Protectively, she froze at the center of the device, as if it would shield her from his question. Ceily finally emerged from the sleek carbon posts which supported the shimmering tendrils of crystalline fiber to face her brother’s accusations.
He’d found her out, waiting until she’d fled the present, like she had so many times before, and then stood vigil until she’d returned from the past.
He wasn’t asking how she’d created a time machine. Ceily knew it’d taken more attitude than inventiveness to construct it. Much like John Carter metaphysically transporting himself to Barsoom on Mars, she’d basically willed herself back in time.
No. Her brother, Foster, was not interested in the how. He knew his sister was brilliant. You didn’t become a particle physicist triangulating tachyons without being brilliant. Her brother was fixated on the when. And the ever-vexing why.
Ceily had seen it immediately when she’d tried to explain. His soft, often defeated eyes grew larger, harder. Moments after witnessing his sister’s reappearance, it was clear Foster could care less about the technical or historical triumphs of traveling back in time. He feared for his sister.
“Then, Ceily?” he pressed. “What’s the good? It’s no better than staring at an old picture. You’re fixating. It’s not gonna change the present.”
“Helps me handle the present,” she whispered as she began to disengage from the device.
Foster watched her from the bottom steps of the wooden staircase he’d helped she and Bobby replace when they’d moved into the old house in Queens so many years ago.
“Yeah, look at your present, Ceily. You’ve got a ready-made Nobel Prize—or two or three—hidden here in your basement. An invention that could turn the world on its head and you’re using it as a picture album. That’s what kills me. You’ve been living in the past too long. It’s not gonna bring back Mom or Dad or Bobby.”
She shook her head as her fingers moved across the touchscreen at her makeshift desk, the filaments of the cage dimming as the device settled into a purr no louder than the fluorescent tubes that hung along the open rafters.
“You’re right. This won’t bring them back, but I can go back to them. I can be with them again. You could too.”
His eyes hardened at the offer. “Go back to September 10 and pretend I didn’t know they was all gonna die the next day? How could I look them in the eye?” He stepped toward her in accusation. “I’d tell ‘em. I’d tell everyone. I’d make that damn machine take me back where I could do some good. Stop the whole thing. Change everything, and give us some peace. ”
“It wouldn’t,” Ceily said, ashamed.
“So you say, sister.”
“It wouldn’t in the way you think, Foster.” She stepped clear of the device and went to the bottom of the staircase. “We might be able to prevent it in one universe, but it would happen to us in another. 9/11 was a sheering event. It spawned a new us. Causality is not like thermodynamics. There is a free lunch—an infinite buffet of possibilities in the multiverse—and that means somewhere we’d all suffer the same fate. I can’t push that onto some other Ceily and Foster. That knowledge.”
Foster frowned down at her, judgment battling his concern. He stepped to the painted concrete, brushed by her and an array of neatly bundled fiber cables hanging from the open joists of the basement ceiling. He crossed to her workstation, an unfinished door supported by two old sawhorses, and reached between dual monitors for the wedding picture leaning there. The gold framed photo wasn’t just of Bobby and Ceily. It was Bobby, Ceily, Mom, Dad and Foster. He picked it up and studied it before he turned back to his sister.
“What’s it like?” His eyes brightened warily.
Ceily met his searching stare. “Like it was before. Right here in the house. Upstairs in the kitchen, we’re eating, laughing, Monday Night Football’s on. Daddy is looking proud at the house, at us. At all of us.” She reassured him. “All of us. That’s why I go back then. The before.”
She half closed her eyes. A half hour ago, she’d been with them. Waved goodbye to her parents and Foster on the porch and then had climbed into bed with Bobby.
“I need to feel what it used to be like. To believe it was real,” she pleaded.
“But, you know,” he insisted. “How can you deal with that? Sit and laugh with them. Relive it all and then leave them to be crushed and burned the next day?”
“I can’t change that knowledge,” she admitted, “but when I see their eyes. The promise we all held. I can think about the future again.”
Foster shook his head. “It’s not right. If we can’t help them, it’s not right. It’d drive me crazy. It’ll drive you crazy. Look what you’ve become.” His hand swept over the incomprehensible array of equipment. “I haven’t seen you in weeks. You stopped returning calls and texts. That’s why I’m here. You’re fading away.”
“No!” Ceily’s voice was sharp. “This,” she pointed to the machinery “is to keep me from fading away. It’s given me a purpose.”
“It’s an escape,” he challenged.
“It’s a way out. I’ve got to remember what I believed. Before.”
“You can’t get innocence back like that. Ignorance ain’t bliss, sister.”
“I didn’t ask for this knowledge.”
“No one ever does. Not even Eve.” Foster’s words knifed at her. “You saying I’m trying to get back into the Garden after the snake’s done his handiwork?”
Foster set the picture frame back on her desk. “You can’t put the genie back in the bottle, Ceily, but you keep going back to sniff at the cork—the day before the damn thing was opened. Tell me how that’s sane?”
She sighed. “I can’t. So, why can’t I fight insanity with insanity? Why can’t I just live in the quiet before the storm?”
“Forever?” he asked.
“Just a day,” she pleaded.
Foster looked away, his wan eyes studying the device. “What does it take to get there?”
“What does it take to come back?”
Ceily's voice trembled. “The alarm clock ringing and Bobby getting out of bed to go meet Mamma and Dad to show them his new office on the 89th floor.”
“I won’t hear that alarm, Ceily.”
“Yes, you will,” she reassured, as she took his hand and led him to the center of the device. “It’s the same alarm that brought you here tonight. The same one that’s been ringing in our ears for all these years.”
“This won’t turn it off,” he argued helplessly, stepping towards the center of the device.
“True.” Ceily’s hands danced over the touchscreen, and she smiled at her brother, noting the longing in his softening eyes.
As the crystalline filaments of the time device enclosed him, she whispered, “When they’re saying goodbye, give Mamma a kiss…before she has to ask you.”
“Before. It changes everything.”