She was stone, with none of the histrionics, tears or emotion that marked the other fault lines of a crumbling marriage. The earth had split asunder soundlessly, deliberately, and nothing would heal the breach. After making sure their son was safely buckled in Pat turned, wound down the window.
“Its taken years but you’ve convinced me Aaron. You’re a loser, a waste of my time and everyone else’s. Don’t try to find me, don’t call, it’s over.”
The car drove slowly away from 5 Rose Lane. She didn’t spare him a backwards glance, closing curtains all that greeted him as the neighborhood gossips hid as he turned to go inside.
The kitchen table was no friendlier. A pile of final demands and bills competed with another of rejections, both put to shame by foreclosure notices. At least it would make property settlement easier, half of nothing is nothing. This time next month it would be all over, nothing left, no prospects, just a litany of failure. The only thing left was to wipe his life from the face of the earth.
He glared at his pills. Three failures proved they couldn’t do it. How a whole bottle couldn’t kill you was beyond him, beyond even the paramedics claiming it was a miracle he was alive. Arseholes.
He shrugged on his coat, walked out leaving the door swinging. He gave the finger to Mrs. Rosendahl as he turned the corner, he couldn’t see her but he knew the old bat was always watching, sniping, gossiping.
Aaron wandered aimlessly until he found himself staring at a simple door plaque announcing the office of ‘Erasure Inc.’. He laughed. At least my subconscious is working properly. He pushed the door open and made his way up the narrow flight of stairs. A small, balding man bearing an uncanny resemblance to a large rat greeted him.
“Hello, I’m Johann Renck, manager. You can call me Johann if you like mister …?”
He stared at the outstretched hand, unwilling to take it.
“Kelly, Aaron Kelly.”
“Mr. Kelly, yes. Please take a seat.”
Johann sat down delicately across from him. The office was as plain and dour as the man.
“So you wish to use our services?”
“Yes, I’ve read your … offering on the net. It’s really totally painless, you’ve had no complaints?”
“Absolutely. It’s not the sort of business where customers can complain Mr. Kelly.”
“How much, I mean, the cost, I couldn’t see what it was.”
“There is none, it’s free. Money’s quite irrelevant really, we can’t actually take any payment.”
“The … process … makes it quite impossible, quite impossible. But don’t worry for the business Mr. Kelly, we receive payment for everyone we help so we aren’t impoverished.”
“And the rest, free too?”
“Part of the service we are proud to offer of course.”
“How can you -”
“Ah now Mr. Kelly, if everyone knew where would my business be? In any case I will be happy to tell you when the process commences, if you decide to go ahead.”
“I’m decided, I want to go with it as early as possible.”
“Very good. Let me check. Jenny!”
A woman, his twin in appearance and dress, stepped in and handed Johann a tablet. He scrolled quickly, made a hurried note on the back of a business card and handed it to Aaron.
“Thursday, ten a.m. Does that work for you?”
Aaron stood, offered his hand.
“Yes, perfectly. Thursday it is.”
“Excellent. No food or drink for twelve hours beforehand please Mr. Kelly, we must minimize the physical aftereffects.”
* * *
Pat carefully placed the china cup on the saucer and smiled. Aaron may never have liked his mother but by some strange quirk she got along famously with her. He might not visit but she did every Thursday morning. Kid at school, work on hold for a few hours it was pleasant enough.
“So it’s over?”
“Yes, Tuesday morning. Aaron’s not said?”
“No Pat, he hasn’t and I wouldn’t expect him too. He might be my own flesh and blood but I know an idiot when I see one. I thought maybe he’d improve with you but it’s not the way things went.”
“I thought kids might have helped, maybe marriage, but honestly Dot he’s a lost cause.”
“At least you’re free of him dear.”
* * *
He closed his eyes waiting for the first punch. The Ryan kids kept at him all morning about his dad and mum splitting. Shoulda ignored them but I didn’t, now it’s gonna hurt.
A hand wrenched his arm from his face. Jake started to shake, the school bully towering over him.
“I’m not thumping you Jake.”
“Whatcha gonna do Ted?”
“Nuthin’, just like nobody else.”
Ted scowled at the circle of kids, grabbed Jake by the shoulders and half guided, half pulled him to the school gate.
“Let’s have some fun.”
Jake followed him as he vaulted the low chain-wire fence and walked towards the mall.
“My parents split too, so if they’re gonna pick on you they’ll hafta pick on me.”
* * *
Roxy lifted the trowel, twisted it a half turn then chopped the potting mix back into the planter. She straightened, took one step back and sat down. It may be only two bedrooms on the fifth floor but a south facing apartment in the city’s a good thing. I’d wanted a house, a decent yard to grow and plant but we just missed out.
I really don’t like living in the city, the flat’s good but I can’t relax, I never feel comfortable walking down the road Clay had died on, the signs of the hit and run still etched into the brickwork and steel. You’d think after time the pain would ease, perhaps just a little.
* * *
The gurney was comfortable. Johann fussed over a few small wires, handed him a small glass of clear liquid.
“A relaxant, nothing more. Just helps our machine do its job. Your last chance, go or no go. Drink it and we’ll proceed.”
Aaron drained the glass in one swallow. Slightly aniseed, sweet.
“So, we begin. Everything is automatic now, when it’s time the machine will send you into a gentle sleep, do its work and that’s that. I believe I said I’d explain it to you. Do you still want me to?”
Aaron felt tipsy, slightly high. Explanation? Why not.
“Sure, but keep it simple, time is money.”
“Indeed it is, indeed it is. It’s very simple Mr. Kelly. The machine is a failed experiment, my failed experiment, one of the old DARPA time travel boondoggles. As far as they could figure it was a disaster. No travel, just destruction, cancellation. It was a failure so, naturally, I was too. You know what they say Mr. Kelly, success has a thousand fathers, failure’s an orphan. So I changed it, just a little, and here I am.”
He tapped Aaron gently on the headband.
“This tunes the machine to you, your fingerprint in time. It traces you all the way back from when it starts the process to the moment you were conceived. As it’s doing that, as a side-effect really, it erases each and every point from your timeline until, literally, you have never existed and never did.”
“And then? At the end?”
“I won’t remember you; you won’t remember you; no one will. All there will be is a lump of flesh, a shell that is nothing.”
He turned, moved to the screen on the desk.
“It’s why we can’t charge you. You could give us the money but that will be erased, written over and reset. It’s just a minor, unnecessary complication. Are you ready?”
Johann tapped the screen then went to the open door. He paused briefly before going through.
“Goodbye Mr. Kelly.”
The small jolt through his head sent him into a pleasant, waking dream. Happy, relaxed, totally unable to move he was watching the movie of his life spool backwards slowly, but with gathering pace. His eyes closed, breath shallow, all sense of the room left him as dream became reality.
Maybe, just maybe Pat and I can manage, can get through it, I’ve just got to try just that bit harder, be more positive and thorough.
* * *
“So you’re still arguing, still shouting?”
“Yes, sometimes Dot but we’re trying to at least get him more positive.”
“We tried for years his father and I, a lifetime but we couldn’t even scratch the surface.”
“The wedding seems to have helped.”
“It’s early days yet Pat, early days.”
* * *
“You like Doom?”
A brace of daemons exploded as Jake let off another rpg.
“Yeah, never played it on this big a screen tho’. My dad’s got it on Xbox but we only have a small tv.”
“Least your dad’s home, mine’s always out with my aunties. Mum says they’re his girlfriends, they keep shouting.”
A horned beast jumped up, a quick swipe of a chainsaw finishing it off.
“Mine keep throwin’ and breakin’ stuff, then dad just cries in the kitchen all night.”
* * *
Carol looked over her coffee at Roxy.
“How long you lived here?”
“Two, maybe three years.”
“Seriously, you need to get out more, enjoy it. Past’s past Roxy, Clay wouldn’t want you sad.”
“I know, I know. Still hard though.”
* * *
The spirit level never lies but there’s no requirement to believe it. Clearly the mailbox was not straight but it was rapid set concrete and it was on his land. His land. All that mattered. A house, a kid and a woman. Aaron smiled. They’d nearly been outbid by that other couple but that little extra push and now it was theirs.
He stood, stretched, and looked out from 5 Rose Lane over his domain. Roots. Roots make the difference, keep the tree grounded, and now he had them. Roots. A home. Maybe this would do it.
* * *
“So maybe a wedding later, now you’ve your own home?”
Pat laughed, took another sip of tea.
“Maybe. Perhaps. He seems happier but we’ve managed ok without one up to now Dot.”
“I’m sure many young couples do these days, quite sure.”
* * *
The aliens melted as Jake sprayed acid over them.
“You gotta house and all, I’m still in the van park.”
“No guess, I wish I had my own room.”
* * *
“You coming or what?”
Clay looked back, laughing as Roxy tried to balance her handbag and jacket in one hand while fiddling with her shoe with the other.
“Wait up a bit, I don’t know this city like you.”
He took her jacket in one hand, steadied her with the other.
“Now just take your time. We can take a shortcut down the alleyway, it’s narrow but we’ll get there on time.”
“Can’t we stick to the sidewalk?”
“And miss the show? Hell no! If you’re gonna live in the city you might as well learn to enjoy it.”
* * *
She jumped him right at half time, five foot eight of brunette straddling him like a prize bull. She wrapped her arms around his neck, dragged his face closer until their noses touched, gave him a lascivious grin.
“Children now Aaron.”
“But you said -”
Pat switched the tv off and threw the remote away.
“That was yesterday. Now is now.”
“Are you sure?”
She threw him down on the couch, staring down at him.
* * *
“My son seems quite serious about you Patricia.”
“Please, call me Pat. And yes, we’ve been together for a while now.”
“And you must call me Dot, none of that ‘Mrs. Kelly’ nonsense. He’s talked a lot about you but honestly there’s nothing better than actually meeting you.”
“I’m glad I could drop over, Thursday mornings always seem easier for me to get time from work.”
“Stock filling Thursday mornings, not much I can do without the consumables.”
“What did you say you did again?”
* * *
He hated playing by himself but hated school and the other kids more. The teachers didn’t care, just like mum and dad they seemed happier when he wasn’t around.
None of the other kids understood, no one else had parents who always shouted, hit each other, hit him, stayed away nights with other people then went soft and soppy on him.
His soldier died, last of his lives gone. Top score again. The screen flashed for his name. ‘T – E – D – 0 – 1′ he put in.
Shame there was no one to see it.
* * *
Clay filled the cups slowly. With one arm around Roxy he looked out from the front verandah of 5 Rose Lane. Another peaceful Thursday morning at home.
“Carnations honey, I think we need carnations. Maybe reds.”
Roxy nodded, placed her cup down.
“And yellows, don’t forget the yellows.”
* * *
She was out of his league and if his inner voice wasn’t enough his friends were there to remind him. The dance floor seemed miles wide, boys round one edge, girls the other. He was committed, the dare accepted and no way out. He walked haltingly forwards, a lone figure heading to the unknown. He stopped in front of her.
“Ah, I’m, ah … hello, do you want to ah …”
She grabbed him by the hand, smiling, led him away.
“Dance Aaron? Yes, about time you asked.”
* * *
“I’m sorry. I really can’t remember.”
They stood in the doorway, the old lady and the young staring in amusement at each other.
“Well let’s say it’s an old woman’s mind going. Once I remember I’ll get in touch. What was your name again?”
“Patricia, Patricia Jenkins.”
“Well Miss Jenkins, it’s been a pleasure … I think.”
“Same here Mrs. …”
“Kelly, Dorothy Kelly.”
* * *
It was all loud and interesting, sometimes scary, some things happened again and again. There was that shape, the one that was there when he fed, it was a smell and a feel that was familiar, comforting. As he fell asleep it would make soft noises, as he woke it would slowly brush itself against him. It felt safe, smooth.
Then the other one, the one that felt not smooth, that was louder. It didn’t have milk, it didn’t make soft noises when he grew tired, it wasn’t there when the soft shape was here. It was here now, making hard noises.
“You little shit, if I had my way youd’ve been aborted. You chained me here, ruined my life, I hate you.”
* * *
Traffic was light for a weekday, she’d made it in easily for midday. Another Thursday morning window shopping, coffee for one and not much else. A simple life uncluttered by others Pat was reasonably happy. Or at least not sad.
* * *
The clock struck twelve, chimed, then continued on its way to one o’clock. Dot regarded it coldly, cursing its echoing through the empty house. What’s the point of marking empty hours in an empty life, reminders of what wasn’t and isn’t? No family, no friends, just time.
* * *
The bell chimed.
“Seems so Jenny.”
They walked into the room. A man lay on the gurney vacant eyed, drooling. At least this one hadn’t soiled itself. He pulled the surgical gown off exposing a small tattoo on the left breast.
“Jake. Hmm. Hello whoever you are, welcome to the rest of your life. Jenny, I’ll call Forma if you’ll prep him.”
She moved her gaze from the man’s groin.
“A bit of a waste.”
“Well you’ve missed your chance, he’s not good for anything now.”
He turned to the door. Jenny laughed, called after him.
“You’re not going to help? Getting squeamish?”
“You would too, the food and air lines are one thing but watching the catheter insertions still gives me the creeps.”
* * *
Pat changed into her lab coat, pushed through the swing doors. Erica was at the far end of the room starting the prep. Products still need to be tested, reactions gauged even if animal cruelty laws were enforced. Well we’ll never run foul of them again.
“Hey Erica, how many?”
“Just the one, good subject though.”
“Plugged and ready?”
“Uh huh, prised and strapped. What are we running?”
Pat crossed the room, looked down.
“See what you mean, we might get six months out of this one.”
She turned, picked up her clipboard.
“Ok, series five and six, chemical toxin irritants skin and eyes for J.D.J. Rips and drips Erica.”
She looked at the subject now ready and prepped. His skin was clean, eyes bright if a touch weepy, a near perfect test subject. Only one small flaw but that was easily worked around. She snapped on her rubber gloves, stepped back.
“Welcome to Forma Jake. I promise this will hurt a great deal.”