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Letting Go

Alex Shvartsman is a writer and game designer from Brooklyn, NY. Over 60 of his short stories have appeared in Nature, InterGalactic Medicine Show, Galaxy's Edge, Daily Science Fiction, and many other venues. He edits Unidentified Funny Objects, an annual anthology of humorous SF/F. His fiction is linked at alexshvartsman.com and his short story collection, Explaining Cthulhu to Grandma releases on February 1st, 2015.

Her expression tells you everything even before she speaks, and your world comes undone.
Then she confirms it: she tells you that her mission is a go. She is so excited, her face is radiant with possibility, and her eyes sparkle with the light of distant stars. You manage to smile, and it is the hardest thing you've ever had to endure.
Love requires many sacrifices, which you offer gladly and without hesitation. The most difficult among them, the one that shatters your heart into a million aching shards, is letting go.
She will be gone for sixteen years, but only two years will have passed aboard the ship. When she returns to Earth, she will be in her early thirties. Even if her love for you survives a two-year journey, how can it possibly endure the homecoming? When she returns, you will be biologically twenty years her senior.
Four months later you say goodbye. She tells you that it's going to be all right. You try your best to believe her. You hug her fiercely and inhale her favorite perfume, trying to commit this moment to memory, from the way her long hair feels under your fingertips to the smell of lilac and jasmine. And then you let go.
The next year is a string of smaller sacrifices. You leave your job at the university because they won't fund your research. You work eighteen hours a day, and live off your savings. In the end, it's all worth it.
You prove that time travel is possible, but only going forward. Because it amuses you and--more importantly--because you know it would make her laugh, you design the time machine prototype to look like a blue phone booth.
It will take years to calibrate the equipment to allow for jumps to a precise date. As is, you can travel approximately fifteen years into the future. The exact date doesn't matter. You can be together again. You imagine the two of you on the cover of Nature, the cover of Time. The first time traveler and the first interstellar astronaut: the power couple of science, and still young enough to reap the rewards of your success.
You do your best to settle all your affairs in the way only a dying person might. You make certain that the house is kept within your family; that the lab remains undisturbed until you return.
There are more sacrifices. You say goodbye to your elderly parents, knowing that it's likely the last time you'll see them. You will not get to watch your twelve-year-old nephew grow up. All this for a leap of faith, a ride forward in time that's as likely to kill you as it is to work as intended. It's a chance you take gladly, for her.
The ride is anticlimactic. You touch the screen to activate the machine, and it whirrs to life, but you feel nothing. It's only when you open the door that you know it worked.
Everything in your basement lab looks and feels disused. The papers on your desk are yellowed with age. Your equipment has been boxed up and is stored in the corner. Some of your parents' old furniture takes up much of the room. An old mattress is propped up against the wall by a baby crib. Your lab has become a storage room.
You hear footsteps on the floor above.
"Hello?" You call out, and a man in his thirties comes downstairs. You barely recognize your nephew.
He recognizes you, too.
"Oh my god, we thought you were dead! It's been twenty years." He rushes over.
Your invention overshot its target by five years, but it worked! You blurt out the only question that matters.
He avoids eye contact as he tells you that she returned safely. Then he hugs you.
You break the embrace as soon as it's polite to do so. You look closer, noting his wedding band, and boxes of diapers in the corner. All you can think about is the faint scent of lilac and jasmine on the collar of his shirt.
When he offers to call her downstairs, you stop him.
Sixteen years may not be too long to wait for your lover to return, but four years is time enough to mourn when you think they're dead. And your nephew, who grew up to look a lot like you, would have been there to console her.
Your voice cracks as you make him promise to never tell her you were here.
You love her too much to make her doubt or even regret her choices. So you let her go, one last time.
Then you get back into the time machine and journey forward, as far as it'll take you.
The End
This story was first published on Monday, November 3rd, 2014

Author Comments

I've written time travel stories and I've written time dilation stories, but this is the first time I managed to combine the two. The theme of loving someone enough to place their happiness above your own is a very powerful one, and I hope I did it justice with this flash.

- Alex Shvartsman
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