As soon as Alice stepped off the plane, she was heading home to fall into bed. Then, when she woke up, maybe she could try to fix the mess she was in.
It didn’t help that the nearly ten-hour trip from Tokyo to San Francisco had been brutally long, especially after the endless days of meetings preceding it. While Alice had spun a story for her bosses from five thousand miles away, the reality was that she was returning home with unsigned contracts. The multi-million deal was off. And after she told her bosses, her job might end up in the “off” category, too.
Alice pressed the power key on her phone, and it chimed a musical harp-scale welcome. But the signal was absent – zero bars. No matter which way she turned it.
The woman next to her leaned closer and held up her cell. “You, too?” She shrugged. “Oh, well. I’m just happy to be getting off this flight.”
Alice couldn’t agree more.
The staccato murmur of Japanese and English trickled throughout the plane as people un-wedged oversized carry-ons from overhead bins and shuffled up the aisle. The flight was about half business people like her, and half tourists.
She was still fiddling with her phone when walking up the ramp to the terminal, so she walked right into a woman who had stopped at the top of the passage. Alice bounced off her and landed hard onto her back. For a moment, she just lay flat on the floor, the air knocked out of her.
Great. Just great. A crappy end to a crappy trip and a really, really crappy year. Ever since she and Nate had broken up, nothing had gone right for her.
A man bent over her, filling her line of vision. Alice had no idea where he’d come from. He held a device in his hand that looked a bit like a 1989 Gameboy, but instead of a green screen, it had a modern touchscreen filled with icons.
“Hold still.” The man hovered the device over Alice’s head and down her body. Alice was still catching her breath and didn’t protest, although she wondered what the guy thought he was doing.
After a few moments tapping at the screen, he said, “Bruised, but nothing seems to be damaged. Think you can stand?”
Alice drew in a shaky breath. “I think so.” She noticed he wore a uniform of sorts, although it was different from the flight attendants. She nodded at the device he held. “What are you doing? What’s that?”
“A humdis.” When she continued to stare at him without comprehension, he clarified, “An HMDS – holistic medical diagnostic scanner.” He raised his eyebrows.
Alice laughed. “A what?”
The guy consulted his machine again after waving it around Alice’s head. “No cranial fracture or apparent concussion,” he muttered, flicking fingers over the screen. “Perhaps I should call for a hospital pickup so they can run more tests…”
Which would mean more delays, because he was trying to cover his ass in case something was really wrong with her. She didn’t have the energy to deal with this. “No, thank you,” Alice said firmly. “I’m fine.” She stood up, picked up her carry-on, and hustled to the escalator before he could try to stop her.
In the center of the downstairs area, a glittering holographic sculpture rotated and popped into different shapes and colors at random intervals as people walked by. It was new, and pretty cool for an airport art installation, although she seemed to be the only one stopping to look at it. Shrugging, she continued towards the baggage claim.
She grabbed her suitcase off the circle once it appeared and wheeled it outside. “Taxi or Uber?” She checked her phone – still dead. “Taxi it is.”
The sun was up, but the air was frigid. One of her favorite sayings about her hometown was mistakenly attributed to Mark Twain: “The coldest winter I ever spent was summer in San Francisco.” With a wet roof of fog over the city and the wind blowing in from the ocean, the saying held true, no matter who had originally said it. It was cold, not at all what tourists expected of California in late June.
At the curb, she put her arm up. A yellow car slid forward and the door opened by itself.
“Hunh,” she said of the self-opening door before getting in. “I’d like to go to…”
That’s when Alice saw there was no one in the driver’s seat.
“Where to, miss?” issued a voice from the dashboard. The dash had a row of buttons, a few empty slots and nothing else.
No driver. No person at all.
“Where to, miss?” the dash repeated.
After dazedly giving her home address, she drew in her breath sharply as the car pulled smoothly into traffic. Alice peered through the window at the cars around her and saw…
There, in the driver’s seat of the next car, a man glanced down at a tablet he held. As he did, his car put on its turn signal and wove around a truck that had come to a standstill.
Over there, a woman seemed to be talking out loud to herself, perhaps on a phone. She was sitting sideways, her feet propped up on the seat next to her.
Everywhere, cars moved and accelerated and stopped, all by themselves.
“What’s going on?” Alice breathed.
“I don’t understand. Could you please repeat the request?” answered the car’s voice.
Cities changed quickly, even to residents who saw them every day. But this… this was different. She’d only been gone two weeks!
Holographic advertisements jumped out from buildings, across intersections. As they drove by billboards, the static ads jumped to the car’s TV screen on the seat back in front of her. Around the airport, the advertisements centered on travel – to the PepsiCo lunar station. “Only one hundred slots left for this year!” shouted the ad.
The car pulled onto the freeway, and the miles dropped away behind them. But when the taxi pulled up to the curb in the Richmond district, it told her, “Payment form not valid. Please reboot or insert manual payment.”
“What?” she asked, dazed. She’d just started to take out her wallet and hadn’t pulled out any money.
“No cell code detected. Please insert chip or other manual payment.”
She looked at the slots and saw one marked with the logos of various credit cards. She pushed her card in, and received an angry squawk in response.
“Card expired. Please insert valid payment.”
Alice stared blankly for a moment. The amount flashed on screen, but she didn’t have any cash. Her money was in yen from her trip, not American dollars. Finally, shrugging, she opened the door and got out.
The car squawked at her again. “Your ID has been tracked. Notification is on its way.”
The car sped off, and she was too befuddled to care what “notification” meant.
“Hey, this is the wrong pl-” She stopped and checked again. The address on the shiny high-rise condo was right. But her comfortably sagging apartment building was gone.
There used to be a deli on the first floor of the building, run by Mr. and Mrs. Chan. Every morning, Alice would get her coffee on the way to work, sometimes a bagel, and ask them how their children were doing. As the years passed, their daughter Holly went to Stamford University on scholarship (“Soon, she’s Doctor Holly!” exclaimed Mrs. Chan proudly) and Samantha to Smith College (“Too far from home!” complained Mrs. Chan). The deli had been owned by Mr. Chan’s father until he retired a dozen years before, right before Alice had moved into the building.
The deli was gone, too. More than her apartment, Alice felt stunned over the loss of the deli. She couldn’t even process the fact that she was standing out on the street with her suitcase and carry-on beside her, but her home was gone.
Just then, a black and white pulled up. Without thinking, Alice walked over to the police cruiser. She almost expected the driver’s side to be unmanned, like the cab, and felt a surge of relief when an actual person got out. The woman in uniform looked at her sternly and said, “There was an AR of a cab ride theft.” She glanced down at her tablet, and Alice saw her own face in a picture that must have been taken by a camera in the cab. Her mouth was half-open and her eyes half-closed.
Of course. With her luck today, that would be her mugshot.
“Look, I was on this flight, and I have no idea what’s going on -” she began.
At that, the officer relaxed. “Another one! That explains it. Flight 42B? From Tokyo?”
“Yes!” Alice exclaimed.
“Alright. Come with me.”
Alice wasn’t the first person from the flight to wash up at the local police station. There were about ten of them there, and a further thirty in various other districts, she overheard.
“Damn translators,” one officer said, gesturing at a device at his belt as he walked by the row of passengers sitting in hard plastic chairs. “Five years out of date. New ones don’t translate ‘inexplicable time gap’ as ‘machigatti jikan kankaku,’ or ‘wrong time interval.'”
When she’d asked the police what was going on, she was told to hold tight. But it wasn’t hard to figure it out – with all of the passengers just sitting around and twiddling their thumbs, they got to talking.
“We’re out of synch fifteen years?” Alice exclaimed to Michael, the man sitting next to her. Like her, his mother had been Japanese, his father American. He’d been visiting his grandmother in Tokyo. His fiancé had stayed behind at the last minute because of a work emergency.
“Yeah,” Michael said glumly. After a nearly identical experience as her – apartment gone, his family missing – he’d arrived here just before her. “I have no idea what happened to Beth. They won’t tell us anything.”
Alice thought about her own family. Her sister and she had never been close – once her sister graduated from college, she’d moved across the country to Boston and rarely returned home for a visit. Then there were her parents. Her dad was an executive, like her, but on the verge of retirement. Her mom was a housewife, more involved with her charities than her daughters’ lives.
Alice’s most recent boyfriend had talked about taking a break a few weeks before she had to fly to Tokyo, and, honestly, she’d barely thought of Jim at all during the work trip. He was a fill-in, someone she’d dated for a lack of any better options. He didn’t compare to Nate.
None of the men she dated could compare to Nate. It had been a year since they broke up, and she still thought of him every day.
She swallowed and brought herself back to the current conversation. “What happens if they can’t find our families?” she asked Michael.
He crossed his arms. “I keep thinking – fifteen years. My fiancé’s probably married with kids by now. Why would she wait for a dead man?”
Alice nodded and leaned back in her chair. While a few people might have held out hope for a couple years, a decade and a half was asking too much. Their plane was just another unexplained mystery.
But they’d shown up again. So what would happen next?
Her question was answered when a group entered the main doors of the station and headed towards them purposefully – almost a dozen men and women wearing dark suits and shades. Alice was strongly reminded of the movie Men in Black and resisted the urge to laugh.
Alice didn’t want to go into yet another little room and be questioned by these men, however well-intentioned they were. She wanted to be home, in her bed, with Geronimo pillowed next to her.
Then the lightbulb went off, and she put a hand over her mouth. Geronimo. Her sweet, snuggly little cat. Eight years old when she left.
Now, twenty-three years old. Very few cats lived that long.
Like seeing the deli in her apartment building gone, the thought of losing her BFF – best furry friend – was a greater blow than losing fifteen years.
Alice glanced up at the portly man in front of her. His grey hair was thinning, and he strongly reminded her of her favorite uncle.
“I’m Bob Davis. Would you please come with me?”
The process went a lot as she’d suspected. Good for TV cop shows, which had given her an idea of what to expect. The conversation was recorded with her permission (“Sure, why not?”) and he asked her about her background, what the flight was like, and any people she would like to contact. After that, he handed her a pair of sunglasses – not his, but a pair fresh out of a plastic sleeve. Turned out, they weren’t just glasses. She put them on.
“You can speak your commands, since you don’t have the implant,” he told her. “These are connected to the internet and phone service. We’ll be compiling the contact information for the family and friends you gave me, and I’ll forward the info to your iGs – your glasses. Do you have any other questions, Ms. Nakamura?”
She thought about the list of people she’d given him to contact – her parents and sister, basically. After a moment of hesitation, she said, “Yes. I’d like to add one more name. Nate Malone.”
“Okay.” He escorted her back to the waiting area, and she experimented with the glasses. She heard overlapping voices around her – the other passengers on a similar mission as her to reconnect with family and friends. When she finally was pinged with her family’s contact information, all the calls went straight to voicemail, and she left messages.
Now, the question was… should she call him or not?
They hadn’t left things on the best of terms. Nate was twenty-four to her thirty-four years when they’d first met, and she’d always felt like she was cradle robbing. He’d insisted over and over that it didn’t make a difference to him – proposed, in fact, after a year. She’d loved him, but her “Yes” had been reluctant. Then, when offered the vice presidency of her division, she’d told him they had to call it quits.
“I’ll be traveling a lot,” she said. “We’ll never see each other.”
“We can make it work!” He’d smiled at her – that trademark grin that lit up his face and revealed the twin dimples that always made her melt. “I’ll be done with my PhD soon and teaching, and I can keep the home fires burning until things settle down at your work.”
But she wouldn’t let his dimples persuade her, after all. She convinced herself there were too many obstacles to overcome, and she’d split. She’d ignored his calls, his texts, his attempts to drop by and say hi.
After a few months, he’d stopped trying to contact her. A piece of her had been missing ever since.
Now, it was sixteen years after the two of them had broken up. Would he even remember her? Want to talk?
Nate answered on the third ring. His voice was deeper now, and slightly gravelly. It still had the power to make her pulse speed up. “Hello?”
“Hi, Nate,” she said. She paused, unsure what to say. All the uncertainty and sleeplessness came crashing down on her all at once, and she sat in the police station in a stupor. What, really, could she say to him after sixteen years? For her, it was just a year ago. But for him, nearly half of his life had gone by.
“No one’s called me that in a while,” he said wryly. “Is this someone from my alumni society? I’ve already donated, and I’m signed up for the reunion next month.”
That made her laugh. He always could do that to her. “No, Nate. Um, Nathan,” she said. “Have you heard of that airplane – the flight – that just reappeared after fifteen years?”
“Hunh,” he said. There was something in his voice – something more than surprise. It gave her the courage to continue.
“I was on that flight. And I, you know, I just needed to talk to someone. This is – um – this is Alice.” At the continued silence on the other end, she added, “Alice Nakamura.”
“Yes,” he said. Then, “I thought it might be. Where would you like to meet?”
“Well, I’m at the police station in Richmond right now. I have no idea about where anything is in the city. Not anymore. Do you know a place to go?”
“I do. I’m about a half-hour away. Just hold tight.”
Alice spent those thirty minutes signing out from the station. “Yes, I have somewhere to go. Yes, I have the glasses – I mean, iGs. I’ll be in touch.”
“Don’t leave the city,” warned Bob, but in a good-natured way. “We will have some follow-up questions, and the scientists would like to run some tests.”
“What kind of tests?” she began to ask, but then said, “Never mind. Sure. Whatever. I’ll be in touch.”
Suddenly, Alice felt claustrophobic. She’d been sitting on a plane for hours, then sitting in a car, then sitting at the police station. She felt like her butt had permanently flattened from all the downtime. “It’s been a long – long, long – night and day, and I just want to crash,” she said firmly.
“Okay. Keep your iGs close. We’ll be in touch.”
She raced towards the door, remembered her luggage, and went back to get it. By the time she passed through the front doors and out onto the plaza in front of the police station, she was worried that she might have missed Nate. What if he thought it was a practical joke and didn’t show up?
But, no. There was a car pulled up in the loading zone and a man leaning against the door. A man at once heartbreakingly familiar and strange.
He’d aged well – more than well. His dark hair was cut short and peppered with white, and he had laugh lines around his eyes and mouth. But other than that, he looked the same.
“Wow,” she said when he came up to her and offered to take her luggage. She let him load it into the back of his car. “You look amazing.”
He laughed, that achingly familiar laugh, and gave her a long, lingering hug. She let herself sink into his arms, as she hadn’t been able to for a year – for sixteen years. While the city had changed so much, this – this had stayed just the same. When he pulled back, she reluctantly let him go, but she couldn’t seem to look away from his bright blue eyes. He seemed unable to tear himself away either, lightly resting his hands on her shoulders.
“I should say the same. You haven’t aged a day.”
“That’s because I was… oh, you’re kidding.” She smiled and stepped back.
He grinned at her. “A little. But you can either laugh or cry, right?”
Although a couple of hours ago, she’d felt like crying, now she could chuckle about it. “You’re right. You’re absolutely right. Okay, where to?”
“Depends.” They got into the car. “Are you hungry, tired, or restless?”
She shrugged. Although it’d been hours since she ate, her stomach rebelled at the thought of food. And she’d come full circle in her exhaustion and felt as if she could run a million miles. Or perhaps it was just being close to Nate again. “Restless,” she answered truthfully.
“Then I have just the place.” He typed an address into the keypad on the car’s dashboard, and she was too befuddled by everything that had happened to wonder why he didn’t just say it out loud.
They chatted casually on the car ride, but it wasn’t until they arrived at their destination that she felt like she was back in her own time. “Golden Gate Park!” she exclaimed. Then turned to Nate. “Wow, it’s hardly changed at all.”
And it hadn’t – it was just the same as when they’d met here, two years – no, seventeen years ago.
“I thought you’d like it,” he said. They got out of the car, but not before he’d murmured something to the dashboard. Alice watched the vehicle speed away, and she half-held out a hand to stop it.
“But… what about my stuff?” she asked.
Nate laughed again. Then, at her bewildered expression, he suddenly sobered. “I’m sorry, I keep forgetting,” he said. He took her outstretched hand in his and held it tightly. “You’ve lost fifteen years. Don’t worry. The car’s going to stop in a garage on the other side of the park, and it’ll come back when I need it.” He tapped his pocket, and she could see he had iGs of his own. “It’ll take some getting used to, I expect,” he said.
Nate turned and started to walk along the garden path deeper into the park, and she followed, still attached to him by their clasped hands. He didn’t seem inclined to let go, and neither did she. “So what’s new with you? Cliff notes version.”
“Hmmm…” He glanced over at her and smiled his beautiful smile. “Well, I’m older. Older than you, now,” he said. “Forty in a couple days.”
“Oh, I forgot it’s your birthday! July Fourth, you patriotic baby.”
“Yep. Well, I’m divorced now – two years.” Quietly, he added, “I have a daughter. Madeline.”
A daughter. She felt her eyes flood with tears for the first time since this whole thing started, and she had to glance away from him. That was one of the many reasons she’d given him for their breakup. She’d wanted kids. He hadn’t. At least, not back then. He had been too young, and wanted to wait to start a family.
Not young anymore. “How old is she?” Alice asked, blinking quickly to clear her eyes and look back at him.
His smile was bittersweet. “She’s six. Most beautiful girl in the world.” He squeezed her hand. “Although I must say it would be hard to compare. You’re still the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen in my life.”
“Ha.” She gestured at her rumpled suit, her spazzing-out hair and made a face at him, tears safely stowed away. “Not after the twenty-four hours I’ve had. But I’ll give you an A for effort.”
He stopped abruptly and turned to face her. He hesitated, then slowly put a hand up to her face, as if waiting to see what she’d do.
She did nothing but watch him move toward her. When he brushed a thumb across her cheek, she closed her eyes and sighed.
“I missed you,” he said softly, and she opened her eyes. His stare was intense. “I thought about you for years. I even called your parents to check up on you. It was right after you took the plane back from Tokyo. Your dad told me about the flight… disappearing.”
“Oh.” She could think of nothing else to say. All the old feelings were zinging through her. She had never stopped loving him, and all the concerns she’d had – being too old, being in a different place in her life – seemed ludicrous now.
“I scoured the news every day. I bugged the airline. Once, I even flew out to Japan to see if the airline would give me any answers. I always hoped to see you again,” he said.
He pulled her in for another hug, and the earlier feeling returned more strongly than ever. This was where she belonged. One year, two years – sixteen years – it really didn’t matter.
He pulled back slightly to grin down at her. “Hey, you want to give an older guy a chance?”
Sixteen years ago, she’d made the biggest mistake of her life.
She grinned up at him. “I’ve always like younger men. I don’t know if I can make an exception.” She took his hand and they began to walk again.
“Well?” he asked. “You’re killing me. How about it?”
“Hmmm…” she teased.
He groaned. “Come on!”
But it was a no-brainer. After all these years, she could look towards her future. A future that didn’t scare her, not anymore.
“You know what?” She squeezed his hand, and felt the answering grip in return. “I’d love to.”