Teach us to number our days, that we may have the heart of wisdom.
September 27, 2004
When my mother was going through her faithful phase, she would sit me down and tell me the story of Saint Christopher.
A strong man, Christopher carried a boy across a river. During the journey, the river swelled and Christopher felt a great weight on his back. It was the weight of the world, carried on the shoulders of the young boy, who was Jesus Christ. From then on, Christopher was known as the patron saint of travelers and those who wander far from home.
Like her other hobbies, Renee soon lost interest in church. She never tried to drag me there. I was not a believer and she sensed I never would be. But when I was traveling, when I wandered far from home, I wished I did believe in a higher power. In my loneliness, the company would have been nice.
To other people, time travel is the stuff of fiction.
They fantasize about traveling back through time to see past events or even change them. From things as minor as a bad date to as crucial as the atom bomb, time travel has always been a topic of discussion. For a long period it was restricted to comic books and The Twilight Zone, but there's been a revival of discussion in the past few years. Now scientists are trying to prove it through physics and calculations.
I hoped they never did prove it. As every sci-fi geek knows, the last thing someone like me wants is discovery.
This time, I was lucky.
During the night, I was pulled from the Jacksonville of my present to the Forks of my past. It was one of the last days my mother spent in Washington. She was arguing with someone over the phone. I suspected it was my grandmother; the two never really got along. Renee held her head in one hand, cradling the receiver loosely between her fingers. I had watched her from the stairs, knowing my past self was somewhere in the house, sleeping peacefully. Time travel was not yet a concern of mine.
I glanced at the alarm clock. It was just past six o'clock. I had returned to my bed three hours ago and fell into an exhausted sleep. School today would be no picnic, but then again, high school never was.
I threw off the covers and made my way downstairs. The fire alarm shrieked loudly. My mom was no expert in the kitchen; mostly that duty fell to me. Judging from the way the stove was belching smoke, another one of her cooking experiments had gone horribly wrong.
I moved out of the way—too quickly—and grabbed the back of a chair to keep myself upright.
Renee doused the stove with the fire extinguisher and wiped her brow. "Well, that was a mistake."
I examined the mess, following the trail from the table to the sink to what remained of our stove.
"I was trying to make French toast."
"It was supposed to be," she admitted, setting the fire extinguisher on the floor. The tile was black and sooty from the smoke. "Where did you go last night? I went in to check on you."
"1988," I answered, avoiding her eyes. I never went into specifics when my time travel sent me near my parents' divorce. Though she moved on years ago, it was an uncomfortable subject. I didn't like reminding her of past pain.
After we tidied up the kitchen and settled on cereal, I glanced at the stove. "Is Phil coming over tonight? We'll have to order out."
"We're going out after the parent-teacher conferences," she smiled.
I raised my eyebrows. On a normal day, my mother would be stressed beyond belief. Talking with other parents made her nervous. I suspected her boyfriend had something to do with her strange calm. He had proposed to my mother only last week, but suddenly, everything was different.
Phil and Renee were teachers at the same elementary school. He was a bit young for her, but I had never seen a man make her smile so much, and so often. Having a daughter with a unique ability scared away the other boyfriends, but not him.
I hurried back upstairs to change. We moved to Jacksonville last February. My current school had been decent for someone like me; they didn't care enough about my absences. But the state had caught onto the falling standards, and stricter policies were put in place over the summer. There were already several angry messages on our answering machine about my truancy. My spotty attendance record had not endeared me to the new administration.
The sound of "American Pie" drifted up the stairs. I could hear Renee singing along and smiled. My mom was a free spirit. Staying in one place or doing the same thing for too long made her restless. She's always joked that it was her wild nature that created my time traveling condition. But I knew underneath the humor was unequivocal guilt. She blamed herself for causing my disability.
We were living in Baltimore at the time. After a stint on the West Coast, Renee decided we should try our luck on the other side of the country. Since her commute to school required it, she used some of her tax return to purchase a car. She managed to find a compact car for cheap. Had she known it was going to be crushed like a soda can, she would have bought a truck.
I closed my eyes. Thinking of that day made me nervous. Stress triggered a time travel like nothing else. For me, the trips through time were involuntary. There was no stopping once it started. But I could decrease my chances of an episode if I was relaxed.
Two hours later, school was in full swing. I listened and took notes, but my mind was on the cadaver in our kitchen. Stoves were expensive. I wondered if Renee and Phil could put one on their wedding registry.
I was so preoccupied that I hardly noticed the other students clearing their desks. A few of them groaned.
That could only mean one thing.
I took one from the pile and passed it backwards, fighting a growing sense of anxiety. Today was Monday. If my teacher set a test for this morning, she would have told us on Friday. But I wasn't in class on Friday; I wasn't in this century. I was watching my father graduate high school in 1982.
My grade was a forgone conclusion, but I tried anyway. Maybe I could scrape a C.
School had always been like this for me. I was seven when my time traveling began. My trips dragged me away from classes and I fell behind with my work. Our constant moving around didn't help the situation, either. The kicker was that I liked to learn. But there was little I could do about the situation, and that irritated me. I watched my test go into the pile and knew a C was truly a long shot.
My mood had not improved by the time I walked through the front door. Scowling, I decided to take some of my anger out on our punching bag.
Phil installed the bag for me about a month ago. He learned of my condition in a rather awkward way, when I materialized in the living room on their fifth date. He was surprisingly okay with it. As the two got more serious, he started looking out for me. He insisted on giving me some self-defense lessons on top of my regular exercise routine. Mom and I were shamefaced—neither of us had thought of that. I ran almost every day, but cultivating self-defense skills could give me an edge. Time travel sent me off on my own; I had to learn how to protect myself.
Physical exercise was another way for me to stay in the present. The endorphins kept me calm and the routine kept me both healthy and in shape. Though I avoided thinking of them, there were instances in the past when running away was the only thing that kept me alive.
When Renee and Phil walked in, I was up to my ears in schoolwork. It wasn't the most calming thing in the world, but I figured I bought myself a few hours after a busy afternoon of exercise.
"This thing is dead," Phil announced from the kitchen. Apparently there was no saving the poor stove. "I guess we can store your shoes in it, Ren."
"Ha ha," she snorted from the couch. She was massaging her bare feet. Renee's greatest vice was buying shoes. She saw a pair and immediately fell in love. Then she'd wear them out of the store before breaking them in. The story always ended with blisters, Band-Aids, and a new pair for her closet.
We chatted and watched television for most of the evening. The parent-teacher conferences yielded the best stories. I was absorbed in Phil's account of two fathers screaming at each other in the parking lot when Renee rose to bring us some sodas. She pressed play on the answering machine as she passed. The vice principal's voice followed her to the kitchen, requesting a meeting about my attendance record. I scowled again.
"I can smooth it over," Renee said at once. Her blue eyes were fixed on my expression. "Don't worry about it, Bella."
I forced a smile for her benefit. "I know you can. It's just . . . hard to lie all the time. They think I don't care about school."
"You can't help it," Phil frowned. "They have to know that."
I shrugged. There was no way they knew I wanted to be school. The stricter policies put pressure on teachers as well as students. Tempers were running high. No excuse in the world could make them understand why I missed so many classes.
The closest thing we could compare my condition to was epilepsy. I could feel an episode coming and it had a noticeable, physical effect. But the similarities ended there. We couldn't provide medical proof of a condition that did not exist. As such, there was no feasible excuse for me to miss school. My attendance record and low grades marked me from the start.
I never had a chance.
"Thanks, guys. I think I'm going to head up."
They waited until I was out of sight to whisper amongst themselves. I heard the word transfer being thrown around and sighed. Transferring schools was a short term solution. It was always the same. I started a new school, the absences piled up, and my grades slipped. Then the administration called Renee, angry she was letting me miss my compulsory education.
There were times when I wondered if someone was going to step in. I was still a minor; they could take me away from her, even though she was the opposite of unfit.
I took a long shower and got ready for bed. Phil and my mom were still downstairs, no doubt discussing the best way to handle my school problems. They were welcome to it; I was out of ideas.
I jerked awake two hours later. The house was quiet; Renee and Phil had gone to bed. I listened for a moment, wondering what could have woken me, and so violently. Then I sighed.
The familiar sensation of time travel began.
It swooped from the crown of my head to my toes. The room lightened slightly. I turned my hand over and studied it. An incandescent glow was dancing under my skin. Renee told me once that my time traveling was beautiful. Beautiful and terrifying. My body seemed to emit the light from inside out, illuminating even the darkest of rooms. I vanished in a burst of white light, like a flash from camera.
The pull backwards was stronger than I ever experienced. An invisible net seemed to ensnare me completely, dragging my body from the bed and throwing me into the frightening abyss of time.