“The innocent is the person who explains nothing.”
— Albert Camus
Feeling as if Alexander Giston were measuring him, looking for a weakness to exploit, Petronis Vanagas stared back and steeled himself.
You’re Lithuanian,” Giston said. The statement surprised Petronis, which seemed to please his guest.
Petronis nodded. “My parents moved from Vilnius here to Amesbury when I was but a boy.”
“I have traces of Lithuanian blood, on my mother’s side.”
Petronis waited patiently, but curious.
“You’re considering providing financial assistance to Thomas Savery, in support of one of his inventions.”
Taken aback by this sudden change in direction, as well as by Giston’s strange accent, which he couldn’t place, Petronis said, “How do you know this? No one knows of my intent to invest in his working model, not even Thomas himself, since I have yet to approach him.”
“But you will.”
Petronis frowned. “As you seem to know, Thomas is experimenting with a steam engine. He requires some financial aid.”
“I ask that you refrain from providing such aid.”
“But, why? Steam is the future of England, and of the world.”
Giston shook his head. “It’s dangerous. Should Savery succeed with his steam engine, many lives will be lost in the future.”
Petronis snorted. “You cannot know that.”
“I can, and I do.”
“Are you a prognosticator?”
Giston nodded. “Something like that.”
Petronis twice pursed his lips. “I do not believe in fortunetelling.”
“Neither do I.” Then Giston added, “More than a century from now, Napoleon Bonaparte will refer to Vilnius, the capitol city of Lithuania, as ‘the Jerusalem of the North’ because of its large Jewish population. A hundred-fifty years after Napoleon passes through, during the House Un-American Activities Committee proceedings in 1954, a countryman of yours, an actor by the name Karolis Bučinskis, will change his name at the suggestion of his agent, who feared that an Eastern European surname might damage his career. Bučinskis will become Charles Bronson—he will take the name from the Bronson Gate at Paramount Studios—and become a major box office draw after his appearance in The Magnificent Seven, a movie in which he will be cast as one of seven gunfighters, Bernardo O’Reilly, not because he looked at all like an Irishman.”
To Petronis, what Giston just told him, related in a tone of voice that Giston seemed to think Petronis should take at face value, sounded like mere fantasy. What Petronis said was, “What is a ‘movie’?”
Giston smiled. “Moving pictures. In my time, we can capture images on film and show them on a screen, through a projector. Like a play on a silver screen.”
“Why would anyone wish to do that?”
“Because we can,” Giston said, and then, “You have no idea.”
Petronis sneered at his guest. “If you are no prognosticator, then you must be a raconteur, or worse, a liar.”
“I’m neither a fortuneteller or a teller of stories, and what reason would I have to lie to you?”
Petronis looked uncertain how to respond.
“But trust me, I know,” Giston said.
Giston sighed, pulled a piece of paper from the folder he held, then pushed it across the table, toward Petronis.
Petronis looked at the slip, and felt his features contort into a semblance of disbelief.
“What sorcery is this?” Petronis was about to accuse Giston of witchcraft.
“It’s no sorcery. That’s a copy of the patent for which Thomas Savery will apply, after you provide him with the funding necessary to complete his working model of a steam engine.”
“You speak strangely,” Petronis said. “What is ‘thats’?”
Giston laughed. “‘That’s’ is a contraction. Surely you’re familiar with those? Shakespeare used them: shan’t, ‘twere, ‘twon’t, ‘tis, ha’n’t, o’er, e’en, ta’en—”
“I know what a contraction is.”
“‘That’s’ is a contraction of ‘that is.’”
Petronis returned his attention to the paper in front of him. “How did you come by this?”
“It’s not important,” Giston said. “What’s — what is important is that you refrain from writing the draft that allows Savery to complete his work on his steam engine.”
Petronis only stared at Giston. A moment later, he watched Giston pull a second sheet of paper from his folder and push it across the table.
Petronis studied the document a moment before asking, “What is this?”
“You don’t recognize your own signature on your own draft?”
“I have writ no such draft.”
“But you will, on the date signified on that draft.”
Petronis looked at the paper again. “A week from today?”
“That’s the great thing about the future. We have records of past events, and ways of making copies of them. Once I discovered that Thomas Savery had created the first steam engine, it was child’s play to find a copy of his patent. It was slightly more troublesome to discover that it was you who contributed money to his efforts to create an archetype.”
Petronis studied Giston, trying to discern if he might be lying. Failing, he said, “You are mad!”
Giston nodded. “A little more than a century from now a man will be born in Boston—you know Boston, in Massachusetts? Edgar Allan Poe will be an American poet, author, and literary critic known for his tales of mystery and the macabre. He will write of madness: ‘Men have called me mad; but the question is not yet settled, whether madness is or is not the loftiest intelligence—whether much that is glorious—whether all that is profound—does not spring from disease of thought—from moods of mind exalted at the expense of the general intellect.’” Giston nodded a second time. “I might indeed be mad, but my purpose is pure: to prevent Savery’s madness.”
“Thomas Savery wishes only to further man’s foray into the knowledge of things mechanical. He wishes to help mankind.”
Giston shook his head. “Savery is misguided. He will succeed only in creating pain and suffering.”
Petronis stared at Giston in horror. “You truly are mad.”
Giston smiled. “No, I’m a time traveler from your future—from the year 1966.”
Giston shook his head and pushed a third piece of paper across the table.
Petronis read the slip of paper—it was a newspaper clipping dated Friday, October 21, 1966. A detailed account of an accident that took the lives of many people, it included an image of the scene in the immediate aftermath. An explosion was the result of a steam engine: the very technology that Petronis supported.
When he finished reading the account, he looked at Giston. “Surely this is apocryphal.”
“It’s the truth,” Giston said.
“And this image? How was it produced?”
“It’s called a photograph. It’s made through a similar process than that used to create moving pictures.”
Petronis assimilated all that he’d learned over the course of the last few minutes: the copies of the patent and his signed and dated draft, along with the newspaper clipping, and movies and photographs. He felt his previous disbelief turn into something else… not quite belief, but wanting to believe. Because if it were true, then…
A plan began to take shape in Petronis’s mind, and he felt the corner of his lip curl up.
He looked up to find Giston studying him, but Petronis was quick to cover up his treachery.
“I require,” Petronis said slowly, a look of curiosity on his face, “more proof.” He watched Giston take a moment to fully understand what he’d left unsaid.
“You wish to be shown the future?” Giston asked.
Petronis shook his head. “The past.”
“Why the past?” Giston seemed curious.
“There is someone I wish to meet. Someone who is now deceased.”
Petronis watched Giston consider his request. Would he find it unreasonable?
After a moment, Giston said, “If I show you the past, then you will honor my demand?”
Petronis nodded. “If what you show me is truly the past.”
From Petronis’s home in Amesbury, he and Giston rode by horseback to Stonehenge, which was less than a league west of the small town. After dismounting, Giston led Petronis to just inside the Stonehenge circle, where he removed a small silver box with several knobs and two buttons from a leather case. He pointed the device at the center of the circle and pushed a button.
A moment later, Petronis saw appear a black pyramid that he estimated was approximately a half a perch in height.
Petronis followed Giston to the pyramid, which seemed to be constructed of a material unknown to Petronis—it was cold and hard to his touch, but not metallic. As they neared the construct, he watched Giston turn a knob, and, without a sound, an opening appeared in one of its sides. He gestured that Petronis should enter.
Once Petronis was seated inside the pyramid, Giston climbed in and sat next to him; their shoulders touched within the tight confines of the structure. Turning the knob on the device in his hand, the door closed.
“To what month and year do you wish to travel?” Giston asked.
“May, 1668.” Petronis was unable to withhold a tone of disbelief from his reply. He twisted in his seat; he didn’t like that his shoulder touched Giston’s.
Giston twisted a knob and pushed one of the buttons. A moment later, the pyramid emitted a low hum and began to vibrate. The air seemed to crackle, and Petronis thought he detected the scent of burnt tobacco. The black walls faded to gray, then turned maroon… then to red…
Feeling the onset of vertigo, Petronis closed his eyes against impending nausea.
“I feel ill,” he said weakly; his afternoon meal threatened to rise from his stomach.
“That’s normal,” Giston said. “It will pass upon arrival at our destination.”
A few moments later, the vibration halted, the hum faded, eventually stopping, and Petronis felt his nausea begin to subside. He ventured to open his eyes.
Twisting the knob, the opening reappeared, and Giston led Petronis out of the pyramid.
Petronis looked around before pronouncing, “As I thought. You attempt a ruse. We have gone nowhere.”
Giston laughed. “Of course not. But we have traveled thirty years into your past. This circle of stones looks just as it does now in my time.”
Petronis was unconvinced.
“Where to?” Giston added.
“Back to Amesbury.” Petronis was certain that once they arrived he would easily be able to prove Giston’s folly.
Petronis led Giston through the streets of Amesbury, noting subtle changes to the town, mostly to the names of business establishments—his favorite pub, Ye Olde Speckled Hen, was now a smithy. Petronis felt his heartbeat quicken as he considered that perhaps Giston’s wild story was true, and that maybe he could carry out his plan.
After a few turns, they came to an address on Coltsfoot Close. After dismounting, Petronis positioned himself in front of the door and knocked; a moment later an attractive young woman appeared in the doorway.
“Yes?” she said.
“You are Trisha Collins?”
“Yes.” She looked confused. “Do I know you, sir?”
Petronis ignored her. “You are wed to John Collins?”
“You will give birth to a daughter, whom you will name Jennifer, eight months from now.”
“Not to my knowledge am I with child.”
“Trust me, you are.” With that, he procured a single-shot flintlock side pistol from an inside pocket in his waistcoat and shot the woman, straight in the heart. The woman fell back, dead before she hit the floor.
“My god, what have you done?” Giston sounded horrified.
“I just shot my wife’s mother,” Petronis said, matter of fact, “who is carrying my wife to be.”
Giston noticed that the shot had drawn the attention of neighbors.
“We must go,” he said.
When they arrived back to Petronis’s home in 1698, Giston demanded to know why Petronis had brought a gun with him.
“In 1966, English citizens are forbidden by law to carry weapons.”
Petronis grinned. “The English Bill of Rights of 1689 guarantees the right of Protestants to own firearms, along with their Catholic brothers.”
“Had I known you carried a gun, I would’ve forbidden you to bring it with you.”
Petronis laughed. “You did not ask.”
“But why did you want your future mother-in-law dead?”
“My wife,” Petronis said, his previous good humor gone, “is a philanderer. I learned a week ago that she not only betrays me, she betrays me with another woman.” After a moment, he added, “I wonder to whom I might now be wed.”
Before more could be said, a knock sounded lightly on the door to Petronis’s den.
“Who is it?” Petronis called; he seemed anxious.
The door swung in and a voluptuously beautiful young woman entered.
“It is I,” the woman said sweetly. “Silly Petronis, who else but your dear wife, Charlotte? I did not hear you come in. Nor,” she added with a glance at Giston, “did I know you had company.”
Petronis was delighted as the woman stepped to him to place a kiss on his cheek, and he imagined the treasure that lay in wait for him beneath the bodice that restrained her ample bosom.
“Our evening meal will be ready shortly,” she added. “Will our guest be staying?”
“No,” Giston said before Petronis could reply. “I must be going.”
When Charlotte closed the door behind her, Giston said, modulating his voice carefully so that Charlotte wouldn’t overhear him, “You fool! You have no idea what you have done.”
“Obviously I killed my wife to be before she was born. I am now wed to a beautiful woman who clearly adores me.”
“But you have no idea what else you may have changed because of your thoughtless act.”
“What do I care?” Petronis said. “So long as Jennifer is no more.”
“You have no idea what you may have wreaked upon my present, by killing an innocent woman and her unborn child.”
“But is that not what you wished to accomplish—a change to history?”
“But for the good. For all I know, the death of your wife and her mother have resulted in…”
“What?” Petronis was excited by the prospect of learning something of the future.
“Never mind.” Giston said, adding, “A theory exists in my time, known as The Butterfly Effect. It suggests that the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil could set off a tornado in Texas.”
“What is Texas?”
“Never mind.” Giston seemed lost in some secret thought. “Fascinating,” he muttered, seemingly intrigued.
“I must return to 1966 at once,” Giston said. Then he asked, “Do we have a deal? You will not assist Savery with his steam engine?”
Petronis shrugged. “Of course. I am a man of my word. But surely you must know that if Thomas does not succeed, someone else will, a year from now, or in ten.”
“Maybe. But even if he or someone else does, I’m hoping that this slight change to history will be enough to alter the events that led up to the catastrophe of October 21, 1966.” Then, in response to Petronis’s questioning gaze, he barked, “Never mind,” and bid a hasty departure.
Petronis opened the door to find a stranger standing there.
“Yes?” he asked.
“My name is Alexander Giston. It’s important that we talk.”
“Do I know you?”
“You could say we’re old friends,” Giston said. “But I wouldn’t be surprised if you didn’t recall me.”
Puzzled, Petronis stepped back to allow Giston entry. After closing the door, he led his guest down a short hallway, where an attractive woman, slight in build, approached from the opposite end.
“You have a guest,” she said, glancing at Giston. “Will he be staying for dinner?”
Petronis looked at Giston, who gave a shake of his head.
“No,” Petronis told the woman. “It will be you and I, Jennifer.” He was unable to hide his disdain for the woman.
“Why do you treat me with such disregard?” she asked.
Petronis rolled his eyes. He had not yet confronted Jennifer regarding the issue of her infidelity. He said only, “We will be in my den.” As he brushed past her, he heard her sigh.
Once they were seated, Giston said, “I’m here to break time.” After that cryptic prelude, he proceeded to relate an improbable story of time travel, providing evidence via several documents: a patent, a draft signed by Petronis, and a newspaper clipping depicting a horrible accident involving a steam engine—a much more sophisticated version of the model on which Thomas Savery was working, the very model in which Petronis was planning to invest.
Wanting to believe in the stranger’s claim, Petronis said, attempting to hide his intentions, “I require more proof. A visit thirty years into my past should suffice, I would think.”
“No,” Giston told him.
“As I thought,” Petronis said. “You attempt subterfuge.”
“No,” Giston said a second time. “This is my second visit to meet with you, although to you, it is our first meeting. Our first visit took place three days from today. You convinced me then to take you into your past. I consented, and you shot and killed your wife’s mother and her unborn child, your future wife, Jennifer.”
Petronis only stared at Giston, wanting to argue against the validity of his guest’s claim. But he couldn’t refute the stranger’s account: his plan was to return to the past to erase his wife’s existence.
“Your wife must survive,” Giston said, “because she is with child, conceived just prior to your discovery of her duplicity. Your son must live because he will create a family tree that will lead to my wife’s birth.”
With that, Giston pulled out a gun and shot Petronis, who slumped at his desk.
As Giston inspected the corpse to make certain it was devoid of life, the door burst in and Jennifer, seeing her husband dead, screamed, “You have killed my husband… murderer!”
“Yes,” Giston said. “You have no way of knowing, but you should thank me.” Then he added, “You will give birth to a son in little more than eight months. Care for him well—you and your lover—because the future depends on him.”
Then he rushed past Jennifer and out the door.
The gist of most time travel stories is changing some event in the past to alter the present—the past’s future, and The Past Amok is no different. But it is also a tale of revenge: Alexander Giston seeks retribution for the death of his family. The reader is led, throughout the narrative, down a path, but when they get to the bottom of the hill, they find a surprise destination awaits them.
Has your spouse ever cheated on you? How did you react? With rage, hurt? Were you tempted to even the score by having revenge sex with someone else? When Petronis discovers his wife’s infidelity and the opportunity presents itself, he retaliates by erasing his cheating spouse’s very existence. Did he overreact?
In short fiction, often what is left unsaid is as important as what the author spells out with words on a page. It is my hope that the reader here will consider Petronis’s response to his wife’s betrayal as having failed. Certainly, even with her gone from his life, the pain of her betrayal remains with him, while she, because she never existed, is none the wiser to his discovery of her infidelity. If none of us gets out of our life without a few regrets, will Petronis one day come to regret never having confronted her with her duplicity? Of course he is robbed of that opportunity by Giston’s action to rectify the past to save his present.
But should the reader not come away with these questions, it is my hope they at least found The Past Amok an entertaining read.