Time Travel, Coffee, and A Shoebox
by Nina Pendergast
Nina Pendergast is a journalism student by day and keyboard-pecking word dabbler by night. She enjoys rainstorms, long letters, and comic books. One can often find her on rambling walks or having philosophical discussions with the ducks at the park. "Time Travel, Coffee, and A Shoebox" is her first published work, and very likely not her last.
It's the chance of a lifetime. Or at least, that's what they tell her. She only knows that the cameras are rolling and the company has been planning this for months and she is, in actuality, nothing more than a glorified guinea pig. The first woman to experience simulated time travel created from pieces of her own memory.
"Due to the simulator's design, we really have no idea what kind of experience you'll have," her boss explained to her several days earlier, ten minutes before the final press conference. "We loosely control the setting and structure of the environment, but as for dialog, interaction, character realism..." He leaned back in his chair, arms crossed casually behind his head. "That's where you come in." She imagined herself as the last point on his checklist, a tidy box to be filled in, imagined him thinking: See, it's done. Look what I accomplished. She nodded, but the words "character realism" left a bitter edge in her throat. It'll be me in there, she thought. My fourteen-year-old self.
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Even now she is surprised by how protective she feels of the girl she once was. But they can't hurt me, she reasons. Either of me. It's a simulator.
Now, after years of research and agonizing hours of whiteboard scribbling and late nights, here they are in front of the downtown bookstore. She is dressed in a pencil skirt and navy blazer, her makeup applied heavily for the benefit of the cameras, every strand of hair in place. In her right hand she carries a thick red leather book. It's her old journal from eighth grade to senior year of college, from pink schoolgirl scribble to slender, hurriedly dashed-off cursive. A small microphone and camera are clipped to her blazer, hidden from sight. They will broadcast everything live. The buzzing crowd goes silent as she steps onto the green carpet and walks toward the glass doors. The cameras are trained on her. She reaches the door handle. She pulls it open. Ordinary, just like a thousand other doors. No electric shock or nauseating sensation like she had been anticipating. She goes in, a successful twenty-nine-year woman with a promising career in simulation design, on her way to have coffee with the young girl that she was fifteen years ago.
29 walks in, the well-used red journal tucked under her arm. She scans the rows of bookshelves for 14 and just barely catches sight of a curly brown head all the way in the back, between the fantasy and science fiction. Of course. 29 smiles, remembering how long she clung to her belief in fairies and dragons and wrinkles in time. She glances over her shoulder, forgetting for a moment that although she can still see the camera crew and her boss just outside the glass, his arms folded as he politely but firmly tells a disappointed customer that the store will be closed until four o' clock, none of them can see her. The thought brings with it a sudden gust of confidence as she turns back to the far-off girl immersed in books. Then she waves, not quite daring enough to call out, "Hi!" because it is, after all, a bookstore, and there's something about all those fresh, inky pages that demands only whispers. Finally, finally... 14 looks up, and they lock eyes, and for a brief moment 29 can tell that she doesn't recognize her, doesn't recognize this woman with her crisp, flat-ironed haircut and pressed blazer. She gazes back and thinks wistfully of her younger self's wild, flyaway hair that curls in wisps around a face currently torn between confusion and curiosity. Then 14's eyes light up and she's running across the store, waving wildly, bursting with excitement to meet herself at twenty-nine years old. The chance of a lifetime, 29 thinks again.
After shy yet eager greetings, they sit down at a table with steaming lattes, and 29 opens up the red book to the first page. She can feel the camera underneath the collar of her blazer, still rolling, projecting 14's image across hundreds of televisions. The words--at least, the first few pages--are familiar to 14, but 29 can tell that she doesn't understand why her older self laughs so much as she flips through them. For several minutes that's all they do, just reread old journal entries from the end of eighth grade. No talking. 29 knows she should say something, engage 14 in conversation of some type. This is her job. It's not just research; it's reality TV. Nobody wants to watch two young women silently flipping through an old book. She decides, at least for now, that she doesn't care.
Every now and then when they think the other won't notice, they study each other. 29 smiles at 14's unruly bird's nest hair and fleetingly pictures herself walking into the office in messy curls and baggy jeans. She blinks in surprise at 14's pink cheeks. Why did she hate that so much in high school anyway? As she turns a page to yet another entry, she finds herself grinning uncontrollably. Then she looks up. 14 stares back at her with an annoyed, rather fierce expression, and suddenly 29 remembers how much she used to hate inside jokes, and she knows without a doubt that 14 is thinking the exact same thing.
"I know," she says out loud. "I do, too." She pauses, swallowing a giggle. When was the last time I felt the need to giggle? she wonders, half-embarrassed, half-giddy. "It's just... you were so dramatic about everything! I mean, I was. Us. We."
14 looks sweetly, innocently surprised. "I was? I mean, I am?" They both laugh. It's a good kind of laughter. The kind you have with your best friend when you know it's something only she will understand. "So," says 14, fingering the pages of the journal and studying the soft leather cover. "Um... I was wondering..."
29 knows she is dying to ask about the contents of the journal. About the years she hasn't lived yet. About the secrets in those pages. It feels quite surreal to know someone's thoughts before they've said them, even if the person across from her is... well, her. She takes a sip of her latte. "Ask away."
14 looks up, flushed and surprised. "Really?" She leans forward, pressing against the table. 29 can feel raw eagerness practically radiating off her skin. She notices a bit of spilled coffee on 14's sweater. There is something endearing about that small, damp spot. 29 briefly struggles to remind herself that this entire meeting is, in fact, a fabrication built from nothing more than scraps of her memories. At the same time, it doesn't seem to matter anymore. It's her life, her past, her guts spilled for all to see, and who cares if it's in the name of science or posterity or progress? Damn progress, she thinks. And just like that, she reaches under the collar of her blazer and switches off the camera and microphone.
14 touches the pages of the journal. She floods the tiny bookstore coffee shop with questions. Will I survive eighth grade? Will boys ever think I'm pretty? Will I write any novels? Will I be a famous author? Will falling in love ever make sense? Will I grow out of blushing at everything? And on and on. She asks questions until she has absolutely no words left. 29 leans back, overwhelmed and surprised at how much she has forgotten about what it was like to be that young. She takes a breath and laughs until tears well up in the corner of her eyes. "Well, I promise you'll make it to twenty-nine at least," she says. "And boys already think you're pretty, you're just worrying about it too much to notice. Falling in love is confusing no matter how old you are. Or maybe we're just stuck in the same boat. You will write a novel. In two years, as a matter of fact." She grins. She feels like a fortuneteller. "But of course you won't be satisfied with it, because after all, you are a writer." As the words leave her mouth they jab at her, prickly with longing and regret. She decides she can't bring herself to tell 14 that she dropped her dreams of being a freelance fantasy writer after college. She still has the second draft of that novel in a shoebox in her apartment. She hasn't looked at it in years.
It takes them two hours to read the journal. They scoot their chairs side-by-side. 29 sits on the left, at the beginning, and 14 perches on her right, at the end. 29 has, of course, read it all before. She remembers writing every word. But to 14 it is almost entirely new. Her own story. 29 watches her out of the corner of her eye. 14 cannot stop staring, returning to the same pages over and over, amazed at this young woman who is like her and not like her. 29 imagines what 14 is thinking. She is thinking that she can't wrap her mind around the fact that 29 was her once, and that someday she will be 29. Most of all, she is astonished that at her core, 29 does not seem so different from 14.
As they read, they giggle to each other and whisper the funny bits aloud, ignoring the occasional odd stares from other coffee-sipping patrons. Sometimes 29 winces as if she's bitten into a lemon or stepped on something sharp. And they both cry, reading each other's stories, because it's their story too. Neither wants to admit it, so for those parts they don't look at each other and pretend not to notice.
They finish at the same time. They are suddenly shy, looking at the cold dregs of their lattes, seeing each other with brand new eyes. Because now they know all the secrets. The bitter, jealous things. The head-over-heels in love things. The ugly, hateful things. The isn't-life-a-confusing-mess-sometimes things. 29 remembers all over again, with such intensity that it makes her catch her breath, what it's like to be 14. She understands that this journal, this record of eight years of their life, is not a book of answers. It's a book of ponderings and wonderings and questions. It's an ordinary book about a fairly ordinary life. Four hundred and two pages that will never mean so much to anyone else, and it doesn't matter. It was written for her. For them. So that someday, after the very last page, 14 could look forward, and 29 could look back, and maybe, just maybe they'd figure those things out. How friends come and go, and it hurts, and you still do move on eventually. Why teenage girls can be as vicious as a frenzy of blood-crazy chickens. (29 has been both the attacked and the attacker, and she still doesn't understand it.) Why you fall in love with someone, or at least think you do, even though your better judgment sends up desperate warning signals and you plunge ahead anyway, hope against hope, because somehow it's worth the hurt, and then it's over. How hard it is to wait for things. How dreams lodge themselves in a lumpy ache at the back of your throat. How painful it is when friends finally see your ugly side. And why on earth it is that the best ones still love you anyway. How badly words can hurt, like stinging darts that leave you bleeding when you try to yank them out, and sometimes like rocks dropped on bare toes. And how, even though you've felt it, you still go out and shoot your own darts and drop your own rocks. Why it is that deep inside you'll probably never grow out of dragons and fairy-tales and rolled-down car windows and twirling in the grass and laughing so hard that you spit out whatever it was you were trying to drink.
There are so many whys. An infinite number. 14 is full of them. 29 might have even more. I am fired, she thinks suddenly. I've cheated them of everything they worked for and left them with nothing but televisions full of static. When I walk through those glass doors again, that will be it. They will take away the camera and escort me to my car, and I will not come back to the office tomorrow morning. She knows she should feel something at this point. Maybe panic, regret, anger.... Maybe penitence. But she feels none of these things. Instead, she finds herself thinking of the dusty shoebox in her apartment closet and of a girl with bird's nest hair and light-touched eyes. A girl that was her once.
It is almost four o' clock, at which point the simulator will automatically shut down. Neither of them wants to leave. They dawdle for a few minutes, cleaning up crumpled napkins and tossing away cups. 29 turns toward the glass door. Outside she glimpses her boss, red-faced, arguing with one of the camera crew. His collar looks uncomfortably tight. 29 says goodbye to 14. She keeps it brief, not knowing exactly how one would conclude a get-together with one's former self. 14 brushes her fingers across the journal one last time before 29 tucks it under her arm and walks toward the door.
"Wait!" 14 blurts, too loudly, cheeks glowing pink. Her words come out in a tumbled rush. "Can I--can I keep it with me?"
29 stops, her hand on the door. "You're going to live it. That's better." She smiles at the girl's anxious hopefulness. "You don't need memories of your own future, silly."
14 looks so small, standing there just beyond the doorway. "Promise?"
29 throws her head back laughing. She takes one last look at her younger self. She says, "Yes."
The door opens. And in that instant between opening and closing, between past and future colliding and realigning as 29 briskly steps onto the green carpet outside, 14 disappears and there is nobody there, only light streaming through the bookstore glass in the late afternoon.
This story was first published on Friday, October 25th, 2013
Sometimes I find inspiration in odd places. The concept of "Time Travel, Coffee, and A Shoebox" was birthed from a journal entry in which I penned a dialogue between myself now and myself from freshman year of high school. The entry, coupled with several free-floating thoughts on time travel, turned into an assertive little tale that would not let me rest until I found myself hunched over a keyboard that night, typing frantically into the wee hours of the morning. The story still made sense after a reread the next day, which I took as a good sign.
- Nina Pendergast
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