Looped

By Hannah Christensen

The old wooden door clicked shut, and a pulse of rainbow tinted brilliance shone out around the edges. Ray tried to blink away the darkness it left behind. Reluctantly the forms of old filing cabinets and retired furniture showed themselves to the yellow glow of the bare yellow bulb.

“Well, gentlemen, this already promises to be the longest minute of my life,” said Charlie Joseph. The elderly lawyer sat across the table from Ray, still dressed in his suit. His nose featured prominently on his creased face.

Ray Prescott tipped his wooden chair back. Setting his feet on the table, he crossed his arms behind his head.

“It seems to me you said that last time,” he said.

“Since time flies the older you get, it just goes to show how much anticipation he suffers from,” said Jeffrey. The tall man sat to Ray’s left, almost directly facing the door which stood in the middle of the storage room. Mostly chrome machinery ran up either side of the door’s posts. Jeffrey’s long fingers wrapped loosely around a coffee mug sporting a map of Germany.

“Does anyone else need any reading material?” joked Charlie, pulling out a Rob White novel from his briefcase. “I brought extras.”

“We could just set the time machine to a half minute later,” Ray pointed out. He considered slipping his sunglasses down from the top of his head before Nathan returned in another blast of dazzle. A fly buzzed overhead and swooped back out of sight.

“Our problem is how precisely we can set the chronostat,” Jeffrey answered. “In order to be able to set it more exact than the minute, we would have had to cut out a whole lot of years. This is the better exchange.”

“The funny thing is that what Nathan is doing has got to have more impact than accidentally seeing yourself,” said Ray. “How do we even know the machine actually takes you back in time, not just shows you what a piece of history was like?”

“Gentlemen, behold,” announced Charlie, producing a newspaper with a flourish. Carefully he laid the yellowed paper on the table.

Jeffrey pulled his reading glasses from his shirt pocket and leaned for the paper.

“1865! Where did you get your hands on this?” asked Jeffrey, adjusting his glasses on his nose.

“Ah, that’s an old trade secret, almost as secret as this room,” said Charlie, his eye twinkling.

Ray watched as the fly lighted onto the rim of Jeffrey’s mug. It buzzed its wings once, then made its jerky way along the rim.

Ray felt the door’s sweet, high pitched hum more than he heard it. He carefully thumped his chair back into place just as the door in the middle of the room opened. Belatedly he realized he had not remembered to put his sunglasses on. Squinting his eyes, he could just make out Nathan in the already fading effervescence of light which filled the door’s small chamber. Nathan stumbled out, like someone just freed from a marsh’s sticky cling, and reached out for the table, leaning both palms against it. He bent forward somewhat, his coattails flapping open rather like the black leather jacket he most often wore.

“Speak of the devil,” said Charlie.

“You, man, look like you’ve been to the war and back,” said Ray.

“It was harder this time,” Nathan gasped.

“Did you run into trouble?” asked Charlie, leaning forward intently, all soberness now. “Did you spot yourself?”

Nathan shook his head.

“No, nothing like that,” he said between great lungfulls of air.

“Did it work?” Jeffrey enquired, his voice perky with eagerness. He pulled the newspaper to him, but kept his eyes on his comrade. “I don’t suppose you saw my great grandcestor there. Grandmother always said the whole thing upset her horribly; it rather impressed her for life. She would be surprised to hear we had averted disaster.”

“She was surprised, all right,” Nathan said, closing his eyes. He had finally recovered his breath. He opened his eyes again and asked, “Are you all right, Jeffrey?”

“I don’t know why not,” Jeffrey replied, looking down at his hands as though to check and make certain they had not decided to abandon him.

Nathan straightened.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I knocked off Booth’s aim, but the bullet kept going. She was in the blue bonnet?”

“As blue as a dragonfly, my grandmother used to say.”

Jeffrey looked down at the paper, but a throb of light interrupted everyone’s vision.

The old wooden door clicked shut, and a pulse of rainbow tinted brilliance shone out around the edges. Ray tried to blink away the darkness it left behind.

“Well, gentlemen, this already promises to be the longest minute of my life,” said Charlie Joseph. His eyes sparkled as though he were in his mere twenties, not sixty years farther along.

“Now this is what I call deja vu,” Ray said as he leaned back in his chair. At least that was what he intended to say, but the words came out, “It seems to me you said that last time.”

His sense of deja vu grew stronger as Jeffrey spoke.

“Since time flies the older you get, it just goes to show how much anticipation he suffers from.”

“Does anyone else need any reading material?” Charlie offered. “I brought extras.”

Ray felt his neck prickle as though the hairs along it were rising, though he was pretty sure they weren’t really. He needed to put his sunglasses on to shield him. But instead of reaching up to his sunglasses, Ray found himself asking about a foolish half minute delay. He tried to spot Nathan, but the only additional presence to himself, Charlie, and Jeffrey was that fly. He idly wondered if it were possible to hook a video camera to a fly. There would be too many cooks in the soup to make anything but trouble if anyone found out what Nathan was doing. Had done. An urgent desire to find Nathan tangled its horns in Ray’s stomach. As if in response to a thought about his comrade, his mouth started up again.

“The funny thing is that what Nathan is doing has got to have more impact than accidentally seeing yourself. How do we even know the machine actually takes you back in time, not just shows you what a piece of history was like?”

When Charlie reached down for his masterpiece, Ray already knew what it was. He looked hard to see if Nathan’s little jaunt in time had changed it. PRESIDENT SHOT still screamed across the headlines. Ray tried to see if Charlie and Jeffrey had noticed anything strange. He wanted to ask them, but his tongue seemed reluctant to phrase the question. The newspaper seemed to him just as his memory insisted as having seen it, only not so yellowed.

The fly intruder settled on Jeffrey’s cup. Unaware, Jeffrey continued to lean toward the newspaper. His face seemed to glow in its whiteness. No, that glow came from the door in the middle of the room. Some brightness seemed to be leaking around the crack. Ray almost blinked. He did not remember seeing that radiance so early before. But now he could feel the high-pitched hum. Now he was dropping his chair to its proper position, and now Nathan was stumbling into the room.

“Speak of the devil,” said Charlie.

“You, man, look like you’ve been to the war and back,” said Ray, but he hardly paid any attention to his words, much less the answer. How did they really expect to know if Nathan had saved the president? The newspaper might tell them, but perhaps if one assassin had not shot him, another would have. And would anyone have saved this newspaper for over a hundred years if it had not contained such important news?

“I don’t suppose you saw my great-grandcestor there,” Jeffery was saying, his hand on the creamy white newspaper. “Grandmother always said the whole thing upset her horribly; it rather impressed her for life. She would be surprised to hear we had averted disaster.”

That was the very reason they had picked Lincoln’s assassination for their first jaunt in time. If it worked, it could do some good, should be major enough to check on, and was a point of personal interest to Jeffery Thomason. It would be the great achievement of his life, although a secret one. It might have even changed Jeffrey’s name had not his father insisted against Abraham Lincoln Thomason on the principle that naming a baby after a great president heaped too much responsibility on a mere boy.

Nathan finally straightened. The gray doorway behind outlined his figure in mystery.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I knocked off Booth’s aim, but the bullet kept going. She was in the blue bonnet?”

“As blue as a dragonfly, my grandmother used to say.”

Jeffrey looked down at the paper almost reluctantly, but just then the doorway gave a pulse of blinding light.

The old wooden door clicked shut. Around its edges glowed a brilliance too vivid to tell its color. Ray blinked, trying to shove back alarm with the receding dimness. Bare, yellow bulb light had never looked so beautiful.

“Well, gentlemen,” said Charlie Joseph, “This already promises to be the longest minute of my life.”

“It seems to me you said that last time,” Ray said, hoping this minute would not get any longer. Unless they were using up a whole other minute. But no, Jeffrey had started up in his speech about time going faster with age. This must still be the same minute.

“Does anyone else need any reading material? I have extra.” asked Charlie. He certainly looked as though he had aged more this minute than he would have in a normal month.

“We could just set the time machine to a half minute later,” Ray said, somewhat plaintively. Half a minute might be short enough time to avoid that fly who would come through any second now. Yes, there it buzzed, swooping in and out of Jeffrey’s explanation of chronostat settings.

“The funny thing is that what Nathan is doing has got to have more impact than accidentally seeing yourself,” Ray began, but kept his attention on fly. He felt tense as the stale words slipped out of his mouth and the fly traced its premeditated path through the air. The time door’s glow sparkled off its wings as though the insect were laughing at him. The whole room seemed to be pulsating with that arrogant fly’s buzzing. Could no one but he see it?

“Gentlemen, behold,” said Charlie. His hands seemed to tremble some as he pulled out the newspaper. The paper seemed to glow under the attention. The stanch black headline seemed faded and crowded surrounded by that light-mixed rainbow. The paper smeared a glaze over Charlie’s eyes. Jeffrey’s face took on a transparent hue as he leaned forward.

“1865. Where did you get this?” Jefferson said almost faintly.

“Ah, that’s an old trade secret,” Charlie began.

The fly took a final pass before swooping in for a landing on the abandoned mug.

Ray lunged forward.

The movement took more effort and resolve than it should have. Ray felt as though the air had turned to molasses and tried to glue his movements into the approved mold. If he should try and rely on inertia, he might well find himself dragged back into his previous position. Time itself seemed to groan and stretch. His head rang and miniature auroras of white light seemed to shimmer around the edges of his vision, but Ray finished the surge and triumphantly swooped up the mug before the fly finished its dive. The insect dropped from the air when it reached the place the rim of the mug had stood, as though it had not noticed in time to change course.

Ray felt the melancholy toll down through his bones. The whole room seemed to vibrate with the sub-audio bass tone. All three eyes turned toward the time machine door. Turbulent light blazed from what could only be a rent which started in the air near the ceiling and made its way to a point almost touching the door of the machine.

Just then the door opened, and Nathan stumbled out in another blaze of the light which had earlier swallowed him into the past. Ray thought his stumbling step seemed more of habitual shuffle than the unexpected breaking out from a mire to free air that it had resembled before.

Nathan reached out and leaned his hands on the table’s surface, trembling. He leaned over as if to take refuge in its solidity.

“Speak of the devil,” murmured Charlie.

“You, man, look -” Ray fought with his tongue. “Awful.” He squinted his eyes against the overpowering glare which boiled over into the room. He suddenly wondered how much bigger the consequences of saving Lincoln would be than for moving a mug. Especially for Jeffrey.

“It was harder this time,” Nathan gasped.

“Did you…what trouble?” Charlie managed. He leaned over as though taxed with age and oppressed by the first incomplete sentence he had uttered for at least three quarters of a century. Ray noticed with surprise that the old lawyer had a bit of a hunched back. He must have seen that before, but it had never been noticeable in the tall, lively man.

The glowing crack seemed to gape wider; the tip stretched down to meet the door’s glaring beams.

Nathan leaned hard against the table, trying to force words out around his gasps for air. “Thomason…” was all he managed.

“Did it work?” Jeffery’s voice sounded uncertain and thin. The only time Ray had ever heard him sound close to this was the time Jeffrey and Nathan had worked on the time machine for fifty-two hours straight. Even then, he had joked about the shadows under his eyes, almost dark enough to match his eyes themselves. Now he looked pale and almost ghostly. He could almost be called a shadow himself, except for being too light. Ray wondered briefly where all the shadows were; this riotous light must have swallowed them all.

Jeffrey slowly pulled the newspaper to himself. Its vividly white front page seemed to shimmer where the headline had been. The glow traced his hand like it had framed the time machine’s door only a minute earlier. His hand began to glow as well, and Ray realized he could see through it.

“I don’t suppose you saw my great gr- great.” Jeffery glowed from the effort, “My great – Rosie.”

Ray’s spine tingled with the silent roar as a branch of light split off the giant rend. It reached out toward Jeffrey, slowly swirling. Jeffrey’s hand seemed to start sinking into the glowing, pulsating patch of light it rested on.

Charlie pushed himself up, seized Jeffrey by the arm and pulled him back. Ray almost expected the old lawyer’s hand to go right through Jeffrey’s arm.

“Are you all right, Jeffrey?” Nathan asked, his voice scratchy.

“I don’t know why not,” he replied, distress lining his brow and pulling at his eyes.

“I’m sorry,” said Nathan, his voice cracking. The air churned with garish light, staining the table scarlet and the coattails purple. The air behind Jeffrey shifted, as though ready to heave open and swallow him.

“Nathan!”screamed Ray, pushing himself toward the younger man and grabbing him by the front of his shirt. “This is no dead ball shot. Just let him go and take the scratch!”

A roar too load to hear blotted out any answer. Light roiled through his vision until Ray was no longer certain that he could even feel the silk of Nathan’s shirt between his fingers.

The door clicked shut.

In the silence that followed, the glow around the doorframe blazed down.

Ray blinked. The room still stood undisturbed, though even the lumps of retired furniture looked troubled at what Ray could only term a bulge in the air, where the darkness looked less convincing than usual.

“Well, gentlemen, this already promises to be the longest minute of my life.”

Ray saw with relief that his two companions were both sitting again in their seats. He let himself tip back and drop the words his tongue already knew.

“It seems to me you said that last time.”

“Since time flies the older you get…”

Jeffery seemed substantial again, at least for the present.

“Does anyone else need any reading material? I brought extras.”

“We could just set the time machine to a half minute.”

“Our problem is how precisely we can set the chronostat…”

The fly buzzed along its path.

“This is the better exchange.”

“The funny thing is that what Nathan is doing has got to have more impact…”

Stay on the path, Prescott, Ray told himself. Funny that he should feel a need for such a reminder when only a minute ago he had felt trapped in this course.

“Gentlemen, behold.”

“1865, where did you get your hands on this.”

“Ah, that’s an old trade secret…”

Buzz…

What was Nathan doing now? Or then? Or however that worked?

The three men in the room almost stopped breathing as the door swung open. Ghostly light haloed the dark figure who stumbled into the room.

“Speak of the devil.”

Some undercurrent in the room seemed to shiver.

“You man, look like you’ve been to the war and back.”

Stay on the path, Ray reminded himself. The light from the door eased away. Slowly tension oozed from the room, leaving it dim and droopy. The bulb overhead seemed to wrap a layer of exhausted haze around itself.

“It was harder this time,” Nathan said hesitantly, then paused.

“Did you run into trouble?” Charlie asked cautiously.

Nathan looked up.

“Jeffrey? Are you all right?”

Ray tensed, frozen.

No rip in the time-space continuum gaped open. No molassesy flow gripped his limbs. No sinuous glare of the physical essence of time reached out to snatch Jeffrey away.

Jeffrey looked down at his hands.

“It looks as though I am,” he said.

Ray leaned his head back in relief. He could hear the gust of air escaping Charlie’s lips.

“I’m sorry about Lincoln,” said Nathan.

Jeffrey laughed, though somewhat shakily. “I’m sure my great-grandmother Rosie would have been surprised to hear her death would have caused as many problems as Lincoln’s.”

A small smile relaxed Nathan’s face some.

“Gentlemen,” said Charlie, “I propose that we come back first thing tomorrow morning to disassemble this contraption. It seems to be too dangerous even kept from the knowledge of government, public, and sundry terrorist groups.”

The men agreed and shook hands. Nathan stripped away his nineteenth century costume and donned his ordinary twill and black leather.

“Eight ball?” Ray offered Nathan.

Nathan rubbed his chin.

“I think I need a shave.”

Ray sympathetically rubbed his finger along the top of the bridge of his nose to his forehead.

Charlie Joseph carefully locked the storage room behind them and slipped the key into an inside pocket.

“Your place?” asked Nathan, and Ray tipped his head in agreement.

The four men stepped outside of the Joseph and Carson, Co. offices and spread down the stairs, each in his own way. Red sunlight dropped beyond the horizon, splashing the city one last time before time’s tide pulled its fiery ebb out for the night.

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