleared and we jumped down. Our flashlights were gone, carried away. Now we had only our headlamps to rely on.
Dom said we weren’t far from an exit ladder to the surface, but when we found it, it was caved in.
We walked through the tunnels for three months. We ended up being grateful for the rats down there, or we would have starved to death.
Finally we found a cave that showed daylight…
Aboveground was a nightmare.
The New York City skyline was gone. What was left of the buildings jutted up like jagged stalagmites.
When I started to take off my gas mask, Dom stopped me.
“Don’t,” he said. “We don’t know if the air is breathable. Or what’s in it.”
The weirdest thing was that the sky was clear…the clearest I’d probably ever seen it. It was such a stark contrast to the hellscape below it that it almost made me feel dizzy.
We didn’t run into any people, or animals for that matter. For which I was grateful. Although we’d both grabbed sturdy-looking pieces of metal to wield as clubs, I wasn’t sure I would have the stomach to be violent against another human being.
The Brooklyn Bridge had collapsed. One of the arches had plopped over in virtually one piece. I called it a blessing. Dom called it dumb luck.
We walked out on the arch carefully, managed to climb over the tangle of cables that were strewn across the water and the rubble, then hopped from chunk of debris to chunk of debris to get back across to Brooklyn.
Whatever had happened to the city hadn’t happened in Brooklyn. Although the buildings close to the shore had sustained damage, the farther inland we went, the more…normal it looked.
Until the smell.
Even through our masks, the smell was knee-buckling.
It was not unlike the sewers on a hot day. It was the scent of rot, of waste, of death.
There weren’t many bodies in the streets; most were inside buildings. They weren’t piled up or laid out. They were strewn about in an organic way, like people had died where they lay.
As we got closer to our family home, my feeling of urgency began to mix with dread. Dom felt it too. He picked up the pace, and we started to run.
When we got to the house, Dom ran inside. I followed him. He ran around searching frantically, but I was paralyzed by fear.
From the doorway, the house looked normal. Coats hung on hooks underneath the mirror by the front door. The flowery runner still went down the hallway toward the kitchen and family room in the back. Pictures and photos of our family hung on the walls, as they always had.
I could believe everything was okay if I just stayed right there.
Until Dom screamed.
It shattered my paralysis, and I darted upstairs toward his voice.
We found their bodies in the master bedroom. They’d been dead for some time. Their faces were distorted with decay, but you could see where their flesh had been eaten away by something too.
Everyone was gone.
Everyone we cared about was gone.
We buried the bodies of our family and left.
We made our way to Dom’s campus where he had been a student. We managed to get into the basement levels of the campus building. The emergency exit lights were still working, a dim green glow lining the baseboards.
Dom held a finger to his lips and whispered that there night be survivors here. “There are protocols for this stuff. I don’t want to get shot.”
We went down level after level until I started to wonder if this lab was in the center of the earth. Finally Dom came to a stop in front of a door.
“My professor told me a little about this lab. He wanted to bring me in, but he didn’t say much. I didn’t even really remember it until…”
“Until I figured this is what might have killed everybody.”
We got the door open—the power seemed to be out everywhere—and found ourselves in what appeared to be just another lab. Dom started walking around, peering into offices and workstations. We went through a door in the back that had a lot of scary warnings on it, but found just another room with stations and equipment.
And a dead body.
This one wasn’t eaten away by the chemical weapon like the ones on the outside were.
Even though half his face was gone from the bullet wound, I could tell it had been an older black man with grayish hair. He was lying on the floor, blood and brain matter splattered around his head, a gun still sort of half in his hand.
His other hand was clenched tightly around something.
Dom managed to peel it open and found a piece of paper with scribbles on it.
It read: william wainwright.
The faraway look left Desi’s face.
“William Wainwright? My Will?” I asked, incredulously.
“Yes. That professor was a math genius who focused on analytics. Dom went through his work and found an algorithm that led to a doomsday scenario. The first domino that fell was Will.”
“Will was the first domino—?”
“One day he will be president. And although this war won’t happen in your lifetime or, if you had them, your children’s or even your grandchildren’s…his noble and intelligent leadership lays a framework that will prevent the events that lead to this war.”
“So one of the other secret government projects the Morlochs were working on was a time-travel project,” I stated.
“Yes,” he said.
I still don’t understand what this has to do with me.”
“William Wainwright will not save the world if he is with you.”
“So that meant you had to kill me?” I yelled.
“No. I was never okay with killing you. We tried everything, Mirielle. Every single event, incident, scenario in your life was tweaked, changed or redirected. The computer algorithm could only do so much, so at a certain point we had to work by trial and error. We changed every little thing and then every big thing in your life. No matter what we did, you and Will ended up together.”
“So you are the reason for the Changes?”
“I didn’t realize you could see what was changing. I—”
“But you must have realized it eventually?” I demanded. His silence was my answer. To be fair to him, he wore a look of such pain and shame, it cracked my wall of anger. “Couldn’t you have just, I don’t know, talked to me?”
“The computer posited that wouldn’t work. It didn’t conclude that a human being would logically choose to make painful sacrifices for an unknowable future generation.”
“I would! I don’t want people to die! I—”
“The computer posited that you would kill yourself when you failed to stick to your decision. Which would destroy William. Which would lead to war.”
“You should have tried anyway!”
“Mirielle. I did.”
I blinked and stared at him like an idiot for a long moment.
“Oh,” I said.
“We had to be cautious about when and how we made changes, because time won’t allow you to travel to the same place twice, to avoid the paradox of meeting yourself. Dominic explained the science to me, but I couldn’t follow very well. He’s the genius. I was just a priest.”
“You’re a priest?” I asked with shock.
He laughed. “Why are you so surprised?”
Because you’re so hot, I almost said, but thankfully had enough self-control not to.
Oh my God, he’s old enough to be your father, you perv!
It’s true he was, but he was definitely more distinguished than decrepit.
Though the priest thing did explain his not wanting to kill me—“Thou shalt not murder” and all that.
“If I’m dead…or never born…or whatever…why am I still here?” I asked, my voice tight.
“I don’t know. The computer called you an ‘anomaly.’ My brother’s theory is that it has to do with the Law of Conservation of Energy.”
“That energy transforms but remains constant?” I asked. I knew that because I’d grown up watching Mr. Wizard’s World and Beakman’s World. If things had been different, I might have even pursued science.
Desi nodded. “Dominic said something about how energy is neither created nor destroyed.”
I shrugged. “I guess the bottom line is I’m still here physically, even though I don’t exist to the rest of the world.” I sighed. “So why did you save me? Your brother wants me gone…and I do destroy the world, after all.”
“I’m a very moral person, Mirielle,” he said softly. “As I said, we’ve never killed anyone before you—”
“You killed my dad.”
“Your father died in the original timeline. What we changed was saving him versus not saving him.”
“Oh well, that’s much better,” I said sarcastically.
We sat silently for a moment.
“I think Will is your destiny,” he said.
“My destiny. The world’s curse.”
“In either case, it’s not…it never was…Dominic’s and my decision to make. The fact that you continued to be led back to Will no matter what we did made me start to question what we were doing. But the fact that you’re still here confirms that we were wrong…that I was wrong.”
He sighed and handed me his tablet.
“I’m leaving these things with you.” He pointed to a duffel bag next to the bed. “I got you clothes, a new ID and cash.”
Last, he gave me the car keys and the room cards.
“The pink slip is in the glove compartment, and the room is paid up for a month. We should never have done the things we did. As a man of God, I should have known better than to think I could control someone’s destiny, let alone the destiny of the world.”
I stared at the items in my hand, then looked up at him.
“But what do I do now?”
He touched my face. Which was a very intimate gesture that I’m not sure why I allowed.
“You decide the future for yourself. You have to choose between love and destroying the world.”
The tablet Desi gave me could show me things about the future but couldn’t connect to Wi-Fi. Which made sense; present-time technology was prehistoric compared to it. It would be like trying to make a CD work on a gramophone. So I went down to the motel lobby and used a computer there to find out what I could about Will in this reality.
Now I sat across the street in the car Desi had given me, watching Will’s apartment like a total stalker. It was a nice luxury building: at least ten floors, gated, advertising lots of amenities.
I’d discovered a lot of incredible things about Will, the most shocking being that he was the mayor. At twenty-eight, he was the youngest mayor ever to serve the city.
Will had never expressed any interest in politics in any of the lifetimes in which I’d known him. Desi said he would be president someday, that that was how Will did his part to save the world. Had he been afraid to tell me of those aspirations? Had I been standing in the way of his dreams?
I tried to shake off those thoughts as I pondered how I was going to meet him without making it forced. The way I figured it was, now that he was already on the path toward what he needed to do, why couldn’t I just go along with him? I was down with being a first lady.
He went to the same coffee shop every Tuesday after work, so I decided to casually bump into him there. I was thinking I would get a drink—something not hot—“accidentally” bump into him and spill the coffee on the two of us.
That would be a good, if a tad generic, meet-cute.
The next Tuesday, as I left the motel to drive over to the coffee shop, a bird flew into my windshield, completely shattering it. I couldn’t see anything to drive the car, so I had to call someone to fix it, and by the time that was all done, Will was no longer there.
The Tuesday after that I went to the coffee shop in the early afternoon and committed to sitting there until he came in in the evening. Unfortunately a fire started in the kitchen, forcing us to evacuate and causing the shop to be closed for a week.
The next week there was an armed robbery at the nearby bank, causing the police to shut down the whole block.
I decided to be bolder, and made an appointment with him under the guise of being a constituent who wanted to discuss a local issue. When I got there, his secretary told me he had an emergency and had to reschedule.
What was going on?
It was like the world was conspiring against my seeing Will.
Finally, I sat outside his apartment building and just waited for him to come out of the gate I saw him always go in and out through. He suddenly started going out through a different gate.
But I wasn’t going to let that stop me.
I called out his name, and as I did so a car drove by and honked its horn, the sound drowning out my voice.
Will started to cross the street and put earbuds in his ears. I called out to him again, hoping he would hear me, following him into the street.
Then I was hit by a truck.
When I opened my eyes, I was in the dark. Panic jabbed at me; I feared I was blind. Machines whirred and beeped next to my bed. Then my eyes adjusted.
This was a hospital room.
I tried to sit up but couldn’t. Not because I was paralyzed, but because I was restrained. Both my legs were hung up in traction, splayed apart like some kind of nightmarish Pap smear stirrup. My hip was encased in an enormous plaster diaper, my arms were both in casts and I had a tube down my throat.
Panicked, I used the cast on one arm to club the bed remote until a nurse came in. After she calmed me down, a doctor came in and removed the tube and gave me the rundown on my injuries.
Most of my bones had been shattered, like I was made of glass. They’d had to drill a hole in my head to alleviate a massive concussion, and I’d been given so much blood that Dracula would have said, “Slow down, girl.”
I wouldn’t be out of here for a long time.
A few weeks later, after they’d removed the tube so that I could talk and drink, neither admittedly well, I had a visitor.
When the door opened, the light from the hallway illuminated him in a way that made me think of an angel.
Why did seeing him feel almost as reassuring as seeing Will…?
He stepped farther into the room, and my heart sank as I realized it wasn’t Desi but Dominic.
“Just kill me,” I croaked. “I don’t care anymore.”
He laughed and pulled up a chair next to my bed. “I never wanted to kill you, Elle. Contrary to what you’ve decided, I’m not actually a bad guy.”
“So it’s the good guy who puts a gun to an innocent person’s head and squeezes the trigger? I must have missed that in The Hitchhiker’s Guide for Good Guys.”
“You’re clever,” he said, chuckling. “I can see why Desi likes you. In case you hadn’t noticed, he’s very much the intense, broody type. Someone lighter and funny is exactly the type he needs.”
“What do you mean, ‘he needs’? You talk like we’re together or something. He’s a priest, remember.”
He looked at me out of the corner of his eye. “He sure is .” He shrugged.
“Just go away.”
“Okay,” he said with a smirk.
God, he was so cocky. If my hand weren’t shattered in twelve places, I would’ve slapped that smirk right off his face.
“But,” he continued, “then you won’t understand why you can’t seem to get a chance to talk to Will.”
That scumbag had been following me. I just stared at him silently; the only sounds in the room were the beeps and bloops of the machines hooked up to my battered body.
“I thought so. In case you’ve forgotten, Elle, you don’t exist.”
“Thank you so much for reminding me! I was having so much fun here, I totally did forget.”
He ignored my snark. “That’s why you can’t affect anything in the universe anymore,” he said, holding up his tablet. “Will is going to do everything he needs to do, in order for the war to be prevented. The timeline is secure. Because you don’t exist, you can’t do anything to change events. The timeline won’t allow it. Which is why things keep happening to stop you from meeting Will.”
“How can you possibly know that?”
“In case you haven’t noticed, I’ve spent most of my life traveling through time and trying to manipulate it. I’ve learned a few things along the way. There are little events and big events when it comes to the timeline. Little events can be changed easily; big events not so much. Which I learned firsthand trying to alter one of the biggest events in human history. I didn’t want to kill you any more than Desi did. We changed every little thing we could, but no matter what we did, that damned timeline held.”
I realized Desi hadn’t told me how it had gone down.
“How did you do it…kill me, I mean?”
“Well, the first time—”
“Whoa, wait. What do you mean, ‘the first time’?” I demanded.
“Desi told you about the algorithm I wrote, right?”
“Uh, yeah, he said it worked backwards to help you find the reason for the war.”
He nodded. “Yeah, it did. It also helped us pinpoint that your relationship with William Wainwright was the catalyst.”
“Why, though? It doesn’t make any sense. He is the best thing in my life—”
“You’re his ‘First Cause.’”
“How the hell did you know that? That’s something we only said to each other; how do you know that?” I demanded angrily.
“I watched you, Elle. I had to understand you in order to try to predict you.”
Those words were the only other constant in my life besides Will. And though Will changed a bit here and there, for some reason those words never did. He said I was his ‘First Cause’ because his universe began when he met me.
I glared at Dominic, hot tears burning in my eyes. Of all the things that had happened to me, Dominic’s knowing those words made me feel the most…violated.
Yeah, I know. Erase me from existence and I’m like, “Whatever, bro,” but say the love of my life’s pet words to me and I’m like, “Hold your horses.”
“Anyway,” he went on, “I actually killed you seven different times before, but it didn’t help. If you died after you’d met Will, he was devastated beyond recovery. And for some reason if I prevented you from being conceived, nothing changed.
“The only way to change the outcome was to allow you to be conceived but not born.”
I felt sick to my stomach, but there was nothing in me to come back up.
“I guess you won…” I said softly, not really having the will to feel angry—or feel much of anything, really—anymore.
“It wasn’t about winning!” he snapped. I could feel his eyes on me, but I refused to look up. “It was about saving the world! Saving all those people! Saving my kid!”
“You had a child?” I asked with great surprise.
“But I thought Desi said you guys were young when the war happened…”
“We were nineteen.”
“Then how did you have a kid?”
“You’re telling me you don’t know where babies come from, Elle?”
“I just thought since Desi was a priest that you guys were…I don’t know…” I let my words trail off, realizing how silly I sounded.
“Yeah, well, he and I are different in a lot of ways. I had her in high school.”
“Her name was…is…will be Clarissa,” he said, smiling. “She’s so beautiful. Her smile is just like her mother’s. And she is so smart, I mean, she was just a toddler before…before the war. But she could already do her letters and numbers and…. Anyway, she deserves the chance to have a future…to live.”
I didn’t disagree with him. But I deserved a chance too, didn’t I?
“Where is Desi?” I asked.
“I don’t know .” He shrugged. “I assume he traveled out of here to some other time to live out his life. Anyway, I just…felt bad. I wanted to tell you why you can’t see Will. So you don’t keep wasting your time. You’ve been given a chance to live, in spite of the circumstances. Go, like, do…something. I don’t know.”
“You should travel back in time to the Civil War to rally the North. Those inspirational words make Lincoln’s look like a dumpster fire.”
He left and I tried to get some rest. Between the pain, discomfort and my reeling mind, sleep did not want to come. I started thinking about Desi, wondering what he was doing right now. He certainly wasn’t doing what Dominic thought, traveling through time, because he’d left the gear with me…
Oh my God.
That was it.
Two months of healing and one trip to the library to confirm the date in the newspaper archives later, I put the goggles over my eyes, set the time device and zapped through time.
Because I had figured out, like, something to do.
I arrived early in the evening on the day of my murder.
The tablet had saved information only about the future, so it wasn’t any use for information gathering in this instance. And even though I’d confirmed what Dominic had told me about when he killed me through newspaper articles about the event, there were only so many details about a local crime story that went public.
So I gave myself a few hours to observe and formulate a plan if something unexpected were to happen. Which it did. Of course.
It came in the form of Desi.
I didn’t want to travel back too close to the diner, on the off chance I would run into Dominic and blow my cover. So I did some research and decided on an abandoned building a few blocks away.
When I exited the building, I saw Desi walking down the street. I darted into an alley and hid behind some stacked crates. He stopped for a moment on the street and opened the large book he carried.
As he stood, I took in his shocking appearance. This was not the old, tired man who’d come to rescue me. This was the bright-eyed, unbelievably gorgeous young man he used to be. He couldn’t have been more than twenty or so, so this would have been one of his very first trips through time.
Part of me wanted to go ask him what he was doing, but I knew I couldn’t. I would imagine he would recognize me at any age, given the extensive travel throughout my lifetime he seemed to have done.
I realized he had the tablet hidden in the cutout pages of the book, I guess to seem less conspicuous. Suddenly he slapped it closed and started toward where I was hiding.
There was no other option but to turn and race down deeper into the alley. I hoped it would open on the other side of the street so I could escape. Unfortunately it turned out to be a dead end, and I could hear the echo of Desi’s footsteps bouncing against the walls.
Diving underneath a dumpster, I stayed as quiet as possible, praying he hadn’t seen me. I watched as his feet came into my field of vision and stopped right in front of my hiding place.
Just when I was certain he was going to crouch down and ask me to come out, I heard some rustling and his feet simply vanished.
It took me a few long moments before my adrenaline cleared and I realized he had time-traveled away. When I calmed down, I climbed out and headed over to the diner. I staked it out from across the street and watched my mother serve coffee to my killer.
Dominic was probably the same age as when I met him. Which made sense, since killing me like this had obviously been one of his most recent actions.
As night fell, I watched him watch her. He was good at it, watching. I wouldn’t have even noticed him myself if I weren’t looking for him, he was so good at being nondescript.
My mother finally wrapped up and headed out the back of the diner while Dominic exited the front. I followed him carefully, snuck up on him and thwacked him on the back of the head with a piece of pipe I’d found in the warehouse. Then I broke his time watch and tablet so he couldn’t try to undo what I’d done.
“Miss, are you all right?” a very familiar yet completely unfamiliar voice asked.
I looked up and saw my pregnant mother standing over me. She looked back and forth between me and Dominic, confusion and fear in her eyes.
“Yes he…he attacked me. Luckily I was able to fight him off.”
“Oh my goodness! You poor thing! Did he hurt you?” she asked, as she put her hands on my arms and looked me over.
It was so weird, standing in front of my own mother when she was younger than I was.
“No…I’m fine…” I said as the alley was illuminated by headlights.
An old woman got out of the car and asked what was going on. She then went inside and got a very nice man named Jimbo to come out and watch over the still unconscious Dominic, while my mother took me inside and called the police.
I stayed long enough to give a statement to the police; it felt like weird cosmic justice for Dominic to go to jail, even if it was only for a few months or whatever.
He had murdered me, after all.
Then I excused myself to go to the bathroom, and traveled back to the future.
To be continued…
Jennifer Milne has been writing short stories and novels for ten years. She has been published by Rogue Phoenix Press, and currently has a novel “Plain Princess Jane and her Extraordinary Magical Cat” out shopping to agents. She lives in San Diego with her family. Her Amazon page is https://www.amazon.com/-/e/