When the baby is nine weeks old, Bree begins to suspect she is a time machine.
The evidence is this: it’s 4:30 a.m. and Pippa is up for the third time, wailing. Beside Bree in bed, Max shifts and—accidentally, of course, she must have rolled onto his side of the mattress—elbows her in the back.
“C’mon, Bree,” he mumbles. “If you can’t get her to sleep, can’t you at least keep her quiet?”
If only there were some way for Max to get more sleep, Bree thinks, settling into the rocking chair. More space in the townhouse, better soundproofing—
“Or more time,” she murmurs, to the greedy baby in her arms.
She closes her eyes. Opens them when the baby’s warm mouth against her nipple falls away. The blinking red numbers on the clock say 2:15.
Time is untethered; the baby has untied it, released it to float up into the sky like a white balloon. It is 1:30 a.m. and Bree has either slept or she hasn’t, one state or the other infinitely possible. Pippa lies quiet in the bassinet, barely visible in the orange slats of streetlight slicing through the nursery blinds.
Bree crouches over her and put lips to hair, tasting; nose to forehead, smelling. “Where are you taking me, little one?” she whispers. “When?”
In the morning Bree waits, eyes closed, for Max to grumble about her inability to get the baby to sleep through the night. He’s right to be frustrated; he has so much on his plate at work. Tight timelines, investor pressure, so many people waiting to say he’s wrong: there’s no economically sound way to get oil from stone. Having a useless mess of a new mother stumbling around at home would try anyone’s patience, let alone a man trying to melt rocks—
The sound of the shower slices through her thoughts. Over the falling water, she hears Max begin to warble a boy band tune—I want it thaaa-at way—and by the time he comes out, Bree has Pippa fed and breakfast ready.
Max throws an arm over her shoulders, still humming, and drops a kiss in her hair. He smells like the air before a rainstorm: earthy and metallic, riverine.
“What magic did you do in the night? he asks, sipping his coffee. “I feel like I slept for days.”
This is her Max, Bree thinks, sinking against him: the Max who brings his friends over for dinner parties to show her off, like a diamond set in the shining band of his life, who leaves her sweet notes when he goes to work, listing his favorite parts of her body (toes, tits, tip of your nose); not the Max who slams doors, turns his face away when she comes to kiss him hello, who snaps “Not now, Bree!” when she knocks on his office door—
But that’s all her fault, isn’t it? He’s tired of the chaos that remains of their once-perfect lives. Her perfume replaced with the fading scent of spit-up; milk stains on the leather couch; her body a bad taxidermy version of its former self, misshapen and lumpy.
“Maybe she’s figuring it out,” she ventures. “Sleeping, I mean.”
He grabs a fried egg sandwich from the counter, spins her around and pulls her in for another kiss. “Whatever it is, keep it up.”
She waits for Max to go to work before she calls Caro to explain her time machine theory.
“Aren’t we all time machines, though?” Caro says. “Only the machine just keeps going forward.”
In the distance, she can hear the sound of Caro’s kids laughing, like flags fluttering in the wind. Bree can picture the big kitchen where Caro sits, the precise angle of the sun drifting through the white lace curtains, kids skidding over the wide pine board floors as they run through, the way she and Caro used to do.
“It’s always like that with a newborn,” Caro says. “Two months from now, time will be stable again. Speaking of, when’s a good time for us to come meet her? Or for you to come out to the Island? It’s been, what, four years? Since Mum’s funeral. The kids would love to see their Aunty Bree.”
“Oh, not for a bit,” Bree murmurs. “We’re just settling into a routine.”
Something about Caro has always rubbed Max the wrong way—and, well, Bree gets it, Caro is Caro, loud, opinionated, always game for an argument. And maybe it’s mutual distaste, at that; the morning of Bree’s university graduation ceremony, Caro had murmured, “You didn’t tell me he was your prof when you started dating,” disapproving, and Bree hadn’t been able to find the words to explain that it hadn’t been like that, he’d never lorded it over her, and besides she hadn’t been a physics major or anything like that.
Since the wedding Bree’s done her best to keep them apart, keep them from butting heads. Easy enough, with Caro on P.E.I. and Max and Bree in Vancouver.
“Well, let me know,” Caro says, and Bree thinks, I won’t, and turns to other topics, leaving things to lie unspoken in the vast span of kilometers between them.
By mid-afternoon, Bree has been to mommy-baby boot camp, done laundry and bought groceries, but somehow between struggling with Pippa’s latch and getting her down for a nap, by 6:15 there’s nothing more than a half-chopped potato to show for her efforts. Every noise outside the door sounds like Max’s footsteps coming down the hall, heavy with disappointment that dinner isn’t on the table. Again.
“It’s a tough time for him right now,” Bree says. Pippa stares back from the baby swing with unnervingly wide grey eyes. “With work, you know …”
She remembers how excited she’d been, when she’d seen the two pink lines on the pregnancy test, how she’d imagined Max smiling down at the baby in his arms, ruffling his newborn’s hair the way he’d ruffled Bree’s on the day they met, in front of the entire first-year physics class. A girl made of poetry, he’d called Bree, that day, when she’d told him she was an English major. She had imagined him coming up with some sweet nickname for their child, too, murmuring it as he rocked her to sleep. But now, on the rare occasions when he holds the baby, it’s as if he’s holding a sack of potatoes, heavy and lifeless.
“He’s right, it was probably a bad time to have a baby. If I only had more time …”
Time: with more she could still be the perfect wife, and handle Pippa as well—no. Bree shakes her head to clear out the loose thoughts lying about in the fog of her brain. They’re tripping hazards.
When she looks up at the clock again, it’s only 4:30. There’s ages left to get dinner on the table, so why is she worried?
When Max comes in he sniffs appreciatively. “Chicken cacciatore? Fantastic, I’m starving.”
But even nine pounds of time machine can’t hold her world together. A week later, Max comes home and finds her with a red-faced, inconsolable Pippa shrieking in her arms, broken dishes all over the kitchen from the pile she knocked off the counter while trying to find a clean soother.
“God, Bree, I don’t know why I thought you’d be able to manage all this,” Max sighs, waving a hand at Pippa, the kitchen.
“Sorry,” Bree murmurs, grabbing the broom. Pippa calms in the sling, soft head lolling sleepily against Bree’s chest, as she sweeps. The broken plates reassemble as hills of shattered pottery in the dustpan. “My fault.”
Max slumps onto the couch. “Yeah, well. You’re not the only one falling down on the job. Four months until the investor demonstration, and nobody’s hitting their targets. Sludge! We’re producing fucking sludge, not oil.”
“What’s the problem?” She doesn’t understand the process he’s developing, not really, beyond the basics reported in the news (a laser-shock technique for converting the kerogen in oil shale into synthetic crude without the need for surface retorting … shock waves cause the kerogen to liquefy … will open vast oil shale fields to drilling at $20 a barrel), but she can still listen.
“An issue with the wavelength. If we could just…” She tries to listen, but Pippa starts to grizzle again, little hiccups of baby despair. Bree bounces, patting her rhythmically, trying the little shush, shush, shush that had worked so well for a few days and now doesn’t seem to do anything.
Max smacks a hand against the glossy leather of the couch. “I’m sorry, Bree, I know, I’m boring you. It is boring, you’re right, I can see how you’d rather be anywhere else …”
“No! No, I was listening, I just …”
“You think about the baby too much,” he mutters, then sighs. “It doesn’t matter, anyway. The real problem is we just don’t have enough time.”
Bree gives Max more time: time in his office at home, hours repeating while he’s focused on the screen, and time on his motorcycle on those long solo rides where he does his best thinking, snaking up the coast past Squamish or out into the Valley. She slows time down, speeds it up. Smooths over the sour mood that comes when Max has to wait for things by cutting out the hours that come between. “That went fast,” he says, suddenly cheerful again.
She wonders what happens to the rest of the world as the clock repeats, when time seems to roll in reverse. Does the whole world add ten thousand seconds to the weight of their lives? Or is it just the three of them, Bree and Max and Pippa, blown off in a bubble of time all their own, popping and collapsing back into the pool of the world when they catch up again?
Max might know, but when she asks about time travel and paradoxes, he laughs and asks if she’s been reading too much science fiction.
The day of the investor demonstration Max comes home early, quiet and brooding. After Pippa goes to bed, he presses Bree to her knees in front of the couch, drops his jeans. When she’s done, he leans back and releases his rough grip on her hair, letting her slump to the carpet below him.
The words seem stuck in her throat, but she needs to know, she can’t try to fix whatever’s broken if she doesn’t, so she coughs it out.
“How was the investor demonstration?”
He laughs bitterly. “Fantastic, if you like explosions. Leah typed in the wrong fucking numbers and left a mound of smoking ash in the middle of the floor. So now the investors think we’re going to blow a crater the size of an airplane hangar in the shale deposits.”
“Is it—is it something you can fix?”
“I can fire Leah so she can’t put her slippery fingers all over the wrong fucking keys again, and then try to convince everyone it was a one-off.”
Leah Zhang had been at the team dinner they’d hosted the night before; as the only woman on Max’s team of physicists, Bree had always liked Leah enormously, but Max had told her that it would be awkward if she was friends with his employees, so their contact is limited to the monthly meals and running into each other at the gym, waving across treadmills.
Last night Leah had come into the kitchen to tell Bree she had a soy allergy.
“It’s not deadly or anything,” she’d said. “Just bad hives for a couple of days.”
It’s the work of a moment to send a note back to herself: mix tofu with the ricotta; don’t tell anyone. It helps to think it might save Leah’s job—
Time wobbles. Tips.
Bree catches herself daydreaming, mind wandering while she feeds Pippa pureed banana. Max is still sleeping off his night of celebration. When he’d stumbled in late last night, cheerful with vodka, he’d swept her into bed, touched her gently, gently, the way she likes it.
“The investor thing went well?” she’d asked, after.
“Perfect,” he’d said, fingers tangling lazily in her hair. “Perfect.”
The next morning, Bree lies with Pippa on a picnic blanket at the park, spring undoing the small deaths of winter. She lifts Pippa into the sunlight arcing through the leaves overhead.
“You see?” Bree murmurs, and Pippa giggles, kicks like she’s swimming in air. “He was always so nice, before. It’s—this is just a work thing. It’ll pass.”
The life she’d imagined for them is still in reach, just around time’s bend. Manipulate time enough, and she can turn them back to the way things were meant to be …
A memory stirs: eight years ago, before they’d left Ottawa, lying in the grass beside the canal. Aspens overhead, sunlight glinting off the water, flat and still as the summer air; she is dappled with light, drenched in green. She’d spent hours reading poetry (Time is a test of trouble/But not a remedy), listening to the distant clunk of the locks rising and lowering. A perfect day, at least until she’d gone back to Max’s apartment—he’d told her she had to move in, save her money—and found him waiting, silent, at the kitchen counter, phone in hand.
What’s wrong, she’d asked, and he showed her the screen: twenty attempts to call her, no answer. She’d laughed, shakily. I forgot to charge it, sorry. I was down at the canal reading poetry.
After that she always kept her phone charged, never went out without telling Max where she was going. Stopped talking to certain friends, the ones Max accused her of going out with that day. She stopped reading Emily Dickinson in the sunshine. And Max didn’t leave her.
Memory is a time machine, too, Bree thinks.
She interferes, again and again. Time wobbles. And sometimes tips—
—Bree rocks Pippa to sleep, bleary eyes registering shadows on the nursery walls. There are shadows everywhere these days. At the park, phantom children run past. When she turns there’s nothing but branches, waving in the wind.
—he needs more time. And time is something she understands now —
“I didn’t know she could do that,” Max says, watching Pippa sign more, take the bit of apple Bree is holding out. “Did you teach her that?” For once he looks entranced with his own daughter, as if she’s a science experiment that’s borne out his hypothesis, until he learns forward and—
—looking in the mirror at the purple watercolor bruises on her back and wondering when that started, how much of it is the baby carrier digging in, how much is something else.
Some days it feels like she’s fallen into quicksand, a place where time gets sloppy. On the phone with Caro she can’t remember when they last spoke. Or are they not speaking? The phone is in her hand, numbers undialed.
“You sound tired,” Caro says. “Everything okay?”
The mirrors and motor housings arrive early from the factory, their journey sped up.
Max smiles and smiles and takes Bree hiking, throws her into the summer-warm lake and comes barreling in after to pull her close against him in the water.
“Isn’t this nice?” he murmurs. “Just you and I, for once.”
—she finds time to read poetry again, to a squealing and clapping Pippa: “But now, all ignorant of the length/of time’s uncertain wing …”
What does it take to change the world, Bree wonders? Do these changes only wobble, time righting itself like Pippa rising to her feet and finding, in a moment, her balance? Or are they like delayed reactions, explosions only sounding—
—they rise as one in the pews, Max somber in black, while a woman who looks like an older version of Leah begins the eulogy. Pippa stirs and Bree shushes her. A freak accident, that’s what they’re calling it, but Bree wonders if the electrical fault in the laser system has her hands on it, if Leah was torn apart more by the manipulations of time than the manipulation of reality. She will bend time again, and undo—
“Are you alright?” Leah asks, from the next treadmill over. “You’ve been looking tired lately.”
“Pippa’s keeping me up,” she says, obscurely happy to see Leah. “How’s work?”
“Could be worse. We’re making headway, but there’s an issue with the design of the laser housing—the metal alloy we’re using is too brittle to—well, you don’t want to hear about that, right? You get enough of that at home …”
A metal-alloy test can travel back in time. It can shudder the timeline, rip it sideways—
“Are you alright?” Leah asks, feet drumming a rhythm into the treadmill. “You’re looking beat.”
“Pippa’s teething. How’s work?”
“Oh, pretty good. Never enough time …”
She understands time, now. She swims in it, sticky as an afterbirth.
She takes Pippa to the library. Pippa lifts a board book over her head, like a hat.
“I like your hat, love,” Bree murmurs. This is funny. Pippa begins to turn the pages, but backwards: unwinding time. It’s hard to say if this is memory, or the here-and-now, and what the difference is. When Bree looks up the sky is starlight, a day lost to time’s voracious appetite—
Outside a cabin in the Gatineaus, starlight on snow, breath crackling, in nothing but a slip and sneakers. You can come back in when you’re sorry, Max had said. Sorry for what? She can’t remember. Maybe she never knew. Snow begins to fall, then suspends, flakes unmoving—
—she wakes in the rocking chair, baby on lap, heavy-limbed, warm, like the comfortable weight of a cat in her lap.
Leah says things are going well, better than last week, better than last month. But Max doesn’t smile when he comes through the door at night, doesn’t kiss her hello. His footsteps as he paces in the den sound like explosions. Bree always seem to be sweeping up something he’s broken. She starts wearing long-sleeved shirts.
“Yuppie fools, driving around in SUVs and claiming we should turn our backs on oil,” Max mutters, when the news shows protestors outside the gates at his lab. Their signs sport calls to protect the aquifers, pictures of oil-drenched frogs and lynxes: make love, not lasers.
“Why are they worried?” Bree asks. “Isn’t there a containment field?”
“Nothing’s perfect. Some leeching into the water table is probably inevitable.” He looks up, catches her frowning. “What did you expect, Bree? We’re increasing access to fossil fuels. It’s not a wind farm.”
“I guess I thought …” she says, but trails off when she sees his too-bright eyes trained on her like a laser.
“What? What did you think?”
“Nothing. I didn’t think anything.”
“What, you think you’re better?” Max stands up, slams off the nearest light, then another, one after the other, until the house is dark. Pippa in her high chair begins to cry. “How’s this, Bree? Are we saving the world yet?”
Yes, she thinks. She had thought she was saving a world: her own, remaking the happy family she’d dreamed of. But maybe there’s no way to save the world, in the end.
Sludge, it’s only sludge, that’s the word in the industry, whispers growing that the last hope of Big Oil is just a physics professor high on his own theories. The investors are pulling out, exploring other avenues—
“I have the key now,” Max yells, smacking his office wall. “They won’t listen. Just a shift in the wavelength, but they can’t see it.”
Bree steals a printout of his solution. Six months should be long enough—
“Hi, love,” Max murmurs, coming up behind her as she dangles a glass over the open dishwasher. His hands snake around her and he begins to sway, humming a love song. She puts the glass down and leans her head back against his collarbone.
“How’s it feel? To have it done?”
“Fantastic,” he says, pulling her into the living room and spinning her around. “Glorious. I don’t know what I’ll do with all the free time. Dance with my wife, I guess.”
She laughs and nestles against him. “I like that plan.”
“Who were you talking to at the celebration yesterday?” Max murmurs, lips beside her ear.
“Yesterday?” she says. “Everyone, I guess. Everyone?”
“Oh, really?” Suddenly he is too close, hands on her hips freezing her in place. “Flirting with everybody, were you?”
“No, Max. I wasn’t—” Her hips feel like an implosion, crashing in under the slow squeeze of his palms. He smells like the air before a storm: charged, explosive.
Bree imagines herself as a performing bear, dancing in response to his every jerk on the leash. Trotting out the same phrases, the same ducked head, penitent eyes.
“I’m sorry. I won’t do it again.”
Max paces the living room, taking calls from reporters, headhunters, the team at the test site with questions.
Bree tries to keep Pippa quiet, but she wants to play with blocks, to yell with joy and surprise when a tower wobbles, crashes to the ground. Max puts up with it for ten minutes, for twenty, then steps on a wooden block in bare feet, and Bree only gets there by the skin of the moment, her hip in the space where Pippa’s head was, taking the blow.
“Clean up after her, why don’t you?” Max says, short.
On the narrow, shaded path between the allotment garden plots, Pippa lectures the plants in some tongue only she knows. Lu lu lu ba ga lumdo, she says, shaking one little hand, dictatorial. She pauses in her tirade to press the tip of a stick into the sandy soil at the edge of the blanket, working it back and forth until she has created a small mound, and then unleashes another long string of syllables.
Bree wonders what a universal translator would make of Pippa’s baby babble. Somehow it would find a way to reduce the glorious nonsense of Bree’s chatter to awkward syntax, bad grammar. All of Pippa’s world is in there: a poetics, a dream-manual, a language with only one speaker. A language she’ll only know for a few more months, before it’s slowly overwritten by English, and the tongue-of-Pippa will become a dead language. Maybe she’ll dream in it for a few more years.
Or maybe she’ll dream of time, swirling and coalescing around her.
Maybe she’ll dream of Max.
Bree doesn’t, anymore; the firefly pinpricks of the life she’d imagined have faded, gone dark. They weren’t real, anyway. Just dreams, dreams that would never have come true, no matter how long or far she chased them through the universe.
No, she thinks. Pippa won’t dream of Max, either.
Bree leans forward, hugs Pippa close, whispers a date, a time, a place: September 17, 2015. The day she saw two pink lines on the test, and knew someone was growing inside her. She hadn’t told Max right away, clutching the news to herself, joy growing along with the child. When she finally told him, he—
No, that isn’t right. Where did that thought come from? She’d never had a chance to tell him, never let him know she was carrying his child. Now she regrets waiting, but how could she have known? If she’d known, she would have told him not to go out on his motorcycle that day, not to drive up towards Whistler, to the place where he inexplicably missed the curve, drove off the road and into the rock face. We don’t know what happened, the police inspector had said, hat in hand, a tentative hand on her shaking shoulder. He didn’t even try to swerve. It was like the corner came up on him too fast—we don’t know. We just don’t know.
Bree shifts in the rocking swing on the big back porch, looking down the valley towards the fields where the potato plants run like a green thread through the rusty blanket of soil. Somewhere beyond, just out of sight, the sea. Caro’s boys are playing out behind the house, their joyful cries ringing out against the vault of the sky. Thank God for Caro, for taking her in two years ago—pregnant, unemployed, widowed.
At the bottom of the stairs Pippa wobbles along the grass towards the dahlias, laughing as she reaches for imaginary butterflies.
If only Max were here to see this, Bree thinks. He would have been such a good father.