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Three Things Cameron Couldn't Tell You

An ardent short story reader and writer, Michael's stories have appeared in publications including Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and Nature. He enjoys photography, geocaching, and travel. He can be found online at michaelhaynes.info and on Twitter @mohio73.

When the two of you met that day, seemingly by chance, near the grocery checkout, there were three things Cameron couldn't tell you.
The first was love. That since those days when you'd been much younger, when you'd both been grad students working in the labs, Cameron had been in love with you. Telling you then would have been frightening, leading to an unknown future where secrets had been revealed and rejection all too likely. Telling you now would be pointless, in so many ways.
Instead Cameron made small talk, asking what you'd been up to, where you worked, where you lived. You'd been glad to see Cameron, had marveled at how time had seemed to have no effect. "How is it," you asked before you'd had time to think, to censor yourself, "that you look as amazing now as then?"
Cameron blushed and waved a hand, made a joke about whiskey and cigars. You knew Cameron didn't smoke, barely drank. But that was then, people do change....
A moment later Cameron checked the time and said goodbye, hurriedly embracing you before turning to go. You watched with a residual bit of wonder as your old friend left the store, not having bought anything, and mused briefly about what might've been before shaking yourself out of it and turning your cart back toward the checkout lanes.
The sound of gunshots moments later, outside, close, sent a jolt through you. You left your cart and you ran.
The second thing Cameron couldn't tell you was about the device. You wouldn't have believed it anyway, would've only thought your friend to be crazy. Besides, the instructions Cameron had been given were to tell no one and those instructions were followed to the letter. Almost.
The device had been a small thing, deceptively so. To look at it wouldn't tell you of the years of effort which went into making it or the amazing things it could do.
It only worked in one direction. Forward. And before the day Cameron stole it from the lab, took it home, and stared at it for long minutes, trying to work up the nerve, it had only been used on mice. Only been used to blip them forward a few minutes.
What Cameron contemplated was much more than a few minutes. It was fifteen years. And not all the mice had been okay. Most had. But not all. And one of them? It had been fine when it arrived. And then four hours later it just disappeared. There was video so they knew it hadn't somehow escaped, that a latch hadn't been missed in a cage. One second it was there and the next it wasn't.
It never came back.
Cameron uncapped the bottle of bourbon--a 21st birthday present from an uncle. It was still nearly full, eight years later. A long pour into a glass, a shuddering swallow, a moment to think about what the scene would look like when someone finally came to the apartment.... Then a button was pushed and the deed was done.
It felt like nothing at all. Literally nothing. And Cameron had no idea how long it lasted with no point of reference to judge against. It did feel long, long enough to wonder if it would ever end. If it would last for an eternity, and if so, was that a function of the device or just what death was like? Cameron tried very hard not to think about death.
And then it was over.
A dark, empty apartment with someone else's furniture was all around. It had worked, or so it seemed, and it was time to go find out if it had worked as well as it needed to.
Coming up short would've been okay. Overshooting, a catastrophe. A helpful screen by the door said it was 78 degrees, also that it was May 23rd in the right year. Right on target.
Cameron let out a long breath and started--now that the hard part was over--to figure out the rest. How to take $283 and get from Boston to the suburb of St. Louis where the grocery store stood in which you two would meet in just three days.
The third thing Cameron couldn't tell you about was death.
It had all started in the same apartment Cameron departed from, going from then to now. One evening, a piece of paper was on the kitchen counter, a piece of paper which hadn't been there in the morning, folded over and over on itself nearly into a cube. It was a reproduction of an article from a newspaper. There was a note scrawled in the margin; it was clearly Cameron's own handwriting, though shaky, as if written with an unsteady hand.
"I hope I get this. Use the prototype, keep this from happening. Tell no one. 8:36 AM. Good luck." Below these words, Cameron's signature and a date. A date forty-three years in the future.
The article was about a mass shooting outside St. Louis. The top of the page had a printed date, different from the handwritten one, this one only fifteen years ahead. Ten people were shot in the street by a young man. His target had been a political activist and he'd been willing to shoot whoever got in the way. Three people died. The activist's assistant and the gunman himself, shot by a police officer as he tried to escape, were two. And you, of course, were the third, shot pushing a grocery cart to your car.
Cameron stared at the paper for a long time then stood and got the bottle of bourbon in the pantry, the one that had sat unopened for years, broke the seal and took a drink straight from it. The unfamiliar alcohol burned and Cameron nearly gagged. Because of the bourbon, Cameron thought, not because of the piece of paper and all it implied.
Of course Cameron did what the scrawled note had said. Stole the device the very next day before cold feet could set in and used it right away for the same reason.
Getting to St. Louis hadn't been that hard, even with limited funds. A one-way bus ticket, two nights in a cheap motel, a few other expenses. Cameron had seven dollars left walking through the grocery store's sliding doors.
Now here the two of you are. Passing time, idly in your mind, vitally in Cameron's. Nothing is said about death. Cameron broke down earlier in the morning and made an anonymous call to the police, warning them about the gunman. It had been a gut-twisting moment, breaking the "tell no one" instruction like that. But there were others whose lives were about to be shattered. And apparently some level of change must be acceptable if you were going to live. So the call was made and the world hadn't suddenly come to an end, the timeline unraveling from too big an adjustment, and that was that.
Cameron checks the time and says something about an appointment, says goodbye, suddenly gives you the quickest of hugs. Your pulse speeds up. And then it's over and Cameron is leaving the store. You turn your cart to checkout number eight and as you wait in line all hell breaks loose outside.
You go outside and there's chaos. A man with a gun is lying on the ground, covered in blood. A police officer is throwing up. He's never killed anyone before, never even shot anyone. These things don't happen here. Until they do.
Cameron had to have been right there when it happened and you frantically scan the scene, looking for your friend's face, looking for other bodies on the ground. You find nothing. As if one second Cameron was there and the next, not.
That night you look online and find Cameron still working at the same university you'd been at together fifteen years ago. You send an email and get no reply. Days later you call the department office and ask for Cameron.
The receptionist is silent for a long moment. You know right away something is wrong. You tell him you're an alum, that you and Cameron were friends.
He tells you that Cameron hasn't been seen for days. That Cameron's wife came back from a morning jog and Cameron was gone from their bed. Gone without a trace.
You want to ask when but your mouth is dry and you thank him numbly and hang up the phone. Later you look online and find a post about Cameron's disappearance on May 23rd, three days before you met. There's a photo with the post, a photo of someone your age, someone at least a decade older than the person you spoke with at the grocery store.
You close the browser, close your eyes, and try very hard not to wonder what could have happened, try very hard not to contemplate where Cameron possibly could be.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, January 15th, 2021
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