Variable Chapter 1

Ethan Talbert

The wind whipped Tara’s hair back—cold, stinging. The mother with the baby carriage, the boy with the bike—and the police! Twelve seconds early. The trolley rushed by, and as she ran toward the center of the road, everything slowed like it was going in retrograde.

Memory blurs that should’t have been—people she had never met but knew—faces, events, that red frock coat, a blue bike, there just like always—like always? Half of it was known, half of it garbled. Swirling snow and pushing children and—yes, police whistles. And early! How did she know that?

And all the time that pounding like metal cylinders in her head. She had to do it eventually. She could keep going back and back, delaying the moment, stretching the bounds of decency. But somewhere, somehow this had to stop. But not today.

“Get out of the road!” a mother shouted. Tara looked around, unsurprised, and was hit—mercifully by three tons of metal that flung her back again to…where?

The room. Tara hated the room. One long hall with round, ship-port windows and reflective metal siding. Dark, except the dim red light on the metal. And the small white light above a giant projector screen. And in the middle of the room—a chair—Tara remembered. But she didn’t know why.

She walked slowly, like she had done it before. The chair was all wood, a captain’s chair with spiraled back bars and arms that spread out on either side. It was dark grained, and creaked as you sat in it.

Tara slouched back and looked at the screen, letting her mind drift into memory. And slowly the darkened screen began to brighten and brighten. And then in a sheet of blinding white and blue it became the morning sky. February 29th, 2024, Tara realized.

Tara was running outside, chasing Jay-jay.

“’I’m gonna’ get you!”

“No!” Jay-jay squealed as Tara scooped him up, kissing him all over his dark, round little face.

“Passengers please remain seated during your ride.”

“What?” The Tara on the screen squinted up at the blue sky.

“Next stop, Broughton Road.”

“No,” said the Tara watching the screen. “Stop it. I want this one. I like this one.”

She watched as the blue sky gave way to a gray-domed ceiling. People to her right and left, a man reading a newspaper, a teenager texting—the bus.

“Stop it!” Tara said quietly. “This isn’t me.” But she already saw herself, walking down the aisle and sitting gingerly on the edge of her seat—next to a very large woman. Tara looked embarrassed as she turned away from the woman.

“Do you want something to read?” the large woman asked. Tara mumbled something and shook her head.

“You look nervous,” the woman continued. Tara opened her mouth to answer, but the only word that come out was “fine”.

Some of the bus people were noticing them now, looking up from i-phones with lazy expressions. Tara’s face flushed. “I’m okay,” she said to the woman, almost fiercely, and then, more gently, “I’m fine.” The woman patted Tara’s knee with a large fleshy hand. Tara cringed.

“She’s just trying to help,” a nearby man muttered down at his phone. Tara shot him a nasty glare. Her face was flushed. And how…how did the woman know? Could some people just sense when others were desperately worried?

Watching the screen, Tara felt her throat tighten. Was this why she hated the bus?

“Twenty Broughton Road,” said the bus speaker. Tara was glad to walk away, down the metal steps and onto the street. The street close to work where…

“Tara?” She looked up at a middle aged woman, blonde, on red high heels. Now she remembered why she hated today.

“Thanks for coming Aimee,” Tara said. Aimee hugged her.

“When the report turns out to be good, I’ll take you to dinner.”

Tara laughed, and felt the tension lessen. They walked into a large, stone building.

“Tomas and Thomason M.D.s,” the sign read.

Up the stairs, 15 minute wait, and a soft-spoken man with graying hair. They sat down. He spoke slowly, deliberately. Tara gasped. She shook her head. Aimee hugged her. The doctor left, and Tara sat limp, staring at the bare patch of white on the wall in front of her, tears silking down her cheek. Aimee tried to hug her. Tara didn’t respond. She handed Tara a tissue. Tara began pulling it apart one tiny piece at a time.

“He…he can’t do this to me,” she said.

“Shhh,” Aimee said.

“He can’t do this to me! They can’t. She can’t. Whoever makes the calls—they CAN’T DO THIS!”

And just as suddenly as the outburst began, it stopped. Shoulders slumped, eyes dulled, and Tara went silent. Silent as Aimee led her out of the stone building. Silent as Aimee drove her home. Silent as she helped Tara onto the couch. Silent as her friend talked in low, gentle tones. Silent for forty-eight hours.

And now she sat on the couch by herself, squeezing a leather pillow, Aimee gone.

And then, like a switch had been flicked, she leaped up. Diving under the coffee table she pulled up her laptop, opened it, typed, hesitated, and clicked. The email was still in her junk box—barely. Another day and it would have disappeared. She looked at the bottom of the message, pulled out her phone and dialed the number.

“Hello…Hector? It’s Tara. Well, I’m…dying. No, I don’t care about that. Hector, please shut up. You know why I called. Yes, I know I said that. I’m s….yes? I’ll be there. Thank you. Well thank you, anyway. Bye.”

Tara became a frenetic blur—stuffing clothes into her backpack, pulling food from her refrigerator—she was hungry! She’d forgotten. She turned on her TV stereo system. Volume: full blast. The beating, throbbing noise felt good, like life. She laughed wildly and ran to look at herself in the mirror.

Messy hair, bloodshot, sparkling eyes, wrinkled clothes. Her smudged mascara like Goth war paint. She liked it. Even when that glass-framed portrait of Aimee fell to the ground as she swept by—she liked it.

She felt her fingers shaking as she typed the coordinates into the map program. Whoops, too fast. She giggled and backspaced. Tara would leave tonight—“Like I can sleep…anytime this week!”

The next six hours sped by. Tara sung with the radio, listened to alien conspiracy stories on the late night talk shows, and reveled in the way her white headlight beams sliced the darkness. She even frightened up a deer.

“Bambi, Bambi,” she said. “YOU had better be glad I’m not a hunter. OR I could just HIT you.” She dissolved into hilarious laughter. Four strong coffees and an energy drink later, she arrived at Hector’s office, shaky and crashing.

Six in the morning. What was wrong with people, starting the day so late? Tara ran a brush through her hair, and realized it would not be enough. The parking lot was empty except for Tara’s car. A little to the side of the building a blue bike was leaning against the wall. Probably no one was here yet. She was just thinking about a bathroom when Hector peeked out the window.

She knew as soon as he saw her. He’d seen her, and wanted to act like he had not. But he had expected her. Why else spend the night in his office? Or why arrive that early? If Hector really didn’t approve…Hector was not dying. Tara looked in the mirror, pushed her hair back in a messy bun, and clamped a hair claw on it. Then she gave a rebellious sniff and stepped outside the car.

Hector was holding the door for her by the time she reached his office. She didn’t say anything. Neither did he. They walked in, past the pot of coffee—which smelled horrible. “If I survive this,” Tara thought “I’ll never drink that much coffee again.” See? She wasn’t so reckless.

Hector walked into an inner room, and sat down at the interview-ee’s chair. He motioned Tara into the big one behind the desk.

“Let’s talk,” he said.

Tara stiffened at the sharpness. She walked over to the chair, but she did not sit.

“I’m not comfortable with this,” Hector said. Tara studied him, long face, graying hair. Athletic.

“It never bothered you before,” she pointed out.

“It was never a question of changing fortunes before,” he said. “Keeping yourself from dying…we don’t even know what this is like.”

“I’ve seen the movies,” she scoffed. Then, “Look, I know the science is new, but I also understand the theoretical dangers,” Tara said. “Changing my time stream, altering things so that I no longer exist if I ever want to come back. I get it. Hector, I don’t want to use it for time jumping.”

He looked up. “I know. You want it because as long as you are in it, bacterial diseases can’t progress. You’re effectively indestructible…until old age catches up…”

“Exactly…”

“IF it catches up.” Tara looked at him. Hector continued. “See, that’s what we don’t know. Time is more than just minutes and hours. It’s choices, thoughts, feelings—life. I’m not as worried about jumping ahead in time—though that presents enough problems. But trying to change your life, to avoid…like you said, we don’t understand the science. We don’t even know if at this point it is science, and not just ethics. Or morality.”

“Well all told,” Tara said. “The potential death of your ex-wife would be a good time to find out.”

Hector looked at her for a long time. Tara felt uncomfortable. Was that still affection?

“If it weren’t you,” he said at last.

“And if you hadn’t messed me up so bad . . . .”

“Ten seconds,” Hector said. “That’s all the time you have to focus on where you want to go, what you want to have with you. I don’t know what memories follow. I don’t know which ones you have to will to come with you. But I know if you’re bringing anything, it has to be brought in ten seconds.”

Hector reached under the desk and pulled out a large brown, backpack-looking thing. It had a strange plastic tube attached to the side. He held up two pieces like old fashioned telephone mouth and ear pieces.

“Put these to your ears,” he said. Tara obeyed—did what he said.

“Remember, Tara, ten seconds. Are you sure?”

She nodded, her eyes a strange fire.

“When this light stops beeping–” He pointed to a white, plastic controller in his hand. “You’ll go.”

A car honked outside. Someone ran by the window, jogging. The blue light flashed. The office smelled like Royal Golf Cologne. Hector had always liked it—Tara’s fault. The light flashed again. She hadn’t said good bye to Aimee. Okay. This didn’t have to be the end. The light flashed again, and Tara stretched for a thought that wouldn’t come, that seemed important. Then one more flash, and Tara Selbury was no more.

______________________________________________________________________________________________ Chapter 12

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