“Dad, can you help me with something?”
You look up from your newspaper. Safari stares at her shoes, giving you surreptitious glances, flashes of her mother’s brown eyes catching the dim morning sunlight trickling through the kitchen blinds. Her posture is reticent, but her expression hopeful. It’s the same demeanor you’ve seen from countless diplomats, congressmen and women, even the president on occasion.
“Sure, what is it, kiddo?”
Safari straightens, wringing her hands. “I need help with my class schedule,” she says. “If I stick with music, I have to march in the band for football games and won’t be able to cheer.”
You smile, understanding the question behind the question. “I can only see major branches of my own timeline, if that’s what you’re wanting.”
Safari furrows her brow, one corner of her mouth lifting, pulling her lips to one side. “You use your ability all the time to help all those important people. Why can’t you use it now?”
You feel your face flush as you realize just how hurt she is. Hurt that the power you wield so freely for the sake of the world is locked away from her. You pat the couch cushion, beckoning for her to sit.
Frumping, Safari takes the seat next to you and tucks in under your arm, the same way she has since she was a year old. Her curls brush your cheek and you smell the scent of her shampoo, feel the heat of her body as she wraps her arms around your chest. You recall the way she used to try and link her too-short arms around you as a child and frown as they clasp easily around your torso now.
“I don’t always have to use my ability at work, you know,” you say, returning her embrace. “Many of the people that come to me are just looking for reassurance that they are making the right decision.”
“So then how do you know what the right decision is?”
“Sometimes, I just use my best guess, like everyone else.”
Safari snorts. “Whatever, you’ve never had to do that.”
You laugh and her head leaps with each chortle, riding the wave of your middle-age paunch. “I haven’t always had divergent sight. I didn’t even get it until I was in my teens. Even now I can’t see what happens if I order the steak or lobster at a restaurant, or what happens if I take a different route home at night. It’s only the big decisions.”
“So, what was it like before you got your power?”
You scratch your chin, picking through puddles of memory.
“When I was fourteen, I was at the county fair, waiting for your grandma to come pick me up. A car pulled up to the edge of the parking lot where I was standing and two white girls started yelling at me from the backseat.”
“What were they yelling?”
“All sorts of things. Vulgar stuff. Things that would appeal to a teenage boy. Wanting me to come closer to their car,” you tell her. “Two guys were sitting in the front seat, staring straight ahead. They never looked at me. Not once.”
Safari wiggles out from under your arm and moves to the opposite end of the couch, the whites of her eyes a ring around the chestnut disc of her iris. “What did you do?”
“Well, the girls were pretty cute, but it was the guys in the front who bothered me the most. I mean, what could four white kids want with me?” You lean forward, clasping your hands together. “I thought about it for a minute and then decided it wouldn’t be a good idea. They kept trying for a long time, though. If they’d ever opened a door I’d have run for it.”
Safari looks down at her own lap. “And you made the decision without your ability?”
You shrug. “Do you think I made the right choice?”
“Yeah.” Safari pulls her arms tight across her chest and stretches her legs across your lap. “I wonder what they would have done to you if you’d gotten in the car.”
“I honestly don’t know, kiddo. I really don’t,” you say, patting her leg. “Have you decided what you’re going to do?”
“I’ll think about it some more,” Safari replies. “Best guesses, right?”
“Best guesses,” you agree, smiling
You jerk back to the present, inhaling deeply, mouth agape.
“Hey, kid. Come here. We want to show you something.” A girl with a ruddy complexion and skyscraper bangs leans out the window of a brown, late model Chevrolet sedan, a lit cigarette dangling from one hand. The early October winds cut through your jean jacket and you stick your hands in your pockets to keep them warm.
“Yeah, come over here and we’ll give you a blowjob,” another girl yells, nudging her friend and laughing.
“A blowjob. You’re such a whore, Cindy.” The pair cackle, leaning into one other, angling for terrain through the car’s small rear passenger window. In the front seat, two pale, acne-spotted boys sit unmoving, eyes straight ahead through the windshield of the idling car, gazing out into the long night.
“Nah, I’m good,” you say, walking in the direction of laughter and screams and the scent of cotton candy and popcorn.
“Aww, c’mon,” Cindy says, her lips pursed in a pout. “What’s the matter? You don’t like blowjobs? Come over and I’ll show you my tits.”
You take off at a jog, leaving the girls promising more and more elaborate sexual favors, their voices dimming as they mix with the rising din of carnival barkers and screaming children.
When you are safely away, you pull your shaking hands from the pockets of your jacket. They reach in front of you, searching for the alternate timeline. They are almost there, a fingertip’s whisper away when you recall the smell of shampoo and the tickle of curls on skin. You ball your fists and withdraw, placing them back inside your coat. The possibilities evanesce, like breath in the wind. You blow out a sigh, as if you are trying to hurry them along.
Two roads diverge but you don’t need to travel both to know which way your future lies.
Robert Balentine, Jr is an emergency room physician in the southern US. His works have been featured in Bewildering Stories, Daily Science Fiction, and Flash Fiction Magazine most recently, though he has several awaiting publication as well.