The Road Not Taken by August von Orth



August von Orth

My Fireball XL5 spaceship crashed on Mercury. The ninety degree heat transformed the curb in front of my house—mostly crumbled to rubble—into a great planet Mercury. The strange man walked up to me as I sat beside the crash site on the curb. I should probably have been worried, but this was a lifetime ago when kids rode bikes without helmets and played outside without a head full of stranger-danger. And no, he didn’t kidnap or molest me. I do wish I had paid better attention though. Even being a little kid, I probably would have, if I’d know I was about to meet myself. Well…sort of me.

I heard him before I saw him. He shambled along the sidewalk with a tap-step gait, a raven-topped cane supporting every other step. He wore church clothes and beads of sweat mottled his face. I didn’t feel so sweaty, but he was old and fat so maybe that made the heat worse. I thought he would pass but he stopped. He cast a long shadow over the curb where I sat. “Mom’s inside. Dad’s at work.”

“Okay.” He pointed at the XL5 with the cane. “Looks like a pretty bad crash.” He had a nice voice, the kind Nana used when she thought you were great even when you did something stupid.

“It’s not really broken.” The crash landing ripped the nosecone from the ship and blew the hatch open. The impact threw Steve Zodiac and Venus out onto the rocks. They would die of heat if they didn’t get back to the ship. “It’s just a pretend crash.” I picked up the nosecone and slipped it back onto the ship. “See.”

“Cool, Billy. You got that for your birthday on Tuesday?”

“Yeah.” I held my hand over my eyes to shade the sun and looked up at the stranger. “You look like my Uncle Bull. Except he doesn’t have a cane. You an Uncle I don’t know or something?”

“Something like that.” He pointed with the cane again, this time at my house. “I used to live there when I was your age. I used to have a Fireball XL5 too.”

I looked real close at his face, but he wasn’t smiling. “This toy is from the TV show. You’re like…old. They didn’t have TV when you were a kid.”

“It’s kind of complicated. I wasn’t a kid a long time ago, just a different kind of now.” Still no smile. “It comes from traveling in a spaceship really fast.”

I squinted at him real hard so he’d know I wasn’t buying his jazz. “You saying you were in a spaceship?”

“Yes.” He stared right back at me without the crack of a smile.

I wasn’t about to call him on this whopper. When I did that with Uncle Bull he called me a sensitive little sissy. “Okay, so did you like maybe go faster than the speed of light or something? The XL5 can do that on TV.”

“No. You can’t do that in real life, but you can go very, very close and it makes time slow down.” Still the serious face.

This old guy is on a roll.

“Once you do that you can travel to the edge of the universe. Then you find you’re not just traveling in space anymore, but in time.” He shrugged. “That’s how I got here, back to the time when I was a kid. At least, sort of.”

The old guy was too good at this. Something spooky about him. “What’s your name, mister?”

The stranger smiled, but not a caught-in-a-fib smile, a normal happy smile. “William Tobias Arnott.”

Goosebumps rose under the sweat beads on my arms. That’s my name. People called me Billy since I was a kid, but Mom called me William Tobias when she got cheesed at me. This is creeping me out. I wasn’t really scared though, because my PF Flyers were real fast. As the World Turns babbled from the TV in the house, and I knew I could be in the living room telling Mom before the old gimp got halfway across the lawn. “You know you can’t hurt me. I saw it in this movie about a time machine. If you kill me then you die too since you’re really me.”

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