By Aaron Moskalik
JULY 3RD, 2020. THE MOTHER OF ALL bad days. After a fitful sleep Lexi Mulligan lay in her childhood bed. Her first mistake had been coming home for the summer. At school she could’ve hitched a ride with her roommate Morgan ... or Drew.
Drew was her only chance now. She was stuck in Bethel with no car. The rest of the village had already evacuated. Well, except for Doc Peterson. Nothing this side of the Pearly Gates would get him to budge. And her Mom. “This is where you have the best chance to survive,” Mom had said. “Trust me.” There was no point in asking why. Mom never explained anything.
The Mulligan Machine squatted across the room where the vanity used to be. Her birthday present. Instead of a car, which would have allowed her to take a summer internship, her parents had given her a time machine.
Mom couldn’t hide her pride when she presented it. “This is the prototype. Unfortunately, it can only take you back precisely twenty-four hours.”
Dad, making a rare cameo for the occasion, added, “Don’t be afraid to experiment with it. There are just two rules: always obey your older self and never answer your younger self’s questions.”
Lexi shuddered. Weirdest gift ever, especially for a perfectionist like her. Her last date with Drew had been a disaster. She’d gone back to warn herself about Drew’s wandering hands, which only made her jumpy, so she went back again to tell herself not to bother herself which caused the commotion in the restroom that got them tossed out of the restaurant.
Her Mom was unsympathetic. “Did you remember the two rules?”
“Sure. Why can’t I answer my own questions again?”
“You’ll get the hang of it.”
The machine began to hum. Lexi sat up in bed. Its inner chamber flashed like the scanner on a copier machine and another Lexi popped into the room. She was out of breath, her hair was tangled and her eyes were wild and puffy. “Run!”
“What? I’m not dressed.” Neither was her older self, unless you called wearing ill-fitting men’s clothes “dressed.” Lexi snatched her arm away from her double’s attempt to grab her. No thank you.
The machine flashed again and another Lexi popped out. “Keep it moving.”
The machine was strobing once a second. More Lexis piled into the room. Her first future-self pulled Lexi to her feet and pushed her out the door. “Head over to the Burger’s house. I’ll explain more there.”
Lexi stumbled on the landing and caught herself on the banister. The other Lexis stacked themselves outside her bedroom door, waiting for her to proceed. With the urging of her first elder, she led the cascade of Lexis down the stairs and out the front door.
Green auroral streaks fled like electric eels from the rising sun. The comet Smith-Hauthura was visible above Lexi’s house on its outbound trip from the sun, a trajectory that would end here in Ohio. Tomorrow.
Lexi leaned on the railing of the Burger’s front porch. Across the street, her future selves streamed from her house and flowed north and south down the sidewalk, ignoring her as they marched away.
“They call themselves Alli,” her first elder said. “I’m an Alli now too.” She sat on the porch swing, hugging her knees to her chest, her red-rimmed eyes conveying the ache of empty tear ducts.
“What happened ... what happens ... to me?” Lexi asked.
“It’ll all be worth it in the end.” Alli’s statement sounded more like a question. She focused back on Lexi. “You’re going to need some clothes. Mrs. Burger is our size. I’ll lay something out for you.”
“We can’t just take her stuff ...”
Alli slipped off the swing and disappeared into the house.
Lexi’s nightshirt barely reached mid-thigh. She would need something to wear when Drew came to pick her up. She had a travel bag packed and ready in her room, but no chance of getting there until the stream of Allis stopped. It showed no signs of doing so.
Lexi squeezed the railing and leaned forward. It had been subtle at first but was now unmistakable. The Allis were no longer slender. Their bellies had ballooned and they had become quite ... buxom.
She was pregnant.
Lexi ran her hands over her currently flat stomach. How was this possible? Her face warmed. After that last date, she had let Drew ...
Lexi’s skin tingled from the memory. But still, no way that would get her pregnant. Maybe today was the day?
Her stomach clenched as another thought assailed her. She was looking at herself months in the future. There was no Drew with her. He must have left ... without her. Was that what caused all the tears?
A baby cried. No, make that a lot of babies. Each Alli exiting the house was holding one, their bellies flat once more. Well, mostly flat. Lexi chewed her lower lip. Could she blame Drew for running away from this? She wanted to run away herself. Screaming. It was too much, too fast. She stumbled after the first Alli into the house and wandered upstairs. The Burger kids were still in elementary school; nothing to wear in their rooms. The air was thick and the day promised to be hot and sticky. She opened a window.
All the nearby homes were nurseries echoing with bawling babies. Her selves continued to pour out across the street, the Allis escorting boys now.
Her sons? Her son. Ugh.
The tachometer on her skinny confirmed that each pair was spaced precisely one second apart. That meant they aged a year about every six minutes. The boys were bigger already, scattering as soon as they hit the street.
The Allis were more choreographed. Lexi craned her head out the window and counted seven branches to their river. Each stream of Allis wore different styles of clothing. Distinct roles for each day of the week?
Lexi shuddered. She had dreams, but none of them involved staying in Bethel. Yet here she was, her life dripping away a day at a time before her eyes.
Lexi shook herself and wandered back downstairs. She found Alli curled up in the master bedroom. She had laid out clothes as promised, a pair of white shorts, a loose fitting peach top and some leather flats. She even put out underwear.
Lexi was relieved. She wasn’t up to rooting through Mrs. Burger’s drawers. Or picking an outfit. How could she plan for a day like this? Her mind could only flutter from thought to thought.
Giggling outside the Burger’s bedroom window brought Lexi back to the present. She was naked, holding Mrs. Burger’s underwear. A dozen wide eyes peered in at her. The boy’s mouths hung open. Lexi dove behind the bed.
An older boy’s voice called out, “Hey all you Zanders, clear out.”
Lexi peeked over the bed. A teenager gawked through the window now. Lexi made shooing motions. He averted his eyes, blushing, then was gone.
Ew. She’d been ogled by a bunch of boys.
Her future sons.
Her one son multiple times.
Lexi fumbled into the clothes, not daring to stand up. She couldn’t stick around, that was for sure. Not for one more second. No thank you. When was Drew getting here? Not until noon.
Lexi’s stomach clenched again. Drew! What would he think when he drove into Bethel and saw it overrun by Lexis and their kids? He already thought she was weird, but this ... this would creep out any guy. He’d just keep driving without slowing down.
Lexi couldn’t let Drew see this. She had to change the meeting place. Somewhere outside of town. She tapped her skinny. “Call Drew.”
“Hey Sexy.” Drew answered, voice only. Muffled conversations crackled in the background.
“Where are you? You’re still coming to get me, right?”
The silence stretched past the pain point. “Yeah, about that. They say the comet will kill everything for a thousand miles. I wouldn’t have time to get you, then get to safety.” His voice sounded thick, like he’d been drinking.
“Where are you?” Lexi asked again.
The silence was shorter this time. “Mexico.”
“So you left me here ... to die?”
“You don’t have to die. You’ve got that time machine, right?”
“It only goes back one day, remember? What good is that? I still won’t have a ride.” Lexi felt her blood start to warm. He’d abandoned her. That chicken-hearted little weasel.
“I’ve been thinking about that. Why don’t you go back a day, then jump right back in and go back another day? You could go back as far as you need, before all your neighbors leave. Then beg a ride.”
And now he’s trying to rationalize it? “How’s your quantum mechanics?”
“I’m an English major.”
“And I’m a physics major so trust me on this, the machine doesn’t work that way. I can only jump again after my last jump.”
Drew’s voice took on a hard edge. “You want to know the real reason I’m not coming?” He didn’t wait for her answer. “Your mother. She called. She knew our plans. She told me to stay away, then she wired me five thousand dollars.”
“You ditched me for five thousand dollars?” Lexi’s blood was white-hot.
Lexi jabbed her skinny, ending the connection.
Alli’s head poked over the side of the bed, her eyes mirroring Lexi’s emotions. Her jaw chewed on what to say. “Go give Mom hell.”
Lexi didn’t need to be told twice. She stormed outside. Allis no longer issued from her front door. The last few, accompanied by man-sized bearded teenagers, receded down the street. The final Alli stood at the front door, years older. Her eyes met Lexi’s for a moment, then she motioned to someone inside to stay.
Lexi snorted. She’d be damned if she lived that life, no matter what tricks her mother pulled. No thank you. She turned down Bone Street.
“Where you taking that storm cloud, girl?” Doc Peterson followed his question with a deep rasping cough. Despite the warmth of the day, he was wrapped in a wool blanket. He sat on his front porch swing, holding a steaming red-plaid thermos.
“My mother owes me an explanation. Then I’m leaving ... for good this time.”
Doc’s cough turned into a chuckle. “When has your mother ever explained anything?” He lowered his voice and fixed Lexi with his warm brown eyes. “She means the best though.”
“Yeah? What do you know?” Lexi regretted her tone. Doc had never been anything but kind to her. Sometimes she wished he were her father. At least Doc was around when she needed to talk to someone. “I’ll stop by before I leave town.”
Doc leaned back onto the swing and waved her on. “I’m here for you.”
Lexi’s pace slowed. Doc had sapped some of her anger and she resented him for it. She had a right to be angry. Her mom had paid off her boyfriend. Five thousand dollars. Wasn’t she the one always saying money was tight?
Lexi turned down West Street and approached the old Feed and Supply from the back. Her mother had bought the place with cash after the financial collapse and spent most days tinkering in the back building. Lexi clenched her fists. Mom never seemed to lack capital when there was something she wanted.
The place was buzzing today. Allis dressed in overalls waited by the loading dock as an unmarked semi backed into it. The driver hopped down and waved away the settling dust.
“Dad!” Lexi broke into a run. Gray temples had salted Lex Mulligan’s dark hair. His face was lined and at some point his shoulders had begun to slump.
His brown eyes were as warm as ever though as he wrapped Lexi in an embrace. “What’re you doing here, Lexlet?”
Lexi pushed away and put her hands on her hips. “No, that’s my question.”
Dad gave Lexi a considering look. “Come on, I’ll show you.” He strode to the door next to the dock and paused, giving the waiting Allis a long once over. They ignored him and Lexi. He whispered behind his hand, “Your mother’s helpers look a lot like you.”
“They are me ... future mes. But I’ve no idea why they’d want to work for that b—”
Lex raised a warning brow, then held the door for her. “It’s like that, huh? What’d she do this time?”
Lexi unclenched her fists. “She’s trying to keep me here. At ground zero.” Lexi’s heart skipped a beat. “But now you can take me with you.”
“I’m afraid not, Pumpkin. I’m going to be busy. We’ve got the world to save tomorrow.”
The building was a large pole barn with a dim and dusty interior. Lexi’s mom, Alexis Mulligan, stood holding a clipboard next to a large machine, her gray hair was pulled back in a long ponytail. She smiled when she saw them. “Ah, my two favorite people.” Her smile faded when she saw Lexi’s face. “I see you’ve talked to Drew.”
Lexi forced herself to take a calming breath. “So, you’re in on this together? Look, we still have time. We could take the Mulligan back to yesterday and drive out of here ... like every other family.”
Alexis gave Lex a look then turned to Lexi. “Honey, I know you don’t understand, but your father and I have spent a lot of time working on this.”
Lexi crossed her arms.
“Look,” Alexis began again, “joining the exodus out of the Midwest is the last thing you want to do. It’s anarchy out there.”
Lexi snorts. “What’s the alternative? Make the comet disappear?”
“Something like that,” Lex said. “We’re going to blow it up.”
Lexi looked from one parent to the other, her nails biting into her palms. “You guys are insane. We’ve only known about Smith-Hauthura for eighteen months and that it will strike Earth for three. We found out where just last week. All the world’s governments, bankrupt as they are, have thrown everything they have at it ...” She trailed off as she took a closer look at the machine. It was surrounded by piles of crates, some already packed, others open and expectant. The machine itself was half disassembled, but even so ... “This is another Mulligan Machine, except with larger capacitors. Much larger.” She poked a finger in her mom’s chest. “It can send us back more than one day, can’t it?”
Her mom held her by the shoulders. “Lexi, look around you.” She pointed with her eyes at the Allis who were loading the crates onto the truck. “You’re smart. You know how this is going to go down. You can’t change that and even if you could, you mustn’t.”
“No.” Lexi backed away from her. She looked at her dad, who shook his head. “No. You can’t make me. I won’t spend years and years reliving the same horrible day.” Her vision blurred as she ran to the door.
“Let her go,” her mom said.
“You’re being too hard on her.”
“For all our sakes, I hope I’ve been hard enough.”
Lexi sat at the top of the bleachers to one side of the press box. Behind her, Sanders and Zanders were playing softball under the watchful eyes of a couple of Allis. They’d occasionally call a boy by his full name. Sander Autumn Blue Thursday the Third, you know better. Zander Yule Indigo Monday the First, get over here! Apparently, she yelled a lot as a mother.
No thank you. None of this was going to happen because ... Drew would show. Despite their earlier conversation. And she’d have some choice words for him about his Mexico ruse. Not funny.
This was where they had agreed to meet at noon. Lexi checked the time on her skinny. 11:55.
She’d taken the long way here past the cemetery. The smell of fresh earth drew her attention to a crew of bearded teenagers digging a hole. The supervising Alli exhorted them by names beginning with Al.
Who died? It couldn’t have been her, could it? Otherwise the chain of Allis would stop.
The chain of Allis had stopped. Lexi shivered. No thank you. Drew would not leave her to such a fate.
The football field was an unpainted solid green oval. It struck Lexi as strange that no Sanders, Zanders, Als, or whatever were playing on the track. They seemed to be everywhere else, peering at her as she walked by while the Allis ignored her. Creepy. No thank you.
Lexi checked her skinny again. 12:00. She quashed a seed of doubt. Drew would come. He must. Her stomach rumbled. She had yet to eat today. She should’ve raided the IGA after she left the Feed and Supply. But if she went back now, Drew would drive away. She should call him.
No! He would be here.
The sound of an engine broke above the ball game, echoing from the other side of the high school. A Harley cleared the building, growling as it approached. The helmeted rider gunned it out of the parking lot and coasted to a stop in front of the stands.
Thank you! Lexi stood and descended a few seats. Drew had come for her. Mexico! Lexi snorted. She’d fallen for it too. She couldn’t suppress a grin. Why wasn’t he driving his Lexus, though? That would be more practical.
Drew wore a black leather riding jacket emblazoned with the American flag. His visored helmet matched the motif. He shut down his machine and looked toward Lexi.
She descended to the foot of the stands but froze when he removed his helmet. That’s not ... “Who’re you?”
“Axel, Axel Smith.” The boy shook out his shoulder length hair and leveled his warm brown eyes at her. “And you’re Lexi.” He dismounted.
“Did Drew send you?”
“Drew?” Axel’s puzzled look turned to surprise as he leaned against the bike. It tipped, his arms pin-wheeled, and the helmet went flying. They ended in a pile on the ground.
Lexi giggled. “You alright, Captain America?”
Axel stood, red-faced. “I’m fine ...” He heaved the bike up, “Darn kickstand,” then patted the dust from himself.
Lexi handed him his helmet. “How do you know who I am? I’ve never seen you before.”
Axel glanced toward the sky, eerily green even at midday. “We’ve got to go.”
Lexi folded her arms.
Axel shrugged. “I’ve lived here my whole life. Home schooled. You just never noticed me I guess.”
Lexi squinted at him. His story was dubious at best and a Mitchel’s Motorcycle Supply tag still hung from his jacket. “Where are your parents then?”
Axel shrugged again. “I never knew my dad.”
Lexi’s stomach growled its impatience. “You wouldn’t happen to have any food would you?”
Axel flashed a smile. “I’ve got a stash nearby.” He handed the helmet back to Lexi, then he straddled the bike and offered his hand.
Lexi looked at her reflection in the visor and bit her lip. From the other side of the bleachers she heard an Alli scream, “Sander Summer Orange Sunday the Second, you apologize to yourself right now!” No thank you. She put the helmet on and settled onto the seat behind Axel. “Let’s eat.”
Axel kept it at a slow roll. A part of Lexi wanted him to gun it out of town and over the horizon, the Harley rumbling between her legs, the wind billowing her clothes and caressing her skin, her arms wrapped around Axel’s muscular torso ...
Too soon they pulled into Bethel Self Storage. Axel coasted to the back of the lot where the climate controlled units were. “Here we are,” he announced. He remembered the kickstand this time.
The interior of the building was quiet but for the hum of air conditioners. A long hallway split the building with steel rollup doors every few feet. Axel paused halfway down, his hand on one of the doors. “I don’t have much actually.”
Lexi’s stomach gurgled. “Let’s see it.” She stayed a dozen feet away as he rolled up the door. Alone in an abandoned building at the end of the world with a boy she just met ...
Axel turned the light on in the storage unit and backed in, his eyes making reassurances. The unit was a five-by-ten made to look bigger by the meager supplies heaped in the middle. The bulk of it was an extra helmet, riding jacket, and boots in what appeared to be Lexi’s size. Two saddle bags rounded out the pile.
“Why did you come for me?” Lexi asked.
Axel sat next to a saddle bag and, with deliberate motions, pulled out two water bottles, a loaf of white bread, and a jar of peanut butter and grape jelly. “You need to leave before it’s too late.”
Lexi sat across from him. Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, really? Saliva flooded her mouth anyway. “There are thousands of me, or hadn’t you noticed.”
Axel paused, fixing her with his eyes. “There’s only one of you that matters.” His face flushed and he looked away.
Technically true, but how did he know that? Lexi cringed as Axel reached into the bag of bread. “We should wash our hands first.”
“You sound like my mother,” Axel muttered.
“What was that?”
“I said there’s bathrooms at the other ... end.”
Lexi held out her hand. “I’ll wash the utensils too.”
Axel handed her the butter knife and spoon, then led her to the end of the hall.
Axel was pacing the storage unit when Lexi returned. “We need to get moving,” he reiterated.
“Not before we eat.” Lexi spread napkins from the bathroom on the floor and busied herself with the sandwiches. The activity calmed her. For the first time today, she was in control of something. She offered a completed sandwich to Axel.
Axel let out a shuddering breath and sat cross-legged across from Lexi. “Thanks,” he mumbled around a mouthful of peanut butter.
“Relax.” Lexi scarfed her own sandwich, then continued making more. “It’s best to be properly prepared. What’s the hurry, anyway?”
Axel rolled his eyes toward the ceiling. “Have you forgotten the comet hurtling toward us at thirty kilometers per second?”
Lexi smiled. Paradoxically, Axel’s anxiety had a calming effect on her. He didn’t know she had an extra twenty-four hours in her pocket. They’d jump through the Mulligan. She opened a bottle of water and handed it to him. “We have more time than you think.”
Whoever Axel was, he was here for Lexi when no one else was. Not Drew, not her parents. She needed him. They were in the eye of the storm now, but soon they’d become part of the exodus. If they were to survive, they had to be a team. They had to trust each other even though they had no reason to.
“We can’t go off half-cocked.” Lexi moved behind Axel and peeled off his riding jacket. Thank you ... for being here. Her hands worked his tense shoulders. He melted into her massage.
Lexi slid around to face him, took his bottle, and put it down. Yes, thank you. Axel drank her kisses. It was Lexi’s turn to melt. Oh yes.
“How do you know so much about comets?” Lexi asked. Her bare skin began to chill as the afterglow faded. Axel’s body still radiated heat. She snuggled closer.
“I’ve studied them my whole life. There’s a theory that a comet caused the extinction of the dinosaurs. You can see the crater in the Yucatan Peninsula.”
“If the dinosaurs didn’t survive, what chance do we have?” Lexi was beginning to see holes in her plan. If they jumped back a day, where would they find a motorcycle? They couldn’t use Axel’s Harley, because it was here today. The same went for the supplies. They’d have to scavenge everything from scratch.
“Unlike the dinosaurs, we have technology. We could blow up the comet or steer it away from Earth somehow.”
“It’s going to hit us tomorrow. Even if we had six months to prepare ... the government is bankrupt. The whole world is in a depression. We don’t have the resources.” Lexi shivered.
Axel gently separated from her and sat up. “What time is it?” Urgency had crept back into his voice.
Lexi tapped her skinny. “Two thirty. Listen, we have more time than you think. This will sound crazy, but I have a time machine.”
A strange look flickered in Axel’s eyes before he looked away. “I know ... we can’t use it though.”
“What?” The sandwich churned in Lexi’s stomach. “What do you mean?”
“I was the last person through the Mulligan before it overheated tomorrow morning.” He looked at Lexi, his eyes intense. “I need to stop something from happening ... to you.”
Ice water flooded Lexi’s veins. She hugged herself and scooted back toward the door. “You’re ...” The boys leering through the Burger’s window at her. The Als digging the grave. All the other boys around town, their heads swiveling toward her as she walked by. “Pervert!”
Axel looked like he’d been slapped. “You don’t know the worst of it. Listen—”
Lexi stood and backed out of the storage unit’s door. “Stay away from me. I’m your mother.”
“No! You’re different. You’re not Mother. Not yet.” He got up and took a step toward her. “Please. Don’t go out there. Not like that.”
Lexi turned and ran. Tears clouded her vision. The green-tinted sun blinded her as she burst through the exterior doors to be greeted by a growling roar that echoed off the buildings.
The roar built, swirling around her from all directions. Lexi dashed across pavement toward the dark green of trees. Dry grass stabbed her bare feet. The trees afforded little cover. She kept running, across a road and into another parking lot. The Dollar General. Maybe she’d find clothes inside.
The roar, deafening now, resolved into individual engines, throttling down the main drag. The Dollar General’s doors were locked. A line of motorcycles turned onto the road she’d just crossed. She shook the doors again. Too late to run. They were in the parking lot, close enough she could make out the riders, bearded Als with ogling eyes.
Go away. They circled back, their engines popping as they slowed. No thank you. Lexi slumped against the wall, hugging her knees to her chest. The bikes paraded past at a crawl. No thank you. The Als were close enough to touch. No thank you. Their hungry mouths hung open. No thank you.
A horn blast followed by a series of angry honks burst above the bedlam. A pickup truck barreled into the parking lot, scattering the motorcycles. The driver’s head hung out the window as he beat his fist on the side of the truck, “Go on. Git!”
The truck rolled to a stop near Lexi. The motorcycles’ roar receded as they throttled back down Main Street. Doc held a blanket out of the window. “Here.”
Lexi wrapped herself. “Thank you.”
Doc waved one hand as a fit of coughing overtook him. When it subsided, his voice was thick and raspy. “Get in. You can borrow some of my clothes.”
The ride was silent except for Doc’s troubled wheeze. Lexi’s whole body shook with delayed shock. She tugged the blanket tighter and slumped into a stupor. Axel was her son. Her son to be. So were the pack of Als. The Als were like feral animals, but Axel was ... how could they be the same person?
The truck had stopped moving. They were parked beside Doc’s house. “You look how I feel, girl.” Doc’s hands still clutched the steering wheel. His skin was paper thin, his eyes sunken, and his smile a grimace. “Give me a minute, and we’ll get you inside.”
Lexi needed the minute. The town buzzed with midafternoon activity. Boys shouted and squealed. Mothers yelled. In the distance, a motorcycle engine popped. It was all the same two people. Lexi’s future and Axel’s past.
“No! You’re different,” Axel had said.
Doc opened his door, then groaned as he tried to lower himself to the ground. “Truck’s too damn high.”
The blanket, clenched in one fist, slipped from Lexi’s shoulders as she rushed to Doc’s side. She steadied him as his legs buckled. Despite Doc’s emaciated form, it took all Lexi’s strength to help him up the porch stairs.
Inside, Lexi pulled the blanket closed again. Doc slouched into a kitchen chair and waved Lexi on. “Go upstairs. Take anything you need. I never go ... up there anyway.”
Lexi wavered. Doc had been an old man as long as she knew him, but he’d never been so frail ...
“Go,” Doc repeated. “Once you’re dressed ... you can help me ... into bed.”
Lexi opened the upstairs bedroom closet. Her hand fluttered to her mouth and ice trickled down her spine. Hanging there were the exact clothes the first Alli wore this morning.
There was no avoiding it. There never had been. Lexi wasn’t different. She was just another Alli.
Doc’s skin had turned gray. Lexi had to support most of his weight as they staggered to the ground floor bedroom. Getting him onto the bed took all of their collective strength. He lay there, eyes closed. Lexi caught her breath in a bedside chair. A minute passed. Was his chest moving? Lexi bent forward ...
“Lexi.” Doc’s voice was a whisper over a wheeze. “I’m sorry.”
Lexi grasped his hand. So cold. “Sorry?”
“The ten years ... before my wife died ... were the happiest of my life.” Doc’s cough was feeble. “These last ten ... the most meaningful. I should’ve been a better father ...”
“I don’t understand.”
“You will ... soon enough. I’m sorry ... for what those boys did. They didn’t have a father ... to teach them to be a man. Maybe ... you can forgive someday.”
“You chased them away ... how did you know what would happen?”
Doc fumbled with his hands behind his neck, then placed something in Lexi’s hand. He curled her fingers over it. “My wife gave this to me ... when I was young. I’ve worn it ... ever since. I want ... you to have it.”
“I can’t ...”
Doc’s hands fell away. Lexi’s eyes filled as Doc’s closed and he released his last sigh.
Lexi wrapped herself in her arms and rocked. No thank you no thank you no thank you ... She lost her grip on time. The world diminished to shadows. A silent movie played of Allis preparing the body and carrying it away. One of them squeezed Lexi’s shoulder as they left.
Dusk seeped into the room. Lexi opened her hand to the waning light. A heart-shaped gold locket lay there. It was engraved inside. Axel and Lexi.
I don’t understand.
Dawn bled a malevolent green. A recollection of rummaging through Doc’s refrigerator was the only interruption to a night spent in the chair by the empty bed. Lexi continued to rock.
Or was she Alli now?
What difference did it make? Despite the sun’s efforts to evaporate the comet, Smith-Hauthura would find its final resting place at the bottom of what future species would refer to as the largest of the Great Lakes. Lake Inferior. Lake Infernal. Lexi released a grim giggle.
The front door burst open and footsteps thumped up the stairs. Another Alli. What kept her going, reliving the same day for twenty years just to stave off the inevitable? Why was she raising a son to sacrifice to a vengeful god?
Axel. Lexi still gripped the locket in one hand. Had Doc really been Axel grown old? How?
“Come on. It’s time to get in line.” This Alli wore another of Mrs. Burger’s outfits. Lexi’s day older double.
Lexi allowed herself to be herded outside. A block away on Main Street, a line of Allis holding babies waited. The queue to yesterday. The line likely stretched all the way to the High School with Axel at the far end, a few hours younger than when she’d met him.
What about the Axel she’d already met? For the first time in his life, he wouldn’t use the Mulligan this morning. What would become of him? Lexi grabbed Alli’s arm. “Where’s Axel?”
Alli’s eyes were bright with tears. “Find Mother. At the stadium. Time is short. Run!”
Lexi nursed a stitch in her side as she rushed past the Sashas, Sandys, Sanders, Zanders, Anders, Alexes, and bearded Als. The Allis grew ever more matronly. Just as she’d imagined, a clean shaven Axel anchored the line. They made eye contact and Axel looked down, his jaw set. He still hoped to save her from his younger selves.
Out of breath, Lexi staggered into the stadium. Was it only yesterday she’d met Axel here? The machine from the Feed and Supply was set up on the field. Electric cable fed into it from the stadium lights.
Her mother was talking to the older Axel standing beside his Harley. “The same rules apply with this machine. It will take you back twenty years, but there won’t be a machine at the other end, so you’ll be disoriented.”
They turned as Lexi approached. A smile flittered across her mother’s face. Axel’s eyes were wide with surprise.
Now that she was here, Lexi had no idea what to say. Aching ducts squeezed out her last tears. She took Axel’s hand and wrapped his fingers around the locket.
“Lexi, I’m so sorry—”
“I’m Alli now.”
Her mother wrapped Alli in her arms. “It’ll be right in the end. Trust me. Now go. The line’s waiting.”
Alli ran. Axel would be OK, for another twenty years anyway. All the faces blurred together as she sprinted past. She knew where she’d be, what she’d be doing. She had to raise him. Then what? The line had grown impatient, pressing forward, urging her on. She sprinted up the last steps and into her bedroom.
The Mulligan flashed and she stepped into yesterday. A girl sat in her bed. “Run!”
Alli sat at the top of the bleachers like she had twenty years ago. She’d been just a girl, waiting for someone who would never come, someone who was just a day older and none the wiser.
All the other Allis and all her sons were safely back to yesterday and Axel had ridden his Harley through the twenty-year time machine. It still glowed faintly in the middle of the field.
Alli nudged the backpack at her feet. Alexis had handed it to her before she slipped off to wherever. It was heavy and something clinked near the bottom.
Alli shrugged. A mystery for later. Right now, she was alone for the first time in her adult life. She sucked in a shuddering breath.
Yesterday had been a logistical nightmare. She’d stretched the resources of that single day to feed, clothe and shelter herself and her son for two decades. Every morning a new bed, a new kitchen, a new mission ...
She let it all out in a one luxurious exhale. It looked to be a beautiful day—except for Smith-Hauthura, the sword of Damocles. It’d hung over her for so long she’d forgotten it was there.
Today it would drop. Unless Axel was successful. She’d done everything she could to prepare him for his mission.
On cue, an engine broke the silence. A white van rounded the high school and drove onto the track. For a moment Alli was Lexi again, waiting with bated breath. The man who emerged was older than that boy, but he searched for her with those same warm eyes.
“Well, well, Captain America returns,” Alli said. “Did you save the world?”
Axel smiled. “We’ll see soon enough.”
Alli nudged the backpack again and frowned. She had her doubts.
Axel rummaged in the back of the van for a minute, then carried up some equipment and sat beside her. “The rocket was launched early this morning. I didn’t get much help from the government, but they did supply the warhead.” He handed her a pair of dark goggles, then donned his own.
“OK, get ready. Five, four, three, two, one ...”
Even behind the goggles and through her eyelids, Alli saw the flash. She opened her eyes and gasped. A second sun was disintegrating into shooting stars across the sky.
Axel cursed under his breath as he fiddled with his equipment. “A direct hit, but a major chunk is still on course to hit us.”
Alli sighed. Of course. Nothing was ever easy. Breaktime was over. She hefted the pack onto her back. “You’ll just have to try again.” She stood up and took his arm. “This time, I’m coming with you.”
Alexis and Lex emerged from the shadows of the stands, dark goggles dangling from their necks. “I thought they’d never leave,” Alexis said. The van was still parked where Axel had left it. Blue static sizzled across the surface of the time machine.
Lex took her arm and led her to the top of the stands. “Are you ready for the Grand Finale?”
Alexis leaned her head against his shoulder. “I’ve waited my entire adult life for this moment. Will it work this time?”
Lex shrugged. “The first rocket worked. It delivered its payload where and when it was needed. It just wasn’t sufficient. This second rocket ... it required a lot more finesse.”
Alexis’ face warmed. She snuggled in a little closer. “That’s because I knew who you were the second time.”
Lex’s brows bunched together, then his eyes widened. “Pervert.”
Lex consulted his skinny, then strapped on his goggles and lifted Alexis’ into place, “Ready? Five, four, three, two, one ...”
Multiple star bursts ripped open the sky, spawning sizzling snakelike contrails that ended just over the horizon in every direction. The biggest one finished its descent with a thump just miles to the north. The earth rumbled beneath them. They hugged each other against a hot dust-laden wind.
Then it was over.
“It worked,” Lex said as if trying to convince himself. “It really worked!”
“Happy Independence Day, Captain America.” Alexis took his face in her hands. They kissed. Alexis savored the moment. They were free. Thank you. “Now what are we going to do with the rest of our lives?” Alexis asked.
Lex’s eyes glittered and his jaw set as he looked toward the field. “Get rid of that infernal machine for starters. I only want time to go forward from now on.”
Alexis’s heart clenched. She suppressed a nagging cough and touched the locket that hung around Lex’s neck. “We’d better crate it up. You’re going to need it again one day.”
Aaron Moskalik is a software architect based in Detroit. A few years ago he decided to pursue his passion to write and has since published speculative fiction in “Nature,” “Bewildering Stories,” and “Mad Scientist Journal,” among others.