Short Story: Then What?

Sounds and smells of hammered and welded steel emanated incessantly from the garage. Edwin Malcolm’s neighbors had long since resorted to ear-plugs, letting come what may. Even in the middle of the night– or rather, especially in the middle of the night, Edwin found need to be working on something. The middle-aged inventor was a spitting image of a mad-scientist: his hair wild, white, and clothing appropriately frumpled. He fell short at evil genius, thus was left merely a lonely, sad man pitied by even the local police.

That had not always been the state of things. Edwin was once a prominent, high-school science teacher. He inspired even the laziest students to sit up, take notice. His enthusiasm and unparalleled respect garnered him more than one “Teacher of the Year” award. The transition to reclusive hermit obsessively working nights had come about tragically. Indeed, his first night that rolled over into day– and set his diurnal hibernation in motion– had been the same his wife was hit by a drunk driver. She lasted all of twelve hours. By noon the next day she was dead, along with any hope for Edwin’s sanity.

He took indefinite sabbatical, hadn’t returned since. No-one had the heart to cut off his benefits– not even the state-people that managed to rouse him from sleep during the day. He was less than half a man now. Even when others came for condolences, they found a slowly disintegrating husk of a man. The clean-shaven, well-groomed man was now a scruffy, stinking, Gollum-like creature with little to say, let alone teach.

His tragic demise spread so far and wide most of his former students came to console him. Always he was awoken from sleep, looking paradoxically as if he’d not had any in weeks, and stinking of sweat and day-old whiskey. Contrary to revulsion, both host and guest settled in for short, tired conversations. Such moments made Edwin’s change most obvious. He was not the razor-honed, one-track mind his students had known. Rather, he was scatter-brained, anxious, always accommodating but to a point where nothing deep could ever be broached. Guests invariably left dejected, and Edwin lapsed back into exhaustion until night when work began again.

One, former-student sought to change things. It had taken ages for news of his state to reach her, but she found it best to seek him in his natural habitat. Over a decade had passed since he’d impacted her life, but to discredit it over that missed the enormous contribution he’d made to her life. Denise had been a student whose school-life was an escape from her hellish home-life. Instead of using that time wisely, she made trouble, fought, failed classes, and everything else such kids did at her age. Years later, she’d become the first to agree she’d been one.

Edwin’s house appeared as night set. Winter’s early darkness hung heavy overhead. Denise was used to the cold. Her most recent job had been in a harsher clime, but somehow this cold felt excessive. Negative temperatures in the midwest? Who’d ever heard such nonsense? Still, she wouldn’t leave without seeing him.

She thunked a triplet on the door. The sound should’ve been lost in the garage’s clatter. Somehow, Edwin heard it. Or perhaps, he sensed her shivering presence, rushed to its aid. The door cracked. Edwin’s wild eyes peered out beneath wilder hair. He squinted, surveyed her up and down.

“Mr. Malcolm?” Denise said solemnly.

Edwin always had a good memory for faces, but he was admittedly lost until he heard that voice. It contained a perforated, angelic quality that had only ripened with age. True she was taller, leaner, better dressed and groomed, and more pale, but Edwin knew Denise’s voice. It was difficult to forget: he and most of her peers had become experts at manufacturing excuses for her speak. Its gentleness had been so rarely employed then that its innocence was superbly comforting. It always lulled him into a trance– he and everyone else that heard it.

“D-Denise Collins?” Edwin said, easing the door open. She gave a small nod. “C-Come in. It’s freezing out there!”

Denise thanked him, completely oblivious this was the most lively Edwin had been in years. His changes were soon evident as he rushed back and forth preparing coffee, mindlessly preening the house, and inviting her to sit on a couch. With a cup of coffee before each of them, he set down to speak as lightly as possible. Denise allowed it, for now.

“Tell me everything,” he said, hoping her voice might lull away his pains.

She began with her most recent field of study; the arctic. She and her team had been researching global warming effects on polar ice via extracted core samples. By deducing CO2 content over the various eons, she said, they hoped to better understand just how great an impact humans had made. Edwin was enthralled, both by her discipline and ever-lulling voice. She reached present day and gave a short explanation of what had led her to him.

“I spoke with Melody Parsons. She was in your class with me. I’d heard a new driller was transferred out to help nearby, and that she’d come from my hometown. I met with her and saw it was her. That’s when I heard about your wife.”

Reality smacked Edwin in the face. He was suddenly up, refilling the coffee cups, wiping down the coffee-table, straightening things that didn’t need it. Denise saw the acts for what they were, allowed them until they passed their logical conclusion. It was then that she stood beside him at a kitchen counter. The situation was delicate, required a transference of his madness from one subject to another. She engaged him with a simple question that tempted his natural exposition.

“I heard you working in the garage,” she said carefully. “What is it you’re doing?”

“Hmm?” Then, more dismissively, “Oh that. Nothing. Nothing at all. Just a fever-dream.”

“Really? May I see it?” She asked, knowing she had him by the extensive whiskers.

Denise had never been stupid. In fact, once she’d applied herself and her home-life faded into the background of strife adulthood brought, she’d become an honor-student, a Dean’s-Lister, and an Honor Graduate. She’d been accepted into MENSA, spent time as a researcher at MIT, then formed her own team to study the Arctic Ice. Needless to say, she knew exactly how Edwin would react. Edwin likewise, saw exactly how he’d been manipulated, but for wishing to hear her speak further, allowed it. They stood just inside his garage, Denise stared at a concoction of piping and bits of steel intermingled with gauges and a myriad of other instruments. A sort of cage enclosed a van’s rear-bench seats half-crowded by pipes running around them.

Denise was breath-taken, “What is it?”

“Take a seat,” Edwin said calmly.

They twisted and turned, slipped through the pipes. With a thrown switch, a loud hum grew to a deep grumble. The device thrummed. Something sparked. Light descended in a dome. Denise reached out to touch the field of blue, her hand repelled by a power anti-magnetism.

“A force-field?”

“To protect us… and them.”

He threw another switch: bright light flashed. The pair were suddenly sitting before an open garage door in bright daylight. Denise’s brow furrowed. A car rolled into the drive-way, oblivious to their presence. Its door opened. A duplicate Edwin appeared from one side. He looked as he’d been when Denise knew him. He jogged to the car door and a beautiful young woman there. The Edwin beside Denise teared up, sniffled quietly. His duplicate embraced his wife for a moment before thgey walked, hand-in-hand, out of view.

A second flash replaced the closed door. The blue force-field sank away. All went quiet, still– including the two travelers. When noise finally returned, it was Denise building to amazement.

“Woah.” She swallowed hard, “You built a time machine?

Edwin sighed, his body deflating with a sad nods. “Every night, for years, I’ve come here to watch them– us– to see her again. Each time the trip’s a little longer, but I can only maintain the connection for short bursts. It’s why I am always working, trying to squeeze even a second longer from the machine to see her come down the road… or anything else.”

Denise’s heart ached, but reality was painful. “Mr. Malcolm, I know it’s harsh, but this isn’t real. It was, but it isn’t now. You can’t effect it. You can’t change what happened. All you’re doing’s lingering, wallowing. These things happened, sure, but they’re supposed to remain inside you, to remind you life is worth living. Not to be the focus of its dwindling time.”

Edwin was quiet for a long time. The look on his face said he’d taken her words to heart. She knew she’d had at least a partial impact. She needed to make it stick though. There was only one avenue she saw to do so.

“You’ve inspired so many lives in your time. You could inspire infinitely more. You’ve done something no-one else can do, and there’s fodder in that to hide the truth if you need, but you have to ask yourself: is this really what she’d want for you?”

His eyes were teary. They rose to meet hers, “I know you’re right.” He hesitated a long time, then, “But I’ve become numb. I don’t know how to go back to what I was.”

She frowned, “You don’t. You change, grow, incorporate it into you. Adapt and evolve.”

“How?”

She managed a small smile, “I owe you a lot. I’ll help. Whatever you need.”

He gave a desperate laugh that mingled with a sob. It incised both of their hearts. “I need sleep.”

“Then go and get it,” Denise insisted. “I’ll be back in the morning to wake you, I promise.”

They climbed from the time machine. Edwin headed into the house. Denise followed. He glanced back at her, “So you’ll be here? Then what?”

She shook her head, “One thing at a time.”

He felt weight lift from his shoulders. Simultaneously, Denise felt some settle on hers. It wasn’t anything she couldn’t handle. After all, she owed him. He’d put her life on track. That friendship was worth the weight and more. Now, she’d just have to show him as much. Then what? Who knows? Maybe life.

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