Written for an assignment, an experiment inspired by the novel Version Control. Somewhat of an homage to the ideas that the novel handles with far more eloquence.
She knew the world had gone wrong, had flipped upside-down. She could taste it in the air, feel it in the soft vibrations of the car’s engine—like being barely-aware in a dream. It had been like this for months, as if she were perpetually poised with her foot held high, expecting another stair but finding only thin air.
The first and only time Amelia tried to talk to her mother—the scientist, Dr. Tima—about the feeling was the night before her graduation, half an hour before the dinner party. Her mother, a woman without much love for feelings over fact—the latter of which Amelia lacked—looked up at her distractedly from her notebook.
“I don’t understand,” said Tima. She rubbed at her temple, her sleepless nights staining her eyelids with dark pigments. She was on a deadline, the machine she’d spent the last decade on still stubbornly refusing to work. It weighed her down. “Are you sick?”
“I’m not sick.” Amelia picked at her fingernails. “It’s the world that’s sick.”
“Oh. Global warming, then.”
“That’s not what I—” She threw her hands up, feeling too much like a teenager. “It’s like when you go to fix your glasses on your face, but you’re not wearing them.”
“Honey, I don’t wear glasses,” Tima said idly, barely paying attention to her daughter anymore. “Maybe you just need some more sleep.”
You’re the one who needs sleep, Amelia thought, bitterly, remembering her mother of a year prior, before Astoria died. A mother who didn’t spend her entire life at the lab working on a time machine, a mother who smiled and laughed and took the sisters out for brunch on Sundays.
Scorned, Amelia muttered, “Astoria would’ve understood.”
Those three words cut through the air like a knife. Amelia instantly wished she could go back in time to take them back. Face contorted with a pain still too intense to hide, Tima laid down her pen and fixed Amelia with her metal-grey eyes.
“Amelia,” Tima started, but her daughter was already out of her seat and halfway out of the kitchen. “Honey, come back—”
“I’m going to finish cleaning the lounge,” Amelia said, her back turned to hide her brimming eyes.
Not another word was spoken between mother and daughter until the guests arrived, and even then their conversations were terse. While Tima’s co-workers spoke to her about her work, Amelia pretended to listen with rapt attention as if she didn’t resent the machine for Tima’s distance—or for her twin’s death. When her mother’s colleagues shook Amelia’s hand and patted her shoulder, congratulating her on a successful graduation, she hid her bitter anxiety behind a practiced smile. One she had learned in the weeks following the crash.
Her friends noticed, but they knew better than to ask.
Only once the house had cleared and she’d buried herself in blankets did she let her mind drift back; a summer day, hair blowing in the motorway wind, excitement from seeing her mother’s work bubbling within her chest. The steering wheel was hot beneath her hands, though she didn’t actually need it, the car drove itself—but it never hurt to be too careful. A phrase Tima had murmured to them since they were young.
She remembered it all with more clarity than any other moment in her life: the moment the dog bounded out into the road, followed by a child. When the cars before of them swerved to avoid the child and Amelia’s fingers tightened around the steering wheel, yanking right.
After, as she lay half-sedated in a hospital bed, they told her, “It wasn’t your fault.” They: nurses, police, therapists, her own mother. There was nothing you could do, as if that lifted the guilt crushing her lungs.
The day of her graduation, she sat in the passenger seat, as she had every trip after the crash. Tima, hair pulled high and silver earrings glittering from her lobes, seemed perpetually on the edge of saying something.
Amelia, filled with the subtle wrongness of the world and the void of Astoria, spoke first. After a year, the same unspoken question had plagued her. There would never be a right time to ask, but she needed to ask before her chest burst from the pain.
“Do you blame me for it?” Her fingertips dug into her jeans. She already blamed herself, it would be too much to know her mother did, too.
Her mother said nothing for a moment, the hum of the car filled the air. She chanced a glance at Amelia, eyes softly sad, and said, “Of course I don’t.”
“Are you sure?” Amelia asked.
“I’m sure,” Tima said. “I could never blame you.” She turned her attention back to the road, but not before a quick smile at her daughter.
“Okay,” Amelia murmured. “Thank you.”
“I love you,” said her mother.
“I love you, too.”
The graduation went by as quickly as Amelia expected, though the gaping space where Astoria should have stood at her side was impossible to ignore. She should have been happy, proud of her accomplishment. Instead she was heartbroken, clutching the paper declaring her success in one hand, pulling at a loose thread in the sleeve of her robe with the other. Her friends spirited her away from her mother and into a bar as soon as they could, proclaiming that a graduation demanded at least three shots. Amelia downed five, and then lost count. All the while, she spoke of her sister, and of the world’s failure in keeping her alive and beside her. Alcohol warmed her veins, but so did anger.
In the murky grips of alcohol, she eventually stumbled her way into a taxi at an hour too early to be awake, waving farewell to friends just as plastered as she.
“Where to?” the driver asked.
She meant to say her home, but instead found herself tripping over the address for her mother’s lab. Not to do anything stupid, she told herself as the taxi sped off. She just needed to see the machine one last time, to face the physical form of her guilt and rage and finally try to let it all go. Today. Tonight.
The security officer guarding the facility was the same chatty guy she’d previously run into every time she’d had to wait for Tima in the lobby. Roy, she remembered. He gave her a concerned look as she, unable to hide her drunk wobbling, approached the security desk.
“Good evening, Amy,” he said. “Or should I say morning? What are you doing here at this time?”
“I came to pick something up for mum,” she said. She unleashed her most charming smile, a ditzy laugh. “I was out already, so she asked me to stop by for her.”
She watched the decision play over his face in a dizzying swirl of expressions. He wanted to trust her, she could tell, but she also knew that technically he wasn’t supposed to let anyone in if they weren’t cleared—which she wasn’t.
“Okay, but be quick,” he relented, swiping her through. She thanked him, another dazzling, drunken smile flashed. “You know,” he said, watching her pass through the metal detector, “I don’t get why women would want to go back in time. Since when was the past any better for you all? Used to not be able to vote.”
“Who knows?” She said. “Maybe women have things they want to change, too.”
“You’re probably right. I’ve just been thinking about it a lot. Hard not to considering where I work,” he said. “Okay, you’re good to go. Don’t be too long.”
She walked through the dark hallway with a hatred growing within her. Maybe she would trash the machine after all, find a way to destroy what had destroyed her life. There would be hell to pay after, but it almost felt worth it in the moment before she pushed the door open.
The instant she saw the machine before her, however—a bland, closet-like box in the centre of a wide room—the urge for destruction left her. It looked so pathetic in the half-light, so unlike what she’d imagined on the first trip to see it. The words time machine evoked a sense of science fiction gravitas; a creation of wires and mystery, something that looked the part. This, the thing that stood before her, was the furthest she could imagine from that.
Stepping up to the machine, Amelia raised her hand and pressed her palm against the cool surface. There was no life within it, no mechanical hum to suggest it was running—though, as far as Amelia understood, the machine was always on. It just didn’t seem to work, never actually sending anybody back to the point in time it was anchored to. Much to Tima’s growing frustrations; maybe her mother hoped that there was some chance she could save Astoria’s life.
There was no chance, Amelia knew. The past couldn’t be changed: this time machine was an empty promise, a scientist’s false dream.
She opened the door slowly, careful to avoid making any sound that would draw Roy’s attention down the hall. The one time she’d visited the machine, she hadn’t been allowed to step inside, as if the science would suddenly start working the moment she crossed the threshold.
There was nobody to stop her now, though. She wanted to see what it looked like from the inside, wanted to see what every disappointed scientist before her had seen—needed to know how her mother felt every time she prayed for the machine to take her back to her dead daughter.
Pulling the door shut, she stood for a moment in the pitch black, the unseen ground spinning beneath her feet. A laugh rose up inside her, but she choked it back down into silence; now was not the time for a fit of hysterics. She found the wall of the machine, once more thinking it more of a closet, especially from the inside, and slid to the ground, silent laughter becoming silent sobs. Instead of hating her mother and the machine, she felt only pity.
She sat there for a long time, her face buried in her hands, her eyes closed to the darkness that smothered her, knowing she would never see her sister again.
Sunlight burst against her eyelids as her bedroom blinds folded away with her morning alarm. She smacked her clock and rolled over, pressing her face into the cool surface of her pillow as she fumed at herself for forgetting to turn her alarm off the night before.
She lay for a while longer in her bed, feeling the wrongness of the world tickle her skin. Fleetingly, the thought of trying to explain the upside-down feeling to her mother passed through her mind, but she quickly dismissed the idea. She reluctantly rolled out of bed, knowing sleep would not return to her that morning.
There wasn’t any point in basking in her weird mood for long, she had job applications to fill out and her own birthday party to organise. A month early might have been too early to start planning for most, especially given she was turning the unexciting age of twenty-three, but her friends had long gotten used to her habit of looking too far ahead. Now that her graduation was over, she needed something new to focus on—anything to keep her from dwelling on the upcoming anniversary of her sister’s death. Looking ahead was better than staring behind.
The birthday party should have been for the two of them, her and her sister, but she tried not to think of that. Pausing for a moment before a photo of them both on her dresser—Astoria and Amelia, dark-haired and bright-eyed, the same smile plastering both their faces—she touched her sister’s face with a fingertip, wondering at the raw edges of her absence even after so many months. Her degree sat, still rolled up, beside the photo. Only one, when there should have been two.
Tima was spooning cereal into her mouth as she pored over a journal that looked more than dull to her daughter as she entered the kitchen. Slowly, Tima glanced up, her eyes seeming to be magnetized to the words on the page.
“Good morning, Astoria,” she said to her daughter.
“Morning,” Astoria replied briskly, filling a bowl with the same cereal and taking a seat across from Tima. Nothing more was said as the two women ate, Tima too engrossed in her reading to notice Astoria’s discontent—Astoria too detached from her mother to see Tima’s guilt. With the anniversary of Amelia’s death only days away, Astoria’s nerves were more ragged, more raw than they had been for a long while. She didn’t stop to think that her mother might feel the same, she was too mired in a resentment she knew wasn’t fair.
When Astoria thought back to the day of the crash, her sister in the back seat, herself in the passenger seat, she couldn’t help but find blame in her mother’s actions. The logical part of her—undeniably the majority of her—knew that Amelia’s death wasn’t Tima’s fault; the emotional part of her, the part that missed her sister with a pain that felt like death, hated her mother for swerving right to avoid the cars in front of them. Everything had felt as if it were moving in slow motion at the time, but in Astoria’s memories time flashed by: one second she was singing along to an aggressively poppy song with Amelia, the second later, her sister was dead.
What she wouldn’t give to go back in time and swap seats with Amelia; she would have sacrificed her own life for her sister’s. But she knew, watching her mother from beneath her lashes, that time travel wasn’t real. Time machines never worked. No matter how much Tima slaved away at the lab, Amelia was staying in the past.
The anniversary fell on a Sunday. Tima suggested brunch, like they used to when Amelia was alive. Astoria didn’t find herself caring much whether they wallowed in Amelia’s absence at home or at a fancy cafe, so with a shrug she found herself in the driver’s seat of the car, wind whipping at her unbraided hair. Despite the lack of much actual driving on a human’s part anymore, Astoria always elbowed her way into the seat with the wheel. Just in case, she told herself. It wasn’t that she didn’t trust her mother—she simply feared being powerless again.
And, maybe she didn’t entirely trust Tima now. Not that she would ever admit it to herself; it was a secret even to her own mind.
Tima’s phone chirped, and Astoria knew instinctively that they would have to stop at the lab before brunch. That particular chirp was assigned only for work messages—and work messages always meant her mother’s presence was needed near the machine.
“I’m sorry, honey,” her mother started, voice meek, “but could we stop by the lab before we head to the cafe? I need to sign off on something. It won’t take long.”
“Sure,” Astoria said, already having changed lanes to take the right exit.
“Thank you. I promise it won’t take long.”
“I know,” she said, flashing a quick smile at her mother.
When they reached the lab, Astoria waited for the car to park itself, then followed her mother into the lobby of the building. The aircon was better inside, and Astoria found herself hoping that the chatty security officer that usually frequented the desk would be there. She wanted so desperately to talk to anyone but her mother today, even if only for a minute or two.
The grin that spread across her face at the sight of Roy’s familiar face was the most she’d smiled since her graduation. Roy mirrored her smile back twofold.
“Hey there, Ria,” he said, waving her mother through security. “How’s it going?”
“Oh, you know, it’s a day,” she said, not knowing if he knew what today was to her and Tima. From the way he leaned his forearms on the desk, preparing to launch into one of his spiels, she figured he probably didn’t.
“You know, I had an idea,” he said. She could tell from the tension in his shoulders that he was excited about this one, that he expected her to acknowledge his genius.
“Yeah?” she asked, making her way around the desk to take the second wheeled chair. “What is it?”
“I figure, maybe the time machine in there works.”
“Really?” she asked with a laugh.
“Really! I’m not joking,” he said, his tone earnest. “Okay, look, say someone gets into the machine and goes back in time, right? They go back in time and change something, as you would if you went back in time.”
“Bear with me, okay? Pretend that a man goes back to the past to stop himself from breaking up with his high school sweetheart because he’s decided she—not his current wife—was the one.”
Astoria rested her cheek against her hand, watching Roy speak. “Mmhmm.”
“This guy goes back in time, successfully keeps his younger self with his first girlfriend, and then he has to return to the present, doesn’t he? So, he makes his way to the machine and walks out into the present—and the present has totally changed. Now, his high school sweetheart is his current wife, and maybe they have a kid or two together. Who knows if they’re happy or not, but that’s how things are now for him, because he changed it.
“But,” Roy said, waggling his finger at Astoria, “now that he’s done that, he’s also erased the part of the present where he went back in time to change his past. The memories of going back in time wouldn’t exist anymore, because in this new universe they never happened in the first place. So, he’d return to the current time, and the machine would feel like it did nothing at all. He’d step out, remembering only being in the box. To him, everything is the same as it’s always been.”
“Huh,” Astoria breathed, struggling to piece together Roy’s meaning. “You think changing the past would erase our memories of that past? Including the memories of changing that past?”
“Yeah!” he said, emphatic. “Of course. If those things never happened, why would we remember them?”
“You’re saying all those times that the scientists have tried the machine out and thought it failed, they were actually going back in time and forgetting they’d done it?”
“Huh.” She spun her chair once, drifting in a lazy circle. “I mean, that’s probably possible. Who knows if that’s how it works, though.”
“Yeah, maybe the nerds in there already figured that one out. It’s only a theory, but I think I’m onto something here, you know?”
Astoria gestured vaguely. “I don’t know science well enough to say, but between you and me, I believe it.”
“Knew I could rely on you, Ria,” he said with a laugh, just as her mother re-entered the lobby, looking as exhausted as always.
“Hey, honey,” Tima called to Astoria, giving Roy a quick smile as she passed the desk by. “You want to get some food now?”
“Sure,” Astoria said, sliding from the chair and following her mother back into the summer heat outside. Before the doors closed behind her, she glanced back at Roy once more. He winked at her, she rolled her eyes at him. Her mother always complained about how talkative Roy was, but Astoria found he had the uncanny ability to cheer her up, no matter the day.
Where Roy found a way to light up the world, Tima tended to darken any room she shared with Astoria, always inspiring a tense silence between them. As the car pulled out onto the motorway once again, that silence blanketed them both. Astoria lapsed into a quiet contemplation of her conversation with Roy.
What he’d said about time travel—well, it seemed believable enough to her. If what he’d said was true, then there might be a chance for Astoria to save Amelia’s life—though she dared not cling too desperately to the words of a security guard or the dreams of science fiction writers. She considered, for a brief moment, asking her mother about his theory, then quickly decided she wasn’t up for the theoretical argument. If it was true, Astoria would find out on her own.
They drove for a long while without a word, without even the radio playing. It was her mother who broke the silence in the end.
“Do you blame me for it?” Tima asked. The question knocked Astoria off-balance; she was thankful the car drove itself.
She said nothing for a moment, debating finally freeing herself of the truth, struggling to find words that wouldn’t cut too deep. She chanced a glance at her mother, and in that moment she finally saw just how small her mother was, how much Tima blamed herself for what happened; it would be too much if Tima knew how much Astoria did, too.
“Of course I don’t,” Astoria said.
“Are you sure?” Tima asked.
“I’m sure,” she lied smoothly. “I could never blame you.” She turned her attention back to the road, but not before she flashed a quick, reassuring smile at her mother.
“Okay,” Tima murmured. “Thank you.”
A void followed Tima’s words, begging Astoria to say something to fill the space between them. Astoria thought that if she looked deep enough, she probably would find she did love her mother still. For now, however, a lie would have to do.
“I love you,” said Astoria.
“I love you, too.”