A time travel story that asks the question: How many second chances to we get in life?
The dance club was full of women, and they were all writhing to the beat of the music that blared from perhaps a dozen overhead speakers. Randy thought: Yes, Eric was right, even I should have a chance of scoring here.
Most of the women were young; many looked barely out of high school. And those outfits. What an odd world this was: the last gasp of the disco era, a time when women’s clothing was revealing, glittering and gaudy. Low-cut dresses covered with sequins reflected back the strobe lights. Ridiculously high heels scooted across the dance floor.
The ceiling above the central part of the dance floor was dominated by a mirrored disco ball. Near the disco ball hung a series of twisted neon tubes that formed the numbers “1979.” The numbers were mounted to a metal frame. At midnight the neon tubes would light up and the numbers would descend to a place of prominence directly above the dance floor. Welcome to the last year of the swinging seventies. Groovy, man.
Eric tapped him on the shoulder from the adjacent bar stool. “Was I right or was I right?” Eric gestured toward a group of particularly rowdy women.
“I mean, was I right about coming here or not?”
If the objective was pure, unadulterated hedonism, Randy had to admit that indeed his friend had made a good choice in selecting New Year’s Eve 1978. The Sexual Revolution was now more than a decade old, but no one had yet heard of AIDS. Randy, like his friend Eric, was a physics graduate student at the University of Minnesota, but he also knew his history: If you wanted to party, then this was the place—or the time—that parties were made for.
“Even you can score here,” Eric said for perhaps the twelfth time that evening. “Hey, I think that redhead over there was looking at me just a second ago.”
“You think every woman is looking at you,” Randy said. “Maybe she was looking at one of these other guys.”
Eric snorted. “These other guys are jokes. I mean, look at them: all that feathered hair and all those leisure suits. Can you believe that straight men used to willingly dress this way?”
“Think about where we are,” Randy said. “That’s the way players dressed back then.”
But Eric wasn’t listening. He was already threading his way through the crowd toward the redhead.
Randy didn’t begrudge Eric his fun—well, not really. And truth be told, he wouldn’t mind having some fun of his own.
But a part of him did register some dissent toward Eric’s relentless, unvarying agenda: did chasing tail have to be the sole purpose of their time travel trips? It wasn’t as if the twenty-first century didn’t have women; and Eric never seemed to have trouble filling his apartment with them. Wherever Eric went, women flocked to him, while Randy barely got a passing glance.
Eric apparently wasn’t satisfied with the conquests that were available in his own time. When he had learned about the time machine in Dr. Goetner’s lab, he had immediately decided that the two of them should clandestinely employ it for carnal objectives.
“Just think,” Eric had said “about all the beautiful women you missed out on—simply because of when you were born.”
Randy would have preferred that they use their journeys to the past to actually learn something. But Eric had discovered Dr. Goetner’s time machine; and Dr. Goetner was Eric’s academic advisor. If the unauthorized use of the machine were to become known, Eric had the most to lose.
It was therefore only fair, Randy decided, that Eric should be able to determine the destinations of their trips. Time travel was still time travel, after all; and he wasn’t going to miss out on the opportunity over a disagreement regarding the itinerary.
And so they had begun with the Roaring Twenties: They made their round through the once illegal speakeasies, chatting up young flappers who wore bobbed hair and knee-length tasseled skirts. Then on to the 1960s. They had smoked weed and talked flower power with hippie girls who babbled about Vietnam and the coming revolution.
As was the case in their own time, the women gravitated toward Eric. “Think about this:” Eric said as they returned from one trip. “If I’m not more careful, I might end up fathering children who will be older than I am. Now that’s a scary thought, isn’t it?”
Eric had said that he wanted to seduce women from the future as well. Then he ruefully noted that Dr. Goetner’s time machine had no range of future events; it could only send travelers into the past.
Given Eric’s methodical approach to debauchery, the seventies were the next logical stop on his grand erotic tour of the past. Randy watched his friend begin to make conversation with the now giggling redhead. Once again he would have to stand on the sidelines while Eric perfected his lothario routine.
And then he saw her. She was leaning against the wall not far from Eric and the bubbly redhead. She was blond and arguably the most beautiful woman that Randy had ever seen.
No, that was an exaggeration. Although she was very pretty, she could have easily been overshadowed by many other women on the dance floor tonight. Randy couldn’t have said why she fascinated him so. But fascinate him she did.
The blonde woman looked vaguely familiar; Randy wondered briefly if he had seen her elsewhere. That was highly unlikely; of course—though not impossible. They were in the 1970s but they had not left Minneapolis; and this woman might still be alive in his own time.
What the hell? Randy thought. Over the past few months he had watched Eric casually approach literally dozens of women out of the blue. It couldn’t be that hard, could it?
The blonde was alone—for now. In this hypersexed atmosphere, it wouldn’t be long before another guy would be flirting with her. Randy would have to make his move now—or never.
He began walking in her direction. It was both the longest and the shortest walk of his life. She saw him coming from a distance and no doubt knew what he was up to.
“Hi,” Randy said, thinking: I did that horribly. My voice cracked. She thinks I’m a dork.
“Hello,” she said. She smiled and it was immediately clear to Randy that she was every bit as shy as he was. Good. That might make this easier.
“I, uh I saw you from over there and—“
“I know,” she said.
“This is a bit forward of me.”
“I almost never do anything like this.”
She laughed and covered her mouth. Maybe she really was shy.
“I could forgive you if you properly introduced yourself.”
“My name is Randy. Randy Jackson. And…well…”
“Keep going. You’re doing fine.”
Randy sighed. “And I’m afraid that I’m not very good at this.”
“I’ll help you then. How old are you?”
“Twenty-six,” Randy answered truthfully.
“Oh, my. That does put the brakes on things. I’m only nineteen. You see, you’re a bit too old for me.”
Now it was Randy’s turn to laugh, struck by the realization that this girl would easily have thirty years on him.
This was, of course, an inside joke that he could not reveal. Instead he said the first thing that came to mind: “Well, I have a young soul.” He knew that the line was lame; but her laughter told him that it was okay.
She reached out and briefly touched his hand. Her smile intensified. Suddenly, everything was very okay.
“What do you do with yourself, Mr. Randy Jackson, when you aren’t trying to pick up women in dance clubs?”
“I’m a physics doctoral student.”
“At the University of Minnesota?”
“Sounds impressive. I suppose you’re a genius or something.”
“There are days when I like to think so,” Randy allowed. Luckily, she caught the self-deprecation in his voice. If she had taken him literally he would have come across as a tiresome jerk.
“And are you originally from Minnesota?”
“Born and bred. And you?”
“Yes. And I hate it. I hate living in Minneapolis,” she said. “All the cold and snow all the time.”
Randy shrugged. What could one say about the weather in Minneapolis?
“I’m leaving here in February or March, in fact.”
“Really? Where to?”
“California. Well, Hollywood, to be exact.”
“What, are you an actress or something?”
She blushed, and Randy saw that he had wounded her somehow.
“No,” she admitted. “I’m a sales clerk at J.C. Penny. That’s what I am right now. But I’m going to be an actress.”
Randy didn’t know how to respond. Physics graduate students knew precious little about the otherworld of Hollywood and show business.
“Well, so far I know that you’re nineteen. You don’t like Minneapolis. You work at J.C. Penny…But—you’re going to be an actress. If I only knew your name, too.”
“Let me guess: Emma Smith? Emma Jones? Maybe…”
“Not even close. Emma Kolasky.”
Randy looked down at Emma Kolasky. Now he realized why she looked familiar. He had seen her before. Or, to be precise, he had seen her photograph.
And Emma Kolasky would be dead within a few short years.
Everyone in Minneapolis had heard of Emma Kolasky, the hometown girl who had died a few years before Randy was born. Randy knew the basics of her story: Emma Kolasky had struck out for Hollywood in the late 1970s, one more dreamer who landed in La-la land with hopes of making it big in show business.
As it happened, Emma Kolasky was not without luck, though she would turn out to be very unlucky when it came to men. After doing some work in television commercials, she landed a bit part in Stripes, opposite Bill Murray. Then she played the kidnapped daughter of a millionaire on Magnum P.I.
The week that Emma’s episode aired, Magnum P.I. was big news in Minneapolis. The entertainment sections of all the newspapers ran a still from the program: a dramatic shot of the climactic rescue scene, in which Emma Kolasky was carried to safety by the mustachioed Tom Selleck.
The Hollywood dream unraveled for Emma shortly thereafter, when she began a relationship with one Mitch Hollander. Hollander was a struggling B-movie actor who had been romantically linked to a string of starlets over the years. Hollander was a decade older than Emma. He snorted cocaine and drank copious amounts of vodka. When he drank or got high, he frequently became violent.
After he beat her senseless for the second time, Emma finally left Hollander. Her lawyer convinced a judge to issue a restraining order. Emma tried to move on with her life.
Two months later she was dead. Emma’s sensational death metastasized into a sordid murder trial. In the end, a Los Angeles County prosecutor was unable to convince a jury that Emma’s ex-boyfriend had murdered her. Yes, he had violated his restraining order, the jury unanimously agreed. Yes, he had likely beaten her up on the night of her death. But the state was unable to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Hollander had forced Emma to take a lethal dose of cocaine and vodka.
Hollander walked with a suspended sentence, probation, and an order to attend rehab. Less than a year after the trial Hollander was dead himself—from an overdose of cocaine and vodka.
Randy remembered only these bare rudiments about Emma Kolasky’s life. He knew that there was no way he could reveal what he knew—not here, not now. It would take hours to explain, and proving it would be next to impossible.
He looked at Emma and said simply: “Emma, don’t go.”
“Don’t go to California. Stay in Minnesota. Forget about Hollywood.”
“Why? What makes you say that?
Randy was flustered. “You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”
“You think I won’t be any good, don’t you? You think that some simple girl who runs a cash register at J.C. Penny’s could never make it as an actress. Isn’t that the truth?”
“No, no. Emma. You can do it. But you shouldn’t do this. You have to trust me.”
“And give me just one good reason why I should trust you.”
Before Randy could think of that one good reason, he felt someone tap him on the shoulder. It was Eric.
Eric held a device about the size of cell phone at a discreet angle near his waist. This was the remote that controlled the return mechanism of the time machine.
Eric looked worried. A red light on the remote was blinking.
“What’s wrong?” Randy asked.
“I don’t know,” Eric said. “There seems to be something wrong with it. Maybe Goetner has been making some adjustments to the software. I don’t know.”
Randy contemplated a grim possibility, one that had always been in a corner of his mind since they had begun making their time travel trips: The machine could malfunction and they could be stranded in the past.
“Will it get us back?”
“I don’t know,” Eric said. “But we should make our attempt now.”
Randy didn’t like the word “attempt.”
He turned back to Emma.
“Emma: Do this for me. Wait until February.”
“Why? What’s so special about February?”
“There will be snow in the desert.”
“’Snow in the desert’?” she repeated.
Randy recalled a survey course he had taken in the field of meteorology during his undergraduate years. The professor, who was a lover of meteorological trivia, enjoyed telling the class about unusual weather events. Most of these events involved snow. A particularly unusual example had remained in Randy’s mind ever since: One day in February 1979 snow had indeed fallen in the Sahara Desert. The snow had lasted no more than half an hour; but yes, snowflakes had actually fallen in the world’s largest desert.
“In February of next year, there will be snow in the Sahara Desert.”
“You’re nuts. It doesn’t snow in the Sahara Desert,” she said.
“Not usually. But this one time it will. It will snow in the Sahara Desert. For only thirty minutes. Check the newspapers. You’ll see.”
“And what will that prove?”
“That I know what I’m talking about.” He leaned close and spoke softly in her ear. “I’m not who I seem to be, Emma. I know things. But I don’t have the time to explain all this to you.”
And now Emma’s voice suggested that she did believe him, maybe just a little. “This is the craziest thing I’ve ever heard,” she said. “But if it means that much to you, okay, I’ll wait until the end of February.“
Eric grabbed his shoulder.
“We’ve got to go, Randy, We’ve got to leave right now,” he said.
Randy followed Eric toward the main exit of the dance club. He paused once to look at back at Emma.
She was standing where he had left her, watching him as he departed. She gave him a wave goodbye. Then Eric tugged on his arm and she was gone.
They walked to the edge of the parking lot, where there were no people and few cars. A light snow was falling.
“Let’s hope this works,” Eric said, visibly shivering. He pressed several of the buttons on the face of the remote. Then he held the remote at his side, and looked into the snowy night sky.
“Well?” Randy asked.
“We’ll know in a second.”
There was a sound like low thunder, static and crisp and popping. Randy let out a sigh of relief. He squinted against the next stage in the process: a swirling mass of red and purple light flashing intermittently all around them.
He felt the now familiar dizzy feeling, and the sensation of entering a vast vacuum. Absolute darkness.
Finally it was over. He recognized the walls of the time machine. They were inside the travel chamber, a cramped room illuminated by a single overhead console light. It was close in here, even with just the two of them.
The travel chamber was dominated by a massive control panel with buttons, two large dials, and a digital display. The digital display read: ERROR.
“That doesn’t look good,” Randy said, still savoring his relief at the successful return.
“Shit!” Eric exclaimed. “No, it doesn’t. I’ll have to reboot the system before Dr. Goetner comes in tomorrow. That will reset it and clear out the error message.” Eric, unflappable though he usually was, seemed shaken by the close call.
They stepped out of the time chamber into Dr. Goetner’s laboratory. Goetner was a co-chair of the physics department, and he had been allocated a large area for his individual research. The time machine was located in a wing of the laboratory. It was discreetly positioned behind two massive bookshelves.
“Have you ever found out what this is all about?” Randy asked. “Is the time machine a product of pure research? Or is Dr. Goetner working for the Department of Defense or Homeland Security, or some other branch of the government?”
Eric shook his head. “Naw. Not Goetner. He hates the government. He’s never mentioned the time machine to me. When I asked him about the time travel chamber once, he gave me some bullshit response about it being a room for measuring static electricity. I wouldn’t have known the truth if I wasn’t so devious: I hacked into his personal research files.”
“And he has no idea we’ve been using the machine all this time?”
Eric laughed. “I don’t think so. At least, if he does, he hasn’t said anything to me about it. That would be admitting that he lied in the first place, wouldn’t it? But I’m afraid we’re done with time travel. This is getting to be too risky. We almost didn’t make it back today.”
Randy shrugged. “It was interesting while it lasted.”
“Speaking of which, what was up between you and that blonde back there?”
Randy recounted his discussion with Emma Kolasky, including his warning to her.
Eric shook his head. “That was a bad move. What you’ve done—you’ve screwed up, buddy.”
“No, I didn’t screw up. I’ve saved a woman from being murdered. What’s so bad about that?”
“But that isn’t all you did. Like it or not, that woman was supposed to die. You altered the past. And that means you also altered the present and the future. Your actions could have all sorts of consequences.”
Randy paused to consider this. “I understand what you’re saying. But if I did save Emma’s life, I’m not sorry for that. I’m glad I did it. And as for altering the present and future—we all do that everyday, don’t we?”
Eric ignored the question. “I just hope Emma Kolasky’s survival doesn’t bring about World War III or something. Who knows what the world is going to look like outside this laboratory after what you’ve done? Maybe the U.S. is some sort of crazy dictatorship now—all because you wouldn’t let fate take its course.”
“That’s ridiculous,” Randy said. He could tell that Eric was only half serious.
“Maybe. But you can’t be sure. This thing may come back to bite one of us yet.”
Randy gave only a passing thought to the notion that he had done something wrong—had somehow played God. No sane, moral person would fail to interfere in present events if there was an opportunity to save another person’s life. Why should an event that occurred in the past be sacrosanct?
Likewise, Eric’s suggestion about altering the destiny of humankind turned out to be as vaporous as it had sounded. Randy returned to his office (one of the perks of being a graduate teaching assistant) and hit the Internet. The drift of the headlines had not changed since before this trip. The world outside the laboratory was more or less as he had left it.
But one thing had changed: He did an Internet search for the name “Emma Kolasky” and came up with zero results. Perhaps she had heeded his warning after all. Wherever she was now, she had apparently not taken her previous path.
And he didn’t expect to ever see her again. He was therefore quite surprised to find Emma Kolasky on the U of M campus the very next day.
He saw her in the student union, in the main lounge where students habitually gathered for group study sessions and coffee breaks. Emma was seated in a beanbag chair. She was absently paging through a textbook, yellow highlighter pen in hand.
Emma was not alone. There were two other female students occupying the beanbag chairs on either side of her. The three young women were casually studying while talking and laughing. The one on Emma’s right was checking the text messages on her cell phone.
So Emma definitely had made it. In that respect, at least, Randy’s actions had altered the course of events for the better.
Would she recognize him? Would she recall their conversation? There was no way to tell; but Randy was not about to stand on ceremony. For one thing, he wanted to confirm that Emma’s tragic course had been completely averted—that her life had turned out all right.
But that was only part of it. Randy really wanted to talk to Emma Kolasky again—to pick up where they had left off, if that was even possible.
As Randy approached Emma and her two friends, he noticed that her appearance was slightly different: Her hair was darker than it had been in the bar that night. She had also filled out a bit. The young girl in the disco bar had been almost too thin; this version of Emma looked healthier and vaguely athletic.
“Emma!” Randy said a bit too loudly as he stood before the three coeds.
Stone silence from the women. The one who had been checking her text messages regarded Randy as if he might be planning to commit an axe murder at any moment.
“Emma,” Randy repeated. “Emma Kolasky. That is you, isn’t it?”
“Emma Kolasky Hughes was my mother,” the darker haired, more robust version of Emma finally said. And then Randy saw the enormity of what he had overlooked. Emma had been nineteen years old on New Year’s Eve, 1978. But that had been more than thirty years ago.
“Oh. My mistake…” Randy felt his mind go blank. “You see, I didn’t know and—”
“I’m Gwen Hughes,” the young woman said. “How did you know my mother?”
“She’s a…friend of the family,” Randy stammered. “I met her once. A long time ago.”
“What did you say your name was?”
Randy realized that he had failed to even introduce himself. He blurted out his name. He also mentioned his connection to the physics department.
Gwen Hughes shook her head. “I don’t remember my mom ever talking about any Jacksons.”
“How is Emma—I mean, your mother, today?”
A shadow crossed Gwen’s face. “Didn’t you know? My parents died in a car accident three years ago.”
Of course. She had been referring to Emma in the past tense. Why didn’t he catch that?
Randy realized that he had lost Emma again. But what would the point have been anyhow? In 1978 she had been marginally too young. In this time she would have been far too old for him.
And Gwen had lost Emma as well. Randy could see that his innocent but clumsy mistake had forced the young woman to re-experience her loss. He had opened up old wounds afresh.
“Listen,” Randy began. “I’ve obviously made a mistake. You just—reminded me of her.”
He noticed that Gwen’s eyes were glistening now. She rubbed the back of her hand across them.
You made her cry, damn you, he thought.
“I’m an idiot,” Randy said. “A real idiot. I’m going back to my office now. I’m sorry. Sorry for all of this.”
Another two days passed before Gwen Hughes knocked on the door of Randy’s office. It was nearly five o’clock, and Randy had been grading undergraduate term papers. He had been preparing to call it a day when she knocked twice and entered at his invitation.
Randy gasped. Though different, she was even prettier than Emma, now that he got a good look at her.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I treated you badly the other day.”
“No, no.” Randy waved away her words. “It was my fault. I—”
“Would you just let me apologize already?”
With that she turned and placed her hand on the doorknob. She hesitated, released the doorknob and gave Randy a tentative smile that both surprised and delighted him.
“Say, would you like to take me out to dinner or something?”
Randy returned her smile; he knew that he would like that very much, indeed.
What began as dinner progressed into much more. For Randy, there was never any real question about what he wanted from her—and he was pleasantly dumbstruck when he discovered that Gwen felt the same way. He was soon spending nearly all of his non-work hours with her.
His earlier infatuation with Emma faded. He remembered her fondly; but Gwen was not a substitute for Emma. Gwen was Gwen.
One afternoon, at Gwen’s request, he drove her out to the graveyard where her parents were interred. Despite his love for Gwen—or perhaps because of it—the sight of the grave marker brought an unexpected flood of emotions. The last time he had seen Emma, she had been nineteen and full of promise. And now she was here, her life summed up in a few lines chiseled into granite.
The inscription on the headstone stated that Emma Kolasky Hughes had been born in 1959, and had died some fifty-four years later. That meant she had lived three decades longer than she had in the previous version of her life, the one that Randy’s warning had prevented.
“I miss her,” Gwen said simply. “I miss both of them.” The headstone of Thomas Hughes, Gwen’s father, was located beside Emma’s. “You said you knew my mother. When was the last time you saw her?”
“A long time ago,” Randy said.
“I know you didn’t know her very well. You would have liked her, I think. But my mom had some interesting ideas.”
“You say ‘interesting’ like you mean ‘strange’.”
“Yeah. Well, Mom believed that she had an alternate destiny. I don’t know, crazy stuff. I don’t think you want to hear this.”
Randy’s felt his heart skip a beat. “No. Tell me.”
“Well, she told me that she met someone once when she was very young, and this person warned her about a ‘fork in her road’. That was the expression she used. Like in that poem by Robert Frost.” Gwen leaned against him and wrapped her arms around his body. She burrowed her face into his jacket to shield herself from the cold. “Did you ever read that poem?”
“’Two roads diverged in a wood, and I— I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference,’” he recited.
She playfully brushed her gloved hand across his cheek. “Now you’re just showing off.”
“Finish the story. What about your mother?”
“She said that if she had taken one path, she would have become famous. Her life would have been different: glamorous and exciting, but also brief and less meaningful.”
“And the other path? The one she took?”
“That one was not as exciting, maybe. But she said it was more fulfilling.”
Gwen kissed Randy’s cheek. “I know how this must sound. But she believed this. That’s all I can tell you.”
And how did Emma remember me? Randy wondered.
“Did your mother ever tell you about the person who warned her all those years ago?”
“No. She never described him to me. But she said that she was indebted to him for everything she had.”
Randy nodded. What more could he expect, given that his relations with Emma had consisted of a single conversation?
“Do you think your mom ever felt regret about the path that she didn’t take? About not becoming famous?”
“No. Why would she? Just the opposite, in fact. I think she felt like the luckiest person in the world. She said that if her life would have gone the other way, she would have missed out on meeting my father, for one thing.” Gwen regarded her father’s headstone. “My dad never made a lot of money; but he worked hard and he loved my mom dearly.” Gwen dug her toe into the frozen earth, kicking up a little spume of snow. “He loved me a lot, too. They both did.”
Randy drew her close to him and her tears glistened on his jacket. “You don’t have to tell me anymore if you don’t want to. We can just stand here and pay our respects to your parents.”
“No, no. Its alright.” Gwen smiled, even though she was still crying. “Do you know what Mom used to say?”
“She used to say: ‘Sometimes we get a lucky break in this life. Sometimes it snows in the desert.’”
Gwen looked away from the graves, toward the grey, overcast sky.
“I always wondered,” Gwen said. “Why did she say it that way? Why did she equate luck with snow in the desert?”
Eric noted the change in his friend’s life; and it was clear that he didn’t approve. “You are playing a dangerous game,” he told Randy over coffee in the U of M student lounge.
“How do you figure?” Randy asked.
“Think about it,” Eric said, tapping his forehead. “Where would Gwen be if you had never given her mother that warning?”
There was no need to answer this question: If Randy had not traveled back in time and met Emma, then Gwen would not even exist in the present.
“Eric, we’ve been through this. I believe that my saving Emma’s life was part of the natural order of things.”
But Eric did not agree.
“No, it had already happened. Emma Kolasky died before we were even born. She never had a daughter.”
Randy stirred his coffee. He noted that Eric’s eyes were bloodshot and his face looked haggard. Randy knew that Eric had been drinking a lot recently. His work and academic performance had been slipping as well. There were even rumors that he might loose his graduate assistantship.
“The point, I think,” Randy said. “Is that Emma Kolasky—Emma Kolasky Hughes—did have a daughter. And I intend to ask her to marry me. Tonight, in fact.” He tapped a bulge in his breast pocket: it was the size and shape of a ring case.
If Randy had been anticipating any words of congratulation or encouragement at this revelation, he would have been sorely disappointed.
“That will make things even worse. You’ll be basing your entire life on a series of events that weren’t meant to happen.”
“Let’s change the subject,” Randy said. “Did Dr. Goetner ever fix the time machine? It’s been a year since we used it last.”
“I can tell that he’s made some repairs. Maybe we can make another trip soon.”
Randy nodded, though he believed that he’d had enough of time travel for one lifetime.
“I’ve got to get going,” he said. “We’ll talk more later. I wish I could get your support in all this. You’re one of my best friends, you know. It would mean a lot to me.”
“I’m afraid, Randy. I’m afraid that at least one of us will suffer because of what you’ve done.”
Randy didn’t want to spoil his mood by continuing this line of discussion. He said goodbye to Eric and turned his thoughts to this evening’s meeting with Gwen.
The little box in his shirt pocket felt warm and full of promise.
Gwen said yes. Randy was more than a little nervous when he asked her; but his gut had told him that it would work out all right. And it did.
She threw her arms around him and said: “I graduate next May. We can have the wedding in June.”
A June wedding sounded just fine to Randy.
But there would be no June wedding. Gwen would be dead months before that.
Randy saw it happen. He was waiting for her in the glass entryway of a little restaurant off campus. Twilight was approaching and the snow was flying—nothing unusual for February in Minneapolis.
As Gwen crossed the street, she did not see the car weaving dangerously toward her. It had sped around the curve just above the crosswalk.
Sensing that the driver was either not paying attention or impaired, Randy tried to signal Gwen of the danger. He stepped through the double doors of the restaurant and onto the sidewalk, motioning toward the approaching vehicle. Gwen was in the middle of the street. She saw the car bearing down on her and screamed.
The car was traveling much too fast on the slippery pavement. The driver made a last-minute attempt to stop; but it was too late. There was the sound of tires crunching on ice; then the car spun around at a one hundred and eighty degree angle before it struck Gwen.
Randy bolted toward Gwen’s crumpled body, heedless of the crowd that was already beginning to gather. He heard a man say that he was dialing 911 on his cell phone.
Randy knelt down and examined Gwen: He was no doctor; but he knew that that there was nothing that any doctor could do for her.
Then Eric emerged from the car.
Eric had apparently struck the car’s dashboard. A growing red welt covered most of his forehead. A trickle of blood ran down his temple.
Eric looked at Gwen’s shattered body. Then he looked at Randy.
“NO!” Randy shouted as he recognized his friend.
Eric had obviously been drinking. Randy could smell the liquor on his breath as he approached.
Eric leaned down and grabbed Randy’s shirt collar. He screamed into Randy’s face:
“Now do you see what you’ve done? I told you this would come back to hurt us!”
Randy shoved him away.
“You’ve ruined my life!” Eric continued. “I’ll go to jail!”
Then Randy struck him. He struck Eric so hard that he fell back onto the pavement. The murmuring crowd collectively gasped.
Randy looked back at his fiancée. When he spoke, there were tears in his voice.
Eric laughed—it was the laughter of a madman. “Gwen,” he said. “Does not exist. Gwen is a figment of your imagination. Gwen should never have been born.”
Randy crouched down and lifted Eric off the pavement. He raised his fist as if to strike him again.
“Give me the key!” he demanded. “You know which one I’m talking about!”
“In my pocket.” Eric fished a key ring out of his front pocket. It fell onto the street. Randy snatched it up and jiggled the keys until he found the right one.
Understanding flashed on Eric’s face.
“You’re going to try to do it again, aren’t you?”
Without answering Eric, Randy stood up and pushed his way through the gathered onlookers. He aimed himself toward the university. Toward Dr. Goetner’s laboratory.
He broke into a run.
No one challenged him—or even saw him—when he entered Dr. Goetner’s laboratory. He didn’t know where Goetner kept the return remote; but that didn’t matter. He only needed to retrace a few hours in time. A few hours would allow him to keep Gwen from crossing the street.
During their last conversation about the time machine, Eric had said that he didn’t know if Dr. Goetner had fixed it. However, the time machine had never been completely broken; and Randy only needed a small amount of its power now.
As he stepped into the time machine and locked the door behind him, Randy thought about Eric’s repeated objections to his saving Emma and loving Gwen; and he wondered: How many second chances do we get in this life?
He worked the dials on the inner wall of the time machine, as he had seen Eric do so many times before.
After you programmed the machine’s destination, there was only one step left: You had to push the TRANSPORT button, and away you went.
Had he done everything right? Would he arrive at his target destination?
And though he wasn’t sure about the answers to any of these questions, Randy closed his eyes and pushed the TRANSPORT button.