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Tuesday, January 7, 2014

A Traveler's Tale

The world has learned three vitally important things since the times of Malcolm’s Chaos (a thinly veiled reference to a late twentieth century fictional character if I remember my middle school history correctly).

One: Aside from an airplane, or your mother’s-in-law at Thanksgiving, a space station is the absolute worst place to experience a zombie outbreak.

Two: Humanity is not alone in the universe; there are alien life forms out there, and they will shoot down your space station and all the ships parked on it in order to keep the zombie virus from spreading, with only this for an introduction: “Be back in a thousand years or so, when y’all have figured out how not to accidentally reanimate your dead.” And in regards to the space station and a few thousand flaming zombies rendering the majority of Asia uninhabitable for fifty years, a brief message that translates most directly into “Oops, our bad.”

Three: Naturally occurring human time travelers can not be stopped, contained or controlled by any government. Even if they cooperate; some government somewhere is too unstable to cooperate for long and enough Travelers, as we call ourselves, slip through long enough to have babies and, well, Travel.

That’s how my grandfather came about. Great granddad slipped away from his home state during a revolution, fell in love somewhere in America’s mid-south, and quickly propagated enough offspring to render what little measures of control that had been in place, useless.

The thing about Travelers is, we don’t just Travel in time, we Travel in space.

To be more accurate, we come unstuck from where we are and sort of…fall…

I was leaning forward over the spotless linen of a very expensive tablecloth in a very expensive restaurant, about to kiss my date and seal the deal, when I came unstuck from my time and…fell…

…face first into an iced-over drift of snow.

The other thing about Travelers is, we Travel naked.  Or at least, we did, until one of us discovered that certain fibers can travel with us, but only in limited amounts.

So it was that I fell face first into a freezing pile of icyness wearing only a thin brassier and underwear.

Sputtering, I staggered to my feet, swiping the ice and snow from my face with enough anger to heat me for the moment as I threw a royal hissyfit in the middle of wherever I had landed, complete with thrashing and kicking and screaming, most of which amounted to bad words and a shrieked “You’ve gotta be kidding me! I was gonna get LAID!”

In the midst of stomping and screaming, I realized I couldn’t feel my feet.

In the years since Traveling has become identified as, first, an uncontrollable disability and now, secretly, a slightly controllable Ability, those of us who can Travel, and a few who are sympathetic, have taken measures to help out Travelers newly arrived. That is to say, folks have hidden piles of random clothing in odd places and marked it so that freaks like me can find it before they either freeze to death or are carted away in a paddy-wagon for indecent exposure.

I ran through the still-falling snow, taking in the sort of town-square I had fallen into, and the accents of the people I sprinted past, judging myself to be somewhere in England. “Lovely weather we’re having,” I said, shouldering past a couple bundled to the eyeballs in scarves and hats and barely able to move in their thick coats. There was a blue light blinking ahead; most people believe these to be some sort of notification of police presence. To some extent, they are, but in cities they also indicate the location of a stash of clothing. “Lost a bet!” I gasped, all but leaping over a pair of old men walking a very excited dog on a rhinestone leash.

The blue light blinked, dim enough that I knew I was lucky to have found it. Not ten yards away, the darkness of a river rushed below a walkway abandoned now that the wind had risen and the square behind me had fired up a half dozen warming braziers.

I slid to my knees beside the light. A lamp post with a thick base nearby had a blue rectangle painted on it; another sign, a joke of sorts between time travelers. With my bare hands I dug through the snow until I found the panel in the bottom of the lamp post and popped it open with fingers gone as numb as my feet.

Blessed be the person who made this stash.

There were boots, (too big, but unless you were a large person all stash clothing was by necessity large), sweat pants, a gigantic sweater (or was it called a jumper here? Or was that Australia? I never could remember), a black peacoat big enough to swallow a sumo wrestler, and much to my unending delight, a package of those little chemical hand-warmer thingies.

I pulled the clothing on as fast as I could, activating four of the warmer packs and dropping two into each boot before putting my feet inside. Frostbite was the mortal terror of Travelers; losing feet prevented running, and a Traveler who can not run is a dead Traveler.

Dressed, I stood to take account of my surroundings, to get a feel for whatever time I had fallen through to, to see if I could activate the Ability end of my disability and send myself home sooner, or if I was stuck here until whatever triggered this unsticking in us unstuck me again and sent me home.

But the second I turned around to head back to the square and the welcoming glow of its brazier warmers and lights, the rainboots slipped on the ice, I fell backwards, and right before my head cracked against the frozen concrete and everything went black I thought, I should have been getting kissed right now.

I awoke an unknowable time later, wrapped in a thick blanket, wonderfully warm, and staring at a gaily decorated Christmas tree.  A man stared down at me, an anxious, questioning smile on his lips.

“Happy Christmas?” I made it a question because, A.) I was not 100% certain I was in the UK and B.) it might have been mid-January and this fruitcake just wasn’t ready to let go of the holiday season.

“December nineteenth,” he said, followed by the year and another, warmer smile. His accent, at least, confirmed my suspicions about being in England. As for the year, he wasn’t too far away from hitting the time of Malcolm’s Chaos. It was an interesting time to be alive; more important, it was an era when Traveling was just becoming known.

I sat up, less wary. “You know about Travelers.”

His expression was unreadable, to me at least. Something seemed to close off in his eyes, but the smile remained, albeit… was that amusement now?

“You could say that.”

“Well,” I said, throwing the blanket off and sitting up with a sigh of relief, “I won’t be bothering y’all much longer.” I could feel a sort of…disconnection… building between myself and the world around me. There would be no worry about trying to force myself back home; it was happening naturally. I was coming unstuck. “Thanks for the blanket and not letting me freeze to death…” I gingerly touched my head where I had fallen. “And for the Band-Aid.”

I stood. When I swayed on my feet, he reached for me, I think to catch me or steady me, but I waved him back. “You might not want to do that. People have lost limbs holding on to a Traveler while she Travels.” That was more of an urban legend but I didn’t even know this guy’s name; granted he had taken me in and tended my wounds, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t a weirdo.

Time was growing thin around me. I gave what I hoped was a jaunty salute and not a drunken battle with gravity. I was becoming unstuck, beginning to fall, the happy Christmas apartment before me, along with the handsome Brit who had rescued me, becoming indistinct. “So long, total stranger.”

“So long, E.”

My brow furrowed. “What did you call me?”

But he was already gone. Instead of a warm British flat, I stood in my own old drafty house. It had been my parents’ and their parents’ before them, and we would keep handing it down as long as we could because when Travelers returned “home,” it was to what was most familiar; or to what would become most familiar. Sometimes you Traveled to an unfamiliar house or apartment, filled with unfamiliar people, because it would one day be somewhere you lived. In those cases, it was always best to walk past the family eating dinner with a straight back, despite being only in your underwear, and say “I think I might live here one day,” and head for the door before they could call the cops.

But for now, I was in my current home, not a future or past home, and I was utterly befuddled.

That man had known my name.

Well, one of them at least.

Or rather, the letter. The initial of the name that I told no one.

Frowning, I went upstairs to find my spare cell phone and call my date to apologize for vanishing and leaving all my clothes behind, and could he please drop off or mail my good phone soon because this one was very small and barely held a terabyte of information.

I went to bed wondering how the British man had known my name. Especially that part.

I’ve always been closest to my great-great aunt, despite the fact that she died before I was born. Come on. I’m a freaking time traveler. What good is time traveling if you don’t get to meet and love relatives you’d otherwise never get the pleasure of knowing?

She was at my baptism, being one of the first of our family to gain some control over Traveling (in fact, she was one of the first in the world to do so, not that anyone other than Travelers and those closest to us know even now that we’ve begun turning our disability into an ability). I was actually named for her—well, her and a few other random historical figures.

Mostly I go by nicknames. Amelia E. Lovecraft Roberts is a bit of a mouthful to introduce yourself, though it does look lovely on stationary.

My father calls me Bobbi; supposedly it’s a play on our last name, I think he secretly wanted to add a fourth name to my long list of nombres. My mother calls me Love. My brother calls me Doofus, and that’s not anywhere on the birth certificate. And my aunt, uncomfortable with calling someone by her own name, calls me AmyBee.

But no one calls me E. And no one but my parents (and the, likely still giggling, nurse who signed the birth certificate) knows what that initial stands for.

The Brit remained a mystery for almost three months. I hadn’t Traveled much by accident, except for a couple purposeful jaunts to visit with my great aunt, and one visit to that damned house again (“Huh, maybe I really AM going to live here one day. Dinner smells great by the way. Don’t mind me. Mmm, pot roast. Are those rolls homemade?”) so when I did come unstuck again, it was sudden, and almost without warning.

I was also in the shower.

That familiar feeling started, and I had just enough time to duck my head under the water to rinse the soap from my face before I was gone. Buck naked, covered in soap suds, I found myself standing in the middle of a cobbled street. Thankfully, it was summer, not winter, and a breathy “Oh,” sighed from my lips as I found myself standing in front of a familiar face.

I was in England again.

The absolute shock on his face lead me to believe that this was a summer before he rescued me in the snow. For him, this was the first time we had met. He blinked rain out of his eyes, squinting through the downpour.

“Have we met?”

Then again, maybe not.

“I-I don’t think so,” I stammered. “Leastways, I don’t think you’ve met me.”

“You’re a Traveler,” he said, working very hard to keep his eyes on my face, despite the fact that rain was rinsing off at an alarming rate what little concealment my soap bubbles offered.

“Yes.” What the hell do you say to a guy when you’re standing naked in front of him, covered in soap suds, in the middle of a street?

“I’m Peter.”

“I’m Amelia E. Lovecraft Roberts,” I said, and kicked him as hard as I could (with a bare, soapy foot), right in the middle of his chest. I vanished back to my shower stall before the car that had been about to hit both of us could turn me into squished Traveler soup. Ducking under the stream of still-hot water, I tried to calm my pounding heart. At least I knew he was alright; in about four months, for him, he would be pulling my half-frozen butt out of the snow.

We began running into each other a lot more often after that.

I usually Traveled (accidentally) about twice a month. Sometimes more. Sometimes less. After that day in the English rain, I found myself Traveling twice a week. It began to interfere with work, but since Traveling is officially a disability, there wasn’t much my boss could do about it, and I gave up on dating completely when, three times in a row, I Traveled somewhere between, “Hi! You’re right on time,” and “Oh, the flowers are lovely, thank you!”

Nine times out of ten, I Traveled to wherever Peter was, albeit at different whens.

I wasn’t surprised to find out he was keeping a journal in an attempt to bring some kind of order to our unusual, unasked for rendezvous; though in all honesty it was just as confusing for me. Neither one of us ever knew how often the other had been met—opening a conversation with “Hey! You look much better, how long did it take you to get over that broken nose?” might well be answered with “I’ve never broken my nose…” And it was very difficult to reminisce about things you weren’t certain had happened yet for the other person. “That time, with the coffee, when you balanced it on that duck--!” Blank stare, confused smile. “Oh…ah…hasn’t happened yet for you, eh?”

Despite it all, I began to feel something very like the sensation of coming unstuck from time when I was around him.

A feeling like…


I left Peter’s time, having been sprawled on his couch watching old TV shows (well, old to me, current to him) while he cooked dinner in the small kitchen of his flat. And I Traveled. Accidentally. Always before, when leaving Peter, I went home, or to where I had been when I left. This time, I went to that house again.

“I don’t know where this is,” I said to the family in the dining room, “but I must eventually really like it. I’m telling you, one day I’m going to live here.” I grabbed a fresh dinner roll as I walked past, wearing nothing but my underwear as usual. “Too much pepper on that fish, mama,” I said to the middle aged woman serving dinner. “Smells great though. See ya.”

I walked through the door and onto the street and--

“Oh! You’re here. I thought you said you’d be late. Here, I brought—oh.”

Peter stood in front of me holding a bottle of wine. Chill autumn air brought out goosebumps along my arms and legs, making me wish, not for the first time, that we could Travel wearing more than a bit of fabric around our chests and privates.

“You’re not you,” he said, a sheepish smile on his face. “That is, you are you, but not now you, you’re then you and…oh dear… E? Are you alright? E?”

Shaking my head in denial, the world grew dim.

I fell through time and space back to my home, arriving with no breath. I crashed through my own dark, cold living room (there was dust on the shelves, how much time was I spending with Peter? How much less time was I spending here? If was with him too long, in his time, in his home, I would come untethered from this, my real home, my true home…I could drift…) I realized I was hyperventilating. I clutched my chest, willing it to loosen from the agonized knot constricted around my lungs, and sank to the floor in the hallway. I didn’t know when it started, but I found myself weeping.

Trapped.  I felt trapped.

I cleaned myself up and Traveled to my aunt without bothering to dress in the pile of clothes, still slightly me-shaped, beside my bed.

“It’s like…my life has always been this open field,” I told her, laying with my head pillowed in her lap. We sat on a blanket spread across the grass of a park, a picnic arranged around us. She was stroking my hair, soothing me after my panicked, sobbing outburst. My nose was red and my cheeks were blotchy, but I was beginning to feel calmer. “But now, this hedge maze has grown up through the field, and where before there was openness, opportunity, where anything could happen…now, no matter where I turn in this maze, there’s him. There’s no way out. No way back to the field. Everywhere I turn, no matter what I do… I’m trapped.”

“You’re talking about fate, my AmyBee. And I promise you, there is no such thing.”

“Then why? Why do I keep Traveling to him? My mind keeps saying things like, it’s meant to be, but I just…I can’t…oh God, they must have been his parents, that house was his house, his family home…and I keep going back to it. I’ve been going to it since before I met him. You say there’s no fate but…”

“You fight against things that seem prescribed for you. If someone tells you, ‘You must do this,’ it is in your nature to say ‘No, not unless I want to.’ Just as if someone tells you, ‘You cannot do this,’ it is your nature to say, ‘Yes I can.’”

“I get that from you.”

She smiled. “Yes, you do.”

If anyone was the queen of denying ‘fate,’ it was my aunt. For Travelers, there are a few rules to which we must attempt to adhere. One, already discussed, was, don’t lose your feet. But the number one rule for Travelers is never, ever, ever fly in an aircraft, go up in a space shuttle, live on a space station, take a trip in a hot air balloon—basically, never be up in the air in anything, anywhere, ever. Because most often, when Traveling, you return to where you were (when you don’t just go home). That means, if you Travel while in an airplane, and return to where you were… the plane will not be there. And you will fall. A very long way down, and not through time or space, but just air, until you splat.

Despite this, my aunt had become a pilot. They said don’t ever get in a plane, and she said, ha! I’ll fly the damn thing.

I sat up, wiping at my face with my aunt’s lace handkerchief. “But what do I do?”

She sighed, her expression turning serious. “Time has…ripples. They go backwards and forwards. Somewhere, somewhen, along your zig-zagging timeline, ripples have been sent out strong enough to pull you to this man again and again and again.” She touched my face gently, and the smile and wonder that lit up her own transformed her from plain-bordering-on-pretty, to lovely. “There’s a reason you’re drawn to him, AmyBee. Find out what it is.”

“He calls me E,” I said suddenly.

“Did you ever ask why?”

I shook my head.

“Does he know what it—”

“No. I’ve never told anyone.” I frowned. “I don’t think I’ve ever told anyone.” I stood up, dusting grass from my pants. “Thank you.”

“Do you know what tomorrow is?”

I thought about it. “Tuesday?”

“Tomorrow is your baptism. Tomorrow you will be one year old.”

I laughed. “This time travel stuff is more confusing than…than…”


“I was going to say quantum entanglement.”

“Aren’t they the same thing?”

When I left, a pile of clothing fell to the picnic blanket behind me, and I Traveled with a will.

Traveling on purpose is not like Traveling by accident. Accidental, or random Traveling just happens. It’s like being a baby, (or an elderly person) with no control of bowel or bladder. Sometimes you can feel it coming…but there’s nothing you can do to stop it.

But we’ve begun to learn control. Sometimes, when that feeling comes, that sensation of coming unglued from reality, of falling through, we can stop it, or at least direct it. And some of us have begun to be able to Travel where and when we want. But it is always easiest to Travel somewhere you…belong. Traveling to see your grandfather as a child is much easier, for instance, than going to see the dinosaurs (something that no one, to the best of my knowledge, has managed yet; not that I’ve tried… oh come on! What kid doesn’t want to see dinosaurs? The best I’ve managed was medieval France. I was almost burned as a witch, despite being all of eleven years old).

Traveling to Peter was as easy as Traveling home.

For Peter, I visited along a string of three years. For him, our first meeting in the rain happened four months before he rescued me from the snow. He didn’t see me again for two more months, then not for five… after that the timing was scattered. Sometimes he saw me two days in a row, when for me, those two days were actually six weeks apart. And in a different order. So when I Traveled to him now, I didn’t know where on that timeline I was; had we just met? Had we been seeing each other for months?

He turned around and saw me.

His face lit up, a smile stretching his features to the breaking point. Before I could say anything, he had crossed the room and taken me into his arms, and before I could react to that, he was kissing me.

Quite well, I might say.

I must have gone stiff in his arms, because he pulled away, looking abashed. “I’m sorry, E. I didn’t think to ask…” he cursed soundly, though not as well as he had kissed. “You’ve warned me before… It must be like getting assaulted by a stranger… It’s just, I haven’t seen you in weeks and…” He ran his hand nervously through his hair. “Soup?”

I blinked. “What?”

He pointed towards his small kitchen. “Soup? I was just…I made minestrone.”


“Or just grab some clothes and hit the couch or…go for a walk… I can stay here. Oh! The clothes. Hall closet, third door—”

“I know where the clothes are.”

“Thank bloody heaven, I was afraid you hadn’t been here before…”



“Why do you call me E?”

“S’one of your names, isn’t it?”

“It’s a letter.”

“Stands for something.”

“Do you know what? Do you know what the initial stands for, Peter?”

He shifted from one foot to the other, and for a moment I felt my chest ache. I thought my heart was breaking. But then he told me. And when I started to cry, he took me into his arms again, and this time it was I who did the kissing.

Peter lived in the years preceding Malcolm’s Chaos. And for the most part, after that night, so did I. Occasionally I felt the pull back to my home. But the connection was growing thinner; more of a lifeline and less of a tether, I could follow it as I liked but I was rarely pulled back there. I Traveled from Peter’s time. I slipped through to random moments; sometimes to moments from our lives together. Once, I saw him as an old man. Once, I saw myself, half naked, walk through our house (that had been his family’s house) and steal a roll off the dinner table.

Sometime this year I’ll turn ninety-eight. Or maybe ninety-nine. Time travel does funny things to the aging process. There are extra days to keep track of, and missing days to subtract. I’m old. Peter is old. But we are happy. I left him sleeping in the sun, a tablet on his chest showing (in extra large font) an article about Asia almost being clear of the infection. They expect it to be habitable in another five years. I could have told the author of that article that he was off by about fifteen years, but we’re not supposed to tell people the future.

We’re also not supposed to go up in airplanes, or visit the space station, but like my aunt said, my family isn’t one to do as we’re told.

I Traveled.

Malcolm’s Chaos was years away yet. A certain meeting between a soapy, naked young woman and a startled young British man on a rainy England day was at least a decade ahead.

I sat in a black, wrought-iron chair at a corner café and sipped coffee. Some Traveler-Friend had left a set of clothes in a hidden compartment of a donation box, marked with that blue rectangle. It was an odd set, I believe the style was once called ‘steampunk’ but whatever twisted sense of humor lead the friend to leave such odd clothing also prompted enough guilt to leave £100 in the pocket. So I, elderly, with my white hair done up beneath a large, unexpectedly elaborate hat, wearing a dress that was somehow a cross between 19th century Victorian and early 21st century punk rock, was not certain he would come when I called.

But he did.

The ripples, it seemed, effected everyone.

His friends called him back, but the boy who would one day be my husband carried the soccer ball under his arm and came to me anyway, despite the teasing, the cursing, the friendly threats.


For a moment I thought he was calling me his mother, addled as my old brain was, til I realized he was saying ‘ma’am.’

“Hello, Peter.”

“Do I know you, mum?”

“Not yet. But attend me well, young man. One day you will meet a girl, and you will fall in love. And she will have a very odd name. But odder than the rest of her names, will be the one she keeps a secret.”

He smiled, humoring me. “A secret name. A girl in my future.” He took in my attire. “Are you a fortune teller, then?”

“Something like that.” I smiled back. “Now listen. When you meet this girl, with the initial E, you must never let on that you know what it stands for. Not until she asks, have you go that?”

“Easy enough, seeing’s how I don’t know. Or are you going to tell me, mum?”

“She was named for someone, Peter. A wild-haired old man who tried to explain Traveling before people knew there was Traveling. A lot of his work helped build the foundation for explaining how the whole mess of time and space really work.”

Peter frowned. “Einstein?”

I smiled and nodded. I didn’t need to ask how he guessed so easily; even now Peter was studying things that most scientists wouldn’t attempt without years more experience.

“I’m going to meet a girl named Einstein?”

“Something like that.”

He laughed, tossing the soccer ball (though for him I suppose it would be a football) from hand to hand. “Well that’s worth a quid.” He reached into his pocket. I stopped him from tipping me, (fortune teller indeed!) and sent him back to his friends.

The waitress came to refill my coffee. Already I could feel the tug of home pulling at me, but I fought it. It was nice here in the sun, and besides, I’d paid for the espresso and back when Peter and I were living, coffee was at a premium since our visitors blasted the orbiting space station out of the sky.

“Is it true?”

I looked up at the waitress. “Is what true?”

“What you told that kid.”

I nodded, sipping the coffee.

She turned to watch Peter and his friends run off down the block towards the park.

“Will they fall in love?”

“Yes,” I said, sipping the espresso. “They will fall so much in love that she will follow him to the moon, despite the danger. And from there, he will follow her to where no Traveler has ever dared go. And they will be so much in love that they will accidentally cause a minor zombie apocalypse and almost bring down the wrath of an alien species.” I chuckled into my coffee cup. “And to think, all my aunt did was fly around the world and vanish over the Pacific Ocean.”

The waitress was staring at me with a look that said maybe this old lady has escaped from somewhere that ought to have padded walls and very patient nurses.

“Oh chill out,” I said, and carefully set the cup down on the iron table before it could drop. “It won’t happen for another thirty something years.”

And I Traveled, leaving a pile of pseudo steampunk clothing on the wrought-iron chair, and a confused waitress staring at the spot where I had been.

I Traveled home.

Peter was awake, and waiting, and I knew, as I had for years, that wherever he was, home would be, and when the wonderful old man who was my husband took me into his arms, I felt it.

A ripple.

Spreading out in every direction.

I kissed Peter and we sat in the garden to watch the sun set.

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