Timebomb

“I understand you’re here about the teaching vacancy.”

“I’m eager to get started. I would also accept the crossing guard position. Really any chance to work around children.”

Fran recoiled like a snake had lunged.

“I’m sorry, who did you say you were? How did you hear about Thurston Academy?”

The white-vested man with white patent leather shoes put his arms out like a preacher blessing a pack of wolves. His voice was a serving of country lemonade:

“Look ma’am, I apologize if I came on a bit strong just now. The last thing I’d want to do is give you the impression I’m some crazy creep with a kid fetish. Ugh, right? To be honest, I can’t stand the little rugrats!”

Francine Martin had occupied this office for twenty years, and had interviewed every instructor now teaching at Thurston.

“Then pardon me for saying so, Mr….,” she glanced down at his business card where a resumé ought to have been, “…Mr. Buchanan, but perhaps Thurston Academy isn’t going to be the best home for you. Thank you for coming in.”

“Hold on — this is DeSean’s school, right? DeSean Tate?”

“You know I can’t answer that. I think I’ve heard enough, Mr. Buchanan. Please show yourself out or I will have no choice but to call the authorities.”

“Just hear me out, ma’am. I’ve come a long way. I’m not here to threaten you — goodness gracious, you’ll see it’s quite the opposite.”

“Is this a custody thing?” Fran rolled the business card over and over, as if by magic some new information would appear.

“Nothing so mundane. Ah! I see you’ve picked up the phone. Suit yourself. You may dial if you don’t find me convincing. I’m sure I would do the same.”

“Start talking.”

Now the erstwhile preacher clasped his hands together. He leaned forward and narrowed his eyes.

“How can I best explain this? All right, all right. Can you and I both agree that Adolph Hitler was a degenerate?”

Fran was wary of springing the trap. “Agreed,” she said flatly.

“The worst?”

“No argument here.”

Overhead, school bells rang as one all over campus, like a shrill flock of birds. At the sound she’d heard thousands of times before, Fran jumped, but not so perceptibly anyone but her would have noticed. Out the window, students exploded into the courtyard on their way to and from class.

Buchanan’s gaze never wavered. He went on, “Maybe you’ve attended a cocktail party where your friends debated the notion of going back in time to kill baby Hitler…”

“…and?”

“Would you do it, Ms. Martin? Would you sacrifice baby Hitler to spare the lives of six million innocents?”

“Here I go, 9–1 — “

“Wait! I’ve been sent back in time to take a life. There, I said it. It’s impossible for you to see, but one day DeSean Tate will be responsible for the deaths of over thirteen million men, women and children. If I can be frank, your student will grow up to become a madman, and he must be stopped while we can.”

“This is turning into a very different sort of 9–1–1 call than the one I first imagined.”

“You’re skeptical. You think I’m crazy.”

“That’s not a word we encourage at Thurston Academy, Mr. Buchanan. At best, you’re the victim of a vivid imagination. At worst, you’re a danger to my children.”

“What if I showed you proof I’m from the future?”

“I’m not letting you near the children, do you understand?”

“Indisputable proof.”

“It’d have to be pretty goddamned good.”

Buchanan smiled, “The winner of the Super Bowl will be the Detroit Lions — in overtime.” He folded his arms, “ I rest my case.”

“All right, genius. What do you propose we do between now and February? I’ve got other plans besides waiting in this room with you.”

“I hadn’t thought of that. All right, try this: in tonight’s Wakeboarding World Cup we’re going to see the Aussies edge out Team USA for the title.”

“Seriously? Who follows international wakeboarding?”

“Oh, I sometimes forget what you don’t know — it’s going to be the sport of the future. What with climate change, water will one day cover more than two-thirds of the Earth’s surface.”

“It’s seventy-one percent now!”

“See? See?”

“What I see, Mr. Buchanan, is a man who ought to tell his story to the authorities and let them decide.”

“I think we’re losing sight of one very important fact. DeSean Tate is an inhumane criminal who’s got to die.”

“But what is it that Mr. Tate does? Surely he doesn’t start World War III?”

“Goodness no. We’re onto World War V now.”

“Be that as it may, I refuse to believe any society sufficiently advanced that it has mastered time travel does not also possess a technology for solving its problems more sophisticated than simply going around killing fifth graders.”

For the first time that morning Buchanan had no ready reply. Instead he straightened his vest with a tug, then stood up as if to doff a cap that did not exist.

“Failure for me means no bonus when I get home, Ms. Martin. I’d like you to ruminate on what failure will mean for you. These news clippings ought to — oh good gravy.” He deflated. “I left them in my other slacks.”

“Let me get this straight. You time-travelled to visit me in the wrong suit?”

“The white vest and white shoes are standard issue, like a uniform. But Fran — can I call you Fran? — the truth of the matter is, I wasn’t the first choice for this assignment.”

“You don’t say.”

“But I was available, and I do enjoy this kind of freelance work.”

“Time travel?”

“History reconstruction, more precisely.”

“Which means… baby killing?”

“Ha! No, I wish.” Buchanan retreated from Francine’s office, imparting a farewell grin as if to say, “You have been a clever adversary. I bid you adieu.” Perhaps they’d discovered mind control in the future, thought Ms. Martin, as she let the stranger leave without making good on any of her threats. Instead, she looked up and down the hallway outside her office to make sure she wouldn’t be disturbed, then locked her door and began rummaging through student files.

She pulled the folder on DeSean Jelani Tate. Poring through the entries, she read nothing remarkable about the boy. If anything, he was an underachiever, a tin can among trophies, whose primary qualification for Thurston Academy was his parents’ net worth. He displayed no mathematical aptitude, no interest in physics. “Ordinary” was how his art instructor described him, while his social studies professor said he “lacked curiosity.” Although DeSean took more than one drama class, Francine read how he struggled with the exercises. She removed her readers and tapped the pages with them. Having found no Hitler, she slipped Tate’s file back into its invisible slot and made up her mind: if one of them was to be a madman, that man was Buchanan.


The next morning, as Francine was unwrapping her scarf and setting down her coffee, the sight of something unexpected outside stole her attention from the comfort inside her office. At the far end of the courtyard, DeSean Tate was being led off campus hand-in-hand by a man she’d never seen before sporting white patent leather shoes and a crisp white vest.

She lifted the receiver and was about to dial. Ms. Martin held this frozen pose while the weight of thirteen million lives hung in the balance, some not yet born, until an error signal finally jarred the silence and she put the receiver back in its cradle.