The Time Traveler’s Husband, by A.C. Wise

The time traveler’s husband leaves cups of tea throughout the too-empty apartment, waiting for his wife to come home. Sometimes — hours or days later — he finds the mugs drained, bearing the ghost imprint of lips, dregs staining the ceramic in dark, overlapping rings. Other times, the mugs are untouched, smelling of jasmine, bergamot, and orange pekoe gone cold.

He carries them to the kitchen and washes each one by hand. Along the way, he searches for traces of her. A hint of her scent, like wild honeysuckle and summer storms; a sweater missing from her side of the closet; a stray hair curled on the floor. The apartment echoes with his footsteps, with the absence of her, and he’s never sure which of them is the ghost. Whether he’s haunting her life, or the other way around.

Perhaps it’s both. While she’s out there, running through the ages, his life doesn’t stop. He has a job — city planning, modeling road usage and traffic flow. Evenings and weekends he takes long walks with their dog, a Pomeranian named Chia Pet. At night he lies stretched on the couch with his laptop, surfing the news, Chia Pet at his feet. Whenever there’s a natural disaster, a building collapse, a miraculous escape, he wonders: Did events always unfold that way?

Every Sunday, he calls his father, listening as in the background machines hiss and murmur, keeping the old man alive.

“So, where is she off to this time?” his father asks, despite the rattling cough between his words.

The time traveler’s husband pictures his father’s tobacco-stained teeth, the wrinkles creasing all around his nasty, thin-lipped smile. Confined to a bed with metal side-rails, these jabs are all the old man has left.

His father used to travel the world — roughnecking on oil rigs, driving the ice roads in Alaska, fighting fires and capping wells in Kuwait, cutting lumber. If it was dangerous, his father had done it. When they were young, he and his siblings would gather around while their father regaled them with tales of his adventures, illustrated by a catalogue of scars.

There are other stories, too. Ones his father never told, but the time traveler’s husband gleaned from his mother’s silences. A trail of women left in his father’s wake, a trail of bruises on his mother’s skin. Still, every Sunday, he calls.

“Don’t you want to make something of yourself?” his father used to ask. “You should be out there, protecting her, keeping her safe, saving the world.”

Now, his father relegates himself to subtler needling, questions about what he’s making for dinner, and whether he’ll have it waiting when his wife finally comes home.

“That’s not important, Dad,” he says, shutting down the parts of him that want to reach through the phone and hurt the old man. “What about you. How are you feeling?”

And inevitably, the conversation turns, though neither of them forget the opening salvo. Despite himself, his father’s words still get under his skin.

In the early years of their marriage, the time traveler’s husband would hole himself up in one of the ghost-haunted rooms of their apartment every time his wife left, determined to build a time machine of his own.

“Time travel isn’t what you think it is,” his wife had said.

He’d walked into their bedroom and found her there after days in the apartment alone. His plans lay spread across the rumpled bedcovers, and the look in her eyes was heartbreak, disappointment, but not surprise.

Blue light filtered through the windows, divided into slats by the Venetian blinds.

“Tell me, then,” he’d begged, desperate to understand. He’d wanted something from her, anything, so he’d know that it was more than just time travel isn’t for you; it’s mine alone.

“It works both ways,” she’d said, breathing out through gritted teeth, and it had seemed as though she was talking to herself more than him.

When he’d asked her to explain, she’d threatened to burn his plans. It was their first big fight, and it ended with her vanishing again, angry tears in her eyes, the air percussing like a thunderclap around them, the scent of lightning in her wake.

The next morning, he’d found a half-empty bottle of whiskey by her side of the bed. His plans lay curled on the floor, unburned. Had she come and gone again? Changed everything while he lay sleeping? Her absence left a strange, prickling feeling at the base of his spine, but instead of throwing the plans away, he tucked them carefully in a drawer.

Once, with his wife gone for weeks, the barista at his local coffee shop had smiled at the time traveler’s husband. The way she’d done it made his stomach turn over. Streaks of turquoise ran through her black hair, a constellation of piercings from eyebrow, to nose, to lip. Her nails were rinded with coffee grounds, her scent dark roast and cloves.

For a moment, he’d allowed himself to think what it would it be like to fall asleep to the rhythm of her breathing, to know she would still be there when he woke in the morning. He imagined croissants in a sunlit kitchen, fingers sticky with jam. He imagined lying amidst rumpled covers on a lazy Sunday morning, whole days spent without talking, the comfort of shared space, two bodies orbiting each other, familiar and safe.

And when he returned home, he pulled the plans for his time machine from their drawer and burned them himself.

The struck-match scent in the bathroom as he stood over the sink left him dizzy. Déjà vu, just on the edge of conscious knowing. All at once, he could feel days piled against his skin like torn pages, the words from those underneath bleeding through and rewriting things he’d always known to be true: Time moves in only one direction. He’s never been here before.

He watched ash drift into the drain, let the water run to wash it away, and breathed until the tide of panic ebbed. Then, he went online and ordered an expensive espresso maker so he could brew his own fancy coffee at home while he waited for his wife to return.

The time traveler’s husband wakes in the middle of the night, and his wife is beside him. Her eyes are wide in the dark, her breathing rough and on the edge of panic. Before he can speak, she takes his face between her hands, and presses her forehead against his.

“It’s important,” she says. “It’s very, very important. You won’t remember this, you won’t remember why, but you have to trust me. I’m going back to fix it. That’s what I’m doing right now. I let something terrible happen, and I won’t let it happen again. Everything will be okay, I promise. You just have to trust me.”

“What are you talking about? I don’t understand.”

She barely seems to hear him. Her eyes are galaxies, blown wide and spiraling. They frighten him. Even though he can feel her hands on his face, it’s as though he can see right through her, as though she’s falling away from him.

“I’m living in the spaces in-between, but I swear I’ll get it right this time. It’s not your fault,” she says. “I should have told you. I should have trusted you. It works both ways.”

And then she’s gone. The imprint of her head remains on her pillow, but there’s no other trace of her. He lays his hand in the down-and-linen crater to convince himself it wasn’t a dream, and finds it wet with tears. He promises himself he’ll stay awake, he’ll remember, but in the morning the only thing sharing the bed with him is a slant of sunlight. He rises, his body aching, and goes to the kitchen to make a cup of tea. Chia Pet stands hopefully at his feet. The time traveler’s husband leaves the mug on the counter—her favorite orange pekoe – wondering when his wife will come home.

Marriage is work; the time traveler’s husband knows this. Not just some days, but every day. He chose her, his wife who has saved the world more times than anyone will ever know, who has been to the beginning of the world and the end and so many points in-between. If he had it all to do over again, he would choose her still. And she would choose him, has chosen him, will choose him, is choosing him every moment of every day. Being a time traveler, it is one thing of which he can be sure.

And the times when she is home can be glorious. She lands in their apartment — a wild bird come to roost — and regales him with stories of drinking with Joan of Arc, of cheating at cards against Billy the Kid, and a misunderstanding on a far-flung world that nearly resulted in an intergalactic war. There are other stories too, of everyday people whose names never made it into the history books, forgotten by time, but not by his wife. When she speaks of them, her eyes shine. He loves watching her hands when she talks, the way her body fully relaxes and her face lights up. Paradoxically, it is when she tells these tales of long ago or days to come that she seems most present. It’s when she’s quiet, contemplative, that he sees leaving in her eyes.

He knows there have been other men, other women, other people, other beings. Like his father, his wife has left a trail of one-night stands throughout the time stream. He agreed to this when they married, and if he’d taken the barista home, nobody would object, but that isn’t what he wants, another person here and then gone. He wants someone who will stay. He wants his wife to stay, and he’s waiting for that day to come.

He knows it will, because some nights he wakes to a weight on the bed, and fingers laced in his. A hand on his chest, and a mouth full of hunger. There’s a terrible loss she’s running to or from, and when she finally catches up and sets it right, she will be able to rest.

On those nights, his wife’s hair spills around him, carrying scents he cannot name, and her eyes burn like unspiraling galaxies. That’s when he almost remembers her ghost weight on the bed and turning to find her smelling of smoke and ash and the end of all things. When he almost remembers her asking him to trust her, and the bad thing that happened and didn’t happen before.

In those moments, she doesn’t speak, just clings to him, her cheeks wet and her body a furnace. Her hunger has a different quality on those nights, full of sharp edges and goodbye. They make love silently, because no words could ever be enough, and when she comes, he sees the world shatter into a million pieces in her eyes.

The night his father dies, the time traveler comes home with a mouth tasting of wine and laughter. There is no horror in her eyes, and maybe the her that’s with him now hasn’t come to the terrible, world-breaking thing yet, or maybe it’s far in her past, fixed long ago.

Maybe, here and now, it’s only his world that’s broken. He’s thinking ahead to funeral arrangements, to awkward conversations with his siblings. He’s wondering if unknown children from other mothers will show up, and picturing endless paperwork, and the inevitable empty space beside him where his wife should be, because by then, she’ll be gone again.

For one brief moment—bright as a sun going supernova—he hates her. She’s been places he’ll never go. She’s seen wonders. But all the little details that happen while she’s gone—does she even have any idea how normal people live day to day? He’s seen her eyes shine talking of small, average lives in the past, people who never did anything important, but what about him? Can she only love that kind of a life at a distance? When he needs her beside him, strength and comfort, someone to lean on, when will she be?

She tries to take his hand, and he pushes her away.

“Just let me be alone right now,” he says.

He doesn’t wait to see if she leaves; he is the one to go. Everything inside him is raw as broken glass still caught in a wound. He didn’t like his father, but he loved him. The star he steered his life by—the man he never wanted to become, the man he admired and feared and desperately wanted to change by one day finally being good enough to earn a smile, a nod, a pat on the back instead of a scowl—is gone, and the time traveler’s husband is only human in the void left behind. He is petty and small and done waiting. For once, he wants to be the one to run, and leave all the tedious days behind.

So the time traveler’s husband drives to the open-twenty-four-hours-a-day superstore. He isn’t thinking straight, and he doesn’t care. He wants to do something stupid and irresponsible, something big and world-changing enough that his wife will finally look at him and see he can be as important as all of time, and finally stay.

Fluorescent lights wash the color from the store’s aisles. He breathes recycled air, walking up and down in a world where time doesn’t exist at all. He fills a blue plastic shopping cart with electronics and two-by-fours, nails and duct tape, automotive supplies, copper pipe, and copper wiring. He burned his plans for a time machine, but he still remembers what he needs. The cashier looks at him with one eyebrow raised as each item scans through, but he doesn’t change his mind.

When he returns to the apartment, he is alone. Over the years, he’s learned the varying qualities of silence – which silences mean a pause in the conversation when his wife has stepped out of the room, and which mean she’s gone. He pushes the coffee table aside, and spreads his materials across the floor. Outside, a storm gathers, heat lightning flickering across the sky, thunder grumbling to itself about better days. His father’s voice is the in the back of his head as he builds. When are you going to make something of yourself? When are you going to grab life by the horns? When are you going to stand up and be a man?

Just before dawn, the storm finally breaks. He pushes open the window and breathes in cooling asphalt and ozone. His wife’s voice is in the back of his mind too, murmuring warnings never fully explained. He hears her, but she’s falling away from him, and he shuts her out, tired of trying to understand.

Looking out over the city, the time traveler’s husband stands on a precipice. He smells the snuffed-sulfur of a burning match, watches plans curl to ash and wash down the drain. Has he been here before? No. It’s impossible. He’s the one stuck living neat and tidy hours, all his days moving in the right direction, and that’s the whole problem.

The sun creeps up between buildings, gilding the city’s canyons and refracting through the dampening rain. He flips the switch on his machine, and turns it on for the first time. The last time. The one-hundred-millionth time.

The wall where the neighboring apartment should be turns blue, a vortex swirl like a tooth-filled mouth. His wife shouts, falling toward him, falling away.

In the past-present-future everything is delicately balanced on the width of a thread. He lies in his wife’s arms, his body convulsing, tasting blood on his lips. He lies in bed beside her, her forehead against his, and she begs him to trust her. He sees her surrounded by tendrils of lightning in black and crimson, and he tastes it in the back of his own throat when she screams at the order of the universe, at time itself, and refuses to let it swallow him whole.

He falls. The building falls. The world rushes backward.

The sky cracks. Something like electricity, and even more like a purple eel, and most of all like a ribbon of burnt caramel, worms across the space where the ceiling used to be.

Everything smells of fire and ash and the world ending. His wife’s mouth is against his, and galaxies spiral in her eyes. From very far away, he hears his own voice, sobbing.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry. Please fix it. Please.”

It might be him here and now. He can’t tell which way time is moving, and he tries to synch his lips with the words.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry,” he says.

Everything is happening all over at every moment, all the time.

He is falling. His wife’s arms are around him. She’s holding him, and he’s shaking, and she’s whispering into his hair.

“It’s okay. I have you. I’m here. I should have told you, but I’m going to fix it. I’ll set things right, I promise. But you have to trust me. I just need a little time.”

She smells of nothing he can name. The space between worlds. Ripping the universe apart and stitching it back together again.

“What happened?” he asks.

“I did something very stupid, and very dangerous, to fix something that went wrong, but it’s over now.”

She strokes the back of his head. He thinks she’s crying, but he can’t tell. He closes his eyes. After a while, he sleeps for a very long time.

When he wakes, he’s lying under a heaped pile of covers, more blankets and quilts than he knew they owned. The room is filled with apricot light, cut into long strips by the blinds. He thinks about how he and his wife met, right before graduation. He didn’t know she was a time traveler then. She was a biology major, with a minor in statistics. He was graduating with a degree in urban planning. They ran into each other, literally, on the library steps, both trying to return books before the semester’s end.

On their first date, they ate ice cream and walked along the river, laughing at seagulls fighting over scraps of food. He tries to think—was she melancholy even then? At the time, he didn’t notice. He liked what the sunlight did to her hair, and the way their hands fit together perfectly. He was entranced by the tiny freckle, dark enough to be a mole, on the bottom of her left earlobe.

They slept together almost immediately. She told him she liked to get that part out of the way, and know whether it was worth it before investing too much time in someone. Maybe it was her idea of a joke. If she’d wanted to, she could have skipped ahead to see how it all turned out, but the way she chose instead was much more fun.

Lying on his back, he traces the path of a hairline crack in the ceiling. Was it always there, or has something changed? He thinks of a chalkboard, written over and erased so many times that the ghost of past words build up, forming a haze around the new words, making them impossible to read. His wife could have looped over their days and years endlessly, perfecting, trimming, polishing. Fixing minor problems, undoing some huge catastrophe, one he can almost see, like someone standing just out of sight. And he would never know.

There are nights — at least he thinks there are — when he’s woken without her weight beside him, to a bedroom full of shadows in dust-blue, brown, and plum, and he remembers dying in her arms. Her face hovers over him, her voice pleading for him to stay, just stay with her, hold on. How many times has their world broken and been stitched back together again?

This is what it means to be a time traveler’s husband. This is the life he chose.

He pushes the covers away. In the bathroom, there’s a scent like a struck match, but he finds no evidence of ash or anything burned. In the kitchen, he’s surprised to find his wife holding a mug of tea. He could swear the silence in the apartment was the kind he’s grown used to, the one that means he’s alone.

She nudges a second mug in his direction. Steam curls from the top, still perfectly hot, but not too much so, as if she knew exactly when he would wake. Chia Pet dances around her feet, looking up adoringly.

Her smile is almost shy, as if she’s just meeting him for the first time, as if everything is wonderfully new and everything is waiting for them.

He looks for loss in her eyes, a terrible thing coming for him, a shadow, like an aura clinging to his skin. Her eyes are full of leaving and staying intertwined, but beyond that, he cannot tell. All he knows is that her smile, in this moment, is a beautiful thing.

“I thought you’d be gone by now,” he says.

“I wanted to…” She falters, doesn’t finish the sentence. He wonders if she even knows what she meant to say.

“Will you…” And now he’s the one to stop. His tongue is tied.

“Will you stay for a while?” he asks finally. “I could run down to the corner bakery and pick up croissants.”

He’s afraid to look at her, but when he finally gathers his courage, there’s something like wonder in her eyes, like she’s amazed by him, the very fact of him, as if she’s the one who expected to wake and find him gone.

“Yes,” she says. “Croissants.”

All the way there and back, even though the bakery is not even a block away, his heart hammers. Chia Pet strains at the leash, darting this way and that, smelling everything as though wanting to drink in the world. The time traveler’s husband is terrified, and he doesn’t know why.

But when he returns, his wife is waiting. Chia Pet runs delighted figure-eights between them. His wife has laid out placemats, deep buttercup yellow, with little pots of honey and jam, and she’s made more tea.

“I thought you’d be gone,” he says again, unable to help himself.

“I wanted to stay. To see you. To stay.” Her words are halting, broken. “Maybe this time for a while.”

“Why?” There should be more to the sentence, but he can’t get it out. Why does she ever leave? Why is she always running? What is she afraid of?

She takes his hand. Their fingers still fit together perfectly. She sets the pastry bag from his other hand on the table, and looks him in the eye. There are stars in hers, fractals unwinding, galaxies dying and being born. But there’s also sunlight on a Sunday morning, and crumbs strewn across the table, their fingers sticky with jam.

“I’m never running away from you.” The words come in a rush, a breathless truth more raw and honest than her words have ever been. “You’re the thing I’m running for, always, to keep you safe. Without you, I’d never find my way home.”

He stares at his wife as if he’s never seen her before, and maybe he hasn’t. The hurting in her eyes, the sorrow, it’s beyond anything he can understand. He’s falling away from her, and she’s catching him and pulling him back again. And in this moment, he knows he is loved. He is protected. He is safer with her than he could ever be with anyone else in the world.

And he knows, in this moment, that she is safer with him than she will ever be at any other time. Sometimes, being strong is holding still even when everything in you tells you to run. Sometimes, strong is being big and safe enough to be a home, holding things together through all the slow days moving in the right direction. So he will be strong. He will stay still while she runs, the universe unraveling behind her, and make sure she remembers to slow down long enough to breathe.

He leans in until their foreheads are touching, the tips of their noses, their lips almost, but not quite.

“Yes,” he whispers. To all of it, the question she hasn’t asked, everything.

In this moment, there is nothing about their lives he would change. He breathes her in with all her scents of stardust and ancient storms, and it is enough. He steps back and looks into her far-seeing eyes.

“Tell me,” he says, “when have you been?”

A.C. Wise

A.C. Wise’s short stories have appeared in five previous issues of the always delicious Shimmer Magazine, which she will miss very much, along with places like Tor.com, Clarkesworld, and the Year’s Best Horror Volume 10. She has two collections published with Lethe Press, and a novella forthcoming from Broken Eye Books. In addition to her fiction, she contributes a monthly review column to Apex Magazine, and the Women to Read and Non-Binary Authors to Read series to The Book Smugglers. Find her online at www.acwise.net and on twitter as @ac_wise.

Published November 2018, Shimmer #46 , 4200 words

Speculative fiction for a miscreant world

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