The woman slapped her hands onto the glass and fixed him a wild rictus of a grin. “Kevin!” she yelled; her voice muffled behind the window.
Kevin stared, bereft of words. Before he could recover, the woman had bounced away, run around the building, and then burst into the café. In a matter of seconds, she had landed in the seat opposite him. Her eyes went up and down like a yo-yo, studying him intensely.
“You haven’t changed a bit!” she declared.
Clearly the woman thought she knew him. But Kevin had never seen her before in his life. He was sure of it. She was smartly dressed in what he assumed was an expensive suit; her hair was cut into a neat, business-like bob; and her eyes sparkled with a vitality unknown to any of Kevin’s usual acquaintances. This woman was clearly from another sphere of society. So, what was she doing in a third-rate coffee shop in Brixton?
Kevin, always a slave to social convention, gave the stranger a weak smile. “You look . . . great,” he mumbled.
Her bark of laughter tore through the café. “There’s no way you know who I am!” she declared. The stranger extended a perfectly manicured hand. “Mai Tatsumaki,” she said. “We used to work together at Sanderson’s.”
Now his head was beginning to hurt. What happened to him not knowing her? Now she says they used to work together?
“We did?” Kevin said, hopelessly.
“We did, until I turned my life around!” Mai said. “And now I want to help you do the same. I think this company can really help you with your Sarah problem.”
Kevin reeled. How did this stark-raving stranger know about Sarah? Just who was she?
“They’re called Redux, and if you just go and tell them about your situation, everything will change!”
This had to be a joke. His eyes flickered around the room. Any moment he expected to see Lyle sat in the corner, giggling away. The topic of Sarah had once come up when Kevin was drunk, much to sober Kevin’s dismay. Lyle was the sort of man who remembered every embarrassing detail about a person’s life. He enjoyed using it as ammunition for one of his tasteless pranks.
But no one in the café was paying him the slightest bit of attention. Well, almost no one. This bizarre lady was still staring at him with an eager grin. Growing ever more uncomfortable, Kevin decided that the best route to escape was to just smile and nod.
“Is that so?” he asked. “Why don’t you give me their business card, and I’ll just –”
“I don’t have a business card!” Mai exclaimed, once more laughing at his naivety. She grabbed a napkin and quickly scribbled down a few lines. “It’ll take too long to explain it all; you’ll just have to go and see for yourself. But trust me, Kevin. This will change everything!”
Sarah Phelps had been the best-looking girl in school. Every boy had wanted to be with her, Kevin included. Since the day he first saw her Kevin had known she was the One. Even now, twenty years after that first meeting, his heart still fluttered when he thought of her strawberry-blonde hair, the cheap but tasteful perfume her mum used to buy her from Boots, and the electric green wristband she wore every day.
After years of pining for her, one day he had mustered up the courage to ask her to go with him to the prom. Miraculously, she had actually said yes. It had been the talk of the school. Kevin had been barely able to sleep for weeks because of the excitement. But, just days before the date, Kevin had suffered a broken leg. He had been bound to his bed for weeks, entirely missing the prom and his chance with Sarah.
Kevin never again had an opportunity. The school year ended with him still bedbound, and Sarah went to a college in another county, and then to university at the other end of the country. But not a day had gone by without him thinking of her, still firm in the belief that they were destined to grow old together.
He had no idea who this Mai Tatsumaki woman was, or how she could have known about his love for Sarah, but her declaration had haunted him. That was why, several days after his bizarre encounter, Kevin found himself outside an assuming little shop. He glanced down at the hastily scrawled address, then looked back up. The windows had been daubed with white paint and an unwelcoming looking metal grille was nailed to the door. The exposed brickwork above was cracked and, with every gust of wind, a little chip would peel and drift away. This did not look like the home of a reputable company. Knowing that it was probably the stupidest thing he had done in a long time, Kevin pushed the door open and stepped inside.
He felt his heart sink a little. Whilst he was relieved that it didn’t look like the den of a crazed killer, he was upset to find it looked a lot like a shop that had recently been deserted. The floor was a black and white tapestry of cheap vinyl. Large, discoloured patches betrayed where counters from years-gone-by had once stood. An array of boxes lay scattered around the room, some taped shut, others wide open with their contents half-spilled out. The uncovered bulbs dangling from the ceiling only heightened the room’s stark, abandoned feeling. Kevin was just turning to make his escape when a balding head popped out from a door in the far corner. It had bushy eyebrows, startled grey eyes, a squashed bulbous nose, and half a sandwich poking out of his mouth. The head was soon followed by the rest of the body. The man did not prove to be an impressive sight. He stood at a pot-bellied five-foot-nine, and there were grease stains on his knees and the elbows of his lab-coat. The sandwich wobbled between his lips as he looked Kevin up and down.
“Are you with the broadband?” the man asked, finally removing the sandwich.
“Erm, no,” Kevin said. Feeling his face flush with embarrassment, he looked again at the napkin. “Is this – erm – Redux?”
The dark suspicion suddenly evaporated into excited glee. “Yes! Yes!” the man exclaimed, shoving his lunch into his pocket. “Welcome! Sorry for the mess. I’ve been meaning to tidy up, but just haven’t found the time! What irony?! Ha!”
Kevin, who still wasn’t entirely sure as to the meaning of irony, offered only a confused little smile in response.
“Hewitt’s the name. Tim Hewitt. So, how can I help you today?”
“Well,” Kevin started, feeling increasingly more foolish. “I met someone the other day –”
“Ah!” Hewitt exclaimed. “Say no more! You met, fell madly in love, but you forgot to ask for their number? And now you seek my help?”
“What? No,” Kevin said. “I met someone who recommended this place to me, someone who said they knew me, but I’ve never met them before!”
Hewitt stroked his chin. “Hmm,” he murmured. “What was this person’s name?”
The man gave a nod, then disappeared back through the door. He reappeared moments later carrying a large bundle of envelopes. He quickly sorted through them before holding one up. “Here we are,” he announced. “Miss Mai Tatsumaki. I’m presuming she was a client.”
“Presuming?” Kevin asked. If she was a client, she was a client, right? Shouldn’t the man know?
“She must have been very pleased if she recommended us,” Hewitt said cheerfully. He pulled a slip of paper from the envelope. “She even gave us a generous tip!”
“I’m sorry,” Kevin said, interrupting. “But just what is this place?”
Hewitt looked at him non-plussed. “Miss Tatsumaki didn’t explain?” he asked. “Why, we’re a time travel business!”
Kevin waited several moments, then realised that he mustn’t have misheard. The man did in fact claim that he ran a time travel business. “You’re joking, right?” he asked.
Hewitt shook his head. “Not at all,” he said. “Welcome to Redux: the home of second chances! Whether it’s a job interview that went wrong, an exciting date you want to relive, or a final moment with a loved one you missed out on, it’s my privilege to give you that opportunity!”
“But – but surely if time travel did exist –”
“– it would be developed and owned by the government!” Kevin exclaimed.
“Have you seen the cut backs they’re making to scientific research these days?” Hewitt asked with a laugh. “They’ll be lucky if they can invent a new flavour of crisp. No, no, the private sector is where it’s at! So, what do you say?”
“What do I say to what?”
“Trying it out, of course!” the scientist said. “Clearly there’s something you want to change; otherwise, why would you be here? So, what is it?”
“But, how do I know it’s safe?”
“Well, just look at all these cheques!” Hewitt said, waving the envelopes in front of Kevin’s nose. “Surely that must be a testament to my device? And just think of all the people who might not have gotten around to sending me their money yet!”
“Why do you keep talking as if you’ve never met any of these clients?”
The scientist gave him a blank look. “Because I haven’t,” he said simply. “That’s the thing about time travel,” he went on. “These people use my device because there is something in their past they want to change; once they’ve travelled back and changed that event, their present selves have no reason to visit my store, and so they never do!”
Kevin could feel smoke begin to pour out of his ears as his mind tried to keep up. “But . . .” he said, “they still send you cheques?”
Hewitt nodded eagerly, a childish smile on his plump face. “That’s the remarkable thing!” he exclaimed. “It would seem, after altering the past, one still retains some memories of the former sequence of events. Gradually they fade like a dream, but for a while one exists with memories of both lives! My theory is that the bigger the change the quicker you forget. But my patrons still remember long enough to post me my payment.”
What was Kevin putting on the line? His friends? His family? Massive life events? Now that he thought back on his life, he realised . . . he didn’t care too much about any of it. He followed the man through the door and down a corridor cluttered with half-unpacked boxes and trails of knotted wires. He was led into a small, almost eerily empty room. The only thing taking up space was a straight-backed, steel seat bolted to the floor. Leather cuffs were on both the arms and the front legs, whilst what looked like half a bucket with goggles attached was dangling from the ceiling. Cables as thick as Kevin’s thighs were plugged into the back and threaded up into the ceiling. The whole thing looked like a homemade electric chair. Kevin suddenly felt like this was a bad idea.
“Is it dangerous?”
“Oh, yes!” Hewitt eagerly said. “After all, it’s time travel. But you can’t go outside your own timeline, and I believe there is a very slim chance of erasing your own existence.”
This did wonders for Kevin’s anxiety. He felt himself beginning to inch back towards the door. The inventor, noticing his ashen, sweat-soaked face, tried to soften his manic grin.
“Think of it this way,” he said, slowly, “if it doesn’t work, you don’t have to pay me! But, if it does work,” he went on, “your life will have changed in ways beyond your imagination!”
Since the age of sixteen Kevin had been imagining how different his life might have been; there was no scenario he had not envisioned, no dream he had not revisited, no hypothetical he had not pondered. Except for being offered a time machine to make the oh-so desired change.
There was still a part of him that believed it all to be an elaborate joke. Someone, somewhere, Kevin thought, was watching all of this and laughing at him. But, given how elaborate and detailed it was, Kevin was more than willing to see it through to the end. After all, when someone goes to this much trouble it’s only rude to leave early.
“I’ll do it,” he said, his voice cracking.
Hewitt grinned, as if no other answer had been an option. “Great!” he said. “Let’s strap you in then!”
With sweat streaming down his back, Kevin allowed himself to be guided down onto the hardbacked machine. “What – what are these for?” he asked, watching Hewitt tighten the leather straps around his wrists.
“Your body might start to spasm during the process,” the man explained, now playing with the straps around Kevin’s ankles. “The restraints are purely a precaution. For your own safety.” He took a step back, admired his work, then gave Kevin a wide grin. “Wouldn’t want you disintegrating on me, now, would we?”
“As soon as I lower the visor,” Hewitt went on, “I want you to picture the time you want to return to. Remember every last detail you can, and just focus on it. Understand?”
Even though the answer was a resounding no, Kevin still nodded. “Good!” the scientist said. Then, with another toothy smile, he lowered the bucket-like contraption over Kevin’s head, encasing him in darkness.
He listened to Hewitt’s footsteps drawing away. “Are you remembering?” he asked.
Still wondering when the punchline might appear, Kevin did as he was told. He thought back to that day when he was fourteen years old. He pictured everything.
He was at the Slope with Ronnie; it was a large hill behind their industrial estate used by most of the children for cycling, or skating down. The pair had spent the day there, just the two of them, with their bikes. Ronnie had just gotten a new one for his birthday.
“Remember every tiny detail of that scene,” Hewitt said, his voice beginning to sound distant.
Kevin recalled the rubber handlebars beneath his palm; he could almost feel the flecks of dirt that had become lodged in there. He could smell the freshly mown grass at the bottom of the hill, and he could hear the far-off sound of traffic.
The chair slowly began to shake. Kevin felt himself tense up. “No, no!” the scientist said. “Don’t leave the memory! What you’re feeling is just in your head. Focus your thoughts on that day!”
Easier said than done, Kevin thought bitterly. Trying to ignore the sensation he was about to be thrown out of the chair, he continued to relive that fateful day. Ronnie had just skidded down the hill, doing a full turn as he reached the bottom so that, when he came to a stop, he was staring back up at Kevin, a cocky grin on his face. In that moment Kevin knew that he had to beat it. Ronnie was the smuggest person he knew. He got the better presents, the better grades, the better girls. Kevin had always been chasing after him, trying to impress him. Well, now he would. He knew the trick that would wipe that smirk right off his pimple-blasted face. He would do a wheelie all the way down. He’d do it and then everyone at school would hear how cool it was, and he would be the envy of everyone.
He would also lose control of the bike halfway down. He would crash, be thrown into the air, and then come crashing down onto his leg, breaking it.
“Now is your moment.” The voice seemed to come from all around, but Kevin had no idea who it belonged to. Was it his? “Change your past! Now is your chance!”
Kevin had no idea who was talking to him, or what the voice was saying, but he suddenly realised that even attempting a wheelie was a bloody stupid thing to do. Besides, he realised, it was nearly dinner time, and he was starving. He rolled slowly down the hill, barely registering Ronnie’s look of disgust at such lack of daring, then made his goodbyes. Something nagged at the back of Kevin’s mind, as if he had just made some huge, vital decision. But what it meant to this fourteen-year-old was entirely lost.
Kevin’s eyes tore open and he took a deep lungful of air. It was as if he had just pulled his head out from under water. His heart was galloping in his chest and there was a pounding in his ears. He took several gasps, waiting for his pulse to slow down, then took a look around himself. He was at his desk at work, just like normal. How did he get here? When did he get here? Wasn’t he just at that shop? The one that claimed they had invented time travel? The one that would, supposedly, change his life? He peered over towards the cubicle in the far-right corner. There was Lyle, staring at his computer whilst exploring his nostrils with his little finger. “What the –?”
Then it hit him. The pain landed as if someone had hammered a railway track spike into his temple. He doubled over with the agony, whacking his head on the desk on his way down, not that he felt it. It was worse than the worst hangover he had ever suffered. There was a pulsing in his brain that threatened to tear the whole thing in two. Kevin suddenly realised what was happening. The time machine had worked! Memories of a life he hadn’t lived were being grafted onto his mind. He was remembering things for the first time. A whole two decades of a rewritten existence were hurtling past his eyes. And then it was over. He collapsed back into his chair, panting and sweating like he had just come back from a marathon.
Babs from the desk opposite gave him a withering stare. “What’s wrong with you?” she asked, little pity in her voice.
“Not well,” Kevin managed to wheeze.
“That’s what happens when you go out drinking with Lyle,” she said, turning back to her screen.
Drinking with Lyle? That was a one-time thing, wasn’t it?
No. New memories slunk into view, revealing that he and Lyle regularly went boozing together. The thought made some bile rise up in Kevin’s throat. Hang on . . . He looked again around the grey-walled, grey-ceilinged, grey-carpeted office. Why was he still here? He had gone back. He had changed the past. Everything was supposed to be different. It was supposed to be better!
He jumped to his feet and then staggered towards the bathroom. He locked the cubicle behind him and then collapsed onto the toilet. Remember! Remember! He had changed the past. He had made sure not to break his leg, and that meant he had been able to take Sarah Phelps to prom. His life should have been better!
Racking his brain, Kevin tried to work out how this life had also gone so wrong. He remembered he had taken Sarah to the prom; According to his new memories it had been the best moment of his life. So, what happened next? The pair had, after that night, officially become a couple, and with it, they had become the talk of the school. He remembered feeling like a celebrity whenever heads would turn as he walked down the corridors.
Plus, the cool kids had started treating him, not only like he existed, but like he was one of them! Kevin’s head snapped back up. Now he knew what had happened. There was a party thrown by Connor Clayton, captain of the school’s football team. Kevin had been invited. His first party since he had been five. The only problem was it had been the same night as Sarah’s birthday. Kevin, like the fifteen-year-old fool that he was, had chosen Connor’s party over having dinner with Sarah and her parents.
How could he have been such an idiot? Easy; he had thought the hard part was over. Being the child that he was he hadn’t realised that maintaining a relationship was all about hard work. He hadn’t paid her enough attention, he hadn’t doted on her enough, he hadn’t realised how lucky he was. And because of that she had ended it.
Weeks had been spent trying to win her back, but to no avail. It hadn’t taken her long to find his replacement: Connor Clayton, of all people. And so, after that heartbreak, Kevin’s life had proceeded pretty much exactly as it had before. Except, apparently, he was really good mates with Lyle now – who, actually, wasn’t as bad as everyone said he was.
No! He sprang to his feet, almost falling back down as his foot slipped in a puddle of piss. Those few weeks he had spent with Sarah had been the best of his life. He was not going to give up on the life he knew was rightfully his! Ever so slowly he could feel the memories of his old life beginning to scab over; but there was one echo he clung to.
Hewitt, stuffing a sausage roll into his breast pocket, emerged with a suspicious frown. “Are you –?”
“No, I’m not with the broadband,” Kevin said, guided by the echoes of a life now no longer lived.
“I wasn’t going to ask that,” the scientist said sheepishly.
“I need to use the machine again!” Kevin insisted. “I need to go back!”
Confusion danced across Hewitt’s face for a moment, then his eyes widened with surprise. “You’re a customer!” he exclaimed. “I’ve never met a customer before!”
Kevin, ignoring Hewitt’s excitement, pushed past him and made his way to the backroom. “I – I have so many questions!”
“I don’t have time! I’m about to forget why I’m here!”
Hewitt paused, staring at Kevin with unmasked awe. “Fascinating!” he gasped.
“Are we doing this or not?!”
“Right, right, yes!” He obediently jumped to tightening the straps and lowering the helmet. “Now, what you need to do is focus on the point –”
“The point I want to change, yes, yes, I know!” Kevin snapped. He didn’t hear what Hewitt muttered; he was instead casting his mind back to Sarah’s birthday. He had just been invited to Clayton’s party and he was feeling great! He was just leaving Chemistry – and there was his girlfriend waiting for him. She looked uncharacteristically shy as he approached.
He wasn’t going to screw it up this time! He was going to say yes. He was going to have dinner at hers. He was going to have a good life!
“Wake up you lazy shit!”
The voice tore through him like a buzz-saw through a dead tree. What was she talking about? He was awake! He was –
Kevin stuffed a pillow into his mouth as something cracked inside his skull. As the agony waved over him, he saw the memories tattooing themselves onto his brain. He had used the machine again, hadn’t he? Was that right? He bit right through the stained pillow, almost choking as the stuffing burst into the back of his throat. Slowly, the pain began to ebb away.
Wiping the tears out of his eyes, Kevin slowly sat up. He had spent the night on the sofa, again. He looked down. Was this his sofa?
He looked up again. There was a woman in the kitchen. His kitchen. This wasn’t the flat he used to live in. He never lived in that flat. That life didn’t exist anymore. Kevin tried to focus on the new memories, though he could still feel the shadows of the old lives lingering.
Maxine, that was her name.
Revulsion turned his stomach over. Who the Hell was Maxine? She was his on-and-off again fiancé. A woman who, when Kevin was especially drunk, and the lights were down low, looked something like his old school girlfriend Sarah Phelps.
The last traces of booze evaporated out his body. Old school girlfriend? The memories rolled down like boulders. It had happened again. How had he fucked up again?!
Maxine rounded on him, pausing only slightly as she saw the alarm on his face. “What’s up with you?” she asked. “Hangover kicking in?”
If only she knew. “Y-yeah,” Kevin murmured.
“Pfft,” she scoffed. “Like I’m taking that excuse. You’re going to the job centre today, even if I have to drag you there myself.”
He didn’t even have that crappy job anymore? No. He remembered that the closest he got to that job was taking a piss in the alleyway behind it one night in 2015.
“Come on!” Maxine yelled, dragging him to his feet.
“What about my breakfast?” Kevin grumbled, falling into the old routine of this new life.
His girlfriend pressed a cold slice of unbuttered toast into his hand. “Get a job and you’ll be able to afford a better breakfast,” she said with poison in her tone.
With that Kevin was herded out of his flat. He looked around in confusion. The weight of three different lives were suffocating him. He looked to the left and he saw the corridor of the now, and when he looked to the right, he saw the corridor of his old flat. That one was hazy, almost a transparent blur. He was jobless, in a relationship that sucked the life out of him, and he had a stomach ulcer. There was one memory of his previous lives that suddenly shone like a lighthouse in the fog.
The pain lanced through his skull and landed in his right eye. He almost lost control of the car, only avoiding the lamppost by a hair’s breadth.
“Dad? Are you alright?”
Kevin’s head snapped round to stare at his son. Of course! Memories piled up in his mind, threatening to smother him. He and Sarah had had a baby together in the final year of university. She hadn’t wanted it, he had. Now he had the son but not her.
The first thing Kevin noticed was that Hewitt had hair. A lot of it. A ponytail trailed all the way down his back. He also had a limp.
“What happened to your leg?”
The scientist frowned at the familiarity. “Erm . . . I was in a traffic accident a few years back,” he said.
Kevin considered this odd, but thought nothing more of it. He had half-a-dozen unlived lives crammed inside his head, and he was finding normal thought a little difficult.
“Can I help you?” Hewitt asked.
“I need to go back again!”
“Go . . . back?”
“I need to use your time machine again!”
The confusion left the inventor’s face, replaced instead by an excitement Kevin had seen too many times. “Oh! You’re a customer!”
“Yes, and you have so many questions for me because it’s such a unique opportunity,” he said, parroting the man’s words yet to be spoken. “But I need to go back now!”
The look of concern returned. “How many times have you done this?” he asked, taking an unconscious step between Kevin and the door to his machine.
“I don’t know. Three times? Five? Everything’s all . . . messed up . . .”
Hewitt glanced down at his leg, chewing nervously on his bottom lip. “And . . . you’ve never seen me with a limp before?”
This did not seem to ease the scientist’s anxiety. “Tell me, have I ever explained to you the Butterfly Effect theory before?”
“I don’t have time to talk about bugs!” Kevin pushed past him and made his way to where the machine sat. This, at least, looked the same. Hewitt trailed after him like a worried balloon. “When you go back,” he said quickly, “find me before the thirteenth of January twenty-fourteen!”
Kevin threw himself into the chair, sliding his wrists into the restraints.
“Tell me to avoid taking Belstrom Road that day!” Hewitt went on. “It’s very important!”
“Yeah, yeah,” Kevin said dismissively. “Just get on with it, will you?!”
Reluctantly, Hewitt lowered the helmet. Already Kevin was picturing the scene. They were about to leave university. Last time he had suggested they spend one last night together, and that had produced . . . Larry. They had called their son . . . Larry. Wow, they really mustn’t have wanted him. Kevin shook his head.
“Don’t do that!” Hewitt said, his voice sounding far away.
He wasn’t going to make that mistake again. When then? When was a good time to change? Yes! One night, one random, unimportant night when they were wrapped in one another’s arms in the early hours of the morning. The time of night when your heart is open and nothing seems absurd. That had to be it! She was there, hovering between awake and asleep, and he could feel himself murmuring those all-important words . . .
“Are you listening to me, Kevin?”
Blinding pain seared through his body. No matter how many times he felt it, he could never get used to it. He gritted his teeth, grabbed hold of the table, and waited for the rollercoaster of pain to subside. His head felt like a Russian doll, stacked with different lives that he had now never lived. How many times had he gone back? Ten? Fifteen? Fifty?! It was impossible to count.
But he didn’t need to. Not anymore. Once his skull no longer felt like it was being cracked open with a spoon, he eased his eyes open. Sarah looked at him, concern shadowing her face.
“You okay?” she asked.
Kevin nodded, smiling weakly. “Just a headache,” he murmured.
“Right,” Sarah said. “Well, I – I have something I’d like to say, Kevin.”
After everything he had gone through, she was finally his. They had been together nineteen years; no children, neither of them wanted them. But they were happy together. Finally.
“I’m leaving you,” Sarah announced, looking away.
Thunder filled Kevin’s ears. Surely, he must have misheard. “Wh-what?” he stammered.
“I think that we should separate,” she went on. “I’ve been thinking it for a while now – a long while. But every time I tried to bring it up, I don’t know, you just always seemed to be able to say the right thing!”
The right thing? What was the right thing now? This couldn’t be happening! The entire room seemed to be spinning. He felt his stomach lurching and his eyes begin to burn. He could change her mind! “Sarah . . .” he said, “you don’t mean that, really?”
She nodded. “I don’t know what it is, Kevin, but . . . even after all these years, you’re still just the awkward, goofy teenager who asked me to the prom.”
“No – no I’m not!” Kevin whined, reaching out for her hand. But she was already on her feet. A few of the other diners glanced over at them, grateful for the mid-meal entertainment. She chose this place on purpose, knowing that he would never make a scene. When he went back this time, he wouldn’t let her make that mistake!
But Sarah still stood there, looking at him with a certain sadness. “Maybe,” she said softly, “if we’d met at different points in our lives, when we’d both had time to grow up, maybe things would have been different.”
With that, she turned and was gone. Kevin threw his head into hands with such force that he sliced his forehead on the edge of his ring. What the Hell?! She was leaving him? Again? No, this was nothing. How many times had he watched her leave? And how many times had he convinced her to stay?
Maybe . . .
Yes! That was it! She was right. He had just been going about it all wrong. He rocketed to his feet. “Redux!” he shouted at the top of his lungs.
The entire restaurant stared at him. Well, they all thought, that was worth the price of the meal.
Kevin was woken by someone kicking him in the shins.
“Wazzappnin?” he mumbled, pulling his legs away from his attacker.
The woman looked down at him, her mouth curled in distaste. “You’re not dead,” she said. “That’s good at least.”
He looked around himself for a moment, his head filled with sponge. Where was he? What was he doing? Last night . . . that’s right! Last night Sarah had left him and he had . . . what he had done?
“Where am I?” Kevin asked, dragging himself up.
“You’re sleeping rough in front of my shop,” the stranger declared. “Now get out of here before I call the police!”
“Redux!” Kevin exclaimed. Every other thought was fuzzy and indistinct. But that one word blazed like an Olympic flame.
The woman looked at him with wonder. “How did you –? Never mind,” she said, shaking her head. “If anyone looks like they need it, it’s you. Come on.”
Kevin followed the woman inside and was instantly thumped by a sense of déjà-vu. The shop floor was littered with half-unpacked boxes, the unshaded bulbs overhead flickered into life, and there was a faint smell of damp coming from somewhere. But something was wrong.
“Hewitt?” he suddenly said, looking around the stark room.
His new companion looked at him with alarm. “How do you know that name?” she asked.
“Where is he?” Kevin asked, continuing to search the room. “I need his help! Who are you? What have you done with Hewitt?!”
“Calm down!” the woman said, trying to sound soothing, but only coming across as annoyed. “I’m Catherine Poultice, I own this shop.”
“No, no you don’t,” Kevin insisted. “This place is owned by a man named Hewitt. He has a first name, but I can’t remember it.”
“Timothy,” Poultice said. “His name was Timothy Hewitt. But . . . he died about nine years ago, in a traffic accident.”
Kevin felt his blood run cold. He couldn’t explain why, but the news left him feeling hopeless. Poultice studied him with a new found curiosity. “How do you know Doctor Hewitt?” she asked. “And, more importantly, how do you know about Redux?”
“I . . .” Kevin sank down onto one of the unopened boxes. “I . . . can’t really remember.”
Catherine’s eyes suddenly widened. “You’ve used it, haven’t you?!” she asked giddily. “You’ve used the time machine!”
The faint shadows of unlived lives flittered through Kevin’s mind. He nodded dumbly.
“Amazing!” Catherine breathed.
“I – I need to use it again!” Kevin said, standing on shaking legs.
A dark look passed over the woman’s face. “Hold on . . .” she said. “You’ve used this machine . . . with Doctor Hewitt?”
“I think so . . .” Kevin said, he closed his eyes, trying to focus on a memory that was starting to fade. “Short man, going bald – except one time he wasn’t, he had a ponytail.”
“You’ve . . . you’ve gone back more than once?”
“I . . . I have to get it right!”
The young scientist leant herself against the wall, staring at nothing in particular. “I found Doctor Hewitt’s research when I was clearing out his office,” she said. “He had been working on this for most of his life. I thought . . . I was honouring him by finishing it. But now I think . . . time travel is an inherently selfish act. Our past doesn’t belong to us! After all, one life affects another, and another, and another. To travel into the past and change it doesn’t mean changing our own lives, but it means changing everyone’s! What right do we have to change someone’s history without their permission?”
“Would you mind regretting your life choices after you’ve helped me?” Kevin growled, making his way to the backroom.
“But – but just think about what you’re doing!” Catherine complained.
“I have!” Kevin said.
There it was. Seeing it again made all the previous lives feel as solid as if he had really lived them. Bizarrely, the machine was unchanged. It was still as nauseating to look at as ever. But, also, it was strangely comforting to Kevin. He lowered himself into the chair and looked towards Catherine. She was lingering in the doorway.
“What are you waiting for?” he asked.
“I’m . . . I’m not sure if I want to do this,” she murmured.
“If it makes you feel any better,” Kevin said, “once you’ve flicked that switch, technically you never will have done this.”
Reluctantly, Poultice started tightening the straps around his wrists and ankles. She paused, however, with the helmet in her hands. “Have you considered therapy instead?” she asked.
“Just turn the machine on!” Kevin snapped.
The helmet was lowered, and darkness was restored. All right, he thought to himself. What did Sarah say? Yes, that’s right. He had tried too early, that was the problem. He had tried keeping a teenage romance alive. But, if he waited a few years, let her learn to miss him, then it would be alright!
But when? When should he make that move?
The lives rolled in his mind like the reels of an old movie. Where? Where? Where?!
No, no he wasn’t ready. He couldn’t remember! Couldn’t remember the perfect time to make his move!
His heart beginning to jump in his chest and his body starting to tremble, Kevin landed on a memory. He couldn’t tell which timeline it was from, but it would have to do. A Facebook invitation, received years ago, telling him that a school reunion was happening. He hadn’t accepted back then, because why would he? His life was a mess. He had no relationship, he was living in a grubby little flat he could barely afford, and his job consisted of ringing up people to try and sell them kitchens they didn’t want. Why would he go back and be laughed at by his old school bullies? But She would be there. Maybe. A strange feeling stole over Kevin. Yes, he thought. He would go back. He would go back and make the move he should have made when he was fifteen. She would remember him, of course she would. This was going to be the start of something good . . .
“Earth to Kevin!”
The pain was slowly ebbing away and, when it was finally gone, Kevin was confident enough to open his eyes. Lyle was looking down at him, that annoying smug smirk still tattooed to his face. “Daydreaming again?” he asked. He nodded down to the ringing phone on Kevin’s desk. “I think that’s for you.” He then sauntered away, chuckling to himself.
Kevin stared at the phone. Something didn’t feel right. Sure, his phone never rang. But there was something else. Something felt . . . missing. He picked up the receiver, and then placed it back down, silencing that awful screeching ringtone. He needed time to think. With that nagging itch, like he’s forgotten something important, Kevin slowly spins his chair around. He takes in the bland, grey office. Every fibre of his body screams that he shouldn’t be here. That’s not a surprise. He’s felt that way since he first started. But today . . .
There’s Babs, sitting opposite, blandly staring at her computer screen. There’s Lyle, flirting creepily with one of the new hires. There’s Mai . . . Mai? Mai? Like a genie bursting out of a magic lamp, all the lives unlived appear in his head. What is Mai Tatsumaki doing here? What am I doing here? I should be with Sarah Phelps! I should be living the good life! He jumps out of his seat and bounds over to where Mai sits, chewing absently on the end of a pen. She gives a startled shriek as Kevin grabs her by the shoulders.
“What happened?” he yells.
“What?” she exclaims. “What are you doing, Kevin?!”
“Why are you here? You shouldn’t be here!”
“Bit racist, Kev!” Lyle laughs, but his eyes betray no humour. He, like the rest of the office, are looking at him with unrestrained alarm.
“You – you visited a company! You told me to go as well! But – but I can’t remember what it’s called!”
“What are you talking about?” Mai asks, throwing him off. “Have you fucking lost it?” She backs away from him, fear in her eyes.
“I need . . . I need to go back!” Kevin cries. His memories are growing faint yet again. He knows that, soon, he’ll have forgotten once more. “Re . . . re . . . Redux!” he sighs. “That’s it!” He runs out of the office; no one tries to stop him.
Now that he was focussing, the memories of Redux became clearer. Almost as if he had lived them. It was a company that offered its clients a chance to travel back in time and fix any mistake they made in their past. Kevin had used it . . . how many times now? With the memories swirling together like a faint tornado on the horizon it was impossible to tell. But he knew that the last time he had used it things had gone . . . well, he was back selling kitchens over the phone. That wasn’t right.
He paused at the top of the street. This was the place, wasn’t it? Things were getting foggy again. He could remember the front of the shop, but was this the right street? Slowly, trying to retrace steps he had never taken before, he walked down the pavement. What was the name of the guy who owned it? Merit? Howell? It didn’t matter. He would remember when he saw him. He stopped. Or was it a woman?
Kevin looked up. This was the place. The memories were hazy, but he was sure he was right. The windows were painted white, the door had a metal grille covering it, and the exposed brickwork was crumbling with every gust of wind. What he didn’t recognise was the wooden board over the door that read: ‘Available for Lease.’ Feeling his skin grow cold, Kevin tried to step inside.
The door wouldn’t budge. He tried again. Still, he couldn’t get in. Panic began to set in. Where the window met the wall, there was a small sliver that hadn’t been painted. Kevin peered in, pressing his nose against the glass. The inside was dark and abandoned. The black and white chequered floor was free of any boxes. There was no sign of anything that might resemble a company.
He felt the bottom of his stomach fall away. “It’s gone,” he murmured. But that wasn’t quite true. It had never been there. His chance at changing his life for the better was gone. Now what? He was stuck back in a failed life that –
Something inside Kevin’s head snapped, like a rubber band that had reached its breaking point.
He looked up and around himself.
Where the Hell was he?
He glanced at his watch. “Shit!” he barked. He should have been at work hours ago! What the Hell was he doing wandering around deserted shops? He shook his head. Not for the first time, Kevin marvelled at what a mess his life was. When had it all gone so wrong? He remembered like it was yesterday being a fifteen-year-old; full of hope as he looked forward to taking the hottest girl in school to the prom.
Sarah Phelps. Even thinking the name brought a sigh of desire to his lips. He’d never made that prom, of course. Broke his leg doing some stupid stunt on his bike, hadn’t he? Maybe that’s where it went wrong? Maybe, if he had taken Sarah to the prom his life would have turned out differently?
Kevin smiled; That was a nice thought.