Silence fell over the table. Mr. Cross looked at his hands, at the veins on the backs, and then turning them to look at his palms. He rubbed his left palm with his right thumb, prompting Mark to sneak a glance at his own bandaged hand. The old man didn't have a scar. Would one magically appear on a previously unmarked hand?
Mark pulled the half finished plate of chili fries towards himself, and ate one lukewarm, cheese covered fry. It was greasy, and just the one piece tumbled like a rock into the pit of his stomach, but he was hungry, an for once Mr. Cross wasn't. He waited for the old man to elaborate on his statement. After three more chili fries, Mark relented.
"You fall asleep and then you time travel?"
"I really don't think I should be getting into this with you," Mr. Cross said. "It's your future and I've messed around enough with the past, my own past, as it is."
"You can't just drop this on me. You're saying you fall asleep, dream about the past and then you're there? When did this start happening?"
"It's not exactly like that. It's more like lucid dreaming. You know all about that, don't you?"
Mark nodded. "I do it all the time. Have been since high school."
"Right. So, you know how it is. You fall asleep, start dreaming, realize you're dreaming, and then you start do direct the dream. And you've also experimented with determining what sort of dream you're going to have before you even fall asleep."
"I just started doing that. It doesn't work."
"Keep it up. It will. Although the fun of it runs out after a while."
"So, it's like lucid dreaming, where you determine where you want to be, or when you want to be-"
"That's bad. Just bad."
"Sorry. Just couldn't resist."
"Still not quite right, but close enough for now."
"But when did it start? How did it start?"
Mr. Cross sighed, and picked up his coffee cup. He sighed even louder when he found the cup empty. Mark caught the waitress' eye and waved her over. Once the cup was full again, the old man took a long careful sip.
"One night, I was thinking about something that had happened in my past. It's a situation that had been weighing on me for a few days, cropping up like one of those bad memories that you thought you left behind. But then it comes flying back at you, and you can't stop thinking about it."
Mark knew what he meant. The Nana story Mr. Cross had used to convince him, still nagged him even a week later. The fear and guilt struck him at odd hours, then the memory came at him again, and he was stuck reliving that day over and over.
"I went to bed that night, with that memory still eating away at me. My brain wouldn't let it go, and I thought it was going to be another sleepless night for me. I didn't have to worry about that. I fell asleep and when I woke up, I was back in that memory. Well, it wasn't a memory. It was the actual day."
"What day was that?"
"I'm not telling you that. It's your future."
"But how did you know it was the past, and not some really special dream?"
"I just knew."
"How did you get back?"
"The way I always get back. I closed my eyes, told myself I was dreaming, and then I woke up in the present. It's like falling asleep, and then waking up again."
Monday, April 21, 2014
The food came. Mr. Cross dug in, as voracious as he had been at Golden Dragon. Mark was sure that if he had put a hand near the plate of chili fries, he would lose it. He watched Mr. Cross eat, the man was obviously starving, and contemplated what he had been told.
When Mr. Cross paused to sip from his coffee cup, Mark asked, “If it already happened – Pandora, and everything – why are you here?”
Mr. Cross set his mug down with a solid thunk – his hands were no longer trembling – and said, “Something went wrong.”
“What went wrong?”
“I don’t know. When I first started…traveling, I would return and everything was the same as always. But one day, I came back and Pandora was still raging across the planet. The world population was cut in half. Survivors barricaded themselves inside walled towns, anyone who so much as sneezed was lucky to be exiled. Technology existed, but the mindset of people, it was like the middle ages.”
“How did it go wrong?”
The old man pounded his fist on the table. “I don’t know!”
Mark jumped. A group of students stared at them, then turned to whisper amongst themselves. “Shh,” Mark said. “Calm down. You don’t know. That’s fine. But why drag me into all of this? I mean, you’re me. Isn’t this some sort of killing your own grandfather situation?”
“Maybe that was it. Maybe on one of my trips I killed Ashton Miller’s old man. Metaphorically.” Mr. Cross shook his head and for once seemed to have lost his appetite. He pushed the half eaten Double Burger away, and made a face of disgust at the chili fries.
“Maybe it wasn’t you. Maybe someone else used the time machine, or whatever, and caused the damage.”
“That’s not possible. There is no time machine. Not a wormhole, or any other sci-fi gobbledy-gook you can think of."
“Then, how are you here?”
“So, he’s a doctor?”
“No. Ashton Miller actually ends up living on a commune in New Mexico. There’s kind of a Second Great Hippie Awakening in the 2030’s, only instead of young, disenchanted Baby Boomers leaving behind their parents traditional values, it’s a bunch of middle-aged, disenchanted Millenials dropping everything and leaving behind their debts.”
“Doesn’t sound like you joined them,” Mark said.
Mr. Cross scoffed. “They thought they were doing something new. They weren’t. They just had better drugs than their grandparents.”
“Okay,” Mark said. “He’s not a doctor, he’s a hippie. Did he discover some sort of natural remedy for the disease?”
“None of that,” Mr. Cross said. “It was much simpler, and so much more complicated than that. Miller was immune to the disease. He wasn’t the only one, but he was different. His immunity could be duplicated, synthesized and made into a vaccine.”
Somehow, despite everything that had happened in the past week, despite sitting at a table in a diner speaking to his future self about a plague twenty years in the future, Mark felt he had finally stepped into the realm of science fiction. “That can’t be possible.”
Mark wracked his brain to pull up his basic knowledge of biology. “The technology doesn’t exist. I don’t remember much of my biology classes, but it would take years to figure this stuff out.”
“The technology doesn’t exist in 2014,” Mr. Cross asserted. “They knew he was immune because he was the only person on the commune who didn’t get sick, even though he cared for fifty sick and dying, highly contagious people, with really the barest of modern sanitation. Luckily, Ashton Miller actually believed in the commune’s ideals; you know, the group above the individual. He brought himself to the attention of the scientific community. And lucky the technology will exist, because they were able to isolate the exact nature of his immunity. And lucky, the plague was so devastating that the usual bullshit of patenting vaccines so only a few could benefit and profit from them was thrown out the window.”
“Sounds like he’s some sort of saint.”
“I don’t think many would call Ashton Miller a saint,” Mr. Cross said. Mark waited, but the old man didn’t offer any details.
Friday, April 18, 2014
For the A to Z Challenge I generated a list of random words, and I will be writing a short story incorporating those words. Each day a little more of the story will be unveiled. You can read the full story, to date, here. Here we go:
“He’s going to save the human race,” Mark repeated.
“The whole human race.”
“A good chunk of it,” Mr. Cross said. He pulled a napkin from the dispenser and began to shred it. Mark caught himself tapping out a rhythm with his uninjured hand. Both of them were brimming with unspent energy. Anxiety did that to him.
“Please, just tell me what’s going on,” Mark implored.
“In about eighteen years, there will be a plague that makes the Black Death look like flu season. It first appears in rural China, but it quickly spreads across the country, hops borders, flies across the oceans in jet liners. They called it Pandora. Because once it was out, there was no putting it back into whatever box it came from. It’s airborne, very virulent, about a 60 percent death rate, with a good 20 percent of survivors permanently disabled. Blindness. Brain damage. It kills people very quickly. Only a few days from the first symptoms until you’re dead.”
“But, doesn’t a fast killing virus usually die out?” Mark asked. “Like, I heard Ebola doesn’t spread very far because it kills so quickly.”
“Usually, that’s the case. Also, Ebola patients are obviously sick, and the virus isn’t airborne, so it’s easy to avoid exposure and minimize risk. No, this thing was something new. Pandora was so effective, there were suggestions – still never debunked by the way – that it was created by the Chinese as a weapon. The Chinese blamed Russia. Things aren’t so good between them.” Mr. Cross said it as if the two nations were in a marriage on the verge of divorce, a flippant way that contrasted sickly with the disease he was describing.
“So 80% of the population is…put out of commission,” Mark said, just as the waitress returned.
“What can I get y’all?” she asked in a Southern twang that was out of place in a Northern city.
“Yes,” Mr. Cross said completely dropping their conversation. “Can I get the Double Cheeseburger Platter with an extra side of chili fries?”
“So that’s in addition to the fries that comes with the Platter?” the waitress asked. Mark could see her measuring the old man, wondering where he was going to fit all that food.
“Yes. And my grandson will have…?”
Mark wanted to laugh at the ruse they had fallen into, one he had started. But he also remembered how Mr. Cross had stuck him with the check at Golden Dragon, and he only had $10 dollars in his pocket and a giant black hole on his debit card until the end of the week. “I’m good. Thanks.”
When the waitress left, Mr. Cross took a sip from his coffee before continuing, as if he had never been interrupted. “Not exactly that. Potentially 80% of the population. At its height, depending on the country, anywhere from ten to 30 percent of the population was infected. That’s about 3 billion people.”
Mark tried to process the number: 1 out of 3 people infected, dead, or disabled. That was a serious threat. But what did that have to do with Ashton Miller?
Mr. Cross answered the unasked question: “Ashton Miller had the cure.”