A time machine abets a crime of revenge.
Revenge After 18 Years
It was the day after Johnny’s high school graduation party. He’d drunk a lot more than he should have and rose with the world brighter and noisier than he knew it could be. Right between his eyes the devil was twisting his pitchfork. He cursed and struggled out of bed.
With one hand on the rail, he went down the stairs, the other hand covered an eye in a vain attempt to prevent the world shaking like a bowl of jello. At the bottom of the stairs a concerned look was on the face of his father. “How’re feeling, squirt? Are you all right?”
Johnny grimaced, for that name hadn’t been used in a long time. Especially since he’d gotten taller than him; not much, but enough for anyone to see. A hand was offered. Waving it off with a rasp in his voice, he said, “I’ll be fine as soon as I get something to drink.”
His father grinned. “There’s some orange juice on the table. I put something in it to help you with the hangover. And, there’s half a pot of strong coffee.”
He was glad the juice was already in the glass, for pouring without spilling would have been a task. Gulping it down, he felt better and croaked, “What time is it?”
“One, already. Want something to eat?”
“Just some toast with the coffee.” Johnny put up a hand. “Don’t bother, I’ll do it.”
“Right. When you’re finished, I’ve got something to tell you. It’s not any fatherly advice about last night. I’ll be reading the paper in the living room.”
Johnny nodded, producing a stab of pain. Noticing a glint of humor in the old eyes, he rubbed the back of his neck in a nonchalant way, though he was actually curious, for his father wasn’t serious very often. He was more like a friend than a father. They didn’t do things together much anymore, but that was cool; none of his friends hung around with their dads, either. Yet, because there were just the two of them, they talked a lot. Often the discussion was heady, at times, even freaky. Johnny couldn’t remember his dad ever going out or inviting a friend over. A loner, he thought as he watched him going into the living room.
He took his time with breakfast; the first hour after waking up was always tough for him. He had two big cups of coffee with toast covered in jam, trying to remember what he’d done at the party. Not remembering much, he hoped he hadn’t done anything stupid, though he had the nagging suspicion he had.
Wayne went to the rocking chair and picked up the paper, but he didn’t read it. Instead, he thought over what he would say to persuade Johnny to risk his life. He was fairly confident he would succeed, for he’d been raising him, above everything else, for that very purpose.
The murder of his wife, eighteen years ago, was not a distant memory. Like pulling off a fresh scab, he wouldn’t let the wound heal. Often, when he was asleep, the baleful voice of the killer would scorch his heart with jeering words taunting him for the weakling he had been.
He hid his torment well. No one knew of the extremity of the hatred he had nurtured, but keeping it under control tired him, and so, he never joined his colleagues for drinks nor invited anyone to his home.
He had planned his revenge for years, rehearsing it over and over in his mind. Now, was the perfect time to get Johnny’s help and to tell him the plan. He had waited eighteen years. He was anxious to begin.
Johnny finished breakfast, went into the living room, and plopped into a chair. His father put the paper down. He had a blank stare as if he’d forgotten what to say. Johnny shrugged. “How’s the universe?”
Wayne smiled, for physics and astronomy were two of his loves. “That’s one of the things I’d like us to change.” Leaning forward, he said in a soft voice, “I’ve rehearsed what I want to say, but I still don’t know the best way to do it. Well, here goes. It’s about that gismo in the basement. I know you’re going to think your old man has gone crazy, but this is the truth; it’s a time machine.”
There was a moan. “Dad, this headache must be screwing things up in my ears. I just heard you say we had a time machine. You’ve always told me it was some kind of failed energy saving device.”
“Sorry, I should’ve waited till you got over your hangover, but I’ve been waiting a long time to tell you.”
Caffeine was swirling the fog in Johnny’s head. Yet, he figured it was his turn to say something. “You’ve been tinkering with that thing as long as I can remember.”
“Actually, I completed most of the work ten years ago. Been doing some tests when you weren’t around. The first test involved a nail. I sent it two minutes into the future. There was a sizzle and a snap, like a television dying, and then, the nail was gone. Two minutes later another sizzle and snap, and there was the nail on the workbench. Just where I’d wanted it. I put it back into the time machine, and sent it two minutes into the past. Only difference was there was no second sizzle and snap. The nail was just on the bench as if I hadn’t put it in the machine.”
Johnny interrupted, the dots weren’t connected. “I don’t get it.”
“I assumed because it had already happened. Anyway, I was happy the machine worked, though it had some limitations.”
Johnny still didn’t get it, but he nodded.
His father explained. “The time machine can’t travel through time. It can only send things, and it takes a lot of energy. The farther in time it sends the thing the more energy it takes. Not a great deal more. But, it adds up. I doubt if I can deliver enough power for more than a twenty year trip. So, after the first tests, I had to wait a couple of days for it to recharge. When it was ready, I tried sending a worm two minutes into the past. Why a worm? Ever heard of wormholes?”
Johnny groaned at the dreadful pun.
His father chuckled. “Well, nothing happened.”
“Come on, make a guess, Johnny.”
Johnny could only come up with one thing. “Paradox?”
Wayne nodded. “Kind of. The universe does have rules about time. Of course, I was a little confused at first. I thought about it for a week. Then, I had an idea. Do you remember when you were eight we had a nest of sparrows under the roof over the porch?”
Johnny thought for a moment. “We kept watch over it so the cats wouldn’t get to them.”
“Right. Maybe you’ve forgotten, but I marked the bottom of one chick’s beak black. We called it Blackbeard.”
“Yeah. I remember now.”
“That was the first animal I sent back into the past. I sent it back to a time before it was an embryo. Sizzle and snap, it worked; Blackbeard was gone. I was puzzled why it wasn’t on the bench, so I went to the nest and there was Blackbeard, snuggled between his siblings. But, why hadn’t he appeared back on the bench? Then, I hit on the answer. Between the time it appeared in the past and the time it left the present it had to be born. As soon as that happened its older self, in the present, had to vanish and the universe from that point changed. The world was a little different from that point on. The machine had literally warped space-time.”
“So, you’re saying the universe allows a life to occupy only one time frame.”
“Bingo,” he said, shooting him with a finger.
“Have you gone anywhere. Traveled in time?”
“No. Remember? This machine only sends whatever is in it through time. It doesn’t go anywhere. It stays put in its time. So, I can only travel to a time when the machine exists if I want to come back. The future doesn’t interest me. The past is where I would have gone.”
It seemed to Johnny that his father was waiting for something to be asked. It was almost like reading a script. “Why did you build it?”
Wayne stood up to take a picture out of his wallet. He paused to lick his lips, wondering if what he’d put in the orange juice was kicking in, for he was about to enter the most crucial point. “This is my favorite picture of your mother. It was taken not long after we got married. I think it shows you’ve got her smile.”
Of course, Johnny had seen her picture before. There were a dozen of them around the house, but not that one. He stepped to the window and held it to the light. Dad and Mom were sitting on a couch together. She was leaning on his chest. He could see how happy they were and said, “She was beautiful.”
“I’ve told you she was murdered. I haven’t told you her killer was her friend. Never brought to justice. Disappeared without a trace. Wanted posters in post offices didn’t help at all.”
“Can’t you travel back and kill him?”
“I wish I could, Johnny. But, the universe won’t let me. Her killer is younger than me. He’s lived all his life in my life frame.”
Johnny saw his father could go back and kill the bastard’s mother, but he didn’t point it out, for he knew taking an innocent life was something his father wouldn’t do, not his father. Instead, he asked, “You’ve got another plan, haven’t you?”
“Yes, but it involves you. I think it’ll work, but I can’t be sure. I decided to wait till you were old enough to understand that you’re not forced to go. I am only asking you to go.”
“Okay, tell me what you need me to do.”
Wayne took a deep breath. “Listen carefully to my plan. I’ll send you back one week before you’re born. I’ve got some old clothes for you to wear and also a driver’s license and enough cash. You’ll meet him at the bar he frequents. He goes there nearly every evening after work. There you’ll start a conversation with him and squirt the poison into his drink. The poison will start taking effect in two hours and kill him so no one will suspect you. When your baby self is born, sizzle and snap, the universe will send your older self back to the present to avoid a paradox. Things will change. Your mother won’t be murdered.”
He paused to think something over, then continued. “I know I’ve explained things too easily, Johnny. Many things could go wrong. I don’t know what happens to the brain. You could lose your memory and not know what to do, or you could go mad. The sparrow grew up normally, but that was just a sparrow. Someone might see you squirt the poison into his drink. You might not be able to digest the food. I don’t think any of these will happen, but I’m not sure. I know it’s risky and you’ll be taking all the risk. It’s okay if you don’t want to go. I won’t hold it against you. You know I’ll always love you.”
Johnny didn’t need to think it over. His dad had reminders of her everywhere in the house. There was always an undercurrent of sadness and regret around him and the house, and sometimes anger, though it was only when he was drunk. But, at least, he had memories of her. For himself, there were only the pictures and the stories. Somehow, the stories made things worse. Perhaps, it was the way his father’s voice changed during the telling. A great wrong had been done. Here was the moment for revenge.
Johnny clenched his fists. “When can I go?”
Wayne took the fists into his hands. “I’ll get the machine ready. I’ll fix you dinner. We’ll talk, then you can go.”
They had Johnny’s favorite dish, drank a little wine, and talked about all the things they’d done together. Like a maestro he recounted again how he’d met the girl of his dreams. He added some new things; the funny things she used to do and the things that made her cry. He used the present tense when he talked, like he was talking about someone alive. Her absence wasn’t mentioned once. Instead, he lingered on the good things, then he took an old photo out of his wallet.
“This is the bastard who killed your mother, Johnny. Take a good look.”
They went down the stairs to the basement and stopped in front of the time machine. “Good luck, Johnny,” Wayne said with a hug. He watched his son enter the machine. They waved; then Johnny vanished.
Johnny popped into the past, with a sizzle and a snap. After checking into a hotel, he asked for directions to Harvey’s Bar. He noticed that things weren’t much different eighteen years ago, just little details. He thought looking for and finding them was like looking for Wally in those books they kept in waiting rooms.
He found the bar, no problem, took a deep breath and entered. It was pretty crowded, but not as dark as he’d imagined nor filled with the haze of cigarette smoke. Oh, there were some smokers, but they weren’t the majority as he’d expected. He looked around and spied someone who looked liked the killer standing alone at the bar. As he got closer, he noticed there was another nearly empty glass next to his on his left. Going to his right, he asked, “Do you mind if I squeeze in here?”
The man turned around. “Not at all.” Johnny got a good look at him. He already knew the face from the picture he studied: the square jaws, dark eyes, and bent nose. He was surprised at how big and muscular he was; how easily he could be intimidating.
The bartender noticed the new customer and came over. Fishing out his fake driver’s license, Johnny ordered a beer. The bartender nodded and gave him his order. Johnny turned and lifted his glass. “My first order at a bar. Alcohol, I mean.”
The man lifted his in return. “Are you eighteen?”
“Yeah. Today’s my birthday.”
“Happy birthday. This calls for a drink.” He yelled at the bartender, “Hey, Joe, get this man another beer on me.”
Johnny smiled. Things were going his way. “Thanks. So, how is this place?”
“I like the atmosphere, Joe makes some really good sandwiches, and this is where I meet my gal. We plan to get married. Buy a house. Raise a family.”
“Oh, congratulations! This calls for a drink. Hey, Joe, get this man another drink on me.”
The killer laughed. “Thanks.” Joe put the drink on the counter, a gin fizz: the target and ticket to hell. Ice clinked. Tiny bubbles were rising and popping.
Johnny tore his eyes away. “What’s your lady like?”
There was a lovely look in the eyes, not those of a killer at all. “Beautiful. Intelligent. I’m lucky to have her.”
“So, when will you get married?”
“She has to get a divorce first. But, the guy she’s married to won’t do it. She wants to raise a family and the guy is shooting blanks.”
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to intrude. I hope the husband understands her wishes soon.”
Johnny felt nervous. Maybe, he was getting too personal with the questions. He didn’t want to be pushed off, for he hadn’t poisoned the drink yet. Wanting to change the subject, he pointed to the dish of peanuts next to the untouched drink. “Do you mind if I have a few?”
“Help yourself.” He slid the dish a little closer to Johnny, then looked toward the rest rooms.
Johnny emptied the vial of poison into the drink, took a few peanuts, popped them into his mouth, and nearly choked for he recognized the woman coming towards them from the direction of the ladies room. She was his mother. It didn’t add up. If that was his mother...
She was a stunner wearing a red dress that clung to her centerfold body like a second skin. Her face was framed with long wavy brown hair that had a copper tint that matched her deep brown eyes. It seemed she approached in slow motion. Perhaps an effect from his shock, or was it from her intoxication?
She gave her lover a big smile and smacked a wet kiss on his lips. She looked at his companion with a questioning stare. The killer turned. “Sorry. I didn’t get your name.”
“Johnny,” he raised his glass, took a swallow that doomed him, and brought his woman tightly against his side, “this is Janet. I’m Greg.”
Janet offered her hand, “Nice to meet you, Johnny.”
He wiped his sweaty hand on his knee. Shook her hand. Felt dizzy. “Nice to meet you, Janet, Greg.”
Her deep cleavage and perfume stirred things up. She got closer. There was alcohol on her breath, overpowering her perfume. She noticed his discomfort; probably thought it was because of his age, totally typical guess. She giggled. “Johnny, are you old enough to drink?”
Before he could answer, Greg said, “Today is his eighteenth birthday.”
She did a Marilyn Monroe act and breathed out. “Happy birthdaaay dear Johnny. Happy birthdaaay to youuu.” She giggled again.
He smiled weakly. His mother wasn’t anything he had imagined her to be. “Thanks.” He finished his drink. “I’ve got to go. Thanks for the drink, Greg.”
“Same here, Johnny. I’ll see you around.”
He didn’t think so, but he nodded. A man with a pot belly entered the bar. It was then that he realized his mother’s belly should be ready to burst, yet it was as flat as a pool table. Next, it hit him what Greg had said about his lady’s husband: shooting blanks.
He needed to know the date. Right now. Couldn’t ask. He shouted, “Joe, have you got a newspaper here?”
“Next to the cigarette machine. It’s a quarter. With your drinks that’ll be four fifty.”
Tossing a five on the counter, he nearly ran to get his newspaper. He stood holding the paper in trembling hands. The date was half a year earlier than it should have been. Questions bombarded his mind. What was going on? Why did his father send him to this date? Why wasn’t he told the truth about his mother? Did his father know he wasn’t his flesh and blood?
He whirled around. Greg’s glass was tilted over his mother’s lips. The poison flooding down her throat. He felt sick. In two hours he would be double dead. Dead in the womb. Never born.
Johnny wondered if his mother’s death was part of the plan. Everything in him wanted to believe in an accident. Yet, he knew he would never know.
Johnny took one last look at his mother across the bar, in his real father’s embrace, laughing at some joke he couldn’t hear.
He wanted to shout out through the wall of eighteen years, “Hey, Dad, take me back!”
Wayne stood next to the machine. He didn’t expect Johnny to appear, but there was a chance he would fail in poisoning Greg. Greg and Janet had deserved to die. The two he had loved and trusted the most had betrayed him. They had, in essence, killed him. He wouldn’t have done it if Janet hadn’t sneered in his face that Johnny was not his son, that she and Greg had long been lovers. He had begged her to stay, to leave Greg, to raise the boy as their own. She had slapped him and that had released the rage.
He had killed her then, and Greg that evening. He couldn’t bring himself to kill the baby. Yet, the boy was a constant reminder. Eighteen years was a long time to wait to kill a pair of roaches a second time. It couldn’t be done any ordinary way. It had to be done with the product of their treachery.
Just one thing bothered him, for he was a man who loved to plan everything to the last detail. It was the fact that he couldn’t calculate the odds of Janet taking a drink from Greg’s glass, but judging from experience they weren’t bad. Besides, he thought, it was the only game in town. Stifling a laugh, Wayne pulled the tarps over the machine, climbed the stairs, and flicked off the lights.