Back, Back, Back
Ryan Everett Felton
The Professor was a lunatic, and I knew I wouldn’t feel bad about killing him even a little.
My mind made up, I turned the keys in the ignition of his souped-up piece of shit Gremlin. I ran a finger over the control panel and kicked on the mods he’d added to the car all those years ago: glowing isotopes and rumbling gizmos with names so long I still can’t remember ‘em. But I remember how to work ‘em. I’ve been on enough physics-bending misadventures with the Prof to work those controls with my eyes closed. The son-of-a-bitch shunted me forward and backward through time in the thing so often I’m pretty sure it broke both our brains.
Galileo, the old man’s shaggy mutt, waited in the cockpit and flashed me a set of sad puppy eyes. He whimpered. “Sorry, boy,” I said. “He’s not coming. Not this time.”
I put on my sunglasses. Then I revved the Gremlin, put it in drive, and pressed the pedal to the floor until I found myself (for the hundredth time) barreling through a blinding, nauseating wormhole.
I thought about the Professor. Fun-loving, kooky Professor Braun. His ramshackle time machine. And me, his doofy kid sidekick. As the whole of creation opened up to me from Beginning to End, I remembered his words, the ones I must’ve heard him say daily for seven years.
“Egad! The Time-stuff, Reggie, she’s no plaything!” Of course, he meant that the balance is delicate. What we do – what we did for all those years – took painstaking precaution and agonizing carefulness, so of course we dove right in with our eyes shut, shouting Geronimo! He’d told me about paradoxes: if I killed my father in the past, I’d never have been born, so I’d never have killed him, so I’d have been born after all, and then I could kill him…
That shit hurt my head.
I breathed through my mouth to block out the sulfur-like smell that came with these little jaunts. Prof told me that was the stink of the Time-stuff, but maybe not. Maybe all this time we’d been tearing open doorways to hell.
Just as my eyes began to water, the Gremlin buckled and powered down. Galileo let out another pitiful whine and licked my hand. I tapped the digital display on the panel.
“1987, boy,” I said. “Here we are.”
The cookie-cutter house at the end of the cul-de-sac was just as I remembered it: plain and white, crackling porch steps, wood-paneled Oldsmobile in the driveway. Somewhere inside my mom was probably reading Flowers in the Attic and I was in my room either listening to some hair band record or playing with myself. That Reggie would’ve been sixteen. It seemed so young.
“Wait here, ‘Leo,” I told the mutt and got out of the car. Weaving around lawn gnomes and plastic flamingoes I rounded the house and tapped on the window I used to climb out of every Saturday night – not to meet a girl or sneak off to a kegger: to rendezvous with Professor Braun in his dingy garage and ride off into the past or the future and return before Mom could even notice.
Tapping became knocking became pounding before I saw a silhouette nearing the window through the blinds. They opened and I came face-to-face with myself, seven years younger. I did my best to look serious. Wise. Trustworthy. He narrowed his eyes, rubbed his cheeks with both hands, working out in his child’s mind just what it was he was seeing. When it clicked he doubled back and fell into a pile of clothes on the floor. My clothes. Our clothes.
I gestured for him to open the window. Peering through a dirty pair of Levi’s, he slowly rose and came back to me. And he opened it, the fear on his oily face giving way to curiosity. I knew he would.
It’s what I would’ve done.
“Holy moly,” he said. “Are you who I think you are?”
I nodded. “Can I come inside?”
He waved me in. The room was musty, almost smoggy. I left the window open.
“Am I dreaming?” he said, clearing off the Hostess wrappers and McDonald’s bags from the desk chair so I could sit. I didn’t.
“You’re not dreaming,” I said. “And this ain’t a social call. Yes,” I poked his chest, “I’m you, seven years on. And by coming here I’m risking a lot – you can’t even comprehend the risk, really – but things are bad, man, and I’ve run out of options. Listen.”
He fell to the bed, bouncing on impact. His mouth hung open, hands folded in his lap, he offered me his undivided attention. If I really was that impressionable, that suggestible, no wonder the Prof got to me like he did. My God.
“Today,” I said, and here I did sit because I felt too imposing, looming over him like a parent, “today is our sixteenth birthday. And here soon a man will knock on your door. He will call himself the Professor and he will tell you he’s invented a time machine.”
Younger Reggie sat upright. “Looks like he has!” he said.
“Sure,” I said. “And when I turned sixteen? And the Professor came to me? I did just what you’d do: I hopped into the thing and went with him.”
“Where’d we go?” he said, baring his braces.
“That night? 1960,” I said. “But that’s not important. You’re not going to go this time.”
From my puffy vest (which, I noted, he was also wearing) I pulled out a folded Xerox and dropped it on his leg. As he opened it up, I said, “This time we’re not going to listen to that psychopath.”
I watched him absorb the contents of the page. I knew he was rubbing the roof of his mouth with his tongue, like I do when I’m in thought. I waited for him to speak. At some point he folded the sheet back up and said, “What is this?”
“That’s a picture I took yesterday – or seven years from now, depending how you want to look at it. In the Prof’s tool shed, that’s what he’s been doing. All this time.”
“It’s all pictures and stuff of Mom,” Reggie-at-sixteen said.
“Not just,” I said. “Dates, times, locations. Where she’ll be and when. Every day of her life, practically, up to our birthday. Here I thought we were just hanging out, having a good time, maybe screwing with the space-time continuum a little but nothing too bad. Turns out he was just having me help him stalk my mother. Our mother.”
He held the page out for me. It dropped from his loose grip back into my hand. “Why?” he said. “You’re saying this professor guy is in love with Mom? Okay. But why go to all this… all this trouble?”
I nodded, slipping the evidence into my pocket. “It’s obvious, isn’t it?” I said. “He wants to replace Dad. Meet Mom when she’s young, court her, woo her… All before she even meets our father, so what’s she missing out on? You see?”
At some point, the crickets had started chirping. Their nightly song seeped in through the open window. Young Reggie flicked a desk light on, never rising from the bed. “Before she meets Dad?” he said. “Wait a minute, wait a minute. But that’d mean…”
My face tightened. “Say it,” I said.
“That would mean I would never be born.”
I stood up. “Or Janie: or our sister.”
He pulled down on his cheeks. “Damn,” said. “Damn!”
“You see the problem, then.”
While I stood, Young Reggie tucked his legs beneath his bedclothes, as if seeking shelter, and went into a – I hate to say it – a fetal position, staring out the window. “What do we do?” he said.
Breathing in, I said, “When he knocks.” Breathing out: “You answer. And before the bastard opens his mouth, I kill him.” I showed him the butt of the gun tucked into the waist of my jeans.
He pressed his face into the pillow. It looked like he was shivering. “There’s no other way?” he asked.
“I thought about it,” I said. My palm rested on the .9mm and found it to be surprisingly cozy. “I thought about it long and hard. We’re talking about a man with the power to rewrite history. A man who can visit the past and future on a whim and doesn’t seem to care who he wipes out in the process.”
“Are we talking about this professor,” the teenaged me asked, “or you?”
My finger rubbed the side of the trigger. “Reggie,” I said, feeling as ridiculous as if I were speaking to the mirror. He rolled over, looked up at me. “There is no other way. We aren’t talking about you being killed. We’re talking about you having never existed. I’d say that’s infinitely more heinous than a murder. Wouldn’t you?”
He said nothing.
“Of course you would,” I said.
Before he could say anything else, a frantic rapping at the door made us both jump. My younger self shot up in bed.
“It’s him,” I said. “He’s here.” I thought back to the first time I’d been here. “And now Mom’s gonna say…” I mouthed along to my mother’s shout from down the hall: “Reggie, hon, could you get that? I’m up to my elbows in dish soap!”
Reggie ’87 stared up at me, horrified. His bottom lip trembled as he wadded up the sheets in both hands.
“Answer it,” I said.
It was odd how submissive he was, given that if my father had ordered me around like this at that age I would have told him to stuff it, but sure enough the kid climbed out of bed and set out toward the front door. He didn’t even look back at me. For my part I crawled back out the window and sidled along the edge of the house until I could peer undetected through a bush at the front porch.
And there was Professor Braun, the infamous crackpot inventor. My mentor, my best friend, and my would-be killer.
No. Not killer. Eraser?
I heard him get his song and dance underway, not that I needed to hear it to remember. That night was a turning point for me. The Prof’s sudden entry into my life was the best thing that ever happened to me, or so I’d thought for the past seven years. The adventures we’ve had. The experiences and the fun and – yes, the life and death jams we’ve pulled each other out of over the course of dozens of journeys through time. You don’t come out of the other end of that shit without developing a bond. A real bond.
So it was unfortunate that I’d have to shoot him in the back of the head.
I drew the gun and aimed. The only other time I’d even held one was last summer, when Prof and I spent a week in the Old West.
“Yes, that’s right, young man!” I heard him saying. “A time machine! Why, my shop’s just a ways down the road!”
It looked like sixteen-year-old Reggie might actually still take the bait, if I let him. I could see a glint of fascination in his eye. The old man certainly always had a way with words.
I listened on. “What do you say, Reggie-my-boy? Have you got a taste for adventure?” And I knew about then his eyes would be bugging right out of his head. I – that is, the younger me – stepped out onto the porch, shut the door behind him. As though he’d forgotten the plan, like nothing else was important, nothing mattered so much as following the Professor. It occurred to me that it made a sort of sense, letting them go to the grimy garage the Prof referred to as his “shop.” Shooting him out here, on the street, was a dunder-headed plan. No one would find him for days in that garage.
They stepped onto the sidewalk. Young Reggie craned his neck, expecting gunfire, no doubt. When none came, he followed the Pied Piper down the lane, toward his house.
Undetected, I trailed them. I watched the Professor flap his arms and open his mouth wide to emphasize key words like “continuum” and “paradox.” Within ten minutes he was turning the key in the padlock outside, and both he and teenage me entered his detached garage. That’s what I’d been waiting for; I darted and slid after them, just making it inside before the garage door fell shut. They whirled around, the Professor looking decades younger instead of just a few years. Both sets of eyes fell on me: crouching on the ground, gun thrust upward.
“Who the blazes are you?” asked Prof.
“I’m your damn protégé,” I said. And fired. Blam. Blam.
The first one hit his shoulder; the second, his chest. He fell into the already-forming pool of his own blood, his white lab coat soaking it up willingly.
“Egad,” he said. From outside I heard Galileo barking, clawing at the door to get in. I remembered present-day ‘Leo was still waiting for me in the Gremlin and wondered if he’d smell his master’s blood on my hands when I got back.
“Jee-zus,” said Young Reggie. “I can’t look.”
I couldn’t, either. But staring at the door couldn’t block out the sound of the dying Prof’s wheezing and sputtering.
“He seemed nice,” my teenage self said. “He seemed like a solid dude.”
“Shut up.” I wrapped the gun in a hanky that was on the table and stuffed it into my vest.
Then something outside flung the door up and open. Galileo, younger with no gray fur to speak of, flew inside, yapping and circling his wounded master. Through the growing gap in the door, a pair of white-clad legs appeared first, then a long white coat and black gloves, followed by recognizable purple goggles and the just-electrocuted-looking wild, silver hairdo.
Professor Braun entered the garage and considered the dying Professor Braun on the floor. This was my Professor Braun. Older, wiser, crazier. He dipped the toe of his work boot into the puddle of his own blood, lifted it, let it drip. He wheeled around.
“Egad, Reggie,” he said. “My boy, my boy, what have you done?”
My voice cracked. “I had to,” I said. “I… I had to.”
“The Time-stuff,” my Professor said. “How many times must I say it? She’s no plaything, Reggie.” He seemed more disappointed than frightened or angry.
The Professor Braun of 1987, from his face-first spot on the ground, looked up at his future self with great effort. “Egad,” he said through a spritz of fresh blood. “You’re him. You’re me.”
My Prof nodded.
“Then,” said the past Professor, “it worked?”
Again, present Professor nodded.
“Oh, thank you, God,” said the dying Braun. “So I’m not out of my mind after all.”
My own younger self crouched down next to the man bleeding out on the floor. “I’m so sorry, mister,” he said. “He made me. I would never…” He stopped, I guess, because whatever he thought he’d never do, he’d just watched himself do.
“You’ve done nothing wrong, boy,” said both Brauns in unison. The effect sent a chill down my back. The dying Braun added: “Not a thing wrong.”
Then an awful rattle clicked out of his throat, and his chest stopped moving.
He was dead.
And yet the other Professor was still standing there, twiddling his fingers like always, frowning down at me, the Adam’s apple in his buzzard neck bobbing.
“You’re dead seven years ago,” I said through my teeth. I fixed my eyes on the dead Prof. “If you’re dead in the past, why are you still here?”
“Am I?” His voice sounded distant. I looked toward him and was startled to see that he was flickering, sort of. Like a light bulb about to go out, or an old film reel. When he spoke, it was static-like. “Am I here, Reggie? Am I now, or then, or anywhen? I truly can’t say.”
That was all I got out. A few feet away, teenage Reggie was undergoing the same strobe light effect. Like watching satellite TV in a rainstorm, his movements were choppy. Broken. Milliseconds at a time, he wasn’t even there.
“Look at you, boy,” the Professor said. He grabbed my wrist – he even felt like static – and pulled my hand up to my line of sight. It, too, was glimmering. Here and gone between instants.
“What the hell?” I said, hearing my own voice like it was coming in over a crap radio signal. “What’s happened? Nothing happened to him!” I said, pointing at my younger self. “I shot you. You died. Not me. What the hell?”
“I recall,” said the Professor, arching his back, “some time ago, telling you of the dangers inherent in creating a paradox. If you kill your father in the past, you were never born, and so on and so forth.”
“But…” I breathed in. Through his goggles I saw those enormous eyes of his, barely contained in his skull. “Oh, God,” I said. “You?”
He smiled. It was not a smile of happiness.
He answered, his words careful and slow. It was not information he wanted to divulge. “Before all this,” he said. Bits of him were disappearing and reappearing at random. “Before the Gremlin. Before the time travel. Your mother and I… Well, we were in love. But…” He lifted the shaded goggles to look at me. “I invented my first time machine in 1970. A rather crude early model, to be sure, but it did the job. Once. For my maiden voyage I travelled ten years into the future. We’d been talking about having children, see, and I was so curious as to what would come of that. And there you were.”
He sighed, remembering. “But the machine broke down. I couldn’t get back. And to your mother, well, I’d been gone for ten years. She was married to somebody else.”
Galileo whimpered and pawed at the dead body of Professor Braun.
“She wouldn’t speak to me,” the elder Prof said. “Wouldn’t let me speak to you. And ‘I traveled ten years into the future’ is not a believable excuse for not being there to watch your son grow up.”
I’d have called him a liar, or delusional, but the three of us popping in and out of existence in the garage there kind of verified his claim. And it made a kind of sense. I was no science prodigy, after all, but the smartest man on the planet had sought me out of the blue to be his kid lab assistant.
I held up a finger, watched it spark in and out, and pointed to the Braun I’d shot. “But he hasn’t… I mean, at this point, you and Mom haven’t…?”
Prof shook his head. “Still working on it.”
I’d forgotten there was another me in the room until he said, from his spot sitting on the floor: “So all those pictures and stuff of Mom…?”
“Trying to fix things,” said the Professor. “Your mother’s memory in this timeline, your very presence here, would suggest that at some point I succeed, but…” He threw up his hands, frustrated. “You’ve somewhat thrown a wrench in things here.”
My eyes clamped shut, I rubbed my temples. “And now what?” I asked.
“Well,” he said, “I suppose we’ll carry on like this,” he held his arms out to demonstrate his own tenuous grip on being, “for a while. The universe will try to course-correct, of course. If I’m dead, you can’t be, but if you can’t be, I’m not dead.”
“So we just go on like this?” I clapped. One hand phased through the other; they made no sound. “Half-here, half-not, forever?”
“Oh, my heavens no, boy!” said Prof. He kneeled, patted his knee (or tried to). Galileo came trotting over and put up a paw. The Professor kneaded it with his thumb and forefinger and said, “You’ve irreparably damaged the Time-stuff. The shape of things, the engine that drives it all. By my calculations the universe and existence and we know it have about seventy hours left before total and imminent collapse.”
Younger me let out a sob. He buried his face in the dead Prof’s shoulder.
“That is, of course,” said the Prof, “if we do nothing about it.”
I looked at him. He was already putting his goggles back on. Buttoning his lab coat. He said, “What time did you leave this evening?”
I checked my watch. It had died. I thought back. “About ten thirty, I guess.”
“Excellent!” the Professor wiped his boots on the rug just by the entry. “How’d you like a little heart-to-heart with Reggie-from-ten o’clock?”
The crickets were still chirping outside. All was still, but if I remembered this night correctly, it would be storming soon.
I understood. “Yeah,” I said. “Okay, yeah.”
“What are you doing tonight, kid?” The Prof pointed at Young Reggie. “Keen on a bit of adventure?”
He stared at us. “Go to hell,” he said.
So we left him there alone, me and my father, striding in unison toward the Gremlin I’d parked at the end of the cul-de-sac. From inside, present-day Galileo yipped and pawed at the passenger’s window as we approached.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” I asked. I said it again, in case his ears hadn’t been there the first time. “Why didn’t you just tell me from the start?”
Professor Braun shrugged. “I suppose I could have done. That would have been perfectly logical, of course, of course.” He stopped in the road and smiled, his crazy hair sticking out in all directions, blotting the moonlight. “But then what kind of a mad scientist would that make me?”
Thunder rumbled. We got in the car. The rain began to fall as we assumed our positions – he in the cockpit, me in the passenger seat with the mutt on my lap. Prof went tapping away at beeping controls and switches, and I watched the lightning out the window.
Yes. Yes, it’d be a hell of a storm.