By Lynn Woolley
Editor’s note: Suppose you had failed everyone you ever loved, right down to your own father. And suppose you found a miraculous pathway to a second chance. Would you take the gamble, no matter what the cost? Portions of this late 1980’s story were rewritten for this post.
Early February and the coldness of winter had not yet departed a small southwestern town. A thick carpet of tumbling black clouds charged with electricity was yielding a harvest of rain, swelling rivers and lakes, and driving most people inside. Children, unable to play out of doors, stood with their noses pressed against the glass, squinting at the downpour until worried parents fearful of the lightning would call them away.
It was on this dreary afternoon that Samuel Mabry was laid to rest. The tent was stoutly anchored, but still threatened to give against the combined pressure of wind and rain. Beneath its precarious shelter, fewer than a dozen mourners huddled as a trench-coated clergyman said a few last words and bid dust turn to dust and ashes to ashes. It was necessarily a short service.
Gary Mabry put his arm around his mother as she gently laid a red rose atop the casket. Then, as wind whipped the rain all around them, they opened their useless umbrellas and made their way to a waiting car on a nearby gravel road.
The engine backfired as it started and blended in perfectly with the thunder. As the windshield wipers began to move in rhythm, Gary stole a glance at his mother, and saw that tears still rolling down her cheeks were as heavy as the rain itself. He opened his mouth to speak, but the words wouldn’t come. Instead, he reached for his handkerchief and offered it to her. When she refused it, he wiped a circle clear on the glass in front of him, and then turned on the heater and defroster. The rain continued to beat on the car in a steady pitter-patter.
They continued home in silence, and found the modest white-frame house unaccustomed to its new emptiness.
Leaving his mother downstairs, Gary spiraled the once-familiar staircase to what had been his room years ago. As a pair of dry jeans and a flannel shirt relieved him at last of the rain-soaked suit, his mind went back to those days, years ago, when Sam Mabry held a young Gary in his arms and talked of the future.
“I’ve never counted for much,” Gary could remember him saying. “But you’ll make up for that, Son.” The light in the proud father’s eyes had reflected visions of pro baseball, a law degree, perhaps some important scientific discovery that would change the world.
Sometimes, Sam would read to him from a book of children’s stories and poems. Gary loved the story of “Little Boy Blue” – both of them! When Gary was three or four, Sam would read the old English nursery rhyme that depicted a little boy who shirked his duty.
Little Boy Blue,
Come blow your horn,
The sheep’s in the meadow,
The cow’s in the corn;
Where is that boy
Who looks after the sheep?
Under the haystack
So Sam would explain to Gary that if someone trusts you to “look after the sheep,” you couldn’t fall asleep under the haystack. When Gary was a couple of years older, Sam discovered Eugene Field’s “Little Boy Blue.”
The little toy dog is covered with dust,
But sturdy and stanch he stands;
And the little toy solider is red with rust,
And his musket molds in his hands.
Time was when the little toy dog was new
And the solider was passing fair,
And that was the time when our Little Boy Blue
Kissed them and put them there.
The little boy in the poem died, of course, but Gary did not understand that – he simply marveled at the loyalty of the dust-covered toys that waited for their master’s return. Sam preferred this version because he felt that Field’s poem, while sad, contained a better lesson.
Gary was maybe six or seven in those days.
Now, Gary was thirty-one, and on a three day pass. Not from the faculty of some great university, but from Huntsville – the State Prison. He’d never done anything really bad, but a lot of minor offenses had mounted up and now they called Gary a “habitual” offender — a petty criminal who couldn’t be allowed to run free. Only his good behavior had convinced the prison board to send him home for the funeral.
“Why did it have to turn out this way?” he muttered under his breath. “There were so many things I wanted to tell him…”
His retrospection was interrupted by his mother’s voice coming from the kitchen: “Gary, come on down. I’ve fixed you something to eat.”
His mom had recovered her composure, and that made him feel better. He descended the stairs and tried not to notice the big, empty reclining chair in front of the television set as he entered the kitchen. The table was stacked with food supplied by neighbors and people from the church. Gary’s mother had fixed him a plate of fried chicken, green beans, and potato salad. He sat down, stared at the food for a while, and finally began nibbling lightly. It was still painful to make conversation.
“Mom,” he said finally, “you know I really loved Dad, don’t you?”
“I know you did, Gary.” She was standing in front of the sink and kept her back to her son.
“I never meant to get in trouble with the law. Honest. I really wanted to be a doctor or a lawyer or something that would make you and dad proud. But it just didn’t happen that way. If I could go back – ”
Water was forming in his eyes again, and he was just as glad that she faced the other direction.
“You can’t do that, Gary,” she said softly. “You got to serve your time, and get out, and then try to make something of yourself. That’d make your father happy.”
“But he’d never know!” Gary stammered with big tears rolling down both cheeks. He caught them in a napkin. “All my life I kept telling myself I’d do something big to make up for the trouble I’ve caused, but I never did. I never could even tell Dad that I loved him. Now I can’t ever tell him anything!”
Gary didn’t eat much, and he was almost finished when the doorbell rang.
“Some of the kinfolks are here, Gary. They’re going to get a bite to eat before they start home.” Mrs. Mabry began to get some plates from the cabinet.
“I don’t feel like talking,” Gary said.
“Go back upstairs, then. Some of your Daddy’s things are in a chest in the extra bedroom. You need to go through them before you leave tomorrow.” Gary nodded and started upstairs while Mrs. Mabry answered the door.
Gary’s feeling of depression did not lift upon entering the extra bedroom. This place had been Sam’s hideaway. There was an old desk, several bookshelves, a black-and-white television set, the old trunk, and a seldom-played guitar with a string missing. Gary picked up the instrument, strummed it, and saw that the remaining five strings were hopelessly out of tune. He remembered the day his father bought the guitar at a second hand shop and brought it home hoping to teach Gary how to play. He never did too well at it – just a few chords. Another disappointment for his father.
Gary placed the old guitar in a corner, and then opened up the old trunk. Various memorabilia were inside including an old hunting knife that Gary remembered. He slipped it into his pocket.
Presently, he turned his attention to the old mahogany desk with its roll-down top. The desk, top still open, held perhaps the bitterest memories. Two days ago, Samuel Mabry had been found there, slumped over, his frail heart refusing to carry its burden. It was the final chapter in a long history of heart trouble that began twenty-five years ago when Gary was six. He could never forget the circumstances of that day. His mother was called away on a family emergency, and Gary had been charged with the responsibility of looking after his ill father.
But Gary had sneaked away to play, and when the attack struck, Sam Mabry lay unconscious for over an hour before help was summoned. Gary had left his post. Like the first Little Boy Blue, he had fallen asleep under the haystack. He had been irresponsible, had shirked his duty, and was nothing like the faithful toys in Field’s poem.
…the little toy friends are true.
The elder Mabry had been physically damaged, but young Gary was affected in another, more subtle manner. He kept to himself a lot, and soon after, was caught attempting to steal a bicycle from a department store. The guilt followed him to school in the morning, back home in the afternoon and to bed at night. His behavior became more erratic as the years went by. Gary knew in his heart that he had betrayed the one who cherished him the most. He was nothing like the toys.
Ay, faithful to Little Boy Blue they stand…
Gary sat down at the desk determined to busy himself with his father’s papers and perhaps forget painful old memories. Three stacks would do, he decided. A stack to save for his mother – things such as insurance policies that would be needed later; a stack of old receipts and papers that could be thrown away; and a stack to be kept for memory’s sake, some day when the pain had lessened.
An hour went by.
Downstairs, the kinfolks had departed.
Outside, the rain had subsided.
Inside, Gary made his way to the last few papers in the back of the bottom drawer of the old desk. Some old letters from Mom, he thought, and he placed them on the memory pile. But one envelope, still sealed, caught his eye. On it was written the name “Gary.”
Gary held it for some time, almost afraid to open it. Did his father leave some message for him to be read only after his death? If so, it surely couldn’t be anything reassuring. After all, everyone in the family knows that Gary killed his father. Not directly – but killed him just as dead. He decided to wait and open the letter after he’d returned to prison; but then, curiosity got the best of him. Or maybe it was guilt. He felt obligated to read his father’s final message.
With great care, he unsealed the envelope, trying not to rip it or its contents. The pages inside had yellowed with the passage of time. Slowly, he removed the contents, hoping for a message of forgiveness.
He found no such message. In fact, the envelope’s contents amounted to several newspaper clippings – all concerning a certain professor at the University in College Station. Some were mere snippets; some were dated and some were lengthier. There was an article about Dr. Lee Craddock joining the Department of Physics. There was a column about Dr. Craddock applying for a research grant. There was another about a lecture the Professor was going to present that would be open to the public. The date of the lecture was circled. Gary wondered whether his father had attended the lecture – and why Sam would have been interested.
Gary tried to put all the clippings in a chronological order, but after he had done so, he still had no idea as to why his father had saved the articles. There was no letter and no explanation. Gary put the clippings back into the envelope and stuffed it into his shirt pocket – then gathered up the stacks of papers he had been going through.
Mrs. Mabry had finished her kitchen chores, and was in the living room when Gary descended the stars.
“You need to look over these insurance policies, Mom,” he said, handing them to her. “These other papers – you may want to wait a while before you look at them.” He placed the letters on the big dining room table, and glanced out the window.
“Hard to believe, Gary,” Mrs. Mabry said. “You’ve been gone for so long. Now, Sam’s gone, and tomorrow, you’ll be leaving again – ”
“Mom, I don’t mean to hurt you…” His gaze was fixed on the rental car outside, “What I mean is – I think I ought to get on back.”
He got his suitcase and coat and hugged mother goodbye. She stood at the door and watched as he plopped the luggage in the trunk and started his journey.
The road was still wet, and humidity was high enough that the defroster still was a necessity. At the first stoplight he fumbled in the glove compartment for a map, found it, and placed it on the seat beside him – next to where he had placed the envelope that contained his father’s clippings.
College Station wasn’t far from Huntsville, and the day being a Friday, Gary was hoping for a chance to see Dr. Craddock. Then, a terrible thought hit him. Some of the clippings were yellowed by age and he couldn’t be sure of how old they were. What if Craddock no longer taught at the University; or worse yet, Craddock could be dead.
No matter; Gary would find out.
It was late afternoon by the time he made his way to the administration building. It was a stately edifice – the brain of a great university that spiraled upward and outward on the vast Texas plain. More than fifty thousand students came here to learn, he had heard; they came to be doctors, lawyers, teachers, and researchers – all the things Gary could never become.
In frustration, he slammed the car door, taking with him the envelope and its contents.
“Dr. Lee Craddock,” he told the young lady at the first desk he encountered.
She looked him up in her campus directory. “He’s in Room 210 of the Physics Building,” she said. “He’s conducting a lab now. Do you know where the Physics Building is?”
Less than ten minutes later, Gary found himself standing at the double doors of Room 210, and from within, he could hear a strong baritone voice discussing things that should be discussed at a large university.
He cracked open the door in order to hear better.
Inside, a small man with a severely receding hairline and a loosened tie around his neck was pointing to drawings on a jumbo video monitor that Gary could not see.
“Girard went on to show,” he said, “that while time is constantly moving forward, it also leaves itself behind. Now that may sound strange to you, but it simply means the past and the present exist, but since the future hasn’t happened yet it does not exist. That, naturally, leaves us in full control of our own destinies.
“We know what the present is, but in what form does the past exist? Girard theorized that each moment, or microsecond of existence moves forward leaving a virtual trail through the time continuum.”
Gary did not understand any of this, and he wondered if the students did. Still, he listened.
“…attempt to enter this trail failed. Several attempts were made, but Girard became worried that tampering with the past could affect the present. Ultimately, he concluded that even the most insignificant change in the past, while not affecting the present as we know it in every case, might cause a spin-off of reality, and he directed many experiments along that route using a sophisticated program that he had written to determine just where in the past his stasis was set up.
“You’ll remember from our last lab that ‘stasis’ is realized when the peculiar rays of the Girard machine lock in on a time period and disrupt the flow. During stasis some objects from the past might be transferred to the present or vice versa, so long as the field is maintained.” The Professor glanced at his watch. “That’s all for today,” he said. “Next week, we’ll take a look at the stasis chamber.”
Gary moved aside as the students – about thirty of them – filed from the lab room. Then he went inside still wondering what he was going to say to Craddock.
Clearing his throat, he approached the little man and announced himself: “Uh, excuse me. Are you Dr. Craddock?”
“Yes; may I help you with something?”
Gary reached into his pocket for the envelope, and then decided to wait before showing it to Craddock. He decided to pretend an interest in the lecture he had just heard.
“Well, I, uh, I never went to college, and I was just looking around, and I heard part of your lecture…”
Craddock grinned. “Well, what did you think of it?”
Gary’s heart calmed down and his nervousness was beginning to ease. “It was interesting. I’d like to know more. I’ve read about those things – about you – in newspaper articles.”
“Well, I’m about to go down to the ground floor to check on a stasis field we set up last night. You may come along if you like.” He used a remote to shut off the video screen, and reached for his notebook. “What did you say your name is?”
“Gary. Gary Mabry. I work in Huntsville and I’ve been visiting my mother…” Gary knew he was stammering and so he stopped talking.
He followed Craddock and together they descended to the underground research room while Gary made up stories at random about just why he was roaming the University campus. Perhaps he’d enroll. That’s what he told the Doctor. He never thought it was too late to get an education.
It was dark on the ground floor. Craddock switched on a bank of lights and as they walked, Gary began to hear an ominous humming sound, and he saw the flickering of lights. All this was coming from the back of a laboratory they were entering.
“That’s the stasis chamber,” Craddock said pointing to a cubicle not much larger than a refrigerator. “That machine there is similar to the one Dr. Girard invented. It emits the radiation that caused those flickers in the darkness, and it creates the stasis. The walls of the chamber are reinforced with lead, and that helps contain the radiation. The pane of glass you see is six inches thick, but it allows us to see what’s happening inside the chamber. Don’t worry; it’s all perfectly safe and nothing is classified. Otherwise, I couldn’t show you the experiment.”
Gary had wondered about that. Craddock seemed friendly and trusting — in the extreme.
“This is the computer that determines the time period we’re dealing with,” he said.
Gary was scarcely able to believe all that he was seeing. “I didn’t realize,” he gushed, that all those theories you were lecturing on…”
“That’s right, Mr. Mabry. We’re actually doing experiments on those theories. At this moment, if you’ll glance inside the chamber, you’ll see a pebble. Our computer tells us that pebble is from West Texas circa 1976.” He smiled with pride. “And we’ve maintained it now for over fourteen hours.”
“How long are you going to keep it in there?”
“Not much longer. To send it back, we tell the computer to drop the field, or we simply open the chamber door. That causes what we call a ‘puncture’ in the stasis field, and the object inside returns to its own time.” He looked at the Girard machine and at the computer screen, taking note of some data that was being displayed. He made an entry in his notebook. “I’m going to puncture this field tomorrow, and try having something a bit more spectacular to show my next Friday lab.”
“Where’s the pebble?” asked Gary.
“Look through the glass,” answered Craddock. It’s still there.”
Gary paused to collect his thoughts. “I know it is. But where’s the pebble out in West Texas? Did it disappear when you brought it here?”
“I see what you’re asking,” said Craddock with a chuckle. “The answer is ‘yes,’ somewhere out in West Texas, one tiny pebble is missing. But that’s hard to prove. We’re years away from being able to show that we brought a rock from the past into our chamber, and because we did, it no longer exists outside our lab.”
Gary was full of wonder.
Craddock said, “of course, I have to be very careful that I don’t snatch anything away from its own time that might have an effect on the present. I’ll probably try for a flower or a bird.”
“Why not? I’ll hold them for a few hours, and then send them back to their own time. I may try to go as far back as 1950.”
Suddenly, Gary had an incredible idea. “Doctor, can the chamber send things from the present back in time?”
“Theoretically – though I’ve never tried it. It took over twenty years of research to develop the chamber and add our technology to what Girard had already done. But as soon as I’ve documented my success with bringing the past to the present, I will certainly try it the other way around.”
Gary stared at the chamber of yesterdays and let the strange thought he had had roll around in his mind. The idea could only work if the Doctor would cooperate; but then, there were ways to accomplish that, too.
He decided to tell the truth.
“Doc – I think you can help me…” He was having a great deal of difficulty in deciding what to say.
Craddock noticed the uneasiness, and suggested they make some tea. Soon, the water was boiling, and Gary Mabry was tearfully recounting the events of the day: a funeral in the thunderstorm; his feeling of guilt concerning his father; the envelope that sent him to Craddock.
“You see, Doc – if I had just been there when he had the first attack, I could have called for help. He never would have suffered as much damage. After that, I always felt like everybody in the family hated me for what I did. I started getting into trouble.”
Craddock noticed the tea was ready, and poured two cups, handing one to Gary. “But why did your father keep clippings about me and my research?”
Gary sipped the hot tea. “I don’t know. But I know why I found it. It’s fate, Doc. It’s got to be that time machine of yours. I’ve got to go back and change what I did.”
Craddock smiled and took another sip. “It’s a stasis chamber, not a time machine. And I’m afraid I can’t send you back. Gary, the process isn’t anywhere near perfected. So far, I’ve only dealt with small objects like rocks. Who knows what would happen if I tried to send you back? And that’s not to mention the major problem. You want to go back about twenty-five years – to your early youth; but a person theoretically can’t exist twice at the same time. It’s like the pebble.”
“Doc, I could wear a disguise, hang around my folks’ house just long enough to get help when the attack occurs…”
Craddock cut him off. “Gary, it’s not that simple. What has happened has happened; your father is dead, and you can’t go back and change that.”
Gary refilled his empty cup. “Has anyone ever gone back to the past?” He saw Craddock respond in the negative. “Then you’re talking theories, Doc. Use me! Prove you’re right or you’re wrong.”
Craddock smiled wryly. “Maybe someday.”
“I don’t have ‘someday,’ Doc. I go back to prison tomorrow. Do you hear? Prison! But if I could enter that machine of yours, and change things – maybe I could fix it to where I’d never need to go back to prison.” Gary was standing now, working himself into frenzy. He grabbed Craddock’s shoulders and shook him. “Why,” he asked! “Why did you let me see all this? You didn’t even know who I am! There’s a reason you brought me down here!”
Craddock said nothing.
Gary said, “Please, Doc. Just a chance. Nobody’s ever given me a second chance.”
Craddock pushed him away in silence. He turned, and placed both his hands on his desk, lost in thought. He’d gotten an idea when he first had met Gary – but it would be risky, and – no – he couldn’t…
Finally he mumbled, “I’m sorry, Gary. The answer is no. Experimenting with humans is strictly forbidden.”
When he turned to face Gary again, he saw the knife.
“A second chance, Doc. Just a second chance.”
Craddock remained silent, his eyes moving first towards the Girard machine, then to the stasis chamber, and back to Gary. He had planned months of additional research, and then severing relations with the University before experimenting with humans. He had wondered how hard it would be to find a human volunteer; and he had wondered how his reputation might suffer if harm or death came to that volunteer. Here was a subject begging to enter stasis. A subject who, if injured or killed in during the experiment, would be no loss to himself or to society. And the knife! What better excuse? – the perfect way out!
“Put it away, Gary,” he said at last. “Let’s enter some data into the computer.”
There was no sleep that night. Craddock sent out for food, and spent hours at the keyboard entering everything the Girard machine would need for its calculations. Gary was weighed, measured, and given a thorough physical exam. By early morning, Craddock was satisfied that Gary could withstand the procedure. His biggest worry – that history might be changed by Gary’s trip through time – remained unresolved.
“What are you worried about, Doc?”
“A lot of things. One thing is the idea of you coexisting as an adult and a child in the same time period. I think the time continuum itself will make a correction, but we won’t know that until you arrive in the past. In fact, I may never know. You almost certainly will know and you will have to deal with it.”
That went over Gary’s head, but he said, “Okay.”
“The other thing concerns what you do in the past. Gary, you are attempting to lessen the damage to your father’s heart when he suffers the attack. That would be on September 20th. You must concentrate only on that task. I’m going to program the machine to set up a field for about a week in advance of that date, and I’ll try to maintain it for about two weeks just in case something goes wrong.
“As long as the stasis field is maintained on this end you should be able to remain in the past. Remember, though, that you must stay near the point of materialization – say within a few blocks or you won’t be able to stay within the field. Any total departure from the field will send you right back to the present.”
“I understand, Doc. I’ll stay near the house, and wait for the attack to happen. I won’t talk to strangers ‘cept for the ambulance people.”
Craddock had his wife send over a bag of old clothes that had been hidden deep within some forgotten cedar chest for years. They matched perfectly with Gary’s destination in time. Craddock also managed to find a few pre-1970 dollar bills. Gary was almost ready.
“September 13, 1970 – twenty-five years ago. The computer is interfacing now with the Girard machine. The stasis chamber is starting to set up the field. On this end, the lead case will confine the field and keep it strong, but on the other side, it will expand and envelop a few city blocks. It will be too weak to affect anyone but you. Everything’s ready, Gary.”
Gary made sure he had the clothes, the money, and a few other necessities to get him through at least a couple of weeks. He stepped into the chamber and Craddock shut and sealed it. An inaudible chuckle escaped from Craddock’s throat as he stole one last look through the window. “I knew that was Sam Mabry’s boy the minute I laid eyes on him,” he thought.
He positioned himself at the keyboard. The Girard machine was humming. There were flickers of light. Through the six-inch glass, Gary Mabry’s body wavered and slowly evanesced, then, after the chamber had seemed empty, Gary flashed back into existence.
Something was dreadfully wrong, and Craddock moved quickly to abort the experiment. Lunging at the Girard machine, he speared a red button with his index finger, and that one entry began the process of shutting down the experiment, evaporating the field. Momentarily, all was quiet.
For just a while, Craddock allowed himself to rest; sitting on the edge of a chair with his shoulders slumped forward. He was breathing heavily, exhausted physically and mentally from the long night’s work. His eyes never left the chamber.
He approached it carefully, and flipped a switch that flooded the inside with light. Startled by what he saw through the thick glass, he opened the latch and tugged hard on the heavy leaden door. Inside, what appeared to be the body of Gary Mabry lay quiet and still.
Craddock shut the door and backed away from the chamber. He mussed his hair and ripped open his shirt. He picked up the hunting knife and cut himself several times allowing the blood to soak his clothes.
Gary awakened as if from a deep sleep, and opened his eyes to familiar surroundings. He had been asleep; he was in a twin bed, buried under a green and red quilt. At the foot of the bed stood a toy box, the lid opened, and the contents spread around the room. On the green wall across form the bed was a corkboard, and on the corkboard were pinned several cartoon drawings. Beside the bed, Gary noticed a pair of denim jeans. A small pair.
He rubbed his eyes, and forced his sleep-dulled senses into full awareness. Something was wrong. He shouldn’t have materialized inside the house. He was afraid to look at his body.
“Gary!” It was his mother’s voice calling. “Time to get up. Breakfast is ready.”
Carefully, he reached for the quilt with boyish hands. Raising the cover, his eyes confirmed what he already knew to be true: somehow, his adult mind had made the journey to the past and had entered his six-year-old body. He was over the shock by the time his mother called again, and he resolved that his parents must never learn the truth.
“Coming, Mommy,” he called back.
Still in his pajamas, he made his way to the breakfast table and took his customary seat. Everything was as he remembered it; even his mother’s old gas cook stove was still working. A few years from now, she would trade it in on a new electric range.
With her back to Gary, she transferred some scrambled eggs from skillet to plate, turned, and sat the plate in front of her son. Gary was startled at how young she looked. He’d forgotten how pretty she had been.
“Something wrong, Gary?”
“Wait just a minute. Your father will be here shortly.”
Gary was concentrating deeply on how to act, and what to say. The meeting with an alive and younger father would be a traumatic experience, but he knew he must cope with it or the masquerade would end.
Presently, Samuel Mabry made his entrance, and sat at the table beside Gary. “Morning, Son, “ he said. Then, to his wife, “I’m a bit late this morning, Dorothy. I’d better eat and run.”
“Good morning…Daddy…” Gary said meekly. He felt tears welling up, and fought to keep them from streaming down his cheeks.
“Have a good night’s sleep, Son?”
He nodded, still uncertain of his role as a child.
The two adults chatted amiably during the meal; then Sam Mabry was off to the plant while Mrs. Mabry began her day’s housework.
“Gary, you didn’t pick up your toys last night. You’d better go do that.”
He was only too glad to regain the privacy of his room. He shut the door, and remembering the mirror attached to the back of the door, he began to stare at himself. Standing on a chair to reach the mirror, he softly touched his face, stroked his hair, and unbuttoned his pajamas. It was his face and body all right. But how had it happened?
Gary pondered as he donned the small pair of jeans and a tee shirt, and then began to straighten up the room.
Something Craddock had said – a person theoretically can’t exist in two places at the same time. And he had said that the time something-or-other would make a correction. Had Craddock tested those theories just to see what would happen? And indeed, what had happened?
Somehow, Gary thought, the stasis field must have rejected his body, but allowed the non-physical part of him to enter the past and settle in his young body. This led to a series of questions: what happened to his six-year-old mind? Would he return to the present when Dr. Craddock punctured the stasis field? Did he still have to obey the directive to remain near the house and inside the field?
He was thinking that everything had gone wrong, but then it occurred to him that his chances of saving his father were much better now. Perhaps the foul-up would prove to be a blessing.
The afternoon brought a new worry to Gary’s mind. His mother announced that they would go shopping for new clothing since Gary would be starting school soon. The school was more than a mile away, and Gary was afraid it might be outside the field.
The shopping center has half that distance away, and when nothing happened, Gary felt better.
“Gary, are you feeling all right today?” asked Mrs. Mabry as they strolled the mall.
He considered the question before responding. “My tummy feels a little funny, Mommy.” He’d been too sedate, he realized.
As a child, Gary was always into mischief, but today, he’d been acting like an adult. He couldn’t always blame it on illness. He would have to act like a six-year-old should act.
Back at the house, he emptied his toy chest all over the floor, and left several of the toys in the living room. Then, he asked to go out and play. When Dorothy scolded him for making a mess, he felt much better. That night, he slept, contented.
Another day passed, and Gary was becoming used to his role. By now, he had ruined the knees of a pair of jeans by crawling in the back yard; he had been caught standing on a chair looking for cookies on a high kitchen shelf; and in what he considered the ultimate achievement, he had been spanked for reaching into the goldfish bowl.
On the third day, a Saturday, Sam Mabry and Gary were together in the study upstairs. The mahogany desk didn’t look quite so old now. The roll top was up, and Mr. Mabry was putting some newspaper clippings into a drawer.
“Gary,” he said ponderously, “I saw a guitar in a store window the other day. Reckon you could learn to play?” He looked at the boy hopefully.
Gary’s eyes opened wide. “Gosh, Daddy. I’d like that! I’d try real hard!”
Another chance to make amends had presented itself, and Gary tried hard to sound enthusiastic. He resolved to learn how to play the thing even if it killed him.
“I just may pick up that guitar when I go to town,” Sam said.
“Sam,” came a voice from downstairs. “Telephone for you.”
“Here, Son,” Sam said as he lifted the boy. “Sit here at the desk and look at these old pictures of your Mom and me. I’ll be back in a few minutes.”
Gary looked at the photos as he listened to the fading sounds of his father’s footsteps on the stairs. After a while, he could hear the murmur of a telephone conversation. It struck him that he was sitting at this same desk and in the same chair where he had been a couple of days ago, just after the funeral. Or had that been years from now?
He opened the file drawer and found it looking much the same.
There was an envelope that looked familiar, but it was empty. And there they were – the clippings. He heard his father hanging up the phone.
He stole a quick glance, and yes, the articles were about Craddock. He put them back in their place.
On top of the desk was a pen and pad. On impulse, Gary took the pen and practiced writing. His small hand had difficulty, but his adult mind still retained the skill. He wadded up one page, then another, tossing them to the floor.
“Gary,” he began writing on the third page. “You MUST see Dr. Craddock at the University.”
He thought better of it. His future self had already seen Craddock. No letter to himself was needed. The clippings would be there for him to discover after the funeral.
But Gary was trying to prevent the funeral so that Sam’s life would be extended. If he succeeded, history would be changed. A new timeline would form. He crushed the note into a ball and tossed it to the floor.
His father was ascending the stairs.
Quickly, he put down the pen and pad and pretended to be looking at the old photos as Mr. Mabry entered the room.
“Now, Gary, look what you’ve done,” he said sighing. “Not only have you wasted paper, you’ve thrown it all over the room.” Sam stooped to pick up the paper. Gary rushed ahead of him, afraid that Sam might check to see what he’d written. Another careless mistake.
Gary tossed the wads of paper into the trashcan, looked up at Sam for a minute then broke into a wide smile. Sam smiled too, and gave his son a hug. That night, Gary asked permission to sleep with his parents, and that pleased Sam tremendously. Before turning out the lights, Sam read Gary a few selections from the book of poems.
On Sunday, they went to the zoo. Gary was careful to ask many questions about the exotic animals. Sometimes, he ran from cage to cage, laughing and teasing the animals. He felt very good about his act when a zookeeper scolded him for going behind the retaining bar in front of the monkey cage. Dorothy held Gary’s hand until they passed the monkeys. He was finding it easier and easier to assume the role of a little boy.
On Monday, school started, and that meant the first grade for Gary. He no longer worried about leaving the stasis field, and so he concentrated on arranging his desk and meeting new friends. A girl named Colleen made eyes at him from across the room, and seemed very impressed when Gary named each of the planets in the solar system – in order — for the class. He was the only one in the room who could do that, and he resolved that he must be careful not to show more knowledge than he should rightfully possess at age six.
During recess, most of the boys played ball, but Gary stood under a tree talking to Colleen. After class, he walked her to her mother’s car, and then walked to the Mabry home.
Sam Mabry was already home when Gary arrived. He put his books away, changed into his old jeans, and gave his Dad a hug. “I did good in school today, Daddy,” he said anxiously.
Mr. Mabry was sitting in his big reclining chair. “That’s good, Son,” he said breathily.
“Daddy isn’t feeling well, Gary,” Dorothy said. “He had to come home early from work today. Why don’t you go to your room and straighten it up and be very quiet for a while?”
Gary noticed his father’s right hand was gently rubbing his chest. Chest pains, he thought. Gary had become so involved in playing his role that he’d almost lost sight of his primary reason for entering the past. Monday the 18th. The heart attack would be on Wednesday. Something would call his mom away, and he would be left alone with his father. This time, thought Gary, I won’t leave him!
Sam returned to work the next day, and Gary went to school. After class, he hurried home to check on his father, but Sam was still at work. Two hours later, Sam arrived and announced that he was feeling much better. Gary slept between his parents that night.
Wednesday. Gary went to school, but was nervous all day. After finding it impossible to concentrate on his studies, he told his teacher that he was ill, and after a call to the Mabry residence, he received permission to leave class early.
“Gary, you don’t have any temperature,” his mom said after making him sit still in a chair for three minutes with a thermometer under his tongue. “Where do you feel bad?”
Gary shrugged his shoulders. “I don’t know, Mommy. I just feel bad – all over.”
“Well, if you can’t go to school, then you certainly don’t feel like playing. Go to your room and lie down.”
He did, and while he was resting, he tried to figure out what was wrong. This wasn’t the way it had happened before. His mother hadn’t gone anywhere, and he hadn’t been left alone with his father. Perhaps his trip through time HAD changed history. Perhaps Sam Mabry wouldn’t have the attack after all. Or, he thought, perhaps it would be delayed. If so, for how long? There was nothing he could do but wait.
Nothing happened the rest of that day, and for several more days. Then, one night in bed, Gary found himself muttering to his father almost at random.
“Daddy – I’m lost…” he said. He stopped himself in mid-sentence, and wondered why he had said such a thing.
“What’d you say, Son?”
It happened again a few days later as Gary was in class. He was supposed to be concentrating on vowels and consonants when against his will he said, “Take me…home…please…”
The girl at the desk next to his gave a startled look, and the teacher reprimanded him for talking.
It happened again that night and Gary was glad that he was sleeping alone in his own bed so that no one heard the conversation he seemed to be having with himself.
“Daddy…please help me…home, Mommy… no…go away…”
Gary sat up in bed, gritted his teeth, and shut his eyes so hard it hurt. Concentrating deeply, he was able to reassume full control, and he began to realize what was happening. His child’s mind was attempting to assert itself, to regain control of its rightful body. Afraid to drift off to sleep, Gary laid back with his eyes open, staring at the ceiling. He wondered what had happened to his child’s mind. Perhaps they occupied the same brain, and now, the child’s mind was attempting to take over the body once again.
The time something-or-other will make a correction.
Gary knew he couldn’t let that happen. His father would most surely have the heart attack soon, and he must be near to help him – with his adult mind fully functional – in order to make good on his second chance. At last, Gary could stay awake no longer, and a peaceful, dreamless sleep engulfed him.
Nothing unusual happened for a few days, but then, the weekend arrived, and Mrs. Mabry announced she would take a short trip to visit her ailing mother. “Gary, you’ll have to take good care of Daddy,” she told him. Gary’s heart pounded like a trip hammer as his mother spoke the words he had heard so many years ago and never forgotten. “Sam isn’t feeling well,” she continued, “and I wouldn’t leave him if I didn’t have to.”
Gary ran to his mother and hugged her. “I’ll look after him, Mommy,” he promised, and his voice trembled.
Presently, Mrs. Mabry was driving away, and Gary made it a point to stay very close to his father. He was so proud of the loving relationship he had established with his folks since his return – so unlike the way things had been the first time around. His second chance was working out, but he knew it would be for nothing if he failed his father now.
The hours went by, and soon it was mid-afternoon. Mr. Mabry was out back working in the flowerbed. Gary was inside watching TV, but being careful to keep his father in sight through the open window. In spite of himself, Gary began to feel drowsy. He shook his head from side to side, but his sleepy feelings persisted. His eyes were closed. He whispered, “Daddy.”
Fighting hard, he managed to open his eyes. For a moment, he had lost track of where he was. The television set was gone, and he could no longer see his father through the window. An oak tree was there, along with several people strolling down a sidewalk. He turned his head, and it felt heavy. He saw four white walls.
He blinked and looked out the window – through he bars – and still, his father was not there. He raised his hand to his forehead, and then lowered it slowly into his field of vision. He stared at it for a long moment. Then, he screamed, and continued screaming until he could hear the sound of scurrying footsteps rushing towards him.
Out back, Sam Mabry suddenly had a funny feeling in the pit of his stomach. Then, he dropped his hoe against the back door, grabbed his chest, and fell to the ground.
Inside, a sleeping six-year-old was shocked back into consciousness by the loud bang on the door. Gary’s eyes opened. He sat up, and turned his head towards the window.
Gary’s body did not move, but inside his brain, a fierce struggle was taking place, as two parts of him battled for control. If nature was on the side of the six-year-old consciousness, then necessity was aiding the adult mind. The young mind was struggling to regain its rightful body, but the adult Gary knew full well that to surrender now meant total defeat. The adult mind realized fully that preventing the child’s mind from returning might very well destroy both of them, but to fail now would be worse than total destruction.
The struggle ended.
Gary jumped up from the sofa and ran to his father’s side. Sam wasn’t breathing. Gary turned Sam onto his back, raised his middle and thrust his head back, and began mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. As the color returned to Mr. Mabry’s face, Gary ran inside and dialed 911 to request an ambulance.
Later, at the hospital, when doctors questioned him about his knowledge of CPR, he made up a flimsy story about seeing it done on television.
As more time passed, Gary’s encounters with his child’s mind became less frequent, and finally, he slipped almost entirely into the role of a child.
The tall, gray-haired man presented himself to the lady at the desk and she responded with a smile.
“Gary’s in his room, Mr. Mabry. He’s been waiting for you all day.”
His footsteps echoed down the long, sterile corridor as he walked. He paused at Gary’s door, mustering his courage; it had been a week since his last visit.
Then, grasping the doorknob, he opened and entered.
Gary was lying on a half bed, wearing faded denims and sandals. There was a plain white ceiling above him and four white walls surrounding him, the only view being that of an oak tree outside a barred window. On the dresser stood a little toy dog, covered in dust, and a rusty toy soldier.
Gary rose at the sound of a visitor.
“Daddy!” he screamed. His eyes widened as he leaped off the bed and ran to his father hugging him wildly. “Oh, Daddy! Have you come to take me home?” Tears were streaming down his cheeks onto an unshaven face.
But Sam Mabry couldn’t take Gary home. Neither this visit nor the next. Gary was in the custody of the State, and doctors were baffled at his condition. There was no cure.
For years Sam Mabry had harbored guilt feelings. He was certain that in some way he was responsible for whatever it was in Gary’s youth that kept his mind from progressing past that of a child. He had discussed it with Dr. Craddock, his friend at the University.
Often, he had wished for a second chance.
Presently, the two sat side by side on the bed.
“Read to me, Daddy?” asked Gary.
Slowly, Sam reached for a dog-eared book of poems from a table next to the bed. He opened its twenty-five-year-old cover to a favorite passage and began to read:
Ay, faithful to Little Boy Blue they stand,
Each in the same old place.
Awaiting the touch of a little hand,
The smile of a little face.
And they wonder, as waiting these long years through,
In the dust of the little chair,
What has become of our Little Boy Blue
Since he kissed them and put them there.
Sam continued reading into the evening until at last his Little Boy Blue was under the haystack, fast asleep.
© 2015 by Lynn Woolley. All rights reserved.
Passages from “Little Boy Blue,” the nursery rhyme and “Little Boy Blue” by Eugene Field (1888) are in the public domain.