Fantasy Fiction posted December 27, 2016

This work has reached the exceptional level
A young girl wanders the past with a mysterious stranger.

The Past is a Thin Place - Part 3

by dweigt

I asked him how this was possible, and he sheepishly admitted he didn't know, only that it was. He had learned by trial and error, and had nearly been caught in time himself a few times, before he had learned to safely navigate the past. And he laughed when I compared our predicament to stories of time travel I had read or seen in movies.

"First of all, I've never found a portal to the future. I don't think there are any, because the future hasn't happened yet. It's just a big blob of possibilities, unmade choices, nothing certain. It would be like trying to read a book that hasn't been written yet," he explained as we waited for a favorable portal to open.

Most of them formed in out of the way places, places where little changed from day to day, places most people avoided instinctually. This one was in the back of a failed strip mall. The cracked asphalt was clumped with weeds and broken glass, and the walls were a kaleidoscopic riot of color, every inch covered in layers of graffiti. It looked like an excellent place to be mugged.

"But how can we go to the past? If everything is done and settled, how can we fit in?"

"It's set and done, but there is still some flexibility. There is enough uncertainty, enough left over possibility, to allow for us. But only for a while, before we use up the possibilities and then we either get out or get trapped. And the further back in time we go, the less flexibility there seems to be, less that can change without big effects, so we have less time we can spend there."

I nodded. In some times we had visited, those decades before my birth, I could almost feel the weight of the days to come, squeezing out the possibilities around us. In those times, we only had minutes to find our way out. I imagined myself as a bug being pressed flat between the pages of a history book, becoming permanently part of the page. Leaving those days felt like a swimmer breaking the surface, gasping sweet air after a deep dive to the cold, still depths.

"OK." It sounded crazy, but since I was travelling through the past, I had to accept it. I kicked at a tin can on the ground. "But won't even the tiniest change, like me moving this can, change everything? And I'm not talking about butterflies, but still..."

He had told me something he had read about, some theory about chaos. He had spent a lot of time reading in libraries, trying to understand what we were doing. But everything he had read about time travel seemed completely wrong. Like the chaos theory, which claimed a butterfly flapping its wings could cause a hurricane on the other side of the world. I told him that seemed stupid, even to me. He explained that was just an extreme case, an example of tiny changes cascading, with huge impacts. But he had found that theory was wrong.

"Maybe the future is like that, but not the past. The past is set and done, but it's still flexible, and absorbs tiny changes like that. But it snaps back to its original path quickly, and nothing has changed."

"But still, what if you accidentally made a little change that had a big effect?"

"You can't. The past guards itself, somehow. All those stories about meeting yourself, or your grandparents... or preventing Pearl Harbor or the Kennedy assassination... impossible. I think all the possibilities are used up around those events, leaving no room for us even to observe. You can't even get near those people, those times. Trying is like walking into a brick wall."

I didn't press the matter. I didn't want to meet my grandparents when they were my age. And Kennedy meant as little as Lincoln to me. I just wanted to go home.

I lost count of how many times we slipped between timelines, and it was hopeless to keep track of subjective time. When you could step from a sunny, summer afternoon to an icy winter night a decade earlier, how can you count the passage of days? We ate when we were hungry, napped when we were tired, and I felt like days had passed, possibly weeks.

I had grown comfortable around him, and because there was no one else to talk to, I talked to him. I told him about school, about my friends, about my family. I told him everything. Thinking back, I would have expected him to be bored with the ramblings of a pre-teen girl. He never encouraged me, never asked questions, but he chuckled at times and looked surprised at others, so I knew he was paying attention. And at one point I came out of my self-absorption and looked at him in surprise. "I don't even know your name!"

"Mmm?" he muttered, not glancing my way because he was busy evaluating a portal. By then I had picked up a little of the knack. The chill tingling of my nose and fingertips was evidence of a nearby gate between times, and I thought I could even catch an inkling that this one would take us forward, toward the present.

"I don't know your name! I've told you everything, things I haven't even told my best friends, and you haven't even told me your name!"

Without turning he answered, "You call me Walking Man."

"That's not a name! It's a title, like the Boogey Man!"

"Then call me Walker." He was holding his hands out, as though he could feel the portal in the air before us. Maybe he could.

"Is that your name? Walker? Is it your first name? Last name?"

He turned and looked at me, shaking his head sadly. "What do I need with a name? I'm a ghost, lost in time, wandering alone. When you ran into me, I hadn't spoken to another person in so long, I'm surprised I remembered how."

I felt ashamed, realizing that I had been so wrapped up in my own fears, my own quest to return home, I had never once wondered about him. He had talked to me, of course, but always to instruct me or guide me in our strange adventure. While I had prattled on about my hopes and fears, my conflicts with my mother and brother, my chaotic web of relationships with the kids in my school, he had remained a stoic mystery. And, to my shame, I hadn't even realized it until that moment.

"Why are you doing this? How did you even start doing this?"

"Not now. The portal..."

"Will be open for a long time. Even I can tell that much." I grabbed his tattered jacket and pulled him to face me. "Walker... that first time the timeline was closing around us, and you pulled me free... You thought you lost me. You said you couldn't take that again. Did you... lose someone?"

"Don't. The less you know, the better. We'll get you back home, and you forget about all of this."

"Tell me, Walker! Tell me, or I swear I will stay right here and let this timeline swallow me up so I never go home!" I believed it when I said it, but I was nearly thirteen and prone to emotional outbursts. My resolve faltered almost instantly, but it had moved him.

"When I was about your age, I accidentally found a door to the past. Luckily, I also found my way back. It frightened me, but after that I could sense the places where the past and present touched."

"So you've been skipping through time since you were my age?"

"Oh, no! I could sense the doorways, the portals, but I avoided them, and noticed that most people did as well without even knowing they were doing so." He hesitated and I felt a slight trembling in his arms. Although I was bursting with questions, I feared pressing him would cause him to withdraw, so I forced myself to remain silent. After a long pause my patience was rewarded and he continued. "And I tried to forget it. When you're young, the past seems insignificant, and the endless future is so much more enticing. But as you get older, it becomes easy to dwell on the past, to live in your yesterdays. Especially after you... lose someone. And yes, I did lose someone. My grief consumed me. In such times, it's easy to think if only I could go back and change things... Unlike most people, I knew how to go back to the past. So I did. But then I found going back was easy, but change was hard."

"The universe... reality resisted you?" I asked, but I knew the answer before he nodded.

"I thought I could change things... but I can't. Yes, the timeline resists. The whole damned universe resists. And I'm just one crazy man, trying to change it, and failing. I used to think I could find some trick, some loophole in the rules... but I've almost given up. I just continue because I've nothing else to do."

"But, why don't you just go home?"

"I've been trying to change my past for so long... If I went back to my original time, I'd be years older than when I left. How would I explain that? Anyway, there is nothing left for me there... then." He took a deep breath and shook the sadness from his shoulders. "But that isn't true for you. Come on."

He took my hand and pulled me through the portal.

I felt strange, even considering I had just stepped from one time to another. Something was different, something felt wrong. I pulled out my cellphone and checked the date. It was three days after the day I had followed Walker through the first portal.

"We're in the future!" I showed him my phone. "Three days in the future! You told me that was impossible, we could only go to the past."

"Maybe I was wrong." He looked nervous, and I could tell he wasn't telling me everything. "I've never found a portal to the future before this."

"Or..." I squinted, thinking hard, trying to make sense of impossibilities. "Maybe you still haven't! Walker, are you from the future? My future? Is this still the past for you?"

"Don't even think about that. Just... just forget it! Forget any of this ever happened!" He bent down, so our eyes were level, and held my shoulders. "But tell Jeremy to pay less attention to sports cars and more to you."

Before I could respond, he lifted me and tossed me through the air, into a crowd of people waiting for a bus. I felt an electric jolt as we collided and they all turned toward me, their faces smearing and blurring. Then everything was normal, and they were looking at me with confusion and anger, wondering why I had tumbled into them. I was entangled, permanently bound to their timeline.

I looked up, just in time to see Walker disappear around a corner.

I had been gone for three days. My parents had called the school, the bus company, all my friends, and finally the police. Of course, I wasn't found. Someone from the bus stop recognized me from the news stories, and called 911. In ten minutes, I was in the back of a squad car, and twenty minutes after that I was home, in my mother's arms.

I lied about what had happened. I had to. I knew no one would believe me. But I wasn't very good at lying, and my parents had spent three frantic days eliminating my most likely alibis. None of my friends could provide a cover story for me, and they pressed me for answers almost as hard as my parents did. Finally, I just said I had run away from home and slept in the park under a bush. Of course, Mom and Dad wanted to know why I would do such a thing, and I didn't have a good answer.

Showing Carson the two blurry pictures I had taken of Walker... Walking Man, was a major mistake. I suppose he thought he was doing his brotherly duty when he ratted me out to Mom and Dad. They gave the pictures to the police, and for a couple of weeks they tried to find Walker, but couldn't.

I had a few sessions with a social worker who gave me a doll, like I was a little kid, and asked me to point to the places on the doll where Walker had touched me. I threw the doll on her desk and told her he didn't touch me like that, he was just a legend, and I didn't know who the stranger in my photos was, just some guy I saw from the bus.

One day as I was leaving for school, Mom hugged me close and said she didn't understand why I wouldn't tell her where I had been or why, but to please, please, never frighten her like that again. I promised, and after that we never spoke of it.

My life went back to normal. I kept it that way. When I felt an electric chill in the air, I ignored it and avoided that spot. I didn't think about Walking Man again, and if I sensed a shadowy presence on the edge of my vision, I didn't look, didn't make eye contact. I finished high school, went to college, started my career, met a great guy and got engaged.

Yesterday, Jeremy and I were walking to the bakery to select our wedding cake. He's been sweet, working with me on all the arrangements for our big day, even though I know he'd rather elope. As we neared an intersection, I was talking about my mother's preference for a traditional cake, and my own interest in something edgier and modern, when a Ferrari rolled by in the opposite direction. At least I think it was a Ferrari, or maybe a Lambo... one of those ridiculously expensive Italian sports cars that looks like something you'd wedge under a door to keep it open.

Jeremy stopped and turned, his eyes tracking the car. I turned to say something to him as I stepped off the curb, into the cross street. I felt a tingle of electricity and a sudden chill in the air. I looked ahead, and saw Walking Man standing in front of me, in the crosswalk.

His face was flickering and smearing, and his body seemed about to melt into the asphalt. He looked ancient, and I wondered how many years had passed for him, wandering the past alone, since he had delivered me home. He didn't belong there, then, but he stood firm, bending reality to his will. I could tell he was in pain as the timeline fought him, tearing at him, but he smiled and his green-gold eyes sparkled as he said, "Loophole!"

I stepped back, and opened my mouth to speak when I heard the screech of tires sliding across pavement. A car skidded past, missing me by inches, and striking Walker, then spinning sideways before skidding to a halt a few yards down the street. I could see the front bumper and one side of the hood were crumpled from the impact, the windshield shattered and bowed in the shape of a body, but Walker was nowhere in sight.

A young girl jumped out, talking on her cell phone. "I hit somebody! I hit somebody! Where the hell did he go? I just looked up and he was standing in front of the car! Where is he?"

Jeremy grabbed me, pulling me back, away from the street. He held me, and kissed me, as he repeated over and over, "I almost lost you!"

"I'm... I'm alright." I clung to him, burying my face against his chest, catching the scent of his cologne, cedar and citrus. I shuddered, thinking of how my bright future, my time of choices and possibilities had almost been lost. The future stretched wide and limitless before us, while the past lay thin and frozen, with no chance for choice or change. And yet, I knew the two were somehow entangled in that moment.

I know Jeremy felt it too. Felt how close we had stood to the precipice. Although the danger was past, he only slowly released his grip on me. His large hands cupped my face, and he stared at me with his amazing green eyes, flecked with gold.

Story of the Month contest entry


The thrilling (I hope!) conclusion.

Thanks to Angelina Onofrio for an excellent image.
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