(This short story was originally created for and published in 2019 in GLIDE, an art and literary zine published by the Wright Memorial Library in Dayton, Ohio, to commemorate the 80th anniversary of their founding.)
A Brief Detour
The newspaper, tossed carelessly onto the desk, landed with more momentum than Will had intended. It slid across the battered oak top and bumped into the Flyer III model and sent it tipping over the desk’s edge. He heard the cheerful sound of the balsa wood model smashing into pieces as it hit the floor.
“Well,” Orv said, from his desk across the room, “if that isn’t an omen, then I don’t know what is.”
“Maybe we should skip the III and just go directly to the IV,” Will said.
Orv emitted a sharp laugh. “Certainly couldn’t hurt at this point.” He went back to scribbling in a notebook.
The mood in the shop was grim. They had just spent a frustrating week at Huffman Prairie attempting to demonstrate their aeroplane for several newspapers. The wind, or rather the lack thereof, along with mechanical issues meant the Flyer II wouldn’t stay aloft for more than a few seconds. After several unsuccessful days, the newspapermen gave up and began to leave. Orv, slightly more the optimist than Will, tried to paint the renewed lack of media interest as a good thing. “It’ll allow us to focus on our work, and throw off our competitors,” he’d remarked. But underneath that optimism, Will knew his brother was also worried. If they didn’t make some significant headway soon, one of those competitors would beat them to the punch and secure the lucrative government contracts that would be needed for them to really make their mark.
“I’m going out for a bit,” Will said. He grabbed his bicycle, a Van Cleve Special leaned against the shop wall, and walked it out the door. He left the Flyer III where it was.
The sun shone brightly and the May morning air was crisp, but neither did little to improve Will’s mood.
He rode east on Third for half a mile, passing a few homes and businesses. Aside from the normal sight of horses and wagons, a few automobiles were also on the street. He recognized an Imperial and a Winton, but was unfamiliar with the rest. The number of automobiles on the road seemed to increase daily. One day, he suspected, in the not-so-distant future, the automobile would be more prevalent than horse and carriage.
Will crossed the Miami, then turned north to ride alongside the river. He was riding aimlessly, lost in dark thoughts. Even though it was meant as a joke, maybe Orv was on to something about the demise of the Flyer III model being an omen. Since shuttering the bicycle shop the year before, their already meager research budget had become even tighter. Perhaps they should consider reopening the shop, he mused. It would mean less time spent on aeronautical research, yes — but maybe that wasn’t a bad thing.
The path veered east again and he crossed over Main Street. He resolved to broach with Orv the subject of reopening their bicycle business. He was about to head back to the shop when, around him, the world began to vibrate. It started small but quickly felt as though God himself was shaking the earth. An earthquake? No — he had never experienced an earthquake before, and also this was Ohio, the land of tornadoes, not earthquakes. No, this sensation was vaguely, unpleasantly familiar. Then it clicked into place: the time he’d been up in the Flyer I, the motor beginning to fail and the craft shaking so hard around him that, to this day, he could still feel the jarring in his teeth. Will’s analysis abruptly terminated as the world tilted around him and he was thrown from the Van Cleve. The ground came rushing up towards him, and then — darkness.
When Will awoke the sun was no longer out, but it was hot and humid. Still groggy, he clambered to his feet and checked himself over for anything that felt broken. No broken bones; just many bruises.
He looked around to see if anyone else had been harmed. (And also, admittedly, to see if anyone had witnessed to his fall.) Two things became quickly apparent. One, no one was within his immediate surroundings. And two: something was very wrong.
Dayton’s modest skyline had changed.
The familiar spire of Steele High School was not where it should have been. In its place stood a much taller building, one of glass and steel, curved on one side. And in front of him was a large white structure overhanging what appeared to be a pavilion, neither of which had been there five minutes ago. Other buildings that should have been in his line of sight were not, replaced by unfamiliar structures.
Shaken, Will picked up the Van Cleve and wheeled it up a grassy embankment towards the pavilion. He needed to figure out what had happened. Was this some sort of hallucination? Or had he died when he fell, and was now in some bizarre afterlife?
He paused to take in the bridge stretching across the Miami. A handful of automobiles were traveling back and forth across it. What caught his attention was just how different these motor cars were. They were larger and sleeker, more colorful, and made the ones with which he was familiar look boxy and drab. Then he caught sight of something even more alien — a monstrously large concrete bridge in the distance, upon which many more automobiles operated, all going alarmingly fast. And they were so loud. Even from a distance, the roar of their engines washed over him.
He continued his way up the embankment, focusing on the ground a hundred feet ahead, trying to shut out the noise and calm his breathing. The hot air was sticky. He undid the top button of his shirt as he walked.
The structure with the large white covering was indeed a pavilion. The concrete floor was empty but for a handful of small green tables scattered about. All were unoccupied save one, on the opposite end, where a solitary human sat. Well, Will assumed it was a human. Probably. He was not certain of much at the moment. He veered away from the most-likely-a-human and followed a path that led him past several small reflecting pools. Verdant greens and brightly colored blooms surrounded him.
The path opened onto a plaza made of red brick. More of the green tables were here, a few of which had persons recognizably human sitting at them, though their manner of dress was strange. A street ran in front of the plaza, which Will thought was Monument Avenue. More of the large, exotic automobiles sped recklessly down it.
At one of the tables, a man in a jacket and tie was seated, reading a newspaper. Finally, a normal-looking gentleman, Will thought. Perhaps this fellow would be able to help him suss out how he’d fallen off his bicycle and into the future. Will had read the works of H.G. Wells, and was also not an idiot, so at this point somehow inadvertently following in the footsteps of Wells’s Time Traveller seemed the most reasonable, if possibly insane, explanation.
As he reached the man, Will caught sight of an object on the other side of Monument and froze, saying nothing.
After a moment the man, sounding slightly bewildered, said, “Erm, can I help you?”
Will heard the man but did not respond. Gaze still fixated on the object, he wheeled the Van Cleve across Monument. The tires of an automobile gave a loud shriek as it came to an abrupt stop. Like an angry bird, Will noted, distantly. He reached the other side of the road, and gently leaned the bike onto the ground.
Towering above him was a full-scale sculpture of the Flyer. His and Orv’s Flyer.
Will let out a breath he had not realized he’d been holding, and gulped in a lungful of air.
He walked underneath the sculpture, craning his neck to get a better look. His critical eye observed a couple of differences from the Flyer II. The rudder and elevator were much larger, and appeared to be set back farther from the wings. These were things he and Orv had been experimenting with, theorizing that they might drastically increase the aeroplane’s stability. Unbelievable, he thought.
At the base of the sculpture was a small brass tile. The hair on his arms prickled as he read the words engraved on the tile.
They’d done it. Or, rather, they would do it, next year. On a low wall that partially wrapped around the sculpture, were etched the words “1905 Wright Flyer III.”
Feeling somewhat lightheaded, he leaned on a statue of a figure in bronze “running” alongside the Flyer III. Will peered at the statue’s face and recognized his brother, moustache and all.
“Are you okay?” a voice asked from behind him. Will turned and saw a young woman regarding him somewhat cautiously. She was short, with dark brown hair that melted into orange at the ends.
“I am, yes. Just, uh, feeling a little dizzy. It’ll pass.”
“Is that yours?” She gestured towards the Van Cleve.
“I like it. It’s retro. Where’d you get it?”
Will let out a short laugh. “The answer to that question is surprisingly complicated. You see, I —” He stopped mid-sentence, distracted by an object in the sky. “My God.”
It was barely visible, a small dot moving northward across the sky, but he knew it could only be one thing. Given the craft’s altitude and yet it still being visible, it must have been huge.
“Yep, it’s an airplane,” said the girl, sounding amused. “Never see those around here.”
He took a few steps forward to track the aeroplane as it quickly receded into the distance. He glanced back at the girl, quirked an eyebrow. “Are you being facetious, or —”
For some reason, the girl’s eyes were wide, looking past him, her mouth moving. Will turned and saw one of those sleek and large automobiles, twenty feet away, rushing towards him. He realized, belatedly, that he was standing in the street.
Abruptly the world began to shake violently, the ground tilting. Will’s eyes involuntarily closed. He could feel the heat of the auto’s presence nearly on top of him. He —
— waited, bowels clenched, but his imminent pulverization did not happen. His eyes blinked open. An older man with a bushy moustache was staring down at him, looking both concerned and angry. Will realized he was on his back, on the ground.
“You need to watch where you’re going, fellow,” the man said around his moustache. “You could’ve damaged my auto.”
Will gingerly got to his feet. The Van Cleve was next to the Imperial that he’d seen — when, an hour ago? A lifetime ago?
“You rode that damned bicycle right in front of me,” said the man.
Will was back where he’d started, by the river. The sky was cloudless once more. The city had reverted to the one he knew well.
Muttering an apology to the man, Will mounted the Van Cleve. The frame was slightly bent, but it still rode fine. Well, mostly.
Later, Will would not remember the bumpy ride back to the shop. The bizarre trip replayed furiously in his head. That he’d cracked his skull on the ground and experienced a hallucination was the most likely scenario, but he couldn’t wrap his brain around the shaking and tilting aspect. And the future — it had been so vivid. Ultimately, it didn’t matter. Even if his temporal jaunt had happened, no one would believe him. Will didn’t relish spending the rest of his days in an asylum, so he resolved to tell no one. Not even Orv.
Back at the shop, his brother was still at his desk. “Good God, man,” Orv said, standing. “Are you alright? You look like you’ve gone a round with Joey Gans.”
“I’m fine. Just fell off my bicycle.” Will eyed the empty corner of his desk. He walked to where the pitiful wreckage of the Flyer III model lay on the floor, picked up the pieces, and set them on the desk.
Orv laughed. “Better falling off a bicycle, I reckon, than some version of the Flyer.”
Will looked at the bits of balsa wood in his hand and saw the possibilities. “We can do this,” he murmured. He looked up at Orv. “I have some ideas.”