Science Fiction time travel young adult sci-fi unrequited love

I'm Sorry I Couldn't Make it True

By Wendy Nikel
Feb 11, 2020 · 1,983 words · 8 minutes

Blue clock on a pastel background

Photo by Icons8 Team via Unsplash.

From the author: A teen uses her brother’s time travel machine to try to “fix” her one big regret.


Two truths and a lie...

  1. I didn't know what I was getting into when I volunteered to be the test subject for Rob's time travel experiment. He and his best friend Marcus had been working on it in our basement for years, and when he asked if I wanted in, in typical younger sister fashion I agreed without a second thought. Older brothers have a way of doing that, asking questions with no right answer, where either way, you're the loser.
  2. I'd had a crush on Marcus for as far back as I could remember, since we were kids running around the neighborhood with holes in our pant knees, going on pirate adventures and journeys into space. As the only girl in our neighborhood (besides Sara Cooke, who didn't count because her fundamentalist parents didn't let her watch cable TV), I was always Princess Peach, the Pink Ranger, Princess Leia, April O'Neil. It'd been just my luck that right as we grew old enough to notice the romantic subplots, Marcus and Rob turned their interests to science instead, which just so happened to be Sara's best subject. It was also just my luck that the one time Marcus showed interest in me, I was too young and too stupid and flubbed my chance completely.
  3. But on that summer evening just before the three of them headed off to MIT together (leaving me stuck here to struggle through my senior year alone), Marcus and Rob met up to work on their time travel project, and Marcus invited me to come check it out. Me, not Sara, who just tagged along, feeling like an unwanted fifth wheel. I was the one he smiled at from beneath those long, to-die-for eyelashes, who tried to act casual when he stood just a little too close. I was the one who pointed out the missing piece of their equation, the one tiny change that would make the machine work. And when they pressed the button and our sheepdog Hercules vanished from existence, only to show up three minutes later, the drool still hanging from his jowls, I was the one Marcus wrapped his arms around and swung, laughing, through the air.

#

Two truths and two lies...

  1. I always knew that Marcus and Rob were geniuses, with honest-to-goodness Mensa-level IQs, so I was used to being misunderstood. I should've known that instead of throwing an epic time travel party like I suggested (complete with a DJ and water balloons and disco balls and ice cream cake), they'd want to spend the rest of the afternoon doing even more equations and tests. After a couple hours of sitting on the stale futon in the corner and chipping the paint from its frame while they talked about chronology protection conjecture and space-time curvature over the deafening pounding of Rammstein, I was tempted to leave. I'd have rather been just about anywhere else, except that this weekend was my last chance to see Marcus before he left for school, and I wasn't about to give up that opportunity.
  2. "I think we've got it," Rob shouted. "Sara, turn the music down for a minute. I need to double check-these figures before we give it another whirl."

            "Another whirl?" I sat up, my interest piqued again.

            "Sure." Rob circled around the metal box, scratching tapping frantically on his tablet. "Hercules came out just fine, exactly three minutes into the future. But if we're going to the past, we can't send a dog; we need someone who can adjust the settings and get themselves back to the present."

            Marcus knelt down and frowned at the box. "It's going to be a tight squeeze."

            Rob's eyes met mine over Marcus's head. I could almost see the gears turning in his head, sizing up my 5'0" frame, comparing it to the others in the room who were all well over a head taller than me.

            "There is another solution, you know," he said, just like I knew he would. "Kim's a lot smaller; she could do it... if she's not too scared."

  1. "I'm not scared."
  2. Marcus protested, not because he didn't think I could handle the pressure, but because he'd never really gotten over me, and he'd never forgive himself if anything happened to me. I was moved by his concern but just gave him a reassuring smile and touched his cheek gently with my fingertips.

#

Two truths and three lies...

  1. Marcus shrugged.

I crawled into the box. The metal was cold and rigid, and the floor was covered in dog hair and drool. The chicken alfredo I'd had for lunch threatened to make a reappearance, but one look through the opening to where Marcus stood, arms crossed over his chest, a look of curiosity on his face, and I knew there was no way I could back out now.

            "So where am I going?"

            "How about... five years into the past?" Rob set the dial to today's date five years earlier.

            Five years? I stared at the dial, thinking how easy it would be, once the door was shut, to change it to the date I'd really like to revisit, the night I'd screwed everything up, the night I'd lost my one chance with Marcus.

  1. The look on his face as he stared down at me left no doubt that he was thinking the same thing. His eyes pleaded with me to just flick the dial, just a tiny bit... so I could make things right. So we could be together somehow.
  2. Rob leaned in, blocking my view. "Whatever you do, Kim, do not let anyone see you. Anything you do could influence the timeline, and we don't know yet what that would do."

            "What do you mean?"

            "Any change you make could have serious repercussions on the present, making things totally different when you get back. Or, worse, you could splinter off into a parallel universe, making it impossible for you to get back here at all. Do you understand? Do you promise you won't do anything stupid?"

  1. "Of course I won't do anything stupid."
  2. And as I shut the door, the last thing I saw was Marcus's face and the look in his eyes meant only for me. As the door shut, he mouthed the words, "We were meant to be together."

#

Two truths and four lies...

  1. I turned the dial and pressed the button.

            The universe spun past in polychromic light. Despite the noise, despite the chaos, I could somehow make out the thread of my existence, backpedalling, retracing itself through time. Somehow I sensed each landmark, passing in reverse order. Me, descending the steps to our basement earlier that day and catching a whiff of Marcus's cologne... the cheers at their graduation ceremony... the taste of bratwurst at the neighborhood picnic the summer after our big misunderstanding... the familiar roar of his car on the gravel road. Back and back the days passed until finally, the box landed with a thunk. I kicked the door open, desperate for fresh breath and the feel of solid earth. Desperate for my second chance.

            The box had landed in our basement, the basement of two years ago, before Dad had hauled his cracked canoe down to sit in the corner, back when we had the old washing machine with the spin cycle that rattled the whole house.

            I peered out the window. I'd arrived just in time. Marcus stood across the street, wearing that old t-shirt with the math joke on it that I'd never understood, pacing on his front porch as if trying to work up his courage. I knew how this would go. He'd walk across the street and ring the doorbell, and I — stupid freshman that I was and taken entirely by surprise — would balk at his offer to take me to homecoming, reflexively saying "no" before my mind had time to process the question. And before I'd have a chance to explain, to tell him that it wasn't that I didn't want to — I couldn't; I was grounded — he'd turn and storm away, telling me to forget it. And for years, I'd pretend I had.

            I'd been such an idiot.

  1. I raced up the steps, trying to recall exactly where I'd been that day when I heard the doorbell. The bathroom. I'd been on my hands and knees scrubbing the black-and-white tiles where I'd vomited up my first taste of vodka, which had earned me my first real grounding.

            I threw the door open.

            "What the—?"

            I grabbed her (my) shoulders. "I'm you, from the future, and you're about to make a huge mistake."

  1. After telling her (me) what to do, I totally didn't wait around to watch as Marcus knocked on the door, flipping his hair from his eyes in the way only he could.
  2. And I certainly didn't shed any tears when she (I) finally told him yes.
  3. And I most definitely didn't stick around for three more days, sneaking hot dogs and frozen veggies from the garage freezer, just so that I could see her (me) sneak out the window in her (my) shimmering turquoise dress and jump into the shining red convertible his dad let him borrow, before I decided it was time to go home.
  4. I'd done what I needed to, and from that point on, everything—everything—would be perfect.

#

Two truths and five lies...

  1. The universe spun past in polychromic light, though more slowly this time as if, instead of rewinding like an old VHS tape, it was now carefully, meticulously rewriting itself.
  2. That didn't bother me. It made sense. After all, wasn't that what Rob warned me about? I was writing a new history for myself, the history that was always meant to be.
  3. I just had to sit back and relax, and then I'd be back, but this time with Marcus by my side. This time, we'd be together. We'd be an item. We'd be high school sweethearts planning our future.
  4. I was so caught up in my daydreams that I didn't notice the tale slowly spinning itself into existence around me. I didn't notice when the laughter grew less and less frequent and the arguing and shouting grew more louder. When she (I) accused him of being a condescending jerk. When he accused her (me) of pretending to act dumb so as not to be compared to Rob. When she (I) accused him of spending too much time in study groups with Sara Cooke. When he threw up his hands and insisted that they were just lab partners. I didn't notice when the scent of flower bouquets and fresh aftershave were replaced by the scent of some other girl's perfume on his jacket and in his car. Someone who smelled a lot like Sara.
  5. I didn't notice the salty taste of tears, the sourness of bile in her (my) throat when I caught him — her (my) boyfriend — kissing Sara in a dark hallway at prom.
  6. Rob didn't punch him. I didn't dump him. We didn't make a pact — sibling to sibling — never to allow that jerk into our lives again, never to have anything to do with him, certainly never to work with him on a time travel project which would enable me to go back in time, creating a paradox that somehow would leave me spinning frantically, desperately, perilously through time while my own present slowly disappeared.
  7. I wouldn't be stuck in this box forever, because I knew, deep down in my heart, it was true: we were meant to be together.

###

This story originally appeared in AE: The Canadian Science Fiction Review.


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Wendy Nikel

Space explorer, time traveler, wanderer of eerie places