Fiction: A Ring

Every day at midnight between December 1st and December 25th I'll be posting genre fiction about Christmas Eve. The first installment is a short science fiction piece.

By: Erin L. Snyder

Even before he lays a finger on the small, wrapped box, Charles Windmire knows precisely how it will feel. He is surprised by this, at least in part. He’d expected a sense of nostalgia, being here, being now, but this transcends that. He knows the texture of the gold paper and the way the soft fabric beneath it will give the tiniest bit when he squeezes it. He knows the how firm the gift tag is, just as he knows what’s printed on it.

“To my dearest Lin, in celebration of our first Christmas together... and to all the others that follow.”

The irony is not lost on Charles as he lifts the box from its spot beneath the tree. And looks at it. All, just as he remembers. It isn’t happening once, but many times. He feels dizzy and sits down.

It is an effect of the journey, he suspects. He needs to regain his bearings. Catch himself. He doesn’t dare speak aloud, because there’s nothing that scares him as much as the idea he might wake the people sleeping upstairs. Not even getting caught at the lab terrifies him so much.

The lab. They would fire him at the very least. Would Dr. Veirdin do something more? The doctor had once alluded to the possibility. “If I ever found someone using my machine.... I... I sometimes wonder. I wonder if I ever did. Because, if anyone ever used it without permission, I could make sure they never had.”

In the early days of the experiment, Veirdin had once came in while Charles and Trevor were joking about the possibility of going back in time and killing Hitler. To their surprise, Veirdin hadn’t scolded them on the dangers of changing past; rather he simply asked, “Why kill? Find their birthday. Find their mother’s name. Go back nine months before and give her a flu or a cold. It would be enough. The man wouldn’t be born. A different man would be, but not the same.”

He’d seemed so clinical about the way he’d said it. Charles had always wondered if Veirdin had ever done such a thing. But then, perhaps Veirden wondered the same. When the past is altered, the future is replaced, as well: for all intents and purposes, as soon as the action was done, the act itself would be replaced, as would the actor.

Charles was counting on this. When he was finished here, everything from this night onward would change. Veirden would never catch him, because he’d never sneak in to use the time machine without permission. He’d lose the last three years; nothing would please him more.

It is December 24, 2009, the night before the biggest mistake in Charles’s life. A mistake he’s holding in his hand right now.

Linda: the greatest thing that had ever happened to him. The greatest woman he’d ever known. They’d fallen in love madly over a summer in grad school. They’d moved in together soon after. And then, in a childish attempt to keep her forever, he’d chased her away.

An engagement ring. After less than a year, he’d asked her to marry him on Christmas. What had he been thinking? She was a free spirit; she loved him, but she wasn’t ready for that kind of commitment.

She said “yes” when he asked, of course. Briefly, it had all seemed so perfect. But almost immediately, the second thoughts had started, followed by bickering and eventually fighting. She’d returned the ring when she moved out that spring, and by then Charles was almost relieved.

But as time moved forward, it became more and more clear what he’d lost. He met other women, had flings and short relationships, but they all seemed so pointless. With Lin, he’d felt so much more alive, so much happier.

Until it all fell apart because he'd been young, because he hadn't understood her. He never dreamed he might be able to correct that mistake. Even when he'd started working for Veirdin, he never actually thought the research would lead anywhere.

But it had. A real, working portal through time. A chance to fix a mistake that had destroyed his life.

Charles had been sentimental but also skittish. If things had gone wrong, he’d have tried to cover it up and move on. If, say, the ring had disappeared, he wouldn't have asked Lin. He’d have given her the rest of her gifts and pretended everything was as it should be.

And that was precisely how he was going to ensure it had been. Charles stood up slowly, still dizzy and confused. He’d given this next part a lot of thought. He couldn't take the ring with him, because he wouldn't be going anywhere: when his job was done, he should just disappear, replaced in a future in which he’d never travel back to this instant.

He had to hide the ring someplace he wouldn't look for months, but preferably somewhere he’d find it eventually, when he was thinking a little more clearly. Then, when the time was right - when Lin was ready - he’d know to ask.

He’d spent days considering his options before he settled on the fireplace. He’d never once used it, so the ring wouldn’t be in any danger. In addition, he’d never think to look there. But he cleaned it every spring, like clockwork.

There is a brick missing from the inside. He reaches up and locates the opening, which is completely hidden by the wall, and he sets the box on the ledge.

A sense of nausea overtakes him. It’s strange, like he is remembering something as it happens. His head is numb, but there is no pain. “This is it,” he thinks, “the moment where my mistake and all that comes after it ceases to be.” It should be a frightening thought, but Charles finds it comforting. It is a chance no one has ever had before; the chance to start over.

He’ll disappear, leaving the younger version of himself free to follow his life the way it should have gone, the way it was meant to go.

Just as soon as he corrects the bizarre event that destroyed his life.

Years before, he’d intended to ask Lin to marry him. Lin, the only woman who’d ever mattered to him. He’d bought an engagement ring for her - a perfect ring for the perfect woman - and he’d wrapped it and hid it beneath the tree.

But on Christmas Day, it was gone. Vanished. He pretended nothing was wrong, but as soon as he was alone he tore the house upside down looking for it. He checked everywhere it could possibly be, but with no success.

It was months before he found it tucked inside his fireplace. How it had gotten there remained a mystery, albeit a trivial one: by then, it was too late. Their relationship had already fallen apart.

In his heart, Charles knows that if he’d only proposed to Lin, they’d have gotten married. Sure, there relationship would still have faced difficulties, but they’d have gotten through.

When he found himself working for a scientist who’d developed a machine capable of sending someone to the past, he saw an opportunity. He traveled back to this night, Christmas Eve 2009, to correct whatever strange twist of fate had hidden the ring.

He reaches into the fireplace and locates the box, just where he’d come across it cleaning so many years ago. Stranger still, even after so long, he knows how the box will feel to the touch. It’s as if... as if.... It doesn’t matter. Some after-effect of time travel, perhaps. In a few moments, he knows he’ll cease to be. No thought could please him more.

He’s dizzy as he takes the small package over to the Christmas tree and returns it to its rightful place. In the morning, he’ll give it to Lin as ask her to be his wife. His life will....

Dizzy. So dizzy. Charles shakes his head. He knows he’s about to vanish. He’ll be gone, along with the cursed events of the past few years. It will happen in a moment.

Just as soon as he corrects the biggest mistake of his life. He looks down beneath the tree. Even before he lays a finger on the small, wrapped box, Charles Windmire knows precisely how it will feel.