A Watchful Past

The blue-painted, pebble-dashed laboratory was as magnificent and huge as the darkness it encompassed was dark: flawless. The only light inside of it was confined to the observation deck gouged out of the far wall, behind a wall of thick glass, where Dr. Eric Lambert basked in the glow of five monitors. One of his hands was outstretched, pecked endlessly at the keyboards, and the other firmly held a notepad. Status lights blipped and blinked intermittently from various consoles around him, sometimes red, sometimes white, but mostly green.

He took a sip from his long-stale coffee, made a face, and timed a blip. Several numbers turned up on the monitor opposite him, like the system was a five-year-old kid using a calculator for the first time, each number bigger than the last. He shot a look at the gray pages of his notepad, flipped continuously until one of its papers ripped, and the sweat from his palm blotched another. He turned it to a new page and scribbled a note. Smiled, punched a few more keys, took another sip from his coffee, made another face.

The computer to his right whirred a little, and then began to echo one of his most favorite jazz performances, Whiplash. It was a cue and Eric knew it would be at least an hour before the machine could be operated. He gathered himself up, nodding to the music, and positioned himself against the glass wall. The deck overlooked the massive expanse of the laboratory that sprawled in front of him. He flicked a nearby switch, and a ghostly white light flooded the entire place, fought back his reflection on the glass, and brought into view a machine the size of a room.

Dr. Eric Lambert had few beliefs he adhered to, and fewer convictions, but there was one thing he had always believed with conviction: that people were wrong about what they thought of the past, about how it could be buried. Because past, as he knew, could not only be unearthed, but felt, explored, lived, why, even changed.

Eric pulled his wiry hair behind his ears, closed his eyes, let the effect of what he had accomplished seep into his senses. Today, he would use the machine again, and a part of himself brimmed with anticipation of knowing if it would be his last. Probably not, he had assured himself. There was one way to find out. His initial tests had proved promising, his previous usages of the machine all but perfect, except, of course, for a few premature stutters. But one thing proved typically hard to comprehend, although it had been what drove him from the start.

Because today, Eric was going to use the machine with a single objective in mind: go to the past, and kill Jonathan Lambert.

His grandfather.

For an overpowering moment, Eric could almost touch the face of his grandfather. He remembered him vividly from his childhood: gray hair like a half-knit headscarf which receded in the middle, high, sinewy cheekbones, a mouth that seldom opened, and broad and distinct temples. He remembered the way his hair had smelled of dye. He remembered the half-circles under his eyes. The lump on his throat that resembled a golf-ball, that when eating different types of food turned oval or flat. And definitely the stern, angry-looking eyes that his grandfather had thought intimidated him.

When Eric Lambert had turned 16, his grandfather gifted him his oystersteel and everose-gold Rolex. Even now, Eric would look at the watch sometimes, wriggle his wrist to feel its heft, marvel, wonder how his grandfather had decided to gift him his most-prized possession.

Before Eric was born, during the time the cold war between America and the Soviet Union had reached its coldest, Jonathan, then a district attorney, had to draw up an indictment against a wealthy Russian American business man. It was well within law. The business man was later convicted, much to his disbelief. A week after that, someone — probably “the dumbest Russian assassin” — attempted to kill the DA from a point-blank range.

“But I was at him before he even raised his gun,” Jonathan used to tell his grandson sitting on his lap with his dirty feet dangling high above ground. “And he went away, scared, scrambling for his life…”

“Never to return!” Eric would complete. His grandfather had been his hero.

Eric was absent-mindedly waving his hands to Mozart when a shrill beep from one of the computers pulled him back to the moment. He huddled back to his chair and saw that the process had completed. It was about time. He pressed y, and then enter. He went to a cabinet custom-built into the wall, and retrieved a Glock 19 he had bought the previous week.

Emerging from the observation deck, he went to the time machine now lit up with a white halo. In a console at its perimeter, he typed in the time and date he wished to travel back to. He stepped inside the machine through a portal carved out of metal, saw it close behind him, and felt various mechanisms lock rightfully in place. He breathed slowly, unsolicited apprehension scurrying under his skin like termites under the bark of a tree. If time ever had a smell, he would have a good whiff of it.

Today, no matter what, he would have his answer to a paradox that had been bugging him forever. If he went back to the past to kill his grandfather, and did kill him, then he wouldn’t be born, and obviously couldn’t have gone to the past and killed his grandfather in the first place. What, then, would be the aftermath?

Would he disintegrate into thin air?

Or would he plunge into a world wherein he would have no past, no body who could recognize him, where he would be forced to live a life of absolute loneliness?

Eric sat hunched on a bench under a tree in Temple Street, Los Angeles, directly opposite the office of the district attorney. He saw a few cars pass by, mostly those that in a few years would be collecting dust. People looked calm and poised, wore pants with bottoms that resembled a bell, and suits with their shirt collars tucked out of the blazers. The weather was wintry, and the wind seemed to bring with it sharp stalactites with every strong gust that pierced his cheeks and the dot of his Adam’s apple. He tried to warm himself by rubbing his palms together and sticking them to his face.

He had to wait, he knew, but waiting with anticipation made it seem like choking.

Two smokes and a long spell of nail-biting later, Eric saw his grandfather emerge from the red-brick building across the street. Jonathan Lambert looked young, well-dressed with a clean-shaved face, probably more handsome than Eric himself. His hand clasped around the Glock 19 that he had wedged into the back of his pants. And slowly, with his thumb, he tipped off the safety.

He darted across the street to the other side, and confronted Jonathan Lambert. He withdrew the gun, pointed it at his grandfather’s nose almost effortlessly. The memories of him swinging his legs while sitting on his grandfather’s lap came to him nearly as an afterthought, before which he had already pulled the trigger. And then something unexpected happened: his gun jammed. He tried pulling the trigger again, thought it would snap, but it was like using his forefinger in a thumb fight — hopeless.

By the time he had turned his attention from the gun to his grandfather, Jonathan had already covered three-quarters of the distance between them. The next thing he knew, something wrenched his wrist, crushing his wrist bones, and twisting it in a painful loop. He dropped the gun. When his grandfather removed his grasp to commence a follow-up with a right hook, Eric, ducking, saw that the Rolex had come off, that it had fallen unceremoniously to the ground.

Eric was startled by the swiftness with which his grandfather had acted. He turned around and began to run as fast as he could. He dug into his pocket, fished his smartphone. His thumb swept across its surface, initiating the jump back. He thought he heard footsteps hurrying behind him, and he still believed he would hear a gun echo a loud thunder, feel the punch at his back, then the electricity coursing through his nerves, the warmth of his blood…

He turned into an alley, and before his grandfather or anybody else could catch up with him, he was compressed to the size of an atom, and sent years away.

Eric’s mind was boggled by a flurry of thoughts. He made an entry into his recorder, his voice gruff, confused and disoriented.

During a normal day, he wouldn’t have gone to the cooler he had in his office to fetch a double scotch. He wouldn’t have stumbled his way back, already getting drunk, took some pills later, and slept the whole day off. But on any normal day, a gun bought not more than a week ago, and then had been warmed for two consecutive days at the range since, did not get jammed.

When he woke up, his mind was clearer than ever. And the paradox he had so wanted to break waltzed across his mind, demanding attention from every single cell of his body. Only now, he could dance along with it, because he had found what he was looking for. His gun had not fired, because the paradox, by nature, cannot exist. No matter how many times he tried, the universe would keep conspiring against his plots, somehow rescuing Jonathan. There can’t be a fracture in time, an anomaly overlooked, a timeline stutter harbored. And the best thing was that it all would happen without anyone wanting it to, or knowing that it would; the universe itself would take care of it.

Eric spoke all of it into the recorder. It was a major finding, knowing that time paradoxes cannot exist.

When he was about to find his travel log from one of his computers, he noticed that his wrist was weighed down by something. It was an oystersteel everose-gold Rolex, one that he thought was supposed to be in an unclean pavement in Temple Street, Los Angeles, some sixty years ago.

But then, he wondered, why wouldn’t it be here now?

His grandfather had probably picked it up after Eric left. His sixteen-year-old self received it as a gift for his birthday. He then grew up to go back to the past, only to seal a never-ending time loop. In his quest to change the past, and hence the present, Eric had simply made sure neither didn’t.

He was lost in thought, and utterly speechless. Now he knew how his grandfather had been able to mollify the Russian assassin. Not because he was dumb, or that he was Russian — it turns out he wasn’t either. It was because Eric himself had been the dumb Russian assassin his grandfather had always talked to him about.

All these years, he had listened to his grandfather tell him stories, not knowing that it was about him. He felt so disconnected, so withdrawn from himself that he had devoted his whole life to becoming a character he had always hated as a child. It was his watch his grandfather had gifted back to him. If he hadn’t gone back to the past, hadn’t left his watch behind, his grandfather wouldn’t have gifted him the Rolex.

Now, a more serious, a more unanswerable question entered his mind: Where in the world did the watch come from?

It confused him so much, it made him feel dizzy. Who did the watch belong to, he wanted to know. A vague picture of the watch oscillated in his mind. He tried hard to figure out where and how it might have crept into his life. No matter how hard he thought about it, he couldn’t arrive at a plausible explanation. The vanity of the situation kept clawing back, his senses made numb and distraught, his body taut with tension, eyes unsettled, and lungs rebellious.

With a trickle of sweat forming on his brow, he went back and sat amidst his computers. He felt awful, unsure of what he should do next. Years of his constant deference had served only to take him from the uncertainty of one paradox to the certainty of another. He ousted the picture of the Rolex wobbling in his mind, and turned his attention to the monitor in front of him. His abnormally sweaty fingers typed in the code, and the numbers began to pop up on the screen.

His last lingering thoughts were settling down on the word “anomaly” when the sounds of Whiplash filled his ears.