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The Number Two Rule

Lesley L. Smith has a variety of degrees including a Ph.D. in Elementary Particle Physics and a M.F.A. in Writing Popular Fiction. She has had a variety of scientific jobs including investigating quarks, dark matter, extrasolar planets, clouds, atmospheric chemistry and climate change, and has written or co-written several scientific papers. She currently works on a NASA project which is part of the Earth Observing System.

Lesley's short fiction has been published in several venues and she's a member of Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers and the Science Fiction/Fantasy Writers of America. You can find Lesley on the web at www.lesleylsmith.com.

The front window of the diner had a nice view of the playground, and that wasn't pervy because I never interacted with or talked to the kids--especially the little blonde girl. In fact, I never interacted with anyone, at least I tried not to. I needed to kill myself before I did that.
"Ma'am? Warm up your coffee?" the middle-aged waitress said. I deliberately didn't look at her.
Still looking out the window, I nodded. It was okay if I didn't say anything, right? I heard the liquid stream into the cup.
Once she'd walked away, I looked at the cup and took a sip. The beverage was strong and hot. That was another nice thing about the diner, the never-ending cup of coffee. I'd tried coffee for the first time recently, and I really liked it. Of course, I'm sure they didn't expect anyone to actually sit there all day. But I didn't have anywhere to go. I didn't have anywhere I could go.
Out the window, the leaves on the trees in the park across the street were changing colors: yellows, golds, oranges, reds, and especially browns. Even the spindly trees on this side of the street looked pretty in their autumn glory, the leaves almost seemed to glow with some kind of inner light in the sun. Trees were beautiful; they were one of my favorite things about being here.
Not that I had much in my life to enjoy.
But soon the little girl would come to the park with her nanny. She came every day after school. I never missed her. She usually skipped down the sidewalk towards the park entrance, her braided hair flying behind her and her elderly nanny trying to keep up.
Behind the counter the waitress seemed to be having some kind of debate with the cook. This time of day, right before school got out, the diner was dead; today I was the only customer. Very slowly, I checked them out with my peripheral vision. They were both looking at me, and the cook, a Chicano, was frowning and pointing. Were they going to kick me out? If I was affecting them, maybe I should leave. For the time being, I was very careful not to react.
The waitress came out from behind the counter and walked my way. I directed my attention back out the window.
"So, ma'am? Can I ask, is it Miss or Missus?" she asked.
I didn't look at her. Outside, the girl was coming, right now, down the sidewalk. She was going to pass directly in front of the window.
I had to get rid of the waitress so I could focus on the girl. She was coming now. I said, "Doctor," without thinking. Damn. I wasn't supposed to reveal anything about myself. I should have killed myself. But the damage was done; now, the less said the better.
The girl was right outside the window, her cheeks rosy from the cool weather, her lips quirked up in an almost-smile. She was so healthy and hardy. Good.
Personally, I couldn't get used to the cold. It was bizarre.
"Doctor? Wow. Neat. What kind of doctor?" the waitress asked.
I ignored her. I knew from experience that she'd give up trying to talk to me sooner or later. Everyone did.
On the sidewalk, the girl looked over her shoulder and yelled to the nanny, "Hurry up," and laughed. It was like bells pealing.
I felt something in my chest clench. I bit my lip so I wouldn't say anything. She was so happy and lovely. It made my heart soar.
The girl bounded up to the walk signal on the street light and pressed the button. The nanny huffed and puffed after her. They stood in front of the crosswalk. I drank in every detail. The girl bounced up and down on the balls of her feet, grinning. Her brown corduroy coat embroidered with flowers was unbuttoned; it flapped in the wind, showing off her purple dress underneath.
I stared at her as the light changed, as the walk signal lit, as the two of them walked across the street in the crosswalk, then strolled into the playground. I stared at the girl until I wasn't sure I could make her out anymore. Was that her on the swing?
At some point the waitress went back behind the counter and more customers came in. When I finally took another sip of my coffee it was cold, but I didn't make a sour face. I was on borrowed time after all.
Out of the corner of my eye, I checked out the diner. It was filling up; there were groups of teenagers ready to stir up trouble, a few moms with harried kids, and some business people in suits. I didn't make eye contact with anyone, of course.
The waitress rushed around passing out water and menus. I knew she'd come back and warm up my coffee, eventually.
I turned my attention back outside to the colorful trees and leaves and kids in the park. Beautiful. I tried to spy the girl in the park. Was that a purple flash of her dress? Wow, the trees were pretty, and the grass, and all the other lush plants. How could I leave all this?
After a while, I sensed a presence next to my table. "Warm up?" the waitress said.
I nodded. I didn't look at her.
After she filled up my cup, she stayed there, standing next to the table. After a few moments she said, "So, are you, uh, sick or something? Do you have that, uh, Asperger's thing?"
I knew Asperger's involved significant social challenges. I also knew in this era the number of Asperger's diagnoses were exploding. If I said yes maybe she'd stop pestering me. On the other hand, maybe she'd try to help me. It was too dangerous.
I didn't say anything.
As she walked away, I briefly wondered if any of those other Asperger's cases were stranded time travelers.
We were supposed to complete our missions and go home. Period. That was it.
I had successfully completed my mission, stopping a dictator from being born. It was a beautiful plan: I waylaid the father on his way home from work and when the mother called to check up on him I made sure she heard my voice making suggestive remarks. The two of them weren't going to have sex any time soon. (It was much easier than shooting the dictator, I mean, when are you supposed to shoot him? When he's a kid? I couldn't do that.)
But then something went wrong with my return trip home. I was at the correct time and place for pickup, but nothing happened.
Anyway, they taught us: never improvise, never interact with people except for our mission. That was our number one rule.
Along those same lines, if we were stranded in the past, we were supposed to kill ourselves. That was the number two rule.
We didn't have any other rules, just the two. Because once you're dead, what else is there?
It turns out killing yourself is surprisingly difficult.
I hadn't managed to do it. Yet.
I knew I had to do it before I affected the timeline. I prayed it wasn't too late already.
Oh. The girl was coming back. I could see her across the street, waiting for the walk light. I peered at her.
She was so cute.
As the girl and her nanny finished crossing the street, the nanny clutched her chest and fell on the sidewalk.
"Oh, my God!" the woman in the booth next to mine said. I looked away. "That woman just fell on the ground!"
I deliberately didn't look.
"Oh, my God. I think she's having a heart attack! Call 9-1-1!"
"Is there a doctor here?" a man yelled.
The waitress said, "Yes! Yes! She's a doctor." She approached my table as some of the customers ran outside to the sidewalk.
I shrank into the booth as small as I could and kept facing the window. I wasn't the kind of doctor they needed. I was a physicist. And I couldn't interfere anyway. Nonetheless, I really hoped the nanny was going to be okay.
My right hand, in my pocket, grabbed the tiny Number Two Rule pill.
I needed to take the pill now.
I needed to kill myself now, before I interfered, because I really, really wanted to interfere.
The waitress touched my shoulder. "Please, can you help her?"
I didn't react. I didn't even look at her. I wanted to. I wanted to look at the waitress. I wanted to help that woman. I wanted to help the little girl.
I moved my hand, still clutching the pill, out of my pocket. I felt the edges of the tiny pill dig into my palm.
I couldn't help the woman. I wasn't allowed to help her. This was torture. This was a perfect example of why I was supposed to kill myself.
Very slowly, millimeter by millimeter, I moved my hand closer to my face. But I couldn't bring myself to put the pill in my mouth. What was wrong with me?
The waitress gave up.
An ambulance drove up, lights flashing and siren wailing. The EMTs got out and surprisingly soon plucked the nanny off the sidewalk and onto a stretcher. The ambulance drove off, lights flashing and siren wailing, leaving the little girl standing on the sidewalk, crying.
One of the diner customers, a woman, approached the girl and tried to talk to her. I watched them with my peripheral vision.
The girl was the only familiar thing in this strange lonely time, the only thing that reminded me of home.
The girl had mom's eyes and her upturned nose. She had my sister Emily's blonde hair and bubbly personality. I missed them so much.
The girl took the diner woman's hand--just like Emily had taken my hand when we walked across the Drought Zone. My chest constricted.
The girl glanced towards the diner as she approached and I froze.
I moved the pill closer to my mouth.
The girl stepped into the diner.
She had never been so close before.
I couldn't do it. I couldn't take the pill. Shaking, I put it back in my pocket.
My eyes filled, but I blinked back the tears.
Mom, Dad, Emily, I miss you so much.
What must you think happened to me back here in the past?
As the girl, my grandmother, climbed onto one of the stools at the counter, she glanced over her shoulder at me, making eye contact.
Blinking back tears again, I forced myself to look away.
I had to do it, for the girl, for Mom, for Emily and for everyone else I left behind in the future.
I had to kill myself.
Maybe I could do it tomorrow.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, October 23rd, 2012

Author Comments

I wrote this story for my last writers' workshop in my M.F.A. program. I did set out with the perverse goal of initially tricking the reader into thinking the protagonist was unsympathetic--when in reality she was on a mission to save the world. An additional challenge I gave myself was to have the protagonist not actually do anything, but hopefully have the reader still empathize with her in the end. I do think this is a somewhat unexplored topic in SF: What happens to all those intrepid world savers when their missions fail or they are unable to complete them? What would you do if you were stranded in the past?

- Lesley L. Smith
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