GRAVE POTENTIAL

by

Sarah Shilko-Mohr

I lay on my side blinking.  Slowly my vision returns and the etchings on the gravestone come into focus.  The tombstone reads, “Arbiter Banyon, born 1997, died….”  There is no death date.  There never will be.  The gravestone is a prop, a temporal portal marker, placed there by the likes of me.

Traveling in time is brutal.  I collapse spread-eagle atop the moist leaves – certainly a softer bed than the hot sand of ancient Egypt of my last trip.  Recuperating, I listen to the sounds of the fall evening.  Autumn-colored leaves rustle gently in the wind. Peepers sing a sweet song – a sound rare in the cluttered future.   The waning sunlight cues tiny, timid creatures to begin their nightly forage for whatever sustenance lies sheltered under the bed of fallen leaves.  An owl watches and waits.  I too, wait as my body slows its outcry at being torn apart, spread across the elastic sheet that is time itself, then reassembled at a specific configuration of elemental particles and physical forces.

I am as naked and hairless as a newborn baby.  Human flesh can barely survive the assault that time travel wreaks;  inert clothing doesn’t stand a chance.  But it’s my job and I love it.  Why do it?  My unique past and present life… and that certain determination that drives a halfback in football to be abused and broken in pursuit of getting a pigskin from one end of the field to the other.  Or the insanity which pushed those brazen and brave souls who paid outrageous fortunes to be the first to venture into outer space strapped into something as fragile and unpredictable as a giant firecracker. Death means nothing.  It’s the living that matters; pain is just a tolerable side effect of whole-body exhilaration and mind-bending awe.  I have that certain type of in-your-face recklessness that is part of the personality profile the Foundation requires of its Portal Marker Maintenance employees.

The damp air is creeping into my bones.  Time to get started.  Even though I’d made sure there was no Arbiter Banyon for twenty-five years in either direction (therefore no grave visitors), a naked, bald man covered in tattoos lying prone on a grave could raise a ruckus on the off chance some exploring dog was pursued by a frantic owner or more likely, some graveyard game of “I dare you” was set forth by the local trick-or-treaters.  All time trips are now scheduled on Halloween.  The Foundation learned the hard way through a dozen snafus.  The Directors settled on Halloween as arrival dates because unusual looks and weird occurrences could be explained away as either elaborate costumes or misguided pranks.

Since only my body can make the trip, my instructions are tattooed on my skin.  I am a veteran traveler and running out of space.  I will need new flesh soon.  Not exactly a pleasant operation but a necessary one since I am nowhere near wanting to retire.  Pulling myself to a sitting position, every muscle screaming in protest, I turn my calf out as far as I can to review my checklist.  In my time configuration, privileges are granted on how much you give back to society.  Not above self-serving negotiations, I’ve assured myself of receiving some real perks by taking on extra requests.  These requests are hieroglyphically encoded inside a triangle, indelibly inked into my flesh, their meaning known only to me – at least in this time frame.  I am an open book to my compatriots of the future.  Venturing out of the graveyard will break Foundation protocol;  I’m only a Maintenance Inspector.  But this trip, I have an ulterior motive; a private mission that’s not marked anywhere on my body but carved indelibly in my soul – something I need to prove once and for all and worth jeopardizing my career, if it comes to that.

I roll to my knees grimacing, and then, with only the slightest hesitation, put my index finger down my throat.  Gagging, vomiting violently, I expel my cargo onto the flattened leaves where I’ve rested.  Puncturing the seal of the regurgitated capsule with a purposely ragged, talon-like fingernail, I wait as the contents draw moisture from the night air and reconstitute into my costume.  The clothing pack sucks every ounce of humidity within a five-foot radius making me feel warmer in the process.  The night chill has become more profound since I’d arrived and I am grateful for the clothing with no sense of the ridiculous as I am soon garbed in what used to be called a pirate costume.  The placement of a gold earring and hook hand eludes me for a second and I briefly consult my calf tattoo for instructions. I work quickly since one of the pitfalls of time travel is that the memories of where I came from begin to fade as soon as I arrive.  This side effect will not leave me stranded;  time has a way of correcting itself, like a huge rubber band springing back into shape, but it could make for some awkward moments explaining to superiors and favor-requesters why I didn’t complete my mission.

The “Aargh!” I practice is followed by gravelly coughing.  My voice is raspy, the vocal cords not quite reconfigured to wholeness.  I will need another good hour before my organs function at optimal levels and my blood runs fast and warm through my veins. I stand, cringing and curling inward at the ripping stabs in my muscles.  Thrusting my hands into the pockets of my pants, I pull out an eye patch. Then I bring out an archeologically-retrieved handful of current-era paper money purposely saturated in benign bacteria to survive the journey.  With a practiced deftness, I pluck my eye from its socket, covering the empty hole with the patch, and place the biologically altered ocular in a natural-looking crack in the back of the grave marker.  The bio-mechanical orb immediately begins sending nerve-thin tendrils deep into the crack where the mechanics of the time portal are hidden.  As the orb takes its readings, I use my good eye to inspect the state of the cemetery’s continued viability as a portal station. Rarely disturbed or visited in the dead of night, cemeteries have proven to be efficient areas for constructing the special doorways.  With indigenous materials available for the majority of construction of the linking stations, the only hazards lie for those risk-taking engineers who are sent with no grounding beacon, relying only on critical math, to add the final elements expelled from the confines of their stomachs.  We’d lost some good travelers during these construction projects.  History recorded each as a homeless, migrant John Doe or Jane Doe, but we knew better.

Temporarily putting aside the hook hand, I fall to my duties.  Turning my mind to identifying hazardous scenarios that could potentially damage the marker, I look up for overhanging branches, electrical wires, or even squirrel nests threatened by high winds.  None of the other nearby headstones is crumbling or cracked or threatening to topple over.  This part of the graveyard is old and abandoned, the family names worn away by decades of eroding weather.  But people of this era are loath to disturb their dead, even the long-forgotten ones, and that keeps this spot safe from intrusion.  Nonetheless, I will check for any real estate or construction signs when I go into town.  Eventually, all the dead get turned over and built upon.  The Foundation simply can’t predict just when that will be for this particular Time Travel Station.

The iris of the eye device closes; its wet tendrils retract from the crack in the granite.  I reinsert it into my socket, scanning the data it has retrieved.  All is well.  It’s turning out to be a pretty mundane maintenance check.  And yet, to actually witness the unrecorded, mundane moments of the past has become the passion of the future.  What seemed so unimportant before has now proven to be the foundation of what lays ahead.

I bend my knees, arch my back, utter another “Aargh”.  Nothing in my throat cracks, screams or breaks.  Weaving in and out of the gravestones, I spy the lights at the edge of town and head toward them.

There is a certain Zen-ness about the act of walking.  The rhythmic rock of the hips, the counter-swaying required to balance on one leg while bringing the other forward.  Where I come from, walking is outdated;  peripheral-ready Seqways transport the masses everywhere.  Plugged-in, hooked-up, wheels where legs used to tread.  Better to accommodate the constant influx of data transmitted through eye and earpieces and output through electronic gloves that have become common attire.  We are all knowing, but without really seeing and with limited hearing.  Busy, busy, busy, alone in a crowd.

Subconsciously, I repeatedly rub my thumb against the side of my index knuckle.  It’s a deep-in-thought quirk I’ve practiced since childhood for no apparent reason, a tic of unknown origin.

“Hey Buddy!  What do you think you’re doing?!”

Apparently, I am not immune to the isolationist influence of my time as I have just stumbled over a pair of legs attached to a filthy, bleary-eyed bum sitting propped against a wall.  I had been oblivious to his presence.  Protocol for the situation escapes me and I respond with the reaction that will be appropriate in this man’s very distant future.

Studying his condition, the bottle wrapped in brown paper, the filth of his clothes, the grease flattening his hair to his withered and spotted skull, I blurt out with genuine curiosity.

“Have you no greater potential?”

We’re big on living up to your potential where I come from.  Studies of potentialities begin at conception and continue in every facet of life from that point forward.  Then, with the greater understanding of physics and time travel frontiers, the influence of the past melds into the grand question of, “What can I become?”  Even past life regression is given a second look, but from the different angle of the present, and future coexisting and intricately connected.  I’d participated in the esoteric experiments myself on several occasions.  Not living up to your potential was as close to criminal as my time got.

The gist of the bum’s mumbled expletive was clear.  Withdrawing some of the crumpled bills in my pocket, I tossed them in the direction of his stained crotch.  Pulling myself back into character with a muted “Aargh”, I continued down the sidewalk.

Human traffic was becoming denser.  There were even some goblins and ghosts running the streets with jack-o-lanterns swinging from their small hands.  They, however, took one look at me and steered clear, pausing only momentarily before taking a skirting course.  Out of the corner of my one eye, I saw the pink neon sign of my destination.

The “Hanorin’s Bar” sign stood out brilliantly in the darkness of night.  Heading for the heavy wooden door directly beneath its glowing light, I paused momentarily just before entering to pull down the stocking covering my calf to check my list.  In that instant, I realized I had left the hook hand in the graveyard.

“Balzer!” I spat before I could stop.  Was it the time travel effect that had me leaving part of my costume behind or simple human error?  Human error could hurry my transfer to another “department of potential pursuit”;  better to chalk up the forgetfulness to fading memories associated with time jumping.

I pulled open the door to the bar and, with a resounding “Ahoy there me hearties”, made my grand entrance.  Shaking what should have been my hook hand, I swaggered into the room, crying out my practiced “Aargh!”  The resulting laughter and applause, to which I gave an exaggerated bow, allowed me the time to scan the perimeter.

And there she was.  She sat at the very end of the bar on the last stool, deliberately pulled into the shadows of the corner.  She had been watching me until I looked in her direction.  Catching my glance, she quickly looked down and wrapped her hands tightly around her drink.  I continued my pirate show of Halloween spirit and slowly made my way to her end of the C-shaped bar counter.  I stopped just this side of the curve – far enough to not be in her space but close enough to strike up a conversation.  Turning around to the bar crowd, hoping the eye tattooed on the back of my head would amuse her, I took a pirate pose and bellowed to the patrons.

“Safe port has been made.  Me cargo’s been unloaded.  Me ship’s in good repair”.  The truth…though no one but me new it.

“Let us drink hearty and be merry, me buccos.  Drinks are on me!”

The bartender stood behind the counter with a cocked eyebrow and sardonic twist to his mouth, which turned to a wide-mouthed smile as I unloaded my pocket of the wad of bills and slapped them onto the counter.  I laughed, in character, reading on his face that the bills would more than cover the tab.  A small wave of relief ran through me since I wasn’t quite sure how well the scientists had outfitted me for the journey.  I stole a swift glance to the sheltered woman.  The atmosphere changed almost imperceptibly.

“And bring me some grub!  I’ve had naught but fish and millet these long weeks at sea.”

The bartender pushed a menu across the slick surface.  I tried to match up the symbols on the menu with the hieroglyphics on my calf.  The translation wasn’t coming as clearly as I would have liked as my mind was more concentrated on the girl than on the requests for indigenous food substances the Benefactors had asked for.  I looked at the short menu and gambled.

“Everything looks good and it’s been a long journey.”  Another veiled truth.  “I’ll take one of everything!”

The bartender threw his head back and laughed.  For him, it was going to be a profitable night.

“Does that go for your drink order, too?”

I secured my welcome for the night by responding with another slap on the bar and a robust, “Set me up!  One of everything, Swabbie!”

I tipped my non-existent hat to the mouthed thanks from the imbibing patrons.  As a woman dressed in what I could only imagine was a skinned cat costume began to slink her way in my direction, I discouraged her intention by turning my back on her and directing a question toward the girl shrunk into the shadows at the end of the bar.

“What about you?  What’ll you be drinking?”

A fleeting glimpse, a tight-lipped smile, shoulders drawn tighter inward, a slight shake of her head and a dismissing wave of her hand.  She wanted nothing to do with me.  Everything about her said, “Leave me alone!”  But I suspected there was more, much more under that veneer.

I gave her a moment, calculating my next move.  My thumb rubbed my knuckle in rhythmic strokes.

In the background, I heard cell phones ringing.  In the mirror behind the bar I saw the reflection of people sitting at tables with their laptops open and running.  Turning, I scanned the gathering, pity and abhorrence battling within me.

“You’re in a bar filled with living, breathing people!”, I wanted to scream.  “Disembodied voices, electronic information are not a substitute!  You don’t know how bad your disconnection is going to get. Wired up to your data devices, you’re just going to be more alone than you ever believed possible!”  Instead, I merely sighed.

I turned back to the living, breathing human being I so earnestly sought.

“What’s your name?” I tossed out, leveling a gaze into the shadows.

Her return stare was filled with panic.  But she looked me straight in the eye.  And then it happened.  The arc across time struck her.  I saw it, but she only felt it and it dazed her for a moment.  The open-mouthed gape, her eyes turned more inward even though they stayed fixed on me.  And then, her shoulders relaxed, the grip on the glass loosened, her mouth closed and the soft lips turned up into a smile.  Whatever her reservations about me, she seemed to have come to the conclusion I was trustworthy.  I’d seen the arc, felt the connection, but more than that, I sensed the eddy that formed in the fluid rush of time.  It set up a tension, the rubber band consistency of being stretched out to encompass the new ripple.

She cocked her head, “Do I know you from so…” she began, but cut short her question; it sounding too much like a come-on.  Ruffled, confused, she lowered her eyes and muttered, “Lucy”.  Then, with more resolve, she raised her head and voice and said, “My name is Lucy.”

Lucy.  I had a name now.  I was shocked how the wispy sound of it warmed me.  Lucy.  Suddenly, I wanted to know everything about her;  needed to know how she had become a part of my life.  The rubber band stretched further.

She had said more, but I hadn’t heard it.  I took a chance and moved one stool closer.  “What was that?” I ventured, seeing none of the former trepidation in her eyes, although a certain rigidness remained in her shoulders as I moved nearer.

“What’s your name?” Lucy asked softly.

Balzer!  Not again.  I could not remember my name.  I was pulling a total blank.  Ad-libbing, I threw out the most recent name I had been called – “Buddy” as in “Hey Buddy, what do you think you’re doing?”  I saw it received as acceptable.  I also felt the eddy expand in the liquid pool of time.  The tight center pulled at me in contradiction to the stretching this meeting was causing.

The bartender had lined up shots in front of me along with a tall glass of foaming amber fluid.  Plates of indigenous food substances created a slowly forming circle out from the glasses.  I started on the left and planned to work my way to the right until I had consumed an acceptable portion of all of them.  I threw down one of the shots and let out a hardy “Aargh!” in response to the fire that started in my throat and exploded in my stomach.  Lucy giggled and the band grew tauter.

I didn’t see her drink in my line up.  “What’s that you’re drinking?  I don’t have one.”

Returning to shy nervousness, she waved her hand and turned away, muttering, “Oh, you don’t want one of these.”  She wasn’t looking at me;  she had withdrawn into herself yet again.

I concentrated on the plates of food while I ran through possible questions that would get me closer to her without eliciting the bolt of panic she always seemed to be on the verge of.  I continued to eat and drink as I ran through scenarios.  Some of the patrons made quick stops on their way out to thank me again for my generosity, but they seemed a little disappointed as I’d dropped the pirate routine in my preoccupation with my more urgent quest.  I swiveled back to my grub and saw Lucy staring at me with a quizzical expression.

“What is it?” I asked as gently as possible.

“You just dragged your sleeve through the ketchup on the french fries, but there’s nothing there.  And your costume doesn’t have any seams.”  She looked at me suspiciously, her eyes demanding an explanation.

I recalled the hook hand lying on top of a grave marker.  Having been detached from my body, it would have disintegrated by now.  Nothing non-biological, or more specifically, nothing could make the trip that was unable to blend to the harmonics emitted by the energy bands of time.  It was always a gamble that such things like the money would withstand the violent forces that time travel wrought.  The costume was not made of fabric, but of a material that was grown and was still living.  Not only did it provide a current-era disguise, it also served to gather atmospheric data, collect any skin flakes shed from my body and provided a shield against any pollen, dust or microbes I might pick up.  Collecting hair wasn’t a problem.  The rest of my body was as bald as my head and would remain so as a side effect of time travel – a trip as searing as a meteor burning through Earth’s atmosphere.

“Aye, lass.  I’ve sailed to many lands.  Made port in many an exotic and mysterious isle, I have.  It was in one of them I procured this magically woven cloth.”  I closed my banter with a wink and a nod.

She looked at me strangely for a heartbeat.  “Is that where you got those tattoos?”  Her tone implied she didn’t necessarily approve of my body graffiti, but didn’t want to offend me either.  It was the opening I was looking for.

I leaned conspiratorially in her direction and took comfort when she didn’t balk.

“Let you in on a secret”.  Her eyebrows raised and I continued, “It’s all fake.  Washes off in a single shower.”

She laughed.  A relieved laugh, a reassured laugh.  The tattoos had scared her.  Somehow her thinking they were not real gave me the stamp of normalcy.  The last vestige of stranger assessment had been made and I had passed.  Until I picked up the next shot glass and saw the caution return.  I set it back down, calculating what benefits I would have to give up in the future by coming back with less than requested on the list, and decided this was more important.  I stood and had the bartender remove the detritus of my “to do” list moving one stool closer to Lucy.

I asked her, “What brings you out tonight?”  I tacked on “landlubber” just for good measure.

Again, she gave me the wan smile and the dismissive hand wave.  And then she did the damnedest thing.  Withdrawing, turning inward, she began rubbing her thumb across her index knuckle.  I gasped at the affectation.  I couldn’t back off this time.  I needed to know the truth.

“No, really.  Tell me, what brought you here tonight?” I pushed, struggling to remain nonchalant.

She answered, good-naturedly, rolling her eyes to the ceiling.  “Oh, just a little personal celebration”.  Pausing, without looking up, she added, “I completed the restoration of an antique atlas today”.  And the nervous tic returned to her hand.

Bypassing typical social drivel, I leap to the heart of the matter.  “And as you restored the maps, did you wonder about all those countries and dream of sailing down the rivers, climbing the mountains and trekking the deserts?”

I’d hit a nerve.  Lucy gaped at me in astonishment.  Her “Yes” was breathy.

“I’ll bet you love history, too” I posited, looking for further commonality between us.

“I love history,” was her quiet reply.

Searching for another bond, I said, “And I imagine you are a woman of deep passions,” and watched as she blushed from her neck to her hairline, her hands fluttering over her empty glass.  I turned and snapped for the bartender, my welcome still fully established.  The pile of bills had rapidly diminished , without a word from me, and made their way to the cash register and the bartender’s pocket.

“Another drink for Lucy.”  The barkeep looked at Lucy, having forgotten what she was drinking and almost surprised at seeing her sitting there.

“Ah, it’s ah, just tonic and lime”.

“No gin?”

“Right.  Just tonic and lime”.  She never looked at him.  And then as an afterthought, called out, “I’ll pay for it.”  She would not risk ingratiating herself to me.  I let it go.  I was sure I knew her heart even though she barricaded it against disappointments and pain.

“So, are you going to take that trip to Tahiti?”  The words weren’t out of my mouth for a split second when I realized my error.  I’d moved too fast.  Her pale look of shock just confirmed it.

“The brochure sticking out of your purse,” I said quickly pointing to the travel pamphlet that had slipped up out of its pocket when she’d retrieved her wallet.  Observation of details is my life and livelihood.

“Oh, oh, well, oh…,” she stammered and smiled and then shook her head.  “Probably not”.

“How come?”

“Oh, I was just looking at it.  Not really my style…you know, vacation, ah…traveling.”

And there was the telling difference between us.

“You’re afraid to go, aren’t you?”  And I saw how deep the truth was in that.  She’d barely had the courage to venture here tonight from her stark apartment.  She lived on the meager income of a solitary book restorer rather than risk going out in the world.  Even in her appearance, she went out of her way to remain unseen.  Plain, mousy hair.  Drab, cloudy-day clothing.  The hands that gripped her glass were unadorned – not a single ring, no polish on the clean rounded mails.  Except for one thing.  She wore an Egyptian symbol on a chain around her neck.  One lonely piece of color in a sea of bland.

“You ought to go.  Tahiti, I mean.  It could change your life”.  I wanted to sound upbeat without thinking about the consequences to my own life.

Her flitting smile tried to cover so much.  “You’re a confident man, aren’t you?  I’ll bet you’ve traveled,” she said looking up at me with a hunger that hurt.

“Sure, Lucy…on both counts.  But I didn’t start out like that.  Building confidence, taking a trip – for either, you start with baby steps.  Take a risk, savor the risk, embrace the risk”.

The eddy became a whirlpool.  An undertow dragged at me, shortening my time here with every word I spoke.

“Baby steps you say” and her hunger became ravenous.  She moved out of the dark corner and into the light.  And finally, we talked and all the while with the undertow of liquid time taking on a force that threatened to disintegrate me before her eyes.

I listened as Lucy slowly stripped away the layers covering her suppressed dreams, revealing her depth for wonder even as the elastic bands of time tightened around me to a suffocating tautness.  My mind raced as I recognized myself in her.  Her burning intensity held me.

The lights blinked last call.

I couldn’t move.  I didn’t watch as Lucy got up and left.  I didn’t see the buoyant lift to her step that hope generated.  I didn’t see the straightness of her spine as she reveled in the idea that a chance encounter with a stranger had changed her forever.  I didn’t see the dreamy expression on her face as she walked out the door and into the path of an oncoming car.  I only flinched slightly when I heard the thud and the screams from the horrified bystanders.

The band snapped.  The undertow ceased, the eddy smoothed out, the ripples receded.  Time corrected itself with only the lingering sense of de ja vu left to puzzle those who sensed it.

I had known she would be here tonight.  Known how and when she would die.  And although the people of this time not only did not disturb their dead, and were meticulous in recording the minutiae of their death, those facts only confirmed when but so little else.  I had come to know her, Lucy, through this past-life regression.  Felt her buried passion, her inability to break free of fear.  Experienced her death as my own.  Again and again.  I’d known as well as I knew myself that in her last moments, Lucy had vowed to put aside her fears and fulfill a life of passion.  There was no paradox;  I’d had nothing to do with it.  It was the completed restoration project that began the spark that blazed.  And it was snuffed out too soon to be realized for more than a moment.  I had not found the proof I had sought.  In that regard, I had found no certainty that the woman I saw, when regressed to moments before my own conception, was the repressed woman in the bar.  Or that Lucy had been reincarnated in me and her caged passions were being played out through my life.  I was no surer now than before that when Fate asked, the soul of Lucy had begged to be allowed to live again and fulfill the life she’d denied herself in this one.  But if…just if…she was reincarnated in me, I would continue, for as long as possible, to pursue what had become my passion for the dangerous, the new, the mind-bending and awesome.  And in that pursuit, I would honor and live up to the potential for both myself and my illusory Lucy.