by Lisa Christensen
The sun was sinking fast in the western sky when Luke and Sari climbed the hill—their hill—to watch the day fade away. Things had been difficult on us lately, Luke thought, with the stresses of the day-to-day minutia and the toll that life takes on love. And yet, here they were, hand in hand, just as they ought to be.
He squeezed Sari’s hand tighter as a stiff wind blew past them, making her golden hair dance and sway like long, dry grass. The loose cut of her long sweater made it billow behind her.
“Cold?” he asked.
“I’m fine,” she replied, sparing a glance his way and adding a quick smile as if to prove it.
He pulled her closer, so their arms touched. He could feel the warmth of her skin through the knit of her thin sweater and the nylon of his windbreaker, and he opened his mouth to ask again if she was sure she wasn’t cold but decided against it. They wouldn’t be out here long.
“Here,” said Luke, tugging her along as he bounded up the last steps to the top of the hill. “Look at that.”
“Oh, wow,” Sari whispered. The sky was a blaze of red and orange and pink, as if someone took a swath of hues from the warmest part of the color wheel and dumped them along the horizon. A few puffy clouds drifting eastward took on swarthy tones of purple and gray, but the fading light made even their edges burn silver and gold.
Beside her, Luke watched the awe and delight brighten her eyes, saw her delicate features somehow become even more beautiful bathed in this light. He would stay here in this moment forever if he could. There were worse things than spending eternity gazing at—no, worshipping—the woman he loved. Just thinking the word made his heart pound in his chest. He hadn’t been sure when they met up earlier, but now he was. Tonight he would finally tell her.
Another stiff breeze tumbled over them. A few of the last lingering leaves on the gnarled old elm tree beside them came loose and swirled in the gust, and the tree creaked and groaned from the strain. A thick limb hung over them like a protective arm. Luke squeezed Sari’s hand again and balled the other in a tight fist in his pocket, as if tightening his grip could make him stop shaking. “Let’s sit down and watch the sunset.”
She sank down next to him, tucking her feet under her, and gave him a sidelong look. “Are you okay?”
“Fine,” he said too quickly, heart pounding so loud it almost filled his ears. “I’m fine.”
Sari paused a moment, then gave him a look of skepticism that could always cut through his bravado. “It seems like something’s on your mind.”
He looked away, then up, bracing himself on the hand not knitted with hers. To the east, the sky was fading into a dark violet, and the first few stars were starting to appear. It would be getting colder, especially if this breeze kept up. It was now or never. “You’re right,” he started, voice shaky. There was a root digging uncomfortably into his leg, but he ignored it. “I . . . Things have been kind of rough lately, haven’t they? You got that new job and I . . .” He stopped and shook his head, then forced himself to look at her, look straight into those eyes like drops of melted chocolate. “None of that really matters. Sari, I . . . I love you, Sari. I love you.”
He felt weightless, like at the top of a jump before gravity catches up, and his breath caught in his chest as he waited for her to say something. Her face was still, her mouth fixed in a small “o”, those chocolate eyes wide. Even her hair seemed to toss in slow motion in the fresh gust of wind that swept over them. “Luke,” she finally said. “I—”
There was a loud creak and a snap above them, and then a rushing sound. The next thing Luke knew, he was staring at the darkening sky above with the grass cool on his back. His head was spinning; his body numb. Then, gradually, pain swept over him, sharp and burning in his left arm and the back of his head. Something heavy and pokey was on top of him—a tree limb. It was too heavy to lift, but he was near the edge where the smaller branches tapered into twigs. With some effort, he crawled out from under it, dead wood tearing and scratching at him with every movement.
As his head cleared, panic rose. “Sari?” he called, then again, louder, more urgently. “Sari?”
Beneath the fallen limb, he spied the tail of her sweater, a flash of blue against the splintered wood.
“Sari!” he cried, scrambling over to her. His left arm hurt—maybe even broken—but he couldn’t worry about that now. The bough was thick, at least six inches across, and heavy. Beneath it lay Sari’s crumpled form, silent and still. “Sari!” he yelled, over and over and over as he pulled and tugged and pushed at the rough bark.
Later, he would find disjointed bits of recollection scattered through his memory: calling for help, of waiting an eternity for flashing lights and grim-faced people in uniforms to arrive, of being cloaked in a heavy blanket, being treated by paramedics there and then at a hospital, taken home. Later, he would regain consciousness again, like someone finally pushing record at the end of the scene, staring at a hair elastic she had once forgotten on his coffee table. Later, he would wonder if how he felt was the abyss Nietzsche had talked about.
And then, he remembered the time machine.
He had built it years ago in a fit of desperation after, well, his last relationship disintegrated. He had taken calculated risks with the causality, though in none of the dozen altered futures had he ended up with her and the causality had been far more potent than he expected. But this was different. Then, he tried changing different events at different times; now, he only had to go back a few hours, and he knew exactly what to change. More importantly, back then, that had only been a one-sided obsession; this was true love.
After his last spectacular failure in love, he had put the machine away, deep in the recesses of his closet. It was hidden in an old vacuum cleaner box behind a mound of old shoes and dirty clothes that he never moved for this specific purpose. Luke cleared them away now, digging with one hand, his other bound in a sling. It seemed he did break his arm after all. One functional arm was enough to drag the vacuum cleaner box out and remove its contents, though re-assembling the pieces was a little harder. At least he was right-handed.
The machine was built in two halves: the mobile unit, about the size and shape as a bulky wristwatch; and the much-larger stationary unit, roughly the size of the vacuum that once occupied this box. The stationary unit was the actual time machine in all the ways that mattered, but could not itself travel through time. That was the mobile unit’s role, and it allowed Luke to retain his memory of the day’s events while still taking him back to a time when they hadn’t yet happened. He wasn’t sure what happened to the pieces of the mobile unit in the past when he went back, but suspected they somehow vanished. Having both mobile units existing at the same time would break the laws of physics.
And neither piece would work without the other—without the stationary device, the mobile unit was useless, and without the mobile unit, there was no way to actually travel through time. It was a fundamental flaw in the design that Luke had identified early on but had been too busy, by his own admission, violating the laws of time and space to pay much attention to it.
Luke tightened the final screw at five minutes to midnight. It had been a little after five-thirty when he picked Sari up to go to the hill, and it had taken a while to walk there. He could do this. He could go back six hours and save Sari and change everything back to what it ought to be. Heart pounding and arm throbbing, he adjusted the settings on the machine, fastened the mobile unit to his injured wrist, and launched himself back in time.
The sun was fast sinking in the western sky when Luke and Sari climbed the hill, their hill, to watch the day fade away. There they were, hand in hand—skin on warm, unbroken skin—just as they ought to be. Luke’s knees went weak and his head spun, and he stumbled.
“Are you okay?” Sari asked, frowning. “We can go back.”
“No,” Luke replied, recovering. He pulled against her to right himself, noting with dull curiosity that his arm was unbroken. But that realization was overshadowed by her, whole and alive, right beside him. His eyes pricked with tears and his heart was almost drowning beneath waves of relief and mourning and disbelief and hope. “No, I’m fine. I’m great. This is—” He swallowed away a lump growing in his throat. “Everything is great.”
She gave him a sidelong look but resumed walking without saying anything. Luke squeezed Sari’s hand tighter as a stiff wind blew past them, making her golden hair dance and sway like long, dry grass. The loose cut of her long sweater made it billow behind her like a cape. Something dark enveloped the swirl of emotions inside. That wind. It was coming to steal her away from him, and time machine or no, there was nothing he could do to keep nature from following its course. All he could do was make sure she was far enough away to be safe. He pulled her closer, feeling her warmth through his windbreaker and her thin sweater, as if keeping her next to him could save her. But that was the thing that had gotten her killed, hadn’t it, being next to him at the wrong time and place? He had to think. He needed time.
“Oh, wow,” Sari whispered as they crested the hill. The blaze of reds and oranges and pinks coloring the sky in their fade from west to east and the bruised spots of clouds were no less beautiful than they were the first time he saw them, but Luke’s eyes were fixed on Sari.
He remembered admiring her beauty in this sinking, golden light before, but that seemed so long ago. So much had happened since then; he felt he’d aged years in the hours since this happened. Had he ever truly appreciated the treasure beside him? The joy on her face in the soft sunset was a work of art, her sighs a symphony. There was no price too high to stop time, to halt the planets and suns in their movements, to pause every other creature in the universe, if he could only linger here in this moment.
Another stiff breeze washed over him, breaking him from his reverie. That wind again. It swept a few of the last leaves from the gnarled old elm tree that creaked and groaned with the effort, and Luke felt cold in a way that had nothing to do with the weather. His hands trembled, and he squeezed Sari’s hand tighter and balled the other hand into a fist, shoving it deep into his jacket pocket.
Sari saw him looking at the elm and cocked her head. “Do you want to watch the sunset from under the tree?”
“No!” Luke said, too loud, too fast—her expression flickered with unease. “We should go soon. It’s getting cold.”
“Oh. Yeah, it is,” she replied, looking back at the sunset. “It’s just so beautiful, isn’t it?”
Luke’s heart was pounding again, and he remembered his mission from hours earlier. He took both her hands in his, took a large step to the side, and pulled her along, putting them out of the tree’s reach. “Sari, I want to tell you something.”
She gave him a skeptical glance but raised her brows in a silent invitation to continue.
“I know things have been rough,” Luke began slowly. How long had it been since he said those very same words on this very same hill at this very same time? “But Sari, none of that matters. You have no idea what you mean to me. I thought I knew before, but I know now with more certainty than I’ve ever known anything in my entire life. Sari…I love you.”
There was that shaky, weightless feeling again, and there again was that look on her face and the small “o” of her mouth and her hair tossed by the wind. “Luke,” she said, time moving so slowly he was sure the world ground to a halt as he waited to hear the words he never got to hear before. “I—”
Behind them, there was a loud creak and a snap above them, and then a rushing sound as the elm tree’s limb crashed to the ground. Sari whirled around and gasped. “We were just there,” she said, turning back to Luke. Her face was white and her eyes wide. “We were just there! That might have hit us!”
Luke was shaking with relief. The branch had fallen, they were clear; now all that was left was to finish this moment in the sunset on the hill and walk arm-in-arm into their future.
“That’s so crazy,” Sari said, looking behind her again. The limb, thick and rough and capable of so much destruction, was lying harmlessly on the ground with only a scattering of broken twigs around it and a handful of divots torn through the grass to show for its fall.
“You were saying?” said Luke, squeezing her hands.
“Oh,” she replied. She looked down, then slowly back up at him. “Luke, I really like you, I do. But I don’t know you well enough to say that back to you, you know?”
“No, I don’t. I don’t know.”
Sari hesitated, biting one plump lip between her perfect teeth. “What we’re doing, it’s fun, but love—” She paused on the word, as if it were hard to say. “—I’m not ready for that.”
“That’s okay,” Luke said, forcing a smile and squeezing her hands again. “We can take it slow. You don’t have to say it back yet. But I need you to know, I love you.”
“No, Luke,” Sari said, looking back at the horizon. The last rays of the sun cast shadows where she furrowed her brow. “This isn’t a ‘not now’ kind of thing. Do you understand?”
Blood was rushing to Luke’s ears, roaring above every other sound, and he was helpless to do anything but shake his head in hopeful disbelief.
“I like you, but I don’t think this is ever going to turn in to love for me,” she said, meeting his eyes again, but only briefly before casting them down. She squeezed his hands once, then dropped them and stuffed her own hands into the pockets of her jeans. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay,” Luke heard himself saying, arms swinging leaden at his sides. “That’s fine.”
Sari looked up at him through her long lashes and gave him a sad smile. “That’s really nice of you to say. I hope it’s true. Because whatever happens, I’d like us to stay friends.” She took a deep breath and shivered. “It’s getting cold. Maybe we should go back.”
Luke nodded and watched her stroll down the hill as his brain struggled to process what he had just heard. But his emotions were quicker. “No,” he said, then repeated it louder. “No!”
If Sari heard, she didn’t stop, so Luke said it again, loud enough to hear over the rushing in his ears.
“No!” he yelled. “Don’t you walk away from me!”
Now she turned, her lips turned down into a pouting frown.
“Two months. We’ve been together two months. You’re telling me you know after two months that you could never love me?”
“I didn’t say that.”
“You sure implied it.”
Sari closed her eyes and ran her tongue along her bottom lip. “It goes both ways, though, doesn’t it? You can’t possibly know me well enough after two months to know that you love me. Nobody can know anybody that well that fast. Love takes time.”
“Oh, like you would know,” Luke spat.
Sari shook her head. “And we were having such a nice time, too,” she said softly, then turned away and started walking again.
A hurricane of desperation crashed through Luke, spurring his legs into motion, and he chased after her. When he reached her, he grabbed at her blue sweater sleeve and spun her around. “Look, I’m sorry. Let’s go back, huh? Let’s just rewind five minutes and pretend I never opened my stupid mouth.”
She looked pointedly at her sleeve until he let go. “I think this was about at its end, anyway,” she said. “I’m really sorry. I hope you find someone who loves you like you want them to.”
As she walked away again, the desperation turned to rage, and he understood for the first time what people meant when they said there was a hair-thin line between love and hate. “Do you know what I did for you?” he roared. “You should be dead right now, do you know that? That branch was supposed to hit you, and you were dead. I saved you! And this is the thanks I get?”
Sari stiffened, and when she craned her head warily to look at him, her eyes were full of fear. “I don’t think you should call me again,” she said. The look lasted only a moment, and then she was walking away so swiftly she was almost jogging.
“Sari!” Luke cried. “Sari! I didn’t— I’m sorry!”
His legs burned with energy to go after her, but a calm fell over him as his brain caught up with the moment. There was an easier way to fix this. He turned instead for home, and when he got there, he found what he was looking for in the old vacuum cleaner box deep in his closet.
The sun was sinking fast in the western sky when Luke and Sari climbed the hill, their hill, the useless mound of dirt in the middle of a neglected city park that for some reason Luke had considered romantic. Here they were, walking hand in hand, like they were in love, like he didn’t know what she thought of him. It was all Luke could do to keep his lip from curling in disgust. A stiff wind blew past them, making Sari’s hair fly wildly around her head. He never noticed before now, but he could see dark, muddy brown roots peeking through the golden strands. A lie, just like the rest of her.
Luke squeezed his hands, his free hand balling into a fist, while the other crushing Sari’s.
“Ow,” she said, trying to yank her hand away from Luke’s vice-like grip. “That’s a little tight.”
With some effort, he loosened his grip and forced his expression into something that could be considered apologetic. “Sorry.”
“It’s okay,” she replied, but slid her hand from his and crossed her arms. “Kind of cold, isn’t it?”
“But would you look at this,” Luke said, bounding up the last few steps to the top of the hill. He felt reinvigorated, as if all the energy he had been sapped of the last time he was here had come back doubled this time around. “Just look at that sunset.”
“Oh, wow,” Sari whispered, her eyes widening at the sight. After everything she had said to him—or that she would say to him—Luke couldn’t help but admire her. She was still lovely, even now, even with him knowing what she was going to do, and it made Luke hate her even more.
Another stiff breeze tore at them, making the old elm beside them groan and creak. Luke watched the handful of lingering leaves swirl away from its skeletal branches and swirl away. It would only be minutes now, before he made it all right. He gently brushed her arm, letting his fingertips linger and feel the heat of her skin radiate through the thin knit of her sweater. “Let’s watch it from there,” he said, nodding to the tree.
She gave him a sidelong look but didn’t resist as he tugged her towards the gnarled trunk. He took measured steps, careful to seem casual even as he watched for markers of where they had sat the last time. He was trying to correct time, but a few inches one way or another and it would leave him with a lot worse than a broken arm. There was an exposed root—that had to be where he was. He sat down abruptly and gestured for her to sit to his left. She did, but farther away than she had been the first time around.
“You can sit a little closer,” Luke suggested, patting the ground beside him.
“You could come closer to me, too,” she replied, leaning back against the trunk.
To the east, the sky was fading into a dark violet, and the first few stars were beginning to appear. Sari shivered and hugged her midsection tighter. He was running out of time. How long had the limb been? Was she still close enough for this to work?
“Are you okay?” she asked again. “You seem a little off tonight.”
Another stiff breeze blew past them, and a thrill went through Luke as he wondered if that was the gust that would do it, but the limb stayed attached to the tree. “I’m fine,” he said, tearing his gaze away from the skeletal branches above. On second thought, he could do without the broken arm. He scooted to the right as subtly as he could manage. “Just enjoying the evening.”
It wasn’t subtle enough, judging by her narrowed eyes and her brows knit in confusion. “It’s getting cold. Can we call it a night?”
“No! I mean, let’s just stay another minute.”
“I think I’m going to go home now,” she said, leaning forward to stand.
There was a loud creak and a snap, then a whoosh that puffed against Luke’s face like an echo of the gust that preceded it. Luke waited a moment, listening, but there was nothing but the rustle of the twigs in the tree and its fallen limb in the breeze. Beneath its twisted, broken branches, a tail of blue sweater fluttered. He brushed himself off, finding, pleased, that both of his arms were fine, and nudged his foot against a hand sticking out from beneath the branch. Besides the hand flopping at his push, she was silent and still.
That was so easy, he could not help but think.
Only one more thing to do. How had he acted when he called for help the first time? He couldn’t remember; that felt so long ago, and the version of him who had felt his world crumble around him because of one girl who didn’t even love him now seemed hopelessly naive. Tears? Shock?
Luke tried a little of both, and it must have been good enough for the responding authorities, because by the time the sky was fully dark, he was back at home. It felt good, flopping onto the bed. There was a feeling of justice to the night. There was the restoration of the order of things before he’d tampered with them, yes, but also a sense of recompense for what had happened when he’d given her a chance to speak. And that felt very good. If he had been a little more to the front of her, he might have even seen her look of shock and surprise as the limb crashed down.
He glanced at the closet and drummed his fingers against his chin in consideration. “What’s one more time?”
Hill, sunset, lies, wind, silence. Her face was still a bit obscured. Try, try again.
Hill, sunset, and he managed to steal a kiss that time. He got scratched up when the limb fell. Once more.
Hill, sunset, wind, but she stomped away, fuming, when he insisted on a kiss again. Women, he thought as the limb crashed down to the empty grass below.
Luke had lost count of how many times he’d gone back, how many times he’d watched the sunset fade and the tree limb fall. After the fourth time of the branch hitting its mark, he stopped calling for help and just went home to start the evening over again. The script changed only according to what he said.
This time, he was being sweet, bordering on being pathetic, having realized a few cycles before that sympathy was the key to her patience. But, truth be told, the thrill of playing this game and watching her lose was wearing thin. Maybe after this time, he would let time run its course. Maybe after this time, he would move on.
“It’s getting cold,” Sari said with a shiver, feet tucked beneath her on the hill.
If it was going to be the last time, Luke was going to relish this. “Let me warm you up,” he said, cradling her face in his hands and leaning forward for a kiss. A stiff breeze plastered his jacket to his back and whipped Sari’s hair wildly around his face as he neared hers. He had only a few more seconds to get clear before the limb fell, but he planned to make the most of it.
But Sari pulled back. “I’m sorry, Luke. Not tonight, okay?”
“I don’t understand,” Luke said, eyes wide with hurt and confusion.
She smiled at him sadly. “I don’t think you would, but that’s okay. Let’s call it a night.”
Luke gritted his teeth as she stood and brushed herself off. He just needed her to stay put for another second. “Sari, wait.”
She trotted down the hill, stopping only to look back at the creak and the snap and the crash of the branch. She was silent, but Luke roared in pain. A long gash ran down his left arm and onto his hand, blood springing forth in a thin line of bright red where a jagged edge of the limb had caught him.
“Are you okay?” she called.
“This is your fault!” he roared at Sari as he struggled to free himself from the smaller sticks and twigs and branches.
His anger went cold and still as Sari’s body should have been as he looked at his injury again and saw the damage to the remote strapped to his wrist. The wood had sliced down with enough force to knock off the covering and tear up some of the workings within. In the last rays of sunlight, Luke spotted a flash of metal deep within the grass. Ignoring the stinging stripes of pain that lanced his face and hands, he reached for it, suppressing a thousand horrible thoughts of what would happen if he could not find and fix the remote. Without the mobile unit, there was no trying again, no going back to even the original timeline where he was heartbroken and she was dead. But his bleeding hands found only a pull tab from a soda can in the grass as the light faded into twilight.
Over the skeletal tangle of the branch, he could see Sari turn again. Her eyes met his just long enough for him to see wariness and hardness in them that had not been there before, then she turned and walked away faster than before, the tail of her long sweater fluttering behind her in the wind.
Lisa Christensen is a former journalist and current MFA student in creative
writing at Brigham Young University. While working in journalism, she
primarily covered crime and military affairs. Her work earned her more than
a dozen first-place awards from the Society of Professional Journalists –
Utah Headliners Chapter, as well as several more from the Utah Press
Association. She lives in Salt Lake City.