Barb Goffman
Mystery Writer

"Alex's Choice"

by Barb Goffman

from the anthology Crime Travel

published by Wildside Press in December 2019

If you had asked me a year ago for my favorite month, I would have said June. No hesitation. June meant summertime. No more school. I could spend my days hanging out with friends, playing with my yellow lab, Maxwell, and surfing the web.

If you had asked a month ago as June loomed, I would have said this summer was going to be incredible because Uncle Preston, my guardian, was finally going to let me explore the city beyond the few blocks of our neighborhood. I was twelve years old and responsible, he admitted. I had earned a little freedom. Besides, I had Maxwell to protect me.

But now June had come, and everything had changed. My life had cracked into a gazillion pieces, all because of a stupid speeding car.

When that car zoomed around a corner twenty-six days ago and hit Uncle Preston, he died on impact. I barely had time to process what had happened—how the man who had raised me since my parents died a decade ago was now gone, too. Grandfather arrived from Maine and whisked me and Maxwell off to his seaside home. His mansion. Where it was safe, he said. Where it was quiet.

And boy was he right about that last part.

There was no Internet connection at Grandfather’s house—my house now. No TVs or iPads or computers even. No technology. Just old-fashioned phones that connected to the wall. It was like living in a time warp. These things hadn’t bothered me on previous visits because Uncle Preston, Grandfather, and I had always kept busy. But now, with Grandfather working all day, Maxwell and I were on our own. Well, we had Cook, but she just made our meals.

Grandfather said he wasn’t worried about me. Between books and my imagination, he was sure I’d be able to fill my days and get used to my new home. To my new life.

As if I could ever forget the old one.

I knew Grandfather was trying to help me adjust the best he could. He was mourning, too, after all. And I was trying to settle in. Really. But I could only read so much, and it had been raining almost incessantly since we arrived. So instead of playing on the vast lawn, Maxwell and I had been spending our days looking at old photos. Instead of exploring the village and cliffside, we’d been staring out the windows, down the hill at the churning ocean, as the wind whistled and the sand blew and I wished that my life was different. That I wasn’t so alone.

Which is why I was excited to see this morning that the ocean winds had finally blown the clouds away. The sun rose strong and bright, raising flowers from their beds and my spirits along with them. This was how June was supposed to be. Now I could go outside. Now I could be distracted.

With the salty breeze beckoning me, I threw on clothes, and Maxwell and I hurried outside, straight to the large garden shed. Cook would be vexed that I’d skipped breakfast—she always talked like that—but I’d spotted a rainbow-colored kite in the shed a few days ago and had been itching to fly it.

I let the cord out a little as I stepped onto the spongy lawn, and then I began to run, Maxwell at my side. I ran fast, then faster, releasing bits of the cord as I went, the kite soaring so high I could have sworn it melted into the sun. I ran so far that Grandfather’s house seemed to shrink. No longer an imposing mansion, it looked like a postage stamp as I approached the cliffs that marked the edge of Grandfather’s land. The roaring surf below enticed me.

I’d never been this close to a beach before. Until now, I’d only visited Grandfather each year on Christmas, and Uncle Preston had made sure I never went near the water on those trips. You can’t trust the ocean, he’d always said. It entices you with its splendor, but danger lurks within. As Maxwell and I stared down at the rocky shore now, the beach grass rustling, the waves tumbling in and out, all I could see was the peace Grandfather had promised—and I heard a girl laughing in the breeze.

I twisted around but saw no one. I inched to the cliff’s edge and peered down. The beach—even the part directly below the cliff—was empty. I had heard laughter. No way I’d imagined it. But from whom?

The kite tugged my arm. The wind had picked up, and with no answer to my mystery in sight, I shrugged my questions off and let the kite lead me and Maxwell away from the cliff. Off I ran again, watching the kite rise and fall like the tides, and dreaming of it pulling me up, up, up into the clouds, where everything was all right in my life again.

But like all dreams, this one had to end. As we approached the house, the breeze suddenly faded, and the kite fell like a stone, crashing into an ancient boxwood hedge, its string tangled up in the branches. Maxwell trotted inside, and I tried to unravel the cord. As I was struggling, something caught my eye. A bicycle. It was leaning against the garden shed, so unusual looking that I couldn’t tear my eyes away. Someone had painted every inch of it a glossy white. The frame. Seat. Basket. Bell. Even the tires. I ran to it.

“Where’d you come from?” I asked aloud. “You weren’t here before.”

It might sound nuts that I was talking to a bicycle, but I was glad to have someone—or something—to speak to besides Maxwell. Of course, it didn’t answer.

I pulled the bicycle to me. Its chain squeaked as I moved it, like the creaks and cracks Grandfather made with each step. Yet it had no rust anywhere. No dirt sullied its brilliance. It was as if it had sprung from the air, waiting for me after years in careful storage.

I rubbed its smooth frame, cool and almost silky, like the fur behind Maxwell’s ears. Then I threw my leg over it and perched on its seat. Had it been molded for me? My feet connected perfectly with the pedals. My fingers rested naturally on the handlebars.

As I pushed down with my right leg, the tires started whirling. And we were off, my new friend and I, gliding over the grass. We rode out to the cliffs, then backtracked out to the far edge of the property where several old family dogs had been buried. It was past lunchtime when we returned to the house. Cook would be cross that I’d stayed out so long, but the farther and faster I’d pedaled, the more my sadness had faded. The bicycle and I were one, calm and assured. Happy and free.

I didn’t ever want to let that feeling go.

#

That night at dinner, Grandfather and I sat as always at the long dining room table. He at the head, me to his right. The room was silent, except for the clicking of our silverware against the china plates, Maxwell’s panting beneath the table, and Grandfather’s soft cough as he cleared his throat, preparing to tell me about his day.

Grandfather once told me that long ago, when Uncle Preston was a boy, this house had always been filled with noise and people. Friends came and went. No invitations necessary. By day, people laughed and ate and told stories. In the evenings, music and dancing spilled out onto the lawn. Even Uncle Preston, who I could only remember being as stiff as the starched shirts he’d always worn, apparently used to joke and play games under the moonlight with my mother. They were, Grandfather said, boisterous ones.

 But then one day, when they’d grown and I was two, everything changed. My parents, Uncle Preston, Maxwell, and I had all come to visit. Some sort of accident happened—no one would ever discuss it—and my parents died. I couldn’t even remember them. I only had pictures to remind me. Uncle Preston had packed up my things and moved Maxwell and me to his brownstone in the city, where I would be safe, he said. My grandparents stopped hosting parties. Stopped accepting visitors. Then my grandmother died too—from heartbreak, Uncle Preston had said. And Grandfather’s life was left in pieces.

But he persevered, as he expected me to do now. Grandfather stayed on in the manor house with his cook and his maid and his driver. Every day he went into town, where he ran the bank. Every night he came back and ate at this table. He used to eat alone with his newspaper. But since Maxwell and I had come to live with him, he left the paper for later.

The first half of the meal always consisted of him telling me about his day. Grandfather believed it important for children to learn about the world, the obstacles people face, and how they overcome them. The second half of the meal was reserved for me to report my doings. Grandfather would look at me closely when I spoke, paying attention to my every word. He found delight in the same things I did. When God created the world, Grandfather said last week, he created summertime so children would have the chance to imagine and grow. I think he missed being a child himself so he placed particular importance on how I spent my days. I was beyond eager when my chance to speak finally came tonight.

“So, Alex,” Grandfather said, “I hope you went outside today, now that the weather has finally turned.”

I nodded repeatedly, a bobblehead doll come to life. I told him of flying the kite until the wind abruptly died and the kite dropped to the earth. I told him about the cord getting caught in the hedge and that I had to detangle it. And I told him how, as I worked, I spotted a bicycle.

“It was leaning against the shed,” I said. “But it hadn’t been there before. It just appeared. Like magic.”

Grandfather set down his glass of wine, his hand shaking a bit, and leaned forward. A smile crept across his whiskery face.

“Did you ride it?”

“Oh, yeah. It fit me perfectly. When I was on it, I felt . . . light, somehow, as if I were the kite and could fly. Where did the bicycle come from, Grandfather?”

He took a long drink as he stared at me. It felt like he was taking my measure, and I somehow knew something important was about to happen.

“That bicycle has been a part of this family for many generations,” Grandfather finally said, leaning back in his chair. “It appears when it’s needed. When it can do some good.”

“I don’t understand.”

He chuckled. “Quite appropriate. Magic isn’t meant to be understood.”

Magic? My eyes popped to my brow. I didn’t believe in magic, but Grandfather wasn’t one to make up stories.

“Did anything else unusual happen today?” he asked.

Besides finding a supposedly magical bicycle? I almost said no, but then I remembered. “I heard laughter in the breeze. A girl laughing. But when I looked around, no one was there.”

He closed his eyes for a long moment. When he opened them, they were bright and watery. “Where were you when you heard it?”

“By the cliffs. Over the beach.”

Grandfather smiled tightly, his lips glued together. Was he going to cry? Instead he pushed away from the table and waved me toward him.

“Come,” he said. “Let’s take a walk.”

#

Nearly twenty minutes later, Grandfather, Maxwell, and I approached the cliffs. Grandfather was puffing by then, and he settled on a stone bench overlooking the beach below to catch his breath. He’d been quiet on the way over. Something was bothering him, I could tell. So I’d walked silently beside him, watching the sky turn pink as the sunlight faded amidst the roar of high tide. When we finally reached the bench, I found a stick on the ground and threw it. Maxwell ran joyfully across the grass to retrieve it.

Grandfather watched him, nodding. “Appropriate Max should be here. How old is he now?”

“Almost eleven.”

“So he was barely a year old then,” Grandfather said. “Just a puppy the day of the accident. The day your parents died.”

Uncertain I heard correctly, I sat next to Grandfather. My surprise must have shown on my face, because he said, “Yes, Alex. It’s time you learned what happened.”

Maxwell returned. Grandfather tugged the stick from his mouth and tossed it across the lawn. Maxwell set off again.

“It was ten years ago tomorrow,” he said. “A lovely day. Sunny. Breezy. Nearly eighty degrees, but cooler right down by the water, of course. In fact, the temperature dropped quite a bit in the late afternoon. Your parents bundled you up in a sweatshirt and took you on a dinner picnic down there on the beach. Maxwell too.” He sighed. “Elizabeth always loved that beach.”

“Where was Uncle Preston?”

“Back at the house. He’d twisted his ankle badly that morning and was resting on the deck with a book and binoculars. Watching the birds . . . and you. He always had a soft spot for you.”

I swallowed hard. I felt the same way about him.

“That’s how I know what happened,” Grandfather said. “Because your uncle saw it, even though he couldn’t do anything to stop it.”

Grandfather stared at the horizon for at least a minute. He was seeing something far away—in time, I suspected, not in distance. Meanwhile Maxwell returned, panting. He dropped the stick and sat by our knees. Grandfather left his daydream and patted Maxwell’s side.

“You and your mother were sitting on a blanket, watching your father play with Maxwell,” he said, resuming the story. “Max was a real bundle of energy back then. He could chase birds or play fetch for hours without growing tired. He’d just returned a stick for the twentieth time or so, and your father threw it again. I’m not sure if your father misjudged his throw or if the wind shifted, but the stick landed in the water as the waves were flowing in. Max raced after it.”

The hair on my arms rose. I stared at Maxwell. He was here and clearly fine, but something in Grandfather’s tone made me scared for him.

“The waves rushed out once more, taking Maxwell with them. He disappeared under the water. Your father raced after him, straight into the surf.” Grandfather paused, staring now at the ground. “Your mother jumped up, pacing, staring out at the sea. When neither of them surfaced, she ran into the ocean too.”

Tears began sliding down his face. I reached out and grabbed Grandfather’s ropey hand. He looked at Maxwell. “They loved you, boy.”

Maxwell peered up from his spot on the grass, and his mouth fell open into a smile.

“By this point, your uncle had been screaming for help, but no one could make it down to the beach in time. Somehow, a few minutes later, your father managed to clamber out of the frigid water, cradling Maxwell. He dropped the dog on the sand, and they both lay there for a few moments, exhausted, I suspect. Until your father realized that you were alone. He must have figured out your mother had gone into the ocean. He dove back in to save her.”

He exhaled the deepest breath I’d ever heard. “He’d been wearing blue jeans and a heavy sweatshirt. The soaked clothes must have weighed fifty pounds. . . . They never surfaced, not him or your mother. Not until they washed up about a hundred yards down the shore an hour later.” His voice had grown so soft, I leaned closer to hear him. “First your mother.” He was crying full out now. “Then your father.”

After a few moments, Grandfather pressed his handkerchief to his face, composing himself. “I wouldn’t have told you all this. Your uncle and I agreed to never tell you the details. But apparently,” he began smiling, “fate has other ideas.”

“Fate?”

“The bicycle. It takes people to the past so mistakes can be corrected.”

I gaped at him. That had to be a joke. But Grandfather appeared quite sincere.

“I know how it sounds, Alex. A time-traveling bicycle. I thought the stories incredible when I first heard them many years ago. Your mother never believed them. But I’ve seen its power with my own eyes. If you believe”—he clutched my hand—“and if you’ve directly witnessed something the bicycle thinks was a mistake, it will take you back to that time so you can fix the past.”

“And you think it wants me to . . . save my parents?”

“The bicycle seems to like significant dates. The accident was ten years ago tomorrow. Plus you heard laughter in the breeze as you looked at the beach. Elizabeth used to play down there all the time as a child, always smiling, always laughing.”

Was that the answer to my mystery? Had I really heard my mother laughing? Was she somehow calling to me from the past, wanting me to save her, to piece together the shards of our family? I blinked at Grandfather, hopeful but uncertain.

 “The date and your mother’s laughter, those are the signs. Reminders of people wrongly gone from this world.” He grasped my shoulders. “What you need to fix.”

“But how?”

“All you have to do is keep Maxwell out of the water.”

My brain swam. “Grandfather, I was two years old when this occurred. How could I do that?”

“When you go back in time, there’ll be two versions of you. The original you, two years old, sitting on the blanket. And there’ll be the Alex I’m speaking with right now. Twelve years old. Your parents won’t know you at this age. They’ll think you’re a stranger. All you’ll have to do is stop your father from throwing that stick into the water. And everything will right itself.”

His eyes glistened with hope. “Please, Alex. Please do this for our family.”

Nodding, I stared down at the beach and gulped. He made it sound so easy.

#

On the walk back to the house, Grandfather explained what I had to do—get on the bicycle, concentrate on where and when I wanted to go, and start pedaling. The bicycle would take care of the rest. Late the next afternoon would be the right time, Grandfather said, mirroring the time of the accident.

I wasn’t sure I believed all of this, or any of it, but the bicycle had appeared from nowhere, and I had  heard that laughter, and Grandfather had never lied to me before. So I decided to trust him.

By the time we reached the house, Grandfather was winded again and shuffling his feet. He went off to sleep early, while I sat on the sofa in the library, flipping through photo albums from when I was a baby. I swept my fingers across the clear page covers, trying to feel what I saw. My mother’s long blond hair, parted in the middle. The freckles sprinkled across her cheeks and nose. She beamed in every picture.

My father was in far fewer photos. He’d probably taken most of them. His dark hair was wavy, often falling across his forehead. When it was brushed back, his black eyebrows stood out. And there were a ton of pictures of Maxwell and me, always together. Me hugging him around his neck. Him crawling on my chest with impossibly small paws. I knew I couldn’t really remember those days, but as I nestled on the sofa, with Maxwell sleeping by my feet, it felt as if I could.

I hoped Grandfather was right, and I could change the past. Because as much as I loved Uncle Preston, the thought of growing up with my own parents filled an emptiness in my heart that—I realized now—had been there long before Uncle Preston died.

The chiming of the mantel clock reminded me the hour was growing late.

“C’mon, boy,” I said, patting Maxwell’s side. “Let’s go to bed.”

He opened his eyes and yawned, probably thinking that he’d already been asleep. But slowly he rose, stretching his back legs. Maxwell had slept on my bed every night for as long as I could remember. He usually settled down by my feet, but at some point during the night, he’d end up snoring beside me, stretching over most of the bed, his paws pressing into me.

After we got in bed, I tried to sleep but couldn’t drift off. So I sat up, opened my eyes, and began talking to Maxwell. I told him about the plan for the next day. How I prayed it would work. I reminded him to stay out of the ocean, even though this version of Maxwell had already done those things ten years ago.

A clock down the hall chimed, then it began to gong. Once. Twice. After the twelfth clang, a bright light shone in the window. I slipped out of bed, pulled back the curtain, and rubbed my eyes to be certain I wasn’t seeing things. The bicycle was standing beneath my window. Glowing. Its wheels spinning. Its bell began ringing.

This was real. It was time.

I threw on clothes and dashed down the hallway to Grandfather’s room.

“Wake up.” I shook his arm.

He rolled over quickly, his eyes wide in alarm. “What’s wrong?”

“It’s time, Grandfather. The bicycle has told me. It’s time.”

He flung off his covers, grabbed his robe and slippers, and he, Maxwell, and I hurried downstairs. Grandfather flipped on the outside lights, then we stepped onto the lawn. The bicycle rolled to us as if it had an invisible rider.

“I thought late afternoon would be the right time,” Grandfather said. “The same time as the accident. But I guess the bicycle has other ideas.”

I could hear it humming. “I think it’s too excited to wait.”

The bicycle stopped in front of us. My stomach fluttered as I straddled it.

“All you have to do is ride toward the cliffs,” Grandfather said. “Remember to focus on that day and keep pedaling. You ready?”

I took a deep breath. “Yes, I’m ready.” I hoped.

“You can do it. I know you can.” Grandfather winked at me, the way he sometimes did for encouragement. He seemed desperate and eager all at once. “Be brave.”

“I will.” I pushed off and started pedaling. Maxwell ran by my side, but I kept concentrating on the beach, on what happened that day, and soon I couldn’t hear Maxwell anymore. Just the wind in my ears as the bicycle’s front tire leaned upward, and then we were flying. Up and up. The stars grew larger and brighter, and a peaceful feeling overcame me. I kept pedaling because Grandfather had said I should, but somehow I knew the bicycle was in charge now, and my legwork was no longer necessary. I looked down. Grandfather seemed as small as the teddy bears I used to play with. He waved at me. I couldn’t make out his facial features anymore, but I was certain he was smiling.

The roar of the ocean called my attention back to my task. I concentrated on the day my parents had died, and the bicycle tilted back toward the earth. We flew into a mist that kept growing thicker, until I couldn’t see anything. Gritty sea spray stung my cheeks, and in the distance I heard Maxwell barking—his happy bark, growing louder and louder. The smell of seaweed tickled my nose as the fog lifted. And suddenly it was daytime, and the shore was a few feet below me. The bicycle skidded onto the beach. I yanked my legs off the pedals, dragging my feet through the warm, rocky sand. Then I spotted myself farther down the shore, a toddler standing on a blanket with my parents.

It had worked!

I jumped off the bicycle, wheeled it behind a dune where it would be safe, and strode toward my family. My family! My mother was blowing soap bubbles in the wind, and the smaller me was giggling and jumping, trying to catch them. I stopped short, my feet sinking into the sand. That toddler was me. I knew it, yet I could hardly believe it.

Bark. Bark. Bark.

My gaze shifted to the dog speeding to me. Maxwell. He was so skinny. And I’d forgotten how rich and golden his muzzle used to be. He reached me and jumped up on my legs, panting, happy. He stared into my eyes. I think he knew me.

“Hey, boy,” I said, easing him off. I leaned down to pet him. Maxwell rolled over onto his back, and I rubbed his tummy while his tail flapped against the sand.

“You must be a real dog lover,” a deep voice said as a shadow fell over us.

I looked up, and my heart beat wildly. It was my father. He had the same nose as me. Our hair was the exact same shade of brown. I hadn’t been able to tell that from the pictures.

“Hi,” I said, scrambling for something more to say.

“Maxwell doesn’t often take to new people,” my father said. “You must be special.”

I gulped, patted Maxwell’s tummy twice, then stood. “Well, I have a dog just like him. But older.”

Maxwell noticed the stick in my father’s hand and nudged his knee, doing the throw-it dance I knew all too well. My father threw the stick toward the blanket where my mother and Little Me now sat, and for a second I smiled as Maxwell raced after it. Then a feeling of panic overcame me. Oh, no. I’m supposed to prevent this.

“Be careful,” I called, running after him.

Maxwell ignored me, jumped in the air, and caught the stick. Wow. I hadn’t seen that move in years. He raced back to me, his fur rippling in the wind, as my father jogged up.

“Don’t worry about Maxwell,” he said. “He always comes back.” My father pitched the stick again. It flew behind a dune, Maxwell on its trail.

“Who’s this?” my mother asked.

I stood just a few feet from her now. The wind had pushed her hair around, leaving it wild and messy, but she still was beautiful. All children probably thought that about their mothers, but in this case, it really was true—even more than I’d expected. Her eyes had a twinkle that her photos hadn’t captured.

“Maxwell has a new friend,” my father said, turning to me. “I’m Tom.” He tapped his chest. “This is my wife, Elizabeth. And that’s Alex.” He pointed at Little Me.

I couldn’t get over the fact that I was staring at my two-year-old self. My face was pudgy, my cheeks pink.

“Hi.” I glanced at each of them. “Nice to meet you. My name’s Alex, too.”

“Small world,” my father said.

He had no idea.

“You look familiar, Alex,” my mother said. “What are your parents’ names? I probably know them.”

I hesitated. I didn’t want to lie to her, but these were unusual circumstances. “I’m sure you don’t know them. We’re just visiting.” Best to change the subject. “That’s a great dog you’ve got.”

I nodded at Maxwell, who was trotting back, the stick in his mouth again. While my parents turned to admire him, I quickly glanced around. How was I going to keep Maxwell from going into the ocean? There was nothing to tie him to. And nothing to tie him with. No leash or anything like it. Why hadn’t I brought a leash?

I devised another lie. “He seems to be limping a little. Maybe he needs to go home.”

Please take him home.

“A limp?” my father asked. “I don’t see a limp. Do you, Elizabeth?”

“No,” my mother said.

“Are you sure?” I asked. “That back left leg looks off.”

Maxwell trotted up and began his throw-it dance again, no limp in sight. Thanks a lot, boy. My father rubbed Maxwell’s neck.

“He seems fine to me.” My father threw the stick again.

My stomach clenched as I watched the stick land near the water. Maxwell chased it and scooped it up. A bunch of seagulls squawked overhead, and Little Me started following them, nearly colliding with Maxwell, who had begun jumping up at them too. He always adored chasing birds.

Smiling, my mother ran after Little Me, while my father laughed.

“Hey, Max,” he said. “You’re never going to catch those gulls. C’mon.” My father gave Maxwell the come hand signal.

Maxwell, always well-trained, grabbed his stick and dashed over to my father. They began playing tug-of-war. Finally Maxwell dropped the stick, and my father threw it yet again. This time the stick flew even closer to the surf. My father chuckled once more as Maxwell raced after it.

The tide was rising, and the crashing waves were higher than they’d been just minutes before, stopping a few yards from the blanket. When Maxwell returned, his legs were wet. A few more throws like that, and Maxwell would be sucked into the ocean—the very thing I’d come back to prevent.

“Could I throw the stick?” I asked.

“Sure.” My father handed it to me.

I lobbed the stick toward the base of the cliffs, but the wind carried it to the surf. Maxwell pounced on it and bounded back to my father, his paws leaving wet marks in the sand. My father hurled the stick once more. And it flew right back to the water. As Maxwell grabbed it, my stomach clenched. Would this be when he’d get pulled in? But Maxwell returned to us.

“Could I try again?” I asked.

Again my father handed me the stick. Again I flung it at the cliffs. Again the wind carried it to the surf, luring Maxwell into the waves. The wind was working against us.

I walked toward the water. From this angle, I could see the bicycle waiting for me. Help, I pleaded. But the bicycle didn’t hum or move or do anything. I got the message. It had taken me here, but I had to finish this on my own.

When I turned back, my father had thrown the stick again, and Maxwell jumped into the ocean just as a large wave crashed onto the sand. The wave retreated, and Maxwell tried to shake dry, his jaws clamped around his prize. Then he trotted to us, water dripping from his fur. It wouldn’t be long now.

“Tom,” my mother called. “I need help changing Alex’s diaper. This wind is making things much more difficult than usual.”

“On my way,” he said.

He walked to the blanket, and Maxwell came to me, dropped the stick, and begged me to throw it. I swallowed hard, fighting off tears as I watched the waves crashing in. I knew that no matter what I did, the stick would land in the water. Maxwell was destined to get sucked in. I couldn’t stop it. All I could do was prevent my parents from going in after him.

Should I tell them who I was? Why I was there? I remembered Grandfather’s words. My mother hadn’t believed in the bicycle and its powers. Even if I showed the bicycle to her, she’d think I was lying. Playing a cruel prank. No, the truth wouldn’t work.

I could snap the stick into pieces so Maxwell couldn’t chase it. But there were several more to choose from on the beach. And my father surely wouldn’t be able to deny Maxwell the joy of chasing a stick when he did his throw-it dance. I never could.

I stared at my parents’ backs as they changed Little Me’s diaper. The only way to save them, I realized, was to sacrifice Maxwell. Maxwell, who slept with me every night and made me laugh every day. Who comforted me when Uncle Preston died. Who had been my best friend all these years. I took a raspy breath and rubbed the side of his head.

“I love you, boy.”

Then I hurled the stick as hard and as far as I could into the ocean. Maxwell dashed after it, into the surf, under the waves. And he was gone.

I stood there a few moments, checking to see if he’d surface. But the waves rushed in and out again, and Maxwell didn’t reappear. Choking back tears, I stumbled down the beach. I didn’t want my parents to see me cry. And I couldn’t let them realize Maxwell had been carried out to sea, or else they would try to save him and the whole disaster would begin again. I hid behind a large dune, fell to the sand, and let the tears that had been building spill down my face.

Oh, Maxwell. I’m sorry, boy. I’m so sorry.

I’d killed my own dog.

I sobbed for a couple of minutes, the ocean roaring in my ears. I never wanted to hear its sickening sound again. Finally I wiped my eyes and lumbered back to my parents. They had moved the blanket a few yards closer to the cliffs, farther from the water, and were sitting, playing with Little Me.

“There you are,” my father said. “Where’s Maxwell?”

“He went racing after some gulls,” I said, pointing down the beach. My voice cracked while I spoke, but I doubt they noticed it over the thunderous waves beating against the shore.

“That silly dog,” my mother said. “He certainly has a prey drive when it comes to birds.”

My father stared down the beach. “I don’t even see him. He must really be running hard.” He turned to me and wrinkled his brow. “Hey, you look upset, Alex. Don’t worry. Maxwell always comes back.”

I nodded, wishing it would be true this time.

The sand beneath me began vibrating, and a bell chimed. The bicycle was calling. Time to go. I’d done what I’d come for—and sacrificed my best friend in the process.

Tears pricked my eyes again. “Well, I better go home,” I said. “It was nice meeting you.”

“You too,” my mother said.

She and my father waved goodbye as I trudged to the bicycle. I wasn’t so eager to see it now. If it weren’t for this stupid bicycle, Maxwell would be alive.

I think the bicycle felt sorry for me because when I sat on it and pushed off, away from my parents, the pedaling came easily, even though it should have been difficult on the sand. A few seconds later, I rode into a heavy fog that came from nowhere. And once again the bicycle glided into the air, and we were flying high into the sky. Into the future.

#

The smell of cinnamon pulled me from my dreams, and I opened my eyes. It was morning, and I was back in my bed in Grandfather’s house. I didn’t remember getting there. But I did remember everything that happened down on the beach. Did it not work? Why was I back here? Where was Maxwell?

I dressed quickly, rushed downstairs, and hurried into the kitchen.

“There you are,” my mother said.

She was standing at the stove, making my favorite cinnamon pancakes. Her face had more freckles and lines than I’d noticed on the beach. Her hair was shorter, and she was older. But most importantly, she was alive.

“We were beginning to think you’d miss breakfast,” my father said.

He was carrying a plate of bacon to the kitchen table. He’d gained some weight in the past decade. But his smile was the same. I couldn’t help but smile back.

Someone sighed loudly behind me. “I was hoping you’d miss breakfast for once so I could eat your food.”

My breath caught. Uncle Preston? I wheeled around. “Is it really you?”

He tilted his head. “Who else would it be?” Then Uncle Preston laughed. He never laughed. “I promised I’d help you fly that kite today, didn’t I? Do I ever go back on my word?”

I hugged him. “No, Uncle Preston. You don’t.”

“Alex, are you okay?” he asked.

I pulled back. “Yeah. I am. I really am.”

“Well, good,” my mother said. “Because breakfast is served.”

We all sat at the kitchen table. I couldn’t recall anyone ever eating here. Things clearly were different now. I was just swallowing my first bite, staring at the three of them so intently they must have wondered if something really was wrong, when I heard shuffling. My grandmother entered the room, just as chipper as she’d seemed in so many old photos. And then Grandfather walked in, too. He appeared the same, except his eyes were brighter. I suspected mine were as well. All our lives were whole now. Well, almost. Except for Maxwell.

I’d done what I’d had to. Saved my parents. Restored my family. It’s what my soul had longed for. What Grandfather had begged me for. But would I have gone back in time if I’d known in advance the price I’d have to pay? I wasn’t sure. Maxwell had been my family, too, just the same as my parents. The same as Grandfather. More so, in some ways. The fact that he was a dog made no difference to me, and as happy as I was that my parents were now alive, I was heartbroken that I’d sacrificed Maxwell in the process.

How could I ever forgive myself?

“Good morning, sleepyhead,” my grandmother said as she sat at the table.

“Did you sleep well, Alex?” Grandfather asked as he took the last remaining chair. “Any interesting dreams?”

I looked straight at him. “As a matter of fact, I dreamed about an all-white bicycle.”

Uncle Preston started laughing while my mother swatted Grandfather’s arm.

“Have you been filling Alex’s head with silly stories about that woo-woo bicycle?” She smirked as she glanced my way. “I’m sorry, honey, but there’s no such thing as a time-traveling bicycle. Your grandfather simply has a good imagination.”

My heart lifted at the idea. If that were true, it would mean my parents never died. I hadn’t killed Maxwell. Had it all been a dream? I studied Grandfather, certain he would give me a sign, but his face indicated nothing.

If it was a dream, I’d remember the last ten years with my parents. I’d remember . . . and suddenly I did. All the birthdays. Family dinners. Celebrations. Memory after memory flooded my mind, which meant . . . the bicycle. How I saved my parents. None of it was real. The laughter in the wind—I must have imagined that too.

“Better eat up, Alex, if we’re going to make haste with that kite,” Uncle Preston said.

I nodded and swirled my pancakes in the syrup on my plate, basking in my memories, until a clicking sound interrupted me. Nails against the floor. A lump grew in my throat as I dropped my fork. Maxwell? He walked into the kitchen as if nothing bad had ever happened.

I leaped from my chair. Hugging him, we sank to the floor, my face wet from his slurps and my tears.

“Alex, what’s going on?” my father asked. “You’re acting like you haven’t seen Max in years.”

How could I explain? Of course Maxwell was alive. Still, I was overwhelmed to see him.

“I had a bad dream last night,” I finally said. “Maxwell always makes me feel better.”

Maxwell licked my nose, then rolled onto his back for a tummy rub. I obliged.

It definitely was a dream. They’re all here. My parents never died. I never lived with Uncle Preston in the city. He never stepped in front of that car. Grandmother never died of heartbreak. And Maxwell never drowned. It was just a dream. It—

My gaze settled on Maxwell’s rear left leg. It had a big furless patch, and a jagged line ran up the middle.

“What happened to Maxwell?” I asked.

“What do you mean?” my mother said.

I pointed at his leg.

“That old scar?” she asked.

I nodded. Maxwell never had a scar.

“Alex, are you sure you’re okay?” my father asked. “Maxwell has had that scar since he was a puppy. You know that. He’d been chasing birds down the beach, and somehow he ended up in the ocean. We didn’t even realize it until he crawled out from the surf, frozen and exhausted. His back left leg was all scraped up.”

My heart thumped loudly in my chest. “He escaped from the water.”

“Yes. He did.” My father came over to us and joined me in rubbing Maxwell’s tummy. “You always come back, don’t you, boy?”

Maxwell’s tongue lolled from his mouth as he panted and thumped his tail against the floor, steadily, happily. He was the glue that held this family together. I hugged him again, and he licked my face.

So it all had happened. The deaths. The time travel. Maxwell being pulled out to sea. But he was here now. Happy and alive.

I’d gone back and saved my family. And Maxwell had come back, saving himself—and me in the process.

If Maxwell could forgive me for throwing that stick into the ocean, maybe, just maybe, I could forgive myself, too.

I stared at Grandfather. “It wasn’t a dream, was it?”

Grandfather simply smiled at me. And once again, he winked.