This story is by Joana Russell and was part of our 2017 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
It is dirty. That is the first thing I notice, and I am offended. Why is it so dirty? Only a few years passed since I last visited. But then, of course, there’s the next one. I forgot it would be there already. I glance at my husband’s tombstone. It is cleaner and newer than mine. The carved marble still displays the words clearly. “Bartholomew Elias Rupert Thompson. Here again, for good.” He laughed the first time we visited.
“I must become clever in my old age,” he had said. “I can’t wait.” We were twenty at the time. I look back at my own grave, still hurt that no one has cleaned it since Old Elias died. I run my fingers along the script, long since memorized. I will choose this epitaph in roughly 45 years. “Ariella Celine Thompson. My breath, my song, one day here, one day gone.” I feel Elias’s hand take mine in his, interlocking our fingers like stitches over a wound. He pulls me to his chest and I rest against him, the curve of my back fitting against his torso, his chin on my shoulder.
“Are you finished being morbid?” he asks, his breath warm in my ear. I can hear the grin in his voice, but I can’t bring myself to mirror his attitude.
“I just thought I would check again,” I say softly. I turn around and tug gently on his red goatee. “And I’m not morbid. Just curious.” Elias checks the Life Bar attached to his forearm.
“Ari, this is our last travel. This is the seventh time we’ve been.” His eyebrows scrunch as I turn to face him. I glance down at my own Life Bar. Alongside the date, time, and countdown clock is the number that displays how many travels we have left. Elias is right. It reads 0. And we have ten minutes left before the red light flashes and we are back in our living room.
“I like coming here,” I say. “Despite all the new technology, they still carve most headstones in marble. I hate the new digital displays.” A gust of wind blows around us, sweeping my long green scarf off my shoulders. Elias reaches out and catches the fraying, worn fabric and wraps it gently around me again.
“Strange how that can happen,” he says, “since we’re not really here.”
“We’re here,” I say. “Enough to be affected by the wind.” But I am not really paying attention to Elias. I am thinking about the day I was born. I had used one of my travels to see that day, and I remember it vividly.
The hospital room was clean and sterile, but decorated warmly. I was standing on the other side of a window, looking in, unnoticed by my young parents. My mother looked beautiful, glowing with sweat and pride, with my father by her side. Her hair, black like mine, was spread across the pillow, radiating from her head like a dark halo. Her stomach bulged beneath the pale hospital gown, her knees like pyramids draped in fabric. Holding my father’s hand tightly, she pressed her head back and moaned, pushing my plump, fleshy body into the open air. The nurse lifted me to the doctor, my black hair shining and damp. The doctor quickly fused the Life Bar to my arm. In a moment, it read my vitals and blood and displayed my countdown. 79 years; 2 months; 2 weeks; 4 days; 20 hours; 14 minutes; and the seconds began ticking backwards. The doctor smiled at my father. It was good news. I expected my mother to rejoice, but her face was tight with pain. The nurse and doctor redirected their attention to my mother and a few moments later, with a warrior’s scream, another infant emerged. A little boy. I had not known until then that I had a twin. For a moment, I was filled with excitement about the potential of finding and meeting my brother when I was back in the present. But as the doctor attached the Life Bar to the soft skin of my brother’s arm, my heart sank. 0;0;0;0;0;20. The doctor’s face mirrored my own as he handed the infant to my mother. She took my brother in her arms. Tears began to quietly trail down her face as she held his frail, whimpering body against her breast. At that moment, my Life Bar flashed red and I found myself back in my home, standing in the transporter, my face damp with tears.
Elias runs his hand down my back and I come to with a startle.
“We only have a few more minutes,” he says. I shift my weight, crunching the leaves beneath my boots, and run my fingers through my hair.
“I just thought we’d know by now,” I say. Elias shrugs apologetically.
“I’m so sorry, sweetheart.” He pauses. “At least now we can put it to rest.” I laughed, a hollow, one note laugh. The rhythm of my heartbeat increases, and I feel nearly hysterical.
“We’ve been dead for 50 years!” I feel my lip begin to quiver and I turn my face away from Elias. “I wanted there to be at least three or four.” I look at the ground again, my eyes wandering over the irregular patterns of leaves on trampled grass.
“We’ve visited every major point in our future. We can find out why when we’re back in the present, if you want…. Six minutes,” he says. My mind is racing through every moment we will miss out on. Butterfly kisses and paper boats, lollipops and bubble baths… cherished moments I will not experience, flipping through my mind’s eye like pages of a scrapbook I will never make. The hysteria creeps back into me, my brain frantically conjuring up a million different reasons and explanations. Maybe if we tried something different back in the present… But then, it would have already happened here, in this future. But it didn’t. Nothing worked. Nothing will work. That’s what the ground here tells me.
“No,” I say, and I feel quite definitive. “They’re not here. That’s all I wanted to know.” Elias nods.
“It’s getting late. Almost sundown.” I pinch the skin around my Life Bar, wishing I could make it stop entirely, silently willing my countdown clock to suddenly strike zero. I want to have an eternity to mourn… But I know Elias is anxious to get home. I could barely convince him to join me this last time to see our graves, but it was another disappointment. That familiar ache begins to grow in my chest, and a lump forms in my throat. The finality of it all settles on my heart like stones and I find myself suddenly on my knees, running my hands over the grass below my headstone. I look up and see the line behind my grave, stretching past my sight. I see my mother and father’s stones behind mine. My grandparents and great grandparents and the generations beyond. On either side, my cousins’ rows stretch far past mine. But in front of my stone is only grass. My line ends here. I close my eyes but I can sense Elias beside me. He kneels in the grass and I feel his lips on my cheek.
“Elias,” I whisper, and I find myself hardly able to make a sound, my voice cracking. “Elias, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.” He wraps his arms around my stiff, trembling body and shushes me.
“It’s no one’s fault,” he says. I look at my Life Bar, hating it, hating that it couldn’t tell me the only thing I had ever wanted to know. Two minutes before the red flash. I stand and brush the bits of leaves from my knees. All those travels, useless. Every doctor said the same thing. All the technology failed me. Wasted, wasted, wasted. My womanhood, wasted. The ache in my heart chokes me and I am consumed with sorrow and rage. The last thing I feel is Elias’s hand holding mine as I scream. And the red light flashes.