Mark awoke to the familiar jingle of the alarm clock he had owned for the past twenty-five years. His wife was already out of bed, bustling about in the kitchen downstairs to prepare breakfast and school lunches for their three children. He rose and entered the bathroom, briefly inspecting his face in the mirror before stepping to the toilet to relieve himself. Then he brushed his teeth, took a shower, and shaved. He returned to the bedroom and got dressed for work. Finally, he grabbed his cell phone and lighter off the nightstand and headed down the stairs.
When he entered the kitchen, he felt a sudden chill and choked down an urge to scream.
“’Morning, babe,” said the unfamiliar woman who was assembling a sandwich next to an open lunch bag. This was not the wife who had lain in bed next to him last night and whispered good night. This one was taller and curvier, and she moved more gracefully. Her hair fell straight down her shoulders instead of in soft waves. Her face was longer, her eyes rounder and slightly wider set. Admittedly somewhat prettier than the woman he’d married sixteen years ago.
At the dining table, a teenage girl with a short, edgy hairstyle looked up from the book she was reading while eating a bowl of grits, said a quick “hi,” and looked back down. She had the same eyes as her mother. Her T-shirt featured two characters that might have come out of a video game, and she wore black skinny jeans. She looked nothing like his previous elder daughter, who had preferred trendy blouses and skirts.
“Good morning,” he responded, making a tremendous effort to sound as neutral and unruffled as possible. Normal. Keep it fucking normal.
The urge to scream was still there. He could feel it struggling somewhere inside his chest, hammering against his rib cage to get out. He glanced back at the counter where the woman stood. Only one lunch? Was there only this one daughter now? His mind raced to recall earlier details from his morning routine. Had there been different toiletries around the bathroom sink or in the shower? What about the clothing in the shared walk-in closet, or anything on the nightstand? God damn it. The old Mark would have kept a keen eye on these things. He had stupidly gotten complacent over the years.
“How’s your work looking today?” the woman asked, interrupting his frantic backtracking.
He had no idea. What was his job now? Did he still work at Avatech? “Not too bad,” he said carefully. “I need to head in a little early to get some stuff out of the way, but afterward it should be a pretty straightforward day.” Oh, how he wished that last part could be true.
“That sounds nice. We’re finally kicking off that pilot program for MedAssist today, so it should be pretty busy but exciting for me. Miranda’s going to have a big day, too, aren’t you?”
So that was her name. He mentally breathed a sigh of relief that this wife was talkative, too. Then again, he had always gravitated toward the talkative ones.
“Yeah,” the girl with the book said. She looked up again and smiled at Mark. “We have a big jazz band competition in Oak Park.”
“Hope you guys knock it out of the park,” he said wryly. He checked his phone for the time. The round-eyed woman’s face regarded him warmly from the screen, frozen mid-laugh. “Anyway, I need to get going now. I’ll see you guys later.” He stood and picked up his keys from their usual hook on the wall.
“Don’t forget your breakfast,” the woman said, pointing to a bagel that sat on a napkin next to a thermos.
I love you, he normally would have added.
Mark hurried into the black Audi on the driveway and lit a cigarette. He drove toward a nearby restaurant that would have a blessedly empty parking lot at this hour, where he could figure out what why the hell this had happened.
Upon arrival, it turned out to be a bookstore.
This time he let the scream tear out of his throat unbridled.
He parked the car in a corner of the lot shaded by tall, leafy trees. Were these trees even supposed to grow in this part of the country? I should know these things. I swore I’d be fucking vigilant. He forced himself to draw in a deep, shaking breath. No point in being so paranoid about the damn trees. Anything dramatic enough to shift them would have changed a hell of a lot more than what he’d encountered so far. In any case, he couldn’t reasonably expect to keep track of every single life form.
He pulled out his phone and hurriedly scrolled through the address book until he found her. Caroline. Hopefully her number hadn’t changed. Per their agreement, she wasn’t supposed to let it. He tapped the call button and tried to keep calm as each ring purred lazily in his ear.
The first time this happened—and last, he had firmly insisted—was over fifteen years ago. His wife had remained the same, but his first child had changed. This time, it must have been something fairly significant to change his family again. If he hadn’t had such a headstrong, steadfast nature, who knew what else would have shifted? The layout of his house, his career, his country of residence?
“Hello, Mark,” her smooth, cool voice came through the phone. Vague impressions of memories stirred softly within him. It had been so long.
But he needed answers, now. “Caroline, what have you undone?”
“The coup in Burundi five days ago.”
“What are you, a fucking time-traveling James Bond now? We agreed never to mess with this shit again. The unknown implications are way too dangerous.”
“The rebel commander was going to be horrific for the country. I couldn’t let—”
“We can’t see the future, Caroline,” he said, incredulous and frustrated and furious all at once. “We don’t know that. Just because you fancy yourself a political genius doesn’t mean you can fly off to Africa and fuck with their government! I don’t have the same wife today as I did for the past sixteen years. What else has changed as a consequence of your self-righteous campaign?”
A pause. “I’m sorry your wife shifted.” At least she sounded sincere. “All I did was save the parents of the chief conspirator from getting slaughtered by the other faction. I figured it was such a little thing, and Burundi is so far away. For all we know, a relative living in the US stayed here that week instead of flying over for a funeral, and he ran into someone who did something with someone who met your old wife. You know how these things can go.”
“Yes, I know exactly how these things can go, which is why I honor our old agreement.”
“If it’s any consolation, she’s probably not dead. You could still go find her.”
“And do what? Tell her to forget everything she thinks she knows about her current life, because she’s supposed to be with me? Abandon the wife and kid who love me now? We’re the only ones who can remember original timelines every time there’s a shift. Listen, this isn’t a joke.”
“No, you listen.” Her voice became icier. “That rebel commander was going to commit another genocide. Think about how many thousands of lives I probably saved. You know the classic question, ‘If you could go back in time and kill Hitler, would you?’ Obviously we can’t, since that was way before we were born, let alone when we found the gift, but—you’d seriously say no to that?”
“I would, because we just don’t know what else could happen. If this thing could allow us to see the future of our undoings, what lies beyond the doors we want to open, then maybe I would. But it doesn’t. I don’t know if undoing my daughter’s bad test grade from yesterday is going to cause her to have a missing arm when I get back. And that’s why we swore to each other we’d never mess with it again!” They had talked about this so many times, long ago. He couldn’t believe it was resurfacing now.
“Well,” she said, “shortly after I agreed to that, I realized how silly and selfish it was. Surely we’ve been given this gift for a reason. I can’t just sit back and watch the world burn, knowing I have the power to put out a few flames here and there myself. We can help others, Mark. Do you think you’re the only one who’s lost someone? At least you still have your cushy job, fancy car, another picture-perfect family. Try to think outside the glossy box of your own life for a minute. Imagine everything I might have sacrificed while undoing things for over twenty years. All to help other people.”
His mind reeled. Twenty years. What had she done? How did she fail to grasp the massive scope of her recklessness and betrayal?
“On a smaller scale, of course,” she added. “Always going back only a couple days. This was the first and only time I went back so far. There just didn’t seem to be a clean solution in the recent past. I’m sorry it happened to affect your personal life against all odds, but what you need to understand is that this is bigger than you or I.”
“And when you and I die, Caroline?” he demanded. “Who’s going to continue patching up the holes in history that you’ve left? Who’s going to be accountable when the fabric of space-time tears apart?”
She laughed without warmth. “You’re no astrophysicist, not even in this shifted reality. You don’t know that that would happen. Don’t be so dramatic. I’m just trying to bring some peace to the world. Let me know when you’re ready to do good, too.”
“I guess there’s no getting you to come to your senses.”
“We’ll have to agree to disagree, I’m afraid.”
The full impact of his loss hit him then. Caroline was right that the woman who had been his wife probably wasn’t dead, but she might as well have been. Everything about their life together had been erased. There would be nothing of her in the house when he returned, no photos of them together. He might see her in a store or a café, and she would look right past him. And their children. Those beautiful, bubbly, curious, wonderful souls. Tanya, Derek, and Ashley had never existed now. It was devastating.
Mark continued to sit in his car for a long time, smoking cigarettes and grieving. He searched online on his phone for tragedies that had occurred in the past twenty-five years: school shootings, plane crashes, serial killings, drone strikes, bombings, and more. Some of them appeared to have been wholly prevented, turning up zero relevant search results. With others, he couldn’t tell if Caroline had mitigated them or simply been uninvolved. He almost had to admire her dedication to playing the savior.
However, it was still far too risky. Why couldn’t she understand that every time she saved ten people, she might be endangering a hundred or a thousand more? She couldn’t clean up all the bloodshed in the world herself. Even with his help, the two of them couldn’t do it. Even if they tried, who knew what else would shift as an unwanted side effect: social movements, medical discoveries, technological advances?
And the uneasy fact remained that they didn’t even know where the gift had come from, who had placed it there for them to find, what their motives were, or what secret reverberations it could cause every time it was used.
He thought about the woman and girl who had been in his house this morning. They had seemed lovely and kind. But he had already built a life with the woman he had loved for nineteen years, and the three children they had had together. He wasn’t sure he could ever grow to love these two the way they deserved.
This was a little selfish, he knew. But he also did want to bring a little peace to the world.
Mark made up his mind and closed his eyes. He returned to a forest full of sunbeams and golden leaves, twenty-five years in the past. He dug through a patch of earth for several minutes until he uncovered a metallic box with pieces that moved and turned, a puzzle that his hands still knew how to solve. Inside was a ball of lightly glowing material that he knew without touching to be delightfully soft. He took the lighter from his pocket and set the ball on fire. When it was over, everything went black.
In the morning, he awoke to the beeping of someone’s alarm clock.