Is time travel a cop-out?
“What is this, a lock?” Guy, a throwaway character asked, picking it up off a shelf where it served as a dutiful bookend in the mystery section.
“Careful. Careful, it’s a time machine,” Susannah Fontaine-Williams said.
“No, really, what is this?” he demanded, picking it up. It looked like a square padlock without the latch on top. Just a dark, metal box with a numbered dial in the middle, It was simple and beautiful and he couldn’t take his eyes off it. He turned the dial one notch and it clicked.
“Did you not hear me?!?” she said. “Keep doing that and you’ll end up back in the bronze age or at an inquisition and you’re not ready. Just look at how you’re dressed.”
“Oh come on,” he said, testing the resistance of the dial. “There’s no such thing as a time machine.”
Susannah scoffed and shook her head.
“Just don’t touch that dial unless you’re sure you know what’s going to happen,” she said. “I mean, maybe some day you can use it. I have no plans to. Just…make sure you know what you’re doing first.”
“Susannah, where did you get this?”
She sat down on Big Orange, the bright orange sofa so large its pieces wouldn’t fit on the freight elevator, even with the ceiling removed. She had to enlist a small cadre of men with extreme musculature to carry it up the twelve flights of stairs. Even then, it wouldn’t fit through the doorway to the room, and it had to be widened. The doorway, I mean, not the room.
Susannah smoothed the front of her jeans. She wore her Lees high-waisted in a way that stopped being stylish long before she was born, her blouse tucked in, daring anyone to think she looked frumpy. She didn’t. She took a deep breath, then stood, and walked to the window, then back to the now wide enough doorway, then just back and forth.
“He said he was my son.” She looked to her guest for a reaction.
“As you know, I don’t have any children,” she continued. In her mind, an image of Bob and the triplets flashed, one of whom was a boy…or was it two, but then she never was certain that they were even real. She had seen the resemblance in his face – especially in the eyes and the way he’d dubiously raise an eyebrow – despite his ragged appearance. He had presented her with a photo of the two of them on the steps of the New York Public Library, Susannah an older woman than now, and he an un-weathered teen version of himself. The photo could have been doctored. It could have been real.
“Anyway, he had come back to this time to fix something,” she continued. She extended her hand palm up to him and glanced at the lock.” He handed it back to her and she returned it to the shelf, removing the book at the end of the row, Jasper Fforde’s “The Eyre Affair.”
“What did he come back to fix?” I said.
“Oh, that doesn’t matter. He told me about it, but it was just a bunch of nonsense.”
“Well, if he erased something from history, then you’d never know otherwise, would you? What did he tell you? Come on, tell me.”
She settled back onto Big Orange, running a thumb over the pages of the book. Thwip. Thwip.
Walt walked in, jumped on the couch, put his head on her lap and looked up at her.
“Yes, you’re right,” she said to Walt, her eyes on Guy. “Just a bunch of gibberish.”
Walt jumped down and wagging his tail, came over to Guy.
“Walt, good boy. Who’s a good boy?”
Susannah’s phone rang. “Yes?” she answered, walking out of the room.
Guy quickly went back over to the book shelf. He picked up the lock. “What do you think, Walt? Is this a time machine? Is your mom just yanking my chain?”
He turned the lock over and etched on the back in tiny print, was a list. Fortunately, there was an onyx-handled magnifying glass one shelf down. The first line read:
Til að hreinsa skífuna skaltu snúa til vinstri þriggja snúninga.
“It’s Icelandic,” Susannah said, leaning on the doorway. It says, “To clear the dial, spin it left three full revolutions.”
“I suppose because it was made in Iceland some time far into the future. Now, put it back, please.”
“Now, that was the studio calling. I have to run.” She hooked her arm in his and led him to the door. She leaned in and kissed him, ruffling his hair. “I’ll call you later?”
Guy gasped, “yes, please,” as she pushed him through the door. He took a step to the elevator, turned and said, “Wait. Kills who?” Guy said. “Was I killed?”
Susannah opened The Eyre Affair to where the photo bookmarked it. She and her son, on the library steps, sometime in the future. The other Susannah sat down next to her on Big Orange. “I love that photo,” she said. “Which one of us do you think it is?”
“Oh, it’s got to be you. You’re much more the marrying type.” They laughed, each thinking how much they liked having the other around.
Ed. note. Check in next time for the transcripts of a panel discussion by famous authors: Is using the crowd-pleasing device of time travel to fix narrative a cop out or a best practice?