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The Recent Future

Dani Ripley lives and works in Michigan where she dreams of spaceships and zombies (though usually not together) and all other things supernatural. Her stories can also be found on Everyday Fiction and Postcard Shorts.

"Did it work?" I call down into the gravity well, which is really just an 8 x 5 x 4 hole we dug up in Billy's backyard. No answer from the cylinder. It sits in the center on its side, gleaming dully, its forward lights blinking. We installed the lights to show when the machine is running. Also to make it look cooler. I consider going down, but before I can move, the cylinder's hatch cracks open. A slim white hand emerges, grasps the hatch door, and shoves it aside. Then my best friend Billy pulls himself up and out, unfolding his lanky form from the tiny space within.
"Well, did it work?" I shout again. Billy glances over his shoulder and gives me a half-assed thumbs-up before sliding down to land next to his machine; then he begins making his way up the side of the hole to where I stand. When he nears the top, I reach down and grab his wrist, helping him climb the last few feet.
"Did you see him?" I ask.
"No, Scout; he didn't make it," says Billy.
"But I thought you said it worked!" My real name is Penelope, but everyone's called me Scout since I was a baby.
"It is working," Billy says. "But it's not finished. He still didn't make it." He bends to brush off his jeans, which have become covered in fine, red dust from the clay in the hole. I see tears shimmering on his lower lashes before he turns away. "I'll have to go back again," he mumbles.
I sigh and pull the straps out of my backpack. I'm sick of lugging this thing around--it weighs more than a hundred pounds. Billy and I start back down so we can drag it back to the lab. The "lab" is actually Billy's dad's garage, or at least it was before his dad got blown up in Iraq. Now I guess it is technically Billy's garage, since his mom won't go in there anymore.
When we get to the bottom of the pit, Billy wraps his two straps around the back end, I wrap mine around the front, and we start back up, tugging it behind us. After we tip it over the edge of the hole, the going gets easier, and we have it across the yard less than three minutes later. Reluctant to drag it across the cement driveway, we lay it down on the grass, run into the garage, and return with Billy's old Radio Flyer. Grunting with effort, we hoist the cylinder up and onto the wagon and pull it the rest of the way.
Billy is the smartest, most popular kid in our sixth-grade class. Before his dad died, he enjoyed the universal adoration of students and staff alike, but lately he's become a disciplinary problem. Alarmed, the school counselor scheduled an emergency meeting with the principal and Billy's mom, and together the three of them decided the best course of action was assigning Billy an extra-credit project. It was left to Billy to decide what subject he'd like to tackle.
He surprised everyone by declaring his intention to build a time machine so he could go back and save his dad. The adults clucked their tongues and shook their heads, but didn't argue. Their primary concern was just to keep him busy and out of trouble.
Shortly after his announcement, we found a large, discarded metal tube at a construction site. We lugged it back to his garage, and Billy spent the next week filling it with electronics and home-made gadgets, carefully fastening everything into place with his dad's old spot-welder. He jammed notebook after notebook with calculations and theoretical physics, stacking them neatly on his dad's old work-bench for handy reference. When his time machine was finally ready for its maiden voyage, we broke a bottle of Fresca over its bow (we hated Fresca so wouldn't miss it like we'd miss a Coke) and Billy got inside to take it on a test-run.
Since there's only room for one, I sit outside on a lawn chair.
Each time he goes, he returns with tales of his adventures. After his first trip, he said he successfully identified the man responsible for building the explosive device that killed his dad, so he followed the man back to his apartment to try to figure out the best way to interfere. Now he goes back over and over, tweaking small things to get in the way.
So far he claims to have unplugged the guy's alarm clock, flattened his tires, and set a small fire to his kitchen. He even says he's stolen pieces of the roadside bomb, but so far nothing works. Billy knows because after each of his journeys to the past, he visits what he calls "the recent future" to find out if his dad makes it home. I wish he'd give it up, but judging from the determined look he wears as we haul the machine back into his lab, he isn't anywhere close.
"I'll have to recalibrate after that last landing, but I think we'll be good to go again one more time tonight," Billy informs me as he removes the access panel. "Hand me those pliers, would you?"
I hand them over and watch as he makes an adjustment.
"That should do it," he says. "You wanna try again?"
I nod silently, my stomach growling. I'm sure my mom is wondering where I am, but I help him load the machine onto the wagon anyway. We pull it into the yard and roll it back down into the hole. Billy follows and climbs inside. The forward lights come on; off he goes. I settle into my chair and look up at the sky, which is filled with stars. I'll do this as long as it takes. He is my best friend, after all.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, October 7th, 2014

Author Comments

I was at our weekly family dinner when my father misspoke and said "the recent future" instead of "the recent past." We all remarked upon what a great story title it would make and then moved on, but I couldn't let it go. This story is the result.

- Dani Ripley
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