The smell of gasoline and an insistent tug on his arm brought Kent back to the living. Pain in his leg and the sharp sunlight in his eyes disoriented him.
Jerry pulled him through the shattered window.
“Tara? Where’s Tara?”
She came to consciousness briefly as the growing collection of motorists struggled to pry the vehicle off her legs. A dozen men managed to roll it free. But no one dared move her.
“I’m here Tara. Just be still. Help is on the way.”
“My purse. Get my purse.”
He found it. Weakly, she reached in and fished out a small box. “Marry me, Kent. Right now.”
Inside was a matching pair of silver rings. The sight of them hit him in the stomach. He had to consciously remember the phrase, ‘third finger, left hand’, but he slipped the larger one on. It fit perfectly.
She lifted her left hand slightly and he slipped hers into place. His wife sagged slightly. Her eyes closed.
“Tara, stay awake. You’ve lost a lot of blood.”
She smiled. “Lousy honeymoon. Should’ve...should’ve caught me when I was frisky.”
Noise from an approaching helicopter caught his attention. Looking down, her eyes were closed.
Kent’s leg injury was minor. With bandages and a cane, he parked himself beside her bed. No one else existed. Not the doctors, not Bill and Jerry. He monitored her breathing as closely as the instruments on the shelf, tracing their green lines.
One leg up through her hipbone was shattered, but it was her head injury that was the prime concern. Surgery relieved a growing hematoma. Still, she didn’t wake up.
“Kent?” Jerry sat down beside him.
He only nodded. Nothing seemed very real. He watched her sheet rise and fall.
“I just wanted you to know that you don’t need to come back to the lab. The three of us are hard at work.”
He blinked. Something about that statement was wrong.
Jerry nodded vigorously, glancing at the open door. “Right. Bill and I, and our boss, are working round the clock, so you can take your time here and not worry about the project.”
So, another Kent Shaw had come back to work—back in time.
He gripped Jerry’s arm. “Did I... Did he say anything about Tara?”
Jerry’s face dropped. “Not a word. He...doesn’t even acknowledge the question. It’s security, I’m sure.”
“Security. Right.” Or I don’t want to think about it.
Jerry patted his hand. “So take your time. Get well, take care of Tara for us.”
“Jerry, you understand about the rings?”
He had been right there with him, at her side at the accident.
“I think I do.”
“Tell the doctor, won’t you. I don’t have a piece of paper that says we’re married, and I’m catching some flack for staying here.” He stared at the floor as he fingered the ring on his hand.
Jerry nodded. “I’ll do that.”
The next day, Tara’s mother arrived from North Carolina. Together they waited for her to wake up. Three weeks later, she stopped breathing.
Kent walked the corridor alone. He had no desire to return to work, but there was nowhere else for him to go. Tara had blasted into his life, and left it a smoking ruin, all in the course of minutes.
He looked at his ring. It had settled in for the long haul. He twisted it, felt its hardness. He doubted he would ever take it off.
Jerry called the hospital within hours of her death. “The boss didn’t show up for work today. Did something happen?”
“Yes.” And Kent realized he had to go back, to pick up the research just hours after the accident. He owed it to Bill and Jerry. He owed it to Tara. There’d be a funeral in North Carolina in a few days, but he had a lot to do before then.
What would happen if I didn’t go back? It would be a paradox, so that was impossible. Even if he tried, it would still do nothing to stop the accident from happening.
The possibility that Tara could be reborn drifted across his conscious mind like a faint scent of cactus on a breeze. He paused, realizing he was standing just outside her room. The door wasn’t locked. Other than the light haze of dust, her room was exactly the same as it had been when she walked out. Work clothes were draped over a chair. A dresser drawer was open. A clothes hanger had been dropped on the floor.
A bulge in the pocket of her lab coat drew his attention. It was a bound lab notebook. He noted a scrawl. “Dr. Shaw is being a jerk again.” The date was two months ago. He sampled a couple of pages at random.
Reading the diary was like hearing her voice again.
Maybe somewhere in here is the mystery of when she bought the rings, and why she decided to marry me.
The cadence of her words and the clothes she wore was like a touch of her spirit.
She’s still alive back before the accident! He even had an appointment to keep. He’d never escorted General Hershey out of the building.
“I’ve got to see her again.” He had to find his own logbook. It was time to make more time.
He paused at the doorway to the conference room. He had combed his hair and put on a new lab coat.
Inside, he heard the general’s voice, “I’ll extend your funding another month. Show me better results by then, or I will put this place in mothballs.”
That was his cue. He opened the door. Tara looked up and dazzled him with a smile. It took his breath away.
The others looked at him. He had to say his line. Forcing his expression to be neutral, he said, “I’ll escort you to your car, General.”
Tara tilted her head. Her eyes switched back and forth between him and his earlier self—taking in all the differences in a flash.
How much could he communicate in a smile? I never even had a chance to say ‘I love you’. Courtship to disaster was over in seconds. And he had said his one and only line.
The general walked in front of her, and he was compelled to turn away—to play his role.
There’s got to be a way to get her back!
Every step he took, as he walked silently with the general, a voice was screaming in his head, “Stop her! Stop her now!”
Tara was going to get into her car in just minutes. He was already in the past; all he had to do was change something.
But intensive weeks of staying within the lines, making sure that he did nothing to cause a paradox had left its mark on him. His mind raced, but he stayed in his groove, saying the parting words to the general and waiting for the car to drive off.
Taking a step in the direction of the conference room with the intent to change history was hard, but nothing stopped him.
Tara went to her room. The rest of us went to the parking lot.
“Find her. Say a word.”
He opened the door to her room. It was exactly the same. She’d already come and gone.
He ran towards the security gate. Just outside the glass door in the bright sunlight, he could see her yellow dress. She was moving quickly toward the cars.
“Tara!” He called, but she couldn’t hear him.
“Dr. Shaw!” The guard came quickly from behind his desk. “Halt.”
When he ignored the man in uniform, a second one appeared from somewhere and together they restrained him.
“Sir! I just signed you out! Please explain to me how you can be back inside when I just saw you leave.”
He slumped when he saw both cars drive past. It was too late.