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Schroedinger's Hummingbird
    by Diana Rowland


It didn't matter who'd left the safety-gate at the top of the stairs open. The result was the same, the tragedy still there in twisted limbs and broken bones. But wherever the fault lay, it had happened, and so she'd tried to fix the mistake and made an even bigger mistake. Guilt on top of guilt. Had she been the one or not? It was too late to ever know for sure, since Mark's memories of it were gone. How could he have a memory of something that would never happen?


The cup crashed to the floor, spraying over-sweet tea and sharp shards of fine china across the blue-flowered pattern of the linoleum. It had only been a momentary lack of concentration--but then that's what had caused all of the problems in the first place.

This time her gaze had been intent on the hummingbird whirring green and blue wings at the bright red plastic feeder she'd put out the day before. That long ago day before. She barely remembered that yesterday anymore, it had been so long since she'd lived it. But her thoughts had been scattered as she'd tried to gather herself for yet another go at getting it all right, and she hadn't paid attention to where the table was, and had placed her cup it half off the edge.

The hummingbird was right. She remembered that much. She wasn't sure if it mattered, but she knew by now it was vital to try and do everything exactly the way she had before and try and reduce random changes.

But breaking the cup hadn't been part of it. The ruins of the cup that had once been her grandmother's still quivered in the aftermath of the destruction, shards slowly spinning to a stop. She heard the water running in the bathroom. Mark would be finished with his shower soon, and he'd come into the kitchen. If he found her cleaning up a mess of broken porcelain, that would throw everything off.

Carol looked down at the Rorschach blot of brown tea on the pale blue flowers of the floor. She'd have to do it again. Just a small one though, not even a minute long. Just long enough to make sure she didn't break the cup. Better to do it now than wait and see if breaking the cup messed up all the rest. There were only so many times that she'd be able to go through this. Only so many times she could stand to go back and start over.

Soon it will work out though, she told herself. Soon I'll get it right. Soon I can end this.


Nothing ever happens the same way twice. You can't say you changed the future if the future only happened to you.


The hummingbird flitted around the feeder, and she lifted the intact cup to her lips. She took a sip of the too-sweet tea--just the way she liked it, and sweet enough to cause Mark to make a face when he picked up her cup by mistake. She slowly let her breath out and smiled with relief and a touch of triumph. It had worked that time. She hadn't gone back too far--her constant terror now. She took another sip then carefully set the cup carefully, making sure that it was completely on the table.

Carol looked up at the hummingbird as it sped off in a blur of emerald wings. Her smile flickered. Last time it had stayed and fed a while. Perhaps the wind was slightly different this time and brought a scent of something more appealing than stale sugar water. There was always something that changed, some randomness that she couldn't keep constant no matter how hard she tried.

Enough of that. It was just a hummingbird. She washed the cup and dried it, slowly stroking her fingers across the raised texture along the rim, a pattern of twining roses in cream on white. She'd caught up with her last go-back now--past the point where she'd begun it--and now she only had the other larger one to deal with, to finish.

She heard Mark come into the kitchen behind her as she reached to put the cup away in the cabinet.

"Here," he said, taking the cup from her hand. "Let me get that." He placed it on the high shelf then dropped his hands to her waist, caressing her through the satin of her robe. His lips nuzzled her ear, and she smiled and leaned back against him. This was how it was supposed to happen. He'd come into the kitchen before while she was putting the cup away, and he'd nuzzled her and they'd ended up on the kitchen floor.

I was right to do that small go-back, she thought as his hands explored her front. Otherwise he'd have come in while I was picking up shards and cleaning up sticky tea, and we certainly wouldn't have had sex among the porcelain fragments. It will work this time. I'll get it right.


One cup of tea was so like another, and one day was so like any other. So how was she to know, to remember, that she'd sat in the chair by the window and sipped tea more than that one time. Gazed out at the hummingbird feeder and pondered bright futures almost three years earlier. More than once, more than just that one terrible morning. It had seemed safe enough to go back to that.

The wrong morning. Too far back.


Mark held her close that night, his hand spread flat on her belly. "Maybe that was it," he said. "Wouldn't it be great if it was? What a story to tell the grandchildren: I got your gramma pregnant on the kitchen floor."

She rolled over to look at him, surprised. "I am," she said before she could censor herself.

He gave a soft laugh and slid his hand around to the small of her back, pulling her close against him. "A bit too soon to be sure, don't you think, Carol?"

No, she thought. I do know. This is the sixth time I've lived through this. Each time we've done it on the kitchen floor, I've ended up pregnant.

And each time they hadn't, each time it was someplace else besides the kitchen, or a time other than the morning, nothing had come of it, and she'd had to start all over again. Go back again and try to make it right, because the only way to go forward is to live it out.

We did it on the kitchen floor, she wanted to say, with the tile cold on my back, and you laughing and complaining about how the hard floor was bad for your knees. It was almost the same this time, except you laughed and complained about your elbows instead.

But close enough, she thought as she clung to his warmth. Surely it's close enough.


Back when she first discovered her ability, she'd tried to do what everyone dreamed of doing. Go back. Make the right investments. The right bets.

But there are more random factors in the universe than she'd ever considered. And the longer the time frame, the more random factors intruded, until it was nothing at all like the way she'd remembered it.

She lost six months of her life that way--six months that had never happened except in her memory, back during college when she first started going back. One terrible semester that she decided to do over. Just go back and start from scratch. Except she hadn't counted on all the lost experiences, things that had happened only to her and only existed in her own memory now. She even lost her best friend, Maria. She'd met Maria in the six months that never ended up happening, and though she tried to recreate the circumstances that had led to them being such good friends, it had simply never clicked the second time around.


The doctor confirmed it three weeks later, to Mark's surprise.

"How did you know?" he asked after they got home. He had a pleased smile on his face that couldn't come close to matching her delighted grin, but there was still a curious look in his eye. "You've been positive ever since that morning in the kitchen."

But she didn't make the mistake she'd made once before. Once she'd tried to explain to him what she could do, tried to prove it. He hadn't believed her, of course. How could he? And she'd gone back and gone back a half dozen times, exhausting little ten minute episodes, trying to prove it to him, getting him to guess a number and then showing that she knew it. But he'd guessed a different number each time--the random differences inherent in every go-back affecting even his thought processes. And he couldn't remember that she'd just tried to prove it to him. Each memory was wiped away every time she went back, so each time she was starting from scratch. She'd finally had him think of a number that wouldn't change, that she wouldn't also know--a friend's birthday, or a childhood address, or a combination to a lock. And even then he hadn't really believed her. How could he?

"I just wanted it so very much," she said to him this time. And it was the truth, though she could never tell him just how badly she wanted to be pregnant again, how desperately she wanted it to work this time so she could end this episode and have things return to the way they were supposed to be.

But each day was a tiny bit different. Every day more random factors intruded until there was little left that resembled that first time. The real time, before the first terrible mistake, and then her other terrible mistake.


Was it possible to grieve for something that had never happened except in her own mind? Sometimes she felt that was the hardest part--knowing that she was the only one who remembered, who knew. She had to grieve for her losses by herself. The memories of that precious smile and the delighted laugh. The bright blue eyes and the slobbery kisses. Mark had lost too, but he didn't remember. It had never happened for him. All erased in the go-back.


"You'd be immortal," Mark had said after she tried to convince him she could go back. "If it looked like you were about to die, you could go back and live your whole life over again."

Then he'd paused, his brows drawn down into a thoughtful expression. "Of course, you'd still only be immortal for the years of your normal lifespan."

Will I ever see my entire lifespan? she'd thought. Too easy to stop and go back. Too many mistakes to fix.


Time was never the same each time, she realized, she'd discovered. The atomic events, the natural radioactivity changed probabilities in a thousand different ways. Even people's thoughts were different. And, to her intense disappointment, she'd learned that betting on sports games was worthless, because the more people in the mix, the more random factors occurred. A quarterback might slip one time and not the other. The pitcher might throw a perfect curve, or the batter might gauge it perfectly this time and smack it out of the park. Or not. One time Schroedinger's cat would live, and the next it would die.

Small go-backs were safest, she'd found. Those were the most effective. The shorter the duration, the fewer random changes could intrude, and the more chance she had of changing what she wanted without too much else changing.

She'd only wanted to go back a few minutes. To that morning when she'd sipped tea and watched the hummingbird. Enough time to run upstairs and close the gate.


She didn't want to go for the ultrasound, but she had the first time, the original time, so of course she had to now. Plus Mark wanted to know so badly that she couldn't bear to disappoint him. Besides, how could she explain why she didn't want to know? It was too terrifying, too depressing. And the guilt piled even higher.

Six times now. This was the sixth time she'd lived through this episode, the sixth time she'd gone back to what she now called the beginning, the morning with the tea and the hummingbird. It was the wrong morning, but it was done, and now she had to live with it and work with it. The first two times she hadn't gotten pregnant, and she'd gone back to the "beginning" the instant she'd known it wasn't going to happen. Starting over to fix the mistake. Mistakes on mistakes.

It happened on the third time around. Everything had gone right, and she and Mark had made sloppy, laughing love on the kitchen floor. This is it, she'd thought. Just keep going now.

She'd known what to expect from the ultrasound. She'd been there before. She'd see his perfect little hands and feet. "There's his little penis," the doctor would say.

Mark couldn't understand why she started crying when they saw the ultrasound. The doctor paused with one hand pointing to the screen and looked at Carol with a perplexed look on her face. "But she's perfectly healthy and normal," the doctor said to Carol. "There's nothing to worry about."

It's not the right one, Carol wanted to scream and didn't even wait until they left the office before going back. Right there on the exam table, half-naked and her belly smeared with goop. A breath later she watched the hummingbird come in to feed.

She lifted the cup of too-sweet tea to her lips with a hand that shook and listened for the sound of the water stopping in the bathroom.


Was it abortion if she never gave it a chance? A daughter instead of a son. Was it abortion if she simply never allowed it to happen?

But it's not the same. Not right. Go back and keep trying.


"Here, let me get that," Mark said, taking the cup from her hand for the fourth time. But she was still trembling, and even his arms around her couldn't warm her. For her, it had only been minutes ago that she'd been lying on a sterile examination table with Mark's hand in hers. And now Mark was here again, but he didn't know, couldn't remember what had never happened for him.

Should I have just kept going? she couldn't help but wonder as she clutched at Mark's arms. Would that be giving up? I could start all over, just keep going.

How much harder is it to live with the mistake?

This isn't working. Go back and start over.


A perfect little boy with perfect hands and perfect feet. A gate at the top of the stairs to prevent accidents.

Too late now to try to live with the consequences of that mistake. Another span of time that existed only in her memory.


How many countless random factors are involved in the fertilization of an egg by a particular sperm?


"There's his little penis," the doctor said.


"I'm not immortal. I merely have a potentially endless life."


Mark's hand slowly stroked the swell of her belly as they lay curled on the couch together.

"A boy," he said, his voice barely audible.

A boy, her thoughts echoed. It's going to work this time.


The fifth time the bleeding had started in the fourth month. If she'd believed in a god, she would have thought that it was punishment for not letting the girl have a chance. Going back after that one was easy. Mark's face so full of loss when he had to come into the hospital room and tell her that she'd lost it. She had to go back simply to get away from that horrible pain in his eyes. It was the one time she felt relief to be able to erase time.

She watched the hummingbird come to the feeder and wondered what Mark would have done if he'd known about the accident. Whose fault was it? Either way that pain had never happened for anyone but her. That pain was gone for him.

Too gone.

The wrong morning, she thought. Too far. Before he was a baby. Before she'd been pregnant. Before he'd even been conceived.

She set the cup down, half off the table.


The hummingbird flickered around the faded red plastic feeder in a blaze of emerald wings and ruby throat as she sipped her tea and pondered the bright futures stretching before her and her wonderful family. Sped away as she heard the high-pitched scream and then the crash. A streak of blue and green away from the window. The cup slipped from her hand and smashed to the floor as she ran to the foot of the stairs. Blue and green and red.


The instant she'd gone back, she'd set the cup down and ran upstairs to get the gate closed. Except there was no gate. And when she looked in the nursery there was a desk and boxes and the horror of the memory of what the room had looked like before she got pregnant.

Three years.



She stood in the living room and looked up at the staircase. Mark came up behind her and slipped his arms around her waist, gently stroked his hands over the swell of her belly.

"Carol?" he repeated. "Is everything all right?"

We should move, she thought. We should get into a different house, a safer house.

But now she was thinking of changing things, when she'd been trying so hard all along to keep everything the same. Which was right?

"It's not the same," she murmured.

"What's not the same?" Mark asked her, but then the baby kicked under his hands, and his gasp of pure delight forestalled the words in her throat.

This. Me. You. I can't make it the same. I can't get it back.


There'd been hardly any blood, but it didn't matter. She knew it was bad. She knew that joints weren't supposed to bend that way, or heads to turn that far.

Mark must have heard the noise, for she heard his running footsteps. And she couldn't remember, didn't know whose fault it was. But did it matter? She could fix it, she knew. She could make it right. He didn't have to be twisted and broken. But she didn't want Mark to see, even in an existence that was soon not going to have happened. So she went back.

To a morning when she sat and gazed at the hummingbird at the feeder. A morning that was safe, still fresh in her memory.


She covered Mark's hand with hers and looked at the staircase. She felt the baby move again, felt Mark's breath, warm and comforting on her neck as he stood behind her, holding her close and safe.

He'd never kicked this much before--the first time, the real time.

What was real now?

"He's not the same," she breathed.


She turned to face Mark and looked long at his eyes, his chin, his nose. That first child had had all of them. So like Mark.

That first child long gone in an existence that had never happened.

"It's never going to be the same," she said. "It's impossible. I'm never going to get him back."

Mark frowned, worry darkening his eyes. "Carol, you're not making sense. Who are you talking about?"

I'm immortal, she thought, but I'm not living.


So much harder to keep going forward. So much uncertainty, so many mistakes that might be made. The only way to go forward is to live it out.


"Carol? What's wrong?"

If she told him, he would think she was raving. But she knew she was finally approaching something akin to sanity.

I'm trying to fix something that can't be fixed, she thought.

Was it better to live than to be immortal? How many years had she spent trying to recreate something that couldn't be made again?

She looked up at Mark. It could have been worse, she realized. What if she'd gone back so far that she'd lost him too?

"You're just tired," Mark said. He took her hand and guided her to the couch.

"More tired than you can know." Too many years. She sat against him as he wrapped his arms around her and stroked her belly, and she grieved the son he would never know again.

The End

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