Betty Knox and Dictionary Jones in The Mystery of the Missing Teenage Anachronisms
written by Jack Campbell and narrated by Adam Verner

 

Farand’s face reddened. “Watch your mouth, Dictionary.” His right arm shot out to stiff-arm Jim’s shoulder.

Jim’s left arm came up and easily parried the blow in a move he had learned years from now, leaving Farand and the other nearby students gaping at him . “Sorry,” Jim said. “I shouldn’t have put you down like that. But you shouldn’t put down girls, either. And don’t try to hit me again.” Jim turned and walked off toward his next class, realizing belatedly that he had just done something out of keeping with being fifteen.

As he left school that afternoon he saw Betty among a group of girls, most of them talking a mile-a-minute. Noticing him, Betty left the group, while the gaggle of girls pointed at Jim and emitted a gust of giggles. “God help me,” Betty whispered to Jim as they started walking. “They were talking about who the cutest Beatle was. I thought I was going to go insane.”

“I always liked Paul,” Jim commented, “though not in the same way the girls did.”

“Paul was great. I told them John was a jerk and they were all ‘no’ and –“ Betty slapped her forehead. “Stop talking about it.”

“In a couple of years you can argue with them about who’s the cutest Monkey.”

“Mickey,” Betty replied immediately, then slapped her forehead once more. “I haven’t forgotten anything but my feelings are turning fifteen again. I have one of those portable record players and I spent a while last night listening to 45s on it. Why do I have a 45 of Lesley Gore singing ‘It’s My Party’? Why did I listen to it?”

“You could get a copy of ‘You Don’t Own Me,’” Jim suggested.

“Did that come out in ’64? Talk about anachronisms! I need to find that record.” She bit her lip. “Are you starting to get a good appreciation for the challenges we’re facing? Memories are one thing, reality is another.”

“Yeah. But because of that stupid civil defense drill we did today I did think of something else that might help.”

Betty gasped out a sad laugh. “Crouching under our desks as protection against nuclear weapons. How could anyone seriously believe that hiding under a spindly school desk would protect against a nuclear shock wave?”

“Duck and cover,” Jim recited. “Yeah. Ridiculous. But I was thinking how that changed, how people came to realize that nukes were more than just bigger bombs. People wrote books and made movies about nuclear weapons destroying everything and it changed how people thought about the weapons. Remember On the Beach?”

“Where everybody dies from radiation? That movie gave me nightmares.”

“That’s the point!” Jim said. “Within a few years everybody is going to start getting nervous about radiation and mutants. I told you about my game. Well, I looked at what I’d done, and it’s really a mess, because I didn’t know how to design a game like that when I was fifteen. I can do it right now, though. I could redo Dungeons and Dragons or something, but I won’t, because somebody else came up with that and I’m not going to steal their ideas even if they haven’t had them yet.”

“Really?” Betty gave him a sidelong look. “Technically you can’t steal something that someone else hasn’t even created yet.”

“See, that’s why I didn’t become a lawyer,” Jim said. “I don’t care about technicalities like that. It would be wrong. But, I can make a game about what’s choking humanity to death in 2040.”

“Jim, you can’t demonize technology. Some of the project’s opponents accused us of wanting to do that, but that was never the intent. We need technology. It caused the problems but it also holds the solutions.“

“I know! I need to build a game where the enemies are produced not by paranormal evil, but by high-tech by-products. And you win by fighting, but part of the treasure is learning new stuff that you can use to help others and counteract the environmental toxins that make things dangerous for you, and if you’re not careful your own weapons create more problems.”

Betty smiled widely at him. “That’s brilliant. As well as ethical. You can guard me and help our mission. I can still focus primarily on advancing genetics research while both of us try to change attitudes about toxins and by-products. All right. This afternoon we check on Paul and Charlie, who will probably love your idea. I asked around about how to make long distance calls and I brought some money.”

Betty stopped at a pay phone booth, holding up a quarter. “We were all supposed to operate independently, and not even try to check on each other for about six months to allow us time to get settled in our young selves again. Paul and Charlie are two guys I know enough about to locate. I’ll call them and see if they’re still okay, and you can warn them”

“Aren’t we going to need a lot more money than that?” Jim asked, eyeing the phone booth. When had those disappeared? How long after that had it been before pay phones themselves disappeared entirely?

She reached over and tapped his forehead with the coin. “A quarter is real money in 1964. See? It’s actually made from silver. Unfortunately, I don’t have a lot of quarters, but it should be enough.”

Leaving the folding door to the phone booth open and lifting the handset, Betty rattled the cradle a few times, then waited. “Operator? I need to call someone in Stockton. Paul Davidson. He lives on Broward Street. Right.” She waited, rolling her eyes. “Stone age technology,” she mouthed at Jim.

He leaned close to whisper. “Won’t the operator be able to listen in?”

“I’ll be careful,” Betty whispered back, her free hand covering the lower part of the handset. “But we don’t have any choice, Einstein. I can’t find out his phone number without an operator and in 1964 some places still can’t handle direct dialing of long-distance calls. What?” she said into the phone. “Yes. Please . . . put me through.”

Feeding a quarter into the phone, Betty waited. “Mrs. Davidson? I’m a pen pal of Paul’s and I –“

Jim tensed at the way Betty’s voice cut off.

“He is?” she finally said. “When? I’m so - No. If I do, I will. I’m so sorry. Did he seem okay before -? Thank you. Goodbye.” Betty hung up the phone, then took a deep breath and looked at Jim. “Paul disappeared a week and a half ago. No signs of problems. He just wasn’t in bed one morning.”

“Try calling the other guy.”

But Charlie Bennet had vanished three days ago. He had left school but not made it home. All his desperate mother could tell Betty was that Charlie had been oddly attentive to her and happy in the days before he disappeared.

Jim looked both ways down the street, trying to appear casual as he searched for anyone watching them. “They’ll be labeled runaways. Maybe an article in the local paper. A file at the local police department. Maybe an alert to different departments. Easy enough to make a few things like that go away before records were digitized.”

“What really happened to them?” Betty asked, wiping away tears.

“We know they never showed up again. Do the math.”

“Damn. Damn it to hell. Maybe there is a time patrol. A time patrol that works like the Gestapo.”

“I don’t care if it’s a damned killer cyborg. No one’s getting you, Dr. Knox.”

“Call me Betty, you idiot.” She grasped his arm tightly. “Was anyone sent back at the same time as you to watch Paul and Charlie?”

“They didn’t tell me,” Jim said. “With the first wave disappearing and all, there was a lot of concern about security with the second wave. There was also some talk I overheard about funds being really limited this time. I don’t know how many there were, or who they were going to watch. And the aiming process must be more imprecise than we realized. I was supposed to get here within a day of your arrival, and I was two weeks off. There’s no telling when any others arrived.”

Betty ran her free hand through her hair, keeping a firm grip on Jim with the other. “It’s real. I kept hoping there was some overreaction, that nothing had really gone wrong. Maybe . . . maybe Paul and Charlie had some warning. Maybe they went underground to avoid some danger.”

“Betty, there’s no trace in 2040 of any activity by them after this. Why wouldn’t they have used the code words you guys were told to employ in public communications if anything went wrong?”

“I don’t know. I’m glad you’re here, Jim. What if they went crazy? Forgot who they were and fled their own homes because of some instability caused by a trip this far back?”

“That hasn’t happened to you,” Jim pointed out.

“Not yet.”

#

One week had gone by, then another. Jim and Betty, lowering the pitch of their voices and using different pay phones, made calls to the police departments and hospitals around the areas where Paul and Charlie had lived, trying to find out any more information. But as the days passed with no signs of the boys, the police began responding with the word “runaway” and none of the hospitals reported having anyone matching the boys’ descriptions.

Jim and Betty fell into a pattern. They walked to school each day, and then he walked her home in the afternoon, or to the library. One of the hardest things to adjust to had been the inability to have research data bases at their fingertips. Instead, Jim and Betty relearned the arts of looking up books in file catalogues and finding items in heavy encyclopedias. They also spent a good part of the weekends together. When not working at drafting her letters, they took breaks by working on his game rules.

Betty occasionally spoke openly of wanting Jim around in case she became mentally unstable, “though my teenage mood swings might make it hard to spot for a while.”

Despite Betty’s protests, Jim also made a habit of sneaking out of his room every night. “I have to watch your house, and I have to watch for anyone else watching your house,” he explained.

“What if you’re caught, Jim?” Betty asked.

“They don’t have stalkers in 1964. They have love-struck teens. I’m varying the times I sneak away from home, and varying how long I stay out watching your place. That increases my chances of spotting anyone hanging around your home and limits the chances of my being caught.”

“I still feel guilty knowing you’re doing that.” Betty was taking a break as she massaged a hand cramped from manual note-taking. “It’s bad enough that you have to spend so much time with me during the days.”

“It’s not a hardship,” Jim replied. “I kind of like it.”

She smiled. “Then why haven’t you tried to kiss me?”

“Because I don’t trust myself. To stop at just kissing, I mean. I can’t believe how hormone-addled I am sometimes.”

“Tell me about it.” Betty sighed. “You’re right. We know too much about that, about how good it would feel, and our older selves might not have enough control to keep us from going too far. Especially since you’re probably the only boy in our school who knows how to get a girl’s bra off. If we got caught, there’d be hell to pay and you’d never be allowed within a half-kilometer of me again.”

“So instead we’re being the models of well-behaved youth, circa 1964.”

“That is so weird, isn’t it?” She picked up her pen. “Back to work, Mr. Jones.”

#

“Why haven’t I seen Bill around?” his mother asked at dinner.

“Bill?” One of Jim’s closest friends when he was fifteen. They had talked at school in the last few weeks, but that was it. “I guess he’s been busy.”

“He’s been busy?” Mary said. “Maybe you’ve been busy spending every minute with Betty Knox. They’re always together,” Jim’s little sister continued dramatically. “Every minute of every day. Everybody’s talking about it.”

His mother bent a smile toward Jim. “I’m glad you’re spending time with her. She’s a smart girl. And a nice girl.”

Only because we don’t dare do anything, Jim thought. “We’ve got a lot in common,” he mumbled, feeling fifteen years old again in every way.

“Mom said she was smart,” Mary remarked. “How could you have anything in common with her?”

“Maybe I have reservoirs of intellectual capacity that you’ve failed to appreciate.” No sooner had Jim said that than he knew it had been a mistake. His fifteen year old self never would’ve spoken that way at home, and now his mother, father and Mary were watching him with surprise. “I read that in a book,” he added hastily.

“What book was that?” his father asked.

Austen? It had sounded like something one of her characters would have said. But did teenage boys in 1964 read Jane Austen? Probably not. “Hemingway. Something by him.”

“Pretty long-winded for Hemingway,” Jim’s father commented. He gave Jim a wink. “Be careful with this Betty girl. You might end up married to her some day.”

“If you’re lucky,” his mother added.

To his horror, Jim realized that he was blushing.

#

The library was almost deserted this night, only a few other patrons far off among the book stacks and the librarian half-dozing at her desk, Jim and Betty bent over reference books as they noted contact information and important data. Realizing that Betty’s pen had fallen silent, Jim looked up to see her staring blankly at the book in front of her. Without any warning, she leaped to her feet and ran down the nearest aisle between bookshelves.

Jim stood up slowly, tense with worry, and followed at a casual pace hoping that no one else had noticed Betty’s sudden flight. He found her at the end of the shelves, facing into the corner between a shelf and the wall, her entire body shuddering with sobs. “Betty?” he said softly.

She didn’t answer for a moment, then Betty started speaking while she kept her face to the wall, her voice coming out rough and so low he could barely hear it. “Ten years from now, my best friend in college, Cindy Arens, will be diagnosed with breast cancer. She’ll die in 1975. Sixteen years from now my older brother will be diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. He’ll spend seventeen years suffering before dying from pneumonia. I’m fifteen, Jim. I’m physically alive in ways I’d long forgotten. But all around me I see people I know are dead, and sometimes I know how and when they died. And I can’t stop it in time, even if it’s something our work could eventually accomplish, and sometimes it’s too damned hard to even think about. Do you understand? Or is this a sign that I’m losing it, becoming unstable?”

Jim tried to keep his own voice level, but heard it quaver. “I understand. Sometimes I feel like I’m in one of those movies where almost everyone has died but still walks, like I’m surrounded by ghosts or zombies. They don’t want to hurt me, because they don’t know I’m different. But I’m alive, and I have memories of them being dead. Most of the time, it’s wonderful being young again and seeing them alive. But then . . . I remember their graves.”

She turned around, her face streaked with tears, and lunged into his arms. He held her, and she held him, while Betty buried her face in his shoulder. “I can’t help them, Jim.”

“I know.” He heard his own voice cracking. “The Tonkin Gulf Resolution passed this year. Next year the big build-up begins in Vietnam. Nobody but us knows what’s going to happen. I knew guys. They’re alive now, they’re kids like me, and they’re going to go there. And some of them are going to die there. And even though I know what’s going to happen, I can’t stop it.”

Betty pulled back a little to watch him, misery in her eyes. “I’m so sorry. Our levers are so small, Jim, and the momentum of history is so strong. It will take a long time to make things change even a little. Too long to save Cindy. Too long to save my brother or your friends. We can’t alter events that are taking place over the next few years. No one would listen to us. The generals, the politicians, the scientists and the doctors today, they all think they know the answers. So two fifteen year old kids stand up and say it’s a mistake, you’re doing it wrong, and why should they care?”

He felt old tears of his own coming. “One of the worst things . . . back then . . . sitting in the dirt . . . holding a guy whose life was leaking out . . . feeling so helpless . . . nothing I could do. And it’s still like that. All over again.”

Betty shook her head. “No. You survived. You could do that. And you did the right thing, didn’t you? I haven’t really known you that long, Jim, but I’m sure you did the right thing.”

Jim nodded. “Yeah. I stayed alive. And I kept the faith. I didn’t let anyone down. But it didn’t matter, did it?”

Betty clasped him tightly, her head close to him again so her voice was slightly muffled. “It meant you were alive to come back and help me, and help everyone. Maybe we’re all that’s left, Jim. Maybe all the others in the first wave and your wave are gone and there won’t be a third wave because the project seems to be a failure, and it’s up to us to get people thinking a little quicker about environmental toxins and their effect on the human genome, to get research pointed in the right directions. We have to believe that we can make some difference. I didn’t know it would be this hard to live among our past, but the future of billions of people is in our hands. That matters, doesn’t it?”

He stared at the books before him, not seeing their titles. “I can’t grasp that, Betty. Billions of people? That’s too hard to get a handle on. I discovered a long time ago that someone like me keeps trying because someone else, someone they care about, needs them, is depending on them.”

“I need you, Jim. Is that good enough?”

His arms tightened about her. “Yeah.”

She wasn’t crazy, just enduring the same thing which had been tormenting him. Somehow, knowing that someone else understood that, felt that, made it possible to endure. They stood there, holding each other as if sharing their strength, until the lights blinked to indicate the library was about to close, then Jim walked Betty home before he went to his home, a place that existed here and also as a distant memory.

#

The third week since his arrival was drawing to a close. The strange sensation of once again living within a dimly-remembered past had faded a bit, but Jim still felt a growing uneasiness, aware that the last trace of members of the first wave had been in October, and they were well into that month now.

He and Betty had worked out a coping mechanism they called surfing the past. When around others, they tried to live in the moment, accepting and enjoying moments and people that had once been long gone. When alone together, they blocked out the present, working with each other to change the future. More than once Jim had wondered what it would have been like to be alone with his memories of the future.

“I said ‘thank God it’s Friday’ today and everybody looked at me like I said something amazing,” Betty commented as he walked her home. “I wonder if I just coined that phrase?”

“There you go changing history without thinking.” Jim’s grin was cut off as he felt the itching between his shoulders that sometimes came when someone was watching him. “Excuse me.” He went to one knee, pretending to retie his shoelace, but angling his body as he knelt so the corner of his eye could see behind them.

A boy he didn’t recognize was standing a little distance off, not-watching them in a way obvious to Jim.

Jim straightened up, walking with Betty, who eyed him. “What’s the matter?”

“Don’t look, but I think there’s a boy our age watching us back there. Or watching you. I don’t recognize him from school.”

“A boy our age.” Betty almost stumbled, catching herself. “That doesn’t necessarily mean anything.”

Jim paused at a phone booth, using the reflection in a piece of glass to look behind them again. “I think he’s still there, but a long ways back.”

“You can’t tell if he’s following us?”

“Not without making it clear I’m watching him.”

She looked frightened, but Betty’s voice stayed steady. “We need to learn a lot more, Jim. If he is another time traveler, why did he come here? Why is he interfering with things, if he is? And what happened to Paul and Charlie and maybe all the others who came down with me?”

Jim nodded to her. “So I keep a closer watch out and a low profile. Not let on that I’m anything more than a typical kid who likes hanging out with you. And you keep a close watch out, too. Tomorrow we can walk around a bit more, and see if he shows up again. Maybe we’ll be able to go someplace where you’ll be able to get a good look at him.”

“All right.” They reached her home and Betty took a deep breath. “I am so glad you’re here.” She leaned in and kissed him on the lips before he realized what she intended, then walked quickly to her front door.

#

Jim watched Betty’s house a good part of the night, but saw no one. Saturday morning, yawning, he walked up to her front door and knocked.

Betty’s mother answered, but instead of a welcoming smile she gave Jim a stiff look. “Betty can’t come out today.”

The door closed in his face before Jim could say anything.

What the hell happened? Jim went back out to the street, then angled across some yards under cover, working his way around the back of Betty’s house. Like any proper 1960s suburban home, Betty’s house had a few trees and plenty of bushes along the fence line in the back yard, so Jim could stay concealed until he could see the ground-floor window of Betty’s room. She was sitting there, looking out, and when he waved she put one finger to her lips to invoke silence before tossing him something.

Jim picked up a note wrapped around a pen. Mother saw me kiss you yesterday and was worried about me getting too serious with a boy. She tried to have The Talk with me. I made the mistake of trying to reassure her that I knew what I was doing and used the word condom. Mother almost spontaneously combusted. I’m grounded except for school while I consider the immorality of being knowledgeable about my physical health.

He nodded to her, tried to indicate wordlessly that he would keep an eye out, then waved a rueful goodbye before sneaking back out to the street. There was no use making things worse for Betty right now.

HTML style by Stephen Thomas, University of Adelaide

Modified by Skip for ESL Bits English Language Learning