James boarded the train at 2:38. It had been a long day—impressive, since he had only woken up at noon—and he quietly dreaded the appointment this train would deliver him to. He ran a bony hand through his dark hair and sighed, shaking his head. He had searched for a job for months since leaving his last one, and had attended a long string of interviews connected only by a thread of rejection. Needless to say, his confidence was waning, and he had little interest in further denial.
He lurched forward as the train came to a stop, doors opening to meet the next station. His eyes lazily wandered over the boarding passengers—not looking for anything in particular, just assessing the new arrivals. He paused, however, when they landed on an eerily familiar face.
The man’s hair was wild, protruding from his cap at odd angles with a beard to match. His expression was weathered, with wrinkles and scars mingling such that they must have co-existed for years, and a slightly unusual frown that seemed equally affixed. But what struck James were the eyes: blue-gray with flecks of green he knew well from how they stared back at him in the mirror.
A light of recognition flashed in them, though it wouldn’t have been evident from the rest of the man’s face. He continued hastily writing in a notebook James had only just noticed, taking a seat nearby as the train jerked forward again. He watched the man’s skeletal hands fly over the paper, barely stopping for an instant. After a minute or so of frantic scribbling, the man tore the page from his book and pressed it into his hand, urging him to read it with the eyes they shared.
Slowly, James lifted the note into view, a mix of terrified adrenaline and incredible curiosity pounding in his head.
“This is going to sound insane,” it said, “but I am you.”
James glanced back quickly, but the eyes urged him back to the note in his shaking hand.
“I’ve come back to prevent something horrible from happening to us. As a result of this event, I am unable to speak to you. All I can do is write and hope that you’ll give me a chance. I will leave this train at Montrose. If you want to prevent our future from being permanently darkened, you will follow.”
James glanced up again, in time to see Damen slowly pass from view. Whatever he did, he’d have to decide quickly. His gaze darted back behind him again. The man was watching him, clearly uneasy as the train rounded a bend, but waiting for any indication of what choice he would make. The two of them were still, locked in a contest of staring and deliberation. After what seemed like an eternity, the train slowed to a halt and a voice sounded over the loudspeaker.
“This is Montrose. Doors open on the right at Montrose,” it droned. The voice faded into the background as James watched the man rise from his seat and move to the door. He stepped outside and turned, watching for James to make a move. James hesitated, but as the chime rang signaling the doors’ closing, he bolted, slipping through the gap and onto the platform as the train pulled away.
The man regarded him with interest for a moment, scanning him up and down as if trying to judge whether he was likely to change his mind. Tired of the inspection, James crossed his arms and raised an eyebrow.
“So, now what?”
The man scribbled into his notebook again, then turned the page toward James:
“By getting off of the train, it’s likely that we have already prevented the catastrophe I intended to. However, time has a way of righting itself. The consequence of my interference could be a different event with the same result. We must remain on our guard for the rest of the day, at a minimum.”
James nodded in understanding and they started walking, making their way to the nearest staircase from the platform. When they reached the bottom, he turned to the man again.
“Tell me, what exactly was this catastrophe you were trying to prevent, and why didn’t you say so in your first note?”
The man nodded and wrote, “I’m going to answer your questions in reverse.” Recognizing understanding, he continued writing, handing him another note after a minute, “I had to write quickly so you could consider what I had to say before we needed to leave the train. We needed to leave the train within the next couple of stops in order to avoid the event.
“The train we were on was going to derail due to track degradation on the turn between Addison and Paulina. We would survive the crash, but with heavy injuries. During our recovery, surgery would present a choice: keep us alive with significant mental damage or allow us to die. Our family would choose the former, but it would leave us in a difficult place. It took me years of therapy and re-learning to reach an even vaguely normal level of functioning. I was able to convince someone with the technical knowledge to send me back to this day, and now, here we are.”
“Wait, wait, wait,” James said, scanning the note again, “The train derailed?”
The man nodded.
“Then you didn’t ‘prevent’ anything!” he shouted, “That train is still going to derail and people are still going to suffer for it!”
The man narrowed his eyes and wrote in a harsher script, “I didn’t come back to be a hero. I came back to change our life.”
“Well you could have done that and done something to keep the train from crashing!”
He turned to his notebook again, furiously scribbling. In the distance, sirens began to sound. When his writing was finished, he turned the notebook back to James again.
“This was the only way that guaranteed our safety. Think about it. You couldn’t slow the train down, you couldn’t reroute the train, and you couldn’t explain how you knew what was going to happen even if you did.”
“No, but you could have gone back further and submitted a service request, or done something!”
The man continued to glower at him and wrote once more, “You would trust Chicago’s infrastructure to solve the problem?”
“If it would prevent lawsuits and public outcry, I would, yes.”
The man seemed to consider this, then sighed and scribbled, “You’re not going to give this a rest, are you?”
“Absolutely the hell I will not.”
“Fine,” he wrote, removing a device from his pocket. Noticing James’ curious glance, he started writing again, “This is the remote I was given to get back when I was done. Currently, it’s set to either return me back to when I left or restart the day if something went wrong, but if I adjust some settings, I should be able to step back a week or two.”
“Just take care of it,” James sighed.
The man flicked some dials on the device and looked at him once more, showing him a note which read, “See you on the other side.”
James boarded the train at 2:14. It had been a long day—impressive, since he had only woken up at noon—and he quietly dreaded the appointment this train would deliver him to. He ran a bony hand through his dark hair and sighed, shaking his head. He’d needed to leave earlier than he expected because the trains were running on the same track around Addison, something about track work, like he cared. He had searched for a job for months since leaving his last one, and had attended a long string of interviews connected only by a thread of rejection. Needless to say, his confidence was waning, and he had little interest in further denial.