Time machine, time machine, take me away, to foreign lands and long-forgotten days.
17 June 2018; local time: 12:12 p.m.; Seattle, USA
A glance in my time machine’s mirror ensures my hair is perfectly buzzed and my jawline sports the small shaving nick that hallmarked my late 20s. Satisfied with my appearance, I twist the date dial back to 2013.
“Don’t do it,” a woman’s voice warns. Looking up from the console and peering out the windshield, I find a tiny figure blocking my time machine. A hooded Castleton-green cloak obscures her face, with a single strand of silver hair peeking out to betray her age. We’ve met once before. She’s either my savior or the devil herself, I can’t decide.
“How did you find me again?” I ask through the intercom, returning my attention back to the console, but keeping a watchful eye on her.
“It’s Father’s Day. I knew what you’d be up to,” she says.
“Well, if you wanted to stop me, you wouldn’t have given me this time machine, would you?” I say while inputting the destination coordinates into the console’s touch screen.
“You can’t go back to see your father. You’d break too many rules and alter too many timelines.”
“I’ll settle up later,” I reply with a dismissive sneer whilst straightening the picture of my dad in his Washington Air National Guard uniform I keep taped to my console.
“You can’t save him, you know…”
“You don’t get it, do you?” I snap, facing the old woman. “I’m not going back in time, hoping I’ll save him. I’m going back in time, hoping he’ll save me…”
The old woman says nothing as we silently dare the other to flinch. Convinced she wields neither the power nor the intention to stop me, I take my seat and fasten my seatbelt as the time machine’s engines hum to life.
“So kindly step aside and let me spend Father’s Day with my dad!”
The old woman bows slightly and steps to the side before disappearing in a blinding flash of light as the time machine takes off.
3 August 2013; local time: 3:47 p.m.; Alabama, USA
Sweltering Alabama heat and oppressive summer humidity slam into me as I step out of the time machine into an empty field. Though I’m just a ten-minute walk from my parents’ place, I’ll be drenched in sweat upon arrival. I forgot to bring one of my trusty fans, and I know better than to prance around the Bible Belt with a parasol, so I’m forced to brave the elements on my own. Locking the time machine and enabling its invisibility mode for ninety minutes, I march towards home.
As predicted, I’m soaked when I enter my parents’ cul-de-sac. My t-shirt clings to my chest with sticky perspiration, while my neck trickles sweat beads down my back like runaway teardrops. I take shelter in the shade of a towering basketball hoop besides my parents’ driveway, only to find the normally boisterous neighborhood devoid of life. Where are the bike-riding children, the barking dogs, the steady purr of lawn mowers? The heat has driven everyone inside except for an old Asian man I’ve never seen before. He adjusts his floppy sun hat and waves at me when he mistakes my brow-wiping for a salutation. I smile weakly at his confusion before turning my attention to the dried yellow grass in front of my parents’ home. Mom is normally so attentive to the lawn, overwatering it with unfailing love every day, but Dad’s diagnosis has halted her horticulture handiwork. Sadly, the grass isn’t the only thing that will perish in this August heat.
The grass crunches under my feet as I cut through the withered lawn to ring the doorbell to my parents’ home. Mom’s van isn’t in the driveway because she’s picking up my brother from the airport, and I’m banking on Dad being too weak to have ridden along.
When no one answers, I ring the doorbell again. Dad opens the door for both sinner and saint, so this denial of his eldest son is strange. I hope he’s not asleep, though a cursory glance towards the window reveals nothing since the shades are drawn shut. When I ring the doorbell a third time, nervous sweat intermingles with the drying perspiration still stuck to my body.
Finally, ice-cool air-conditioning strikes my face, and I’m greeted by a corpse.
I’d seen Dad three months prior, and while he looked sickly then, his current emaciation renders me speechless. His glasses magnify his sunken, cloudy eyes. Liver spots decorate his bald dome. And he’s reduced to just a third of his normal weight. Cancer has hollowed him into nothing more than a bag of bones. I don’t recognize this ghost of a man, and I almost turn and run.
“Well howdy, fella!” he says in the slight Southern drawl that signifies this truly is my father.
“Hi, Dad!” I manage to choke out.
“I wasn’t expecting you! Mom is picking Nathan up from the airport right now. Come in, you look like you’re roasting out there!”
Crossing the threshold into the cool house is a breath of fresh air, as a crisp breeze finally halts my perspiration. Dad shambles his way towards the sofa like a narcoleptic zombie, and I’m suddenly ashamed at inconveniencing him.
“Here, let me help you,” I offer.
Too proud to accept my assistance, he rejects my offer with a disgusted wave of his hand, continuing to shuffle his way towards the couch in agonizing slow motion. Gripping the arm of the sofa, he lowers himself into a seated position, grimacing the entire time, before finally settling horizontally under one of the enormous faux-fur blankets he brought back from one of his many work trips to Korea.
“That’s why it took so long to answer the door,” he says with a chuckle.
“No worries,” I say, kicking off my sneakers and sliding into the navy blue La-Z-Boy recliner my parents have owned my entire life. “What’s that on the TV?” I ask, nodding my head towards the flat screen television mounted on the wall. “A bunch of horses?”
“The Man from Snowy River,” Dad replies.
“Ah, your favorite film! I’ll watch it with you for a while, if you want.”
“Nah, it’s just a DVD. Let’s visit for a bit.” Dad attempts to sit up to reach the remote on the coffee table, but I beat him to it. A click of a button and the horses on screen vaporize into a black void.
“I thought you were in Vancouver,” he says as we both settle back into position.
I am. I’m power-napping right now, but soon I’ll be on the dance floor, rolling my tits off while chasing sexy strangers who won’t want me.
“I’m headed there soon,” I lie. “I’m actually flying out in a few hours.”
“Oh, that’s too bad. You’re just going to miss Mom.”
“Yeah, listen, about that…you can’t tell Mom I’m here, OK?”
Because Mom is sharp as a tack. She’ll have already seen my Vancouver Pride Facebook posts, and she’ll wonder how I made it to Alabama so quickly. Unable to reconcile the disparity, she’ll look me over, wondering out loud why I look heavier, why I have so many more grey hairs, why I look so much older since my last visit. She’ll start asking too many questions I won’t—or can’t—answer. It’s best to circumvent her entirely. That’s why I bought my brother’s plane ticket; I needed a full-proof plan to get Mom out of the house, and I knew her kind heart couldn’t resist picking Nathan up from the airport.
“She knows I’m strapped for cash right now, and she’d hit the roof if she knew I charged another flight to my credit card,” I half lie. “She doesn’t even know I bought Nathan’s ticket.”
Dad’s eyebrows scrunch as he considers my explanation. He can’t conjure a lie to save his life, but he can be trusted with a secret, so I appeal to his sentimentality.
“Please, just don’t tell her I stopped by. It was really important for Nathan and me to see you one last time, and I don’t need Mom worrying about me with everything else she’s juggling right now. Promise me you won’t tell her, OK?” I plead.
Dad finally smiles. “Cross my heart and hope to die,” he jokes. Though I glower at his off-color humor, I’m secretly grateful cancer hasn’t stole his spirit.
“Do you need money?” he asks.
“What? No, no, I’ll be fine. I’ll work some overtime next month. I’m just glad to be here with you right now.”
“Well, I’m glad you’re here, too,” he says with a grin. Fuck! I’m already fighting back tears, and I’ve only just sat down!
Before I can ask how he’s feeling, Dad descends into a vicious coughing fit. Concerned, I leap from the recliner, ready to act, but as I’m unsure how to respond, I fidget like a nervous chicken until Dad makes a drinking motion. My socks glide across the hardwood kitchen floors as I rummage through the cupboards for a cup. I find one of Dad’s old mugs, the bottom stained and cracked from a lifetime of black coffee—no cream, no sugar—and fill with it with cold water from the refrigerator spout. The storm has largely passed when I return, though he drinks the water in careful, deliberate sips in between a few stray coughs.
“Thank you,” he wheezes, clutching his chest with his free hand. “That’s been happening a lot lately.”
“Does it hurt?” I ask. I immediately regret letting the words slip from my mouth, but he takes it in stride.
“Not too much, but the doctor says I need to be careful. Coughing that hard can crack my ribs.”
“Look at you, finally listening to doctors’ orders!” I tease, trying to lighten the mood as I ease back into the recliner.
“I don’t have much choice,” he replies, squashing my attempt before it got off the ground.
Chastised, I sit in silence as he soothes his throat with the cold water. I watch him drink as I reach into a glass candy dish on the coffee table. Pulling out a mini-Reese’s peanut butter cup—Dad’s favorite—I carefully unwrap it, ensuring peanut butter and chocolate flecks don’t rain onto the carpet. I offer him one, but he shakes his head as I pop the candy in my mouth.
“So, do you have a boyfriend yet?” he suddenly asks.
I nearly choke on the peanut butter cup. I could always talk to Mom about my boy problems, but my dating life was a taboo subject with Dad. Being a conservative Baptist, he refused to acknowledge or discuss my sexuality until my last visit when I blurted out, “Thank you for always loving me, even though I’m gay,” in our final conversation. He admitted then that he didn’t understand my sexual orientation, but that his love for me remained unchanged. Accordingly, this inquiry is another unexpected olive branch he’s extended my way.
“I wish,” I say, rolling my eyes and swallowing the candy. “There’s one guy I love, but I don’t think he’s right for me.”
“Why not?” Dad asks, genuinely interested.
“I don’t think he loves me back,” I admit.
“Then he’s not the right guy for you, Son. You deserve to be with somebody who loves you, unconditionally, like your mom and I love you.”
“Thank you,” I mumble. I never thought I’d see the day when Dad would be doling out boyfriend advice to me.
“You’re a smart young man, and I’m so proud of you. Any guy would be lucky to have you.”
My face flushes crimson with shame. I don’t feel like such a proud son, knowing I’m partying my ass off in Vancouver while my dad’s dying. Furthermore, despite harboring a lifelong, secret desire to discuss my romantic flings with my dad, I’m going to liquify into an ocean of tears if I don’t immediately change topics.
“Hey, do you remember walking with me to take out the garbage when I was five years old?” I ask.
A sparkle of confusion gleams in his eye at my obvious change of tact, but it vanishes as he furrows his brow to conjure the correct memory.
“I know you remember,” I encourage. “It was when we used to live in that tiny apartment. Nathan and I were friends with Austin, the kid next door…”
“I’m sorry, I don’t…”
“…and that giant tree near the trash bins terrified me. When it swayed in the wind, it looked a hundred feet tall, and I was always afraid it would reach out and carry me into the night.”
“Oh! The place on Holly Drive!”
“Yes! On Holly Drive!” We both smile at his recognition.
“What brought that up?”
“It’s one of my favorite memories of you. Of us together, actually.”
Dad smiles. “Why is that?” he asks.
“Because it was the first time I needed a hero. Whenever we took out the trash, you always held my hand and told me everything would be alright, even when I was sure that scary tree would steal me away forever. You were my very first hero, Dad.”
“Aww, thank you. But you were always such a good, independent kid. You didn’t need anybody to save you.”
“I did, Dad. I did then…”
I stop and clench my eyes shut, tapping into emergency reservoirs of willpower to keep from bawling like a baby. Convinced I’ve temporarily halted the flood, I reopen my eyes and finish: “…and I do now.”
Dad and I long since discarded the warm-fuzzy aspect of our relationship, so this unbridled display of emotion is unbecoming, but I’ll be damned if I don’t ride it out.
“You were always the best dad in the world. I hope you know that. I wasn’t always the best at telling you or letting you know, but I always thought the world of you,” I gush.
My dad is surprised but touched. “I’ve always been so proud of you!” He reaches his hand towards me, and I scoot forward to warmly accept him. Crouched in this half-standing position, I spot his King James Bible lurking from the bottom of the small book stand behind him. I have an idea.
“Can I read the Bible to you?” I ask.
He looks up, confused. When I was a child, the Bible was my bedtime story. Dad came into my room with his enormous, leather-bound book, and he’d read me the stories of Moses, Samson, and Jesus Christ while I sat in wide-eyed wonder. I always asked a billion questions, and my father patiently answered each one until it was time to sleep. Listening to him talk about the Bible became a religion unto itself. But sadly, Dad knows I haven’t been to church or cracked open a Bible in nearly a decade.
“Sure, Son,” he finally says, disguising his puzzlement.
I gently brush past my father to pick up his ancient Bible. The brown cover is frayed and tattered, with a coffee stain splotching the upper righthand corner. Unsure of which story to read, I flip through the timeworn pages, admiring the countless highlighted passages and handwritten notes in the margin. When I reach the book of Matthew, a tiny picture acting as a bookmark makes me pause. It’s a dinosaur, drawn in blue ink. It’s crude and unpolished, something a kindergartener would proudly present to their father on Father’s Day.
“You kept this?” I ask, holding my drawing up.
Dad squints, then beams when he recognizes the image.
“Of course! I kept all your Father’s Day presents. Even that horrible ceramic mug you made for me in middle school,” he says with a cough/laugh.
“I can’t believe you still have this,” I say, more to myself than to him.
“Where was it at?” Dad asks.
“The bookmark. Which book was it in?”
“OK, start there.”
Still pleasantly surprised he kept my earliest Father’s Day present, I regain my composure and settle on Matthew, chapter one:
“This is the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah the son of David, the son of Abraham:
Abraham was the father of Isaac, Isaac the father of Jacob, Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers…”
I continue reading the Bible to him, occasionally peering over the book to catch him wrapped in his blanket, smiling at me. I lose myself in Christ’s genealogy, and I only just make it into Jesus’ ministry in Galilee when Dad’s snoring interrupts me. Having just read the Bible—and knowing my father’s fate—I can’t help but think of heaven. Dad will surely ascend, but what about me? I’ve run so far from home that they might not let me come back. If that’s the case, today’s the last time I’ll ever see him again.
The dam finally breaks and the tears fall.
Sobbing silently into my hands so as not to wake my father, I realize the old woman was right: I can’t save him. No matter how many times I come back to this moment, he’s still going to wither and die on that couch. Reduced to a child, I curse God, fate, and time itself for this cruel trick. Why have a time machine if I can’t go back and save the ones I love?
I could cry for an eternity, but Mom’s imminent return disallows such luxuries. Holding the dinosaur drawing carefully between my fingertips, I flip to Revelations and place the bookmark on the Bible’s last page, but it looks out of place.
“No, that’s not right,” I whisper, before flipping to Genesis and placing the dinosaur there.
“This is just the beginning,” I say against my Dad’s snores. Placing the Bible on the coffee table and kissing him gently on the forehead, I add, “I promise to see you again.”
I open the front door and whisper “I love you” to my dad before running out into the shimmering afternoon heat.
18 June 2018; local time: 09:23 a.m.; Seattle, USA
After my phone resynchs to 2018, I scroll through texts my mom sent until I find one dated August 6th, 2013. It still reads, “He’s gone.” My visit changed nothing. Though I’m hit with a pang of guilt, I’m also relieved my presence failed to alter history, because it means I can go back and visit him again. Instead of wallowing in misery, I can spend every Father’s Day with him. He might not have a future, but he has a past, and if I’m there for enough Christmases I skipped out on, birthdays I missed, and cancer diagnoses I should’ve been there for, maybe one day—someday far in my future but buried deep in his past—I’ll finally believe him when he looks me in the eye and tells me he’s so proud I’m his son.