They won’t let me sleep. My father, a halo of insects around his head, is singing of Robbie Burns’ heart that’s apparently ‘in the highlands a-following a deer’, in Russian first, then in English. Drink always made him jolly, and it earned him our neighbours’ respect (before they met him they’d thought Jews didn’t drink). The night is silly, all soft grey light and drunk Zglevian songs. The insects buzz knowingly; he will be theirs soon. Should I warn him? I could say: ‘Avoid, cancerogenic foods’, ‘Don’t smoke forty cigarettes a day’; ‘When they bring in free-trade try to make money slowly to avoid stress’. But will that scare him? I am the child He loved; I am the Girl from Earth; I am an emissary from the future. My knowledge is His undoing. In my night dress, my hair messed up, my toes curled on the gravel, I look like a ghoul. Ghoulishly, I walk towards the fire.
He forgets to get angry at me: ‘Why are you up?’
‘Couldn’t sleep. Mosquitoes in my room’
‘And you used them for time-travel? Not bad’.
‘You noticed!’ I say. It was always like that. He’d spend most of the time ignoring me and then suddenly, there’d be a huge flash of total understanding and kindness.
‘Well, since you’re all grown up, here have a sip’.
Oh I am grateful, and suddenly curious and excited about alcohol.
‘So what’s it like in the future?’ Is Zglevia still there?
It isn’t, but I don’t tell him. Besides he’s busy explaining how the internet would work and why it could never exist. And I listen. It saves me from telling him what actually happened.
‘In the future’, I say, ‘things are a bit different; it’s nice to get back here, but I can’t always control where I’m going to end on my time-line; we use mosquitoes as time-machines, and it’s all hush-hush, so nobody can tell you if you’re doing it wrong’. ‘You’re doing just fine’ he says. And I pretend his words are a life lesson, a message from the deep.
Zglevia was destroyed with a secret time-warp weapon. It was the Yanks or the government trying to thin out population or a freak accident or a type of land-mine left over from the Second World War. Everybody knows what happened, but when you try to think about the event, your head fills with static. It’s called the Big Blur. I survived. The kid across the road, the one who had a forced labor camp and torture chamber for mosquitoes, showed me how to time-travel. His sister showed me how not to see things. I don’t know if they are alive. Some people died by slipping on ice, others by falling out of helicopters, and some by getting a heart-attack while spying on their neighbours, the rest were stretched across their time-lines, with their memories hanging out like membranes across the empty space. I am not sure how long it all lasted and whether it was ever over is not clear. My father didn’t survive obviously, but right now, in this bright night, protected by his big whisky laugh, I find grief irrelevant.
The smoke is pestering us but keeps the insects at bay. He forgets the other grown-ups, chats to me, shows an interest in my future family and career, and it’s all good, but his patience runs out. I scratch the bites on my legs too much, or I fidget too much, and he gets irritated and sends me back to bed.
Me. Me, grown up, me, the visitor from another dimension. He banishes me, as if our time together is infinite and inexpensive. So I cry into the summer night, into the non-existent bonfire sparks, pines, nettles, the smell of the sea, and the smoke that goes up and higher up into the Northern air, to make him understand; no, it was not fair. None of it was.
But as I go up the stairs into the house, my time-line catches up with me. I am a grown-up, and grown-ups are happy and grateful. In gratitude, I offer the throngs my arm. I watch their bellies fill up; deep is their thirst, and great is their need. And I let their needles recalibrate, their tiny engines accelerate, and bring me back to my present, to where I really am, and as I reach my present, shifting and improbable and precious, sleep finally comes.
Roppotucha Greenberg writes micro-fiction on Twitter (@Roppotucha). Her stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Ad Hoc Fiction (winners’ section) The Evening Theatre, Elephants Never, 101 Fiction, Former Cactus, TSS Publishing (The BIFFY50 competition