I’m standing outside a familiar house on Ainslie Street, in Lincoln Square. It’s the red brick house my mother was raised in. I can tell by my grandma’s flower garden off to the side with roses still in full, vibrant colors. After my mother inherited the house, she let most of the garden go but kept one rose bush as an homage to Grandma Gabel. I feel the chill of the morning air on my naked body while the dusky sunlight of the morning creeps over the lawn.
My heart pumps wildly. It must be very early, as I can see the slightest hint of sun starting to bounce from clouds to the east. The panic of being caught in my birthday suit is still unnerving, and I quickly survey the streets. The house lights are off, and I hear no motors of any kind nearby.
I was studying for a calculus test in my kitchen just moments ago, except it was in the future. How far into the future is still uncertain. One thing I’ve learned since I began time traveling is to do my studying as soon as possible, in case of any sudden departures. Teachers in my time are alert to students who are Chronologically Displaced Persons. The chunky title is a fancy way of saying time traveler. People with my affliction first referred to each other as Chrono-Leapers and, eventually, just Leapers.
I look around and try to gather clues, like my mother taught me. The best way to pinpoint “where or when” I am in the world is to look at a newspaper or a parked car. Newspapers will give me dates and information on when I have traveled to. A car will give me a state and a year from the registration sticker. I already know the house, so the where tip is irrelevant. I discover the when as I approach the house. At the driveway, a newspaper lies in a thin plastic sleeve. The date is Saturday, April 25, 2009—more than thirty years in the past.
I’ve only been traveling for the last four years, but I’ve known about my condition for almost all my life. At the age of twelve, I was considered a late bloomer, since most start developing symptoms before their eighth birthday.
For most, strong emotions trigger a leap. Inevitably, an uncontrollable instance occurs without warning, like a hiccup. My mother warned me at an early age about “the price of losing control.” She spoke from experience—I recall moments when she got extremely agitated and disappeared. She sometimes came back with bruises on her face.
I always try to prepare for when it’s my time to get tossed back and forth in the spectrum without warning. Mom said I would be able to control it better by the time I reached my twenties. I hope this turns out to be true, because a little spike of terror fills me each time it happens. I keep it bottled up, rely on breathing exercises, and hope that I never have to enact any of the moves I’ve learned in self-defense classes.
Cold and exposed, I make my way around back to my grandma’s gardening shed. First, I check in the closet where she used to keep her aprons and galoshes. On one shelf are an oversized pair of sweatpants and a sweatshirt of equal proportions—a stash I can only assume was put there for my grandfather, who had the same condition. I put them on and begin to walk toward the back door of the house. Grandma kept a spare key under the mat, so I unlock the door and walk into the kitchen.
The only sound is from the heater in the basement. I walk over and look at the photo magnets on the refrigerator. Some show pictures of friends and family. I’ve never before traveled to a past where I wasn’t born yet. It’s like showing up to a surprise party early, where all of the decorations are out but no guests have arrived.
A rumble from my stomach reminds me how I skipped dinner, and I decide to quietly scavenge the cupboards for anything I can consume. As I do so, I think of where I should go. It isn’t a good idea to be caught and try to explain. I grab a few breakfast bars and a sealed package of beef jerky.
As I turn to go back out to the shed, I notice a sleepy-eyed young girl staring at me from the hallway. She’s wearing flannel pants and an oversized white T-shirt. I immediately recognize the young version of my mom I’ve seen in old photo albums.
A rekindled sense of longing fills my chest, and I’m reminded of how I miss being home already. I want to run over and hug her and tell her I’m her son. But I know I can’t act so presumptuous and endanger the timeline.
“Who are you?” she asks in a raspy voice.
“Someone like you.”
She takes a moment to process the information. “Do I know you?” She wipes the sleep out of one eye and squints at me through the other.
“No.” My mother has explained that if I encounter someone and don’t want to divulge any unneeded information, I should keep my comments brief, courteous, and to the point.
“Why are you here? What’s your name?” She appears to be waking up, but as she shuffles forward, her steps are heavy.
“My name is Carter. I used to visit this place from time to time when I was younger.” For obvious reasons, I leave out the part about living there in the future and doing my homework in this very kitchen.
She nods, scuttles over to one of the stools by the counter, and sits down with a thump. She braces her chin on the palm of her hand and promptly closes her eyes.
She exhales a few deep-throated sighs, letting me know she’s asleep. I am about to place the contents of cupboard rummage in my pockets when I feel the small tickle in my center that lets me know my time is almost up. The initial leap can be unexpected, but the return trip gives notice.
I grab a magnetized egg timer off the refrigerator and set it for two minutes. I kiss my young mother’s head and place the timer by her elbow. I then slip out the back door and go into Grandma’s shed to return the clothing and place them back in the closet. The feeling gets stronger, and I know it’s time.
The sensation rushes through me, and I feel myself going back to my place in time. It feels like little carbonated bubbles fizzing up inside my body until they race through my veins and up through the pores in my skin. There’s a split second where I see and hear nothing. It’s actually comforting, because it brings me utter peace and tranquility.
When I come to, I look at the clock above the sink and notice only an hour has passed. I think that’s a pretty amazing stroke of luck considering the first time I came back from traveling I found I had been gone for an entire day, and I wound up in the grape arbor behind my best friend’s house.
It was the most embarrassing moment in my life. Growing up, I knew the possibility existed, but until it actually happens, you are never ready. Since my friend lived a few miles away, I had to rely on his family’s help to get me home. I’ll never forget that shameful walk up to their door to ask for help, holding a soccer ball over my tiddly-bits.
In my kitchen, clothes are in a disheveled pile on the chair where I had been sitting. They look like a second skin I had shed. As I start to get dressed, the phone rings. I know exactly who it is, and I don’t feel like answering, but if I don’t, a black sedan will be pulling into the driveway. I don’t want my mom to go through that tonight, if it can be avoided.
I walk over and hold my hand up in front of the translucent phone screen to wave through the call. The display lights up, and Dr. Phillips’s face appears. “Good evening, Mr. White,” the gray-haired man announces.
Mr. White is my pseudonym. The doctors and officials like to distance themselves from too much knowledge of, or attachment to, Chrono-Leapers. That’s because there have been times they’ve had to “remove the threat,” due to a possible timeline adjustment—like someone making money off of future knowledge. If they knew real names and formed emotional ties, it would be harder to move on after a patient had been “removed.” They need to be able to think of us simply as livestock—expendable—and not as pets that have to be put down. But I’ll get to the Chrono-Hunters later.
“Doctor,” I reply, trying to convey by my impatience toget this over with and go to bed.
“Where did we go to tonight?”
We? That always makes me chuckle. He didn’t go anywhere and wind up naked and on a quick search for his dignity.
“My house, April 25th, 2009.” I know precisely what he is going to ask next; it’s the same thing he always asks after leaping: Who did I see? What did I see? What did I do? Did I affect anything outright or influence anybody otherwise? It’s protocol.
Since Chronologically Displaced Person Syndrome (CDPS) was fully introduced as a medical phenomenon in 2017, the government takes special interest in the scientific aspects of the field. My mother’s condition was explored when she was younger, but no scientific tests ever determined why it occurs, yielding only theoretical papers on the subject.
Naturally, the government began to intervene when they realized the severity of what could happen if a person played leapfrog through time without scrutiny. They asked the public to come forward voluntarily. In exchange, they agreed to pay test subjects for any research toward the “genetic mutation.” They initially rounded up six travelers—one of whom was my mother. She knew from experience what could happen, and didn’t want to wind up like my grandfather, stranded naked in a blizzard to die of hypothermia.
The volunteer program was a clever way of getting anybody who was a Leaper out of the woodwork so as to document and hopefully cure them. After some Senatorial debate, the government began to sanction time travel, as long as the activity was monitored. To keep tabs on our time-travel activities, Leapers are now given tracking wristbands, which fit snugly against the skin. If we disappear, handlers wait an hour and then call.
Failure to answer the call initiates the dispatch of a vehicle to stand guard and wait. In the meantime, the Department of Chronological Displacement (DCD) activates a Limbo Tank. The Tank is a capsule designed to withstand any fluctuation in the time/space ribbon or temporal disturbance. It basically acts as the waiting area for when Leapers return. No matter what they may have altered in time, the Hunters will have a perfect detailed record of how the world was before they left. After they are released from the Tank, Hunters compare and look for major changes in finances, world population and developments in technology.
Once the Leaper returns, the Hunter is removed from the Tank. If it is not opened from the outside, it remains dormant for up to six months. After that time, it will automatically open. The Hunter is awakened, and orders are initiated to find and assassinate the Leaper in question.
The longest time jump recorded was three months. When the Leaper returned, his body went into a state of shock. From what I’ve read, a long period of time spent outside a person’s natural timeline can cause uncontrollable hemorrhaging. After an autopsy and many tests, scientists deduced that any Leaper returning after a period of five months would not survive. So, the six-month mark is set for Hunters as an added precaution.
The shortest timeframe recorded is five minutes. Hunters are given a fifteen-minute window to get to a Tank, suit up, and prepare. Anything below that mark is deemed irrelevant. There have been a few circumstances when a Leaper has not returned. For the most part, it happens when Leapers find themselves in the elements when they jump.
Government agents always come off as smug, and Dr. Phillips is not much different. He is just like them, only he adds empathy after each question. I hate coming back a few hours or days after leaping to see them standing in my room before I can find something to put on over my birthday suit.
I chat with Dr. Phillips about the paper I looked at, to verify the date. When it comes to information, he always likes to ask me a few times. There are retinal cameras in the phone display to measure my pupils, which apparently show the degree to which I’m lying. It’s one of the things they tell us when we check in after our first few leaps. Asking repeatedly is a way of trying to throw us off guard, in case we learned how to fool the machine.
Another precaution is monitoring bank accounts. Anytime a person leaps, his or her bank account immediately gets audited back to the previous month, once the Hunter is released.
More troubling than the government, or Hunters, or even leaping itself is what has been happening to me recently. Someone is leaving me notes to find after I return from my leaps. I’ve received two notes so far in the past six weeks. The first was cryptic—it simply stated, “5 months: 14 days: 6 hours: 21 minutes.” The following note was more troubling, as it was starting to count down. I have not looked yet as I just returned, but I’m sure there’s a third. My debriefing is just wrapping up, and I plan to check my room for evidence.
As I enter the room, a half-folded piece of paper sits patiently on my desk, waiting for me to open it. This one is different. It seems ominous.
1 week: 6 days: 13 hours: 4 minutes
They will be coming for you.
To be continued …