The door’s slam shakes my desk so violently that the pile of work spread on top of it lurches forward and begins spilling off the edge like a waterfall. I’m able to grab my ink bottle before it falls and soaks the entire heap —one can’t exactly let ink splatter all over the pages of Time—but in the meantime, the rest of my desk’s contents dump themselves unceremoniously onto the rug below.
“Looks like the San Fran quake of 1906 in here,” the Past comments softly, watching the pages of paper float gently to the ground like ashes. Naturally, I don’t remember that incident very well—faulty memory—but from the Past’s tone I glean that that earthquake was particularly wrathful. “Not quite, thankfully,” I answer, then look up and meet the Future’s furious glare.
“Actually, that’s probably pretty accurate,” I add after some brief consideration.
This kind of visit from the Future is not uncommon. I’m used to him barging into my office, blaming me for some thing or another, throwing things around, and screaming at decibel levels that could peel the paint off the walls. In fact, the Past is only in here with me today because of the Future’s last episode. Since my work eventually becomes her own, when she isn’t drifting among the inhabitants of the world below, jogging memories and ringing bells, she’s in my office, helping me to file away last week’s weather—or, more often, to right an upended file cabinet.
This time, though, there’s no cabinet-upending. Instead, the Future storms across the room to my desk, clutching a travel-worn newspaper in a white-knuckled fist.
“What is the meaning of this?”
He flings the last word in my face, along with the newspaper, which immediately disperses into a spread of disheveled grey sheets. I don’t bother to look down at them. First of all, I already know what the offending headline will be—the incident over which the Future is so disgusted is old news to me, and I’ve been expecting this ireful visit from the Future for over an hour now. Secondly, I can’t bear to look down at the mess that is now my workspace.
“Shouldn’t you have—” I begin.
“Oh, hush.” The Future rolls his eyes and imitates my voice in a mocking falsetto. “Shouldn’t you have foreseen this? Shouldn’t you have known?” He gestures to the pen lying in front of me. “How could I have foreseen it? You’re always changing everything!”
Here he goes, blaming me again. I sigh, resigning myself to a long argument. “You should at least sit down before we get started.”
“No. I prefer to stand.” The Future crosses his arms and tosses his head, adding an eyeroll for good measure. He’s always so theatrical. I bet that donning that melodramatic black cape and scaring the humbug out of old Scrooge would have been the high point of his career.
I lean back in my chair, waiting for the Future to continue his rant, or at least to shatter a lamp or something. But he doesn’t. Instead he begins pacing around the room in a huff, turning to gaze at me periodically with an expectant bug-eyed glare. As he paces, his ever-changing face slowly shifts from clean-shaven to red-bearded, his cheekbones rise, and his eyes turn black. Unfortunately, I never know whether to take his random transformations as implications of his mood or just symbolic acts of whim, so I look to the Past for help, hoping that maybe she can impart some wisdom. Her perpetually childlike face, slightly transparent and faintly luminescent, stares back at me with an expression somewhere between resignation and encouragement. At length she shrugs and glances down at the newspaper.
There’s nothing else to do, really, so I pick up the front page. The bold black letters, marching in line above a photo of a parading army, shout at me accusingly: GERMANY INVADES POLAND
Even though I was already aware of this particular occurrence, silence seems to suck the air out of the room. Finally I speak, desperate to shatter its spell. “How thoughtful of them,” I mutter numbly, “to relate the news of such a momentous event in the present tense.”
The entire history of the Scottish kilt—yes, there is a file cabinet for that—crashes to the ground with a sound like thunder. I reach out and steady the globe on my desk, which has stopped turning because I’ve stopped writing, but I still feel the need to protect it from a Future earthquake.
“This is no time for your jests, Present!” the Future shouts, approaching my desk. “This is no petty scuffle that Germany has brought upon the world. This is war!”
“And that’s my fault?”
“You wrote it into existence!”
“I’m just doing my job.”
“And I’m trying to do mine! But how am I supposed to facilitate plans, dreams, or predictions when this monstrosity that you’ve created makes everyone I touch recoil in terror?”
“Well, maybe if you’d bathe more, people would recoil less, you—”
“Alright, that’s enough.” The Past is standing, her shining face suddenly wrathful and slightly painful to look at. There’s a whoosh like the sound of a thrashing torch as she points a warning finger. “You two remember what happens every time you fight like this.”
When we look at her blankly (of course we don’t remember), she sighs deeply. Her glow seems to cool down a few degrees. “You don’t get anything resolved when you argue, and meanwhile, the humans have to wait for Time to pull itself together and function.” She looks almost disappointed, like a mother admonishing her children. “We have no business addressing the battles of Earth while our own house is at war.”
I peek over at the Future from the corner of my eye. He’s still visibly angry, but after a few moments, he steps backwards and sits heavily in a chair. I look at the Past and nod. A ghost of a smile passes across her face as she also returns to her seat, her hair, stirred by her movement, floating briefly with the spectral weightlessness of flame.
“Alright, that’s all very well then, but the question still remains,” the Future says, gripping his armrests and leaning forward. “What are we going do about this man?”
From the paper in my hands, the piercing ink-black eyes of a little mustachioed man, standing above lines of marching men, stare back at me. “It sounds like you already have ideas,” I say hesitatingly.
The Future narrows his eyes. “And it sounds like you already know what those ideas are, yet you have no intention of considering them.”
I breathe in slowly. Here we go again. “If you’re going to tell me to change history—”
“You coward.” The Future clenches his teeth. “It would only take a single word. A single. Word.”
“We have no idea what that would unleash. It’s dangerous.”
“He’s dangerous!” The Future starts to stand, then seems to think better of it and sits down. Silence again. I roll my pen across my desk with my finger, waiting for him to begin. At length, he does, and I am surprised to hear his voice trembling.
“This man—” he leans forward, pointing at the miniature man on the newspaper—“if History continues in its current course, will bring the world a suffering unlike any it has ever seen. He will devastate entire countries, yet their neighbors will be silent. He will corrupt children and break the weak into pieces, yet people will shout his praises in the streets. He will wound and lash and crush people to the point that they forget how to be human. He will convince some to want to forget how to be human.” He looks away and crosses his arms. “Forget your ink,” he hisses. “You’ll be writing in blood.”
I swallow hard and stare down at my hands.
“He was destined to be an artist once,” the Past whispers miserably. It’s an errant comment, but I know that she can’t help it. She, unlike the Future and me, can see the man’s first steps, his birthdays, his discoveries, his forgotten hopes, his childhood tears and triumphs. But now…
“What he could have been is lost forever.” The Future leans forward now and addresses me. “End him,” he says. “It would just take one word. One word, after his name. Just one, to stop him forever.” He pauses. His voice is no longer tremulous when he speaks again. “I think you know which.”
I know which. My pen—a beautiful thing, shining, light and wonderfully smooth in the hand—seems to call to me. Just one. Just one. Just one…
But something is wrong. I tear my eyes away and look up at the Past. She will not meet my gaze.
“Have we had this conversation before?” I ask her.
She does not answer immediately. Maybe she’s trying to think of an answer, or she is delving back into her own realm. We wait, nearly choking on silence. She closes her eyes.
“When we were set to this task,” she says finally, “we were given instructions both to govern Time and to do what is best for humanity. Over the ages, this command has become increasingly more difficult to obey, especially when we come to moments like this. And we have come to moments like this one before…” She falters for a moment, but she presses on, even though every word sounds like a struggle. “I understand the desire to wipe the Earth clean of this man. It is a noble consideration, Future, and for that I commend you. But I fear that, in light of past events, this endeavor would not destroy the future that this man has already set into motion. Wiping away one set of footsteps has never turned humanity from its collective course. We have always seen, without fail, that a man’s ideas live on long after his body expires. In some cases, death even strengthens his legacy.”
She pauses and her hands clench, as if she is bracing herself for her own words. “If the world is to avoid the calamity that the Future foresees,” she says deliberately, “it must do so by the word of the people. History has never been swayed by another means.”
She stops. She still hasn’t opened her eyes. As her words sink in, I expect the Future to start yelling again, but, strangely, he is completely silent. There is a violent turmoil boiling in his eyes, which, I note quietly, have turned as blue as a storm-darkened sky.
“So how do we stop this?” he asks finally.
The Past utters a long sigh. “I am not…I am not the Future,” she admits. “Predictions are against my nature. But if I was to make a prediction about what the people will do…what their word against this man will be…I would predict that their word will be far too silent.” Her expression is pained, and she swallows hard before she continues. “The people are sheep,” she says, shaking her head slowly. “They watch silently as shearers and slaughterers destroy their fellow men. If left to their own nature, they will only bleat when the killers turn to their own borders. But if there are shepherds among them…”
She finally opens her eyes and looks at me meaningfully. The Future, apparently having realized something, raises himself in his chair. “You want him to create leaders,” he says.
“Strong men and women, even if only a minority among millions, have altered History itself,” the Past affirms.
The Future is suddenly excited. He leaps up from his chair. “That’s perfect!” he cries. His hair goes white and his beard disappears, and with his wide blue eyes, he looks almost like a child tearing open a Christmas gift. “We can choose a few people—starting with world leaders, of course, and then work down the ladder —and jot in a few new characteristics. Start in Europe, of course, they’re closest—in fact, I’ve already thought of a candidate—let me think, what’s that man’s name—”
“They don’t have to be world leaders,” the Past interjects.
“Oh, no, of course not, but I was just thinking, they’ll be able to make speeches and send troops, and…”
“You guys,” I try interrupting, but the Future and the Past are already in their own little world.
“What of the troops themselves? We need leaders among them,” the Past says. Now she’s standing up. I think she’s grown a couple watts brighter, too.
“Men willing to lay their lives down in the name of justice, and commanders willing to lead them, and nurses willing to treat them…”
“And the people, of course…they must support them…”
“They have to speak out…”
“Refuse to allow this man’s ideals to take root in their minds…”
“You guys,” I’m saying, but neither of them are listening, and soon their voices fade into the background. A strange feeling is coming over me, compressing my lungs and making me sweat. My mind is spinning out of control. Suddenly I’m thinking of the lives below, of their futures, their pasts, their presents. I’m thinking of the choices that they’ve made and will make, and maybe will never make…
“We can create hundreds of them…”
“Hundreds? Why stop there? Thousands! Millions!”
“No, not even that—we can turn his own right-hand men against him!”
I’m thinking of the perpetrators, the survivors, the silent. And the victims. I’m thinking of the victims, the people who will be chained and subjugated, broken by someone else’s hands…
“Yes! Exactly! In an instant, entire nations would rise up in mutiny...”
“They would crush every plan that he ever had…”
The way that their livelihoods, their dreams, their destinies, will be shattered and torn away from them…
“We can wipe the slate clean.”
“…Alright, but afterward, what then? How do we stop anything like this invasion from ever happening again?”
“A new world, of course. Erase every tendency towards anger, selfishness, hatred…”
Stolen away from them, against their wills…
“A perfect society…”
By a dictator…
“…No war, no death…”
The pen gleams…
“...No risk of ever allowing the world to tremble in fear of a tyrant like that man ever again.”
And in its surface, as clear as a mirror, I see the ink-black eyes of the mustached man staring back at me.
I am standing. I think I must have flung the pen, because now it skitters across the desk and clatters to the floor, as if fleeing from me. The Past and the Future stare down at the noise, then back up into my eyes. Their faces share the same look of astonishment.
“That pen—” I say firmly, “—is mine. It is my responsibility. How it is used is my business. And I won’t allow it to be misused.”
We stand in a triangle, each of us looking at each other. The silence is once again all-consuming. But this time, it is strangely peaceful.
I know what has to be done.
“Leaders create themselves,” I say quietly.
Neither the Future nor the Past say anything. I sit down. Move my chair forward. Adjust the papers on my desk. Take out a blank page.
I feel a hand on my shoulder.
I turn my head to look up into the eyes of the Past. She smiles gently. Despite her translucent, ghostlike appearance, her hand is as firm as stone.
“They will not be without me,” she says.
An unspoken understanding passes between us. Grateful, I smile back. When I turn back to my desk, the Future is standing in front of me.
In his outstretched hand is my pen.
“Or me,” he says. His eyes, now brown, are unwavering.
Slowly, I reach out and take the pen. “Thank you.”
He doesn’t smile, or even say anything in response, but as he sits in front of me I think—I think—I see him nod.
I take a deep breath.
The page before me is blank and thirsty for ink. The globe to my left is quiet and still. The Past stands behind me and the Future sits before me. All waiting.
Leaders create themselves.
I begin to write.