Yes, this is my thousandth post on this blog!
To celebrate, I’ve decided to post here my short stories. Every couple of weeks, I’ll be posting one story from my celebrated Exciting Destinies series for you to enjoy. With over 30 stories so far, I hope you’ll have lots of fun in the coming months!
I kick off the new series with For The Last Time, one of my favorite stories from The Power of Six.
Click here to read some more free stories.
For The Last Time
Truth be told, I have no idea who built the damned contraption. All I know is that, if they were standing in front of me, I would have some choice words for them. Not that I don’t appreciate the technical difficulties of a time machine, let alone one that can fit in a pocket. I’d simply want them to experience first-hand the mess that time travel is.
Perhaps I should start at the beginning, though. Which had me sitting on my battered sofa with the telly on, half-eaten pizza slice in hand. My astonished gaze was traveling from the scalding hot tomato stain on my t-shirt to the two copies of myself fighting in front of me. OK, perhaps “astonished” cannot even begin to express my feelings. My eyes were about to pop out of their sockets and go to the sink to throw some water on them. They must have looked like Kermit the Frog’s if he caught Miss Piggy in bed with a garter-wearing Gonzo.
Not that I blame myself. A moment ago I was watching the telly, and now, following two almost simultaneous blinding flashes that made the room look like an x-ray of itself, I was watching a rather unique sight. One copy of me, featuring a black eye and a torn t-shirt, was yelling some nonsense about bouncing mothers of snakes or something and was pointing towards the silver do-thingy another copy of me was holding. That second copy looked sharp, like he had just stepped out of the shower, and was wearing freshly ironed clothes. He was gaping at the yelling version of me—or should I say us?—with a perplexed look on his face. A feeling I shared completely. Therefore, when he threw me the silver thingy and shouted “Just press the button,” it was inevitable that I would listen to him instead of the manic version of me.
What the clean version of me failed to mention was the shock of traveling from one time-space continuum to another. It’s like your brain performs a toe loop inside your head, followed by the entire universe. In simple terms, awful. And it leaves the worst hangover imaginable to man; something akin to waking up to municipality workers outside your window, operating the loudest drills available to public servants, after a week of drinking. Like I said, awful.
As soon as the pain dulled down a bit and the workers went for coffee and donuts, I opened my eyes. I was sitting on my sofa, the huge red stain on my t-shirt staring up at me accusingly. The sofa expressed its displeasure at having my not insignificant weight suddenly materialize on it with a loud groan. I raised myself with an equally loud grunt and looked around. I was still in the living room. The TV was switched off, while a small pack of newspapers covered the coffee table before me. That wasn’t strange in itself; I always bought at least three newspapers over the weekend and spent the entire week slowly reading through them, until I had sucked any useful information or gossip out of them.
The strange thing was that it was a Friday when all of this happened, so the table should be empty. I leaned slowly forward to pick the top one up and a worker in my head remembered he had left his job unfinished and returned for a quick bash with a giant hammer. Letting out a heartfelt moan, I looked at the front page. I had no idea what events the newspaper was referring to, so my eyes started a casual stroll that ended up at the date. Which was nine days after today.
After the initial shock (significantly minor compared to the one I had already experienced), my eyes rolled back down to stare at my hand, still holding the do-thingy. The contraption looked simple enough; a surprisingly smooth silver rod with no obvious opening for batteries or something. It sported two round dials, a big button that I had already pressed once, and two small displays with numbers on them. They seemed familiar, and looking at my watch I realized the top one was the date and the bottom one the time. I already knew what the button did and decided to let it be for now, so I fiddled with the dials, discovering I could make the displays change by turning them. If that accomplished what I think it did, I could go anywhere – or, more precisely, any time – I wanted!
I would like to see what anyone would do in my place. For a short while, I glanced back and forth between the thingy and the pile of newspapers. Then—and I’m ashamed to admit this—the first thing that came to my mind was to check out the lottery numbers. I know it should have been something better. Something that would allow me to prevent some horrible accident; to save dragons in mortal danger from mad princesses or something. And yet, all I did was jot down six numbers on a piece of paper and stuff it into my pocket, as if this was a dream and I might wake up any moment. If there were any dragons in peril, they never had a chance as I dialed the numbers with trembling hands and selected the date before the next big jackpot. Then, closing my eyes, I pressed the button.
I wish I could say that the trip got easier the second time. It didn’t. The dull pain in my head seemed to meet up with the new, sharp one and immediately hit it off, the way really annoying people do. They seemed to invite a couple of friends to throw a wild party inside my head. And yet, none of this mattered. I found myself back on the sofa with nothing changed around me, save for the pile of newspapers that had vanished from the table. I dashed to the door, ignoring the momentarily blinding pain, pausing only to grasp some change from the box next to it. Then, I scrammed like a madman to the betting place, holding the small piece of paper like a sacred relic in my hands.
The many pains in my head were now singing drunkenly, “If I were a rich man,” from Fiddler on the Roof, but even that failed to bother me. All I could think of was how to spend the time until tomorrow’s draw, and whether it would be worth using the gadget to save me some waiting hours. In the end, it occurred to me I had another trip to make first, so I headed into the shower instead.
I was stepping out of the bathroom, drying my hair with a towel, when I heard someone at the door. It dawned on me that I was sharing that timeline with another version of me, one that I was not ready to meet yet. I ducked in panic behind the sofa just as the door swung open. One quick look revealed the visitor to be my mother. She was dressed up funnily, as if she had thrown on the first thing she could find on her way out, and had a worried look on her face. I had no idea what she was doing so early at my place, and watched in wonder as she grabbed some clothes and stashed them into a bag. I almost jumped out to ask her what she was doing, but then thought better of it and stayed put.
She was now collecting some underwear, murmuring something under her breath, and I was reminded of all the times she would go after me, checking after my underwear.
“Come on, no-one’s gonna see them anyway,” I would reply, trying to get her off my back.
“What if you’re run over by a bus, what will the doctors say?” she would ask accusingly.
Seriously, as if I’d be lying on a hospital bed covered in plaster from head to toe, leg hanging from the ceiling, with a doctor holding my clothes and telling her off with a stern voice: “He’s in critical condition, but never mind that now. What I really wanted to discuss with you, ma’am, is the state of his underwear. This is a disgrace; how could you let him leave the house like that?”
Anyway, her current behavior did not make much more sense to me. Still, I preferred to lie quiet, in the safety of my hiding hole behind the sofa. What if another me was to step into the house just as I emerged? That would take some explaining—and I could hardly figure out what was happening myself!
Mercifully, she seemed to have other plans for the evening, so she performed one of her trademark sighs-with-simultaneous-rolling-of-the-eyes and stormed out of the house, slamming the door behind her. I let out one of my trademark sighs-with-simultaneous-rolling-of-the-eyes and emerged from behind the sofa. It let another loud groan as I jumped on it and switched on the TV. She had left just on time; the lottery was about to begin. I was nervous as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs and my eyes kept darting towards the door. Then, the winning numbers appeared on screen and I couldn’t care less if Dumbo the elephant waltzed in to tango with Cinderella. I kept glancing from the screen to the slip in my hand and back, a big grin plastered on my face. I was rich; richer than I could ever imagine.
And yet, I could not shake this feeling that something was wrong. I felt numb instead of ecstatic. Could the small voice at the back of my head whispering how the whole thing was fixed and I had no chance of enjoying my riches be right? It didn’t matter, of course; there was no chance of me returning the money. I started thinking what to do with my new-found gazillions and my head spun. My eye was caught by the thingy that had made it all possible and I jerked up as I remembered that I still had to give it to myself, or it’s bye-bye money!
I dressed up and carefully turned the dials to when it had all started. I winced, knowing what would happen as I pressed the button. Sure enough, as I opened them again the various pains in my head renewed the party as new guests walked in, carrying even more drinks with them. I tried to ignore all that to gaze at myself, sitting on the sofa. The poor fool jumped in fright, sending a thick glob of tomato sauce to land on his t-shirt, creating the stain I had just got rid of.
I took advantage of his surprise to turn the dials to next week and was about to hand him the gadget when another version of me appeared. Damn, I had forgotten about him. He started shouting some gibberish and approached me threateningly. I tossed the thingy to myself sitting on the sofa. “Just press the button,” I yelled.
As the sofa version of me disappeared in a flash, it occurred to me that I had no idea how to return to my own timeline. Simultaneously, the maniac coming at me cried out loudly and punched me in the eye. His other hand had grabbed me, tearing my t-shirt as I turned away. Out of the corner of my eye, I caught a silver flash in his pocket, and then it hit me: that was my ticket out! As I fell, I grabbed the silver rod and slammed the button. I hadn’t had a chance to see when it would take me, but it didn’t matter; anywhere had to be better than this.
My head was now about to explode, as I found myself once again in the familiar living room, mercifully alone. A painful glance at the rod revealed that I was in luck: I had been transferred to no more than a few days after winning the lottery. I sank heavily on the sofa rubbing my temples, to wait for the throbbing in my head to subside. I brought my hand to my eye, wondering what the hell Future Me was thinking, when I heard a brisk rap on the door.
The last thing I wanted was to see visitors and I ignored it, but the rap turned to a loud thumping. I yelled for them to stop. Hearing my voice, they started to bang on the door, until it swung open. All I wanted was to take a couple of aspirins and lie down. Instead, I faced two statues at the doorway. I don’t mean that in a good way; they bore no resemblance to, say, Michelangelo’s David. No, what I mean is that they were like two granite lumps standing there. They looked like a living proof of evolution, with nature saving for them the part of the missing link, bulging muscles trying to escape tight black t-shirts.
I gaped at them with my one good eye, trying to figure out what they wanted, which is why I failed at first to notice the man standing behind them, hands behind his back. When he opened his mouth, his voice reminded me of a snake slithering in the woods, claiming to be a fruit seller, specializing in apples.
“Hello,” he said, and I cringed. “We are here to propose a professional collaboration.”
“What sort of collaboration?” I murmured, still trying to take in the scene. As I looked at him it suddenly hit me who he reminded me of: an old Asterix character that had the uncanny ability to spread discord wherever he went. I tried to smell him to see if he smelled of fish, but the two living rocks in front of me were in the way. Anyway, his face was more like a lizard or a snake than a fish. “A simple one,” he carried on. “You give us the money you won, and we’ll let you live. We know you brought it here.”
Was I stupid enough to have brought my millions home? That made no sense! I hoped they were wrong and put on my poker face, something quite easy as half my face was numb anyway. “You’re wrong, it’s not here. Just take anything you want and leave.”
He shrugged. “It doesn’t matter; if we can’t find the money, we’ll take something else. Say, parts of your body. Until you tell us where the money is, of course. You don’t really need all those fingers now, do you?” One bouncer grabbed my right hand and a small knife clicked in his huge hand. Cold sweat prickled out of every pore of my skin. “We’ve been watching you since you went to the bank to get the ransom,” he continued.
“Ransom?” I blurted out.
“Sure, ransom. Don’t play dumb with us, we’re not the cops.” He saw my empty stare and laughed a cruel laugh. “No, we’re not the ones who have your mother. But don’t you worry about her; you’d better worry about yourself right now.”
The fine hairs at my back stood up in an age-old response meant to scare off the opponent. Of course, that had the same effect as a mute ant threatening a deaf elephant. My mind raced as I tried to figure out what to do. “Fine, you win. Let me get the money.” Was that my voice? I had no idea why I had said that.
Snake-face smiled contentedly and licked his lips. “I knew you’d see sense,” he said, motioning the statue next to me to release my hand. The missing link let out a disappointed growl. “Go with him,” Snake-face ordered him as I turned towards the bedroom.
I removed the gadget from my pocket as calmly as I could and turned the dials—not easy to do when your hands are shaking.
“What’s that?” the missing link growled next to me.
“Oh, nothing.” I tried to sound casual. “Just a remote to unlock the safe.”
My fingers paused, hovering over the dials. What could be a good time for me to travel to? Even if I could get away from these guys and their likes, they still had my mother. I told you that money was bad news, the small voice in my head whispered. I hate smug voices, especially when they’re mine. Cursing softly, I decided to end this once and for all. I had to go back in time and prevent this whole mess. I hit the button and closed my eyes just as I heard Snake-face yell, “Stop him!” behind me.
The by now familiar headache was the least of my worries as I found myself back in the living room, staring at two more versions of me. I tried to figure out how to explain everything, and blurted out about my mom, the two bouncers and the snake-faced guy from Asterix, but stopped when I saw the way they were looking at me. I regret to say that I then panicked and went for the silver thingy. I thought I was quick as a flash, but the adrenaline made me not only quick, but also clumsy. I was shaking like a caffeinated leaf in a tornado.
As a result, the other me—the smug, clean one—had all the time in the world to throw the rod to the sofa-sitting one, staring at us like he had suffered a stroke. And yet, that idiot managed to hit the button just fine, disappearing with a flash and setting in motion this entire sad affair. “No,” I yelled, and punched the silly sod in the eye, pulling him towards me and accidentally ripping up his t-shirt. Damn, it was one of my favorites, too. I then remembered what had happened next and looked in my pocket for the thingy, which the smug me was now holding. The next flash saw him disappear from the room.
I was left alone, staring at the walls around me. I was broke, had no time-traveling thingy, and no idea what to do next. The whole thing made no sense, making me feel trapped inside a nightmare. All I wanted to do was wake up. I thought some fresh air might do me a world of good, and decided to go for a walk to clear my head, until I could figure out my next move. I tried to remember the lottery numbers, but had about as much luck as a dyslexic amnesiac with a stroke.
I stepped outside and onto the road, my mind frantic with thoughts. Which is why I never even saw the bus rushing at me.
The good news is that an ambulance was right behind the bus. The usual crowd of onlookers had a good look as the paramedics lifted me onto the stretcher. Except for the throbbing in my head, I could hardly feel my leg for the pain.
“It doesn’t look too bad,” said one paramedic. “Except for the leg. It will probably need surgery.”
“Sorry, mate,” said the other one turning to me. “Looks like you’re gonna be in the hospital for a while. Got anyone to bring you some clothes?”
I don’t know if it was the pain or the drugs they were pumping into me, but the world was spinning around me as I gave them my mom’s number. She would have to make the trip to the hospital a few times before I got out, but I felt a momentary sense of relief: I may have lost my money and the time machine, but at least she would be proud of me: I was wearing clean underwear…
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