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The Universe Knot
By Jeanne Allen
Saturday, January 04, 2003
(Time Travel Romance)
If you could alter one incident in the past, would it guarantee happiness in the present?
The scent of antifreeze alerted Marie to scan the temperature gauge on the dash. Hot! She slowed the car, and billows of steam gushed from under the hood. "Damn!" she spat. Now she'd be late in giving her business presentation in Oak City, still an hour away. Her jaw clenched.
Miles from anything with a main street running through it, she pulled onto the shoulder. About to dig in her purse for her cell phone, she spotted a sign up ahead promising Gas and Collectibles.
A weather-beaten, shot-up sign at the end of the exit ramp indicated her destination was to the right. Tires crunched against gravel while she drove slowly down the sun-parched road. The wind kicked up dirt and dust, but it did nothing to bring down the 102-degree temperature glowing green on the overhead panel. Thank goodness for air conditioning. Then she frowned. Shouldn't she be turning on the heater during a time like this, to help cool the engine?
Heck with it. There wasn't more than a quarter mile to go.
Gas and Lil's Collectibles consisted of a service garage and an adjoining building nestled into the side of a hill. A couple of faded gas pumps stood in front. Desolate-looking place, Marie thought. She opened the car door and was met with a wallop of heat.
A middle-aged man in greasy overalls stepped out from the garage. "Help ya?"
Marie nodded. "My car's overheating."
He popped the hood. "Looks like your radiator hose sprung a leak. Can rig up something temporary to get you to the city. Won't take long."
She sighed. "Thank you."
"Why don't you go in the store, rest a spell."
"Thanks, I think I will."
She pushed open the wooden door and was met by the welcome coolness of Lil's Collectibles. It took a moment for her eyes to adjust. The place smelled of old varnish and antiques. She said "Hello" to the heavy-set woman behind the counter and assumed she was Lil. Lil's hair was gray and shoulder-length. When she smiled, Marie noticed a few teeth missing. "Hot one," Marie said, fanning her face with her hand.
"Look around. Take your time." Lil's voice reminded Marie of a rusty gate.
Marie strolled up and down aisles of Blue Willow dishes and carnival glass, of old toys and rusty tools. Seventy-eights were stacked near the Victrola. Another stack contained more recent LP's. She reached for the familiar album resting on top. People in the picture were dancing, fingers pointing up. Disco. Another person might have chuckled and shaken her head in recalling that campy time. But to Marie, it triggered a cherished memory.
Marie sat alone at the table she and her college housemates had claimed at a local discotheque. The faceted silver globe spun above the crowded dance floor. Well-dressed people performing twirls and flips resembled the cast of Saturday Night Fever. Colored lights flashed in time to loud, lively music.
Marie declined several offers to dance. This type of dancing had never been one of her fortes.
"Mind if I have a seat?"
She turned toward the voice yelling in her ear and found herself looking into the hazel eyes of a sandy-haired man.
"No, go ahead," she yelled back. She gestured to a chair next to her.
"Noticed you aren't dancing."
"Not my thing." She'd noticed him earlier. He hadn't been dancing either.
"I'll bet well-meaning friends dragged you out." She read his lips more than heard him.
"How did you know?" She smiled.
She laughed. "Your name?"
They watched their friends spinning around like so many Freds and Gingers in polyester
Terry reached for his drink. His arm brushed against hers, causing her heart to skip a beat.
Taking advantage of the lull between songs, he said, "You know, I really like this music group, but I'm a bigger fan of their earlier work." His rich voice sent a tingle of warmth through her.
"Oh, me too."
Her roommate Janey came back to the table.
"Terry, nice to see you! Glad to see you two've met."
"You know each other?" Marie asked.
"Yeah, he's pre-med, too." Janey took a deep gulp of her drink. Her dance partner pulled on her arm as the next song began, and away she went.
Terry leaned close to Marie. "Let's get out of here."
"You read my mind," she said.
They drove to the beach. Terry parked his older model Camaro near the lifeguard stand, rolled down the window. He left his tape player running while they climbed to the seat high above the sand. They settled in to watch the rising moon and its reflection in the still water of the lake.
Neither spoke. They just watched, both filled with a sense of awe.
Marie shivered. The flimsy sweater over her sleeveless dress wasn't enough to ward off the chill fall air.
"You cold? I'm sorry. Here." Terry started to take off his jacket.
"I'll be okay." He draped it over her shoulders. It felt like an electric blanket. Heavenly, actually, with the moon a big orange ball before them, and his arm around her.
They talked of their hometowns, their majors, their hopes and dreams until, while a song about "words" played from the car stereo, he leaned over and they kissed.
"You wantin' to buy that?" Lil's voice scraped. "I'll hold it for you if you want to keep browsing."
Marie returned from the past, pushing back tears that threatened to overflow. Even after all these years.
"No. No thanks." She set down the record album and moved on.
She came to a glass case full of costume jewelry. Amid all the sparkling rhinestones set in tarnished metals, an unusual brooch caught her eye: thin, glass loops of different shapes and sizes, chain-linked together, some bigger, some smaller, layer upon layer, set on a filigree of polished, silvery metal. The piece looked like an icy chrysanthemum.
"May I get a closer look at that, the one in the middle?"
"I see the Universe Knot has beckoned to ya." Lil unlocked the back of the cabinet.
"You can travel the universe with it."
Marie raised a skeptical brow.
Lil handed her the brooch.
The glass seemed to come alive when Marie held it. It pulsed bright lavender, casting shadows on Lil's surprised face.
"Never seen it do that before," Lil said.
"You've never traveled the universe yourself, then."
"Oh no, but the man who sold it to me, years ago, he said it could be done."
"What's that bright white spot off to the side?"
"Lessee." Lil leaned over the counter. "Oh, that's where we are in the scheme of the universe."
"The universe is like loops of twisted glass?"
"In the sense that space folds and twists on itself. And time is intricately connected. Least that's what I've been told."
Marie thought she'd play along. "So how does one use it to travel the universe?"
"You can travel in space, in time, or in both space and time. You have to concentrate hard, and when the mind and knot energies match, the knot enlarges for you to pinpoint where you'd like to go. Your touch becomes what they call a wormhole, taking you to another place, forward or backward, in space and time."
"How do you get back?"
"Don't know. I was only told this much."
"Has anyone not come back, that you know of?"
"Sometimes, I suppose. The man never said."
Marie enjoyed the story. "I'll take it. How much?" It wouldn't be the first time she bought something frivolous for herself.
"For you? You can have it."
"No, I insist."
"Please, it's never lit up like that for anyone before, and I've had it for years. Must be meant for you."
The door creaked open. "Miss, your car's ready."
Marie handed the woman a twenty.
Lil pushed it back.
Marie asserted, "No, please keep it."
That night in her hotel room, Marie pulled the Universe Knot from the newspaper wrapping and set it on the table. Travel the universe, indeed, but it was mesmerizing. She tried to follow the shimmering glass with her eyes, from the luminous white spot through the maze and back, finding it impossible to do. It was too intricate and seemed to change all the time. When she cradled it in her hands, it glowed lavender again. She set it down and it dimmed.
She lay in bed and soon grew weary of flicking through the cable channels. She dozed off, then awoke with a start.
The Universe Knot had grown to table top size. Wide-eyed, Marie rose and moved closer, all the while her heart pounding wildly in her chest. The lavender through the glass was mixed with swirls of deep purple. She saw images of her life in the bright white area, like little overlapping videos, playing, then moving on. From dressing her cat in doll clothes as a child to today's car trouble. An image of her wedding appeared. Could she dare hope? She touched her finger to that spot, and in her last waking moment, the room filled with blinding light.
At the church, Janey helped Marie adjust her veil, then stepped back. "You're gorgeous! And just think of the great guy you get to keep!"
"I know. I feel like I'm the luckiest person alive."
There was a knock on the dressing room door. Terry's father told Marie that Terry had an emergency responder call near his apartment building. It was a job Terry had while he finished medical school. His father handed her the phone.
"...but I'll make it on time," Terry told her. "The ambulance is on its way. Just hang on. Don't let them play a note of 'Words' until I get there."
An image flashed in her mind. Tires squealing. Head-on crash. A panic rose, threatening to constrict her throat. She spoke slowly, deliberately. "Terry, what exactly is the emergency you're on?"
"An elderly woman had a heart attack." Marie's anxiety grew. Her vision, then, had nothing to do with this particular emergency.
"Terry, I'm going to announce that the wedding will have a late start. How much time do you need?"
"No, you don't have to do that, I'll be there. On time."
"How long do you need to complete your job, clean up, get dressed, and get here without rushing? Please, Terry, do this for me!"
"But people are waiting."
"Terry, listen carefully." Tears streamed down her cheeks. "We delay this or we don't get married."
"You're breaking up with me?"
"No! You don't understand! If the guests all leave, they leave. But don't you see? Then I'll have you!"
Judging by the look Janey gave her, she had no doubt that Terry was also wondering about her sanity. She wondered about it herself; she had never been one to believe in premonitions, and she couldn't have explained why she felt so strongly about them now.
Steam hissed from under the hood of the minivan as it moved slowly down the dirt road. The thermometer on the dash read 102 degrees. The van limped toward a small establishment called Gas and Lil's Collectibles.
Before the driver got out, he said, "Honey, why don't you take the kids in the store while I talk to the mechanic. I'll be right in."
The woman and her preteen son and daughter entered the store. It felt cool and smelled like dozens of other antique shops she'd visited, full of history and nostalgia. She removed her sunglasses. "Just look," she warned. "Don't touch anything."
"Howdy," creaked an old woman from behind the counter. "From around these parts?"
"No. Just driving through. On vacation. Radiator trouble." She nodded toward the garage.
Browsing, she came to a stack of records with a disco album lying on top. She laughed. It looked funny to her now. Her smile lingered. She'd met her husband at a disco.
She soon found herself in front of a display case full of costume jewelry. An unusual, flower-shaped glass piece caught her eye.
The old woman came near. "See anything you like?"
The younger woman bent to examine the intricate design, then straightened. "Still looking."
The door to the shop opened.
"Terry," she called, smiling, "come over here and get a load of this album cover."
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