This is my 207th time returning to March 9, 1980, but the 35th time I have broken into my childhood home. Before I started using my homemade time machine, I had never been one to defy rules. Back at age seven, I stole a candy bar from a grocery store. Anvil-heavy guilt compelled me to confess everything to my mom before I’d taken a single bite.
“Thank you for coming to me. You did the right thing,” she’d said, smiling. “You’ll remember this lesson forever.”
Nothing is forever about memory.
I enter through the unlocked back door. I immediately deploy the dozen mini drones stored within my duffle bag. Each is the size of a fist with jointed legs like spiders. They whir off to attend their assignments, some absorbing different textures, others lifting objects to take in their heft. I stand in the living room with its wood-paneled walls and green shag carpet, fighting back tears.
This will be my last time here. I must urgently compile the data I’ve acquired from the past.
Our old cat Carter purrs as I scratch his chin. He has another three years of life. His death will crush me more than anything else in my early childhood. I pet him, and the sobs come.
I’ve explored my hometown and home with an intimacy I never knew as a kid. I can’t deploy my drones in public, so I’ve adorned myself with monitors and walked everywhere. At the market a block away, I resisted the urge to gasp at the ridiculously low prices and the odd product packaging. John’s Hamburger Drive-On-In deserved particular attention, though I didn’t dare order anything. I stroked hardtop tables with sensor-sheathed fingertips and breathed in fumes fragrant of oil and seared beef.
I’m there right now—child-me, a mere toddler, along with my older brother and parents. We kids just romped at a nearby playground for over an hour while my parents sat and talked, enjoying a brisk, sunny afternoon that my dad had off of work.
My mom considers this the best day of her entire life.
Up until six months ago, she remembered everything about it with clarity that I have proven to be astonishingly accurate. To her, me and my brother were at a perfect age. We were all happy. My dad wasn’t burnt out at his job yet, or started the cough that would hint of the cancer to come.
My hands ball into fists as I pass the ashtray kept beside his favorite recliner. I’m not here to try to save him, though his death in twelve years will be horrible. Science’s failure to keep him alive inspired me to go into the field. Neither can I take away my mom’s second marriage. Miguel loved her, loved us all. We lost him last year.
The drones begin to buzz back to my duffel bag. A strange metallic wrenching sound rings out from the kitchen. I run into the room. Carter has a drone pinned to the linoleum. He bats at its propellers with a white paw. He’s been placid during all of my other visits—why’s he playing the attack cat, now?! In that instant, I imagine my entire known future destroyed because something happens to Carter, my mom’s perfect day becoming one of her worst.
I rush to extract the drone. It rises and buzzes away. I pry open Carter’s mouth to check for choking hazards or cuts. I palpate his neck, his face, his paws. His tail lashes in annoyance, and I soothe him with quick strokes. He looks okay. My warning timer dings. I have to go.
I can only hope he truly is okay.
My heart is still pounding as I return to the time machine. The drones begin uploading their data the instant we land in my lab, a mere second after we initially departed. I take comfort in that my house is still here and everything appears as it should, but unease continues to pulse through me hours later as I go to see Mom at the Memory Center. I carry the virtual reality headset I created.
We greet each other as I sit at her bedside. “Please tell me about March 9th, 1980,” I say.
Her face clouds for an instant, and then, to my relief, brightens. “The park and burgers day with Reggie and my little ones! My perfect day!”
“That’s right.” I squeeze her hand.
She looks me up and down. “You keep visiting me, don’t you? What’s your name again?”
Pain needles me, soul-deep. I squeeze her hand again, unable to speak. I can’t help her remember the here and now, and maybe that’s for the best. Miguel’s death almost broke her last year; the one mercy of rapid onset of Alzheimer’s is that she’s dwelled more often in the far-distant past, though it, too, has begun to fuzz.
I will help her to truly dwell there.
“I have special glasses for you to try out. Would you like to see your old house on 14th Avenue?”
“Can I?” She sounds intrigued.
I slip the unit over her head and initiate the VR prototype. She gasps.
“I am in my old house! Oh! And that—that’s my Carter! Hello, pumpkin!”
“I have the whole house mapped out, Mom, and most of town. Give me a few more weeks, and you’ll be able to pet Carter and feel him, too.”
She’s dreamily smiling. She’s lost in the past, and I’m grateful with that. March 9, 1980, her happiest day, can be the one that lasts forever for her.
© 2022 Beth Cato