Two hours after we’d arrived at our town’s annual fair, I was already out of coins. My aunt had one left, so I slunk into a chair next to her and watched her try to land a plastic frog onto a foam lily pad.
“I think you’re actually going to do it,” I said, jealousy clawing through my stomach and up my throat. I knew she could hear it in my voice, but I didn’t give a damn. I’d tried that game five times in a row and couldn’t land one frog, but she only needed to hit one more and she’d be a winner.
When it happened, she clasped a hand over her mouth. I’d won a few games when I was younger and received a temporary potion to talk to animals or a one-time room cleaning spell, but I’d never seen my aunt win in the ten years I’d been living with her.
“You’ve got good aim, lady. And you’re pretty too,” the man in the booth said with a wink. “Let me see what I have for you.”
After rummaging through the drawers, he handed her a bunch of placemats, all rolled up and rubber banded together. “Easter, Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas,” he said. “They’re all labeled. Just cut your palm open, write the year you want to travel to in your own blood, and poof! It’s a mental thing, of course. You won’t be physically traveling there, so there’s no chance of you changing the future.”
He spoke about slicing a hand open like it was as normal as taking a piss in the morning, but I didn’t have time to judge his rich ass. I was too busy looking up at my aunt, tears glinting on the corners of my eyes with an unspoken question.
She gave a tightlipped smile and nodded, like I knew she would.
But the man in the booth must’ve been able to read minds or at least body language, because he said, “Remember how the prizes work. Only you can use it. Can’t be letting her play with your toys.”
“Right.” My aunt nodded. “Of course.”
“I’m serious,” he said, handing the prize over to her with his gloved hands. “Otherwise, there will be trouble.”
The moment she touched the product, swiped her DNA over the delicate material, it belonged to her. At least, that’s the lie the fair owners sold. We’d see. I knew she’d let me see, because she was the reason my parents were gone, and she’d do anything to help me see them again.
“I want to test it first, to see if it’s safe,” my aunt said, unfolding the placemats and flipping through them. “Which one wouldn’t you want?”
“We never really did much for Easter. Try using that one.”
“Sounds good to me.” She plucked it from the pile and a smiling bunny face stared up at us. Its fur and little pink nose filled the entire mat, except for a black box in the lower left-hand corner, which held a signature line.
I nudged the knife with my knuckles, hoping she’d pick it up and slice without wasting precious minutes trying to prepare herself for the pain.
That’s exactly what she did. She swept the knife across her skin, like she’d done it hundreds of times before. Like she was as used to seeing blood as the man in the booth.
“I guess this is my temporary goodbye,” she said as she dipped a pinky into the blood and wrote out the year she wanted. She chose 2008, the same year I was planning on picking. The year before it had happened.
As soon as she finished drawing out the last number, her hands fell to her side. Her eyes rolled up. Her back arched. Then her body froze. I would’ve called an ambulance if I’d had a more innocent childhood, but I’d seen death before. This wasn’t it.
This was magic.
I tried to remember how I’d spent Easter of ’08. Had my aunt visited our cabin-esque house, like she had during every other holiday? Had we even searched for eggs? I couldn’t even remember painting them, not once, so it was unlikely. Easter was a religious holiday, and my parents never uttered the word God or any of its counterparts, so I doubted that my aunt had been around.
She must’ve spent the holiday chatting with her friends over mimosas. Or maybe getting frisky with her old husband. The one who had smashed his car into my parents’ van, ending their lives. Ending his marriage. Ending my innocence.
If the man in the booth was wrong, if my aunt could change the future, I hope she stuck a knife in the bastard.
My aunt was gone for so long that I had fallen asleep on the table, my head creased with the tabletop’s markings. I hadn’t been smart enough to look at the clock, but it must’ve been a full twenty-four hours. A whole day’s experience.
“What was it like?” I asked as soon as her eyes fluttered back to life.
Her pupils shook like a cartoon character. “It’s like you’re watching a home video, except you’re participating in it. I was there. In the memory.” She wiped a hand over her face. “There were so many things I wanted to do differently. But I couldn’t. I couldn’t even drive over to your mother’s house or pick up the phone. I could only do what I did. Say what I said.”
“I still want to go.”
“Of course, sweetheart.”
I picked up the placemat with a goofy looking turkey on it. Thanksgiving wasn’t the most exciting holiday, but it held my favorite memory. My dad turning on horrible county music all of the cousins hated, my mom grabbing the lettuce leaves adorning the cheese platters and giving them out to each of us to use as fans while we danced.
I don’t remember much else about the day. Just my dad increasing the volume with each song and mom fanning herself with leaves, but it was how I always pictured the two of them when someone said their names.
Unlike my aunt, it took me a few tries to cut open my palm. During the first two attempts, I made a white pressure mark against my skin. After the third try, which left a cut without any blood, I ended up giving the knife to my aunt and holding my hand out to her while she sliced it open. She did so without hesitation.
“Okay. Let’s see what kind of trouble this causes,” I said, dipping my index finger into the puddle on my palm. I wrote out 2008 as big as the box would allow and waited.
I felt my jaw tremble. Heard my throat gurgle. Watched my hands splay out, and then relax at my sides. My vision went fuzzy, but when the different colored dots spread apart and unclouded my sight, I saw them.
Mom puffing on a cigarette as she set up the horseshoes in the yard. Dad pulling a beer out of the container on the back porch. They both looked happy. Peaceful. Alive.
I wanted to run over to hug them, and then I realized my arms were actually wrapped around my mother’s legs, my head reaching up to her belly button. Did I hug her like that back in 2008? I don’t know why I would’ve, but I must’ve.
“What are you doing, baby doll?” my mother asked, her free hand patting at my head. Hearing her voice made me squeeze her harder.
“I missed you,” I said. But I definitely didn’t say that when I was a kid. It wouldn’t have made any sense.
Creases lined her face. She even bent down to look me in the eyes. “What do you mean? You haven’t sipped on any of the adult drinks, have you?”
“What’s this about adult drinks?” Dad asked as he walked over, playfully waving his bottle in mom’s face.
I couldn’t help it. I hugged him, too.
“What’s that for? Sucking up isn’t going to get you a sip of this.” He lowered his voice. “Okay. Maybe one.”
My lips parted, trying to grasp the right words. Conversation wasn’t flowing out of my mouth like my aunt said it would. I could say what I wanted and hug whom I wanted. It wasn’t a memory for me. I could change things. I could fix things.
Without bothering to answer my parents (which they must’ve considered typical kid behavior), I bounced away, on a hunt for my aunt. If I told her to leave her husband, he wouldn’t be around on Halloween, and he wouldn’t be able to cause that fatal car crash. But what would be my excuse? How would an eight-year-old convince her to sign her divorce papers?
“Sierra, come play with us,” one of my cousins, whom I hadn’t seen in almost a decade, said as she pushed on my arm. Her cheeks rose, her ponytail bobbed, and my God, I missed her. I never even thought about her anymore. I had cut off everyone after the accident. Refused to go to family gatherings and act like life was normal. My aunt was the only one I had contact with, and that’s because she’d raised me.
My cousin kept pestering me to play, and I had an entire twenty-four hours to figure out a plan, so what harm would a little childish fun do? After all, the point of the mat was to enjoy the past.
But when I stumbled into the kitchen during a game of tag less than ten minutes later, the fun ended. My aunt was standing over the stove with my mother, staring into a pot of potatoes.
“You have to take your temperature as soon as you wake up in the morning,” my mom was saying. “That’s how you tell if you’re ovulating.”
Back then, I wouldn’t have understood a word of her sentence. But now, with an adult mind in my prepubescent body, I hovered by the doorway to eavesdrop. I never knew my aunt had wanted a family. I always assumed she’d taken me in, because she had no other choice.
“Don’t you think I’ve tried that?” my aunt asked. Every word had less oomph than the last, like she was a tire letting out air.
“Don’t get snippy with me. I’m trying to help.”
“I know. I know. Thanks. We’ve just…” She sighed, but it sounded more like a whine. “It’s been five years. It’s never going to happen for us, and it’s not fair. I’d do anything for a baby. You know that. Anything.”
My mother put an arm on her older sister’s shoulder, like she was about to give a meaningful speech, but said, “Well, if me and Bobby ever die, at least you’ll get Sierra.”
My mom laughed. My aunt didn’t. Her eyes flew up in thought, like she had an idea that would change her life.
An idea that would change my life.
I wanted to scream, to jump up on the counter and slap her, to shank her in the stomach. Anything. “You fucki—“ I started to say, but then I was back at the table with my aunt in 2016. Just like that. One blink and I was back.
“That was fast,” my aunt said. “I guess that’s the screwy part that the man warned us about.” Her frown scrunched to the side. “I’m sorry, honey. Was it enough time, at least? Did you enjoy it?”
I grabbed the pile of mats from the table, tossing the defiled Easter and Thanksgiving ones onto the ground. There was only one left that mattered to me, the one with a scowling pumpkin. The one that would bring me to the day my parents died—or were murdered—so I could find out if my hunch was right or if I was just desperately searching for someone to blame. But all I could find was a damned Christmas tree staring up at me.
“What’d you do with the Halloween one?” I asked, my nails digging into her arm.
“I destroyed it. Burnt it while you were gone just now.”
“Why the hell would you do that?”
Her eyebrows folded together. “I didn’t think you’d want to experience it again.”
My feet tapped as fast as they could, like the movement could power my brain and make everything clear. Ten years of living with her. Even before that, she’d visited my old house all the time. My favorite aunt. The lady who loved me as much as my own mother. Treated me like her own kid.
“If you did it, I get it. I understand that part,” I said, keeping my voice soft. If I raised it, I’d raise my fists, too. “But why’d you two split up if you planned it? You acted like you left him, because he did some unspeakable thing, but you told him to, didn’t you? It was your idea.”
“What are you talking about Sierra?”
“Unless you do still talk to him. He’s still in jail, so I wouldn’t know the difference. Do you go down there? Do you visit him? Did you even sign the divorce papers? Did you even pick any up?”
“Sierra. Maybe that trip messed with your mind. If you’re feeling sick, I’ll call someone.”
She tried to put a hand on my forehead, but I twisted away. “Just tell me. Was it you? Please, just tell me.”
The way her lips twitched and eyes unfocused told me I was right about her. She didn’t need an actual confession with a face like that.
I grabbed the Christmas mat, since it was the only one left. It wasn’t my favorite holiday, but it was one I had definitely spent with my aunt. She’d slept over the entire week, from the twenty-second to the twenty-seventh, so I could just sneak into her bedroom and do it while she was knocked out. Easier than winning a prize at a fair.
I sliced my hand open extra wide, blood falling into the cracks of my palm.
“What are you doing?” she asked.
I dipped my hand in the blood and drew out the 2. “Killing you now will give me satisfaction, but not much else.” Drew out the 0. “But if I kill you back in 2008, you won’t get a chance to do what you did in 2009.“ Drew out another 0. “Your hubby won’t be around, because you won’t be around.” Drew out the 8. “You killed my parents for me. Well, I’m killing you for my parents.”
Trembling jaw. Gurgling throat. Spastic hands. A blink.
I appeared beneath a Christmas tree that reached four feet above my head. My mother snapped pictures of me with her digital camera. My father raised the volume of the Yule Log sparking on the television.
And my aunt sat hand-in-hand with her husband, sipping on Eggnog.
“Before I open the next one, can I go get a cookie quick?” I asked. As much as I would’ve loved to gawk at my parents, I needed to go somewhere quiet to figure out a plan. If it worked, I’d have a whole lifetime to stare back at them.
“Well it is Christmas. You might as well indulge,” dad said, patting his stomach. “Get me one too, will you?”
I bounced down the hall, trying to seem cheery until I left their line of sight. I couldn’t wait until nighttime to attack my aunt like I’d wanted. It was too early in the day, and who knew when the mat would stop working its magic and transport me home? I couldn’t risk waiting.
We didn’t keep guns in the house, because dad was against them. We didn’t even have rat poison for me to slip into my aunt’s drink. I’d have to stab her, straight on. Everyone would know it was me. I’d end up in Juvie, changing my entire future, but that would be okay. They’d let me out when I got older. Plus, my parents would be alive. That outweighed everything.
We kept the knives on the counter, near the fridge, but I couldn’t reach that high without help. So I grabbed a chair, praying it wouldn’t squeak as I dragged it across the tiles.
Once I climbed up and grabbed the largest steak knife we owned, I debated putting the chair back under our kitchen table, but it would be better to be higher. That way, I could reach my aunt’s stomach or heart or throat.
“Auntie, can you come here?” I said. “I can’t reach the cookie jar.”
“I’m coming,” mom answered, her voice sounding faint through the walls.
I tried to think of a logical response, but then realized I was supposed to be an illogical child, so I settled for, “No. I want auntie.”
“She just loves you,” I heard dad say before the footsteps started.
I kept the knife behind my back, my small hands taking up half the handle. I would’ve struggled to kill someone with my adult body, so I could only imagine how hard it would be as a child. But I had an advantage. No one would expect me to hurt them. No one would guess. One swift strike and she’d be out.
When my aunt popped inside, she had one hand on her hip and the other cradling her mug. “In a few years, you’ll be taller than everyone here and you’ll be the one getting us the cookies,” she said with a genuine grin. “Tall and gorgeous, that’s what you’ll be, sweetie. You’ll make us proud.”
I hated hearing her talk like that. Like she was my mother.
She placed her cup on the table and moved toward the counter on the opposite side of the room. With each step she took, I lifted my arm a little more. When she reached the side of my chair, I pulled the knife out from behind my back and—
My chest clenched. My throat clamped together. My mouth slumped open.
I could feel a warm spot on my stomach grow from a pinprick to a pebble, the pain amplifying at the same rate my heart was slowing. I would’ve chalked it up to growing pains if I’d had a more innocent childhood, but I’d seen death before. This was it.
“I’m sorry,” I could hear my aunt saying. Not the aunt I could still see looking at the childhood ‘me’ who was alive and well in 2008. No. It was the aunt crouched over my convulsing body in 2017.
The one who must’ve picked up her own knife (or maybe the same one I never got to use) and stabbed me before I could stab her.