The first of the Meyersville time travelers arrived on October 4, 2003. It was late afternoon and he materialized out of nothing into a field, spooking a nearby cluster of cows. I wasn’t there to see his initial appearance, but Mrs. Anderson, who owned the field, the cows, and surrounding property was, and the next morning at church, she told us all exactly how it happened. In fact, she told the story so many times, and in such detail, that I felt I was picturing the scene from my own memory. It went like this:
Mrs. Anderson had just finished brushing Gravy, her favorite horse. She bent down to put the brush back in her bucket, and when she stood up again, there was this man. He was smack-dab in the middle of the pasture. He had just APPEARED there, and he looked it too, turning his head every which way and dusting himself off even though he wasn’t dusty. He was dressed all in black, including black glasses and a long black jacket, “like one of those young men from The Matrix, but not as handsome,” Mrs. Anderson said. Or as athletic. He’d stumbled several times trying to navigate the muddy, rutted topography of the cow pasture. Mrs. Anderson’s take: “I think he’s the kind who spends his time inside with his video games, instead of outside breathing fresh air.” He seemed wary of the cows, but they paid him no mind. Mrs. Anderson, who trusted the instincts of her animals, assumed him harmless, and waved him over. When he finally reached her, he extended his hand (pale, weak), and announced, “I’ve come from the future where a deadly pathogen that originated in this very town has annihilated ninety percent of human and animal life on Earth. If nothing is done to stop it, it will, within a decade’s time, kill you and everyone you know. But don’t worry; I have a plan to save us all.”
Mrs. Anderson did not know what to make of this. Was he crazy? Was he an alien? Was he a messenger from God? She had no room in her home, small and already full up with children and grandchildren as it was, but she offered him the barn. She gave him a sleeping bag, pillow, and an electric lantern, and helped him turn the hay loft into a cozy, if rustic, guestroom. She felt it was the Christian thing to do.
How long would she let him stay, someone asked?
“As long as he likes,” she said. Though she’d want him to chip in on groceries if he was there more than a week. Extra mouths don’t feed themselves, and all that.
“What’s his plan?” another person wanted to know.
“His plan for saving everyone.”
“I didn’t think to ask,” Mrs. Anderson admitted.
Mrs. Anderson may have thought him harmless, but the congregation, on the whole, was wary. We children and teens were warned to stay away from the time traveler, what with his odd style of dress and apocalyptic ramblings. And so, I sought him out at the earliest possible opportunity.
I was seventeen and equal parts bored and angry. We’d moved to tiny Meyersville that spring from Santa Barbara so my dad could take a job as senior pastor at the one and only Baptist church in the county—a big change from his previous post as fourth-in-command at a beachside mega-church. Dad had hyped the move, extolling the virtues of Northern California: the slower pace; an escape from traffic; a chance to spend time in nature each and every day, to “really get back to the land,” as he put it. As if we were exiles, awaiting our glorious return to the countryside.
I had no such interest in getting back to the land, nor did Mom. We liked our city life, and our relative independence from Dad’s church. In Santa Barbara, we accompanied him to services on Sundays and the occasional fundraiser or family night, but our presence was superficial. We played the parts of the dutiful wife and daughter and then went back to doing what we wanted. I dated and went to parties and went to the beach and skipped school, but not enough to get caught. I rode in other people’s cars and never minded the traffic. Mom went to art classes and yoga and volunteered for a host of progressive causes, including raising money for abortion clinics in rural communities, which dad said was fine as long as she didn’t talk about it at church, and of course she never did, why would she? We lived fifteen miles away, in a suburb where men came to mow the grass twice a week, and there was little overlap between the two worlds.
Now, we lived across the street from Dad’s church in a hundred-year-old house where everything was broken and there was no one to fix it except us. The kids I saw at school were the same kids I saw in church, and everyone from church knew me everywhere I went and wanted to know my business. And more importantly, they wanted to know if my dad knew my business, as in, “Young lady, does your father know you are out here on a school night?” Mom also felt the loss, her world having shrunk down to the church social club. Even getting out of town was an ordeal. Meyersville, with a population of fifteen hundred, was located midway between Sacramento and absolutely nothing.
I had finished out my sophomore year at Meyersville High School with grades that would have drawn no attention whatsoever in Santa Barbara. But now, under the scrutiny of teachers who were also my dad’s congregants, they caused great concern and gossip. My punishment was two sessions at bible camp. There, I whiled away the days smoking cigarettes behind the kitchen and trying to take the virginity of boys who had just sworn purity pledges. I wanted to shock people, to scare them, to show I was the opposite of all things Meyersville. In hindsight though, I suspect my neighbors found me pitiable—a lonely city girl, turning toward minor sin to fill the void.
But here now was someone who really was the opposite of all things Meyersville. The time traveler dressed different, talked different, lived in a barn, and, most importantly, drew considerable scorn from the Meyersvillians. He was the talk of the town, none of it good.
I went to the Andersons’ barn after school on a Wednesday, and found the time traveler receptive to my company. Did he know who I was? My age, and my standing in the community? Yes, of course. I opened the barn door and as soon as he looked at me I said, “My name’s Mercy and my dad is a pastor. I’m seventeen. Wanna fuck?”
I had never seen a face as grateful as his. I thought perhaps sex was a scarce commodity in the future. We did it on his thin sleeping bag in the barn attic. There was less hay around than I had imagined there might be, though more cobwebs.
Sex was different with the time traveler than the bible camp virgins. But not so different than with the wannabe skaters I’d hung around with in Santa Barbara. It made me wonder if there’s no such thing as sexual expertise—only minimal proficiency. Because, why bother being an expert when being just okay still gets you laid? I found this idea discouraging. I was young and wanted more out of life. But I wasn’t so disappointed that I did not continue to sleep with the time traveler regularly for the next ten months.
His name was Todd. I would have expected people from the future to have exotic names, maybe even unpronounceable ones. They all ended up having names like suburban boys—uniform and sunny and hollow. Anyway, on our first afternoon together in the barn, following our adequate but unremarkable lovemaking, Todd told me why he’d come to Meyersville. It was just like he’d said to Mrs. Anderson: A new mutation of a very old bacteria, called Actinomadura umbrina, was perhaps at that very moment gaining hold in the offshoots of the Meyersville River. In a little less than ten years, it would infect its first human host, a fourth grader named Lewis Leroy. The boy would be medically vulnerable in some way, something wrong with him that made him an easy target for disease. Maybe his parents had spurned all vaccinations, vitamins, fluoride drops, etc. in favor of essential oils? The point was, though many people swam in the river, it was in young Lewis that A. umbrina would find an agreeable home. Then, once acclimated to life in the mammalian body, it would spread to any nearly living being, human or animal, the boy came in contact with. And within a week of that, everyone in Meyersville would be sick in a fainting/vomiting/diarrhea/internal bleeding sort of way. And then in another week, everyone in Meyersville would be dead.
“Basically, the bacterium degrades extracellular matrices. This allows it to migrate through the hosts’ cells very rapidly, gets it into the lymph nodes, the bloodstream. It contains an enzyme that converts plasminogen into plasmin. So there’s sepsis, but also hemorrhaging. If that makes sense,” Todd said.
I assured him it did not.
“It’s pretty similar to how plague functions,” he said. “You remember your plague studies? Usually first or second grade for the basics, right?”
I shook my head and watched a shadow of concern cross his previously blissed-out face. In hindsight, this was perhaps his first of many, many disappointing realizations about our era.
What about a cure? I asked, trying to right the conversation. What about a vaccine?
There was none, he said, though certainly not for lack of effort. A. umbrina was hearty, and sneaky. Drug resistant and constantly mutating. For generations, it would munch away at Earth’s population, until, by Todd’s time, humanity’s only hope was to intercept the pathogen it at the source, before it got into little Lewis Leroy, and all the rest of us.
I shook my head again. I told Todd I knew the Leroys. There were a bunch of them in town. But there was no kid named Lewis.
“Right,” Todd said. “Because he won’t be born until next year. His parents are Raymond Leroy and Chloe Brown. Perhaps you know them?”
And I did. They were a grade above me at school, newly in love and obnoxious.
“Yeah. They are one hundred percent the type to inadvertently bring about the apocalypse,” I affirmed.
Todd didn’t think this was funny. He only nodded.
“So what’s your plan?” I asked. “You gonna shoot Raymond’s nuts off so he can’t have kids, or what?”
“I’m going to study the Meyersville River in hopes of determining the conditions that allow A. umbrina to thrive, and then develop a method for subverting or eradicating these conditions.”
He was a hydrobiologist, he explained. He had degrees from one of Earth’s few remaining universities. He had just finished his Masters’ when the government announced its time travel program, and began a nation-wide search for participants. He applied, and had been selected as the first to make the journey.
“So there are going to be more of you coming here?” I asked.
“Unfortunately, yes,” Todd said.
We were still in the barn, and still naked. I pressed my hand into the pale skin on Todd’s chest and then let go just to see a red mark appear and fade. Did the man never take his shirt off outdoors? Not even at the beach? Were there still beaches, where he was from? I didn’t ask. Instead, I climbed on top of him and fucked him again. I was tired of talking, and besides I had to be at church by five for Teen Bible Study Hour.
For all his suspicious statements and behavior, Todd turned out to be a likable guy. He was grateful to the Andersons, pitching in for groceries as requested, and even helping out around the farm. In town, he was chatty with the shopkeepers and flirty with the old ladies. He worked to engage civic leaders in his water studies (though they never shared his sense of urgency and therefore offered little real support). He bought all his supplies from a local hardware store, and whatever he needed that they didn’t have, he ordered special from them despite the cost. He even visited the elementary school and gave presentations on the habitats of the Meyersville river, bringing with him a half dozen bullfrogs and a jar of crawdads. After a couple of months, he became a Meyersville fixture. People still talked about him, though now it was with affection. No longer a stranger to be wary of, but a lovable local oddity.
Did my neighbors believe he was really from the future? I have no idea.
Initially, I did not. I assumed he was a conman with a big plan. Or an insane person. But then, it became clear he wasn’t either of those. The way he talked about his life and his work was so consistent, so serious. I found myself, when I was with him, accepting his statements as fact, taking him as seriously as he took himself. To spend time with Todd, one had to give in to the conceit that he was from the future.
The year he’d traveled from was 2210. I quizzed him on what the world was like then, as if he were a human Magic 8-Ball. Though the answers came back hazy.
I asked him if global warming was still a problem.
He shrugged. “We don’t go outside all that much.”
Were there self-driving cars? What about flying cars?
He said some cars drove themselves and some didn’t, but none of them flew. Most people couldn’t afford cars of any kind though, so this too was sort of a non-issue. Todd didn’t even have a drivers’ license and none of his friends did either.
“The Institute has cars,” he said, referring to the government organization that contracted him to travel through time. “Sometimes I can get a ride in one of those.” Otherwise though, he mostly took the subway or the bus.
Had contact been made with intelligent life on other planets?
“We’ve really been too busy just maintaining life on this one.”
I saw him once or twice a week. Typically, there was sex, but sometimes we just talked. He offered to take me out on dates—The Institute, seeking to sustain his research for a decade, had sent him with an unimaginable amount of money. He had more than enough for entertaining, he said.
“Then why do you live in a barn?” I asked.
“Where else would I live?”
At first, I paraded Todd around Main Street on my arm, enjoying the concerned stares of the townsfolk. Word got back to my dad and he put his foot down. “Mercy, you cannot be seen in public with that man,” he said, and threatened all manner of sanctions, like taking my cell phone, laptop, discman, etc. This reaction pleased me, but I needed my stuff. So I split the difference, following Dad’s instructions to the letter—I was not SEEN IN PUBLIC with Todd. But I was seen going in and out of the barn all the goddamn time, and I was happy to imagine the rumors that persisted about me and him. How interesting and dangerous and worldly (even otherworldly) I must have seemed.
Then, in July, Preston showed up.
The morning of his arrival, Todd was agitated. We were in the barn, naked, but nothing was happening. Todd had turned from my body in order to review his notes on the river. There were papers spread all across us and everywhere else.
“Your filing system is not the best,” I pointed out.
“I asked The Institute to send an intern with me,” Todd said. “But there were liability concerns.”
“I could be your intern,” I offered.
Todd shook his head. “I don’t know how we’d get you the application paperwork. HR would have a fit if they ever found out.”
I thought this was funny, but Todd was too far up his own butt to see the humor. He burrowed through his pages like a rat until 10 am. Then we got dressed and went outside.
A man was standing in the middle of the Anderson cow pasture, looking a little disoriented. After a moment, he spotted us. I waved. He waved back. He jogged over and when he got to me, he extended his hand.
He said, “I’ve come from the future where a deadly pathogen that originated in this very town has annihilated ninety percent of human and animal life on Earth. If nothing is done to stop it, it will, within nine years’ time, kill you and everyone you know. But don’t worry; I have a plan to save us all.”
Then he added, “Hey Todd. How’s the river purification thing going?”
Todd was eager to show Preston his work. He rambled through his pages of research. He brought out water samples in tiny jars, and explained filtration options and cleaning agents both chemical and biological.
“The blackgill trout has a microscopic algae that lives on its skin, and which uses microbes similar in structure to A. umbrina in its respiration,” Todd said. “They live in Wyoming and Colorado primarily, but I think they could be transplanted here. I’m working with the city to apply for a grant.”
Preston listened, but I could feel his impatience. He looked a lot like Todd—same style of clothes, same pale complexion. They both wore their hair short. But Preston was bigger. He was more muscular, but also just a larger presence. He stood with his feet wide, unafraid to take up space. I found this attractive.
“Okay, Todd. Okay,” Preston said, finally. “This all sounds great, but you’ve had your time. It’s my turn now.”
“But that’s what I’m trying to say,” Todd said. “This is a long-term plan. I’m not finished. I never intended to be finished so soon.”
“Right. That’s fine. My plan is a short-term plan. You keep doing your long-term plan and I’ll do my short-term plan. No reason we can’t have both.”
This sounded reasonable to me. I asked Preston what his plan was.
“Simple,” he said. “I’m going to neutralize the host.”
I didn’t know what that meant.
“Lewis Leroy will be born this afternoon,” Todd explained. “My colleague here intends to kill him.”
I laughed. “After that are you going to go back and kill baby Hitler, too?” I asked.
But Preston didn’t get my joke. I was beginning to worry the future was a humorless place.
“My mission doesn’t involve Hitler,” Preston said.
Todd, drained of his morning nerves and left only with frustration, lit into Preston. His face flushed and his hands got all jumpy as he talked. He called Preston a monster and a murderer and asked how he could claim himself humanity’s savior if all he aimed to do was kill. He then turned his ire from Preston to The Institute, saying how stupid, how misguided they were for not sticking to his plan, for stacking plans on top of plans. “Think of what I could do if I had the full support and attention of the organization!” he shouted.
“But what if you fail?” Preston asked.
“My plan’s a good plan.”
“Sure. All our plans are good plans. And if we try them all, then maybe something will work. Can’t put your eggs in one basket, buddy boy. That’s not good egg-keeping.”
“Shut up,” Todd said. “You’ve never seen an egg in your life. They have real eggs here and I help collect them in the mornings sometimes. You can put them all in one basket just fine. What do I need to be carrying a bunch of baskets around for?”
I gathered that the future was hedging its bets—firing off multiple time travelers to attack the disease and its spread with different weapons, hoping something, anything would work.
“Okay, let’s go,” I said.
The men stopped their quarreling and looked at me.
“Go where?” Todd asked.
“To the hospital,” I said. “If Lewis Leroy is being born, he’ll be at the hospital. Let’s go.”
Preston blanched and Todd glowered, but in the end they agreed to wait while I went to get my dad’s car. They rode in the back seat together, faces to opposite windows, like I was a taxi driver, and they were two strangers forced to split a fare.
At the regional county medical center, I asked about the new parents, claiming to be a close friend. The baby was just born, the woman at the maternity ward’s front desk told me. The family was still in Labor & Delivery, but once they’d been moved to their recovery room, they could have visitors. I relayed this information to Preston and Todd, and we took seats in the waiting area. Not long after, Chloe Leroy (nee Brown) was pushed passed us in a wheelchair. She was smiling, holding a tiny sleeping infant in her arms. The proud, dopey father followed close behind. I gestured toward them to let Preston know that was his mark.
“Well,” I said, “will you kill the baby right now, or what?”
Preston chewed one of his nails for a moment then studied it. Then he stood up and asked if we could leave.
Not long after that, maybe a day or two, I started fucking Preston. He was staying at one of the two hotels on Main Street (Todd having decreed he could not share the barn). It was the fancier of the Meyersville hotels, rumored to have a jacuzzi tub in every room. I thought that sounded nice.
Plus, I had become frustrated by my acquaintance with Todd. After all, he was no longer considered threatening by the Meyersville citizenry. He’d been accepted and embraced. My dad even suggested that we have him over for dinner.
“I thought I wasn’t allowed to be seen with him,” I said.
My dad rolled his eyes, as if my whole affair with Todd, and his previous prohibitions against it, had never happened. How could it, with a solid citizen like Todd involved?
So, I took up with Preston, which horrified Todd, and ignited the local rumor mill once more.
Preston dressed identically to Todd—all black, long black jacket, big black glasses—and so distinctive was the costume, I had momentarily seen them as doubles. But it turned out that was where the similarities ended.
For example, I asked both men on separate occasions why they continued to wear their future clothes everyday rather than buy contemporary gear. Todd had explained the disease that terrorized future humanity could be contracted through any skin contact. So people dressed to show as little skin as possible. And black was simply the fashionable color of the day. He continued to sport this garb in Meyersville because, though he knew it was not necessary, it gave him a feeling of protection against the world—a wearable security blanket, he had said.
When I repeated the question to Preston, he’d looked confused. “But these are my clothes,” was the only answer he’d give.
I assumed him dumb. I assumed him a professional killer, sent from the future for his dumb, blunt, violent nature to do a dumb, blunt thing.
He was actually a doctor of philosophy. He was thirty-seven years old, more than a decade Todd’s senior. He headed a team at The Institute responsible for working out the metaphysical and ethical concerns related to time travel. This was why he volunteered for the task of ending Lewis Leroy’s life as soon as it began. He felt if his team determined such an end justified such a means, then he needed to put his money where his mouth was, so to speak. To do the job himself.
Except he couldn’t. He couldn’t bring himself to murder a newborn. He lamented his shortcomings, moping around his hotel room, and on the bed, and in the jacuzzi. I enjoyed this angst and made efforts to soothe it. Plus, though Todd may have earned his place in Meyersville, the appearance of this second time traveler did not sit well with the community. Preston, mired in self-loathing, was not outwardly charming or sociable.
“What’s that one up to?” people muttered, suspecting rightly that he was in some way a nemesis of their beloved Todd—an adversary from another time and place, like the other terminators in Terminator II. I was pleased, for the time being, to side with the bad guy.
“Are you still going to kill baby Lewis?” I asked Preston one afternoon. I was lying on his bed eating a room service quiche. I always ordered room service when I went to see Preston. Sex with him lasted longer than with Todd. He was more practiced and more confident. I appreciated his skill, though I did find my mind drifting to the amenities I would partake in once we were finished.
“Yes, but also no,” he said. “I absolutely have to. But I absolutely can’t.”
He was a lost man, unable to acclimate to life in a new town, in an old era, with a problem he could not solve. This, ultimately, was more angst than my teen attention span could manage. My visits to the hotel slowed.
I found myself drifting back to the barn on lonely afternoons. Todd forgave all.
Until Brendan and Brody and Cody showed up.
Todd and I were helping Mrs. Anderson shoe the horses when they popped into the field.
“We’ve come from the future where a deadly pathogen that originated in this very town has annihilated ninety percent of human and animal life on Earth. If nothing is done to stop it, it will, within nine years’ time, kill you and everyone you know. But don’t worry; we have a plan to save us all,” they announced in gleeful unison.
Todd rolled his eyes. Mrs. Anderson shrugged and said, “Yeah, tell me one I haven’t heard before.” I looked them up and down and tried to imagine what their bodies were like under those long black coats.
These three were the youngest of the time travelers, just twenty-two and fresh out of college with degrees in public health, social work, and nursing, respectively. They had come to Meyersville to embark on a pediatric wellness campaign. It was assumed that Lewis Leroy, in his first years of life, would suffer some sort of deficit, weakening his immune system enough to allow A. umbrina to make him its original host. If he was healthy as a boy could be, perhaps this would not happen at all. Keeping other kids healthy would prevent them from taking his place. This plan included, but was not limited to: distributing pamphlets and hosting town hall forums on the importance of regular exercise, yearly check-ups, and a balanced diet; planting neighborhood vegetable gardens and repairing playground equipment; and offering free head lice checks and routine childhood vaccinations.
They didn’t want to stay in the barn (not that Todd was offering), or the hotel. Instead, they rented a house at the edge of town and set up a makeshift clinic in its garage. They received no customers.
This did not seem to concern Brody, Cody, and Brendan, at least not at first. They were in Meyersville to do a job, yes. But they also allowed themselves, far more than Todd and Preston, to indulge in the sights, sounds, and amusements of early twenty-first century rural California. To put it more succinctly, they were ready to party.
I was ready too.
I took these young men under my wing, letting them buy me beer from the convenience store and showing them good places in the woods to drink it. I showed them how to build a bonfire and how to skinny dip in the river.
“Isn’t this THE river?” Cody asked with mild concern. But the others shushed his worries with more beer.
And I did wholesome-young-person-things with Brody, Cody, and Brendan that I’d never bothered before, like going to the Meyersville movie theater, and the roller rink. We went to the soda fountain for ice cream, which really was fun, and I felt dumb for avoiding it for so long, for acting too cool to enjoy ice cream.
I was eighteen then. I still lived in my father’s house, but his power over me was diminishing. When I announced one night I was going to the grange hall dance with the new time travelers, my dad began to hem and haw and “No daughter of mine…” but my mom cut him off. “Jesus Christ, Richard, let the girl live her life.”
I was fucking all three of the new time travelers. They must have known they were sharing me, living in the same house and all. But they never complained. They were indistinguishable from one another in bed, just as they were everywhere else, except Cody’s penis was the largest, almost twice as long as any other penis I’d ever seen, in fact. Though he used it to the same effect.
When Todd found out about me and Brendan and Brody and Cody, he took it pretty hard. He said he understood what happened with Preston, that he could forgive one mistake, but not four. This made me mad. I hadn’t made a mistake. What I had made was a decision. I decided I wanted to sleep with Preston, and so I did. Then, when I didn’t want to anymore, I stopped. I tried to explain this to Todd, but by then we were both mad. And after that, it was a long time before we talked again.
Around that same time, Brody, Cody, and Brendan started having their own troubles. They’d tired of partying and resolved to get down to the work of educating the public. But it wasn’t going well. The public did not wish to be educated, and they certainly did not want twenty-two-year-old time travelers inspecting their kids’ scalps, much less giving them shots. Their efforts were met at first with polite indifference, then outright hostility. Who were these outsiders to tell Meyersville how to raise its youngsters? My father spoke about the situation at church in his usual impotent way, urging tolerance, but also vigilance.
“That’s not helpful,” I chided him after the service. “You aren’t saying anything at all.”
“Then what do you suggest?” he asked, and for the first time in a very long time, I felt bad for him. The weight of an agitated community squirmed on his shoulders.
The situation came to a boil one afternoon when Brendan, the nurse, frustrated by his inability to vaccinate even a single Meyersville child, tried to lure an elementary schooler into the clinic. The boy was walking home from school, a route that happened to take him past the time travelers’ rental house. Brendan stopped him and said something to the effect of, “I’ll give you a Snickers if you come inside the garage, take your jacket off, and hold still.” The boy ran home instead.
Word spread quickly. The police were called and Brendan was arrested, then released on his own recognizance. A citizen task force called Save Our Kids From Time Travelers, abbreviated to the hard-to-say acronym SOKFTT, was formed. Signs appeared in front lawns that read, “Time Travelers Not Welcome Here,” and “Go Back To Your Own Era.” An ordinance passed that no time traveler could be within five hundred feet of a school or playground. Though Todd and I were no longer on speaking terms, I knew this would be particularly hurtful to him. He’d always enjoyed his visits, bullfrogs and river water samples in hand, with the students of Meyersville Elementary.
I asked Brody, Cody, and Brendan what they would do now. Would they redouble their efforts? Form a new plan? Give up and go home?
No, they said, none of that.
“We’ll wait,” they said. “Then, when everyone calms down, we’ll try again. That’s the only thing we can do.”
Six months later, Jackson showed up at my front door. I knew him by his style of dress, and by the way he introduced himself: “I’ve come from the future where a deadly pathogen that originated in this very town has annihilated ninety percent of human and animal life on Earth. If nothing is done to stop it, it will, within eight years’ time, kill you and everyone you know. But don’t worry; I have a plan to save us all.”
But why was he at my house? I asked.
“Todd sent me. He said, ‘Go see the slut who lives by the church. She’ll show you the ropes.’ So, I’m here for the ropes.”
Our nearest neighbor, Mr. Watts, a widower, had a spare room. I took Jackson to him and he agreed to rent the space, so long as Jackson, “didn’t try any weird stuff with any kids,” while he was there. Jackson, unfazed, agreed.
He was in his mid-forties, tall, and lean. He gave off a vulture-ish vibe. When we fucked, he exerted a sort of effortless control over me, which was thrilling, and also deeply unsettling. I told myself I would not be returning. Jackson intuited this.
“It was too much, huh? It’s okay to feel that way. You’ll grow into it.”
He was a psychologist. His plan was a Stay-Out-Of-The-River campaign. He said if people learned to fear the river long before the bacteria became a problem, Lewis Leroy would never come in contact with it to begin with.
I was skeptical. I doubted the Meyersvillians would listen to anything that came from the mouth of predator-eyed Jackson.
“That’s what Blake is for,” Jackson said. “Blake is an influencer. He’ll be here next month, after I’ve had time to do my initial assessments. He’s beautiful and people do whatever he says without even knowing why.”
So, I waited, with great anticipation, for Blake.
But in the meantime, I found myself confused. Had Jackson come because The Institute had heard of his predecessors’ failures—of Brody, Cody, and Brendan’s betrayal of public trust, of Preston’s crisis of conscience, of Todd’s achingly slow and nearly invisible progress?
No, Jackson told me. The Institute knew none of that. There was no way for those in 2004 to get information back to their superiors in 2210.
Then why did they keep sending new travelers with new plans?
“We all left on the same day,” Jackson told me. “All the plans were already made. We’re just arriving at different times. That’s part of the plans; that’s how they work.”
I nodded but I didn’t understand. Jackson asked if I wanted to fuck again. I declined. He asked if I wanted to talk about my family or about traumatic memories from my childhood. I declined that too.
Later, when Todd and I were back on speaking terms, I made him explain it because he was always the best at explaining the time travelers to me, no matter how many of them I talked to.
Yes, he told me, every time traveler who had ever come to Meyersville and ever would had gotten into the time machine on the same day, a Monday in June in 2210, one right after another. Though Todd had been the first to arrive, he was actually the last in the machine. The master plan of the plans was for there to be so many plans that one was bound to work. Many eggs in many baskets, as Preston had suggested on his first day in Meyersville.
But then, if he knew they were all coming, why had Todd yelled at Preston, and rolled his eyes at Brody, Cody, and Brendan, dismissed Jackson, and whatever rude things he’d done to the others since?
“Time is funny,” he said. “It makes you forget some things, and it makes your feelings change about others. I spent a year here alone and it made me think I was the one who’d get to be the hero, to save us all.”
“Now I wish I didn’t like everybody in this town so much.”
“That’s bleak,” I said. I suggested maybe he should talk to someone about his feelings of hopelessness and fatalism. Maybe he should talk to Jackson.
But he said no, Jackson was a sociopath.
“I’d rather talk to Mrs. Anderson’s cows than Jackson. I’d rather talk to a brick wall. I’d rather talk to you.”
It was a sad thing for him to say, but I took the compliment none-the-less.
Anyway, Blake was beautiful, as promised. He had the face of a Greek statue, puppy dog eyes, and a smile that was just crooked enough to convey the smallest flaw and therefore make him look trustworthy. I had no idea his age. He was, perhaps, ageless.
“I’ve come from the future where a deadly pathogen that originated in this very town has annihilated ninety percent of human and animal life on Earth. If nothing is done to stop it, it will, within eight years’ time, kill you and everyone you know. But don’t worry; I have a plan to save us all,” he said with that crooked smile to everyone he met and they replied, “Did you now? Well, isn’t that good of you?”
We fucked in Jackson’s rented room where Blake was also staying, but soon thereafter Blake was fucking other girls in Meyersville too. I wasn’t jealous. Blake was very popular, and that’s what I found off-putting. He was also the first of the time travelers to do his plan with uncompromising success. After a few weeks, I began to hear rumors about the river. Passed from person to person and then in the newspaper and on the radio, there were rumblings about chemical pollution, parasites causing rashes and joint pain, unpredictable currents that could sweep small children to their deaths. The rumors were varied and many, and nothing seemed to stick, nor could they be corroborated by experts. It didn’t matter. The details faded, but the fear remained. And for the rest of the time I lived in Meyersville, people watched their river, once the pride of the region, with side-eyed wariness.
Then came Kevin, who specialized in medicinal plants, then Tanner the sediment expert, then Dustin, who did something with the mammals that lived at the river’s edge, tagging beavers and otters and monitoring their whereabouts. There were three Jonathans, one short, one tall, and one with six fingers on his left hand. They were the goodwill committee, who did nothing to stop the apocalypse, but worked instead to help improve public perceptions of time travelers in general. The Institute having rightly assumed, that after several years of “I’ve come from the future where a deadly pathogen that originated in this very town has annihilated ninety percent of human and animal life on Earth. If nothing is done to stop it, it will, within X years’ time, kill you and everyone you know. But don’t worry; I have a plan to save us all,” Meyersville might be experiencing some time traveler fatigue.
The Jonathans organized canned food drives. They mowed lawns and cleaned out gutters. They helped old people carry groceries. They put on concerts in the park (they were all accomplished musicians, the Jonathans). This worked, at least to some degree, and the anti-time traveler lawn signs disappeared. There were still those who did not care for the time travelers, who sneered at them and treated them as second-class citizens. Stickers that said, “We reserve the right to refuse service to time travelers,” could be found in a few businesses on Main Street. But others began to cater to the time travelers. People had discovered that they had money. At the end of the day, capitalism always wins. Millie, who owned Millie’s Diner, asked the Jonathans what foods they missed from back home, and tried to reproduce those dishes. Soy chocolate cake, cricket nuggets, and green pea protein shakes appeared on the menu. I liked the nuggets, though the Jonathans said the consistency wasn’t quite right. But they appreciated the effort. The department store stocked black pants, shirts, and knee-length jackets in all sizes. Some high school kids even lobbied for changing the town motto to “Meyersville: Gateway to the Future.” The Jonathans were pleased, though they acknowledged in private that this was a massive misunderstanding of the situation on the part of those kids.
There was a Ryan, then a Cooper, then a Topher. Their roles were never clear to me. Regardless, I fucked them all. I had come to think of myself as a collector, of sorts. No time traveler could go unfucked. Some were surprised, and some were unsurprised, some were grateful, and some were remorseful, and some were into weird stuff but most weren’t. Some were so sad, I could barely stand it. Like Mitch, a physician who came to Meyersville to establish a mobile outbreak clinic in hopes of quarantining Lewis Leroy as soon as he got sick. Mitch told me that he had three young children back home whom he would never see again. Then he cried, tears running down his bearded cheeks and on to my naked chest.
“That’s awful,” I said. “Were you forced to come here?”
“No,” he said, and cried some more.
By the time Mitch arrived, I was twenty-six. I had never, not even in my angriest teen nightmares, imagined I would still be in Meyersville at twenty-six. My intention had been to leave as soon as possible, to go to a college far away, maybe on the east coast, and then on to a big city for an interesting job in either fashion or journalism. But none of that ever happened. What did happen was this: During my senior year of high school, my mom got sick. Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. We drove her back and forth to Sacramento for all of her treatment—chemo, radiation, immunotherapy, a bone marrow transplant. My dad surprised me by suggesting our family leave Meyersville and move to Sacramento, or someplace else where Mom could get the care she needed. But Mom said no. She had come to love Meyersville and our church-adjacent home. She’d learned how to fix all the falling-apart parts of our house. She’d planted a garden. She made friends in the church and started new charitable organizations. She was a member of both the school board and the chamber of commerce. Meyersville had her heart and she would not leave. So Dad, surprising me again, left without her. The divorce was swift and amicable.
“He always hated it here,” she said when I asked for an explanation.
But with Dad gone, there was no way I could go too. I never even asked. I helped mom around the house and in the garden. I drove her to her appointments. I took classes online, got a certificate in bookkeeping, and took a job with the school district. Mom’s cancer went into remission, but then it came back. She died the winter I turned twenty-three. I could have left once she was gone, but I didn’t. I stayed in the house and stayed at my job. Todd came to the funeral, and after that we were friends again, but not in a romantic way. And though I knew it hurt him that I continued to sleep with the other time travelers, he never said anything about it.
The date of Lewis Leroy’s anticipated infection grew closer. The pace with which the time travelers arrived quickened. I had trouble keeping up. I started scheduling them in my day planner alongside spin class and appointments for the salon and the dentist. Around town, they clustered in bars and coffee shops, their mood tense. The city offered shuttles between Main Street and the river to accommodate the time travelers who trudged that path multiple times a day.
“What’s going to happen?” I asked Todd a month before Lewis Leroy was supposed to get sick. Todd’s own research had yielded a fascinating body of information about the Meyersville River. But he had not succeeded in preventing A. umbrina from gaining purchase there. Each time he sampled the water, he found more of it.
“I don’t know,” he said. “There’s a lot of balls in the air. It’s a complicated situation. I can’t say what’s going to shake out. But I’m sure Brock will tell us when he gets here.”
I asked who Brock was.
“Brock is my boss,” Todd said.
Brock arrived the following week with a loud and confident, “I’ve come from the future where a deadly pathogen that originated in this very town has annihilated ninety percent of human and animal life on Earth. If nothing is done to stop it, it will, within thirty days’ time, kill you and everyone you know. But don’t worry; I have a plan to save us all,” and quickly convened a meeting. The time travelers rented the grange hall for the occasion. I asked Todd if I could come to the meeting, and he said he didn’t see why not. I wore black in order to fit in. But as I entered the hall, I realized this was impossible. It was packed, wall to wall, with time travelers, who waved and whispered hello as I passed. Some I’d been fucking for years, but every single one of them I’d fucked at least once. But that wasn’t what made me stand out. The reason was much simpler, so simple I was embarrassed for never having considered it before: The time travelers were all men. It was dude after dude after dude. Dude-city. Dude-o-rama. This nagged at me.
I made my way to the front of the hall, where Brock was clustered with the other big names in the Meyersville time travel community—there was miserable Mitch, and sociopathic Jackson, and Preston who had done nothing for ten years but lament his inability to kill a child. And there was Todd. Brock—who I had met on the day of his arrival, and swiftly initiated into the Mercy Club, as I had heard some of the travelers call it—took my hand with one of his and clasped my elbow with the other.
“So glad you’re here, Mercy. So glad. You’ve done so much for the morale of my troops. Like a one-woman USO.”
Though I did not doubt the truth of this remark, I didn’t care for the way he said it.
Why were there no female time travelers? I asked. Were there no women left in the future?
Yes, Brock replied with a patronizing chuckle, there were women. But it was unknown what impact time travel might have on their sensitive reproductive systems, and as the tiny remaining human population needed as many breeding members as possible, they were not allowed to use the technology. The female employees of The Institute played supporting roles, all very important, Brock assured me. But they did not time travel.
“So, no progress gets made in dismantling the patriarchy in the next two hundred years?” I asked. The men shuffled their feet and did not respond.
The meeting was a mess. The time travelers were desperate for direction, but got none. Instead, Brock offered platitudes and vagaries. Work had been going well, he said, but now was the time for true action. What action, he did not say. But it was time to test their mettle, to put the pedal to the metal, to fulfill their destinies and their promise: to save us all.
He continued on, but I stopped paying attention. I thought of the women who worked at The Institute. The support team. They probably had just as many degrees as the men who had traveled to Meyersville. They probably had just as many plans. But they were all stuck back in 2210, making copies and fetching coffee and maybe even fucking all their male colleagues, not because they wanted to provide morale for the troops, as Brock had put it. But because, what the hell else was there to do?
The meeting concluded and everyone left the hall looking despondent. I asked Todd what Brock’s title was at The Institute and he said he didn’t know. “Honestly, that’s all he ever did,” Todd said. “Meetings and speeches and bullshit.”
The men wished me a good night as they passed by. Some offered to accompany me home. I declined all invitations. I felt I was done with time travelers.
But on the febrile summer’s day Lewis Leroy was to seal his own fate and that of Meyersville and all of humanity forever after, I found I could not stay away. I left my house and fell into step with a pair of time travelers walking by. Their names were Chase and Tyler. They were relatively new arrivals, part of a recent cohort who were younger than me. After so many years of fucking older men who acted like they knew something about sex, I’d found this change refreshing. I asked where they were going and they said, “The river. We’re all going to the river.”
It was a last ditch effort. A desperate re-working of the plan, of all the plans. What would they do now, at the zero hour? The time travelers gathered at the site of the disaster to-be, sweating in their black clothes. The loudest among them said things loud, and the biggest took up as much space as possible. How dumb, I thought, to fall apart here at the end, after everything. How hard was it to make a plan?
While the time travelers stood on the shore, bickering and jostling for space, I walked up the road and then down a dirt driveway to Chloe and Raymond’s house. I had never been close with these Leroys, or any others, but we’d lived in the same town a long time. If nothing else, I was a familiar face. I knocked on the door. Lewis answered and I knew right away his parents weren’t home.
“What are you gonna do today, Lew?” I asked.
He said he was going to have a PB&J sandwich, and then go down to the river to cool off because it was so hot inside his house.
I asked if he wanted to come get an ice cream cone with me instead.
“Ice cream’s pretty cool, too,” I said.
He said okay. We walked together toward the soda fountain on Main Street. I installed Lewis in a booth and ordered us both double chocolate cones.
Once we’d eaten our cones, I told Lewis I needed to talk to him about something serious.
“You can’t go down to the river anymore because there’s a bunch of pedophiles who hang out there now,” I said. “Do you know what a pedophile is?”
Lewis nodded. “It’s a grown-up who likes to touch kids’ parts instead of other grown-ups’ parts.”
“That’s true,” I said. “So you’ll stay away from the river from now on, right?”
“Sometimes pedophiles get kids to trust them by buying them ice cream,” Lewis said.
“That’s true,” I said again.
“Or with candy and toys.” He looked up at me. “Do you have candy and toys?”
I said I did not.
“Will you tell the other kids at school not to go to the river either?” I asked.
Lewis nodded. “So they won’t get their parts touched.”
I offered to buy him another cone, but he said no, so I walked him back to his house where I don’t know what he did, except that he didn’t go to the river because he didn’t get sick and die right away, and neither did anyone else.
The time travelers began to drift away from Meyersville after that. Some continued to work on their research or public health projects. Just because A. umbrina hadn’t infected Lewis Leroy didn’t mean it was gone. But other time travelers, I think, just went on to live lives in other places. I never heard anyone talk of building a time machine to get back to 2210. Was it impossible with our primitive technology? Or was the life they had known so terrible, they had no desire to return, not even for the sake of their families and friends? I wondered how many of the time travelers had signed on with The Institute not out of a desire to save the future, but simply to escape it. Regardless, Meyersville could not hold them, just as I had thought, a decade earlier, it would not hold me. And so, they left.
Except for Todd, who stayed and we took up with each other romantically again. He had stopped wearing his black clothes and glasses by then, favoring instead the typical look of Meyersville men—Carhartts, boots, and something flannel, unless it was summer, and then Carhartts, boots, and a plain t-shirt, white or gray. He also stopped referring to the time we were occupying as “the past.” He switched over to “the present,” and after a few years in the present together, we bought a house just outside of town with a view of the mountains and a pasture, though we kept no horses or cows. We worked at our jobs. We made friends. We took pride in our community and our home.
We waited together for the end, however it might come for us.