I crouch on the bedroom floor, collapsed against the pinewood dresser, caught between the double agonies of a heart attack and an impending stillbirth. One hand clutches at my chest; the other grasps my belly, swollen for the first time after a decade of fertility treatments. A clock has tumbled off the dresser and glares at me. I wait for the moment to click past, but the numbers seem frozen: 2:22 PM.
In that pause, I feel time splinter into two paths. Along one path, heart failure claims me but doctors retrieve my baby, my beautiful girl, from my dying body. But here, on this path, the pain in my chest eases--the EKG later will show no abnormalities--while blood gushes hot between my legs.
I cry out in pain and frustration, wanting to rewind time and seize that other future, the one that trades my life for hers.
I have a sudden conviction that, if I had a second chance, I could grasp the right future. I don’t yet realize that the choice is not mine to make. Not this time.
Too late Nomar stumbles into the house, car keys clattering to the floor. The wail of ambulance sirens follows him through the open door. “Thank God I didn’t lose you,” he says, sinking to the floor beside me.
“I can save her.” I twist from his encircling arms. “The time machine,” I say, although he hates that name, “--did you test it today?”
In a lab beneath Massachusetts Avenue, my husband has built a contraption of metal, glass, and incomprehensible energies. His name for it involves “temporal displacement” and “quantum bridges,” but his colleagues call it “Nomar’s Folly.”
Nomar rocks onto his heels, his gaze turning to the dark stain where our daughter’s life has already seeped down my thighs, staining my leggings and the once-beige Berber rug. He murmurs about unforeseen complications.
“Promise you’ll make the machine work,” I beg.
“Carly, honey, this isn’t your fault,” he whispers, which isn’t a promise at all.
I remember that missing promise sixteen years later as I slam the door to Nomar’s lab, cracking its frosted window and rattling the racks of computers and sensors. Across the room, I see the worry lines crease his forehead, their depth telling the story of the years since our daughter wasn’t born.
Nomar’s Folly sits abandoned in the far corner, the glassy tower half-hidden by cardboard boxes and equipment carts.
“Good thing he dropped that preposterous time machine idea,” I hiss. Those words have looped through my head for the past hour, confided by the Dean as she jogged the treadmill next to mine, as if sharing a secret we both knew.
Theoretical miscalculations, hardware failures, power disruptions. I list the excuses he’s given over the years for why the time machine doesn’t work.
“When did you stop the tests?” I dig his desk drawer for his lab notebook. I flip through the pages to the last entry, dated the day we lost our daughter.
“2:22 PM. Initialization sequence test successful,” the hurried scrawl reads. “Full test aborted.” Then: “Project cancelled.”
But my attention snagged on the first sentence. “Test successful? It’s worked all this time?”
I push past the cardboard boxes to Nomar’s machine. My fingers stab at the control panel until lights flicker on and an oscillating whine fills the air.
Nomar grabs my arm before I can rush inside. But it’s the twisting of his face that stops me.
“It doesn’t work. Not the way I thought,” Nomar says. A tear wells and splits on an eyelash, tracking two separate paths down his cheek. “My calculations were wrong.”
What quantum theory tells us: my daughter both does and does not exist. In some timelines, she dies in my womb; in others, she grows to a young woman with my eyes and Nomar’s curly hair.
The future I’ve always envisioned: she takes her first step holding my fingers and flutters butterfly kisses against my cheek every night.
What I will soon learn: that future exists only in my imagination.
“I saw her,” Nomar says. She had flashed into the time machine the second he’d turned it on, a young woman with the brown curls and gray eyes I’d always imagined. He’d heard her voice, muffled by the glass, yell, “Dad? Where’s my mom?” Then she’d flickered out of existence.
The lab phone rang a second later. “I’ve lost the baby!” I’d wailed. At first Nomar blinked at the time machine, wondering how I had known what he’d seen.
“I didn’t realize I’d caused…” Nomar’s free hand circles in front of his stomach.
I have no time for his guilt or the implications of his words.
“You saw her. And you never told me.” Wrenching away from my husband, I open the door to his Folly and step inside. I want only to find the timeline where my daughter lives and tie it to mine.
But there are no ribbons of time to grasp, no broken ends to braid together, only a hurtling shift into another now.
Through the time machine’s glass wall, I see Nomar, not grayed by guilt, but the brightly ambitious self before the next moment’s horror tears us apart. His eyes widen at the sight of me.
We realize our miscalculations together: I cannot exist in two places in the same Now.
For just a blink of time, I both crouch on our bedroom floor and stand shell-shocked in the time machine. I cradle my pregnant belly and press a hand against the glass separating me from Nomar. My hearts seize and stop. My two selves cancel each other out.
Too late Nomar will stumble into our house to find me slumped against the dresser. The sound of an ambulance will echo through the open door. But there will be no stain on the Berber rug this time, our daughter still held safely in my womb.
About the Author
Suvi Tausend lives in dreams and fantasies. When not working as a professional destroyer/creator of worlds and realities, she grows medicinal mushrooms and crafts jewelry. Contact her on Twitter: @SuviTausend