The machine sat in our basement, blinking, beeping, and glowing next to the boxes with Christmas decorations and snow shovels. It was a big, steel box, as tall as a fridge and half again as wide. The front was covered with banks of lights and coils and it randomly beeped softly to itself. Honestly, I didn’t think much about it, like the hot water heater or the HVAC, it was just part of the machinery that kept our house comfortable. My mom and granddad told me never to touch it, but why would I? It just wasn’t that interesting.
I never knew my dad, and my grandmom died before I was born, so it was just the three of us. We had been in the same house as long as I could remember, although there was a time when we were surrounded by nothing but empty fields. Then a developer bought up the neighboring land and now we sat squarely in the suburbs. I liked it because I got to hang out with kids my own age. Mom refused to send me to regular school, insisting on homeschooling instead. It wasn’t awful and left me lots of time to do my own thing, but sometimes I dreamed of going to a normal school and experiencing all those clichés – bullies, best friends, and school dances. It felt like I was never going to get to be a normal kid, and we argued about it sometimes, but Mom held fast and Granddad backed her up, so homeschool it was.
Other than teaching me, Mom had work of her own, something to do with computers, I think. Maybe she had one of those mommy blogs, maybe she was plotting world domination. I didn’t ask. Granddad must have done well because he had retired early and spent his days tinkering in his workshop or the garage. There wasn’t anything he couldn’t fix and he was always willing to teach me anything I wanted to learn, never putting restrictions on me because I was a girl. I could rebuild a classic engine with my eyes closed, although Granddad didn’t like the newer models. He complained about all of that newfangled computer nonsense as if he were 150 instead of a well-preserved man in his 60s. I thought both he and Mom should get out more, but they were content to stay at home, keeping busy and watching out for me.
I could have done with a little less watching out for, if you asked me. I was happy enough. I had the latest consoles and all of the books I could ever want to read. I loved to bike and I could explore freely out into the countryside as long as I kept on the side of the road, watched out for cars, and kept my cell handy. Before I got a cell I used to get lost more often, but I liked that; it was more of an adventure. I guess that’s the trade we made, less freedom for more safety, but hey, cat videos, amirite?
I had a few friends, but no one special until Andy’s family moved in down the street. Right from the first Andy was different. He was cute, with red hair and freckles like something from an old Mark Twain novel, but it was more about the way he talked to me. He looked like he was a year or two older than I was, but that didn’t stop him from being my friend. We bonded over classic cars and old movies. Mom said he had an old soul and he fit right in from the first. I don’t know what he saw in me. I was just the skinny, weird kid with flyaway hair as light as a dandelion and eyes so big they made my face look out of proportion. I felt like something from anime or a Disney movie, but Andy didn’t seem to mind.
“You should ask your mom about next year,” he said one spring Saturday. We had ridden our bikes up the hillside to our favorite spot and now we sat on the bank overlooking the town. “It will be my last year in middle school and you should come with. You’re smart enough, it won’t matter if you’re a little young for my grade. I’ll bet you could get into high school if you wanted.”
I flopped back on my back, staring up at the pale, blue sky. “You know it’s pointless, Andy. It doesn’t matter how often I ask or how much I bug her, she’s crazy about school. She says that there is nothing I can learn from school that I can’t learn at home.”
“I don’t get it,” Andy said, not for the first time. “It’s not like she’s a religious whacko or anything. What does she think is going to happen to you?”
“I wish I knew. She won’t even discuss it, which is weird because she’s pretty reasonable about everything else, but nope, no school. Nuh uh, end of discussion.”
“What about Tom, can’t he talk her around?” Andy and my granddad had been on first name basis after the second day, which kind of creeped me out at first, but I got used to it.
“Granddad says it’s up to Mom and that’s it. He won’t go against her, no matter how much I beg.” I sighed and sat up. I scratched at my bare knee, scarred from old falls from my bike.
“They said you could go to the dance with me next week, though, right?” Andy asked, acting casual. “I mean, it’s not a date or anything, but you did say you wanted to see what the school was like…” his voice petered out and I concentrated on my knee.
“Oh yeah, sure, the dance is fine as long as I get home by ten and watch out for spiced punch,” I said, keeping my voice casual.
“I promise, nothing but bottled water,” Andy said, eyes dancing. “Race you home?”
“You got it!” I said, darting to my bike and leading the way.
I spent the day of the dance pretending not to care. I was going to wear jeans, but Mom had ordered a dress for me to wear and it was pretty great. It was a soft, spring green and had this simple design that looked like nothing on the hanger but looked amazing when I put it on. I suddenly looked like a girl and not a tomboy. I don’t know how it did it, maybe it was magic.
I was texting Andy in my room when I heard a shout from Granddad’s shop and the lights went out. This wasn’t the first time this had happened, so I didn’t panic, but I did head down to see if he was okay.
“This is going to take stitches,” Mom said as she wrapped Granddad’s hand.
There was blood everywhere, which made my stomach turn over. I had never been good with blood.
“Should I call 911?” I asked, pulling out my phone.
“No, honey, I’m fine,” Granddad said but he was a little white around the lips.
“It’s okay, Evie, you stay here and get ready for your dance,” Mom said. “I’ll take Granddad to the hospital for some stitches. We may even be back before you leave, but if I’m not, you make sure Andy’s mom gets pictures.”
We argued about it, but when Granddad insisted and started to say he would just stay home to make sure I went to the dance, I relented. I waved them off and made them promise to text me.
I went back in the house and cleaned up Granddad’s shop, gagging over the stench of blood, but determined to help.
After cleaning up the workshop I took the hottest shower I could manage, trying to rid myself of the smell of blood. It worked, but then I suddenly realized that it was almost time to get dressed and my hair was never going to dry in time. I had been too distracted by the need to get clean to think about how I would look with wet,stringy hair hanging down my back. I shuddered to think what that would do to the delicate fabric of my new dress. I had to dry my hair, but how?
The power was still out, which hadn’t been a problem with the light of day streaming in our windows. But I needed a power outlet where I could plug in my hair dryer. I headed down to the basement to check the breakers, but they were fine. I realized that I didn’t even need a flashlight thanks to the glowing banks of lights on the machine. It never stopped running thanks to the backup generator Granddad kept filled and serviced so carefully.
That’s when it occurred to me, I could just plug my hair dryer in to the generator. I wouldn’t even have to unplug the machine, there were two outlets there. It wouldn’t take but a minute, my hair was so light that it would dry fast. Then I could get dressed and be ready for Andy. I wouldn’t have to miss my date, I mean dance.
I ran upstairs and grabbed my hair dryer out of the bathroom. Back in the basement, I plugged it into the outlet and turned it on. The instant I did, a spark flew from the plug and the generator hiccupped and then stopped, like a blown circuit.
The basement plunged into darkness and I screamed a little.
For the first time in my life, the machine was silent, and the weight of that silence bore me to the ground.
I fumbled for my phone, turning on the flashlight feature. I found myself panting for breath, feeling suddenly slow and clumsy. I searched frantically for the reset button on the generator, yanking the hair dryer’s plug free from the outlet. I found the button finally, and pushed it. The generator whirred to life and in minutes the machine started up again.
I felt a million years old as I collapsed on the ground, phone clutched in my hand. A tone pinged and I saw a text from my mom.
“What did you do???”
I dragged myself up from the floor and staggered up the stairs, knees creaking and wavering with every step. I felt sick and sore in ways I couldn’t comprehend. I didn’t know what had happened, but I didn’t feel right. Was it just fear? I suddenly remembered all the times my mom had warned me not to mess with the machine. What had happened when it shut down? Maybe it wiped its memory. I hoped we had backups. Maybe Mom got a warning text when there was an outage. Surely there had been an outage before. It couldn’t have been the first time ever, could it?
I had brought the hair dryer up with me with some vague idea of hiding it in the bathroom cabinet, out of sight. Maybe I could brazen this through. Maybe Mom and Granddad would never have to know what I did.
I stopped in the bathroom, riveted by what I saw in the mirror. I looked terrible. I drew closer and gasped. Even with the fading of the light outside, I could see clearly enough. The face of a stranger stared back at me, a middle-aged woman, not the child I had been for so many years. I watched as the woman in the mirror began to scream.
Granddad never returned from the hospital. The machine had been keeping him young for more than sixty years. When the machine stopped, all of those years hit him at once. He died instantly.
Mom came home an old woman, almost ninety. The machine had kept her young for decades, but now those decades had returned all at once.
I never got to go to school. Never danced with Andy. Never went to college or traveled the world.
I live here still, in the same suburban neighborhood. Mom and I have everything we need, and we do okay. She has good days and bad days, but she keeps herself busy with her blog and her research.
I inherited Granddad’s shop and I keep the house in order. So far the machine is still working and we haven’t changed. I’ve lost track of the years, but I know that somewhere, out there, held at bay by Granddad’s machine, they’re piling up. One day the machine will break down or lose power and those years will rush back, taking Mom and I with them.
Some days I stand, with my finger on the button, wanting to push it, but not quite ready. One day I will be.