8960 words, novelette
The Lonely Time Traveler of Kentish Town
I clutch a flaky sausage roll and a miniature bottle of prosecco as I sit on the Northern Line train, waiting for my appetite to return. It’s hard to eat, though less hard to drink, after witnessing a public burning. The smell of smoke clings to my nostrils, tinged with something fouler. The unique, searing stench of burnt hair. If I close my eyes, the screams will reverberate in my ears. Anguished wails that turn ragged as hot smoke singes the victim’s vocal cords. The hand holding the hot sausage roll starts to sweat.
I have a terrible job.
But that’s what happens when you refuse to play nice with the Time Traveler’s Guild. You get fined. Generously fined. When you can’t pay the fine, you’re forced to take gigs with the government-sponsored Historical Tourism Board. Time travelers aren’t exactly common, so they pay you well, but living in London is expensive, so you keep working there long after it’s a good idea. It becomes a cycle. You spend your days giving guided tours to religious crazies, taking them back to the 1500s so they can watch famous martyrs burn at the stake. They link hands, the bravest among them holding mine, to go backward in time and see what happened at Smithfield centuries ago.
Today’s guided tour was Anne Askew, a famous Protestant heretic during Henry VIII’s time. She’s a popular one. Several of the tour guests wept, while others cried ’allelujah. I said nothing. I’ve seen that burning more times than I can count, but I’m always too stunned, too horrified, to speak. After we came back into the present, an old lady in the group grabbed both of my hands in hers.
“Thank you,” she told me. “It’s so noble of you, to use your affliction to strengthen our faith.”
I snort at the memory, and my amusement dampens the dread curdling my stomach. I take a generous swig of my prosecco. The bubbles dance across my tongue and I close my eyes, only for a second. The darkness behind my lids forms a swirling sea of patterns—the mandala, the hidden geometry of the universe, forming an endless tunnel. Ordinary people need to take hallucinogens to see them, but the day-to-day world looks different for us time travelers. Our conscious minds don’t process reality like the average person’s, which is part of what allows us to access the past.
Around me, the bodies of commuters sway in time as the train car rattles through the sweaty underbelly of London. Lost in their phones and books, oblivious to the time traveler in their midst. To be fair, I don’t stand out. I dress in a simple black dress with a white jacket, my dark brown hair wrapped in a tight bun. No bright colors or fancy robes—I can’t afford to go around with the flair of some of the more interesting personalities in the Guild. I’m not a wizard and don’t pretend to be anything I’m not. The only thing that gives me away are my pupils—always heavily dilated, more so than a normal person’s. Like I said, we see the world a little differently, even in the present.
A man stares at me from the other side of the train car. An older gentleman in a pressed suit, a shiny suitcase in his lap, his broad fingers circling the clasp. White whiskers poke out from his chin. His light brown complexion earns him suspicious glares from several nearby passengers—a common occurrence under the current Homeland Party government, which has been feeding the story that immigrants are out to eat our children and steal our jobs, though not necessarily in that order. You can’t turn on a TV or pass a billboard without seeing an image of a “foreigner” terrorizing the idyllic English countryside, which, in my opinion, could use a little terrorizing. I sometimes dream of retiring to some rural cottage, but I’m afraid of getting bored. The man’s eyes meet mine and immediately lower to his briefcase, his face knotted with fear.
I press my lips together in a grim frown. My job conditions me to notice things out of the ordinary, and this man stands out. Is he correctly clocking me as a time traveler? And if so, is he about to lecture me about my “affliction,” as so many describe it? Or is he just annoyed that I’ve brought food and drink on the train? I down my bottle and burp, a little louder than necessary.
The train car screeches, as it always does, when it reaches my stop. I step into Kentish Town station, my sausage roll still uneaten. I attack it as I glide up the winding stairs, leaving a trail of pastry flakes across the grimy station floor like an urban Gretel. Stealing a glance over my shoulder confirms my suspicions—the man with the briefcase has also disembarked. Interesting.
At the top of the stairs, I exit with a swipe of my hand and join the crowd spilling out onto Kentish Town Road. The smell of coffee and kebab greets me, a nearby array of robot-operated stands plying me with more food and drink. But there are also plenty of pubs in the area where I can waste my money and time. Anything to delay that grim moment when I turn the key and step into the bare, lonely gray of my studio apartment.
“What are you doing here? Hey! I’m talking to you. Show me your ID card.”
I turn around. The voice belongs to a police officer wearing so much armor and padding under his uniform, he looks like a mechanized blueberry. His target is none other than my new friend from the train. The old man lifts his briefcase protectively over his chest, as though it could shield him from the magnetic Taser in Officer Blueberry’s belt.
“Excuse me, sir,” the man stammers. “I’m here on business. I don’t have a UK ID card yet, I’m not from here.”
“That much is obvious,” the officer says with a low snarl. If he didn’t have the power to knock a person unconscious in seconds and drag their limp body to a hidden, underground detention facility, he’d be comical. The classic schoolyard bully who learned he can bully best with a badge.
Other pedestrians pass the scene with their heads lowered. No one wants to intervene, and a majority don’t even care what happens to this man next.
The man’s eyes dart pleadingly around him until they find me and lock. His face takes on a greenish hue, as though he’s sick with fear and desperation. His mustache quivers, but a trace of defiance shines through his eyes. Whatever brought him to this moment, he’s not ready for it to end in an underground cell.
I sigh and step forward. Whether he was following me or not, what’s happening to him is wrong. And if he was following me, I’d like to know why, once I get the cop off him.
“What did he do?” I ask the officer, whose eyebrows shoot up like bushy rockets. “Is it a crime to walk in public while brown now?”
“Mind your own business,” he snarls, before taking a step back. He’s seen my dilated pupils, I suspect. Working in law enforcement, he’s gotten enough training to know a time traveler when he sees one.
“He’s with me,” I retort, earning startled expressions from the cop and the man himself. “We’re talking business. I work for the Historical Tourism Board.”
“Your name and title?” Blueberry asks me.
“Sasha Whitcombe,” I say, injecting extra enunciation into my fairly neutral Received Pronunciation accent, emphasizing my Britishness. I don’t like that it gives me automatic clout in this situation, but I’ll use it to my advantage.
“Title?” he presses.
“Time tour guide.” I add with a polite smile, “Contracted by the Guild.”
His eyes widen, more with anger than fear. He doesn’t like the Guild and what we do, I suspect. The government finds its uses for people like me, but we’re a double-edged weapon. People who can see the past can see uncomfortable truths, and secrets best kept hidden.
“I don’t give a shit,” he says. “If we want to question him, we do it. We can do it here or if you lot make it hard, we can do it at the station.”
I sigh and stand next to the man with the briefcase. Before the officer can react, I grab the man’s arm. The officer blinks in confusion, head jerking around frantically as he tries to decipher where I’ve gone. He snarls in realization at what I’ve done. His arms wave in front of the spot where I was, but beads of sweat begin to trickle down his forehead at the pressure of being in my presence. The man in the briefcase and I are now faint, shimmering streaks of color, shapes he can’t bear to look at directly. Here, but not quite.
I guess at this point, I should share some secrets of time travel. First, it’s not really travel in the sense of going somewhere—I can observe any point in the past, but can’t directly interact with any person or object there. So really, it’s more like viewing a previous moment in time. Secondly, as you may have also surmised, my abilities only apply to the past. I can go backward, not forward. The future is unreachable to me and everyone else in the Guild. No one knows why, but I’m not complaining—people would never leave me the fuck alone if I could tell them their futures.
But the past is easy. In this case, I don’t need to go back far. A few hours will do. The man’s arm jerks and twitches, but I hold on tight. I know from talking with customers on my daily tours that he feels a pulling sensation in his stomach, like an invisible hook behind his navel is reeling him backward. He feels disoriented, dizzy. His ears ring and his eyes ache. For me, it’s like stepping into another room.
The gray sky brightens, uncharacteristic sunlight warming the slick London roads. The crowd on the street thins, free of peak commuting traffic. The robotic food stands are still there. Officer Blueberry vanishes.
The man lets out a small, startled cry but I hold on tight to his arm.
We hurry down the road. Another fun fact of time travel—I’m not truly gone. Time travel doesn’t mean I evaporate like smoke or pop out of the present. I don’t disappear. But reality quivers and bends around me. People can’t look at me directly. I become static, a shimmer of color and shape that their minds can’t fully process. I’ve been told that it’s terrifying and disorienting to be in my presence and try to observe me, if I’m not taking you into the past with me. The human mind can sense me but not fully process what’s happening. It would be an interesting phenomenon to study, if the government cared at all about the science of it, rather than just making money and pushing their political agenda.
Next to me, my new friend breathes heavily but allows me to lead him away. Since he’s attached to me, he experiences none of that terrifying disorientation. At least, not beyond the inherent strangeness of walking through the world as it was several hours ago.
When I’ve led us far enough away down winding, tree-lined roads into the posh suburbs of Highgate, I steer us through an open door into a pub. My body stills and I close my eyes. I let go, both literally (my new friend’s arm) and figuratively (too hard to explain to a non-traveler). The skies outside the window are gray again, the workers in their pressed suits crowding the pub. Is this their only period of respite during the day? A couple of hours between the stresses of work and the somber rituals of daily life—exercise, dinner, helping children with homework and preparing for the next day? As much as I love London, it’s a grim, frantic way to live.
The crowd mostly ignores us, although a few people frown and shudder, shaking off the inexplicable unease that accompanies my time traveling. They don’t know what happened, but something didn’t feel right to them a moment ago.
The man collapses into a booth while I order beers. He slackens his grip on his suitcase. Foam spills over the glasses as I place two drinks on the table between us.
“This round’s on me,” I say, leaning forward. “You’re welcome, Mr.—?”
“Nassar,” he said. “Kamal Nassar.”
“I suppose I should have checked whether or not you drink before putting a lager in front of you,” I say, in my best impression of a courteous, considerate human being.
This agitates him. “Or you shouldn’t assume that because of my name and appearance, I’m a religious conservative that doesn’t drink,” he says. “My father never touched the stuff, but the rest of my family imbibes.” He raises his glass to his lips, drinking with wide, defiant eyes.
I suppress a smile. “Assumptions can be dangerous in either direction, I’ll give you that,” I say. “For example, it would probably be wrong for me to assume that you were following me out of the station with some ill intent. Right?”
“I was following you,” Mr. Nassar says, “although not with ill intent. Not towards you, Ms. Whitcombe. I’m interested in hiring you for your services.”
Through the dim pub lighting, I observe this man with narrowed eyes. The room dims further, leaving a gentle orange glow around him. But though the walls form mandala patterns and the raindrops streaking the foggy windows shine like diamonds, my surroundings bending to my sharpened senses, I draw no conclusions on Mr. Nassar. He looks back at me with a smooth, earnest expression free of subtext.
I lean forward. “You’re aware that I do historical tours into the past? If you want a private appointment, you can just request it on the Board’s website.”
“Ah.” Mr. Nassar shifts with discomfort. His eyes betray doubt, but he continues. “I want to see something specific that a government-sponsored company may not approve of. I was hoping to contract with you . . . separately.”
He casts an anxious glance around the pub, as though an officer might leap from a neighboring booth and drag him away in cuffs. Which, to be fair, is possible. But while he lowers his voice, I relax. It all makes sense now. The stealth, his following me on the train. A man looking for business.
And I’m looking to pay off my debts to the Guild. A little extra side money would get me faster to that goal. But it could also be risky, if his requested work goes against government ideals.
I take a long drink. “I’m listening,” I say.
Mr. Nassar’s shoulders relax and he takes a shaky sip of his beer. He pulls his briefcase onto the table.
“My grandfather, Abed Nassar, told us stories about his life in Jerusalem, before the war,” Mr. Nassar said. “My family lives around the world. I live in Jordan, my sister and brother live here, and we have family in Mexico as well. But we are all Palestinian, no matter where we go or how long we live there. My grandfather, my jiddo as we say in Arabic, was a quiet man, always patient and kind. He lived a modest, pious life but didn’t expect it of others, or judge us for choosing different paths. I idolized him as a child.
“Jiddo Abed worked for the British government. A bureaucrat of some kind, a mid-level clerk who stamped papers. But when the Nakba happened and the state of Israel was created, he obviously lost his job. Not to mention his home, his family farm, and so much more. Took the family to Jordan and settled in Amman. But the pension bothered him—the one he was promised as an employee of the British government. He wrote multiple letters to the department, asking about his pension and whether he should expect to receive it. He never received a response, Ms. Whitcombe.”
I wave my hand at the bartender for another drink.
“I’m sorry to hear that,” I say, picking my words carefully. The current government has very clear policies on the Middle East, and they don’t favor Mr. Nassar. “But what does this have to do with my abilities? You’re aware I can’t change anything that happened in the past?”
Annoyance flickers across Mr. Nassar’s face. “I’m quite aware. I don’t need you to change history. Just prove a small piece of it.”
A drink lands in front of me with a soft clink. Foam spills down the glass, contributing to an already sticky table.
“Everyone expected my grandfather to let the issue go eventually,” Mr. Nassar continues. “But he was a stubborn man. Defiant, if you want to look at it another way. He continued to write letters, always with polite language and his small, neat handwriting. And finally, his travels took him to London. A family vacation, coupled with setting up his daughter—my mother—in university in the United Kingdom, where she studied law. He was so proud of her. But while the family was shopping in Bond Street, he left to explore the city alone.
“From that point on, we only have his version of events. He said he found none other than Winston Churchill sitting alone in a pub, his giant, wrinkled head slumped over a glass of whiskey. He had researched the man and knew his haunts. Churchill was no longer prime minister at this point. Just an old man, living in the long shadow he had made for himself.”
I’d normally cut Mr. Nassar off at this point and tell him to get to the point. I’m overworked and busy, and time means more to me than most. But this unassuming man has a way with words, and I sense a dramatic conclusion around the corner. Plus, it’s nice to have company at a pub, for once. I can drink without the usual looks from others—the pity, the leering, the apprehension of the bartender unsure if I’ll be able to walk myself out. It’s a nice change.
“My jiddo introduced himself and explained the situation,” Mr. Nassar says. “He asked why his letters were ignored by the office. And then, he asked if Mr. Churchill could intervene on his behalf. The end of the British Mandate in Palestine, my grandfather explained, does not end its financial obligations to those that worked for the Crown. Especially towards those who became refugees, cast into a diaspora around the world and forced to make new lives for themselves.”
Mr. Nassar finally takes a drink, his mustache quivering over the foam. His nose wrinkles slightly. I ordered an especially bitter lager.
“Can you guess how Winston Churchill responded?” he asks me.
A wry smile touches my lips. “With profuse apologies and kindness?” I ask.
Mr. Nassar snorts. “He cursed and shouted at my grandfather,” he says. “Called him all kinds of names and slurs. Threatened to call the police in to wring his neck if he didn’t leave that very instant. And my grandfather left, because he knew the threat was good, and that the battle had been lost. He never spoke of his pension after that. And my mother forgot the story until a month ago, after he had passed away. Lung cancer—he loved his cigarettes, even after countless warnings from the doctor. We found his old letters in a chest as we were cleaning out his things. It was hard. My mother cried as we looked through black-and-white photos of the family in front of our old house in Jerusalem. But my sister and I clung on to the letters—we both knew about the pension, but neither of us had heard about the Churchill story until then.
“My sister published them online and shared his story. She works here, at a bank. One of the specialized immigrant workers the government still allows, even though she’s paid half of what a natural citizen would earn. She received the usual nasty comments on the internet—threats and accusations of being a liar. But last week, her employer did something more. Told her to take down her online posts and apologize—or there would be consequences.”
“I could have told her that would happen,” I say. I press my elbows on the sticky table and rest my face in my cupped hands. “They’re cracking down on that kind of talk—any criticism of the monarchy, of the current prime minister and anyone that reminds them of the ‘good old days’ in the past.” Anger warms my cheeks. Even the Guild plays along—or more accurately, forces me to play along. We all know better. We can go back at any point in history and see all the ugliness, the dark times and how little we’ve moved away from them.
Maybe my face betrays me, because Mr. Nassar’s eyes ignite with excitement. He leans forward, animated like a windup toy set loose.
“You see what I need from you now, Ms. Whitcombe,” he says. “I want you to settle the matter. I’ll give you the name of the pub and the date and time the incident took place. Take me back there and show me what actually happened. And record it, so I can let the truth come to light.”
I press my lips together, the taste of beer souring my tongue. Mr. Nassar waits, surveying me with upturned eyes as he sips his drink. I did indeed guess where he was going with this story and what he needs from me. My brain churns, like the nearby Camden Lock canal boats over green river water, with the risks and opportunities. The inherent risks won’t deter me outright—I like money too much for that—but it has to be a risk worth taking.
I let out a low whistle.
“If you just wanted to see the moment, that would be one thing, but recording a historical event is a different level,” I explain. “That means formal requests. Paperwork means a paper trail. That’s more hoops I need to jump through to keep this under the radar and more danger for me. That’ll cost extra.” I cast wide, doe-like eyes at the briefcase.
Mr. Nassar’s mouth twitches. He’s suppressing a laugh, which is fair enough. I’m laying it on a bit thick, but I’m an amateur haggler.
“I don’t have the money with me,” he said. “Not all of it, anyway. Enough for an up-front payment, should we reach that level of agreement. And I have the letters.”
With a flourish, he opens the briefcase. His hand emerges with a set of papers, yellowing with age and frayed around the edges. I take them with a tight smile. My fingers run over the rough paper and I shiver. I don’t need to read them to know they’re old, a piece of history rather than forgeries—I sense it in my nerve endings and the blurring corners of my vision. But I do scan them regardless, noting the addresses to the British Mandate in Palestine and the polite but insistent tone of the letters. Mr. Nassar’s grandfather, asking for what was promised but never delivered.
I meet Mr. Nassar’s brown eyes. “Let me see what I can do,” I say. Excitement flickers across Mr. Nassar’s face and my beer-filled stomach twists in response. I don’t want to give him false hope. But I need money, and if I’m going to take a risk, I might as well do it for a good cause.
And maybe if I get into trouble, the Guild will do their job and save me.
My heels click across the Historical Tourism Board’s linoleum floors. Hot coffee sways in a Styrofoam cup as I walk, sloshing across my hand. I have two tours today—the coronation of Anne Boleyn at Westminster Abbey, just across the street, and the more controversial funeral of Oliver Cromwell in the afternoon, for a visiting Irish delegation. Ireland hasn’t been on good terms with our government for the last few years, their population unimpressed with the direction we’ve taken on immigration and other issues. Understandably so. But our prime minister wants a new trade deal, so I get to showcase a moment in history that usually stays hidden.
Best to act early in the day, before the time traveling tours chip away at my energy. I stroll down to the building’s lowest level, where inventory is kept. My first stroke of luck greets me at reception—Hampstead the robot is working today, rather than a human clerk. I’d rather steal something under a robot’s metallic nose. They’re more organized, sure, but don’t pick up subtext or intent the way people do.
I give Hampstead a casual wave of my hand as he scans me, a gesture he doesn’t need or appreciate. The robot blinks and stands to attention, ready to take my inventory order.
I go back in time. Just an hour or two, to see what else was checked out that day. Another stroke of luck—a person would have noticed my trick, becoming agitated and disoriented by my presence in the room, but Hampstead remains oblivious. I learn that my manager has already checked in this morning and ordered personal tablets for the Irish delegation to show them our full catalog of tours. Perfect. I can pretend I’m picking up something extra for my boss.
Back in the present, I place an inventory order. Three power cables, a new monitor . . . and the recording device. My lips curl in a thin, satisfied smile. It dampens, only slightly, as I type the names of the other two time travelers employed by the Board. I use the term “time traveler” in the broadest, most general sense. They aren’t registered in the Guild, don’t pay dues, and haven’t received proper training to navigate their consciousness through space-time. They’re just people who were either born to a legitimate time traveler or lived on the edge of the contamination area where an interstellar meteor crashed into North America, giving them enough exposure to have some abilities. All this being said, they’re good at what they do—they can lead people through historical tours as well as I can. Just don’t ask them to do anything more complicated.
I put their names down, so my inventory request becomes an order for the entire team. If I’m caught, I can allege that one of them requested the recording device. Effectively, I can blame them if the shit hits the fan. This isn’t ethical and I’m not proud of it, but this is an unfair, cruel world we live in. Mr. Nassar and his family know as much. Better to throw some colleagues under the bus than incriminate the Guild if I’m caught.
My heart flutters in triumph as Hampstead processes my request without question. Minutes later, I hold a fingernail-sized, claw-shaped device in my palm. I place it in my pocket, hoping they don’t find any cause to search me today.
The first tour goes well. The group of female educators from Yorkshire ask me intelligent questions and watch with broad grins as the crown is placed on Anne Boleyn’s dark head. Not a single cry of ’allelujah. It helps that we’re watching the famous queen’s coronation, not her beheading, though I’ve done that tour plenty of times. I keep my hand firmly clasped to the nearest teacher, but rub my neck with some anxiety at the scene. Anne’s eyes glow with triumph, but they dart through the muted crowd of her time, noting the lack of enthusiasm around her. She was unpopular and knew it. A gentle, aching sadness spreads through my chest. Even at her peak, she could not be fully happy. And only three years later, she would enter the Tower of London as a traitor, awaiting her death.
I return to the Board’s office to find my manager at my desk.
“Sasha, can you come into my office?” Jim asks.
A cold sensation runs down my spine. The back of my neck becomes a knot of tension, unleashing a faint headache. Did Officer Blueberry file a complaint? I arrange my face into polite indifference and follow him through the sea of gray cubicles into his office.
Another man waits there, feet resting on Jim’s desk. Noticing us, he rises to his feet and extends a hand. I raise my brows. He looks Middle Eastern, with olive skin, curly gray hair, and large twinkling eyes.
“Have a seat,” Jim says to us both, and we dutifully take our positions across his desk. The man lights a cigar and steals a glance at me.
“Smoke?” he asks. He offers me a temptingly fragrant cigar. “Oh, but my apologies if you can’t smoke. I read somewhere that it can interfere with your senses—something about how you already live in a kind of altered state and don’t need it, right?”
I smile. He’s both establishing that he knows things about me, and fishing for information.
“I’m not a smoker, but thank you,” I say, my tone honey sweet. Jim takes a cigar with unmasked glee. The man keeps his gaze on me, his smile more appraising now.
“Sasha, I’d like to introduce you to Mr . . . Hashim Nassar. Did I say that right?” he asks the man.
Even I can tell that he butchered the pronunciation of the man’s name, worse than Jack the Ripper on the hunt, but Hashim waves his hand and lets out a booming laugh.
“Very good,” he says to Jim. “Nice to meet you, Ms. Whitcombe.”
Dread curdles the blood in my veins, and my stomach tightens with anxiety. My hand twitches, itching to reach into my pocket for the small device that will incriminate me, but I press my hands together atop my knees. Questions dance and spin through my mind, faster than I can answer them. Is this a relative of Mr. Nassar’s? He must be. But if so, why is he here, and why does he want to talk to me?
“Hashim here owns a catering company that works with many of our government’s agencies, including the military,” Jim says to me in explanation. “He contacted us with some concerns he had about a family affair, and I thought you could help.”
“Oh?” My eyebrows raise in polite curiosity, my entire face a stony shield. Jim’s eyes narrow as he scans me for signs of deceit.
“Is it possible you’ve met my brother or sister?” Hashim presses. “They’ll look a little like me, although not as handsome.” He chuckles at his own joke, a little too loudly. “They’ve been causing trouble. Raising a stink about an old family matter that should not have gone public. I thought that one of them might have contacted you.”
I frown in my best imitation of confusion. “I don’t think so,” I say.
Hashim nods in apparent satisfaction, but we continue the dance for a while. He talks about his business with the government, dropping names for Jim’s benefit. The message is clear. I’m not like them. I don’t want trouble. I’ll play by your rules, even if it means throwing my family under one of your trademark red buses, which I never take because I can afford cabs.
I leave the office with a sour taste in my mouth. The surprise brother walks to the elevators. In a way, I pity Hashim. By colluding with the government, he has to compromise himself, piece by piece, until there’s nothing left for them to take.
As do I.
But that surprise meeting had two purposes. To interrogate me, of course, but also to warn me. The message was clear—stay out of this business. But how much does my boss know already?
After my second tour, I call Mr. Nassar.
“You didn’t tell me about the brother,” I say. “The rich, contractor brother. He came in today, asking questions. The price just doubled.”
“I can’t pay that,” Mr. Nassar protests.
“Be grateful I’m still willing to do it at all,” I say. “Your choice. If you’re sure it’s that pub, we go in after closing tonight. We need to act now. The longer I wait, the more they’ll turn their eye on me.”
Not entirely true. I could lie low until things cool down. But I don’t trust Mr. Nassar to lie low with me, nor his social media-happy sister. And that recording device is burning a hole in my pocket.
I hang up on Mr. Nassar before he can respond, and enter the women’s bathroom. With fumbling hands, I pull out the recorder and press on its smooth end. Small wires emerge, thin like fine hairs against my skin. Except for the sharp, claw-like part on the other side.
Drawing a shuddering breath, I face the mirror. I always hate this part.
I press the recorder into the back of my neck. The wires fasten, the claw curls its way into my skin, and hot pain travels to the base of my skull. My eyes squeeze shut, and I unleash a stream of curses as the recorder burrows under my skin. A cold sensation shoots down my spine.
It’s a rare, not to mention expensive, piece of equipment. Plenty of devices on the market can record a person’s experiences—what they see and hear—but only this selective device works on a person experiencing the past. They didn’t bother to make it comfortable. It’s a limited market, time travelers. Like an IUD, it shouldn’t hurt as much to insert, but the designers didn’t care.
But it’s in. No turning back now. I meet Mr. Nassar tonight, and he better have some extra cash on hand.
The bathroom door bursts open. Jim barrels in.
“Wrong bathroom,” I say. But sweat clings to Jim’s forehead and he surveys me with suspicious, beady eyes.
“Follow me,” he says.
We take the elevator down to the lowest level—the inventory level. My pulse quickens at my throat, a rush of hot blood in my ears. How did he figure it out so quickly? And more importantly, will the Time Traveler’s Guild get me out of this one, without a fine to bankrupt me?
Jim shoos away Hampstead and turns to face me. He extends a hairy hand.
“Take me back to yesterday, around 8:50 a.m.,” he says, his tone cold and authoritative in a way that invites no questions.
Stunned, I grab his hand. The room darkens and shifts, the walls pulsating as though made of countless grains of sand. My eyes pulse and my skin shivers at the sudden change in temperature, the room cooler in the early morning.
We stand in the center of the room, the Jim of yesterday talking to two Board leaders. Next to me, Jim draws a sharp intake of breath. I could have warned him. While seeing a past version of yourself doesn’t cause the universe to implode in a gimmicky space-time glitch, it is unnerving. But he leans forward hungrily as the men wrap up their conversation and past-Jim leaves the room.
The door barely clicks shut before the two remaining men launch into a patronizing conversation about my boss.
“He won’t get the Scotland assignment,” one of them concludes. “He’s got a bad habit of brown-nosing the wrong people in this department and doesn’t listen to the right people. And he’s got the wrong . . . background. Heard he doesn’t go to church.”
“I knew it,” Jim snarls. He grips my hand like he wants to break it. I grit my teeth and suppress the urge to kick him in the shins.
Back in the present, Jim wipes his hands—whether to rid himself of me or the scene he just witnessed is unclear. A heavy pause follows.
“I know you lied in there, by the way,” Jim says to me. My ears sharpen and I turn to face him head on. “The police contacted us about you. Said you interfered with an arrest and used your abilities outside of official duties. Aided and abetted a foreigner. And then one shows up here today. You’re getting bold, Sasha, and I don’t like it.”
I raise my chin. Hopefully, Jim can’t see my pulse pounding against my throat. I need to play this carefully.
“Do you want me to talk to the police?” I ask. A vague question, one that neither acknowledges my guilt nor refuses cooperation. We both know I broke the rules. But I also broke a rule for him now, for his benefit. You don’t get far in government without knowing when to look the other way.
Jim’s mouth curls.
“I told them to drop it and we’d handle the situation internally,” he said. “And they agreed. It doesn’t benefit us to have you in court. But consider this a warning. Pull that game again and I won’t protect you. And I will find out why you’re involved with these foreigners.”
My chest warms with relief and I exhale. I’m careful not to smile. The subtext is clear enough. I’m too good of a time traveler for the Board to lose me, so Jim called the dogs back. But while I’m close to indispensable, I don’t have full immunity. I’m on Jim’s radar now.
“Sorry you won’t get the Scotland assignment,” I say, my tone innocent and honey-sweet. Just a little reminder that I’m not the only one with skeletons to be unearthed.
Jim’s eyes narrow into dark, angry slits.
“Say nothing if you value your job . . . and your freedom,” he instructs me before storming away.
Well, well, well. It’s a day for threatening Sasha Whitcombe, intrepid and talented guide through time. Frustration gnaws at my insides, urging me back to Kentish Town station, to the nearest pub so I can stumble in a lonely haze back home.
But crime calls. I receive a message from Mr. Nassar, agreeing to just less than the outrageous double fee I requested. I accept and we plan to meet. Mr. Nassar’s money, I remind myself, puts me closer to a different future. One where I can buy myself back into the Guild’s good graces and the freedom that entails. I can live where I please, unbound by work and obligations to the outside world.
One day. One job at a time.
Night falls. I walk from the Board’s offices to The Clarence pub in Whitehall. Churchill wasn’t a pub guy in general, preferring to sip overpriced cocktails in fancy hotels like Brown’s. But a drink is a drink and drunk is a drunk, so he occasionally frequented a few choice pubs, as Mr. Nassar’s grandfather discovered.
Mr. Nassar waits for me outside, hands in his coat pockets. Even from a distance, he radiates nervous energy.
He tells me I’m late, and I tell him we’re early—we’re better off waiting until we’re past closing time, when the pub area will be empty.
“So many drunk people,” Mr. Nassar says, sniffing at the raucous crowd spilling outside of the pub.
“This is London,” I say with a shrug. “This is what people do after work. They go for a happy hour pint or five.”
“Happy hour, eh? If only it lasted an hour,” Mr. Nassar says with a shake of his head.
I force him into a neighboring pub for a meal while we wait. We cram together in the far corner of the bar, engulfed by the crowd. Grease shines on my fingers as I feast on fish and chips, Mr. Nassar nibbling on a salad. We talk. It was 1960 when his grandfather confronted Winston Churchill, two years before a pivotal accident where the former leader of Britain broke his hip and five years before his death. Churchill was an old man then, mostly retired from public life. Likely bitter, his glory days long behind him and his legend fading in a world that had long left him behind.
The bar’s muggy air warms my cheeks. The room pulses with energy, propelled by lively laughter and animated voices. For once, I’m not drinking alone, but as much as I appreciate Mr. Nassar’s company, hot shame fills me, that the only person I can spend time with on a lively evening is someone paying me.
Sadness settles over me like a heavy, red curtain across an empty stage. The world around me feels distant, apart, humming with a kinetic happiness I can’t reach. Though we’re separated by time and death, I feel more of an affinity, in this moment, to the lonely, bitter version of Winston Churchill who sat at The Clarence and drank alone.
“Another one?” the bartender asks.
Mr. Nassar shakes his head, but I gesture for another round.
“You’re working,” Mr. Nassar says to me.
“Believe me, I’ve traveled back further in time to darker places with far more alcohol in my system,” I say. He presses his lips together, too smart to respond.
Thanks to his sister’s persistent research, Mr. Nassar pinned the moment down to the date and a three-hour window. Impressive. I’d prefer an exact hour, but I can’t expect perfection. This isn’t a recorded historical event. This is family lore. Doubt flickers in the dark corners of my heart. What if it never happened? Did I steal government equipment for nothing? Time erodes and distorts the stories we tell about ourselves and those who came before us—it changes them, dulls their sharpest edges. Perhaps Mr. Nassar and his sister are chasing a ghost.
We reach closing time, at this pub and Churchill’s. We linger on the street, ignoring the crowds streaming onto buses and stumbling down rain-slicked sidewalks. The lights go out in the pub. A CCTV camera blinks from a neighboring building.
We could break into the pub, but we don’t need to. Mr. Nassar and I meet each other’s eyes before I offer my hand. My face is a silent question. Are you sure? He nods.
I take his hand and we go back.
Night dissolves into day. An overcast day, with typical gray London skies and busy streets filled with old cars. The fashion of the brisk pedestrians around us tells me we’ve come to the right year. Next to me, Mr. Nassar scans our surroundings with wide, dazed eyes.
After several minutes, he lets out a sharp gasp. A man in his fifties with a neatly trimmed mustache and a beige jacket walks up to the pub, scanning the sign. He straightens his back, his shoulders rigid like iron.
“That’s my jiddo Abed,” Mr. Nassar says. “My grandfather.”
Abed walks into the pub and we follow. Another rule of time travel—we can look but we can't touch. I can't directly interact with objects and people in the past. In short, Mr. Nassar shrieks like he’s stepped on hot coals when I steer him through the wall into the pub. He retches on the other side. I pat him reassuringly with my free hand, not bothering to hide my laughter.
A heavyset, balding figure hunches over the bar. Thin wisps of hair cling to his ruddy head, and a large hand grips a glass of some potent-looking cocktail. Mr. Nassar tightens his grip on my hand. I’m less in awe at the sight of Winston Churchill. I’ve seen him before, in his prime, and he didn’t impress me then, either. Most historical figures underwhelm in the flesh, always failing to live up to their legend. They’re smaller than you’d expect and uncomfortably normal in their mannerisms.
“Sir? Mr. Churchill?” Abed fiddles with the frayed edges of his coat as he approaches the man at the bar.
Churchill turns, bewildered, and his watery eyes fixate on the unassuming Palestinian man before him.
“Who are you, then?” Churchill asks. His voice is rough and sharp like a serrated knife being dragged through gravel.
Abed takes another step forward. The ground sways and I realize I’ve been holding my breath. I let out a shaky exhale. Why am I suddenly uneasy?
“Sir, I apologize for bothering you, but at this stage, I have no other recourse,” Abed says. “All of my letters have gone unanswered. The British government has ignored my requests, despite my years of service. You’re a man of great power and influence. I hope you can help me, for the sake of my family and my future.”
“What’s this about?” Churchill bellows. The other patron at the end of the bar looks up with alarm, but the bartender shrinks away. Abed, apparently oblivious to Churchill’s outburst, fumbles in his jacket until he extracts a letter.
“I was an employee of the British government, during the Mandate of Palestine,” Abed continues. “I was promised a pension for my services. I put in the requisite years. Why have I never received what was promised?” His tone is polite but firm.
Churchill’s mouth slackens, his small eyes dull with disbelief. His hand tightens around his glass and I flinch, waiting for him to either break it or hurl it across the room at poor Abed Nassar. But the former leader of Britain instead slams the glass on the table, spittle flying from his mouth.
“Don’t you bloody people know when to quit?” Churchill shouts. “I didn’t sacrifice all for my country to have some ungracious tribesman bother me during my one moment of peace in the day. How dare you? Ingrate! Get out! Don’t darken the door of this place again.”
My heart thuds. Mr. Nassar vibrates next to me, his body trembling from head to toe. His gaze doesn’t leave his grandfather as Abed steps forward.
“Your government arrested my uncle,” Abed shouts. “Threw him in jail for protesting your abuses. You destroyed the port of Jaffa. You stripped my family of their homes and you betrayed us. You’re no better than a dog!”
As a lover of dogs, I wince at the comparison, but the man’s sentiments are otherwise well expressed. Churchill snarls, not unlike an angry animal, and twists in his chair.
“Out, you savage,” he bellows at Abed. “Or I’ll have the police throw you out!”
My breath catches. Time travel exposes me to plenty of bigots—hell, the present has no shortage of them—but the vitriol of Churchill’s delivery sends a shaking, sickening pulse of rage through my body. I can only imagine what Mr. Nassar and Abed feel.
I imagine no longer. Abed lifts a leg and yanks an elegant dress shoe from his foot, revealing a silky, patterned sock. Wordlessly, he flings the shoe at Churchill’s head.
Winston Churchill reels. The throw isn’t particularly powerful, but he’s an old, tipsy man and he totters sideways into the bar counter. With lightning reflexes, the bartender reaches forward and grabs the former prime minister’s arm. The other two patrons, at the opposite end of the bar, spring to their feet. One of them looks ready for a fight, his fists bunched at his sides. I tense, bracing for the scene to get even uglier. But Abed grabs his shoe and storms through the door, disgust plastered across his face.
“Let’s go back,” Mr. Nassar says. His voice quavers like a dandelion against a strong wind.
Back in the present, his face becomes a mask, waxy and unmoving.
“You’ve got your evidence,” I say. “Exactly how your family described it, right? Turn on your phone and I’ll transfer the recording over.”
Mr. Nassar doesn’t smile. He hands me his briefcase. I don’t open it—I won’t insult him by counting the money—but unease curdles my stomach.
As we transfer the recording, Mr. Nassar finally speaks.
“I won’t go public with it,” he says.
“What?” I blink. I reel, as though I’m the one who was knocked sideways by a flying shoe.
“I’ll talk to my sister and find another way to handle her situation,” he says. “Exposing the truth won’t change the fact that they don’t like the truth, so she’d still get punished for what she said. But I don’t want to show the world my grandfather like that—the way he acted.”
“What are you talking about?” I ask, my voice rising an octave. “He was justified—more than justified—with his reaction. Churchill deserved a second shoe to the face.”
“It’s not how I saw him,” Mr. Nassar said. “The man I grew up with was gentle, never raised his voice. Even if it was justified, it was hard for me to see him like that, just now. To know he was that upset about what had happened, but never spoke about it. That he carried it all in.” He exhales. His misty eyes shine through the dark.
I open my mouth, mustering a counterargument, but the words die in the back of my throat. In the end, it’s not my decision to make. I’ve fulfilled my part of the agreement and been paid accordingly. Mr. Nassar owns the unaltered history of a single interaction between his ancestor and one of the most famous historical figures in Britain—he can decide at this point what he wants to do with it.
We stand in the middle of the sidewalk, the occasional pedestrian sighing as they weave around us. It’s after closing time for the pubs, but the city is still alive. The shock of the past memory fades, the sadness reasserting itself in my heavy heart.
We shake hands. The charred smell of kebab meat from a nearby stand fills my nostrils, mixed with the sharp, slick stench of engine fuel from passing taxis. A lump rises to my throat. I’ve never been good at goodbyes, and this should be an easy one, but my lip quivers. Learning Mr. Nassar’s family history has taught me more than I expected about Mr. Nassar himself. We’ve built up a history of our own in the last few days, one that’s coming to an end too soon. Before I’m ready.
He pulls away to leave, but I call out to him.
“Why was this such a big deal?” I ask. “Your grandfather’s pension, I mean. I watch the news. I’m sure your family’s been through worse things at the hands of this government. Why risk so much over something that happened so long ago?”
Mr. Nassar gives me a sad smile.
“I’d think as a tour guide of history, Sasha, you’d understand,” he says. “It’s part of my family’s story. It’s what I have left of my grandfather—his life, his history. History some people would rather forget or distort for their own ends. It matters to me to know it’s true, even if no one else does.”
My chest sinks as he disappears around the street. What will he say to his sister? What will happen to her, and to him, in the long term? Family ties are often complicated, tangled threads with knots that can never be cut away. I know that well enough. My only family is the Guild, and I resent them as much as I love and need them.
It starts to rain again. I reach for the back of my neck, my fingers pressing against the metal device burrowed in my skin. At least I can finally get this fucking thing out.
I stroll up Kentish Town Road, coffee in hand, toward Hampstead Heath. My steps are so light, I’m practically gliding over the dirty concrete. In a few weeks, I’ll be taking my first vacation in three years to the Lake District, courtesy of Mr. Nassar’s payment. Until then, I’ll settle for the heath’s green hills and winding pathways to get my nature fix. The sounds of the city dim as I pass through the main gate, under the embracing shade of its majestic, heavy trees. The wind sighs, rustling through my hair.
Atop Parliament Hill, the city stretches out in front of me, tall buildings hugging the distant, winding Thames. I check my phone for news—no sign yet of my recording going public. Mr. Nassar must have persuaded his sister of another course of action, but who knows? Perhaps his hand will be forced at some point.
I’m prepared in either case. If it goes public, my employer will draw the connections—Jim has enough circumstantial evidence to accuse me. But I have a recording, copied and saved in many places, of him using my abilities for personal gain that day in the inventory room—a terminable violation of the Historical Tourism Board’s code of conduct. If he threatens me, I’ll blackmail him back. We can go down together. Unlike him, I have the Guild. Mr. Nassar’s check paid off a sizable chunk of my fine, well ahead of schedule.
If I find more jobs like Mr. Nassar’s, I can imagine a different kind of life. One that replaces crowded streets and hectic hours with early morning walks in the country, maybe a small cabin where I can get away. I’m not ready to leave Kentish Town and my life here yet. Too many things pull me into the city’s orbit. But I won’t use my gift—one of the rarest in human existence—in service of those who would make the world a worse place. Whether I like it or not, I’m part of this world. When I close my eyes, its infinite particles vibrate between my ears, the universe sharing its secrets and possibilities. Perhaps, at last, I’ve learned to listen.
Nadia Afifi is a science fiction author whose short fiction has been published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Clarkesworld, and Abyss & Apex magazine. Her novels include The Sentient and The Emergent, with the third novel in her trilogy scheduled for release in March 2023. She grew up in the Middle East but current calls Denver, Colorado home. When she isn’t writing, she loves to hike, cook and get lost in a challenging jigsaw puzzle.