The Nearly Girl

Mess around with time and world you know... could become a world you don't. What happens when Liam decides to use his knowledge of the future to save a stranger from her destiny, potentially disrupting history and everything the TimeRiders team has fought to preserve?

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1. 11 September 2001, New York

Liam emerged from the Williamsburg Bridge pedestrian walkway, then headed down the exit ramp and on to Delancey. The street was busy with morning traffic. Stop-start yellow-cab windshields reflected a low but rising September sun peeking above a skyline of looming urban stalagmites.

 

Blue sky above. Cloudless blue sky. A morning for whistling a cheerful ditty, doffing a cap to a stranger, wishing good morning to a surly-faced cop. Liam felt good on his way to the diner. Great even. A little tingle of anticipation was mixed in there somewhere.

 

Because she’ll be there again.

 

The young woman – barely that, a girl still, really – the girl with the dark brown hair tied back in an old-fashioned French plait. The girl who always stood one place in front of him in the queue, the girl wearing a freshly purchased smart office skirt and blouse, clothes she clearly felt uncomfortable wearing. Brand-new, grown-up ‘lady’ shoes with heels that were tripping her up and probably already causing her blisters.

 

How many times had he visited this small busy diner with its steamed-up windows? Busy with its office workers grabbing takeaway breakfasts of coffee in plastic cups and bagels in grease-paper wraps. Twenty-seven times? Twenty-eight? He’d lost count. The window of time that he and the other two in the team lived through over and over – the day before and the day of 9/11 – allowed them to view New York intimately. To see the tiny details of life, fleeting moments, in endless repeat. It was a strange mission to keep history on track that kept them trapped yet allowed them to travel through the great universe of time.

 

And how many times had he watched the girl order her coffee, fumble her change at the counter and spill cents and dimes on the floor?

 

She was so nervous, wasn’t she?

 

And how many times had he seen that happen before he’d finally plucked up enough courage to step in and help, and talk to her?

 

The first time, he’d helped trap one of her coins that was rolling across the floor and had handed it back to her. Just a smile and a thank you that time. The next Tuesday morning visit to Tommy’s Bagel House (‘Open All Hours! Best Coffee in Lower Manhattan!’): the same dropped coins and panicked foraging on the floor, but he’d dared to step forward and buy her coffee as she, still flustered, dug into her purse for the rest of the price of a cappuccino.

 

She’d said a nervous, a very shy, thank you. Liam suspected she’d only agreed to sit beside him on a stool perched by the steamy window and sip her coffee awhile out of polite gratitude.

 

But they’d spoken. Her name was Jane. It was her first day starting a new job. Hence the nerves, the fluster. That’s all he got from her. Then she had to go, desperate not to be late on her very first day.

 

When Liam next came to the diner he offered to buy her coffee again, a little more confidently this time, knowing she wouldn’t give him a dismissive New York shrug and tell him to mind his own.

 

He had the advantage over her. He knew her name, knew why she was all on edge, and she …? She was talking to a complete stranger who’d just paid for her coffee.

 

Today, Liam crossed the busy intersection on the edge of Chinatown, trying to count how often he’d sat down with Jane now and shared a few moments. Each Tuesday morning, the moments getting longer, and the poor girl presumably having to hurry along that much faster afterwards to get to work on time.

 

Five minutes later, after the so-familiar coin-chasing routine – he even knew by now which way the dime would roll and which pairs of legs he’d have to weave between to grab it – they sat on their stools and stared out through steamed-up glass.

 

‘So, a new job did you say?’

 

She nodded. ‘My first proper job. I … I can’t believe how lucky I am. You know, it’s not like I have anything more than a high-school diploma.’ She sipped frothy cappuccino and was rewarded with the faintest moustache of foam left on her top lip. ‘I’m so lucky. And, God, I’m so-o-o nervous!’

 

She looked at him. ‘Honestly, I’m totally useless when I’m like this.’

 

Liam smiled, his eyes on her top lip. ‘Aye, you’ll be fine, so you will. First day? Who’d not be nervous?’

 

She returned his smile. Her gaze lingered on him a moment. ‘Is that real?’ she asked, pointing at the plume of grey hair at his temple. ‘Or is it a fashion thing?’

 

‘Ahh … that?’ He self-consciously ruffled his hair. The recent big time jump he’d taken to correct a contamination of the timeline – back sixty-five million years – had done that to him, and turned a tress of his hair almost white. Shocking at first, but then he’d grown used to it. Just as he had the whole experience of being a time traveller. Liam had been plucked from the doomed Titanic as it was sinking into the ocean and transported to 2001. The other recruits, Maddy and Sal, were teenagers like him, also chosen because the absence of their bodies from two other disasters – a passenger airliner exploding mid-air in 2010, and a burning skyscraper in 2026 – would never be missed.

 

The team was still finding their feet. Getting to know each other and work out exactly who was trying to stop the course of history going the way it should, an upset that sent Liam spiralling backwards and forwards in time with no more than some lab-grown super-human bodyguards to protect him.

 

He realized from Jane’s puzzled expresssion that he’d been staring into space. ‘Ah, well, me mother’s side of the family are to blame for that, so they are. The lot of ’em go snow-white the first chance they get.’

 

She laughed. ‘It’s neat. I like it. Looks kinda distinguished.’

 

A pregnant pause. Liam filled it. ‘So what job is it that you’re off to?’

 

‘Nothing too great. A receptionist. I get to smile and say “good morning” a lot.’ She shrugged. ‘I guess I can’t screw that up too much, right?’

 

‘No. Although you might want to, uh …’ He leaned forward, not too much, pointing at her top lip. ‘… you might want to get a little of that froth hanging there.’

 

Jane’s eyes widened. She swiped at her lip. ‘Oh God, how stupid. Is it on my nose too?’

 

He cocked a brow. ‘Well, now …’

 

‘I’m an idiot.’ She touched the tip of her nose – nothing there – then narrowed her eyes at him. ‘Oh, ha ha.’

 

‘I’m sorry.’ He smiled, contrite. ‘So is it far?’

 

‘Huh?’

 

‘Where you’re working. Is it far from here?’

 

‘Oh no, not really. Five minutes. Mind you, on these heels? I should’ve brought some pumps.’

 

Five minutes. Close by, then. Somewhere in lower Manhattan. Two hours from now the blue sky outside was going to be overcast with smoke and dust. What a grim day Tuesday always turned out to be. The Tuesdays always got him down. At least by the end of the day, their field office ‘reset’ returned them to Monday, the day before the world had heard of Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden.

 

‘Where is it … where exactly is this new job?’

 

She grinned at him. So proud of herself. ‘McGuire Investments. In the north tower of the World Trade Center. The view’s just incredible from up there!’

 

*****

 

Liam spent quite a few nights distracted by that. Thinking about it. Thinking, when he really ought to have been reading up on general history. Their recent foray into the prehistoric past might have been a whole lot easier if he’d known at least something about the late Cretaceous era. As it was, he had survived that ordeal, been found and brought home, simply because some bespectacled kid who’d been caught up in the blast back in time did know his stuff about dinosaurs.

 

But homework – learning and filling his mind with facts that might prove useful, life-saving even – was proving difficult. He was seeing her, Jane – seeing her face, then seeing the all-too-familiar slow-motion image of the north tower descending amid its own storm cloud of dust. He’d even tried to do some research to see if Jane was one of the three thousand who never made it out. He had just her first name. But he also had the name of the company she’d started working for that morning.

 

Not being so familiar with computers – technology from a time long after he was supposed to have drowned with fifteen hundred others on the Titanic – he’d asked Maddy to help to pull up the relevant information from the agency database. But he told her he just wanted to know more about the aftermath of 9/11. She’d frowned suspiciously. Maddy was in charge of their team. Only a couple of years older than Liam, eighteen, but almost like a clucking mother-hen figure, she’d narrowed her eyes as she looked at him, but helped him all the same.

 

So now, after checking the database, he knew two more things about her. Her name was Jane Brookhill.

 

And, no, she didn’t make it out of there alive.

 

*****

 

Maddy and Sal were getting intrigued by his regular early-morning trips. Liam explained he’d developed a hankering for pancakes, bacon and maple syrup, something Tommy’s did extremely well. Half true … that was, after all, the original reason he’d begun to make a habit of visiting that diner – an unhealthy, greasy breakfast. Sal joked that he’d end up too fat to fit into the displacement tube, but Liam wasn’t eating anything each time he visited now. Barely touched his own coffee. His stomach churned too much for that every Tuesday morning.

 

Another half a dozen encounters with Jane and he’d learned more about her. For example, she wanted to be a writer, that she was writing a book, but it was all false starts and kludgy prose right now. She loved a band called Nirvana and still couldn’t understand why the band’s singer, called Kurt Cobain, had shot himself. She preferred slobbing around in jeans, a T-shirt and an old cardigan at the weekends.

 

On one occasion, he’d even made a thoughtless, careless, half-baked attempt to dissuade her from going into work that morning. Careless, because it was a change to events, admittedly a small change, but one that might just echo through the years and lead to other more significant disruptions in the future. And Maddy would’ve thrown a hissy fit at him if she’d found out how stupidly reckless he’d been to try something like that. And it was careless, because his suggestion that she skip her first day at work and join him in taking a walk around Central Park had come off sounding like a seedy, inappropriate chat-up line. She’d replied by shuffling uncomfortably for a moment and saying, ‘Uh … I think I better go now.’

 

She’d excused herself and left.

 

Against his better judgement, Liam had made several attempts. Each time, what he’d said had come out sounding just a little bit creepy and stalker-ish. But watching the north tower collapse later that morning – then over and over again every time the field office reset its forty-eight-hour window – was too much. Knowing that Jane Brookhill, so young, so full of hopes and dreams, was somewhere inside that slowly descending nightmare, doomed to die in the most horrific way again, and again, and again … It got to him. And, yes, perhaps he did wonder if they had more than the same coffee routine together, whether there might be something more than just those few shared precious minutes sitting on their stools. So he found himself this particular morning saying something he should never have said.

 

‘Jane Brookhill, I need to tell you something important.’

 

‘Hang on.’ She looked up from her cappuccino. ‘I haven’t told you my name.’

 

She was right; she hadn’t this particular morning. So easy to confuse their almost identical meetings. It didn’t matter. This morning Liam felt he needed to cut to the chase.

 

‘How do you know my –’

 

‘This is important. You need to listen to me!’

 

She looked a little taken aback by his intensity.

 

‘Don’t go to work today. If you do … you’ll die.’

 

Ah Jay-zusLiam, you stupid idiot. What are you doing?

 

‘Uh …’ Her expression changed. Wariness. ‘I … think maybe I better –’

 

Liam leaned forward, lowered his voice. ‘There’s going to be an attack this morning. In a little over an hour a passenger plane will be diverted by terrorists and smashed into the north tower, then another one into the south tower. Three thousand people are going to die.’

 

‘Look … uh …’ She got up off her stool. ‘Thanks very much for the coffee, but I better –’

 

Liam reached out and grasped her hand tightly. ‘I know this makes me sound like crazy, but I know the future. I know it! I’ve seen it!’

 

She tried to pull her hand free.

 

‘Three thousand people are going to die when both them tall towers come down.’ Liam could hear his voice trembling. That wasn’t helping. It made him sound even more like some nut. ‘And, Jane, as sure as anything, you are going to be one of them. You’re going to die.’

 

‘Please,’ she said, her cheeks pinking. ‘You’re hurting me. Please let go of my hand.’

 

Liam realized this wasn’t working. All he was doing was freaking her out. ‘I’ll let go, but if I do … don’t just turn an’ run out on me. Give me a minute of your time. That’s all I’m asking. A minute.’

 

She didn’t nod. He could feel her knuckles flexing in his grasp, trying to twist her hand free.

 

‘Please. One minute. That’s all I’m asking here.’

 

‘I … I have to … please, you’re hurting me.’

 

Liam held on. But then another approach occurred to him. ‘I know you like to write books …’

 

Now that was something else she certainly hadn’t told him this morning.

 

‘You want to be a writer. But you keep starting your book over and over and it never seems right.’

 

He felt her hand stop flexing.

 

‘You like a band called Ner-vana, I think it’s pronounced. You normally prefer hot chocolate, but it makes you sleepy so you chose coffee this morning so you’ll be alert.’ He tried to think of what else she’d told him on other mornings. ‘Oh yes … you wish you’d brought a pair of pumps to walk to work cos those shoes you bought yesterday are killing your feet already.’

 

‘How …?’ She wasn’t pulling away now, but that didn’t mean she was any less freaked out by him. ‘How d-do you know those things?’

 

‘Jane, I’m not crazy.’

 

‘How do you know those things?’

 

Liam winced. This was already too far gone. Stupid and careless.

 

‘Have you been … watching me … or … or … or something?’

 

He looked around the diner. It was far too busy for people to actually pay attention to some young lovers’ low-voiced row. An old woman was watching them from a corner seat, but looked away quickly as Liam met her gaze.

 

‘No … no. Not that. I’m not some sort of a peeping tom.’

 

‘Then you better tell me how come you know so much about me.’ Her tone was firm. A tell-me-now-or-I’m-calling-the-police tone. She sat back down on the stool, a hand reaching absently into her bag and clasping her mobile phone.

 

‘I … I’ll tell you.’ He shook his head. Smiled. ‘I sometimes struggle to believe what I’m about to tell you, meself. But I swear to Jesus ’n’ Mary it’s the truth.’

 

‘Go on.’

 

‘I see the future.’

 

‘What?’

 

And so he told her about the team, their machine, their job … to prevent future time travellers from disrupting the timeline. He didn’t tell her all of it. But enough.

 

*****

 

‘You did what?!’ Maddy looked at him sharply. ‘Please tell me you didn’t just say what I think you did.’

 

Liam looked down at the floor, guilty as a whipped puppy. ‘She … probably didn’t believe me anyway. I just thought that one less victim wouldn’t do any har–’

 

‘You frikkin’ idiot, Liam!’ Maddy clenched her eyes shut. ‘That’s exactly what we’re not supposed to do! Change things!’

 

‘It’s not a big change. Just one person, Maddy. That’s all.’

 

They were alone in their Brooklyn archway. Sal and the support units were doing a laundry run. All the same she lowered her voice. ‘And what do you think Foster would have to say about that? Huh? Oh, it’s just one person, is it? Well, I guess that’s fine. Just don’t make too much of a habit of it?’ She opened her eyes and glared through her glasses at him. ‘One person alive who shouldn’t be … even one very ordinary person, that’s enough to de-rail history, Liam.’

 

Foster. The old man who’d recruited and trained them. And for what? They still didn’t know why they’d been chosen for this impossible task of saving history. Liam sighed. ‘She’s just a girl. Just a plain old ordinary office girl. Just –’

 

‘A girl who may one day meet a nice guy, fall in love and have a son. A son who one day might just miss a red light at an intersection and crash into another car. A car occupied by some person who one day might have been destined to do something very important … and now never will because he or she died in a traffic accident. It’s all connected, Liam! You know that! You know that better than anyone else!’ Maddy clenched her teeth. ‘Now we’ve got us a problem. So then … what was her name?’

 

‘Jane. Jane Brookhill.’

 

‘And the other day … that was you checking whether she died, wasn’t it?’

 

Liam nodded. ‘And she did.’

 

Maddy sighed. ‘Right, well, there’s nothing here on the database right now that we can check.’ She took off her glasses and rubbed her eyes. ‘You’re going to have to go forward in time and find out if she did listen to you and duck out of work. You’re going to have to go forward, track her down and find out if her extended life has changed history in any discernible way.’

 

‘And if she survived … but she doesn’t change history at all …?’

 

‘It’s highly unlikely, Liam. Everything we do has some sort of an impact.’

 

‘But didn’t Foster say that history wants to go a certain way? That it can cope with a little …’ He tried to find the right word ‘… a little meandering?’

 

‘Well, I guess that’s what you’re going to have to find out: how much meandering exactly she’s caused as a result of surviving. If she has survived, that is.’

 

‘Aye.’ He nodded. ‘All right.’ He took a shuffled step towards her. ‘I’m sorry, Mads. I realize it was foolish, so it was.’

 

Recklessly, idiotically stupid is what it was. And, quite honestly, I’m inclined to let you sort this out by yourself.’

 

‘Uh … I’m not so good on the computer side of things, Maddy.’

 

‘I know. Which is why I’m going to have to help you.’ She sucked on the lid of a pen, deep in thought. ‘OK, we’ll have to drop, say, a dozen years forward. I guess that’s enough time to start with. See if she’s going to make her mark on the timeline … or not.’

 

‘You’re coming with me?’

 

‘Duh. Of course. You’re rubbish enough at dealing with the Internet in 2001. God knows how you’d cope with it in 2013.’

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