The Fifth Leland Hardesty
I entered the machine at midnight.
“Still want go through with this, Lee?”
“Then let’s get started.”
Even though I’d spent months preparing for this moment, my thoughts were far from what was about to happen. They were, instead, focused on the ancestor whose journals at first saved my life and then very nearly took it from me.
“Life should be measured in experiences, not the meaningless passage of minutes, hours, and days.”
Leland Hardesty wrote those words in 1957, when he was eighteen years old and about to set out on what he believed would be the first great adventure of his life. Such musings were not typical of my ancestor. He was a deeply practical man who usually measured success in terms of dollars and cents.
When his father died suddenly of a heart attack, a twenty-three-year-old Leland had been forced to assume responsibility for the day-to-day operation of the family’s small business. It was a duty he took on with no small measure of resentment. What awaited him in the world of commerce could only be abject failure, or so he imagined. He could not have been more wrong.
Hardesty Hardware flourished under Leland’s management, and he eventually opened a second store in a nearby town. A year later a third Hardesty Hardware was built in the state capitol.
By the time he was forty, Leland owned a chain of stores and had become a very wealthy man. He married at thirty-five and named his first and only child, a son, after himself. This second Leland Hardesty would go on to run the family business in unspectacular yet profitable fashion. He, too, married at thirty-five and named his firstborn son Leland. This third Leland Hardesty, my grandfather, was no businessman, and Hardesty Hardware hemorrhaged money under his ruinous stewardship. He tried to stanch the bleeding by selling off some of the chain’s smaller and less-profitable stores, all the while continuing to live, and spend, as if the family fortune were not only still intact but growing exponentially. He collected sports cars, antique firearms, race horses, and, until the day he met the local beauty queen who became my grandmother, also collected girlfriends with very expensive tastes. Grandfather Leland married the week he turned thirty-five. My father, the fourth Leland Hardesty, was born just under six months later.
My father had no head for business, and his handling of the family’s affairs -- the Hardesty fortune was by then only a fraction of what it had once been -- proved disastrous. It was he who sold the remaining stores to a national chain and oversaw the quiet demise of Hardesty Hardware. The end of the family business allowed father to focus on more scholarly pursuits, and he eventually found his true calling as a teacher of history.
Father kept faith with one Hardesty custom when he married not long after his thirty-fifth birthday. I was his only child and the fifth Leland Hardesty. Like my father, I embraced the life of a scholar, and soon after receiving my doctorate became an instructor at Tecumseh College, a fine old institution southwest of Irving, Texas. It was the only school out of the dozen or so I applied to willing to take a chance on a young PhD with so unimpressive a résumé.
Tecumseh is where I met Dr. Marcus Lindbloom, the brilliant head of that school’s Physics Institute and one of our country’s most highly regarded authorities on time travel theory. His position at the Institute places him in charge of its best known and most heavily-guarded asset, the Mallett Time Displacement Mechanism, usually referred to by Institute staff as, simply, “the Conveyance”.
Even though he had achieved much in his forty-nine years of life, I found Marcus to be self-effacing about both himself and his family’s deep Texas roots.
“My people settled in this part of the country not long after the Battle of San Jacinto,” he liked to say. “They were mostly farmers, poor as the dirt they struggled to extract a living from. In more than two hundred years they’ve managed to contribute absolutely nothing to our state’s long and storied history.”
When reminded of his own impressive accomplishments, he usually countered with a laconic, “I’ve been lucky. That’s all.”
Marcus invited me to his home at the end of my first week at the college, and over time dinner with his wife, Bethany, and their three children became a pleasant Sunday ritual. It was at one of these dinners that I met Mary Lindbloom, a cousin visiting from Amarillo. By the time Bethany got around to serving desert and coffee, I had fallen in love with Mary.
We were married two months later, a week to the day after I turned twenty-nine. Our five years together were childless, but the prospect of being the final Leland Hardesty mattered little to me when compared to the life I enjoyed with Mary. She was bright, funny, and pretty as a picture, the sort of wife most men dream of but are never lucky enough to find.
Mary’s part-time job at a Dallas law firm supplemented my instructor’s salary just enough to allow us the luxury of dining out once a week and spending the occasional long weekend at a desert resort we were both fond of. Mary was on the way to Dallas when the accident happened. Identifying her body that rainy afternoon was like having my heart ripped from my chest.
Marcus and Bethany did what they could to help me through those first awful weeks without her, but they could not be there all the time. They could not drive away the suffocating emotional pain and loneliness, and they could not prevent me from wandering about the house at all hours like a phantom haunting my own suddenly empty life.
At the same time, in spite of everything he had done for me, I found anger and resentment toward Marcus building up inside me, and I eventually turned on him. It happened a month after Mary’s death. We were alone in the small den I use as an office. Marcus had just commented on how beautiful Mary’s memorial service had been. Something snapped in me and everything I’d been holding back for weeks came rushing out.
“You’re supposed to be my friend, Marcus. What good are you or that damned machine of yours if you can’t use it to bring her back to me?”
I will never forget the look of pain and frustration on his face as I spoke those foolish, hurtful words, words I regretted almost the instant they were uttered.
“The Conveyance doesn’t make me God, Lee. It was never meant to be used to alter history or the fate of any individual.”
“I know that … I … I’m so sorry, Marcus. It’s just that … what am I going to do? I can’t imagine life without her.”
“You’re going to move beyond what’s happened, Lee. It’s the only thing any of us can do.”
He was right, of course, but at that moment getting over Mary’s death seemed impossible.
Night always magnified my suffering. I’d wake at two or three in the morning, unable to sleep and tormented by thoughts of Mary. I tried at first to fill the hours before daybreak by completing the essay I had been writing when two police officers came to our front door with news of the accident, but that effort was probably doomed to failure from the start. The essay and the nightmare born on a rainy Tuesday afternoon were linked forever in my mind; I could not focus on one without summoning the other. So I abandoned the essay and tried to occupy the dreadful pre-dawn hours with reading. I read hungrily, flooding my consciousness with a torrent of words to the exclusion of all else until sunrise brought its modicum of relief.
Then came the night when I woke to find that losing myself in the pages of a book was no longer enough. I went through the house room by room looking for something, anything, to distract me from the pain. I was like a drowning man flailing about for a life preserver. After much fruitless searching, I gave up and sat in the darkened living room with my head in my hands. What I wanted more than anything was what I could never again have: my Mary. I looked around at the home we had both loved, and thought about the joyful chaos of a day five years in the past, the day we moved in. I remembered how the blue kerchief she wore perfectly matched her eyes, how much care she took in arranging and re-arranging each room until it was perfect, and how utterly happy she seemed in everything she did that day. I remembered something else as I sat there in the dark: my grandfather’s vintage Colt Peacemaker. It was said to have belonged to Wyatt Earp and was one of the treasures of Grandfather Leland’s collection of antique firearms. He loved that old pistol and took it to his gun club for target practice at least once a month. Its connection to the legendary lawman had made him something of a local celebrity, a status the vain and foolish old man gloried in. He willed it to my father, who had absolutely no interest in guns but kept it as a remembrance. Father insisted I take it with me when I moved to Texas -- for protection, he said, although he never made it clear what it was supposed to protect me from. The Peacemaker worked perfectly and was still in its original oak and leather case. All I would have to do is load a round into the cylinder, rest the end of the barrel against my temple, and pull the trigger. It would be an easy and quick end to all my grief and despair.
I went up to the attic in a sort of daze and was rummaging around looking for the Colt when I happened on the dust-covered teak chest that held all twenty-four of the first Leland Hardesty’s journals. More out of desperation than curiosity, I opened the chest and took out a volume with “1957” embossed on its cover in faded gold leaf. I sat in semi-darkness reading through the first twenty or so entries, and suddenly it was as if Leland Hardesty were sitting next to me in that clutter of discarded things. The voice that rose from the yellowed pages of his first journal was not that of the self-assured millionaire he would become. It was the voice of a lost young man trying hard to understand himself and his life, and I found myself moved almost to tears by his expressions of doubt and longing. Grandfather’s Colt was forgotten as I carried the teak chest down to the den and arranged the leather-bound journals in date order on my shelves.
Father had presented me with the chest containing all of Leland’s journals on my eighteenth birthday, just as his father had once entrusted them to his care. He urged me to read them and learn about my fabled ancestor. I feigned interest for his sake, but in truth I thought of my family history as a boring irrelevancy, and Leland’s journals languished unread in my bedroom closet for years. When I was awarded the position at Tecumseh and moved to Texas, father saw to it that the journals followed me there.
The twenty-four volumes were a kind of autobiography that that chronicled Leland’s life from his experiences as an eighteen-year-old through age forty-two and the death of his wife. Night after night I retreated to my den and read, and the more I read the more I discovered that the journals that once meant nothing to me had now been transformed into an absorbing portrait of a family icon and the Twentieth century world in which he lived. I discovered something else in those pages: I liked and understood the first Leland Hardesty; liked him, in fact, more than I ever had my father and grandfather.
Leland’s father hoped that his only child would one day seek a career in medicine or the law, but the headstrong young man had other plans. He was determined to see something of the world before embarking on a career, and believed the military offered a sure way to provide both the travel he craved and the adventures he imagined would accompany such travel. And so on the day he turned eighteen he enlisted in the Marine Corps and began his journals as a way of chronicling what he was sure would be a long series of eventful years.
What Leland soon discovered was that a peacetime military offered a lot of hard work, a large measure of tedium, and none of his imagined exploits. Much of the first journal is taken up with the minutiae of life in the military and Leland’s growing distaste for it, but he occasionally took the time to write about some of his fellow Marines. Those portraits often bore early witness to his skill at reading the character of others. One such entry, written late on a Sunday night in February 1957, described “Ozzie”, a Marine he befriended while stationed at Camp Pendleton in California. His new acquaintance was “slender, pale, and withdrawn, with no real friends to speak of. An outsider if there ever was one.” Leland sums him up this way: “He’s a little guy who likes to play around with big ideas. Ozzie wants more than anything to be important, or maybe just to have other people think he’s important. I am sorry for him. I believe he hasn’t got any notion of how he’s going to get where he wants to go in life.”
Ozzie was quick-tempered and certainly not easy to remain friends with, but Leland understood that at the core of his pugnacity lay deep and enduring feelings of insecurity.
Ozzie was given to spouting Marxist philosophy to anyone who cared to listen. Very few did, except for Leland, who was a good listener and not at all offended by the content of the Marine’s rants. He and Ozzie spent a lot of time together before training camp ended and each went on to other posts. Leland never saw or spoke to him again after Camp Pendleton, but had occasion to begin a new series of journal entries on Ozzie one autumn afternoon six years later. The Marine’s name was Lee Harvey Oswald, and until the day Leland closed the cover on the last page of his twenty-fourth and final journal he never wavered in his belief that the sad figure from his days in the Corps was incapable of firing the shots that took the life of a President on a sunny afternoon in Dallas.
The first Leland Hardesty had been a legend in my father’s home. He was the man who turned a small Upstate New York hardware store into a New England chain and a vast fortune. Growing up, I had always thought of him as a kind of bronze statue standing atop a pedestal, the sort of grim figure you are likely to encounter in any number of town squares. Reading the journals turned that lifeless figure into a man of flesh and blood, a loving father and husband, a brilliant businessman, and an especially keen judge of others. Time and again the journals show how Leland’s skill at accurately reading another man’s character helped him succeed in business. His first partner in Hardesty Hardware, for example, was Truman Bethune. Many had written Bethune off as a bankrupt, a failure, and warned Leland against bringing him into his growing business. But Leland believed he saw something in Bethune that others did not, and the passing years proved him right. Hardesty Hardware continued to grow with Truman onboard, and he eventually became nearly as wealthy and successful as Leland himself. That was only one of countless such instances, all carefully detailed in the journals. How, then, could a man who had been right about so many have been utterly wrong about someone with whom he spent countless hours? That was the question that eventually caused me to believe Leland and doubt history’s judgment of Oswald.
Oswald was, Leland argued, tailor-made to be a lightning rod for unseen conspirators. His hunger for importance made him especially vulnerable to the blandishments of men willing to use him for their own evil ends. At the same time, his years in the Soviet Union, along with a failed attempt at renouncing his citizenship, instantly branded him a traitor in the minds of many in Cold War America. If someone had set out to create the perfect fall-guy, Leland insisted, they would probably have come up with Oswald, or someone very much like him.
The journals made me curious about the events of November 22, 1963, a bit of history I had known virtually nothing about. I read scores of books on the assassination, everything from sober, scholarly historical analyses to wildly speculative rants about one farfetched conspiracy theory or another. Some of these books pointed to exculpatory flaws in the case against Oswald, while others declared his guilt to be an unquestionable fact. I was especially interested in the testimony of a man who had been in Dealey Plaza at the time of the assassination and described the sequence of shots: a single shot followed by two shots in very quick succession, too quick to have been fired from a single weapon. Grandfather Leland had owned any number of bolt-action rifles and none was capable of doing what that “ear witness” described. But there were those who questioned even that evidence, attributing it to some sort of acoustical oddity peculiar to Dealey Plaza.
It eventually became clear to me that there was only one way anyone would ever prove Oswald’s innocence or guilt beyond any possibility of doubt: remove him from the day’s deadly equation and observe the result, and that was, of course, impossible. Or was it? The idea that would transform my life forever was born as an answer to that question.
Someone once wrote that a shadow stretches between an idea and its realization, and for days I lived every waking hour within that shadow. I could see only one path out of it and it led straight through the Conveyance. But that solution was also a seemingly insurmountable obstacle. Access to the Conveyance was limited to government-sanctioned “travelers” and my chances of entering the device as one of those were non-existent. I had to find another way.
And so I began a new search, this time for every scrap of information on what was known about the operation of the Conveyance. This was no easy task, since such information, like the device itself, was and continues to be cloaked in secrecy. Even Marcus would never discuss his work outside the walls of the Physics Institute. The simple truth is that I started my search with little hope of success. Still, I kept at it, and in the end I suppose you could say that after failing to find an answer the answer at last found me.
It happened on a night when I woke, as I so often did during that awful time, hours before daybreak. A half-remembered fragment of something I had read troubled my fitful sleep. I dragged myself out of bed and brewed a pot of strong coffee, then took a full mug to my den and began the slow and tedious job of going through the mountain of information I had managed to accumulate on the Conveyance. Just as the first rays of morning sun lit the window behind me, I found what I was looking for. A few sentences I once dismissed as useless now offered me the only hope I would ever have of converting a farfetched notion into reality.
With my pathway out of the shadow now clear, I looked toward the next inescapable step: convincing Marcus to help me.
“You can’t be serious,” Marcus said.
“I’ve never been more serious about anything in my life.”
We were sitting in his Physics Department office. He had listened patiently as I quickly outlined what I had in mind. His only reaction was an occasional nod. Now he got up and closed the door to his office before returning to his desk.
“Now let me see if I’ve got this straight. You want to use the Conveyance to prove that an ancestor whose been dead nearly two hundred years was right about someone he met while he was in the military?”
“Believe me, I know how crazy it sounds. But I need to do this, Marcus. I owe it to Leland.”
“Why? Because of some entries in an old diary?
“No, Marcus. I have to do it because he saved my life.”
“Saved your life?”
“On a night not all that long ago I reached the point where I felt the best thing for me to do was give up, join Mary. And I would have gone through with it, too. Then I happened on Leland’s journals.”
“My God, Lee.”
“Those journals saved me, Marcus. I’m still here only because of the man who wrote them.”
Marcus was silent for a while. He shuffled some papers about on his desk and then looked up at me.
“Let’s say, just for the sake of argument, that you went through with this plan of yours and somehow discovered this… this …”
“This Oswald’s innocence. What then? You could never publish anything about it, or even discuss it publicly without revealing your use of the Conveyance and putting us both in legal jeopardy. So what would be the point?”
“I’d know, Marcus. And I like to think that somehow Leland would, too. That’s enough.”
“This really isn’t worth discussing, Lee, since what you’re proposing is impossible.”
“But it is possible, Marcus. I thought it all through last night. And there’s absolutely no risk involved.”
He looked at me with concern in his pale blue eyes.
“Still not sleeping well?”
“Please, Marcus, let me finish explaining.”
He exhaled loudly.
“Oh, very well. But before you go one let me fill you in on a few things you may have overlooked. First of all, access to the lab where the device is housed is closely monitored. There are only three people at the Institute allowed anywhere near the Conveyance, and all of us have to have a damned good reason for doing so. Then there’s the fact that few of even the most qualified researchers, men and women at the very highest levels of scientific attainment, are ever allowed to become travelers. As an instructor of English with no scientific background whatsoever, you would have no chance of even making it through the initial screening, much less of ever being selected as a traveler.”
“I know all that, Marcus. That’s why I have no intention of ever becoming a traveler, at least not officially. I’ve spent the past week digging up information on that contraption of yours. I couldn’t make heads or tails of what makes the thing work, but I did come across one particularly fascinating detail about its operation.”
“And what would that be?”
“A monthly diagnostic test.”
“You’re referring to the field integrity test.”
“What if you ran that test with someone inside the device? Would it make any difference?”
“If, as you say, you’ve been reading up on the subject, then you know the answer. No, there would be no difference at all, except for the very real possibility that if we were to be caught we’d both wind up in federal prison for the next twenty years. The National Science Agency takes a dim view of people who play games with the Conveyance.”
“They’ll never know, Marcus.”
“Really? Tell me, Lee, just how do you plan on getting past the half dozen heavily-armed gentlemen the Agency has posted around the Institute twenty-four hours a day?”
“I’ll walk in -- with you.”
“I see. You and I will simply stroll in?”
“Another thing I’ve learned over this past week is that observers are sometimes permitted to witness a test.”
“Well, it certainly does seem that you’ve been doing your homework. But there’s something you missed, Lee, something important. These observers you refer to are either visiting physicists or post-doctoral students observing a test as part of their studies. That’s about it for observers.”
“Why couldn’t a trusted faculty member be granted the same observer status as a visitor or a student, especially if they’ve been sponsored by you? I doubt anyone would ever second guess your choice.”
“They certainly might.”
“I doubt it. You’re a very important man around here, Marcus.”
“Even if I were foolish enough to consider going along with this scheme yours, Lee, there are still other factors to be considered.”
“Well, to begin with you’d have to be in near-perfect physical condition. Travel through time is not the joy ride it’s made out to be in books and movies. It’s dangerous. Every cell in the human body is stressed during an event and that can have unpredictable side effects. And then there’s the brevity of the test itself. A diagnostic run lasts only a few hours, certainly not enough time for anyone to travel on foot from the old campus to downtown Dallas and back.”
“You haven’t been listening to me, Marcus. I’ve already explained that I don’t have to be anywhere near Dallas.”
“Then how on earth would you be able to determine anything about what happened that day?”
I went over precisely how I intended to find the truth about Oswald’s guilt or innocence, all the while hoping that the lie didn’t show on my face.
“So you see, Marcus, two or three hours will be more than enough time.”
“I’ll grant that what you describe sounds plausible enough, Lee, but use of the Conveyance is still out of the question. I’ve got post-grads scheduled for the next four tests, and then there’s the visit from Dr. Tanaka the month after that.”
“The one and only. Japan is sending its greatest theoretical physicist to the Institute ostensibly to witness a routine test and nothing more, but that’s just a smokescreen. The Japanese are planning to build a Conveyance near Kyushu and Tanaka has been put in charge of the project. He’s coming here to study the design of our device. So you see why there’s no point in even discussing this notion of yours? The next open date isn’t for another six months.”
“Six months is fine.”
“Now hold on a minute, Lee. I haven’t agreed to anything.”
Marcus got up and walked over to his office window. He stood there for a while looking out at the green expanse of the Tecumseh campus before he spoke again.
“I’ll tell you what. I’ll go ahead and submit your name to the Agency. There’s only the slimmest of chances you’ll be granted observer status, but I’ll give it a try. And if by some miracle you should receive such a clearance, and if in six months you’re still determined to go through with this crazy scheme of yours, we’ll talk about it again. How’s that?”
He turned away from the window and walked back to his desk.
“That’s not much of an offer, Marcus, but I’ll take it.”
“Good. I suspect that six months from today you and I will be sharing a good laugh over all this nonsense.”
“Listen to me, Lee, no one loved Mary more than Bethany and I did, but …”
“Oh, I think there may have been one person who did.”
“Okay, I’ll concede that, but I can’t help feeling that all this foolishness is nothing more than a distraction, a way of avoiding coming to terms with Mary’s death. She’s gone and nothing can ever bring her back. Accept that fact and get on with your life, Lee. I know she would have wanted that.”
“This has nothing at all to do with Mary.”
“Are you sure of that?”
“Exactly when did you add psychiatry to your list of accomplishments, Marcus?”
“I’m only trying to help you see where this idea of yours might be coming from.”
“I’m doing this for Leland. There’s nothing more to it.”
“Fine. Let’s leave it at that for now. We’ll see how you feel in six months. By the way, are you free tomorrow evening?”
“I’m free every evening, Marcus.”
“Then why don’t you drop by around six thirty? Bethany is making goulash.”
Marcus had offered only the slimmest of hopes, but I would not allow myself to doubt, even for an instant, that in exactly six months I’d enter the Conveyance and be ferried back to a fateful November day in nineteen sixty-three.
The weeks after my meeting with Marcus went by quickly. I began each day with an early-morning jog, eventually working my way from a few times around the school’s athletic field to three miles a day on a nearby cross-country trail. I eventually added evening workouts at a local gymnasium and laps in Tecumseh’s pool to my daily routine. The appetite which had all but abandoned me gradually returned, and I regained much of the weight I had shed after Mary’s death.
I prepared for my journey in other ways as well. A good many of my evenings were spent studying archival images of the Tecumseh campus as it was in nineteen sixty-three and poring over scores of old photographs and street maps of the town of Irving. I was especially interested in images of the Paine home, where Oswald spent his final night of freedom. Around the same time, I was able to track down a dealer in antique firearms who had a Mannlicher-Carcano bolt-action rifle for sale. It was very nearly a duplicate of the one Oswald purchased by mail order under the alias Alek Hidell. The man wanted a small fortune for it, but it was absolutely essential to the success of my plan, so I paid the old thief what he asked. I spent weeks teaching myself to disassemble and reassemble the rifle until I was good enough to do it perfectly with a cloth blindfold over my eyes.
One full month ahead of what I was sure would be a journey through time I felt ready. My physical condition was as close to perfect as any 34-year-old man can hope for. Months of intense exercise had left me trim, fit, and deeply tanned by hours of running in the hot Texas sun. I had also become as familiar with the details of the Kennedy assassination as any historian, and not a soul living in nineteen sixty-three could have been more familiar with the layout of the old Tecumseh campus or the streets of nearby Irving. Yes, after five months of preparation I believed I was ready. But I was not, as it turned out, at all prepared for what actually happened.
I woke that cool September morning feeling as if I might be coming down with a cold, and decided to skip my morning run and settle instead for a long swim later in the afternoon. As I was preparing to leave for the college my tablet signaled an incoming message. It was Marcus.
“Is your Holovision set on, Lee?”
“Turn it to the Universal News Signal.”
“Why? What’s happened?”
“Turn it on. I’ll be there in an hour.”
When Marcus arrived I was sitting in the living room staring down at three-dimensional color images of a crashed hypersonic aircraft scattered across an Andean valley. Somewhere in that debris field were the remains of Dr. Yushio Tanaka.
Marcus got a cup of tea from the kitchen before joining me.
“This is tragic, simply tragic,” he said, shaking his head. “He was on his way here from a conference in South America. We spoke only last night about how much he was looking forward to observing tonight’s test of the Conveyance. We were going to meet tomorrow afternoon to talk about a design for the proposed Kyushu device.”
“What happens now?”
“I suppose Japan will go ahead and build it anyway, but without Tanaka to oversee its construction, well, I don’t know. He was irreplaceable, Lee, an extraordinary mind. What a terrible waste.”
We sat in complete silence for a while, Marcus sipping his tea and staring at the image rising from the small silver hemisphere at the room’s center. He got up, shut off the Holovision device, and turned to me.
“Lee, I lied to you. I never had any intention of submitting your name. The Agency knows nothing at all about your request to witness a test of the Conveyance. What’s more, I’ve scheduled post-grads until the end of this year and well into the next.”
It took a moment for the full meaning of his words to sink in. I stared at him in angry disbelief.
“I feel awful about this, Lee, believe me, but try to look at it from my vantage point. I was sure this notion of yours wouldn’t last a week, much less months. I see now that I was wrong, utterly wrong. You couldn’t possibly have worked as hard as you have if you weren’t committed to seeing it through. Well, now this dreadful thing has presented us with an opportunity. What I’m trying to tell you is that, unless you’ve had a last minute change of heart, I’m prepared to help you. Tonight.”
“Tonight? How is that possible? You told me it takes months to arrange.”
“Now and again the Institute will, under extraordinary circumstances, grant a waiver of the usual screening process, especially if someone on the Institute’s staff agrees to act as a sponsor. I stopped by the Security Office on my way over here and spoke to Ralph Beamer. He’s in charge of things over there. I explained my situation and asked him to run your name through the system. He did and granted a waiver. So barring any eleventh-hour glitches, it’s all set for tonight. The Conveyance is always sealed off from the outside world for five hours during a diagnostic run, so only you and I will ever know what happens in the restricted area. And may God help us both if anything goes wrong. Now remove your shirt, Lee.”
He pulled a small silver tube from the pocket of his tweed jacket.
“The latest thing. It helps to stabilize the temporal displacement. The shirt, please, Lee.”
I removed my shirt and Marcus pressed the tube hard against the flesh just above my left collar bone. A dull popping sound was followed by a sharp burning sensation.
“That’s going to itch like the devil for half an hour or so, but don’t touch it. You might want to think about canceling your classes for the day and getting some rest. Also, be sure to drink water, lots of it.”
“Dehydration. It’s one of the more common side-effects of travel in the Conveyance.”
“I didn’t read anything about that.”
“You wouldn’t have. It’s not the sort of thing likely to make it into a magazine article. A certain amount of dehydration is experienced by every traveler. We’re still not sure why. The reaction can be severe, but I wouldn’t worry about that in your case. You have youth and conditioning on your side, so rest and drink plenty of water and you should be fine. Now, Lee, if there are no questions, I have to get going. I’ve got a graduate seminar to teach. Be in my office no later than eleven tonight.”
I didn’t see Marcus again until I walked into his Physics Department office that night. He went over what was about to happen.
“The first set of pulses,” he explained, “will go through the Conveyance at precisely 12:00AM. That begins the process of movement through time, although ‘movement’ probably isn’t a good way to describe what happens. When the process is complete you will not have moved one centimeter in any physical direction, nor will the Conveyance have left the laboratory. A portal will open within the day and year of your destination in the space now occupied by the device. I’ll continue sending pulses through at fifteen-minute intervals as the test progresses. You will have approximately three hours before I initiate the return sequence by sending through a final sequence of pulses. Whatever happens, Lee, you must not fail to be within the area of the time displacement at that point. The area is a three-dimensional box in space approximately three meters in every direction measured from the exact spot where you will find yourself when you arrive at your destination. I can’t stress that enough. There can be no attempt to rescue you if you don’t return tonight. You’ll be marooned in the past until I can figure out some way of getting you back. Do you understand everything I’ve just told you?”
“One other thing, under no circumstances are you to interact with anyone from that time. I can’t stress that enough.”
“I know all about that, Marcus.”
“I’ll need your wedding band, Lee. Nothing metallic is permitted inside the Conveyance.”
He saw the look on my face as I handed it over. The ring had not been off of my finger in more than five years and its absence left a band of white on my tanned flesh.
“Don’t worry. It’ll be safe here in my office. You’ll need to empty your pockets.”
”I did that before I left home.”
“Good. Now let’s go pay a visit to the palace guard.”
The “palace guard” is how Marcus described the heavily armed Federal Science Agency marshals who safeguard the Institute day and night. There are always six of them on duty, two patrolling the building’s perimeter fence, another two at its entrance, and two more immediately outside the laboratory housing the Conveyance. A rapid-response team of thirty or more armed marshals were only minutes away in the event of a security breach.
We left his office and walked toward the north end of the campus. The first of the two fifteen-foot-high fences surrounding the Institute grounds came into view after a while, dark and forbidding in moonlight. Twenty feet of flat, featureless terrain separated the first perimeter fence from the second. The space between them was a kind of no man’s land. Anybody attempting to cross it without first being cleared by the marshals at the entrance would, if luck was with them that day, be taken into custody. The unlucky ones would be shot dead.
“Haven’t we forgotten something?”
“I don’t think so. Why? What’s wrong?”
“This is the one place where you can be sure of never finding one of those things. I’ll let you in on a trade secret, Lee. Travelers are never filmed. They can’t be. Oh, there’s always a preliminary interview and later, after his or her return, there are endless recorded debriefings. But never, ever, is a camera of any kind allowed in or around the device. We learned this from bitter experience, or, rather, the Russians did. About twenty-five years ago, at a device just outside of Kursk, a young physicist named Ivanov came up with what he thought was a way of safely recording an event from beginning to end, using himself as a guinea pig. The digital electronics inside his body-cam somehow distorted the force field within the device and caused a catastrophic anomaly.”
“No one knows for sure, since failures of that sort are generally kept secret by our Russian friends, but bits and pieces of the story eventually leaked out. It seems that Ivanov was sent rocketing uncontrollably through space-time. It took the Russian physicists a week to figure out how to get the event back under control, but in the meantime the poor devil was ricocheting around through time like something inside a pinball machine. Every so often their device would fill with an intense white light and out of that light would emerge the most god-awful screams.”
“Did he ever return?”
“Yes. He was found in the machine one morning with burns over most of his body. Those were treated and healed in time. His mind, on the other hand, that no one was ever able to heal. God only knows what he experienced during the event, but it must have been horrific. They tried everything to stabilize him but it was no use. He had experienced more than any human mind could tolerate and it left him a raving lunatic. He committed suicide about a year later. That was the last time anyone attempted to create a visual record of an event.”
“That’s some horror story, Marcus.”
“I’ll tell you something else, Lee. A couple of decades ago this little adventure of yours wouldn’t have been possible under any circumstances. The original device, the one built in the Nevada desert forty-seven years ago, was big as an airplane hangar and required dozens of technicians to do a simple diagnostic test, many more if you were actually transporting someone. These days a device is slightly larger than a walk-in closet and it can be operated by a single person, although legally there must always be a second person present, just in case. That’s why I was able to convince Ralph to give me the waiver.”
“Just in case of what?”
“The second person is there to prevent a runaway pulse anomaly.”
“Let’s say I start the process, the series of pulses that creates a portal in space-time, and I’m suddenly disabled -- by a seizure or a stroke, for example. The pulses would continue unabated and the portal remain open for as long as it takes someone to discover what has happened and shut down the process. Until that happens, a passageway in time would exist through which, theoretically at least, anyone or anything could pass.”
“Wouldn’t whoever went through need one of the implanted sensors?”
“No. Sensors only help with the accuracy of movement through time, give or take anywhere from a few hours to a whole day.”
“It’s no good to me if I arrive a day late.”
“I can’t offer you a guaranty. No one can. You might try keeping your fingers crossed.”
“Is that your scientific advice?”
“It certainly can’t hurt.”
We arrived at the first perimeter fence. The two marshals stationed at the gate were clad in blue and gold Federal Science Agency uniforms and armed with fearsome-looking automatic weapons. They saw Marcus every day and waved us through with only a cursory glance at my staff identification badge. The men posted at the entrance to the building were slightly more formal, but also waved us through. The final pair of marshals, although they surely knew Marcus as often as any of the others, said nothing when they took our badges and scrutinized them closely. If something were to go wrong, it would be one of these burly, stolid men who would take us into custody at gunpoint.
The taller of the two marshals ran a handheld scanner over my left forearm. It read my birth tag and compared the displayed genotype number with the one the one shown on my badge. The shorter marshal ran a small, flat, blue-lit wand across my face. He inserted it into a slot on a bulky old photonic computer. He said “records” in a surprisingly soft voice and the display flashed twice.
“Extend your hand, please,” he said.
I did and he used a lancet to extract a single drop of blood from the tip of my index finger. He inserted the lancet into a device attached to the computer. He said “genotype identification” and the computer’s display blinked twice.
Moments later he nodded to the other marshal, who returned our badges. The taller marshal entered a long series of numbers and symbols on a pad set into the wall by a pair of massive steel doors. They slid open as quickly and noiselessly as if they weighed no more than a feather.
“All set, Dr. Lindbloom. Have a good evening.”
We entered the lab and the immense doors closed behind us with a barely audible hiss.
“Can we open those things if we need to, Marcus?”
“No. Only our friends out there are able to do that.”
“I feel a little like someone entering a prison cell.”
“Except that, if we’re willing to go back far enough, we have a way out right over there.”
He pointed to the Conveyance, which was at the center of an octagonal glass enclosure one hundred feet away. The enclosure sat on a platform ten feet below where we stood, or exactly at ground level. I had spent the better part of a week learning about the Conveyance, but this was the first time I had seen it. It was smaller than I expected and shaped like a pyramid. The surface of the device was covered with what looked like tens of thousands of tiny lenses.
“Why did the marshal take a blood sample, Marcus?”
“Because birth implants can be faked. They must be absolutely certain you are who you say you are. The facial scan and blood print were run through every database the Institute is connected to, which is pretty much every database in the world.”
“I’d call that an excess of caution, Marcus. After all, I’ve been on the faculty ten years.”
“Don’t take it personally, Lee. They do it to everyone. Had Dr. Tanaka lived, they would have done it to him, too, incredible as that might seem. Anyway, since the FSA, FBI, DHS, and Interpol have all given you a clean bill of health, our friends out there won’t give you another thought. Now, here’s something for you to drink.”
Marcus took a small green container from a drawer beneath a long bank of control panels.
“It’s wretched tasting stuff, I know, but it helps control the dehydration I told you about. Now try and relax. We’ll be starting soon. Any questions?”
“Well, I have a question.”
“You have a question for me?”
“No, not for you, Lee, for myself. Why in heaven’s name am I doing this?”
So there I was at last, sitting on the floor of the Conveyance, having relived in moments all the events that led me to that exact place and time.
Just then a soft whirring sound broke the silence inside the device. It was slowly coming to life around me. The whirring grew steadily louder until I felt it as a gentle vibration throughout my body.
“God speed, Lee,” Marcus said.
I braced myself. This was it. And then the whirring sound stopped, replaced by a silence so absolute it felt as if the universe itself had come to a dead halt. I was sure something had gone wrong, or that Marcus had changed his mind and put an end to what we were doing. I looked over at him. He was standing some thirty meters away and looking down at me through the control room glass, but his face and shoulders -- all I could see from where I sat -- were indistinct, smudged-looking, as if he were a drawing someone had partially erased. I closed my eyes for only a moment, and when I opened them again saw that the walls of the Conveyance, too, were starting to disappear. The device began vibrating again, only more violently now, and a shower of lights like millions of tiny diamonds lit brightly from within started falling all around me. In seconds I was at the center of a glowing cloud. I felt suddenly dizzy, breathless, and every joint and muscle in my body began to ache terribly, as if I were being pulled apart, my flesh expanding in all directions simultaneously, rushing outward to merge with the cloud of brightly lit diamonds. I looked down at my hand and was astonished to see that it had become transparent. Like Marcus, like the walls of the Conveyance itself, I was vanishing. The word “stop” formed in my consciousness like a scream, but that lone syllable never reached my lips because at that very instant the floor of the device vanished and a dark pit opened up beneath me and pulled me down into its limitless depths.
I woke to darkness and the faint scent of rain. Crickets chirped in the tall grass all around me. Somewhere in the distance a car drove by, its wheels making a soft hissing sound on unseen blacktop. The overgrown field where I now found myself would, far into the future, become the site of the Physics Institute. Clearly, the device had worked, but how well? Marcus had said it could be off by as much as a day. Was this the night before or the night after the assassination? I stood and took my first steps into the past.
One overgrown space in the field looked pretty much like the next. It would be difficult, if not impossible, to return to the exact place where I must be when Marcus summoned me home. So I quickly gathered a handful of stones and made a crude circle with them to mark the spot. Then I jogged south toward the center of the old Tecumseh campus.
The first building I came to was the Turner Science Hall. All the upper floors were dark, but at ground level the labs and classrooms were dimly outlined by hallway light. I peered into the first window I came across, looking for one of the crude analog clocks I had seen in scores of photographs of the old campus. I quickly found it and was dismayed to see that the Conveyance had been off by hours. It was already a quarter to three in the morning. The first light that would make my plan impossible to carry out was not far off.
I had to find a way to confirm the date, but there seemed to be no way to do it. It would be decades before Tecumseh went through the first of many expansions that eventually transformed it from a small commuter college into a sprawling academic complex. This mid-Twentieth century version of the school had no dormitories, no stadium or playing fields, no towers reaching into the blue Texas sky, and none of the ubiquitous digital displays that provided an endless stream of information for students and faculty.
I tried seeing the deserted campus through the eyes of someone who was part of that primitive world. Where would such a person look? Then it came to me: a newspaper. Printed newspapers no longer existed where I had come from, but were commonplace in nineteen sixty-three. A recently discarded paper might tell me what I needed to know.
Across the way, two wire mesh trash containers stood like sentries on either side of the library front steps. I ran over and spilled the contents of the first trash container out onto the pavement. No newspaper. The second one gave me what I was looking for. Mixed in with empty soft drink bottles, a partially-eaten hamburger, cigarette butts, plastic cups, and an assortment of crumpled candy bar wrappers was a soiled copy of The Dallas Times Herald. On its front page, next to a photograph of two smiling men, a headline announced, “Plea for Space Plan Kicks Off JFK Tour.” The date shown below the masthead was “Thursday Evening, November 21, 1963”.
A beam of light suddenly lit up the pavement at my feet.
“Hey! You there!”
I dropped the newspaper and stumbled back a couple of steps, freezing as the light moved up my body and came to rest on my face. In all my months of preparation for this day, the possibility of an encounter with campus security had never occurred to me. And it should have. I had no romantic illusions about the innocence of the past in which I now found myself; it was every bit as dangerous as my own time. Leaving the school unguarded after it closed for the day was a risk no sane person would have taken. Now it looked as if I was about to pay a price for my oversight.
The uniformed guard cautiously closed the distance between us, his flashlight beam fixed on my face. I did the only thing I could think of: I turned and ran. I can’t be sure how far or for how long I ran. All I am certain of is that when I finally stopped to catch my breath the campus was nowhere in sight.
The encounter at the school had consumed time, and time was a precious and rapidly diminishing commodity. I looked up street signs and saw that I was at the southern edge of Irving, still a good distance away from my destination, and first light was now closer than ever.
I began making my way toward West Fifth Street, and as I did felt the first twinges of a peculiar heaviness in my legs and a strange thirst burning my throat.
Any interaction could have unknowable and possibly even disastrous consequences. Marcus had made that clear enough. Fortunately, it was hours past midnight and there were very few people out and about. At one point, though, as I was nearing a cross street, a plump, balding man surprised me when he came around a corner hedge holding a small dog on a leash. He smiled, waved hello, and seemed about to say something when I hurried away from him. Not long after that an automobile drove past me and pulled into a driveway farther along the street. The driver must have had the windows rolled down because I clearly heard what he was listening to on the car’s radio. There was no hint of the national mourning that would descend upon the country after the murder in Dallas. Instead, the cool night air came alive with the sound of a woman’s voice rising above a heavy rhythmic drumbeat:
The night we met
I knew I needed you so
And if I had the chance
I’d never let you go.
The words made me think of Mary, who in 1963 had yet to be born, live out her brief life, and die a senseless death. The pain of losing her hit me as it had so many times before. I stood there listening to the music until it ended and the unseen driver turned off the car and disappeared into his home. The sound of the faceless stranger closing his front door, a familiar and intimate sound, brought with it a terrible realization. I had come from a time where that driver, where all the families peacefully asleep in all the homes around me, where every child then being born into the world, were mere dust. The first Leland Hardesty was likely asleep in his bed more than two thousand miles away, perhaps having stayed up long enough to make an entry in a journal I would read two centuries later. I had known all this in an abstract sort of way long before entering the Conveyance, but the experience was something altogether different. Whatever sense of wonder I might have felt at having become a traveler disappeared, replaced by a dreadful feeling of isolation from everyone and everything around me. A cold, visceral truth shook me as I realized that the Conveyance had done much more than ferry me into the past; it had also transformed me into the strangest of intruders: a voyeur in the land of the dead.
I finally reached the intersection of North Belt Line Road and West 5th Street. The Paine home was around the next corner. Ruth, Marina, and Lee were certainly all asleep. Oswald had spent part of a sunny Thursday afternoon playing with his children on the lawn. Ruth saw them when she returned from running errands, and was touched by the sight of the often troubled couple enjoying a happy interlude. They were the last such moments the family was ever to know.
The heavy scent of verbena from a nearby flowerbed followed me until I reached the white ranch house I had studied in scores of photographs. The reality of it made me feel for a moment as if I were inside a dream. But this was no dream. I could feel the damp night air cool on my face, reach out and touch the Paine’s powder-blue station wagon parked only a few feet away, and hear the soft rustling of leaves in the oak that rose from the lawn like a dark sentinel. Months of anticipation were at an end. The time to act had arrived.
After a quick glance up and down West 5th Street, I crept up the driveway toward the garage.
The field was only minutes away. My legs felt weak, ready to give way, and fatigue made staying awake a struggle, but even greater than my exhaustion or the weakness in my legs was the thirst that had become a fire in my throat. The need for water was the only thing keeping me from dropping to the ground and losing myself in sleep. It drove me forward into the field, past my crude marker and toward the center of the campus. Two centuries into the future Marcus would soon be forced to shut down the Conveyance, leaving me stranded in an alien world. But I was beyond caring about that. At that moment relieving an overpowering need for water was all that mattered.
I made my way to the Science Hall like a sleepwalker. There would have been no point in trying the entrance doors, so I staggered from one ground-floor window to the next, trying each and hoping to find one unlocked. I found it at the building’s west end, a window that opened onto a long hallway. There would be water somewhere inside. There had to be. I opened the window, pulled myself over the sill, and dropped heavily onto the tiled floor.
Nothing had ever looked as good to me as the white ceramic fountain that jutted out from a section of wall between two darkened classrooms. My feet made a soft scraping sound as I shuffled over to it. One long drink followed another. I stopped drinking only long enough to glance up at a wall clock. It was now 4:45AM. If things were going as planned, another series of pulses were reaching the field as I stood there. A final series would follow not long after. I had to get back before that happened.
I bent over the fountain, drank again, then let the cold water wash over my face.
“What are you doing in here!?”
The tall, thin guard was perhaps twenty years old and dressed in a gray uniform a half size too big for him. There was fear and uncertainty in his pale blue eyes.
“I work here, young man. I teach English,” I said. Not entirely a lie. I tried hard to put the sound of authority into my weak, hoarse voice as my heart pounded inside me.
“Tell me another one, mister. Teachers went home hours ago. Besides, I know all the people who work here and you ain’t one of them.”
“That’s because I’m new.”
“Hold on now. Didn’t I see you prowling around campus before? Sure, about an hour ago. You’re the creep who emptied the trash cans and ran off,”
He reached for a black box-like device clipped to his belt. He held it close to his face, pushed a button on it and spoke.
“This is Lindbloom. Come in base. Base, come in, this is Lindbloom.”
A stream of static came from the device and then a voice said, “This is base. Go ahead, Bart.”
Others would soon join the guard if I allowed him to continue. I was trespassing, and that meant police and an arrest, followed by questions I could not possibly answer.
There was another burst of static and the guard started to speak into the contraption in his hand, “Base, I’ve got a …”
I ran toward him. An electric jolt of pain ran up my right arm as my fist smashed into his jaw. The black box flew out of his hand as his eyes went blank and he fell backwards, his head striking the tiled floor with a thud. The sound of a sharp crack, like a twig being snapped in two, echoed through the long hallway. The boy lay there motionless, his left leg twisted at an odd angle under him.
My first thought was to run, to get back to the field, but when I looked down at the unconscious guard he moaned softly and I knew he needed help. The box he had spoken into lay only a few feet away. I picked it up and examined its small dials and buttons.
The final series of pulses was now only minutes away. Missing them would mean being marooned in the past, possibly forever, but the unconscious guard at my feet was clearly in need of help. I could not walk away and leave him there. I had to find a way to summon help before returning to the field.
The black box in my hand came to life and a deep voice broke through a rain of static.
“Bart? Bart! You still there? What the hell’s going on?”
There were two silver buttons along the side of the black box. I pressed one of them and spoke.
“Hello? Hello? Is anyone there”
I held down the other button and spoke again.
“This is base. Is that you, Bart?”
“No. Your guard has been injured. Send help to the ground floor of the Science Building as soon as possible.”
“Who is this?”
“Never mind that. Just send help.”
“Identify yourself, goddammit! Who the hell am I talking to?”
“The Science Hall. As soon as possible.”
I put the device down by the unconscious guard. More static-laced words spilled from the contraption. Their echoes followed me as I went through the open window at the end of the hallway and dropped out onto the grass. The strange thirst was already building again, accompanied by a still-growing exhaustion.
I had not gone very far when I heard a car screech to a halt somewhere behind me. They would find the boy now and get him the help he needed -- and also call the local police. I tried quickening my pace, but the encounter in the Science Building, fueled by fear and desperation, had left me drained. All I could do now was drag myself forward one painfully slow step at a time, feeling as if I were slogging through waist-high mud.
A distant wail of sirens accompanied my arrival at the stone marker. I dropped onto the earth and waited. How much time had I lost getting here? Had Marcus already sent through a final series of pulses? I tried to concentrate, to come up with answers, but my thoughts were lost in a fog of exhaustion.
It started drizzling as I lay there, a soft cool mist that I knew would soon become a steady rain. Sometime before noon the sun would break through the clouds, cheering the expectant crowds lining the streets of downtown Dallas and seeming to welcome the young President as his limousine carried him ever closer to the killing ground.
I can’t be sure how much later it was that I saw lights crisscrossing the field to the south. Those lights were searching for me and they were in the hands of the police. I lay there helpless, unable to move. Why had Marcus not sent through the final series of pulses? I prayed silently that the lifeline to my own time had not already been cut.
“We’re wasting our time. The guy’s probably all the way to Dallas by now.”
“I know, but we’re not paid to do our job, not second guess orders. So let’s keep looking, okay?”
The voices were close and getting closer.
“I just meant…”
“I know what you meant. Let’s fan out here. You go over toward that stand of scrub pine.”
A flashlight beam lit up the grass nearby. They would find me now. It was only a matter of seconds.
I waited, resigned to the inevitable, and thought of Mary, of how much I still loved and missed her. The sky, overcast only seconds before, suddenly began filling with stars. I looked up in wonder as more and more brilliant flashes lit up the night. And then the stars were everywhere around me, on my arms, hands, all along my prone body. A familiar pain began working its way through me. It was soon followed by a feeling that my flesh was expanding outward in all directions at once.
“There he is, Sergeant! Over there! Sarge? What the … holy Moses!”
“He’s … he’s on fire! There’s sparks, Sarge, sparks all over him!”
Just before losing consciousness I saw the police officer’s slim figure approach me, a silver flashlight in his hand, and heard his scream of astonishment as he witnessed what surely must have seemed a miracle: a man lying within a shower of tiny diamond-like stars, and that same man looking up at him with a weary, grateful smile an instant before vanishing without a trace into the night air.
I came to in a brightly-lit hospital room. The awful thirst and fatigue were gone. A nurse sat by the room’s only window, intently working on an old tablet.
“I’m hungry,” I said.
The young nurse started and the tablet slipped from her lap onto the floor.
She rushed to the bed and quickly checked a series of small monitors on the wall behind me.
“I’m hungry,” I repeated.
“Now you just lay back and relax. I’ll get the doctor.”
“Marcus? Oh, you mean Dr. Lindbloom. I’m sure he’s around somewhere. He’s been here every day since you were admitted. Now I really must get the doctor.”
She rushed out of the room.
Every day? Hadn’t it been only last night that I entered the Conveyance?
The door opened and a short, husky man in a white lab coat walked in. His full beard and curly hair were both iron-gray. He came up to my bed and smiled down at me. His voice was soft and reassuring.
“I’m Dr. Loomis. How do you feel, Mr. Hardesty?”
“I’m not surprised. We kept you hydrated and fed intravenously until yesterday, but I’m afraid that’s no substitute for real food.”
He turned to the nurse and rattled off some instructions.
“We’ll have to start you on solid food slowly. Five days is a long time to go without …”
“Five days? What do you mean?”
“Just that. You arrived here in a comatose state five days ago, as dehydrated as I’ve ever seen a living human being, and suffering from the initial stages of multiple organ failure. I’ve never come across anything quite like it.”
“He’ll be in to see you in a moment. Are you by any chance an athlete, Mr. Hardesty?”
“No. Why do you ask?”
“Because it was only your superb physical condition that saved you. The average man simply could not have entered this clinic in your condition and survived. Would you like to tell me what happened to you, Mr. Hardesty?”
I lay back on the cool pillow and closed my eyes.
“I’m tired. I want to rest.”
“Very well, then. Perhaps we can chat later. I’ll have Marcus come in for a few minutes, but only a few minutes. I want you to get as much rest as possible, Mr. Hardesty. Nurse Oliver will bring you a small meal in a little while. Would you please ask Marcus to come in, nurse?”
“Certainly, Doctor Loomis.”
Marcus entered the room moments later. He needed a shave and looked as if he hadn’t slept in days. He hurried over to me and put his hand on my forearm.
“That was some nap you took, Lee.”
Doctor Loomis smiled. “You two go ahead and talk. Five minutes. No more. I want my patient to rest, Marcus.”
“I’ll take good care of him, Bill.”
I waited until the doctor and nurse were out of the room before speaking.
“What’s in heaven’s name going on? The doctor said I’ve been here five days.”
“You have. How do you feel?”
“Woozy and confused. What’s this about five days?”
“You were unconscious and barely breathing when I took you out of the Conveyance. You’ve been here ever since. That was Friday. Today is Wednesday.”
“What happened to me?”
“The Conveyance is an engineering miracle, Lee, but it can play havoc with the human body. That’s something the genius who designed it could never have anticipated. You’re about as extreme an example of what it can do to a traveler as I’ve ever seen. Your reaction was completely off the charts.”
“By the way, that so-called miracle of yours was off by hours, Marcus.”
“A time phase dysfunction, a sort of hiccup when the machine skips ahead an hour or more beyond the programmed time.”
“That hiccup could have left me stuck back there for good.”
“But it didn’t. You’re here and you’re going to be alright. That’s all that matters.”
“How much do they know?” I asked, pointing toward the door.
“Nothing at all, at least not officially. When you returned your clothes were wet and filthy, so I got you into a white lab coat and moved you over to one of the consoles before alerting our watchdogs. I told them you’d suffered a seizure of some kind. We got you here to the Loomis Clinic in record time, which probably saved your life. Another fifteen or twenty minutes and you would have … well, let’s not talk about that. Anyway, Lee, as far as the people who run this place are concerned you experienced a petit mal episode. That’s what your chart will show.”
“I don’t understand any of this, Marcus. I was so tired I could barely move and I had the most god-awful thirst, but I certainly didn’t feel as if I were dying.”
“You very well might have. It’s really a miracle you survived.”
He shook his head.
“I blame myself for everything. I should never have helped you go through with it. But you … you seemed so much better, almost like a different person. Bethany saw the change in you, too. All that business over the breakup with Marcia seemed finally …”
“Marcia? What does she have to do with any of this?”
He looked down at me, concern furrowing his brow.
“Maybe we ought to do this another time, Lee.”
“Why on earth would you bring her up?”
Marcia was a woman I dated briefly before meeting Mary.
“I really should get going. The Foundation meets this afternoon and I’ve got all sorts of preparations to make. You know how I am about that particular family obligation. It’s almost a religion with me.”
At first I had no idea what he was talking about, but then something strange happened. A flood of memories suddenly washed over me. It was as if his words had triggered a particularly vivid old dream, one I had thought lost forever until Marcus’ brought it all back in every detail -- only I knew it was no dream. The Lindbloom Foundation was established in 2013. Marcus was one of its officers, and had been for a long time when we first met. One or more members of the Lindbloom family had served on its board since its creation. But I was certain, even as these recollections jolted my consciousness, that there had been no Lindbloom Foundation on the night I stepped into the Conveyance.
I said nothing to Marcus. I needed time alone to try and sort out what was happening.
“I’m tired, Marcus. I think I’ll try and sleep a bit.”
“Good idea. You rest, Lee. I’ll be back in the morning. I’m sure all the cobwebs will have cleared away by then.”
Marcus started walking away, stopped, and returned to the bedside. He reached into his jacket and brought out a small plastic bag. It contained what appeared to be a pink grain of rice.
“Remember this? Bill -- Dr. Loomis -- is a good friend. We go way back. The Foundation paid for most of his medical education and helped to fund this clinic. He took this out of you the night you were admitted and gave it to me. He also saw to the official explanation of what happened to you. So don’t you waste any time worrying about anything. Just get well.”
The plastic bag reminded me of something else.
“Would you please bring my wedding band when you come back in the morning?”
“Yes, my wedding band,” I said, holding up my left hand. “Remember, I gave it to you the night …” My voice died away into a stunned silence. The band of pale flesh on my ring finger was gone; it was as deeply tanned as the rest of my hand.
“What is it, Lee?”
I stared at my hand in disbelief.
“Lee? Do you want me to call Dr. Loomis?”
“No. You go ahead to your meeting. I’m okay.”
The nurse came back, her crisp white uniform rustling with every step. She placed a tray of food on the cart at my bedside and smiled at Marcus.
“Time’s up, Dr. Lindbloom.”
“I was just leaving. Have a good night, Lee. We’ll talk again tomorrow.”
“Why don’t you try sitting on this chair, Mr. Hardesty. Dr. Loomis would like you do a bit of walking, too, if you feel up to it.”
It was only a bowl consommé, a glass of orange juice, and some cherry gelatin, but that simple meal tasted better than anything I could have ordered in the finest gourmet restaurant in the world. Afterward, I walked around the room with the nurse at my side.
“That’s enough for today. Dr. Loomis will be in to see you before he goes off duty. I’ll bring you another glass of juice later this evening if you like. Tomorrow we’ll start you on some real food. How does that sound?”
I got back in bed and fell asleep in minutes. When I woke it was dark outside. The only light in the room came from the panel of monitors on the wall behind me. I had been dreaming about Mary -- a familiar dream, the same one I’d had many times since her death, where I’m searching for her, calling out her name, stopping strangers to ask if they’ve seen her. It always ended the same way: I’d see Mary standing in the distance and run toward her, but before I can reach her she vanishes. This time Mary never appeared, and I ran home hoping to find her there, but it was Marcia who opened our front door. I begged her to let me in, to let me see Mary. She shut the door without a word.
As I lay there sleepily puzzling over the dream, I was jolted by a new torrent of memories. It was like watching a film play out in front of me: meeting Marcia at a faculty party and falling in love with her, followed by years of quarrels and breakups. The breakups were inevitably followed by reconciliations and long weekends at our favorite mountain resort, weekends full of whispered apologies, desperate promises, and love making. I witnessed our final parting and her abrupt disappearance from Tecumseh, and experienced again a feeling of devastation when I learned of her marriage to a wealthy Argentine rancher. What followed were innumerable sleepless nights when I wandered around the home I had bought and furnished for Marcia in anticipation of our marriage. Then came the night when I went in search of my grandfather’s Peacemaker and found instead Leland Hardesty’s journals hidden away in a corner of the attic. It had happened. I relived it all in that hospital room. And yet, all the memories of my time with Mary were still there, too, as vivid as ever. It was as if I’d somehow managed to live two lives simultaneously during the past five years.
A cold surge of panic shot through me. I threw off the covers, jumped out of bed and ran to the window, pulled it open and leaned out into the cool evening air. I closed my eyes and took a long deep breath, trying to calm myself. The scent of verbena from a nearby courtyard flower bed instantly transported me to a night in nineteen sixty-three. I was on my back, inching under the partially raised garage door of the Paine home onto a cold concrete floor. Once inside, I lay still, letting my eyes adjust to the near-darkness and listening for sounds from the adjacent house.
It took me only seconds to find what I already knew was hidden there in the clutter of barrels, cartons, toys, and tools: a rifle wrapped in a green and brown woolen blanket. I carefully removed it from the blanket. Then, as I had done so many times before, I took the firing mechanism apart and put it back together, minus the firing pin, then returned it to its hiding place. A muffled sound came from somewhere inside the house. I froze, waited a few moments, and in the long silence that followed crawled out of the garage and pulled the door shut a fraction of an inch at a time.
After tossing away the pin, I made my way back onto West 5th Street, pausing only long enough for a final backward glance at the house. There, at the living room window, a pale figure stood peering out through parted curtains. It was Oswald. He was wearing a white undershirt and his hair was tousled. I can’t be certain if he saw me or not, but before I ran from the house he looked in my direction and nodded. Was that barely visible nod a greeting, or something else, something directed not at a faceless stranger but inwardly at himself, an acknowledgement and acceptance of the riptide of history that would soon drag him down to his death?
Marcus and Bethany were waiting for me on the day I left the Loomis Clinic. They took me to lunch at a local restaurant and drove me home afterwards. Marcus walked with me to the front door and we chatted for a while about my return to Tecumseh the following Monday.
“I’ll come around later to see how you’re doing, Lee.”
“Don’t bother, Marcus. I’m fine.”
“Yes. You’ve already done more than enough.”
“Well, then I guess I’ll see you at the school in a couple of days.”
I closed the front door and went directly to the den. There, still on my desk, were two of the books I had used in researching the assassination of John Kennedy. My hands trembled as I opened the first one. I read quickly, put it down, and then scanned the pages of the second. There were several more volumes on the same subject sitting on my shelves and stored on my tablet, but I didn’t bother with them. It wouldn’t have mattered where I looked; not a single detail of the event had changed.
History was, I concluded, unalterable, and anyone attempting to change it was on a fool’s errand. As to the first Leland Hardesty, he was a decent man who believed in a friend’s innocence and conducted a spirited defense of that friend within the pages of a journal read by perhaps half a dozen people in all the years of its existence. For reasons I may never fully understand, I had made his obsession my own and resolved to prove him right, even at the cost of deceiving the best friend I’ve ever had. And in the end what had I accomplished? Nothing. I put away the books, turned off the lights, and shut the door.
I went upstairs to my bedroom. It was neat and clean. Bethany had probably seen to that. The whole house, in fact, was spotless and in perfect order, but also somehow different. It didn’t take me long to discover why. The photograph of Mary on my night table was gone, as was the silver music box I’d given her as a gift three Christmases ago. A rosewood cabinet I bought for Mary’s collection of miniature hourglasses was not in its place in a corner of the living room, and in the bedroom closet, where a shoe box once held holographs of vacations at our favorite desert resort, I found instead a cigar box filled with images of Marcia and me at a hotel in the mountains. I looked everywhere. All evidence of my life with Mary had vanished. In its place were reminders of a different life with Marcia. How such a thing could happen was far beyond my understanding. Marcus would no doubt have been able to shed some light on what was going on, but seeking his help also meant confessing the details of my shameful betrayal of his trust, and I was not yet ready to do that.
And so I went back to Tecumseh the following Monday and resumed my old routine: teaching, mentoring a few gifted students, running every day, swimming every other. There were no new episodes like the ones which had shaken me so badly at the Loomis Clinic.
Because I had no other choice -- or because the only other choice was a descent into madness -- I somehow learned to accept the bewildering aftereffects of my voyage through time. Imagine, if you can, the emotional balancing act required to have two separate and distinct memories for every moment of five years of your life. The Christmas holidays, for example: Mary and I stayed at a desert resort during that long weekend. We had a wonderful time and I can recount for you all we did during those three days. But I also recall with equal clarity staying at a ski resort with Marcia during the same three days. How I survived this insanity is perhaps a tribute to the Hardesty clan’s strength of will. I don’t really know. I’m only grateful that whatever personal quality allowed me to live in this way was not tested longer than a few months after my time in the Conveyance.
I became William Beadle’s mentor six weeks after returning to Tecumseh. The young student and I spent one morning a week discussing the progress of his dissertation. We often followed a long work session with lunch in the faculty dining hall, and that is where we wound up one afternoon in late September. I spotted Andy Reyes as we entered. He was sitting alone, as usual, sipping coffee and reading something on his tablet. Andy is an instructor in the English Department. He also moonlights as a stringer for several local news outlets.
“Mind if we join you, Andy?”
“The more the merrier, kid.”
I introduced William, who promptly excused himself and made a beeline for a young woman at a nearby table.
“Looks like your student has other fish to fry. Can’t say I blame him. So how’s the teaching business these days, Lee.”
“Same as always. That one of yours?”
I gestured toward the article on his tablet’s display. Andy tends to be his own harshest critic, often re-reading his work and carrying on about how he might have done a better job.
“I don’t have a story in today’s News Board. Just catching up on what my fellow journalists are doing.”
“Anything worth bothering with?”
“Are you interested in yesterday’s flower show?”
“Well, that’s today’s lead story -- that and two local politicos accusing each other of malfeasance. Roses and recriminations, that’s on the news menu for today. Excuse me, Lee. I need a refill for my coffee. Be right back.”
I glanced down at his tablet. A small captioned image below the flower show story caught my eye. It showed a petite woman standing at a desk littered with paper. She was looking up at the camera and smiling. It looked like … no, it was Mary, my Mary. I picked up the tablet and with a few movements of my trembling fingers zoomed in on the image.
“My God,” I whispered, feeling suddenly light-headed, adrift, disconnected from everything around me. The brief caption said something about her work with the Lindbloom Foundation.
“I’d like my tablet back if you’re done with it.”
Andy was standing behind me. I hadn’t seen or heard him return with his mug of coffee. I put the tablet down and pointed to the image.
“Do you by any chance know when this was taken?”
“Probably yesterday. Why?”
“That’s not possible.”
“Really? And why not? Hey, are you alright? You look pale as Marley’s ghost.”
“Who is she?”
“Mary Young. She’s visiting from Chicago, doing some sort of work for her family’s foundation. Aren’t you pals with her cousin, the time jockey over at the Institute?”
“Her name is ‘Young’?”
“Her married name. Cute little thing, isn’t she? Too bad about her husband.”
“Come on, Lee. Where’ve you been the past year? You really don’t remember?”
“No, Andy, fill me in.”
“Well, if you’d ever bother to come down from that ivory tower of yours you’d know that she was widowed a year ago. I wrote the story myself. She was in town doing some work for the Lindbloom Foundation when her husband decided to drive into Dallas while she was tied up with meetings. There was an accident and …”
“Over by the big solar array?”
“I thought you didn’t know anything about it? Yes, by the big solar array. Anyway, she disappeared for a while, went back to Chicago where her husband’s family is from. My sometimes employer apparently believes her return only merits a tiny photo and a one-line caption. I offered to do a follow-up, you know, a story about the brave young widow picking up the pieces and getting on with her life? Real human interest stuff. The filthy toad refused.”
“No, I don’t believe so. Charles, that was her husband, was quite a bit older and … hey, where are you going!?”
I walked back to my office in a daze. It never occurred to me that my actions might have altered Mary’s life along with my own. I had assumed that death was the one unalterable fact, something no amount of tampering with the past would ever change.
Sitting stunned and motionless in my office, I resolved that no force on Earth was going to keep me from seeing Mary that very day. Her death had left me broken, half-mad, and looking to the obsession of a long-dead relative for my life’s purpose. Scattering her ashes over the desert we both loved so much had been like casting pieces of myself to the winds. Slowly, slowly, with help of some old journals and a trip through time itself, I had finally come to terms with her absence from my life. And now, unbelievably, she was alive. Maybe her husband’s death had paid some debt owed to God or fate. I didn’t understand any of it, and didn’t care if I ever did. Only Mary mattered.
I decided something else as I sat there: the time had at last arrived for Marcus to know the whole truth about my trip into the past. I had put it for far too long. I reached for my tablet and quickly tapped a series of numbers on the screen.
“Lee! Well, this is a coincidence. I was just about to try and get in touch with you.”
Bethany’s plain, dark face filled the small screen.
“Is everything okay, Beth?”
“Fine and dandy. How about joining us for supper tonight? We’re having Stroganoff. I believe that’s your favorite. Seven okay?”
“Of course. Thanks, Beth.”
“By the way, Lee, we’re having Marcus’ cousin over, too. Mary Young. Do you know her?”
My heart began racing.
“Yes … no … I mean, I just read something about her.”
“I saw that, too. Wonderful photo. That woman just never seems to age. It’s all I can do to keep from being consumed with envy. She’s really the nicest person, Lee. I think you’ll like her. See you tonight then?”
I checked the time. Mary was six interminable hours away. During those hours I became a schoolboy preparing for a first date, pacing around my office, then pacing around my home, trying to decide what I would do when I saw her, what I would say, and all the while fighting back a deep sense of unreality, as if I were in a waking dream, a dream from which I did not ever want to wake.
No detail of what I was to wear was too small to fuss over. I finally decided on jeans, a blue cotton shirt, and a pearl gray sweater. Mary had always liked me in that outfit. I used a little of the cologne she’d once told me made her think of holding hands in moonlight.
I arrived at Marcus’ house half an hour early. He opened the door, took me by the forearm and pulled me into the foyer.
“Look, I’m sorry about this, Lee,” he said in a whisper. “I’m afraid Beth insisted on playing matchmaker tonight. I want you to know this was not my idea.”
Bethany walked into the foyer before he could say anything else.
“What are you two plotting?”
“Nothing, dear. Just giving Lee a little fatherly counsel.”
“Where’s Mary?” I asked.
Beth and Marcus shot each other a quick, surprised glance.
“She’s not here yet, Lee. She went to visit someone this afternoon,” Bethany said.
“No, Lee, not a man. A friend – a woman friend of hers.”
“Have you met my cousin before?” Marcus asked, looking puzzled.
“No,” I lied.
“Then you will soon have that privilege. And to help you possess your soul in patience, why not have a glass or two of wine with me?”
Marcus and I retreated to his back porch. We sat sipping a wonderful port and admiring the sunset.
“Tell me about the Foundation, Marcus. How did it get started?”
“Well, you are full of surprises tonight, Lee.”
“We’ve known each other for almost eleven years and this is the first time you’ve expressed even the slightest interest in the Lindbloom Foundation.”
“Tell me about it and then I’ll tell you why I’m asking.”
“Fair enough. What would you like to know?”
“How did it come about?”
“Well, let’s see.” He refilled our glasses. “Family lore says it got started because of the founder’s clumsiness.”
“Yes. It’s really sort of a funny story. Bartholomew Lindbloom worked right here at Tecumseh way back when it was still only a half dozen or so buildings. He was some sort of night watchman, I think. Anyway, young Bart had dreams of playing professional baseball but was apparently more than a little short of the requisite talent. The poor guy’s life was going nowhere on a bobsled. He played bush league ball on weekends and lived at home with his parents, stubbornly refusing to let go of his dreams of athletic glory until he had an accident one night at the school. His ankle was fractured and never healed properly. That’s when he was forced to look elsewhere for a future, so he began taking classes. As it turns out, Bartholomew, God bless him, discovered a gift for engineering and wound up making a fortune designing sophisticated calibration devices, among a good many other things. The old boy had over one hundred patents to his name when he died. Bart also got to fulfill his athletic ambitions -- in a way. His bad leg may have prevented him from playing professional baseball, but it didn’t stop him from using his personal wealth to buy a major league team, which he did at the age of forty-nine. He became a kind of legend in baseball circles for accompanying his team to spring training every year and joining them in their daily workouts and intra-squad games. He did that until he was nearly eighty years old. So you see, that accident of his turned out to have been a blessing, the best thing that ever happened to old Bart. It forced him to find a purpose in life. I think creating the Lindbloom Foundation was his way of giving other lost souls a helping hand. It’s worked, too. We’ve awarded more money in scholarships and grants than just about …”
“It was no accident.”
“He didn’t have an accident.”
“Sure he did. That story has been in our family for generations. Of course, it may have changed a bit in the telling over the years.”
“What happened to your ancestor was no accident.”
“And just how would you know that?”
“Because I was there, Marcus. I caused his so-called accident.”
And so, as we sat together in the gathering darkness, I at last told Marcus everything that happened on that night in nineteen sixty-three. I told him, too, about having no memory of his Foundation or of a breakup with Marcia until he mentioned them at the clinic, and about the sudden flood of dream-like recollections I had experienced. I told him, too, about my marriage to Mary and its tragic end. And I finally confessed how I had all along intended to meddle with past events in order to prove that the first Leland Hardesty had been right about Oswald.
“Lee, the Lindbloom Foundation has been a part of my family for generations. And as to this business with Mary, well, that’s simply preposterous. You’ve never even met her.”
“We were married for five years, Marcus. You and Bethany were at our wedding. But that’s not the whole story. Ever since my trip in that contraption of yours I’ve also had to learn to live with the details of a life with Marcia during those same five years. It’s enough to drive you crazy.”
“Your betrayal of my trust is of no consequence, Lee, but have you any idea what you might have brought about? I mean tampering with history the way you did? You might have altered the future in all sorts of ways that had nothing at all to do with what happened in Dallas.”
“What I tried to doesn’t seem to have done any harm. It certainly didn’t change anything about the assassination.”
“And just how can you be certain of that? Whatever came of your actions in that garage and at the school are fixed parts of our world. No person living today is aware of any other reality, but you … you say that you remember details of a life before your time in the Conveyance?”
“This is incredible, truly incredible.”
“Has anything like this ever happened that you know of?”
“Well, there is a theory, only a theory mind you, known as the Palimpsest Effect. I suppose the best way to explain it is to think of your life before the Conveyance as a scroll, and the writing on that scroll as a chronicle of all your experiences. The Palimpsest Effect occurs when that same scroll is used a second time, only the erasure of the original writing is incomplete.”
“So what happens now?”
“I’m not sure. As I said, it’s only a theory. There’s no known instance of it ever having happened to a traveler. I’d like you to do something for me, Lee.”
“Of course, anything.”
“Write down everything you remember in as much detail as you can before you lose it.”
“Lose it? I’m not sure I understand, Marcus.”
“It’s part of the theory. This is uncharted territory for me, too, but it’s quite likely that you may eventually lose any recollection of the alternate past you’ve told me about. It will simply fade, erase itself.”
Marcus took another sip of wine.
“There is another possibility, Lee, one you can’t ignore, especially regarding this business with Mary.”
“That this previous life you think you remember never happened. That the whole thing is a delusion.”
“Are you trying to tell me I’m nuts?”
“No. Not at all. Look, I don't pretend to understand all the intricacies of the human mind, Lee, but you were unconscious for days. It's possible, I suppose, that your brain continued to function at some level and that it built up a complex delusion over the course of those days. Then, when you woke, your conscious mind accepted that complex delusion as reality. I don't know, but I think it’s possible. The plain truth is that we still don’t fully understand everything that happens to the human mind and body when it undergoes time travel.”
“This is real, Marcus. Believe me.”
“Delusions can seem very real indeed.”
A musical tone sounded throughout the house. Bethany called out from the kitchen, “Would you get that, dear?”
I jumped to my feet, spilling red wine on the porch’s white floorboards. The dark liquid resembled blood and for an instant I was frightened that it would not be Mary at the door, but police officers like the ones who once visited me in another lifetime.
“Stay put, Marcus. I’ll get it.”
I hurried to the front door. My hand gripped the knob as if it were a lifeline. I took a few long, deep breaths and opened the door.
And there she was. Her blond hair was a little longer than I remembered it and she had a tiny scar just above her right brow that had not been there before, but it was Mary, my Mary. She looked at me, surprise lighting up her wonderful face, and smiled. It took all the will power I had, and some I had not thought I possessed, to keep from taking her in my arms.
“Why, it’s Leland Hardesty, isn’t it?” she said, extending her hand. Five years worth of memories were in the touch of that small hand.
Bethany came up behind us.
“Come in, Mary. Do you know Lee Hardesty?”
“Sort of. I saw him once at one of your faculty parties before I moved East with Charles. That was five years ago and I’m certain he never noticed me. He was in the company of a very striking brunette.”
Mary looked up at me.
“It was embarrassing, really, Mr. Hardesty. You two looked as if you couldn’t wait to be alone together.”
It was true. Marcia and I didn’t merely make love; we consumed each other, a physical hunger without any real intimacy or tenderness.
“And just how is your lady friend these days, Mr. Hardesty?”
“I don’t know. I haven’t seen her in quite some time.”
“Well, that might account for how well-rested you look.”
Bethany and Marcus laughed. Mary put a hand on her hip as she spoke, a gesture I knew well and loved. My eyes suddenly welled up with tears.
“Oh, my goodness, Lee, are you alright?” Bethany asked.
“Yes, yes. I’m fine.”
“Just how much wine have you and Marcus had, dear?”
I wiped my eyes and as I did noticed Mary looking at me, her cornflower-blue eyes curious and full of genuine concern.
“I’m so sorry if my stupid attempt at humor upset you, Mr. Hardesty.”
“Please call me ‘Lee’.”
“Of course. If you’ll call me ‘Mary’.”
“Well, Mary, nothing you said or could ever say would do anything but delight me.”
The lovely smile I remembered shone on her face like a sunrise.
“Are we going to stand here forever, or shall we go into supper?” Beth said, putting an arm around Mary’s shoulder and walking ahead of us into the dining room.
We sat across from each other at the dining room table. Bethany and Marcus did their best to get a conversation started, but I was too overcome with wonderment at being with her again to say much of anything. She had been returned to me by a process I could not comprehend, and I was determined never to let her go again.
It was just after ten when Mary said she had Foundation meetings the following morning and must go up to bed. I startled everyone in the room -- including myself -- by crying out, “No!”
Marcus and Bethany exchanged amused looks.
“I’m sorry. I just meant it’s still so early and I thought Mary might like this place in Dallas that makes wonderful Turkish coffee and pastry. They have a fellow there who is a genius on the baglama. I’ve told you about it, haven’t I, Marcus?”
I looked at him, feeling foolish in my desperation.
“Well, yes, I believe you have mentioned the place once or twice, Lee. Sadly, I have to get an early start tomorrow and Beth has papers to grade. However, if you two want to go out for a bit …”
I looked at Mary.
“How about it?”
“I don’t know. I do have those Foundation meetings.”
“I personally guarantee you will make them on time.”
“And just how will you do that?”
“I’ll be out front first thing in the morning to chauffer you.”
She laughed, throwing her head back in another familiar gesture.
“Don’t worry about waking us, dear,” Bethany said. “I’ll probably be up with those silly papers until one or two in the morning.”
Mary loved the café, as I knew she would. It had been a favorite place of ours. We talked and listened to the music until the place closed, then I drove her back. The house was dark except for a porch light. Neither of us made a move to exit the car.
“Mary, I feel a little foolish asking this -- in fact I feel like some damned kid out on a first date -- but would you be offended if I kissed you goodnight?”
“Why, Lee Hardesty!”
Amusement showed on her lovely face, as well as a tenderness I remembered from our years together. I drew her to me and we kissed softly, slowly. It was like returning home after a long, solitary journey.
We spoke with our faces close together, the sweet scent of her breath washing over my face.
“May I confess something to you, Lee?”
“Of course. Anything.”
“I used to dream about you, about you and me together, nearly every night. The dreams began years ago, just after I first saw you at that faculty party. It was as if I were living a separate life at night in those dreams. What I especially hated about them was that what’s-her-name with all the glamour and good looks kept coming between us. What was her name again?”
“I don’t recall.”
“May I see you tomorrow, Mary?”
“Have you forgotten already?”
“You said you’d drive me to the Foundation meeting in the morning.”
And so I did -- I drove her to the meeting the next day and when she was done we spent the afternoon together. We saw each other every day after that. Her work with the Foundation lasted another two weeks, and then it was time for her return to Chicago.
“Do you remember those dreams I told you about the night we met, Lee?”
We were sitting in Marcus’s living room. I had taught classes all morning and rushed over afterwards. Bethany and Marcus were both at the college and their children still in school. Mary’s flight back to Chicago was scheduled for eight that evening.
“The recurring dreams? Yes, I remember.”
“There’s something else that I didn’t tell you about, something very peculiar. The dreams continued even after I married and moved away. After Charles died they became much more vivid. It was so weird, Lee, especially since we didn’t really know each other and the only time I’d ever seen you we were in a room crowded with party guests. Then, and this is the strangest part of the whole thing, after our first evening together the dreams vanished, just like that, after years and years.”
“Why settle for dreams when the real thing is already yours?”
“Are you? Mine, I mean?”
“If you’ll have me.”
“Have I just been proposed to?”
“You certainly have. Forget Chicago, Mary. Stay here with me.”
She reached over and touched my face.
“You know what, Mr. Hardesty? I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Mary went to bed early tonight. I sat beside her for a time watching her sleep, but a stack of papers was waiting for me in the den and I reluctantly got up, careful not to wake her. I gently placed my hand on her growing belly. As if in response, my son moved inside of her.
More than a year has gone by since I entered the Conveyance. I turned thirty-five the day before Mary and I were married, and two months later we learned that she was expecting our child. It has become more difficult these days to summon the details of that first life with Mary. I sometimes find myself wondering if any of it ever really happened, or if the seeming memories are not, as Marcus once suggested, an elaborate delusion.
While my trip into the past changed some lives, it did nothing at all to alter what happened in Dealey Plaza. I have checked innumerable sources in search of the slightest deviation in the sequence of events on November 22, 1963, but nothing has changed. Did Oswald discover my handiwork in time to undo it? That’s possible, since I foolishly tossed the firing pin away rather than taking it with me. It would not have been easy to find, but in morning light perhaps not impossible. And that leads me to a second, even more troubling question: what if Oswald took the rifle that morning without examining it? With no firing pin it would have been harmless as a child’s toy. What then? Who fired the shots that took the President’s life? Had I, after all, managed to prove Oswald’s innocence? I journeyed into the past in search of an answer and had in the end succeeded only in creating new questions.
Marcus, you asked me to write everything down, and I have done exactly that to the best of my recollection. I hope my words help you in your work. As for myself, the only thing that matters is that I am with Mary again, or perhaps with her for the first time: I no longer know or care which is true. Together we will voyage into the future and watch as our son, the sixth Leland Hardesty, day-by-day grows and thrives and lives his own journey through time.