Those Things We Cannot Change, by Phillip Irving
The schoolroom is empty. Outside, autumn gales howl and twist. The trees slough their loads sullenly, forming russet and crimson carpets beneath their boughs. Sam Metcalfe sits on a chair that is far too small for his six foot frame and listens with his short dark hair in his hands.
A rhythmic, percussive female voice penetrates the sound of the wind. It murmurs ever louder, then dies, then murmurs upwards once again. It is like the ebb and flow of a tide. Metcalfe remembers that ebb and flow, remembers that voice, from long, long ago.
Change nothing, he thinks, that cannot remain changed. If he were to walk the corridor now, step into the classroom where his younger self is being berated for who remembers what, he would not grow into the man that he has become. Would not join the Bureau. Would not be here to walk the corridor and step into the classroom. A loop. As soon as it was done it would be undone.
He wants to wait. To comfort the child that will be weeping from his reprimand, wondering how it has all become his fault. But that, too, must be avoided. Eventually he can tolerate the sounds no longer. He takes the small device from his pocket and presses the back button.
There’s a quiet hiss of displaced air, not audible above the gale. Metcalfe is gone.
Dinner is eaten in silence. Dinner has been eaten in silence for as long as Metcalfe can remember. Since the affairs. Since the affairs, there has been nothing to talk about but the affairs. It is a subject Metcalfe cannot broach without anger, his wife, Helene, cannot broach without tears. So they eat in silence at the end of each day as Metcalfe tries to think of something to say.
When they are finished, Helene clears the dishes.
Metcalfe’s alarm goes off at six thirty every day, and every day he is awake to hear it. The sound of bells desists at his touch. He tosses aside the thick cocoon of his duvet and rises. Beside him Helene continues her slumber.
The landing is long and painted eggshell blue. Her decision, just before the affairs. He’d contemplated changing everything when he’d found out but it seemed infantile somehow. Even at his most angry, he can’t shake the sense that all of it is somehow silly. They’d both cheated, they’d both strayed, what was done was done. No amount of anger will fix it, so why bother?
Once in a while, when the day has seen wine or beer or whiskey, the anger comes up anyway. His mind furnishes details that his wife cannot recall. Each time they are wilder, more fantastic than the last. He’ll shout and Helene will cry, and sometimes she will shout, too. Nothing is ever solved. Nothing ever changes.
Cortez is already at the office when Metcalfe arrives, consulting the Database. He’s a couple of inches shorter than Metcalfe and a couple of inches thinner. Where Metcalfe is bulky, made of muscle gone soft, Cortez is wiry and spry. Metcalfe is the younger of the two and he looks it, but Cortez wears his years better than Metcalfe wears his. The splash of white through Cortez’s temples lends distinction where Metcalfe’s slightly thinning pate shows only age.
They both wear the fitted blue suits of the Bureau.
Cortez pours Metcalfe a coffee and Metcalfe thanks him for it.
‘No problem, man. You look tired.’
‘Feel tired. Tireder every day.’
‘Things still tense with the wife?’ Cortez asks. He seems genuine, always seems genuine, but Metcalfe can never shake the feeling Cortez is amused by it.
‘None of your damn business, and yes.’
‘Things’ll change,’ Cortez says. He smiles and he looks like he means it.
The hiss of displaced air. Metcalfe is in a long, well-lit corridor. Paintings and doors line the walls. Cortez appears beside him. It’s instantaneous: one moment he’s not there, the next, he is.
‘Four-oh-two,’ Cortez says. Metcalfe nods. The two men make their way in the direction Cortez indicates. The numbers on the doors go up as they walk. Four hundred metres along and around a ninety-degree turn, they reach 402.
‘Do it,’ Cortez says. Metcalfe pulls the picks from his pocket and crouches in front of the lock. It’s warm in the corridor and the air isn’t moving. Beneath the suit and shirt collar, Metcalfe can feel sweat begin to prickle on his skin. A moment passes and the lock clicks. Metcalfe looks up and down the empty corridor and, quietly, pushes the door.
It stops opening after an inch. Metcalfe pulls a wire from his pocket and puts two bends in it, then hooks the end. He puts it into the gap, slides it up and pulls the door closed. He pushes it back and forth until he feels the security latch press against it, and teases the wire against the door. He hears the latch come away from its mount, and pushes the door open. This time, it does not stop.
It’s like everything they do. A small change that precipitates a small change that precipitates a small change. Sooner or later, the changes swell. That’s what the Bureau is for. To carefully select the changes that won’t change the world. Carefully done, a small change will only affect a few people and not everybody, and the world carries on oblivious.
They enter the room and check that they are alone. Clothes are strewn over the unmade bed and the chair in front of the mirror. A TV silently displays the stock exchange figures for the day. From the bathroom comes the sound of running water, interrupted intermittently as their mark changes position in the shower.
Metcalfe stands guard at the door while Cortez scans the room. Eventually he finds what he’s looking for. The toilet bag is the only thing that hasn’t been emptied on arrival. It sits, neat and undisturbed, on the floor by the nightstand. Cortez opens it quietly while Metcalfe concentrates on the sound of the shower. Cortez pulls out the toothbrush, holds it up for Metcalfe to see, raises his eyebrows in triumph. He zips up the bag, returns it, and the two men leave. Metcalfe pauses at the door, careful to replace the security latch. They walk to the bend in the corridor and scan up and down. Nobody in sight.
Cortez takes his device from his pocket and logs the instruction to take the toothbrush in the Database. Both men, in unison, disappear.
Metcalfe watches as Cortez places the toothbrush in a bathroom cabinet some two hundred miles away. Their mark will return to find he has simply forgotten it. Perhaps he will wonder if he imagined packing it, or if age is to blame. Perhaps he won’t think of it at all. It doesn’t matter. By then, the damage will be done.
Cortez logs the instruction to replace the toothbrush. The future will change, a little, but the instructions, recorded now for them to read in five years’ time, will not.
‘I know what you’re thinking,’ Cortez says, pausing at the door of his car.
‘You never know what I’m thinking,’ Metcalfe says. It’s been a good day. They’ve averted a minor diplomatic catastrophe in the Middle-East, though Metcalfe’s not clear on how. It doesn’t matter, of course. Over the next couple of days he’ll forget that the catastrophe had ever happened.
‘I know you travel back to your schooldays. I know you don’t touch anything. You just tour there, then come back.’
‘What’s that got to do with you?’ Metcalfe snaps.
‘I’m not telling anyone, Metcalfe, so it’s got plenty. I get it. Sometimes it’s nice to be reminded. But what you’re thinking of won’t work.’
‘I’m not changing anything.’
‘But you want to.’
‘No, man. I know what happens if I do. I tell myself not to worry at school then I don’t end up the delightfully fucked up man you know now. If I don’t end up fucked up then I don’t join the Bureau and boom. A loop. I get kicked back out of the loop and I’m back there, just before I change it. I get it. Some things you can’t change.’
‘I didn’t say you wanted to change your schooldays.’
‘Fuck you, Cortez.’
‘I’m telling you, man. Some things, you can’t change.’
The hiss of displaced air. He’s at home, and he’s cursing Cortez. Cursing everything about him. He tries to stay focused but for a moment he’s consumed with anger. Only when he tries to control this does he realise that what he’s actually feeling is fear.
He presses on. Up the blue stairs to the blue landing. He pauses, listens. She’s in the shower, getting ready. Later she’ll meet with colleagues for a meal that will turn into a bender. At some time in the night – she’s not clear on when or how – she’ll be talked into accompanying one of the guys back to his hotel room. She’ll wake up the following morning, devastated, and come back to Metcalfe. She’ll cry and cry and cry and he’ll forgive her and make all the right noises. Four days later he’ll go out and make the same mistake, thinking it’ll make him feel better, only to find out he’s wrong. From that point forward, they’ll eat in silence, thinking of all the things they cannot change.
He walks back down the stairs and takes the car keys from the kitchen table. He walks outside, absurdly furtive for his own driveway, and locks the keys in the car. He takes out an envelope bearing his own name, and places it in the mailbox. Then he is gone.
She smiles at him as he walks into his front door and for a moment he is spellbound. He realises it has been some time since he has really seen her smile. Her blue eyes light up and her flawless white teeth seem to fill his vision. She holds him to her without a care in the world.
He returns her embrace, and before he knows what is happening they are upstairs and they are making love and he is reminded of the wonder of her again and again. He is fanatical, maniacal in his lovemaking.
When they are spent, she looks at him, bemused. ‘Where did that come from?’ she asks.
He smiles a smile he doesn’t feel. He wants to answer, but his mind is filled with memories that no longer exist. Soon, he thinks, he will forget. None of it will have ever happened.
The thought brings no comfort.
Phillip Irving is an English teacher from the East Midlands in the UK, and a member of the Speculators writing group. He dabbles in all manner of speculative fiction, and once in a while writes something he think that other people may want to actually read. In his own time he writes stories, reads stories, plays stories and watches stories. When that’s not keeping him busy he spends time with his girlfriend and/or his cats.
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