On Monday mornings, I send out a story via email: ultra-brief tales of 1,000 words or more, usually in genres including horror, science fiction, and the supernatural. Those stories collectively are called Once Upon A Time. I’ve also published several ebooks and compendium volumes of those stories so far.
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Emma first walked into Tom’s life on a drizzly morning in November, about halfway between his flat and his favourite coffee shop.
She asked for directions to the coffee shop itself, and since Tom was already going in that direction, they struck up a conversation as they walked together. Tom was surprised and pleased at the chance encounter, because truthfully it had been some time since he’d had more than a passing chat with a woman — especially one as pretty as her. He even liked her name.
When they reached their mutual destination, it was Emma who suggested they sit together, and Tom agreed, hiding his delight with only moderate success. They seemed to have a lot in common, and Tom was particularly taken-aback to learn that she was also a fan of the particular band that had been so important to him since his childhood. She even furnished some fascinating trivia about their music that he wasn’t previously aware of.
Tom waited a little anxiously for the point in the conversation when Emma would ask what he did for a living, but the topic never came up. They talked easily, and he soon felt as at ease with her as she seemed to feel with him. After more than an hour, she looked at her watch and then smiled at him again, saying that she had better get going. Tom tried to hide his disappointment, but not very successfully, because Emma said she’d be coming back here at around the same time the next day, and she hoped she’d see him again. He replied that he was there often, and he was sure they’d bump into each other. She seemed pleased, and she waved to him once she’d gone outside, just before walking away and out of sight.
Tom usually spent a couple of hours writing in the coffee shop over lunchtime, but that day he simply sat in contemplative silence, wondering what had just happened. He’d never before had such an encounter. It was like something from a film. A very large part of him didn’t want to question it, and another part of him couldn’t help but do so, and at length he settled on simply allowing himself to enjoy the moment, and let tomorrow bring what it may. He sat there for a long time, and when he finally rose from his seat to leave, he didn’t have to pack up any of his things because he’d never got around to unpacking them in the first place.
The next day, he arrived a little earlier than usual, telling himself he was a fool but unable to do anything else. He chose his usual seat which gave him a good view of the street outside, and in a fit of romantic optimism which actually made him blush, he ordered the same two drinks they’d had the previous day, telling himself he could always drink both of them if she didn’t turn up. He debated with himself about taking his laptop out, and in the end he did so, setting it on the table in front of him and raising the lid, but he didn’t have the chance to so much as wake the machine before the coffee shop’s door opened and Emma walked in. She spotted him immediately, smiled broadly in a way that Tom was fairly sure he mirrored, and she walked straight over and sat down across from him.
Emma nodded at the second cup and asked if it was for her, and Tom bashfully admitted that it was, and she not only laughed but actually got up again, came around the table, and kissed him on the cheek. When she sat down once more, it was on the seat next to him instead of opposite, and they picked up their conversation from the day before as if no time had passed at all.
They ate lunch in the coffee shop, and the subject of Tom’s work did finally come up, so he explained that he was taking some time off between salaried jobs to try his hand at writing a novel. Emma was completely enthusiastic about it, and Tom was simultaneously relieved and also not sure what he’d been worried about in the first place. It was almost three hours later that it occurred to him to ask if he was keeping her back from her own work, but she waved the question away, saying that she had a day off from her clerical job not far from there.
It was Tom himself who had to leave first, and with courage he didn’t know he had, he asked her if she’d like to have dinner with him sometime. She replied immediately that she’d love to have dinner with him any time at all, and he boldly suggested the following evening. Emma grinned and asked if he had other plans this same day, or if he was just trying to play it cool, and Tom laughed and said it was definitely the latter. They agreed to meet a few hours later, exchanged numbers, and off they went.
Dinner went just as well as lunch had, and they went to a cosy pub afterwards for another couple of drinks, and then he walked her home. She was the one who kissed him, and after long minutes she told him she was working the next day, but that he should call her, and she hoped she’d see him again at the coffee shop the day after that.
Two days later, she was a little late in arriving, and she looked slightly nervous even though she greeted him with a kiss and an embrace. Tom asked if she was alright, and she nodded, letting her hand linger on the side of his face for a moment. They sat down, and she nodded towards his open laptop, asking how the writing was going. Tom answered truthfully that he was a bit preoccupied, and she smiled, but she looked distracted too. Emma took a deep breath, then she reached into her pocket and took out a small flash drive, setting it down on the table without a word.
She said that what was on it would surprise him, and he wouldn’t believe it at first, but that it was true. She said that she’d answer any questions he might have, and that he would definitely have some. Finally, she said that there was nothing to worry about, and that she knew he’d been wondering if she was really who she said she was ever since they first met.
Tom had been expecting something like this. Well, not something like this exactly, but just something. She seemed too good to be true, at least for him. Women didn’t respond to him in the way that she had, right from the beginning. It was with a heavy heart that he plugged the drive into his laptop, seeing the icon appear on the desktop, and he opened it. It contained a single video file, with a nondescript numeric filename. As a precaution, he muted the machine’s sound output, then he opened the file.
The recording was of a large group of well-dressed people, and after a few moments it became clear that it was a wedding. As the videographer moved towards the front of the venue, Tom began to recognise some of the people there. An uncle, and an aunt, and then even his mother and father. The same, but also different. Seeing the podium now, he glimpsed his friend Charlie, and then he saw himself. It was his own wedding. A wedding that hadn’t happened.
The bride entered, and it took only seconds to realise that it was Emma. Tom belatedly realised that some of the unfamiliar people he’d seen a minute ago bore a strong resemblance to her, and in context it made sense; her own extended family. She wore a white gown, of course, a blend of traditional and modern elements, and she was beautiful.
Emma — the real Emma, sitting beside him — reached out and paused the playback.
She answered his questions without him having to ask them. The footage was real. It took place, or would take place, a number of years from now, but not too many. They built a life together; a long and happy one. And one day, in the fullness of time, he would be taken from her. The technology would be created not long afterwards. A one-way trip back, only within a person’s own lifetime, and able to bring only the smallest objects along. The great surprise had been that instead of appearing physically in the past, consciousness simply moved into their own body in that time. Like a reset, or a second chance.
Tom sat for several minutes, and then he watched the footage again from the start; less of it this time. Somehow he didn’t want to see the actual ceremony. Not yet. He asked how he would die, so far in the future, but Emma shook her head. So instead he asked why she had come back so far.
“The end is the end,” she said, “but now we can have more time at the start.”
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