It’s a lonely thing being stuck in time. Denny knew the protocol for a time machine malfunction, and he followed it to the letter. At first.
The time machine stood in the top secret underground hangar in Quantico. Built in anticipation of time travel, there were thirty-six spots where a time machine could land according to a strict spatially varied calendar. The system was designed to prevent time machines from appearing on the same place at the same time.
Denny had set the machine to take him to March 9, 2007 for the unremarkable mission of handing a man an autographed Mark Lemongello baseball card. The reasons for it were long and convoluted, and Denny didn’t care. The time machine’s breakdown effectively aborted the attempt, and, if the chronometer was correct, dropped him in May 17, 2013. About three and a half years from his true time.
The hangar was completely empty. It would be astonishing luck if another time machine showed up precisely then, but the empty space was not enough to contain his disappointment and frustration. By his watch he’d seen his wife, Mary, and kids three hours ago, and he missed them intensely. He opened the only visible door and started the long walk through the tunnel to a townhouse in Garrisonville reserved as a safehouse.
The foremost objective of the protocol was to avoid being seen by anyone, and absolutely avoiding friends and family, not to mention oneself. A military maid service with top secret clearance checked the townhouse every Wednesday at two o’clock P.M., assuring it was clean and stocked with fresh food. At that time of day, the time traveler was to lock himself into the basement and await their departure. Otherwise he could enjoy all the amenities of the house, including a workout room, a workshop in the basement, a copious library of books, movies, and video games.
For emergencies, he had a special FBI service number and a stack of cash in the closet.
If he was lucky, the time machine would have synchronized it’s beacon with the time markers installed since 2009, signaling his colleagues when he was, so they could rescue him. However, being two whole years earlier than the first marker and considering the condition of the time machine, that was unlikely. He would just have to wait and hope that another mission would arrive in the hangar, see his time machine, and rescue him. They would certainly come get him at the safehouse were that the case, but he visited the hangar every day to check for himself.
Time travel was new, but Denny expected there would be any number of missions that would occur before he reached his true time in three years and four months, so he kept up hope, made some furniture, read a lot of books, and stayed put. There was nothing he could imagine more lonely.
When no time machine had arrived in four months, his anxiety heightened, and he had trouble sleeping. He paced the townhouse and went up the stairs like a caged animal. He just wanted to see his wife and kids. If only for a moment.
Not able to stand it any longer, he left the safehouse and took a cab to Woodbridge. He walked a block to his house, lurked in his own backyard like a thief, and peaked in his windows like a pervert. His daughter, Diane, did homework at the dining room table, his son, Henry, pushed around Jenga sticks with a toy bulldozer, and his wife cooked dinner while chatting with someone on her cellphone. His contemporary self replaced a sound card on one of his computers. Denny couldn’t see the card, but he remembered doing it.
He marveled at the fact that he was accessing a memory that his other self was making right at that moment. Then he seethed. His other self was going to talk to Mary about his work, help Diane with her homework, and spend time tickling Henry, and because of that younger Denny, this older one was unable to. Resentment overwhelmed him. He went back to the safe house, bewildered and broken. He did not understand how to reconcile the situation and wallowed in self-pity.
He threw himself into woodwork and metalwork—his prison privileges, never quite pulling his mind away from his younger self, who was enjoying every moment of his life. The older Denny felt like his mind was rending into several traumatically severed pieces, not one able to reconcile with the others. He started writing in a diary, but his fragmented thoughts frequently degenerated into writing the word ‘reconcile’ again and again.
Misery and loneliness were his closest acquaintances, always with him, filling every day with a dull stare at a blank wall. He took to praying when he could find the energy, grasping at anything that might give him hope, even taking some solace in the Bible, and in some strange, maniacal way took small moments of joy watching ‘Third Rock from the Sun’ reruns he used to see with his wife. Those were the meager gasps of air that saved him from drowning in depression.
On February 17, 2014, Jay Speicher came through the tunnel door in the basement while Denny chiseled fittings for a chair.
“Hey! We found you.” Jay smiled.
Denny felt like he was in a dream as Jay guided him back to the hangar and returned him home in the other time machine—a single hour after the time he’d left.
When he arrived home, tears filled his eyes and his heart melted. Mary ran to him. She knew. He could see it in her eyes.
“How long?” she asked.
She gasped and put her fingers to her mouth. “I’m so sorry.” Mary cupped the back of Denny’s head in her hands. “How are you?”
“Confused,” he said. “I had… I had troublesome resentments for the man who just left.”
He drank in her face, and for the first time in many months, he smiled with eyes and mouth, sorry for what awaited the poor younger Denny. “Not any more.” Pity reconciled resentment and restored his sanity.