Placard – A short story

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It read:

“Time is of the Essence until it runs out.”

– George Apostle, Philanthropist, 1978 – 2022

It was located at the base of a park bench on the paved walking trail that circled Lake Atalanta, in northwest Arkansas.

It was the name associated with it and the fact that it was 2018, and not what the placard actually said, that first got Rosie Jimenez’ attention. She was an aspiring journalist, a senior in high school, and had taken an interest in local landmarks and personalities ever since her freshman year.

Most people, she knew, thought of Arkansas as some hillbilly backwater southern state, continuously stuck in the 1950s (or 1850s, to be honest). Now, there may have been some truth to that when it came to most of the state, but northwest Arkansas was different. It was in Arkansas, but not of Arkansas, as someone had told her once. Sure, it was home to Walmart and Tyson Foods and J.B. Hunt Trucking Company and the University of Arkansas but it also had all sorts of stuff that people wouldn’t associate with the South.

She knew there were several billionaires living in the outskirts of Bentonville (mostly Walton family members) one of whom she had interviewed for the school newspaper last year. That interview had even been picked up by the Democrat Gazette, the local area paper.

But her big goal was to put this area on the map, show people that there was culture here besides the Confederate flag and college football and all the other crap that the rest of the South was steeped in.

And besides, George Apostle was different.

His story wasn’t just high school or Gazette newsworthy.

He had been a bona fide national sensation at one point. For one, he was mysterious. No one really knew how he actually made his money, where he was from, or who his family was. He had supposedly made tens of millions (and some said he had actually cracked the hundred million dollar mark at one point) before giving most of it away to charity. Slowly, though, as the money dried up, the news had died down, and all anyone knew was that he had settled down somewhere in this area, probably in the seclusion amongst the other rich people outside of Bentonville.

So, she had begun by asking around, contacting not only some of the local news organizations for any ideas as far as his whereabouts, but also asking some of her teachers and classmates who knew members of the Walton family.

“Rich people know rich people know rich people, after all,” a journalism instructor had told her once.

As it turned out, he was actually living among the old folks in the retirement community of Bella Vista.

She found this out when she had gotten a Direct Message a few days ago on her Facebook page, saying that Mr. Apostle had agreed to meet with her for an interview. But, she would have to agree not to say anything about where he lived, nor discuss the meeting with anyone until the story was published, and that he would have final say on what she reported.

She was thrilled, and agreed to these stipulations immediately. Technically, it was just for her school newspaper, but who knew? Maybe a local or even national paper would pick her story up. From her research, no one had spoken to Apostle in at least three years.

An Uber had been sent to her home, and she was first driven to a strip mall in Bentonville, where she then got in a BMW sedan with dark, tinted windows and a partition between her and the driver. She felt a bit claustrophobic in the back seat area, which had a musty, flowery scent that reminded her briefly of her abuela’s wake.

Why this car couldn’t have just picked her up at her home she didn’t know, but, despite her slight apprehension of being secluded in the back seat, she was mostly excited about the meeting.

The car stopped in front of a nondescript brick house in a subdivision just a few minutes drive from the Interstate. She got out, and the car drove away without so much as a look from the driver, whom she could barely make out from behind the heavy tint.

Slowly, she walked up to the front door, the only notable feature about the house from what she could see. It was painted a starkly red color, contrasted greatly by the dull brick framing it in. The door also had a strange swirl pattern centered by the peephole. She knew from previous research that a red door was supposed to symbolize a welcoming home.

She didn’t find it particularly welcoming, however. A warning was more like it, and as she tentatively approached it to knock, she felt a sudden wariness that was very much unlike her. She felt an urge to turn around and walk away, down the sidewalk, to the nearest store to call her father (she didn’t have her cell phone with her, that being another contingency to getting this interview).

Before she could react to this feeling, the door swung open, and there stood the man she recognized immediately from various news reports as George Apostle.

In terms of stature and frame, he wasn’t much to look at. But the piercing blue eyes set into a face that seemed much too weathered for a man of forty, froze her in her tracks, and stopped all thoughts of fleeing for the moment.

“Rosalyn Jimenez, I presume?” he said in a gravelly voice absent of any warmth or charm. The question was stated in a manner that implied he knew her somehow. Which he did, of course, since she had been contacted by him or his people.

But still, the way he said it indicated something a bit more…intimate, she thought, though that still wasn’t quite the right word.

“Oh, uh, just Rosie, is fine, Mr. Apostle. Not even my dad calls me Rosalyn,” she said nervously, on edge.

“Of course,” he said, a knowing smirk growing faintly on one side of his face that she didn’t care for. “Please come in, Miss Rosie, out of the cold and into the light.”

She stepping over the threshold of the front door, and into a modest foyer whose wall space was almost entirely taken up with dozens of framed newspaper clippings.

Reports of this charitable donations, every one of them.

Once past the foyer, however, the walls of the spacious living room were almost completely bare. There was a single, empty picture frame hung on the wall to her left (he noticed her notice it and remarked, “Your report I’ll put in there once it’s out”), and aside from that there wasn’t so much as a clock or a family portrait to be seen. On the opposite side of the room was a fireplace, providing some warmth from the October chill she had just left outside.

And in the center of the room was a small wooden coffee table on either side of which were two overstuffed chairs. There was a silver platter on the table with a teapot, two sets of cups and saucers, and a small pourer of sugar.

“Please, sit down, Miss Rosie,” the man said, walking over to one chair and having a seat himself.

She followed suit, though still with some apprehension, and accepted a cup of tea when he offered, more out of politeness than for want of a drink.

“It’s Earl Grey. Not my favorite, but all I had left in the house at the moment. Put enough sugar in it, and it tastes just fine, though,” he said, rambling, seeming to not notice her nervousness.

She took a small sip, added some sugar as he suggested, and though it didn’t seem to improve the taste much, she drank a bit more which seemed to lighten his mood.

“Now, I’ve been doing all the talking, haven’t I, Miss Rosie? I didn’t meant to be such a jabberjaw, is that still a saying with you young kids, well anyway, it’s just I don’t get many visitors, though that’s mostly my own doing, so I tend to go on a bit. Please, proceed with your interview.”

His loquaciousness should have put her more at ease. It did not.

And he was smiling now, though like the smirk she noticed when he first opened the door, this smile did not seem to reach his eyes, did not seem to be one of joy.

It was a shark’s smile.

She began her interview with this thought weighing on her.

“OK,” she began, trying to regain her usual confidence, looking down to her notes for her first question. She had to smile, in spite of herself and her sense of misgivings, at the directness of her initial question, and she immediately felt a bit more assured.

“Well, Mr. Apostle, I know you’ve not been forthcoming to reporters in the past about this, but perhaps you’ll open up to a high school senior when I ask you: Where did you make all your boatloads of money?”

When she had written this, she thought that maybe a question like this, asked in a light-hearted manner would endear her to him, and perhaps put him at ease. She had read that Apostle, who had never spoken much publicly in the past, was a soft-spoken man, and generally good humored.

The man looking back at her now didn’t seem to possess much of that good humor, and she guessed that no one would describe his sharp, raspy voice as soft-spoken in the slightest. Still, his mood seemed to have lightened, and he regarded her and her question for a few moments before responding.

“Well, now, that is a direct question. No doubt a harbinger of the excellent newsperson you’d’ve become, hmmm?” He said this last like the punchline to an inside joke, and before she could fully comprehend or respond with a bit of humility, he continued, “Now, do you want me to tell you I was lucky in business or a lottery winner or I inherited a great sum of money? Or would you like the truth?”

“I’d like the truth, of course,” she said without hesitation.

“Okay, but don’t say I didn’t warn you,” he responded, that predatory smile still affixed to his face. “First though, may I ask what inspired your inquiries into me and my whereabouts? Just trying to make a name for yourself or was there an actual Genesis moment for you?”

Without looking down she wrote ‘Genesis moment’ on her writing pad, and answered him on the fly, “Oh, it was that placard. The one with the misprint on it over at Lake Atalanta.”

“Misprint?”

“Yeah, I guess you haven’t seen it. There’s a quote attributed to you on a bronze placard by a bench. It has your birth year and then for some reason it has a year that makes it look like you die in 2022. Whoever made the thing up must not have been paying attention. There shouldn’t even be second year shown until you do, you know…” she trailed off.

“Die,” he said with some emphasis, not a hint of a question.

“Right,” she said, “and so that got me curious about whether you were in the area like some people said, and whether I would actually be able to find you and interview you. You know, for my school paper.”

“Come now, this interview isn’t with the intent of only being printed for your high school. I doubt your fellow students even care I exist. I’m sure you have much higher goals for our little sit down. Or am I wrong?”

Feeling a bit of blood rising in her face, she said, “No, I really just wanted to have something to put in our paper that-“

“That would look good on some college admissions, perhaps?” he interjected. Before she could muster a defense he put a hand up and said, “It shows initiative, young Rosalyn. I’m not chastising you, I just wanted the truth.”

“Well, it would look good on applications, I guess,” she conceded after a moment.

“Of course it will. And as it happens, your instincts are quite adept, because I got the same questions about those dates on the placard when it was ordered. You see, it’s something of a weakness of mine, I’m sure, but I can’t resist leaving hints. Sprinkling them here and there. An offhand remark in the few interviews I’ve done over the years. A reference that seems like a silly joke on my Wikipedia page. Likewise, this date on the placard, although that one is a little on the nose compared to my other hints .”

“Hints? About what, exactly,” she asked, an anxious, nervy feeling coming to her suddenly. She took another sip of her tea as he began stirring sugar into his own cup.

“About the first question you asked me, of course. You wanted to know how I’d made my fortune. Very simply, I used my knowledge of the things to come and literally made over one-hundred million dollars from one-hundred thirty seven dollars in the span of just over a year.”

“The things to come?” she repeated.

“The future!” he said emphatically. “You said you wanted the truth. There it is. I know the future, or a close enough version of it anyway, and that allowed me to amass a fortune. It really is that simple.”

“You’re joking,” were the words that escaped her mouth before she could stop them.

“Not at all,” he said, looking at her stoically.

She sat with her mouth agape. To think that she had merely thought him eccentric, when he was in fact out of his mind. She wondered suddenly how she was going to gracefully get out of this house without embarrassing or possibly making the man angry.

Glancing at the door then back to Apostle, she was about to ask to excuse herself when he commented, “I’m sure, you noticed the red door, as perceptive as you are. The Scots take it to mean the house is paid for. I like to think of it as I’ve paid my dues. What do you think about that? Hmmm?”

She smiled politely, beginning to sweat, and took another nervous drink from her cup. “Mr. Apostle, I think maybe-“

“You think me crazy, is that it, Miss Rosalyn? Excuse me, Rosie. No, no, I am very much in the world of the sane. Please, allow me explain my entire situation (it’ll be the scoop of a lifetime), and if you still think me ill of mind, you can leave with no hard feelings, but a good story for your school paper about the insane hermit philanthropist that lives down the street. How does that sound?”

Rosie, feeling a slight tickle in her throat just then, coughed into her hands, and picked up her tea for another sip. She thought for a second, then nodded. “Okay, but you do know that what you’ve said is a little, um, nutty, right? Knowing the future? Being clairvoyant?”

“Oh, I didn’t say I knew the future the way a fortune teller does, young lady,” he explained, “I know it because I come from there.”

Even better, she thought sarcastically, but sat there silently, waiting for him to continue.

“You see, I’m part of an experiment. A temporal guinea pig, is what I really am, but I’ll get to that in a minute.

“I’m from a time not too far in the future, where a small collection of physicists finally cracked the code, finally figured out how manipulation of time really works. Only, as with most innovations and quantum leaps humanity has discovered, they ran into a problem.” He paused here, as he continued stirring his tea. She noticed that he had recalled this story as if it was a genuine memory, as if reminiscing instead of an absurd fabrication.

Regardless, she began taking notes.

“The problem is one often encountered by scientists, of course. One of attempting to measure something that is intrinsically immeasurable. You see, they may have truly discovered time travel, but how to be sure? And more importantly, how to utilize it without destroying their world?”

“What do you mean, destroying their world?” Rosie heard herself ask, now becoming invested in the story, in spite of her doubts.

“Well, Miss Rosie, with their discovery, they could very well rid History of a brutal dictator. Hitler, for example. But like it or not, Hitler’s existence, his actions, had great impacts on the world, and to take him out, means that our timeline, our history as it has unfolded, would look very different, do you understand?”

“Yeah, I guess so,” she responded, trying to see where he was going with this line of thinking.

“Right, this means that a great many events that happened because of his existence, wouldn’t have happened, or would have happened differently with him eliminated. What if we go back and kill him, and a different brutal leader rises to power in Germany instead? What if he’s a better leader? What if he defeats the Allies, or even just settles for a draw, taking most of Europe for himself?

“Or, what if the scientists that we employed to develop the atomic bomb stay in Germany, and London and New York City are the ones to suffer the fate of Hiroshima and Nagasaki?

“You see, there are too many variables to control for, especially going back that far into history. The downward streams get diverted too much, you just can’t measure them, especially if you don’t exist.”

“Don’t exist? What do you mean?” the reporter in her reflexively asked.

“Well, if all these huge events are changed, imagine the effects on all the little events, and consequently the effects on the humans involved in those events. Look, let’s say for the sake of simplicity, World War One never happens. Europe is not decimated by that conflict, eight million people, mostly men, are not killed, and consequently, World War Two doesn’t happen, either. Now, Hitler doesn’t come to power, because Germany isn’t in a ripened state for Nationalism, so now he’s just some out-of-work landscape artists that can’t paint a perspective drawing to save his life. He’s just the annoying drunk who talks too much at the local pub.

“But this also affects America. We don’t go to war, but we also don’t become a superpower, or at least not at the same time, because we got rich selling the instruments of war in WW One. So all these people who were soldiers, now aren’t, and all these people who died in war don’t, and all of a sudden your grandmother falls in love with her high school sweetheart and marries him because he stuck around instead of signing up for the Army and getting his head blown off in a trench in France. She never even knows your grandfather who marries someone else, too, your mother’s never born, you’re never born, we’re not having this conversation. And the same goes for my family lineage. Same for the family lines of the physicists who sent me here. Get it?”

“Yeah, now I do, I guess,” she said with some reservation, pouring herself more tea. As she added more sugar, she asked, “But then, if you’re from the future, aren’t you changing stuff? Like messing things up?”

“Of course I am! But I’m no Hitler (and thank God for that!). You see, I’m here precisely because I’m not making much of a difference. For one, I haven’t really traveled that far back. Using the stream analogy, Killing Adolf way back at the beginning of the 20th century, is like going to the headwaters of the Mississippi River and changing its course to end up in the Atlantic instead of the Gulf of Mexico. My effect is more like moving a few branches in a beaver dam of a small stream.

“And secondly, I’m not a historical figure. I’m not a politician or an actor or anything so influential that my actions can change much.”

“But you made all that money. And gave away a lot of that money, too. That has to change some things,” she said, going along with his logic, at least for the time being.

“Ah, but you see, money isn’t nearly as influential as you think it is, young lady. Do you want to know how I made my money? Do you want to know how anonymously and enormously boring it really was?

“Fantasy football and cryptocurrency. That’s it.”

She looked at him perplexed, not quite understanding. She knew a little about fantasy football, but she didn’t really understand cryptocurrency at all. She just knew it was some kind of internet money or something that her brother was sort of interested in.

Seeing her confusion, he explained, “Before I was vaulted back to the future, I memorized the names of football players from an Internet database. Specially, the highest performing players for the 2012 NFL season for specific weeks for seven weeks straight. There are leagues where the person who guesses the right combination of players can win thousands of dollars. I didn’t have to guess, so starting with one-hundred thirty seven dollars, I ended up with a few hundred thousand dollars in those seven weeks.

“From there I bought as much Bitcoin as I could and sold it in the 2013 spike, then again in the 2014 spike.

“That’s it.

“No mysterious international playboy, or shadowy Illuminati power player. I’m just a lab tech at a facility in San Fransisco that got sent back to make a little money and let the big wigs and big brains measure the effects.”

Clearing her throat as she felt another cough coming on, Rosie asked, “So then giving it away-“

“Actually that was my idea. You see I was supposed to just make the money, and spend it. As part of the agreement to go through with this, I get to keep whatever money I make, you see. Because there’s no going back. So I spend the money and they measure. But, the catch is, or was, that I have until 2022 and then I’m done.”

“What do you mean?” she asked.

“Ten years is the length of the contract I signed. I make my money (but not too much you see. I didn’t get to hit the big Bitcoin spike of 2017), spend it how I want, and then some time in 2022, I’m eliminated. That’s the plan.”

“Eliminated?” she asked tentatively, sensing he was getting a little agitated.

“Yes, you see someone else came back with me, to keep an eye on me, make sure I didn’t get into too much trouble, start changing too many things. He signed a contract, too. Only he gets his reward once I’m gone. He actually approached me once I started giving all my money away to charity. Told me I was stirring things up, disrupting things too much. That’s why I started giving my money to charities with high admin costs and those involved with the government. It made me look good, but didn’t really end up saving any lives, or changing much, so it was a win-win.”

“Why didn’t you spend the money on yourself? I mean, if you’ve only got a few years left, why not go on vacation. Wasn’t that the plan?” she asked, now fully invested in his narrative.

“Why? Because what I didn’t realize when I signed the contract, was that the money I made isn’t really mine. It was a cheat, a shortcut that I didn’t earn. I started seeing all this money roll in, and it was just too easy. It reminded me of a video game I used to play that was frustrating as hell until I found a code online that automatically gave me all the abilities, all the health I would ever need. But it also removed all the fun and all the challenge.

“So instead, I’ve decided to make my own way. That’s why I gave away all that money, or most of it anyway. I’ve been avoiding the guy that came back with me, too. Not sure if he knows exactly where I am, but it won’t matter pretty soon. Now that you’re here, anyway.”

She furrowed her brow, a sudden sense of foreboding coming over her. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Well, Rosalyn, I’m going to start my own thing. Maybe write a novel or open a business of my own. But with that Time Buzzard circling overhead, what would be the point, right? I’ve been thinking about how to go about sending a message to him and to all the rest of those Future Bastards back at the lab. Let them know I’m serious about living out my life the way I want to, and that I’m ripping up the contract.

“Now, I’m not much for the whole ‘Destiny’ thing, but when it comes up and slaps you on the face, well, who am I to ignore it? You know, feminism as we know it is thankfully on its last legs in my time, but there are still those, like you, that cling to it.

“It’s too bad, really, because if you’d taken your husband’s name, I never would have recognized it. Now, I’m betting a missing Pulitzer winner is just a big enough temporal effect that they’ll know I’m capable of much more.”

Minutes later, he placed his undrunk tea on the table and began cleaning up.

***

Want to read more from this Author? Pick up his thrilling Anthology “Going Gone” in Paperback or Kindle on Amazon today!

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