The Perfect Birthday Present

           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:

            “Hey, stop!”

            “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.

            “But how…”

            “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.

            “What?”

            “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.

            “What?”

            “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.

Murdering an Ex

 

            Time machine, time machine, take me away, to foreign lands and long-forgotten days.

            9 May 2017; local time: 12:03 a.m.; Seattle, Washington

          “I can’t do this anymore!” I exclaim, tossing my dinner jacket over Chrysta’s couch whilst unraveling my bowtie. I’ve drunkenly stumbled to her apartment after a charity event downtown—no time travel necessary—and I’m raiding her pantry to mix myself a vodka-Sprite. Carbonation bubbles float up my highball glass like tiny tempers let loose.

          “I keep running into him everywhere I go! Why can’t he just leave me alone?”

          “Scott again?” Chrysta asks. Her sleep mask rests in her tussled hair, stray strands of which radiate in every direction like blonde solar flares. She crosses into the kitchen and shoos me away from the fridge I’ve propped myself against to add a splash of cold milk to her mug of hot cocoa.

          “Yeah, Scott again,” I say, plopping down at her kitchen bar.

          “What happened this time?” she asks, yawning.

          “Same old bullshit. I didn’t know he’d be at this event, and he came out of nowhere to talk to me. Things were cordial at first, but I was a little drunk…”

          Chrysta shoots me a motherly glance, which I promptly ignore.

          “…and I asked why he blocked me on Facebook.”

          “What did he say?”

          “He gave some lame-ass excuse about needing to cut toxic people out of his life.”

          “Well, he is toxic for you,” Chrysta says as she takes a satisfying first sip of her cocoa.

          “Yeah, he is toxic for me, not the other way ‘round!”

          “Why even talk to him, then?”

          “Ugh…I try not to, but he’s so damned charming. One word and I’m hypnotized.”

          Chrysta’s cat, Warhol, hops atop the bar, and I nuzzle the top of his head as he purrs affectionately.

          “And he means well,” I continue. “He’s apologized for cheating, and I’d like to move forward as friends, but whenever we try to negotiate any kind of peace…” I let the sentence die while cradling my empty highball.

          “What did you say, then, after he mentioned cutting toxic people out of his life?”

          I sigh heavily before confessing that I called him a balding asshole.

          “No!”

          “Wait, it gets better. He responded by calling me a narcissistic loser, so I called him a flat-assed failure with abandonment issues.”

          Chrysta shakes her head but demands the denouement.

          “At that point, he threw a drink in my face. I was so pissed that I threatened to murder him with my bare hands, but security kicked us both out before I could take a swing.”

          “God, your guys’ fights put world wars to shame!” Chrysta marvels. I dip my head into my hands, frustrated and drunk. I can already feel tomorrow’s hangover creeping in.

          “You need another drink. Let me pour you another vodka-Sprite,” she says as she moves toward the pantry.

          “Your readiness does not negate my sorrow,” I caution, but she refills my glass just the same, neutralizing my bitterness with figurative and literal sweetness:

          “Of course not, dear,” she says with a smile, dropping a maraschino cherry into my drink. “You know what will happen tonight, though, right?” she asks.

          “Thank you,” I say, regarding the garnish. I take a sip and am impressed with her perfectly-mixed proportions. Still, my predicament’s predictability leaves me acidic. “Do tell, oh All-Seeing Oracle,” I mock.

          “First, you’ll get drunk… you’re already well on your way there…” she says. I raise my glass in a faux toast.

          “Then you will be filled with that familiar tug of regret for Scott…” She pauses just long enough for my disgust to register.

          “…and then you’ll flounder for reason, like a fish gasping for breath on a boat deck. Finally, you’ll break through and get to the most essential task you’ve been called upon to fulfill,” she says.

          I’m impressed by her midnight eloquence but maintain my bitterness: “And what is that?”

          “Why, the task of being Matthew Fucking Craven, of course!” she says with a victorious smile.

          I reach across the bar with my half-empty highball and clink it against Chrysta’s mug, flattery trumping logic once again. Warhol jumps to the floor and weaves his way between Chrysta’s legs while I watch in silent contemplation.

          “I wish I had never met him,” I finally declare to myself.

          “He’s certainly not the most positive influence in your life,” she says as she bends down to pick her cat up.

          “No, I mean it. I wish I never fucking met him. I want to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind him out of existence. POOF, vanished, never existed!” I say, mimicking exaggerated smoke clouds with my hands.

          “Well, there’s no way for you…” Chrysta realizes her mistake a second too late when a wicked grin dances across my face.

          “Matthew Joseph Craven, you better not!” she says, dropping Warhol to the ground and rushing around the bar to confront me face-to-face.

          “Calm down,” I say, my hands raised in surrender. “You know I’m too drunk to fly the machine tonight, anyway.”

          She is not satisfied with my answer. “Promise me you won’t do anything rash.”

          “I promise not to do anything rash,” I say, crossing my heart and bonking my finger on her nose to diffuse the tension. And I won’t. A plan is germinating, but a cursory stroke of my chin reminds me I’m sporting only a few days’ worth of stubble, and I need a full beard to pull this off.

          I finish my drink in one long gulp and grab my dinner jacket from the couch. Chrysta senses my sudden elation, but not even flattery can ground me now, so she settles for a warning: “Time has a way of correcting itself,” she says.

          “I’ll see you tomorrow,” I say, kissing her on the cheek before rushing home.

 

            18 January 2015; local time: 12:17 a.m.; Portland, Oregon

          I kept my promise to Chrysta, as nothing about my month-long preparation could be considered “rash”: I stopped shaving and patiently waited for my stubble to blossom into a thick beard and mustache. I replaced free-weight-training at the gym with punishing cardio so I could squeeze back into my old “Why I’m Single” tank top. And I’ve dabbed gallons of moisturizer and anti-wrinkle creams on my face to achieve my long-lost glow from yesteryear. A thorough examination in the mirror verifies my efforts were not in vain: I’m the spitting image of 2015 Me.

          Aesthetic simulation was a piece of cake, though, when compared to my plan to finally eradicate Scott from my timeline; the expert coordination, deception, and guile of my strategy will win me a Machiavellian medal if I succeed! Still, a nagging voice—the same nagging voice I’ve silenced all month long—whispers uncertainties in my ear as I descend into Portland. Can I really do this? Do I want to really do this? The time machine lurches upon landing, whipping me forward and pinning my hand between my chest and the console. I swear in pain, but as I feel my heartbeat, I’m reminded of the sting Scott left in my heart. That’s sufficient motivation. I flex my hand, ensure an extra iPhone 6 is in my pocket, and step out into a rainy Portland night.

          As I pass empty restaurants and closed shops in the Pearl District, a fresh specter of doubt materializes. What if someone recognizes me? What if I recognize me? My plan suddenly feels sloppy, unrehearsed. It’s not too late to turn back…no, this will work. I was hammered that night, so there’s no way 2015 Me will remember any of this. I zip up my dark jacket and quicken my pace until the rainbow flag above CC Slaughter’s welcomes me to my destination.

          CC Slaughter’s promise of cheap, stiff drinks and dance floor frivolity were a Siren’s call too irresistible for my friend, Jake, and I to ignore when an impromptu road trip led us to Portland over MLK weekend in 2015. This return to the scene of the crime marks the start of Phase I of my masterplan. I stand in the modest queue and reach for my wallet to pay cover, but the doorwoman ushers me inside as expected, 2015 Me having already paid. I hold my breath as I cross both CC Slaughter’s threshold and the point of no return.

          I slide out of my jacket and linger in the dark entrance to let my eyes adjust to my surroundings. The main bar stands in front of me, the dance floor beckoning from beyond; bathrooms are ahead, to the right. Large crowds on both sides of the bar provide perfect camouflage, allowing me to scope out the dance floor from the safety of the shadows. It doesn’t take long for me to spot Jake and 2015 Me dancing—already sans tank top and snapping a fan—to Katy Perry’s “Birthday”. God, I was such a mess that night! Luckily, that will play to my advantage, now.

          Having found 2015 Me, my next task is securing a suitable one-night stand. Scanning my surroundings like a sexual panther, I quickly reject two young twinks, an older Asian man, two college-aged lesbians, and four dude-bros in backwards caps. Then I catch a guy, early thirties, just under six feet tall, checking me out across the bar. His wrinkled white button-up and un-gelled brown hair are discouraging, but his drunk smile swaggers with ignorant bliss. He’s perfect for tonight. I feign nervousness by locking eyes with him and quickly looking away. When I look back, my shy smile encourages him, and he flies over like a moth to the flame.

          “Hey, what’s your name?” he asks.

          “Hi, I’m Matt.”

          “I’m Jason,” he says as he reaches to shake my hand, sloshing his drink all over my arm in the process.

          “Nice to meet you,” I lie whilst suppressing an eye roll. “Looks like you need another drink.”

          He looks at his half-empty glass, but fails to reconcile the math, opting to shot-gun the remaining liquid instead. “Can I buy you a drink?” he asks, the sticky stench of his Jäger-breath forcing me back a step.

          “Sure, but I just got here and need to find my friend first. Will you order me something, and I’ll be back in a minute?”

          He catches the sinister undertone of my request, but I have this horny boozer firmly in my grip. When I scratch the back of my head—gratuitously flexing my bicep the entire time—Jason’s eyes light up like Christmas lights.

          “OK,” he says.

          “Excellent.” With this part of my plan complete, I make to leave, but Jason points at my chest and slurs a question I don’t catch.

          “What?”

          “Single. Why are you single?” he asks.

          “Oh, my tank top. Because I’m waiting for Mr. Right,” I lie while turning my attention back to the dance floor.

          “I’m right here, baby,” he says, taking a stumbling step forward, his free hand reaching for my waist.

          “Whoa, slow down, tiger!” I say, dodging his pathetic seduction. “Whiskey sour, please. I’ll be back as soon as I find my friend.”

          My confident, dominant tone must turn him on, because Jason staggers back into the drink line like a compliant school boy, smiling stupidly the entire time. I reciprocate with a dopey smile of my own until he finally turns to the bartender, allowing me to duck into the bathroom undetected.

          The stench of stale piss hits my nostrils as my sneakers strike the dirty tiled floor. Suppressing a gag, I duck into a stall to peel off my tank top, securing it tightly through my belt loop. I place my jacket over my forearm to conceal my tattoo, and I sneak out of the bathroom with a loud gaggle of gays.

          I manage to find a dark corner near the back bar with ample views of the dance floor, but out of Jason’s lusty range. Jake and 2015 Me dance and twirl under the neon lights and shimmering disco ball as I bide my time, waiting for the perfect moment to strike.

          Finally, Jake leaves the dance floor for the back bar. Though he crosses within a foot of my hiding spot, his mission of mirth renders me invisible. Once he’s in line, I slide onto the dance floor, shimmying and shaking my way past drunk revelers towards my prize.

          2015 Me is dancing next to a mirror, his fan temporarily sheathed. He’s easy to sneak up behind, though his sweaty forehead causes my finger to slide when I cover his eyes.

          “Guess who,” I taunt.

          When I uncover his eyes and he spins around, 2015 Me’s toothy grin melts into confusion at seeing his dance floor doppelganger. His eyes narrow as he staggers unsteadily, pointing at me, then himself, then me in the mirror, then himself in the mirror, our identical black jeans and unruly face fuzz overloading his flooded circuits. When he starts to speak, I grab his shoulders and slam him into the wall next to the mirror. His puzzlement gives way to fear, my smoldering sneer frightening him further. Just before he can shout for help, I lean in close and whisper, “Welcome to the best moment of your life,” before thrusting my tongue into his mouth.

          2015 Me initially struggles against my invasion, but soon returns my kiss, hints of his watermelon gum tickling my tongue. Incredibly, the animal intensity of his probing tongue arouses me as we continue trading sloppy, mouth-devouring kisses. An involuntary image of the two of us, naked, fucking each other’s brains out, flashes through my mind. Good god, Scott was right: I am a narcissist!

          Thankfully, thinking about Scott refocuses my attention, allowing me to reach for 2015 Me’s fan while maintaining our kiss. I know he can’t resist, and sure enough, he snatches the fan out of my hand and snaps it open with a satisfying prrrrattt! With the Oriental accessory shielding our incestuous embrace from curious onlookers, I reach into his pocket and extract his iPhone 6. Sliding the stolen phone into my own jean pocket, I discreetly drop a replica on the ground.

          “Your phone!” I shout, breaking our kiss and pointing to the floor. With continued confusion, 2015 Me investigates the ground to retrieve the duped device, while I retreat to find Jake at the back bar.

          “Hey girl!” I say, jumping into line with Jake and lightly punching him on the arm. The crowd in front of us suggests he might be waiting awhile for drinks. “I’ve got a massive, mega favor to ask of you, mate,” I add, affecting the bad British accent I lapse into when drunk.

          Even through his booze-filled filters, Jake smells a rat. Though he can’t pinpoint anything specific, my appearance is somehow slightly off. Brow furrowed, he scans me up and down for signs of failed facsimile. When he finds no obvious faults, he settles on the jacket slung across my arm.

          “Where did you get that?” he asks.

          “That’s what I want to talk to you about. It belongs to this super cute guy named Jason. We’re going to hook up, but he can’t host…” I draw out the last word, hoping Jake will piece it together on his own, but he refuses to play along. “…so I need to use the hotel room for a bit.”

          Jake immediately protests, but I’m ready.

          “Here, take my credit card. The rest of your drinks are on me tonight. And you can grab a late-night breakfast burrito at a food cart afterwards. Oh, and stop by that strip club, Silverado, you mentioned on the way in; I didn’t want to go to that, anyway. All of it’s on me. I just need the room until 4 a.m.” I dangle my credit card in front of Jake’s face while flashing my most innocent smile.

          Jake glares at me but snatches my card just the same. “Matt Craven, I fucking hate you!”

          “Thank you!” I say, wrapping him in a hug.

          “You can have the room until 3 a.m., not a second later. And you’re buying brunch tomorrow!”

          “Deal! Love you, bitch!” I say, kissing him on the cheek. Jake dismisses me with a pithy wave and returns his attention to securing drinks while I cut back across the dance floor. Jason is milling near the front bar, a drink in both hand, casting his eyes nervously about. Relief washes over him when he sees I’ve returned.

          “Hey, where did you…” he starts with excruciating pauses punctuating each slurred syllable.

          “I found my friend and he said it’s cool if I bail,” I interrupt. “Do you want to get out of here?” I ask.

          “Yeah,” Jason manages.

          “OK. Now listen, this part is extremely important,” I say clearly and slowly. “I have to be back at my hotel at exactly 2:50 a.m. Walk me back, call me a cab, I don’t care, but I absolutely must be back at 2:50 a.m. on the dot. Can you do that?”

          Jason’s confusion infuriates me, so I kiss him on the mouth to seal the deal. Remnants of Jäger, too many beers, and his sushi dinner nearly activate my puke stream, but he disengages just in time.

          “Get you back to your hotel at 2:50 a.m. exactly,” he repeats with the sobering clarity of a man desperate to get laid.

          “Good boy,” I say. “I’m going to go dance to one last song while you close out your tab. Come grab me when you’re done.”

          “What about…?” Jason asks, holding the drinks in his hands aloft.

          “Here, I’ll take care of that,” I say, reaching for both whiskey sours. Jason watches in stunned wonder as I swallow the drinks in one gulp a piece. “Go close out and let’s do this,” I command, handing him the empty cups and twirling towards the dance floor.

          Jason nods in approval and shuffles back to the bar to close his tab. Drunk 2015 Me will find him an acceptable prospect, and I’ve already informed Jake of my intentions, so no suspicions will be aroused. When the bartender grabs Jason’s attention, I sneak out of CC’s. Phase I of my plan is complete!

          The rain has stopped, and the cool, crisp air is refreshing after the carnal humidity of the club. After verifying the hotel keycard is nestled amongst the credit cards in the stolen iPhone’s wallet case, I slide my tank top back on and zip up my jacket while hailing a cab. It’s time to implement Phase II of my plan.

          The cab zips through late-night Portland while I unlock 2015 Me’s phone to open Grindr. I breeze past unanswered “hello”s and “sup?”s until I find Scott’s message, but I click too quickly and accidentally enlarge his photo instead of receiving his introduction. I’m brought face to face with my tormentor once more, only this time his stormy eyes, dirty-blonde five o’clock shadow, and disarming half-smile leave me dumbstruck. I forgot about this photo. He’s so rugged and handsome, and I’m reminded of why I fell in love with him in the first place…

          …but I’m not here to rekindle old sparks. Exiling sentimentality from my heart, I start the conversation that will erase him forever.

          “How’s your night?” I type.

          The green dot next to his name indicates he’s online. He was drinking at home with a friend that evening, I remember. Thankfully, his response is prompt:

          “Hello! I’m drinking wine with my friend.”

          “LOL, I’m drunk, too!”

          “Lol. Where are you?”

          “Leaving CC’s, heading back to my hotel.”

          “Cool.”

          Pleasantries sufficiently exchanged, I up the ante:

          “Want to come over? LOL” I ask.

          I glance out the cab’s window when Scott doesn’t immediately respond. We’ve stopped at a light on the Northwest Broadway Bridge, near the hotel. The area is deserted except for an angry, tweaked out homeless man howling obscenities at the moon. His long, unwashed locks and dirty coat obscure his profile until he turns and catches me staring. A dangerous growl escapes his lips as he hurdles towards us, throwing an empty whiskey bottle at the cab for good measure.

          “What the fuck was that?!” the driver exclaims as the bottle shatters inches from the cab’s bumper. The light turns green.

          “Go, go, go!” I shout.

          The driver peels off, leaving the homeless man to his continued wailing. I exhale a sigh of relief once we’ve cleared the bridge, though I wait until we’ve almost reached the hotel before I check Grindr again to see Scott has responded.

          “I’m with a friend tonight,” he repeats.

          “LOL, I know. But I’m only here tonight. I leave tomorrow morning.”

          “Oh. Where do you live?”

          “Seattle.”

          “OK.”

          Scott’s indecision is infuriating but not unexpected given our countless arguments regarding his hesitancy. He’s weak concerning matters of the flesh, though, so a few of my modeling pictures—including one of my untrimmed stomach he loved so much—should do the trick.

          “Wow, your hiot!” he replies, his misspellings betraying his drunkenness.

          “Thanks! You’re cute, too!”

          I arrive at the hotel, paying the driver and using the keycard to enter the building. Spotting the concierge behind his desk, I take an unbalanced step with half-closed eyes in his direction.

          “Hey man, I checked in earlier,” I say, pausing to let my head bob a few times, “but I’ve had a few drinks, and I don’t…I don’t even remember my room anymore.” I shrug my shoulders and smile stupidly, fixing the concierge with one eye.

          “Last name?” he asks, ever the consummate professional.

          “Craven. Like Raven except with a C. Caw caw!”

          “You’re in room 301.”

           Thank you!

          “Thanks, man! I gotta go sleep this off now, caw caw!”

          The concierge nods and points me to the elevators. Once I’m upstairs and inside my room, I turn back to my phone to see Scott has responded.

          “Friend leaving soon but I’m drunk.”

          His interest piqued, I strike with my trump card.

          “OMG, is that a Gambit tattoo?!” he asks after seeing the picture I’ve sent.

          “It is! He’s my favorite X-Man!”

          “I love the X-Men!” I know. They were one of our most endearing bonds.

          “Wanna see it in person?”

          “OK,” he responds.

          “OK?”

          “Yeah.”

          “LOL, I meant now.”

          “OK.”

          “I’m at the Marriott Residence Inn by Union Station.”

          “OK.”

          “LOL, quit saying OK. Are you coming?”

          “Yeah.”

          “Great, I’m in room 301. See you soon!”

          “OK.”

          My plan nearly finished, I close Grindr and pace the hotel room, knowing Scott can’t resist an attractive Asian with an X-Men tattoo. His place is only a ten-minute walk from the hotel, which gives me plenty of time to eviscerate him upon his arrival. Once the door is locked and he can’t escape, I’ll remind of him of every fight we ever had, including the one back at the train station that cold, rainy November afternoon when I should’ve left him for good. I’ll recall all his deplorable actions—forgetting my birthday, hitting me, sleeping with someone else!—and I’ll belittle every weakness and flaw he’s ever exposed to me. Fueled by righteous anger, I’ll bury him in an onslaught of vicious verbiage until I’ve exhumed all his foul memories from my soul. Finally, decimated by my disdain, I’ll deliver a death-blow by reminding him he was the worst thing to ever happen to me.

          Of course, Scott doesn’t yet possess these same memories, so he won’t have a clue what I’m talking about. He’ll assume I’m one of those Grindr psychopaths who lures innocent men back to hotel rooms for ritualistic murder (he should be so lucky). He’ll run back home, screaming the entire way, never to bother me again. Just to be sure, I’ll block his ass on Grindr, ensuring we never date; when I return to my time, he’ll be wiped from my memory, like he never existed. This thought makes me break into an evil grin. Scott, you’ll finally be eliminated!

          My smile fades when half an hour passes and Scott hasn’t arrived. The neon green numerals on the microwave clock tell me it’s just past 2 a.m., so I’m cutting this close. Checking Grindr every few minutes does nothing but affirm Scott is offline, so I pace nervously around the hotel, rooting through refrigerated takeout and rifling through dirty laundry. I fold 2015 Me’s socks, and I repack his weekend bag while I wait, cursing him for not stocking the fridge with vodka.

          Scott still hasn’t turned up at 2:45 a.m., so I pull the plug. Jason will return 2015 Me to the hotel soon, with Jake trailing close behind, and I can’t risk running into them. Naturally, I’m incensed. Where is Scott?! Did that loser pass out at home? I send him a “Fuck you!” on Grindr whilst chuckling darkly at the realization he’s once more derailed my ambitions. Resorting to Plan B, I fly out the hotel lobby and bolt straight for my time machine.

 

            19 January 2015; local time: 11:02 a.m.; Portland, Oregon

          I’ve barely closed the time machine’s hatch before I’m off to the next morning. My fists clench at Scott’s absence, but my mission remains salvageable if I catch him now. The journey only lasts a few seconds before the time machine shudders to a halt, yet I manage to crack each one of my knuckles while impatiently waiting for my phone to acclimate to the new time. Once my phone displays the correct local time, I open Grindr, ready to draw Scott in again. Strangely, he’s been offline since last night. How is he still offline?! Is he still asleep? Despite becoming more trouble than he’s worth, I set the dial for the next afternoon…

          …to find he’s still offline.

          Scott’s legendary ineptitude has me teetering on the precipice of rage. I need a drink. I grab my jacket, slam the time machine hatch shut, and march through the wintery mist and fog towards the nearest bar.

          The bar is dimly lit and almost empty, with peanut shells lining the floor. The counter looks like it hasn’t been washed in a century, so I place my jacket over my lap, instead.

          “Apple martini, two cherries, please,” I tell the barmaid once I’m comfortably seated on a stool. When she disappears, my anger ebbs and I suddenly feel hollow. I bury my head in my hands, pangs of defeat ringing loudly in my ears. Scott, you win again.

          When my drink arrives, it’s watered-down and weak. I roll my eyes at my continued misfortune, allowing me to spot the small television nestled above the bar. A local news channel is on. At least it’s not sports. Swiveling my stool towards the TV, I watch with bored disinterest until an attractive female correspondent reports a man was found dead in the Willamette River. I take another sip of my martini and ask the barmaid to turn the volume up. The correspondent’s amplified voice reports the sordid details:

          “The body was found early Sunday morning near the Northwest Broadway Bridge with lacerations on his abdomen, arms, and hands. A large chunk of glass was also found embedded in his chest.”

          The correspondent is replaced by a police officer, who states the Northwest Broadway Bridge has seen increased transient activity and associated crime. I shudder when I remember the tweaked-out man who attacked my cab. The officer adds that additional patrols will sweep the area after dark, but that residents should remain vigilant.

          The correspondent returns to the screen, but with my attention waning, I return to my drink. I’m about to finish my martini when she says his name.

          “Scott was last seen at his apartment around 1:00 a.m., Sunday. Police believe he was stabbed to death on the bridge and his body dumped into the river.”

          My stomach lurches and my heart sinks. It can’t be! But an image of Scott—in a grey X-Men t-shirt and smiling ear to ear—appears on the screen, confirming my suspicions. My thoughts swirl and I can’t breathe.

 

            9 May 2017; local time: 10:37 a.m.; Seattle, Washington

          I’m back at Chrysta’s apartment, the morning after I left. She’s still in her pajamas, cradling Warhol on her couch while an old Police LP plays quietly in the background. My Portland expedition has erased our previous conversation from her memory, although the extra plate of scrambled eggs, crispy bacon, and homemade hash browns she’s prepared tells me I was expected, anyway. I recount my last few hours in between mouthfuls of hearty breakfast.

          “The same homeless guy who came after my cab must’ve also attacked him when he tried crossing the bridge. Scott was probably looking down at his phone and didn’t even see it coming,” I say, concluding my story.

          “And then stabbed to death and dumped into the river! How awful!” Chrysta responds.

          “Yeah, and all that broken glass from earlier would’ve made the perfect weapon.”

          Chrysta shudders at the gruesome image and hugs Warhol harder.

          “You don’t…you don’t remember him, though, do you?” I ask.

          “I’m sorry…” she starts.

          “I didn’t think so,” I interrupt.

          “But you still remember him?”

          “Yes, and I don’t know why. If he died, that means we never dated, which means all my memories of him should’ve been erased when I came back here. What’s going on?”

          “I don’t know. Maybe being a time traveler shields you somehow, like you’re in the eye of your own storm.”

          “But that means I’ll always remember him?”

          Chrysta knows better than to answer that. “Why don’t you go back in time and save him?” she asks instead.

          “You know I can’t do that. Altered timelines become fixed. Their consequences are irreversible.” Anger fueled by frustration, remorse, and sleep-deprivation has shortened my fuse. I slam my fists onto the table, causing my empty plate to jump.

          “Listen, I know you’re upset,” Chrysta starts in the warm, motherly tone she adopts whenever she’s serving me cold, hard truths, “but isn’t this what you wanted?”

          “I wanted to forget him, not, you know, murder him.”

          “You didn’t murder him!”

          “Well, I’m the reason he’s dead now, right? Isn’t that murder?”

          hrysta drops Warhol and joins me at the table. Her hand is warm when she lovingly touches my wrist.

          “I know how much he meant to you by how upset you are. But you didn’t murder him. Time just has a way of correcting itself, that’s all.”

          “I know,” I reply bitterly.

          “Well, just because I can’t remember him here,” Chrysta says, touching her temple, “doesn’t mean he doesn’t still exist in here,” she says, taking my hand and placing it on my heart.

          A lingering silence fills the apartment as the Police record stops spinning.

          “You’ll find a way to survive this, just like you would’ve found a way to survive your breakup with him,” she adds.

          “Thank you,” I say, “but I need to go.”

          I attempt to bring my dirty dishes to the sink, but Chrysta leads me to the door and traps me in an embrace.

          “Take care of yourself. And don’t try to erase anybody again, OK?”

          “I promise,” I say, kissing her lightly on the cheek. “Thanks for breakfast.”

          After she’s closed her door, I breathe in Seattle’s warm, spring morning air. My heart feels heavy, but I remember what Chrysta said about Scott staying with me. Placing my hand over my chest and closing my eyes, I whisper, “I’m sorry, Scott, for everything. I promise to never forget you.”

Cherry Blossom Stranger

 

            Time machine, time machine, take me away, to foreign lands and long-forgotten days.

            7 April 2063; local time: 12:15 p.m.; outside Tokyo, Japan

           I hate writing in my leather-bound journal on trains. The car’s gentle rhythmic rolling rocks me to sleep every time. However, riding in the Gran Class of the recently-remodeled Shinkansen bullet train is akin to gliding on silk, allowing my pen to arc in grandiose flourishes with none of my usual stray swerves. I take a sip of hot tea from my porcelain teacup, nodding in appreciation at the elixir’s floral aromas.

           I’m chronicling my latest adventure, out of necessity as much as for posterity: time travel is confusing! Have I met this person already? Do I meet them later? Have they already told me about this? Can I tell them about that? Hell, half the time I can’t remember which version iPhone I’m allowed to use. Minutiae of my exploits are therefore meticulously detailed for reference later.

           My latest assignment was somber yet swift: I was in Tokyo to pay my last respects to Ichiro, a man I met during the 2020 Olympics. That’s the funny thing about time travel—everybody you meet is essential. Even your one-night stands. His obituary said he was survived by his husband, two adopted daughters, and seven grandchildren; he lived a good life. I placed a bough of aster tataricus—the “I won’t forget you” flower—bound with a white lily on his grave. I find his entry in my journal—“Met an Osaka businessman named Ichiro at the Closing Ceremonies” with a green smiley face next to his name to denote that we fooled around—and write “DECEASED 29 March 2063.”

           I clasp my journal shut. Thinking about Ichiro saddens me. I absentmindedly trace the gold lettering of “Matt’s Journal” with my finger while wondering if he ever thought of me. Being single and on the wrong side of thirty makes me wonder what could’ve been if I had accepted his invitation to visit him in Osaka. I never went, but I’m headed there now, to chase an echo of a future I never had.

           I place my hand against the window and swipe to the right to displace a high-resolution newscast screen. Japan rushes by in a blur. I cast my eyes skyward to see if the Land of the Rising Sun will live up to her name, but the sun is battling a curtain of clouds for atmospheric dominance. I switched into shorts and a tank top before boarding the train, so luck be a sunbeam today.

           I reach for my teacup to find it empty. I’d like a refill, but pushing the “refill beverage” button next to my seat elicits an error message: “Please accept our apologies, but your robotic waiter has been removed for maintenance.” It’s strangely comforting to know machinery still fails in the future, but I’ll have to refill my tea the old-fashioned way. I stand up, stretch loudly and lazily, and take my empty cup to the dining car, passing an elderly Asian man on the way out.

           When I return to the Gran Class car, teacup simmering once more with caffeinated wonder, I notice I’m no longer alone. However, it’s not the Asian man I passed earlier. Instead, an elderly gentleman of American or European descent is reading a book. In my seat. Normally I’d surrender my seat amidst a flurry of eye rolls, but my journal still rests in the adjoining chair. Since retrieving it will necessitate an awkward conversation anyway, I boldly stake my claim:

           “Excuse me, sir. You have my seat.”

           The old man lowers his book to greet my voice. His face is a roadmap of creases and wrinkles, of memories and mirth, of a man who genuinely believes laughter is the best medicine. His thick mane of white hair is carefully gelled into place. His eyes are shimmering teal pools. He smiles slightly.

           “My apologies, young man,” he says. I’m instantly intoxicated by his British accent. He starts to stand, and I’m suddenly chastised at the thought of inconveniencing the elderly.

           “Actually, don’t worry about it. Let me just grab my journal, here, and I’ll…”

           I stop mid-sentence because he has stood, towering a solid three inches above my 5’11 frame. He grabs my journal; after staring at it a second too long, he passes it to me. I’m imbued with an exhilarating energy when the journal touches my hand.

           “Thank you,” I offer weakly.

           “You’re quite welcome, Matt,” he says with a wink. He grabs his book and makes his way to another seat.

           “Wait!” I say, a little too forcefully. The old man turns back to me, his left eyebrow arched in confusion. “How did you know my name?”

           He smiles and nods towards the journal in my hand. “Your name is on the cover.”

           “Oh, haha, yes, of course, sorry,” I stammer.

           “Anyway, good day, Matt,” the old man says.

           Without thinking, I blurt out, “Join me. There’s room for both of us here, and we’re still two hours out of Osaka.”

           I don’t know why I’ve invited this old man to sit with me. I loathe small talk with strangers, but a curious force moves my tongue.

           “Friendships are forged on trains, right?” I add.

           The old man stares at me with a peculiar, burning intensity, like he’s searching my soul for an answer to a question unasked. Just before I wither under his gaze, he breaks into a sly smile.

           “Actually, it’s love affairs,” he corrects.

           I chuckle. His flirtation leaves me flustered and flattered.

           “Well, in that case you better buy me a drink,” I fire back.

           “I hope you like whiskey,” he says, producing a flask from his back pocket. I act unmoved, but I’m impressed.

           “What kind?” I ask as he hands me the flask.

           “Jim Beam.”

           “Jim Beam?!” I say in mock disgust. “Sorry, I only drink Crown Royale.”

           I try to hand the flask back, but he’s digging in his other back pocket. He produces another flask.

           “Crown, for the diva,” he says with a winning smirk.

           I can’t help but laugh. We trade flasks as he takes a seat opposite me. We unscrew the tops and go to cheers each other.

           “What should we cheer to?” he asks.

           “To coincidence?” I suggest.

           “Coincidence is a myth,” he says coyly.

           “OK, umm…how about to…meeting strangers on the train?”

           “Too Hitchcockian. We need something celebratory, mate!”

           I’m stumped. What would I cheer to if I was already drunk?

           “To boys, booze, and bloody good times,” I say, affecting my infamously bad British accent. My ridiculousness catches him off guard, but he smiles affectionately.

           “To boys, booze, and bloody good times!” We clink our flasks together and take a generous swig. The Crown burns and I try not to choke in front of my well-seasoned guest, but he witnesses my struggle with bemusement.

           “Something wrong?” he asks, licking his lips in satisfaction.

           “Err…it’s a bit strong,” I confess.

           “My husband thought the same,” he says with a chuckle. “Mix it with your tea.” He senses my apprehension, so he adds, “Trust me, it will taste fine.”

           Despite the ludicrous suggestion, I pour the whiskey into my cup. Surprisingly, the smooth creaminess of the Crown blends seamlessly with the floral earthiness of my tea. The old man observes my satisfaction with a smile.

           “This old geezer knows a trick or two,” he says.

           “It’s surprisingly good.”

           The old man takes another swig from his flask while I carefully pour more Crown into my tea.

           “Does this ‘old geezer’ have a name?” I ask.

           “I’m Liam,” he says.

           Liam. Such a beautiful British name.

           “Pleased to meet you, Liam,” I say as we shake hands. Both our hands tremble slightly upon first contact, but he transitions into a firm, masculine grip.

           “The pleasure is all mine, Matt.”

           “Are you from England? I love your British accent!”

           “I am, yes. Liam from London, at your service” he says with a slight bow. He has charm in spades. “And where might you be from?”

           “I was born in Korea, but I grew up in Seattle.”

           “Seattle,” he says, knowingly.

           “Have you been?”

           He takes a second to collect his thoughts. An uncomfortable confession feels imminent.

           “Yes, I met my husband there. But he…”

           I glance at Liam’s left hand. He’s still wearing his wedding band. His husband must’ve…

           “…passed away,” he concludes.

           “I’m sorry,” I say.

           Liam’s gaze turns towards the window. He swipes away an infomercial to once again reveal the Japanese countryside. A bullet train headed towards Tokyo approaches, and we both watch it sprint past in the opposite direction. After it passes, Liam speaks again, though his gaze remains firmly fixed out the window.

           “It’s OK. It was many years ago now.”

           I want to say something comforting, but nothing comes to mind. After an uncomfortable silence, we both try to speak.

           “You look like…” he starts, as I’m asking, “So, why are…”

           “Beauty before age,” he says, his hand extended towards me. Despite his melancholia, he still oozes charm.

           “Sorry, I was going to ask why you were headed to Osaka.”

           His mood instantly lifts. “I’m going to the Osaka Cherry Blossom Music Festival,” he says, triumphantly.

           “The what?”

           “The Osaka Cherry Blossom Music Festival,” he repeats. “It’s an outdoor music festival. A load of international bands and local talent play near the bay, and wind turbines blow cherry blossoms across the crowd.”

           “Oh wow, that sounds amazing!”

           “I’ve been going for years. I proposed to my husband the first time we went. Coldplay performed that year.” His smile fades slightly. “You’re probably too young to remember Coldplay.”

           I must dance delicately here. Coldplay are amongst my favorite bands, but in 2063, they haven’t been relevant in decades.

           “Actually, I’m very familiar with them. My grandfather had an antique iPod, and he let me listen to it when I was a kid. I grew up with post-millennium pop and rock.” It’s not my most convincing lie, and I scramble to recall any contemporary pop stars from the current decade in case Liam suspects fabrication. Thankfully, my response is satisfactory.

           “A young man with fine taste!”

           “Did they play ‘Lovers in Japan’?” I ask, eager to move the conversation away from my falsehood.

           “…how did you know?” Liam looks confused. The song wasn’t one of Coldplay’s big hits.

           “Because the song is called ‘Lovers in JAPAN,” I say with a playful smirk.

           “Oh, right,” he says, looking relieved. “Yes, they did. Smashing tune, that!”

           “Aces all the way.”

           “That song came on right as the turbines started blowing cherry blossoms over the crowd. It was breathtaking. I asked him to marry me before the song was over, and he said yes.”

           I smile at Liam warmly. It’s a beautiful image, proposing to the man you love amidst a burst of cherry blossoms, and I can’t resist inserting myself into the fantasy. Jubilation hangs in the air, the sun is setting, and cherry blossom petals fall from the heavens as Coldplay rock the crowd into a frenzy. A perfect man twirls me into his arms. He leans in to kiss me, and…

           Liam breaks me out of my reverie:

           “Say…I know you probably have your own plans in Osaka, but if you’re free and don’t mind hanging with an old codger, I’d love to take you to the festival.”

           “I’d love to go!” I say enthusiastically. Dancing amongst the cherry blossoms sounds like a dream come true. But then I remember: “I don’t have a ticket.”

           “Let me take care of that,” he says. He whips out a mobile device I don’t recognize and starts typing quickly. “Press your thumb here,” he says, flipping the phone towards me. The phone scans my thumbprint and makes a satisfying “beep”.

           “OK, all set. You have your ticket now.”

           “How much do I owe you?”

           “It’s on me.”

           “No…please, let me pay for the ticket,” I plead.

           “Give me a hand-job in the washroom, and we’ll call it even.”

           I freeze until Liam bursts into laughter.

           “Jokes! Although if you’re game…”

 

           We reach Osaka just before 3:00 p.m. The sun defeated the clouds, bathing the city in an amber glow. Liam grabs his small tote and I grab my journal, and we disembark the train. I try to hail a cab, but Liam is already climbing into what looks like a giant metal wheelbarrow. He notices my confusion.

           “Electric rickshaw,” he tells me. “They run on rails all throughout the city. Get in.”

           I’m barely aboard before Liam pushes a button on the interactive touchscreen, sending us towards Osaka Bay with sickening speed.

           The festival is already under way when we arrive, and after we cross through the main gate by placing our thumbs on a robotic scanner, I take in the grandiosity before me. A paved walkway adorned with strings of paper lanterns dips gently into a large valley, where bands perform on makeshift stages near the water. A massive crowd has already formed. To our left, a large grove of cherry blossom trees sway gently atop a hill. Only a few petals sprinkle down; the turbines must be off.

           Liam grabs my hand and leads me past a long row of food stalls to a converted temple to our right. A male Japanese automaton greets us, informing us the festival is not responsible for any lost or stolen items, but Liam charges past, leading me to a row of lockers lining the wall. He reaches into his tote and pulls out a change of clothes.

           “You’re already dressed for the occasion, but I need to switch into a vest,” he says, discarding his shirt. I don’t look away in time.

           “Keep staring, Mattie,” he says with a smile.

           I roll my eyes dramatically and make a big production of turning the other way.

           “All done,” he says. He’s changed into a black tank top with a Union Jack design. His biceps bulge out. He clearly maintains an effective workout regimen, even at his advanced age.

           Liam starts digging through his tote again. “Can you open that locker over there? I just need to grab a few things and then we can head out.”

           These lockers are unlike any from my time in that they lack obvious locks, keys, or even handles. I’m baffled, but a small scanner where I’d imagine the locker’s door to be provides a clue. I place my thumb against it, and the locker opens with a cool hiss.

           “Perfect!” Liam says. He hands me his tote, and I throw it and my journal into the locker. “I just need my phone and…these!” He holds up a tiny plastic bag of pills. Those are one of two things; I err on the side of caution.

           “Medication?”

           “No! Molly!”

              Of course.

           “Care for one?” he asks.

           I’ve done my fair share of drugs at music festivals across the decades, but they fuck me up much harder this far into my future. I flashback to a particularly potent pill I took at a circuit party when I time traveled to San Francisco Pride 75. I was high for days! I couldn’t remember where my time machine was, let alone navigate back home, nearly stranding me in the future. I’ve been much more cautious ever since. Liam senses my apprehension, though, and he’s having none of it.

           “I’m not trying to roofie you, if that’s what you’re thinking,” he says, disgustedly. “If I wanted to drug you, I would’ve slipped it into the whiskey.”

           That cheeky monkey! “Give me that!” I say, reaching for the bag.

           “Tut-tut,” he admonishes. “We’ll do one now, and we’ll split the last one towards the end.” He hands me a pill.

           “To boys, Brits, and bloody good times,” I say, holding my molly aloft.

           He smiles and taps his pill against mine.

           “To boys, bands, and bloody good times,” he corrects.

           I place the pill in my mouth. Surprisingly, it’s not bitter like the pills back home. Drug dealers are apparently much more sympathetic to our complaints in the future. I’ve barely had a chance to swallow before Liam grabs my hand.

           “Osaka awaits!” he says.

 

           The Osaka Cherry Blossom Music Festival is a sea of Japanese music fans. We bump against them as we gently meander through the crowd to the various stages overlooking Osaka Bay while waiting for our roll to kick in. Giant virtual cartoon images dance in the sky to the beat of the music, perfected by a technology I’m unfamiliar with. Similarly, lasers of every hue burst over the crowd with an intense beauty that puts my era to shame. Liam points a few bands out, and I nod approvingly, though I don’t recognize any of them.

           At some point, a light breeze shifts and the beautiful stench of the food stalls hits my nostrils. I haven’t eaten since I left Tokyo, and I’m famished. Liam must be reading my mind, because he leads me back towards the entrance of the festival, where I buy us fish and chips. The flaky fried fish and piping hot fries are delicious, and it takes every ounce of willpower not to lick my greasy fingers in gluttonous satisfaction. While I’m wiping my hands with a paper napkin, Liam points to the hill with the cherry blossoms.

           “We can’t see them from here, but there’s miniaturized wind turbines up there that blow the blossoms down to the crowd,” he says.

           I feel like he’s mentioned this before, but my attention scatters. My brain is suddenly buzzing, like someone flipped a switch in my mind. I feel good, happy, content.

           “They turn them on during the closing set,” he continues.

           I try to will the turbines on with my mind, to cause a supernova explosion to burst in front of my eyes, but nothing happens. Instead, the lanterns on the walkway illuminate with bright halos. Noise from the crowd drifts into my ear and ricochets in my cranium like an eternal echo. I’m slightly nauseous, but I’m overwhelmed by an urge to jump up and down. I sway uneasily.

           “It’s a wonderful sight,” Liam says. We both stare at the blossoms in silence.

           Eventually the tsunami of serotonin ebbs just enough for me to speak. “I’m rolling,” I blurt out while dropping my remaining fish and chips to the ground.

           “Already?!” Liam asks with a laugh. He wipes his chin with a napkin and tosses his chips into a bin before taking my hand. “We better go dance, then!”

 

           Liam’s roll hits shortly thereafter. He’s in his element, awash with glee, expertly weaving in and out of the crowds with the sprightly spirit of someone one-third his age. It’s refreshing to witness, and I try to match his boundless enthusiasm as the music swirls into an auditory kaleidoscope of euphoria. We both dance with wild abandon as a minute, an hour, a lifetime flies by in a flash. When Liam bites into his last molly, offering me half, I can’t believe it’s already time to indulge once again. I’m already in a warm cocoon of bliss…and didn’t we drop only an hour ago? I foolishly search the sky for a clock to confirm my suspicions, but all I can see is Hello Kitty and an orange cartoon monkey dancing to the music. Liam stares at me with amused curiosity.

           “Hey, Matt. You OK?”

           I can’t speak, so I smile stupidly and nod my head.

           “Hahaha, let’s do another half now,” he says, gently placing the magic candy in my mouth. Here we go! An hour later, the extra half hits and I blast into the cosmos.

           Eventually the Japanese headline act takes the stage. The crowd surges, but Liam is unimpressed.

           “C’mon, I want to show you something,” he says. He grabs my hand and pulls me in the opposite direction of the crowd, the paper lanterns leading us back to the now-abandoned festival entrance. I’m coated in sweat, and though my body still buzzes with a twitchy urgency, it’s a relief to catch my breath after dancing nonstop for hours. I sit atop an empty picnic table and take deep, deliberate breaths in an attempt to center my thoughts. I glance out at the water and watch the sun sink three-quarters below the horizon, setting Osaka Bay aflame with Wildberry Skittle hues.

           Suddenly, the unmistakable sound of a tack piano floods my ears. Each note rings like a bell, hypnotizing me. It’s so beautiful I almost cry. It’s the opening to “Lovers in Japan.” Is the headliner covering this ancient tune? I crane my neck towards the stage, but the symphony comes from behind me. I swivel around to find Liam, grinning like an idiot, playing the Coldplay tune on his mobile device. It sounds crystal clear, so I close my eyes and twirl to the majesty of the music. My arms are stretched to the side as I spin in messy, anticlockwise circles, forgetful of everything except this moment, right here, right now…

           Something lands softly on my nose. I open my eyes to find the intruder is a cherry blossom. Another one lands on the ground near my feet. Then another one. And another one. And another one. I look towards the heavens and gasp as a blizzard of blossoms rides a gentle breeze towards the bay. The crowd explodes in ecstasy as they’re coated in pink snowflakes.

           I’ve barely absorbed this wondrous sight when Liam grabs me with his free hand and spins me around to slow dance. I place my head on his shoulder and it feels so right. I never want this moment to end, but when the song concludes, Liam places his index finger below my chin to gently tilt my head up. His teal ponds transfix me as he leans in. I know what’s about to happen, and I make no attempt to stop it.

           Liam kisses me tenderly on the lips. I should be repulsed—he’s double my age, and then some—but it feels right. He gently presses his tongue into my hungry mouth, and I reciprocate with as much animalistic passion as my body can muster. We stand there, locked in eternal embrace, cherry blossoms raining down all around us, as all of time—past, present, and future—stands still.

           Liam pulls away and takes a step back. A rush that has nothing to do with the molly bathes me in rapturous radiance. Liam looks down but quickly meets my eye again. He’s crying, but his beautiful smile indicates they’re tears of joy.

           “Matt…” he starts.

           He pauses, his smile giving way to a horrified contortion. A gasp escapes his open mouth, and he clutches his heart in pain as his body buckles. I manage to catch him in my arms before he hits the ground.

           “Are you OK?” I stupidly ask. No, of course he’s not OK! He’s having a heart attack! Find a medic! I try to react appropriately, but my roll paralyzes me.

           “Matt…no…I…”

           He breathes deeply but winces. My mind races, but my body refuses to act, leaving me to cradle him in my arms. I don’t know what to do. He’s dying. I start crying.

           “Matt…I love you…thank you…” His breath is ragged, but the drugs have neutered his fear. I try to think of something to say, something I can do. This can’t be happening! I’m rolling way too hard for this!

           He grunts loudly and his body lurches. His teal eyes finally betray his fear, but just for a second.

           “…for one last day together,” he concludes.

           Liam smiles weakly as the sun dips below the horizon and the light leaves his body. The cherry blossoms have stopped their beautiful snow shower. I sit there, stunned, as tears stream down my face like raging rivers. I want to lie down and cuddle with Liam’s lifeless body, but a nagging voice in the back of my mind tells me to flee. You’re not from this era, you’re loaded up on drugs, and you’re cradling a dead man in your arms…how will you explain that to police?

           I’m heartbroken, but there’s nothing I can do for Liam. I kiss him on the forehead and whisper, “I’m sorry,” before mustering every ounce of willpower to stand…

 

            8 April 2063; local time: 9:01 p.m.; Seattle, Washington

           “…and then?”

           I’m at Chrysta’s condo. I’ve known her my whole life, though she’s an old woman now. We’re on her couch, and I’m relating the story over a mug of hot cocoa. Her cat, Nancy Sinatra, purrs affectionately as she slithers between Chrysta’s legs.

           “I grabbed our stuff from the locker and ran like a coward, all the way back to the Osaka train station,” I say.

           “While you were still high?!” Chrysta asks.

           “While I was high, yeah. Took the first train back to Tokyo, rolling my ass off the whole time. Locked myself in the bathroom and cried most of the ride.”

           “Oh my god, I’m so sorry, dear!” Chrysta lovingly touches my leg with one hand and absentmindedly stirs her hot cocoa with the other.

           “The worst part was I had so much molly coursing through me that I wanted to find a night club in Tokyo and dance it off.”

           “You didn’t…”

           “No, I checked into a hotel and used one of those Sleep Machines. First time using one of those, and it knocked me out instantly, even with all those uppers. Came here right after. I’m still a little jittery, so I was hoping to crash here before heading back to my time.”

           “Of course! I’m just glad you’re OK. But poor Liam!”

           “I know. I just met him, and he died in my arms like that…” I trail off.

           “At least he died doing something he loved,” Chrysta adds.

           “I wish I knew more about him. He felt so familiar…”

           Chrysta suddenly stops stirring her drink and goes quiet. This does not go unnoticed, but before I can call her on it, she changes tack and asks me to help her to bed. There’s something strange about her request, but she peers at me over her spectacles with a seriousness that warns me this is a battle I won’t win. I sigh wearily.

           “C’mon, Miss Daisy, let’s get you into bed.”

 

           I want to write about Liam once Chrysta is tucked neatly in bed and I’m settled in her guest room. My journal isn’t in my pocket, and for a horrifying second, I wonder if I left it back in Osaka. But a familiar leather corner peeks out of Liam’s tote. I must’ve put it there when I was leaving the festival. I open the bag and dump the contents onto the bed. My journal plops out, plus Liam’s shirt, his two flasks, and his wallet.

           Curiosity compels me to peek inside his wallet. I find his ID on the inside flap. The picture looks exactly like him, only ten years younger. I check his birth year: 1988. At least he lived a long life. I continue rooting through his wallet, finding cash, credit cards, and a picture of a him with an older Asian man. It feels dishonorable to reduce Liam to such banalities. I close the wallet but notice one last picture tucked behind his ID. I pull the old, yellowed, folded photo out and immediately look away in disbelief.

              I’m seeing things! It can’t be! I take a deep breath to calm my nerves, but when I turn back, the same surreal image chills me to the bone. It’s a picture of me. My hair is flecked with additional grey, suggesting it was taken five years in my future. I’m standing next to a tall, brown-haired man in a black tank top with a Union Jack design. His arm is around me, and we both have genuine, life-affirming grins on our faces as cherry blossoms float around us.

           I turn the picture over and read the inscription, written in green ink: “He said yes! 9 April 2022.” A single tear and a stray cherry blossom strike the back of the picture at the exact same time.

—Matthew Craven