Down our lane stood an old mansion, stolid and resistant against weather and wear. All kids in the neighbourhood knew exactly who lived there. We called her the Old Hag, and we dreaded her immensely. But we were drawn to that mansion like moths to the flame, and in spite of our fear we made dares to crawl in through the cellar windows and make forays into the dark unknown. That’s how we learned about the time machine the Old Hag kept hidden away in the basement.
My sister and I made a pact long ago, before we ever heard of the Old Hag. We were an adventurous pair, trespassing properties for fun and stealing meaningless trinkets from the homes we invaded, leaving candy or acorns in return. Nancy and Suzy, the Mischievous Sisters. Then one day Nancy vanished and I remembered our pact. ‘Should one of us ever come to harm, the other will take revenge.’ We spat and swore and thought of it no more. She disappeared the same day the Hag took up residence in the old mansion. Now the time had come for me to fulfil the pact. Revenge. I would sneak in, club the Hag over the head with something heavy, activate the time machine, travel back and save my sister. Hero!
One night, about one month after her disappearance, I forced my way in through the cellar window. My flashlight shone upon piles of ancient-looking junk. The light glinted off a device shaped like and open cabinet connected to a keyboard, an old computer screen and a lever like an Atari joystick. The time machine. It looked like a total disappointment. I thought I heard the Hag stir upstairs and muffled the sound of my breathing. Perhaps I could skip the ‘clubbing the horrible Hag over the head’ part and just retrieve Nancy with the device. We’d be together again, the Mischievous Sisters. I pressed the device’s on-switch and the green glow of the screen cast an eerie incandescence over my shaky fingers. Had to move quickly now. The interface looked surprisingly user-friendly. I just needed to set the travel date to the day my sister disappeared, save her and get us both out in a hurry.
I yelped and my fingers raked across the keyboard. The Hag!
“Stay away from me!” I shouted. My eyes had trouble making out her twisted form. The green glow of the computer screen limned her crooked shape and lit up her wild hair, that moved gently like cobwebs in a breeze.
“Don’t touch that machine.”
I’d been a fool, setting to work without first finding a decent vase or a heavy statuette to club her over the head with. But she moved slowly, as if afraid to trip. She was probably frail and brittle, like grandma. What could she possibly do to me? I was young and agile. I could get the upper hand easily. I braced myself. “What did you do to my sister? I want her back!”
This seemed to startle the Hag. She stopped in her tracks. I raised my fist, ready to punch her in the gut. Now I saw part of her face in the green light. I hesitated. She looked so vulnerable. “Please,” she said, “step away from the machine!” Her voice croaked like the Budweiser frog. I relaxed my fist. I couldn’t do it, pact be damned. Neither of us had in mind knocking out old ladies when we swore our oath. I guess we both assumed burly, monobrowed men would somehow be involved. Someone you could hurt without regret. But I could still execute the second part of my plan: use the time machine and get back my sister.
I moved quickly and stepped into the cabinet. First get away from the Hag, then program the right date and retrieve Nancy. “Don’t do it, for god’s sake,” cried the Hag. “Don’t use the machine!”
I glared at her, grabbed the joystick and pushed the red button. Then my world turned green and I felt as if every fibre in my body turned to chewing gum and got masticated by an entire class of schoolboys. I screamed and dropped out of the cabinet. I was still in the same basement. Nothing had shifted an inch. The machine had failed me.
“I told you not to use it.” The Hag stood right next to me and held out a wrinkled hand. “I tried to tell you, but you wouldn’t listen. The machine is broken.” I attempted to get up straight, but my back screamed at me and kept me hunched over. “Pain…”
“I’d like to tell you it’ll pass soon. I suppose in a way it will, eventually.” Was she trying to comfort me? “It is broken. I’m waiting here, hoping someday soon the owner will return to fix it. Until then, I see it as my job to keep the local kids from using it.” She finally turned on the basement light and I got a good look at her face for the first time. There was something oddly familiar about her.
“Grandma? What are you doing here?” The Hag shook her head and slowly led me to the corner of the basement where a dark red velvet curtain hung from a tall, standing object. I felt fear drawing icy fingers across my arched back. The Hag silently positioned me in front of the curtain and shuffled away to a respectful distance. Then she pulled a cord and the curtain dropped. My mirror image was strange and familiar at the same time, and as the terrible truth dawned upon me, the Hag began to speak.
“The machine is broken. It is a time machine, all right, but not like in movies. It speeds up time only inside the cabinet. You shouldn’t have used it, Suzie. I tried to warn you. This shouldn’t have happened to you. You should have stayed away and leave me be, the pact be damned.”