The Rest Stop
By: Mike Sharlow

I had the ability to time travel, but I never told anybody because it was the kind of thing that suggested mental illness. There were ways to prove it, but then questions would ensue. And it wouldn't be long before people would want to use me, study me, take advantage of me, and lock me up. So, I kept it a secret and used it for good when I could.

I worked at Rest Stop 31 on the Wisconsin side of the Mississippi River border of Minnesota. I mopped floors, cleaned toilets, changed light bulbs, shoveled snow, cut grass, and a multitude of other things to keep the rest stop functioning and looking nice. The job wasn't as labor intensive as it sounds. On most days, I worked about five hours out of the nine I was paid for. The rest of the time, I wrote and watched TV, and kicked my feet up in the office for a nap.

Late morning on Saturday, February 1st, George from the tourism office came in. He was a retired navy computer guy with white thinning hair and stood a bit over munchkin height. I was short myself, but I felt tall standing next to him.

"Hey Mick, there's a woman out here that lost her wallet. She was trying to explain to me what happened, but I'm not really sure what she's talking about. You want to just come and talk to her?" George wore a hearing aid, so I thought that might be part of the problem.

I was up from my desk before he finished talking. "Sure, I'll talk to her."

In the lobby, there were two women and a boy who was about eight years old. The woman who lost her wallet was middle aged and visibly upset, so I understood why George struggled to understand her. Her friend, who was younger, was the mother of the boy.

"How long ago did you lose it?" I asked.

"About ten minutes." She was frantic and on the verge of tears.

I looked at my phone. It was now 11:22 am.

"It fell out of the car in the parking lot."

"It fell out of your car in the parking lot?"

"Yes, yes. I had three hundred dollars, my driver's license, my credit cards." Her exasperation made me take a deep breath. "The money isn't as big a deal as my driver's license and my credit cards."

"We were on our way to Wisconsin Dells. The indoor waterpark." the younger woman said.

"Show me where you were parked." I wanted to see exactly where, so I could check the cameras.

"This is my car. This is where I was." She had a black Nissan Murano SUV. She was parked in the spot next to the parking space where she lost her wallet.

"I'm going to check the cameras in the office. You guys can wait in the lobby, okay?"

On the computer, I scrolled the seven cameras back in time about a half hour and began watching. I clicked the cursor on the timeline, skipping ahead a few minutes at a time until I saw her car. I could see them in the lobby on the inside cameras. I clicked ahead a few minutes more and saw the woman who lost her wallet get into her vehicle. As they drove away, I could clearly see the brown wallet on the concrete. I continued to watch until a few minutes later a balding man in his late thirties, or early forties walked into the picture. He was wearing a brown jacket and blue jeans. It was a sunny day, so he was wearing sunglasses. Very conspicuously, he looked around before and after he picked up the wallet. He walked back to a black pickup truck where another guy was standing. This guy was shorter and thinner with dark hair. He was also wearing sunglasses. I could tell they were talking. Then both got back into the truck. They sat in there for about thirty seconds, probably checking out the contents of the wallet, before they got out and went into the building. They used the restroom, got back into the truck and left. There was no license plate on the front of the truck, and the license plate on the back was obscured by a luggage carrier that had a cooler on it. The top of the truck was loaded with ice fishing equipment: a sled and other gear.

I went out and told the woman and her friend that I saw what happened. "They went to the restroom. I'm going to see if they dumped the wallet there." She had a look of hopeful desperation. The boy followed me. When we came out without the wallet, her eyes teared up.

"I'm sorry."

"You see what he looked like?" The younger woman asked.

"Yes, I did."

"It was two men in a black truck."

"What kind of truck? Did you see the license plate?" the boy asked.

"I couldn't see the license plate on the rear bumper. It was covered. And there wasn't one on the front." I really wanted this conversation to be over, so I could decide whether to reel back time to get the woman's wallet.

"Mick, do you want me to call the police? I have the phone number." George offered nervously. He wanted to help.

"Sure. Go ahead. I'm going to go back to the office to look at the video again." The two women and the boy stared at me like they were waiting for me to give them hope. "You guys stay here with George and wait for the police. I'll be back in a minute."

I watched the video a few times from the time the guy got out of the truck to the moment he picked up the wallet and to when he walked back to the truck. I wanted to reel back time to a moment where I could confront the guys. I thought about intercepting the guy when he was walking back to the truck, but it would be more satisfying to catch him rifling through the contents of the wallet and pulling out the cash. And it would be better yet, if I caught them trying to drive away with the wallet. My experience with my gift offered me possibilities.

Time travel for me was as simple as choosing the moment I wanted to go to. Using the video would make my timing easy. I never met the other me when I went back in time. Because the same matter couldn't exist in the same place at the same time, the other me must have found a reason to travel from his time at the same moment I travelled from my time. I had no idea where or why he travelled back, but this must be how the time continuum remained in order, how the paradox was avoided. Changing time as little as possible was the key to preventing unintended consequences. Still, there were no guarantees.

I froze the screen when I saw the woman drop her wallet on the concrete. In a wave, I was carried back in time about a half hour. At this point, I could have run out and stopped her before she drove away, but I wanted the confrontation with the guy. I walked out of the office and watched the guy pick up the woman's wallet and waited.

When I saw the guys leave the building, back out, and head for the turn that led to the exit and onto the freeway, I ran across the parking lot and stood in the road. I held up my left hand to stop them. I was wearing a high–visibility bright yellow work shirt with reflective stripes, but the truck rounded the corner and never slowed down, like he didn't see me. I leaped out of the way and tripped over the curb, as the truck shot past. "What the hell!" I yelled. The impact with the ground stunned me. Feeling the ache from the fall, I got up slowly. My right knee was skinned and bleeding through my khaki work pants, and the palm of my left hand burned from scraping across the sidewalk.

I limped back to the building. "You okay, Mick?" George asked as he walked into the building with me.

"I'm fine. I tripped." I smiled and shook my head like I was a clumsy buffoon.

Back in my office, I reeled back time to the moment just before the women and the boy left. I wanted to give myself enough time to beat the guy to the wallet, especially since I wasn't moving very quickly right now. I was out the door the moment the wallet fell on the ground. I could have caught her before she drove away, but the first time she drove away and came back.

As I walked back to the building to wait for the owner of the lost wallet to return, I looked over at the guy standing by his truck and waved at him with the wallet and smiled. Not today, asshole.

I washed my raw hands and bandaged my skinned knee before I sat down. I was glad I finished my work earlier in the day. There was no snow in the forecast, and the weather had been inordinately warm, so there were only remnants of melting snow where there had once been big piles. The grass was brown, and the trees were bare. The dead of winter was revealed.

I put my feet up on my desk and stared at the cameras, as I anticipated the arrival of the woman who had lost the wallet. The black truck didn't leave. The guys who had once driven off with the wallet had decided to stay. The truck was no longer loaded with ice fishing gear, they had decided to stick around to fish. Since the rest stop was located on the banks of the Mississippi River, a lot of people parked at the rest stop and made the short walk down to the river. Despite the warm weather and the thaw, there were still a few guys out on the melting river ice.

The woman, her friend, and the little boy came back at the exact same time they did before. George met the woman in the driveway who had lost her wallet and walked in with the trio. There were slight differences. It was like rehearsing a scene in a play. All the words and actions were the same as the first time, but there were subtle differences in inflection, tone, and movement. It didn't feel quite the same as the first time, but it was close enough. When George mentioned the wallet, I said, "I found it in the parking lot a few minutes ago."

"Really?" George asked suspiciously. I think he wondered why I hadn't mentioned it when I found it. After all, he worked in tourism and had far more contact with the public than I did.

"Right here." I held it up and smiled. "It's her lucky day."

The woman was incredibly grateful. This was the pay off. This was setting things right, hopefully without skewing what would have been too much. Eventually, what would have been becomes what things are.

I sat at my desk writing on my laptop. To my right was the screen with the seven camera displays. I had them parsed into equal rectangles. Every now and then I glanced over. It had been about a half hour since the two women and the boy left, when I saw an ambulance flash into the screen. I expanded the screen that gave the best view. There was nothing going on in the parking lot, so I figured there was something happening down on the river.

I ran out and saw the paramedics racing towards the river with equipment in hand. I stopped at the edge of the river and watched them carefully make their way out on the ice where there were four fishermen focused on an opening in the ice. Two of the guys were laying down by the hole. The other two were standing back about ten feet. The snow on the river had turned to slush, and many spots were now large puddles brightly reflecting the afternoon sun. The guy "who took the wallet" wasn't there. He was under the ice.

A fire truck with the dive team, two Wisconsin State patrol squads, and the Town of Campbell Sheriff were on the scene with screaming sirens and lights flashing. No one was able to save, or even find, the guy. The current had carried him away.

I sat in my office and stared at the cameras. Those guys were assholes. They took the wallet and tried to run me over. Well, they might have run me over, if I hadn't jumped out of the way. I gingerly rubbed my knee to remind myself.

It was unlikely that the guy who drowned would do anything to affect the chaos of the world in any major way, good or bad. But he was probably loved and cared about by someone: a wife, girlfriend, boyfriend (maybe the guy he was fishing with), children, or any number of brothers, sisters, and friends. Time had changed noticeably, but had it been changed consequently for anyone other than them? Had the world been changed in any significant way?

Likely not.

The Butterfly effect is overrated.

Still, I couldn't let anybody die.

I reeled back time, watched the two guys drive away with the wallet, kicked up my feet on the desk (groaned because my knee hurt), and waited for George to come to my office again to inform me that a woman had lost her wallet.

The End


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