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Just Enough Time

Douglas Beagley is a father, husband, and Vermonter. He writes short stories, novels, and detailed procedures that tell pediatricians how to use their charting and billing software.

The Time Traveler entered Starbucks in a hurry.
There were five of us, the usual. I was drinking a mocha with whipped cream, trying hard to hold the hot cup and not look like an ass. I wondered if I should have shaved. I was going after Jenn, you know, nodding at what she said. I asked, "What did you think of the book?" and all that, and I thought it was going pretty well. I probably should have shaved. I thought my leather coat was good, but just about then I was worrying she might be a vegetarian now, or hate leather or something. Jenn plays all smart like that.
So the Time Traveler had pushed the door open roughly, and she stepped into the noise and smell. She looked around the room, sort of frantic and maybe disappointed.
How did I know she was a time traveler? Probably something about how fourth-dimension travel lends a subtle dream-like quality to things and people, as if they are only available to our reality through a profound mistake. Whatever. She was kind of a hottie, thin but curvy with really great hair, and we were all pretty stoked when she rushed right over to our table.
"I only have a few minutes. Please, please listen to me."
Ted looked up and spoke first. "You're a time traveler," he said. (Ted is an ass.)
"Yes, I've got just a few minutes and I need--"
"I mean, seriously, you're a time traveler! That's fantastic!"
So, I guess we could all tell. She walked and spoke oddly, or she smelled wrong. She definitely had a funny smell. A bit like moldy plastic.
"Just listen, please--peanut allergies are a virus. Autism is triggered by the plastic filaments in disposable diapers. The only way to reliably cure all cancer--"
"What do I do in the future?" Sarah shouted, running her words together. Her eyes were wide and she was holding her hands up, kind of like a mime. I think she was a bit freaked out, but then Sarah is always a bit freaked out. I used to go around with Sarah, you know, until I realized she can't cross the street by herself. I mean that in a metaphorical way. I mean, she could probably cross the street okay, really. But if someone I know was all sad because one of our friends had been hit while crossing the street, I would ask right away, "Was it Sarah?" because if you knew her you'd know that's exactly how she is.
"What?" The Time Traveler looked at Sarah, and then at all of us, even at me, as if she expected us to be taking notes or something, drinking her in like she was queen of the future. She might have been going to cry or get angry.
"Do we ever get superpowers?" Ted asked. (God, Ted is such an ass.)
"No, wait--who wins the World Series next year? Or, like, should I buy Apple stock, or has it had its run already?" That was Roger. Roger is less of an ass than Ted, but you can probably tell not by much. Roger had a mustache for a while, if that tells you anything.
The Time Traveler put her hands on our table all serious-like. "Cancer. Damn it. You can completely prevent it by maintaining a certain bacterial balance in everyone's intestines. Gravity isn't a particle or a wave, you've got to stop thinking of it like the rest of physics. Fusion reactors can work, but they're a waste of effort relative to--"
"Stop! I gotta know--are aliens real?" Okay, I asked that one. It was like my brain was in some kind of fog, honestly. You wouldn't understand unless you've met a celebrity or a vampire or something. When you meet someone like that, you feel around and hunt for what to say, and nothing comes out, and then you just feel dumb and you think like mad until you can come up with something that isn't "Duh, I love your work. Would you sign my forehead please? Duh." I didn't want everyone else to have a go and not have said anything myself, you know? And Jenn stayed quiet through it all, as if watching all smart like. So that was my question, and it got a good laugh and some approving nods. I think Sarah said, "Yeah, are they?" And I swear it would have taken the Time Traveler like two seconds to answer it, but of course she didn't.
Instead she just looked more and more alarmed. She kept talking faster, like some auctioneer. She was sort of crying, and we all felt a little bad, except for Ted, who was oblivious as always. Stuff just tumbled from her lips. "You can double your life span by synthesizing fifth-sequence mitochondria. Don't try to cure AIDS, that only makes it worse--focus on prevention. When Tyrone Shore is born, get him into therapy immediately. The Coleman Agreement will cause a horrible war--"
"Hey, what are your clothes made of?" Ted asked. And I have to admit, I was kind of curious. I mean, they looked like some kind of densely woven plastic, like a linen maybe, but the drape was quite pleasing.
All of a sudden, she was gone.
It was like the room sort of folded and unfolded again, only she was the only part that didn't. I had a vague sensation of her passing through us, or through the whole Starbucks, or through everything. I'm not really sure. Felt a bit like throwing up, to be perfectly honest.
We were all quite impressed, though, especially by the last bit. Sarah and Ted both clapped. I thought that maybe Jenn would get all philosophical about life, like she does sometimes. That might improve my chances. You know, in a sort of "It's graduation, everything's changing, let's do it," kind of way. So we were all quite stoked, in different ways.
Then we all went to Sam's Diner for pancakes. Did you know Sam's serves pancakes until midnight? I didn't know it either, but Roger really wanted pancakes and he has a way of sort of getting the group to do whatever he wants, and so we went to Sam's. I don't think they were very good pancakes, but then, what are you expecting at ten at night at a place like Sam's? I think the syrup was real, at least, and I might have gotten a bit of a sign from Jenn.
We were snug in the booth, you know? And we brushed shoulders for a bit, like I might get in at some point. I think so, anyway. She plays all smart, but I bet I get in. Next week at the latest, or forget it.
By the way, I don't really remember what the Time Traveler said. I just wanted to write all this down so I'd remember it, and I probably messed up the stuff about peanuts and cancer and all that. So don't get excited or anything. You can't trust what time travelers say, anyway. Who's future are they from? Not mine. Not Jenn's.
Whatever. I'm pretty sure she said the diapers and autism thing. I mean, I know she said something about autism, though it might not all have been connected. I'm definitely not putting my kid in disposable diapers, just in case. If I ever have kids, I mean, which isn't all that likely, of course. But you never know. I've got time.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, May 31st, 2011

Author Comments

Time travel stories are a fantasy of foreknowledge. We want to go back and change things, usually selfishly, with information we couldn't possibly know. But frankly, I don't even make intelligent use of what I know right now. If you were offered knowledge beyond what is permitted, would you really be wise enough to use it? Maybe. Not during lunch though, that's for sure. Maybe after. I mean, I'm kind of busy right now, you know?

- Douglas K. Beagley
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