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The Immortal and the Time Traveler

Victoria Zelvin is a writer living and working in Arlington, Virginia. She is currently working on digging herself out of the pile of unread books that she keeps buying for some reason. Want to recommend another book she should add to the crushing heap? Let her know @libraryoverflow. Her other work can be found at: victoriazelvin.com.

"Stop following me," the time traveler says upon finding the immortal, again and again.
"I was here first," the immortal says, every time.
"How did you become immortal anyway?" the time traveler asks only once there's no color left to their hair.
The first time the question is asked to the immortal, they are young, so young their immortality is like a raw wound, still bleeding. "Must we discuss mortality?"
The time traveler makes a face. "Nothing lasts, except for you?"
They leave without goodbye.
After finding one another again there is a table, two chairs, and a bottle of something strong between them. No matter where the conversation starts, if it manages to linger beyond the first few sentences it returns to the same place: history and art.
The time traveler has a fine appreciation for history.
The immortal has a fine appreciation for art.
Their semi-cordial disagreement over the importance of the topics goes back centuries. They discuss it mainly at their middle age, both with experiences notched into their belts.
"History is more important than art," the time traveler insists. "Big moments that shape the course of mankind."
The immortal huffs. "How do you think the big moments happen, without the little ones to give context to what comes next?"
The time traveler goes back to when man lived in caves. They set the time machine to scan for biological matter and find a child playing with sticks by a riverside in the way that children do across time. They watch for minutes, before typing into the machine latched to their forearm like a macabre watch, scanning. There must be an answer here.
The child notices them, and walks up without fear, like greeting an old friend. The time traveler cannot shake them, no matter how fast they walk.
"What are you doing?" the child asks.
"Stop following me!" the time traveler snaps.
The child blinks in owlish confusion. "I was here first."
"You should stop and look once in awhile," the immortal suggests from time to time. This time it's to a young time traveler, one with a fresh smile and wider eyes.
"You mean years, a life, not a trip," the time traveler replies. The immortal only inclines their head mutely, while the time traveler starts to fidget. "There's no time. Not all of us are immortal."
"How many moments must you collect like trading cards before you're satisfied?"
"How many times must you make that argument?"
"At least once more, my friend, as always."
"How did you become immortal, anyway?" the time traveler asks again, sharp.
The immortal is old, so old their immortality is like a faded scar, sometimes aching but mainly remembered in stories. "Must we discuss mortality?"
"Nothing lasts, except for you?"
"You're going to die," the immortal tells the time traveler. It makes the time traveler wince, but the immortal continues. "You are going to fade. Nothing will stop that. Even my memories of you will not keep you alive, for if I tell someone of you they'll lack the context to understand. It is inevitable."
The time traveler opens and closes their mouth several times. They lift their hand, jab a finger in the air between them, heave their chest as if to make some bold proclamation, but all they can conjure is a muted, neutered, "You're a bastard, you know that?"
"I merely said you were going to die, old friend," the immortal says. "Not that you lived for nothing."
The time traveler leaves without goodbye.
From time to time the time traveler goes back to that child playing by the river. Sometimes they watch from afar, scanning the places that the child likes to go and then the teenager and then the adult. The time traveler wonders if the immortal remembers them from childhood, wonders if that's why the immortal approaches their younger self in the first place, but sees no harm in continuing to look.
Why are they immortal? Surely if it's a secret, the time traveler can find it.
Big moments, says the time traveler.
Little moments, says the immortal.
The time traveler gets older and stops caring about the sanctity of their timeline. They flit from a meeting in 1420 to one in 4120. It is increasingly hard for the immortal to keep track of what they talked of last, of when they'd met before, of the mood the time traveler is likely to be in.
"I don't want there to be a last time you see me," the time traveler says once, in the 3270s.
"There's always going to be a last time," the immortal says, morose. "You shouldn't use that thing so much. I've been reading, it's dangerous."
"Shows what you know," the time traveler says, a ghost of their former youthful hothead self.
Is this before or after? The immortal can't tell and dare not ask.
There is a child playing in the park. They've got a spaceship in their hand and are making whooshing sounds as they run down the path towards...
Perhaps it is coincidence that the immortal, old and frail, is struggling down that same path to the lakeshore. The child does not think so and turns around with a scowl.
"Stop following me," the child demands.
"I was here first," the immortal tells them, a sad smile on their face.
The child pouts. "Nu-uh!"
The immortal smiles.
The time traveler's not getting older in their visits. The immortal is afraid to comment on it.
The time traveler has been a constant companion. The immortal has grown reliant on their visits amid so much death, so much loss. Has the immortal lost them too?
The time traveler long suspected that becoming immortal was a big moment, a lightning strike. The time traveler even hung around the immortal's mother during the pregnancy.
All in all, the time traveler visits the immortal as a fetus, a baby, a child, a teenager--more than six hundred times. Members of the immortal's tribe think of the time traveler as a trader. No other woman gets pregnant during this time, no other children are born. Then, when the immortal is still young, members of the tribe start to die off. Not odd at first, as it is pre-cities ancient times, but the time traveler scans the dozenth to die and discovers a cancer these people shouldn't have yet, the same cancer that is strangling the time traveler from the inside out.
It's the radiation leaking from their long antiquated time machine, the time traveler realizes with dawning horror. They've killed these people, orphaned the immortal. Made the immortal through some fluke. Six hundred little moments, adding up to one when the immortal takes an arrow to the heart, then gets back up, bewildered.
It makes the time traveler vomit.
The time traveler takes the immortal from their tribe when no one is left, makes sure that they get to a farm and pays the family to care for them, and does not visit any version of the immortal again for some time.
Three thousand seven hundred and eighty seven years after the time traveler storms out for the second time, the immortal comes home to a dusty book with papyrus pages. It's written in a language the immortal knew once but has long since forgotten, and has a note.
Remember you mentioning it was one of your favorites.
The immortal smiles and runs a hand over the pages, reminiscing without reading, trying to imagine what sort of story was within that must have captured their imagination enough to mention it to the time traveler.
Is this before or after the time traveler knows?
"How did you become immortal anyway?" the time traveler asks again, fear wrapped about their voice like a thorny vine.
The last time the question is asked to the immortal, they are old, frail. No longer mobile on their own. Dying. Nothing lasts forever. "Must... we discuss... mortality?"
"Nothing lasts, except for you?"
"Heh. I'm not lasting much longer... s'good m'tired"
The time traveler fidgets. "I--I mean, I'm sorry--did you always--"
The immortal raises a hand, shushes them, and gestures at the floor. It's been so long that the immortal cares not for attempted apologies.
They sit down beside their friend's wheelchair, face towards the looking glass. There is no more life on Earth, not anymore. Something to do with the sun, something to do with the ozone layer, something the time traveler never bothered to learn, but humanity can still watch storms swirl across continents the time traveler cannot recognize from space stations. Stars glitter around it and the time traveler doesn't have any context for this moment, it's too far in the future, but when they look up at the immortal their eyes are shut and so the time traveler huffs out a small sigh. It's not a bad place to rest, to die.
"Ok," they say. "Maybe you did have a point."
The End
This story was first published on Friday, November 10th, 2017

Author Comments

I must have tried to write this story a dozen times. Art or history, big moments or little, names or titles? I liked the idea of a layer of anonymity, of just enough context to give the big moments meaning while the little moments add up and up and up. I love the idea of two people bound together by fate and not necessarily romantically--they just keep running into each other! In the end, I think I agree more with the immortal. I like the little moments better than the bigger ones. Thanks for reading.

- Victoria Zelvin
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