I saw it after Jerry gave Mom a black eye. I had to get out, coward that I was, and I let the screen door bang behind me, knowing it would make him even madder. I crossed the street and followed the ravine, that treed-up scar in the land with a foul creek at the bottom, thick with scum. Then something caught my otherwise scattered attention: a house in the weedy lot where none had been for at least ten years. I stopped. Jerry’s words from the day before came back. He had been talking to Mom, trying to drive a wedge between us, as if he could. He said, “Your kid’s weird. She likes girls.” He was right on both counts. I’m a lesbian—and weird, but only because I declared my undying love for the best friend I’ve ever had and now she won’t return my texts or even look in my direction, not even in Mr. Selznick’s calculus class when she needs my help.
The house had a cottagey feel to it—scalloped trim along the eaves, moss-green front door, brown bricks smothered in ivy. I normally would have been more curious about its sudden appearance, but my stomach had been flipped inside out from trying to imagine my life without Angel Perez.
I was about to turn around, pass through a stand of trembling aspen to plunge down the ravine for a smoke, when—squee—the door opened halfway. There was nothing to do but watch as a bread-loaf of a woman appeared, dressed from neck to ankles in a purple gown, and something else which was wrapped around her head, more tourniquet than kerchief. She peered in my direction, opened the door wider, waved. She looked like an apple doll come to life.
I stared, until she called: “Lilianna!”
Of course I wondered how she knew my name, but at the same time, she looked familiar enough to make me toss off caution like an ill-fitted cape. I crossed the street, then the front garden. The woman’s face at this distance was more golden brown crepe paper than dried apple. Her eyes were black, like mine, but the skin around them had a folded pastry quality. Grey fuzz peeked out from the kerchief to frame her face. The lines in her forehead were the furrows of a field. Her lips framed a generous, joy-filled smile.
As I mounted the steps, she said, “I wasn’t sure you would come. But I made mint chip ice cream, just in case.”
I couldn’t help blurting, “That’s my favorite.”
I split in two the moment I crossed the threshold. One part of me was thinking: Idiot—you just entered the home of a stranger because she offered you something sweet to eat. The other part felt completely at ease, as though I’d returned home, finally, at the end of an epic quest.
I followed the woman through a narrow passage lit only by natural light through the front door, which I had failed to close. The farther we went, the dimmer it became, until her purple gown was as dark as a fresh bruise. Relief finally came when the hall opened up to a tidy kitchen with large windows overlooking an English-style country garden where hollyhocks loomed over ox-eye daisies, and lilies of various hues grew scattered about.
The woman said, “Please have a rest.” She pointed to a small wooden table across from the window where two low chairs sat ready. I took a seat and continued to watch the flowers, drinking up their aliveness as though their violets and crimsons, yellows and pinks, could paint over my gray mood.
She removed a glass jar from the freezer, turned, smiled. “Ready for ice cream?”
“You haven’t said anything about the clock,” she said as she unscrewed the lid. “I thought you would have noticed as soon as you came in.”
I followed her gaze to the wall opposite the window. It was painted a bright shade of blue. Mounted there was what appeared to be a sculptural tangle of iron lines and curves. Toward the center the various bits and pieces wound downward, like the swirl of water as it runs through a bathtub drain. Though the overall effect was of motion, the entire thing seemed frozen in time.
“I don’t understand.”
She bobbed her head and winked at me. “You will…one day.” Then she turned around, rolled up her purple sleeve to reveal a surprisingly well-muscled forearm, and got to work scooping ice cream.
I stood up to take a closer look at the clock.
“What if I do?” I turned around in time to see her lick the spoon with the glee of a child. Then very slowly she set it down and began to clap her hands. As my expression grew more puzzled, she clapped faster, her smile widening to reveal a row of teeth crowded in a familiar pattern. My heart skipped a beat.
“In case you don’t know, I’m applauding your inquisitiveness. May you never stop asking ‘What if—?’”
I slumped back into the chair, keeping my eyes on the strange wall hanging. For an instant its threads seemed to squirm and dive like so many worms undermining earth. When I blinked it stood still.
“Is this one of those numberless clocks no one can read? My mom put one in our living room. But I don’t see any hands. How does it tell time?”
She put the jar back in the freezer and carried two bowls of ice cream to the table. “I call it a clock, but in fact it’s a motion-time converter. You wouldn’t be able to comprehend the logistics of the thing—not yet, but the heuristics…I think you’re already on the way to understanding, if I’ve got the timing of this visit right.” Her black eyes gleamed.
Before I could ask her to explain what the heck she was talking about, I heard: “Lili.” The voice was distant. The croak of a crow.
“Did someone call my name?”
“Stay here. I’ll be back in a few minutes.”
I spooned ice cream into my mouth as she passed me. It was so cool and sweet, for a moment I considered doing as she asked. But as soon as she passed the window and began her ascent up a short flight of stairs, I got up quietly, leaning against the wall for support as I peeked up after her.
She went up slowly, as though each step took a toll. When she got to the top and turned left, I followed, tiptoeing the way I did at home when I was trying not to disturb Mom and Jerry.
The stairway was narrow and each step was a wood slab worn smooth from use, depressed in the middle. The walls were also wooden, buffed by time. At the top, I peered around the corner as she entered a room. I made my way there, soundlessly, and then stood just outside the door, pressing my ear against the wall.
“Is she here?”
“You aren’t supposed to know about that.”
“Of course I know. I’m not dead yet.”
I wanted to see the second speaker, so I risked getting closer. My fingers found the edge of the doorframe, and I held myself up while leaning to one side, seeing part of the way into a cluttered bedroom. A small chest of drawers was heaped with books, shawls, knitting needles, balls of yarn. I could see the end of a bed and a threadbare blue and white quilt. I heard the old woman say, “It’s all right, Angie. Don’t get riled up.”
My heart beat like the wings of a startled bird.
Then the older, deeper voice: “I want to see her.”
Without considering that the old woman had asked me to stay behind for a reason, I went in. The smell of lotions and putrefying flesh hit me hard.
“No…no,” said the old woman. “You weren’t supposed to follow.”
She sat on a low stool beside the bed, her purple gown flowing over her scrunched up legs. An ancient figure lay in the bed—a thin-shouldered, wispy-haired, prune-faced, glorious being.
“Lili,” she croaked, and I went to her, bending to be nearer, as if it was the most natural thing in the world—to kiss the ancient being on her forehead.
“Angie,” I said. My mind was shocked to see my love in such a state, but my heart seemed to understand so much more.
Then I turned to the old woman in purple. Our black eyes met. The pain in her hip seared my parallel joint.
“You are me.”
“But Angie and I are the same age. What happened?”
“Time doesn’t tick at the same rate for everyone. Angel and I lived apart, until a few years ago. Her journey was full of challenges.” She nudged me aside and reached forward to pull back the quilt, just enough to reach for Angel’s narrow, fragile hand. I put mine on top of theirs. The gesture came as naturally as in a dream. Except this was solid reality.
We remained as we were for as long as it took for my feet to get pins and needles. She seemed to know how I felt, because she put her other hand on top of mine.
“Angie’s asleep,” she said. “Let’s go back downstairs.”
I began to cry then, and I knew I could easily lose control, fall to the floor in a sobbing heap.
“Come on. I’ll say goodbye for you, for both of us, later.”
I followed her back down the stairs. She went so slowly, I had plenty of time to gain control over my feelings. But with each step, I seemed to become heavier and heavier, until, at the bottom, I could barely drag myself back to the table.
“It’s one of the effects,” she said, taking the other chair.
I took my seat. The ice cream had melted and the spoon had slipped into the bowl. She laughed, the gleam in her eyes returning. “Just do what I do.”
We lifted our bowls to our mouths and drank the rich, minty cream. As I did, I turned my stiff neck to glance at the clock. Some of the strands were squirming about as though they’d been kicked.
She set her bowl on the table. “It’s nearly time for us to part, Lilianna. Do you understand what’s happening?”
I set my bowl down slowly, licked my lips, nodded. “You travelled back in time. I’m not sure why. And I don’t know how you—we—did it. But I believe it.”
She smiled with pride, as though I were her child and I’d just won a prize. “We invented the clock. The premise is based on the Goulding-Perez hypothesis.” Then she picked up her spoon to lick the last of the cream.
“Goulding-Perez?” I said. “But Angie isn’t good at math. How did she—”
“She didn’t. It was all me. And you, of course.” She chuckled. “Goulding-Perez is my married name.” She put a crooked, callused finger to her lips. “You know how it works. You will.”
I stared into her shining black eyes. They were deep, sharp, kind. I set my leaden forearms on the table. It felt as if the force of gravity had doubled, tripled.
“This is impossible,” I said, after a few minutes of silence.
“Time travel. If you really are me, then we’ve created a loop. It’s impossible to time travel and meet up with yourself, because—”
“The Mother Paradox. You went back in time, met your self, and if I don’t do all the same things you once did, I won’t become you. Since you’ve disrupted my timeline that’s exactly what will happen.”
She smiled. “Now you’re thinking. But I didn’t use a wormhole, dear. I knit myself something far simpler and much more elegant.”
She laughed when she saw my expression. But I couldn’t help myself.
“I know what you’re thinking, Lilianna. That you stumbled into the house of a crazy old lady who talks rubbish and, perhaps, put drugs in your ice cream.”
I was unable to move my arms or legs, but my thinking was clear. “What’s happening to me? I can hardly hold up my head.”
“Want some more mint chip?”
“Don’t change the subject.”
She got up to clear our dishes. And when the bowls and spoons had been set in the sink, she washed her hands, drying them on the front of her gown. “Ahh, sometimes I’m tempted to be young again.” She peered at me over her shoulder. “But then I would have to revisit the bad times along with the good. I don’t think I could bear it.”
“Do you mind?” I tried to turn in the chair but found I was stuck where I was. “Could you please explain why I can’t feel my feet?”
She turned to face me, hands on hips, a posture I recognized. “I thought you would have some idea how the clock works.”
I tried to shake my head. It was too heavy.
She came back to the table, scratched her chin. Then she smiled. The creases in her cheeks spread wide.
“I suppose I should explain why I came back to see you, before the clock returns us. It’s about Angel.”
I wanted to tell her it was always about Angel, but I couldn’t move my lips.
“You see,” she continued, “she always loved me—you. Us. But I was impatient. I didn’t wait for her to tell me. I ran off to Princeton right after graduation. That’s why it took years for us to find one another again.”
She chuckled when she saw my expression. “You haven’t applied to Princeton?”
I slowly shook my head.
She took a handkerchief from out of nowhere and dabbed at a tear under my eye.
“If I hadn’t been so impulsive, Angie and I would have been together sooner. Her life would have been different. Better. I could have prevented so many things. I’ve risked everything to come back in time to warn you.”
“Yes,” I thought. “I will be with Angel. We will be together.”
“You wait here. I need to check on her.”
Had she forgotten that I had no choice but to wait? Even my breath was no longer in my control. But she floated away as if she were nearly weightless.
Then, after what felt like an hour, they came down the stairs together, side by side, tripping along like girls. Angie wasn’t so wizened. Her hair was thicker, smoother, with streaks of black amongst the grey.
“Do you understand what’s happening now?” my purple-clad self asked. And when I couldn’t respond: “You’ve already decided to be patient.”
I wanted to say: “Now there won’t be a time machine. You’ve changed everything, including my future research.” Then I thought, “With no time travel, I wouldn’t have been able to return in the first place.” It was a classic thought experiment. Nothing special. Yet I’d already seen how limited that thinking was.
Then Angie and I, our beautiful old selves, began to fade away, along with the house and everything in it. I grew even heavier, and was at the point of wondering how much more I could bear, when the house winked out like a candle.
I was butt-to-the-ground in the middle of the empty lot, and able to move again, when my phone vibrated. I pulled it out. Angel Perez had texted: Need calculus help. ok?
It was more than okay. But I would play it cool. For as long as it took.