7: A BOY MADE OF THOUGHTS (Complete, 2500 words)
It’s after midnight and I should be asleep in bed but I can’t sleep. It’s like I’m made of thoughts. It’s all I’ve done all day. This impossible day. I thought yesterday was bad, with the dead man and all. Today was worse. Today I got a thing, an actual thing, from the actual future. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve read that damned letter. I still don’t really understand it. I don’t grok it. He, the Time Traveller guy, I think he wants to make me feel better about my situation here. But, God, of all the ways to go about it! He says he’s sorry. He’s sorry! Oh no, it didn’t go to plan! Well, guess what, genius features? Nothing ever goes to bloody plan! People in the future have forgotten that? Something even a dumb fifteen-year-old boy in 1979 knows only too well?
I gave Detective Lockley the whole thing, but I kept my photostat of the letter. He and I sat in a corner of the Reception area while he read the letter and looked at the wrapped-up iPhone. “You didn’t unwrap it?”
“I don’t want it. Why would I unwrap it?”
He looked at me when I said that, a strange, fathomless look on his face, like he was staring deep down inside me. He said, “Me, I’d want to have a look at it at least.”
“I’m not stopping you.”
He could possibly tell I wasn’t in a mood for iPhone-related bullshit. He said, “Well, I have some news, too, son, about your dead man.”
“My dead man?”
“He was in your room.”
I looked at him, fidgeting, feeling lousy, hurting all over. My head was still throbbing, and my neck hurt.
He went on. “His fingerprints. His and yours, they’re a match.”
I knew very well what he was saying, what he meant. That the dead man was indeed an older version of me, of some description. Some version of myself came to a squalid end in my own teenage bedroom. It was a strange thought. Even stranger, as thoughts went, was that this man could be killed yet somehow also live to write me a letter to tell me not to worry about it. He said it was an “unthinking drone” that had been killed. He’d mentioned a “primary self”.
Detective Lockley was going over the letter again, studying it hard, hoovering up every last particle of clue there might be. I didn’t know anything about clues, but the rustling of the sheets of paper was killing me. I kept staring at the letter itself, and at him. Terrifying thoughts, violent thoughts filled me at times like this, when odd little sounds set me off. People chewing. Teaspoons stirring cups of tea. Ding-ding-ding! Clicking pens. Jingling keys. I’d be fine, but I’d hear one of these sounds and before I even had time to think I’d be ready for bloody murder. Then, later, I’d get the shakes, exhausted, feeling all weird as the adrenaline drained away.
I got up and shuffled about, hands in my pockets. “What do you think I should do? If you were my dad, what would you say?” I don’t know what made me say this, but it felt like a good thing to ask. He was a grown-up in a neutral position. He didn’t obviously despise me like Mr Shit. He wasn’t responsible for me like my parents. He didn’t have questionable and mysterious motives like Jane Reid. He was outside the bubble of my world, looking in. He alone had a clear view.
“Honest opinion?” he said, looking up at me, leaning back, taking a good look at my shambling form.
“This guy is trying to help you through a bad time in your life. I have some grasp of how bad it is for you. What you’re up against at home, and here at school. I’ve made some enquiries.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” I knew I wasn’t supposed to speak to adults like this, with that angry, accusatory tone. I could hear Mum’s voice in my head (I could always hear Mum in my head–she was one of my voices) telling me not to speak to adults like that.
“I’m just a working copper, son, doing me job. My job right now is figuring out what happened in your bedroom.”
“What do you make of that letter?”
“This? Well,” he said, gesturing with it. “It reads like mad ravings, eh? Time travel? HG Wells stuff? Doctor Who stuff? Are we going to get an army of Daleks driving around your school?”
I actually smiled. I could not believe it. He made me smile. I liked Detective Lockley more than I wanted to let on. He made me think that being a policeman might be a good thing to aim for. If being a writer didn’t work out, of course.
“It only makes any sense at all,” he went on, “if we admit the idea of time travel into evidence. And that way madness lies, I am sorry to say. The laws of this state do not accept the idea of time travel. Any prosecution based on the premise of a time-travelling killer is going to fail. Is going, in fact, to get laughed out of court, and would not even get as far as court. My own boss would likely sack me if I even so much as brought up the idea in conversation over a beer.” He tossed the letter onto the table. I picked it up and glanced through it again. I have never had such a boiling stew of feelings about a document in my life.
“So even if you could find this Fiona, you couldn’t prosecute her.”
“Not here, no. Not in our reality.”
I nodded. This was what I expected. “What about her reality?” I skimmed through the letter again. The Time Traveller had sketched in some details about life in his time. He said time travel had been discovered or invented in the 1980s. Now, his time, it was ubiquitous. Everyone had a time machine. So many people had one that even I had one, and it was right here on this table wrapped in many layers of protective plastic.
I will not lie to you. Everyone always expects me to lie, and I admit I have always lied when it suited me, and sometimes when it didn’t, because it was easy and fun and I didn’t see the harm in it. But I am trying with this account, as I sit here at a cheap desk in an airport motel room well after midnight, and I’m cold and lonely, and I haven’t even begun to tell you about today, but I need to tell you now that in this stomach-clenching, teeth-gritting moment, I stared at that plastic-wrapped bundle on the table, and I snatched it up.
I held it in shaking hands, inspecting it all over, looking for the edges of the sticky tape. Future Bastard had done a thorough job of wrapping it up. I had an uncle who did a similar thing with Christmas presents, where you could spend hours just trying to penetrate the layers and layers of tape and paper. At last I found some edges and ends, and started to pick, but I chewed my nails, and I had to use my teeth.
Detective Lockley smiled, got up, made a “give it here” hand gesture. He said, “What we need is a pair of scissors, and I’m guessing someone in this office has some.”
I smiled–again, and reached out to hand him the iPhone, but I stopped, stricken with thought, and pulled my hand back, and very nearly dropped the phone. It felt boiling hot, radioactive, poisonous, in my hand, an enemy of my flesh, something that meant me harm. This was a piece of the future that had broken off and fallen through a crack in time and landed in my hand. It looked no bigger than my Texas Instruments TI-25 calculator with its black on silver liquid crystal display. Yet this thing in my hand could do so much more than simply compute logarithms. It could do so many things.
I did not fit in my present world. Would the future be better? Was I secretly a creature of the future who’d accidentally fallen, as if from the bill of an absent-minded delivery stork, into the gloomy Cold War past? What if I never fit anywhere? What if, even with a time machine that would let me go anywhere in the past and future like Doctor Who, I never found a place I could call home, that would welcome someone like me?
“Take it,” I said, handing the iPhone to Lockley.
He didn’t want to take it. “I can put it in evidence, because it’s part of the case, of course. But this belongs to you. The deceased wanted you to have it. That part of his letter is very plain. He is trying to do you a good turn. He wants to help.”
“Just take the bloody thing.”
He took it, a terrible look on his face. He produced a brown paper evidence bag, and placed the iPhone and it’s cable and plug in it. Bending over to lean against the low table, he wrote out the filing details on the bag. He put the letter in a similar bag. At length he straightened up, wincing, his hand against his lower back.
I asked him if he could give me a ride back to the motel. He said no worries, mate. We drove in silence until, just before we got to the motel, he said, “Regrets will eat you alive, son. Trust me on this.”
“Sorry, what?” We were nearly there. A Qantas 747 was heading out, low and huge, seeming to inch across the sky.
“When people offer their help, you should accept it.”
I said nothing, but I wasn’t pleased.
He pressed on. “Give it some thought. Think about it. Don’t grow up wishing you’d done something you didn’t do when you had the chance. It’ll eat you alive. It’ll haunt you. You’ll never sleep well again. You’ll never be comfortable. Everything you see every day of your life reminds you of it, the choice you made and the choice you didn’t. It’ll kill you in the end. You’ll die of regret.”
I didn’t want to listen because I knew he was telling the truth, and offering correct, sound advice. It was why I got so angry when my mother yelled at me over things I’d done wrong. I got angry because I knew she was right, and hated that she was right and I was wrong. In the same way I hated that Lockley had just offered me this excellent, sound, wise and rueful advice. I wished with everything I had that I could disregard it, and I would probably make a big show of disregarding it and being nasty and moody about it. But that wouldn’t stop it being right and sound.
Future Bastard, Future Me, Later Robbie, who had spent decades living with the consequences of choices I was making now, was trying to push me in different directions. He had received the same offer of help, and rejected it, and presumably he also knew he was making a mistake in rejecting it, but didn’t care. Or maybe he did care. Maybe for him it felt as complicated as it does for me. My feelings about my dad are not easy and simple. I don’t know, right now, tonight, given everything that’s happened, how to feel about him.
Let me explain.
Dad came “home” to the motel room tonight after work. He looked like a lost dog caught in flooding rain. He told Mum, very softly, barely able to speak, that he’d been sacked. Today was his last day. It seemed he had been on thin ice for some time. Dad had a dreadful temper, and had not gotten on well with his supervisor. The supervisor had put up with Dad’s moods because his work was good, but lately, well.
Mum swore she was going to phone the supervisor and “sort that bastard out right now”. Dad begged her not to. Mum subsided. An uneasy truce settled in. We ordered pizza for dinner. I think I had one slice and a bit of another. Nobody said much, because there was nothing to say. Dad wrung a paper napkin in his large veiny hands, and looked at all moments like he was about to cry. He looked at the ceiling a lot.
Nobody mentioned Zonk.
Nobody asked about my day. I said nothing about the Apple iPhone 7. They didn’t ask about my obvious bruises, scrapes and cuts, either. It was all I could do just to sit there with them. Mum talked about her shift at the hospital, the difficult patients, the creepy doctors, the endless paperwork.
I spent the evening pointed at the TV, sitting right in front of it, close enough to see the coloured pixels churning and flickering. I thought about the Time Traveller’s letter, how he talked about “hyper-foams” of reality. What the hell did that mean? Reality in flux like this, with whole worlds captured inside individual pixels? Like that? I wanted to read that part of the letter again, but couldn’t with Mum and Dad around. We just had this one room with its two beds. The only way I could have a sense of privacy was to sit close to the TV like this while they sat by the window at the table where we’d picked at the pizza. I wondered what we were going to do, to survive. Mum’s pay wasn’t enough to pay the mortgage and live on.
Dad spent a lot of the evening in the toilet. At one point he was in there for almost an hour. Nobody said anything. He had always been a tightrope-walker, but the rope had snapped beneath his feet. Now we are all in free-fall.
It’s after 3 am, and pouring with rain outside. Cars hissing by on the freeway. It’s late and I’m cold and I’m scared. Our family is in serious trouble. We’ll probably have to sell the house, if we can find someone who’ll take it with that dead-man smell in one of the bedrooms. We’ve had difficult times like this before. Dad’s temper has gotten us into trouble, and Mum has had to bail us out. But this trouble might be something new, something worse.
I’m thinking about Detective Lockley’s advice. I’m thinking, too, about the Time Traveller’s letter, and his message about my dad. He’s doing the best he can. Normal life is just about more than he can manage. He’s sick. You’re sick the same way. Have I made a mistake in not using the iPhone? Should I have used it to help my family? Was that what it was for, to help us out of this strife? Can I get it back? Could I use it to get us all to the future, and away from all this? So many thoughts. I’m a boy made of thoughts, none of them good.