“Hey my man, could you spare a few cents so I can catch this bus?”
Dennis Dugan knew that he didn’t have any change to spare without bothering to pretend to check his pockets, the way he sometimes did when strangers asked him for money. He had just enough for the ride home as it was, not including the nickel. But the nickel was going nowhere. It never did.
“Sorry,” Dennis shrugged. He was too tired to even attempt to infuse his voice with anything resembling sympathy. Besides, the man who’d asked him was the same one who’d asked him yesterday, and the day before that. As the man nodded and shuffled on to more willing hands, Dennis found himself wondering what had landed him at a bus stop, begging complete strangers for change that he never used to catch the bus. Had he had a good job once? A family maybe? Was he a victim of hard times, or had he brought hard times on himself? Had he had a brighter future once, a future that had been stolen from him?
Dennis frowned at the direction his thoughts had taken, and he forced himself to stare down the street in the direction the bus would be coming from. Cars whipped past, dragging harsh sheets of wind in their wake. Dennis steeled himself against the cold night air. The streetlamp overhead shined a flickering orange halo that illuminated the filthy street corner. He clenched his jaw to keep his teeth from rattling together, but they did anyways. It couldn’t be helped in this weather. Winter was coming, and he was not looking forward to standing here, waiting for the bus that was always late, in three feet of snow.
The wind kicked up, pulling tears from his eyes, and Dennis shoved his hands deep into his coat pockets and ducked his head down. Buffeted by the wind, he felt his own body creak and groan like an old house. His feet ached from trudging through hallways all day, his arms ached from pushing that old, beat up floor polisher across marbled linoleum and from straining to get his rag into the high corners of the windows. Not even his fingers had been spared. Scraping gum from the bottom of eleven desks had left them numb and stiff. His clothes smelled of garbage and bleach, his hands smelled of plastic and detergent.
“How do I end up so filthy when I spend all day cleaning?” he wondered out loud, and chuckled humorlessly. If Jackie were with him now, she would’ve laughed. She always laughed. But she was at home now, safe and warm, with the baby.
The thought of those big innocent eyes, those fat, lumpy cheeks and the cowlick that never went away no matter what they did to it brought a genuine smile to his face, and for a second Dennis forgot his dark mood. He had been a father for eight months come February. He shook his head.
“Who would have thought …” he grinned to himself. “A dad? Me?”
Something caught his eye, and he turned to see that it was an old fire hydrant. The paint was chipped and faded, and rust flaked at the base and around the rivets. Warped and decrepit, fallen into disrepair and disuse, Dennis saw himself in the old hydrant. Not long ago he had had the world in his palm. Soccer had been his life, the one thing he was ever good at. Sometimes when he closed his eyes he found himself back on the field, running with his teammates, flipping and leaping, twirling and diving, kicking and skidding…
He was going pro. Everyone knew it. He was just too good not to. Scouts were watching him, his name was being bantered around by the talking heads; here was a star on the rise, they said, an athlete to watch.
All it had taken was one slipped disk, and it all had come careening to a halt. Just like that, everything he had wanted – expected – to have was gone. Everything but Jackie. She was the one person who never left him, throughout all the surgeries and the grueling recovery she’d been right there, and as soon as he could stand straight enough to walk down the aisle he’d asked her to marry him.
Now, here they were, with an eight month old baby brought into the world, and he was barely making enough to keep the boy in Pampers.
“Not a nickel to my name,” he whispered darkly. The phrase brought a dry smile to his face. He reached into his pocket and found the nickel there. His lucky nickel. The one Jackie had given to him when he’d proposed, when he told her how much he loved her and how he would take care of her even though he didn’t have a nickel to his name, the one she’d smiled and laid in his hand before whispering, “Well, now you do.”
After what felt like a hundred years the old bus came lumbering down the street, sputtering to a strained halt with a squeal and a cough. Dennis boarded quickly, grateful to be out of the cold and irritated that he’d had to wait as long as he had. Again. He nodded gruffly to the driver, paid his fare, and started down the aisle.
Dennis froze mid-step.
There were no other passengers onboard, save one. Sitting at the very back of the bus was a man wearing a bulky, orange and white astronaut’s suit! Dennis’ mind sputtered at the incongruence of what he was seeing. Even as his eyes relayed the sight, his brain refused to accept it. A real life astronaut? On a dingy city bus? Not possible. It made no sense.
The bus jolted to life, and Dennis stumbled to a seat midway down the cabin. The man in the suit hadn’t noticed him, only sat with his hands clasped, head inclined toward the window with his helmet propped next to his lap.
Dennis perched himself sideways in his seat so that he could scrutinize the man through his peripheral, forgetting the cold or the ache of his body completely. The suit, he realized, was either real or the most detailed costume he’d ever seen. Everything from the knobs and buttons on the chest plate to the pipe that ran from the plate to the huge, refrigerator-looking tank strapped to the back – it was all there in vivid detail. It had to be real.
The man himself seemed to be completely unaware of how strange his attire was. He was still gazing out the window with a wide-eyed expression, like he was beholding something marvelous outside instead of the wind-whipped drudgery of the oncoming winter. Out of nowhere a slight smile appeared on the man’s face, and his eyes flickered toward Dennis.
Dennis dropped his eyes and pretended to stare at the groves in the floor of the bus. What would Jackie think of this, he wondered. If only he had a phone. Maybe he could ask the man for a picture, one he could show his son. He’d love that.
Dennis heard the crinkling of fabric and the heavy footfalls of thick soled boots. He glanced up to see the man shuffling toward him, managing to move surprisingly gracefully in the ungainly suit. Dennis tensed, waiting for the man to pass. Instead he took the seat directly across from his.
Dennis stared at his hands. It took all of his concentration not to look at the man and his suit. Something about him was unnerving, and Dennis wasn’t sure it was all because of the suit. It seemed as though he’d seen the man before. He furrowed his brow in frustration. None of this made any sense. Why would a man be wearing such a thing? A dare, a prank? He didn’t look young enough for all of that.
The man cleared his throat. Dennis purposely ignored it. A few seconds of silence passed. He cleared his throat again, louder this time. Curiosity overpowered his will, and Dennis glanced up.
To find that the man was looking him square in the face.
“You think it can’t get any better, don’t you? That there isn’t anything you can do. You think you’re trapped.”
Dennis frowned. “What?”
The stranger inclined himself forward. “You feel helpless, lost. You worry about how you’ll take care of the people you love. You’re not sure if you can.”
Dennis glared at the man. The curiosity he’d felt quickly evaporated into a feeling of foreboding and no small amount of indignation.
“I’m sorry,” he said tersely. “Do I know you?”
The stranger nodded as if it was no big deal. “Let’s hope so.”
A cold tinge of fear started at the crown of Dennis’ head and washed all the way through him.
“No, you aren’t dreaming and this is entirely real,” said the stranger.
How in the world did he—
“Know what you’re thinking? It’s all over your face, Da—Dennis.”
Dennis leapt out of his seat. “How do you know my name?” he demanded.
The stranger jolted. “Don’t worry, I’m not crazy! Honest. I’m not.”
Dennis’ heart beat in his throat. Instinct told him to leave, to get off at the next stop, to get as far away from the strange man in a space suit as he could. But something else, something he couldn’t explain, compelled him to stay. There was something familiar about the man, something that inexplicably told Dennis that he meant him no harm. Slowly he eased back into his chair. The stranger smiled.
“Sorry about that. Didn’t mean to scare you.”
“How do you know my name?”
The stranger chuckled. “Wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”
Dennis eyed the man. His earlier instinct was returning. Maybe he should have left.
For a long time the stranger said nothing, just kept on staring at him like he had three arms or something. At first Dennis pretended not to notice. He shifted in his seat and looked out the window. The bus jerked and jostled down the road, screeching to a halt at the red light. Finally his curiosity won out.
“Why are you wearing that?” he asked.
“A space suit?”
“You should try it sometime.”
“Who are you?”
The man laughed. “I’m not sure I should tell you.”
“What’s your name then?”
Dennis frowned. “My son’s name is Jonathan.”
“And your wife, Jackie. How is she?”
Dennis threw himself to his feet. “How do you know my wife’s name?!” he demanded. “How do you know Jackie!?”
The stranger put his hands up. “Please, Dennis! Don’t make a scene, you mustn’t make a scene.”
“Says the man in a space suit!”
The man shook his head and chuckled to himself. “Just like I thought you’d be…” he muttered to himself.
Dennis was not amused. His temper rose like boiling water, bubbling up to the surface, threatening to spill over the edge. He was going to lose it.
“I’m going to ask you one more time,” he warned through gritted teeth. “How do you know about–”
“I’m from the future!” the man blurted.
Dennis’ face contorted in confusion. Dear God, I was about to attack a crazy person.
“You need help,” he said.
“Really, that’s where I’m from. Twenty years from now.”
Dennis collapsed back into his seat. It was sad, the things mental illness could convince a person of.
The man sat up straight, indignant. “You don’t believe me?”
Dennis laughed. “I believe that you believe that that’s where you’re from. Did your friends put you up to this? Is this being filmed?”
Now it was the stranger’s turn to be angry. “No, Dennis, this is not being filmed. And I am not joking. I came to the past to visit you.”
“Oh, and why’s that? You know the winning lottery numbers or something?”
“As a matter of fact I don’t.”
“I’m you’re son.”
Dennis froze. Crazy or not, the man was beginning to get on his nerves all over again.
“It’s true. I’m your son, Jonathan. My middle name’s Lewis, after your wife’s father. If not for that I’d be a junior.”
Dennis blinked. This stranger knew too much. Was he a stalker? Some type of sick-in-the-head serial killer or something?
“How in the—”
“We don’t have much time, dad. I came to tell you that everything ends up okay. You’re worried that you don’t know how to raise a son, that you won’t be able to provide for your family, that you’ll fail as a father. I came here to tell you that you won’t. That it’ll all be okay.”
The entire bus fell silent as it rambled along. It was as though a weight had fallen upon them, and Dennis felt a tight lump begin in his throat and a mist well in his eyes. The stranger gave him a reassuring smile and pulled the signal cord behind him.
“Don’t cry,” he laughed. “The last thing I want to see is my old man crying.”
He rose as the bus came to the next stop and started slowly toward the exit.
“Wait!” cried Dennis, his voice trembling. “Why should I believe you?”
The man paused at the door. He fumbled into a compartment in his suit, and withdrew his hand.
“Take care of this,” said the man. “I’ll want it back.”
He tossed something small and flat into the air, and Dennis reflexively caught it. He held it in his palm, and the air flew from his lungs. Laying there in the center of his palm was his lucky nickel, the exact same one he had in his pocket.
Dennis couldn’t fight the tears this time. They ran freely down his cheeks. He laughed, and shook his head.
As always, Jackie was waiting for him with a hug, a kiss, and a slew of baby anecdotes. “Our son is a little Einstein,” she laughed as they sipped hot chocolate on the couch. “I told you listening to Mozart would pay off. You wouldn’t believe some of the things he’s getting into.”
Dennis laughed. “Oh, I think I would …”
Dennis glanced at his wife to find that she was studying him, the way she did when her intuition told her something had happened. He reached over and kissed her on the forehead.
“That’s just it, my love. Nothing’s wrong.” He smiled as he remembered Jonathan – his son’s – words. “In fact, everything is going to be alright.”
That night, before he climbed into the warmth of his bed, he slipped into his son’s room, tip-toed to his crib, and kissed his forehead as he slept. “It’s all going to be okay,” he whispered to the sleeping boy.
Before he left, he took his nickel from his pocket and set it on the tabletop on the far side of the room.