Vivian put the car in park and turned off the ignition. As she stepped out, her heeled boots crunched the dried, fallen leaves on the ground. She blew on her fingers in an attempt to warm them up before she fished out the spare key in her purse for the house in front of her. She used the flashlight on her phone to illuminate the front doorknob; the sun was setting earlier now that autumn had arrived, and she couldn’t make it here until after work had finished. It may have been Saturday, but that didn’t mean she didn’t have to head into work some weekends.
It was just a normal Saturday night—grabbing some papers at her sister’s house for the insurance company.
Vivian turned on the lights when she entered the house and closed the door behind her. The place was almost empty. No one else was home, and there were few pieces of furniture still remaining. The couch hadn’t been removed from the living room yet, and the queen-sized bed was still upstairs, but most of the kitchen was cleaned out.
Despite this house not being hers, she still felt intimately familiar with it. That just happens when your sister lives only thirty minutes away.
She found the folder of papers on top of the bed, where she must have left it last in a tired haze when she’d last visited. Vivian had spent so much time here a few months ago; her trips were becoming scarcer as of recently.
With the folder tucked under her arm, she took another look at the bedroom while she lingered in the hallway. This place used to feel like it was full of life—days of house parties and nights of face masks and tea while chatting about work.
Some things can’t be changed.
With a small sigh to herself, she headed downstairs and reached for the front doorknob.
“Did’n know you were gonna be dropping by today.”
Vivian whirled around and saw a man with a full beard and messy hair. He had a faint imprint on his cheek, as if he’d been lying down on something textured.
“Gordon, you nearly gave me a heart attack,” Vivian said.
“S’ like a ghos’ town here,” he mumbled, his words a little slurred. His eyes were bloodshot.
Vivian walked closer to him; he smelled strongly of alcohol. She’d always thought he was a little obnoxious when he drank—she’d complained to her sister, Natalie, to stop having alcohol at their small parties if he couldn’t be responsible. Gordon was a person of extremes; he didn’t know how to do things half-heartedly.
They awkwardly stared at each other, not saying anything further. Vivian had planned on staying only long enough to grab the documents; she hadn’t expected Gordon to be there, but she supposed she should have known better. Gordon had spent far more time in Natalie’s house in the last few months than she had. He seemed to spend more time here than in his own condo.
Vivian was about to give a farewell when Gordon turned around and stumbled toward the basement stairs. She considered asking him if he needed help getting down, but she worried that would irritate him. He wasn’t an “angry drunk,” but he was sensitive and defensive—drinks or no drinks.
She didn’t hear any crashing or tumbling, so he must have made it down fine, but Vivian was pretty sure he’d be ready to cough up what little food and drink there was in his stomach.
After rinsing and recycling the empty bottle of whiskey, which Gordon had politely placed in the sink, Vivian found a single can of ginger ale in the fridge and a box of saltine crackers in the cabinet. Those were the only things remaining in the kitchen.
It was sad seeing the place like this; Vivian remembered the house parties here, with tons of adults getting drunk and snacking on cookies and homemade sweet potato fries. Even though the following mornings—because of course no one was in a state to drive home—were calm, there was a certain warmth about quietly drinking a cup of coffee with friends and family.
Vivian, holding the box of crackers under her arm and the ginger ale in one hand, pulled the basement door behind her and descended the stairs in limited light. One of the ceiling lights had burned out, and no one had bothered to replace it.
Gordon was hunched over on the leather couch, his bare feet on the couch with his legs pulled up against himself. He rested his head on his knees and groaned. A textured throw pillow sat next to him. Vivian tapped him on the shoulder and offered him the snacks. He groggily looked up at her and wordlessly accepted, cracking open the can and spilling a little bit on the couch in the process. Ignoring the mess, he bit off the corner of a cracker.
The basement was half-finished. Natalie had always been meaning to spruce it up, but the concrete floor was here to stay for now. The walls were a plain white—a bright laboratory white, not the off-white eggshell that was easier on the eyes. She’d liked it this way; she’d said it really made their little lab actually feel like one.
Three long tables took up most of the space in the basement, and a computer sat upon one. Vivian remembered many weekends running through code with her sister, working out complex problems with her for their experiments just because they could. Gordon had joined them at one point when Natalie accidentally let the secret of what they were working on slip in conversation with him.
“It’s a lot quieter without Natalie here,” Vivian noted.
“Mmm.” Gordon took another sip of ginger ale. He burped loudly and then let out a sigh, feeling a little better.
“Make sure you eat the crackers, too. How much did you eat before you polished off that bottle?”
“Not much.” After putting a few in his mouth and chewing on them, he said, “You know, Natalie always said you babied her. Drove her crazy sometimes.”
Vivian laughed softly. “Sometimes I did it just to bug her.”
“Did Natalie ever tell you how she and I met?”
“Yes. In excruciating detail.”
Gordon grimaced. “Oh no.”
“Yep, including all your sloppy attempts to hit on her when you both were freshmen.” Vivian took a seat next to the computer and crossed her legs. “After a few months of complaining about you, she stopped bringing you up… And then one day when I was chatting with her on the phone, your name came up casually, like you two were speaking again. I tried to warn her to be careful, make sure to keep on track of taking birth control, let her friends at school know when she was going to your dorm—”
“W-wait, we didn’t—”
“Yeah, I know. She laughed for several minutes before she mentioned that she wasn’t dating you. That you had become her best friend. She teased me for jumping to conclusions. She never really dated anyone, anyway. Never seemed interested in romantic relationships.”
Gordon paused, chewing on his lip. “I was so happy when she told me she was going to be moving here, working at the same place, having her own team, doing research. She is…was a talented neurologist. Probably one of the best. But more than having her as a coworker, I was happy to be hanging out with my best friend again.” He gripped the can, making a crunching sound. “I can’t believe she’s gone.”
Tears fell from Gordon’s eyes. Vivian shifted her gaze to the ground. “There’s not a whole lot you can do against a brain tumor,” she said. “Natalie got unlucky, that’s all.”
“But what if…” Gordon began, pausing as if he was unsure if he should continue. “What if…”
At that moment, Vivian turned her attention to the computer beside her. It was on. That was odd; it hadn’t been touched ever since Natalie died. After all, Vivian was the one who did the most work on it, and all her time at the house the past few months had been for paperwork and cleaning purposes. She actually hadn’t been down into the basement for the past few weeks.
She’d done so much work on this computer, trying to accomplish the impossible with her sister and Gordon.
“Please… Gordon… Don’t tell me—”
“We need to go back and save her.”
“I don’t even know if that’s possible! We never got to properly test it!”
“You don’t believe in the work we accomplished?”
“Gordon, you’re drunk. We can’t have this conversation right now.”
He immediately got to his feet, knocking over the box of saltines. “We made a goddamn time machine, someone important to us died, and you don’t want to change that?! This isn’t just about us—the world is worse off without her.”
“Anyone would think that about someone close to them.”
“How can you not care about your own sister?”
“Wha—” Vivian stopped herself, willing tears to stay away. She had already cried too much in the past months. “How dare you. You asshole. You don’t know what it’s like to lose a sibling. Besides, if I, as her sister, can hold myself together, then what the hell are you doing, moping around in her house, getting drunk and skipping out on work on a regular basis? You know what—you’re just wallowing. You’re drowning in your own pain, but you’re not even trying to get help. You keep reopening the wound. Gordon, some of us are trying to come to terms with the simple fact that she’s gone. People die. It happens.”
Vivian clenched her teeth and started to head for the stairs, but she spun around on her heel, fired up. Natalie would have made fun of her in this kind of situation—she liked to tease her older sister for not knowing when to let things sit when she was mad.
Hand on the worn-down wooden banister, she locked eyes with her friend, wordlessly staring back at him but with a gaze just as fiery. She continued, “As much as I love and miss Natalie, I’m not going to risk dying myself, getting lost in space and time, on the slight chance to save her. After all, what the hell can you do against brain cancer?”
“I can at least try to do something.”
“We never had a chance to verify that the time machine won’t harm humans.”
“I’ll be the first test.”
Exasperated, Vivian sighed loudly, sitting down on the first step. “Gordon, you’re not following me. When Natalie approached me with the idea of making something that would allow people to travel in time, we both thought it was far-fetched, but I figured, Why not? That would be something fun to tinker with. We were too busy worrying whether we could build a time machine that we never stopped to consider whether we should. What kind of Pandora’s Box are we opening when time travel is made possible? What if we create a paradox? If you go back and do something in the past, what if the time machine never ends up being completed? Does that mean we never saved Natalie? What happens, then, to her? What happens to you, inside the time machine? There are too many questions we never asked. I won’t risk your safety.”
“Even if it means never seeing Natalie again?”
Vivian stared at the computer, quietly whirring to itself, remembering cups of coffee Natalie had brought her in the dead of night in front of that screen. “Some things can’t be changed.”
Gordon did not move, rooted in front of the couch. He remembered days of chatting with his best friend in this basement, the way her face lit up when discussing far-flung theories.
“I’m begging you, Vivian. Let me try. I promise you I won’t do this without your consent. Not because you co-created this,” he said, gesturing at a one-person-large capsule with a door, “but because you’re her family.”
Vivian stared at the hunk of metal. It looked primitive, but Gordon was putting his faith in it.
“Let me think about it,” she muttered before heading upstairs, leaving Gordon alone in the basement.
Gordon had once muttered that this house was the land of the dead. Vivian had dismissed the comment as the rambling of a drunk person dealing with the sudden death of a friend. But sitting alone in her sister’s kitchen, staring at the stars outside the small window above the sink, she mulled over that statement.
He had probably meant that he felt dead, or maybe that he was wishing that he was dead. Vivian had gone through that already—privately, in her own home. There was definitely something creepy about being in Natalie’s house without her, and especially at night. She didn’t believe in ghosts, but sometimes when she stared into a dark hallway here long enough, she thought that maybe, just maybe she could will Natalie’s image into existence.
Perhaps it was more that this house was frozen in time. Both she and Gordon were afraid to leave it, to let go of it and what remained of their memories with Natalie.
She imagined herself going downstairs and destroying the time machine once and for all. She’d considered it before; seeing Gordon spending so much time here had concerned her earlier. But every time she’d stood in front of it with a hammer, she remembered all the time she’d spent with Natalie on it. She didn’t want to announce their accomplishment to the world, and she was too afraid to use it. Yet destroying it meant losing the last thing she’d created with her sister.
If she needed to destroy it, to save Gordon, could she?
Did she even want to stop Gordon?
A sudden buzz from her pocket interrupted her thoughts. She took out her phone. Displayed on the screen was an alert of a text message from Katherine, her wife.
“Haven’t heard from you ever since you left for Nat’s house. You coming home for dinner tonight? If you need to spend some time there, don’t worry about it. Take all the time you need, and I’m here if you need anything. I love you.”
Vivian smiled. “I think I’m gonna skip dinner tonight. Sorry. Love you, too. I’ll text you when I’m heading home,” she texted back.
Miracles didn’t exist, but love did. Maybe that was a close enough substitute.
Vivian went back downstairs and found Gordon sitting on the ground with his back against the foot of the couch. He looked up at her when he realized she’d returned. “Viv, I’m so sorry for—”
“I’m considering using the time machine,” she interrupted. “Also…I shouldn’t have acted like your grief should be less than mine. We all deal with death differently.”
“I’m sorry, too. I’ve been a huge dick lately.”
Vivian joined him, sitting against the couch. “I’ve never told anyone this, but…sometimes, for a moment, I forget Natalie’s gone. I get out my phone, ready to text her something, and then I realize, ‘Oh. She’s dead.’ And I feel awful for forgetting.”
Gordon pulled her into a hug, and she put an arm around him as well. “I really miss how she’d get that self-assured smile when she was proving someone wrong, or how excited she got when she saw her favorite snacks,” he said with the saddest smile Vivian thought she’d ever seen.
“She couldn’t go to the grocery store without buying a pack of Oreos.”
“Yeah, she always ate the Double Stuf kind.”
“And she went nuts for the limited-edition flavors, even when they were actually gross.”
The two nodded emphatically and laughed before the same heavy air returned to the room.
“I should have told someone when Natalie first admitted to me that she was feeling sick,” Gordon confessed. “She kept complaining about headaches but was too caught up in her work to actually take a sick day and see a doctor. I didn’t help, either. I told her it was probably just exhaustion and not to worry about it, just to get some extra sleep. I should have told her to get it checked out. I keep wondering what would have happened if I’d told her early on to get it checked out.”
“Yeah, but against brain cancer? It’s like a death sentence.”
“Not if she’d gotten the tumor removed back when she was stage I, before it spread.”
“This is a huge risk, you know. To you.”
Gordon squeezed Vivian’s hand. “I know.”
Neither of them said anything for a while. Eventually, Vivian let out a breath she’d been holding in and rubbed her eyes, taking off her glasses for a moment. “Fine. Let’s get it started. I’m going to have to input coordinates for the day and time you’ll be traveling to. If it works, your consciousness will be transferred to the you of the time you’re traveling to. However, you’re going to be the only one with memories of what happened from after the time you’re going to. I won’t be able to help you with anything then and there.”
“I can do it. I just need to make sure she gets to the doctor early.”
Vivian nodded. She moved to the computer and got to work. “I hope Nat is a lot luckier than I’ve always made her out to be,” she muttered to herself.
After several minutes of preparation, Gordon opened the hatch. He smiled. “Thank you for letting me try.”
Vivian felt her heart rate increasing rapidly. Her palms were sweaty. She was prepared to never see him again; she might become the sole member of this thrown-together lab. What would even happen after Gordon left to change something that heavily impacted her present? The three of them had many theories about timelines and consciousness, but they hadn’t ever confirmed whose theory was right. If Gordon was successful, would that be in a different timeline, and now she’d never see either of them again? Would her present self “die”?
Gordon stepped into the time machine. Vivian didn’t have time to discuss theories.
Her friend waved at her with a smile still on his face. His eyes were lit up; he was beaming. “Believe in me. Believe in the work you did, Vivian. And if not in yourself, then believe in Natalie, at least.”
She didn’t know how to respond. She felt the tears coming, but she kept them at bay. She could still go back on this. The time machine wouldn’t activate until she issued the command. Gordon was waiting for her, but she had the last word.
However, she wanted this. She wanted to hope. She wanted to defy this world that had taken her sister.
“Good luck, Gordon.”
“See you on the other side, hopefully.”
She pressed the button.
Everything felt hazy after that. Vivian remembered seeing the time machine phase away, and she could recall stumbling over to the couch, accidentally crushing some crackers beneath her feet. She suddenly felt very sick, like she was going to vomit. She fumbled for her phone in her pocket, but it had fallen to the floor in her stumbling to the couch. She leaned over the couch, feeling worse by the second, and hastily pulled up her contacts on her phone, about to call Katherine. She fought against the exhaustion, willing her eyes to stay open, not to fall asleep.
The next few seconds felt like an eternity. But her eyes closed, and everything went black.
Vivian felt the leather on her cheek, which also had some dried drool on that side of her face. She steadily sat up and grabbed her glasses, which had been resting on the side table next to her.
She heard voices across from her—she knew them both well. For some reason, it felt like she hadn’t heard one of them in months, but that didn’t make any sense.
“Viv, are you okay?”
Natalie stood in front of her, wearing her spare lab coat that she always kept at home. She cocked her head to the side. “You drink too much? That’s unlike you.”
Gordon handed her a box of crackers. “Here, have some. Oh, and your phone was going off earlier.”
Vivian shifted her attention to her phone. It had a text from Katherine asking her when she’d be home from Natalie’s.
For some reason, Vivian felt like she had woken up from a long, restless sleep. She rubbed her eyes and looked at her phone again. It was September 29, 8:50 PM.
“How long have I been asleep?” she asked.
“Oh, just a few minutes, I think,” Gordon replied. “You went pale a few minutes ago and suddenly felt sick.”
Natalie smirked. “I guess three back-to-back malt drinks is too much for someone who rarely drinks alcohol.”
“Anyway, we were talking about what to do with the time machine,” Gordon said. “You said earlier that you were wary about announcing its existence to the world.”
Natalie pouted. “You’re such a buzzkill, Viv.”
“I mean, she’s got a point,” Gordon rebutted. “I think caution is the right move here. What do you want to do, Viv?”
She didn’t have an answer. She kept staring at Natalie’s round face, her side-swept bangs framing her face. Gordon had a clean-shaven face, but the hair on his head was still a bit scruffy. They were both waiting for her reply.
Vivian didn’t know why, but she had never been happier to see both of their faces. She leaped to her feet and wrapped them both in a tight hug, afraid to let them go.