Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Writing Prompt: How the Past Became the Future

Her phone rang while she was at lunch. It was thankfully not while she was sitting at her desk, and as she answered it she could see the situation she’d avoided: scowling boss, cubicle monkey being scolded like a 7th grader caught passing a note in class.
“Hey, can you come over after work?” he asked.
“I was going to anyway,” she replied, “I always do. You had to risk calling me at work to ask if I was going to do something I always do?”
He didn’t answer right away. He seemed distracted. “Sorry, I was just making sure. See if you can cut out early. There’s something I really want to show you.” He hung up, and she stared at her phone in confusion.
After lunch, she trudged back to her desk and got back to work. The mindlessness of it allowed her plenty of time to think about what exactly she was doing there. She hated her job, and her job hated her. She’d much rather have accepted that position at the museum that her favorite professor had offered her the week before, but Anthropology wasn’t going to pay her bills, no matter how much she loved it. One thing was for sure: eventually, she was going to waste away in a desert of endless cubicles.
She kicked the snow off of her boots as she rang the doorbell at his house that evening. The doorbell was just a formality, since she immediately let herself in and started tossing her stuff on the end table where she usually put it. He wasn’t anywhere to be seen, so she made herself a cup of tea, peeked into the bedroom, and then started to wonder if he was actually home. The lights were on, the computer looked like it had been used recently.
Finally, she yelled, “Hello?” When there was no answer, she added, “I hope this isn’t another of your creepy surprise parties that you throw when you remember that you’ve forgotten when my birthday is!”
She heard a voice in the basement, so she opened the door to the stairs, and heard him say, “Surprise!”
“It’s not my birthday for another four months,” she called.
“This isn’t a birthday surprise,” he replied, “it’s a career surprise. Get down here.”
She tossed out the used tea bag and added some milk and sugar to her drink before she braved the rickety stairs. The sight that greeted her at the bottom was merely the small unfinished basement, containing only a card table with a laptop and some assorted electronic parts and tangles of wire, a bald light bulb which was hanging from the ceiling and swinging slightly back and forth, his triumphant smile, and two rough-looking people she had never seen before who were huddled in the corner, trembling.
“Ta-da!” he said. “Remember when I told you that I was building a time machine? Look! I managed to get it to work!” He gestured at the two people in the corner. “Quick! I don’t know how long it’ll hold out.”
The information was having a hard time making it to her brain. “Wait,” she told it. “What?”
“I brought some cavemen here from the past! Anthropologize them before my machine breaks and they go back to their own time!”
“You… built a time machine.”
He nodded.
“And you used it to inflict psychological damage on some unsuspecting people from the past.”
He nodded.
“So that I could study them?”
He nodded, smiling his “I’m such a great friend!” smile.
“You’re a horrible person.”
This did not deter his smile in the least, but he did look over at his guests. “They look more scared than I thought they would.”
“How terrified would you be if you were randomly zapped into the future against your will?”
“That would be awesome!”
She answered with a glare, and then looked with pity on the poor souls cowering against the far wall. “I think they’re afraid of the light bulb,” she said.
“How do you explain a light bulb to a caveman?” he asked.
“You can’t; to them it’s indistinguishable from magic. Besides, it’s not like I can communicate with them, anyway.” Her tone said clearly that she wished she could, and his smile returned, along with his surety that he had done a nice thing for his poor bored friend. “I would love to know how to apologize to them for you yanking them out of their own time,” she said. “There’s no way for me to know how any of my actions would be interpreted.”
“That’s no reason not to try,” he volunteered.
She glared at him again, but moved closer, but not too close, and kneeled on the floor. “I’m sorry that this idiot kidnapped you,” she told them. “You can be sure that as soon as he gets you home safe that I’m going to kick his ass.”
Her words didn’t seem to reassure them, but she could tell that they were listening. One of them made eye contact with her and said something. Just two syllables of unrecognizable speech, but it was communication meant for her. From the past.
Not too long after that, there was a huge spark which started a small fire on the card table, and the frightened people disappeared. While her friend doused the conflagration with her unconsumed tea, she sat where she was and looked into the now empty corner.
She sat still for long enough that her friend began to worry.
“Look, I’m sorry for the psychological damage and all, but I just wanted to help. You come over every night and all you do is talk about how much you hate your job. I was hoping to remind you how much you loved studying and researching when you were still in school. You’re so busy trying to make ends meet that I wanted you to remember what you were striving for in getting your degree.”
“Sure,” she said quietly after a small pause. “Thanks.” She stood and went back upstairs, leaving him to decide how he was going to dry his newly soggy and mint-flavored laptop.
Before she reached the top of the stairs, he heard her voice again. “Dr. Walters?” she was saying. “Hi, I’m calling to see if I’m too late to accept that post you asked me about last week…”

Writing Prompt #615

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