An essay by Sidney Bover, as provided by Iris Wright
Art by Justine McGreevy
Stranded in fields of ultramarine flowers, I was paralyzed. The delicate blooms decorated the forest understory, so I, who was unable to swim, could drown in a sea of flowers with one wrong move. I looked down at my boots, but they were hidden beneath the plants. I exhaled. The wind blew through the trees. The thin stems trembled. At some point, I would have to move–I would have to find out if the flowers were poisonous.
I was no sufferer of anthophobia; I just had an extensive knowledge of dangerous plant hybrids. A professor once told me the more you know, the more prepared you may be, but you may also be more scared. I recalled the passage I read on bluebells from an outdated encyclopedia: “Hyacinthoides non-scripta die back completely and return the next year.” Bluebells, English or Spanish, were harmless until they were crossbred with poisonous plants. If I stood in a forest in 1820, or even in 2017, my caution was irrational. If it was a forest any year after 2314, the plants had been crossbred with several poisonous plants, and they would release toxic pollen into the air in response to the slightest disruption. A well-loved wildflower became a wicked plant. The toxic brand spread as rapidly as ordinary bluebells, covering the ground of surviving forests. Without so much as a scent indication, I would inhale life-ending chemicals.
It should have reassured me that my dilemma was a test, but the test was still real; I was still standing in a possibly toxic bluebell wood. If I passed the test–if I survived the test–I would earn my time traveling license. I would earn freedom to travel through all of space and time. It took me years of training to reach my final test. When I opened my eyes to the scene, my first impression of my setting was a harmless forest, but I minored in horticulture when I started out at the university. I knew I could be wading in treacherous waters. If I was clever enough, I could find out if I was in peril or just in a fairytale forest.
The stems bent in lax curves, the blooms weighing down the tooth-pick-thin stems, so they couldn’t be Hyacinthoides hispanica, or Spanish bluebells, which stood straight. They were a sweet blue, and their heads innocently nodded. If toxic, there would be a streak of pink on the inside of the petals. My view limited me to the outside of the downcast florets. If I knelt, I risked colliding with blooms. If they were poisonous, and I was fast enough, I could teleport from the location to a safer place. If they were harmless, there was no risk, and I could move through the forest until I met the real danger I was meant to face.
I avoided the thought that my advisors were watching my every move. If the plants were harmless, the observers may think I was too nervous to function under stress, which meant my license was far out of reach. If they were dangerous, my actions were perfect, but not if I underestimated the pollen’s speed.
I took a deep breath, held it in my lungs, and bent my knees. I chose a bloom angled almost parallel to the ground. I moved toward the forest floor, my eyes holding the flower. I felt the rustling stems on the back of my legs. My knees neared the line of blooms. The sea of petals looked like a rising wave as I descended. I moved faster; if they were toxic, the dangerous chemicals in the pollen were already in the air. I dared not blink. The bluebell flower, or wood hyacinth, was pure blue with cream-colored pollen and a scraggly stripe of pink cutting through the center.
I stood up fast, and, in my panic, I hastily exhaled and inhaled. Adrenaline took over. My head rushed and my hands shook. Anxiety held me in a ceaseless battle between my thoughts and what to do. I felt the urge to run, but I needed to clear my head before I made a life-threatening decision. I closed my eyes and concentrated on teleporting anywhere. In my hurry, I ended up back in the testing room.
“You failed.” My instructor’s voice brought a rush of relief to my chest. “Don’t move; the emergency crew will take care of the toxins.”
I exhaled and allowed myself to open my eyes. The room was dark compared to the perilous forest. A woman with gloves approached me and gave me an oxygen mask. My relief from preserving my life was replaced with the emptiness of disappointment. Most students who failed the last exam gave up on time travel; it’s not worth the money or time to retake classes.
The paramedics removed the hazardous chemicals from my body in less than an hour. I headed to Professor Nyman’s office; I wasn’t ready to quit. His door was open, and the room was empty. A headache surfaced as I peered into his office, and it occurred to me how tired I was from the test. I sat down in the chair facing his desk and assumed he would return in a few minutes. I had an inkling to compose a structured argument. I didn’t have so much as a strong claim when my eyes drooped close.
When I started classes at the university four years ago, my mother had recently passed. She worked as a gardener, so, since my major was undecided, I started taking horticulture classes. Time travel intrigued me the more I learned about it, and all I needed were the right classes. Some of my best memories were with my mother, but an education in time travel taught me to avoid revisiting my own past.
I blinked awake and sat up fast to face Professor Nyman.
“I know why you’re here.”
The professor already had a wary perception of me. When any student joins the program, the faculty research extensively for any risky traits. My choice to take horticulture after my mother’s death indicated failure to put aside past conflicts. The detail was a red flag, and said I might have alternative motives for my application into the time travel program. Professor Nyman pushed for my acceptance, but he never told me why he cared.
I apologized for falling asleep, and resisted looking at the wall clock to see if I had been there long.
“You can retake the test,” he started. “I pulled some strings for you.”
“What?” My disappointment lifted away from me.
“You understand the test will be significantly more difficult, and if you fail this time, I can’t give you a second chance without you retaking classes?”
“Yes, of course, thank you.” I had so many questions, but I could only express gratitude.
“There’s an opening in one week,” he rose and opened the door for me, which he must have closed when he came in the office. “Don’t be late.”
“I’ll be there,” I stood up, fatigue melting off me in response to my surprise second chance.
I spent the next week reviewing all the main principles of time travel. I practiced relaxation and clear thinking in stressful situations. I talked to other teachers when they were free. I had a discussion about spontaneous meditation with one professor during her lunch break. As I packed up my notes, preparing to leave, she said something strange.
“Professor Nyman is really looking out for you, you know,” she said.
I stopped organizing and searched her face for explanation. “Do you by any chance know why?”
“Well,” she fiddled with the handle on her mug of tea. “I believe he sees something of himself in you. You remember hearing that he had his time traveling license revoked ten years ago, right?”
“Yes, I heard about it, but I didn’t know why.”
“I don’t know all the details, but I know he lost his parents at a very young age. Supposedly, he went back in time to meet them.” She shrugged. “He learned his lesson and went on to teach full time, but I think he sees you as his second chance.”
“If he teaches you right, he probably thinks you won’t make the mistakes he did.”
The night before the test, I slept a full eight hours. I came to the test several minutes early, and kept my mind confident and clear. Whatever danger came my way, I could face it with calm logic. Professor Nyman asked if I was ready and wished me luck. Seven observers were present, with tablets to take notes and a screen on the wall to watch my exam. I stood in the center of the room, closed my eyes, and let the machine take me to the place set by the professor.
I heard the spray of a sprinkler. I felt the warm sun on my skin. Someone was humming. The tune was familiar, but I was unable to remember its words. When I opened my eyes, I was in a garden. The grass was immaculately trimmed, and there were no weeds in sight. The roses were in full bloom and looked almost too perfect to be real. The sprinkler’s sound ceased. I turned around, and a woman was bent over the garden hose. I recognized her immediately and froze. Underneath a floppy sunhat, black hair tied back, knelt my mother.
Sidney Bover entered the University of Southern Antarctica in the year 2578. After studying for a semester with an undecided major, he took an intro to time travel physics class and found his calling. After graduation, he intends to work at the Antarctic Time Travel Bureau. In his free time, Sidney grows potted vegetables, herbs, and annuals.
Iris Wright is a poet and short story writer from Plainfield, Illinois. She enjoys arranging flowers, canoeing, and dancing. Though she often experiments with genre and format, never settling for one style, she has an unwavering fascination with science fiction.
Justine McGreevy is a slowly recovering perfectionist, writer, and artist. She creates realities to make our own seem slightly less terrifying. Her work can be viewed at http://www.behance.net/Fickle_Muse and you can follow her on Twitter @Fickle_Muse.
“When Bluebells Die” is © 2018 Iris Wright
Art accompanying story is © 2018 Justine McGreevy