“Sorry, I’m late,” Ted Evans said through his mask as he pulled back a wooden chair to sit down.
“Don’t mention it,” replied his friend Bob Zager with a wave of the hand.
Bob, donning a white golf shirt, was already seated at a table next to the window at a local sandwich place, one shop in a row of stores. Across the street, the summer sun shined brightly on the stone rock sign announcing the entrance to the L. Douglas Wilder Public Library, named after the first African-American governor in the history of the state of Virginia. Ted sat across from his friend and removed his mask. The two friends had not seen each other since Virginia had shut down due to the global COVID-19 pandemic. Visits to restaurants were now allowed as Virginia had entered Phase Three of its reopening of the state.
As they were exchanging pleasantries, a young brown-skinned waiter with short dread locks came over and introduced himself. “Hi, I’m Marty and I’ll be taking care of you guys today,” he energetically announced through his mask.
The friends paused to order a drink, but explained that they were not ready to order. There was too much news to cover. Bob noticed Ted’s reddish pink skin. Ted explained that he and his family had just spent the weekend at the shore. “Sarah and I put our phones away. No Twitter; no Facebook; no TV. We took Billy to the rides at Funland. It was nice to get away from all the rancor on social media.”
“Sounds nice,” Bob smiled back.
“You know me, I support the protests and I guess the schoolteacher in me feels compelled to respond to every small-minded comment I see,” Ted explained, playfully referencing his occupation.
Bob looked confused. “What protests?”
Ted paused, dumbfounded. “You’re joking?”
Bob continued to look puzzled. Ted elaborated, “The Black Lives Matter protests. Didn’t I tell you I went to one downtown?”
“There was a Black Lives Matter protest in DC? Guess I must have missed it.”
“Missed it? There have been protests every day since George Floyd died,” Ted replied.
“Since who died?”
“George Floyd,” Ted repeated. “You’re fucking with me, right?”
At this point, their conversation had attracted the attention of a diner with scraggly thinning hair and a thick brown beard a couple tables behind Bob. He stopped chewing in mid bite and his mouth was agape as he stared at the friends talking. Even Ted shooting a glare at the man did not alter his gaze.
Marty returned with their drinks. Bob liked to play pranks but Ted found this one annoying and insensitive. He was going to test his friend’s resolve. “Let’s see how long you can keep this going. Hey, Marty, my friend here says he doesn’t know who George Floyd is,” Ted explained.
Marty looked at Ted for a second. “Should I know who George Floyd is?”
“The man who was killed in Minnesota by the cops,” Ted answered tentatively.
He glanced at Bob. “Did you pay him?” Ted asked, pointing at Marty.
Bob put his hands up in bewilderment and Marty politely chuckled underneath his mask. “That sounds horrible, but no, I don’t recognize that name. Did it just happen?” Marty inquired.
“No, it happened about a couple months ago,” Ted’s voice drifted off.
Ted peered in at Bob, hoping for a tell or a sign that the joke was almost over. But something about their reaction to George Floyd’s name sent a chill down his spine. He pulled his phone out as Marty placed a glass of Coke in front of him. Marty and Bob were talking but Ted was oblivious as he went to his browser to google the name George Floyd. What appeared on his screen caused his stomach to churn. The first few links pertained to a football player with the Jets in the 1980s but nothing about a cop sitting on George Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds.
“Ted?” Bob said loudly, as if he was repeating himself to be heard.
Ted emerged from his fugue to hear that Bob was asking him if he was ready to order. Ted shook his head slightly. Bob asked Marty to come back and Ted returned to his phone. The phrase “George Floyd Minnesota” returned no links associated with the death. He tried other phrases with similar results. How had the world forgotten about this over one weekend?
“Everything okay?’ his friend asked gingerly.
“So you have never heard of George Floyd?” Ted prodded.
Bob shook his head apologetically. “How about Ahmaud Arbery?” Ted pressed.
Bob’s face lit up. “That one I have heard of. He was jogging and some guys shot him. I believe there were protests in Georgia. Is that the name you meant?”
“Rayshard Brooks. Have you heard that name?”
“No. I didn’t realize there was going to be a quiz during today’s lunch,” Bob laughed, a little uncomfortably.
Ted was back on his phone, which confirmed that a Rayshard Brooks had been killed by a police officer at a Wendy’s in Atlanta but the links were local, from the Atlanta Journal Constitution and Atlanta news stations. Ted surmised that a cop shooting a person who grabbed a police taser was just business as usual in a world that had not been galvanized by the death of George Floyd. The gasses in his stomach were bubbling. Ted was not aware of it, but he was also breathing heavily. This had happened before. A few years back, he felt he was losing his grip on reality. He thought that if he wore the wrong clothes or wrong shoes to work, he would die. Ted went to a psychiatrist who told him he had obsessive compulsive disorder. Ted took out a worry stone—a small polished piece of marble with an indentation for his thumb--he kept in his pocket. He rubbed the blue rock and his breathing slowed down. He looked outside, hoping he could absorb some positive energy from the blazing sunlight. Instead, a feeling of vertigo overcame him and the scenery outside began to undulate, as if a seismic wave was travelling through his field of vision. He turned to Bob, but he too was out of focus, like a technicolor distortion. He rubbed his eyes deeply and then opened them to see his field of vision had returned to normal. The abnormalities had disappeared but he could tell immediately something was different. Outside, there was a statue in front of the library of a soldier raising a saber atop a rearing horse. He glanced down at the signage at the base of the statue which read: The Jubal Early Memorial Library. He turned to Bob and jolted in his seat slightly.
“Wh … When did you put on a tie?” asked Ted, still in his t-shirt and shorts.
“I always wear a tie to the office,” Bob answered with a bemused look.
“I thought you were teleworking.”
“God, no,” Bob guffawed.
“But the virus … “
“The Kung Flu,” Bob interrupted. “Are you really worried about that? We can’t wreck the economy just cause some old people are dying. Haven’t you been listening to Trump?”
“Yeah, he’s clueless.”
The ears of the bearded man behind them—whose appearance had not changed—perked up. Bob glanced around and then leaned across the table to whisper, “Let’s keep those sentiments to ourselves, okay? Are you nuts?”
“Maybe I am,” Ted solemnly intoned.
He surveyed the room and could sense there were other changes to the room that had occurred in just a few seconds. And then he saw the waiter. No longer wearing a mask and with hair cropped closely to his scalp, Marty approached the table with his eyes looking down. Ted arose from his seat and interposed himself between Marty and the table.
“Marty, your hair?” Ted stammered.
“Joseph,” the waiter responded, with his eyes still on the floor.
“My name’s Joseph,” the waiter said softly.
His visage looked the same as Marty, though how could he be certain because of the mask. Maybe they were different people. Ted was not sure of anything right now. His stomach boiling, Ted rushed to the back of the restaurant where its bathroom was. He entered to find a sink, followed by a single urinal and then a stall. He turned the water on to splash some on his face. Keep yourself together, he told himself. You’ve come too far to get to that point again.
He was thinking of the dark days, before Sarah and Billy, when the OCD was so horrific, he could barely function. The bathroom door swung open and the bearded man walked in. He was rail-thin and exuded a wiry energy as his eyes darted in all directions. He walked to the stall to peek inside and then returned his intense gaze to Ted. “I remember George Floyd,” he stated, and then raised his index finger to his lips. “Not too loud. He still exists; we found his prison records from Texas. But there was no arrest in May and therefore no viral videos. They changed it somehow.”
“They?” Ted tried to say quietly.
“What are you, on the spectrum?”
“Spectrum?” Ted repeated, flummoxed.
“Autism. I, myself, have Asperger’s.”
Now that he mentioned it, Ted did notice that the bearded man did not have a proper understanding of personal space as his hairy chin was just a couple inches from his. “Oh. I have OCD,” Ted responded now that he understood.
The bearded man clenched his fist. “I knew it. We all have something; there’s something about our biology, the chemicals in our brains. That’s how we notice the changes while no else does.”
“But how are they making the changes?”
The bearded man paused a second before the big reveal. “Time Travel. Don’t ask me how; I never read that Stephen Hawking book, but it’s the only explanation that makes sense. Something to do with wormholes I’m sure. We first noticed the changes Friday night, which makes sense. That’s when politicians always try to dump their bad news.”
“So this is Trump?”
“Maybe; or one of his backers. Or white supremacists. Or all three. You think they were gonna give up their advantage that easily. You could feel the momentum this summer with the protests; things were changing. It’s just like The Terminator, with Skynet going back to kill the mother of John Conner. We’d won so the only option they had left was time travel.”
“Why haven’t things been changing before?”
“I figure the changes don’t actually start appearing until you reach the point in history when time travel is possible. So, if time travel was invented in 2525, you wouldn’t see the changes until then. They must have the technology now and have been waiting for the right to use it.”
“Maybe we’re just crazy?”
“I don’t think so,” said the bearded man, again getting too close. “After I became aware of the changes, I went to the Reddit to see if anyone else noticed. Eventually, I found some others and we started researching the past to see if other things changed. We found an interesting local legend in Mexico. In 1967, a prostitute says she woke up in the middle of the night to find a man dressed in black who killed her john by just touching him and then vanished into thin air. The doctors say he just died of a heart attack. Still, locals try to scare away people from the prostitutes by saying the Ángel de la Muerte, or the Angel of Death, is going to get them.”
Ted gave the bearded man a look of non-comprehension. The man continued: “The john’s name? James Earl Ray,” the man said, pausing between each name. “They must have sent someone back to kill him. I hope you have heard that name before.”
“He assassinated Martin Luther King,” Ted confirmed.
The bearded men seemed relieved. “Not anymore. King lives and dies of old age, but he’s no longer a saintly martyr, just another public figure to be torn down with allegations of philandering and plagiarism.”
Ted reached for his phone to substantiate this latest stunning development. “And something else must have just changed cause you noticed our waiter looked different,” the bearded man added.
“Yeah, my field of vision went haywire,” Ted noted.
“And the library is now named after Jubal Early,” Ted rejoined.
“Jubal Early?” the man said somberly. “The Confederate general who almost captured DC during the Civil War. Lincoln came under fire, the only time that has happened to a sitting chief executive during a war.”
“I think I may have found the reason,” Ted said, pointing at a Wikipedia page on his phone. “You said Martin Luther King died of old age? Says here he died in prison. The FBI discovered a cache of weapons at his church.”
The glow of the LCD screen lit up the bearded man’s face as he read it. “Of course. First, make sure he doesn’t die, then discredit him. Turn him into a hypocrite, a cartoon character that represents white America’s deepest fears. Man, I gotta get back to my computer and figured out what else has been changed.”
“Wait, who are you?”
“No names man. We’re the new resistance brother, and once they find out we exist, they’re gonna start making us disappear. Hopefully we can find some people in the government like us and get to the bottom of this. At least then Trump can finally have his fictitious deep state. To stay connected, create a burner e-mail and ask to join my subreddit: Fred Geology. It’s an anagram of George Floyd. You got that. Fred Geology.”
Ted nodded. “Say your name is Jubal Early; that way I know it’s you. I wish I could say more but I gotta go. Wait a minute before you come out of the bathroom,” the bearded man finished and was out the door.
Ted’s head was now buzzing, with fear, astonishment and wonder. And while this feeling was unsettling, he was also excited. Ted had always thought he was a freak because of his disorder but it actually gave him a unique perception. He would always tell his special education students that their condition—labeled a disability by some—was actually a superpower, and he did not realize how right he was. Because they were more sensitive than others, they could see the changes to history that went unnoticed by so-called normal people.
He exited the bathroom and saw a wad of bills laying on the bearded man’s table. He peered out the window but did not see him in either direction. A doubt percolated in his mind. Had he imagined the bearded man? Was he just a coping mechanism, a misguided attempt to make sense of Ted’s collapsing reality? He was an oddball; why would he be special? He stopped himself before the doubts overwhelmed him. No, the protests had been real; he had experienced them. The United States had been at the precipice of something beautiful. He was not the one who was crazy; the people going to extremes to sustain white privilege were. The forces of hate had been active since time immemorial; one election would not erase them. Ted had to be ready for the long haul. He marched backed to his table, ready to put his queer shoulder to the wheel.
Travis McGavin is a writer and educator living in Northern Virginia. He is using his writing to overcome tragedy, and to honor his late son's creative spirit. His work has previously appeared in CommNow and The Writers Newsletter.