On the morning of her thirty-fifth birthday, Francesca awakes to the sound of a blip in the apartment kitchen.
It’s 9:30 on a Saturday; good thing she has no responsibilities to drag her out of bed any earlier. No kids, no pets; not even any creative writing essays to grade. She putters around finding her slippers and pulling her tangled hair into a ponytail so that Jason has time to make a pot of coffee. Not that he drinks—or eats—anymore. But he’ll pretend, for her sake.
“Happy birthday.” He doesn’t turn or look up from the stove, where bacon whispers in the pan. She can see the faint crackle of energy beneath his skin, even through his aggressively normal t-shirt and jeans. It’s not as if people don’t recognize him as Quantum without the suit, but he never wears it around her. “Big plans for today?”
She tells him about dinner at Elena and Mae’s at eight, hiking by the lake this afternoon, maybe stopping at Minnie Moo’s for a burger on the way there or back. He listens without a flicker of movement beyond the angle of his wrist to turn the bacon. She doesn’t remember when he stopped blinking. “Do you mind if I come with you?” he asks.
This man can slide back and forth through time, can rewrite the world with his slightest action. She doesn’t understand why he cares about hikes or dinners or, well . . . her. “Of course.” She doesn’t ask where he’s been or how long he’d been there. The last time she asked, he told her he hadn’t seen her for six years. For her, it had only been a day. No wonder he’s so distant. “Wear your real hiking boots,” she says. “It’ll be muddy after all that rain.”
• • • •
He’s there when she gets home from work one day late in November, after a particularly brutal school board meeting in which funding was cut across every department. Her job is safe, but the junior math teacher, fresh out of college, won’t be back next year. It’s such a small, stupid thing, and it doesn’t make any sense for her to be mad at him about it. His job is to prevent nuclear war, or assassinations, or—or something else important that she doesn’t even know about, because he already stopped it from happening. (She’s mad at him anyway.)
He’s standing by the counter when she enters, looking at nothing. At his feet, Trixie works busily at a knuckle of rawhide. “I took her for a walk,” he says to the wall. “I knew you’d be tired tonight.”
“Thanks.” Trixie offers Francesca her belly, but instead she takes her time peeling off her coat, her sweaty shoes, her uncomfortable stockings. She tries to peel the anger away, too, but it sticks tight. “Could’ve spent your time a little more productively, though. I would rather have enough cash in the district’s budget to keep me from having to pick up a section of Algebra II next year.”
He’s as still as ever, but a spark of blue static flickers in one of his eyes. “I’m doing my best.”
“Yeah?” She gets between him and the wall, daring him to look at her. “Maybe your best should be better.”
“You don’t remember Cassie.”
The non sequitur steals some of her momentum. It’s not a question, but she answers anyway. “. . . No? Are you trying to tell me you’re having an affair?”
“She was born on Valentine’s Day last year,” he says, his usual monotone flatter than ever, not even trying to infuse some affect into the words. “Her favorite color is orange. She begged you for a cat, even though she’s allergic. You compromised on a lizard. She wanted to be an artist until she took biology in her sophomore year; she ended up designing artificial lungs. Her wife’s name is Margaret—not Maggie. They had two girls and got mad every year when you went overboard on Christmas gifts.”
“That’s not—” Francesca insists. “Jason, we don’t—we never had kids.”
Instead of arguing, he blips into . . . into wherever the hell he blips to. Francesca sits on the kitchen floor, and Trixie brings her a shoe, which she helplessly accepts.
• • • •
She remembers the winter day, almost two years ago now, when he blipped into the garage before she left for school. “You don’t need me to drive you,” he’d said blankly, and no, there was no blizzard forecast, no reason she shouldn’t be behind the wheel, so he’d blipped away again and she hadn’t seen him for two months. He’d been there again on Valentine’s Day when she’d gotten home, and he’d made a lovely dinner and bought flowers. Daisies, her favorites, not the red roses he’d always brought her when they were first dating. Before the accident that made him Quantum. Before they’d grown old together.
• • • •
He stays away for a while again this time, and she lets him, but the silence stretches so painfully thin that even Trixie’s merry chirping from her birdcage isn’t enough to fill it all. Finally Francesca sends him an email, a timestamped invitation: please come back. As soon as she presses Send, he’s standing in front of her. “Every little change changes so much more,” he says. “I’m trying to make things better. But if you’re not in the world, I’m afraid I’ll forget why I should save it. And I’m scared that I’ve lost you anyway.”
“I am too,” she confesses, and now neither of them can remember how to look at one another. The silence is back, and no less stressful for being shared. But Francesca can make small changes, too. “I’m going to put on a pot of coffee,” she says. “Do you want to stay for a cup and tell me about her?”
He looks across her, through her, seeing things that never were, not in her version of the world. But there’s a shade of a smile there, and it reminds her of a man who used to buy her roses.
Spread the word!