Paul wasn’t aware of anyone as he walked down the sidewalk under an inky night sky until the hand grabbed his arm. The fingers dug into his flesh with enough force to make him wince, and there was enough strength in the arm connected to it to spin him around fast enough to leave him dizzy. He found himself facing a shadowy figure outlined by the streetlight behind it. Then the other hand, balled into a fist, slammed into his mid-section. The air whooshed out of his lungs, and Paul folded before sinking to his knees. Then something that felt like a sledge hammer hit the side of his head, and the night seemed to light up like lightening had struck nearby.
His head rang, but through it, Paul heard a voice yelling at him. “You stupid bastard! How the hell could you be that fuckin’ stupid?” He forced his head up, and found he found himself able to resolve details of the face in front of him. The features, the overly-sharp nose, the scar on the chin…it was his face, older and more wrinkled, but it was him.
“Yeah, I’m you, and I’m here to tell you how much you’re about to fuck your life up. You just tried to talk to Nancy Corbett, didn’t you? And you didn’t have the guts to tell her how you feel, did you?” Older him gave a disgusted head shake, then grabbed Paul by the collar. “You have to go back and talk to her, now. If you don’t, you’re going to regret it for the rest of your life.”
None of it made sense. How could an older version of him be here, now, telling him all this? Paul opened his mouth, found his jaw hurt, and realized he could taste blood. Did I bite my tongue, or did that last hit knock a tooth loose? He spit, trying to clear his mouth, then focused on the man in front if him. Older Paul had none of the flab he’d feared he would develop. If anything, the version of himself looked like he was in better shape than the current him. But the older him had no more patience than he did. He shook Paul until his vision blurred, then leaned forward to yell in his face.
“Hey, did you hear me, or did I hit you hard enough to knock what little sense I had loose?”
Paul spit again, shook his own head, the focused on the man in front of him. “I heard you the first time, damn it! I’m just having a hard time figuring out how an older version of me could be smacking me around.”
Older Paul let go of his collar and stepped back. “Well, your brain might almost be working if you’re wondering about that. Remembering all those science fiction stories about time travel are you? Wondering how this can happen, a clear temporal paradox? Well, it’s not hard.” He held out his left arm and pulled back the sleeve of a rather ordinary looking jacket to reveal what looked like a large wrist digital watch on an extremely ugly band. “This got me here, and as far as the paradox part…well, let me worry about what happens after we finish talking.”
“You got here because you’re willing to wear the biggest, ugliest digital watch ever made? Seriously?”
That drew a sharp, disgusted look from older Paul. “No, you fucking idiot. I got here because this thing is the controller for a time machine built by the lab I work at.”
That perked current Paul’s interest up. “So I manage to get a job in a big-time research lab, do I? Nice to know all my interest in science fiction and stuff was worth something.”
Older Paul snorted. “Yeah, right. You got a job at a big-time physics lab all right, but you’re not a scientist, you’re a janitor, moron! You never did have the willpower to concentrate on the real science enough to keep your grades up. So you took a bunch of different odd jobs until you managed to land a job vacuuming offices and swabbing toilets in Teller National Physics Lab. The real scientists treat us like a tame monkey, but I was smart enough to understand what they were working on. So I stole the controller and used their machine to come back in time.”
“Wait, you got a job in a research facility, and you find out they’re building a time machine…and all you can think to do use it to come back in time to tell me to confess my feelings to a girl? And you call me as moron.”
Older Paul drew back his hand and took a swing at younger Paul, who got his own hand up to block the blow. The two men glared at each other, dark brown eyes staring into dark brown eyes until the older one blinked. “All right, fine. It wasn’t just for that I came back. You have to understand how not telling her how you feel will effect you…and more important, you have to understand not speaking will effect Nancy.” Older Paul shook his head, clearly disgusted with his own failure. “What happens to you is simple: When you don’t tell Nancy you love her, you convince yourself that there’s some other woman out there, waiting for you. The next woman you’re interested is happy to use to to make her real boyfriend jealous, but she doesn’t give a shit about you. After her, you manage to fall for one women who either doesn’t like you ‘that way’, or or who just plain aren’t interested in you at all. You end up alone, wishing you had someone in your life.” The face of the older version of him twisted like he’d bitten into some bitter fruit, and his eyes fixed on him again. “But Nancy, what happens to her is far worse. She ends up marrying Jim Unger. You remember him, don’t you? The rumor was that Nancy’s father forced Jim to marry her, that he’d gotten her pregnant or something. Whatever happened, they had a couple of kids while Jim moved from being a drop-dead drunk to a violent drunk.” The older man closed his eyes, shook his head, and Paul could see tears streaming down his cheeks. “I was getting off work when our sister Lena called me. She lived next door to them, and saw the cops come after someone had tried to contact Nancy. They found the whole family dead. Jim had evidently beaten Nancy to death, then killed their kids before hanging himself.” The other Paul drew a shaky breath before continuing. “I guess I should be glad he had the decency to kill himself, because when I heard, all I wanted to do was kill him. But you’ve got the chance to stop all that. Tell her how you feel, tell her you love her. Keep her away from Jim, no matter what.”
The time machine controller blinked a bright red, and the older version of Paul stepped back. “That’s the signal I was hoping for. It means I don’t have a time line to go back to, that I’ve changed the future enough to remove myself from existence. That’s how I planned this. It’s okay if this version of me doesn’t exist in the future, as long as Nancy lives. Now, go save her. It’s time for me to leave, forever.”
The other Paul seemed to glow, a light that spread from his center outward becoming so bright the younger Paul was forced to shut his eyes. Even then, he could see the light, shining through his eyelids, outlining the veins in them blue against a scarlet-pink background. Then the light was gone. Paul opened his eyes, blinking away tears from the final assault on his vision, to find himself temporarily night blind. As his vision returned to normal, he saw nothing remained of his other self. It would have been as if he had been visited by some strange dream if his jaw and midsection didn’t still hurt.
Paul stood, straightening slowly in deference to muscles that still complained, and brushed his knees off. “Well, I guess I have something I need to do.” he muttered to himself as he walked back to Nancy’s house. He was glad it wasn’t a long walk, but once he was again at her front door, Paul wondered if he could actually admit his feelings. Or even if her should. Then he thought of the girl he knew, a kind soul always willing to listen to him or anyone else, dead at the hands of an abusive husband, and his resolve hardened. He was raising his hand to press the doorbell when he heard the muffled scream on the other side of the door.
Paul threw himself at the massive door and was amazed when it burst open like the frame was made of cardboard. Another scream, louder, echoed through the house. “No! Get off me! Help, someone, help me!” The scream was followed by an audible crack, like someone was being back-handed, and Paul saw an arm rise above the sofa that sat with its back to him. “You want another one, bitch? Scream again, and you’ll get more than just a slap.” The voice was slurred, but he knew who’s voice it was, it was Jim Unger’s. Paul ran towards the sofa, but he wasn’t fast enough to stop the arm from sweeping down to deliver another blow. “Ow! What was that for, I didn’t do anything?” Then Paul was there to see the arm start to rise again and grab it.
Nancy was stretched out on the sofa, and Jim was straddling her waist. Nancy’s top was lying open, and her skirt was bunched up under Jim, who turned his head to stare at Paul. “Hey, Paul, whatca doing here? Me an Nancy here was just getting’ ready ta have a little fun.” Jim turned to glare down at Nancy. “I been goin’ out with this bitch for three months now, an she still ain’t willin’ ta put out. Can you believe that? I mean she invites me over, tells me her folks ain’t gonna be back for a couple hours. Then when I want to have some fun, she’s sayin’ no. What the fuck’s with that?”
Nancy reached up to touch Jim’s face, like she expected that to make him start thinking. “Jim, I just want to wait! I’m Catholic, so I can’t take birth control. I don’t want to get pregnant now, before we even graduate from high school. It’s only another month.”
Jim’s focus shifted back to the girl on the couch. “Yeah, that’s what ya been tellin’ me since we started goin’ out. Tellin’ me how much you love me an all…won’t even suck her man’s dick! Some real love there, leavin’ me wit blue balls ever time we go out! Tell ya what, you don’t want ta have sex, fine. Go find some other guy ta tease, bitch! I don’t need ta wait, plenty a girls willin’ ta fuck me!”
Jim stood on the sofa, an unsteady position when sober, but drunk as he was, he would have fallen over if Paul wasn’t holding his arm. His attention came back to Paul. He looked like he’d forgotten he was there. Then his eyes focused, and he gave his arm a shake. “So, Paulie ol’ friend, whatcha doing here? Still sniffin’ around after my girl are ya? Well, you can have her! I’m tired of waitin’ for Miss Proper here to figure out a man’s got needs. Gonna go fuck me someone like Lori Lewis…yeah, she’s a good slut, bet she won’t complain when I ask for some.”
He shook his arm again, and Paul let go, disgusted with his now former friend. The loss of support caused Jim to stumble off the sofa, and Paul was amazed he managed to stay upright. He did, and managed to come to something approaching an indignant stance with his fists balled on his hips as he looked first at Paul, then down at Nancy. “Yeah, you can have her, I’m done waitin’. Go on, date this guy. He’s too scared to yank his own plank, let alone ask a girl to do it for him. You two are a perfect match, both a ya so scared a sex you can’t even think about it, let alone do it.” He stopped, body swaying, then belched loudly before puking.
Stomach clenching, Paul turned away, wishing he were somewhere else, or that Jim were. He heard movement, then Nancy spoke. “Jim, sit down. I’ll go get the mop and clean up. Paul, why don’t you go home, things will be better if you’re not around making Jim angry.”
“You want me to go home? Hell, not five minutes ago, he was trying to rape you! Now you want me to go home because I’m making him angry?”
“It’s all right, we were just having a misunderstanding, weren’t we Jim?”
Jim’s had bent forward until his head was nearly between his knees, but on hearing Nancy speak, it came up. “No, we weren’t havin’ no misunderstandin’, I was fixin’ to walk out the door and leave you with this prim-an-proper asshole here.”
Nancy dropped to a knee in front of him, causing Jim’s eyes to focus on her. “It was a misunderstanding, Jim. I didn’t mean what I said…we can talk about this after Paul’s gone.” Her head swiveled around to fix on him. “I told you to leave, Paul, so go. My boyfriend and I need to talk about things that don’t concern you. Just get out and let us deal with this.”
Jim’s face tilted down for a moment to take in the scene before him, then rose again so he could leer at Paul. “You heard the lady, get lost. We’re gonna make up now, cause she’s gonna show me just how much she love me, ain’t ya babe?” His eyes and attention focused on Nancy as he unzipped his jeans. “Now, come on over here and show me you know how to do more wit that mouth a yours than talk. Time for you to show me some real love.”
Paul watched as the girl he’d been in love with forever literally crawled over to his former best friend and take hold of his dick. He couldn’t take his eyes off the scene, even as she opened her mouth and stuffed it into her mouth. Only when she began to bob her head back and forth did he turn away, sure now that there was no point in him being there. She would do whatever Jim told her to, no matter how degrading. He couldn’t save her from herself.
“Jim had evidently beaten Nancy to death, then killed their kids before hanging himself.”
The words echoed in his head, the haunted words of a man who had given his live to change the past. There was small bronze statue standing on the table next to the sofa, some long-forgotten hero immortalized by a second-rate sculptor. Paul grabbed it by the shoulders and advanced on Jim. He was so fixed on his pleasure, and Nancy on satisfying him, that neither of them noticed Paul until he slammed it into the back of Jim’s head. He hadn’t been sure what would happen when it hit, but the spray of blood and brains as Jim’s skull shattered left little doubt he’d done what he intended to do.
His lifeless body pitched forward, knocking Nancy down. She pushed herself out from under him, and only then discovered why he’d fallen. “Jim! Wake up, wake up! You can’t be dead.” Then she stared at Paul, her eyes focusing in on the statue he still held in his hand. “Why? Were you so jealous of us you couldn’t let me be with the man I loved? Did you honestly think I could love you? Why?”
Paul had no answers he could give her, at least none that would make sense. How could he tell her he was ready to spend the rest of his life in prison so she wouldn’t marry a drunken asshole who’d beat her and their kids to death some day? He couldn’t, but at least he’d spared her that fate. He dropped the statue, walked to the phone, and dialed the police. Nancy was sobbing over the dead body of the man she loved as he spoke to the dispatcher, telling how he’d just killed his best friend. He made no excuse when they arrested him, and offered no defense at his trial.
He had none,. He’d done what needed doing, it was as simple as that.