Twenty Minus Fifteen Equals Five


Tablo reader up chevron

Twenty Minus Fifteen Equals Five (a Short Story)

I’d been glad to be heading home. Tokyo had been brightly lit, crowded beyond comprehension, and thoroughly overwhelming. I’d almost broken down sobbing twice when I’d gotten turned around sightseeing. I longed for the quaintness of San Francisco. Calling it a city seemed grandiose when I compared it to the sprawling, towering metropolis that was Tokyo. Nevertheless, I longed for the comfort of home. I longed for familiarity. I longed for him.

The night before I’d left for Japan, we’d tread familiar ground. “You should be with someone young and beautiful,” I’d told him as I curled into his embrace. “Someone healthy. Someone you can have children with.”

He’d pulled me even closer, brushed his lips across my temple, and murmured that I should, “Stop talking nonsense.”

I was firmly entrenched in middle age at forty-five, and he was just on the other side of thirty. I’d begun the affair, thinking it would have been short-lived – a last hurrah before I got down to the real business of aging. He’d told me he loved me over lemonade and hot dogs at a San Francisco Giants game. I had stared stupidly, and he’d laughed and wiped a glob of mustard from my chin with a rough paper napkin. He pressed a firm kiss to my lips and said, “You don’t have to say it back right away.” There was a smug undercurrent there borne of the certainty that his feelings were reciprocated. He’d known it was only a matter of time until I declared myself to him. I’d been apprehensive, though. He’ll leave you for someone his own age, I worried. I thought about it constantly. It plagued me endlessly, and I knew it made the feared outcome more likely. Insecurity was an unattractive trait in a romantic partner.

My time in Japan had been hectic. The conference I was attending was jammed full of speakers I’d wanted to hear and networking events to attend. Nearly every minute of my time had been scheduled. I’d missed him terribly but hadn’t the time to really think about it until I lay in bed at night. I would video chat him just as he was heading out for lunch. Our conversations were rushed (he had to be back to work soon), and I was always exhausted after a full day of activities.

“I miss you so much,” he’d confessed on the last night of my trip. “It’s like there’s a hole in the world.”

“I love you,” I’d told him. The first time I’d said it, I’d blushed and stammered and wondered if I might collapse when all the blood rushed from my head. The words came much more easily now.

Fifteen years.

It didn’t seem like so long a stretch of time looking backwards. I remembered being his age keenly, and it seemed as if no time had passed in the interim. Looking forward a decade-and-a-half… Well, I’d be sixty. Not properly elderly, but getting pretty damn close. He’d be the age I was now – still young and perhaps even more handsome as his laugh lines deepened and his temples began to grey.

When our worlds had shifted out of sync, I’d been asleep, and the bout of mild turbulence that had marked the event hadn’t disturbed me. I’d wanted to be well-rested when we landed, and I’d taken a sleeping pill as soon as we’d gotten to cruising altitude. When I emerged from my slumber, our journey was nearly complete, and I sensed immediately that something was amiss. The flight attendants seemed agitated and apprehensive, and I began to wonder if they’d secretly discovered and foiled some sort of terrorist plot. “It’s got to be a joke,” I overheard one of them insisting to the other. “It’s some kind of elaborate prank. There’ll be a camera crew waiting to interview us when we land.”

“I don’t know,” his compatriot replied dubiously, glancing towards the cockpit. “They seem pretty shaken up…”

The feeling that something wasn’t quite right intensified as we began our descent into San Francisco International Airport. A feeling I can describe only as a sort of inverted déjà vu scratched at the back of my mind. Everything was familiar but slightly off-kilter – like being in The Matrix. In hindsight, I realised it had been the skyline. There were several more glimmering skyscrapers in the silhouette, but I’d put their foreignness down to us taking an approach I hadn’t been familiar with into the airport.

The captain had been instructed not to tell us. What would have been the point? We wouldn’t have believed her. And if we had, it might have started a panicked riot at 37,000 feet. Besides, she hadn’t been convinced. Not until she’d seen the familiar city laid out beneath her and realised the thrusting new towers jutting up from the ground could only have been erected over the course of decades. Two decades to be exact.

Twenty years.

That’s how far we’d leapt forward in time.

I still wonder at speaking that aloud, that it doesn’t mean I’ve gone mad, that it doesn’t mean I should be locked away in a padded cell.

And we’d felt mad – all the passengers and the crew. Some of us had laughed hysterically, others had wept with the desperate abandon of children who’d been told they’d never get their way. I was among the group that had just sat there staring and staring at the evidence the Transition & Resettlement Liaisons presented to us as they used words like “space-time” and “gravitational fields” and “traversable wormhole”. I was a Media Studies professor who hadn’t opened a physics book since high school. I didn’t understand a word of it, least of all how they’d known to expect us.

The first few days following the plane losing communication and falling off radar had been a redux of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. CNN had been in raptures. The story had run 24/7. There were maps and charts and model planes and increasingly convoluted conspiracy theories. Things quickly took a dark turn, however. The massive amount of negative energy that had made the rip in space-time through which we had passed had affected a wide range of scientific instruments.

Negative energy.

It sounded like something a depressive would discuss at length with their therapist – a phrase that should be shelved next to “toxic parent”. And negative the energy had been. The strange, seemingly impossible measurements led to fervid speculation that an advanced weapons system had taken the plane down. As tensions and suspicions between nations mounted, diplomatic relations were pushed to their breaking point, and there may have been a retaliatory strike if anyone could have figured out whom to blame. No existing technology could explain the event. Thankfully, that uncertainty allowed cooler heads to prevail and gave physicists time to examine the data and posit the explanation that, though it sounded utterly mad, was the most likely: a portal to the future had been opened, and we had passed through it. The world had had twenty years to wrestle with the reality and accept it. We’d had only a few hours.

In the end, it was the technology that convinced us.

None of our smartphones could pick up a signal, and when we’d asked to have them fixed or be given new ones, our handlers had smiled indulgently. It had been like demanding Walkmans and cassette tapes – unironically retro-chic. We were interesting as novelties but horribly uncool and obsolete. The contents of our luggage and our pin-sharp memories of what to us had been the day before made us walking time capsules, and we were treated as such. We were spectacles – there to be looked at. And we had to learn to look with new eyes.

It had been difficult to adjust to the contact lenses. I’d had near 20/20 vision most of my life and had only recently begun wearing reading glasses. I’d never worn contact lenses before, and when the display had lit up, the augmented reality in which nearly all of industrialised humanity now lived had overwhelmed me even though I’d been using only the barebones factory-installed applications. It was all too close and suffocating, and I hadn’t been able to work out how to move my eyes and blink to give commands. Figures kept disappearing or leaping out at me. After my first session, I’d felt like I was developing vertigo. “Don’t worry,” my liaison had reassured me. “It doesn’t take long to get used to it.”

The micro-earphone had been a bit scary at first. I’d feared it would slide too far down my ear canal and get stuck. But it had fit comfortably, and the sound was as crisp as an autumn afternoon. I was surprised to learn that radio was big again. I suppose people found it soothing after all the overstimulation of augmented and virtual reality.

Our liaisons had dazzled us with gadgets before telling us we’d have to undergo thorough medical examinations and be quarantined for two weeks. We’d railed against the invasion and what felt like imprisonment, but when the doctors worked quickly and efficiently to rid me of my painful rheumatoid arthritis, my complaints fell silent. The periodic medical examinations would continue for the indefinite future. They freely admitted it was overkill and a bit sinister, but, “you have to understand,” they kept telling us – nothing like Flight 008 had ever happened before. We were the first recorded time travellers, and no one was sure what, if any, effects there would be on the human body or if they were harmful. They had elected not to tell us there was a widespread fear some alien intelligence with nefarious goals had orchestrated our leap forward and that our journey may not have been as direct as it seemed. They’d shown us footage of the ecstatic crowds gathered in the streets to celebrate our arrival, but many others could find no cause for jubilation. They feared we were infected, brainwashed or outright doppelgängers. Not to mention, an array of doomsday cults believed the wormhole was the breaking of the seal that would unleash Armageddon. For them, our arrival was a sign heralding the end of the world. A world had ended, but it wasn’t theirs; it was ours. In a way, we’d died and been resurrected.

Nearly all of my fellow passengers had been asking after their families. I and a few others had remained conspicuously silent. I was an only child, as both my parents had been. They’d died in a freak traffic accident when I was in graduate school, and I had no other family.

I’d been lonely before I’d met him and realised that was to be my lot again. Surely he was married with nearly grown children by now. Did he still think of me? News of my arrival would have jogged his memory, but I was in his distant past – a relic, one that hadn’t aged. Something about that thought satisfied me, and it lessened the feeling of devastation I was trying to push to the edges of my consciousness. Nevertheless, just thinking of inquiring about him had me cringing in pre-emptive humiliation.

I hadn’t known he’d already been contacted. The immense bureaucracy that had emerged around Flight 008 had conspired to keep our relationship alive.

I had no next of kin, and we hadn’t been married, but he’d been listed as my emergency contact. That tenuous connection had been a silken thread that had refused to be broken. In order to keep the administrative wheels moving, he’d been granted the privileges of a spouse. He’d been the one to decide what was to be done about my belongings (he’d kept everything). He’s the one the psychologists pressed for details about my mental state. He’d been one of the first civilians to learn that they’d narrowed down the time of our arrival to a 33-month window (they’d watched for us every day, and we’d arrived on the second-to-last). He’d helped choose my liaison.

He’d waited.

Twenty years he’d waited.

He’d kept hope through the last three years of daily bitter disappointment when our plane didn’t pop back onto radar.

I felt unworthy of such devotion and wondered if I would have had the strength to have done the same.

The first time I’d seen him again was in a virtual reality simulation. The level of detail had been staggering. The sunlight filtering through the trees in the park where we’d met was so realistic that my brain convinced me I could feel its warmth on my skin. We’d both sobbed uncontrollably, as had our avatars. They’d embraced desperately, and it had felt real. Almost. I remembered what he smelled like, what it felt like when he held me close. I’d been apart from him for only a few days. He’d been separated from me for over 7,000. Virtual reality couldn’t close the gap, and the friction was too much for him to bear. We agreed (with some reluctance on my part) that our avatars should remain physically separate.

He was five years older than I was now, but he looked much the same. At first, I’d put it down to the simulation, to my liaison wanting me to see a face I knew intimately to avoid adding more layers of stress too quickly. But it had been a true representation of him. Time hadn’t lain a glove on him either. He’d always led a healthy life. He’d eaten right, exercised, and exfoliated regularly. But even all that care wouldn’t have been enough. Not over twenty years.

I came to learn that aging was now treated like a degenerative disease, and treatments to slow or even partially reverse its effects were in widespread use. He didn’t merely still look thirty years old – physically he was. The upper limit on the length of a human life was now unknown.

Had the notion of time become essentially meaningless, I began to wonder.

My two-week medical sequestration felt like an eternity. I met him in the virtual park every day and began the work of getting to know him again. It was a one-sided process – I was still the same. Realising this is what allowed me to set aside any lingering self-pity. It had been infinitely more difficult for the ones we’d unknowingly abandoned when we’d boarded Flight 008.

He and I would spread a picnic blanket and lay under the afternoon sun together as he told me about his life. He still worked in finance, and he’d lived in New York City for several years, but he’d come back to San Francisco when the return window had opened so he could help me transition. He’d tried to move on. His family had pressed him relentlessly. They lived back east and hadn’t met me before I’d disappeared. To them I was just a middle-aged woman who didn’t photograph particularly well. How could I begrudge them for not seeing what all the fuss was about when I could scarcely understand it myself?

“The thought of you coming back and everything you’d known being gone, you being alone…” he’d whispered. “I couldn’t stand thinking about it. If you’d died, maybe I could have let go… But you were coming back, and I was certain that I loved you and that you loved me.”

“I do love you,” I pledged. “More than anything. More than I thought it was possible to love another person.” And I did. The depth and breadth of the sacrifices he’d made for me had banished my self-doubt and fear. The part of me I’d been holding back and trying to protect, I now gave to him freely. In addition, I was no longer in poor health, and there were now a range of treatments that could very likely rehabilitate my fertility and rejuvenate me. We could start a family. Could we have it all? After everything we’d been through and would go through, would it be enough? It seemed the universe had folded into itself to put us in this place. Against all odds, we were meant to be. It had to be enough.

Fourteen days after we’d landed, we were allowed to leave the quarantine facility. He’d met me in the greeting area. We stood staring at each other, afraid to approach, afraid this was the simulation. How could we be sure? Reality seemed to have gone incognito. Everything had begun to feel like a dream. If I touched him, would he disappear? We drew nearer, and soon his arms were like a vise around my waist, and the curve of my neck was wet with his tears. He shook and convulsed as I tried to soothe him. We turned our wet faces to each other and kissed, and I said, “Take me home.”

Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed the story, please tap the heart icon to help other readers find it!

Comment Log in or Join Tablo to comment on this chapter...

You might like Harrison Kitteridge's other books...