by John Wyatt
He hated it when the orderlies simply left the patients in his office; while most of the inmates were non-violent, he was always afraid that someone would go through his things or possibly hurt themselves. As the junior doctor in the Crimson Memorial Hospital for the Incurably Insane he felt that the orderlies often ignored him.
“Hello? Are you my next patient?” he called. The man at the window jerked around suddenly, his wild eyes holding a mixture of confusion and fear. Doctor Green knew better than to show fear, so he strode calmly to his crowded desk and sank down in his high backed leather chair.
“Please, have a seat.” he motioned his distraught patient to a straight backed chair opposite his desk. The man shuffled nervously, his eyes darting quickly around the room, never resting on the doctor. By his face and his nervous gait the man looked to be quite infirm. He sat down slowly, gingerly testing the seat to make sure it was real.
“Mr…” Doctor Green pulled the top medical record off his stack and opened it. “Mr. Gruen? How are you feeling today?”
“It’s pronounced ‘Groon’.” The man’s nervous eyes flicked around the room as if watching an insect in flight, avoiding Dr. Green’s gaze.
“I see. Well, Mr. ‘Groon’, this is your first day in our fine institution. How do you feel?”
Mr. Gruen sat upright and stared at the doctor’s forehead. “You’re wrong doctor. This isn’t my first day at all. I’ve been here longer than you think!” Suddenly he lunged forward, grabbing the front edge of the desk and pulling himself up tall; his frail figure looming over the cluttered desk. “There’s been a horrible mistake! I’ve been trapped here for longer than time can count and I desperately need your help!”
Doctor Green flinched at the man’s outburst and his hand dropped down to the panic button under his desktop. Mr Gruen, seeing the alarm on the doctor’s face, withdrew and resumed his frightened look.
“Please don’t push the button, doctor. You see, I’m perfectly sane. I understand now what happened and I really need to tell you my story.” He stared wildly into Dr. Green’s eyes, who found it oddly hypnotizing.
“All right, sit down please and tell me your story, Mr Gruen. Before you begin, would you like something to drink?”
Mr. Gruen paused, staring into the doctor’s eyes, trying to fathom if he would be heard or merely patronized. At last he sighed and slowly deflated into the chair.
“Iced tea please, if there’s any left. Please call me Frank.”
“Why yes, there should be plenty left…” Doctor Green had risen and was halfway to the refrigerator when he stopped, turning back to Frank. “Why did you say ‘if there’s any left’?”
“You always keep iced tea in your refrigerator. I know more about you than you think. I told you, I’ve been here a very long time.”
Doctor Green, determined to hide his uneasiness, opened the small refrigerator and searched among the scattered bottles of soda and packets of lunch meat before finding a half-full pitcher of weak iced tea. He retrieved two of the least wrinkled paper cups and filled them each. He returned the pitcher to its shelf, closed the door, picked up the cups, then walked back to his desk, his hands trembling slightly. He handed one cup to Frank, who instantly seized his hand.
“Doctor, please, I’m not mad! You must listen to me! Please!”
Doctor Green looked down at the emaciated hand which held him in an iron grip, belying Frank’s apparent frailty. There was a tense silence, then Frank released the doctor’s hand and took the proffered cup of tea. Doctor Green let out a small sigh of relief and hurried to the safety of his desk. He couldn’t help spilling the tea as he set it down on the desk, adding to the small pond of old tea stains.
“I’ll bet you spilled it again. You always do that when we talk.”
Doctor Green looked up into Frank’s eyes and saw there not the wild stare of lunacy, but the calm gaze of serenity. Frank’s gaze was oddly compelling, but he decided that Frank had seen the other stains on his desk and must have concluded that he frequently spilled tea. Dr. Green had learned that insane people often experienced periods of complete lucidity; he resolved not to let Frank’s delusions shake his self-confidence.
“Mr. Gruen, Frank, I mean, what shall we talk about today?”
Frank leaned forward with a slow, deliberate movement.
“The same thing we talk about every day. Time travel.”
“I see. Time travel. Do you think that time travel is possible?”
Frank laughed aloud. “Oh yes! Not only possible, but I have done it! I have a time machine and now I’m stuck in this…” he made a wide sweep of his arm, “this place. Ironic, isn’t it?”
Doctor Green began to relax. Frank’s demeanor had unnerved him at first, but now things seemed to be under control. Frank was clearly delusional and probably highly intelligent; he must avoid falling into the trap of sharing Frank’s delusion. This was not the first time he had met an intelligent patient who could cold read a doctor, much like the psychics and side show mind readers could cold read a person. There was no mystery at work here, just a disturbed and highly perceptive patient. Doctor Green leaned back in his chair, steepling his fingers in what he thought was a scholarly pose, and let Frank tell his tale.
“Time travel isn’t like the movies. You don’t go back in time to stop assassinations, or warn people about global destruction. You can’t bring people or whales into the future to re-populate the earth. It just doesn’t work like that. Time is not reversible.”
“That’s an interesting viewpoint. How, then, did you come to invent a time machine?”
Frank’s face soured in exasperation. “I never said I invented a time machine; I said I have a time machine. I don’t know anything about physics - I’m a doctor by trade, and a mathematician.”
Doctor Green leaned forward with interest. Being an avid mathematician himself he saw the possibility of a more interesting conversation than a mere doctor-patient session. He picked up a pencil and pad and began scribbling notes.
“Do you still draw little stick men when you take notes?”
Doctor Green dropped his pencil. “Excuse me.” He gave a slight cough, leaned down, and retrieved his pencil with trembling fingers. He must not allow Frank to read his reactions like this.
“Mr Gruen, Frank, I am interested in why you believe yourself to possess a time machine. Is it here in the asylum?”
Frank smiled evilly. He leaned forward and whispered “It’s here, all around us. This is the time machine. However, time travel isn’t really possible. I can’t go back in time and kill your mother before you’re born. I know, I’ve tried.”
Doctor Green stood bolt upright, spilling his tea over the desk. He frantically tried to wipe up the spill but only succeeded in getting more papers wet. Finally he sat down, shaking visibly. Thirty years ago someone had tried to shoot his mother, she was pregnant with him at the time. The bullet nearly missed him and left his mother bound to a wheelchair. How had Frank known?
“You can’t imagine how many times I’ve tried to kill you, to erase your existence.” Frank continued speaking while Doctor Green was busy blotting the teas stains on his desk. “Twice I tried to run your mother over with my car, and once I even gave her a poisoned apple at Halloween! I guess that was a bit melodramatic, but her sister ate it and she died instead.”
Doctor Green was visibly upset now. It was true that his aunt had died from poisoned Halloween candy about ten years before his birth, but how could Frank have known? Frank must have researched his background before his committal here. This was clearly a dangerous man! He reached down for the panic button.
“Before you press the panic button,” Frank continued, “you should know why I know so much about your family.” The doctor’s hand paused on the button. “You see, time travel isn’t really possible. Time is not reversible. Do you remember that TV show where people went in and out of alternate realities? Time travel is like that. Once I go back, I don’t go back to anyone else’s time. My universe becomes a new universe - a new alternate reality in which I can interact freely. That’s why paradoxes can’t happen; the universe just keeps spawning new instances, each different one from the old. That means that if I change something it only changes in my universe, not in anyone else’s. Time travel only affects the traveler.”
Doctor Green regained his composure long enough to point out the obvious hole in Frank’s story. “If time travel only affects the traveler then why did you think that you could kill me by killing my mother? Why did you think you could kill me at all? I would only be dead in your universe.”
“Don’t you see? I tried with mother first, before I realized that time travel only affects the traveler. After that I tried killing myself directly, but it never seemed to work. I think that would have created a paradox internal to my own universe, so the universe always shifted before I died. It’s as if, once time is violated, my new universe cannot be unmade; it always cycles but never repeats, each instance slightly different from the last. That’s why I’m never sure how much tea is left in the pitcher. It keeps changing with each trip.”
“Each trip?” the doctor queried nervously.
“By traveling backwards in time I had inadvertently created a time loop. I can’t escape, and each round trip causes another parallel me to come into existence, each one slightly different from the previous. That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you all these years. I know now that I can’t change what happened; all I can do is act out my part and pass my memories on to the next me.”
This conversation was getting too strange! Doctor Green gently pressed the panic button. The orderlies usually acted quickly, but this time they delayed.
“Look outside,” Frank demanded, “and tell me how large this asylum was when you came here. Each time I’m carried away to a cell the asylum grows; it has to grow so the new universe can accommodate another me. I don’t even know how many of me are locked away screaming in the cells below!”
Doctor Green stood, his legs wobbling as he sidled to the window, never taking his eyes from Frank. He cleared his throat and hoarsely croaked out his next question: “By your own words your time travel cannot affect myself, since it only affects the traveler, which is you. It can’t affect myself or my office or the tea in my refrigerator.” He could hear the orderlies running this way. “So why have you tried to kill me?”
“Your argument would be sound, if we were separate people.”
The orderlies rushed into the room, snatched Frank from his chair and pinned his arms behind his back. One orderly asked “Shall we take him to a padded cell?” Doctor Green nodded numbly, unsure what to do next. As the orderlies dragged Frank from the room, Frank shouted back: “Welcome to Hell, doctor!” The door slammed shut, closing out Frank’s cries for help as the orderlies dragged him to a padded cell.
Doctor Green turned away and looked out the window; he could faintly hear the screams and moans of the insane locked in their distant cells. From this viewpoint the building looked larger. He had never noticed before, but the west wing extended all the way to the woods. He stood at the window musing for several minutes when the door opened behind him. A voice spoke.
“Hello? Are you my next patient? My name is doctor Mills.”
Doctor Green whipped around as if he’d been burned by a fire. He saw a younger man standing in the doorway, wearing his white coat; except the nametag read “Dr. Mills.” His legs grew weak as the memories flooded back.
The newcomer looked down at his clipboard, “And you would be…Mr. Groon? Did I pronounce that correctly? Please have a seat. Would you like some tea?”