The boy across the playground is laughing.
It’s been a long time since Max saw himself laugh like that: eyes closed, head thrown back. He can’t remember this day, doesn’t know what was so funny that it seemed to light him up from the inside, and he wonders if this is another memory that’s been taken from him. The more he jumps, the less he remembers.
The boy is around nine, Max thinks. He’s still laughing when he hops down from the jungle gym and runs over to the swings, his blonde friend—Janie? Jenna?—in tow. They take two free spots at the end and promptly enter into a competition to see who can swing the highest, hands outstretched like they could reach up and touch the blue bowl of the sky if they wanted. It makes Max’s heart clench. When was he ever that carefree? For a moment he thinks that maybe he jumped wrong, and he’s landed in an alternate time-stream.
Too bad it doesn’t work like that.
Someone clears their throat next to him and he flinches, afraid he’s about to be questioned by someone native to this time, but it’s only Barnes, and really, he shouldn’t be surprised that Barnes followed him here. She looks windswept and a little nauseous, and a little—out of sync is the only way to describe it, like she’s lagging just a millisecond behind her surroundings. It happens sometimes, when you step out of time and then back into it. He wonders vaguely what memory she gave up to chase after him. He hopes it wasn’t a good one.
“Everyone is having fits back home,” says Barnes as she takes a seat next to him. “They hate it when they have no idea where you are. But, I figured, if an opportunity to jump to the past presented itself, I was pretty sure I knew where you’d end up.”
“Someone has to look out for him.” Max nods in the direction of the swings. He doesn’t have to be looking at Barnes to know that she is staring at him, a little incredulous, but mostly resigned. It’s a look she wears often around Max.
“I wish you would stop referring to yourself in the third person.”
“That kid’s not me,” Max snaps. “And with any luck, he never will be.”
Barnes stays quiet for a moment, processing. “All right,” she finally says, subdued. “He’s not you. Or he won’t be. Tell me—do you remember what you’re doing now?”
It takes a moment for Max to answer. “No.”
“So you didn’t do this before. What’s changed now?”
“I don’t know.” Max runs a hand through his hair, greasy and falling into his eyes. He needs some place where he can rest—and shower—before he jumps again.
Barnes seems sympathetic when she rests a hand on Max’s shoulder. He thinks she would probably help him, if she could. “You know I have to take you back, Cawley.”
“I know, just—” Max yawns. “Give me a few hours, yeah? I need a nap if I want to make the jump.”
Barnes narrows her eyes. She should know better than to trust Max at this point. Maybe she’s as exhausted as he is.
“Sure, a few hours.” She stands, stretches. Max slumps against the bench in relief. “Perhaps I’ll wander around 1994 a bit, take in the sights. I’ve never been here before, you know.”
“Thanks, Barnes,” Max says, and hopes she understands what he means. She gives him a nod, and Max watches her back as she strolls down the cobblestone path and out of sight.
Across the playground, nine-year-old Max and his friend have ended their swinging contest. They get into a squabble about something, Max reaching out to pull at one of her yellow braids. Did he have a crush on Gemma? Jeanine? He can’t recall. He watches them for a few moments more, until they get bored of their fight and decide that riding the see-saw would be an adventure.
Max knows he should leave, but he’s enjoying this—the sun, the fresh, unpolluted air, and the proof that at one point in time, he was happy. His stomach rolls when he thinks about the future, about how things are going to end for this carefree, exuberant child.
Time passes so quickly.
Max remembers that night perfectly.
It’s one of the few things he can recall with absolute clarity, undamaged by the push and pull of stepping in and out of time. The night he jumped for the first time.
Jumped isn’t really the right word for it. To say he jumped implies purpose, intent, and there was nothing intentional about it. It was more like falling, like losing one’s footing and dropping from a great height into something wholly unfamiliar. He isn’t the first one it happened to, and he certainly won’t be the last. People slip through the cracks all the time.
It’s just that most of them don’t make it, and Max did.
He goes to a motel.
The water in the shower is hot enough to scald when he steps into it, and for a moment he stands there and lets it burn him, his skin turning red beneath the spray. It helps work the aches out of his muscles. Jumping hurts, and with how much he does it, he’s become accustomed to chronic pain.
He stays in the shower until he’s loose and relaxed, the water running cold. He almost feels normal again, the layer of grime that comes with jumping scrubbed from his skin, tension he’s been carrying all day finally uncoiled. He doesn’t bother to get dressed, just falls into the nearest bed, hoping that sleep will claim him quickly. There’s no telling when Barnes will show up to drag him home.
Home. It seems wrong somehow, to think of that place as home when he’s here, only a few miles down the road from the house he grew up in. The thing is, he can remember the other place. It’s cruel and it’s alien but it glares like a beacon in his memory. He can’t remember whether his childhood home had one story or two, or what colors the walls were, or where they put up the tree at Christmas. He could go see, if he wanted. He could make himself remember. But he won’t. It’s the fundamental difference between him and Barnes, or any of the others. They can’t understand what Max has always believed—some things are not meant to be relived.
And yet he keeps coming back here. It’s not that he can’t let go of the past, it’s just like he told Barnes: someone has to look out for past-Max, pre-jump Max. If he’d had someone looking out for him the first time around, maybe things wouldn’t have gone the way they did.
Sleep comes in fits and starts, and it seems like he barely closes his eyes before he’s waking up to Barnes shaking his shoulder. “Come on, Cawley, get up. It’s time to go.”
He re-dresses in his grimy clothes and follows Barnes to the car she stole.
Night has fallen, and they drive a few miles out of town until the residential areas fall away and they’re surrounded by nothing but cornfields. Every once in a while Max catches a glimpse of lights in the windows of a farmer’s house, but for the most part it’s quiet out here, secluded. The perfect place to make a jump.
They find a little service road running next to one of the fields and pull over. While Barnes fiddles with the timer on her arm, configuring its settings to take them back to the other place, Max inches his fingers beneath the sleeve of his jacket and resets his own.
They push their sleeves up, place their palms on the timers to activate them. “Home sweet home,” Barnes mutters. Max doesn’t say anything. She’ll be mad, he knows, when she looks around the terminal and realizes he isn’t there. Maybe she’ll come after him again. Maybe she’ll give him up as a lost cause, realize that he’s not worth the sacrifice of her memories.
Max feels the familiar tug in his gut, the imbalance of gravity like someone’s pulled the entire planet out from underneath him. Floating but at the same time weighed down. His body thrums as his atoms speed up—he’s vibrating at a higher frequency than the rest of his surroundings and 1994 starts to fall away. Sorry, Barnes, he thinks over the roar, and maybe thoughts can be transmitted here, because he sees her—or something like her, Barnes with a thousand faces—turn to look at him a split second before he’s ripped out of reality.