Read Take 1 of ‘Rain and Clockwork’ here
11:30 a.m. 107
Here she was again, awakening by the old broken bridge. Willow sprang to her feet and looked around, trying recover her bearings. The watch was no longer in her hand, but there were her two ragdolls and the plastic strawberry-poison-dart frog. Her flashlight was there, as well as two apple cores. But she didn’t have an umbrella this time, nor did she have her raincoat and picnic tarp. The forest showed no signs of recent rain. In fact, the world was dry and hot. Summer sun burned brightly, even through the thick green canopy, and a symphony of cicadas rang in Willow’s ears. She looked down the slope to the stream that ran beneath the bridge. What was once a rushing torrent was barely more than a trickle with its pebble floor exposed.
As Willow headed back to the apothecary, she noticed that there were no clouds in the sky. Even the usual white summer thunderheads were nowhere to be seen. The sky was an undisturbed blue. It was so bright, she couldn’t look up at the sky for more than a few seconds. Like the stream beneath the old bridge, the canal in front of the store was also little more than a half-hearted flow.
Mrs. Song asked her to retrieve the watch again from the third story workshop. That hadn’t changed. But when Willow worked in the back room, she noticed the sea cucumbers had been replaced by sea stars. Mrs. Song helped her empty and refill the first tub, and she complained loudly, “At this rate, I don’t think we could afford to keep fresh sea creatures around. Our water bill will skyrocket.”
Willow remembered the canal and asked, “Are we in drought or something?”
Mrs. Song laughed. “Have you forgotten? We’ve been in drought since February.”
A different timeline, Willow realized. A completely different world. Oh, well, at least I don’t have to worry about slipping in the rain and spilling Dad’s lunch.
Mrs. Song packed a salad this time, but it was store bought – their own garden greens had withered under the heat. She included a small thermos of iced herbal tea from the tea shop next door. “It has nice, cooling properties,” Mrs. Song told Willow. “It’s important not to get overheated this summer.”
Despite the sun, Willow didn’t bother going to the shrine to find her father. Instead, she walked to the second workshop, a shabby, tin-roofed building painted dirty white. Here, the houses no longer stood side by side on the streets, but were separated in the woods. Willow sat on the front steps and watched somebody’s goat chew on a mouthful of sweet peas.
It was nearly twelve-thirty, and she had been waiting for more than ten minutes. Finally, Willow heard her father’s voice in the distance and stood up to greet him.
“Dad, you’re back!”
“Hello, Willow,” said Mr. Song. “I didn’t know you were waiting here for me. Nice weather today, isn’t it? Hot as hell, though.”
“I brought you some lunch,” said Willow. She handed the lunch box and the thermos of tea to her father. “Oh, and I also have your watch. Mom said she made some adjustments and lengthened the amount of time you can go back with it.”
“No problem. Um…”
Willow followed her father inside the workshop. Bookshelves lined the walls, jammed with numerous files, folders, yellowed old tomes. There were bins on the floor holding yet more folders, and on the table was a book Willow had begun to read the last time she was here, the bestseller Post-mortem Communications For Complete Idiots. The book didn’t make any sense, but her father had the whole collection: Defying Entropy For Utter Fools, Summoning Eldritch Gods For Absolute Dimwits, Temporal Navigation For Unbelievable Clowns.
“I used your watch,” said Willow, “in another timeline.”
She waited for the explosion, but her father went into the workroom and didn’t answer. The workroom was full of incessant noise: the perpetual electric hum of the computers, the whir and rumble of the air conditioner, and the dull metal clank of the clockwork. A huge blueprint was tacked to a bulletin board, and a whiteboard in the corner was covered in equations and graphs.
“So,” said Mr. Song. “You now want to be a time traveler. In fact, you went right ahead and traveled without waiting for permission.”
Willow looked down at her feet. “Sorry,” she mumbled.
Defying all her expectations, Mr. Song laughed and said, “No, it’s okay. We needed a beta tester anyways.”
He sat down on a swivel chair and wheeled his way over to a large sleeping monitor. He woke the computer and motioned for Willow to come look. What Willow saw were lines, a myriad of different colored lines, and they streamed across the blackness of the screen. A digital clock ran in the bottom right corner beside a big white 107. The lines never stood still, and as Willow watched some blinked out of existence and were immediately replaced with new lines.
“Take a guess at what this is,” said Mr. Song.
Willow didn’t need to guess. She knew. “They’re timelines.”
“Right. And each one a parallel world, all right next to each other but separate. We are on this one right now–” He pointed to a bright orange line at the very bottom of the screen. “But it looks like a new one will show up soon. I can already see the turquoise.”
It was true. Faint turquoise pixels were beginning to form beneath the orange. Willow pointed to a green line above the orange and said, “I guess this is the one I came from. I just jumped back to the me an hour before I spilled your lunch.”
“You time traveled…because you spilled my lunch?”
“Sorry,” Willow mumbled again.
Mr. Song bit his lip and drummed his fingers against the desk. “Let’s eat lunch,” he said carefully. “See if you succeeded.”
Mr. Song turned off the air conditioner, muttering about electricity bills, and turned on the fan instead while Willow unwrapped the lunch. She lifted the lid off the salad and made the mistake of breathing through her nose.
“It’s smells terrible!” she shouted.
Mr. Song took a sniff and nodded. He swiftly snatched it up, threw open a window, and dumped the soured, rotted salad out. The goat outside walked over and ate it.
Willow sank onto the swivel chair, completely deflated with disappointment. “I time traveled to save your lunch, and it went bad anyway.”
“Despite being parallel worlds, most timelines tend towards the same fate,” said Mr. Song. “Being that the world has been changing for such a while now, I’m not sure what happened in timelines before the one you came from, but my lunch probably went bad in those as well. Maybe that’s just how lunch works in all of my timelines? It seems like it’s always ruined.”
“Let me try again!” said Willow. “I’ll go to the next turquoise timeline and make super sure your lunch will be fine. It’ll work out, you’ll see.”
Willow felt the familiar buzz of excitement, the same buzz she had felt when exploring the old bridge with her ragdolls. It was the idea of adventure, the thrill of exploration. Only now, instead of an mossy broken bridge, she would exploring timelines. She would be one of the very few people in this world to time travel. Maybe she’d help her parents make a crucial discovery, and they’d build a great time machine. What could be grander than that?
Willow was too excited at the prospect of time traveling again to notice the weariness in her father’s smile, the exhaustion in his eyes. She didn’t pick up the bone-tired sigh in his voice as he said, “You’re confident, aren’t you. It would be perfectly alright if you stayed in this timeline. We could go get another salad.”
“No, really, it’s fine!” Willow grabbed the watch. “I want to learn to time travel too. Please, may I?”
Mr. Song shook his head. “Not until you learn all the mechanics behind it. Just using the watch to jump back an hour and across timelines isn’t enough.”
“Yeah, but that turquoise timeline is already really bright,” Willow pointed out. “That proves I went to another timeline already, right.”
Mr. Song looked at the screen. It was true. The turquoise timeline was bright beneath orange, slowly but surely becoming the brightest line among the rainbow of other lines. It was almost frightening how quickly Willow learned.
“It’s another world, Willow,” said Mr. Song. “Though it looks similar, it’s a completely different world with different circumstances. There might be some things in that other world that are worse, much worse, than my lunch simply going bad.”
To his dismay, Willow gave him a reassuring hug and said, “It’s okay. I’m an explorer.”
Final part coming soon.
Words by Serina Fang