‘the day before your 13th birthday
covington cold stone creamery parking lot
You stare at the messy red ink on a piece of crumbled magazine.
The edges are ripped and the list is barely legible because it has been written over the top of the Home and Garden section of a Martha Stewart catalogue, right on top of the spring collection. It sprawls across the photos of hammocks and the big sun umbrellas for upper-class patios, but despite the busy background you can read and name off every date, time, and location that’s on it.
He gave you the list at age six. It was the third time he visited. He was the oldest you had ever seen him, nearly 48. You remember tracing the crowsfeet along the sides of his eyes with your small fingers, touching the faint laugh lines along his cheeks, and smoothing your hands over his neglected stubble.
“You’re so… old…” you gasped out, squeezing his cheeks between your hands.
He mimicked your actions, taking your face between his wide, callused palms and pushing your cheeks together until you resembled a fish. “You’re so… observant.” You rolled your eyes and attempted to stick your tongue out. He ruffled your hair, called you a dweeb, then told you to go get him a pen - preferably red - and something to write on.
You sat next to him in the grass while he wrote the list that you would keep close to you every day. He told you not to lose it, because he wasn’t sure if he could get you another one. Before he left, he hugged you tight to his chest. He smelled like sulfur and heat and clockwork. You had thumbed the semi-faded tattoos and freckles along his arm as he faded back into the future.
You wonder how old he’ll be this visit.
A little over an hour ago, you shoved a pair of your dad’s dress pants, belt, one of his button up shirts, a pair of dollar store flip flops, and a pair of gold rimmed aviators into a backpack. You biked in the dark, a flashlight zip-tied to the front of your handlebars.
You’re always at least 5 minutes early. It gives you time to set the clothes out in a neat folded pile on the pavement or grass, to try and clear the area of anyone who might be there, and to mentally prepare yourself for his arrival.
He’s always there on time.
Right down to the second.
When you were seven you asked for an atomic watch. You wanted to be able to keep track of when he was coming. Your dad was confused, convinced you were going to ask for a PlayStation, or a bike like the rest of your classmates, but he took it as a sign you were mature for your age. He told you he was proud of you for growing up to be a ‘proper young man.’
The watch you picked was gorgeous. It was an Invicta 10494 with a bright red watch face and a silver body. Dad had it custom made so that it would fit your small wrist and you could grow into it, adding links to the chain as you got older.
It’s always been a constant reminder of moments like these, where you’re left staring at the hands as they tick down the last few seconds before his arrival. It’s almost symbolic of him, from the red color that matches the ink on the list, to the precise movements of the hands, unfailing and trustworthy.
You cant say you aren’t nervous every time this happens. Butterflies well up into your stomach, your palms begin to sweat, you pace back and forth on the parking lot asphalt, treading so hard that the balls of your feet begin to hurt. When you hit the ten second countdown, you sit next to pile of folded clothes, facing the closed ice cream shop.
When he arrives, it’s never dramatic. It’s almost silent. One minute he isn’t there, the next he is. You feel his presence behind you first, then hear his low mumble of a chuckle.
In the reflection of the shop windows you can faintly make out his naked form. You try to avert your eyes, but he’s already seen you looking. He swats you on the back of the head lightly, then tugs on the black dress pants and the white button up you brought him.
You turn and rise to your feet just as he’s putting on his shades and slipping his feet into the sandals. He’s young this time. Maybe in his early 20s? He has a small goatee with a little 5-o-clock shadow, his hair is shaggy, he looks ridiculously thin. He only has a few tattoos scattered along his arms and chest, you can see them through the thin white of the linen. There are a few puncture marks along his ears that contain no jewelry, it must have fallen out when he traveled.
You can’t help yourself, you whisper his name into the night air with the breath you have caught in your lungs.
He slides his hands into the pockets of his slacks and gives you a curt nod. Then, abruptly, he asks if he can see the list. You fish it out of the back pocket of your cargo shorts and hand it to him. He reads it over then taps a date toward the bottom. “This one.” He pauses, tapping it a few more times, “Make sure you’re at this one.”
There isn’t a doubt you’d miss any of the dates on the list, but you can’t help feeling a million questions race from your brain down to your throat, threatening to bubble up and explode forward into the wind.
Instead, you start out with the question you always ask him when he visits, “How old are you?”
“Twenty-Two. How old are you?”
“I’m turning thirteen in a few hours.”
Dave pulls you into a half-hug, half-pat. “Happy birthday.”
“It isn’t for a few hours,” you whine.
He looks down at you over the top of his shades, “You know I can’t plan these things. They just happen. If I had the choice, I’d never show up stark naked in the middle of a freeway in broad daylight.” You cringe and Dave breathes out quickly, forcing a short laugh from his throat, “Oh yeah, it’s happened a few times. You’d think that everyone would want to stop their cars to see some prime, grade A, futuristic hotlink but you’d be surprised at how many little old ladies want to play ‘hit the naked time traveler’ on the interstate-5.”
The two of you spend the next hour and a half telling jokes and talking about how you’re doing in school, your piano lessons, and your future. Dave tells you that in his present, the two of you are good friends, that things get better with your self esteem, that you grow up to be successful.
He cant tell you much else, because it might change the timeline that he’s from. You understand. You’re just happy he comes to visit you.
Someday the two of your timelines will intersect and he’ll be a daily thing, he says.
It’s a few minutes before midnight when he starts to fade from view. You scramble toward him and hug him close to your chest, mumbling goodbyes into him.
Seconds later the sunglasses fall and skitter across the pavement, collecting a few more scratches along the lenses, and you’re left holding a wad of warm clothing in the April breeze.