The Ticket Stub Time Traveler
He had discovered the secret to time travel without the help of physics, aeronautics, or cosmology. Though time travel ended in the darkness, it started with a meal. So in a pair of charcoal slacks, a button-up shirt, and black shoes polished to a crisp high shine, he went out to dinner.
His restaurant choice depended on his mood. The small but comfortable café in the modest downtown district served breakfast well into the afternoon. The Mexican restaurant closer to the city’s college campus had the best burritos that came with complimentary tortilla chips. Regardless of where he ended up eating, though, he never overindulged. His appetite needed space for the snacks from the theater concession stand, because the second step to traveling through time was the movies.
He went on weekdays when crowds were manageable. Sharing was sometimes necessary, but he liked to have the space to himself as much as possible to let the theater wield its powers—miraculous and good. A theater could turn a terrible movie tolerable. It could transform a good movie into a great one. Choosing the right movie was the easy part—in the sanctity of the theater, there were no wrong choices.
His trip into the past could not be made without the ticket he bought in the present. That ticket they slid to him through the booth’s small window was full of memory and magic, and he cupped it in his hands like he held summer’s first lovesick lightning bug. After they tore it in half, he studied the stub for everything he needed to remember. Sometimes the movie’s title was amputated to a stumped version of itself. Sometimes the large black “1,” “2,” “3,” or “4,” depending on which auditorium played his movie, was lost to the half they kept. But the date, printed in neat numbers along the ticket’s edge, was never bothered. He made a slow walk to the concession stand memorizing the peculiarities of the ticket stub that would one day become the engine to power his time machine.
He ordered the small popcorn even though he could have had the large for only a few more cents. When he purchased his soda, there was no such restraint. The cup holders in the theater’s stadium seating had been designed to accommodate the largest drinks. Ordering anything smaller would have been a waste of space. He rotated his soda and candy selections according to the whims of his taste much as he chose the restaurant. When he had all he could carry, he balanced everything on the stiff cardboard tray they provided. Across the lobby and down a total of three steps, he set his selections on the counter that was his final stop before the auditorium. Here he took napkins from the dispenser and two straws. Always two. The first was plunged into his deep soda, and the second was wiggled into the middle of his popcorn. He then pumped a stream of hot, artificial butter through the straw to ensure the popcorn beneath the first layer never went dry. A few more generous pumps across the top had him ready.
A short but delicate walk led him to the doors of his auditorium. Lowlight built into the carpeting created paths that guided him to the seats. He made it a point to choose a spot somewhere near the back that was in perfect alignment with the center of the screen. Once he found his place, he settled the soda into the cup holder on the right-side armrest and the candy went in the left. The popcorn he held between his knees. He snacked and sipped as screens of film trivia flashed in between local advertisements. After a time, the lowlights would be turned lower still until they were snuffed and the auditorium went black. An animated sequence of singing snack foods outlining proper auditorium etiquette played, and next came the trailers for movies he knew he would watch soon. Delightful, exciting glimpses into his own future. Then, just for a moment—a piece of time so small it could not be measured, dense like collapsed celestial bodies, worlds upon worlds crushed into a single point of matter—all would go still, leaving darkness and silence. The delicious electricity of the wait stretching on before the movie began.
They all wondered the same thing. They who sold him the tickets, the popcorn, the soda, and the candy. They who provided trays, napkins, straws, and artificial butter. The ticket sellers and takers, the popcorn poppers and baggers—they all wondered how he got that scar on the side of his face. Far from a ragged violation of flesh, it looked as if it had been drawn in place. Starting near the corner of his right eye, the scar arced toward the neck. Before crossing the jaw line, though, the scar jinked toward the corner of the mouth and came to an elegant finish within smile creases. Without that scar, he would have been difficult to notice. But every time he left the theater after his movie was over, they all watched him go.
At home, he had a large glass bowl on the coffee table that contained all his previous stubs. He added the newest one and used both hands to stir them together. After that, he had only a few more steps in preparation. Time travel, even without physics, was tricky, and he had learned to take care after his accident. He needed it to be dark enough to be safe but just light enough to see. He used candles but burned no more than two wicks at a time. Clear nights worked best. Attempting time travel during a storm was foolish. When the monsoons came through the high country and singed the air with lightning that chased away the city’s smell of pine, time travel grew too dangerous. He spent those seasons trying to will the weather down off the mountains and toward the deserts in the south that needed the rains anyway. But it was a clear night tonight—the Peaks blocked out only starlight, not clouds, on the horizon. He closed his eyes as his hand felt through the bowl of ticket stubs. For reasons he didn’t understand, his fingers knew how to find the right one. He sat in his living room’s only chair and propped his feet onto a low ottoman. Only when we was settled and relaxed would he read the ticket stub by small, yellow candlelight.
And he was off.
The sense of movement always terrified him at first. It wasn’t linear—it felt more as if gravity gave up its hold and the spinning world threw him free. There was no stretching of light from pinpoint stars. There was only the sense of speed as he spiraled backwards through time. When he arrived, he arrived all at once.
The smells and sounds of the restaurant began all over again, but they were different here in the past. Everything was sharper and more intense. He sat down at the table across from himself and felt everything from his new angle. It was familiar but startling, like seeing a former lover whose unexpected appearance reminded why falling in love in the first place had been the right thing to do.
He walked alongside himself to the theater. The steps replayed as he knew they would which made every experience all the more exquisite. The iced soda, the buttered popcorn, the chocolaty candy. The best part, though, was the movie. It played frame by frame for him only—no one else in the auditorium mattered. It showed him shots from new angles and restructured lighting. Subplots rose and resolved for his exclusive entertainment. And though he knew all the secrets, he preferred his own private showing here in the past.
When the movie was over and the screen went back to being nothing more than a screen, he found himself back in his living room among shuddering shadows thrown by the candle’s wobbling flame. It always made him sad to come back to the present. For a time, that sadness was all he knew. Time traveler’s sickness. But when he looked at the bowl on his coffee table filled with ticket stubs, it was almost enough to chase the sickness away. Almost.
“What happened to your face?” they asked one day when he bought his ticket. He stood in silence hoping that if he was still long enough, their question would be undone. Unmade. Unreal. But it kept its solidity and clung to him, lingering like the ruined smell of burned dinner as he made his way through the entrance.
They tore his ticket and sold him concessions. He ate his popcorn and drank his soda as usual, but their question was there too. He even tried moving to different seats to get away, but it didn’t work. Sitting too far to the left, he tried to enjoy the movie even though everything had been spoiled.
It did not take long before they tried again. “How did you get that scar?” they asked, this time at the concession stand. They had already given him a bag of popcorn with too many un-popped kernels, and now they were filling his soda with too much ice.
“I was in an accident,” he said.
“Like a car accident?”
“What kind then?” The more answers he gave, the closer they looked.
“It was a time travel accident.”
He snatched his concessions from them before they asked any more questions. He didn’t even bother with the artificial butter or the napkins. Instead, he hurried straight into his auditorium where he hoped he would be safe. But the movie was bad, and somehow the theater’s magic failed to make it any better.
He was nervous on his next visit. Everything felt too bright, and his scar was sensitive for the first time since the accident—it tingled in the light, bubbling and popping like a waking limb. But for all his fears, there came no questions. As the trailers began to play, he waited for the magic to return. The movie opened with cursive credits and a sinuous soundtrack. Everything, at last, was right again
After the movie, he walked from his auditorium and up the three steps. Staring into the ticket stub he held in his hand, imagining the trip to the past it would one day provide, he didn’t pay enough attention. His toe caught the lip of the final step and he fell, landing on his elbow. The stub floated away before coming to rest on the smashed red and yellow carpet of the lobby. He scurried on hands and knees along the floor and reached out just as they bent down and picked it up. He stood without taking his eyes off the hand that held his ticket stub.
“We’ll throw that away for you,” they said.
“No!” He spoke much too loudly, and they all looked at him. “I need it.”
“Hey, what did you do to your face again?” they asked.
“I hurt it. May I have my ticket stub please?”
“Oh, yeah. In a time travel accident, right? What happened?”
Their smiles had too many teeth.
“The light was too bright. I couldn’t see where I was going.”
They laughed a little.
“So does that mean you have a time machine?”
Their questions would never stop.
“I need the ticket stub for it to work.”
Now their laughter roared inside the lobby.
“You mean this little ticket stub?”
They held it out to him. Their fingers were hooked, and their eyes had gone the yellow of candlelight. But the ticket stub was nothing but a torn scrap of paper now, and paper could not take him into the past. He backed through the theater doors and into the orange evening burning out to purple. He paused for only a moment before turning toward his home—and the glass bowl full of useless ticket stubs—and walking away.
They watched him go until he was too far gone to be seen. Then they waited for him to come back—spent days snapping their heads toward the lobby entrance every time the doors swung open at the touch of a new visitor. But it was never him. Before long, the time spent waiting stretched them, and they went thin—too little skin over too much bone—like something in the past had grabbed them and didn’t let go even as the present pulled them further away.
About the author:
Jeremy Broyles cut his literary teeth on hand-me-down sci-fi novels and has yet to outgrow that initial sense of fascination. A reader, writer, and dedicated cyclist (cold weather be damned), he makes his home in Nebraska where keeping warm remains his primary concern.