Roughly 40 Million Years Ago
"I'm sorry," she said into his chest.
"It's okay." He smoothed her hair. "It upset me too."
She looked up, pushing herself away a little, meeting his gaze. He smiled, gentle and kind, understanding, reached up to brush his fingers across her cheek. She returned the smile. He bent his head, mouth hovering. "Okay?" he breathed.
"Okay," she said.
They kissed on a black sand beach, a lava flow half a mile away sending up plumes of steam as it sank into the Pacific. His hands tangled in her hair, tears on her cheeks not yet dry. They stood at the birth of an island, at the edge of a beginning.
The blade sang as it descended, a high note cutting across the rumbling murmur of the crowd. Vast, a frothing foaming body of faces, eager and upturned to feel the splatter and catch the final exhalation. Those nearest pressed forward, swiping handkerchiefs through the blood, waving reddened flags above their heads.
Darcy fought to catch her breath, to tamp down rising nausea. Sweat glossed her face, rolled down her back. She was pushed and stumbled, catching herself on the person in front of her. The crowd surged, ravenous for a piece of the dead queen. Her head rose, hoisted on a pike. Darcy put her hand to her mouth.
"Want to go?"
Evan's voice, his hand on her arm, brought her back. The crowd shifted again, trapping the pair in the slipstream. She half turned to him, tears mixing with horror, wondering why she'd ever added this one to the list. She found his face, his steady eyes.
The scene melted, the world focusing to his gaze, the feel of his hands on her shoulders, the warmth of him in front of her. The metallic scent lingered, even so far from the machine, the smell of unwashed bodies and rabid fury. Darcy squeezed her eyes shut, wishing it away.
Her favorite president.
Darcy smiled as he spoke, at his larger-than-life gestures. As large as history. His glasses reflected Congress. The room reverberated with occupants murmuring behind hands. She stood in his periphery, smiling because he was everything she'd ever read. He fought for the creation of a National Parks system, stressing the importance, mustache bristling, arm a piston going up and down.
"Why do you like him?" Evan whispered against her ear.
She shrugged, "Always have."
"Got a thing for blustery old white men?"
She covered her mouth with a hand, smiling into her palm. This moment was history, a marker placed in time on a roadmap unchanged by travelers. She'd stapled a list of dates to the Travel Permit, long and hand-written, it continued on the back and slanted at an angle on the unlined paper. This date had been starred, folded paged bulging in her back pocket. The red approval stamp sat at the bottom of her purse.
She pulled the pages free, borrowed a pen from a desk nearby. "The Terror."
His face blanched. "Why?"
"I had someone come in this morning for a permit and the date got stuck in my head." He reached for her hand, the spark of him electric."If you're sure."
"We're going every when, remember?"
She watched their joined hands instead of the blurring figure, his words fading into the white noise of a crowd.
"Hold on!" He reached out, stopped her from toppling over the edge.
Darcy looked around, unsure of where they'd landed, dust rolling into a red and orange landscape. Overhead a bright clear sky spread from horizon to horizon. They stood on the lip of a canyon, sweating in the heat of a lowering sun.
"I thought we were going to see Powell?"
"There!" Evan pointed to where the Colorado River, snaking at the bottom of the canyon, came into view. Down the middle, a large boat filled with men rowed, tiny at this distance.
John Wesley Powell.
"I'm related to him somehow," Darcy said. "That's what my mom told me. I don't know how. I did a report once in school, all about how he mapped the river."
"Maybe that's where you got your spirit of adventure?"
Darcy let out a laugh, "Took long enough for it to show up."
"Do you think he knows?"
Darcy lifted a brow, almost shrugged. "It's so good. I don't know how he couldn't."
"But do we really see that far? It's years, it's centuries. Lifetimes."
The artist lifted a brush. Russet color swept down, becoming a fold of fabric. The cream and milk flesh of the child glowed, the moon face of the Madonna sweet.
Titian grumbled as he worked.
Darcy put her fingers in her ears but the music came through, vibrating up from the floor and into the soles of her feet. The arena below her, around her, rolled with collected smoke and flashed with upheld lighters; an unknown galaxy shimmering. On the stage the singer strutted, bellowing his lines, the voices of the crowd a delayed echo.
Evan sang. She glanced at him, taking pieces of his face with her, turning them over in her mind, not wanting to be caught staring. His sandy hair and blue eyes, the dimple in his right cheek. Even so close she couldn't distinguish his voice from the rest but heat and an agony of butterflies thrilled through her every time his arm brushed hers.
"If you could visit your parents, wouldn't you?'
"Mine aren't dead. I'm adopted."
He looked at her, "You're lucky to have them."
Darcy nodded. "Wrinkled carrots and all."
They stood in silence then, watching the couple through the lit window. The world was dark around them, spangled and singing with the voices of a thousand night insects. In the square a young couple moved about a galley kitchen, the woman armed with a wooden spoon and the man struggling to open a bottle of wine. Pots steamed on the stovetop. A radio perched on the counter. Darcy told herself she could hear the music.
"They look happy."
"Mr. Organdy's permit is for the Terror. Marie Antoinette's execution."
Ms. Pin opened a large red leather book on her desk, flipping through thin whispering pages. She licked a finger, touched it to the page."Date?"
"October 16, 1793."
"And he's wanting to take two minors?"
"A history lesson."
"It's rated R. What're their ages?"
"Nine and eleven."
Darcy nodded, the permit in her hand blue with ink pen and smudged with white-out. Her feet ached, dull and constant, the big toes pinched by shoes that had looked comfortable but had lied. She shifted, leaned against the open door to the office.
"He says they're studying it in school and he'd like them to see it for themselves."
"Reading about it and seeing it are two very different things. At fifteen they can go with a parent. Until then, no."
The book slammed shut. Ms. Pin went back to her computer. Her large glasses reflected spreadsheets and numbers, rows and rows bullied into order. Darcy hesitated, seeing the father's face, his pout as she checked the permit, his look when she'd said she'd check with the boss.
"What?" Ms. Pin didn't look up.
"He's very determined." Darcy folded the corner of the paper over, creasing it with a nail. "He says it's important for their class project."
Ms. Pin stood, shaking her head, smoothing down the wool skirt as she came out from behind the desk. She took the permit from Darcy as she passed, marching to the service counter where Mr. Organdy waited. If her shoes were too tight, it wasn't apparent, the sensible flats connected to thin calves encased in hunter green tights. Ms. Pin, sharp as her name, looked like a tall bird, raised high on skinny legs and crowned with flyaway hair she insisted on coloring an unnatural shade of red. Darcy touched her own hair, a dark outgrown bob on the way to being shoulder length, and followed with a twist of unease.
The man glowered at the pair, one tall and one plump, and looked as if he thought he could stare them into submission. Ms. Pin raised an eyebrow, sliding the permit application across the counter.
"Winnie, would you please approve this thing so I can get back to work? I'm on my lunch hour here, trying to get the trip settled for the kids." Implication lurked in his voice. Darcy had been less than helpful intentionally.
Ms. Pin smiled, her eyes cold. "Mr. Organdy, I'm afraid we can't approve your permit. The children listed are underage for that historical event."
"They're studying it in school. There's no reason they shouldn't see it." He pinned the permit with a forefinger, slid it back.
"I'm afraid those are the rules. The material they would witness is not suitable for minors. Our new director announced the changes. Perhaps you'd like to make an appointment with him?"
Mr. Organdy looked from Ms. Pin to Darcy, with his tailored gray suit the color of his eyes and hair, a monochrome man with a reddening face. Ms. Pin picked up the phone, finger hovering over the button for the direct line upstairs. "Shall I call his personal assistant and let him know you're on your way?"
He scowled, the permit crumpled in one hand and tossed at the recycling basket behind Darcy. She flinched, biting the inside of her cheek. Mr. Organdy didn't notice, already out the door and on his way to the parking lot. Ms. Pin set the phone down and turned to Darcy. "Dig out that permit and send it upstairs with a note. If he takes his kids through a backdoor, we want to make sure we're covered."
"Of course." Darcy rummaged, pulling it out and smoothing it on the corner of her desk behind the counter.
Ms. Pin retreated to her office with the crooked nameplate on the door. The carpet between her office and the service counter had been worn down, a ragged trail of back and forth. Darcy wrote a quick explanation on the crumpled paper and dropped it in the outbox.
A stack of travel permits sat waiting to be approved, several of the blue inked documents greasy with food stains. Last month's color had been luminescent pink and the printers had used an ink that came off on the skin, leaving Darcy with magenta fingers. This month's color, a pale blue, appeared to be more permanent but harder to read. The light overhead flickered, buzzing. She reached for her approved stamp, bright red, and brought it thumping down in the square approval box at the bottom. Her initials were added and she set it aside to be mailed back at the end of the day.
Time travel, once an ultimate luxury, had become an everyday thing overseen by a small branch of the government from two rooms on separate floors. The location of the offices was not intentional. The director of Time Travel Permits had been moved from an office adjacent Ms. Pin's to a room upstairs because he'd complained about the lack of a private restroom. His new office, his desk and file cabinet on one wall with his personal assistant's desk on the other, was a pass through from a common eating area and the large upstairs men's restroom.
Darcy had never complained about buying her own office supplies. She worried that they might take the money for new paperclips from her bi-monthly.
Ms. Pin managed the math involved with the permits, Darcy approved or denied, Mr. Henry, director, handled public relations and other branches of the government, and his assistant, Josephine, niece of someone important getting a degree in Ridged History, did her homework in the shared office. She traveled a lot for research, but the director had yet to approve her going any when really dangerous for fear she'd break a toe and he'd end up with his desk beside the urinals.
Darcy had celebrated her fourth anniversary yesterday. Not once had she ever approved her own Travel Permit.
She stamped and initialed her way through the stack, squinting at handwriting and occasionally looking up dates for events or looking up events for seemingly random dates. No one ever managed to fill in the entire form, despite the bold print at the top asking that it be completed. If people had followed the bold print she wouldn't have a job.
At lunch she wandered upstairs to the break room and cut herself a piece of cake. It had read Congratulations, Darcy! Four More Years! Ms. Pin's doing, her kindness. Now only her name remained in purple icing on white. The middle had been excavated, everyone who'd wandered away with a piece firmly in the adult world wanting to avoid the diabetic coma the corner pieces with extra icing entailed.
She took the stairs, armed with a plastic fork and looking forward to the rest of the afternoon, the downhill slide. From now until five, she had permits and cake, tea at four.
The afternoon eased by. At a quarter to five, someone coughed.
She looked at the clock on the corner of her computer screen, stomach sinking. In her experience anyone who came at the end of the day usually had issues with a permit that would require her to remain in the building past five.
The cough, however, had been apologetic, as if the owner knew that his issue might encroach on her valuable time. Darcy looked up, smiling because she was the kind of woman who greeted everyone with a smile even while resenting them for keeping her late.
The man returned her smile. She focused on his chipped front tooth. It was the only imperfection.
"Hello," she said.
"I have some questions about a permit."
She pushed back her chair. "Do you have it with you?"
"Okay." she stood, crossing to the shelf behind her to take a blue permit from the correctly marked slot. She placed it on the counter, eyes on the form. "Fill this out. If everything's good I'll approve it before you leave. You'll have to take it to the ticket agency to collect the actual passes. But you'll need to keep it with you at all times in case of an emergency."
"What happens if I have an emergency?"
"Well, when you pick up your passes, they'll have a one-time emergency signal for you to activate. Help will arrive and your Permit will be verified."
"So, I could be," he waved a hand, "attacked by dinosaurs, burning at the stake, or about to be killed by an oncoming train, and they'll want to see my permit first?"
Darcy didn't answer. He smiled. She didn't. He coughed.
"So, permit. Yeah. Name."
He mumbled as he filled it out at the counter. Darcy straightened the stacks of blank Permits in the rack behind her desk, shuffling and reshuffling. Her eyes rolled to the clock on the wall behind the man. It was five minutes fast, and office hours were quickly coming to a close.
Dinner. What would she have for dinner? Leftovers. Or she could stop at the market and pick up something fresh. But then she'd have to cook. Takeout. She could order it on the way home. Pick it up. Cat food, she needed cat food. Her neighbor was cruising the Bahamas with pirates. She'd promised to feed the cat. It ate special food, refrigerated, had to be purchased fresh every few days. Spoiled rotten cat.
"So," the man said, "have you ever gone?"
Maybe the cat would eat leftovers. What did she have? Pot roast, wrinkled carrots from dinner at her parent's house.
"You travel?" He tapped the permit with the pen.
Darcy shook her head, reaching for the paper. "Finished?"
She met his gaze, "What?"
He tapped his chest with the pen, "Evan."
She glanced at the name section at the top of the form, Evan Richards the Seventeenth. "Seventeenth?"
"It's a name with a lot of history."
She nodded, looking over the rest, scanning. Name, address, employer, insurance information, next of kin. She went back to employer, the address for the location was this building, her building. The Office of Mandatory Moral Improvement or MMI for short.
"You work upstairs?"
"Walk past here most days, Darcy."
She stopped, met his eyes. He tapped the nameplate that sat to the side of the counter, Darcy Matheson in Helvetica. She smiled tightly, gaze dropping.
"I'm really having to work hard here."
"You didn't fill out the where or when."
They spoke at the same time, their voices mixing, melding. He laughed.
"Where?" He leaned forward and she held the page out, pointing. "Oh yeah, I left that for you to fill in."
She opened her mouth. Shut it. Settled on, "Excuse me?"
"When do you want to go?"
She shook her head. "We'll be closing in less than five minutes. If you want a permit for the weekend you really need to fill this out."
He reached, tapping the page. "It's for two."
"I assume you have a friend."
He smiled a perfect smile, a charming smile, a devil-may-care, melt-your-bones kind of smile. "Go with me."
"I have to feed my cat."
He laughed. "Come on, you've never gone. Why not go with a big strapping guy who can protect you from all the crazies history has to offer?"
"That's what emergency signals are for."
He nodded, "True. But will emergency signals hold your purse? I'll totally hold your purse."
Darcy laughed, a bark of amusement that surprised her, that surprised him. His grin broadened.
"Come with me."
She shook her head. "Thanks for the offer, but no."
He hesitated, searching her face."Will you approve it without the dates filled in?"
"Can't do that."
"Okay." He took it, scribbled in a date and handed it back.
Darcy looked at the date, creasing her brow. She turned to go into Ms. Pin's office, to search the giant red leather book.
"It's not going to be in there."
She turned back to him. "When is this? What's there?"
"The date my dad told my mom he loved her for the first time."
Darcy looked at him for a long moment. She could feel it sliding by in the ticking of the clock. He held her gaze and she wondered why he'd picked that date, what he'd hoped he might convey. She picked up the red approval stamp, the thump of it hit hitting the page closing her eyes. She initialed it.
"So I guess it's too late to add any other destinations?" he asked.
"You can always add dates, just staple a separate sheet to this one. But they'll still have to be approved. I'll just initial them now if you've got them ready."
He shook his head. "I was just wondering. For next time, you know?"
She nodded. "Sure."
He knocked the counter with his knuckles, smiled at her. "Thanks so much for your help. And you know, if you change your mind, I'll be walking really slowly to my car." He waved the permit at her.
"Thanks, I appreciate the offer, but I really do have a cat to feed."
He smiled, thin and tight and left. Darcy sat, staring at her screen. 5:08 PM.
Ms. Pin called from her office. "Don't worry about locking up tonight, Darcy. I'm going to be working late. You can head home whenever you're ready."
Home. Leftovers. Spoiled cat. Darcy pressed the start button on the computer, it gave a disgruntled beep before shutting down. The approval stamp lay on the red ink pad. She grabbed it, snatching up her bag and running for the door, uncomfortable shoes ignored.
She caught him in the parking lot.