Fred Elder: H8 Nine Ten

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H8 Nine Ten

By Fred Elder

It was a perfect New York City morning in that sweet spot between the last heat of summer and the first rains of autumn. The leaves wouldn’t begin changing for several more weeks, but the westerly breeze was bringing sweet, fresh air into the city. 

Henry was standing at the corner of a wide intersection, the twin towers of the World Trade Center shining white and bright in the distance. The buzz of traffic was incessant but comforting and the sidewalks were crammed with people on their way to work. He would have loved to just stand there, maybe find his way to Central Park or Yankee Stadium, but he was there on very important business. He was there to change the future! 

Ever since the accident, Henry had the ability to time travel.

As far as he knew, no one else in the history of humankind had ever been able to do what he could. There were limitations, of course. He quickly realized that going back into his own life wasn’t possible. He tried several times without success but finally decided that whatever mysterious force was allowing him to travel in time wouldn’t allow him to create a paradox; what would happen if he literally ran into himself? As desperate as he was to change the course of his own history — and wouldn’t we all appreciate an opportunity for a ‘do-over’ at least one time in our life — Henry realized it wasn’t possible. 

After some trial and error, he found it much easier to travel in the dark of night after all the noise and commotion of the day had finally ceased. The world is a loud place and the concentration he needed to travel was easily broken by his roommate, neighbors or visitors. The blaring of horns and alarms in the distance and the almost continual hum of machinery and civilization eased considerably in the darker hours.

For some reason, he couldn’t travel back to the same time and place more than once. Perhaps Einstein could have explained this quirk in his abilities, but he certainly couldn’t. Time travel itself was beyond his comprehension, so explaining its intricacies was out of the question. 

The most difficult limitations were the sounds and pain in his head whenever he traveled. There was a continual light buzzing behind his eyes ever since the accident, but it was something he had gotten used to. When he traveled, however, the buzz became sharper and louder. If he stood still in that previous time, he could handle the buzz; if he tried to move, it was as if someone were trying to drill deep into his brain. 

It was like being given a new puppy and told it must stay in its kennel all the time. You don’t want to look at a puppy! You want to play with it and enjoy watching it run and trip over its clumsy feet. You want to feel the puppy licking your face and snuggling into your neck. 

It was a long time before he finally realized what he could do with this hard-earned ability. The realization came to him on November 22, five months after the accident, when two women next to him began talking about the anniversary of JFK’s assassination. And, just like that, he knew what to do.

I’ll go back to that day and stop the assassination, he decided. He had often heard it said that the young President’s death had sent America down the proverbial wrong path. It had long been considered a linchpin moment in world history and, if Henry could somehow prevent that from happening, wouldn’t that be a good thing?

He spent the rest of the day focusing his mind on where he wanted to be on that long-distant day. When the lights of the city were finally dimmed, and the workers returned to their homes and families, the world grew dark and quiet. He thought long and hard, picturing the exact place he wanted to be and … he was standing on the infamous sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository.

The first thing he noticed was the buzzing in his head, loud and trilling. The second thing was the smell of books. The paper and binding glue and dust all comingled into a smell that reminded him of used bookstores. Until the accident, he had been a voracious reader. The final thing he noticed was the man standing just inside the window, looking down into the plaza below. He had a rifle in his hand. There were piles of boxes between them so Henry couldn’t simply charge the guy and disarm him. Henry would need to sneak up on him first.

Henry ducked down and began to move around one enormous stack as the buzz in his head grew even louder. Sunlight was streaming into the windows from a sharp angle and dust motes moved back and forth between light and shadow. He had almost reached the corner when the man’s attention was drawn to the sound of cheering in the streets below. A smile passed over his face like a shadow as he knelt and brought the rifle barrel up.

With no time to waste, Henry stood and vaulted over the last boxes piled between him and the shooter. Almost immediately, a paralyzing jolt of sharp, piercing pain knifed into his head. With little grace, Henry crashed into the shooter just a split second before three shots were fired. The man struggled to get away and swung the rifle butt into Henry’s face, forcing him back. Now, finally, Henry could see the man’s face — this was not Lee Harvey Oswald!

The man brought his rifle up again, this time pointing it at Henry’s chest, and looked back over his shoulder into the street. His eyes opened wide in horror at what he saw. Slowly, he returned his gaze to Henry. The man was crying, his lips were quivering.

“You stupid bastard,” the man finally managed to sputter out. “I shot the President! You stupid, interfering bastard!” Henry could only stand there waiting for a bullet to slam into him even as questions were slamming into his head. Who was this guy? Where was Oswald? Was this the second shooter people had spoken of?

“Don’t blame me,” Henry finally said, pushing the pain away for just a moment. “I came here to stop you from killing him.” Henry didn’t know if a bullet to his chest would kill him or not. And if it did, would his body remain in 1963 or return to his current time. The thought of a bullet putting him out of the burning misery inside his head was almost welcome, though.

“No, you idiot! I was aiming for Governor Connally.” He tightened his finger on the trigger. “And I would have if you hadn’t interfered. Damn you!” He pulled on the trigger and … Henry was back in his bed, safe.

As the pain subsided and the noise in his head returned to its omnipresent buzz, the guilt flooded into him. Had he just been part of a paradox shift of some kind? By returning to that fateful day, had he inadvertently played a part in the President’s killing? He sought relief in the sweet oblivion of sleep.

Over the next few days, his emotions ran the gamut from grief to anger to despair. What was the sense in having the ability to travel through time if you couldn’t do something positive with it? And wasn’t the idea of doing something good for humankind the best way of utilizing it? Eventually, he came to believe the man would have shot JFK anyway, even if he was aiming at someone else. It was inconceivable that he had altered the past when the outcome was the same one that he grew up knowing. He had to keep trying. 

Every time he tried to intervene in the past, however, he failed.

He went to Tenerife, in the Canary Islands, on March 27, 1977, to prevent two airliners from colliding on the runway and killing 583 people. Instead, he inadvertently drew a flight controller’s attention away from what he was supposed to be doing and he sent the two planes on a collision course.

He went to Hawaii on December 7, 1941, but the Officer who listened to his wild tales of an impending surprise Japanese air strike on Pearl Harbor was too busy dealing with Henry to pay attention to a report from one of the remote radar installations of unidentified aircraft approaching from the northwest.

The Captain of the Titanic actually believed his claims of an iceberg and steered the great ship a few points further southwest, directly into the same iceberg it was always going to collide with. And so on! No matter what he tried to do, he couldn’t stop disasters from happening. To make matters worse, the incessant buzz was growing louder and his headaches growing worse, even when he wasn’t traveling. It occurred to him there might very well be a limit on how many trips he could make.

If he was running out of travel opportunities, he needed to make them count! He had finally come to the realization that he was trying to play too active a part in each drama. But how does one afect change without playing an active role? The answer came like a light bulb over his head.

He could prevent the ultimate disaster of the 21st century with a simple phone call. He didn’t need to be overly persuasive if he called the right number. Why didn’t he think of this sooner? He could prevent 9/11!

After darkness descended on his world, he focused on the streets of New York City. It was a place he had visited several times, almost always in the autumn season, so there was a comfortable feeling in his memories of the place. He thought about the tall buildings and wide avenues and … he was standing in the early morning light of a glorious, perfect day.

Above the sound of traffic and the cacophony of pedestrians, the buzz inside his head grew to an alarming level. He had never felt such discord within his mind just standing in the past. He hadn’t moved from the spot but already the pain was rising to a crescendo. I need to hurry, he realized. Time was running out on him.

He looked around and spotted a phone booth about half a block away. The moment he started towards it, however, that horrible pain once again knifed into the base of his neck. He staggered and fell against a store window, drawing the puzzled glances of passing people. Perhaps they thought he was drunk?

Regaining his bearings, he struck out once again for the phone booth. Each step towards his destination sent searing pain from his head to his toes. He reached out, desperately, crashing into people and against other windows. People were stopping to stare at him now, unsure of what his problem was but unwilling to lend a helping hand. 

Finally, he stumbled against the phone booth, which was against the wall of a department store. It was only when he reached up for the phone that he realized he had no coins on him. Time travel wasn’t like flying! There was no carry-on! He slapped his hands over the pockets in his beige khakis, but there were no coins or cash of any kind. 

He had never given his time travel garb any consideration up to then, taking them for granted. Now, he realized it was the same combination of grey tee, beige pants and running shoes he was wearing the day of the accident. Not the same ones, of course. Those had been shredded after the car slammed into him and sent him skidding across the grocery store parking lot.

Calling 911 wasn’t an option. He knew exactly who to call and he couldn’t get lost in the bureaucratic shuffle of emergency services. He could barely see now because the throbbing pain was forcing his eyes into mere slits. He begged the gathering crowd for a dime and after interminable minutes, a lady handed him one, pulling her hand back quickly once the coin was taken.

When the operator answered, he told her who he needed to speak with. The pain in his head soared; he squinted his eyes fully closed, almost biting down on his tongue. The buzz had become a chainsaw and it felt like his head was going to explode. 

“Federal Aviation Authority. New York region. Jack Delaney speaking. How can I help you?” Henry screamed in pain as every syllable the man spoke sent spikes into his ears. He slumped down and sprawled on the floor of the booth. The chainsaw revved up even louder and the pressure built between his ears until … sweet oblivion. 

Jack Delaney stared at the phone in his hand. 

“What the hell was that about,” asked his co-worker, Gail. She had heard the screams through the phone all the way over at her desk. “Another bomb threat?”

“Nope,” Jack replied, setting the phone down in its cradle. “No bomb threats today.”

“Thank God,” Gail laughed, reaching for her coffee. “Here’s hoping all the crazies left with the hot weather.”

In a hospital room across the country and across the years, the EEG machine monitoring Henry’s brain activity flatlined. Shortly after that, his respirator was turned off per family wishes. He had never regained consciousness after the terrible accident and only his wavering brain activity had given friends and family any hope. 

That hope was now gone.

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Please visit Fred’s blog at http://bit.ly/2Ltwymr!