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by Harris Tobias
I was nine years old when my brother Nate drowned. That event changed my life forever. If only I’d done something to help him maybe things would have turned out different. Although what exactly I could have done I have no idea. I’ve been carrying the guilt and shame around with me for 30 years. No amount of therapy has managed to erase it.
The events of that day are etched in my mind like a scar, like a ghost that won’t let me go. August 11th 1988, the picnic at Barnard Lake. I was 9 years old and Nate was 13. It was a perfect summer day; the kind of day artists’ paint and poets write about. The lake was as blue as Nate’s eyes. Everyone I knew was there. My big, noisy family, friends and neighbors along with families that belonged to our church. Kids and cousins were everywhere I looked— running, playing ball, and swimming— what a scene. Even a shy, bookish kid like I was then couldn’t help having fun.
The lake was filled with life. Little kids splashed in the shallows while the older ones swam out to the raft and, after sunning themselves, raced back to shore, a mass of flailing arms and joyful laughter. Nate always led the group. He was popular and so athletic. I couldn’t swim with the big kids. I was caught between groups, not really part of either one. I watched Nate swim with a mixture of jealousy and longing. Slim as a girl he was and as graceful as a trout. He must have swum back and forth a half a dozen times that afternoon. Except that last time when the big kids swam back and Nate wasn’t with them.
I was the first to notice that Nate was missing. I threw down my book and alerted our mother that something was wrong. At first she ignored me until I summoned enough urgency to attract her attention. “Mom, something’s wrong. Nate’s gone. Mom!”
“All right, Tom, give me a minute.”
Only when a girl yelled “There he is; there he is,” did mother turn her head to look around. The girl pointed toward the raft. There was a smudge of pink and red 100 yards out in the water. It was Nate’s red bathing suit his hand waving feebly. Then Nate stopped struggling and his exhausted body rolled over. He floated face down in the dead man’s float. Mother screamed then, and that galvanized the crowd’s attention on the drowning boy. I remember every detail still. I’ve revisited that day so often
How the dawning realization moved the adults to action—some to find a life preserver or a rope, some to swim out and grab the boy, some to look for a lifeguard or a doctor. Those who chose to swim churned the water like hippos. It was a far swim for the out of shape uncles and aunts.
Nate had stopped struggling by then. It was obvious that no one was going to reach him in time. Then, like a miracle, out of the crowd, a man with a body of a swimmer jumped into the lake. With a few powerful strokes the stranger passes the herd of uncles and flies to Nate’s side. Moving through the water with ease.
In seconds he reached Nate and turned him face up. The whole picnic crowded the shore to watch. They cheered as the swimmer drove for shore. With the practiced strokes of a lifeguard, the stranger brought Nate onto the sand and laid him down. He immediately began applying artificial respiration, alternately pumping Nate's chest and blowing into his mouth. The crowd formed a ring around the pair watching in silent anticipation of a miracle. I could hear our mother weeping softly.
But Nate did not revive. Not with the methodical pumping and breathing of the stranger and not with the oxygen masks and rescue gear of the firemen. It was all of no use to Nate. He would never swim again. When it was clear that Nate was gone, the stranger lifted his eyes to heaven and let out a long mournful wail, a sound so piercing it chills my heart to this day. Nate was dead. I wanted to wail like that stranger but I couldn’t. I felt helpless, useless and sorry that I didn’t do more to save him. The man stranger passed through the circle of onlookers and walked away, unnamed and unthanked.
Life without Nate was a trial for the whole family. He was clearly the favored son. I was weak and reclusive. I got on with my life as best I could and without even realizing it I set myself on a path that would make me what I am today. I put my mind to learning and honed it into a fine instrument. I mastered mathematics and quantum physics getting advanced degrees in both. I applied my inventive genius to creating a fortune. I developed several novel products and opened up new technologies. My patents alone were worth billions. My wealth provided the opportunity to devote myself to my twin obsessions—time travel and physical fitness.
I swam miles each day. Every house I acquired had both indoor and outdoor pools. After a while I was as fit and strong as an Olympic athlete. Making myself strong was an easier goal than figuring out how to travel in time but I had my billions and could afford to hire the best and the brightest.
What we accomplished was nothing short of astounding. We succeeded in solving some of physic's most impenetrable problems. It took tremendous energy to send an object forward in time, as the future is a dense wall of probability. Harnessing the energy of a large city would only advance an object a few seconds ahead. Besides, the future wasn’t where I wanted to go.
The past had no such resistance. An object can roll down the past like a ball in a tube. It is far easier and cheaper to send an object back in time than ahead. The rules governing paradoxes prevent the past from being changed. I didn’t care. My goal wasn’t to change anything but to try. As soon as the mechanics of the machine were assembled, I overruled my advisors and insisted on being sent back to August 11th, 1988. It was my money after all.
The rest you know. I went back. I was the stranger. I saw the man who tried to save Nate but failed. I was that man; I tried to save him, I really did. I knew I couldn’t but I had to try, didn’t I. I had to, don’t you see?
micheledutcher - Harris is one of the best at time travel stories. I always enjoy his time-travel work. Thanks for sharing, Sidewinder4, what an intriguing perspective about prayer. There could certainly be a story there, about nuns at the end of time or something?
Sidewinder4 - Readers are touched differently. The loss of s brother,a child, a sole playmate never stops hurting. My mom periodically retold the death of my 8 year old older brother for fifty years; at that point she stopped. For the next two years she reported from time to time that he came and sat with her. Then, at 92, she died as well. A sleeping 16 month old toddler who at the time could not even say his brother's name still wished he could change that night. This is what i do: since God is not trapped or restrained in space-time. I pray for our parents that night so long ago. Thank you for reminding me. Sidewinder 4, Jim Gardner
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