“Moral Creatures”

By

P. A. Viverito


        Robert held the phone under in chin. Different day, same dance. He listened to the demands as he carried the empty pizza boxes to the door. The phone chirped a warning that the battery was low. He needed to replace it, but who had the time? Or the money? He secretly wished the phone would die. Then he realized that the line was silent but not dead. It was his turn to speak.

“I know... I know. I haven’t been working.”

On the other end of the line, legally approved talking points of demands and consequences flowed with a practiced smoothness. Then silence. It was his turn to speak again.

“Yes, I can do that by the fifteenth. Yes, I understand this is the very last time.”

Polite, but not so nice, niceties closed the call, as they always did and the caller clicked off. As he returned the phone to the charger, a pile of bill slipped down, upsetting the photographs on the cramped desk. Robert juggled them back into place. Neither frame matched this desk. The picture of Robert’s wife and himself on their wedding day used to sit on the left side of his workstation. The picture of the children, incredibly young and out of date, sat on the right side.

On this desk, they sat to the right, crammed in between the edge of desk and the mouse. They often held bills up like bookends. It had been that way since his position as a coder had been off shored at the factory. The pictures slipped again as he tried to sandwich a few more bills back between them. He cursed quietly.

“What’s wrong, Dad?” asked Sam.

“Nothing. I can fix it.”

“Promise?”
        “I promise.” After a moment to collect himself he asked, “What are you watching?”

“A show about time travel.”

“Oh? I wish I could travel in time.”

Sam snorted, “Well, you can’t. Mike Rowe says that you can’t ever travel in time.” He pointed at the paused television image.

His sister looked up from her dolls. “Why not?”

“Yeah, why not smart guy?”

“Er,” Sam looked stuck. “You can’t. All of these physicists on TV says you can’t.”

Robert smiled, please with Sam. Always the thinker, he would not let this go.

Sure enough, Sam asked, “Dad? Can you ask the computer why not?”

“Ah. Maybe later.”

“Why not now?” Sam asked.

“Sam, it’s complicated. I don’t even know how to ask the question.”

“Ask Google,” Cindy offered.

“Yeah. Type in: ‘Why can’t I travel in time?’ Dad.” Sam said. “Without the ‘Dad’ part.”  

Robert shrugged, sat down at the tiny desk as the kids gather around. An exasperated sigh escaped him as the bills slipped and fell on the floor. He let them fall and began typing.

“Ok, smarty pants. Live Science, Discovery or Wikipedia?”

“Wikipedia,” both commanded together.

“Oh boy.”

“What does it say, Dad?”

“A lot. There’s a lot on the subject.” Robert looked pained as he scanned the page.

“Yeah, but what does it say? Why can’t you?” ask Sam.

“Theoretically, it says you need to go faster than light, use a black hole or wormhole. Or a cosmic string…”

“What’s a cosmic...” asked Cindy.

“I don’t know,” said Robert, interrupting right on back. “Cindy, I don’t know what a cosmic string is. And the last thing is a Alcubierre drive.”

“Al Coo Berry?” they mimicked.

“Yeah, I don’t know what that is either. Captain Kirk had a magic door.”
        “So, why can’t you just use your mind like magic?”

“Because that’s just pretend, Cindy.”

“Close enough to real if you have a good imagination, Sam.” Robert chided.  

Satisfied, the children wandered off to the kitchen for a snack, leaving Robert staring at the computer screen.

“Dad, What’s for dinner?”

Looking over his shoulder, Robert uttered “What?”
        “Dad. it’s dinner time.” There was a pause. “You didn’t make dinner?”

Robert’s heart jumped as he looked at the time. Hours had passed while he read about time travel. “I can order a pizza.”

“Again,” the children said in unison.

“If we have pizza, I want wings. And salad with blue cheese cups,” said Cindy.  

“And you won’t tell Mom I was on the internet all day?”  

“Again.” the children said in unison. “Again”, wasn’t question this time, either.  

“Yeah, I know. I just thought I was on to something.”

“Really?” asked Sam.

“Ah. Maybe.”

Cindy looked a bit surprised, but Sam had a curious expression on his face.

“We’ll get the dishes. Okay, Dad?”

“Sure.”

In less than 30 minutes, the three of them sat at the table set for four.

“So did you find a way?” asked Sam.

“Yes. Er, no. Actually everything I read says that you need stuff that can’t happen or don’t exist on Earth. Or plain doesn’t exist anywhere.”

“I imagine that I am a princess in England all the time.”

“What year?” asked Sam.

“A year with dresses and horses and carriages.”

Robert smiled at this, but Sam persisted. “Pfft. Your imagination is…”

“Sam. stop! I love how imaginative you two are.” Both children adopted pleased looks.

“There is nothing better than being able to imagine something better. Do you know I wish I could make everything better than it is now?”

“Then why don’t you get a job.”

“Sam!” hissed Cindy.

“No, he’s right. I just get so caught up with all the problems, I get stuck.”

“Sorry, Dad.”

“Don’t be, Sam. You’re right.”

“Dad, we’d do anything for you. But we don’t know what you need.”

Robert chewed thoughtfully. The chewing turned to a smile by the time dinner was done. “Look, there is something you two can do for me.”

“I cleaned my room already.”

“Me, too,” said Cindy.

“No. I mean, ‘yes’.” Robert waffled.

“I saw what you two did. You did a great job.”

“Can you two put mom’s plate in the fridge and let me straighten up for a bit.”

“Ok.”

“And then...”

“I knew it. Here it comes.”

“I have to print some résumés. Do you two think you could play in your rooms for an hour or so?”

Sam looked surprised. “Ok, Gameboy or DS, Cindy?”

“No!” shouted Robert. The children looked startled. “Er. I mean, can you do play something else?”

“What else is there?”

“Legos. Do you think you two could whip up something creative with Legos? Let those big brains free.”

Robert was smiling sweetly and Cindy beamed right on back. “We can build you a machine. A special machine, Dad.”

Sam looked conflicted. He seemed coy, “Mmm. I am going to need all of Cindy’s imagination for that.”

“That’s it. Good. Go play.”

Sam watched his father turn and begin to stack plates. Sam looked relieved as if some transgression had been forgotten.  

Robert cleared the table and loaded the dishwasher. The pizza box joined the others at the door, which wouldn’t do. He ran them outside. Remembering it was garbage night, he pulled the bins out to the curb. And he was right back at the computer, again.

An hour passed and Robert was folding the last of his résumés and stuffing them into envelopes. Cindy appeared at the other end of the dining room table behind him.

“Dad! We did it!”

“Well maybe,” Sam added quietly.

“Let’s see.”

Sam looked pensive. “No, not yet. Did you do it?”

Robert held up the envelopes and let them flap between them, “Yes, of course I did it.”

“Mmm, I mean did you figure out how to travel in time?”

Robert forced a snort. “What do you think? I'm just not that smart.” He fanned himself the envelopes.  

Sam sighed and Cindy said, “Sam is.”

“Really? I think so too.”

“No. Not really. I mean, I thought of a way, but it wouldn't work.”

“What did you think of?” asked Robert.

“No, it's silly.”

“It made sense when you told me.”

“Come on, Sam. Tell me. You are the smartest nine-year old I have ever met. Sometimes, I'm convinced the two of you are way smarter than me.”

Sam shook his head sadly.  
        “Dad. You're smart, too. Really, really smart. Almost... too smart.”  

“Well, are you going to tell me what you came up with? I was thinking about time travel, but I think I got it wrong. I was hoping you could explain it to this old man.”

“Well…”

“Come on! Tell 'em, Sam!”
        “It's complicated.”

“No kidding. Sit down and tell us.”  

“I already know,” said Cindy.

Robert chuckled at his daughter. She did, didn’t she. “Don't make me ask your sister, Sam.”

Sam passed something under the table to Cindy, who stole fugitive looks at it.

“I think time travel is impossible because you could break things. Making the machine would create a possibility where you could change other people. Really, really badly. And that ain't right.”

“Yes... I see.” After a pause, Robert asked, “So what did you build?”

 “You're going to be so surprised,” said Cindy.

“You can't make a time machine to travel in time.”

“Then what does Cindy have in her hands?” Sam shook his head, not in denial, but in resignation.

“A person who travels in time is bad. They unmake things that other people do.”

“So what does that mean, Sam?”

“If you had someone who was very nice and very good and very, very honest, they could build one.”

“Really? A moral person could build a time machine?”

“I think so. But they couldn't use it. ‘Cause that isn't right.”  

“So what did you build?”

“Nothing.”

“He didn’t. I did it! Ta-Da!” Cindy thrust her toy into the air.

Robert and Sam reached for it in unison as the pictures, bills and envelopes fell to the floor.

        

The picture of Robert and his wife was broken, the glass cracked but held in place by the frame. Where the cracks let air in, the paper faded with age. Sam held it like a charm to ward off evil.

Sam and his sister were older. The same age as the bride and groom in the picture. The dining room table was a mess. A backpack, clothing and books were strewn across it. Sam looked at the mess fearfully.

Cynthia came in the room and dropped a pizza box on the table. Sam put the picture back.

“I have to find it.”

“You can't. It’s gone. And so is he. Forever.”

“No, if it worked once, it will work again. I can bring him back.”

“Cindy, it doesn't work like that.”

“Cynthia... my name. Only dad called me ‘Cindy’.”

“Cind- Cynthia, you have to stop. This is nuts. Dad was nuts. Whatever you think happened didn’t. I swear. He just walked out on us.”

“Bullshit! And you know it. Dad would never walk out on us.”

“Really? You were six twice? Once when we built a time machine? And again after Dad left? How does that work?”

“It doesn't and you know it. Dad went back in time. He fixed things. He got a job, married mom and bought us this house.”

“Of course he did. And then he dropped off the face of the earth. You need to…”

“No! I can't accept it. I won't. I can do this. If I can find all the parts, the right parts, I can go back and save him.” Cynthia pulled on her backpack and took a slice of pizza.

“Seriously, you're nuts. It won't work. It can't work.”

“Oh, yeah? I did it once before and I can build it again. You'll see, I'll save him!” She stormed to the door, turned back for a wad of napkins and another slice of pizza. She sneered defiantly at Sam, pizza and papers flapping in her hands. If she could have, she would have slammed the front door behind her. After a moment, her car roared away from the curb and she was gone.

“No, Cindy. You can't rebuild it. You’re not moral anymore. Just like Dad. And me.” He pulled a little toy from his pocket.

“I’ll stop you, too.”