“I’m Harry Meers.”
A simple answer to a simple question: “Which of you is Mr. Meers?”
Kendra Wilk glanced up and scanned the reception area outside of Mr. Reber’s office. She’d hung up the phone as she’d asked the question, eyes downcast after her boss had berated her for making Mr. Meers wait. She scolded herself for her carelessness. Everyone thought her just a pretty face, and in her drive to prove them wrong, Kendra bungled. Again and again she bungled. Repeatedly. Certainly she could manage to identify Mr. Reber’s next appointment. Certainly she could identify Mr. Meers without a second ask.
Her fears, though, proved unnecessary. Only two men waited in the chairs across the space, and one continued intently reading the newspaper. Kendra sighed in relief as she focused on the second man.
He sat next to one of the columns, staring at his pocket watch connected by a long gold chain to his belt. Kendra worried if the wait had upset him. Mr. Reber made Mr. Meers sound an important man with important things to do, a man delayed much too long. She couldn’t, however, make out his expression as he sat shadowed by the column. She could only catch a vague sense of his features from the reflection of the overhead lights off the crystal of his pocket watch. The glow of light illuminating his face, however, had a faint pale green hue to it. That timepiece seemed unique and probably expensive, which, she decided, proved his importance.
Snapping the timepiece shut, the man stood and pocketed his watch. Kendra mirrored him, smiling and smoothing her dress as she rose.
“Mr. Reber will see you now, Mr. Meers. Right this way, please.” She paused, adding as an afterthought, “I hope we didn’t keep you waiting too long.”
He returned her smile. “No. Just the right amount, Miss…” He glanced over at the nameplate on her desk. “…Wilk.”
Kendra blushed a little as Mr. Meers approached. Stepping out of the shadows, his handsomeness struck her. Tall and muscular, he wore a perfectly tailored suit, carrying a briefcase in one hand and a fedora in the other. His face possessed a perfect symmetry, excepting a prominent scar that ran a half-circle starting at the side of his nose and running up along his left temple, framing his left eye. Kendra found the anomaly oddly alluring.
Realizing she’d stared and realizing he’d noticed, Kendra ducked her head and led Mr. Meers around the corner to Mr. Reber’s office. She rapped meekly.
“Come in!” Mr. Reber always bellowed from behind his desk.
Kendra opened the door, and Mr. Meers slipped past her into the office. He paused a moment, though, right next to her, smiled, and nodded.
“Thank you, Miss Wilk.”
Blushing again, Kendra closed the door and released a long-held breath. Leaning against the wall, a smile slowly spread across her face, and she sauntered back to her desk.
He struggled not to roll his eyes every time he entered Reber’s office. The wood paneling, the oversized desk, the fancy leather chair propped a little too high: could he compensate any more?
A short, bespectacled, balding man, Reber leaned over the desk to shake his hand.
“Good afternoon, Mr. Meers. A pleasure as always.” Reber indicated a markedly smaller, lower-slung chair. “Please, take a seat.”
He eyed Reber as he sat, took in the bank manager’s smug expression. He knew how Reber bragged: how he’d landed the mysterious Mr. Meers, the man who disappeared, a disaster, years ago and returned a success. But he’d always believed in Meers. The best of pals, he and dear Harry. Most importantly, though, that worm Reber got to lord it over everyone else in town, his power, controlling Harry Meers’s money.
As he sat in the lesser chair, he smiled at Reber.
Reber smiled back, oblivious to the crushing blow to come.
“What can I do for you, Mr. Meers?”
He hesitated a moment with his answer, checking his pocket watch. He popped it open and gave it a quick glance: green. He snapped it back shut.
“I’m here to close my accounts, Mr. Reber.”
While Reber’s smile remained plastered across his face, the genuineness drained away, leaving a husk in its wake. Reber managed a dry chuckle.
“What? Is this a joke? This is a joke, right?” Reber laughed. “Oh, you got me, Harry. You really had me going there.”
He laughed along. “No. Business took off, and I’m leaving town. On to bigger and better things, you know, and first thing in the morning, too. So I’ll need all my funds transferred. Now.”
Reber stared back dumbly, mouth moving but finding no words. The bank manager’s befuddled state amused him, but only so long. He popped open his briefcase and fished out a slip of paper. Standing, he towered over Reber as he slid the slip across the desk.
“I don’t have all day, Reber. So if you could, please transfer everything to this account.”
Reber blinked. “Yes. Yes…” The bank manager fumbled in his pocket for a key, jiggled it into the lock on his desk, retrieving the ledger with all the awareness of a rock.
As he settled back into his tiny chair, he smiled again.
That self-satisfied smile remained on his face as he left Reber’s office, closing the door behind him, imagining the gnomish bank manager weeping into his desk blotter. He strolled back towards reception, where Miss Wilk typed hesitantly and another man sat reading today’s newspaper, waiting for his turn with the newly-deflated Reber. As he passed Miss Wilk, he bid her good afternoon (a sentiment she echoed back with a blush), placed his hat on his head, and pulled out his pocket watch.
Without thinking, he began whistling the song that had bounced around in his head all day. As the opening bars of Buddy Holly’s “That’ll Be the Day”, passed his lips, the mysterious green light of his watch shifted to red. He stopped the song immediately, his cool self-assurance slipping to panic. Glancing at the other man’s newspaper, he noticed the date: August 23, 1956. Silently berating himself for his carelessness, he switched the tune to Chuck Berry’s “Thirty Days”, and scurried out of the bank, snapping shut his pocket watch as the green glow returned.
Driving home, a wave of contentment washed over him. Most men in his position would suffer anxiety, excited their plans had paid off, but worried they could also crumble. The unknown unnerved them. He, however, possessed the confidence of certainty. He knew Harry Meers died successful, wealthy, having lived a long and full life. And while he may not have been born with the name “Harry Meers”, he owned it now, a name that fit him, in his mind, as well as his tailored suits.
In fact, he much preferred his appropriated identity to that of his birth. He’d never liked that name, never liked that man. He enjoyed the knowledge that it wouldn’t forever hang over him on his tombstone. That man, the old him, had forever suffered failure. Time after time, he’d tried to pull himself out of his rut, only to sink deeper. That man had lacked confidence and conviction. That man saw himself as everyone else did: incompetent. So when he found he couldn’t shed that self-image, he shed his self.
The world had viewed time travel with awe and terror upon its perfection. Of course, it appealed to humanity’s desire to explore, to probe mysteries whose solutions had either been lost to history or had yet to be discovered. The fear existed, though, that traveling to the past could send a series of changes rippling through time, which would destroy humanity. A group of scientists attempted to assuage this anxiety by reasserting Einstein’s theory of a block universe in which the past, present, and future all existed simultaneously. Therefore, a time traveler couldn’t affect any course of events. Any travel to the past, these scientists assured, had already occurred and factored into how events had unfolded.
Still, a second group of scientists claimed that the future could not already exist. In a theory based on the principles of quantum uncertainty, they argued that until an event had been observed it existed as all possible outcomes. Since the future had yet to be observed, it existed as not a single set path but as a spectrum of possible paths. However, these scientists did agree that since the past had happened, since it had been observed, its course remained fixed.
While the security of the past appeared settled, these arguments gave birth to a third group, those who worried about the power and identity of this “observer”. They asked: if someone travels to the future, can that person then set humanity’s path? Since this person’s past will be our future, will our lives be dictated to lead to that future? If someone travels to the past, does our present then become only a possible future? Who determines what is “past”, “present”, or “future”?
Agreeing with these concerns, but still wishing to explore the benefits of time travel, the world governments and scientific community reached a compromise: barring travel to the future pending further experimentation while travel to the past commenced under strict guidelines, the Temporal Ordinances. To travel through history, one had to provide some sort of evidence suggesting that the intended traveler had indeed already gone to that place and time. The simplest example given posed the hypothetical of a candidate presenting an old photograph proving that he or she will have traveled to the past. To negate any potential tampering with the timeline, if such a thing revealed itself possible, scientists developed a device called an oraculator. Disguised as an era-appropriate trinket, the machine glowed green if the traveler stuck to the established course of history and changed to red if any deviation occurred. A traveler had a short amount of time to correct any deviation before the device returned the person to the present, at which time he or she would face a harsh penalty.
And so, time travel finally gave him his means of escape. Along with much of the rest of the world, he began pouring through historical records, searching for evidence that would allow him to leave this life and start fresh in the past. This search led him to the perfect counterpart. This search led him to Harry Meers.
Fittingly, Harry Meers, the original, wallowed in failure and disappointment. He had no living relatives. Business venture after failed business venture had left him destitute. Having failed the physical exam to enter the armed forces during World War II, Harry gradually descended into the depths of a bottle before vanishing into the fog of time. And then just as mysteriously, Harry Meers reappeared without explanation, quickly and inexplicably rising to wealth and respectability.
While Harry Meers’s life read like a prime example of a traveler insertion, he faced the small obstacle of physical appearance. The Board would agree the two bore a passing resemblance, but as a prospective traveler, he needed to look exactly like Harry. Desperate to escape, he arranged to suffer a disfiguring accident and, with as much money as he could scrape together, bribed a plastic surgeon to rebuild his face to look like Meers’s, complete with the scar gained sometime after his disappearance. After fully recuperating and armed with a detailed history of Harry’s life, he convinced the Board to send him back as the returned Mr. Meers, destined for greatness.
The Imposter pulled Harry’s luxury car, his luxury car, into his driveway and parked. Pausing for a moment, he stared at his modest mansion backlit by the moon and smiled. Deep down, he still couldn’t quite believe it. He’d done it. He’d succeeded.
As he strolled up to the front door, though, a familiar twinge crept into his gut. He paused a moment to shake it off, this foreboding, this impending failure. True, he’d often arrived at this point, goal in reach, only to have it crumble away, dreams scattered as so much dust on the wind.
Why now? Why these doubts after having completed the hardest task: building Meers up from nothing? He knew the history; triumph rolled into triumph. Nothing would stop Harry Meers from achieving all he desired. Deep down, though, The Imposter feared that gnawing fear. He’d cheated. He’d transformed himself into Harry Meers. The possibility remained, regardless of what scientists speculated, that he’d supplanted the Harry of history, that the successes guaranteed to the man he studied would no longer avail him.
With a shaking hand, he fumbled in his pocket, procuring his oraculator and popping it open: green. A wave of relief washed over The Imposter, and after a few calming breaths, he let himself into his house one last time.
Twilight greeted him within. White sheets, draped protectively over furniture, glowed eerily in the moonlight streaming through windows whose curtains now hid packed away. With the absent-minded precision of habit, The Imposter tossed his keys in a circular dish on a small end table by the door and slipped off his shoes. Hat and coat found their way to the cloak rack, and the briefcase took its place by the door. Suddenly, he realized he might actually miss this house. It sure felt like home.
A flick of a switch and a smattering of lights illumined enough of the house for him to maneuver, but pockets of shadows remained. He used to fear these shadows, The Imposter. He worried; he wondered who or what might lurk there, what awful surprise awaited him to ruin his best laid plans. In his experience, something always remained overlooked, no matter how perfectly planned. But he knew the plan this time. His new mantra. His new hope.
Hunger growling in his stomach, he navigated his way towards the kitchen for an evening snack, passing through the living room. Glancing down, he noticed a sheet on the floor, fallen from the mirror over which he had hung it. Stooping to retrieve it, The Imposter shook it out before returning it to its perch. In that moment as the fabric flapped in his hands, he glanced in the mirror. And at that moment, a car drove by, its lights shining through the bare windows. And at that moment, he saw the impossible. He saw the thing lurking in the shadows.
He saw himself.
The sheet took an eternity fluttering to the ground. As the gloam returned, he leaned towards the mirror as if he could peer deeper into the glass, into the black. Then, he realized the twisting in his guts stemmed not from hunger but indeed that old, familiar feeling as his subconscious screamed that his grand plan would fail.
The Intruder emerged from the shadows, a manila envelope in hand, his face a perfect copy of The Imposter’s, though without the scar. “Thank you.”
The Imposter spun, almost tangling his legs in the sheet. His mind reeled for words, but the breath caught in his throat as his heart beat a cadence of flight, one his shock wouldn’t allow his legs to follow.
“I understand. Believe me, I do.” Approaching a large, circular wooden table, The Intruder took a stance across from The Imposter. He opened his envelope and began placing documents before him. “You thought you had it this time. You knew you had it: success. A brilliant plan, better than any you had before. I know. I have had them, too. Too many to count.”
“I don’t understand.” The Imposter approached the table, remaining across from The Intruder. “Who…?”
“Oh, you know who I am.”
The Imposter shook his head, and once he started, he couldn’t stop, as if this continued physical act of denial would keep the truth at bay.
“I am Harry Meers.”
“That’s impossible. I’m Harry Meers.”
“We both know that is not true.” The Intruder finished arranging the contents of his envelope on the table and looked up, smiling bitter-sweetly across at The Imposter. “But I do truly thank you. You have done with my life what I could never do, and I look forward to continuing your success.”
Reaching into his pocket, The Imposter snuck a quick look at his oraculator: green. As he had since he assumed Harry Meers’s identity, he drew strength from that simple reassurance. “No. You’re no more Harry Meers than I. Even if you were the original, that Harry ceased to exist when he disappeared. This Harry Meers, the successful Harry Meers, I made him. I am him.”
Reaching into his pocket, The Intruder withdrew a matching pocket watch, his oraculator, and popped it open: green. “That may be, but as you took my life, I shall take yours. We both shall return to our original places, our original times.”
The Imposter stood transfixed by his doppelganger’s oraculator. “You can’t be Harry Meers. He wouldn’t have one of those.”
The Intruder set the oraculator on the table. “He would if he were abducted by a group from the future, further into the future than whence you hail, and then returned to this time, to this place, to expose your deceit.”
“That’s ridiculous. What kind of a plan is that?”
“One to expose a violation of the Temporal Ordinances, an example which successfully quashes any other attempts to do what you did.” The Intruder pushed a few of the photographs across the table, before and after pictures of The Imposter’s reconstructive surgery. “Whether you believe my story or not is irrelevant, as it is what you will testify to at your trial.” The Intruder nodded to a larger stack of papers. “I have the transcripts if you find your curiosity piqued.”
Incredulous, The Imposter studied the documents before him. “But you can’t…you can’t send me back. No, I can’t go back there. You don’t understand.”
“Sadly, I do. All too well. I know what your punishment will be. I know who you really are,” The Intruder explained as he nudged over The Imposter’s dossier, “and that makes this all the more difficult for me. I understand exactly why you did what you did, and I harbor you no ill will. You did not abduct me. You transformed a wretched life into something beautiful, but the rules, the laws, are not mine to make. If I had a say, I would surely reward you.”
Grabbing the transcript, The Imposter flipped to the last page. Reading his sentence, he blanched, dropping the pages as if they’d ignited. “No. No no no.” His eyes settling on The Intruder’s oraculator, The Imposter struck with lightning speed. He snatched the device, whirled around, and pitched it into the wall under the mirror. Smashed, the oraculator tumbled to the ground, case popping open: still green.
Crossing to retrieve his device, The Intruder shook his head. “You do not understand what you have done.”
The Imposter circled to where The Intruder had stood, flipping through additional documents. “I’ll do anything to buy enough time to—” The image in his hand struck him dumb.
The Intruder examined his damaged oraculator. “You do realize these cannot be destroyed.” Receiving no response, he glanced up at The Imposter, a sad smile pulling at his lips. “I see you have found it.”
The Imposter examined a photograph of Harry Meers taken a few days from that evening, a photograph of Harry Meers staring down at a mangled pocket watch. His eyes snapped up to The Intruder, who, excepting the scar, stood staring at his oraculator in the exact same manner. The Imposter flipped through more photographs, all showing an increasingly older Harry Meers and his mangled pocket watch.
The Intruder presented his oraculator to The Imposter. “I told you, you do not understand what you have done.”
The Imposter gripped the edge of the table. The world faded to black except for the oraculator, the green-glowing mangled machine that seemed to seal his horrible fate with every tick of its snapped second hand. Desperation grabbed him: low, below the pit of his stomach, somewhere deep in his intestines. And it churned. And it yanked.
And it snapped.
Made of heavy oak, the table had taken two strapping movers to place in this room. The Imposter flipped it over alone, launching himself over it, tackling The Intruder to the ground. Snatching The Intruder’s device, The Imposter flung it far into the darkness, its green face now glowing faintly from the hall.
The Imposter climbed to his feet, grasping his dazed double by the lapels and hauling him up as well. Blinded by fear, he slammed The Intruder’s head towards the edge of the overturned table. In that instant, though, sense seeped through his rage. As time dilated, The Imposter assessed the scene: the curve of the edge, the left side of his accuser’s face.
Throwing all his weight back, The Imposter yanked The Intruder away from the table, shifting his trajectory towards the wall. Again, seconds stretched to their limit as he recalculated the other’s path: face first into the mirror. Using all his strength, The Imposter attempted pulling The Intruder to a stop.
Throwing all his weight back, The Intruder yanked The Imposter off balance, shifting his trajectory towards the wall. As he had been jerked back and forth, a realization dawned on The Intruder: The Imposter had one chance to ensure he continued on as Harry Meers. However, as much as he wanted The Intruder dead, The Imposter could not risk creating that missing scar. Using the shifting momentum, The Intruder launched The Imposter into the mirror.
The crash barely registered with The Imposter. The cool of the glass clashed with the warmth of his blood. Sliding to the ground, he watched the reflective shards tumble around him, a cutting, glistening rain tinged in red. Crumpled against the wall, he stared up at The Intruder, waiting for him to strike, wishing for the other man to slash his throat, for death seemed far preferable to what awaited him if The Intruder’s story proved true.
An eternity passed as they both froze, neither truly wanting to hurt the other, but both wanting the only thing that mattered: to be Harry Meers.
Self-preservation overtaking him, The Imposter grabbed the sheet that had hung on the mirror, the one that had fallen and revealed The Intruder. With it, he clutched a shard of mirror. Lunging to his feet with a primal scream, he slashed the air between himself and The Intruder. The other man flinched, barely avoiding a gouged face.
As animal instinct faded, The Imposter stared at the shard, saw his own face reflected back in the glass stained with his own blood. Panic gripped him, pure and unadulterated. He couldn’t fight. He couldn’t risk it. So he had only one avenue available.
Tossing the shard aside, The Imposter bolted for the door. He didn’t know where to go or what he’d do; he just had to get away. He knew a loss when he saw it, and his sure bet had now transformed into the biggest loss of all.
The Intruder chased after the other man. An impulse compelled him to comfort The Imposter. No one should face the situation he would return to in a state of blind terror. The Imposter needed to find some sense of peace before this ended, and The Intruder felt it his duty to grant it to him however he could.
The Imposter twisted the knob and threw open the front door. A breath of cool night air caressed his face, and in that moment, escape seemed possible.
“Wait! Please, just wait!” The Intruder closed in, snapping The Imposter from his reverie. As he took his first steps towards freedom, though, he felt something tug at his waist, then felt something give way, followed by a sickening crash.
He had almost stopped The Imposter, but just as The Intruder closed in, he tripped over the other man’s discarded shoes. Attempting to catch himself, his fingers had groped the air wildly, clutching onto the long gold chain connecting The Imposter’s oraculator to his belt. The chain, though, snapped, sending The Intruder crashing face-first into the end table by the door.
He’d almost escaped, but a morbid curiosity forced The Imposter to stay. Turning slowly, he watched numbly as The Intruder picked himself up off the floor. The injured man held a hand to his bloody face, but as he straightened, he let loose a melancholy chuckle. The blood drained from The Imposter’s head as The Intruder lowered his hand, revealing a deep gash that ran a half-circle starting at the side of his nose and running up along his left temple, framing his left eye. Shards of the circular dish that had held The Imposter’s keys remained lodged in the wound.
“It looks as though we may be at a draw after all.” The Intruder nodded to the floor at The Imposter’s damaged oraculator, still glowing green, but with a twinge of red creeping into it.
Eyes locked on the machine, The Imposter began backing out the door.
“Please stay,” The Intruder implored. “You know you cannot outrun the recall signal. The oraculator will pluck you out of this time no matter how far you run.”
“How can you be sure? How can you be sure it’s me who goes back? We’re the same now. It could just as easily be you in that transcript.”
“True.” The Intruder picked the shards out of his wound. “The man convicted claims, at first, to be the real Harry Meers, yanked through time as some pawn, before recanting, but that could simply be the pleadings of a desperate man.”
“But why do either of us have to go back?” The Imposter stepped closer to his rival. “This day and age, we could both be Harry Meers. We could switch on and off.”
“Maybe. But would you really be satisfied, after having nothing and then gaining everything, to go back in that box for any period of time? To give up that life, that freedom? I hate to admit it, but I do not believe I could.”
The Imposter’s eyes locked onto his oraculator, the light growing ever redder. The churning dissipated from his guts; his head cleared. This feeling, as well, he found all too familiar. He had reached it, that point of hopelessness. “Please, just tell me one thing before whatever happens happens.”
“Anything. I owe you nothing less.”
“Tell me the truth. The only thing that could make this bearable would be to know that I lost it all to the real Harry Meers. He’s the only one who deserves to have this. So tell me truly, one last time: are you Harry Meers?”
The Intruder’s eyes locked onto the oraculator, almost completely red. He had arrived certain of the outcome, but now a slight churning worked through his stomach, a feeling he found all too familiar. Lifting his gaze, he met The Imposter’s eyes as the device screamed red.
“We are Harry Meers.”
If you lived near the mysterious Harry Meers, maybe across the street, you might have gazed out your window that evening. Maybe you day dreamt. You might have stared up at the night sky. Or possibly, you simply loved to snoop.
And maybe by happenstance, you watched Mr. Meers’s house his final evening there. You might have seen the door open, seen silhouettes of two men, indistinguishable, as befits the nature of silhouettes. Maybe, just maybe, if you cracked your window for a better listen (or the cool evening air, of course), you discerned a hard tone between two distant and indistinct voices.
But despite your rapt attention, maybe something, some minor trifle, distracted you just for the right fraction of a second. Maybe someone called your attention to an item in the evening paper. Perhaps your child required assistance with a homework assignment.
Or maybe, quite possibly, you simply blinked. Just a blink. That standard closing and opening of your eyelids, unnoticed, unimportant the vast majority of your life. But this one time, in that moment your bottom lid kissed your top (a quick peck as automatic and meaningless as the one you gave your spouse on the cheek that morning, as every morning), something happened. Or did it?
For when you looked again, only one silhouette stood in that doorway. In a dark, silent instant, one man blinked out of existence. For a moment, you wonder: could he have walked inside? Could he have stepped somewhere obscured? And then, you ponder: was there only one man there the whole time? Maybe you might have found the answer, but the teakettle sang, and you returned to your life and left the man in Mr. Meers’s house to his.
Wendy Kirk sighed, suffering from an endlessly bad day. Usually, she had everything under control, everything in perfect order. She had served as a secretary for decades, always a paragon of efficiency. Banking executives came and went, but she remained. The individuals in every new regime clamored for her services, and while it flattered her, even more importantly, the competition meant generous salaries and bonuses for her in these attempts to curry her favor.
Today, however, everything had fallen apart. She found herself completely flummoxed, a feeling entirely foreign to her. Maybe she had grown too old for this job. Maybe the time had come to retire. Or maybe, after all these years of perfection, her fair share of bad days had come due all at once.
Regardless, she found her current predicament thoroughly embarrassing. The time had come to call in Mr. Reder’s next appointment, and neither of the two men called a particular name to mind. One read a newspaper; the other, with a scar around his left eye, stared at a smashed pocket watch emitting a strange green glow.
Wendy sighed. She disliked doing it this way. She prided herself on personally inviting the next person back, not making a general announcement. What choice did she have, though?
“Mr. Reder will see you now, Mr. Mee–” As she smiled and rose, Wendy smoothed her dress, but her arm swung wide, knocking her coffee mug over and spilling its steaming contents across the papers she had spent all day typing. Quickly, she snatched the files clear and began blotting at the spreading pool with a wad of tissues.
Snapping the timepiece shut, the man with the scar stood and pocketed his watch.
Blushing and silently berating herself, Wendy could not bring herself to raise her gaze from her mess. “Apologies, but which of you is Mr. Meers?”
A simple question answered simply.
“I am Harry Meers.”
by Matthew Paul Plassman