What You Can Change by Michael Haynes

~2400 Words

I’m watching you and my father whispering in the kitchen. You’re going over the plans yet again. Neither of you looks sad. You don’t look happy, either. I suppose there’s that at least. But your faces show determination or maybe resignation. Either way, I had what I came for. Neither of you had been forced down this path, so both of you are to blame.

Down the hall I’m sleeping in my bedroom. My twin brother must be sleeping there, too. The twin that I remembered, but you denied.

Before I was old enough to realize that asking wouldn’t get me an answer, would only bring harsh words and long periods of tension, I inquired about my brother several times. I didn’t know he was my brother, exactly. I just remembered another boy, my age and size, who was there with me when I was very young. Those times, you always told me that I must be thinking of a cousin of mine. You’d ask my father, “What’s his name, dear? Your brother’s son. The one who lives out east?” He’d answer, and you’d say that must be what I was remembering. That they had visited for a month one summer when I was four or five. But I was sure you were lying. I wasn’t remembering just one summer. I was remembering someone who I had played countless games with and fought epic battles against with our toy soldiers. Someone who had always been there, back to my first memories.

The last time I questioned you about him, when I was eight or nine years old, I asked if he had been my brother. “Don’t be silly.” Your words were clipped. “No one your age has a sibling. You know that.”

I have what I came for, but I’m still watching. You’re both sitting, calm, as your cups of coffee grow cold. How can you be doing this? I want to scream at you, to tell you that you shouldn’t do it or if you must, that you should do it to me instead. But you can’t change the past. That’s how it works.

#

I’m sure I would miss something if I tried to list all of the rules, regulations, and laws I was breaking with my unauthorized explorations into the past. The device was not to be used to investigate matters of minor importance which, if looked at objectively, my loss of a brother surely was. Another department rule forbade exploring within the past fifty years; something about the way the device worked made it easier to go back a thousand years than a few dozen years. Each time I went back I risked damaging the device’s inner workings. Explorers were not to be involved with any investigation dealing with their own family history, no matter how far back in time.

I’ve worked here twelve years. All that time, I fantasized about going back to my early childhood, to see if I was wrong or if you and my father had lied to me. I didn’t have the courage, though. I had a good job and knew I’d be risking that and more if I broke the rules. So I kept to my assignments. I gathered information on old wars, dead societies, and forgotten inventions for the researchers who paid us to go back to the past for lost knowledge.

When the first symptoms struck me, I thought I was just overdoing it with my running. On the days I wasn’t working I ran, often for over twenty kilometers in a day. My legs started bothering me. They felt weak, and I was prone to cramps. Other times muscles would start jumping; their spasms weren’t painful, just annoying.

I cut back on the running. My days off were long now and boring. I sat in my apartment, watching videos or reading, not anxious to get back to work but also not enjoying my free time.

When the cramps and twitching started in my arms and hands, I went to see a doctor. After analyzing my test results, she delivered my diagnosis in a purely clinical manner. I would likely live another four or five years but the progressive nature of the disease would take away most normal functioning within the next two years.

The doctor gave me a pamphlet which explained the disability scoring. At fourteen points, I’d be eligible to stop working and receive disability pay. Eighteen points and I’d be eligible for euthanasia. If I so chose, she reminded me.

The very next day I took my first private journey and watched my brother and I play on the floor of the bedroom we shared.

#

You’re sitting in the kitchen, waiting for my father to come home. I’m playing on the floor, toy soldiers lined up for battle. If I’m curious about where my brother is, I don’t show it.

Neither of you can see me, of course. The way the device works I can perceive what is happening here, just as if I were in the room. But I’m not there.

My father comes home and picks me up, hugs me. He plays with me for several minutes while you watch. My soldiers overrun his. Then he helps me gather up the toys and put them away. He leads me into another room with promises of letting me watch my favorite video. A short while later, he comes back and sits beside you.

“It’s all taken care of,” he tells you.

Your body language suggests you don’t want to know the details — the two of you had discussed the plans so many times, why revisit it now that it’s done? But he tells you everything. How he left my brother at a Nameless commune before dawn, strapped into a safety seat and sedated. How he visited the district Vitals Officer and explained there’d been a tragedy a few days ago, that one of their sons had died in his sleep. The family, he told the officer, chose a simple private burial. He bribed the officer with a moneycard. It might not have even been necessary, my father said, the officer probably would have understood. But he didn’t want to take any chances.

I come back into the room, asking if someone will play with me, asking now where my brother is. No one speaks, but you stand up, take me by the hand, and lead me back out of the kitchen. I notice a glistening in your eyes as you and I pass by the place from which I’m watching.

#

I rented a car and drove towards where my father had told you the Nameless commune stood. Almost forty years later I knew it might be hard to find my brother. The communes were where people who had opted out or been forced out of society lived. They were cut off from the rest of us with no access to schools or the communication network, no ability to take jobs or receive medical care. I had no real idea what my brother would look like as an adult other than the thought that he might be tall like myself but have black hair and favor your appearance.

Some people say life in the communes hearkens back to a simpler time. Maybe that’s so, but that simpler time came with hard manual labor, no medicines to cure infections, and a lifespan thirty years shorter than in regular society.

I couldn’t find the commune when I drove those desolate roads far from the city. I thought maybe I had misunderstood the directions and tried several different routes. My arms grew weary, I expected they soon would begin to tremble, and I had to give up the search for the day.

I didn’t have the strength for wasted trips. The communes were not officially recognized, but there was still information to be had if you looked in the right places. I found that I hadn’t taken the wrong route. My brother’s commune had been struck by a wildfire two years after he was abandoned there. Dozens of people died trying to save the crops and buildings, but the commune was destroyed. My brother, being so young, probably was saved from the flames, and he would have had no role in trying to fight the fire. But the commune was not rebuilt. Its residents were dispersed to others across the country. The residents were Nameless, so there was no record of who was dispersed where. My brother could be anywhere and I had no hope of finding him.

#

Denied the opportunity to reconnect with my brother in the present, I could only revisit the past. I felt that I had to understand how I came to have a brother and why you sent him away. I explored our early years. I was present at our birth. Not even you were aware that you carried two children. If it had been detected, one of us would have been eliminated early in your pregnancy. There was a small degree of mercy in the laws that restricted each family to one child and after my brother and I survived the prenatal scans no one forced you to give one of us up. Not directly, at least.

We weren’t identical twins. His hair came in jet black, mine was a dirty blonde. His shoulders were broader, and where I favored our father’s appearance, he favored yours. These were differences I could see, watching us in tiny fragments of the several years we both lived in our home.

There were also differences that no one could see, but they were reported in the genetic analysis report produced after our third birthday. This report was a precursor to placement in the education system. I had traits suggesting capacity for strong intellectual skills, determination, and an athletic nature. My brother’s report was less promising. He was likely to mature with a great degree of empathy, but otherwise I outranked him across the board.

When it was time for us to go into education, I was to be routed to the schools which would prepare me for a profession using my intellect. I might someday be an engineer, a physician, or a law-maker. My brother was assigned to the schools for future tradesmen. There was no shame in this. Society needed people to repair its vehicles, build its great residential towers, and keep its sewers functioning properly. But I watched you and my father favor me over my brother in various little ways.

My brother’s fate was sealed when the time came to actually enroll us in our schools. The government had let us both live, but our family was still only entitled to a single education credit. To send both of us to school, you would have to pay one full tuition. I watched the two of you discuss how to make this happen, but it was obvious from your first discussion that there was no hope of making it work. I don’t think either of you wanted to believe that. You thought there would be some way to pull it off.

That hopeful attitude didn’t last long. Within a week, you were asking each other what to do if only one of your sons could go to school.

#

I’ve returned from the evening when you and my father planned my brother’s disappearance and gone directly back into the past to watch my father give my brother away. It’s dark and cold. My father’s breath fogs the air as he carries my brother in a safety seat up the long path leading to the commune’s front porch. He sets my brother’s seat down and looks at him for a moment, watching his sleeping breaths. Our father bends down and brushes my brother’s hair away from his eyes for the last time. Then he raps on the door twice and jogs away, back down the path, not waiting for an answer to his knock. He passes me, and there’s no sadness in his eyes. That doesn’t matter, though. I’ve already decided that feelings of sadness or remorse were irrelevant. You made the decision together, and that choice is all that I care about. I will avenge my brother.

I’m sure that I’m only months from disability status. Every day I feel more tired than the day before. I’ve stopped running and have progressively more trouble making my hands work the way I need them to. There are times when I find it hard to swallow correctly. I don’t have any desire to live like this. That makes me feel weak in a way, knowing that I’d rather die than let the disease progress. I’ve taken that weakness, though, and turned it into strength. My illness has given me the strength to balance our family’s accounts.

It’s dark here now, in the realtime. I’m outside your house. I have three hypodermics, each loaded with enough medication to knock out an adult for hours. I have other containers filled with flammable chemicals, and I have matches. I have my key to our house, the key I haven’t used in three years.

Perhaps my brother, the empathetic one, would have been able to accept your choices. Maybe he could have come to the conclusion that, whatever you showed on the outside, the decision must have been corroding you from the inside all these years and judged that punishment enough. I can’t.

You’re both asleep when I make the injections and neither of you stirs. I know the drug is fast-acting, so I don’t inject myself yet. I have to make sure that the fire isn’t going to fail. I pour the chemicals through the small rooms of the house and light the blaze. It spreads faster than I had imagined but then — that’s why it destroys so ruthlessly. I have a moment of fear that the flames and smoke will give me pain before the drug takes hold. I go into the room that was my brother’s and mine when we were young. It’s a study now so there are no beds. I lay down on the floor. My left arm spasms and it takes me a few seconds extra to give myself the injection. I feel the sting though, and know that within moments, I won’t feel anything at all, ever again.

You can’t change the past. That’s how it works. But you can always change the present.

________________________________________________________________________________

Author Bio: Michael Haynes lives in Central Ohio where he helps keep IT systems running for a large corporation during the day and puts his characters through the wringer by night. An ardent short story reader and writer, Michael had over 20 stories accepted for publication during 2012 by venues such as Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show, and Daily Science Fiction. He is a member of SFWA.

This is a re-printed story.

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