by J. Lee Strickland
Steven mastered time travel. He mastered the brutal simplicity of it. There is only one reason to travel into the past, and that is to change it. There is only one reason to travel into the future, and that is to determine it. He started with the past, with his first wife.
He eliminated her.
He didn’t kill her. He simply erased their marriage. To be certain of the effect, he went so far as to remove certain preconditions to that matrimony, like their attendance at the same high school, the senior prom and those embarrassing photos. Sure, there might still be some someone in the world with a past like hers, even a name like hers, but the tangle of their lives together was gone as surely as if it never occurred. It was a much more satisfying separation than divorce had ever been. The residue that had infected his relationships, his life after that divorce, the recursive torment of what might have been, all that was gone.
His second wife was a more delicate operation. He found that there are limits to what one can change when one travels into the past. One cannot recover what fate has erased. Fate had erased his second wife.
He cured her of the horrible blood disease that had debilitated her, that had robbed her of her beautiful smile, that had wasted her voluptuous body, that had finally killed her. He arranged instead for her to die in a shocking, freak accident at the exact day and hour that fate had ordained. At least she didn’t suffer. He could remember her healthy, robust and happy, loving and being loved, until the last instant.
He was tempted to branch out, to correct the difficulties of a few others, but the past is a delicate fabric, and he had already changed much.
He moved his focus to the future, at first a much more simplistic, almost cartoonish landscape populated with vague stick figures who only gained flesh once one gave them close attention. He found a small cottage in a country setting where he would spend his advanced old age. He contrived that he would be fit and engaged. His mind would be sharp and his fingers still nimble. He lined up some neighbors, not too close, who would be helpful, but respectful. He negotiated with Fate to be kind.
He surveyed his work from the wooden chair in the kitchen of his third-floor apartment and felt pleased.
The phone rang.
“Steven, it’s Betty.”
“Don’t be an asshole, Steven. Why do you always have to be an asshole? We’re not married anymore, so just cut the shit.”
“You must have the wrong number,” he said.
He replaced the phone in its cradle. As an afterthought, he pulled the wire from the back of the phone. He gazed out the kitchen window, past the rusted fire escape, across the brick-strewn, vacant lot, at a line of stunted vegetation on the far edge. He thought about his cottage, his diffident neighbors.