NEITHER OF THESE MEN ARE NAMED STEVE

SUSAN MATTEUCCI

Maybe if I hadn’t opened the door? No. The shades were open, he would have seen me. Maybe if I hadn’t been home. Mmm… no, I’d have just come home to David Abernath sitting on my couch asking how come I didn’t have HBO.

“Hey, you’re smart.”

He stepped on my foot. David Abernath knocked on my door, complimented me, and then stepped on my foot whilst entering my home.

What were the odds he just wanted to borrow some salt? Could David Abernath forget to buy salt? Bold of me to assume David Abernath would do something as thoughtless as forget to buy salt. Bold of me to assume David Abernath used salt and did not season his food by sheer will alone.

“Thanks,” I said in response.

I really would have rather said anything else. Like “Oh, not really” or “Hi, David, what brings you by?” or “Get out of my house.”

Okay, I guess I understood where he was coming from. I was the stereotypical smart guy that you manipulate into setting up your printer. I graduated from MIT in only three years and now I work for NASA and my IQ is 155 blah blah blah.

When people ask my mom how I’m doing nowadays, she tells them I live next to David Abernath.

“Did you watch the news yesterday?” said David Abernath.

Yes. I had watched the news yesterday. But I doubt he was talking about MSNBC. What news channel did David Abernath watch? More importantly, did that news channel know David Abernath watched them?

To avoid the lesson about how I should really be watching this specific news channel at exactly 8:30–10:30 at night on Thursdays even though I work for most of that, I decided to play it safe.

“No, I missed it.”

“What? You should always watch the news. You can’t just be blind to world events, Marty.”

My name is Martin. But that really doesn’t matter.

“What was on the news last night?”

“Some scientists successfully sent a tennis ball back in time.”

I had heard about that. Not because it was on the news, but because my friend from MIT was on the team that did it. Two years ago, when they first started their research, they left a bucket of purple paint in one of their labs overnight, documenting exactly where it was and when it was there. Two days ago, they put a tennis ball back in that exact spot, slightly elevated, so it was exactly in the middle of where this bucket of paint was, and sent it back in time. The ball came back purple.

“Yeah, I heard that. What about it?”

David Abernath’s jaw dropped. “What about it?! Time travel! It’s real, it’s here, let’s go back in time and kill Hitler!”

I was still standing awkwardly in the doorway while David Abernath was lounging on my couch. I moved closer, but left the door open as a subtle “please don’t stay very long.”

“We can’t change the past. The group’s studies showed that we’re on a fixed timeline.”

“Yeah, yeah, the news explained it, but there’s got to be a loophole right? You’re smart, explain it to me.”

I bit my lip. This was science. Science didn’t have loopholes. But how could I explain that to Abernath, the loophole king? I glanced at my end-table. Thankfully, I had cleaned yesterday, so the Inc. Magazine showing Abernath on the cover with the words “Entrepreneur of the Year” was not there.

But I’ve never been one to give up explaining a complex scientific discovery. I sat down on the chair Abernath gestured toward. You know, my chair. Next to my couch. In my home. And I rubbed the back of my neck to vent some frustration.

“Basically, the timeline is set in stone. The team that got that ball to travel back in time could have figured out they succeeded before they actually did it.”

“How?”

“If, two years ago, they had gone and checked that bucket of paint to see if there was a tennis ball, they would have found a tennis ball. The tennis ball was always in the ball of paint.”

“Then why didn’t they go and check to see if there was a tennis ball?” 

“Because if there hadn’t been a tennis ball, they would have known that it didn’t work. And that they didn’t invent time travel.”

“So you can only do stuff that has already been done.”

“Yeah, so to go to the Hitler example. You couldn’t go back in time and stop Hitler from doing all those things, because we know he did.”

“What would happen if I tried?”

“You’d fail.”

“Even if Hitler was just a defenseless baby?”

“Yes. Or, you’d kill the baby of Mr. and Mrs. Hitler, and then they adopt another baby, name him Adolf, because you were unaware the last baby’s name was actually Fred or something, and that baby becomes Hitler and it’s just a part of history that was never really documented.”

“Okay, you see, that’s what the news said too.” Abernath was up and pacing my living room like he was in his office in his billion dollar company. “But what if you weren’t trying to change the past?”

“Exactly. The team is trying to get funding to create time travel safe for historians, so we have a better understanding of history.”

“Right, right, but that wouldn’t do us any good. I still want to change things, I just don’t want to change the past.”

I said nothing. This is why Abernath is so famous, I thought, because he says crazy shit like this with such certainty everyone just nods along, for fear of being the stupid one.

“What?”

“So, my house has got a foundation problem, right?”

I blinked, surprised at the turn of events, but I didn’t interrupt him.

“Right, yeah, and the guy says that it’s either really simple, and they’ve just got to replace something and it’ll take, like, a day, and cost me, like, 80 bucks. Or the guys who made my house back in the 70s didn’t put in enough support beams because they ran out of money and my house is literally falling down, and if that’s true… Well, if that’s true then it’d cost less to buy another house, to be honest.”

“Oh?… That’s—that’s terrible.” I’ve never been a good liar. Luckily Abernath wasn’t really listening.

“But they don’t know which it is until they look.”

Abernath looked at me like I was supposed to suddenly be on the same wavelength as him. I just stared at the man, trying not to gape.

“They don’t know yet.”

“I… I don’t get it.”

“If I were to go back in time to the 70s, right? And I was to go to the crew that was making my house, and I was to, you know, snoop around. I could see if they had enough money to put the support beams in. And if they didn’t, I could give them the money! I could ensure that the beams were there, and that it was the other problem that was, well, that was the problem. Get it?”

Did I get it? Abernath wasn’t necessarily changing the past, he would be just… ensuring the future. So it worked the way he wanted. Sure, he was doing it for selfish reasons but that opened up an entirely new possibility… Theoretically, they could go back in time and fix anything, as long as they could do it without anyone realizing. Because they wouldn’t really be changing it…

“Yeah, you get it! Don’t you get it? This fixed timeline thing, it’s not a curse, it’s a blessing. No butterfly effect, no altering the space-time continuum. No matter what happens you will come back to the same reality you left, but you can still mold the reality to your liking! The best of both worlds!”

David Abernath hopped up and down. He actually hopped. In my living room.

“So when we do this, we’re going to need to create a time machine that’s a lot smaller, and we’re going to have to choose when to come back, so how would we do this?”

“We”? Had he just said “we”? Like, me and him “we”? Like me working with David Abernath? Had this conversation turned to the wistful thought of David Abernath moving away to the sudden use of the pronoun “we”?

“Uh… what do you mean, ‘when we do this’?”

“Well, we can’t just let this idea go to waste!”

“Yeah, so let’s approach the team that invented time travel and—”

“They’d just do it wrong! But we could do this the right way!”

“How are ‘we’ going to create a time machine?”

“You’re smart!”

Ah, yes, that reason.

Unfortunately, I could see, again, where he was coming from. My friend from MIT had actually offered me a place on the team. But I had wanted stability, a decent salary, and, you know, a life, and had turned him down. I designed thrusters for unmanned probes and charted their trajectories. But charting trajectories through space wasn’t so different than charting them through time. And making an actual time machine wasn’t as hard as it sounded. It was a lot like the atomic bomb; the big question was whether it would work. Once it did, everyone knew, more or less, how to build one.

But Abernath was right. With the tennis ball, the scientist had decided how long it would stay in the past. When a person went back, they’d have to decide. Which meant the time machine would have to go with them. That meant it could not be an entire room of delicate parts. It would also mean the machine itself would have to do the math for the return trajectory.

“So you’ll do it!”

I snapped back to reality. “What?”

“You had that calculating face.”

“I… have a job.”

Abernath waved his hand dismissively.

“You’re free almost all day, everyday.”

I stared at him. Was he serious? I worked a nine to five job at NASA. Just 9:00 PM to 5:00 AM instead of the normal nine to five. I was free most of the day because I was sleeping from 9:00 AM to 3:00 PM. And the rest of that time I had… a life. I had a girlfriend. I ran marathons. I did shit. Did he not know?

No. He knew. He just figured I wouldn’t do any of that anymore.

Despite all of that… there was this annoying little voice in the back of my head asking me a question: who did I want to be? Did I want to be the guy who lived next to David Abernath? Or did I want to be the guy who helped David Abernath invent time travel?

After all, Abernath had done the hard part. He had asked the question. All I had to do now was answer it for him. If I said no, he’d just find some other poor bastard who graduated from MIT in three years, worked at NASA, and had an IQ of 155. I knew at least three of them myself (although one of them actually graduated from Stanford, but that’s beside the point).

Sure, it would be a painful few… months? Years? God, tell me it wasn’t going to be years. But when it was over…

I sighed and opened the drawer of my coffee table. Taking out a pen and pad of paper I looked up at Abernath.

“There’s no way this is gonna be done in time to fix your house.”

David pumped his fists and sat back down on the couch. “That’s okay! The guys inspected it yesterday, and it’s a small thing.”

I groaned, not even trying to hide my disappointment. But David was too excited to notice.

I started to write out a basic formula for time travel, explaining what I was doing to David Abernath as I went along. After maybe an hour, a squirrel hopped up on my coffee table.

“You never closed your door,” David said helpfully.

I sighed, shooing the squirrel back outside, and, reluctantly, closed the door with the entrepreneur of the year and future inventor of time travel still on my couch.