Time machine, time machine, take me away, to foreign lands and long-forgotten days.
I never know what to get my best friend for her birthday. Despite knowing each other since middle school, all my well-intentioned presents somehow miss the mark: that industrial-sized bag of her favorite tropical-flavored Starburst I got for her fourteenth birthday? The candy jammed her braces. The fancy calligraphy set she pointed out while we were strolling through the mall after high school? She had wanted it for her sister. That autographed copy of The Wheel of Time I bought for her after college? She already had it. A fancy bottle of wine for her 21st birthday? Left her sick. A massage getaway before her wedding? She spent the entire weekend reading books in her room, too embarrassed to disrobe in front of strangers. She’s always genuinely appreciative of my efforts, glossing over my shortcomings with a hug and a kiss, but my best friend deserves a perfect birthday present, at least once. This year, I think I’ve finally found it.
12 October 1997; local time: 8:37 p.m.; Everett, Washington
When I step out of the time machine, I’m greeted by ominous clouds that hang in the sky like gloomy dollops of whip cream. They obscure the moon, casting this cool fall evening into darkness. The threat of rain makes me button my peacoat snugly.
I’ve arrived in the parking lot of my old middle school where I first met my best friend a lifetime ago. She offered me Sour Patch Kids that day while we waited for the bus, laughing when the candy’s tart taste contorted my face into a grimace. From such inauspicious beginnings, did our friendship begin.
But I’m not here to tickle nostalgia’s underbelly. The parking lot functions as a safe, deserted space to leave my time machine while I walk to the nearby park. As I’m double checking my phone’s time, a group of crows perched on a power line above my head caw at me with menacing intent. Drawing my fingers into the shape of a gun, I blast the birds into oblivion, but the murder flies off unscathed.
It’s nearly 9 p.m., so I pull a plain black Venetian mask from my coat pocket and slip it over my face, adjusting the strap so the mask fits snugly without obscuring my vision. I feel like Zorro but look like Kato from The Green Hornet. “Who loves ya baby?” Or was that Kojak? I leave the vacant lot and race towards the park. The sidewalks and even the streets are empty on this lonely night, though streetlights spotlight me in eerie halos every few feet. My large coat slows me down, but it’s too late to toss it. I ignore a growing stitch in my side and press on.
The park entrance eventually stumbles into view. Slowing to a trot, I catch my breath whilst surveying my surroundings. The road remains deserted and no homes nestle nearby, so I leap over the “Closed After Dark” sign perched on the locked gate and enter the park.
A narrow concrete path invites me into a small thicket of trees. The moonlight fails to penetrate the dense forestry, slowing my progress to a fumble. Because the light on my phone isn’t working, I carefully make my way down the gently sloping path. Low-hanging branches catch in my coat. A pinecone is smashed under my feet. And somewhere, an owl hoots. Just before my eyes adjust to the darkness, the trees give way to an expansive field. A single streetlight illuminates a baseball diamond to my left, but it’s the dimly-lit jungle gym to my right that sends a chill down my spine.
It’s just an ordinary jungle gym: rope ladders and wood plank bridges connect the plastic monstrosity, with rusted monkey bars resembling gallows standing to its side. But taking a cautious step into the wood-chipped playground floods my mind with horrific secondhand memories. After passing a motionless merry-go-round, I find what I’m looking for: two swings—one red, one blue—swaying slightly in the breeze.
I’m a few minutes early, so I scan my surroundings for the best cover. The open field provides insufficient hiding spots, even on this dark night, so I settle on the giant, twisting serpentine slide opposite the swings as my hideout. Climbing the adjacent rope ladder to reach the slide’s entrance proves difficult; all the running and leaping over fences have zapped my energy, and my forehead is flush with sweat when I finally fling my middle-aged body into the slide’s mouth. Thankfully, the slide’s plastic is cool as I lean my head against the interior, jamming one leg up and to the right into a sideway “K” to keep from slipping to the bottom. Wiping my brow and readjusting my mask, I slow my breathing and listen for the sound of footsteps, voices, or a heart breaking.
An eternity disguised as a few minutes passes before a young male voice rings faintly in the distance. A young female answers. As their conversation grows louder, I strain my ears to confirm their identities. I can’t make out a single word, but the young man’s voice drips with pubescent hunger. Most of the words flow from his mouth, though the young woman’s occasional sweet laugh keeps their conversation balanced.
Their sneakers softly crunch wood chips as they approach the jungle gym, but suddenly their conversation and footsteps die. I freeze, not even daring to breathe. Do they suspect something? Oh my god, can they see me? How did he find out? But the sound of laughter calms me as he invites her over to the swings.
The swings creak as the couple pump their feet, lifting themselves higher and higher until they can almost reach out and touch the moon with their teenage hands. Woops and cheers fill the sky as they soar amongst the stars, hands held, leaving this world behind. It’s a beautiful, innocent moment.
Eventually their laughter dies down and the squeaky swings give way to silence. Trapped in the slide without a view, I can only speculate on what’s happening, but I bet he’s moved his swing close to hers so he can feign chivalry by draping his arm around her. Gazing into her eyes, he’ll lean in for a soft, gentle kiss. Caught off guard but pleasantly surprised, she’ll allow his lightly chapped lips to press into hers. He’ll start tenderly, but her submission will awaken an animalistic desire, reducing the kiss to sloppy tongue-mauling. Alarmed by his passion yet trapped like a passenger on a runaway train, she’ll try to pull away, but he’ll continue to devour her face as his hands start sliding over her breasts, down her torso, and into her thighs before she shouts:
“Oh c’mon, you know you want it,” he sneers. “We’ve been going out for months now.”
“No, get off me!”
A hard, cold slap follows.
“Fuck!” he shouts.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to hit you, I just wanted you to stop,” she pleads.
“You fucking bitch!”
Suddenly, the swing set comes alive with the sound of struggle. Now’s the time to act, but I’m suddenly immobilized by a toxic cocktail of fear and doubt. What if I’ve inexplicably misjudged the situation and no foul play is involved? What if he overpowers me? What if…what if I can’t stop this from happening? Tormented by indecision and drenched in sweat, I remain hidden, even as a body hits the ground with a sickening thud.
“Somebody, help me!” the girl shouts.
“Ha, no one can hear you!”
“Please, anybody, help!”
“SHUT UP, bitch!”
“HELP! HELP! Somebody, please help me!”
“I SAID SHUT UP!”
“What…what is that? Where did you get that?” she asks him. Whatever’s in his hand causes her voice to quiver with fear.
The unmistakable “click” of a disengaged trigger safety finally galvanizes me into action. Dropping my leg allows me to soundlessly slide from my hiding place onto the wood chipped ground below. The young man is a few feet in front of me, his back facing me and a gun in his left hand pointed towards a crying young woman on the ground. Seizing a perfect opportunity, I reach into my inside coat pocket for the handgun I’ve been hiding. But static electricity charged from my descent down the slide bursts as my fingertips brush against my coat, causing me to flinch.
“Fuck!” I yell involuntarily, shaking my hand.
The young man whips around to face me, gun pointed squarely at my chest.
“Who are you? Where did you come from?” he demands.
Catching my first glimpse of him leaves me stunned. Acne dots his face in angry red mountains, while moonlight bounces off his braces. I knew he’d be young, but he’s just a child.
“I said, ‘Who are you?’!” he repeats. “And why are you wearing a mask?”
Raising my hands in deference and taking a slow step backward, I tell him he doesn’t want to do this. “Put the gun down,” I say as calmly as possible.
“This is none of your business, man!” he seethes.
“Please, just listen to me. Don’t do this! You’ll ruin her life, and yours. Just let her go!”
“I’m going to blow your fucking head off, man!” he spits, taking a step towards me.
Unable to reason with this agitated young buck, I switch tactics:
“NOW! Do it now!” I shout at the crying girl on the ground.
Confused, the young man spins towards her to see what mischief we’ve planned, but her perplexed expression lets him know he’s been duped. He spins back to face me, but he’s too late: I’ve already retrieved the handgun from my coat pocket and fired a shot. Though I’ve aimed for his hand, the young man grabs his arm, instead. Still, the rubber bullet has successfully distracted him from noticing my rushing advance. My head lowered and my elbows jutted outward, I ram into him at full speed, sending his gun flying as we crash into the wood chips.
Despite falling backward, the young man scrambles to his feet before me to frantically search the playground for his gun. Capitalizing on his disarmament, I charge towards him again, eager to subdue him, but he’s ready this time, squaring his shoulders and bracing his body for impact. This time, it’s my gun that flies off when we crash to the ground.
Standing proves painful, as a sharp, piercing sting ignites below my chest anytime I move. Thankfully I’m not bleeding. Clutching my side, I hobble to my feet to find my gun while the young man does the same. The young woman lies on the ground and sobs.
Searching for a small, dark object at night is as difficult as it sounds. After mistaking too many stray pinecones for my gun, I settle for sifting wood chips with my sneakers in hopes of finding my weapon. The young man mirrors my action just a few feet away, desperation fueling our efforts. We both understand how this game ends for the loser. There is no second-place trophy in this twisted game of Find The Firearm.
His laughter peels through the air like a wolf’s howl. He’s found his gun. Turning towards the sound only confirms my suspicion: a menacing barrel is pointed at me. Before I can protest, he fires a shot in the dark that connects directly above my fractured rib.
Time grinds to a halt. All the air is sucked from my body, and unimaginable pain radiates from my chest in blinding shockwaves. I sway like a drunkard before collapsing in a heap.
“You KILLED him!” the young woman shouts to the young man.
“He was going to kill me!” he protests.
“You killed him! You killed him!”
“SHUT UP! It was self-defense!”
The couple are silent as the young man stares at my motionless body. Convinced I won’t rise from the dead, he returns to his deplorable task, a confident sneer displaying his intentions.
“I’ll deal with him later. Now, where were we?” he says.
In a flash, he rushes over and pounces atop her stomach. She twists and turns like a sheep trapped in a python’s grip, but she’s powerless beneath his oppressive weight. With one hand waving a gun wildly in her face and the other fumbling with his zipper, he unsheathes his hard on.
“Quit struggling!” he shouts as he awkwardly slides her pants halfway down her legs, exposing her virginity.
The young woman screams just before her innocence is shattered.
A sound like the world being ripped in two rings through the night, causing the young man to halt his trespass. The young woman holds her breath, relieved that the strange sound has temporarily stopped her boyfriend. She watches as he continues to loom over her like a vulture, waiting for the right moment to strike. Suddenly, he collapses on top of her, the full weight of his body pressing into her with unstoppable force. Expecting the worst, she closes her eyes and screams, telling herself this will all be over soon…
…but the young man doesn’t stir. He lies on top of her, as if lost in deep slumber. Unable to fathom what’s happened, the young woman remains motionless, hoping and praying this nightmare will end. It’s not until a warm pool of liquid oozes its way onto her chest that she summons the courage to shove the young man off her own untouched body. Pulling herself into a seated position, she finds me standing nearby, gun in hand.
For a second time that night, the young girl screams, “You killed him!”
“I didn’t mean to! He must’ve grabbed my gun when…”
But my explanation falls on deaf ears as she’s on her feet, wrapping me in a giant hug. Her surprisingly tight grip sends a fresh jolt of pain through my broken rib, and the bloodstain from her boyfriend bleeds onto my coat, but I let her cry her heart out. With her head down, I readjust my askew mask before gently cradling her in my arms.
“He was going to rape me.”
“I know, but it’s over. You’re safe now.”
“I thought he shot you,” she says, pulling away whilst considering my masked eyes.
“He did, but my gun had rubber bullets. He must’ve found mine on the ground. Still hurts like hell, though!”
The young woman’s stare has turned morbidly curious, so before she can reach up to remove my mask, I pass her an ancient flip phone.
“Here, call your parents on this,” I say.
She breaks from her wary gaze to carefully dial home. When her mother answers, she spews an abridged version of her close call, deleting me from the narrative. She promises she’s unharmed, but that she needs a ride from the park.
“Am I alone?” she asks her mother while looking at me. I nod twice.
“Yes, I’m alone. Call the cops and have Dad pick me up. Please hurry!”
With her parents racing towards the scene of the crime, she flips the phone shut and hands it back.
“Will you be OK here by yourself?” I ask. “I can’t be here when your parents arrive, it will look suspicious…”
“I’ll be OK,” she says, shivering.
“Good. I’m glad you’re safe,” I say. Unsure of whether to hug her, shake her hand, or pat her on the shoulder, I opt for walking away, instead.
“Wait…who are you?” she blurts out before I’ve managed two steps.
“A friend,” I confess.
“Just a friend,” I interject with finality.
“OK,” she says sheepishly.
I stare at her in the darkness, unable to pull away. Hesitantly, she asks one final question:
“How did you know I’d be here tonight?”
Though the mask obscures my face, I feel her eyes searing into me like hot daggers. She senses a familiar presence, yet my identity remains frustratingly out of reach. I consider my words carefully.
“…Because it’s part of my plan,” I say.
“Plan? Plan for what?”
“My plan to finally give you the perfect birthday present you’ve always deserved.”
“But…but it’s not my…”
I don’t wait for her to finish as I trot towards my time machine, leaving her alone in the park.
15 August 2018; local time: 12:16 p.m.; Paris, France
When I exit the time machine, blinding summer sunshine stands in stark contrast to the cold fall night I’ve just come from. The weather is perfect, with not a cloud in the sky. Removing the mask from my face, I grab a neatly wrapped box with a bright blue bow, and make my way down a tree-lined Parisian boulevard. Birds sing, children whizz by on bicycles, and a dog barks happily in the distance. My rib still aches, reducing me to a leisurely shuffle, but otherwise it’s a glorious day.
When I arrive at the correct townhome, I knock three times. My best friend opens the door in a checkered blue and white apron.
“Matt! What a surprise! What are you doing here? And is that blood on your shirt?”
I flash her one of my trademark I’m-up-to-no-good smiles. “I was in London visiting Cody, and I thought I’d pop over for your birthday. I got a bloody nose on the train,” I lie.
“That’s so sweet! I can’t believe you didn’t tell me you were in the area! Come in, come in! Charlie’s taken Max to the store to buy him some crayons, but I’ll text him you’re here! I’m finishing up some cookies, but we’re going to grab lunch near the market for my birthday. You must come with us! I’m sure Charlie will let you borrow a clean shirt.” She steps inside to put a kettle on, but I grab her arm.
“I’m sorry, I have to catch the next train out of Paris if I’m going to make my flight out of London. I’m just here to drop this off for you,” I say, handing her the box.
“A present? And it’s even wrapped this time! To what do I owe this honor?” she teases.
“Oh, stop it. Just open it, will ‘ya?”
She laughs and smooths a crease from her apron as I hand her the present. She studies the box’s size before declaring:
“It looks small enough to hold a cupcake.”
“Or a human heart.”
“You’re terrible!” she says, lightly slapping me on the arm.
“Go on, open it!”
With the townhome’s threshold dividing us, I watch as she tears off the blue bow and opens the lid, curiosity dancing in her eyes. Her smile fades to a confused frown when she sees what’s inside. Picking up the tiny, crumpled object in her fingers, she shoots me a quizzical look.
“What is this? Is this a bullet? Why did you get me this?”
“Close your eyes,” I say.
“Close your eyes,” I repeat.
My best friend’s patience is wearing thin, but her weary sigh means she’s complied with my request.
“Alright, no peeking, OK? Promise not to open your eyes until I say?”
“Yeah, fine, whatever.”
Convinced she’ll keep her word, I grab her free hand and tell her to ask me about the present again.
“Ask me why I got this bullet for you again. And then you can open your eyes.”
Even with her lids shut, I see her eyes roll, but she obeys:
“Why did you get me this bullet?” she asks in flat monotone.
When she opens her eyes, she’s transported back in time twenty-one years, the same masked man in a blood-stained shirt from that horrific night standing in her doorstep, still clutching his rib. Frozen in disbelief, her mouth agape, she cannot speak.
“Because I want to finally give you the birthday present you’ve always deserved.”
Dropping the rubber bullet to the ground, she hugs with me the conviction of a woman just saved.
“Thank you, it’s perfect,” she says, reduced once more to a young woman crying on my shoulder.
“Happy birthday,” I say.