by Bilal Latif
Norman weathers the storm of the past.
By Bilal Latif
Norman opens his umbrella and strides through the rain toward yesterday.
Behind, in the water-hazed distance, Del shouts his name, boots slapping through puddles and scraping over granite to clomp straight for him. “Norman, stop!”
Norman twists the umbrella’s handle, peers into the crimson canopy and asks, “Ready, Ariel?”
The handle hums her voice into his earpiece. “Dates and coordinates set, sir.”
“Good.” As the boots stomp closer, Norman halts. Closes his eyes. “Execute.”
Ariel chimes in his palm. Rain sprays in his face. Del shouts at his back.
And when Norman opens his eyes, Del’s voice is not a yell in the rain crashing behind him but a murmur from the trees clustered ahead. Norman weaves between their trunks, brushes aside their hanging branches and peers into the clearing they overlook: twenty feet from the treeline, ten-year younger face twisted in anxiety, limps Del.
Del glances toward the trees. “Find anything, Norman?”
Norman’s heart jolts. But before his mouth can shape words, his own voice answers, out beyond Del and drawing closer: “We can’t give up. I remember hearing her voice near here.”
And as the thirty-year old Norman who said that reaches Del’s side, the Norman who fancies himself forty years young squeezes the umbrella handle and mutters, “Ariel, this is the wrong date.”
“Negative, sir. It’s the first date on the latest list in my memory.”
“Latest list?” Loud enough to make younger Norman and Del both glare in his direction.
Ariel speaks directly into forty-year old Norman’s ear. “It was amended twenty minutes before departure.”
Norman starts to speak but stops when Del points toward him and says, “What’s that red thing behind the trees?”
Norman remembers the crimson umbrella canopy. “Ah,” he whispers, twisting the handle clockwise. “Ariel, we need something inconspicuous.” The handle pulses and turns his gaze upward, where the umbrella’s ribs drain red from its canopy to pump greens and browns and yellows in perfect mimicry of its surroundings.
Del frowns, shakes his head and steps back, the motors in his boots humming. “Swear there was something.” Turns to younger Norman. “Like when she disappeared.”
The Norman holding the umbrella mumbles, “Ariel, how long until we can depart to the date of Leira’s disappearance?”
“I’ll need a moment to recharge, sir.”
Younger Norman gazes at the trees. “What was it you two heard that day, Del? A scream?”
Del nods. “A scream cut short. Some kind of struggle behind the treeline. Wish we’d found some sign of it by now, it’s been weeks.” He inclines his head. “I got spooked, busted my ankles and Leira was gone. Sorry I couldn’t do more. I know what it’s like to lose a daughter, and after everything you’ve done for me since the fire…”
Younger Norman rests a hand on Del’s shoulder. “A friend in need, man.”
Del smiles. “You need to stay out of the lab.”
“It’s all about the long game.” Younger Norman’s faint smile fades as older Norman’s pulse quickens at the sight of his past-self’s dawning epiphany, what was once merely a memory now made flesh when thirty-year old Norman grabs Del’s shoulders and says, “That’s it. I’ll prevent this from happening. We have to get back to the lab.”
And when his younger counterpart dashes away despite Del’s protestations, Norman remembers the years of study his past-self has yet to seclude himself from friends and family to undertake, study that led eventually to the creation of Ariel, a digital ghost with an aged simulation of his daughter’s voice, his guide through time and his delusion, his shield against the realisation that the two words the Del he’d left in the rain had used to describe Norman’s work were both fair and accurate: mad science.
And when Ariel says, “Fully charged, sir,” he needs a moment to shut his eyes, to breathe, to utter, “Execute.”
The handle chimes and his eyes open to the same treeline as expected. But between him and the view of the clearing stands an old man, who turns and smiles. “Hello, Norman. I think we’re early.”
Norman draws nearer, scrutinises the lines of the man’s face, the spark in his eyes, the boots on his feet. “Del?”
“Haven’t aged a day, have I?” Del grins and approaches him, the servos in his boots whirring with each step. “Hope you don’t mind me enhancing my footwear with your tech. Your designs were the only thing you left that rainy day.”
“You… walked through time?”
“Doesn’t everybody?” Del laughs. “Just a shame I have to set each boot separately.”
Norman nods. “I suppose you amended my list of dates before I departed.”
“So long ago I can’t remember if it was deliberate. But if you ended up here on the date I think you did, hopefully it helped you see where I’m coming from.”
Norman looks from Del’s face to his boots, toe caps glowing faintly with small, twin dates. When Leira disappeared. And if Del is here, aged, stepping through time… “After I left, you tried to go back and save your family from the fire.”
“Yes,” Del whispers. “Tried.”
“Del, I’m sorry.”
“So many attempts over so many years.” Del sniffs. “Whatever I did, whenever I did it, only hastened the inevitable.” He tries to smile. “Fight time and all you get is old.”
As Norman tries to comfort his friend, a familiar delighted squeal bursts from the clearing. “Leira?” There, just beyond the treeline, she runs, all beautiful five years of her. He lunges forward.
Something whirs, slams into his shin. He tumbles and twists. Weight presses his chest, pins him to the ground. Over him stands Del, one powered boot planted on Norman’s breastbone. Del wags his finger, picks up the umbrella and closes it. “I’ve always admired this design. Practical, adaptable to most time periods and best of all,” Del chuckles, “delicate.” He hammers it into the dirt until it snaps and flicks the severed umbrella shaft handle-first into Norman’s face.
Norman grabs the umbrella remnant and glares. “Why?”
Del leans for Norman’s eyes, powered boot increasing pressure. “You can’t fight time, but you can play the long game. That struggle I heard behind the trees so long ago was us.” He grins. “Guess the scream that spooked me was you.” He looks into the clearing. “I know what it’s like to lose a daughter. Now I’ll see how it feels to replace one.”
Norman does not think. He simply stabs the broken umbrella shaft into Del’s thigh, shin, boot. Repeatedly. When Del falls, Norman rises and stabs Del’s other boot.
“Norman,” Del whimpers, “get the boots off me, they’re malfunctioning…”
Norman glances at them, sees the dates on each toe cap are mismatched. One is prehistoric. And as the boots chime identically to Ariel when she jumps him through time, he steps away. “Goodbye, Del.”
Del vanishes mid-scream, bisected by time.
Norman heads for the clearing, tightening his grip on the umbrella handle, its broken shaft swaying with each step. “Ariel, status report.”
Her reply is a garbled stream of static interspersed with phrases like “critical error” and “departure imminent” and “date undetermined”.
“Don’t depart yet, I’ve nearly got her.” There she is, just beyond the trees, scared by the scream she has just heard, asking Del’s past-self what it was, even as he lifts her up and heads for the treeline and suggests they continue hiding from Daddy, but she struggles and kicks and escapes his grip to send him sliding through the dirt, his ankles colliding with protruding roots to tear screams from his lying mouth.
She runs through the treeline from the kidnapping bastard she’s unknowingly condemned to a lifetime of powered boots, out of the clearing and into Norman’s sight. “Leira!”
She stops. Stares. Speaks. “Daddy?”
And he reaches her and lifts her and spins her round to kiss her head and hold her close. “I’ve got you, Leira.”
Through his tears, he sees her beautiful face contort in confusion. “You look different, Daddy.”
Well. There it is. The Daddy she’s known is his thirty-year old past-self who right now has run to the clearing and shouts her name. And isn’t this why the Norman who cradles her in one arm and the umbrella remnant in the other has done this to begin with? Prevention? He just has to get her back to his past-self and ten years of pain will vanish like old Del had. Norman kisses her forehead. “Let’s get you home.”
He sprints for the clearing, closer to his past-self’s calls. She calls back, looks from him to the direction of the younger voice, and the older Norman smiles. “Don’t worry, baby.” Because there’s nothing to worry about. She doesn’t have to disappear. He will fight time and he will win, because the clearing is only feet away, happiness a few steps in front of him.
Ariel buzzes in his ear: “Departure imminent.” The handle chimes. And when he steps into where the clearing should be, there are only trees.
“Date undetermined.” Static. Silence.
Leira’s arms curl round his shoulders. “Where are we, Daddy?”
Though the air is thick in his lungs and a thunderclap resonates in his ears, he cradles her head and says, “Safe.” Even as the rain falls and the wind blows, he has her, and she has him.
Whenever they are is tomorrow.