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The Time Travel Device

James Van Pelt teaches high school and college English in western Colorado. His fiction has made numerous appearances in most of the major science fiction and fantasy magazines. He has been a finalist for a Nebula Award, the Colorado Blue Spruce Young Adult Book Award, and been reprinted in many year’s best collections. His first novel, Summer of the Apocalypse, was released in 2006. His third collection of stories, The Radio Magician and Other Stories, received the Colorado Book Award in 2010. His latest collection, Flying in the Heart of the Lafayette Escadrille, was released in October of 2012. James blogs at jimvanpelt.livejournal.com.

I'd assembled my time travel device out of circuits, microchips, and clever wiring; but the gods or magic or fate controlled it. Perhaps an inventor who loves to read puts too much of himself into his creations. Or perhaps a literatus who engineers cannot separate his own blended DNA.
When I activated it the first time, a blink, a shudder, and a screech wrenched me from my control chair, and I found myself standing in a dark room. Had I gone forward or back? Light leaked through a barred window, revealing a ragged, bedridden man, his eyes sunk deep in his head, gasping in what surely must have been his ending breaths. Beside him sat a second man, dressed in a soiled jacket, writing by candlelight at a small table.
I raised my hand to speak, afraid to break the staggered breathing of the dying man, but I could see them through my hand. I had become smoke, a wraith, and I knew my device had hurled me through time, but only as a spirit. I would, to them, be a mute and invisible observer. I suspected as much when I designed the device. Time travel existed, but I could not interact with the past or the future. The universe preserved its sanctity.
The writer turned from his journal, leaned over the dying man. "You are at Washington College Hospital. Do you know where you are?"
He did not respond. Sweat glistened on his broad forehead, pasting dark hair against his face. The room smelled of death, like still things that had grown moist and gone bad: the death of sheets and mattresses and blankets, death-soaked with mortality's oozing miasma. Old breaths that went in rotted, lingered in the lungs' failing chambers, then fled to repoison the room without.
The dying man's jaw dropped open. He sipped in the dark room's darkness, then said, "Dr. Moran." He paused, and I thought he had faded away, then he whispered, "Lord, help my poor soul."
For minutes, they remained still. The candle burned even and did not waver. The doctor put his hand above the dead man's mouth. "Goodnight, Mr. Poe," he said, before he extinguished the candle.
My lab flashed into being around me, throwing me forward, banging my head against the device's control, scratching my forehead. My heart slammed frighteningly hard. I dabbed blood from a frown-shaped cut in my skin.
My mind reeled. Had I witnessed Edgar Allan Poe's last moment? Joy overwhelmed me. "I have traveled in time! I have seen the past!" My own wishes had taken me to Poe, as if by magic.
Fiercely, I activated the controls. Again a blink, a shudder, and a screech, and now I appeared in a kitchen where a woman in her thirties cried as she opened her oven door. Towels were pressed against the kitchen door, sealing the room. She had rested the oven's grill racks against the refrigerator, and without ceremony, she turned the knob that released gas, then thrust her upper body into the space. The air stank. Within minutes, her legs relaxed. Hands that had been fisted at her side, holding her deep in the oven, opened, and she slid backwards a few inches. Pages covered her kitchen table. Poems, they seemed to be, with penciled corrections in the margins.
My chest ached, and I wondered if time travel threatened my health. What did ripping myself free of time's thorny grasp do?
Four more times I dove into time, each for the death of someone important to me. My device took me only to deaths. Old man Hemingway in pajamas with his shotgun. The awful bang still sounded in my ears as I watched Mark Twain, in his bed, pass with hardly a flinch. F. Scott Fitzgerald collapsed while reading a newspaper. He fell from his chair. A half-eaten candy bar skittered across the floor. The room smelled of alcohol. And finally, fittingly, H.G. Wells breathed his last in bed, like Poe, but his eyes were open, and I thought for a moment that he saw me.
Back in the lab, I wept, clutching my wounded heart. What could I do but mourn them all, lost in time; but I pressed my travel button one more time, stood in a hospital room where a figure lay spider-webbed to I.V. lines and wires. I didn't recognize him at first. His face was so pale, but on his forehead, he had a frown-shaped scrape. I touched my own forehead.
The dying man's scratch seemed new, fresh, hardly healed. The blood in my veins felt as if the sands of time had formed there.
The cut couldn't be more than two days old. I waited for his... for my... readings to flatline, for my device to drag me home, where I knew I would fall.
The End
This story was first published on Thursday, February 7th, 2013

Author Comments

The first line for this story came to me while I was preparing to teach my high school classes for the day. I was at the white board with a dry erase marker in my hand. I wrote the line right then so I wouldn't forget it. It was up all day, but none of my kids asked me about it. I guess they're used to odd items on the board.

- James Van Pelt
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