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All The Difference

David M. Barry (he/him/his) is a mental health therapist who writes speculative fiction. He lives in Worcester, Massachusetts in a historic home which, to his dismay, is not haunted. When he's not trying to guide his clients toward their highest level of well-being, or emptying the odd workings of his writers' mind onto the page, he is usually binge watching shows with the love of his life, their dog Lola, and her feline friend, Private Jack Harkness. "All The Difference" is David's first professionally published work of fiction. You can follow him (and Lola) on Twitter at @DavidMBarry. Private Jack is not currently using social media. He's just a kitten.

When I got my license to travel through space-time, the first thing I planned to do was look up Robert Frost. Yeah, that Robert Frost. Don't give me a hard time. I get teased about it enough.
"Why would you do that to yourself?" Caleb asked.
"Sounds super boring."
"He's looking for a Robert Frost who didn't take the road less traveled by," Beatrix said. "He wants to see if it made any difference."
Beatrix knows me better than anyone.
"You think that's going to help you figure out which way to declare?" Caleb asked.
When you get your license, you have to declare what kind of space-time traveler you're going to be. You have two choices: Pleasure Seeker or World Saver. Don't ask why. The Seeker-Saver rule is one of those things adults make up because they can only think in a binary way.
Caleb figured out he was a Seeker back in middle school. He couldn't wait to cruise the multiverse and hook up with all his celebrity crushes. Beatrix came from a long line of Savers. She says she never really had a choice. Now she spends her time convincing citizens to get the hell out of Pompeii before Vesuvius erupts.
Me? I'm Undecided, which means you get six months of undeclared space-time travel to figure out your path.
"You're wasting space-time, X." Caleb said, "What's some poet who's been dead for hundreds of years gonna say that'll make any difference in your life?"
"How about you let Xavier figure that out for himself?" Beatrix snapped. "Maybe he'll decide that life means a little more than having a party in his pants."
Because I hated it when Caleb and Beatrix made things awkward, putting their crumbling romance on display like that, I stepped into my Quantum Entanglement pod, and entered: Universe(1).Earth(1).Year(1911).Long(42.8806N).Lat(71.3273W). In a nanosecond, I materialized on Robert Frost's poultry farm in Derry, New Hampshire. Unlike the Robert Frost of my Earth--Earth(0)--the Robert Frost of Earth(1) didn't fail as a farmer. He stopped killing chickens, and started growing fruit. I met him in his orchard, picking peaches with his crew. I said I was a reporter doing a story on the farmer's plight. That's how I found out Earth(1) Frost had no intention of selling his farm.
"So?" Beatrix asked. "Did it make any difference?"
"Hard to say. He didn't seem happy."
"Is that your criteria, Xavier? Happiness?"
"I guess."
"Good luck measuring that."
"I think I need more data. Maybe a thousand Frosts aren't enough."
"Hell no," Caleb said. "I won't let you. Friends don't let friends die of boredom."
"Do it," Beatrix said. "Go interview as many Robert Frosts as you need. Know how many times I've seen Vesuvius blow?"
"Too many," Caleb said.
"Yeah? How many times have you boned Katy Perry?"
"If you declared as a Seeker, we could have our own fun. Do you remember fun?"
When I arrived on Earth(2), I learned that their Robert Frost sold the farm and moved to Europe just like our Robert Frost. I tracked him down in a London pub, drinking with Edward Thomas and Ezra Pound. I walked right up to their table, said I was a critic for the Paris Review.
"You didn't," Beatrix said.
Caleb laughed. "Please tell me you got hammered with them."
"Nope. Pound called me on my bullshit."
"Please tell me you got into a fistfight with Ezra Pound."
"Sorry, Caleb. Edward Thomas stepped in. Brought Pound home."
"Was this Robert Frost happy?" Beatrix asked.
"Maybe? When I told him I was an aspiring poet seeking advice, he did seem to perk up."
"Did he miss the farming life?"
"He said, yes and no."
"You should pick up Sigmund Freud next time," Caleb said, "Bring him with you. Have him perform his neuro-voodoo act. Maybe that'll help you declare."
"Hey, that's a pretty good idea."
"I get those once in a while."
"Can't remember the last time," Beatrix jabbed.
Caleb ignored her. "Listen, X. Just hurry up and declare as a Seeker already. I'll take you partying with the Spice Girls. That may not make all the difference, whatever that means, but at least you'll feel alive."
Caleb stepped into his Quantum Entanglement pod, and took off.
I said to Beatrix. "You two make it awkward all the time now. You breaking up?"
"I think so."
"That sucks."
"Whatever. Nothing gold can stay, right?"
"Never liked that Frost poem. Too depressing."
"You should tell him the next time you see him."
"Yeah. Maybe," I said, and stepped into my QE pod.
But before I could set coordinates for Earth(3), Beatrix said, "You know he wrote "The Road Not Taken" as a joke, right? He was just teasing Edward Thomas."
"Thomas sure took it seriously."
"You're missing the point, Xavier. Just like Thomas did. The poem wasn't about the road less traveled by. It was about the friendship between Frost and Thomas. That's what makes all the difference. It's not the road you travel, it's the traveling companion you choose."
I stepped out of my QE pod.
She said, "Do you know why I go to Vesuvius?"
"You're a Saver. You go to save people."
"Do you know how many people I've saved?"
I shrugged. She never talked about that. I assumed it was a lot.
"You know, sometimes, when I'm hanging out in Pompeii, I wonder... what if I stay. Would that make any difference?"
"Stay? You mean, like, during the eruption?"
"Don't freak out okay? I'm not going to do anything. I just--"
Beatrix got quiet then. I closed the door to my pod--Robert Frost on Earth(3) could wait. I sat with her for a long time. I figured at some point the silence would get awkward, but it never did.
Eventually, I said, "It would make a difference to me."
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, December 21st, 2021

Author Comments

While working for the non-profit publication, Quabbin Quills, I was asked to describe the type of story that would fit the latest anthology theme, "Beyond the Pathway." I suggested the premise of a multiverse hopping adolescent searching for a "Robert Frost" who didn't take the "road less travelled by." I like the premise so much I decided to write the story myself.

When I moved from premise to story, my mind focused on the recent event of my stepdaughter earning her driver's license. I felt so proud of her accomplishment, but also afraid for what lay ahead. This fear gave life to Xavier, Beatrix, and Caleb--three adolescents with three different approaches to navigating the wonders and perils of the multiverse.

Often, when I share a short story with my beta-reading team, someone will say, "This seems more like a novel." So, the idea that I could write a compelling work of speculative fiction in under 1000 words seemed ludicrous. If not for the generosity and keen eyes of my writer friends who shared notes on multiple drafts, I might never have finished this story.

I hope you found "All the Difference" both entertaining and thought provoking, that you realize we can all be Savers and Seekers, and that whatever road we travel it's often a good idea to share the journey with a companion.

- David M. Barry
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