Chapter 48 of The Empty City

By Andrew Looney

Bill was like a moth, drawn incessantly to a flickering fluorescent lamp.

Yet he was also like a child, forced to stay at the dinner table until he'd finished his vegetables but unable to bring himself to eat them.

He was completely obsessed with the Time Shifter. He wanted desperately to push the button, but was too afraid of the consequences to do it very often.

Almost every evening, and for large parts of many days, he would sit, for hours, with his finger poised over the big green "ENGAGE" button, attempting to summon the nerve to push the button, just to see what would happen.

Sometimes he did, and strange things occurred.

On other nights, he could not bring himself to do it.

Either way, he always went to bed with a stiff arm.

The Time Shifter had done some odd things. A friend of his who had suffered a broken arm had instead suffered a broken leg. An automobile collision in the street two blocks down had become an incident in which an ambulance had run over and killed a dog. A grease fire at "Dollars to Donuts" had changed into a food poisoning episode in which three people had gone to the hospital to get their stomachs pumped. One morning Bill found Suzanne rehearsing for a part in "Jesus Christ Superstar" that she'd previously been turned down for.

Sometimes when Bill pushed the button it took several days for him to unravel what had happened. And sometimes, he never found out at all.

And he began to hate the machine. He hated the grip it had on him. It tormented him. Even when he wasn't sitting before it, attempting to get up the nerve to use it, a vision of it thrashed around in his brain. And he felt oppressive guilt about the negative changes that had occurred.

He'd been like this for weeks.

Then one evening, it all came to an end.

He'd been sitting there, staring at the Time Shifter, for 2 hours and 35 minutes. Then, he took a deep breath, clenched his teeth, clamped his eyes shut, and pushed the button.


The usual charred smell was stronger this time. Bill slowly opened his eyes. And to his astonishment, he saw that the Time Shifter itself had changed!

Whereas before it had had six clocks, now it only had five. Much of the wiring looked different. The control box had a couple of new indicators, and several of the old indicators seemed to have changed.

Bill sat down, very very slowly, and looked at the new Time Shifter.

The Time Shifter had shifted. Bill knew that the only way to find out what it did now was to push the button and see.

But his apprehension about doing so was now far greater than it had ever been before.

Bill sat up for hours and hours, drinking coffee, looking at the machine, and thinking.

Finally, at 6 minutes after 4 o'clock in the morning, he pressed the button.

This time the flash was fainter, and there was no burning smell at all.

And Bill flew forward into the Future.

Copyright © 1991 by Andrew Looney.

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