The Worst Timeline

I sit on a bench, watching my kid running around a playground. He’s currently trying to go up the slide while other kids go down. I’m about to tell him to take his turn, when I hear that voice for the first time.

“Hey, don’t freak out.”

I freak out. The voice is frighteningly familiar.

“I just want to sit here, with you, for a bit.”

I turn my head, and I see a face. I stare at it. The face smiles at me, weakly. It’s my face. But it’s really not.

“Are you freaking out?”

I might be freaking out. I’m still staring. He’s stooped. His hair looks like he cut it with kitchen scissors. He looks like he hasn’t really slept in a month.

“I’m not going to hurt you. I’m not a doppelgänger.” He pauses for a second. “I’m just gonna sit down.”

He sits.

“I wanted to, if it’s okay, to watch your boy play. He’s a lot like my boy. Really a lot.”

I finally manage to say something. “Who are you?”

“It’s complicated. I’m like a different version of you.” I’m still staring at him as he watches my son. Should I be doing something? Should I be chasing him off?

“Is this a time-travel thing?” I finally ask.

“Yes.”

“Oh god. Are you me from the future?”

“No. It’s not like that.”

“Thank christ. So I’m not going to turn into you.”

“Hey, that’s not very nice.” He chuckles. “No, I’m from now, but a now that doesn’t exist any more because I went into the past and changed a few things, and now the world,” he points to the playground, “is like this again.”

He watches my son climb a rope ladder. “What’s his name?”

“Samuel.”

“Wild. That was on our list. We called our son Michael. Mikey.”

“We tried ‘Sammy,’ but it didn’t fit.”

“No, it wouldn’t.” He’s smiling now. Not lying. Not dangerous.

“Who’s his mom?” I ask.

“Same as your kid’s mom.” He turns to me. “Some things stay the same, apparently.”

“But Samuel doesn’t look exactly like your Mikey?”

“No, course not. Biology, right?”

“Right.”

“What happened to your world?” I ask.

A long sigh. “Fuckin’ everything. All the things that are happening to yours. Just faster.”

“Faster?”

“Yeah, you’re lucky. Gore won. Set up Hilary to win, then Obama. You pushed everything forward by ten, twenty years.”

“What happened to you?”

“George W. Fucking Bush. A second Iraq War. Obama did what he could, but it was way too late. Then Trump won. Trans rights: gone. Disabled rights: gone. Women’s rights: down the toilet. Then polo-shirt Nazis, concentration camps for immigrants, and then,” he deflates, “a global fucking pandemic.” He stops for a few seconds. I don’t understand half of what he’s saying.

Finally, he says, “So many people died. It was already so bad. Kids couldn’t play in playgrounds. Nobody could do anything. Then some piece-of-shit cop kills a Black man, they tear gas peaceful protesters, and I could just see it all starting to unravel. I mean all of it.”

“How did you go back?”

“Friend of a friend of a friend. Right place at the right time.”

“What did you do?” I ask.

“Hanging chads.”

“I don’t know what that means.”

“Be happy you don’t.” He watches Mikey for a while. His eyes are shining with tears.

“You can’t go back,” I say.

“Nope.”

“There’s no there to go back to.”

“None. And I wouldn’t want to. But Mikey’s gone.” His voice dies in his throat before he can finish the word. Tears roll down his cheeks. I move over, put my arm around him.

I’m crying too, looking at Samuel. “Where are you going to go?”

“I’ll figure something out.” He pulls away. “I’m not exactly cut out for living off the grid, but I’m not going to stay here. Your boy’s not Mikey. I don’t belong here.”

I pull out my wallet and hand him my credit card. “Keep it reasonable. We’re not rich.”

He hesitates, then takes the card. “The pin is, that thing from the book and the movie, right?”

“Yeah. Some things stay the same.”

“Thanks.” He watches the playground for a few more minutes, and then he’s gone.