by Mariah Harned

The throbbing pain in my leg won’t let me sleep. Glaring hospital lights and voices booming over the speakers don’t help matters. I groan, knowing I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for my own negligence. What kind of idiot runs down a flight of stairs with untied shoelaces? If only I'd noticed the flapping strings before they sent me rolling.

Footsteps pad toward my bed, jolting me from my self-criticism. I open my eyes. Then I sit up straight, blinking in confusion. Instead of the expected scrubs and stethoscope, the stranger’s garb consists of a khaki robe tied off at strategic points with neon blue rope. How strong is this pain medication? “Who are you?”

“Just your friendly neighborhood time traveler!” With a smirk, the stranger taps a few buttons on his handheld gadget that looks too sleek to be any electronic device of this era.

“Okay, now I know this isn’t real.”

The stranger grins at my scowl and scribbles something on the screen with his finger. “I’ll prove it. Watch—with the press of a button, I’ll travel one minute into the future.” With that, he touches the screen and vanishes.

My eyes widen. What a weird hallucination. I settle back onto my pillow, but unreasonable curiosity keeps my gaze on the empty space where the stranger had been standing. I shake my head, chuckling. As if there’s such a thing as—I jump, yelping when the man in the khaki robe appears beside me.

He laughs, his hands on his hips. “Didn’t believe me?”

“Well, I— I—” This has to be a dream.

“Look, I’m just offering you a chance to try out time travel for yourself.”

 “You what? Really?” I narrow my eyes, uncertainty creeping in. “Why me?”

The man ignores my questions and holds out his gadget. “Don’t you want to go back and tie that shoe?”

I stare at him. Now he can read my mind, too? But then I relax. Of course he can—he was all in my mind to start with. Well, let’s see how far this dream can go. “Alright, fine.” I accept the sleek tablet from his hand. “I’ll do it.”

He smiles. “I knew you would. Just touch the purple button.”

With a shrug, I glance at the screen, half-expecting a mosaic of shape-shifting, impossible-to-catch patches of color. But only one giant neon-purple circle appears on the black screen. I roll my eyes and tap the circle.

Instantly, a swirl of light envelops my consciousness, and the ache in my leg fades away. I find myself standing at the top of the stairs again, about to leave work. An eerie chill runs down my spine. No, this can’t be real. But, if it is… Tucking the machine into my shirt pocket, I look down at my shoes. Sure enough. Untied. I kneel to retie my shoelaces and eye the dimly lit stairwell. “No way.” I retreat through the door behind me. “I’m taking the elevator.”

The evening proceeds in its usual peaceful monotony. I descend to the ground floor, wave at the security guard, saunter across the parking lot, and step into my red Ford Focus. With habitual caution, I ease out of my parking space and maneuver onto the main road. Suddenly, squealing tires split the air, a vehicle smashes into my door, and blinding pain shoots up my leg.

The throbbing pain in my leg tugs at my consciousness, and I open my eyes to glaring hospital lights and a khaki-clothed man peering down at me. “Good. You’re awake.”

I sit up groggily, wincing at the sharp pain. “I just had the strangest dream…”

The man sighs. “Here we go again.” He holds out his hand. “My time machine, please?”

My eyes grow wide. I pat at my shirt pocket and pull out the sleek metal device.

“Unless you’d like another try?”

I hesitate before handing it over. If this is real, it would be foolish not to undo my injury. And if it’s all in my head, well, it wouldn’t hurt to try again, would it? “Can you set it for this morning? Before I go to work?”

He smiles and takes the machine. “Of course. Fascinating choice.” Now what does he mean by that? I watch in perplexity as he swipes, taps, and stretches buttons. Then he hands the device back to me. “Bon voyage!”

I touch the purple circle again, and the pain in my leg disappears into a swirl of lights. 

I wake up in my bed, my phone bellowing its wake-up call. “First things first,” I say to myself. I silence the alarm and message my boss that I’m taking a sick day. Then I wander happily to the kitchen for breakfast. I won’t set foot in any stairwell, or elevator, or car, or—a shriek escapes me when my bare foot skids on something slimy. Twisting around to reach for the doorway, I catch sight of a brown banana peel. Seriously? I really should move the trash can, or else work on my aim. I lean sideways to regain my balance, but my leg slides under me, and my weight hits the ground with a sickening snap. With an anguished scream, I fumble for my phone in my pocket and dial 911. Everything explodes into stars of agony.

The throbbing pain in my leg drags me from the numbness of anesthesia again, and I glare blearily at the time traveler beside me. “Before you ask, no, I do not want to go break my leg again! You can have your gadget back!”

He tilts his head, raising an eyebrow. “You sure? There are so many possible destinations—”

I fling the time machine at him. “Yes! Go away!”

With a sigh, he taps the screen and disappears. 

A few days later, it hit me. All of time at my disposal, and I threw away a chance to travel the centuries.


Featured in our February 2023 issue, "Second Chance"