They come back for weddings, for funerals, for birthdays. For stupid reasons and for good ones, too. You can wait for them in places where people gather, in places that might have mattered.
Most of the machines are small, subtle. Keep an eye out for gaudy jewelry, nice watches, too-heavy suitcases. Look for people who rummage in fanny packs, and watch for the unseasonably dressed. They forget the weather; they come from ice ages or desert earths and they dress for those, they misjudge or misremember the climate of the past. For a November wedding, they’ll arrive in a thin violet button-up, no coat or sweater. They’ll look up at the sky and smile wryly at the flurry, like it’s a prank and someone has gotten them good.
When they’re sleeping, look for birthmarks and deformities. A knob below the sternum, a bump along the spine. Like metal, like a ball bearing, just beneath the soft skin of the throat. Sometimes this is the machine, secreted away in the body of the traveler.
They may be touchy or distant. They may not know how to keep a conversation going. Don’t be discouraged if they only want to talk about you. Don’t be discouraged if they only want to talk about themselves. They could be historians drinking away their travel grants. They could be tourists or exiles. They won’t tell you exactly who they are. Offer them water if they’re thirsty or too nauseous to speak. They may need a place to stay.
They can’t take you home with them, or they won’t. If you have a getaway plan, if you’re hoping to hitch a ride into another eventuality, forget about it. If you ask them why that is, why they can’t carry you forward, they’ll tell you it’s a problem of futures, that you have too many.
You’ll lose them quickly, but don’t hold that against them. You’ll find and lose and find them again. Look for the ones who set fire to park benches, who linger in bowling alleys but never bowl. Who on sidewalks outside churches speak wistfully of their many scattered husbands. Look for the ones who stop to shovel dead deer from funeral roads. Spend the day following them. Spend the week following them. They won’t tell you what they’re doing, or not at first, so you will have to keep on asking.
Are you visiting family? Are you here on business?
You want to stock up on brussels sprouts while you still can, they’ll say. Or, You got to see what’s going up in the old Blockbuster lot. You may not be able to tell when they’re teasing you.
Look for the tired eyed. The past is exhausting. If they take notes, read them. If they keep a journal, read it. Devise little tests: ask if they want to visit imaginary cities, eat invented dishes. Figure out what they know about the past and what they don’t. Figure out what they know about you and what they don’t. Think about the way they wake up, what it says about them. Do they get up before the alarm, or do they sleep through? Do they stare at the ceiling, persuading themselves to wake up, or do they turn over and hold you? Do they use all your hot water? You may have to teach them things they should already know: how to work a cell phone, how to open a bottle of wine.
Remember: you can’t make them appear. All you can do is wait in the right places.
They disappear. They come back. Winking in and out like bad bulbs. For a long time, this is how it will be. They disappear on the train to Branch Avenue, no warning or goodbye. They come back, months later, for your coworker’s wedding. For your sister’s awful potluck. For your uncle’s funeral. Stupid reasons and good ones, too. Sometimes they’ll come back smiling, better dressed than before, the heart of the party. Confusing your friends, tipsily trashing movies that never existed.
But you’re as likely to find them sullen, clogging your brother-in-law’s toilet with paper towels two years after you thought they were gone. If you’re persistent, in these moments, you might wring a real answer out of them. They might tell you it’s an art, chronological graffiti. The art is in the difference, a timeline changed and measured against the original, measured against what it was going to be. Watch them wad up a paper towel and stuff it down the pipe, wet to the elbow. You might not know what to say, from here on out. Do they look a little pleased with themselves? Ask them what they changed, even if you don’t expect an answer. Maybe they’ll tell you: little things that add up. A burning bench, a bad joke, some scooped-up roadkill.
If you ask how it was supposed to be, they’ll say you don’t understand, that there was never one right way for the world. You’re not wrong to feel wistful for things that never happened. Just keep asking how it was going to be, what would have been if another future had never come along.
You’ll find yourself searching your apartment now and then, not sure at first what you want to find. Look on the couch, behind the shower curtain. Look in the bed, when the covers are bunched up enough that maybe someone is curled up underneath. Get up in the middle of the night and walk through each of your rooms, even if you only have two, look in the kitchen, look on the fire escape. Stand there and wish you smoked, look down at the street below, the lights in the next building. Go back inside and look at where the dishes are piling up. Stand in your living room in the dark, listen for creaking floorboards. Try to find the places that might have mattered.
Eric Gregory’s stories have appeared in Lightspeed, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, Shine from Solaris Books, Zombies: More Recent Dead from Prime Books, and elsewhere. He lives in Carrboro, North Carolina. Visit him online at ericmg.com.