Second Chances

(Inspired by this writing prompt.)

Comments and critiques are always welcome.

Everyone has fantasies. It’s part of being human. There are regrets, there are what ifs, there are might-have-beens, there are maybes. They regret the words that were never said. What if they had been there, when it really mattered? What might have been? Maybe they would have a better life now.

Maybe they would be better men now.

For Sean, it had been twenty-seven years, and what did he have to show for that? A drone job, buzzing around a small space for a 8 hours a day. The type of job that’s done because it’s there–and not in some noble, George Mallory-type way. Not because someone wants to do it, but because someone will do it. The type of job that might even be excusable if it was something he did to get by, so that he could spend the rest of his time doing what he enjoyed. But it wasn’t that. It had instead become the defining feature of a rudderless life. He didn’t do that whole enjoyment thing. He lived alone, in a small, poorly lit apartment. He ate every meal out of a bowl, and he watched bad TV.

There was one exception, one thing that did for himself. He listened to his father’s old vinyl, on his father’s old stereo. They were all Sean had from his father, a few stacks of strange experimental blues-rock, of funky, offbeat jazz, or psychedelic prog-rock so obscure that it wasn’t even a conversation starter. They were his father’s legacy. Sean would sit with his eyes closed, with his headphones on, and he’d try desperately to understand what he heard. Sometimes, he thought that he might find the bottom, touch it with his feet, but for the most part he could only tread water aimlessly. In his ears the music was dissonant, random sounds that never fell in line, lyrics–when there were lyrics at all–that seemed to be nothing more than the ramblings of someone on a particularly bad trip. He had listened sober, he had listened drunk, he had listened high, but the music never put itself together for him.

That was as close as he came to a hobby. Torturing himself with his father’s music in the vain hope that it would tell him something about the man. It was the only means he had left. His father had died when Sean was only fourteen years old, when Sean was a child, and his father was only his father. That was the extent of their relationship. Years later, while he was cleaning out the basement for his mother, Sean found the records. He found notebooks of poetry, and a dusty keyboard that had never once been played in his presence, as far as he could remember. Sean asked her about those things, and she told him that his father had given them up when Sean was born. He had put his life away and gotten a job, which is how Sean knew him from beginning to end.

“Sounds like a pretty shitty way to live, Sean.” said Anna.

They were in a bustling little Korean restaurant, sitting across from each other over a narrow laminate table. Sean had agreed to come out and eat with her here, and was being careful to not mention the odd smells, or the loud K-pop playing out of a scratchy iPod dock mounted behind the cashier. He was trying to simply take in a new experience with a new friend.

He didn’t get out very much.

“It’s like, I don’t know,” said Sean. “It’s like, I wish he could have, just once, talked to me. You know? Me. Not his kid, not the mouth he was feeding, or whatever else he thought of me as. I wasn’t a real person yet when I was fourteen. If that makes sense.”

“It does,” said Anna as she picked up a piece of kimchi with her chopsticks and popped it into her mouth. Kimchi is essentially over-spiced and rotting cabbage. Sean knew that, because he’d looked it up before meeting her here. It was supposed to be good for you, but it both looked and smelled just as he expected over-spiced rotting cabbage to smell, and he wasn’t going to have any part of it.

Anna was someone he met a little while ago. He’d picked up her computer bag after she’d left it in the coffee shop he stopped in every morning before work, he’d called the number printed on the little tag inside, and they’d met that evening, at the same coffee shop, so that he could return it. For whatever reason, they’d also struck up a conversation, and Anna insisted on seeing him again. It had have been her, because that’s not something Sean would ever do. He didn’t regret becoming friends with her, really, but it had made his life a lot stranger. Eating Korean food was only the latest in a string of new experiences, and also something Sean would never have done on his own. A week ago he didn’t even know there were Korean restaurants around that he could go to.

When she started making significant chopstick gestures toward a small dish of what looked (and also smelled, even with that kimchi hanging in the air) like tiny, dried out fish, Sean panicked a little, and trying to deflect attention, he said, “What about you?”

She looked at him with large green eyes, vibrant with a curious intelligence. Sean often felt like there was something else going on behind those eyes. Plus, they were really nice to look at. So was the rest of her face, the way it was framed just so by her short brown hair, the way the corner of her lips always seemed slightly raised, as if there was something amusing that only she could see. It made it difficult to not stare. Not that he would ever say that to her. She already thought he was boring, he was sure, and he didn’t need her thinking he was creepy as well. “What about me?” she said at last.

He shrugged. “What about your life?” She had never once talked about even what she did for work.

“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you,” she said, and gave a little elvish grin.

“Oh,” said Sean. He drank some water, fixed the angle of his spoon on top of his napkin.

Then Anna burst out laughing. Sean looked up, startled. “Come on dude,” she said. “Don’t be so goddamned serious about it. I’m not admonishing you for asking. I just mean you probably wouldn’t believe what I have to say.”

Sean felt his face flush, and he was a little more defensive than he’d have liked when he said, “Try me.”

Which is when their food arrived. Anna had ordered the gamjatang, a bowl of stewed pork neck bones in a bright red broth that was still boiling as it was set on the table. It was supposed to be very spicy, according to what Sean read online. He had ordered the bibimbap, which came as a bowl of mixed veggies and beef over rice, and a fried egg on top of that. It had seemed like the most accessible dish on the menu, but now he wasn’t so sure. The conversation was abandoned while Anna poked and jabbed at her neck bones, trying to scrape away the meat before piling them in an empty bowl that had been provided. Sean spent a long time prodding his dish with a spoon. In the end, he managed to eat the fried egg, some beef, and a bit of the rice. He told the very nice Korean woman who cleared their table afterwards that the food was great, but he was feeling a little ill. He wasn’t sure she understood, or even heard him over the noise of the gang of students in the next booth. He left a generous tip.

They walked together for a while. Sean offered to call a taxi, but Anna said she needed to walk off the meal. It was a warm evening, still not fully dark yet, though a large moon hung in the sky already. They passed a bar, and the sound of a steady house beat spilled into the street for a moment as a couple of young men shoved the doors open and stumbled onto the sidewalk. Sean stepped wide, grazing against the newspaper vending machines at the curb. Anna walked straight, passing the men with less than an arm’s distance between them. They both stood and watched her go by. She looked at them and nodded her head, and they dutifully returned the gesture.

Sean swerved back to Anna’s side, and she poked him playfully in the ribs with an elbow. Without thinking, he poked her back, and she stumbled to the side, laughing out loud as he reached out to catch her fake fall. She was a strange person, and for the hundredth time he wondered why she was hanging out with him.

Eventually, they had walked far enough, and Anna stopped outside a large condo. “This is me,” she said, and stood there, looking at him.

“Okay,” he said. “Bye.”

She stood there for a few more seconds, and then turned to walk inside. “Wait,” Sean called. She turned back. “You never answered my question. You know, about your life. You don’t have to, I know that, but I did want to know.”

Anna  took a few steps forward, till she was standing right in front of him. Sean looked down at her, met her eyes. “How about I show you?”

Which seemed an odd way to respond to that sort of question. “Sure,” Sean said.

They passed a doorman on the way in. “Ma’am,” he said, tipping his hat to Anna as he opened the door. Sean nodded at him, and the doorman gave him an odd look. Was that pity?

A modern elevator carried them smoothly up to the penthouse apartment. It was a large, open space, with high, vaulted ceilings. It looked expensive, but lacked something. Sean thought it must be uncomfortable, but couldn’t identify any specific part of it that told him that. The furniture was soft and white, the carpet was deep enough to leave footprints in. There was soft lighting, and plenty of windows. Even the counter tops, all smooth marble and stainless steel, were pleasant to look at, and perfectly spaced.

Anna tossed her jacket down on a couch as Sean was removing his own jacket and looking for a place to hang it. There was a closet next to the door, and he slid it open. It was empty. There wasn’t even an old coat hanger. There were no shoes on the shelf next to the door, either. That’s when he realized what made the apartment feel so off. It had all of the trappings of a home, a place where somebody lived, but it was clearly not a home, not a place where anyone had ever lived. The bookshelves were full of cardboard cutouts, the art on the walls looked like placeholders. The fruit bowl on the kitchen island was empty, and the large TV in the living area wasn’t even plugged in.

“Follow me,” said Anna, and Sean did.

She led the way back to a closed door. Inside there was everything Sean expect to find in an expensively done up master bedroom, except for the bed itself.

Instead, there was a metal cylinder the size of a large SUV set on its back end. Anna walked up to it, hit a button that was suddenly just hanging in the air, and the cylinder opened itself up, an entire half of its outer shell sliding away. Inside was a space like the inside of an elevator, large enough for a group of people to stand in comfortably.

“Well,” said Anna. “What do you think?” She waved an arm theatrically around, like the woman who introduces the prizes on a cheesy game show.

“What is it?” Sean asked, because what else could he ask?

“It’s a time machine,” said Anna matter-of-factly, like she was telling him the make and model of her washing machine.

“A time machine?” he repeated.

“A time machine,” She said again.

“Okay,” He said. “It’s a time machine.”

Anna grinned. “Want a demonstration?”

“Okay,” he said. “Give me a demonstration.”

So she did. She stepped into the machine, the walls closed up around her, there was a brief humming sound and the feeling of intense, electric pressure. Sean’s ears popped. Then the machine opened up and she stepped back out, wearing different clothes and holding a crisp, new newspaper. He knew that paper had stopped printing years ago, and the issue she held was dated to August 7th, 1929, She also had a brand new Detective Comics #27–the first ever appearance of Batman, printed in 1939–and what looked like an original run print of an album from some obscure late ’70s blues band that Sean only recognized from the beat up copy in his father’s collection. He examined every inch of the metal cylinder, but found no trap doors or hidden spaces, and, after needing a glass of water and some fresh air on the roof, he decided that Anna was just the kind of strange person who, in dreams, might be a time traveller.

“Now what?” Sean asked her as he leaned heavily against the safety railing and stared down into the city below, a valley of moving lights and sounds. He was having trouble focusing on anything in particular, his mind only wanting to see that machine and the possibilities it represented.

“That’s up to you,” said Anna as she moved to stand beside him.

Sean looked at her. His instinct was to mistrust her, even now. There had to be something else going on, even if he didn’t know what it was. Still, she had just shown him a time machine. That’s not the kind of thing someone does without intent, without consideration. It had been her choice to bring him here, and now it was her choice to ask him what he wanted to do. “You can take me back?” he asked, because it seemed polite to ask. “Back, into the past. Any time I want?”

Anna beamed at him and nodded her head. “Any time you want to go to.”

“Ancient Rome?” he said, though it wasn’t where he wanted to go.

“That’s a little more complicated,” she told him. “We can go back, but it’s a time machine, not a space machine. We’ll still be right here. Think H.G. Wells, not Doctor Who. If you want to see Caesar cross the Rubicon then we’d need to walk, and that’s a pretty long walk.”

He nodded. They were stuck to this geographical place. A bit disappointing, perhaps, but it didn’t change what he was going to ask next. “Would you take me back to 1982?”

“I would,” she said, as if that was what she’d been expecting him to ask. “But there will be a cost.”

“Like, I can never come back?”

“No,” she said, with the hint of a laugh. “Nothing like that. And not money, either, if that’s what you’re thinking.”

“Okay,” said Sean. “Then let’s go.”

The sensation from the inside of the machine was wholly different from what Sean had felt standing outside of it. There was no pressure, no hum. There was barely anything to tell him that the machine was working. Anna had pressed a button, which had appeared out of thin air like the one she’d used to open the machine, and after entering the exact date he specified into a dial nearby, she pressed the button again. He felt a moment of gentle vibration under his feet, no longer than the span of a heartbeat. Anna pressed another pop-up button, and the machine’s wall slid open.

Anna stepped out, and then offered him a hand. Sean took a step forward, and then was assaulted by an intense sense of vertigo. It crashed into him like a physical wave, and he reeled, unable to keep his balance as the ground he stood on tilted violently. He reached out to steady himself, and found Anna’s hand. “Relax,” she said. “It happens the first time. It will pass.”

It did pass, and a few minutes later Sean stepped out into the bedroom, the same bedroom as before, but also different. He followed Anna out into the apartment, and saw the same space refurnished and redecorated with the styles of a different era. Mirrored glass and polished chrome dominated, filling the place with angles and edges. There was a large CRT TV, also not plugged in, where the flat screen had been before. Outside it was as dark as it had been when they’d left. “All we need now is some coke and a Betamax player,” he muttered.

“Oh, I’ve got one of those,” said Anna, gesturing vaguely toward a closed cabinet next to the TV. “Stay here for a second,” she told him, and then went back into the bedroom. A few minutes later she came back out, accompanied by a strong scent of hairspray, wearing a new outfit, and with her short hair imbued with spiky volume. She tossed him a plastic bag filled with clothes, and soon he was examining himself over in one of the living room mirrors, marvelling at how silly pastels looked on him, and wondering if Miami Vice had even begun airing yet.

It was her turn to say, “Now what?”

“We’re in the exact same place, right?” said Sean.

“We are,” said Anna.

They took the elevator down to the lobby. It wavered uncertainly as it stopped to let other passengers on–a broad-shouldered yuppie with a fake tan and his girlfriend, hair blown out into a cotton-candy mane–and rocked gently as it descended. The doorman tipped his cap at them as he opened the door. “Evening,” he said.

Out on the street, Sean watched blocky cars pass, engines chugging noisily. Crowds of people walked the streets, and there wasn’t a smartphone in sight. He breathed in the air. It tasted different to him. He thought it was air that he never could have tasted otherwise, and it was a strangely foreign experience that banished any lingering doubts about what was going on. He checked the dates of the papers in nearby racks. They all said it was 1982.

Anna was hovering beside him, clearly waiting for him to lead the way. So he did. He followed the route they had taken from the Korean restaurant, until they were back at the bar they’d passed. Live music leaked into the street, and there was a heavy, pulsating buzz, an energy field that wrapped around the building and extended outward like a gravity well, tugging at anyone who walked by. Sean felt it pulling him, and he did not resist. Anna followed him inside.

Sean had been into this bar before, a few times. He remembered it as a rowdy, wooden space with garish lighting. It was the place where the collage kids went to drink bad liquor and listen to repetitive, overproduced music that was all chirpy, electronic highs and overbearing bass thump lows, so digitally compressed that it came out of the speakers like an angry mob, every note and beat pressed tightly against the next as they demanded to be heard. The kind of place where he couldn’t hold a conversation, and wouldn’t find anyone he’d want to converse with anyway. Now, though, it was a completely different place. He had to resist the urge to cough as he took a deep breath and got a lung full of the cloud of cigarette smoke that hung like a fog in the poorly lit room, a haze that obscured the walls, the corners, creating the impression of an intimate gathering in a boundless expanse. Almost everyone he could see was puffing away on something, and there was an ashtray at every table. He would have to get closer. He had to see the band.

Anna found them a table right away, even though the place was crowded, surprisingly close to the stage, and ordered them some drinks after they sat down. Sean barely noticed any of that, because he was too busy staring at the stage, a low platform that seemed more like it was designed to be a tripping hazard rather than a performance area. Up there was a tall, rail-thin man wearing a red smoking jacket over a bare chest that was glistening with sweat as he aggressively slapped at a bass guitar. He knew that jacket, had seen it laying moth-eaten in the attic. He knew that man, had seen him looking implacable, with eyes that bore the weight of authority and the duty of punishment. He had seen him as the one who gave orders, who was obeyed, who had responsibilities, who was always–even in the few quiet, personal moments–a man who could be appeased, or rebelled against, or even manipulated, but never understood.

Sean was watching his father, watching him do the things that he had only heard stories about.

Anna sat next to him, but said nothing. Not that Sean would have heard her. Mouth open, he stared at his father, not even seeing the rest of the band as his eyes become more and more focused, and watched the way he moved, the way he responded to the music. It was an alien vision, the uncanny valley, as his brain tried to process what he was experiencing. His father, who stood straight, who had occupied Sean’s life like a pillar, an obstacle that always had to be accounted for. Who would occasionally smile for a family photograph, if he was asked nicely. He was scrambling wildly around the stage, a huge grin on his face as he dictated the song’s groove–a raucous, train-track pulse that had the entire building shaking. Without realizing it, Sean began to tap his foot in time, and slapped his palms on the table when he began to anticipate the next movement in the music. Drinks were delivered, and ignored. Sean sat in rapturous awe for the entire set, never once looking away from the man he had come to see.

When it was finally over, Sean closed his eyes, a long, luxurious moment of total darkness. Eyes open, and he was still there. The room was still filled with the cheers and applause of the other patrons. It was not a dream. He smiled, and thought to himself that he finally understood–or was at least on the road to understanding–those records. This was not music that demanded attention, it was music that required it. It was not a tailored and tested, not prepackaged and prefabricated. It was a fevered expression. It was the result of work, and needed to be worked at to be understood. There was something personal and confidential in that, like he’d been told a secret, like he was part of a relationship. Sean felt his eyes moisten, and it had nothing to do with the smoke.

“What is it?” asked Anna, and he suddenly remembered that he was not alone.

“That was–is–my father,” said Sean. “The bass player.”

She nodded and sipped at her drink.

“I don’t know how to really describe it,” he said. “It’s like, how can I say it? It’s like, just having heard that, he’s told me more about himself than he ever did while I knew him.”

Anna smiled at him, a mischievous glint in her eyes. “How would you like to know him even better?”

Before Sean could respond, she had left the table, walked confidently to the stage, where the band was putting their instruments away, and caught the attention of his father as he was unplugging an amp. She leaned in and began talking to him, making gestures toward the table where Sean still sat, frozen in place. A minute later, they walked back to the table together. His father pulled up an extra chair as Anna ordered another round. A rum and coke for his father. Sean almost mouthed the words himself.

“Hey man,” said his father, offering him a hand across the table. “Name’s Eddy.”

“Sean,” said Sean, and took the hand, matching the grip, trying to shake once, properly. He didn’t have much experience with handshakes. It was one of those things that you learned from your father, he’d always thought. He really hoped that he wasn’t messing it up.

His father withdrew his hand and smiled. “Nice to meet you, Sean.”

Sean imagined that if he was the type who went to dinners and parties he’d have to answer one of those questions like, “If you could invite anyone, alive or dead, out for coffee or beers, or dinner, who would it be?” He’d lie, say someone perfectly tailored, like Joseph Heller, a name that people might recognize, or might not, but that would dovetail into another conversation. A deflection tactic, of sorts. He sure as hell would not have said, “My dad.”

But he sure as hell would have wanted to.

They sat together, huddled close to be heard over the general din of the bar, and for a while Sean couldn’t speak. He saw the scene superimposed on his childhood. Eddy, as he called himself now–who had been an Edward in their house, and Dad, or Sir, for Sean–was both this sweaty, energetic man, all open, boxy grins and slow, friendly nods, and the man who Sean had always looked up to. Literally, as he had been taller–or, more accurately, Sean had been shorter–the entire time Sean had known him. Clean shaven then, wearing at least a month’s worth of scruffy, dark beard now, his father looked around the room, looked as if he was searching for the next thing that would ignite him, that would inspire him.

It was that literal perspective shift that he found really threw him off. Sean sat, ramrod straight, propped up by unconscious memories of being scolded for his posture, and looked straight across the table at his father. Not up at him. Their eyes were level with each other, equal to each other. That new perspective also broke him out of his past. As Anna made polite chit-chat noises, Sean folded his childhood into itself, breaking it down so that it no longer blocked his view. The Eddy across the table from him was the Eddy he had always wanted to get to know.

And so he did. He opened his mouth, and after stumbling over a few words, he began to talk to the man. To ask him questions, to find out about who he really was, just then, just as another man. He thought that every son must wonder what that would be like. He had thought about it often: without everything else, would my father want to know me? Would he like me? Would he respect me?

Drinking in a noisy bar may not be the best place to truly get to know someone, or it might be the best place. A few drinks in, and Eddy was laughing, telling stories, clapping his big hands against the table for emphasis. He even laughed at a joke Sean told. Just a flippant remark that popped into his head, something he would never had said at their dinner table. His father guffawed, he swore. He stomped his feet and let out a howl, “It’s a great fucking night to be alive!”

They were there for hours, or minutes, or days. Time was expanding and contracting around Sean all at once, until it became a wake behind him. As suddenly as it had begun, it was over. Eddy had to leave, the bar was going to close soon anyway. He had promised his girlfriend he’d be home before morning. She didn’t come to his shows, he said. Well, she had come to one of them, but it wasn’t for her. He didn’t mind that at all. He loved that about her. She was his rock, his home base. He would do anything for her. “Even give this up,” he said, gesturing around the bar. “But she doesn’t mind, either, so no worries there, man.”

“What if she got pregnant?” Sean asked.

“A kid? Man, I don’t even know. Hah, you know she actually asked me about that the other night? ‘What if I’m pregnant?’ she says. I mean, she doesn’t mind this, the band, but, yeah, a real job? Fuck, crazier things have happened.”

“I think you would be a good father,” said Sean.

Eddy looked at him, eyes narrowing slightly, then snorted in amusement. “You’re a crazy dude, Sean.”

Then Anna stood, followed by Eddy, and finally Sean. They shook hands again, and then, as if his body was moving by instinct alone–and not his instinct, because Sean was not the touchy type–Sean felt himself pulling on the hand, jerking his father forward until they were close enough to embrace. There was a single, solid moment of resistance, and then they were slapping each other on the back, once, twice, three times. They backed away, and he could see the look of honest surprise in Eddy’s eyes. Sean opened his mouth, “I don’t–.”

“You’re a crazy dude, Sean,” his father said again, and smiled. “But I’m glad I met you.”

Then he left, and Sean fell heavily into his chair. His knees felt like rubber, and he could not stop his hands from shaking as he reached for his drink.

“We should go,” said Anna, placing herself back into the scene. Sean had almost forgotten she was there.

“Yeah,” said Sean. His shirt was still damp where his chest had pressed against his father’s.

They left the bar and walked back to the condo. Anna nodded at the doorman, “Ma’am,” he said. They took the elevator up the penthouse. They changed back into their original clothes, Anna keeping her hair the way it was. Anna opened the time machine up again.

“Are you ready?” she asked him. Her face was placid, her eyes watchful in the bedroom’s diffused lighting.

He knew he was still shaking slightly from the bar, but he was taking deep, steady breaths. “I’m ready,” he said, and then followed her inside.

She set the date on the dial to July 31st, 2000.

“Wait, what are you doing?” asked Sean. “Aren’t we going back to the present?”

Anna looked at him, eyes focused and bright. “No,” she said, and she watched for his reaction.

He looked back, quite sure what was going on, still in the flush of the previous moment. “What did you say to my father?” he asked at last. “Did you say something to him, about me? Did you lie to him about me? Say I was dying or something? Is that why he was being nice to me?”

“No,” she said.

“Then why did he come to our table?”

“Because he knows me,” she said. “We’d met before.”

“What?” Sean asked. “How? Where?”

She only shook her head, eyes cast down, toward his feet. “I can’t tell you that.”

Sean was quiet for a while. He felt as if he couldn’t press the issue. “I guess I have to accept that, Anna,” he told her, “but not this.” He pointed at the date. “Tell me why we’re going to that time.”

“I told you there would be a price, Sean,” she said, letting out a great sigh. “This is that price. I’m sorry, but there is no getting around it. If you want to go home, you have to do this first.”

“The price,” said Sean, resigned, and he thought he understood. The one thing he’d wanted, paid for with the one thing he’d spent most of his life trying to avoid.

Sean knew he was not a brave man. Not that his cowardice was broadcast to the world; he was never put into situations where he even had the opportunity to be brave. He had spent his life avoiding conflict, responsibility, avoiding action of any kind, really. It was one of his failings, and he tried to accept it.

He tried to accept it, but he couldn’t. He couldn’t accept it because of a single moment that haunted him, that resided in the deep, pressured parts of his mind, that bubbled up when he wasn’t actively tamping it down.

That moment had come on July 31st, 2000. It had come while he was alone in his room, reading. Distracting himself. It came with a knock at his door, and his mother’s soft-spoken voice.

“Do you want to see him?” she had asked. Such a simple, obvious question.

He had never answered. He kept his eyes on the page, reading the same two sentences over and over again until she closed the door and went away.

Many people believed themselves to be capable of bravery, if they were put in a situation that called for it. Most would never have to test that belief. Sean didn’t even expect that much of himself, and he had still fallen short.

“You have to do this,” Anna said again. Gently, the voice of a concerned family member. Someone who only wanted the best for him. The words were razor blades on his skin, scratching, leaving cold, bloody tracks. They only emphasized his cowardice. “You have to follow the entire path. That’s how it works.”

They stood in a wide, white corridor. It smelled of sterilizing bleaches, of cold plastic, of sickness and death. A public address system chattered, and a woman in a long, white coat hurried past, a look of concentrated concern on her face. In front of Sean was a door, a narrow barrier of smooth, blond wood. He grasped the handle and pushed it open.

On the other side was a small room, coolly lit by cloudy sun coming through half-shut blinds. In the corner was a sink, next to that a closet. A comfortable looking chair. Machines. A bed. A man.

There was no sound save the gentle beep of the monitoring equipment and his own tentative footsteps, then the door shut with a soft click. He glanced back and saw that Anna was staying outside. Sean stood next to the bed and looked down at his father. This was the third version of the man, the one that lived in Sean’s nightmares. The one who was already a skeleton, a corpse. He weighed a much as a child, was pale and glistening with cold, clammy sweat. Long, bony hands were clenched tightly at his sides. There was a sickly sweet scent of vomit hanging on him like a cologne.

Sean wanted to look away, wanted to run away. He wanted to have ignored Anna the same way he’d ignored his mother, to have never come here. He wanted to be anywhere else but in this room, at this time. But he also wanted to be a man who didn’t look away, who didn’t run. He wanted to be the man he should have been, or at least tried to be.

So he took one of those cold hands in his own. His father’s head turned, moving in jerky stops and starts as he forced his neck around. Cloudy eyes opened and began to focus. His lips trembled, pulled tight over yellowed teeth, began to open and close. Sean leaned in close, heard the words, like the gentle gust of wind in the cold of autumn, that final tug that dropped the last dead leaf to the ground. “Sean,” whispered his father, his breath hot against Sean’s ear. “Sean,” he whispered again.

“I’m here, Dad” said Sean. “You aren’t alone. I’m here now.”

There was a gentle squeeze on his hand, a slight convulsion of the muscles in his father’s body. “Sean,” he whispered again.

Sean didn’t know if his father saw the boy who did not come that day, or the man he had met in the bar, all those years ago. He had been lucid so rarely toward the end, and it had scared Sean more than he would ever have admitted, though he was sure everyone knew. He had been a kid, and his father’s illness had been, at first, an inconvenience–trips to the doctor, afternoons in the hospital–then a burden. They had talked only once about it, when his father had asked him to sit down near his bed, had told him that he was going to beat this, that he was going to get up again. Then came the but, the what if, the maybe. Sean had sat, stone-faced, and said nothing until his father was done speaking, and then only, “Okay.”

What came next was nothing short of a betrayal. He had been lied to, by his own father, because he never beat it, he never got up again. That was the example he set, that he was weak. Like father, like son. Sean shut himself away, he ignored his father and mother both. He stayed in his room and read his books, played his video games, and waited for everything to end.

This time he didn’t see a liar, or weakness. He saw only a man, who had done his best to live a good life, who had sacrificed himself to be there when Sean needed him, who was an example to be followed, and would have kept being that example if he’d had the chance. “I love you, Dad” is what Sean said now, on July 31st, 2000, at 2:49pm, in the last hour of his father’s life.

The lips kept moving for a while longer, but no more words came out. Sean straightened, but did not let go of the hand. He needed that connection. He needed to feel his father, he needed him to know that his son, his friend, was there, that he wasn’t alone. That he didn’t die alone. The breaths came, agonized and laborious. They shuddered out, one by one, until they had all left, as though a finite supply had been exhausted. The body lay rigid and still, the arms went slack, but the hand Sean held did not loosen. He laid it gently on the bed. He tried to close the eyes, like he’d seen in movies and on TV, but they wouldn’t budge. He realized that some of the monitoring machines were active, making noise. Someone would come to confirm the death. He had to leave.

Anna said nothing to him the entire way back to the condo, which was fine with Sean. He was sure he couldn’t speak, though he did manage to croak out, “Take me back now. Please.” when they stood in the bedroom.

“I will,” said Anna, calmly. Not coldly, not insistently. Just calmly, like anyone should in her situation. He hugged her, wrapping his arms completely around her and burying his face in her hair, breathing in the hairspray fumes and not caring.

“Thank you,” he told her, softly. Not numbly, not sadly. Just softly, like anyone should in his situation.

She hugged him back, fierce strength in her small arms. She let him hold her as long as he needed to, only releasing when he did. Then they stepped into the time machine together, and she set the date to the present.

Sean stepped out of the machine, back into that still, empty apartment that was so full of things that meant nothing to anybody. He turned around when Anna didn’t follow. He raised a quizzical eyebrow at her.

“I have to go now, Sean,” she said. “This is the last time you’ll ever see me.”

He nodded. “Thank you, and have a safe trip,” he said, and they shook hands.

Sean watched as the machine hummed into life, felt that pressure push into him and pop his ears. Then it disappeared, leaving only a dark imprint on the carpet where it had been. He left the room, grabbed his jacket, then left the building.

“You have a good one,” said the doorman with a nod.

Sean waited until he was home to make the call. He turned a lamp on and sat on the corner of his bed as he dialed.

“Hello.” said a voice.

“Mom,” said Sean, and then he finally said those three words that he had never been able to say, that he had never deserved to say. “I miss him.”

And he began to cry.

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