“Time Heals All”
My story “Time Heals All” first appeared in the Temporal Elements Anthology in the Winter of 2013. That is a print-only edition, so I’ve reproduced the story here in case you want to read it.
Let me know what you think.
Time Heals All
“How many inches are in a foot?”
Nurse Mary sighed. “I really wish you studied the briefing material more thoroughly.”
“I know. But their systems all seem so random. I don’t suppose the answer is ten.”
“No. There are 12 inches in one foot in the measuring system they use.”
“One foot, huh?”
“Yes. It is the kind of thing most young adults your age would know, so you had better spontaneously absorb all the knowledge in the briefing before we get to the Miller house. Or you can simply not say anything at all while we are there.”
Nurse Mary and Nurse Ann had stepped off the bus several blocks from the Miller’s home and were walking the remaining way. Nurse Mary, who had made many visits before, knew to engage others as little as possible and strive to look completely comfortable in the strange world. Nurse Ann was making her first field visit, and though she had been conditioned extensively to restrain any surprise and bafflement, she was sufficiently perplexed by the Byzantine nature of the society to babble away, perhaps a bit imprudently.
“Imagine when we return. I can tell everyone we actually rode on a vehicle that used fossil fuel! It’s almost savage.”
“It does seem that way,” Nurse Mary said, keeping their pace and trying to appear in a casual conversation. Several fossil fuel vehicles passed them. “Yet they aren’t hopeless, fortunately.”
“Yes, they aren’t hopeless,” said Nurse Ann. “After all, we are going to the Miller house. A plum job for my first field training visit!”
Nurse Mary stopped and turned to Nurse Ann. “To the Millers there is nothing extraordinary about their son. Nor about you. To them you will merely be a trainee nurse. A particularly quiet one. With me you are merely a trainee visitor. A particularly talkative one. Stay on task and you’ll go home successful. Screw this up and they may decide to leave you here.” Nurse Mary looked at a small card she was carrying, then at the numbers on the houses. “Just over here,” she said, gesturing across the street.
They crossed the street, lined with old trees and comfortable, large houses behind them, and Nurse Ann saw a small stream of water running along the curb. Up the street, a neighbor was washing a car. She supposed that it, too, ran on fossil fuel.
“Look at this,” she said, unable to prevent herself from stopping briefly to look down at the braided flow in the gutter. “I’d like to collect several liters of this to take back with us. Do you suppose it’s drinkable?”
Even Nurse Mary paused. “It is a marvel, isn’t it? The waste! I don’t think this particular water is safe to drink, but I think it could be made safe.” She shook her head and stepped onto the curb. “Remember, take only memories!”
A wide lawn separated the Miller house from the street, and at the top of the walk, three stairs led up to a broad porch before the front door. From within the house they could hear the loud throb of discordant music.
“Remember your training,” Nurse Mary said as she checked her bag. “When we are around them, say as little as possible, and when you’re in doubt, say nothing at all. Let me take the lead, and we’ll get through this and back home without trouble.”
As they approached the door, the music grew louder, rattling the windows above them. “Not my taste,” said Nurse Mary, cocking her head to listen.
“Nor mine,” said Nurse Ann. For the first time, the eagerness left her face as she realized the implications of making even the smallest mistake. “I’ll just let you take it from here.”
Nurse Mary nodded as she pressed the bell button. Soon a haggard-looking women opened the door. The music boomed out past her.
“Hello. I’m Nurse Mary. This is Ann. She is a student nurse. We’re from the hospice.”
“You’re not our regular nurse,” the woman shouted over the music. She looked at the two doubtfully.
“No. She was taken ill at the last minute, and I was recruited to provide today’s injection. Ann, here, is in training and on her first field visit. She’s a little nervous.” Nurse Ann smiled and shrank a little.
It hadn’t been their job to interrupt the regular nurse’s visit. That was left to another operative. They simply had to provide the boy’s injection and then return to the portal as directly as possible without drawing attention to themselves. It was a task so straightforward, and Nurse Mary was so experienced, that the risk of bringing along a trainee was thought negligible. And so, Nurse Ann was chosen from among all of the young people in her class to come along.
“Is he bad today?” Nurse Mary asked, sounding crisp and professional.
“Not at the moment,” said Mrs. Miller, concluding that these strange nurses were legitimate. “He’s sleeping, though I don’t know how he can with his brother’s music blasting so loud.” She glanced up the stairs behind her, then back to the nurses.
“Well, we won’t be any trouble. We’ll just do what we came here for and then be on our way. We’ll be gone in no time at all.”
Mrs. Miller lead them through the hall and into a room where a frail boy was propped with pillows on a couch. He was small and hairless and covered with quilts to prevent him from feeling cold on the warm summer morning.
Mrs. Miller left them briefly and walked to the bottom of the stairs. “COULD YOU PLEASE TURN THAT DOWN?” she shouted to the bedroom above. But the boy up there either didn’t hear or didn’t care, for the music didn’t change. The walls of the house vibrated.
“I’m sorry for that,” she told the nurses. “He’s having a difficult time dealing with his brother’s cancer. Poor boy. We all have to be strong, but it’s been especially hard for him to accept his brother’s end. He has a lot of anger and confusion. The social worker says he is acting out.”
“Perfectly understandable,” said Nurse Mary. She busied herself with the medicine and syringe from her bag, drawing out a measure of clear liquid. It was not the morphine-based painkiller that the regular nurse would have given the boy to ease his suffering but rather a simply derived compound Nurse Mary had brought along that would, instead, cure him of his cancer nearly overnight. “It won’t bother us a bit.”
“Well, is there anything you need?” asked Mrs. Miller.
Nurse Mary shook her head as she drew the sleeping boy’s bruised arm from under the blanket and prepared to give him the injection, but Nurse Ann licked her lips and spoke. “Yes. I wonder if I might have a tall glass of water.”
* * *
Later, on the front porch, Nurse Mary and Nurse Ann paused and looked at each other as the loud music suddenly stopped.
“Did she finally persuade him to let his brother rest quietly?” Nurse Ann asked.
“Certainly. Right after she finished giving you your glass of water. Did you really think that was appropriate?”
“Oh, it seemed terrible to waste the opportunity to drink an entire glass of clean water all at once.”
Nurse Mary might have chided her for the bold action, but she knew she was actually envious of Nurse Ann and so kept quiet.
They stepped down the stairs and began to walk to the street. Suddenly behind them, the door to the house jerked open and a teenaged boy dressed in torn black clothes appeared. He was not much younger than Nurse Ann. He had spiked purple hair and a skateboard under his arm. He gave the two nurses a scowl then threw the skateboard onto the porch, leapt aboard, and launched himself over the steps, past the nurses, and to the street.
“The troubled brother?” asked Nurse Ann.
“Yes, all 71 inches of him I estimate.”
Nurse Ann tried to calculate how tall that made him, but she still wasn’t sure just what a foot was supposed to be, and she didn’t think it meant the same thing as the foot in her shoe, so she gave up.
The two walked to the street on their way back to the stop where they would board the bus to take them to the office building where the portal has hidden.
“Barring any last minute interactions with these people,” said Nurse Mary, “I’d say we accomplished our mission. I will report your field training visit as a success. By the way, you aren’t still thirsty, are you?”
Nurse Ann ignored the question. She had recovered from her anxiety and was buoyant about her visit. “My first field visit. No difficulties. A successful completion. Imagine. We saved the life of Stephen Miller today. Stephen Miller! And with it, we have saved all of civilization in the centuries to come. If only the historians could know the truth.”
Nurse Mary shook her head. “I really wish you had studied the briefing material more thoroughly.”
Nurse Ann stopped walking, turned to Nurse Mary, and frowned. “What part did I get wrong?”
“That wasn’t Stephen Miller we saved. That was Scott Miller. Stephen Miller is the one with the purple hair.”