A wooden door in a grey brick building, partially open.

There are only three cardinal rules in time-traveling, and I may just be about to break every one of them.

In the decade that I’ve been working for the Ministry of Transtemporal Travel, I’ve never come close to even bending a rule. The Ministry had burned into us all too well what they were capable of doing. I’ve had co-agents over the years “relocate” or “get reassigned”–Myron in ’01, Joan in ’03–when the Ministry thought they approached the lines, let alone crossed them.

My recent sessions with Dr. Gwen have been relentlessly focused on trying to uncover my childhood experiences. I’m trying not to hold it against her, but there isn’t much to dig into about our lives before working for the Ministry. We all took the vow, we all signed the contract. 

What would you tell your six-year-old self, Dr. Gwen asks. 

I sit here, dumbfounded, not a single snide or sarcastic comment in my mind when a vivid image appears before me. A girl on a bench in a dingy hallway, her feet barely touching the ground, and her eyes fixed at the door, waiting. 

And I know now I have a reason to break the rules, a reason I’d never had before. 

I promise it’s a good one. 

Rule #1: Ensure that your attire and mannerisms match your timeline.

Obvious. One does not enter a portal with clothes from an incongruous era. The flappers would no doubt be appalled at my tight jeans and oversized shirt. Even if more than half the population of America were drunk out of their minds during that decade, my unusual outfit would have surely attracted attention. 

One of the first things the Ministry burns into you: You don’t ever. Want. Attention. 

Luckily, the Ministry excels at preparation. We specialize in periods and epochs so we blend in. Our beloved Style department makes sure our outfits and accessories very closely resemble original materials from specified years. 

They’ve learned a thing or two ever since a seamstress from 1893 approached Carol the time she went to the Progressive Era to inquire about the fabric of her dress. Turns out some people have an eye for these things and can tell linen from polyester, something not yet invented at the time. Carol’s Ensemble Assistant who was tasked to make sure her attire matched the timeline was not only fired but was accused of deliberately sabotaging a mission. We never heard about her again. 

Lydia would never be caught making such a careless mistake. My specialty is the 1920s and 1930s, but Lydia knows the decades of the history of fashion like she’s lived through them all. It made me proud to overhear her berating another assistant about sending her agent to the late 90s in bright leggings and shoulder pads. 

Lydia would’ve created the perfect outfit up to the challenge of today, but she doesn’t exactly know about my impromptu trip. 

The Style department’s warehouse is practically a ghost town, save for a few prepping for the week ahead given that no outbound missions happen on Sundays. No one bats an eye when I pull out clothes from a rack. I doubt anyone would miss them by the sheer number of fabrics of all kinds in one corner alone. Besides, I’m only borrowing for a few hours. 

I pull down the sleeves of my neon green off-the-shoulder top, wondering if I should pick the tight leggings to match instead. I think better of it and leave the acid-washed jeans on when I catch sight of myself in the mirror. My makeup skills aren’t half as bad either and I figure this is perfect enough for 1985. 

I walk out of the warehouse and make my way to the back of the building where the elevators that lead to the portals are. The hallways are dimly lit, though the offices are pitch black–even the Ministry executives need a day of rest. I take the long way, staying hidden in the shadows and crossing my fingers that no one is watching the cameras posted in every corner.  

“Shit,” I mutter under my breath upon reaching the foyer. I duck my head behind a wall. 

Just as expected, the elevators are manned by two security guards. Luckily, it’s Sunday after lunchtime, and both are slumped on a chair with their eyes half closed, one with burger grease and ketchup still on the corner of his lips, and one endlessly scrolling on his phone. 

The Ministry trains agents in combat, but I highly doubt I can take two burly men who were also trained to fight, even if they’re half-asleep. I don’t have a lot of ideas, nor do I have time to sit here and think of a more elaborate plan. I definitely did not think this through. I shake my head at myself as I walk back to the end of the hallway, thinking no way this is going to work. There’s a door accompanied with an oversized Emergency only—Alarm will sound sign. I cover my ears and shoulder through, ducking inside an empty office as a high-pitched alarm goes off. 

I’m prepared to go home in defeat, but it isn’t long until I hear hurried footsteps following the invisible assailant that exited the building. I take off my two-inch heels, open the door, and run to the elevators.  

The elevators open as voices start to grumble in the hallway. The doors close just in time, the chime louder than I’ve ever noticed before. I say a silent prayer that the guards stay fat, stupid, sleepy, and partly deaf. 

When I get to the ninth floor, I swipe my card on the first portal I see, one directly across from the elevator. Being inside the egg-shaped machine always somehow calms me, though I don’t wait for my heart rate and my breathing to completely slow down. I mouth the numbers as I type each one on the keypad: a date I still remember even 38 years later. 

The machine doesn’t shake. In fact, it barely hums. But even after traveling back in time for years, I’ve still never gotten used to the sensation of arriving in the past. It feels like when you’ve eaten too much ice cream and your brain goes frozen, except magnified 10 times worse. When I arrive, I slide open a wooden door and stumble out of the box, nodding and smiling at the elderly woman waiting to take my place even as bile threatens to rise up my throat. The Ministry cleverly hides a lot of their portals in churches. It helps agents arrive and return at all hours as most churches in the past were kept open 24/7. This one is hidden inside a confessional stall at the back of the church, and it’s a wonder how I manage to stumble out of the building with wobbly legs. 

I step into the nearest alley, both palms on soot-stained walls as I breathe in and out deeply, waiting for my brain to reset and get accustomed to the change in time. I’m not quite there yet, but the archived bus station map I studied didn’t specify the times the buses come, and I can’t afford to miss one in case someone is already after me. 

Luckily, the bus stop is only a couple of blocks from the church, a number of people already waiting staring in the direction of where the bus must be coming from. I stand closer than I would like to them, hearing the Ministry’s training reverberating in my head—do everything in your power to make sure you blend in. And being distant from everyone else isn’t exactly blending in. After decades of working for the Ministry, this is typically something that comes to me mechanically and rarely needs a reminder. But I suppose today isn’t such a typical day. 

I shake my hands repeatedly, hoping to get rid of my nerves. It doesn’t help that the sky is ominously dark. 

There’s a woman holding a crying baby in her arms while a little girl is wrapped tightly around her leg. I almost offer to help, though I don’t really know how to talk to children, let alone care for them, and making a fool of myself is definitely not blending in. The vibration on my wrist followed by a loud melodic tune saves me from making more bad decisions. If it isn’t for the little girl now eyeing me curiously, I would’ve sworn out loud. In my haste to get here, I had forgotten to turn off my transmission band which has been trying and failing to pin my location. How could I have forgotten to connect it to the chronos satellite to register it to this timeline? I haven’t been here for more than fifteen minutes, and here I am already about to blow my cover like an amateur.

I swipe my fingerprint on the thin fabric to dismiss the alerts, sort of thankful that the woman is too preoccupied with her crying baby to listen to the little girl’s claims about my magic bracelet.

The bus comes to view, and so do the first big fat drops of rain.

This is something that wouldn’t have happened any other day. The Ministry’s climate team would’ve been able to tell us the weather on the day of our travels to make sure we’re always prepared. Silly things like the rain have proven to be detrimental to missions.

Which brings me to the second rule I’m breaking.

Rule #2: Portals must only be used for Ministry approved missions.

The bus finally comes to a screech, and I let everyone else rush ahead of me. I take the time to look over my shoulder where the old brown church stands, its doors wide open and ready for the afternoon mass. I can just imagine the priest walking up to the altar, leaving the confessionals stalls free and undisturbed for at least one whole hour.

And I can still turn back now. I can still go back to Dr. Gwen and tell her I’m content with not knowing the answers, and that I’m canceling the rest of our sessions. I can still talk my way out of this mess and tell the Ministry that I might have gotten my calendar confused, and I thought my mission sheet read 1985 and not 1925. 

I don’t have to fully go through breaking this rule.

And yet, I put one shoe after the other until I am inside the bus, shaky on my feet as it lurches forward.

I take a seat on the first empty row I see, trying to distract myself by looking at passing buildings out the window. I even place my hands under my thighs so I wouldn’t be tempted to bite my nails, a nasty habit I try not to partake in when I’m traveling. But not even after a minute, the side of my thumb makes it to my mouth.

I can’t help but think of what might happen if I get caught.

The Ministry is run like a clandestine operation with the purpose of looking at our history and learning of our past mistakes in hopes to not make the same ones in the future. It’s completely funded by the government, using taxpayer’s money unbeknownst to them. The Ministry has infiltrated every influential entity in the world—private, public, legal, illegal, and anything and everything in between. You won’t see us posted on any website or advertisements. You won’t hear anyone talking about us. You won’t see headquarters, let alone know how to find it.

You won’t know we exist because you’re not supposed to.

That’s how powerful the Ministry is. How could I have forgotten about Lionel’s disappearance just last month when he failed to show up at our weekly lunch meeting and he suddenly stopped answering my texts? The letter that arrived at my front door saying, Lionel Murray does not exist, signed by the Ministry should have been enough to dissuade me from doing anything stupid.

And yet here I am, doing something very stupid. Not only can the Ministry make me disappear like they did Lionel. But no one will even know if I did.

Perhaps I should have listened to Dr. Gwen when she suggested that I should make new friends, though it’s a comical idea coming from a ministry-employed therapist given that we are all sworn to secrecy and forbidden to ever talk about our missions and all the traumatic things we see.

You’re going to ask my six-year-old self about that,” I snorted when she asked why I have a hard time trusting anyone.

Normal forty-something year olds have spouses and families of their own, hosting annual Thanksgiving feasts and kids’ birthday parties. Me—I once had a plant made out of plastic that I had to throw away because I accidentally watered it with soda and it became infested with ants. I own exactly one fork, one spoon, and one bowl. If anyone visited, we’d have to pass our food back and forth to each other using our shared utensil.

But I don’t have to worry about that. No one ever comes to visit.

I can picture Gwen clearly now—how she simply crossed her legs and tilted her head, as if that one sentence alone was the key to me finally unveiling the intricacies of my brain.

Let’s talk about that a little bit, Valerie.” She said my name so softly. “If you were to meet your six-year-old self right now, what would you say to her?”

Luckily for Gwen, or unluckily for me, depending on if I get fired or not, perhaps today is the day we finally find some answers to her invasive questions.

I shuffle out of the bus at the last stop. My destination isn’t too far from what I remember from the archived maps I studied yesterday. And when my heart beats faster and I think of turning back again, I find myself standing in front of a two-story building, white paint dirty and peeling. There’s sparse grass at the front, but the small yard is mostly covered in mud and puddles. I smell the musty air from where I’m standing, mixed with sweat and stew. The sound of children screaming and laughing and crying keeps me frozen in place. I find my tongue pressing against the roof of my mouth, waiting for the warmth to come. 

No matter how hard I tried, I could never successfully forget this place. I force my foot in front of the other, feeling like I am shedding the years I’ve spent away.

I pass the front yard, and I am 30, being recruited by the Ministry after a scout had been watching me. They were impressed that I’d clocked right away that someone began tailing me every time I slipped out to ‘run errands,’ which really meant pickpocketing tourists, and when I finally followed the man into an alley and put him in a chokehold, he laughed, coughed, and gave me his card.

I still miss Three-G Gregg.

I reach the heavy wooden double doors, and I am 20, getting kicked out of the apartment I shared with the guy I worked with at the local Walmart. He threw all of my stuff, one whole black trash bag of it, out on the sidewalk. I deserved that for sleeping with his wife in a motel room I rented using his credit card. He then lit it on fire. I probably deserved that too for asking him if I could borrow some money to look for a new place.

I walk along the dingy halls, inhaling the dusty air, and I am 10, crying alone in the bathroom at lunchtime so nobody could make fun of the girl with tattered clothes, and hand me down shoes two sizes too big.

I see a familiar friendly face walking toward me, her arms stretched welcomingly wide open, and I am six, scraping my knees as I run clumsily and fall on these very same floors. I almost cry at the sight of her.

“Welcome to Mission of Hope Orphan Home. I’m Sister Anne. How can I help you?” she says, smiling the brightest of smiles.

I wonder if she recognizes me, but I remind myself that it’s been 38 years.

I introduce myself, stumbling over the name Valerie Reyes. “Hi, I—I wanted to look around. And meet some of the children.” Until I was nine, my tongue stumbled speaking to adults.

“Well, you’re right on time,” Sister Anne gestures to the door at the end of the hallway. “It’s playtime right now so you can come join us.”

We pass by make-shift classrooms, cluttered with mostly broken chairs and tables.

“Decent place you run,” I say neutrally.

Sister Anne nods, “We do our best with what we are given.” She smiles again. This time, a somber one. I know from experience that what they are given isn’t much.

“We have all age groups, ranging from newborn to 15 years old. Most are good kids, some might be challenging, but really, they just need some love and affection.” Sister Anne says that last part tenderly, like she wishes she could give that to each of them. And I want to tell her so bad that in her own way, she did.

“Thank you,” I say. “I’m looking forward to getting acquainted with them.”

“You’re very welcome,” she says. We don’t make it two steps past the kitchen when she turns to me, “Oh, while we’re here, it’s my birthday today so we have some leftover cake. Unfortunately, there isn’t enough for all the kids so they don’t know. I hate to keep secrets from them, but this way, there’s no fighting. Would you like some?”

She doesn’t give me a chance to refuse, already guiding my elbow to a seat on a table. “I’m always in the mood for cake,” I smile gratefully.

Sister Anne is just as how I remember her. Lively, kind, and gentle. When I was first brought here at the age of three years old, it was said that I couldn’t stop fussing and crying. Sister Anne sat next to my bed humming lullabies until I fell asleep every night. She even held my hand in the dark when I had nightmares, muttering prayers under her breath to keep evil spirits away and keep me safe.

She places a plate of cake in front of me, and just then, a little girl with pigtails barges into the kitchen, back straight with determination. Such a strange demeanor for a six-year-old girl.

But then again, this one might not be an average six-year-old.

3. Never, under any circumstances, approach, or make contact with your past self.

I believe our trainer specifically said, if you see your past self during a mission, you better run away. Better yet, play dead.

Agents aren’t allowed to change anything during missions. Approaching our past selves might confuse them and end up altering our mentality in the current timeline. This one is a rule I never thought I’d break. I had no urge to ever run into my old self. There isn’t a single version of me I ever liked. Not even a six-year-old one. I have every reason to turn around now.

But I stay put, supposing six-year-old me won’t recognize me anyway. I’m just any other old woman with too many wrinkles on her face.

“You said they were coming today,” the girl pouts, clutching her grimy teddy bear that’s missing both eyes.

Sister Anne crouches in front of her, sighing. “I’m sorry Val. Their plans had changed. I’m so sorry. We’ll find you a home. A better-suited one.”

“But you said they liked me,” the girl says, her bottom lip trembling. I remember wanting to believe that the woman in front of me was joking, internally pleading for her next words to tell me they’re just running late.

“I know–and they did. They do. It’s just that, sometimes, things fall through because better things await them. And I truly have hope that is the case for you.”

It wasn’t.

“And you’ll find your family that will love you and care for you.”

She didn’t.

Sister Anne squeezes the girl’s shoulder, giving me a sad parting smile before walking out of the kitchen.

I stare at her retreating back until I can no longer see her. I already miss her presence just like I missed her when I was six years old. Because a few days after today, Sister Anne will die from a heart attack, leaving almost 100 kids orphaned a second time.

The girl, the six-year-old me, sniffles, and that shakes me out of my stupor. I’ll have to re-mourn Sister Anne properly later.

I remember this as the fourth family that I thought was going to take me home—only to have all of them fall through for one reason or another.

I can tell the girl is trying not to cry.

And I am too.

Because Sister Anne couldn’t be more wrong. Better things did not await six-year-old me. Not only were orphanages seen as less cost-efficient, but there were also fewer and fewer people willing to be employed in them for such little money. And so with the decline in funding, I would spend one more year here, and then the rest of my childhood and teenage years bouncing from one foster home to another. They weren’t all bad. Only a few were good.

I push my chair back and stand, and the scraping sound of the wooden chair against the floor causes the girl to look up. For the first time, she and I look at each other. Only for a moment though, as her eyes immediately fall to the slice of chocolate cake in front of me.

Her puffy eyes, red and tear-stained, light up at the sight. Then when they meet mine again, her gaze hardens, lips shut tight.

“Why do you get to have cake?” she asks, her words sharp and harsh. “Let me guess, only grownups can have cake. Only grownups can have everything.” She throws her beloved teddy bear to the ground.

And it’s as if there’s a literal lightbulb on top of my head, flashing and ringing. I remember this as the last time I was ever hopeful about a new family coming to take me to a new home, a permanent one. There might’ve been several more couples that showed an interest in me after this one, only to select another kid instead. I was bitter, angry, distrustful. I was what they called a problem child.

And it all started today.

I reach out my hand and remember the fourth rule. The one that’s not in the handbook. The one that’s simply implied given that breaking the first three should’ve been warning enough.

4. Never. Ever. Touch your past self.

I grasp the girl’s shoulder, feeling an intense jolt run through my body. I swear this is what being electrocuted feels like. A whimper leaves my mouth, though I want to laugh at how well the girl manages to look both concerned and annoyed at the same time.

Everything is interconnected. Timelines are interconnected. Physically touching your past self is basically equivalent to sealing the deal, irrevocably changing something in the current timeline. It might be small, like I won’t like coffee anymore. Or it might be big, like causing a whole species’ extinction.

I doubt it’s that big, but I can’t be bothered to worry too much about it now.

Children in pairs and groups start filling the hallway. Playtime must be over now, and in a moment, this kitchen will be packed with thirsty and hungry kids.

I feel dizzy, like something’s rearranging in my brain, and if not for the rapid bursts of vibration from my transmission band letting me know that someone just arrived in this timeline, I would have sat back down.

That can’t be good. Maybe whatever change I just caused is big after all.

I slide my hand down to hold hers, small and tender. She doesn’t grasp back, but she doesn’t snatch hers away either.

“Take the cake,” I say, guiding her to the back area of the kitchen.

“Where are we going?” she whispers. “That’s not the way out.”

“I know a secret shortcut.”

I pry out a big plank of wood next to the pantry that reveals a small dark hallway, enough for only one person to go through at a time. I have to duck or risk bumping my head.

When I don’t hear footsteps behind me, I look over my shoulder.

“Are you coming?”

The girl shuffles on her feet, eyes darting to the door.

“Do you trust me?” I ask, and my heart does a little jump when she starts to slowly walk toward me, carefully arranging the wood back in place and leaving us in near darkness.

It isn’t long until we reach the end where I push through another wooden plank that takes us to her room. Our room. Our safe haven for the next year.

She widens her eyes, “Whoa.”

My transmission band sends me a signal again. And again. And again. Whoever is coming is bringing quite a few people with them.

I think of all the hiding spots in this building that I discovered over the years. Behind the washer and dryer in the basement. The tiny closet in the prayer room. The shed where they keep the lawnmower. But there’s no use. I know there’s no hiding now. I imagine it’s only a matter of time until I face the consequences of my actions. But perhaps I can save Sister Anne and the children from having to deal with the Ministry. That’s the least I can do.

“I have to go now,” I say, reaching for the doorknob.

“Wait! Who are you?”

For a second, I consider coming clean and telling her everything. But my head is pounding, and the band on my wrist continues to convulse.

Dr. Gwen’s voice comes to me again, if you were to meet your six-year-old self right now, what would you say to her?

I crouch down in front of her, noticing her eyes taking in every part of my face as if committing it to memory. I wonder if she recognizes me at all.

“Who I am isn’t important. And I know that things won’t always go our way. But just know that somewhere, somehow—kindness exists,” I say, pleading for her to understand. “Now eat your cake.”

I rush out of the room, not giving her a chance to say anything back. I wanted to say so much more. I wanted to say that she is loved, not by a conventional family with a real mom and a real dad, but by Sister Anne and her siblings she’ll meet in foster homes. I wanted to tell her it was never her fault. I wanted to tell her to be kind to herself. I wanted to tell her all this while I had her wrapped up in a tight embrace, in a way she had never been held.

But I keep my pace quick, now running toward the exit. I push the doors open, fresh air entering my lungs, then leaving it completely in the same beat as I take in my surroundings.

A young man in a tattered band shirt skates past me. A woman in a yellow dress bends over to pick up after her dog. An elderly man holds on to a woman’s arm as they slowly shuffle into a parked car across the street. A man in a gray suit whistles a somber tune as he walks toward me.

They’ve done a better job at hiding it but wrapped around their wrists is a one-inch fabric similar to the one wrapped around mine.

They’re here.

Photo by Vladimir Shioshvili, used and adapted under CC.