G'day! I've been on Fanfiction dot net long and long; since I was twelve or so...was it really so long ago? Anyhow, I'm a grad student now and I'm visting your nice little corner of the web for a fresh outlook in a new fandom. I don't bother reading fics rated anything other than M, so if this is similar to something rated K or whatever I do apologize. Not that I think it will be. ;-) I will warn you, though, that with my work you have to wade through actual plot to get to the smut. Sorry about that. It's just what I do.
It was dark, and someone was crying.
It was the same dream always, as she stumbled through the skeleton of a deserted house. Overhead, jagged strips of cloud covered the moon. A cold, fitful wind blew through the broken and crumbling walls. She tripped over a pile of charred wood, stirring up the smell of mold and old woodsmoke. The cries became more distinguishable as a noise very different from the wind. It was a child—a baby? She looked around, and could see the bony arms of winter trees through the remnants of the building. There was no one else here, no sign that anyone had been here for a very long time. But there was a child crying.
This had been a beautiful house once—big and grand and old, almost like a sprawling European estate. It was the kind of house people didn't build anymore. She saw remnants of furniture, rich and beautiful once, but the seats of the chairs were damp with moss and their legs were blackened, the fine wood ruined.
She was terrified, her heart beating much faster than its normal rate. She could feel adrenaline racing through her bloodstream, making her arms shake and her knees quiver with every slow, careful step she took. Why was she here? Why was this happening?
She stepped through a doorway that had not fallen, though the walls around it had long since turned to ashes. The crying was louder in here. She looked all around, but saw no child. Nothing was alive but the moss and grass, tendrils of pale vines that were growing down the crumbling walls. She sneezed. And the mold. Wasn't mold alive? She couldn't remember.
The baby wailed then, the sound almost right behind her. She spun quickly on her heels, grinding charred wood into ash beneath her shoes. There was no child, but she did see something. Her mouth formed a small O as she took two faltering steps toward a pile of rubble. There, buried in a heap, bleached by the weather, she saw the glimmering white length of several bones. The baby cried again.
The moon came out just then from behind a length of cloud, lighting up the dim corner of the ruin. She saw more glimmering bits of bone in the rubble, including what had once clearly been a jaw. She put her hands up to her mouth, inadvertently feeling the sharp curve of her own jaw beneath her skin. The half-buried bone was much smaller than hers. Tiny, even. Consumed by a horrible fascination, she knelt in the ashes and studied the little jawbone. It didn't have all of its teeth, and the ones it did have were little pearly things. They weren't the right shape, but smooth and rounded. The baby was still crying, and it was very close. She reached out a trembling hand, her lacquered fingernails dark against the fitful moonlight. She couldn't help herself. The tips of her fingers brushed the side of the tiny jawbone.
The wailing stopped.
Suddenly the moon came out fully from behind the clouds, and it was directly overhead. She turned around and her eyes opened wide. The entire room was littered with gleaming white specks of bone buried in the wreckage. Here and there long bones—arm bones? Leg bones?—lay exposed on the floor. Her stomach turned over. She was going to puke. Or scream. She felt the scream fluttering in her chest, a vocal extension of her hammering heartbeat. She scrambled to her feet, preparing to run—but where? Where would she be safe?
With Phil, she thought involuntarily, and suddenly in rich color the vision of a laughing, dark-haired boy flashed into her head. For an instant her world calmed. Then her mind remembered what the dream had chosen until now that she forget: Phil was gone. The vision vanished, leaving her colder than before. She turned to run, to vomit, to do something…
…and woke up thrashing in her own bed. It was light out. Her forehead was bathed in cold sweat, and she could still feel the adrenaline in her veins, her body responding to a fear she could not name.
"What do you want from me?" she murmured, though she was alone in the room. She hugged herself, cupping her sharp elbows in the palms of her hands. Dimly, she heard the sound of her mother's talk radio, the incessant babbling that had been the white noise of her life for as long as she could remember. The sound, so familiar, calmed her enough that she slid out of bed and reached for her robe, draped across the end of her bed.
Automatically she wondered if Phil could tell her anything useful about her dream. Maybe in the future some scientist or other had cracked the code on dream deciphering? Maybe he had a dream-decoding database locked away in his Wizrd somewhere? Stranger things had happened.
Then it hit her again, stopping her in her tracks as it had every morning. Phil was gone. He had returned to the future with his family over a week ago, leaving her very much alone. Oh, she had other friends. She had her mother. Tia on the phone and Via in school. But school was nearly out for the summer, and then she didn't know what she was going to do. Via would help to fill the long days, but they couldn't possibly spend the entire summer together. She took a deep breath, but it was shaky. She tried filling her lungs as far as they would go, but all it did was make her want to cry. Like the child in her dream. She couldn't hold her breath forever.
"Phil," she said, hoping that with practice she would be able to say his name without her voice shaking, hoping that someday she would be able to act normal when people asked her what in the world had become of the Diffys. She had to get used to it—she didn't have any choice.
Did I ever have a choice? she wondered as she crossed the hall to the bathroom. She had dark circles under her eyes—clearly the recurring dreams were disrupting her sleep. She hooked her robe on the back of the closed door and turned on the shower, letting the water warm before she undressed and stepped into it. Was there ever any choice for either of us? she wondered still, pouring rose-scented body wash on a natural sea sponge and smoothing the lather over her arms and shoulders. Was I meant, somehow, to love this person who would so soon leave me? How can things like this be meant to be? How can anything?
And where did her dream fit into all of it? She lathered her back, stretching under the warm flood of water, then drew the sponge in slow circles over her torso. The smell of roses, delicate and yet strong, flooded the bathroom. She examined her toenails carefully—they could stand repainting soon. Tonight, she thought. Maybe she would invite Via over for a home pedicure session. It would help keep her mind off the Diffys—and her dream. She massaged shampoo into her scalp, wondering for the umpteenth time exactly why she was having the same terrifying dream over and over again. It had started before Phil left, but she hadn't thought much of it. Now she wondered if the two were connected somehow.
Probably not, she thought, combing conditioner through her hair and then rinsing it. I just think everything has to do with Phil right now. Will I always? Will he always be there in the front of my mind like this?
She stepped out of the shower and wrapped a rose-colored towel around her dripping hair. She resented having these thoughts, thoughts that were new and deep. She wanted to think about what color to paint her toenails and if five minutes with her history book last night was enough to squeak by in class today. She wanted to think about the last dance of the year, and whether she would be able to convince her mother that she needed two new swimming suits this summer instead of the usual one-only rule. She didn't want to have to think about frightening dreams and what, if anything, they might mean. She especially didn't want to think about the fact that her junior year of high school was about to end without Phil. Or that the happiness-phase of her first love had lasted such a brief time.
She chose pale jeans and red ballet flats, with a buttery-yellow peasant blouse layered over a long-sleeved red T-shirt that clung to her skin. The bright colors, she hoped, would hide how she was feeling inside. She opened her wooden window blinds to see that a dull grey sky had settled over Pickford. It matched her mood.
Why now, Phil? she thought. With a time machine, didn't your family literally have all the time in the world? Why did you have to go now?
"You didn't back up far enough."
"I know what I'm doing," Lloyd said. "Relax! I realize you think you single-handedly fixed the time machine, Pim, but I'll have you know I wasn't playing around when I said I was working on it." He slapped the dashboard affectionately. "I made some special modifications, too."
"You didn't." Barbara Diffy made a despairing noise and dropped her head into her hands.
"Thanks for the vote of confidence."
Phil didn't say anything. He hadn't said a word since his uh-oh at least an hour before. He had dreamed while napping in the time machine, and while he couldn't remember just what had happened he knew that it had to do with Keely. She was scared, and hurting, and he couldn't stand it. The problem was, he didn't know what he could possibly do about it. He grabbed his Wizrd and accessed the Dr. Dream dream-decoding database. According to Dr. Dream, dreaming about a friend in trouble either meant that a friend was in trouble or he had eaten too much oregano before bedtime.
"I didn't eat dinner last night," Phil mumbled before returning the gadget to his pocket.
"You say something, sweetheart?" Barbara asked, turning in her seat to look affectionately at her only son.
"No…no, I didn't," Phil said.
"I'm just saying, is all," Pim said. "We left June fifth, at eight-thirty in the morning. You didn't back up far enough before you disengaged."
"How can you possibly know that from back there? And what's being a day or two late going to hurt?"
"You're talking about leaving Curtis on his own for a day or two?" Pim said. "You have got to be kidding me."
"He goes off on his own all the time," her father protested.
"And we pay for it every time he does," his wife reminded him.
Phil's mind was racing. He barely heard his parents or sister talking. He couldn't do it. He couldn't go through with this. Keely was in trouble and he needed to know what was wrong so he could help her. But how to convince his parents? He thought about the sacrifice they had all nearly made for him by smashing the engine as it sat blinking in the kitchen. He wondered if they would be willing to do it again, after they had gotten this far.
"Mom," Phil said quietly. "Mom, I need to talk to you."
"I told you to go before we left, sweetie," she said, "but you can go when we stop to pick up Curtis. Honestly, you're supposed to start listening as you get older…"
"No, Mom," he said, trying to stop his voice from cracking. "Look. I know you're going to be upset, but I can't do this. I just can't."
Barbara turned around again. Pim was still arguing with her father, so they were safe for the moment. She looked at her son, who was rapidly growing up. For a moment her heart hurt. She saw that the sparkle had gone out of his dark eyes, and he was very serious about this. "I don't want to hurt you, or disappoint anyone. I'm really sorry. I thought I could handle it, but I can't." He took a deep breath. "I don't want to leave."
She saw that something had happened, something had changed since her children had fallen asleep behind her in the time machine. She eyed Phil, wondering what the chances were that he would be willing to tell her exactly what it was. She saw resolve in his eyes, but also questions. They were the questions she had always wanted to see in Lloyd's eyes, but never had. Her husband had always been so sure of himself, so sure of everything. Phil was different. She wondered, not for the first time, if what she had secretly wanted from Lloyd when they were younger had somehow managed to manifest itself in her eldest child. Phil was a deep thinker. He was serious and intense at times, constantly re-assessing himself and his surroundings. He threw himself entirely into everything he did, with passion and tenacity. At moments, Barbara almost felt herself in awe of these two people her DNA had helped create. Pim was a genius—an evil genius, but a genius nonetheless—with a biting sense of humor. What would become of her? Barbara didn't know. If they returned to their home in 2121, at some point Pim would probably be locked away for the public good. Certainly she would never be permitted to procreate. If they stayed, Pim would likely either instigate hostile takeover of Microsoft or stage a coup and overthrow the United States government. She wondered which would be worse.
And Phil? Barbara smiled in spite of herself, making her son raise a dark eyebrow at her. He would become a father. She didn't know what sort of career he might try, either in this century or the next, or if he would be any good at it. But she knew without a doubt that he was going to have children to raise someday. She could see it in his gentleness and playfulness, just as she had seen it in Lloyd when they were young. That was what had drawn her to him and kept her there, despite their differences.
"Mom?" Barbara snapped back to the present moment, Phil staring at her. "You were having a flashback," he said, "weren't you?"
She chose not to answer the question. He wasn't grown up yet, and it was her right as a parent not to tell everything. Instead, she asked a question of her own. "This is about Keely," she said with a sympathetic smile, "isn't it?"
Phil rubbed his messy hair with the palm of his hand. "Yeah…but…" He was finding it difficult to put this into words. Barbara hid a smile—he didn't quite understand himself what he was trying to articulate, which made her sure that it was important. It was amusing, however, watching him try to figure it all out. "I said that I told Keely how I felt and that it didn't make things any worse."
"You did," Barbara agreed.
"It's not true." He took a deep breath. "I didn't really tell Keely anything. She was on TV and there wasn't time, and…" His voice trailed off, but she didn't interrupt. "She's the only one we trusted with our secret."
"Very true," Barbara said encouragingly.
"And you've always seemed to like her."
He swallowed. She saw his Adam's apple jump, and he rubbed his palms against his jeans nervously. "I don't know how to say it," he said. "I really like her. Really. It's like I was waiting for this, somehow. Like we were supposed to get stuck in her time so I could meet her. I've never felt that about anyone else—none of my friends or the girls back home."
"Keely's a very special girl," Barbara said, trying to be helpful.
"Yes!" Phil said. "She is…and I…"
Phil eyed her, as if gauging how she would react to what he had to say. Barbara did her best to look caring and trustworthy. "I had a dream," he finally admitted. "I don't remember it all, but Keely was in trouble."
"Honey, sometimes dreams are just manifestations of our own current thoughts and emotions," she said. "They don't always necessarily mean anything no matter what the Dr. Dream database says."
"I don't want to go back to the future," he said stubbornly. "You were willing before to stay. Why not now?"
There was silence in the time machine. Pim was watching them suspiciously, and Lloyd was staring at his only son in the rearview mirror. Their eyes caught and held through the mirror.
"Dad doesn't want to leave," Phil protested. "Do any of us, really?"
"Yes!" Pim demanded.
"Son, it's more about what's right, and not about what we want," Lloyd said gently as he guided the time machine through the space/time continuum. "We rented this bucket of bolts for a family vacation, and it needs to go back to the rental company. Besides—we don't really belong in the past. That's why it's the past to us."
"How do you know?" Phil countered. "How do you know we were meant to have any future in the future? How do you know our futures aren't in the past?"
"Mainly because you're making my head hurt," Lloyd said. "Thinking about time travel always gives me a headache." He scratched his head. "I suppose we could always use the Giggle…"
"Basing life-altering decisions on the Giggle is a bad idea," Barbara said, putting a hand on Lloyd's leg to keep him from going to look for it. "You know its future predictions are notoriously bad!"
"Keely and I did it once and it seemed all right," Phil protested.
"That's because you Giggled her future, I bet, and not yours," Barbara said. "To the Giggle, her future is the past."
"Well, can't we Giggle Blondie's future and see if Phil's in it?" Pim said.
"Not with any likelihood of success," Barbara said. "Phil's from the future, and even if his future did lie in the past, the decisions we make in the future will leave it open to change."
"Now you're giving me a headache," Pim muttered.
"It's really very simple if you listen to your mother," Barbara said. "All you have to do is not base life-altering decisions on the Giggle."
Phil took a breath to try a different angle, but with a sudden violent lurch the time machine was sitting on the street in front of a familiar Craftsman home in a familiar neighborhood. "We're here," Lloyd said quietly.
Phil looked at his parents. "The time machine has to go back, but does it matter when? It's not like time is ticking by in the future without us."
"Technically it is…" Pim started, but stopped at the look her mother shot her.
"Not so that anybody'd notice," Phil said, "Especially since we're supposed to bring the machine back exactly one minute after we left, to avoid any time-overlap issues."
"That's true," Lloyd said. He looked at Barbara, who smiled. He wasn't sure what that meant.
"And I realize that keeping our gadgets hidden is a hassle, but is it really so awful here?" Phil looked out the window at the broad street with its smooth sidewalks, all the houses and the green lawns. Pim had been right—they hadn't gone back quite far enough. They had left early in the morning and it was now mid-afternoon. A school bus rumbled past them filled with children from the elementary school. A few birds called. It was quiet in the time machine.
"Phil doesn't want to leave, honey," Lloyd said finally.
"I got the message, thanks," Barbara said, smiling still.
Everybody turned to stare at Pim. She sighed. "I want to go home," she said, "but I guess I can stick it out a while longer. At least until Blondie gets tired of Phil and drops him like a sack of—"
"I'm just saying." She undid her safety harness and opened the door. "I'm not looking for Curtis or unpacking."
Phil sat in his seat, stunned. He stared at his parents. Had they really agreed? Were they really staying? "Does this mean what I think it means?"
"I think it does, son." Lloyd brightened suddenly. "Anyone up for a rousing round of Froggy Went A-Courtin'? I put my washboard right in back…"
"I have to find Keely!" Phil said. His hands, frenzied with the sudden release of tension, were clumsy and he wrestled with his harness. His mother put out a restraining hand and he froze.
"Phil, this isn't permanent," she said. "The time machine still has to go back at some point. Please try to remember that."
"How long?" Phil asked, his stomach plummeting again. How much time had he really bought for himself and Keely? Days? Weeks? The summer?
His father had climbed out of the time machine, but he poked his head back in and looked at Phil's mother. There was a long silence. "I built an auto-return button," he said quietly, pointing to a small blue button on the control board. "Key in the right code and press the button, and the time machine should return itself."
"We don't have to decide right now," Barbara said, also quietly. "A lot of things could happen. And Phil—if we're ever found out, we have to leave." She unbuckled her harness and reached forward to cup his cheek in her hand. His face was hot, and not as smooth as she remembered. He was beginning to turn into a man and it frightened her. "Immediately. No big scenes. No returning. You know the rules."
"I know, Mom."
She sighed, but smiled. This felt like the right decision, though deep down she knew that even though they might talk about someday going back home, Phil never would do it. She wondered if that meant eventual separation of her family—permanent separation. "Your dad and I will unpack. You go find Curtis. When he's back and you've apologized for whatever damage he caused, you can go find Keely."
After checking the movie theatre, bus station, neighborhood park, Pickford County Courthouse, the little city jail, mall, hardware store, and hair salon with no luck, Phil finally decided to head home and see if his parents had unpacked the holographic tracking sensor yet. He was hot and sweaty from riding his bike, and for the first time he wished he had a car. He was old enough to drive, but hadn't seen much point in learning since the skyaks were so much faster and more fun. They too were packed, however, and Phil had been forced to use outdated technology on his hunt for Curtis.
He dropped his bicycle in the driveway, noticing that the time machine had now been moved back to its old place next to the house instead of on the street in front of it. His parents must have finished unpacking. His heart was racing and all he could think about was finding Keely, but he wasn't quite willing to run to her house until he had at least located Curtis. He was very aware that his parents had done something monumental in allowing him to stay, and he wasn't about to make them regret it anytime soon.
"Mom?" he called, walking through the open front door. He closed it behind him. "Dad? Unpacked the tracker yet? I can't find Curtis."
He heard laughter from upstairs—female laughter verging on the demonic. Pim. "Come on up, loverboy," she said.
"Pim, I'm not really in the mood to be your bitch right now, so if you could…" He stopped on the third step. He recognized that smell. "Curtis!"
Phil ran up the staircase and into his room. Curtis was there, and it was apparent that he had been there for quite some time. The room was rank, the bedspread was wadded up in a corner covered with chicken bones, and the mattress had been torn apart. Stuffing and bits of sheet were everywhere. Curtis had bedsprings hanging from his ears.
"Curtis!" Phil said. "How'd you do all this in one afternoon?" The room stank, and Phil bet it wasn't just Curtis.
"Hate to break it to you, big brother," Pim said, "but it wasn't just one afternoon." She was at Phil's desk, and his laptop was on. She showed him the date on his desktop. "Dad screwed up more than we thought."
Pim was right. They had left the morning of June fifth. It was now nearly evening on June sixteenth. By their reckoning they had been gone five or six hours. By Keely's and Curtis', they'd been gone nearly twelve days.
"Isn't it strange," Pim remarked, swiveling idly in Phil's desk chair, "to think that for over a week we didn't exist?"
"That's not exactly how it works," Phil said. He cautiously walked into the corner and picked up his bedspread with just his thumb and forefinger. Chicken bones clicked together dully as they hit the wooden floorboards. Bits of gristle and globules of fat were stuck to the fabric, and it was covered in greasy stains.
"Where go?" Curtis demanded, scowling at Phil.
"Vacation," Phil said, unwilling to tell the truth.
"No take Curtis?"
"You wouldn't have liked it anyway," Phil said, dropping his bedspread to the floor again. It was a lost cause. He would have to start from scratch with this room. "You would have had to take a bath every day."
Curtis howled. "No bath!" he said, lumbering to the other side of the deconstructed bed. He eyed Phil mistrustfully.
"And there were no walla berries," Phil added.
Curtis' face wrinkled in an intense expression of disgust. "Not sound like vacation to Curtis."
"That's what I thought." Phil pulled his Wizrd out of his back pocket and turned it on. It automatically reset itself to the same date Pim had shown him on the computer. He scanned the room and all the grime and bones and bits of bed disappeared. He then selected his old bed in the Wizrd and inserted it into the room. Everything seemed back to normal, but the smell lingered. Phil sniffed, frowning. Then he remembered. "Curtis," he said, "out."
Curtis grumbled, but he went. The room smelled better.
Phil decided for the moment not to kick Pim out—if she was going to pull a prank she would do it whether he kicked her out of his room or not, and he was too anxious to see Keely to battle Pim for the moment. He followed Curtis down the stairs.
His parents were in the living room, straightening the couch cushions and dusting with their Wizrds.
"I'm going to find Keely," Phil said. He sounded out of breath and anxious even to his own ears. His mother smiled.
"Go ahead," she said. "Just be home before it gets too late—you have school tomorrow." She paused, and frowned slightly. "Curtis? Did you go anywhere while we were gone?"
Curtis grinned and showed them all one of Lloyd's credit cards. "Get food!" he said proudly.
"I'll go see what we owe the supermarket," Lloyd said resignedly. He snatched the card from Curtis as he left the room. Phil was already out the front door and sprinting down the sidewalk.