What would you do if history was no longer what you remembered?

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Photo by Bill Adler

Tommy couldn’t believe the C that glared at him from atop his American history exam.

He was an A student who knew American history backward and forward. He read historical novels, essays, and diaries. His favorite television network was the History Channel. Tommy consumed his textbooks the way his friends ate Doritos. When he walked down the street, he envisioned the world that had existed decades and centuries ago. He saw wooden storefronts from the 1900s, and horses on cobblestone streets from the 1820s. He witnessed the Empire State Building being built. He spied men and women darting into speakeasies in the 1920s. Tommy probably knew more about American history than his teacher.

He wanted to be a historian and planned to study at Yale. He had the grades, the SATs, and, he was sure, stellar recommendations from his teachers. To Tommy, history was more than a window to the past. History was a roadmap to the future.

But a C? How was that possible? The grade put Yale in jeopardy. It must have been a mistake.

“I don’t understand how I got a C on this exam,” he complained to Mr. Stewart, his 11th grade American history teacher.

“I was surprised you blew such an easy question, too,” Stewart replied. He clicked his pen shut and looked up from the paper he had been writing on. Stewart was sealing somebody’s permanent record, Tommy thought, hoping that it wasn’t his. Stewart spoke in a staccato cadence, inhaling air and pausing for a fraction of a second on each proper noun. “The Vietnam War ended in January 1972. After the American withdrawal on December 25, 1971, the North Vietnamese army quickly quelled the South’s military, marched into Saigon, and captured the capital. The North and South were reunited.”

“What?” Tommy asked. His voice warbled.

“I don’t know what you were thinking when you wrote that the war ended April 1975 with the capture of Saigon by the North Vietnamese army.” Stewart whipped his glasses off and looked at Tommy with an expression of consternation usually reserved for somebody’s dog when they find a bag of doggie treats ripped open and spilled out on the kitchen floor.

“I’m sure that the war ended in 1975,” Tommy said. “I reread the chapter on the Vietnam War last night in The Making of Modern America.”

“Did you?” Stewart raised an eyebrow. His desk drawer creaked as he opened it. Although the textbook was thick and heavy, Stewart effortlessly removed the book. He let The Making of Modern America drop with a loud thunk, flipped it open, and quickly thumbed to the page he was looking for. “Read,” he commanded.

Tommy subvocalized the words as he read, his eyes darting like he was watching a ping pong tournament. It can’t be! But there it was. And more: “Historians believe that the unification of North and South Vietnam, the development of a powerful Vietnamese army, the subsequent invasion of Cambodia, defeat of the Khmer Rouge, and execution of the Khmer Rouge’s leader, Pol Pot, prevented a genocide.”

Tommy’s neurons swirled as if caught in a sudden tornado. Something was wrong, and that something seemed to be him.

“I’m sorry.” He glanced at the floor. “I don’t know what happened.” Tommy thought for a few seconds and then asked, “May I take a retest?”

Stewart offered a wry smile. “You know, Tommy, if it had been anyone other than you, I’d say no. I don’t allow retests, but I’m going to today. Right now, in fact.” He slipped his glasses back on. “I hope you don’t have any activities planned for after school.”

“No, sir. Thank you, Mr. Stewart.”

“I’m going to assign you three questions. I want you to write three one-page answers.”

Tommy felt lighter, the heavy weight of destiny at a rural junior college no longer crushed him. Tommy was confident that he could write essays on any topic in American history.

“Oh, and Tommy,” Stewart said. “Please write neatly. I don’t want to spend the entire evening trying to decipher what you said. I’m a history, not a hieroglyphics teacher”

The first question was about World War I’s impact on the Great Depression. The next was on the effect on America of the world’s first satellite, Sputnik, launched by the Soviet Union on October 4, 1957. And the last asked how Prohibition ended. Easy as pie.

He didn’t have history again until Thursday, so Tommy had to wait nearly forty-eight hours to find out whether he would be getting into Yale. When Thursday came around, Tommy shot a fist into the air when he read “A+” and “”terrific” on his make-up exam.

“I’ve deleted your previous exam score,” Stewart said. “Let’s chalk up that flub about the Vietnam war to too little sleep, shall we?”

“Yes. Thank you.”

Tommy watched television news before dinner. He didn’t feel informed by CNN, MSNBC, and Fox, but believed it was useful to see the same news that many other Americans watched. History wasn’t just the past, it was being created all the time. People were the driving force of history, and understanding what people knew was part of a historian’s job. Tommy grit his teeth when trite and superficial reports about important events were pawned off as news. He cringed while watching 24-hour news channels fill air time with wild speculation and even conspiracy theories. But he knew it would make him a better historian.

Tommy was half-paying attention to CNN when a golden-voiced anchor announced, “NASA reported today that average global temperatures have stabilized at a .2 degrees Fahrenheit increase for the past twelve months, and look to be on a declining curve. Massive Antarctic glacier melting is no longer forecast, and the planet is no longer in danger of tipping into unthinkable climate change. This is a direct result of the Global Climate Treaty between the United States and China that the Obama Administration pursued a decade ago with vigor during the first year of its administration….”

“What!” Tommy shouted at the television.

“Tommy? Are you okay?” his mom asked from the kitchen.

“Fine,” Tommy called back. Though he wasn’t. The world was 1.4 degrees hotter this year than it had been a century ago. Arctic and Antarctic ice were melting. Coral reefs were dying. Extreme weather in the form of massive hurricanes, violent tornadoes, and horrific monsoons, was the norm around the world. And there had never been a climate treaty between the US and China. There was a global climate agreement in Paris that the US withdrew from, but no American-Chinese bilateral agreement.

Tommy pulled out his phone. He googled “Paris Climate Conference,” “United Nations Climate Agreement,” and several other combinations of what he knew to have happened not too long ago. Nothing. There were only reports about the American-Chinese climate treaty, and how that had inspired other nations to reduce their fossil fuel use, sparing the world from a catastrophic future. There was this in The Economist: “Political capital is a scarce resource. Barack Obama had to choose where to spend his: fix the world’s climate or America’s broken (some would say ‘non-existent’) health insurance. Obama worked tirelessly to save future generations from global warming, but in doing so, he could not save this current generation of Americans from the ravages of not having health insurance.”

Tommy felt sick. Not about the NASA report, but about the fact that he was totally ignorant of it. Maybe I am tired. Maybe I need to go to the movies. I’m stressed about college. I need to sleep. I need to spend more time watching junk television like most kids do.

But Tommy couldn’t help frightening himself with introspection; he was not the boss of his anxiety. He wanted to become a historian more than anything. Yet he was forgetting important history. Worse, he was getting history wrong, getting facts wrong he knew perfectly well.

“You need to spend more time with friends and vegging.” His best friend’s reassuring message popped across his screen.

“Yes,” Tommy texted back to Christopher.

“What are you doing now?”

“Studying.”

“Bad move.”

Christopher’s right.

That night Tommy slept so deeply he didn’t remember a single dream.

“Yahoo Profits Exceed Expectations” blurted out one of the headlines in Friday’s New York Times. “The search giant’s profits have made Yahoo the world’s most valuable company…”

“No!” Tommy said, spewing cereal from his mouth, and dropping his phone on the table.

His father looked up from his phone “What’s the matter?”

“Um. I think I left my homework on my desk. Can I get it?” His heart sounded like an approaching thunderstorm. The air tasted thin and sour.

“Yes. And when you’re back, please clean up that mess on the table.”

Tommy sprinted down the hall. He pressed a key on his laptop to wake up the screen so he could google “Yahoo.” Only there was no Google. He searched for Google on Yahoo — the one and only search engine that seemed available to him — but the results were zip. How could that be? How could there not be any company called Google, no Google search engine? Tommy opened his online calendar. As far as he could remember it had been a Google calendar, but “My Yahoo Calendar” now glowed on the top of the monitor, a lavender YAHOO! on the right-hand side of the screen. The calendar entry he’d made the night before, “Hang out with Chris,” was still there. The time was still there: “3:30 PM–10 PM.” But it was a Yahoo calendar, not the Google calendar, into which he had entered data the day before.

Think! He felt as if he were in a whirlpool in a river in a dark rainforest, sunlight thwarted by colossal leaves of unnatural geometric shapes. He was alone, with only primordial sounds around. The whirlpool swirled faster, pulling him deeper down, cold water pressing against his chest, making it hard to breathe. He reached out to an unreachable tree branch.

“Tommy?” his dad shouted from the dining room, snapping Tommy out of his daymare. Tommy remembered the cereal mess he’d left on the table.

“Coming.”

Tommy scrolled his phone during his subway ride to school. He Yahooed “climate treaty,” but there was nothing about a climate treaty between the United States and China. But there was! I just saw it yesterday! Tommy shouted silently, though on this noisy, crowded New York subway nobody would have heard him or cared if he’d screamed those words at the top of his lungs. He opened the New York Times app and searched for “Obamacare,” which he knew for sure Obama had shepherded through Congress. Numerous search results popped up.Yesterday, Obamacare had never existed. But today it does. To Wikipedia Tommy went. The Vietnam War had ended in 1971, and there had never been the slaughter and death of 1.5 million Cambodians — the history that Tommy never knew.

Still Yahoo, not Google.

Is this what crazy feels like?

For the first time, Tommy was relieved he didn’t have history class. He couldn’t cope with any more confusion.

Today he had English, math, chemistry, Spanish, and gym — all good. All safe. Tommy needed that time to chill and declutter his mind.

Tommy walked into a nightmare. Gym was a Sumo class.

Tommy’s wrestling partner was Takeshi Mori, a student he was sure hadn’t existed yesterday. Takeshi beamed as their gym teacher paired them off for a match.

“When did we start doing Sumo wrestling in gym class?” Tommy asked Takeshi in a hushed whisper as they crouched on the mat. Takeshi’s eyes fixed on Tommy’s face. He appeared ready to strike, pounce, punch, pressure, or wrestle — Tommy had no idea what came first or at all in this sport.

“Huh?” Takeshi replied. “Are you trying to throw me off my game?”

The gym teacher blew his whistle.

Tommy spent the next hour in the nurse’s office icing his shoulder. During that time, he discovered so much was different from the way he remembered things — or thought he remembered things. Franklin Roosevelt had never issued Executive Order 9066 authorizing the forced internment of 110,000 Japanese during the Second World War. Instead, Japanese Americans fought beside Anglo soldiers. Japanese Americans supported the war in myriad ways, including helping innovate weapons and spy on Tokyo. The Second World War ended in 1942, and in its aftermath America embraced Japanese culture. Almost every high school had Sumo wrestling, and Ramen Street, a restaurant chain, which drove McDonald’s out of business in the 1970s.

Tommy rested his head on folded arms. Two days ago, if you had asked him what he wanted most, he would have said, “To study history at Yale.” Today all he wanted was his sanity back.

Tommy rode the bus home. The subway, a closed space packed with thousands of strangers, noisy, hot, smelling of sweat, was more than he could handle.

At Madison and 79th Street, a girl his age boarded the bus. She had short black hair, wore a woolen skirt that belonged to the uniform of a private school he couldn’t identify, and carried a backpack bulging with textbooks. She sat down next to Tommy and pulled a spiral notebook out of her backpack. On the top of the page she had drawn the Hudson River bisecting Manhattan. Below that picture, the girl wrote: “Why can’t I Google this?”

It took nearly a half-minute before Tommy could speak. Tommy tapped her notebook, his voice a weak whisper, “I used to be able to Google, too.”

She looked up from her notebook. “You’re not insane.”

“What do you mean?” Tommy asked.

“Yahooing, the Vietnam War, Japanese internment, DB Cooper’s capture, weed legalized in 1969, Trump impeached and convinced…history is different from what you remember.”

“I don’t know about DB Cooper and pot being legalized in the sixties.”

“You must have started skipping recently,” she said. “I’ve been skipping for five weeks. Events happened that never happened and events that never happened took place. History is mixed up and disordered.” She paused for a moment. “Do you understand?”

“Yes. History is wrong here. Sometimes history reverts back to the way that it was, but never all the way.”

“That’s partially correct,” she said. “I’m Mae, by the way.” She extended her hand.

“Tommy.”

“Right. Let’s get off this bus and go to a Starbucks where we can talk.”

Tommy nodded and they got off at the next stop. There was always a Starbucks nearby, or so he assumed.

The Starbucks at 52nd Street and Third was unusually crowded for four o’clock on a sunny April afternoon. Their footsteps echoed on deserted streets — not even a dog walker or a cop could be seen. It was as if everyone wanted an afternoon caffeine fix at the same time. Coffees in hand, Tommy and Mae found a table.

“Let me see your fingers,” she said, reaching to pull his hand toward her even before Tommy had agreed. “You have silver spots on your fingernails like I do,” she said.

“What does that mean?” Tommy asked.

“You’ll see more spots over time. One for each skip.”

“Why do you call this skipping?” She released his hand, and he looked at his fingernails, observing for the first time that there were indeed silver spots on them. Tommy counted four spots.

Mae said, “I call it skipping because we’re skipping into different timelines. Events aren’t actually changing in the world. Instead, we’re moving into different worlds, or more precisely, different universes with different timelines. There are an infinite number of timelines with an infinite variation of events, so some physicists believe. My dad’s a science reporter for the Times, and he’s one of those who think that our original Earth is just in one universe in an infinite multiverse.”

“If there are an infinite number of universes with an infinite variation of events, why are only one or two things changed every time we ‘skip?’ Why don’t we see things like dinosaurs roaming the streets or everyone speaking Old English?” Tommy asked.

“Because we only skip to nearby universes. It takes energy to move from one multiverse to the next, according to my dad, and the more distant the universe, the more energy needed. We move to an adjacent universe, where things aren’t too different. In universes farther away from ours, you’d see more dramatic differences. If we keep skipping, we’ll eventually end up in a world that’s totally weird, and possibly where we can’t survive, like with a low oxygen atmosphere or orbiting a brown dwarf,” Mae explained. “Skipping can happen at any moment. I don’t know if there’s a pattern to how often we skip into other universes, but I’ve skipped in as short an interval as thirty minutes. Sometimes it can take a day between skips.” She added, “That’s assuming that you can tell when you’ve skipped, because sometimes you can’t.”

“Except for the spots.”

“Yes, a new world, a new spot.”

“I guess in this word, it’s possible Starbucks’ coffee is flavored with lime or even garlic.”

“Right. Or worse. The coffee could be poisonous to us, safe to the native inhabitants in another world.” Mae squeezed her lips together. “We can’t take our survival for granted. If there was a way to stop skipping, even if I were in a world that wasn’t my original one, I’d stop there. As long as it was safe.”

Tommy nodded. He hadn’t had the chance to think about what was happening in the way that Mae had.

Mae continued, “I haven’t told my dad about this, because I’m sure he wouldn’t believe a word of what I said. But I’ve asked him in general about multiverses, and he said it takes a cosmic amount of energy to transport from one universe to the next. If we can figure out where that energy is coming from, why us, and block it, we may be able to stop skipping before it becomes dangerous.”

Tommy didn’t understand everything Mae was saying, but he smiled anyway.

“Why are you smiling?”

“I guess because this means I’m not crazy,” he answered.

“Probably not,” Mae said. She smiled back at him. “Listen. I have to go. My parents eat early and they expect me to be home. But tomorrow’s Saturday, so we can meet, okay?”

“Great, yes. We need to talk more. I want to get off of this broken Ferris wheel. Maybe we can figure out a way.”

“See you tomorrow at ten AM. Let’s meet here. Sound good?”

“You bet.” Tommy waved at Mae as she turned around and mouthed goodbye from the door. Hope smelled sweet.

The moment Mae exited through the Starbucks-logoed doors, massive claws scooped her off the sidewalk, like an arcade claw catcher game. Taloned, covered with thick, granite-gray mica that oozed a yellow pus appeared and disappeared before Tommy could complete a blink.

Puddles of red dotted the sidewalk where Mae had stood a blur before. Tommy didn’t see what the claws were attached to and didn’t want to. He didn’t hear Mae scream, though he was certain that she must have during the few seconds between when the creature grabbed her and when she ceased to exist.

Tommy looked at his fingernails and counted five silver spots where there had just been four. Time to go.

Passing History was originally published in Perihelion.

An American writer in Japan, editor of The Binge-Watching Cure books, author of the bestselling book, Outwitting Squirrels. Occasional pilot, 24/7 cat owner.

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