It’s the second half of the Ray Bradbury Challenge of writing a short story each week for a year. This week, we have a Time Ranger Academy Story.
A Two-Part Invention
A wacky inventor
Wakes from a coma
A child’s drawing
Bert Walker tried to crane his head around to see what was making that noise. There was some kind of tubing around his head, poking into his nose, keeping him from turning.
Ah, yes, the hospital. He took a deep breath, or as deep as he could. His throat hurt and taking a full breath was next to impossible.
A crayon picture is hung by a couple of pieces of cellophane tape. It looked to be a child’s drawing, but Bert didn’t know many children. No, he didn’t know any children.
The door opened, and a nurse walked in with a small black rectangle. At least he assumed it was a nurse. She wasn’t dressed in a white uniform, but it seemed no one did. She had a mask and a shield covering her face, but stuck to her jacket was a photo of her face.
“Bert! Good to see you back from the ICU. You gave us a scare, but looks like you are going to survive this.” She tapped her gloved finger on the rectangle.
Bert tried to speak, “Eh, I…”
She put her hand on his chest. “We are still learning about this, this thing, but we do know it’s going to be hard to breathe for a while. You are also going to be very tired. Once we get negative tests five times in a row, we can get you home.”
Bert sighed. He’d been trying to get home for five years now, and he wasn’t any closer. He was lucky that the shelter let him stay so long. But as long as things kept breaking and he could fix them, he had a place to sleep. “I can go back to the shelter then?”
She looked up. “Oh, I have to look into that.”
Bert pointed to the picture. “Who?”
The nurse looked over at the white paper with colors swirling in some directions and made sharp angles in others. “Oh, one of the volunteers brought it by. With all of the restrictions, we can’t have the volunteers here, so she got everyone’s children and grandchildren to draw pictures for patients.”
He tried to reach out for it. The nurse got the message and walked over to pull it off the wall and hand it to Bert. “Here you go. Things are looking good, so I will come back later to check on you.”
Bert looked at the picture. He wondered what it would have been like for him and Ruthie to have a child together. If only he could get home, he would never argue with her again. Or anyone in his family, really. One thing was for sure – his inventing days were over. He would get a real job, fixing cars or selling vegetables. No more crazy contraptions for him. Well, one more, the one to get him home. If only he had brought his notes with him.
The crayons whirled in seemingly random color combinations. Until it struck Bert. There was nothing random about it. This was a schematic for the key component. It looked just like his notes back in his garage lab at home. He had to find this child, and ask him where he got the idea to draw this.
The nurse came back as Bert was finishing his soup at dinner. The hot broth was helping his throat, so while breathing was still a challenge, he could at least talk a bit.
“This drawing, can I find out who did it?” He took a breath. “So I can thank him?”
The nurse nodded. “Sure, I can call Mrs. Carlisle after I check on everyone. She may know.”
“Thank you.” Bert studied the picture again. Even if they couldn’t find the child, this may be enough to get him home. He just needed to get to the basement of the shelter, where he had started to build his time closet.
The nurse came back in an hour, holding out her little rectangle. “Here is Mrs. Langston, the volunteer who arranged for the kids’ art.”
Bert marveled at how much phones had changed. Everything, really. Cars in colors other than black, movie screens in everyone’s living room – it was amazing to him. What could he have discovered had he been given the time?
He looked at the phone, there was a face on the screen. A thin face with short gray hair and bright pink lipstick was smiling at him. It was odd to see faces – everyone here at the hospital had at least a mask on, if not the plastic shield.
“Hello Bert! Nurse Tiffany said you are feeling so much better and you wanted to find out who made the art work for you room?”
Bert nodded. At least with these phones, he didn’t have to talk as much.
“I think I know, but could you hold the phone up to the picture so I can be sure?”
“Just as I thought,” she said. “That one was my granddaughter Tessa. I told her to draw something people would know, like a horse or a flower, but she insisted this was what she wanted to draw.”
“It’s just what I needed, uh, to see.” Bert said, gulping some air.
“Well she is home with her mother, but maybe the next time she is over we can call you. Or if you live around here, we can get ice cream? Outdoors, of course. It just feels like we shold celebrate everyone who survives this thing.”
“I’m not quite sure where I will be. I usually am at the 47th Street Shelter. I fix things for them.”
Mrs. Langston’s lips pressed together. “I see.”
After the call, Bert tried to relax. He could only remember the shame he felt, telling Mrs. Langston he was a useless loafer with no job or income. But he couldn’t explain his presence here in 2020 any more than he could explain how he survived at Sommes. Or how he had no idea if his parents’ fortune had survived and how he could access it. How the librarian showed him his fiance, Ruthie, had married someone else and had children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, all without him.
His eyes started to burn. I’m tired. I need to stop dwelling on the past and figure out how to get back.
When he had enough negative tests, it was time to leave the hospital. Bert had no idea where he would go, as he had been told the shelter was closed, but at least it was warm. He could sleep at the park.
An orderly pushed his wheelchair through the lobby as hospital staff applauded. They told him he was one of the few to get healthy. A survivor. That was a badge he would always accept.
Just outside the door, there was a short woman and a little girl. “Bert! You did it!”
Bert wiped his eyes. “Mrs. Langston, how nice of you to come to see me.” He adjusted the mask he wore over his nose and mouth.
“Of course! When Nurse Tiffany told me your shelter had closed, I knew we had to come to get you. You are staying in my guest room until you get back on your feet.”
“I couldn’t do that.” He waved his arm. “I can find someplace.”
“You may be better, but they tell me it takes time to get back to 100%. I have a few things around the house that could be repaired if you want to earn your keep.”
“You don’t argue with MeeMaw,” the little girl said. “You won’t win. No one does.”
Mrs. Langston put her hand on the girl’s hair, “This is your artist, Tessa.”
Bert held out his hand. “Nice to meet you, Tess. That is a beautiful picture you drew. I sure would like to talk to you about it. Did you make it up in your head?”
“Oh, no. My daddy has a box of pictures. One of them was the colored lines. Aren’t they pretty?”
Bert took a gasping breath.
Mrs. Langston took his arm. “Come now, you need your rest. Let’s get you in the car, and maybe after dinner, Tessa can show your her father’s work. He is a Pulitzer-Prize-winning photographer.”
Bert followed. He had no choice if he wanted to see that photo.
After a delicious dinner that reminded him of his own mother’s cooking, he sat on the sofa while Tessa took photos out of a box and set them on the coffee table.
He wasn’t sure if it was Covid that made him gasp or the photo. Two men standing in front of a wall. The wall was the schematic used for the time machine, he was sure of that.
Tessa pointed to the man on the right. “That’s my daddy!” She wrinkled her nose. “That man looks almost like you.”
“It does, doesn’t it” Bert wheezed. “I’m sure it’s not, though. I have never been to a place like that.”
“Are you sure?” Tessa asked. “Look, he even has the same watch as you.”
For a seven-year-old, the child was observant. Bert tried to figure out who the man could be. Did his parents have another child after he left? “Do you think that I could borrow this picture? Maybe if I look at it more, I can remember?”
She handed it to him. “You can bring it back later.”
He waited until he was sure everyone was asleep. He would take this photo over to the shelter and see if his key still worked. If his luck held out, he could correct his mistakes and maybe be home this evening. His hands were shaking as he got dressed. He was so close to being home, seeing his family, and Ruthie.
His luck was holding. The key slid in, and the door swung open. He hurried to the basement door and was able to open that as well. He took as deep a breath as he could and made his way down the stairs to his little workshop. He turned the light on and went to his machine. Popping the wiring panel open, he propped the photo and started checking. Yes, there was where it all went wrong.
As he finished the last correction and closed the panel, Bert looked up and saw a man. He was dressed in a suit and tie, but the suit seemed more 1920s than 2020s.
“Uh, I work here. I fix things,” he stammered.
“Bert, I certainly hope you are not going back to 1925.”
How did he know? Bert took a step toward the machine. “What? Time Travel? Are you crazy?”
The man looked down at his lapel and brushed off some invisible dust. “I am sorry Bert, but you cannot go back.”
“Who are you, and how do you even know me?” Bert tried to remember any of the less stable men at the shelter.
“My name is Arthur. I know that this is a time machine because you left one exactly like it in 1925 when you came here, in 2015, without a plan to return. But you know this.”
Bert scooted over to a bench and sat down. “I have to go back. Everyone I love is there. They are all dead now.”
Arthur walked over and sat next to him. “I am so very sorry. I wish things were different. If you had only gone a few years ahead, we could have fixed it. But you, you are Go Big or Go Home. 90 years. That is a generational leap. Too much to overlook.”
“I don’t understand. I just want to get back. To my family. To my girl.”
Arthur put his hand on Bert’s arm. “Ruthie married someone else. And one of her grandchildren was the inventor of the very machine that kept you alive in the hospital.”
“Someone else can invent it, then. Heck, I’ll do it.” Bert stood up. He opened the panel and pulled out the photo. “Do you know anything about this?”
Arthur took the photo and studied it with a soft laugh. “That’s Bill Langston. He has a very special camera. He can take photos of things before they happen.”
Bert scratched his head. “What are you talking about? That can’t be me?”
“Oh, it is. On your first day at the Time Ranger Academy. Since you need a job and someplace to live, after all. And we could use your ingenuity, truth be told.” He handed the photo back to Bert.
“What if I don’t want to? And what about Mrs. Langston and Tess? They will expect me back.”
“Ok. Suit yourself.” Arthur walked toward the time machine.
“What are you doing?”
“I can’t leave this here with you. I need a ride home to the Kairos.” Arthur opened the door.
“Wait, you scold me for time traveling without a return plan, and now you need my help, my machine?” Bert walked to the machine.
Arthur winked. “Oh, I had a plan. Get in, Bert. We are going home.”