What To Change
By Robert Collins
The first time Doug considered going back in time to change his life was when he was twelve, on the last day of sixth grade. He hadn't yet begun
to read the great stories of time travel. He hadn't tried to write a
science-fiction story. He hadn't even seen an episode of The Twilight Zone or Star Trek by that age.
He'd had a crush on Mary Swallow all year. He could never screw up the courage to tell her he liked her. He wasn't bold enough to ask her
out. He was too nervous to sit next to her in class. On the last day of school the final issue of the elementary newspaper came out, and everyone was getting their copies signed by their friends. He wrote a
roundabout note on her copy that more-or-less said that he liked her.
That evening, as he sat at home while his classmates partied at Rebecca Schmidt's house, he considered going back to change what he'd written.
As Doug suffered through his teen years, those feelings mounted. He regretted not asking a few girls out. Not working harder in Typing so
he could get a position on the high school paper. Saying wrong things
in various classes. Going to the movies instead of his junior and senior proms.
Then came college, and more regrets. A pointless effort to change the
mind of the pompous teacher in his creative writing class that got him booted out. His first fumbling effort at sex. Not working at a job while
he studied. Dropping out after two years. Worst of all, that idiotic decision to get that just-out-of-style Duran Duran haircut.
So when the letter came, Doug believed his life was turning out to be a mess
. He was working part-time in the mail room of a big law office, struggling to get enough cash to pay off some foolish credit card debts.
The handful of stories he'd sold to tiny magazines had earned him little cash and not even a measure of notoriety. His social life consisted of a
couple phone-calls to friends every few months.
"Doug Patterson, are you bothered by your life?" the letter asked. "Have you made mistakes that you wish you could correct? Did you miss initiatives or opportunities? Are there things you could have done that you failed to do at the time?
"If you had the chance to fix just one thing in your past, would you take that chance?
"Answer these questions by calling me at the toll-free number under my signature. This is no get-rich-quick scheme. This is not a joke. If you are happy with your life, or at the very least satisfied, then by all means throw this letter away. If you aren't happy, what will it
hurt to call?"
Doug had to concede that there wasn't any reason why he shouldn't call. His life was nothing but missed opportunities and correctable mistakes. He recently caught himself wondering what he might do if this chance presented itself. Was it possible that the dream was now reality?
He had to find out.
He found the number under the signature of the letter's author, a "Professor
V. W. Wentworth," and called as soon as he got home from the law office. After two rings a steady, older voice said hello.
"Professor Wentworth, my name is Doug Patterson. You sent me a letter
today about ..."
"Oh, yes, Patterson," the man interrupted. "I take in you're intrigued?"
"Yeah. I do have some questions, first."
"Ask whatever you want, provided you don't ask for any secrets."
"Okay. You say that you can give me the chance to change my past. How? By time travel?"
"Do you transport my body, or my mind, or what?"
"You sound like someone who's read quite a bit on the subject. Let me
guess: you're a science fiction writer, correct?"
Doug was a bit flustered. "Uh, yeah. Aspiring. How did
"That, young man, is a secret. As to your question, I send your body
back to a chosen point in space and time in your past. You'll have proper clothes and money, so you'll blend right in."
"Isn't there a possibility of a temporal paradox occurring? I won't cease to exist if I meet myself?"
"Not at all, Mister Patterson. I wouldn't send you back if I thought
there was a chance of a temporal catastrophe. You'd be surprised at how fluid time actually is."
"What about damage to the time line or affecting history?"
"I'm afraid not. I always hate to say this, Mister Patterson.
It sometimes changes people's minds before they've had time to consider my offer.
"The unfortunate truth is that history marches on without regard for our lives or our impact. Changes in history are made in one of two ways. Either so many are taking part that the matter of whether or not a certain individual is present has no effect on the outcome; or an event is affected by the actions of a select few, therefore an ordinary individual's actions are of no consequence."
"But don't our actions have effects on those around us?"
"Oh, absolutely. But what most of us do in our lives isn't enough to
change history. It isn't accidental that much of history appears inevitable. And at any rate, I've found that one change in one person's life, no matter how important to them, never affects our timeline."
"I see." Doug paused a moment to absorb what the mysterious professor
had said. "It's all very... interesting."
"I'd glad you think so. Are you interested enough to take the chance?
"I can go back to any point in my past?"
"Yes. You can give yourself a warning, or advice. You can save
an heirloom from destruction. You can only go to one point, though. If you've changed your past, when you return you'll find yourself in
your 'new' life, with only a vague awareness of what happened.
Otherwise, you'll return to the departure point within five hours.
Of course, you can choose to return before then. But you won't remain
in the past more than five hours."
"How much will this chance cost?"
"Nothing. After all, if you've changed your past, I won't be contacti
ng you in the present, will I?"
"No. Wait. If I go back and change my past, and I come back, how can I go back and change my past?"
"It works, Mister Patterson. Get paper and a pencil, so you can write
down my address. See for yourself if a paradox occurs."
Naturally Doug leapt at the chance to try to correct the mistakes he made, and a few days later he materialized in his hometown on a crisp Thursday afternoon in the middle of October. His twelfth birthday had been a week
ago. He appeared unobtrusively behind a building in the small city's
modest downtown. His younger self would be walking home along Main Street in couple of hours.
He had decided to arrive early because he wanted to get used to things the way they had been. He hoped the spare time would spark his memories. He would have one chance. He wanted to say the right words, to
phrase them in such a manner that his younger self would pay attention.
He wandered from behind the buildings onto the sidewalk along First Street. He walked a short distance to the corner of First and Main, and looked around.
Most of the buildings were in rough shape, just as he remembered. Store-fronts hadn't been taken care of, and several stores had recently closed. Funny, he thought, twenty years before now, and this place would still look pretty good. Fifteen years from now it will look good again. Odd that no one does anything now, when revitalization would still be
He glanced at the east side of Main, then gasped. Oh, wow, Mitchell's
Hobby Store. Even though he had seen Star Wars earlier
that summer, he hadn't yet become interested in the genre. He was still into model trains. He would continue to visit the area's only hobby shop for another year.
I ought to go inside and look around, for old time's sake. Sure, I'm
not interested in trains anymore. Maybe a peek will spark something. Besides, it beats waiting around for my younger self to show up.
A mix of feelings washed over Doug as he looked around. He had known
the selection was on the thin side. He'd visited one of the hobby stores in the city when he was ten, and had been quite impressed with the array
of locomotives, cars, and accessories, in all scales, that were on display.
Mitchell's had been a letdown after that. He now wondered if
that wasn't one of the reasons why he lost interest in model railroading.
But another sentiment came to him. He started to understand why Mitchell stocked a few train things, some model kits, rockets, radio-controlled planes and boats, and pieces for other hobbies. Mitchell was trying to
stay in business in a small town an hour's drive from a large city.
He had to be diverse if he was going to get the most customers in the door.
"Hello, there," old man Mitchell said.
It broke Doug out of his musing. "Hi."
"Can I help you with anything?" The man's voice was creaky yet steady
"Uh, no. I... heard about your place, and I thought I'd stop by."
"Great. Take a gander. Speak up if you have any questions."
Doug nodded, and began to drift through the cramped aisles. His first
stop was at the train section, with his gaze falling on the small N-scale cars and locomotives. I dreamed about buying most of these, he thought
. I spent most of my allowance on what I could buy. It wasn't
much of a layout: a dozen cars, one diesel, and a handful of buildings. Man, did I spend a lot of time on it, though.
He focused on one car in particular, a boxcar for the Atchison, Topeka &
Santa Fe with real sliding doors. I had one of those. That was a really nice car. Why'd I get rid of it? Oh, right, to get
money for a couple magazine subscriptions.
"Something catch your eyes, sir?" Mitchell asked.
"Yeah, this N-scale Santa Fe boxcar."
The old man nodded pleasantly. "That's a real beauty. You can't get a better car in 'N' for two-fifty."
"No, you can't." I bet in my time they cost ten or fifteen bucks.
Doug reached for the car, picked it up, took one more close look, then headed for the counter. He caught sight of the ship and plane kits.
He stopped, cut through a narrow passage between the aisles, and looked at
the illustrated boxes.
He paused at an inexpensive kit for a Spitfire fighter plane. He remembered that, at about twelve or so, he had a passing interest in warplanes. It only went so far as two photo books and one poorly-assembled kit,
and had faded within a year. The Spitfire was supposed to be the next
I was trying to do too many things, I guess. Drifting from one hobby
to the next. Sort of like my writing today, wandering from one short
story to the next. No commitment to a large project. No wonder
I'm not getting anywhere.
Why don't I change that when I get back? Focus on completing the stories I feel passionate about. Stick to a set work time. Maybe even try that novel. Maybe it's focus that I'm lacking, not money or courage.
Doug walked to the counter. He bought the boxcar, thanked Mitchell for his time, and left the store. He looked down the street at the rotating clock next to the bank at Main and Central. Still some time to kill before his younger self appeared.
His attention was caught by the one bright sign in downtown. It belonged to the Reader's Choice bookstore on the opposite side, in the center of
the block. Doug felt warm at seeing the sign. He'd spent many
hours during high school in that store, acquainting himself with the classic
works of science fiction and fantasy. But not this year. He wouldn't step into the store for almost a year and a half yet.
Well, Doug mused, if I have time to kill, I ought to look around in there to
o. He went inside, said a brief hello to the owner, and walked to the science-fiction and fantasy section. A rapid blaze of thoughts raced through his mind as he examined the books. Hey, I always wanted to read that. It's out of print now. I mean, in the future. And this is a used copy. I might as well pick it up.
Whoa. That just came back last year, in hardback. This copy is
a tenth the price of the new hardback.
I didn't know he ever had a short story collection published.
Oh, some old issues of Tomorrow Stories. I've heard about this story.
And that one. And that.
Doug did come calculations in his head, decided on what he could and couldn't afford, and left the store with his small bag nearly full. He walked a short distance north to a vacant bench. He sat down, careful to avoid the unfriendly hole in one of the boards on one side. He looked
at the bank clock; not much more time to wait.
What could I say to myself that would have an impact? he wondered. Should I say something about Mary? No way. I haven't told anyone
how I feel. I'd probably freak if some guy on the street mentioned something that I haven't told anyone else about.
Maybe some advice about staying focused. No, that's too vague and confusing. Besides, I'm not really that unfocused. Well, maybe with my writing, but I can fix that when I return.
I could tell myself to save my money. Yeah, that would help me out. I sure wish I'd been better at saving.
Wait, that would only work if I was going to waste my money today. Did I? Geez, I can't remember. Well, that idea goes down in flames.
I ought to say something about being bolder, more courageous. Lots of
the crap in my life happened because I didn't decide right then. I waited, I weighed, and it became too late.
But what the Hell could I say to myself, at twelve, that would have an impact? It would have to be something specific, and the only specific topic would be Mary. I doubt my younger self would pay attention to some
vaguely upbeat slogan that some strange guy on the street says.
Great. I've come all this way for nothing.
He glanced at the two bags next to him. Well, not really nothing. I have the chance to read some important works. And trains were a
big part of my past. I guess I forgot how much fun they were.
Maybe this is my chance to focus. Focus on one hobby. My writing career.
Doug looked around. There was still no sign of his younger self. He could see the edge of the train station up the street. That sig
ht, plus the overall look of the city's downtown and the year he'd gone back
to, reminded him of when he first learned about the city's history.
It wasn't much of a history, really; small county seat until oil was discovered, then a boom, and as of this point in time, now a bust.
I wonder if anyone's written a new history, he asked himself. The one
I had to read when I was thirteen had been written around 1961, the Kansas
centennial. I don't think city history stopped then. In fact,
I know it hasn't. This downtown looks nice and new again. Many
of the buildings are occupied. Much of the ugly, mobile-home metal siding has come down and the old facades have been restored. There's definitely a new history to be told.
Hang on, a dissenting part of his mind replied, you're a sci-fi writer, not
a historian. You should concentrate on that. Leave history to
some other writer.
But what if there isn't some other writer, Doug asked himself. That would give me an opportunity. A chance to finish a book and get it published. There's no law that says I can't write that book and still write genre stuff. And think of the experience I'd get in research, and
promoting, and maybe even having to publish it myself. Maybe that's
an advantage I can use to improve my genre writing career.
Just then Doug was snapped out of his train of thought by the sight of his younger self passing by. His younger self didn't see the older as he walked towards home. He passed without even looking up. The older Doug struggled for a moment to think of something to say. But he couldn't, and even if he could, the younger Doug didn't turn or stop to give
him the opportunity.
An observation came to Doug as he watched his younger self continue walking
home. I'm not looking around, except to get out of people's way, he thought.
That's pretty much what I'm doing now, he reminded himself. There's a
book in this city, but I've been so dedicated to SF that I never bothered to notice. I've been so wrapped up in staying current that I neglected
to read the things I like or liked. I've been so bugged about my past that I haven't really considered my future.
Well, it's not too late for me to change. I should find a few projects to focus on, regardless of genre or style or whatever. I should go
back to model railroading, and use it as a diversion from writing. I
should stop thinking about my mistakes, take whatever lessons there are from
them, and move on.
Doug nodded to himself. He picked up his two bags, and returned to the spot where he had arrived in the past. He shifted the bags to his right hand while he maneuvered his left arm to a position in front of his face. With his right forefinger he carefully tapped the catch on the bracelet on his left wrist. He tapped the now-exposed button. An
instant later he was back in his own time in Professor Wentworth's lab.
Doug could tell that Wentworth was a bit stunned when he materialized.
Doug was on his feet and fully conscious. Wentworth looked at him for a moment, then stared at the two bags. "I take it you didn't meet
yourself?" he asked. His voice held a hint of annoyance. "Found something better to do?"
"Sort of. First off, I couldn't think of anything to say that would have made a difference to me at that age. But the more I thought about
it, the more it occurred to me that it wasn't my past that needed changing,
but my present."
"Did you need to go back in time to figure that out?"
"Y'know, I think I did. Yeah, I'd say I did, Professor. I guess I needed to go back to see that I'm not going forward. I guess it'll take some time to see if this trip was worth taking."
"It will, Mister Patterson. But I do have the feeling that, although
you didn't do much than shop, this trip was worth your time. And if it was worth your time, it was worth my effort."
"Then I guess I'd better go and get started on changing myself."
"You do that."
"You bet I will."
Copyright © 2003 by Robert Collins
Bio:"I've had stories and articles appear in periodicals such as Model Railroader; Marion Zimmer Bradley's Fantasy Magazine; Hadrosaur Tales; Of Unicorns & Space Stations; Pyramid; The Fifth Di...; Chronicle of the Old West; and the Wichita Eagle. I edit the e-mail newsletter for a local SF-F talk radio show called “The Warp Zone.” My fifth Kansas railroad book, "The Border Tier Road," was recently published by South Platte Press; I've had four other books published by South Platte Press. I wrote and published a series of local travel booklets from 1992-95; I also published a short story magazine called “Story Rules” from 1995-7."
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