Read Part 1 here.
Ten years later, Emma stood in the hallway at Golden Chances Rehabilitation Center outside room 2B. George’s room. She closed her eyes and swallowed a lungful of air to shake off her nervous energy. A clock inside the room chimed, signaling that it was 11 AM, the time when visiting hours began. She gripped the metal handle of the door and pushed her way in.
The room was mostly bare. A TV stood on a simple drawer at the far side of the room. Today, it was showing an old black and white cowboy movie, muted. The Center did not want its residents to get too distracted. Sunlight streamed in through a barred window. On the wall across from the TV, a grandfather clock hung next to a generic painting of a cottage. Below the painting was a small hard bed. A comforter with duck designs draped over it. Under the comforter was George.
He did not greet her. She noted his paler than usual skin and the lines on his face. She tried not to notice the marks on his too-thin forearms. He stared straight ahead at the TV. His hair was disheveled and his eyes blurred with dark lines. His pajamas hung loosely around him. He must not have left his room in days. Emma stifled a sob.
“George,” she finally said. An eternity passed.
“You shouldn’t have come here,” he answered, his gaze still fixed to the TV.
“You told me that the last five times I came here. I’ve had it up to here with your pity-” She caught herself before the anger overwhelmed her. “I just want to see how you’re doing.”
“What’s it look like? I screwed up again. Same old, same old.” He still didn’t look at her.
Emma felt her eyes become wet. She held up her hand to wipe away the tears. “How did we end up like this?” she asked.
His face finally turned towards her. His eyes were red. “You’re too good for me. You should have listened to your future self.”
Her anger rose back. She channeled it into determination. “Well,” she said, her voice flat. “You’ll be happy to know you’re right. This is going to be my last visit. I’m going to seek a divorce.”
He didn’t answer. In the back of her mind, she wondered if her words had been too cruel. Another long moment passed. Then, he began trembling and his arms shook violently. Emma took a step back. She then heard him sob, a soft sound at first, then a torrent of misery.
Emma ran out of the room. She ran through the hallways. She ran to her car. She didn’t remember the drive home.
Ten years later, Emma watched a teenager feed quarters into a machine and control a yellow blob that ate pills. She noted the irony. Every year since the divorce, she had driven in front of this video arcade, loathe to come in. The old witch clearly wanted her to go. What the hell was she thinking? Ever since she received that list, she had found nothing but pain. Well, she had to admit, mostly pain, but she wasn’t sure if those relatively few years of joy were worth it.
She wandered around the arcade, watching children entranced and excited by the video screens. The electronic noises reminded her of The Smoking Harlan all those years ago. Some of the staff gave her strange looks. She understood. A middle-aged woman walking alone through an arcade? She was like a clown at a funeral. Two children, both boys, ran to and fro around her.
Finding nothing, she decided to retreat to the restrooms, where there would at least be peace and quiet. As she approached the back hallways, she heard a child crying above the din of the noise. Freezing, she waited to see if anyone would respond. No one came. The shrill crying continued.
Gingerly, she peeked around the corner towards the men’s restroom. Outside it she found a blonde-haired boy, no more than kindergarten age, sobbing. Reddened skin surrounded his clear blue eyes. He wore a red t-shirt and corduroy pants. Emma looked around again. Still, no one came. She began walking towards him, summoning her best soothing voice.
“Hey…Hey. What’s wrong, little guy?” Her voice came out a smidge above a whisper.
“I want my mommy!” he screamed. She winced from the noise. She carefully patted his shoulder.
“Shh, shh. It’s okay. Here, let me take you to her.” She held her hand out.
The boy stopped sniffling. He looked her over, unsure. “Are you a nice lady?” he asked.
“I am definitely a nice lady.” She gave him her most winning smile.
“Okay.” He rubbed his nose with his right hand and then grabbed her outstretched arm. She pretended not to notice the snot running down her jacket.
“What’s your name?” she asked.
“Robert,” he said in reply.
“I’m Emma,” she said, giving him a quick grin. She led him out to the arcade proper.
“Do you know where your mother is?” Emma asked. She almost slapped herself for asking such a stupid question. He shook his head no. Gazing around the room, she looked for any other woman of at least child-bearing age among the flashing screens. Great, she thought, now they’ll think I’m a kidnapper. She took the boy’s hand in hers. It felt soft and rubbery. They walked through the breadth of the arcade, but still couldn’t find his mother. The bored teenager manning the register just shrugged when she asked him. Seconds turned into minutes. She felt her feet starting to ache.
“Ok, I think we should take a break. Do you want some hot chocolate?” She finally asked Robert. He nodded.
They walked out the front door and headed towards the coffee shop next door. When they stepped inside, the boy’s eyes lighted up.
“Mommy!” he shouted. He ran towards a blonde-haired woman wearing a pink blouse draped over some well-fitting pants. A pile of papers and a small purse was arrayed before her. She brushed some of her long hair aside as she turned up her head towards them.
“Robert!” she exclaimed. She ran forward and hugged him. “What happened to your brother?”
“He said he wanted to hang out with this girl. He told me to wait by the bathroom but he was gone so long! This nice lady found me.” He pointed to Emma. Blushing, Emma stepped towards the two.
“Well, I’m going to have to give Jimmy a good talking to.” The woman’s eyes brightened as she turned her gaze to Emma. “Thank you so much for finding Robert. I hope he wasn’t too much trouble.”
“No trouble at all,” Emma replied. “I just saw that he needed help.”
The woman sighed. “My future self said I needed to keep my second child in sight at all times. I thought she was being metaphorical. I’ll have to write the same thing when my time comes.”
“But Mommy,” Robert said, “if you already knew you needed to watch me, why would you need to tell yourself again?” Emma almost gaped in wonder at the child’s precociousness. What did this woman feed him?
“Oh Robert.” His mother laughed in an easy and light tone. “Mommy doesn’t really know. But you know who does know? Physicists! Do you want to grow up to be a physicist?”
“Yeah!” He jumped happily.
“I really ought to be going,” Emma said.
The woman held up her hand. “No. Please stay. I insist. I still need to thank you properly.” The woman took out her pocketbook.
“I really shouldn’t-” Emma started.
“I insist. What’s your name?” She rummaged through her purse for a pen and laid both the pocketbook and pen on the table.
She gave the woman her name. Emma felt a strange sense of giddiness as she said it.
“Emma? I’m Lori. Nice to meet you. Hope you don’t mind the mess. I work with one of the biggest publishing houses in the country.”
“I don’t want to take your time. You seem quite busy. Your son…” She tried to think of something to say that didn’t sound like she was insulting the woman’s parenting.
Lori waved her hands. “I needed a break from those manuscripts. And don’t worry about Jimmy. That boy can take care of himself for a few more hours. Right before I ground him for seven years.”
Emma chuckled. Suddenly, an idea popped into her head. “You say you work for a publisher? I’m something of a writer myself. I wonder if you’d be interested…” Her voice trailed off.
“Really?” Lori replied. “What do you write about?”
“Well you mentioned before about following the advice of our future selves. I’m exploring some ideas on how much we really ought to be listening to them.”
The other woman cocked her head. “That’s interesting, tell me more.”
They spent the next few hours discussing Emma’s writing. She left, promising to send Lori a copy of her manuscript.
Read Part 3 here.