Last week was incredibly strange, and only now do I have the time (ha!), focus, and perspective to do justice to this bizarre tale.
It all started last Monday. I was showered, dressed, and just about ready to step out the door and go to work when I heard noises coming from the library near the back of the house. I glanced down the hall and saw that the door was closed, which was unusual enough even if it hadn't been muffling the sound of someone talking to himself and, to the best of my ability to discern, packing his suitcase.
There was a final zip as I approached the library door, and as I reached down to open it the door swung open away from me. Behind it was a short, stocky fellow with a cowboy moustache, a newsboy hat, blue jeans, and a nondescript brown overcoat. Trailing behind him in his left hand he pulled a small, wheeled, leather case, and he held a sheaf of papers in the crook of his left arm.
"Good morning!", he said, and sneezed. "Good-byes are the most awkward part of this, let me tell ya."
"Who are you?" I asked, backing away as the stranger emerged from my now-disheveled library into the hall. "How did you get in here?"
"You invited me, of course," he said, walking quickly towards the front door while I stood fixed in place, stunned. He turned his head and looked over his shoulder. "Don't worry," he said with familiar intonation, as if he'd had this conversation before. "Everything will make much more sense tomorrow. For now, I've got a plane to catch."
The stranger opened my front door and started down the steps and I ran towards him to watch his departure. A taxi was waiting in front of my house and the stranger dragged his case towards it and handed it over to the driver. In my bare feet I followed him down my driveway and grabbed his shoulder, but he shrugged me off before turning around. "What's going on?" I asked.
The man sniffled and sneezed again, covering his mouth with his hand and then reaching out to shake mine. I took it instinctively and he laughed. "The name's Sherman," he said, and then glanced down at our grasping hands. "And that serves you right." He sniffled again and ducked into the cab. As the car was pulling away he lowered the window. "I was suppose to remind you of something, but I can't remember what. Huh. Anyway. see you tomorrow! Thanks for the money!"
I stood in front of my house for a while, trying to figure out what it all meant, but there was nothing for it. I returned to the house, checked my cache of emergency money and found everything in place, and then headed off to work. I briefly considered calling the police, but the man was gone, so what was the point? That night I double-checked all the doors and windows and placed chairs in front of all the entrances. No one could get in without making enough noise to wake me up, especially not a fat old man. Nevertheless, I slept with my contacts in.
Tuesday morning I sprang out of bed and looked down the hall to the library: the door to which which was, again, closed. The chairs were still in place in front of the doors, and the windows were closed, so I was pretty sure a draft hadn't blow the library door shut. I strode over to it and grasped the knob, took a deep breath, and flung it open. Sherman was back, lying on a cot in the center of the floor.
"Hey, you, Sherman!" I said, "Get up!"
The figure rolled over a couple of times and then sat up and stared at me. "Oh, hi Michael. I guess it's just about time for me to leave."
I laughed. "Oh no, you rushed out yesterday, but I want to know exactly what's going on now before you 'catch another plane'," I said. "How'd you get back in? I blocked all the doors."
Sherman rubbed his eyes and squinted a few times before answering. "Yesterday, eh? Well it looks like you beat me up today, anyway. I didn't think you were such an early bird."
By now I was getting pissed and I gripped the doorknob to keep from waving my arms. With great deliberateness I asked, "What is going on?"
Sherman sniffled a few times and rubbed his nose before answering. "Explanations are the most awkward part of this," he started, but I cut him off.
"I thought good-byes were the most awkward part."
He looked at me for a few seconds before replying. "Nah, good-byes are easy, I just run out the door and disappear. Anyway, ask your questions. Oh, and I'm gonna need some money apparently."
I scowled. "Apparently I already gave you money," I said, but he shook his head.
"Yeah, today, you probably will. I don't like to steal if I can avoid it," he said.
"So who are you?" I asked. "And why are you in my house?"
"I'm Sherman, as I must've told you yesterday, and I'm staying here because you invited me."
Now it was my turn to shake my head. "I never did."
He smiled, "Not yet you haven't, but you haven't given me any money yet, either."
"Why should I do either?" I asked.
"As for the second, because I have something priceless to sell you. As for the first, well, because I'll answer your questions, satisfy your curiosity, and leave you always wanting more," he said with a grin, and sneezed. "As for why I'm here, in the grand scheme of things, well, I'm an applied historian."
"That's an oxymoron," I said, almost smiling despite myself, and Sherman laughed.
"Yeah, I'm glad you appreciate it, that's probably why I decided to stay with you. Really though, I'm a time traveler."
"Oh, of course, that's excellent," I said. I'd always wanted to meet a time traveler.
"I saw on your blog that you've always wanted to meet a time traveler, so I figured I could stay with you for a few days while I'm passing through," he explained. "You said you saw me leave yesterday, which means my stay is almost done -- from my perspective, anyway. But don't worry, you get plenty in return from me over the next few days."
"If you're a time traveler, where's your time machine?" I asked.
Sherman rolled towards his leather case and rummaged for a few seconds before pulling out a device about the size of a cell phone. He glanced at it and then handed it over to me. "It's charging," he said.
It looked like a cell phone, but the number pad was different and there were a few other controls whose uses weren't immediately obvious. I pushed a few buttons and symbols flashed across the screen, but they didn't mean anything to me. Before I could experiment more Sherman reached up from his cot and swiped it out of my hands. "It's charging, but it could still send you back several hours and that would screw up my schedule."
I squinted at him. "Why do you need a schedule if you've got a time machine?" I asked.
Sherman sighed. "It's broken," he said. "It won't hold a full charge. I can only travel two days at a time and then I need to stay put for a day."
"Two steps forward and one step back," I said.
He replied, "Two steps back and one step forward, but yeah, same general idea. Anyway, I'm not entirely stranded, but this does make my mission more difficult. I originally got stuck ten years in the future from now and I've been inching my way backwards ever since."
"Where -- or when -- are you going?" I asked.
He smiled. "Everyone asks that, but then everyone guesses. If you had a time machine and were on a mission to the past, what would you be going to do?"
"That's easy, I'd be going to kill Hitler."
He nodded. "Sure, sounds pretty easy, right? Anyway, something like that. I already explained all this to you tomorrow, so for now can you just give me a few thousand dollars so I can start looking for flights?"
I considered. "Flights leaving yesterday?" He nodded. I continued, "I have some emergency cash, but I thought you were going to sell me something. Have you got something super-cool from the future, like a laser gun or a robot?"
"Actually, I had all sorts of neato stuff when I came back, but I've given most of it away already. What I sell now, mostly, is newspapers," he said and pulled one free from the sheaf of papers by his case. "Here's the Wall Street Journal from this coming Friday, if you're interested."
I glanced at the paper he was waving and rubbed my jaw in thought. "How much do you want for it?"
He shrugged. "How much have you got? It's hard for me to make money because I can't deposit it in a bank in the future and have it accessible in the past. Plus, currency goes reverse out-of-date pretty quick if people pay attention to the printing dates and signatures and stuff. So, a few thousand ought to be enough to get me a plane ticket yesterday and to cover my expenses for a bit."
"Anyway, it'll pay for itself, right? I'll just need to move some money around and buy some stocks...." I mused.
"Sure, sure, that's up to you. It shouldn't be hard to make money with a newspaper from three days in the future."
So I fetched my wad of cash from the bedroom and bought the paper before calling in sick to work. Sherman said he couldn't spend all day talking because he had to do some final repairs on his time machine before leaving the previous day, so I spent my time researching and trading and trying to make the most of my speculative opportunity.
He didn't come out all afternoon, or most of the evening, but before I went to bed I knocked on the library door. The flickering blue light that leaked beneath it stopped and Sherman peeked through. "I'm kinda busy, what is it?" he asked.
"Well, since tonight is your last night here, by your reckoning, I figured I should say good-bye and that I hope you enjoyed your stay." I said.
He sniffed and rubbed his nose before responding. "I suppose so, thanks. Yes, it was quite nice. Very comfortable. Don't worry though, we've met before, in your future and my past. Although, based on your surprise, I take it I'll never see you again, even though you'll see me."
I slept in later Wednesday morning and checked on my trades before considering whether or not to mention this all on my blog. I could write up a lot of juicy stories with my future-news, but where to begin? And should I mention Sherman at all?
Before I could decide, the man in question was up and wandering around the house. He saw me sitting at the computer and held up his hands as if to ward me off. "Don't say anything! This is right around when people start telling me about my future, and I don't want to know yet! You didn't come banging down my door, so I gather I'm not leaving for a little while, so just let me get some caffeine in me. I've got to remember to tell you to get some coffee; diet soda is a poor substitute."
"You're going to forget," I told him, and followed him into the kitchen.
He nodded, "Of course I will, otherwise there'd be coffee, wouldn't there? And there isn't any." He gestured around the room before grabbing a soda from the fridge and popping it open. "Time travel takes a lot out of you Michael, that's for sure. I can't survive without my Vitamin C, eh?"
I smiled, "You got that from me, didn't you?"
"And you got it from the Simpsons, but for Homer it was Vitamin G, for 'gas'."
I took a soda for myself and asked him, "So what else are we going to talk about? How uh, long have you been staying with me, anyway? Maybe I could get some coffee today...."
He chugged the soda and then said, "Why should we waste time having a meta-discussion about discussions we'll have in your future, when we could instead be talking about things of actual substance?"
"True," I conceded. "Like your mission? Aren't you afraid that if you tell me too much it'll change history or something?"
"Nah," he said. "I won't tell you much about the future for that very reason, but I'm going back in time, so I can tell you everything you want to know about my mission. Unless you have a time machine -- which you don't, right? -- it can't hurt anything."
We meandered into the living room and sat down. "But yesterday you told me you were going to kill Hitler, and yet, in my time line, you must've failed."
He shook his head and sneezed. "No no, I'm not going to kill Hitler, I'm going to save Hitler. We already sent someone back to kill him, and that didn't work out well at all, so I'm going back in time to prevent Jack from killing Hitler. And I'm obviously going to be successful, despite my broken time machine."
I responded, "Well, someone is going to be successful, I guess, maybe not you."
"But what happened when Jack killed Hitler?" I asked.
Sherman rolled his eyes. "Everyone thought it would be a great idea, obviously, to kill Hitler, but as it turned out without Hitler to drive away all the scientists Germany got nuclear weapons before anyone else, and, well, you can guess how that turned out."
"Oh," I said. "But how do you know? I mean, is there an alternate history or something?"
He shook his head again. "That's not how it works. There's just one history. Time isn't exactly linear though, so, uh... in a way, the 1960s are currently screwed up due to Hitler's assassination, but the effects haven't reached you here yet, this far up the timeline."
"So the changes take... time... to propagate through uh, time?" I asked.
"Changes take meta-time to propagate, yeah. And if I don't save Hitler before the changes reach the future, there won't be any future to send me back!"
"But you are back, so you must succeed!"
"Or someone does. Or the changes just haven't caught up to me yet."
"Weird," I said.
"Yeah, I'm just an applied historian, not a temporal engineer. I don't know all the details. It's like magic to me, which is why I'm having trouble fixing my time machine."
I thought for a few seconds. "Maybe someone at UCLA could take a look at it, I'm a student there."
"No way," he said. "Even if anyone would believe I'm a time traveler do you think they'd help me fix my machine and then just let me take it? Plus, they might figure out how to build one, and the last thing we need is someone from now wandering up and down the timeline."
"Oh, well excuse us," I said. "I'm just trying to be helpful."
"I've got more repairs to do," Sherman replied and stood up. "It would be helpful if you could get me some AA batteries."
"The time machine takes batteries?"
"No, it collects and stores time directly, as I explained tomorrow, but my Discman takes AAs."
So I went to the store for coffee and batteries, but didn't see Sherman until the following morning.
I took Thursday off work and figured that this would be my last chance to talk with the man from the future; the paper he'd given me was from Friday, so that was probably when he would first arrive. I was already up when he awoke to the smell of the coffee brewing. Not really my thing, but it sure seemed to excite Sherman.
He rushed into the kitchen and waved his hands at me. "Don't say anything! Don't tell me about my future!" he said, but I cut him off.
"You already warned me about that yesterday," I said.
"Oh great, thanks, now I know something we'll talk about tomorrow! Don't tell me anything else. Since you didn't barge into my room this morning I figure I'm not leaving yet, and that's all I need to know."
"But I want to continue our conversation!" I told him and poured the coffee. "See, I even bought coffee for you, and batteries."
"Hold on!" he said. "Are you trying to tell me there's no coffee yesterday? Argh!" he groaned and rubbed his head. "I am just about out of batteries though, so thanks."
"Yeah sure," I said. "The newspaper has already paid for itself, by the way."
"Good, good," he said, gulping down the caffeinated beverage. "I can't live without my Vitamin C!"
"I know," I replied, and he shook his head with dismay.
"You can see why it's hard for me to build meaningful relationships," he said. "It's constant deja vu for someone; fortunately, I've got a bad memory."
"Maybe it would be easier if you stayed in one place longer," I suggested.
"Nah, I've tried it. People start wanting to know too much about their future and they can't keep their mouths shut about mine. At least this way I can't tell or hear about more than a few days in either direction."
"So your time machine runs off pure time?" I asked, hoping to prompt him with the knowledge he'd given me yesterday.
"That's right," he answered, surprised for a second. "It absorbs time from its surroundings. Not enough to be noticeable without sensitive meta-temporal instruments, of course, but while it's charging time does pass more slowly for several miles around it in every direction. Normally, of course, we charge them away from populated areas, but...."
"But your time machine is broken and won't hold much of a charge, so you're only able to travel two days at a time, right?" I finished for him and he nodded before pouring another cup of coffee. "So with one day's worth of charge you can travel two days through time?"
"Something like that, but they don't charge linearly."
"Time isn't linear," I said.
"Right, and if it could hold a full charge I could charge it for one year and travel 5,000, plus or minus. As it is, I don't want to wait around charging it and then have to pass through all that time one day at a time if the charge doesn't stick. I tried it before, and it was a waste of uh, time. I may try bigger jumps if I can get the flux capacitor stabilized, but, who knows."
I leaned forward and sneezed before asking, "Wait a minute, flux capacitors are real?"
Sherman laughed. "Well, by my understanding they were named after a device in a fictional movie from the mid-1980s as a sort of homage, but essentially yes. That's where the time is stored up and released to make the jump. Plus, a small amount is converted to electricity to power the display and the integrated digital camera."
"So are you ever going to return to your own time? When is that, anyway?" I asked.
"If I get my rig working, then sure. Otherwise, it's along crawl back to the future moving at only triple time."
"Two days forward, then wait a day to charge, then two more forward," I said to show I understood, and he nodded.
"I should get back to my repairs. Thanks for the coffee."
Friday morning when I woke up the house was empty. I checked everywhere, but there was no sign of my time-traveling guest. "Of course," I said to myself. "He hasn't arrived yet." I had a lot to do that day to prepare, but I wasn't feeling very well at all. First I called in sick to work again (this time for real) and then I posted a "Time Travelers Welcome" note on my blog. At least then Sherman would know where and when to go. Then I walked to the convenience store and picked up a Wall Street Journal and some diet soda to replace the stocks Sherman had depleted / would deplete. I didn't care much about the coffee, but I bought some more just in case I ever ran into more time travelers. It's important to be hospitable.
I waited around all day for some sign of him and there was finally a knock at my door while I was watching the Simpsons on my TiVo. I paused it and opened the door, and sure enough there was Sherman, moustache, cap, leather case, jeans, overcoat, and all. "Hey, come on in," I told him and swung the door wide before sneezing all over him.
"Ugh, thanks," he said and pulled his case up the steps behind him. "Where should I put my stuff?"
I led him to the library and helped him get settled. "By the way, my name's Michael," I said. "And you're Sherman."
He nodded and threw off his coat. "I know you from your blog, and we've met before. I presume I'll tell you all about myself over the last few days."
"That's right!" I said. "And all about your mission to save Hitler!"
"Yeah, yeah," he said and collapsed into the library's leather easy chair.
"Do you want some coffee?" I asked. "Gotta get your vitamin C."
"Vitamin C?" he asked.
"Caffeine," I explained. "Like Vitamin G is gasoline, from the Simpsons. Homer. Uh, that's all you need to know."
Sherman nodded. "I just want to go to sleep," he said. "I've been traveling all day and I'm pretty exhausted. How about if we save all the questions for yesterday?"
"Sure thing," I agreed. "By the way, here's a newspaper if you're interested. I'll just leave it here on the shelf."
"I know the drill," he said and rubbed his eyes. "You leave a newspaper here and I sell it back to you a few days ago for thousands of dollars. How'd that work out for ya?"
"Fantastic," I said. "I'll let you get some rest."
I moved to close the door, but then hesitated. "Since I won't see you again for a while, my time, I guess I should say good-bye."
"Good-byes are always the most awkward part of time travel," Sherman said.
"After explanations, anyway," I replied, and he smiled.
Saturday morning he was gone again and the library had regained its normal appearance. Even now, looking back, it's hard to believe this all really happened. I've still got the newspaper, but it's old already, and I remember buying it last Friday so it's easy to explain away. I guess the only way I'll ever know for sure is if I happen to meet Sherman again sometime during the next decade.