If you knew Raymond, you’d think a bookstore would be the perfect place for him to meet a woman. Ideally, a nerdy pretty woman in a whimsical hat sipping a cappuccino by the window while a local poet reads something clever over the sound of acoustic guitar. Maybe the whimsical hat would have a flower in it. Maybe not. Unfortunately for Raymond, he didn’t work in that kind of bookstore. Sparrow’s Used Books had just that – used books. No cappuccino, no acoustic guitar. It barely had a window, just a smudged pane of glass facing a set of stairs just below street level. It was not the kind of place to meet a nerdy pretty woman in a whimsical hat. With or without a flower in it.
Raymond had been running Sparrow’s for three years. Most of its books had been sold to the store by local people who had just finished clearing out their basement, giving Sparrow’s the feel of a basement that had yet to be cleared out. It was glum. And Raymond was glum. Dark hair a bit too long to be neat, a bit too short to be stylish. Tall, but all the advantages of his height were negated by an awkward hunch. At the very least he had a pleasant face, though it was a face that could have used a quick polish of optimism or enthusiasm.
And then a nerdy pretty woman appeared at the end of the paperback aisle.
“Excuse me,” the nerdy woman said. “Do you have any Philip K. Dick?”
Raymond had been restocking the sci-fi section, meaning he was taking apart one of the stacks of books left randomly on the floor and finding spots on the shelf to wedge them in.
“You like to read sci-fi – I mean,” he stammered. “You like Philip K. Dick?”
He could tell from the look on her face it was a bad opener. In Raymond’s defense, he hadn’t had the need for an opener in quite some time. His experience with living breathing women was limited, and his experience with attractive blondes with short bobbed hair in light summer dresses who like classic sci-fi was nil.
He’d earned himself a scowl. “Both,” she said. “I like to read sci-fi, and I like to read Philip K. Dick.”
“Yeah,” he said, adding another “yeah” again after a few moments of uneasy silence. Raymond then blurted out, “it’s just that not a lot of girls read good sci-fi. I mean, it’ great to meet a girl,”
“Or a woman,”
“A woman! Right. A woman, who likes, you know. Good stuff.”
Wow, Raymond thought. Wow, wow, wow. He knew he was blowing it, but he felt like a bystander watching himself step on rake after rake.
After she turned around and left, Raymond scrunched up his eyes and smacked himself in the head with the book he’d been shelving. A 1960s Ventura Books paperback edition of a classic H.G. Wells story.
The Time Machine.
He heard a clink. A swirling sound like a spinning coin coming to rest on the ground. He looked down and saw an old quarter facing up at him, apparently having just slid out of the book. Why was a coin stuck in an old book? The coin looked old, the eagle’s feathers scratched and faded.
Before he could do anything else, there was a flash. He stood there for several moments staring at the floor. The coin was gone.
“Excuse me,” the nerdy pretty woman said. “Do you have any Philip K. Dick?”
She was smiling – just as she had a few moments ago.
“Didn’t you just ask me that?”
Still smiling, but a little confused. “No. Was it someone else?”
It had not been someone else.
“I said it was weird that a girl – woman – liked good sci-fi?”
The scowl again. “Nice.” She turned and left.
Raymond looked at the paperback in his hands. The Time Machine. He desperately flipped through the old book. Pages cracking, glue coming apart, a coin slid out and into his hand.
It was the same coin. An old quarter. He flipped it gently into the palm of his hand. Tails.
There was a flash.
He heard the bell above the shop door ding. He’d heard it before, he realized, but he usually didn’t pay attention to patrons. Walking out to the end of the aisle he saw the same pretty woman in a floral summer dress.
“Oh hello,” she smiled. “I was looking for an old book and I thought I’d see what you have in here.”
Raymond was holding the book in his hand. No need to check again – he was sure the coin was inside it. “Well,” he said, “Do you like Philip K. Dick?”
The pretty woman beamed. “PKD! That is exactly the kind of thing I was looking for!”
Her name was Emily, and Raymond was completely smitten. He’s spent the rest of the day going back and forth thinking about getting ready for their date that night and trying to figure out if what had happened with the coin had really happened. In his mind, he saw it spinning. He saw the flash. Had she walked in and back out again? It was the same woman, right? She just walked back again.
He knew that wasn’t the case. But he was so flustered by the idea he’d gotten a real date with a beautiful woman that he couldn’t focus clearly. And he didn’t want to screw anything up by messing with the coin.
Raymond combed his hair, looking in the mirror. A bit greasy, maybe. He showered, shaved, put on a decent button-downed shirt and a nice pair of jeans, making himself somewhat presentable. He added an ill-fitting sport coat that completely spoiled the look. Raymond admired himself again in the mirror. Perfect.
Just in case he wasn’t imagining things, he put the quarter in his jacket pocket.
Emily was at the restaurant waiting for him when he arrived. She was sitting at an outdoor table, smiling sweetly to him as he walked up along the sidewalk. Raymond liked that she was still wearing the nice summer dress she’d had on in the bookstore that afternoon.
“Thought I’d grab us a table outside,” she said.
Raymond sat down and tried to think of something to say. “Um,” he said, “you look nice.”
She blushed a bit and waved the compliment away. So far, so good.
“And, I like your dress.”
Not as well received. Was he getting too creepy? A slight expression of concern crossed her face. “Thank you,” she said. But it came out as almost a question: ‘Thank you?’
Raymond began to panic. “I like a lot of sci-fi. Do you read sci-fi?”
“Yes,” she said, “that’s what we talked about at the bookstore.” Was she reaching for her purse, getting ready to bolt? This was not going well.
In desperation, Raymond reached into his jacket pocket for the quarter. He brought it out and looked at it.
“What’s that?” Emily asked.
Rather than explain, Raymond flipped the coin and caught it in his hand. Tails.
And Raymond was walking down the sidewalk toward the restaurant. He saw Emily sitting at a table, smiling and waving him over.
The rest of the dinner went well enough. Raymond avoided unnecessary comments on her physical appearance and spent the next hour asking her for details about the kinds of books she liked to read. Which authors she went back to. What types of stories appealed to her, and why. All the time, she had the same beautiful smile she had when he’d first mentioned PKD in the bookstore. He tried to focus on her and, for perhaps the first time in his life, he was having a really great date.
No, he thought. This was the perfect date.
They liked the same authors and, more importantly, they liked them for similar reasons. Emily was interested in all the strange possibilities that existed in the world and the very idea that something magical could happen at any minute. That said, she was practical enough to know that most possibilities remained just that. And it took a good author to craft a story that made it seemed real.
When the bill came, Raymond reached for it. “No,” Emily said, “I invited you, let me pay.” Raymond protested, but Emily laughed it off and snatched the bill. The waiter was away with her credit card before Raymond could say another word.
It would have been better if he’d grabbed the check first, he thought.
Almost the perfect date.
Raymond took the quarter out of his pocket. He flipped the coin and caught it in his hand. Heads.
And Emily slapped him across the face.
She was sitting at the table across from him with a shocked look. Raymond was stunned. “Wha—?”
“I can’t believe you said that,” she said. She grabbed her credit card off the pad with her signed receipt. “Don’t call me.” She walked away.
Raymond took a moment to focus. He looked at the coin in his hand. Heads. For the first time, it had landed on heads.
“Emily, wait!” He ran down the sidewalk after her. She turned around, still mad, raised her finger at him and opened her mouth, then appeared to change her mind and turned away again. She stood still. Raymond caught up to her.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I don’t know what I was thinking.” Really, he thought. What was I thinking? “I was wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong.”
She shook her head. But she wasn’t walking away.
“I don’t know,” she said.
“Listen, let me make it up to you. Come by the bookstore tomorrow.” He was desperate for an idea. They’d just had what was almost the perfect date and he’d screwed it up, somehow, by whatever he’d said in the interim between the time he flipped the coin and the moment Emily had slapped him.
“We just got a huge collection of great stuff in from this old guy in Chesterfield,” he said. “He was half-blind, so the stuff looks like it’s brand new. We really lucked out.”
“Why did he have so many books if he couldn’t read them?”
“Don’t know,” Raymond said. “He’s dead.”
She gave him a frozen look. Just as Raymond began reaching for the coin, she laughed. “I’m sorry,” she said. “That’s horrible!”
Raymond laughed too. “No, I’m sorry.” He stepped in closer. “I am, really, really sorry.”
Her laughing died down as she looked up at him, moving closer. A brief kiss, so quick that Raymond didn’t know what was happening until she was several feet away and stepping into a cab. “Goodnight, Raymond.” And she was gone.
“Goodnight, Emily.” He touched the coin in his pocket, tempted to try for one more kiss as the cab pulled down the street. What the hell, he thought. He flipped it. Heads.
And the cab was nowhere in sight. Oh well.
“‘Dating Tips and Tricks for the Swinging 60s.’ That’s really sad, isn’t it?”
Emily was sitting on a box in the back of Sparrow’s reading the cover of an old paperback. She’d agreed to help Raymond sort through the collection from the old man from Chesterfield and she seemed to be having a genuinely good time.
Raymond was still groggy from spending the night trying to figure out the coin. He’d experimented, carefully, by flipping the coin over and over again, checking flips against the clock.
Sure enough, tails went backwards about 90 seconds. And heads, as he’d found out unpleasantly at the restaurant, sent him about 90 seconds into the future. He was tired from all the experimenting, and he thought that he’d added a few extra hours to the night from all the flipping.
“Isn’t it sad,” she repeated. “An old man with an old book on ‘tricks’ for dating?”
Raymond shook off the sleepiness. “Maybe he just didn’t know how to express himself?”
Emily shook her head. “Maybe. But it’s still a bit creepy. Especially for a grown man.”
“Yeah,” Raymond said. “Creepy.”
“After all,” she said, “you didn’t have to trick me into liking you.”
Nothing could have made Raymond feel guiltier than the flirtatious smile she gave as she said this.
“And, Raymond, this being our second date in 24 hours, I don’t know how I could like you any more than I already do.” At this, she stood from the box and began slowly walking toward him. “Or maybe, I do.” She toyed gently with the shoulder strap of her dress, letting her hand graze up and down a spaghetti strap as she moved closer and closer to him.
“Oh crap,” he said. He had sneezed all over his hand and spoiled the moment. He shook his head and reached into his pocket for the coin.
Emily grabbed his arm.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing, Raymond?”
All the sultriness was gone from her voice. Raymond was staring into two hard blue eyes, each boring a laser-like hole into his face. Without breaking her gaze, she pried Raymond’s hand out of his pocket and grabbed his fingers with her other hand.
One by one she pulled his fingers from around the coin. Only then did she look down at the palm of his hand.
She took the coin and slapped it on the desk.
“You told me you didn’t use the coin the first time we met!”
Raymond wasn’t sure how to respond. He stammered a bit until –
“You, you . . . shut up, Raymond.” She began pacing and running her hands through her hair. “You’re always doing this. I was so STUPID.”
Raymond finally managed to collect himself enough to blurt out a question. “When we, we first . . .” He hesitated. “Who are you?”
Emily wheeled on him like a boxer at the start of a bell.
“I’m your goddamned wife, you jerk.”
She stopped short of what he’d assumed was going to be a hard punch in the nose and sat down on the box again. “When we first met, we had two great dates together,” she said. “After the meet-cute in the bookshop, we had a great meal at Luigi’s, then a fun morning here. It was perfect. And then I realized, it was too perfect. Nothing in our lives for the last two years has been as perfect as that first day.”
“Two years? So you’re . . . ?”
“Yeah. I’m from the future, genius.” She spit the words out. “So I decided to come back, see if you did anything to trick me into all this. And, of course, you did.” She sighed and put her head in her hands. “You used it yesterday too, didn’t you?”
Raymond nodded. She shook her head.
“How did you come back in time two years?”
“None of your goddamn business,” she yelled. She was mad, but he could tell she was more hurt than angry. Disappointed? Tired. “And now here we are. Start of our lives together. And I don’t know if it’s even worth it.”
They sat that way for a long time, Emily lost in her own thoughts and memories, Raymond trying desperately to think of something to say. The problem for Raymond was that he wasn’t sure what it was that he’d already done and said in the previous two years. Here was a beautiful woman on the verge of leaving him, and not only was she amazing, but she was someone he’d grown to love and who had become an important part of his life.
“Look,” he said, “Em,”
“You don’t call me Em.”
“Emily. I know I’m not perfect. I don’t know who ‘me’ is in two years, but I know he’s not perfect. Why did I use the coin?” Think, Raymond, think. “I just, that is,”
She looked up at him. “You were nervous.”
“Right!” he said. “Of course I was. You know how I get.” He supposed.
She laughed a bit. “Like when you were a kid at Camp Winnemac?”
“Yes!” he said. “God, I haven’t thought of that in a long time.”
Camp Winnemac. He’d never told anyone about the boathouse embarrassment. He’d told her about that? Wow.
“So, you know what I mean. I mean, I’m not the most confident guy in the world.”
She closed her eyes. “I know,” she said. “I know. It’s just . . . hard.”
Apparently, life with Emily had not been perfect. Just those first two dates. Raymond could imagine that life with him wouldn’t be the easiest.
What had he put her through? Probably just one boring day after the next. More drudgery in Sparrow’s Used Books, five feet below street level. The only difference would be that now Raymond had another person buried down here with him. How could he have dragged her into his dull life?
“We’ve seen the Pharaohs consecrate the pyramids, heard Shakespeare perform at the Globe.”
Or, maybe not.
“We drank mead with Vikings. Had tea with the first Emperor of China. We’ve stood on the banks of the Missouri River watching the sun set on tens of thousands of bison, like waves on the ocean, as far as the eye could see. But even still, you act like you’re a nobody.”
She wasn’t mad at him. She was disappointed.
“Raymond, I’m your wife. We’re partners. I wouldn’t have chosen you if you were a nobody.”
He’d hurt her, he could see that. Not just today. For the past two years, it seemed, he’d dragged her down with him even as they went on adventure after adventure. Now, he wanted nothing more than the chance to have those adventures. To appreciate them.
He was going to have to make some changes if this marriage he’d just found out about was going to work.
“Emily, I promise I’ll change.”
She did not seem persuaded.
“I mean I’ll work harder. I’ll work harder to change,” he said. “I’ll work harder to trust you, and to trust myself.”
She didn’t immediately reject what he was saying, which was giving him some hope. Finally, very quietly, she said, “okay.”
Nothing had ever made Raymond more relieved. He reached out and hugged her. She responded, slowly, then pulled him in closer.
They stood that way for a while, holding each other, until Raymond had a terrible thought. “Wait a minute. If I know all this stuff now about our marriage, is that going to mess everything up? I mean, am I going to screw things up and things are going to go on the wrong track?”
Emily shook her head. “Don’t worry about it. You and I have been doing this time travel thing for a while. We’ve got it on lock.”
“Meaning we’re good. Trust me. We’re good.” She pulled away. “Which reminds me, this afternoon.” She started collecting some things she’d brought. A handbag, an umbrella. “Our second date was delayed because my car was parked-in and I couldn’t find my phone. I won’t be here for another couple hours.” She gave Raymond a quick peck on the cheek. “Don’t be an ass this time, ok?”
“You got it,” he said. “But wait, the coin. Should I get rid of it, or, whatever?”
“Oh yes, by all means, throw away the one-of-a-kind, magical time-traveling amulet,” she said sarcastically. “My god, you weren’t any smarter back then, were you?” And with that, she left the shop.
Raymond looked at the coin. He’d managed to save his marriage. The one he’d just found out about. And he’d apparently married a smart, pretty, time-traveling woman who liked sci-fi. And best of all, it was all still in front of him.
Cool, he thought. He put the coin on the shelf.
Gently, so as not to flip it.
Tim Peterson lives in Northern Virginia with his wife, their sons, and two very loud dogs. In addition to writing science fiction that aggressively avoids any attempt at hard sci-fi, he writes material for cooperative fantasy role-playing games. His game material is on instagram @kraken_and_narwhal