Bernard arrived at the bus stop and glanced at his watch: 7:32. Plenty of time. He hadn’t thought he’d make it, having materialised so far away. His old heart was beating heavily from the run. He wasn’t sure how much more of this he could do, but he wouldn’t stop. Not until he had to. Not until time finally caught up with him.
He sat on the hard plastic bench, unfolded the newspaper he had tucked under his left armpit, and tried to look as natural as possible. People and buses came and went, but still Bernard waited for that one person, that special someone he’d travelled all this way to see.
His attention was caught by a woman calling to him, asking whether he needed help boarding the bus. The step was quite a distance from the pavement, she explained. He ‘thanked’ her rather curtly, annoyed by the unwelcome distraction. He explained impatiently that although he was rapidly approaching his seventieth year he was perfectly capable of crossing the short distance, adding that he was waiting for someone. Sometimes he wished he could become invisible. It would make things a whole lot easier.
During those few quiet moments between the departure of one bus and the arrival of another, he reflected on how best to approach the problem he was here to solve. How many had he fixed now? How many had he failed to fix, having no choice but to resort to desperate measures? And still he hadn’t worked out the perfect formula. Every single one was different.
Yet this one was unique. He’d never tackled one quite like this before.
The night before a jaunt was often sleepless, fraught with difficulty over what to say. He was a fast learner, and quick to adapt, but for the first time in years, he was afraid.
You’re the most amazing man I’ve ever known, Elsie had once told him. You can do anything, I’ve no doubt of that. Ah, she was a good woman. If only she’d been right. If she had, she never would have left him. He should have told her while he had the chance. That was one place he could never go back to. If he messed it up, it was final. He couldn’t handle that.
He had to succeed. It had been far too long since he’d last seen her. Maybe that was why he’d been failing so much lately… he only had a finite number of visits remaining, and the more he succeeded, the quicker they ran out. And what point would there be in doing this insane job after that?
Bernard often wondered why he did this. When his life was over, not a single person in the world would know what he had done. He was nobody. Just an old man sitting in the corner or at a bus stop. He was doomed to obscurity.
But knowing he’d contributed… the reward in that alone was beyond the comprehension of most. He’d changed much, but he couldn’t change everything. He couldn’t go back to before he was born. But he’d done far more than most would be willing to. And yet it still didn’t feel like enough.
He checked his watch again: 7:46. Any minute now.
He looked up, right and then left, spotting a figure carrying a backpack approaching from the east, cast in silhouette by the still-rising sun.
It was him.
The lad sat on the far end of the bench, placing his red-and-black bag by his feet. An bass-heavy tinny din leaked from his headphones as he played with his phone. He looked much younger in person. His black hair was arranged in cornrows, his red-cheque shirt and combat-style trousers baggy, all part of the supposed ‘gangsta’ look. Finding and appealing to the real man under the thick layer of phoney persona was going to be a challenge.
Bernard realised there was no point in trying to talk to him just yet, he’d never be heard over the noise being pumped directly into the lad’s ears, so he shuffled a little closer. The lad was paying no attention to the old man. Bernard kept moving closer, until he brushed the boy’s arm with his own.
The boy took one headphone out and tutted. “Oi, do you want to watch what you’re doing, you old fogie?”
Charming boy, Bernard considered. Broaching conversations with strangers was always tricky. The wider the age and culture gaps, the longer the bridge needed to be made. He decided to go for the creepy approach. That was guaranteed to get the attention of anyone, but especially a jaded young man like this.
Bernard cleared his throat loudly, drawing another gaze from the lad, and said, “Sorry, please excuse me, Miles.”
Miles stared at him for several moments. “Who the fuck do you think you are, old man? How the fuck do you know my name?”
Bernard had expected such brashness. “Have some respect now, Miles. I’m old enough to be your grandfather,” he smiled.
“Yeah, well you ain’t, are you, so why don’t you get lost?”
“Can’t. Bus isn’t here yet.”
“Then leave me in peace ’til it is.”
“Why? To give you a few precious extra minutes with which you can prepare the bomb?”
Miles slowly turned his gaze towards Bernard again. “The fuck did you say?”
“You heard me.”
“You some crazy-ass white cracker mother fucker? What makes you think you can just throw around allegations like that?”
“Don’t play stupid with me. I know, alright? Gig’s up.”
“So what, you a fed?”
“Then who the hell are you?”
“Just a concerned citizen, trying to do the right thing.”
“And what’s that? Stopping me from completing my righteous quest?”
“Is that what you call it?”
“That’s what it is.”
“If you say so. And as a matter of fact, yes. That’s exactly why I’m here.”
“This is none of your business, alright? So just leave me alone.”
“Ah, this is my ride,” Bernard said as the bus pulled up.
Miles rushed straight through the door with no regard for Bernard whatsoever, throwing his money at the driver.
Bernard paid his fare and followed Miles, waiting to see where the boy sat. As expected, Miles chose a window seat at the very back, placing his backpack on the opposite seat.
Bernard sat next to Miles, blocking him in.
“Yo man, you seriously trying to get hurt? You want me to cut you?”
“Would that make you feel better? Do you like hurting people?”
Miles closed his mouth so hard his lower lip covered his upper lip. His eyes narrowed in anger, and he turned his head to look out of the window. “You know nothing about me, old man.”
“I know enough.”
Bernard dropped the folded newspaper on Miles’ lap. It sat there for several moments before Miles picked it up to hand it back. That was when he saw the picture of himself on the front page. Student Miles Edgerton, 14, kills 31, including himself.
In a tremulous, subdued voice, Miles asked, “Tomorrow’s paper? This a joke? You some old pervert who’s been watching me or some shit?”
“I’m afraid the explanation is far more mundane than that, my boy. I came back in time.”
Miles scoffed. “First of all, old man, time travel is a load of tosh. Second of all, I ain’t your boy, so step off, alright?”
“You are a man of science, therefore you must be aware that there’s nothing in the laws of physics forbidding time travel. Most scientists just haven’t figured it out yet.”
“Hang on, do you seriously expect me to believe that you managed to build something beyond the world’s top scientists?”
“You’re assuming the world’s top scientists haven’t perfected time travel. Big mistake.”
“If they’d invented it, we’d know about it.”
“Do you really think that’s how the world works? Are you seriously telling me that you’ve never had a secret you’ve kept from everyone, even those closest to you?”
Miles had a look in his eye that Bernard didn’t much like, a look he couldn’t quite read but one not all that far away from an aggressive response, so Bernard decided it might be best to avoid pursuing that particular avenue of conversation. He had to get the lad onside, not alienate him.
Miles asked quietly, “So are you seriously telling me that you can go wherever you like?”
“No. I can’t go forward, only back. And only to the time when the device was built, no earlier.”
“So it’s not really travel as such then, is it? Because when you travel, you can go wherever you want, back and forth and sideways.”
“I suppose so. But that depends on the vehicle. A train isn’t under the control of any of its passengers.”
“There are limitations, but you still have control. Maybe there were other ways.”
“Maybe. But I did the best I could. Anyway, we’re getting off-topic here. Tell me, what did they do to deserve it, Miles?”
Miles looked out of the window again. Softly, he said, “You wouldn’t understand.”
“Just drop it, okay?”
“I can’t help you if you don’t let me. Listen, odds are that after today you’ll never see me again. So what harm is there?”
“You tell me something about you. Then I’ll consider it.”
“Alright. Fine. When I was a kid, I used to read comic books. I thought it seemed strange that you didn’t really see any super-animals. So I made a red cape out of one of my mum’s dresses when I was home alone one day, and put it on the cat. Then I climbed into the loft and threw the cat out of the window onto the street below.”
Miles looked at Bernard in disgust. “You threw a cat out of a window? Why would you do that?”
“Because I was young and very stupid. Don’t worry, the cat was fine. It landed on its feet, just as it should. I was grounded for three months. After that, most of my friends had decided to move on. I know it’s not the same, but I know what it’s like to feel alone.”
“Man, that’s messed up.”
“I know. Believe it or not, you’re the first person I’ve ever told that story to.”
“Alright. I suppose it’s my turn. I didn’t do anything stupid though, just so you understand. Well, not that stupid, anyway.”
“Enough about what you didn’t do. What did you do?”
“I asked someone out, alright? Only they said no. It spread around the school like wildfire, and now everyone’s laughing at me.”
“Are they, or is that just your imagination?”
Miles took his phone from his jacket pocket and loaded YouTube, showing Bernard a video of him being chased and harassed by half a dozen other kids. “That look like it’s in my head?”
“Shit. Did one girl cause all that?”
“It wasn’t a girl, alright? It was a boy.”
Someone in the video started calling Miles a fag. Over, and over, and over again. “Hey, do you fancy me? Get back here, fag! Come on, what’s wrong with me? Too muscly for you? You only like the scrawny ones, eh? Oi! Where you goin’, you fuckin’ fag? You goin’ to wank over some gay porn? Fuckin’ fag! Get him!” The people chased him, cornering him behind some garages. They pushed him to the ground and kicked him relentlessly. It was hard to watch.
Tears were streaming down Miles’ cheeks.
Bernard asked, “When was this filmed?”
“Forgive me for saying so, but it seems odd to me that none of them hit you in the face.”
“They’re not that stupid. They keep it where no one will see it.” Miles opened his coat and lifted his t-shirt, revealing a massive black bruise on his belly.
“That’s just deplorable. I understand your hatred, that sheer anger, but blowing them up and taking a whole load of innocents with you seems a bit extreme.”
“No one in that place is innocent.”
“Can’t you just fight them back? When I was a lad that was the best way to deal with a bully.”
“The bloody cowards won’t ever take me on alone. They always gang up on me. It was my own stupid fault… I never should have said anything. Coming out in high school… how fucking stupid did I have to be?”
“Don’t you have any friends?”
“Not any more. They all turned on me. Even Mike. He was my best mate, and now whenever I see him he just asks whether I fancy him…”
“Can’t you just move school?”
“I’m not gonna run away from my problems! I’m gonna tackle them head on!”
“Come on, Miles. You built a bomb, for crying out loud, so you’re obviously a smart guy. There must be another way. You don’t have to do this.”
“You know, you might be right… there might be one other way. If you’re from the future, why not send me back to before I said anything? Maybe then I can avoid this whole mess in the first place…”
“I’m afraid it doesn’t work that way. My abilities are very limited… I can only go to places where I haven’t already been, and only ever once. You can’t go back to where you’ve already been.”
“Yeah, but you could give it to me and let me go back just far enough, just out of the way that I can change things. Make it all better.”
“Everyone thinks that. Everyone says, ‘If I could just go back and change this or that, perhaps I could avoid everything. Perhaps I could have a better life’. I used to think the same. But trust me, it doesn’t work that way. Something else always gets in the way… you create a new timeline, and it might not necessarily be better than the one you erased. Besides, if you could remove every obstacle that stood in your way, would you really want to? What adversities would you have left to motivate you? Adversity creates greatness. There is no nirvana, Miles. No ideal life. We each have our struggles, even those people who pick on you. Odds are, that’s why they pick on you. Their lives are hollow, meaningless. They’re jealous of you.”
“Whatever, man. They don’t know the pain I go through every day.”
“No one’s problems are any better or worse than anyone else’s. They’re equally valid.”
“I just don’t understand why you won’t let me go back, just once, to set things right.”
“Sorry. This is my curse alone.”
“Oh, come on! I mean, if you made a machine that can send you back in time, then you must have had some of your own shit to fix.”
“I did. It was my mistake. Time travel was my solution, and it only brought me more pain. I ended up erasing a friend from existence. Now I’m the only one who knows he ever existed, and there’s nothing I can do to bring him back. I became such a wreck I even became unfit to look after my sick wife. It kills me every single day that she had to move into a care home. But those are my problems, and I don’t expect anyone to try to fix them for me. Just as you shouldn’t expect anyone to fix your problems for you.”
“Then why are you here?”
“To stop you from blowing up your school.”
“So what, you think their lives are worth than mine?”
“Absolutely not. I think your death is one of the greatest tragedies I’ve ever known. Such a brilliant mind going to waste, just because you can’t ignore your emotions.”
“Of course I can’t just ignore my feelings. I’m not a sociopath.”
“I know. Which is why I believe you can formulate a peaceful solution. One that will allow you and those who have wronged you to coexist.”
“Easy for you to say. What if I can’t? What if I ignore you and just do what I set out to do in the first place?”
“Then I’ll have to erase you from existence.”
“You’re joking, right?”
Bernard said in a frighteningly serious tone, “Piece of cake. I’ve done it many times before. Too many.”
“Not me, though. You’ll never get me. I’ll get you first.”
“You won’t even see it coming. I’ll go back to before you even met me. It’ll be quick.”
“You sneaky time-travelling ninja… shit.”
“I don’t like doing it. But if I can save thirty-one lives by taking yours…” Bernard shrugged, “so be it.”
“So what do you think I should do?”
“Get revenge the best way possible. Don’t rise to it. Use your smarts. Show them what a gay man can do. Build something that will blow their minds, not their bodies. You have potential, Miles. Just look at what Neil deGrasse Tyson achieved, despite overwhelming odds.”
“What, you think just because another black man became a scientist, I can too? He isn’t even gay!”
“Maybe not, but he overcame adversity to rise to a position as one of the country’s leading astrophysicists. Work hard, and in twenty years that could be you.”
“Twenty years… twenty long years with no guarantee of success. Twenty years of abuse from people just because I like men instead of women.”
“Twenty years of proving everyone who ever doubted you wrong.”
Bernard pressed the button for the next stop.
“Where are you goin’?” Miles asked.
“I’ve said everything I came here to say.”
“I’m afraid so. The rest is up to you. Please don’t disappoint me, Miles.”
The bus stopped and Bernard alighted, newspaper in hand. He watched the bus disappear down the road, Miles looking at him out of the rear window.
Bernard opened his watch’s face and pressed the return button.
Bernard’s lonely, all-too-familiar living room rematerialised around him. He stood on the spot for several moments, the newspaper folded under his arm, afraid to open it.
Too many failures in a row did that to a person.
He drew a deep breath, held it, and unfolded the paper.
Miles Edgerton, 14, kills 63, including himself.
“God damn it!” Bernard cried. He fell back onto the sofa, the paper falling onto the floor. “How did I make it worse? What am I doing wrong? Why can’t I save them?” Maybe he’d saved too many, and now the universe was responding in kind.
Maybe he should just leave things well alone. Maybe he should have left everything well alone. Who was he to meddle? Maybe there was some greater cosmic power out there, beyond time and reality, that had taken exception to his actions. But he’d always tried to be selfless… hadn’t he? What if he hadn’t? Had he been doing it for his own personal gratification all along?
Whatever the case, he would change things just one more time. He had to stop Miles. Fixing that mistake really was the least he could do.
He crossed the room and reached atop the cabinet full of Elsie’s patterned plates in the dining area, taking down the red-painted wooden box containing his pistol. The silencer was still attached.
He set his watch to the day before yesterday, entered rough coordinates that should land him just around the corner from the family home, and pressed the button.
A second later, he was there, behind a small family home, standing on a recently-mowed lawn strewn with kids’ toys. He walked around the side of the house, letting himself through the gate onto the street, and walked along, his weapon concealed inside his jacket, waiting for Miles to return home from school.
He hated this part.
He saw a kid walking up the road, that red-and-black backpack draped over one shoulder, and drew a deep breath.
He really hated this part.
The kid drew nearer. There was no good place to do this. He didn’t want to kill Miles in front of his family, and he typically made a rule of avoiding executing anyone in the open, but the street was quiet enough that it was the better choice. Who cared if anyone saw him? What difference would it make now? He was never doing this again.
When Bernard was close enough, he said to the lad, “Hello, Miles.”
Miles jumped back. “What? Who the hell are you? How do you know my name?”
“I’m really sorry, Miles.”
“Sorry? For what?”
“That it has to be this way. That you have so much hate in your heart that you leave me no alternative.”
As Miles slowly backed away from him, Bernard pulled out the gun and fired a single shot into Miles’ chest.
Miles stared down at his jacket, slowly soaking with blood, and stared at Bernard in sheer shock. He dropped to his knees on the cold concrete sidewalk.
“Such a waste,” Bernard sighed.
Bernard positioned the tip of the silencer against Miles’ forehead and fired just once more. Miles fell back onto someone’s lawn, blood pooling around his head, and Bernard pressed the button under the watch’s face again.
Once safely back in his own living room, Bernard sat on the sofa and began to sob.
No matter what the gain, he always hated taking a life.
The next day, Bernard found himself at a loss. Purposeless and empty. He retrieved the newspaper from the porch, but he couldn’t bring himself to open it. He just took it inside and sat at the dining table, staring into space.
He knew he hadn’t earned it, but he had to see her again. Maybe he’d never leave, even though he knew what was coming. He engaged time, date and coordinates, and jumped.
Bernard strode into the vast, bucolic gardens, resplendent with flowers of every colour and height, something that looked like a pink crocus towering over him, looking into the distance. He saw her over by the pond, wearing that white dress. Her golden locks flowed over her shoulders like a waterfall. She was the absolute picture of beauty and contentment.
He was drawn to her. It was 1991, just two months before she had succumbed to the worst Alzheimer’s had to offer.
“Bernard,” she smiled, a trio of dragonflies hovering over a lily pad behind her. “I was wondering when you’d finally return.”
“Elsie,” he said, bathing in her radiance. “It’s so good to see you again.”
“You say that every time. I wish I knew where you went and what you did that keeps you busy for so long at a time.”
“I wish I could tell you, I really do, but… I don’t think you’d understand.”
“I wish you’d just trust me. I really do.”
“I keep wondering whether it’s time for me to move here… things just aren’t the same without you.”
“I miss you terribly too.” She looked into his eyes. “You look terrible. What happened?”
He paused for a moment. Her memory was already failing. She’d forget soon enough. Surely she wouldn’t tell anyone? He sat on the side of the pond, and she sat beside him.
“It’s no good, Elsie. I can’t keep it from you forever. It’s time you knew my secret. A few years ago, I invented a device… a new kind of watch. It allows me to travel back in time…”