Authors Note: This short story is dedicated with love to two different people for two different reasons. Firstly, to A.H., the most interesting and compassionate person I know. I hope she pursues writing, which is an amazing gift she is blessed to have. Secondly, to H.E, who is the strongest warrior and doesn't even have a clue. She is the best study buddy you could ever ask for. I wish these ladies of steel and class a life of happiness, passion, beautiful romance, and nothing but the very best.
If you've actually read this much-too-lengthy dedication, you rock!
Thanks for reading!
I planted a sycamore tree during my fifteenth summer for the girl I once loved. For Wednesday. But hey, I'm getting ahead of myself, and I know she wouldn't approve of that. I guess if this story has a beginning, it would be on the early summer morning many years ago.
I spent the summer of '09 with a green sour candy in my mouth, building a time machine for Wednesday Allen. Why? Because she came to me in early June with a wad of cash and a plan. A crazy one, but I didn't really think things through at first, and when I finally did, it was too late to turn around. Walking across the cul-de-sac in one of her various floral-print jumpers on that morning, she marched to the cool of my garage with a sense of urgency and stood in front of me with her arms crossed. At the moment, I was fixing the chain on my mother's bicycle, on my knees and in the middle of a project. It is difficult to describe how much it annoys me when I'm interrupted when I'm hard at work. It's the time when I'm in the zone. Fixing things, cars, bikes, anything, gives me this thrill rush. Like being shot out of an adrenalin canon. So when someone pulls me out of that world of the garage, well, I turn into a crabby old man. But Wednesday just stood there, unwavering, waiting for acknowledgement.
"Can I help you?" I asked after a beat, trying to keep my voice down from a growl.
"Yes." She replied, her voice all even and peaches-and-cream. "Peter Fowler, I want you to build me a time machine."
I nearly swallowed the hard candy I was sucking on. Wednesday Allen was always the odd duck of the neighborhood. She lived with her Great-Uncle Robin, who old and bald and crazy and was teetering on death's door. She was my age, 15, but the two of us had never been close. In fact, I could count the number of times we'd actually talked with the fingers on one hand. I had seen her a few times walking down the street with a radio flyer wagon full of old books and a thermos of soup, but other than that I didn't know anything about her. And then, she comes up to me and wants me to build a time machine? Never mind borderline weird, this girl was freaking insane.
"A what?" I sputtered. "Are you joking? Cause that's a stupid joke."
Her eyes widened to the size of half dollar coins, her mouth forming a little O.
"Maybe this is a little forward of me, but please, don't think I'm crazy, I'm really not!"
"You have a funny way of showing it!"
Panicking, she pulled out a wad of cash. "I'll pay you, see! Three hundred dollars! That's fair, isn't it?"
"Lady, how am I supposed to build a time machine? By waving my fairy wand?"
"I'll help you!"
"Trust me, I can." She sank to her knees and put her hands together and put her hands together in a prayer form. "Please, please, please! You're so gifted with fixing things, you've been that been way since you were little. If I went to a real mechanic, they'd just shake me off! Please, you must help me. I don't belong here! Not in this time period!"
"You know where you do belong? The funny farm!"
Ouch. That was harsh, I'll admit. I was expecting her to cry, to run off sobbing to her old Great-Uncle about what a monster that mean old Peter was. Instead, she slapped me upside the face.
"You-you beast!" Her voice rose to a piercing screech. Some neighbors, who were watering their hedges and geraniums in the early morning light stopped and stared.
"Okay, quiet, quiet!" I snapped. "Don't have a little hissy fit, you're not three anymore."
"I came for your help, but you-you pushed me aside, before I could even ask for it!" Her face was turning purple. The girl was losing it.
"Okay, okay!" I agreed, desperate to make her stop throwing a fit. "Just shut your trap and I'll build you your time machine!" The words sounded just plain dumb coming from my mouth. I was lying through my teeth, but the crazy girl bought it. In fact, the second I gave in, she flashed a bright smile and clapped her hands together.
"Do you always get what you want by throwing a tantrum?"
She stood there, seriously considering it for a moment. "Yeah. I really do. But that's beside the point. Let's get this shin-dig started."
Ah. Yes. My actions had consequences. Freaking brilliant. I decided that the best way to deal with it was play along.
"Okay, how do we build this thing?"
"Well, I'm not exactly sure. That's where you come in." She gestured to the fire truck-red wagon behind her. The wagon was usually laden with crusty, yellowing books, but on that day there were none. No, instead there was a bulging lump covered by a faded patchwork quilt, a mesh of paisley-print squares. Wednesday pulled the wagon, which made a sickly screeching noise as she dragged it along, to the back of the garage. My family's garage was no longer the domain of our old Honda. Now it had been conquered by the collecting junk, old records, eternally tangled Christmas lights, and other miscellanea. Summers in Mosey Falls, out town, were sweltering. Only madmen dared to venture into the blazing heat without a pint of sunscreen slathered on. That's why I learned to love the garage, it's cool dark refuge was a relief from the sun, amongst the gears and gadgets. I knew machinery inside, out, and sideways.
In the dim light of the garage, Wednesday paused dramatically as she pulled off the cover over her wagon. I held my breath.
It was in a word, beautiful. A contraption with the framework of an old clock, brass and bewitching even in the poor light. Cogs that still shone with possibility through the collecting dust. Gears the size of my palm mixed with ones that could easily fit on the head of a pin. It was exquisite. I had to grip my knees to stop them from shaking. I had to take deep, long breaths to keep my heart from leaping out of my chest. I wanted to feast on its lovely face forever. In a few seconds, my doubting teenage mind was back to being five years old and still eagerly awaiting Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, and Happy Ever After as seasons lapsed into one another. It was a time machine. It really was. Alas, the skepticism bled back into my body almost as quickly as it had left. Time machine? Like hell.
"So it's an impressive clock. Now what?"
"Fine it's an impressive clock. Fix it." There was a snarl in Wednesday's voice.
"You're the boss. Yeesh, are you always this forceful?"
She said nothing, pulling out a folded parchment from her daisy-print pocket. Unfolding it with the concentration of a brain surgeon on duty, she held it up to me.
"It's a very old document, I found it with the machine. But it could rip with the slightest blunder, so be careful, 'kay?"
"Roger that." I cautiously took the paper from her. Words were scrawled in spider-cursive, instructions. I began to study, already imbedding the anatomy of the machine in my head.
"Well, I'll just leave you to it," Wednesday said, sensing the fact that I was in a different world. I barely noticed her leaving.
After that first morning, I didn't except to see her again for a few days, a week tops. How nosy could one slightly loony girl be, anyway? But there she was, the very next morning, walking across the cul-de-sac, wagon in tow. The wagon's contents were, of course, books, and a shabby record player that looked as if might have entertained the possibility of functioning 50 years earlier.
"What are you doing?" Wednesday asked cautiously.
"What does it look like? I'm working on your clock. Oh wait," I snarked, rolling my eyes. "I mean your time machine."
"Oh, cap it." She crouched down in front of her wagon and rooted through each pile. I watched her carefully as her brown eyes searched. They lit up like a Christmas tree when she found what she was looking for. Nodding, she sat down beside me and opened to the yellowing title page.
"A Detour in Time, by Angeline Morrison."
"Whoa, whoa, whoa, what are you doing?"
"Reading. It's this thing where you use written words to tell stories."
"Is there anything that will keep you quiet?"
"Not really. Now quit interrupting."
And so she began reading. She came the next day, and the following days, her library-on-wheels in tow each day. A Detour in Time was alright. My Lover the Time Traveler wasn't half bad aside from the mushy parts, and The Far-Off Planet was fairly mind-blowing. The company was nice. In past summers, I had been harassed day and night by Dad's beseeching that I join the baseball team. I was far too used to dealing with my father's unrelenting babble about the values of team sports. The summer before he went as far as to bribe me into playing an hour of catch. He was beyond disappointed when I went the whole vacation without joining the little league team. But this company wasn't aggressive. This company wasn't difficult. Wednesday just showed up every day with her rusty wagon and a stack of books. She only stopped reading around 1 o' clock to eat a thermos of soup, a different kind for every day of the week. Monday was clam chowder, Tuesday was cream of tomato. On Wednesdays she treated herself to her favorite, split pea soup. Thursdays brought steaming chicken noodle, corn chowder came with every Friday, gazpacho on Saturday, and lentil soup on Sunday. I always had a ham and cheese sandwich.
She did more than read, of course. One blistering morning near the end of June Wednesday put down The Fabric of Time, after dog-earing the page we were on of course, and just began to talk. Wednesday could spin a yarn, as I eventually learned, for as long as you would let her. She often went on tangents in all different directions, often losing sight of the actual punch line of a joke, never really arriving to the conclusion to a story. Nevertheless, her banter was as alive, it had a heartbeat. It could be melancholy, as if in chains, it could be as intense and lively as a barroom brawl, and it could be twice as joyous. It wasn't long after that she gave up her chatter spotlight and let me into the conversations. We talked about everything when words were needed. There was silence when they weren't. Sometimes she drove me up the wall until I was gritting my teeth so hard, I snapped by sour apple candy in two between my teeth. Sometimes she would slip a record onto the battered record player and coax crooning voice from it.
As the days passed, I toiled long and hard on the time machine. After exploring the skeleton, the bones of the mechanism, I started getting to work. Right off the bat I noticed some strange things about this. Sure, I had once called it a clock. But if that's what it was, this clock was the funkiest one I had ever seen. It had several hands, one for century, decade, year, month, week, day, hour, minute, and even second. It had pieces that I couldn't even place, never mind know what they did. Near the back of the clock was an obscure-looking thermometer. According to Wednesday, it was the heart of the machine, what allowed time travel. The whole thing was a just a super complex jigsaw puzzle. The directions were not much of a help either. Of course they were written in old English. Yippee. Not only did I have to work through directions written by someone with a ridiculously extensive vocabulary, but they were intimidating. I felt duped. I mean, whoever wrote these instructions was a pro.
In early July, the conversation turned to the very subject I wanted to avoid. Time travel. Not only was I still seriously doubting that it would actually work, I didn't understand. And I had never understood before. Time travel movies, books, or anything else I couldn't wrap my mind around. I mean, the details turned me around until I didn't know which way was up and which way was down. But I had to find out.
"Hmm?" She turned to me, large robin egg eyes inquisitive. Wednesday was playing dumb. She knew exactly what I was asking about.
"Why do you want to go back in time?"
She paused and leaned against the chilled garage walls and closed her eyes. She let out a sigh like a train as it slowed to stop in the station.
"I knew this was coming. No avoiding it, I suppose." She started playing with the page of the book opened on her lap, rubbing the page between her thumb and index finger. "I guess I've never really fit in here. Not just here, but in this world. I-I don't like the technology. I don't like this neighborhood." She gestured with a sweeping motion to the scene around us. Box houses painted in all the same whites and beiges, grass cut within an inch of its life, and pavement everywhere. It was your typical suburban neighborhood.
"You know, Great Uncle Robbie sometimes talks about this land before it became a neighborhood. It was beautiful and wild and I've always wanted to see it. There were sycamore trees everywhere. Sycamore trees have always been my favorite, I love them. I want to press my ears to the ground and listen to the Earth's lungs breathe without choking on our… mess. I want to dance amongst the sycamores."
As she said those words, so passionately, so painfully honest, I couldn't help but silently agree.
And so, the days marched on. People, namely my parents and sister, started to notice that Wednesday was coming over to the garage every day. Needless to say, my family wouldn't hear the end of it.
"Petie's got a girl, Daddy," my older sister Kim joked one day over meatloaf and coleslaw.
"I know, I've seen her. Isn't that Old Man Allen's granddaughter or something?"
"Grandniece, actually." I corrected, talking into my meat loaf.
"That old loon's always been bit off. Ever since I've met him. You watch out for that girl, Petie. You know what they say; the apple doesn't fall far from the tree."
My fist clenched around my fork so hard my knuckles turned white, but I said nothing.
"Frank, leave the girl alone," Mom scolded.
"What? I didn't say anything," Dad defended.
"Well I think its sweet, Petie." Mom smiled warmly.
"Mom, I'm not hot for Wednesday Allen." At that point in the meal, my face resembled a tomato.
"Whatever you say, Sweetie." Mom winked at me with a never-in-a-million-years-would-I-believe-you-look. I pretended not to notice.
Between my sister and father, the teasing never ceased. I shook it off, I rolled my eyes whenever anyone brought it up, but I was starting to wonder. Did she really have to leave? If this whole thing, this whole crazy ridiculous scheme would actually work, did I want it to? Her smile was so breathtaking. Her hair, which was in unbrushed dark spirals. Her heart shaped face. The way her voice could bend and flex when reading passages in books. The way she twirled to the records she played.
August came around before anyone really expected it to. The heat waves rolled in and the temperature climbed to a scorching 105 degrees. Things went on as usual. Wednesday came over, read her books, played her records. I tinkered, finally starting to understand the machine. On nights of unexpected insomnia I would creep down to the garage and fiddle until my eyelids felt like lead. Complex as it was, the contraption wasn't special because it was a time machine. It just took patience, which is what I had when it came to fixing things. Finally, it was by my judgment, fixed. The directions seemed complete enough, there were no more pieces askew. When Wednesday saw, she jumped up and down on her heels, squealing and hugging me so hard I thought my eyes were going to pop out. But of course, the completion left even more questions unanswered.
"How will you do it?" I inquired.
"Well, that's where I once again ask for your help."
"I'll need you to bolt it to my wagon."
"You think that's going to work?"
"I want you to know I'm putting a lot in faith here."
Wednesday wrapped her arms around me, her beautiful eyes starting to water. "Oh Peter, thank you, thank you, thank you. You saved my life."
"Sure," was all I could say, which for the record was a pretty damn lame thing to say after accomplishing something that was considered science fiction.
"And now," Wednesday said, reaching into her pocket, "here is your money. I guess I'm leaving tomorrow, so take it now."
Three hundred dollars. God in heaven. Those lovely eyes urged me to take it all, the whole roll of twenties. I deserved it. I spent my summer on a crack-pot plan just to get to that very moment, the moment where I excepted the cash and bought a lifetime supply of sour apple hard candy. Imagine my surprise when I discovered I didn't want any of it. Imagine my sorrow when I realized that this was also the moment, the moment where she would leave forever, was the one I had been dreading all summer.
"No," I refused firmly. That was the end of it. "Now if you excuse me, I have a time machine to build." And finally, it was all over. I finished the entire job just as the sun finished its stroll across the mid-August sky. The wagon and time piece were one. I felt a mix of feelings, glorious victory, pride, gloom, regret, all rolled up into one sort of emotion taco I was being force-fed. So when Wednesday came walking over the next day, I met her halfway across the cul-de-sac. She carried with her two suitcases, one with clothes, one so full of books, it wouldn't close. She waved as I approached, wearing the smile that I found myself infatuated by, the one that barely fit into the frame of her face.
"Hey!" She said cheerily. "I've got my stuff, I'm ready to go. Today's the day."
"No," I shook my head vigorously. "Today is not the day."
"W-why not? Didn't you finish?"
"Yes, but that's not what I mean. Don't leave. Don't time travel. Stay."
"Peter, I can't."
"Peter, I don't belong here, I never have."
"What about your Grand Uncle?"
"He wants me to go, he will die soon and leave me all alone, he says I should go."
"What about me? What about us?"
"Peter, darling, we never were meant to be. There's someone out there who is right for you."
"No, no there isn't."
"Yes, yes there is. Please believe in that."
"Wednesday, I won't let you go." By this point, my face was red, my voice was raised. She just looked at me helplessly. "You must stay here, I won't let you go!"
Taking my hands in hers, she shook her head. "Peter." She spoke firmly and slowly. "Let me be free." I was crying. She was too. "I was born too late, Peter. I was born out of order. You have given me the chance to go home. Now let me go. There's somewhere I need to be. Let. Me. Be. Free."
I stood there silent for a long time. There really was no other answer than 'yes.' In my heart, I knew that I had to let her go. She didn't belong. She deserved to go back to a time where she belonged. When Mosey Falls was wild. If I loved her, I would let her go free. And I loved her more than I thought was possible.
"Okay. If it makes you happy."
"Thank you. Thank you, thank you, thank you." Then she leaned in and kissed me, (on the lips,) and I led her dazed to the garage. I helped her into seat of the red wagon and stashed her suit cases in securely. Wednesday turned around to the time piece and turned the hands to 6:03:024, August 17th, 1920. I held my breath. Suddenly, the hands started to move on their own, counter clockwise, getting faster and faster. She gazed up to me, eyes shining with a happiness I had never seen before. Overwhelming.
"Goodbye, Peter. And thank you."
And then she was gone. In a flash, of white light, there was nothing left. I was alone in the cool of the garage amongst wrenches, nuts, and bolts. Truly alone.
The weeks that followed were a surreal fun house of emptiness. I felt nothing inside me. No grief, certainly not happiness. Instead, I felt the absence of emotion. Like someone had carved out my heart without my knowing. And that was the heaviest feeling of all. My mother, father, and sister took note of my depression and had the sense to leave me alone. I became sort of a hermit, staying in my room for days on end, only leaving to use the bathroom. I was angry. How could she have done that to me? Leaving when she meant so much to me and knew it too? I would never forgive her. Not ever.
My family finally dragged me out of my room in time for the town's 75th birthday party. Every year, Mosey Falls has its annual barbecue and picnic in town square celebrating its birthday. The town wasn't incredibly old, founded in just 1934. Anyways, people flocked to town square to celebrate just the same. It was so crowded, you constantly felt like the person behind you was breathing down your neck. There we stood, an entire town, in our khaki shorts and cotton t-shirts, shielding our eyes from the sun. The festival brought many things, hot dogs and hamburger patties sizzling on a grill, a week long carnival, and mandatory attendance in my parent's eyes. Every day for the entire week, they forced me into the car early in the morning and didn't let my come home until the last of the daily festivities were over. I played along in their puppet show. I rode the Ferris Wheel like a dutiful son, I ate cotton candy and laughed. I watched the musical performances and clapped politely when the musicians finished and grinned hungrily out to the crowd, eager for applause. I spoke in a tone of falsetto happiness and faked smiles left and right. My parents were satisfied, and I was off the hook.
I was exhausted to say the least when the end of the week was upon us and the closing ceremony came around. The citizens of Mosey Falls once again met at the town square for the final event. I came anxious to the square, desperate to get home and go to my room and never leave my bed ever again.
Things were chaotic in the square, people gathering around a patch of lawn in the green. Mildly curious, I pushed my way through the crowd. A couple volunteers were digging a hole, slicing the freshly cut grass with their shovels.
"W-what are they doing?" I asked the woman next to me, who was bouncing a gurgling infant on one hip.
"Don't you know? It's this time capsule that the founders of Mosey Falls left behind for us! They wanted it to be dug up on the town's 75th birthday!" She turned her attention to her baby, who was starting to cry.
I watched intensely as the volunteers wiped sweat from their brows and dug into the ground's flesh. Finally, they whooped with enthusiasm, sending a fizzle of excitement through the crowd, and pulled up a box. It wasn't a big box, but it was a secure one. Colored a faded scarlet, the paint was chipping. People crowded in closer. One volunteer handed the box to the proud mayor. He stood on a podium, holding up the time capsule for everyone to see and then, finally, opening it.
"It's a series of pictures!" He proclaimed grandly. "Wait, there's something else. It's a note…"
The crowd turned to each other and started whispering amongst themselves with uncontainable excitement.
"All right, all right, settle down now, let's see what it says," the Mayor said. "Hmmm. That's interesting. It's addressed to a Peter Fowler." My blood ran cold. "Dear Peter," the Mayor read aloud. "Thank you for saving me. I have had a wonderful journey, and I know I will love this life. Now go live your own. Love and kisses, W."
I slowly raised my hand. "Sir," I called, my voice frail and trembling. "M-my name is Peter Fowler."
The Mayor stared at me for a long moment. He eventually gestured to the podium. "Well then young man, you might want to get a closer look."
Nodding, I came shaking up to the podium, everyone's eyes on me. Looking inside, the red box, my heart did a back flip. It was her. Black and white photos. She was in every one. Driving an old automobile with a tall, grinning man, her eyes widened with terror but clearly loving the thrill. One with her running around a field with a two girls and a large, hairy dog. In another she was getting married. In another she was cradling a two-year old girl in her arms. In the next she had her back turned to the camera and was looking at the ocean, the wind ruffling her hair and the folds of her polka-dot dress. In the last, she was sitting in a rocking chair, wearing that same smile that barely fit in the frame of her face, laughing at a joke told off camera. She was older, but I could see that she had aged well. Smile crinkles formed around her eyes, and she looked as if in total bliss. I had never seen her look so merry.
"Well, young man, what do you think?" The Mayor asked, his voice pulling me back down to Earth.
"I think I had better keep this one," I said holding up the last photo.
He smiled at me knowingly, as if we were both in on some kind of secret. "I think you'd better do just that."
That night, I framed the picture and stared at it from my bed. I didn't sleep at all, not for a second. Instead, I got up at the crack of dawn and rode my bicycle down to the nursery just out of town. The fact that the place was even open so early was a miracle in itself. There I bought a little sycamore tree, the runt of its division. A tree that needed love. I figured that I would never see Wednesday again, and I would never witness time travel again, but maybe, just maybe, the sycamore trees would grow in Mosey Falls again. I rode home, steering the bike with one hand and cradling the little sapling with the other. I got home when my mother was just pouring the morning coffee. It was 8:00 am.
I planted a sycamore tree in the garden during my 15th summer for a girl I once loved. I planted it, and it grew. It grew indeed.