Sarah, Returned--Chapter 41 (A Steemit Original Novel)
Matt gapes at me, struck dumb for the moment, grappling with the enormity of what I just said. Grandma never had dementia. Then, as if filing it away with the many other strange things he’s been asked to accept today, he gives me a curt nod, and turns back to the phone.
Grandma continues her speech on the screen. “I’m sure you’ve read some of the letters between Professor Johnson and me. We wrote to each other for many years. More than twenty, though you have only seen a small sampling of our correspondence. Obviously, this means we knew each other before we lost your parents. As you might imagine, I've been interested in the mechanics of time travel for most of my life. Over time, the professor and I consulted with other physicists, purely on a theoretical basis, of course. We also conducted our own experiments, trying to figure out how this all works. We didn’t just write, either. I drove up to the university many times to meet with him in person, until he transferred to M.I.T. in 2010. I’m excited to tell you we solved some mysteries, though others remain. Maybe one day, they can be solved.”
She turns away from the camera, picks up something from the dresser behind her, and turns back. Her hand is closed in a fist over whatever she took.
“The most important thing the professor and I worked out together is how to open a portal on purpose. I believe that is in one of the letters I left in my memory box, which I’m sure you’ve gone through by now. The second most important thing we learned, through much trial and error over several years, is how to control where the portal goes. It turns out it doesn’t have to be random. Of course, if you are doing it by accident, as I did the first time, it will be random. You can control it by either touching an object that traveled through time and originated in the period you want to go to, or by thinking of the time you want to visit. Obviously, the second option is the easier one, especially if you want to travel to the future. Using the newest discoveries in quantum physics, which say our thoughts have an effect on quantum particles, even across vast distances, the professor and I wondered if the same principle could be applied to a portal, to make navigation through time easier. Fortunately, it does work. We both experimented with it a few times to make sure.”
“Wait.” I reach out and hit the “stop” button on the video, freezing Grandma’s sweet face in the frame. “She traveled through time more than once?”
“About a dozen, by my count,” Jacob says, nodding. “Of course, Lizzie was always going off to visit that professor. She probably traveled more often than she let on.”
“But, we age regress when we travel,” I press, perplexed. “Wouldn’t she be younger each time she came back here, to this time?”
“Depending on a person’s age when they go through a portal, there seems to be a window of five to fifty years they can age regress,” Jacob admits. “Lizzie was a master at makeup.”
“And wigs, props, and lying!” I exclaim, rocked to my core. “Do you mean to tell me my grandmother was a young woman most of the time I knew her?”
“Excuse me,” Matt says, raising a hand to get our attention. “If you two could slow it down a little for those of us who are still in the real world?”
Poor Matt. He’s hopelessly lost in this conversation. Whatever else is on Grandma’s video, I hope it clears things up for him. The good news is he looks like he might be starting to come around to all of this. The bad news is he seems to be beginning to wonder if he is the one who is crazy.
“What was she going to do, Sarah?” Jacob points out. “Be your grandmother when she looked like she was in her 20’s? She read about time travel, and corresponded with the professor for decades, but didn’t start traveling on purpose until after your parents were lost in the mudslide, as far as I know. By that time, you already knew her as an old woman.”
It’s reasonable. Damn it, I hate to admit it, but it is perfectly reasonable. It’s not something she could explain to us, or to anyone who knew her, except Jacob, who seems to have known about this from the beginning. With the ability to open a portal and go anywhere she liked, while still being able to come right back to us, she could go away for decades, and we would never know it. She might have lived several full lives in other times, only to come back to us on the day she left. Of course she couldn’t let us see her as a young woman. What would we do with that, as kids? And, if she came back young and claiming to be our grandmother, no one would believe her. We would have been taken away and put in foster care.
I finally get it. At last, I understand why she did everything she did, including faking the dementia and moving away to assisted living, where everyone on staff was paid off to keep her secret. She wanted to keep traveling. She wanted to find her sons. It probably became harder to get away once Matt was 18, and she was only taking care of me. When Matt finished college, he could take over responsibility for me. With her money, she could pay anyone to do or say anything she wanted, so she started backing away from us. Sure, she did it slowly at first, but only to make it seem realistic. She made sure she didn’t act too far gone until Matt graduated from college and could take care of me without her.
Even then, she stayed home until I graduated high school; she probably wanted to keep an eye on me in person until I was grown. Only once Matt and I were both grown up did she make the move to assisted living. With everyone at the facility knowing her secret,--at least of her not having dementia--and being paid very well to keep it from us, she was finally able to have freedom to do whatever she liked.
Yes, I understand. God knows I don’t like it, but I understand. I might do the same if I thought my own children were lost out there in the mists of time, especially if I were caring for grandchildren and had unlimited funds.
There’s more, though. Think about it, Sarah. If she could keep traveling, aging back to a young woman each time, there would never be any reason for her to stop. A person could literally keep traveling like that forever if they wanted to. Why wouldn’t she keep going?
What if she left on a trip and never came back? Her funeral was closed casket, as she requested in her will. Neither Matt nor I ever saw a body; she didn’t want us to. What if she found one of our dads, or both of them, and couldn’t bring them back with her? Wouldn’t she stay with them? Or, she might have had an accident in another time, and died there. Reverse aging doesn’t protect you from injury, as I found out escaping the burning Otis garrison.
My God. What if she just got tired of pretending, and wanted to be set free? Leave the assisted living facility behind forever, and all the people she was paying to keep quiet. What if….?
“Jacob, is my grandmother still alive?” I demand. If she is, I want to see her. Now.
He pauses, looks at me and Matt, and seems to come to some sort of mental decision. “I don’t know,” he admits. “But, she was the last time I saw her.”
Oh my God. “Which was when?”
“About six weeks ago.”
“Just before she ‘died.’ Was it all a game? Did she just want us to think she was gone?”
I thought after time traveling twice, nothing could surprise me anymore. I was wrong.
“All I know is she took another trip, and didn’t reappear right away. Lizzie got so good at time travel, she could go through a portal, be gone for decades, and reappear seconds later, as if she never left. It was in her explicit instructions to me, as well as to the staff at the facility, that if she was ever gone for more than a week, we activate the funeral protocol. When she didn’t come back after the most recent trip, I waited precisely one week, then informed the staff at the facility that she was not returning.”
“Did they know she traveled through time?” It’s a silly question, but I have to know. I tend to think they didn’t. This isn’t something you can discuss with just anyone, as Matt’s increasingly horrified and nauseous expression is making clear.
“No, of course not. They just thought she liked to travel around the world. She was never gone for long. With air travel the way it is, quick trips were reasonable for someone with her money. I told them she decided to stay in Italy, and they took care of the rest, making it look like she died, as she paid them to do. They never knew why she wanted her grandchildren to think she was dead if she decided to live elsewhere, but she paid them enough they never asked.”
“I think I’m going to be sick,” Matt mutters, and he looks like he really might.
“It’s okay,” I reassure him. “I threw up three times when I realized time travel was real.”
“It’s not that,” he insists. “I’m still not convinced that’s what’s really going on here. What I do believe is that our grandmother was living a double life, and she might still be alive out there, wanting nothing to do with us. Why would she do that, Sarah? She always seemed like she loved us more than anything. Why would she leave us on purpose, and make us think she had dementia all those years on top of it?”
“Lizzie loved you two more than anything in the world,” Jacob insists, his tone sharp. I think he’s a bit annoyed that Matt would ever think otherwise. “I promise you, she would be here if she could. Something kept her from coming back. Yes, she put on the dementia act because she needed more time to travel freely, but she always came back to get updates on you, enjoy visits from you, and make sure you two were okay. The fact she’s not here right now means something kept her from returning. Don’t ever think she didn’t love you, Matt.”
It’s all too much, even for me. But, we still haven’t seen rest of the video. Maybe there’s something on it that will give us a clue. Without another word, I hit the play button on the phone Jacob is still holding out in front of him.
Grandma’s face starts moving again. “You have to have the right object to travel through time,” she continues. “The good news is that you only have to come across that object once. That’s what happened to me when I touched the antique mirror when I was 19, the one that brought me to the 20th century. You have to have physical contact with an object that has been through a hole in the fabric of time. If you touch one without knowing it, you can get pulled through a time portal extremely easily. However, once you’ve been through a portal, anything you brought through with you, including your clothing, can be used to travel again. I got into the habit of picking up a purse or basketful of trinkets each time I traveled, because when I brought them back through a portal with me, they could be used to travel again. You can only use each object to open a portal once, though. After that, they’re no longer good for traveling. The only exception is clothing. You can cut that up into individual squares and make a bunch of distinct objects out of it, each one good for one trip through a portal. The professor and I used to think any object you brought through a portal with you couldn’t be used by you again, but could be used by another person. It turns out we were wrong. The only difference between a random object and one you brought with you is that the random one will open a portal as soon as you touch it. If it’s something you brought with you, it will only open a portal if you intend it to. And, once you learn to control where you’re going, you can control where the portal goes, and when it opens. You can keep it back while the object is in your hand, until you’re ready to go through, just as I’m doing now with this little ceramic parrot I picked up on a trip to 2232. Oh, you kids have no idea the lengths I went to in order to keep you from accidentally picking up something that traveled through time. I carefully cataloged everything I had with me when I first came here, as well as everything I collected on other trips. I even kept Jacob away once you came to live with me, just because he knew the truth. I didn’t want to take any chances on losing one of you through a portal. I couldn’t have borne it, knowing you were children, lost and alone in a strange time and place. But, you are old enough to know now.”
I check Matt. No emotion on his face at all. Instead, there’s fascination. He might be coming around. God, I hope so. And, that part about things we bring with us through portals being good for opening new ones? Hallelujah! I have the dress from 1699 I was wearing when I came back to 2017 hanging in my closet. It means I can go home. No more searching Grandma’s floor boards or going to every antique store in the state. I have what I need to go home today. Thank you, Grandma.
“Now, before I show you what I’m about to show you, there are two more important things you need to know. One, we don’t yet know what causes age regression when you travel through time. It happens every time you do it. The professor was still working on that one, the last time I talked to him. Two, there are people who aren’t able to go through a portal, and we don’t know why. Rather, I should say, we don’t yet know why. The professor still thinks it may be a genetic thing, but he is not one hundred percent sure. All we know is we have tried with a few test subjects in the lab and in the field, and some people can do it and some can’t. Maybe you two darlings can’t do it at all, and all my concerns about losing one or both of you through a portal have been for naught. We just don’t know yet. However, we have figured out so much else about how time travel works, I have no doubt these two remaining mysteries will eventually be solved, as well.”
She opens her hand, revealing a small ceramic parrot painted in many bright colors, about two inches tall. “I usually don’t do this in my room here, in case someone on staff were to see it, but there are no cameras observing me, at my request, and it’s dinnertime, so most of the staff are busy helping the residents eat. I’ve already informed them I will be eating elsewhere this evening. They are used to such announcements. Now, my darlings, watch closely.”
Grandma turns so her left side is facing the camera, and extends her arm, holding the parrot flat on her open palm. She gazes forward with great intensity, never blinking, and in a split second, a large, oval portal flies open, making a slight swooshing sound. You can almost hear the fabric of time and space ripping. It’s amazing how easily and seamlessly it heals itself once the portal closes. I know, because I’ve seen it twice.
“Matt,” she says, not looking at the camera. “I have a lead on your father. You both know by now I believe one or both of your fathers survived the mudslide, and I’ve been searching for them. I think they may be traveling, too, having figured out how to open portals, but not how to control the destination. I keep missing them. I’m going to go to England in 1543, as that is the most recent information I received as to your father's whereabouts, and it is the strongest lead I currently have. I will be back as soon as I can. I love you both so much. Always remember that.”
Without another word, she steps through the portal. There’s no pulling at all, as there was both times with me. Once she’s through, the portal closes and disappears. The video ends.
“Were you filming that?” I ask Jacob.
“Did she come back?” There’s a little catch in my throat this time, as I try to suppress tears.
“She did,” he assures me. “Almost immediately after I stopped recording. That’s how it worked with Lizzie. She’d been gone for twenty years in her time, but seconds in mine. She looked about twenty-five when she returned, and she said she guessed that must be about right, judging by how she felt.”
“When did you do this?”
“Last summer. She knew you and Matt were old enough to know the truth. She only asked that I wait until the day came that she never returned before I told you.”
“So, you came to her celebration of life to tell us?”
“No. Well, not entirely. I wanted to pay my respects, in case she really was gone for good, and to re-acquaint myself with the two of you. I thought I would share the video with you and Matt, and maybe you would both come to me later with questions I could answer. I had no idea you would have that fight with Karen, and leave the house before I had a chance.”
“While I was gone, did you suspect I’d traveled? Through time, I mean.”
“I did wonder.”
“It was her memory box. I took that with me when I left the house. I hated the thought of Karen touching it. In the very bottom, there was an old pearl earring. It didn’t have a companion. I picked it up, and that’s what opened up the portal. At least, the first one. What do you think I was looking for up in Grandma’s room last night?” I direct this next question to Matt. “I was searching for the other earring, or anything else she brought with her from 1864, so I could go back.”
“I believe you,” Matt says, his voice soft, and almost feather-like. He looks up from the phone to me, eyes sincere. “I believe you, Sarah. It’s crazy and it’s messed up, and I feel like I never knew Grandma at all, but I believe what you told me is true. You, too, Jacob. I’m sorry I doubted you. I never will again."
Catch up with the entire "Sarah, Returned" series here: