“You’re heading out early this morning,” said the barn manager, Fred, as I led Katoo into the yard.
“You could say that.” I tightened Katoo’s cinch with a grunt.
“You know you shouldn’t go out alone. Why don’t you wait for Sarah to come?”
Just what I need, someone else telling me what to do. “Don’t worry,” I said, swinging onto Katoo’s back. “I’ve got my cell-phone and a bottle of water.” I patted the plastic bottle hanging from my saddle. “I’ll be fine.”
“Hmm… Well, promise me you won’t cross the west river up where it narrows,” Fred said.
I frowned down at him. “Why not? It can’t be very high this time of year.”
“It’s not that, Hayley. It’s…hmm…” Fred was seventy years old if he was a day, yet now he flushed pink to the ears. “Funny things happen o’er on the Mills’ farm this time o’ year. I worked there a couple o’ years when I was about your age. Haven’t gone back since that second summer, must’ve been…early sixties or thereabouts.”
“Oh, right,” I answered, rolling my eyes. “I’ve heard the stories. Mrs. Stanbury’s beagle disappeared over there back in the day, and a bunch of cattle showed up out of nowhere. Native American legend says that the land between the river and the town of Levant is cursed or haunted or something. But Sarah and her mom have gone to the Mills’ place several times to buy horses—including Katoo—and nothing strange has ever happened to them. So don’t worry,” I repeated, turning in my saddle as I rode away. “I’ll be back by lunch time.”
And because I was still feeling contrary after this morning’s clash with my parents, I headed straight for the section of the river in question.
It was a good hour’s ride, with some decent lopes up and down the rolling Maine hills. The only sounds were Katoo’s hoofbeats, the squeak of saddle leather, and the whistle of an occasional chickadee. The morning was growing hot and humid by the time I arrived at the west river, but my emotions had cooled and I’d worked out what I was going to say to my parents tonight.
“I’m not going to sell you,” I promised Katoo between sips of water. “My parents want me to become a doctor like Dad and Granddad, but I just don’t have their passion to save the world. Do I really want to go to med school? Four years away from home, sharing a dorm room with God knows who? Then a residency? Working my tail off and never having a day or a dollar to call my own? Then being too busy and too laden with responsibilities ever to start a family, never mind finding the right guy? I don’t know,” I continued, answering my own questions. “A year off to figure out what I want to do with my life sounds pretty good to me.”
I gazed across the river, drawn by curiosity and the vague need to prove something. It wasn’t more than fifty feet across, and I could see from the number of exposed rocks that it was only knee-deep. Pointing Katoo toward the water, I told myself that if she didn’t want to go in, I wouldn’t force her. But my dear mare stepped into the river, stopped for a short drink, and then carefully splashed her way across.
The far side of the west river looked pretty much like the near side, and we picked our way through a meadow of wild grasses and purple heather before coming to an expanse of spruce trees. A path meandered between the trees, barely wide enough to negotiate without getting my kneecaps knocked off. I had no idea where the Mills’ property started, but I didn’t see any fence or signs saying KEEP OUT, so I kept going.
Twenty minutes later, we emerged from the cool shade of the woods into another sunny field—and suddenly I was zapped by what felt like an electric shock. Katoo shied violently, stumbled, and fell on her knees. Totally unprepared for the jolt, I tumbled over her right shoulder. I landed hard on my backside with a jarring thud that made me see stars.
When my vision cleared, I found myself looking up at a burly African-American man, wearing only military-style boots and khaki pants and standing ten feet away. He held an assault rifle aimed directly at me.
What the hell?
Not far behind him in the overgrown field, a petite woman with short blonde braids and round, wire-rimmed glasses held Katoo by the reins. A huge German shepherd hovered at her side.
“I-I’m sorry,” I gulped, looking past the rifle to the man’s square, set face. “I didn’t mean to trespass. I’ll just get back on my horse and—”
“Get up,” he said, motioning with the rifle in a way that convinced me he meant business.
Shaking, I complied. I swayed for a moment before regaining my composure. “Look, I told you I’m sorry. What more do you want?”
“You a raider scout?” the woman called out. “Where are the others?”
“Where’d you come from?” the man asked.
I blinked, forcing coherent thought through my shock and confusion. “Heather Hills Ranch, just east of here… Please don’t call them to complain. I was warned not to cross the river. I just didn’t listen.”
“You better come with us,” the man said, pointing the rifle toward a cluster of buildings in the distance. “You’ve got some explainin’ to do.”
Tripping over the uneven ground and fighting a sudden, urgent need to pee, I walked in front of the man, who continued to point his weapon at me. The woman led Katoo along behind us, while the dog trotted ahead.
We marched between fields of potatoes and grass hay, then past a flourishing vegetable garden and a number of sandy enclosures made from split-rail fences that held rabbits, pigs, and chickens. Eventually we reached the farmhouse, a two-story stone building with faded and peeling blue shutters, traditional aside from the array of high-tech solar panels on the roof and the steel bars on the windows. I would have thought it was the Mills’ farm except for the lack of cows and horses on the grounds and the high-security look of the house.
“Em! We need you out here,” hollered the woman holding Katoo, who snorted and spooked again.
A woman with short gray hair emerged from the hen-house with a basket of eggs, which she nearly dropped at the sight of me.
“Look, please, this is all a misunderstanding,” I said as she approached. “I was just out riding. My mare spooked, and I fell off. I haven’t done anything wrong. If you’ll just let me leave, I’ll never bother you again.”
“Where are you from?” the woman asked, her blue eyes narrow. She looked me up and down as if she’d never seen the likes of me before. I thought she looked vaguely familiar, but I couldn’t place her.
“I told him,” I said, pointing my chin toward the man with the rifle. “Heather Hills Ranch, northwest of Bangor.”
The woman’s mouth dropped open—I saw that she was missing a lower front tooth—but she quickly recovered and said, “What kind of damn fools do you take us for? Bangor’s long gone, and the nearest towns are ghost towns. If you’re not a raider, what do you want with us? Are you from the coast colony? Or somewhere else?”
I stood there, speechless, with no idea how to answer her ridiculous questions.
“Take her inside,” the woman said to the guy with the weapon. “Sophia, put that horse in the barn with some hay, and make sure it has water.”
Dragging my feet as much as I dared, my heart racing in my throat, I followed the woman up six wooden steps to the porch and in through the door. I wondered if I would ever walk out again.
“We have company,” the woman announced, and I saw that there were other people in the house: a sandy-haired guy in maybe his late twenties, a slender, auburn-haired girl of twelve or so, and a kinky-haired toddler sitting at the kitchen table, shelling peas of all things. The little boy shrieked when he saw me and overturned his bowl, scattering green peas across the table in his haste to take refuge behind the man with the gun.
The woman steered me toward the table, pulled out an unoccupied ladder-back chair with her foot, and motioned toward it with her basket of eggs. “Sit yourself down.”
Clasping my trembling hands together, I sank onto the chair.
“Please talk to her, Jayden,” the woman said to the blond guy. “We need to know where she comes from, and she’s making no sense at all.”
The guy named Jayden shimmied his chair around to face me. The skinny left arm protruding from his tee-shirt was disabled, ending in a hand that lay curled in his lap.
“Put the gun down, Andrew,” Jayden snapped at the rifleman. “Can’t you see you’re scaring her to death?” Looking at me, he asked in a gentler voice, “What’s your name?”
“Um…my name? Hayley. Hayley J-Jamison,” I stammered. “Look, I tried to—”
Jayden cut me off with the index finger of his right hand to his lips. “I’m Jayden Mills,” he said, tipping his head toward the woman. “Emily’s my mother. This is our farm. Sophia and Andrew live with us. Annie is Sophia’s daughter, and little Sam there is their son.”
“Why are you telling me this?” I asked. “All I did was accidentally ride onto your property. Just let me go, and I promise I’ll never come back.”
“Where do you come from?”
I wanted to scream as I answered this question for the third time.
“And what do you do?”
“Do? I’m on vacation between university and med school. What’s it to you?”
Jayden leaned closer. His eyes were the most beautiful deep ocean blue, framed by thick blond lashes. “You say Bangor is still there?”
“What? Of course it’s still there! I live there! What the hell’s the matter with you people?”
Jayden’s eyes narrowed, then widened all the way as something came to him. “Tell me, Hayley,” he said slowly. “What day is it?”
“It’s Saturday, July twenty-second. Look, I don’t have a concussion if that’s—”
“What about the year?”
My heart began beating faster again. “The year? What kind of stupid question is that?”
“Just answer him,” said Andrew, taking a step toward me and raising the rifle.
“It’s 2017, of course.”
Emily let out a moan and the basket of eggs slid from her hand, hitting the floor with a sickening splat. “2017,” she muttered. “So it’s happened again. Dear Lord, it’s really happened again.”
After a glance at his mother, Jayden continued, this time in the tone doctors use when giving bad news to a patient. “I hate to tell you this, Hayley, but you’re wrong. It’s not 2017.” He paused and swallowed, as if he were having trouble getting the words out. “Today’s Saturday, you’re right about that, but it’s July twenty-fourth…twenty thirty-eight.”
I let out a hysterical giggle as I recalled Fred’s words. Funny things happen over on the Mills’ farm. “No way,” I blurted. “You people are out of your minds! I…I…”
Suddenly I felt nauseous. The room spun dizzily around me, and the next thing I knew, the hardwood floor was rushing up to meet me.
I woke to find myself laid out on the sofa, with Jayden and Andrew standing nearby. Jayden held an aluminum crutch under his right arm. From the slack look of his jeans, I suspected that his left leg was in the same condition as the arm hanging limp at his side. Andrew, thank God, had put away his assault rifle.
“Um…huh… How long was I out?” I asked feebly, pushing myself up onto an elbow.
“Just a couple minutes,” Andrew said.
“Oh… I think I maybe hit my head after all. I had the strangest dream.”
“Did you?” Jayden sounded disappointed. Looking at Andrew, he said, “Get her a drink of water,” and it occurred to me that, despite his handicap and the fact that Andrew was at least ten years his elder, Jayden was the man of the house.
Andrew headed for the kitchen, but it was the girl, Annie, who brought me a glass of water.
She proffered it with a trembling hand, looking like she was going to cry.
I sat up and took a sip. It was well water, clear and cold, tasting strongly of minerals. I drank the rest with an effort and handed her the glass. “Thanks. Um…I really need to use the bathroom.”
Annie showed me the way. I reached the toilet just before my bladder burst. Dismayed to find no toilet paper, I declined to use one of the rags hanging on a nearby rack and settled for rinsing myself with some water from the tap. Then I pulled the elastic off my pony-tail, let my hair fall loose on my shoulders, splashed cold water on my face and neck, and wiped my hands on the seat of my jeans. For several minutes, sitting on the low white stool between the bathtub and the shower, I tried to marshal my scattered thoughts.
“You have no toilet paper,” I said to Jayden, who was waiting alone for me when I came out, my thoughts no more collected than when I’d gone in.
“No, we haven’t,” he replied matter-of-factly. “You want to use one of those rags stacked on the toilet tank.”
“Oh, no, I don’t want to,” I said, revulsion making me feel sick again.
After giving me a long look, Jayden went on, “We’re sitting down to lunch, Hayley. Please join us.”
I caught my breath and swallowed. “That’s really kind of you, but I need to go—”
“Sit with us,” he said, and this time it didn’t sound like an invitation. “My mother wants to explain things to you.”
“Just let me call home first,” I said, stalling. I took my cell-phone from my pocket before he could deny me this basic right. “I…um…I left in kind of a huff this morning.”
He shrugged, the movement uneven due to the crutch under his right arm.
No signal. Not one single bar. I groaned and put my cell away.
Then I followed Jayden to the kitchen table, where the others were waiting for us. Perhaps it was medical curiosity that made me notice how he walked, moving his crutch in time with his left leg, which swung inward, the toe of his sneaker dragging at every step. Suddenly the stool in the bathroom made sense, and I couldn’t help wondering what had happened to disable him so severely. Had he been this way from birth? Was it from an accident? He was young to have suffered a stroke, although I supposed it was possible.
Lunch was fresh green salad featuring something that looked suspiciously like dandelion leaves, slices of hard-boiled egg, and a creamy chive dressing. Pyrex pitchers of water and milk sat on the table. Still feeling light-headed and unsettled by the whole situation, I poured fresh water into a glass, just to have something to do. I wasn’t thirsty anymore.
After a couple minutes spent pushing the slices of egg around on my plate, I picked at the vegetables, took a few bites, and tried not to think about the milk that was certainly in the dressing. Evidently as disturbed by my presence as I was to be there, all of my hosts stayed silent during the meal.
I took the opportunity to study everyone at the table. They were all lean and suntanned and, aside from Jayden’s unfortunate condition, looked the picture of health. Jayden was short-haired and had recently shaved, while Andrew wore his wavy, shoulder-length black hair tied back and sported a week’s worth of beard. Their clothes looked clean but worn. Sophia’s army-surplus tank top was threadbare, and little Sam’s tee-shirt was at least one size too small. Annie’s sleeveless yellow blouse was faded and bore mismatched buttons near the bottom.
When we’d finished eating, Andrew declared me a nut job and said he was going back to weeding the potato field. He took the rifle with him. Sophia ushered the children away outside with her, and Emily began to talk.
“I remember your time very well, Hayley. Things were looking bad then, but by the late twenties they were improving. After peaking at nearly eight billion, the world’s population began to fall. Radical religion and terrorism had mostly been eradicated, and there was a fragile peace in the Middle East. We were having some success with renewable energy—solar and wind, mostly— battling climate change, and cleaning up the environment. There was a worldwide agreement to shut down all nuclear reactors by 2030. Then, late in 2031, people in Afghanistan and Pakistan started getting sick. Turned out it was polio…”
I caught my breath and glanced at Jayden, who sat like a statue listening to his mother. Polio? Can’t be. There hasn’t been polio in the U.S. in decades.
Emily gazed across the table at me, and whatever she saw in my face, she nodded to herself and went on. “The WHO, the CDC, the Clinton Foundation, the Red Cross—everyone of any influence went over there. At first they thought they had it under control, but then the virus mutated. It became more virulent and airborne, as easy to catch as influenza. Even people who’d previously been vaccinated were at risk. Within a year, it was an unstoppable worldwide pandemic. Experts determined that ten to fifteen percent of the population, depending on genetics, were naturally immune. Ten to fifteen percent got sick with something resembling a bad case of the flu, then recovered with no consequences. Another five to ten percent recovered but were left with permanently paralyzed limbs.” As if she couldn’t help herself, she glanced at Jayden.
I was calculating silently. “What about the other sixty to seventy-five percent of people?”
“Dead or dying from paralytic polio, which so weakened their trunk and chest muscles that they couldn’t sit up or breathe. The healthcare system collapsed, along with every other public and private service. We were burying bodies in mass graves and eventually incinerating them in open bonfires. Of course it wasn’t just polio by then, but all the other diseases that come with compromised sanitation—cholera, dysentery, typhoid fever—and plain old lack of food and water. Martial law was declared and failed. Gangs of hoodlums ran wild, invading homes, destroying property, looting and pillaging whatever they wanted. In January of 2034, the president was assassinated by some desperate soul who blamed him for the epidemic. A month later, what was left of the U.S. Air Force distributed flyers warning us that they were going to drop incendiary bombs on cities with a population of fifty thousand or more, in a last-ditch effort to stop the spread of disease. Four days after that, Bangor burned along with—I expect—every other targeted city in the world. We’ve had no contact with anyone outside Maine since then.”
I shook my head, speaking over a lump in my throat. “They wouldn’t… I don’t believe… I mean, you’re an incredible storyteller, Emily, but you’re saying that everything—everything and everyone I know and love are going to hell in…what…fourteen years?”
“I’m so sorry, Hayley,” Emily concluded, her lined face infinitely sad.
Jayden stood and went slowly into the living room, stopping at the substantial bookshelves lining the far wall. He shoved the crutch under his disabled arm and reached with his right hand for a jar on one of the higher shelves. Taking something from inside, he studied it for a moment, then put it in his pants pocket and returned the jar to its place.
I had no desire to see what he’d gone to fetch. “I’m leaving,” I announced, pushing back my chair so quickly that it fell over with a thump. “Please don’t try to stop me.” Without looking back, I fled toward the kitchen door.
“Hayley, wait!” Jayden called behind me, but I didn’t stop.
The German shepherd lay sleeping on the porch. I nearly turned back at the sight of it, but it just opened one brown eye to watch me warily as I crept down the stairs.
I ran straight to the barn, where I found Katoo untacked, settled, and munching hay in a clean stall beside two others occupied by flaxen-maned Belgian horses. Three light-brown Jersey cows—two with calves—blinked placidly at me from the other side of the aisle.
“Come on, girl, we’re out of here,” I said, lifting my saddle from the rack where Sophia had put it. “And don’t worry, we’re never coming back.”
I barely had time to get the saddle on her before Jayden showed up at the open stall door.
“Hayley, please,” he huffed, breathless. “I want to show you some—”
“I don’t want to see it,” I declared over my shoulder as I tightened Katoo’s cinch. “You people are all friggin’ certifiable!” I nearly bowled Jayden over as I stomped out of the stall to snatch Katoo’s bridle from the peg on the door.
Jayden grabbed my arm with his right hand, surprising me with his strength even as his crutch fell to the cement floor. He had to hop a bit before finding his balance. “Hayley, please,” he said again, and something in his voice made me stop. “Just listen to me.”
I looked past him to make sure nobody else was in sight.
Noticing this, Jayden said, “No worries, I came alone. You could probably knock me on my ass and get away, but I’m trusting you won’t.” He let go of my arm.
With a loud sigh, I hung Katoo’s bridle back on the peg and crossed my arms. I had to admit that the Mills’ worn-out clothes and lack of essential items like toilet paper—not to mention Jayden’s condition—were nagging at the back of my mind. “I’ll look at whatever you have to show me if you promise you’ll let me go afterward.”
He nodded solemnly. “I promise.”
Twenty-two-year old Hayley Jamison leaves for a ride on her horse one morning to ponder a personal crisis: go to med school the way her parents want her to, or take a year off to enjoy life? After crossing the river onto the neighbors’ land, she and her horse receive a strong static electric shock and her horse throws her. She’s picked up by some decidedly unusual people and taken to the farm, where she meets Jayden Mills and his mother, Emily, as well as the rest of their extended family.
The Mills break the news to Hayley that she’s no longer in 2017 but instead in 2038. She has gone through a time-shift portal to a catastrophic future where a mutated polio virus has wiped out most of the world’s population and forced the survivors to make do without the benefits of modern technology. The Mills have all lost loved ones, and Jayden, who survived polio, was left partially paralyzed. Hayley decides to go to med school and find some way to save the world from the upcoming pandemic. As she heads home, however, she realizes that the time-shift portal works in only one direction: she’s stranded in the future.
Weeks turn into months which stretch into years, and Hayley dreams of preventing the polio pandemic by returning to the past with an antiviral vaccine developed in part by her physician father, with whom she has reunited. She has the opportunity to do so when the portal opens again four years later, forcing her to make the greatest decision of her life. After traveling back to the past, will she remain there to face the inevitable, or will she return to the future and the life she has built with Jayden?
This tale began as a short story called “The Far Side of the River,” which was published in 2016. But while the original story ended with Hayley making it back to her own time, I kept asking myself what might happen if she were stranded in the future. I had to write the novel to answer that question. The resulting manuscript was accepted by an American independent publisher and scheduled for release in 2020. However, the publisher unexpectedly had to close its doors, and so The Times of My Life is now looking for a new home.
Donna Marie West is a Canadian author, editor, and translator based near Montreal, Quebec, with close to four hundred publications to date. She enjoys writing short fiction and nonfiction and is looking forward to seeing her first novel published in 2020.
Embark, Issue 11, January 2020