“Do you consent to this procedure of your own free will?” The woman in the white coat didn’t look up from her tablet, her words measured and monotone.
Sona gripped the edges of her chair. The woman had probably seen so many people in the exact same position as Sona, gripping the chair in a hundred different ways. But, to Sona, there would only ever be this one moment in her own life. This one choice. “Yes.” She nods, clears her throat. “I do. Consent.”
“All right. Sign and date here.” Taking the tablet back, the woman exited out the door Sona had entered not more than a quarter of an hour ago. The empty room seemed to echo, as if the woman had pulled away all the sound with her, silence rebounding upon silence. Sona shivered, though from cold or fear or anticipation or something else entirely she didn’t know. Her paper gown rustled, and the silence settled.
As if summoned by that small sound, a man entered, broad shoulders swallowing up the space, smile lighting up the sterile room. “Hi there. I’m Pietr, and I’m here to make sure everything goes smoothly, ok?”
She nodded again, quick, jerky.
“First, I’m going to apply these electrodes to you, to monitor your vital signs, make sure nothing out-of-the-ordinary happens. Careful, they’re a little cold and you might feel a little stinging sensation.”
Pietr shuffled around Sona, sticking tiny flesh-colored nubs all over her head and arms, at the juncture of her jaw and throat, fingertips brushing against her skin. She sucked in a breath and watched to see if he noticed.
“A red door’s going to appear on that wall, ok?” Pietr said. “That means we’ve made a successful connection with your particular chosen point in time and space. Inside will be a changing room with period-specific clothing. Once you’re dressed, walk through the green door. You’ll have twelve hours from the time you exit that door. Got it?”
Sona nodded again, speechless. It was happening. God, she was so close.
“All right,” Pietr said. “I just need you to count backwards from ten, like a spaceship launch. Ready? Ten. Nine. Eight.”
A red door appeared.
The small changing room was as described. Sona stripped out of the paper gown, ripping it in her haste. Dresses hung in the expansive wooden closet. She flicked through them, fingers catching and pausing on a bright yellow one. Oh, how perfect. It was exactly how she remembered it. Soft silk slid over her skin.
It fit as if made for her.
She paused, considering. But the green door beckoned.
Sona took a deep breath. “Ready or not, here I come,” she said aloud, and stepped through
before her was warped from years of rain and snow and children banging heedless into it.
The sky above was a pale burnt blue. Trees rustled, the shadows of their leaves drifting across the worn concrete sidewalks beneath her feet. The house looked as she remembered it, as if she’d torn it out of her photo albums and flung it out into the world.
Her hands were small again, blemish-free and unlined. She knew if she reached up, her hair would be black again, bound in pigtails. Sona started laughing, and it rippled high-pitched through the air.
She dashed inside. “Mom? Mom!” she called, voice bouncing off the brick walls.
Sona stilled, her fists clenched at her sides. Her throat clenched. Then, she let the words she’d hoarded in the back of her mind for decades fall free into the air. “Mom, I’m home.”
And there she was, Mom, all shoulder-length dark hair and bright black eyes and wide-mouthed smile. “What are you yelling for?”
“You’re here,” Sona said.
Her eyes roved over her mother’s half-forgotten features, memorizing every detail and matching it to her own memories. All the outlines seemed sharper, the creases at the corners of eyes, the outline of her lips, the contrast between her hair and her skin.
“Of course I am, silly girl. Where else would I be?”
Sona wrapped her arms around the achingly familiar figure. “You’re beautiful.”
Her palms warmed against the bright cotton of her mother’s dress; the scent of lavender settled at the root of her tongue. She swallowed it down, let it coat her throat.
“Of course, of course,” Mom said. “Where do you think you got your pretty face?”
“And today,” Sona urged, “are we going to the park?”
“In a hurry, huh?” She laughed, smoothing Sona’s hair down. “I promised, didn’t I?”
The walk to the neighborhood park passed
in a blur
of feathers, the small flock of local ducks rose in the air and then resettled on the glassed surface of the man-made pond.
“I have a surprise for you, Sona,” Mom said. “A gift.”
Sona smiled up, stale bread crumbling through her fingers. A curious duck gamboled over to investigate. She knew what the next words should be, and they spilled out her mouth unbidden. “It’s not my birthday.”
“It wouldn’t be a surprise gift if it were your birthday, would it?” A cool hand settled over Sona’s eyes. Something dropped into her hand. “Guess what it is.”
Sona clenched her hand into a fist, the edges of the object pressing into her fingertips, her chest tightening. “I don’t know,” she lied.
Her mother’s hand lifted away with a flourish, and Sona looked down at the red plastic barrette lying in the center of her palm. A small carved rose adorned one end. She looked up at the expectant face and flung herself forward. “I love it.”
“Here,” Mom said. “Let me put it in your hair.”
Sona tugged her mother’s shirt afterwards. “Can I see how it looks?” Distantly, she wondered if the eyes she’d see looking back at her would be her clear seven-year-old eyes, or if she’d see the faded knowing eyes of a sixty-two-year-old woman.
“How it—” Mom patted her pockets down. “Sorry, honey, I think I left my compact mirror in my other purse. You can see it when we go home, ok?”
Sona frowned. She didn’t remember this.
No, this wasn’t right.
She distinctly remembered admiring herself in the small circle of glass, red barrette perched atop her head like a jaunty beacon.
But before she could think much more of it, Mom’s arm wrapped around
bumped another boy’s as he dashed by. Other kids ran past, shrieking at the top of their lungs, streaming past her as she stood at the edge of the playground.
“Go play, honey,” Mom said. “I’ll be right here.”
Play. Sona hadn’t played in a long time. She took a tentative step forward. And another. Play. It wasn’t so hard, was it? The wood chips crunched underneath her feet. Oh, what the hell, she had twelve hours, right? She arrowed for the tire
her arms, hands raising up to clench each rung of the monkey bars. Blisters formed and
through the trees that lined the edges of the park, her lungs heaving, heart beating in
go home?” her mother called. Sona slumped into a heaving pile of exhaustion at Mom’s feet. The sun had started to set, soaking the faint clouds in shimmering oranges and reds and every shading in between.
“Home?” Mom repeated, peering down at her with a wry smile.
Sona couldn’t remember the walk back, her entire focus on the sweat drying clammy on her back and her mother’s hand gripping hers, wrist encircled with her trusty gold
Mom putter around the kitchen, pots clanging and steam clinging to the windows. Heat kindled inside of Sona’s ribcage. And with each bite of rice she swallowed, the heat only expanded. Each tick of the hallway clock seemed twice as loud as Sona remembered it to be, the seconds dissolving away, too fast, crumbs catching and then falling between her fingers, except this time she would be leaving her mother instead of the other way around.
“Time for bed, honey,” Mom said.
And suddenly, Sona couldn’t hide it anymore. She reached out to grab for her mother’s hands, damp and vital between the press of her palms. “Mom,” she said. “I’m a time traveler.”
“Is that so?” Mom’s eyes widened, and her mouth formed into a mock-O. “From the past or the future?”
“The future.” Sona frowned. “I’m serious.”
Mom’s features sobered, though the creases at the corners of her eyes said she was still playing along. “And in your time, what am I like? Am I different? Am I still beautiful?”
“You—” Sona paused, knowing Mom would never believe her, but needing to say it anyways. “In my time—” she stopped again.
“Wait.” Arms squeezed tight around Sona. “No, I don’t want to know. Just tell me if you’re happy, my silly girl. In this future of yours.”
“I’m happy here with you.” Sona’s breath shuddered in her chest. “I missed you. I— I—” A whine built at the base of her throat.
“Shh, it’s ok. How can you miss me if I’m here right now?”
“Yes,” Sona said. “You’re here now.” Her eyelids drooped. “I love you, Mom.” She wrestled to stay awake, clenching her hands tightly, but the pain of her blisters had faded. Into nothing.
“I love you more, Sona.” She felt herself being lifted, weightless and safe. “Sleepy time.”
“Don’t go,” Sona forced out, words heavy against her tongue, each breath in and out slower than the one before it. Don’t go. Don’t go outside tomorrow. Don’t step into that man’s car. Don’t go away. Don’t. “Don’t.”
The warm darkness of sleep muffled the last word between her lips.
Through the disguised one-way window, two men watched Sona sag in the chair, the lines on the small monitor displaying her vital signs smoothing out. Pietr reached out to begin the sequence of steps to properly dispose of the body. A small red plastic barrette clattered to the ground and tipped over into the widening maw opening up underneath the chair.
The other man, Robbie, hunched forward and squinted. “Hey, she’s not supposed to bring in anything from the outside. I hope that doesn’t gum up the machinery.”
“It doesn’t matter,” Pietr said. “She’s the last one today anyways. The janitors will clean everything out by tomorrow morning.”
“Still,” Robbie insisted. “How’d she get that by you?”
Pietr shrugged. “I was kind of concentrating on, I don’t know, the lethal injection, rather than fiddling around with what she had in her pockets.”
“She doesn’t have any pockets in that paper gown of hers.”
“It’s always kind of sad to me,” Pietr said, instead, “that moment when it ends, your story, and everything goes to black.”
“You’re such a sap,” Robbie said, leaning back in his chair. “It’s not like you haven’t seen the same sort of thing every day for three years now. That’s how long you’ve worked for Population Control, right?”
“Still.” Pietr leaned against the wall, gesturing to the large screen set-up beside them, “I watch these memories that people choose. I watch their reactions, whether they choose to drift through like a dream, or whether they take control and change what used to be. There must be a reason why each of these people volunteer, and I keep watching and trying to figure out what it is. I’d never volunteer, that’s for sure.”
Robbie cracked his knuckles and shook out the stiffness in his shoulders. “I wish they’d institute something like a statute of limitations on how far back these people want to go back in their memories.”
Pietr shook his shaggy head. “You know they’d never do that. That’s practically the only incentive PopCon has going for it, that people can relive any twelve hours in their life they want to.”
“Yeah, I know.” Robbie sighed. “But it’s hell to try to piece together something from a few memories stored in the brain from decades back and whatever public domain files PopCon has access to, and then have to compress it into ten minutes of story good enough to fool the brain into generating what feels like hours worth of its own sensory stimulation.”
“That’s why you get paid the big bucks.” Pietr leaned forward, peering at the body sliding out of sight. “You ever feel guilty? Promising someone that they get to go back in time and really all they get is essentially some ten-minute movie you play in their heads?”
“Why should I?” Robbie stood, stretching his arms and cracking his neck. “They don’t care in the end.” He headed for the door, pulling his jacket around his shoulders. “All right, I’m headed home. Coming?”
Pietr followed in his wake. He took one last look at the room beyond, now pristine, empty, floor closed up. He made a mental note to double-check that the machinery was still in good working order tomorrow morning. He’d have to be more careful in the future about the little things people snuck in sometimes. Pietr flicked the lights off and let the door swing shut behind him.