Jan 18, 2015

Learning curve

Posted by Srđan Canić on Jan 18, 2015No comments
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After arranging the toast and two boiled eggs on a serving tray just the way he liked it, Colin slowly carried his breakfast outside. He enjoyed the early, fresh air and the soothing sensation of almost still life. The only reminder of inevitable turbulence was the young summer sun. Just breaking above the trees, but clearly indicating time was passing by. And with each moment, it revealed more and more dark corners of the farm and surrounding forest in which boys were spending entire days. Boys... Colin thought to himself, putting the tray on a porch table and letting his old body rest in a chair. Yes, the boys were another reason why he liked to get up early. Having seemingly boundless energy, they did remind him of comic-book superheroes. Always giving a hundred percent, yet never getting tired, as if they were drawing their strength directly from the sun. Just watching them play would fill Colin’s heart with happiness. But—

“But they sure make a lot of noise...” he whispered, smiling.

Though, he probably wouldn’t be smiling if he knew just how much noise. He might have even had more understanding and sympathy for his son, Robert, who would always yell at the boys to “keep it down”. But, like many grandparents, Colin was “blessed” with hearing that was slowly fading away. Haha, perhaps that ‘slowly’ applied twenty years ago! Indeed, he was probably halfway to being deaf by now and unaware of the turbulence boys were creating. However, accustomed to the world of low volume, he would also experience occasional loud noise as an explosion, even causing him physical pain. So, he made it a habit to enjoy as much of peaceful morning time as he possibly could, before Dale’s friends would arrive. He needed it. Just like they need to sleep in, Colin thought. He would even say that must be the reason why grandparents and grandchildren have such great relationships. They simply don’t overlap until both are at their daily highs, ready to deal with anything. Well, almost anything. There’s no sun that could provide teenage boys with enough strength to deal with homework and chores, Colin reckoned. But it was a fact that, while these two age groups got along so well together, neither one was able to deal with the “inbetweeners” – the parents.

“Obviously, it’s the parents’ fault,” was Colin’s conclusion. “And I’m sure Dale would agree. Once he wakes up.”

Of course, Colin knew better than to encourage the waking. It was much too early for them to... overlap. Besides, he so enjoyed bragging about how his grandson loved him, especially to Robert. And waking a fourteen-year-old just wouldn’t be fair. Colin laughed. He did have to be careful not to sink too deep into the chair when Dale wasn’t around to help him up, but... A small price to pay, he always thought. Willing to even spend the entire morning sitting, waiting for Dale to wake up. Like a turtle waiting for someone to flip it over.

But this morning Colin was glad he was sitting when Dale suddenly appeared from behind the barn. He was all sweaty, wearing working gloves, covered in wood fiber and obviously on a mission.

“Oh, hi Grandpa, you’re up!” he said happily, climbing the few steps. Acknowledging his grandpa’s presence, but obviously without any intention of having a conversation. And acting as though he worked around the barn from the crack of dawn every single day.

Colin just watched, speechless, as Dale disappeared into the house to drink some cold juice from the fridge. And from the carton, of course. After pausing briefly to catch some air, he drank a bit more and then left the house the same way, not really noticing the fiber he left behind. He was already halfway back to the barn when Colin finally managed to recover from the shock.

“Do you need any help?”

“No, thanks! I’m good!” Dale shouted, without even turning back, let alone stopping. Then, as if wanting to brag, but not to explain much, he sort of looked over his shoulder and added, “I’m building a ramp to soften the landing when we jump with our bikes!”

As Dale disappeared into the barn, Colin still felt a bit lost, but was somehow comforted by that expression – “to soften”. Had he been riding a bicycle himself as a kid, or at least watching the boys do it, he’d also realize it was a clever synonym for “jumping higher”. But, as with his failed hearing, he was also old enough to occasionally enjoy the blessing of “ignorance is bliss”.

On the other hand, after realizing that his grandpa was awake, Dale decided to make use of the circular saw. Still able to hear such noise enough to be bothered by it, Colin went back inside to read the papers and watch some TV. Overlapping is definitely not good, he thought and smiled. Almost admitting he was just like Robert, but without the strength to argue.

There was no reason to watch over Dale, anyway. Colin was the one who taught him how to work with wood and use all the tools. From chisel and hammer, to nails and, as of the previous year, some of the power tools. He knew he could trust Dale not to do anything stupid with them. Though, ‘trust’, ‘stupid’ and a fourteen-year-old in the same sentence can create some interesting combinations...

About half an hour later, all the sawing and hammering finally stopped and Colin saw Dale grab his bike and go behind the barn. Obviously, the ramp was finished and there would still be about two hours of peace before Dale’s frien—

A loud cracking sound and an even louder scream broke the silence and Colin’s heart instantly switched from “peaceful” to “horrified”. He rushed outside, fearing the worst, but quite audible expressions of pain soon gave him some comfort. However broken he might be, he’s alive, conscious and can breathe, Colin thought, while trying to run to his grandson. And although Dale didn’t want to be seen and presumably lectured, he wasn’t about to run anywhere. As he struggled to even sit up, it was apparent that he had taken quite a fall. Of course, Colin knew that scratches, no matter how bad they looked, didn’t mean a thing and would heal quickly. But the heavily bleeding nose was another matter. And he didn’t fail to notice that Dale wasn’t moving his lower jaw. Obviously, even the slightest movement was painful which meant his nose could be broken.

“Are you alright?!” Colin asked hurriedly, while helping him up and trying to determine if there were any other major injuries. Dale was in a bit of a shock, also ashamed and angry, but mostly just in too much pain to say anything.

“Do you hurt anywhere else or is it just your nose?” Colin was now trying to be more specific. But guessing Dale probably couldn’t speak, he quickly changed the question. “Do you hurt anywhere else?” This time, there was a slow shake of the dust-covered head.

“Are you sure?”

Am I really asking such stupid questions? Colin wondered, realizing he was in a state of shock as well. A careful nod put him at ease a bit. The nose did look bad, but strangely, not broken. And there was no blood in Dale’s eyes, so Colin concluded the blow may not have been as serious as it looked. And sounded. Glancing at a misplaced wooden board, he assumed it had moved when Dale landed on it, causing him to fall, face first.

“I thought you were going to use that ramp to soften the landing, not your head...”

He wasn’t trying to tease Dale, but knew—or hoped—that humor would help him relax. When adults smile and make jokes, kids instinctively understand things are not too bad. Of course, Dale is not really a kid anymore, but he’s not as tough as he thinks, either. Actually, Dale wanted to say he didn’t appreciate any jokes at that moment, but he was still attempting to understand the extent of his pain. And how, or if, he could get around it.

“Well, I can only teach you how to safely work with tools and wood”, Colin continued. “But how you use that wood is another story.” And something I obviously can’t trust him with and something he can be very stupid about, he kept to himself. But as Dale was almost crying and giving him the “you’re beating me when I’m down” look, Colin quickly realized he should’ve kept more.

“Alright, let’s get you inside,” he simply said, gently tilting Dale’s head back.

As they walked to the house, Colin sighed and even smiled a bit. He couldn’t help but admire the youth. Not only was there seemingly nothing broken after such a nasty accident, but Dale was already on his feet and needed help pretty much only because he couldn’t see where he was going. In an hour, he’ll be just fine and ready to still have a great day. I would already be on my way to a hospital. And probably stay for a week.

“You do realize your father’s going to kill us both, right?” Colin asked, as though trying to make Dale at least consider taking it easy for the rest of the day. Sort of preaching, but blaming it on Robert. “He’ll also say it’s all my fault, how I should never have taught you to work with wood and... and he’ll say you’re an idiot.” Despite all the shock, fear and pain, they both still started laughing a bit, though cautiously. Like he needs an excuse to call me that, Dale tried to say, but pain caused him to remain silent. And stop laughing. Of course, Colin didn’t miss the sudden change. Perhaps he will heal in just an hour, but we still need to wait for that hour to pass.

After helping Dale lie down on a sofa, Colin just stood there, almost sharing the pain. Knowing how devastating such an injury is and that not preaching or judging was probably the best thing to do. Still...

“You know... fifty years ago, people used to test everything on themselves first. But nowadays, you surely could have found a way to test that ramp without landing on it yourself...?”

He smiled. This time it was about teasing. But also a very important life lesson for his grandson. Though, he immediately realized a teenager in pain is not to be teased by grown-ups. At least not so lightly.

“I’m glad you’re amused.”

Dale couldn’t keep quiet any longer. Then, obviously upset, he even raised his voice, “You should probably go and tell my dad!

As the bleeding worsened, Colin was desperate to calm him down, but seemingly still not finding the best way to do it.

“What...? No... Look, I didn’t mean it like that... But you must understand—“

“That I’m an idiot? Yeah, I understand!”

Ah, why is it that, as we get older, we forget what it was like to be a teenager? Especially a hurt one... Colin thought before finally stopping himself.

“Dale, I’m sorry...”

“Just leave me alone.”


"They may never be on time for school or to provide any help, but when it comes to play and fun, boys seem to have internal clocks that would humble even those atomic ones," Colin said for himself. Indeed, without a single phone call or a message, all the boys gathered in the back yard at the same time. Except for Timmy who was in that phase when he desperately needed people to start calling him Tim. So he was always trying to be a bit late. “Acting cool”. Not to seem eager or thrilled to be hanging out with his friends. I guess ‘Dale’ was a good choice for a name, after all, Colin noticed, smiling. But then he made an “oops” face, remembering how Robert had similar issues with switching from “Robbie” to “Rob”.

Sitting inside, Colin was getting his daily dosage of happiness from listening to the bo— the “guys” play. I better not call any of them a boy ever again. Not if I want to keep teasing Robert about how they like me.

Dale was feeling much better. Already not sure whether to keep his grandfather feeling guilty or to apologize. So he chose to do what all teenage boys do when not sure – nothing.

“I’m fine,” he simply said when Colin asked.

But of course, he wasn’t. His nose was still not completely healed and he had a slight headache. Colin had even consulted his doctor who insisted that Dale take it easy for a day or two. And even go to a hospital if things got worse.

The other boys still enjoyed riding their bikes for a while. Not to be mean, but not too sympathetic, either. Just like most at that age, they simply lacked the skill. Of course, it didn’t take their young spirits long to come up with a new game in which Dale would not put too much strain on his nose. As they were riding their bikes, he was trying to hit them with water balloons. “Strangely”, it was Dale who “invented” the game, not letting his friends enjoy the beautiful summer day more than he could.

Once completely wet, they decided to go to the pool, but as Dale had to keep his nose dry they ended up going inside. After eating the regular ton of sandwiches Colin would make for them every morning, they quickly realized Dale was in no condition for anything they would ever consider to be fun. No wrestling, no jumping, no throwing or even playing video games.

Colin thought back to his own youth and the great days he used to have with his friends. And he knew these boys were about to face their worst nightmare. It’s not just that they can keep going all day, spending more energy than a hundred people put together. It’s that they actually have to. They need to do it. Like being addicted to adventures, unable to stop. Just like some sharks need to keep swimming in order to live, it seems teenagers need to be active. With all their invincibility, they simply can’t sit still and do nothing. I guess it’s sort of “poetic justice” for us old people, Colin smiled. It’s their Achilles’ heel, their... “kryptonite”. And he didn’t have a problem with admitting it made him happy, even if only a tiny bit. He did care about his grandson more than he cared about himself, but— But there’s something inside me that just doesn’t want anyone else to have it all, he admitted with a devious smile.

And sure enough, while the sandwiches were still trying to reach their stomachs, the... guys were all exhibiting obvious signs of the nightmare – being bored.

“Hey, Mr. Sullivan, remember how you used to tell us great stories when we were kids?” Merric suddenly asked. “So how about one now?”

The question took Colin and, indeed, everyone else by surprise.

“Oh, come on!” Tim was the first to protest, not wanting to be even remotely associated with kids, while Dale wasn’t in the mood for his friends to be entertained by his grandfather. Though, this time it was because he felt a bit guilty himself. Just didn’t have the mental capacity to admit it.

The boys kept arguing and teasing each other, but still no one left the room and no one came up with a better idea. Colin himself wasn’t sure how to approach the matter. He did use to tell them stories and they did enjoy them, but— At least back then they were all eager to listen to them.

“It gives me great pleasure knowing you remember that and think those stories were great,” he finally said. “But I don’t think I know any you would like now.”

Colin always thought that telling good, interesting stories was one of the best ways to get kids to like grown-ups. And that it would keep them quiet and focused, but with their imaginations still active. Especially stories we make up. Those they couldn’t possibly have read or heard before. But, as they insisted themselves, these teenagers were no kids, so he was reluctant to even try. Mostly because no one seemed to be thrilled by Merric’s idea, Dale included. Not that shouting “lame” in front of Colin was helping, either. Then again, Blake seemed to know how to get to him.

“Are you saying you only know kids’ stories...?”

It was a tease, of course. And an obvious one, judging by Blake’s provoking smile. But it was also a challenge. Not just in proving old was still superior over young, in intellectual disciplines at least, but also in maintaining his reputation. After all, what’s the use of building it carefully through the years if you let it crash in just one afternoon?

“Well, there could be one...” Colin finally said. It was actually just an idea, not entire story, but he hoped to be able to develop it in his head along the way. If admitting defeat is the only alternative, I may as well try to win this. It was a long time since he had last put his brain through such an exercise and yet there was no way he would go down without a fight.

“...but only if you’ll all listen,” he added.

After additional arguments and the “I’m going home” threats—from Tim, of course—but without any additional ideas, the boys finally agreed.

“Now, I know the kind of stories you’d all like to hear, but I will let you take care of romances on your own,” Colin said, grinning, making the boys laugh. Then he added, “So with this one I will try to make you use your heads for something more than just beating the ground.”

Of course, even without Colin looking directly at Dale, everyone knew what that was all about. I wish he could see it as just a joke, but he probably wants to kill me right now, Colin thought.

When the laughs calmed down, he decided to begin the story he named “The Learning Curve”.


To his friends, Jake was just a typical fourteen-year-old. He loved hanging out, enjoyed playing sports and hated being told what to do. Or what he couldn’t do. But there was a side to him that was quite different from everyone else. He already held degrees in Math, Physics, Chemistry, Biology and Astrophysics. With an IQ score of 442, almost double that of the greatest geniuses, it came quite naturally to him.

“I’m just as lazy as any teenager,” he would say, implying that he was capable of much more.

But in reality his laziness was indeed typical of his age. On the way to discovering himself and learning about all the things no book could teach, Jake was focusing more and more on things he was interested in, completely ignoring everything else. And it just happened that he was interested in all things related to science.

He did learn to play the piano at the age of three, when he was still hardly able to reach all the keys. And he did speak a few languages since he was six. But all that was mostly because he was too young to say “no” and because his mother insisted. When he turned nine, all that changed.

“Mom, I love you, I really do. But I’ve learned to play the stupid piano and I’ve learned those languages I will never need and now you must let me do what I want,” Jake had said before leaving for university where he had passed all exams with ease.

He actually enjoyed playing sports simply because that was one area in which he was equal and like everyone else. His IQ couldn’t help much as playing sports is mostly about physical practice. And his friends liked him because of it. Jake wasn’t afraid to show his weaknesses. And was always ready to help everyone, even with things like cleaning a room or washing a car. Also, he would never show off. So they treated him like he was a regular.. guy—Colin almost made a mistake—and Jake liked it. Or better, he needed it. At least some environment in which he could have a regular life and feel like a normal person.

However, what Jake wanted the most was to learn. To know. About everything on his “interested in” list, especially things nobody else knew. In fact, until obtaining those degrees, he was very frustrated.

“I’m still just catching up!”

It was a fact that everything he could learn from books was written by other people. It was what he called “previously attained knowledge”. It was nothing new.

“All the intelligence in the world and I have to waste time learning from others!”

His greatest wish was to make new discoveries, to learn things nobody had ever known, answer questions which had no answers and be the one to fill the books for others.

“Well, not write them, obviously, that would be a major waste of time! However bad reading from books is, it’s only second to actually sitting down and writing them!”


Jake lived with his parents and grandmother in her house. With the work he was doing, they could’ve moved to some premium location, with complete privacy, but he liked that house and their back yard. And he liked having a lot of friends in the area to play with. The last thing he wanted was to live in a house that would be more of a bunker or a solitary unit in a prison. Actually, on his quest for knowledge, he did ask to visit a real prison once, as a kid. It was probably a traumatic experience for him, as he then decided never to isolate himself from others, “even if human stupidity really is infinite”.

He also wanted to learn about wars, much to everyone’s horror. Mostly trying to understand why wars happened and why people would leave their homes to go and fight. He became quite obsessed with the subject since learning that his grandfather had been in a war himself. But as he died before Jake was born, there was no way of asking. Actually, that was the moment when Jake first discovered that being smart didn’t necessarily mean being able to obtain knowledge. He realized that, in some cases, a source of information must exist. That’s why he began reading books in the first place. And that’s why that house had a very strong personal value for him. It still had some secrets he was unable to uncover. Knowledge that somehow eluded him.

Many times, Jake asked about his grandfather, but it seemed no one was able to help, to be that source of information he needed.

“Your grandfather would say that most wars are fought for the wrong reasons, but that most people fight for the right ones. And that it’s the reason why they are easily manipulated into doing so,” was pretty much everything his grandmother would say. Then sigh deeply before adding, “But he never liked talking about the war.”

“Did something bad happen to him? Did he lose a lot of friends?”

His grandmother would just look at him, with a gentle, caring smile, seemingly not wanting to burden young Jake with such things. And she would always start crying, so Jake would let her be. Must be very painful for her, he noticed one day, to remember Grandpa. But one time he decided to keep asking.

“Well, a war can only bring bad things, Jake. And he did see many people die. People he usually didn’t know too well, but who were just like him. Or you and me. There were a few who he believed were only fighting for their own gain, of course. But most of them were just plain old family men, with their dreams and hopes—“

“And fears...?” Jake interrupted, completely focused, throwing her off a bit. Reminding her just how different he actually was.

“Yes... fears, too. And, at some point, he started believing that it must have been the same on the other side. And he would write to me that war was actually a confrontation between a few, fought by many. Who he believed didn’t even understand what it was all about.”

She sighed deeply, before continuing.

“He once wrote: ‘To prevent someone from attacking our home, we’re attacking theirs first. Like we can see the future. So will someone attack us tomorrow, for no reason, to prevent us from attacking them as a preventive measure?’ And I could not offer him any answers.”

Like seeing the future... Yes, knowledge is the key. If we knew what was going to happen, we would be able to—

“So, is that why he didn’t talk about the war?” Jake interrupted his own thoughts. “Because he didn’t know what was happening? Because he didn’t believe it would actually change the future?”

“Hmm... That’s a very good question, I must say. And I’m sure it was part of the reason. But I don’t think that was all. You see...” then she stopped, not sure what Jake would make of it. Perhaps I would like to know some things, too, she realized. But Jake wasn’t going to let it just slide, of course.

“See what?!” He was like a shark smelling blood and going for a kill. Although not at all seeing it that way.

As the boys were all completely quiet now and almost mesmerized, Colin decided to “torture” them, by slowly sipping some of the tea he had made that morning. With everything that had happened with Dale, he hadn’t had the time to drink it.

No sound came from the boys, now staring at him. He smiled. I could make them scream with questions and beg me to continue, but I guess I should be respectful, just as they are.

“You see,” Grandmother finally continued, “although the war changed him, he was also still the man I knew. And he was very happy to finally be back home. I remember that day—”

“So what happened?”

It’s almost as if he knows... she thought, gazing into his inquisitive eyes.

“Well, just a few days later, we heard gunshots fired, a few houses down the street. We later learned that some strange skinny kid apparently broke in and killed a man we knew. A good man. Mr. Robertson, I believe. Seemingly, for no reason. Some friends told me the kid looked scared and lost and as the police came, he tried to run, but they shot him. He died on the spot.”

Jake could see tears forming in her eyes again and watched them as they fell down her face. And he wanted to stop her, to let her rest. It was obviously too painful for her. But he had to know.

“Your grandfather...” she continued half crying, before taking a deep breath and calming down a bit. “He ran straight out of the house and saw the policemen with guns still pointed at the kid lying on the ground. And as people slowly filled the street, he told me: ‘I have witnessed some horrible things in the war, but I have never seen a child being executed like that. And by the police.’ That’s what changed him the most and he truly never was the same man again. He would just occasionally mumble that it wasn’t what he was fighting for. And I don’t think he ever smiled again.”

Jake was a bit confused. He never thought peace could’ve been worse than war. But he was also intrigued and wished he could have met his grandfather and spoken with him in person.


“Haha, are you sure it was his grandfather who was such a great guy and not an uncle or some distant relative?” Tim teased Colin and everyone laughed.

“Well, this is my story and I get to choose the characters” Colin replied, grinning. “I’m sure you’ve had stories about your being a film or music star?”

“And having a girlfriend!” someone added and, once again, the guys were back to being boys.

Colin knew it was best to let them vent a bit so he just drank some more tea and waited, trying not to laugh himself. He envied them, of course. And not just for their energy and strength. He longed for the days when he would just go out and always meet with friends. Or call them and they would always be up for... something. But his friends had all moved away long ago, got jobs and started families. Watching these boys he realized just how much he himself took it all for granted as a kid and how much he missed it now. With all their laziness and mischief, they were actually doing things the right way – friends, and hanging out with them, always came first. They were just discovering both life and themselves, having no way of knowing what lay ahead. But they knew very well that they wanted to face it all together. And they knew that, however much they teased or even fought each other, their friendship would always be true and honest. And would never be questioned. Not for more than a few days, anyway.

“So, what happened with Jake? I mean, after realizing he had a kick-ass grandfather?” came a sudden question, bringing Colin back from his thoughts. The boys were a bit short of breath, after all the “fighting”. But obviously, ready to hear the rest of the story. On the other hand, Colin knew they would get hungry soon, grabbing either pizzas or more sandwiches. Desolating the fridge, as only teenagers can. So he decided to push the story a bit.

“Well, Jake continued to work hard, trying to find the answers mankind did not yet have. Renewable energy, space travel, populating other planets—“

“I could populate other planets!” came from Blake, causing a few more laughs and comments. Colin admitted to himself it was funny, but was slightly irritated by the interruptions. Still, he let them get a bit wild again, knowing there’s no way of forcing teenagers to behave. As it turned out, the guys were a bit tired, so they just exchanged a few pillow throws before calming down again.

“Thankfully, we will never need to find out,” – Colin then teased, to pay Blake back for interrupting the story. And to show he could still play their games.


Soon, Jake wrapped his mind around the subject of black holes. They were endlessly fascinating to him and many scientists hoped he would make incredible discoveries. Or at least come up with some new theories that would still help them better understand what black holes really were. Perhaps even manage to venture into one.

But Jake was mostly fascinated by another aspect of black holes – time.

“Just as Einstein said, they are connected!” he kept saying.

And Jake was desperate to find that connection. Because he was after the ultimate goal – building a time machine. And that was the first time that his friends noticed something different about him. He seemed to be obsessed. Spending far less time playing and far more working. They even began to worry about him, as did his family. But he would just mumble:

“I need to know...”

In the end, they all sort of gave up. He had always been there for all of them, respecting their wishes, supporting them and helping with everything and anything they wanted to achieve. So, they figured the least they could do was to return the favor and just believe in him. And leave him alone.

They didn’t really know what it was he was so desperately trying to build or learn. But they knew he was done when one morning he was nowhere to be found. He had built his time machine. And they never saw him again.

Colin paused and this time had no intention of easing their anticipation. This time, they will have to ask! And sure enough, they were almost about to jump on him and grab the rest of the story from his throat.

“So...? What had happened? Where did he go? And why didn’t he come back?” they began asking, pretty much all at once. Colin just smiled. Probably more deviously than even they could.

“Easy, boys... The story isn’t over yet. I just need to drink more tea. You know, telling stories at my age isn’t without risks.”

They were sure he was just teasing them again, but it sounded logical. And they wanted to hear the rest of the story so badly that they didn’t dare interrupt anymore. On the other hand, Colin just had to enjoy that moment. Indeed, we old people don’t get much satisfaction out of life anymore and being able to tease them like this is about as good as it gets.

The moment he had finished the time machine, Jake decided to use it. Feeling there was no need for a test, because he was a genius. Or better, because he was a teenager. He could have sent his watch one minute into the future, then wait for it to appear. He had seen that in one of his most favorite movies. But that one minute, he thought, is one minute too long. Of course, having a time machine meant that he did have all the time in the world. Still, he simply grabbed it and ran to the basement.

“I just need to know...”

With that, he closed his eyes and activated the device.

Just a moment later he found himself in the past. Unlike in the movies, there were no flashes, no noise, wind or fire. He just appeared in the same place, at a different time. His grandmother was never able to tell him the exact date of his grandfather’s return from that war. But Jake did manage to find a record of when that kid was shot by the police and decided to go back three more days. He just made sure to appear in the basement at 3 AM, when no one would be around. Then he carefully walked out and into the fields behind the house, already wearing appropriate clothing and carrying enough money. He decided to hide his original stuff and the time machine in a hole under a fallen tree and then to have some rest.

Now that he had their full attention, Colin decided to play with the boys just a little bit more.

“Uh, sorry boys, but I really think I should put pizzas in the oven, or you’ll—“

“I’ll do it!” shouted both Tim and Merric, jumping up and running into the kitchen. They did not want to waste a single second.

Ah, boys... One has to admire their enthusiasm. When they want something, there’s just no stopping them, Colin thought, trying to think of ways to trick them into getting some work done around the farm. He was about to smile but as Dale looked away from him, not yet sure how to act, Colin believed he still held a grudge and smiling seemed inappropriate. So, as Tim and Merric were already back in their seats, he just continued with the story.


In the morning, Jake simply walked out of the woods, like he was a local boy. As he was smart and, indeed, a local, he found it easy to fit right in and not look out of place. Or time. Walking down the main street, he headed straight for “his” house. But, crossing a small square, maybe five hundred meters away, he realized a bus had just brought several soldiers back home.

“Well, I am a genius,” he said pleased with his timing and rushed to meet them.

Jake immediately recognized his grandfather and noticed he really did look happy to be back. He was smiling, looking for familiar faces and savoring his home town.

“Hey, sir!” Jake greeted as he approached the man. “Are you one of the soldiers back from the war?”

“Ahm.. yes, I am,” his grandfather replied.

He didn’t recognize Jake, of course, but the soldiers were being greeted by the entire town, so he wasn’t paying too much attention.

“Would you like me to help you with that bag?”

“No... you really don’t have to...” he was a bit surprised now and felt embarrassed by suddenly being treated like a hero.

“But I want to,” Jake insisted, grabbing the bag. It was too heavy for him, but he wanted to get closer to his grandfather. “I’m Jake, by the way.”


Jake was quite happy as his plan was working perfectly. He was right on time and was finally meeting his grandfather. At the age when George hadn’t even become a father yet.

“What was the war like?” Jake suddenly asked in a very serious tone, seemingly unable to suppress his motives any longer.

George stopped and looked at Jake, who was still finding it hard to deal with the huge bag.

“Kid.. Jake... Look, you seem to be a nice kid and I don’t mean to be rude, but I’ve just arrived and simply want to be with my family. Okay?” He tried taking his bag, but Jake wouldn’t let go.

“It’s okay, I understand. But I still want to help with your bag, sir. I was simply curious as nobody wants to tell me anything.”

Seeing there was no other way, George gave up and focused on rediscovering the town. When he finally reached his house, he couldn’t wait to reunite with his parents and wife, all thrilled to finally see him again.

“Would you give this... persistent helper a few coins?” George asked after the usual hugs and kisses. “He insisted on helping.”

“No, sir, please. I was just happy to help. But can I use your bathroom?”

Jake knew there would not be another chance and that he had to make sure he became... part of the household. So he stayed in the bathroom long enough to hear his grandfather start talking about the war and his personal experience. Jake was fascinated and paid close attention to every word.

“Look at him,” said George, seeing Jake by the living room’s door. “How long have you been listening? It’s not nice, you know. And this is not something you should be hearing about.”

“I’m sorry, I just want to know. Please don’t be mad.”

“Who are you, anyway, and where do you live? Wouldn’t you rather be with your friends?”

“I live down the street. We’ve only just moved here and I don’t have any friends yet,” Jake lied. Then he looked down and added, “My father told me to go out as I was annoying him.”

Everyone was now looking at him and feeling sorry for the boy who was seemingly not even welcome in his own home.

“I think I already know the feeling,” George finally said, but in a soft tone, smiling. “Alright, come on in and I will tell you what the war was like...”


Over the next few days, Jake became a frequent guest at his grandparents’ house. Having no kids of their own yet, they even began to enjoy his being there. And George learned to appreciate his attention. Especially since noticing Jake was an extremely smart kid. Remembering everything and making connections with various parts of the story. Jake was even able to help George better understand some details and put them in the right perspective.

But on the fourth day, everything changed.

George had been working in the garage all morning, trying to get his father’s car running again. No one had even looked at it pretty much since George went to war. And he needed to keep himself busy. He wasn’t surprised when Jake walked in, although he had planned to skip their chat and dedicate the day to fixing the car. But...

“Hi, George. I wanted to thank you for everything you’ve done for me. But now I need to say goodbye. And... that I’m sorry. So sorry...”

“What are you—” George suddenly froze, as he turned to face Jake. Instead of meeting the familiar face of a smart and well-mannered boy, he was looking directly at the barrel of a gun.

“I am sorry, but I need to know...” Jake said through tears, barely holding the gun. Then he fired.

Falling to his knees, Jake realized he was far more upset than he thought he would be. He reached for George as if to once again say how sorry he was and perhaps to look for forgiveness. But there was no one reaching back and the eyes he met were already cold and empty.

At that moment, Jake suddenly felt his entire body shake uncontrollably and he was powerless to stop it. Then his vision became erratic, like everything around him was changing. Instinctively, he started blinking, but each time his eyes opened, the garage and George looked different. At the same time, he realized he wasn’t just finding it hard to understand what was happening, he also couldn’t remember what he wanted to do. And, with each passing moment, he could remember less and less. Where he had left the time machine, whose garage he was in and then why he was there in the first place. In the end, when things settled, he didn’t even remember his own name nor could he recognize the skinny kid in a mirror. He just knew he was scared. In a place he was not familiar with.

Then he saw a dead body and a gun next to himself. As the police sirens got close, he panicked and ran out, not even sure where he was going. Running through the crowd coming into the street, he heard the police yelling after him to stop, but he was too scared. A few moments later, he heard shots and felt sudden blows and pain in his back and head. He began falling, but it seemed to him like the longer he was falling, the farther away the ground was. Until finally, he was unable to see, hear or feel anything. He closed his eyes.

All the boys were still sitting, in complete silence, with their mouths and eyes wide open. And Colin could see mixed emotions in them. Shock, sadness, even fear. A few of them were even clenching their fists, obviously feeling cold.

“Well, guys, that’s the story.” Colin was unable to hide the grin and his satisfaction by their expressions.

“That’s some really freakish story...” Tim was the first to speak, but others clearly thought the same.

“Your stories are really something,” Blake added. “Though, this one doesn’t really feel like the ones you used to tell us when we were kids.”

“Sorry, I just thought you wanted something different.” Colin was still grinning, though unsure whether it was because his story had hit them so hard or because they were still young enough to be so stunned. Not that I care that much, he was honest to himself.

“But what does it mean?” came from Merric. “I mean, it’s a great story, but I don’t get it. What was it that Jake needed to know?”

Colin had hoped it wouldn’t happen, at least not that soon. Still...

“The moral of the story doesn’t really care about what he wanted to know, Merric. We all want something. Many things. In Jake’s case, it could have been a working time machine or to meet his grandfather. Or to learn what would really happen to him, and the entire Universe, if he were to go into the past and kill one of his ancestors. As, sort of, the Ultimate knowledge.”

“What do you mean?”

“It’s one of the best known time-travel paradoxes. Probably the very first one. If you were to go into the past and kill your grandfather, you wouldn’t have been born. In which case, you wouldn’t be able to travel back in time and kill your grandfather in the first place. But then, you would be born and would go back and kill him. And so on, you get the point.”

While the boys were trying to process that in their minds, Colin quickly moved on to another question.

“As for the meaning of the story... It means many things and it also means nothing.”

“Ah, I knew it...” said Dale with clear sarcasm, not sure himself whether he wanted it to be out loud or not.

“Haha, it’s not what you think,” Colin assured them as the boys started talking at the same time. The shock stage was obviously a matter of the past. “You already know that the meaning of most things in life depends on how—and whether at all—you choose to see them or accept them. For example, you often tease each other, argue, even fight. And quite passionately, I might say. But in the end, you usually say that it doesn’t mean anything.”

He sighed.

“So this story can mean nothing, if you choose to ignore it. But it can also mean that learning from books, while boring, means learning from someone else’s experiences. Thus, it’s also safe.” Fearing Dale’s reaction, Colin paused briefly, considering whether to proceed as planned. But, reminding himself that his grandson wasn’t the only one there, he decided to risk it. After all, it is one of the important points in the story.

“It also means that using yourselves as guinea pigs may not be the best idea. And that thinking about things before you act may not be just an expression. Even if the only outcome of the thinking is a theory, it could save you a lot of pain.” Dale realized that was addressed to him, but kept quiet, knowing his friends would not be interested in his fight with Colin. It already felt like ancient history to him, anyway.

“And it also means,” Colin continued, “that the Universe doesn’t allow for paradoxes. Even if we are able to travel into the past or future, perhaps we can’t really change things. If everything has already happened, it means everything will always keep and end up happening the same way. Producing the same events and results throughout the timeline.”

“But most importantly,” he decided to save the best for last, “you will face serious consequences for trying to hurt or even lie to your grandfathers!” As they all laughed, praising him, a short beep announced the pizzas were ready.

The boys cheered and, although knowing perfectly well there was more than enough for everyone, they raced into the kitchen. They need to keep moving and be competitive... went through Colin’s mind. But as he was about to follow them and at least try to have them eat like human beings, Dale finally approached him.

“Grandpa, listen... I’m sorry for what I said before.”

“It’s alright. I know you were mad at what had happened, not at me.”

“Oh no, I was absolutely mad at you!” Dale teased and they both started laughing. “Still... if it’s true that the time is, you know... like, everything is fixed... then it doesn’t matter what I do, right?”

It was obvious he wanted to abuse one of the story’s points, but Colin decided not to interrupt. If Dale was old enough to apologize, he was old enough to be treated with respect and allowed to express himself without interruptions.

“I mean, whether I go to school, study, become a good man or a criminal, I would always end up the same?”

“Perhaps,” Colin replied. Then added, “If you’re willing to bet your life on my story.” He laughed for a bit, making sure Dale understood. “Though, if you want to get technical, the Universe had simply put Jake into someone else’s position. So, if you were to be a criminal instead of a good man, perhaps the Universe would simply give your promising future to someone else? Or, more precisely, it would put some other boy into your shoes and—“

“Are you willing to risk it?”, he suddenly asked with a smirk, cutting his own explanation before it would become too boring to follow.

Dale was thinking about it all, trying to find a flaw he could use to secure eternal summers of having fun with his friends.

“Besides,” Colin said, hugging him as they went into the kitchen, “the real point here is that true happiness is not in changing the past nor the future, but in being mindful of both and making the right decisions in the present.” He stopped and looked Dale in the eyes before adding, “And you should start by eating and healing and... forgiving your aging grandfather, from time to time...”

Dedicated to all the best summers spent with my friends.
And all the stupid things we did.


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