Return Trip

A young lady with thin blonde hair and a pale blue jumper walked down the quiet corridor to the near-empty waiting room. The air-conditioning was overcompensating for a very hot summer outside, making the white-walled building seem more sterile and laboratory-like than it already was. This was the farthest room of the station and the lady was here to take a train that only ran once a month at most. Only one other person was bound to the destination she was headed and he sat at the far end of the room with his brimmed hat tilted to obscure his eyes. The suitcase beside him was identical to the one in the woman’s hand; it was standard issue.

Lucia Abbott was the name of the woman. With suitcase in one hand and an ID card in the other, straight black trousers and and serious expression, she gave the impression of a sensible, professional individual. She took a seat close to the door, as far as possible from the other man. The decision was not a fully conscious one and not caused by any ill-opinion of him. Rather it was due to her fear of the room itself and all that the upcoming journey entailed. She sat up straight and her face was unreadable, yet her fingers trembled slightly.

Professional though she may look, Lucia had handed in her notice at the office where she worked almost two weeks prior. Her superiors had been unsurprised – relieved even perhaps – and wished her well. She had been a shell of a person for years – barely keeping up to the quotas she used to manage with ease. Yet she never gave them a good enough reason to dismiss her, especially when she had been a loyal worker prior to the tragedy and they all knew the circumstances.

The Abbott family, on the other hand, were shocked and bewildered to learn that she was going away. The young woman’s thoughts slipped into the past where she heard the words of her kin as though they were speaking right then into her ear.

“But Luci dear!” Her mother had proclaimed, “It’ll be alright. You just need to give it time…”

“No.” Lucia had replied in a soft, sad voice, “I need time away, believe me.”

Her sister was likewise in disagreement with the choice. “I know its hard, Lu, but you’re making a mistake. You’ll be better off at home where we can keep an eye on you.”

“No.” Once more the youngest Abbott replied, “I can’t be here right now. A change in scenery will do me the world of good. You see, sometimes I just can’t forget…” She covered her face as tears unbidden welled up into her eyes.”

“Oh darling…” Lucia took no comfort in her sister’s hug.

Lucia tried to draw her mind away from these memories because they meandered dangerously close to other memories that could not be touched; Memories that she was here to escape. The 26 year old took deep breathes in and out and began to count and name the objects in the room she could see. This was a grounding exercise she had been taught.

Six lights on the ceiling… Twenty one chairs. Two doors; one in, one out. Two guards; one on each door. One hand scanner. One ID scanner. One platform. One train at the platform. Doesn’t look like a normal train. It’s so small. Too small.

Newly claustrophobic thoughts replaced the other dangerous memories. The woman picked at her soft comfortable jumper. She would only be in the train for a few minutes. At least it would feel like minutes. She would not sense the years whirling by. She recalled the many meetings and briefings she had attended to prepare for this moment. Professionals and scientists had explained the dangers and benefits to her in detail while Lucia pretended to care by taking neat, precise notes.

A sharp gender-neutral voice suddenly sliced its way out of the intercom. “The train is fully calibrated for arrival exactly 1095 days previous to this date. Passengers may begin boarding now. Boarding will be closed in fifteen minutes. Departure will take place in exactly twenty minutes.”

Neither Lucia nor the other man in the room made any move to start boarding. The paperwork had already been done – digitally of course – and their luggage had already been scanned. It would take only a final palm scan for them to be allowed on board. The idea of being locked prostrate into a narrow tube for any longer than necessary was unappealing, however, and the two passengers stayed firmly put. The guards – stony faced and impassive – seemed uninterested in encouraging them either. It was not their job to coax passengers who had cold feet, only to prevent the unlikely instance that an unauthorised person would try to get aboard.

Lucia quickly programmed the watch on her wrist to remind her to board in ten minutes. She set it to vibrate so it wouldn’t disturb anybody around. Miss Abbott then went back to picking at her jumper while she recalled again the process by which she had arrived at this point.

‘Why do you want to undertake this Return Trip?’ had been one question on her online application. Ironic because this trip was anything but a return trip. One may “return” to the past but there was absolutely no returning to their present of origin. Such that despite the name for the journey being misleading, disclaimers were written on every page of every document she ever handled regarding the endeavour. Lucia had spent several nights crafting her response.

‘I want to start afresh.’ was simply too cliche. They would never buy it. Likewise, the truth would never do. In the end, and after extensive research, she determined there was no way she would get through the psychological examinations on a lie no matter how well crafted and practised. She would need to tell a half truth. A truth that even she believed whole heartedly when she took the mandatory lie-detection tests and interviews.

Her boyfriend, Steve, wanted to go and work in another country on the other side of the world three years before. She had stayed. Having fallen into depression after he left, she had spent a the best part of the years hence trying to put herself back together – and failed. Now, in a last ditch effort to revive happiness, Lucia decided she had to choose differently. Steve himself had said back at the time that she could come back to him if she chose later down the line. Although he jokingly added that she shouldn’t wait until seventy to make that decision. Now, she concluded, she would return back in time to be with Steve as per his offer. Unfortunately, writing this story had been a much more arduous process than such a brief summery. She had had to include enough dates, details and arguments to publish a thesis. She had to ensure that when she submitted her application the reply she received was the ‘yes’ she wanted.

Testing the believability of this story on her own family had been a stroke of brilliance, though it had been no easy feat. It also gave her the opportunity to practice believing that this was the only reason for her decision. She had to somehow forget – block out – the other reason. There was no other reason. First she told her older sister. Rosie had initially not believed a word. But with infinite patience and endless restraint Lucia had explained that Steve had offered to allow her to move to Australia with him back at the time but Lucia had been too distraught to agree. This was technically true. All of it was technically true.

“It will be safe for me in Australia; so far from here.” The blonde sister explained with profound forbearance, “There would be next to no chance I could accidentally influence myself or create a temporal wound when I’ve always lived in the UK.”

“But there would be no coming back.” Rosie flailed her arms in passionate protest, which was fine because at least she bought the story. “And you couldn’t safely interact with any of us. We’d never see each other.”

“Not true. I’m only going back three years. I will still be alive when this year comes back around and I’ll get back in contact when its safe. It will be as though I was never gone for you.”

“I don’t want to be absent for three of your years, especially not after how hard things have been for you. Steve was nice and all but how can I trust him to look after you? My baby sister.”

“The same as you trusted him before.”

Her mother took longer to come around than Rosie even. The older woman had thrown some very heavy things in her anguish, first because she was convinced her daughter was lying to her and eventually because she believed Lucia might be telling the truth. Lucia persisted with her explanations and consolations with the patience of a saint.

She spoke seriously and quietly. “I’ll be taking psychological tests before they’d let me use such a delicate technology as time travel. They’d never let me go if it was because I wanted to change anything. It simply can’t be done. Everybody knows that.”

“Can’t be done safely or reliably you mean. Not to mention the risk of death upon trying. Some days when you’re at your worst…” Mrs Abbott sniffed and put down the remote controller she had been smacking about on the table with frustration, “I don’t know whether you’re sound of mind. I rather suspect you’d try it if you had the chance.”

“That’s absolutely not what I’m trying to do.” Lucia strained to keep her voice steady, looking off to the side and channelling her desire for things to be simply as they were before. She continued, “Far from it. I want to follow all the rules so I and our time-line together are safe. I’ve told you I just need to go back to a time when I was happy. I was very happy with Steve.” She drew her mother into a hug and her heart beat so fast she hoped the other woman couldn’t tell.

The other passenger standing up drew Lucia out of her reverie. Her wrist hadn’t buzzed yet but she stood up likewise. Her legs felt oddly numb and stiff as she forced them to carry her towards the guards currently checking the man’s ID pass and pockets. The door from whence they came looked very appealing and it was difficult to breathe normally as the two most terrifying thoughts imaginable fought for dominance in the young woman’s head. To go and leave this all behind; never to return or retrieve the years she was abandoning. All the people she currently loved would be dead to her, replaced with alternative versions and previous editions… all to be with a man who she hadn’t seen for three years. Or she could to stay and face it.

The few friends she had left told her this was insanity. Indeed she did feel insane as she considered all the people she had lied to in an effort to escape the darkness in her mind: the one image she could never forget and yet strove every day never to disturb.

That one memory. She couldn’t remember anything of the build up to the moment. Everything had been normal. Then inexplicably she had been screaming. Screaming until she choked on air and and not quite knowing why she was screaming. Just knowing she had done the most terrible thing in the world and nothing would ever be okay again. She hadn’t passed out. She hadn’t fallen asleep. But there was a moment when she “woke up” to the image that would eat her alive for every day and every night since. And as that image bubbled up from the depths of her subconscious, Lucia knew that whatever was on the other end of this train ride could never be as terrible as another second in this existence with this one memory. Her only chance – her only choice – would be to make that memory untrue. She submitted her papers to the guards and endured their safety checks with bile in her mouth and odd certainty in her stride. She would welcome the imprisonment of the train, knowing she might actually be free when she came out the other side.

The door hissed closed, sealing the woman in darkness and isolation. With no space to spare, she was neatly stored for transport. Beneath the main compartment where she lay there was a specially designed compartment for her suitcase. No space in the narrow train was wasted. There was a warm glow from around her midsection which meant passengers didn’t have to wait in complete darkness. It was supposed to be a relaxing light-setting, statistically calculated to reduce anxiety as much as possible. Lucia appreciated the effort even if she still felt terrible. She breathed in the clean filtered air of her capsule and found it pleasantly cool against her agitated skin. Another cleverly devised tactic. Closing her eyes allowed her to imagine as though there weren’t walls all around to restrict the movement of her limbs. Overall, it could have been much worse and yet her heart raced like a cheater. Time already felt unreal, with only the continuance of her beating heart and respiring lungs to confirm that it was passing at all. Or maybe it wasn’t. When the train would begin taking her back couldn’t be known with any kind of certainty.

While initially the restriction and closeness to her own thoughts disturbing, Lucia found that the panic had nowhere to go and nothing to do. Only silence. A continual state of sameness. Then the door opened.

The room that greeted her eyes was different than the one which she had left despite her feeling no movement. It was bustling with life. A hostess with a guard beside approached Lucia’s capsule and the woman struggled to get out before they arrived. Dismounting her train bed was not the most elegant move she’d ever made. But when she looked up, the hostess seemed not to care.

“Welcome to the year 2114!” The woman, who’s short hair was intricately styled to look like ocean waves, smiled and gestured with her arms the direction she wished Lucia Abbott to walk. There was absolutely no arguing with those arrow-straight arms. Meanwhile the guard silently opened the storage compartment from the train and retrieved her luggage. The hostess continued: “Come now. Your luggage, ID and other relevant paperwork will be checked in a couple of hours and then delivered to your room.”

Of course, said paperwork was actually stored on tablets as real paper was rare these days. Her paper diary, which was in her luggage, was much a novelty. It was a vintage way of doing things reserved for eccentrics, artists and ne’er-do-wells. The woman prayed they wouldn’t pay it any notice. Heaven forbid they read her diary with all its… personal… information.

Miss Abbott was whirled through the station by her hostess guide with barely any time to take in the sites. Not a huge amount had changed in the three years she had travelled back. Perhaps the station was a little busier, the paint a bit fresher, that was all. She was shown the facilities, the meeting room, the dining hall, and finally her room in the attached hotel. Cynthia – the name of her hostess – gave her a download for her timetable outside the door and said her luggage had already been analysed and left inside. She could do as she wished for a short time now, as long as she was prompt to her first appointment in twenty minutes.

Briefing – 14:30 Assembly Room
Meet and Greet – 15:00 – Dining Hall
Interview – 15:30 – Meeting Room 6
Tour of the Year – 16:00 – Front of Building
Dinner – 17:00 – Dining Hall
Plane Departure – 18:30 – Gatwick Airport

Lucia was also given an e-ticket to her plane to Australia, government funded with the intention of making sure she got away from where she might collide with her past self. Lucia thought the caution excessive. She knew her past self have never come anywhere near this station. It was a specialist and expensive kind of travel after all. Lucia Abbott had spent her life savings to be here now.

Thanking Cynthia and, she scanned her watch to be allowed inside. The young woman took advantage of the momentary respite and solitude to check her case. Her paper diary was still padlocked and undisturbed at the bottom of her case. It was a relief that the security of 2114 was professional enough to leave her personal belongings and stick to relevant safety checks. In just three years, that had changed. Nothing was sacred in the year 2117.

She flopped on the bed, programmed her wrist to shock her awake in ten, and tried to settle after her rushed tour. She focused on breathing, on the patterns on the ceiling, and on preparing what she would say in the upcoming interview. Her story must not show any cracks. The truth was she was here to see Steve and to be in a time where she was happy. She was here to choose differently but not… not to change anything. Clenching and unclenching her fists, she realised she would have to escape before they could force her on that plane. Steve wouldn’t be arriving in Australia for another two weeks. The tragedy hadn’t happened yet and she – the other she – was still together with him. It was late tomorrow when it would happen. And Steve would decide to leave a fortnight after that, after the case against her had been dropped and she was free. But she had chosen not to follow. So she must not go to Australia yet. Maybe after. Hopefully. Although it was likely too much to hope.

Eventually a slightly more intense vibration ran from her wrist to her shoulder and Lucia was once more awake. Once more she started a fast-tracked, tightly scheduled process of induction into this new world. As if she hadn’t already been here before. The briefing was held in a large auditorium where there were significantly more seats than people. Lucia didn’t listen to most of the lecture they were given. Safety, social customs, citizenship and rights all held no interest to her. When the topic moved to scientific theory on Return Trips and time travel in general, however, the woman designed to hear a little.

“…therefore, scientists now think that when given the opportunity, the fabric of time will try to heal any wounds we create by fixing itself into loops, much more often than changing itself entirely to a new course. We are tentatively suggesting now that the ratio might even be as high as eighty to eighty five percent of Return Trips create loops in time rather than changes, and more examples are being found and studied every day.” The man who gave this lecture was large and bearded, reminding Lucia of a sailor with a cap. He commanded attention when he talked – and rightly so. Tim, as he said his audience could call him, was a professor of Temporal Science at Oxford University, renowned around the world. He continued, “Of course the one exception to this rule is self-encounters. We all know it is the most dangerous part of time travel and must be avoided at all costs. No living person has ever reported successfully seeing themselves in the past and yet we know it has happened on many occasions. It has been recorded frequently, my friends, that persons attempting this have died in a myriad of bizarre and inexplicable ways. Everything from simple heart-attacks, spontaneous human combustion or simply disappearing from the existence; we have seen it all, my friends, and not one successful case.”

Lucia understood the warning for what it was: a cautionary tale. But was still fascinated, as they all were, with the morbid and mysterious ways the universe dealt with the more rebellious entities in its weave. Already she suspected that she was quite outside the realms of what she ought to be doing and had to question how much further she could push before universal law pushed her mercilessly back into line.

A member of the audience, a time traveller like herself, raised their hand to ask a question. Tim graciously invited them to speak. “Professor, I’ve read that there are still some in the field that believe looping is possible when it comes to self-encounters because there is no proof against it, only a lack of examples.” The audience member had an irritatingly simpering voice, Lucia thought. Probably just asked so she could talk to the professor. “In your opinion, do you think self-encounter looping is impossible or just highly unlikely?” Pointless question, thought Lucia bitterly. Her interest in the topic was dead.
“A wonderful question!” Tim answered enthusiastically, “We have no way to say its impossible without proofs as you say. We speculate but absolutely don’t rule anything out unless its indisputable. Therefore, I personally believe its possible but circumstances must be incredibly specific to allow for it. The chances are likely a fraction of a percent. As good as impossible, thought Lucia.

Next is the Meet and Greet. Lucia said hello politely to just enough people and excuses herself as early as possible. The blonde woman waited in her room until her individual meeting, rehearsing her lines. By the time she knocked on the door and enters, she’s pale, tired and her side fringe sticks slightly to her damp forehead. Keeping it together for so long had taken its toll.

Thankfully, having passed a more thorough screening before taking the trip meant that the security on this end was a little more lax. She had brought all her relevant data and ID with the future’s seal of approval. As a result the woman was able to pass her symptoms as fatigue with minimal scrutiny, saying she had been so nervous for the Trip that she hadn’t slept for over twenty four hours. They had no method to prove otherwise nor a reason to suspect. Miss Abbott went over everything she’d said a million times before, adding that if they’d let her go she should like to rest before it was time to get on her plane to Australia. She argued there was no need for her to attend the Tour of the Year and, seeing how sick she looked, they agreed. Sometimes it was annoying to be underestimated while other times it was advantageous to be seen as a weak, meek woman; people were less likely to see you as a threat. For the first time in a long time, Lucia Abbott felt like the people she had spoken to were… people. Not obstacles. Not tests to be passed. Not enemies. But people; people who had helped her when she was in need. Lucia realised that it had been a long time since anybody had helped her. Or perhaps she had not allowed anybody to help her. Either way, their idea of help was not what she needed. They would try to stop her if they knew.

Given that they didn’t know, Lucia was able to go to her room, collect her belongings and leave immediately. No questions were asked as she walked out the front door. Nobody took notice as she swiped her ID to get on the tube. She was an official citizen. Miss Abbott noticed that they had not upgraded the furnishings of the sleek underground machines yet. Those developments were still in the planning stage and they would implement them the next year. Not that it mattered. Once seated inside, Lucia took out her suitcase, popped it open and fished out her paper diary. Of course she had been afraid that it might be searched but the key to the padlock remained tucked safely inside one of her socks. Inside the diary was more than just personal details. Inside her diary were detailed notes of the location of her past self, past family and past Steve on this exact date. This was vital information for the success of her plan. It would be disastrous if she arrived too early or encountered anybody at the wrong time.

Lucia had memorised the contents of the notebook. She was only reading it to ground herself and feel more confident in her next move – which was to get off at the stop closest to her old apartment and let herself in. Past Lucia would be staying at Steve’s place tonight so with the key she always used to leave under her mat, Lucia would be able to sleep in her own bed tonight.

The key was just where the young lady remembered it. It turned smoothly in the lock, just as it had the last time she’d left it. Stepping inside was disconcerting; more of a portal into the past than any of her other experiences thus far had been. Some of the furniture standing so innocuously now had been destroyed at her own hand in another time. In passionate rages she had overturned that very table and smashed the bowl at its centre. The sofa, she had taken with Steve to a charity shop. The pictures… the pictures she hid away in some box and never touched again. Somehow seeing images of herself smiling had filled her with despair, rage and a regret that she couldn’t handle. Yet here she was, looking younger than ever; innocent and playfully hanging from the arm of her boyfriend, hugging her sister, posing with her mum and even petting the dog.

The dog. How on earth had she forgotten Scampers!? Such a good girl. She and Steve had walked her every day, hand in hand and sneaking kisses like children. Scampers had slept on her feet at night and demanded pets when she had forms to fill while Steve complained he wanted more attention. Scampers could brighten up any day and symbolised everything that was good before. And somehow – by some cursed miracle – she had forgotten Scampers. She had forgotten so many things. Seeing the portrait of her ex-boyfriend made her realise that she hadn’t visualised his face in years and much of her time with him was a blank. He had dark hair and thick lashes, a square face and almond-shaped green eyes. Memories flooded her so suddenly that Lucia felt she might drown.

Making her way carefully to the kitchen sink, the blonde woman took a glass from the cupboard and made herself water to sip. She was determined to remain calm no matter what she experienced here. In order to succeed, she needed to remain in control. Therefore, once she’d swallowed half a glass’s worth of cold, tasteless liquid and felt the solid counter against her hip where she leaned her body, the moment passed and she was able to look around again. Everything seemed frozen – a capsule of the past – and she had to touch everything to check it was real. All the textures were the same as she remembered. Even the smell was subtly unique to this place. It felt like she floated rather than walked from room to room examining everything until many hours later finally collapsing into a cocoon of blankets and darkness in the living room. She couldn’t quite explain why she chose to sleep there rather than the bed, but either way she slept peacefully for the first half of the night.

Unfortunately such peace was not going to last. She woke before it was light and checked her watch to see it blinking silently that the time was 2:44AM. Her heart was hammering and her mind was a clouded mess. She could sense the closeness of her greatest rival; the demon that drove her here. It lurked on the edge of her subconscious. Threatening to rise like a murky beast. She tried to ground in the external world but it was too dark to stock the surroundings. Her own breathing was not the best of anchors because it betrayed her panic and marked her dread. She tried to rise and search for the light switch and found herself stumbling on her blankets. Her sweating body felt like a wire pulled taught, ready to ping back or snap violently. Finding the switch, she blinded herself by snapping it on and glaring around at the walls.

Four… walls…

No good. These walls only brought the memory closer. Those damned pictures only gave it power. This place reminded her of good times but there was a reason she had left it. It was cursed for her. Cursed just as she was. The images taunted her. They reminded her of the good things she had lost and more importantly… why she had lost them. What she had done. A dam splintered and Lucia wasn’t sure if she would break entirely at the onslaught. The young woman dropped to the floor, clutching her throat as if that would hold in the sobs. So many incredible things and character-defining moments had been lost to her because she couldn’t face one moment. One memory. One blurry vision. And the sound of her own screams as she realised what she had done.

Lucia Abbott relived the memory as though it had just happened. She saw it as though it was in front of her, even though her eyes were closed and she was curled into a protective ball on the floor. The whole scenario was gruesome, from the blood to the stillness. From the denial to the pain. No matter how much adrenaline pumped through her body, this was not something she could fight or fly away from. She couldn’t escape the hate in their eyes, the panic or the confusion. The paleness in Steve’s face would never go away, no matter what she did. Her own knowledge that this was forever and ever and ever her own personal hell…

When she woke up again, cold against the soft grey carpet, Lucia couldn’t remember what it was she had just experienced. Another attack, she told herself, and refused to think about it more. Her demon was always trying to catch her up and at night when she was most vulnerable it usually made an admirable assault. But she was here which meant she was ahead. She was going to defeat it. This time was the opportunity she needed to put things right and sleep soundly again.

She showered, refreshed herself and set some soothing music running in the background so the place wasn’t so horribly quiet. Nursing another warm drink – this time tea – for several hours as the run rose, she skimmed the words of a book she’d read before. There was an ache in her heart. Nostalgia and an almost gentle pain. Most of the memories she’d uncovered were beautiful – not worth the pain but beautiful nonetheless. Lucia allowed her feelings to present themselves while tentatively exploring those memories, even more warming than the drink. Being here was the right choice. Every thought felt dangerous and every day was a battle but she was outrunning her demon and everything would be okay as long as she didn’t relive the tragedy again. Today was the day. Not another night lay between her and the resolution.

With sunlight streaming through the window directly onto Lucia’s face, she finally rose and made herself a meagre breakfast of toast. Hopefully Past Lucia wouldn’t notice the missing slices. This Lucia cleaned up after herself diligently and moved around to ensure the apartment was as she had found it. Then leaving quietly, she replaced the key under the mat. Outside, with the stillness of the apartment gone, the internal threat subsided and the external threat grew. Miss Abbott wore a coat to the park even though it was summer. She calculated that every caution was necessary to avoid discovery or disruption to her plan. The bulky later and furred hood were an extra shield of protection and disguise.

The sun beat down relentlessly until she was able to get under the shade of a tree. There she leaned against it, breathing heavily, and watched the children playing not far off. In the field several teens were kicking about a ball. Two others were zooming the perimeter on their hover boards. By the tree-line, a figure walked a dog. A familiar figure with a stride that insulted Lucia with things she had forgotten yet again. That was Steve. Three years and deliberate amnesia couldn’t stop her from recognising him; someone she had shared her life with. She turned away, hugging herself and thankful for the coat and hood. He wouldn’t recognise her. She must focus on the park now. Apparently the tragedy occurred around two hours from now. So she had been told and the police report said. She must be ready.

Only ten minutes of waiting in the heat left her light-headed. Steve would be gone now, back to the flat he shared with his brother, which lay only five minutes in the opposite direction to her apartment. Maybe she would have time to get water, she thought. There was still over an hour. But then she dismissed the idea. The time was too close and almost a year of preparation had led to this point. She couldn’t sacrifice it for water. For anything. Still, perhaps she could risk lowering her hood. It probably made her look a little suspicious anyways. As she flipped it back hesitantly, a tap on her shoulder made her jump, yelp and then sway on her feet from light-headedness.

“Lucia!? I thought you’d be getting home from work around now.” Steve put an arm half around her as a casual means of steadying her, concern in his green eyes. Lucia looked at his arm like it was alien and fought to get herself together, “Lucia?” He repeated

“I-”

“What’s wrong, honey?”

“I’m…” Unfortunately this was not part of the plan. Lucia Abbott had a plan and this was absolutely not part of it. It was a disaster. It was unthinkable. She only had an hour and she needed to be ready. Not struggling to speak. Not crying. Not lips trembling and voice breaking and eyes leaking. Not this. Not now. For God’s sake please.

Steve pulled her into a hug. “Oh god. Luci babe, what’s up?” He stroked her hair and Lucia absolutely refused to break down. She bit her lip viciously and stood straight as an iron. It was easy to remind herself that this was a man she had not seen in three years. He was a stranger and she would not give her vulnerability to him. It was a little more difficult to get her emotions to align with her logic but the woman pushed him away nonetheless.

“I’m fine.” She somehow breathed through it. Miss Abbott was an expert at breathing techniques by this time. She flattered herself that she might give a Buddhist monk a run for their money if they had any. “I’m doing something very important right now.” The message was clear and Steve stepped back, looking a little wounded.

“Oh? What’s that. Clearly something’s not right.”

“Something… something is not right, yes. I’m here to fix it.”

He frowned, not understanding.

“You really don’t know?” She added, curious how he’d still known her by sight, dressed in new thick clothes as she was and obscured by a hood.

“Know what?” She could sense his growing impatience.

“I’m not…” The truth on her tongue felt heavy, like an explosive itching to be dropped. Its purpose was to be heard and felt. Its power demanded respect and fear. It’s design was to destroy. But she’d rather it killed her than it hurt any others. Not to mention they might love her less. How much she needed the love with which this stranger named Steve looked at her now, “I can’t tell you. Not yet. But if you stay with me I’ll soon explain. Or you’ll see.” She glanced at her watch, set to let her know the exact time. There was still an hour and a half to go. “Either way, in a few hours everything will be good again. I’m staying here until then.”

“O-okay.”

Lucia refused to look at him. He didn’t leave.

“I’ll stay with you then… why don’t you take off your coat? Its boiling today.”

“Hardly boiling,” she mumbled but didn’t resist as he began undoing the zip for her and then slid it off her arms.

“Sit down.” He said, observing the way she swayed in whatever direction he nudged her. Shaking her head in refusal, Lucia once again didn’t resist as he gently but firmly guided her down to rest against the tree.

“Here. Hold Scampers and I’ll go get you some water.” The woman pressed her mouth into a thin line and felt her chest would explode as the furry friend was placed in her lap and the lead in her hand. Even Scampers didn’t seem to care she wasn’t the real Lucia and snuffled up to her face with a wet nose and tongue. She turned her face to the side to avoid the messy kiss and instead stroked Scampers’ soft ears and murmured how much of a good girl she was. A dangerous distraction, she thought, and hoped Steve would be back quickly to take her back again. Again beacuse he had taken scampers when they parted. Many things had been taken. That’s why she was here. He could take what he wanted because she was stopping the whole thing before it started. Steve jogged away to the nearest convenience shop. It wasn’t far. He’d be back momentarily. Lucia checked her watch and struggled back to her feet. Scampers seemed disappointed to be left on the ground, whined and darted around her legs. Lucia was forced to untangle herself again and again. Scampers knew how to have fun at her expense and enjoyed the game very much until Lucia rolled her eyes and scooped up the ridiculous animal.

Steve returned with a bottle of water, which she accepted, and they stood in relative quiet as Lucia watched the minutes tick by.

“Shall I take Scampers back?” He asked when he noticed the dog wriggling. Lucia shook her head without really realising and gave the animal more pets to pacify it. He didn’t argue but instead carried on conversationally.“You know Lisa Mavies took the only good broom again today.” He told her about his day and the latest gossip at the hospital where he worked. She knew it all even before he said it. He’d told her before and each word prompted her to remember the next thing and the next. Each new memory petrified her with the fear it might wake the demon, yet with prayer and faith it stayed quiet. Somehow Steve managed to make his daily gossip and trivia last for upwards of an hour, perhaps knowing a distraction was sorely needed. In that time he’d taken back the dog and Lucia had finished the water. He was still going on and Lucia was somewhat hypnotised in an odd state of love and loss, belonging and alienation, comfort and dread, that she was quite shocked out of her reverie when her wrist began vibrating up to her shoulder. He noticed the way she reacted to it, along with the quivering of her skin.

“That’s a strong alarm.” He commented.

She ignored him in favour of watching the park. There was a boy. His cherub-round face was pink with running and laughing. His adorably curly hair was tousled and charming. His chubby hands were gripping a ball the size of his head and his sister was shouting at him.

“Give me the ball! Give me the ball!”

He tossed it up. A high throw. Far too short to reach his demanding sister. Not at all deliberate, the two year old surely hadn’t developed the motor skills or hand-eye coordination to perfect such a throw. The sister looked only a fraction older than him. She ran to the ball and scooped it up, then threw it to catch it herself a few times. Children are jealous and possessive. She was happy to have the ball once more in her possession. The boy began shouting just as she had done, demanding it be returned. She threw it back, a more balanced curve that landed only a little behind him. The cycle repeat. The ball going back and forth. Gliding and sailing through the air and then thumping onto the grass because neither sibling had the capability to catch or throw with precision. Their parents were a couple in their late forties, leaning against each other while sat on a park bench and watching their darlings play.

Lucia had never seen such a beautiful display of innocence and fun amongst the petty troubles of the world.

“To me! To me!” And after that terrible period of waiting and begging, the ball would come back, only to throw it selflessly and trustingly away again.

Lucia Abbott didn’t even hear Steve call her name as the ball arced towards the road. The oncoming vehicle – a electro-glider with sails for breezy weather and a battery for when the air was still – was set to collide with the ball. The air was still today. The person at the wheel was pressing the accelerator with their own foot to urge the glider faster. They were pressing it down too hard and thinking too much of other things. Lucia couldn’t say what other things they were thinking exactly. She couldn’t remember. She couldn’t think. She set off running, for the ball, for the boy. She wasn’t sure. She just had to… get there… to stop him… to stop her…

But the boy wasn’t running after his ball. His parents had taught him better than that. He looked at it sadly and then turned to accuse his sister. She was already running to mum and dad to ask them to get the ball back. The boy stood alone at the edge of the field when he saw Lucia, running like hell was on her heels. Running right at him with insanity in her eyes. Perhaps he knew there was something dark in her; that her intent was desperate and fearful and somehow wrong. Or perhaps he had no idea. Maybe he would have run if it was anybody. Either way, he was running now, right towards the road and the electro-glider speeding along. How did he not see it?

Lucia realised before he hit. But it was too late to stop running. Momentum was against her and the boy was already bound for collision. Maybe if she just… faster… faster… had to get there. She howled, unable to see for the despair in her eyes. Unable to feel for the pain in her limbs. Pushing. Pushing. To hold the boy safe. Possessive and jealous. Make it not so.

She couldn’t see. She couldn’t feel. She couldn’t move.

There was only the sound of screaming. Screaming until she choked on air. Couldn’t breathe.

Couldn’t feel. Couldn’t see. Couldn’t move. Couldn’t be. Couldn’t be. It just couldn’t be.

And yet it was.

Lucia woke up in her electro-glider with the sight of a lifeless child on the road in front of her and a ghost on the pavement beside the road. A statue of herself, frozen in the knowledge that she had caused all this.

But why am I here?
No…
I did this already.
No…
This wasn’t supposed to…
NO!

She had died. Her body crystallised and cracked apart in another creative punishment from the universe for breaking the rules. She had changed nothing but caused everything in more ways than she ever knew. And now, somehow, she was going to go through it again. And again. And again. Surely the universe could not be so cruel – so merciless – because she stepped out of line? When Lucia Abbott woke up, she remembered nothing of why she was screaming, only that she had done the worst thing imaginable and nothing would ever be alright again. And then she saw the child.

 – Commissioned by Tommy,
This piece was inspired by The Jaunt by Stephen King.

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