I met the shoplifter who changed my life on a hot Wednesday night. At the time, I was working at a family-owned hardware store with even longer hours than Home Depot. But unlike Home Depot, we sold more esoteric parts, the stuff of mad engineering.
I had ended up here due to the small mistakes I made in high school. The mistakes had piled up one after another, resulting in Ds and Fs on my reading and writing assignments. I did excel in woodworking and robotics, but people were always distracted by my disappointing letter grades.
The owner of the hardware shop, a kind man with greying hair, liked me despite my lack of degrees. Mr. Kuro was the first one to give me a chance after I was disqualified from a series of job interviews. “Leo the Hero,” he liked to call me. My own parents called me periodically to remind me how I’d fallen short of their lowest expectations. But Mr. Kuro said I was going to build something that would change the world. He let me keep spare parts from the store that I used to tinker at home. In my tiny apartment, I worked from a library book called Far-out Engineering Projects to build models for theoretical concepts like earth stabilizers, time machines, teleporters, and weather controllers. My floor was so cluttered with scattered hardware that I could barely move around.
On the night of my encounter with the shoplifter, the store was empty but for a few tourists who came in, poked around, and left. Our air conditioning wasn’t strong enough to keep them around. It was getting hotter every year since I moved to town.
A tall, dark-haired man with glasses came in, dressed in a suit with his white doctor’s coat draped over an arm. He seemed to have a more sincere interest in the store than other customers and lingered in front of each shelf, studying each part he picked up. I continued stocking parts but glanced at him through the shelves out of curiosity. I happened to be watching him the moment he plunged his hand into a box of expensive circuit boards and placed them in his coat pockets. He did the same with a box of medium-sized gears and nails.
I looked around to see if anyone saw. Mr. Kuro was in the back room, and we had no security system. As the man moved towards the entrance, I followed.
As soon as we stepped outside, I called out, “Hey!” He glanced at me out of the corner of his eye and ran. Without thinking, I ran after him. We sprinted down the sidewalk, barreling through people on their evening stroll. He shoved an old woman aside, and she stumbled into her companion. “Sorry!” I called over my shoulder.
After a few minutes, we left the shopping district and entered the residential suburbs. I thought about letting him go, but I had already come so far. “Leo the Hero,” I repeated in my head as my shoes pounded the sidewalk. Mr. Kuro would appreciate this story once I returned to the store with the stolen parts. I wasn’t sure if my parents would. My lungs were seizing up with the effort of keeping pace.
The shoplifter was dumb enough to lead me back to his one-story house on a street corner. He lifted open the garage door and darted inside. I managed to slide in underneath before the door closed, possibly trapping myself in the home of a murderer. He stumbled back and grabbed a wrench from his desk, looking like a caged animal. “Get out! What is wrong with you?” he shouted.
“What’s wrong with you? You shoved a grandma!” I yelled back. I held my hands in the air, to show that he didn’t have to use the wrench on me.
“It doesn’t matter. None of this matters. I don’t have much time left. Just get out.” He was taking out the stolen parts from his coat pockets. Apparently, he had decided I was a harmless scrawny boy.
I thought about leaving and calling the police from the nearest pay phone, but then I noticed the giant machine behind him. The machine was six by eight feet, comprised of a mix of old and new parts. It looked patched together at the seams, with delicate interlocking gears that looked close to collapsing. “Whoa,” I said, and reached out to touch it.
“Stay back,” he snarled, fumbling with a toolbox. I stepped back but continued to inspect the contraption from a distance. At the moment, three large dogs came pouring into the garage from a side door. One of them came straight to me and started sniffing around my knees. “Hello,” I said, petting him on the head. The man didn’t look up from the broken circuit board he was fiddling with. As I studied the parts more closely, I realized what he was trying to fix.
“This is a time machine, isn’t it?” I said in awe. “Are you trying to go back in time? Or forward?” He didn’t answer, so I got closer to check on him. “Do you know how to fix it?”
He must have found the admiration in my voice to be genuine, because he admitted, “My grandpa built it, and my dad replaced a lot of parts over time. They’re both gone now.” He seemed proud to share the secret with me, even though I was a stranger who had followed him home. He abandoned his task and ruffled through a pile of papers on his desk. When he wasn’t looking, I took some of the pages and read them. They were handwritten notes about the machine, scribbled in elaborate cursive.
“You can rewind…24 hours at a time?” I read a warning note out loud: “‘Use sparingly. Every rewind has a chance of causing an imperceptible rise in the temperature of the planet’s climate.’ Why are you still using this machine?” I thought of the increasing heat and the sweat currently dripping down my face and drenching my shirt.
He snatched the papers out of my hand as he kept flipping through the other pages. Soon, he gave up and sat on the ground with a defeated look. He looked less like a wrench-wielding maniac and more like a young man who didn’t know what he was doing. A failure. I squatted down in front of him, and one of the dogs shoved its nose in my ear.
“So…why did you have to steal?” I asked. “Seems like someone who owns a time machine and three dogs can afford money for spare parts.”
“It was quicker,” he said. “The machine broke down right before I could rewind. I spent so much money on my dog’s surgery, only to let her run into the street and get hit by a car. I can’t let that be the way she dies. And I already told you too much, so I need to erase this conversation.” He got to his feet and turned back to the machine.
I stared at him. “I’m sorry about your dog. But everyone makes mistakes, and we all must live with the grief and the guilt. You shouldn’t risk everyone else’s lives with these rising temperatures.”
“You don’t understand!” His voice became heated. “I’ve never made a mistake in my life!”
“Never made a mistake?” I repeated. He started to screw in a nail, and I realized the truth. “You mean every time you’ve done something wrong, you erased it?”
He shrugged. “You’re young. I don’t blame you for not understanding. You only work in a hardware store, so you don’t know how hard it is to pass medical school exams. You don’t know what it’s like to have too many drinks before driving home.” I wondered how many times he had told people these secrets, only to erase their memories right away. “You’re good-looking too. You don’t know how hard it is for guys like me to date. No matter how many times I rewound, my ex left me. That was the only imperfection in my otherwise perfect life.” His gaze lingered in the distance, then he snapped back into action. “Listen, I have to fix this machine, or I’ll be the person who let his dog die.”
“Except you already are! Even if no one else remembers, you’re still the kind of person who will shoplift and shove grandmas in the street. It’s not just about what other people remember you doing, it’s what you do when no one else remembers.” I could see that he wasn’t the least bit moved by my anger, so I tried a different tactic. “Your other dogs need you right now,” I said, putting my hand on his shoulder. “Look at these innocent angel faces.”
He shook off my hand violently, gripping the user manual in his hands, eyes darting to the wall clock. “I need to erase this mistake.”
“Don’t do it.”
“I have to.”
There was a long silence in which we locked eyes, glaring at each other. Then finally, I stepped back. “Ok,” I sighed. “It’s your life.” I went to sit on a stool near the desk. He turned back to the machine, and I watched him alternate between fumbling with the broken circuit board and a toggle switch. The sweat stains under his armpits expanded by the minute, his frustration becoming more palpable. I must have sat there for an hour, watching him, and keeping the dogs occupied.
When he was on the verge of tearing out his hair, I asked, “Do you want me to take a look?” He started at the sound of my voice— he must have forgotten I was there. “I’ve been tinkering with machines for a while, and I happen to know a little about the component you’re installing.” He looked at me with suspicion, then glanced at the clock in despair and moved aside. I approached the machine and took a deep breath. This was far more complex than any of the theoretical models I had built. Feeling the shoplifter’s eyes on me, I rearranged some pieces, and soldered some wires together. I could feel the power of the machine humming through my bones, even while it was dead. He was leaning against the desk with his arms crossed, tapping his foot as fast as my heart was beating.
When I was satisfied, I stepped back. “That should be good. You can flip the switch here and it should work. Just be careful.”
“Thank you,” he said curtly.
I went to the garage door and lifted it high enough for me to duck under. “Hey,” I said to him. “Good luck.” He ignored me, and I started to close the door. There was a whirring as he switched on the machine. The dogs began to bark at the sound of a loud grinding. The man let out a cry. I caught a glimpse of his face, lit up by his melting, disintegrating machine, before I sprinted like hell back up the street.
As my feet fell into a familiar rhythm, I thought about what to tell Mr. Kuro. I had failed to recover the parts and failed to convince the shoplifter to own his mistakes. Instead of building something, I had destroyed something to change the world.
But I had still changed the world. And now that I had done this heroic deed, I found that I didn’t need to tell anyone else. This was my own triumph, pristine and safe from anyone else’s disbelief. With a thrill, I realized, now that I had saved the world, I could do anything.
I knew what had to happen next. I’d warn Mr. Kuro that someone might come looking for me to seek revenge. I’d find a new job, perhaps move to a new town. I would live with the consequences of my actions and find my way forward, as I had always done. But now, at least, the shoplifter would have to do the same.
Karen Aria Lin is a technical writer in the software industry. At night, she writes science fiction and fantasy stories. She previously published articles and videos in The Daily Californian and Irish Independent as a multimedia journalist. You can find her website here.