This week in our Tuesday Fiction Feature is The Time Traveler’s Son by American writer, long time Singapore resident Jason Erik Lundberg.
The Time Traveler’s Son
by Jason Erik Lundberg
It was Wade’s seventh birthday. There were cake and ice cream and presents in the backyard, and a colorful piñata shaped like a donkey, and twenty of Wade’s friends from school, and his mom had even hired a clown, a lazy clown, and Wade could smell alcohol when the clown bent down and breathed, “Happy birthday.” Crap at balloon animals, he was winded after blowing one up, and upon failing to twist or turn or knot it into a dog or giraffe or something, he would present the sausage of air and latex with a weak flourish, “It’s a snake!”
Upstairs, in the house, Wade’s dad finished packing. The lame clown forgotten and left to wheeze on a lawn chair and nip from a cheap silver flask, Wade asked his dad where he was going, why he wasn’t down at the party.
“Important business, kiddo,” said his dad. “Time traveling business. My first mission.” He closed the suitcase and pointed out the window to the ‘84 Chevy Celebrity, bandage brown, rusted through, the fabric inside the roof coming unglued, hanging down, a drapery of obscuration.
“That’s our car,” Wade said.
“Oh no, kiddo, it’s my time machine. I can chat with Marie Curie, or punch Hitler in the face, or have tea with an archaeopteryx. I can go anywhere I want, and anywhen.”
“All your stuff is packed inside.”
“It’s a long trip. I may be gone for a while.”
“But if it’s a time machine, can’t you return to right after when you left?”
Wade’s dad ruffled his hair and smiled. “My son, the genius.”
“So why was Mom yelling at you and calling you names?”
“Oh, that. She’s . . . just upset because I’m leaving, kiddo. She wants me to stay. But I can’t. I’ve got some big responsibilities now, saving-the-world kind of responsibilities, and I don’t want to shirk them.”
“When will you be back?”
“Two weeks from today,” said Wade’s mom from the doorway, appearing from nowhere, a better trick than blowing up non-existent balloon animals. “Like it says in the custody agreement.”
“Right, right.” Wade’s dad distracted, lost in his thoughts. “Well, I suppose I’ll be off then. Dinosaur hugs.”
Wade gripped his dad’s head, and vice versa, and they clonked foreheads, both saying, “Clonk!” at the same time.
“Happy birthday, kiddo,” said Wade’s dad, and he grabbed his suitcase. Out the door, in the car, and it sputtered and farted blue smoke, and then it was around the corner and his dad was gone.
* * *
It was Wade’s twenty-first birthday. He sat in a bar called the Café of the Asphyxiated Borough, a hole-in-the-wall near campus, decorated by a woodcut of two disembodied hands strangling a donkey, he sat on a stool made of cracked leather and got legally drunk for the first time, with his father. Splitting a pitcher of watered-down lager, eating peanuts with way too much salt, they talked about Wade’s future. A television bolted to the wall played a baseball game that everyone ignored.
“So you’re really going to be a vet, huh?”
“Yeah,” Wade said. “That’s the goal. Graduate school first, though.”
“All kinds of animals, even the little ones?”
“Especially the little ones. Even hamsters. I don’t want to be sticking my hands into cows and horses forever.”
Wade’s dad began to sing, “A horse is a horse, of course, of course . . .”
“You’re doing it again.”
Wade’s dad smiled and signaled for another pitcher. “Yes, I always seem to be embarrassing you, don’t I?”
“Not all the time,” Wade said. “Just most of the time.”
“Like the time I took you to the natural sciences museum, and knocked over that display of stuffed birds?”
“Yeah. Like that.”
“Or the time I was in the stands at your little league game, and spilled beer all over my pants, so it looked like I peed in them?”
“You know, you really shouldn’t have had beer at a children’s baseball game in the first place.”
“Or the time I took you to the steakhouse and you told me you were a vegetarian.”
“I was a vegetarian. Am.”
“You know, I was kind of hoping you’d go into the family business.”
“Well, lawyering is all right for Mom, but it’s not really my—”
“No, no, I wasn’t talking about Mom.”
“Oh, not this again.”
“Come on! You’d get to see the world. Experience history for yourself, feel like you have purpose to your life.”
“Dad, would you cut that shit out? I’m not seven anymore. It’s just a story. A dumb story.”
Wade’s dad looked into his beer. Wade had never seen him look so old, so worn down, as if he’d already lived several lifetimes, his hair a shocking white, the crow’s feet and laugh lines etched into skin by chisel and time.
“Fine,” his dad said. “Let’s just drop it. Happy birthday, kiddo.”
They finished the pitcher, and then went their separate ways, Wade to his dorm room by campus bus, and his dad by cab to a roach-infested apartment downtown.
* * *
It was Wade’s wedding day. He was marrying a pretty Chinese girl named Xiaxue. His mother had planned the event to perfection, driving him a bit crazy with it all actually, and his fiancée too, with the flowers and the catering and the venue and the band and the minister and the dress and the cake and all the minutiae. Wade and his fiancée wanted a small affair, but it ballooned from thirty people, to sixty, to a hundred fifty, to two hundred, and Wade didn’t even care anymore, he just wanted it all over with so he could start a life with his new bride. His mother, wanting to include Xiaxue’s family in the celebration, since they were flying all the way from Hong Kong, had decorated the Wegener House with Chinese lanterns of red and gold, some labeled “love,” some “happiness,” some “prosperity,” and the flowers were all different vibrant colors, no white because white was a bad luck color, and they were serving green tea and egg rolls alongside the numerous other heavy hors d’oeuvres. Xiaxue’s family seemed pleased with the references to their culture.
The ceremony over, and Wade didn’t trip over his shoes at all, and said all the right things in all the right places, and smiled a big smile after kissing his new bride on the lips, even slipping her a little tongue, and they walked back into the house from the courtyard and prepared to meet and greet the two hundred guests. Dozens of “It’s so good to see you,” “Thank you for coming,” “I’m glad you enjoyed the ceremony,” “Yes, we got the fondue pot you sent,” “I’m sorry, I don’t know where the bathroom is” and “The food is right through there.” There was hardly time to eat because everyone wanted to talk to him, or give him advice, or ask where they were going on the honeymoon (Greece). Relatives, friends, or strangers continually put drinks in his hand, and the quantity of alcohol and lack of food were producing vertigo, a spinning room, a loss of equilibrium. And so Wade didn’t notice his father approach the table and start talking to his new wife.
“So you own a clinic?”
“Yes,” she said, “Wade and I are going to run it together.”
“You two met in veterinary school.”
“Mostly pets. Dogs, cats, hamsters. The occasional turtle or rabbit. We have an iguana in a terrarium in the waiting area who likes to sun himself all day under the heat lamp.”
“You’re from Hong Kong?”
“Yes,” she said.
“So you know all about the exotic medical treatments over there?”
“Like dried oviduct fat of a Chinese forest frog for its curative powers,” said Wade’s dad.
He said, “Ground‑up deer antlers or shark bone powder to boost vitality.”
He said, “Desiccated tiger penis.”
And without the slightest hesitation, she said, “Yes. I know about all of those.”
“Have you ever used any of them?”
“No. My grandparents will sometimes use the frog, but that’s about it. And since deciding to become a vet, it’s hard for me to use any animal products now. The closest would be tiger balm for sore muscles, but that’s not made from tigers.”
“Tiger blam,” Wade said, and the husband and wife smiled at a shared joke.
“It looks like you’ve picked a winner, kiddo,” said Wade’s dad. “You make sure to hang on to this one.”
Wade smiled, lightheaded, and burst out laughing.
“You know what story this man used to tell me when I was a kid?” he slurred.
“Wade,” said his dad, “I don’t think this is the time—”
“He said he was a time traveler!”
“Wade,” said his new wife, “honey, are you feeling all right?”
“A time traveler! Can you believe that? He didn’t want to admit to being a bad husband and a bad father and so he made up this story about trekking up and down the space-time continuum, making himself all important and not accepting any responsibility for hey let go o’ me!”
Wade jerked his arm away, and the contents of his champagne glass splashed over the front of his father’s ill-fitting and flyblown suit. Hushes from the crowd. The band even stopped playing “Night Train” in mid-bar.
Wade’s father looked down at the slowly spreading stain and said, “Maybe I shouldn’t have come.”
Wade sat down, not quite sure what had just happened.
“I’ll leave,” said Wade’s dad.
“No, please,” Xiaxue said. “Please don’t go. We’ll get some club soda for it.”
“No no, this was a mistake.” He turned. “Congratulations, son,” he said, and left.
* * *
It was Wade’s dad’s last day alive. The hospital stank of industrial cleanser and urine and death. The terminal ward, where his dad was kept, was a fog of depression, the air itself bringing you down. All around were the sniffles or muffled cries of the soon-to-be survivors, those left behind when loved ones passed on.
Every so often a doctor or nurse would come in, check the chart, inspect the beeping machines, do something with the I.V. Wade saw a detachment in their eyes, a coldness, a defense mechanism for the pervading climate of death they had to face every day. The candy stripers were the only perky visitors, though they had nothing of substance to say.
Diagnosis: a worn-out heart. The doctors couldn’t figure it out. “It’s like his organs are twice as old as they should be,” they said. “He’s sixty-two, but his heart shows the strain of a centenarian.”
Jet-lagged from the twenty-five hour flight from Hong Kong, Wade barely noticed when his father awoke from a deep sleep.
“Yeah, it’s me.”
“When’d you get here?”
“About an hour ago. Right from the airport.”
“Where’s your lovely wife?”
“The doctors said she shouldn’t fly at eight months. It could hurt the baby.”
“She wanted to be here.”
A weak smile. “I bet she did. Give her a kiss from me when you get back.”
“Sorry I won’t be around to see that new baby of yours.”
“Dad, don’t talk like that.”
“But it’s true. I’ll be surprised if I last the day.”
“Dad . . .”
“What do you think happens?” his dad said. “You know, when we go?”
“I don’t know.”
“I read up a lot on the afterlife, even talked to some theologians and philosophers in my travels. No one seems to agree.
“There’s the Christian Heaven, or Hell, where either you have paradise and get to see your family again, or little men in red pajamas poke you with pitchforks. But then I think, what if I get to Heaven and my really annoying relatives are there, and they won’t leave me alone, and I can’t go anywhere else because, well, it’s Heaven. I’d almost prefer pitchforks to that.
“There could be Buddhist reincarnation, which I like a lot. They don’t see people as having souls, but more of a collection of sensory inputs, and that you never truly die, but change from one form to another, just like you’re not the same person as you are when you’re six years old as you are when you’re sixty, it’s the same with becoming a new person. We are reborn every day, if you think like this, with your cells constantly dying and being replaced, every seven years you’re a whole new person, and so it’s not much of a leap. Your karma determines your new body. With my luck I’d probably become a snail.
“Or there could be nothingness, annihilation. All your experiences, all your memories, gone, poof, just like that, the void of emptiness. Your body returned to the earth to feed the worms and enrich the soil, but your soul, your identity, is just gone, lost forever.”
Wade started to cry, unable to hold it in, the exhaustion and the sadness of this place and the discussion of the afterlife just too much. He covered his face with his hands. He thought of the helpless ignorance of what lay beyond, that undiscovered country, that awfully big adventure. He rested his head on the bed, and his father patted his head.
“Shush now, don’t be sad. If I come back as a snail, I’ll visit you every day.”
“I’m sorry I called you a bad father.”
“Oh don’t worry about that. I wasn’t the best father, though I tried.”
“I know you did.”
“Besides, I’ve seen you, with your family, years from now. You speak Cantonese and your son grows up into a handsome man, a book publisher, and he visits every other weekend with his girlfriend, who becomes his wife, a beautiful woman, who looks like she should model lingerie but she’s a physicist. You and your wife grow happy and content, running the animal hospital even into your old age, revered by your community as the vets who are truly there for their patients. Your grandson, the piano prodigy, he has his father’s eyes, your eyes, my eyes, the eyes of every male in our family line. It’s the eyes, Wade, the eyes, the eyes . . .”
His father’s words drifted away as if caught on a breeze, and his chest raised and lowered several more times and then went still. Wade’s cheeks and ears burned, hot enough to steam the air. The room, the ward, became instantly quiet. No squeak of shoes, no hiss from ventilators, no hum of life-monitoring electronics. No inhale of breath. The clock on the wall, analogue, ancient, spaded hands wrought of centuries-old iron, still, unmoving, halted. To tick no more.
(c) 2008 Jason Erik Lundberg. originally published as a limited-edition standalone book by Papaveria Press, December 2008
reprinted in The Immersion Book of SF by Immersion Press, September 2010