I’ve always wanted to play with a “what if” story and finally got my chance with Anything. Anything is a novel about a man who learns about a traumatic event in his fiancée’s past and finds a way to travel back in time to reverse the damage – only to discover that doing so has wiped out any trace of their relationship. In this scene, Ken has just come back from his time journey to discover what he has wrought.
I stepped out into a strange new world. Only it wasn’t strange and it wasn’t new. Taxis dipped in and out of traffic as cars maneuvered to avoid buses picking up passengers. Drivers honked as they zoomed in death races to capture parking spots.
The uneasy feeling I’d had since returning to Stephon’s had began to subside. I hadn’t done irreparable damage to the time-space continuum. There were no antigravity cars here or pedestrians zooming through the air with jetpacks. Dolphins hadn’t become the new master race. This looked and smelled and sounded just like the Washington I knew.
I looked up at a White House helicopter overhead, so I didn’t see the rollerblader until he banged off my arm. The gawky teenager went into a split-legged landing like a fledgling ballet dancer. His pimply face twisted into a feral snarl. “Why don’t you look where you’re going, dude?” he said sharply.
“Why don’t you rollerblade in a park? And don’t call me dude, dude.” If he had been halfway polite, I would have helped him up. Instead I left him wallowing in a pool of his own obscenity as he struggled to stand. There was someplace else I needed to be.
For further assurance, I reached my hand into my pocket and pulled out my wallet, flipping through the compartments. My Platinum Visa and American Express cards were there. My name and address were the same on my Virginia driver’s license. So was my photo – I refused to contemplate the implications if that had changed. I definitely seemed to be the same Ken Timian who walked into Stephon’s shop some indeterminable time ago. I relaxed a little bit more.
I really wanted to hear Melissa’s voice. I could be home soon enough, but at that very moment, the thing that was most important to me was checking in with her, just to hear what she sounded like. I wondered if her voice would be a little different coming from a body that hadn’t had to carry a huge secret around for the past eighteen years.
I pulled out my phone and my number. One ring (so it hasn’t been disconnected). Two rings (a stranger hasn’t answered). Three. Four. Then a loud click. “Hi, this is Ken. I can’t take your call now. Leave your name, number, and a brief message and I’ll get back to you as soon as I can.”
I assumed Melissa was out running errands. We certainly had enough of them to do this close to the wedding. I took a deep breath and held the phone against my forehead.
My Audi was where I’d parked it, and when I reached the car, I discovered yet another indication that the world was very much the same. The supernatural powers of the Washington parking cops were still as strong as ever. The red EXPIRED tab had flared only three minutes before, yet already a ticket lay under my windshield wiper. This was a $25 tariff that I wouldn’t even think of complaining about.
Traffic on the way to Arlington was light for a late spring Saturday. I lowered the power windows as I crossed Memorial Bridge, smiling at the joggers and bicyclists on both sidewalks. The farther I got from Stephon’s the more real everything felt to me.
Jeez, I pulled this off. I kicked that horrible woman’s ass and I’ll still have plenty of time to make Melissa a great dinner. I hope she still likes Fettuccine Alfredo.
As I turned into the parking lot, luck blessed me again as a packed minivan backed out of a space near the apartment house door. I waved at the boisterous tots in the back of the van and they waved back. I didn’t even think twice about whether the doorman would recognize me, and his friendly nod underscored that I had nothing to worry about.
The mailman was just leaving as I entered the building. My mailbox key fit perfectly, revealing the usual flyers for pizza and oil changes, a couple of bills, and assorted solicitations. As I closed the mailbox door, my eye went to the white address label stuck to the front. KEN TIMIAN – APT. 12D. It would say, “Ken and Melissa Timian” soon. I was a little surprised that Melissa wanted to take my last name after we got married, but almost any guy will acknowledge that this is what he hopes for.
I glanced through the envelopes in my hand. I sighed longingly at the notion of changing history to eliminate whoever invented junk mail. Then the light bulb finally went on in my head.
KEN TIMIAN – APT. 12D.
Our mailbox said KEN TIMIAN AND MELISSA ARGENT.
The phone machine said, “Hi, this is Ken.”
Our answering machine said, “Hi, this is Ken and Melissa.”
Oh, my god.
I ran toward the elevator. With a sidestep worthy of an NFL wide receiver, I evaded the maintenance man coming out of the opening doors. He screamed at me in Spanish as I slammed the button for the twelfth floor.
At the seventh floor, the car stopped. Doors rattled open, revealing a curly haired woman in a short skirt. Get in, I willed her. Get in or get out of my way. I need to get to my apartment. I need to know that Melissa is still here.
Two more stops and we were finally on the twelfth floor. A left from the elevator, a right down the next corridor, and I was at Apartment 12D.
The plastic sticker on the door bore my name only. It was getting a little hard to pretend.
Maybe we didn’t move in together yet. Maybe the new Melissa is more independent than the old one was – if that’s humanly possible. Maybe she didn’t want to move in with me until we were married. Maybe we’ve already found that great house that we’re going to live in together.
I didn’t want to go inside. Inside was the answer to the most important question I had ever asked. I rested my forehead against the door for several seconds. My heart beat a Morse code. Finally, I stuck the key into the lock. It had been a while since I last prayed, but I asked for a few things and promised many more.
The lock turned smoothly and the door swung inward, the bottom hinge greeting me with its familiar squawk. I stepped over the threshold very, very tentatively.
This was not the place I shared with Melissa, but I knew it all the same.
I checked the kitchen first. There were the familiar red-and-white boxes stacked in a Leaning Tower of Pizza. Beer cans were piled in the recycling bin while dishes waited patiently in the sink for a trip to the dish- washer. I hadn’t been this sloppy in two years.
I went into the living room and examined the furniture. Everything was where it had once been. The leather-and-chrome sofa lay against the wall, clashing with the brown recliner and the mahogany table. I was once proud of my living room decor, and paid good money for it, too. That was before Melissa came along to point out that the furnishings blended as tastefully as a blue pinstripe jacket with plaid pants.
This was my place and my place only. But it could still be that Melissa and I just didn’t move in together. Maybe she’d just decided this apartment was beyond repair. There had to be a trace of her somewhere in here. Maybe a photograph, or a postcard, or just a yellow sticky note with neat handwriting resembling calligraphy. What about Sierra Club magazines and tourist guides for the Amazon jungle? Tofu and bok choy in the fridge?
But there wasn’t a single indication that she’d ever stepped foot in this apartment. That she’d ever walked into my life.
I collapsed into the recliner, grateful for the support of its plush, narrow arms. Something crunched underneath me. I looked down and saw a crushed Cheese Doodle that left an orange blotch on my pants.
“This can’t be happening,” I shouted to walls that did not answer. “This isn’t the way it was meant to be.”
I heard a sound.
Yellow eyes regarded me curiously from the foot of the chair. The cat jumped up into my lap, then just as quickly jumped out again.
“So I lose Melissa but I still have you, Wizard. Tell me life is fair.”
Wizard licked his paws. Then he meowed and rubbed against my leg in the universal feline signal that it was feeding time. Absently, I got up, took a can of cat food from the cupboard, and fed him. At least one of us would have what he wanted. This Wizard was a little chunkier than the cat I’d seen this morning. I used to share my takeout lasagna or Kung Pao chicken with him before Melissa convinced me that it was terribly unhealthy to feed him this kind of food.
I reached down to pet the cat, but he slipped away from my fingers. We were back to uneasy coexistence. I sat on the floor and stared off at this familiar/foreign apartment. Then I noticed the red light blinking on the answering machine. The digital counter indicated that I had two messages. I hit the play button. First came the sound of traffic. I forgot that I was being recorded when I called from the street.
Next came a woman’s voice. “Hi, Ken,” she said, and my heart skipped a beat. But the voice was higher-pitched and bubblier than Melissa’s, with a Southern accent and the bright and friendly tone of an airline reservation clerk. “This is Lori. Your friend Paul said you might like to get together. Someone I work with has two tickets to the Kennedy Center that he can’t use Wednesday night. Let me know if you want to go. It should be fun.”
I’m a logical man, magical trips to someone else’s past notwithstanding. As an attorney (at least I assumed I was still an attorney), I was trained to assess facts, not speculate. Now the facts assembled themselves in front of me in all their heartless glory:
Fact: There was no sign that Melissa lived with me.
Fact: A woman named Lori left a message asking me out on a date that my friend Paul set up.
Fact: That Paul was setting me up with women meant that he believed I was dating and not getting married next weekend.
Fact: I had managed to make an incomprehensibly huge mess of my life.
Michael Baron is The Story Plant’s Author of the Month. This means we are offering sensational deals on all of his works, including Anything. You can learn more at our website.