My critique partner and I are taking a writing seminar hosted by Best Selling Author Maggie Steifvater, who I am only slightly (majorly) obsessed with. In the seminar she poses this writing prompt:
Every 24-year-old disappears for 24 hours.
She goes on to talk about mood and plot and setting and all of a sudden there’s a story in my mind that needs to be written. Now let me be the first to say, short stories are not my thing. I don’t seem to know how to fit a whole plot in a short amount of words. And I don’t think that I did it successfully with this one. In fact, I was told that this story was the literary equivalent of blue balls. So, do with that what you will.
Either way, I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it. As always, every piece of anything that I write there are a ton of people behind the scenes who help me. People who can think of the word that’s on the tip of my tongue, or confirm what gun a WWII German Officer would be using (and what his uniform would look like), people who mull over a character’s last words for well over an hour. The people behind my words are a powerful force and I am thankful for them everyday.
It has happened again.
I thought I had fixed it or changed enough but I hear the planes overhead and the scream of Squadron Leader Frankie Allard’s now pilotless Spitfire.
In less than a minute the plane will crash into the fields behind my house just as it has every day for the past 14 days. I open the small latch on the even smaller compartment of my time-jumper. The vial inside holds two more drops of serum. One drop for my last chance to go back in time and try to change things for the better. One drop for my return.
I pass the tiny window above my kitchen sink and see an orange glow in the distant night sky. Calais is on fire. This isn’t the first time I have seen the Germans take my city, but my heart still fractures. Each iteration of this night causes another fault line. Soon it will break altogether.
I turn away, unable to watch.
The Spitfire crashes. I don’t need to go outside to know that the pilot’s seat is empty. And I definitely don’t need to search the area to see if he bailed out. Frankie Allard’s picture is on my wall with 103 other 24-year-olds who disappeared from Calais—I look at my watch, its face cracked from my fourth jump—7 minutes ago. They will all reappear in 23 hours and 53 minutes in the exact same spot that they vanished from.
But by that point, Calais will be lost.
We don’t know why they disappear. Or why only 24-year-olds. We don’t know where they go when they’re not here. But we do know that many of the Disappeared are needed to help hold off the Germans. We know that every person in the city will make a difference. We know that there is a series of events leading up to the moment they disappear, and if you move one domino out of the line…well, the cascade will not finish.
I touch Frankie’s photo and follow the yellow string attached to it until it stops on a large map at the point where his plane crashes. Around it, there are other strings. Other photos. Other map points. Each one is intersecting another, but I still can’t find the commonality point. The tipping point that triggers the disappearances. I know it is here somewhere, but I have run out of time.
I laugh humorlessly. A time-traveler, out of time.
I step back to stare at the wall as a whole. It’s possible I have missed something. Maybe I just need a fresh perspective.
Hundreds of red, orange, yellow, green strings criss-cross over my wall. Each color has a different meaning. Red strings are for fixed events that cannot be changed. Orange are overlaps in the 104 different people’s timelines. Yellow are for imminent deaths. And green are the possible events that may stop disappearances altogether if changed. The trigger point. There are precious few green strings.
I stare at the bigger picture, looking for the thing that’s just out of the corner of my eye, the way that I was taught.
Look for the thing that doesn’t want to be seen.
The past doesn’t want to be changed.
But I see nothing. There is nothing.
The Luftwaffe are overhead and though I know this first bomb will not drop anywhere near me, I cower when I hear it explode. I am four kilometers away but the walls of my house still shake.
I stand back up and scramble over to the rundown desk under my map. My heart beats a slow steady rhythm in my chest, but sweat has started to make its long descent down my back. I open the red notebook that I carry everywhere with me. It contains all my notes from past jumps. It is the only thing, along with my St. Etienne 8mm revolver, that I bring on every jump. The notebook is a gift from my Captain. The gun from my father. I flip quickly through the pages. There was something in my seventh jump that—
Someone bangs on my door.
I slide my skirt up slightly so that I can reach my revolver strapped to my thigh.
I have lived this night countless times. I know what happens down to the minute. I know where each bomb lands, where each Allied soldier falls. I know everything that happens before it does.
No one has ever banged on my door.
“S’il vous plait, laisse-moi entrer!” A voice calls from the other side of the door. Whoever it is, I can tell that he is not French. I am painfully aware that only one small lock separates us. I grip my gun tighter. “Juliette, hilf mir!” The man says in his native tongue.
Juliette, help me.
I know I shouldn’t open the door, shouldn’t stray from my mission. Winston Churchill himself put me in this small cottage with a time-jumper on my wrist and told me what was at stake. But this man at the door knows my name.
I open the door.
As if he had been leaning against it, the man first slides down the door and then falls sideways into my kitchen. He is clutching a dark stain on his stomach that seems to be growing. I step back, unsure of what to do.
“Bitte, Juliette,” he pleads. The way he says my name makes it sound like he has said it a thousand times before, like he has whispered it in my ear, like it is the last word on his lips before bed and the first in the morning.
I point my revolver at him. “Who are you?” I demand, first in French and then again in German.
He doesn’t answer, just closes his eyes, but the insignia on his uniform gives him away as a German Officer. Wehrmacht. The Iron Cross hanging on his breast pocket glistens with blood splatter. I can’t imagine how he would know my name, much less where I live…unless I have somehow been compromised.
I take a deep breath and keep my gun pointed at him as I look out the open door. The light from the Spitfire crash illuminates the field. But I see no one so I close the door and lock the flimsy lock. And while it could not hold much back, I feel a fraction safer from the unknown of the dark night.
The man on the floor is muttering, and though the German is too low and fast for me to catch, I hear my name. Over and over again. His eyes open but they don’t land on mine, and his bloody hands reach for me. But I can’t let my guard down.
“Your gun…give to me.” I reach my hand out. My German is rusty and stilted.
He looks betrayed but compiles. Shaking, he unclasps his Luger from its holster and hands it over wordlessly.
With it tucked into the waist of my skirt, I grab a towel from the kitchen and kneel down next to him, pressing my hand to his wound. The blood has started to seep onto the floor and his breaths grow shorter and shallower.
“Wie heißen Sie?” I ask him again. His eyes meet mine and the icy blue light of them sends a chill down my spine.
“Maj—Major Frederick Müller.” He coughs and blood catches on his bottom lip.
I scramble back from him and hit the sharp corner of the kitchen counter. I cry out in pain and feel a warm trickle of blood down my scalp.
“But you cannot be.” I look over at the wall where I see Major Frederick Müller’s photo. It is undoubtedly the man on my floor. In the photo he stands in a doorway beneath a Nazi flag. He stares into the camera, a wistful expression on his face. Another German stands in the foreground at attention.
“I don’t understand,” I say, slipping back into my native French.
He is one of the Disappeared. So how is he here? And for a fleeting moment I think that maybe I did fix everything after all, but then I remember the burning Spitfire in my garden. Müller being here is just another impossibility in a world of impossibilities.
“Ich sterbe,” he says and it’s loud enough for me to hear. I’m dying.
I kneel back down next to him and lift up his shirt to see where the blood is coming from. It’s a gunshot wound. I roll him gently to the side to see if there is an exit wound. There isn’t. Blood is still seeping from the hole, so I press down hard, using both hands.
“Non,” I say.
He grabs my hands and when I look to his face I see the whites of his eyes. “Bitte.”
“Non, non, non.” I can feel a tear slide hot down my face for this man I do not know yet. For the man who is dying in front of me. But I am certain now that I will know him soon.
He reaches up and wipes the tear away. “Meine Juliette.” And again he says with such warmth and familiarity. “You look just like you did the night I met you.”
And then I see it.
On his wrist is the same time-jumper that is currently fastened to mine. I can see the initials that I carved into it on my eleventh jump when I was trapped in the basement of a bombed out building for two days. J.D. Juliette Dubois.
His eyes follow mine and he gives me a tentative nod. If he has this, it can only mean one thing. That I will give it to him on my next jump and trap myself in whatever time he came from. My future. His past.
The Luftwaffe drop another bomb. I know that this one is much closer; only 1.5 kilometers away, but it sounds like it is directly above us. And though he is my enemy, I shield his body with mine. When the dust stops falling from the ceiling I sit back up.
Frederick stops me, his hand on my face. “You can give me—” he begins in French but shakes his head and starts again in German. “You have given me this gift. One more moment with my eyes on your face and your hand in mine.” He takes my hand and pulls it to his mouth then back to the wound on his stomach. “You had to do it, meine liebe.”
I don’t understand. Tears are falling freely now, but still, I do not understand. Does he mean that I—
Do I shoot him?
His breathing catches and his grip on my hand loosens until it’s only me holding onto him. Until it is only my ragged breathing that I can hear.
I do not move.
I do not let go.
Another bomb is dropped and I do not know if it is the next bomb or if I have missed counting them while sitting here holding Frederick’s hand. I slowly stand up and my stiff joints tell me I have sat for longer than I realized. I don’t know what to do with him, with his body.
I look back at the picture on the wall, where his face is alight and alive. A lone green string is stuck into it. Green. The color to mark events that could be the triggering point.
A domino to try and move.
I stand up and reach out to touch it. My blood-coated fingers follow it from the photo to the map where it stops at a point in the center of the city. 23 Mai 22:21 pm is written by it. It is not written in my handwriting.
I am rushing now. Grabbing my notebook and making sure my gun is loaded. I splash water on my face to get the blood off of it that Frederick’s fingers left behind. I can’t be bothered to change my clothes.
I take one more look at Frederick.
I sent him here from the past to tell me that this is it. Wherever Frederick came from, whatever it is he does, it is the trigger.
Then I turn the dials on my time-jumper to May 23, 1940, 22:21.