All The Time We Need

Much needed August rain spotted her dusty wind shield as Caroline pressed her pass to the identifier, and then, her ring finger print. Nodding to the guard, she drove the FEMA van through the gate to the restricted area. Around her neck, were nine badges, and her eye was the final key to the interior lock of the old missile silo.

Caroline’s parents, Sophie and Frank, molecular physics professors, had spent their lives developing their dream. Unknown to the University and the Board of Regents, their true work was hidden in the confines of a superfund site. And now, passing through the final locked door, she was going to fulfill their dying wish.

Lead Engineer, Jordan, her handsome fiancé, greeted her in a warm embrace, nuzzling her neck. She air kissed his cheek and took off her hard hat.

Her father’s handpicked team of grad students was assembled. The systems were set. Alone, in the private office her parents had once occupied, she took deep breaths to shake off her pre-travel nerves. With a touch of a button, hidden under the chair rail on the wall, the panels silently moved to display the panorama of the lab just beyond the office door.

Sophie had designed this office to spend as much private time with her beloved husband as possible, as Frank kept his micromanaging eye on everything.

They had both cautioned Caroline to keep this view a secret, but she had decided to reveal it to Jordan when she returned from her travel. After all, he was her father’s most favored protégé, and they would be married next month.

From the windows, she watched the team activate the systems for the maiden near journey. Sophie had always planned that Caroline would be the first. Frank, a life-long feminist, thought it was a funny idea – taking the trip before she got her MRS. Degree, a sign that he approved of her engagement with Jordan.

It was Sophie’s idea to use a new minivan – in a style that hadn’t changed much for the past five years so it wouldn’t stand out in the near past and could be considered a desired antique in the decades to come.

When Sophie had winked out last year, from an aggressive form of cancer, Caroline was on the other side of the world. Busy with her task to research the needs of the over twelve million people of Chad. Energy rich, Chad was the seventh poorest country in the world, with over half of its population illiterate.

What her parents had planned as a joyous occasion – the first travel, had turned melancholy for Caroline with the death of her father, suddenly last month. Officially, it was determined, that his car accident had been caused by a heart attack.

To ease her mourning, Jordon had convinced Caroline to stick to the schedule for the maiden voyage. She would go to the cancer hospital, to tell her parents about her Chad research and to say goodbye to her mother. Although, now, her visit would be with both her parents.

She closed the wall panels and went into the launch area.

Privately funded by like-minded anonymous donors, not affiliated with any government or political persuasion. Her parents envisioned “The Travel Project,” as a humanitarian endeavor. Like the angels in the bible, who Sophie always suspected were time travelers, they wanted to reach out to good people who could make a difference. Like warning Noah about the flood.

Once in the minivan, a sequence of chimes alerted Caroline to adjust her helmet and fasten her seat belt. She smiled and thought, “beam me up Scottie.” There was a pang in her heart as she realized that this was the first time she had smiled about anything since her dad died.

She checked the navigator computer, which, at first glance, looked like a standard audio/ media/ GPS system. Staring at the settings, she remembered “Stull seven twelve noon.” – the last words her father whispered to her as he died. It hadn’t meant anything until now.

Behind the bullet proof glass of the control lab, Jordon and Charlotte, a serious, humorless, drab assistant were working closely together at the tracking board. They didn’t notice, that just before the countdown ended, Caroline had reprogramed her travel to the long abandoned grave of her great-great grandparents. She set the time for noon, July 12th, just hours before her father’s fatal accident on his way to meet with Jordon.

In a tingle and a murmuring rattle, she was gone.

The sun was in her eyes as her father opened the minivan door.

“You’re here, so that’s it,” he said as he embraced her.

“What –“

Before she could continue, he said, “We’ve been betrayed, or else you wouldn’t be here now.” He produced a standard thumb drive from a niche in the old sandstone marker. “I was hiding this just in case – now I see it’s necessary.”

“Necessary for what?” she breathed the words.

He put the thumb drive into her hand and looked at his pocket watch. Honestly, he could be such an antique at times, Caroline thought. He knew she wanted to linger but there was no time.

“A father and soon to be son-in-law libation. That’s what he requested.”

“Not Jordon? What are you saying?” Caroline’s knees weakened at the thought.

Her father hugged her as he spoke. “Last week, I stopped by the lab, unexpected and I heard him speaking to someone I couldn’t see, in Russian.” While I reviewed the plans for your travel, I also made a very thorough search and found the traces of files in Cyrillic, encrypted documents with a GRU echo of KGB’s attempt to hack our work a few years ago, when Sophie and I began to figure things out.”

Caroline buried her face in her father’s shoulder, “so your heart attack wasn’t … the car accident was a cover up? Let’s change this. Don’t go to meet him.”

Hands on Caroline’s shoulders, Frank pushed her gently away to look into her eyes. “You know that wouldn’t prevent Jordan or his conspirators from turning what we’ve created for good to an evil tool. Your life is in danger, too.”

“We haven’t perfected the travel-then-drive feature your mom always wanted – so at present, the gas tank is useless. Sophie designed a fail-safe measure.” He pointed to her clenched fist, “just behind the latch to open the fuel door is a hidden port. As soon as you get back insert the thumb drive – destroying the function files will take at least 90 seconds. Take your time with your seat belt, helmet. Tell Jordan, last-minute nerves – girlish panic about your lipstick.”

They both laughed at this suggestion.

“Before the countdown ends, pull the fuel latch and get out of the car. You’ll have a couple of minutes during the confusion to clear the area.”

Caroline nodded then blurted, “but backups? Won’t Jordan have access – he may already have made copies. Surely you have copies somewhere safe? Don’t you?”

Her father opened the car door and laughed as she got in.  “I omitted key data in all files and back-ups that Jordan has access to, and worms will carve out other vital information as soon as you insert the thumb drive.”

Caroline leaned her head back. “Your work and dreams? You want me to destroy it all?” When her father’s smile did not fade, she realized that the information was safe – somewhere.

“Now, reset controls to the time when you shut the door for your original trip to St. Luke’s hospital. Everyone will be preoccupied with launch prep and won’t notice the wrinkle of your re-entry. Be careful. You’ll be watched for years.”

Tears welled in her eyes. “Will I ever see you and mom again?”

All business, he leaned in, “Remember the game we played when you were in elementary school?”

Caroline was puzzled for a moment, then smiled broadly. “I do,” she said as she made the adjustments for her return trip. “All set.” She blew him a kiss, “I love you, Dad” and rolled up the window.

He signed, “I love you.” And she was gone.

Jordan and Charlotte didn’t notice Caroline slipping back moments earlier than she had left. She immediately plugged the thumb drive into the hidden port, feeling a renewed pride in her mother’s creative genius.

It was just as before, but instead of occupying herself with travel prep, she acted busy for at least 100 seconds, to be on the safe side. No longer anxious about the travel itself, she watched Jordan and Charlotte’s revealing actions and body language.

As Jordan started the countdown, she saw Charlotte slip the elastic band from her severe ponytail, her hair falling gracefully over her shoulders. When Charlotte removed her thick mannish glasses, Caroline released the gas fuel latch, removed the thumb drive and slipped it into her boot.

As the count reached five – four, Charlotte lean against the control panel to face Jordan. At “launch,” he pushed down the throttle and kissed Charlotte.

“Huh! Did they think she would just disappear and never return?” Caroline wondered.

She startled them with a blast of the car horn as she exited the minivan, stomping into the launch area and right up to the control room door.

Jordan feigned an innocent curiosity. “I never figured you’d be a coward and chicken out,” he admonished her.

“And I never took you for a cheat.” Caroline took off her engagement ring and made a quick gesture to give it to Jordan, then pocketed it. “On second thought I think I’ll keep this. You jerk!”

Charlotte sputtered Russian curse words, before being distracted by sparks shooting from the interior of the minivan. Smoke set off the fire alarm. A live wire disengaged from the vehicle and waved dangerously in the air.

“Caroline you’re crazy – you know I have backups of everything,” Jordan yelled at her. He wanted to kill her, but he grabbed a fire extinguisher and rushed to the launch area desperate to save the project. Charlotte followed him.

Water sprayed the minivan and an electric shock reached Jordan first, and caught Charlotte as she backed away, slipped and fell.

Caroline ran to the lab door. Coughing, she exited the secured area, and screamed for help to the guards at the silo entrance. One guard paused to check on her as others ran into the lab.

Tiles from the interior walls of the silo were dislodging and crashing around. The guards entered and gaped at Jordan’s lifeless body before rushing to Charlotte, who was stunned, but not seriously injured.

***

Sarah, Caroline’s BFF, who was to be her maid-of-honor, lingered by the car with an umbrella as rain gently fell.

Caroline placed flowers by the granite stone marking her parent’s grave, ignoring the new grave nearby, with a metal marker for Jordon. She looked up as an elderly couple approach her.

“We are so sad for you,” the lady said.

Caroline stared at them, with a vague memory from her childhood.

“Come visit us. When you’re ready. No hurry. Take all the time you need,” said the elderly gentleman, smiling. Then, they walked away and disappeared behind a stone wall.

Sarah came to Caroline’s side, “do you know them?”

Caroline shrugged her shoulders, “colleagues of my parents, maybe? I’m not sure.”

Sarah locked arms with Caroline, “You must be starving, where should we go?”

“Jordan’s apartment. When we got engaged, he made a big deal of leaving everything to me in his will.”

Later, Caroline opened the door to Jordan’s apartment. Sarah followed her,  “wow, this place is gorgeous. Are you moving in?”

“No,” Caroline answered.

“What are you going to do with all this?” Sarah asked as she walked through the fully decorated and furnished rooms.

“Habitat for Humanity. They are coming this afternoon to clear it all out,” Caroline walked to the mantel and changed the angle of a vase. She opened a kitchen cabinet and repositioned the coffee mugs just so slightly, then adjusted the angle of the rug by the sink with her foot.

Sarah watched as Caroline rearranged the pillows on the sofa, looked at the artwork on the walls and adjusted one that was tilted. “What are you doing?” she asked.

Caroline bit her lower lip and laughed quietly. “Jordan was very particular about the placement of everything.”

Caroline paused wistfully at the bedroom door. Then she turned the corner into a smaller room that Jordan used as an office. Her fingers found empty spaces among books on his shelf. She picked up the mouse from the desk where Jordan’s computer had been. Opening a drawer, she reviewed the carefully lined up and labeled thumb drives. She touched her finger to empty spaces, feeling the sticky remains of a recently removed labels.

In the laundry area, she rearranged the Cheer for dark clothes and the fabric softener bottles. With a final look around, Caroline walked out of the front door.

Sarah stood in the doorway, baffled at Caroline’s actions. “Don’t you have anything here that’s yours?”

“No. I planned to move in after the wedding. There is nothing here I want.”

As she got into Sarah’s car empty handed, Caroline observed the neighbors who’d always seemed stand offish, but too curious, peering out their window. As Sarah pulled out of the driveway, Caroline glimpsed the same tail that had followed them to the cemetery earlier.

She decided not to think about the furious Russian curses that spewed from Charlotte’s mouth. The same mouth that, in a perfect southern accent, befriended her with, “I’m Charlotte, from Charlotte.”

“Yeah, right,” Caroline thought. She was sure it was Charlotte, maybe with the help of the nosy neighbors, who had gone so carefully through every one of Jordan’s possessions. That’s why Caroline had waited until she heard Charlotte had left town before going to the apartment, to give them plenty of time to find everything they wanted to steal.  She believed her father had bugged or destroyed everything of value. After all, Frank always paid attention to details.

Gradually, over weeks and months, the gossip died down about the crazy professor and his rumored ideas of time travel. Whisperings, of how he wasted his life on experiments that went up in smoke, faded. Accusations, that he was a lunatic whose dangerous experiments killed people, were dismissed in court. It was ruled an accident involving an experiment with a minivan, after all, he’d died before the calamity.

On the first anniversary of Jordan’s proposal, she left FEMA and started a new job as a reference librarian at the University. Flirts and passes bounced off her as if she were Teflon. Potential beaus gradually lost interest.

On the second anniversary of her father’s death she adopted an older dog, “Jolly,” from the Humane Society. She convinced herself she wasn’t lonely, but she knew it would be awhile before she could ever trust herself to love again. A dog would be good company.

On the third anniversary of her mother’s death she planted daffodils in the cemetery. With Jolly respectively by her side, Caroline observed there were no drones overhead, no cars parked near.

It was evening when Caroline drove slowly out of the cemetery, Jolly riding shotgun. She parked in a field and ran around with Jolly in the moon shadows, feeling freer than she had in a long time. Everything was still. No sign anywhere that anyone noticed her at all.

On the fourth anniversary of the destruction of the lab, Caroline resigned from the library. She announced that she was taking a research position at a distant university. As to why she was selling all her stuff, “I feel like traveling light,” she said, “starting over.” Her colleagues nodded with sympathy.

The day her new identity cards arrived, Caroline dropped her cell phone over a bridge and disconnected her GPS. She took a bus to the next city, where she rented a car in her new name.

While she drove toward the wonderful gazebo in the neighbor’s yard, she thought about the games her parents taught her. How to keep a poker face. How to notice every little detail of everything.

Her favorite of all was the spy game. The neighbors played too. Little notes, candies, and limericks with clues, were tucked away in hidden crevices of the gazebo. When she noticed or found anything, she left notes in the drop box. She was praised when she noticed – teased when she missed. Soon she could retrieve things and slip notes to the adults without them noticing.

When she and Jolly reached their destination, the neighbors, looking again as young as they had when she lived next door, invited her to the back yard. Lemonade and cookies were ready for her, just as before.

“You’ve been traveling? To Chad?” she asked.

“Your research was very helpful,” the man said.

“We’re glad you’ve come. Your parents are preparing for your arrival,” the woman said.

Caroline took a big bite out of a frosted sugar cookie, “they taste just like I remember.” She finished it off in a couple more bites and reach down to pet her dog. “I’m taking Jolly with me,” she informed them.

They chatted into the evening, enjoying the sunset. Caroline looked forward to working with her parents in Chad, but tonight there was no hurry. “We have all the time we need,” the neighbors reminded her.

Cafe Management is run by the administration of The Confabulator Cafe. We keep things running smoothly, post stories by guest authors, and manage other boring back-end tasks.

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