Time travel stories are hard to do well. They’re even harder when they don’t hide where they’re going, when the map of time is laid out on the table so the story is all about the travel. This story by Nino Cipri manages that and more. Thank you to all the readers at Lady Business who recommended it.
I had two childhoods.
One happened between Dad’s ten-day hitches in the White County oil fields. That childhood smells like his tobacco, wool coats, wet grass. It sounds like the opening theme songs to all our favorite TV shows. It tastes like the peanut-butter sandwiches that you’d pack for us on our walks, which we’d eat down by the pond, the same one I can just barely see from my window here. In the summer, we’d sit at the edge of the water, dipping our toes into the mud. Sometimes, Dad told me stories, or asked me to fill him in on the episodes of Gunsmoke and Science Fiction Theatre he’d missed, and we’d chat while watching for birds. The herons have always been my favorite. They moved so slow, it always felt like a treat to spot one as it stepped cautiously through the shallow water. Sometimes, we’d catch sight of one flying overhead, its wide wings fighting against gravity.
And then there was the childhood with you, and with Dara, the childhood that happened when Dad was away. I remember the first morning I came downstairs and she was eating pancakes off of your fancy china, the plates that were decorated with delicate paintings of evening primrose.
“Hi there. I’m Dara,” she said.
When I looked at you, shy and unsure, you told me, “She’s a cousin. She’ll be dropping in when your father is working. Just to keep us company.”
Dara didn’t really look much like you, I thought; not the way that Dad’s cousins and uncles all resembled one another. But I could see a few similarities between the two of you; hazel eyes, long fingers, and something I didn’t have the words to describe for a long time: a certain discomfort, the sense that you held yourselves slightly apart from the rest of us. It had made you a figure of gossip in town, though I didn’t know that until high school, when the same was said of me.
“What should I call you?” Dara asked me.
You jumped in and told her to call me by my name, the one you’d chosen for me, after the week of indecision following my birth. How can I ever make you understand how much I disliked that name? It felt like it belonged to a sister whom I was constantly being compared to, whose legacy I could never fulfill or surpass or even forget. Dara must have caught the face that I made, because later, when you were out in the garden, she asked me, “Do you have another name? That you want me to call you instead?”
When I shrugged, she said, “It doesn’t have to be a forever name. Just one for the day. You can pick a new one tomorrow, if you like. You can introduce yourself differently every time you see me.”
And so every morning when I woke up and saw Dara sitting at the table, I gave her a different name: Doc, Buck, George, Charlie. Names that my heroes had, from television and comics and the matinees in town. They weren’t my name, but they were better than the one I had. I liked the way they sounded, the shape of them rolling around my mouth.
You just looked on, lips pursed in a frown, and told Dara you wished she’d quit indulging my silly little games.