We were nine years old the winter of 1963, old enough to find the girls at St. Patrick’s Orphanage curious, and young enough to believe a time machine made of cardboard and milk crates would help us find mothers. Secretly, we wished for reunions with our real mothers—from whom we’d inherited birthmarks, or dimples, or large freckles and crooked teeth—but we feared jinxing it were we too picky. Instead we envisioned mothers who cooked spaghetti al dente and grilled lamb chops. Mothers who baked yellow cupcakes while wearing small gingham aprons and listening to Frank Sinatra. We were certain we wanted blondes, but we’d settle for brunettes. No Jews, no red heads. No more smoked cod with gravy and boiled potatoes. No more rice pudding and fish oil. And no more of Sister Boulanger’s scalded hot cocoa that left a film inside our mouths and across our tongues.
We began building the time machine the month before, when Bastian brought a copy of Boy’s Life to Latin class to show us an article about the Soviet’s Luna II moon landing. “If the communists can do it,” he said, “we can too.” No one contested his statement. Excitement rattled us, kept us awake nights, planning our spacecraft. We snuck art supplies when our favorite teacher, Mme Henri, wasn’t looking. Though we had to re-imagine the inside of the craft to fit our bodies, we designed it entirely from the photograph of Luna II. Attempts at rounding the cardboard and securing pieces together with tape, much like a puzzle, never worked. Our spacecraft stayed round until one of us got inside; then it quickly fell apart. This—the falling apart—happened recurrently as we tried to shape our machine like Luna II. Eventually we settled on a square construction as none of us could propose a spherical alternative.
We neared defeat as the weeks passed, until someone suggested that going to the moon would be less desirable than going back in time. We needed mothers, not Martians. Just when we thought of giving up, we heard the soft cries of the younger boys down the hall. Late night whimpers. Small pleadings for their mothers. It strengthened our new mission—our heroic quest. If we could build a time machine, and travel to locate mothers, we decided, one of us would come back to the orphanage and bring the rest of the children. We could save everyone.
The spacecraft already had a Styrofoam steering console, a magnetic compass, and two small breathing tubes made of electrical tape. It would be an easy transition to a time machine, Bastian assured us. After all, Flash Gordon and Dr. Zarkov traveled faster than the speed of light during the Skorpii Wars, so we scoured our tattered comics for hidden clues. Jean-Luc, a husky boy with red hair and a perpetual runny nose, offered his bow and arrow to the mission. “Just in case we miscalculate,” he said, “and end up in the Trojan War, or something.”
“We can’t miscalculate,” we said, “we need to go back to 1950.” We thought the best mothers would be there; after all, the Sisters often complained that the sixties were an embarrassment to decency and civility. They attributed the fact that there were so many children uncared for; there were so many unwanteds, as they called us, to these liberated years.
We’d vowed not to tell any of the girls or the nuns at the orphanage about our time machine, not even Marguerite—cherubic Marguerite whom we admired from a distance. Smooth and olive skinned, she had cheeks that never blushed. Even while she played in the cold and snow, and all of us were sweating and chaffed, her skin remained doll like, satiny. She talked like one of us too, about inventions and underground cities and trips to the moon.
Sister Mary Anselm, the youngest nun at St. Patrick’s, found a notebook with our preliminary sketches—mostly of the engine housing, and control panel—and hesitantly gave it back to us. “You need to focus on mathematics and history lessons,” she said. “This science fiction is nonsense.” Having transferred from St. Joseph of Toronto in July that year, Mary Anselm refused to believe that people in Montreal would be kindly to such a young and seemingly uncultured sister—especially one who didn’t speak French. Mary Anselm almost always stayed behind as the sisters headed for the city to shop for personals. We knew because we watched from our dorm window, the crew of us straining to see over one another’s heads, our young limbs weaving in and out like a human basket.
The orphanage, while quite big and brimming with children, was set back from the road in the center of a long, narrow plot of land. It had a misshaped circular driveway that we pretended was a racetrack. The building had four stories, with two wings and dormer windows that we used to spy on passers by. The gymnasium, next door to the sanctuary, doubled as a living room on weekends. Saturday nights, we watched Ozzie and Harriet on a small television set wheeled in on a baker’s cart. Then we returned to our dormitory to play elimination Chinese checkers. We called the winner Ricky for the rest of the week. We all fantasized about being one of the mythical Nelson family, having a mother like Harriet. Mornings, we woke and realized we were still boys not named Ricky, still motherless.
The United States, more specifically New York City, was high on our list of potential time travel destinations. Some boys thought to stay in Quebec, others fought hard for Toronto, and Vancouver. We chose Boston, Massachusetts, in the end, for the obvious probability of finding a nice Irish Catholic mother who would understand our needs and perhaps be impressed with our ability to recite scripture. Though really, we simply wanted our own rooms, and cotton rather than wool blankets. We wanted Velcro shoes and new Corgi cars. The Dinkys we had at St. Pat’s had been played with and passed around for many years, and the die-cast wheels didn’t spin. We’d read that new cars had axels that spun even in sand, and we wanted them. Wanted one of each new toy, each new invention. So much happening in the world, and we felt we were missing out on every bit of it. We dreamed of beginning again: another chance to have a real family, to go to public schools, and wear denim pants and baseball caps.
Our classrooms, punctuated by two rectories, lacked the energy and individuality of the public schools we’d heard about. Housed above a parlor, rumored to have been boarded up after a sister hanged herself inside, the classrooms had tall ceilings that lent a perpetual echo to lectures. Cold air drafted in through old windowpanes that shook in the faintest wind. We stuck horseshoe shaped felt stickers to our favorite places on classroom maps until the wall maps looked like they had chicken pox. Mother Superior gave Sister Mary Anselm a talking to, and the stickers were taken down. Eventually we retrieved them and the stickers became the buttons of our time machine control panel. Ω Eject. Ω Emergency stop. Ω 08:00 EST - 03/01/1950. Ω Abort Mission.
Painted in gradations of brown, the walls inside St. Pat’s had ornate off-white trim that we decided looked like butter cream icing, good enough to eat. Group of Seven prints hung in the main hall and in the poorly lit reading room, where we pretended to read and practiced secret hand signals and other nonverbal communications for our mission. Wild pheasants lurked around apple trees behind St. Pat’s in the fall, and the Monsignor would come every winter to fill in the small football field with water for ice skating. We’d come to Beaver Lake if we walked far enough North, through the cemetery, up Mount Royal. We searched for any excuse to leave the Outremont for center city and St. Catherine Street, where we sometimes watched as the girls admired window displays at Ogilvy’s. We waited until they walked away then lay on our backs to look up mannequins’ skirts. Marc Durand claimed he saw one of the mannequins without undergarments. We knew better. The mannequins at Ogilvy’s were always disappointingly and properly covered.
Dr. Phillips, who lived in Beaconsfield, donated his services to the orphanage, and checked us orphans twice a year. The latest outbreak wasn’t a fever or any mental illness; it was Father Hartigan, head cook at St. Pat’s. He had TB, and all of us needed to have our chests x-rayed. There was talk of canceling the Irishman of the Year Ball and consecutive parade, in order to save money to pay for doctor fees. The Monsignor wouldn’t hear of it. “Too many Jews moving into the Outremont,” he said. “Important for us to uphold tradition in the name of our heritage.”
Consequently, many of us went without the x-ray; there was never enough money. Mme Henri, a painter and artist, exaggerated the word artist, drawing it out like it was the only adjective she had to describe herself; she complained during Art lessons about the lack of money. “Mon Dieu,” she’d repeat over and over, trying to find enough full-sized charcoal pieces for us all. “We are in a crisis.” She’d touch our shoulders. “Please, please share with your neighbor.” The sisters watched our skin for pallor and weighed us more frequently than usual. If anyone even laughed too hard or fast, or made a sound resembling a cough, they were sent to the nurse. Everyone was afraid. Fear claimed our free time, bath time, reading time. We talked in hushed voices, speculating who would be first to catch the disease and die. None of our crew, we were sure. Besides, we thought we would soon be gone. We thought our time machine might actually work. Might actually take us away from St. Patrick’s Orphanage. Though some doubts lingered—talk of it never working—we needed it to work and so we believed. After all, we’d never actually seen God, but Mother Superior promised He was with us. We thought He’d make it work.
* * *
It was when Marguerite found out about our time machine that everything seemed to change. We were in the boys’ dining room when we heard about her latest visit with the Millers. The couple that had been thinking of adopting Marguerite for quite some time.
Though none of us admitted it, we’d all fallen mute when Marguerite began speaking to us that day after chapel. It was the first time in a long time any of us had felt lucky. We stood taller, smoothing the pinafore-like bibs we wore to chapel with our sticky palms. After a few false starts and an embarrassing series of stutters, Marguerite began to cry. Still silent, we looked to each other. Surely someone was going to say something, comfort her. We didn’t. She collected herself and then her expression changed. She looked angry. “I know,” she said. “I know you’ve got a time machine in the lung.”
The lung, a nickname for the crawl space in the attic that connected the girls’ wing and ours, was large enough for five kids at a time, but too narrow in the center to crawl all the way through. An old plastic cup with a hole carved in its bottom, attached to a string, snaked the length of the lung, connecting both sides. It was some long ago orphan’s failed attempt at communicating with the girls. Bastian obsessed over the cup, said the plastic was too hard and needed to be made out of something thinner and lighter, like rice paper, if we wanted to hear each other.
“I want to go with you,” Marguerite said. “I need to get out of here.”
We scanned each other’s faces for signs of guilt. We’d vowed not to tell. It meant there was a rat among us. “Well,” Pomeroy paused and then said, “we needed a clock, and Margot said that there was a little Ben in the sewing room behind the girls’ dormitory. I just thought. Well, I thought to ask Marguerite because she’s the smartest girl. Margot wouldn’t do it. She’s too scared of Sister Mary Donald.”
Nearly six inches shorter than Bastian, Pomeroy wore his pants cinched with twine and cuffed thrice at the ankles. He and his sister, Margot, often overlooked due to their smallness and timidity, had been at St. Pat’s only two years. Left off after their parents died in an automobile accident.
“A clock?” we sneered. “You told the girls just for a clock?”
“Wait a second.” Pomeroy narrowed his gaze on Marguerite. “Why do you want to come with us? Aren’t you being adopted?”
Marguerite hung her head. She twisted her feet like a pigeon, the toes of her burgundy leather shoes touching.
“Tell us,” Pomeroy insisted.
Marguerite lifted her head. “Mrs. Miller is pregnant. She says there isn’t going to be room in the new apartment for me, so I have to get out of here.”
We didn’t know what that meant to Marguerite at the time, but we could tell she was suffering. In many ways, it lent her an urgency we’d never experienced. We’d never been so close to the dream of family. It had never been as alive in us.
It was true that we’d needed a clock, but by Bastian’s calculations we needed an electric clock, not some chintz wind-up. Marguerite assured us she had one, and would happily turn it over, were we to guarantee her a seat. “Not on the first trip,” we said, trying to convince her it was too dangerous, that we very well could end up directly in the center of the Trojan War. Furthermore, we hadn’t negotiated how to stop the time machine once we were traveling at the speed of light. Our atoms would be broken to electrons and neutrons and tiny dust-like particles. We weren’t sure how we’d pull the stop lever. Someone had suggested putting Ahern in a suit made of rubber to protect him from combustion, so he could pull the lever when needed. Ahern, of course, didn’t like the idea, as Bastian wasn’t sure his atoms could survive the mission wearing only rubber. We’d anticipated our atoms coming back together like energy.
“I’ll do it,” Marguerite said. “I’ll pull the stop lever, or button, or whatever. I won’t let you down.”
Children like Marguerite lived a different life than the rest of us; they were confident in ways we couldn’t understand. Most of the potential parents that visited St. Pat’s wanted the younger children, the babies, but still, some wanted pretty girls like Marguerite—well behaved and ready to help with chores. The parents were alive and they had names and faces and arms that they used to hug their potential adopted children. It was a consoling reality we’d never known; no one had ever chosen one of us. The Millers spent eight and a half months promising to take Marguerite home. She didn’t hide this, but she’d learned to make excuses for them. She used to claim Mr. Miller had a new job, and while the rest of us ate cold cabbage and white beans, she would soon feast on sophisticated meals prepared by a mother wearing department store dresses. “My new mother is un très bon cuisinier,” she’d said. “We will have lace tablecloths.” We didn’t care about lace tablecloths, even when she licked her lips before saying table and again before cloth. We didn’t care—we just liked watching her hopeful face. Now her eyes welled with tears like the Kewpie dolls younger girls carried in their sweater pockets.
“Please,” she said. “I can do it.”
Bastian spoke first. “Well, Marguerite,” he said. “You’re behind. You have a lot of catching up to do. There are certain protocols to this. You’ll have to train for the mission.” We thought he was insane; we couldn’t bring a girl. We’d overheard Sister Mary Donald talking to the Monsignor in the rectory, door ajar. She’d said that girls as young as grade five were bleeding. She called it an epidemic. We’d known older girls bled, and though we didn’t say so, we worried Marguerite might bleed in our time machine. Sister Mary Donald also said the girls would be a mite hysterical when it was their time. We couldn’t risk hysteria. Everything had to be just so. There was a chance our machine would never work, and though we didn’t speak of this, it lingered in us all. Our denial kept us safe from the truth in those weeks.
Marguerite threw her arms around Bastian’s shoulders. We watched his arms go limp at his sides, and it seemed he lifted ever so slightly off the ground, on the balls of his feet. She started to speak and her chewing gum fell from her mouth and landed on Bastian’s shoe. We all chuckled a bit, remembering the time we’d seen Marguerite stick her unsweetened spearmint gum beneath a pew in Chapel, and how at dinner time Bastian snuck a butter knife into his smock. We’d felt our way through the dark, our knees burning, to scrape her gum and save it. We thought about chewing it, taking turns, passing it carefully in a circle. We wondered what her mouth would taste like, whether chewing her gum was as close as we’d get to kissing her. Unanimously, we’d voted to hang Marguerite’s gum from a shoelace that we secured with a half-hitch knot to a breathing hole in our time machine—a good luck charm.
“I’m sorry.” She picked the gum from Bastian’s foot, blew on it and popped it back in her mouth. We were in a trance watching her. Perhaps she wasn’t going to ruin our mission after all. We excused ourselves and huddled in the corner. Pomeroy took out a pencil and loose-leaf paper. We instructed him to write the following: I, Marguerite Lemay, solemnly swear to not tell any of the nuns and especially not the Monsignor about the time machine. I also promise to not tell any other girls, or so help me God. “Now sign it,” we said, pushing Jean-Luc until he bent at the waist, so Marguerite could use his back like an easel. Her cursive was near perfect, big L little e big M little a y. It looked official.
“Wait,” Bastian said, “We need to make it a pact.” He borrowed Jean-Luc’s fountain pen and started with his own hand. He pressed the tip until black ink covered the surface of his thumb. Then made an imprint on the letter. Jean-Luc went next, then Ahern, and Pomeroy, Marguerite the last. Within minutes we’d all signed.
Most of us couldn’t sleep that night. Twisting and turning, throwing our covers off, sitting up and exclaiming things like, “We need batteries.” Or, “How are we going to break through the atmosphere?” Or, “Do you think Marguerite likes Bastian?” Our minds raced and we answered each other’s questions seriously, like a test. We concluded the atmosphere wouldn’t matter, it was simply speed needed. We concluded that it didn’t matter if Marguerite had a crush on Bastian. We concluded that yes, more supplies were needed, and no one, not even Bastian, had any idea how we would get them.
A low moan woke us in the middle of the night. It buzzed and hummed. We thought it was the younger boys down the hall, until someone said it was coming from the lung. We moved Pomeroy’s bed and unlatched the secret door. The hum persisted. Ahern crawled inside. He felt his way in through the dark, about six feet. “Hey,” he whispered to us. “Someone’s in here.”
What did he mean, someone? Impossible. We told him to answer the moans. He tried to mimic the sound, but his voice cracked and returned a high-pitched almost painful call. He said the plastic cup was moving, pulled deeper into the lung. “Pull it back,” we ordered. Gently at first and then, when he felt resistance, he pulled harder. A pillowcase wrapped and knotted on both ends had been secured to the girls’ cup. We discovered a note inside from Marguerite, pages of notes, actually, and a small key with three dull teeth tied with a rose colored ribbon to a map of Beaver Lake. She must’ve stayed awake all night making preparations. The title of her letter: Irishman of the Year. Of course, we thought, the ball. Marguerite was the smartest girl ever. Sisters, staff and the Monsignor would be at the ball on December the fifteenth, a perfect getaway date.
Marguerite’s note indicated the key would open the parlor on the second floor. We’d no idea how it’d ended up in Marguerite’s possession. She assured us the parlor housed everything we’d need. Her note also detailed instructions for the night of the fifteenth. We, the boys, would sneak the time machine out after dinner, hefting it up Mount Royal to Beaver Lake, where we’d meet Marguerite. The snow will be plentiful, she wrote. In the parlor you’ll locate something on which we’ll rest our beloved time machine, and while I steer, you boys will give me a magnificent push, thrusting us downhill. Once inside we’ll gain momentum and the speed necessary to leave the Outremont, once and for all. She signed the note with faint leftover ink from her thumb, and her initials: MSL
We couldn’t fall back asleep. Four weeks until freedom.
* * *
Sneaking into the parlor proved as arduous as anticipated. We were piloted from class to lunch to class to dinner to chapel to bed, nearly every day that week. Sister Mary Donald and the others were busy preparing for the Irishman of the Year Ball, bustling about, tensions high. We waited until Sunday night when we were positive the Sisters had exhausted themselves into deep sleep. We called it a practice run. We made Pomeroy lead the way, with Bastian in the back, watching for Father Hartigan, who slept on a cot in a small room much like a closet beside our dorm. He was rumored to be a drinker; we settled ourselves with thoughts of Hartigan passed out drunk.
The key slipped into the lock almost too easily. It happened so quickly that recounting the inside of that parlor now is onerous. Our expectations blurred our perceptions, and we smelled what we later decided was suicide in the air. Dust covered nearly every surface, and what wasn’t covered in plastic seemed eaten, gnawed at by moths or time. We’d stolen Marc Durand’s Boy Scout flashlight, and the four of us stood shoulder to shoulder sharing the small beam and narrow walkway. “What are we looking for?” Pomeroy whispered.
“Anything,” we said. “Anything to hold the machine like a giant sled.”
“And seats,” Ahern said. “We need something to sit on, don’t we?”
Bastian shushed him. “It’s already decided. We’ll sit Indian style on the floor of the time machine and link arms. It’s the safest way to maintain our trajectory.” Besides, we didn’t have enough room in the lung for more contraband. Our stash had grown exceptionally over the past month. We’d filled large saddlebags with our keepsakes. Like a time capsule, except we’d never bury it; we were taking it with us.
Bastian saw it first, wedged between a gilded ornate mirror and a thin, mite infested mattress. We didn’t know what it was, but it was thin, made of metal and in one large sheet. Much like a foot hanging over the edge of a sled, we couldn’t risk overlapping, so Jean-Luc went about measuring to be sure the time machine would rest on it completely. The rest of us watched, jaws clenched. If this wasn’t precise, measurements exact, we might spill over, we might not get enough speed.
Outside the storm began. Fat flakes clung to the windows and filled the yard surrounding the orphanage. Mme Henri called it a Nor’easter. Snow collected on everything, up the sides of the trees, filling in our ice rink. We wiped circles into the condensation of the windows and peered outside. “This is good,” Bastian said. “It’s not heavy. We need this thick snow. At least a foot.” There was already more than a foot on the ground and the low clouds seemed unrelenting. We were ready. As for the time machine, well, we left that up to Bastian. He tinkered with it late nights, carefully addressing every inch of cardboard. He took a very long time reinforcing each side with double then triple layers of drywall that we’d found in the parlor. Bastian managed to steal magnets and two medium-sized Mason jars from grade four’s classroom. He practiced stringing them together a fraction of an inch apart, fighting the polarity. “Atoms,” he called them. The idea was to eliminate the necessity of electricity by placing the magnets in glass jars and shaking them, feverishly, on impact. “The atoms will create a plasma bubble,” he said, “and then a black hole.” The black hole, he said, was our entry into hyperspace. He’d read an article describing the latest invention of black holes, this was years before wormholes would be discovered, but Bastian was approximating that type of space travel.
Marguerite sent a safety checklist through the lung and at first Bastian found it annoying. Yet, after inspection, he discovered that Marguerite was that rare kind of girl who thought ahead. She’d found shellac in an old pine cupboard in a supply closet. Coat it heavily, she wrote in her note. Every inch, and repeat. Pomeroy worried the smell would alert Father Hartigan. He pleaded with Bastian to reconsider.
Pomeroy did that then, shirked his involvement—as if he knew we’d be caught. “We’ll tell the Monsignor it was all Marguerite’s idea,” he said. “When he finds out.”
“No,” Bastian said. “We won’t. She’s proved invaluable and the time machine is stronger because of her. Besides,” he said, “We’re not getting caught.”
“You like her,” Pomeroy teased. “You’re a traitor, always talking to the girls, like some kind of Judas.”
“That’s it,” Bastian looked to the rest of us. “Pomeroy’s not coming. I swear to God if we let Pomeroy in the time machine, he’ll jinx it.”
Pomeroy’s fat cheeks sunk in, he chewed their insides, his lips round and pout. Bastian held his sticky shellac’d hands around Pomeroy’s face, enough pressure to elicit fear. “Shut your mouth up,” he said.
“If you don’t stop acting like a girl, no one will want to be your mother.”
“The time machine isn’t even going to work, Bastian.” Pomeroy’s statement shriveled us. “You’re playing make believe with us, and this isn’t fair.”
Bastian assured us Pomeroy didn’t know what he was talking about. “Pomeroy can’t even pass fifth grade science,” Bastian said. “Who do you want to believe? Him or me?”
Something started to change in us that night. Call it desperation, call it nervousness, call it jubilant anticipation and expectation. For five days, the Outremont filled slowly with young white snowfall. We decided it was God come to help us find mothers. He’d likely regretted taking them away in the first place, and the Nor’easter, our Nor’easter was his attempt at reconciliation.
Sister Mary Donald called a meeting, same as in years past, in the Gymnasium, night of the fourteenth. We’d been sent to our dorm under the supervision of Hartigan, and the girls to theirs under Mme. Henri. It was the last and final note from Marguerite and it we all felt it, like hives, growing on our skin, she was setting the time. Ten o’clock, top of Mount Royal, she wrote, Do Not Be Late. Mass was cancelled the following day, and as civilians from around Montreal, some all the way from Saint Constant and Longueuil, filed into St. Pat’s, we watched from our window, admiring the men in their long pea coats and the women’s coiffed hair. This was to be the grandest of all Irishman of the Year Balls to date. “We are blessed with riches,” the Monsignor lectured that morning during breakfast. “Be well and scarce tonight,” he ordered. “Sleep the sleep of fortunate children.”
At seven-thirty we changed into our long pajamas, pulled our socks up around our calves, brushed our teeth, and wet our hair down. Father Hartigan turned down the lights and bid us dream the dreams of little warriors. His speech already slurred.
* * *
We bribed the younger boys as lookouts, and they did exactly as directed, stood guard like border dogs, ready to signal at the first sign of threat. Once outside, we sunk nearly to our knees in crunchy hardened snow. “It’s fine,” Bastian said. “The top of Mount Royal will have more powder.” Pomeroy and Ahern dragged the piece of sheet metal behind as the rest of us pushed our time machine laboriously up the hill. We navigated through the cemetery at its widest plot of land. We imagined the dead orphans, their names engraved on tombstones, cheered for us. Our strength unparalleled, we trudged on.
Marguerite waited for us at the top, as promised, her long brown hair curling from beneath her knit hat. She smiled, asked what took us so long, in a joking lilting sort of way, of course. This was it. We imagined our descent down the mountain, through time. We imagined the mothers waiting for us, arms outstretched, their red lipstick staining our cheeks and necks with affections. Our fingers felt frozen and we folded our arms to warm them. The lake had frozen over; its edges barely recognizable save the small indentation of snow. God had given us the sled of our life, and as the wind picked up and whistled in our frostbitten ears, we strained to hear each other. “Set it up,” Bastian said, as Pomeroy rested his weight against the sheet metal, holding it vertically as its edges sunk into the deepest snow. “Hurry."
Just then she appeared from behind the large and leafless maple that we’d all spent summer afternoons climbing. Her hair was matted, her little pink ears sadly exposed, snot frozen to her lip. “What on earth?” Bastian shouted, his voice carrying down the hill like an avalanche. “Why is Margot here?”
We looked to Pomeroy. He seemed surprised at his sister’s presence. But not Marguerite, no, she put her arm around Margot’s small frame and palmed wisps of frozen hair from her reddened cheeks. “She’s coming too,” Marguerite said. “We can’t leave her behind. She’ll miss her brother dearly.” And as if Marguerite anticipated our rebuttal, she added, “Besides, she’s so small, it won’t affect our trajectory.”
We’d calculated the weight, the size; we’d practiced our positions too many times to know that there would never be room for one more, no matter how sleight. It soured us to think Margot would be the one to undo all of our hard work. “Absolutely not,” Bastian said. “Go back, now,” he demanded, squinting at Margot, intimidating her. “You weren’t invited. You didn’t even help us. You’re a chicken shit, that’s what your brother says.”
Pomeroy let the metal sheet fall to the side, its weight causing a cloud of feather-like snow swirling in the air. He went to his sister, coddled her. “It could work,” he said. “I’ll put her in my lap. She can hold on round my waist.”
“You’re an idiot, Pomeroy” Bastian said, “In fact, if you keep this up, we’re not taking you either.” He looked at the rest of us, “If we leave him behind, we’ll have an even greater chance for success.”
We should have stopped it then. With super human strength, Pomeroy dragged the metal, sliding it over to our feet as we stood in a semi-circle. “Jesus, you guys,” he said. “Help me set it up.”
Bastian had been our unofficial leader. We hesitated making a move without his approval. Once he began lifting the time machine from a bottom corner, the rest of us bent down to help. About eight feet from the edge of where Mount Royal began its sloped decent to the cemetery, we stopped to catch our breath. We admired our creation. It was the size of a refrigerator box, and nearly as tall as it was long. Marguerite had given us a beautiful blue paint that we used to make circles and dots and general squiggly lines across. Margot, who until that point cowered behind Marguerite, spoke. She asked if she and her brother could be reunited with their real parents. “After all,” she said, her eyes cast down, “they’ll be alive again if we go back far enough.”
Bastian let go of the breathing tube he’d gripped while hefting the machine onto its sled. “What didn’t you understand about there not being enough room for you, Margot?” And with that, Bastian gave her a light push, his open palms on each of her shoulders. Margot lost her balance and fell back into the deep snow. Bastian hadn’t intended for her to fall over; he bent at the waist, his hand extended to help her up. Pomeroy, in a quick shot we didn’t see coming, booted Bastian right in the gut. And then again across the face. And then again atop his back, between his shoulder blades. Pomeroy stomped on him until we pulled back.
Bastian, on his feet, buzzed with adrenaline and said, “Let him go. Let the pansy go.”
We restrained Pomeroy, though he wasn’t fighting us, his exhausted body limp in our arms. None of us had ever fought before. We’d argued and placed bets and watched as the loser ate a stick of stolen butter or licked a dirty bar of soap. We’d slapped our own knuckles with rulers to test our pain threshold. We’d tried to hyperextend our own arms. We’d put pinholes in our kneecaps with sharpened pencils. We’d tried to hurt ourselves, but never each other.
The punches Bastian threw next with a closed fist were those of a man, not a boy. Marguerite and Margot pleaded for him to stop. We held Pomeroy erect, even after his knees had given out. The three of us held him like a doll—a puppet. The last punch Bastian threw hit Pomeroy square in the nose and its force knocked us all over. We wriggled free from the weight of Pomeroy’s body and turned him over, his face in the snow. We didn’t say so, but most of us thought he’d died. Blood soaked the snow around his head, where his weight had left an angel-like depression. None of us moved, not even to flip him over. Afraid, we turned toward our time machine.
We knew we were in for it, a trouble none of us had imagined. But Bastian was for the worse. Marguerite had started down the hill on foot, holding Margot’s hand, pulling her forward. Without thinking, Ahern gave Bastian a nudge toward the time machine. “Get in,” he ordered. “Now, hurry.”
“What about you guys?” Bastian, for the first time, looked frightened. Pomeroy’s body lay still.
We decided Bastian needed to go alone. He had to leave, right then. The Monsignor would soon be alerted. The sisters and Father Hartigan and Mme Henri would be on their way to discover Pomeroy’s body. We had no other choice. Bastian crawled inside, gripping the glass jar of atoms, his hands shaking. “Wait,” he said, “what if I can’t stop it?” We assured him he must, as there was no other choice. With one punch he’d secured a new trajectory.
Bastian squeezed the steering console, his legs folded in dampness inside the box. “Ready?” we said, and he said, “Ready.” And then, together we started pushing him closer to the ledge.
We thought of the mothers we’d be missing as we selflessly hefted the time machine with all our weight. All our hard work Bastian had stolen from us in a moment of rage. “Faster,” Bastian shouted from inside, “You need to go faster.” At the ledge, we turned back toward Pomeroy’s body, which seemed sunken deeper into the snow. “Now,” Bastian said. “You’ll have to run behind me for a bit, keep me in a straight line.” We tried to secure our mittened hands on the corners. Jean-Luc, out of breath, stood in the middle, his weight against the top. We heaved it over the ledge, losing our grips simultaneously. We watched as our time machine took off, gaining speed, separating the snow like a boat slicing water.
Soon, it was out of sight.
* * *
We didn’t speak as we marched down steep Mount Royal, following the time machine’s tracks. Each of us thought there’d be no story to tell. The girls would recount what happened in detail. We knew our involvement secured an unbearable punishment, and we took our time. The snow fell harder, and we covered our faces. Only faint moonlight led us home.
We tried to think of a time—any time—when we’d played a game, or ice skated, or counted lima beans on our plates instead of eating them, when Pomeroy hadn’t been with us. He’d been the first to build castles in the mud pits of spring. The first to steal a sanitary napkin from the nurse’s office so we could see what one looked like. The first to help when any of us forgot to do our history assignments. St. Pat’s without Pomeroy would never be the same.
Ahern spotted it first. The time machine, broken in pieces, splayed across the shoveled perimeter of our ice rink. We hurried toward the wreckage. Sister Mary Anselm, wearing only her scapula, no coat, no hat, with her dirty blonde hair pinned back in a small chignon, hollered at us. “What have you boys done? What is all this?”
We searched for Bastian. “It’s nothing,” we said.
“Don’t give me those sinful lies,” she scolded. “Ahern, tell me what has happened here. What have you done?”
We crossed our fingers for Ahern to keep our secret. “We made a sled,” he said. “We wanted to go sledding, is all.”
“Marguerite is hysterical,” she said, “And Margot as well. Mme Henri has taken them to the infirmary. Where is Pomeroy?”
We pointed up the hill.
“You’ve left him behind?” She raised her hand as if to slap one or all of us. “Precisely,” she said, “Tell me precisely where he is.”
We explained he was lying beneath the old maple tree near Beaver Lake. He’d passed out, was all. She demanded we go inside as she lifted her robe and started up the hill. We kicked off our boots in the entryway, stripped our outer coats, leaving a trail all the way to our dormitory. We could hear music still playing from the gymnasium. He’d done it, we thought. Bastian had traveled the speed of light. We imagined him in 1950, a proud expression on his face, exploring the streets of Boston. He’d probably already found a nice woman to feed and clothe him, to give him love. “Do you think his body survived it?” Ahern asked.
“Of course, you dummy,” we said. “It’s the atoms. He was holding the atoms in his hands.”
Father Hartigan came into our room first. He had lost that sloppy look. His shirt now tucked, his eyes focused. “Get in bed now,” his voice echoed. “All of you. Right now.” We made our mouths into shapes, ready to ask why, but fell mute.
Unsure of where we’d gone wrong, we climbed into our beds, wet with defeat, and chilled. We pulled the covers over our faces and he turned out the lights.