The Historian by Matt Hollingsworth

A time travelling historian falls in love with a woman who is struggling to get over the death of her boyfriend.

Image generated with OpenAI
I love you.

Yes you. I know you think you don't know me, but you do. Or at least you did. We would sit on the roof of your house, watching the tree line, saying nothing, content in each other's company, and I'd hold your hand or run my fingers through your golden hair.

You don't remember now, but you did. And I love you. And I am so sorry.

You were dressed in black, your eyes dry, hands twitching. To someone else, your expression might have seemed cold, but I like to think I see more clearly than most. It's what I was trained to do.

You had walked out halfway through the service and sat against the wall of the church.

You remember this part.

What you don't remember is the stranger, passing by on his way to class, pausing for just a moment, our eyes locking.

I kept walking and didn't look back.

I always hated my time period. You asked me (long after that first brief meeting) what the future was like. I joked that we dodged Orwell but only by a hair. You nodded as if you'd known before asking then kissed my cheek and said, "Can't be too bad if it produced someone like you."

They say love blinds you to a person's faults, and even though you're a realist, in your case it was true.

I didn't see you again for two years after that glance at the church, two years where I lived like a shadow in a world I couldn't touch. This assignment was something I'd wanted my whole life. So why did it feel so hollow?

That day, I walked into the room for history class and stared. I'd only seen you for a moment, but I never forget a face.

Apparently, you noticed me staring because you returned a half-hearted smile.

"You're the girl in that black dress. I saw you outside the church. Grace Baptist." Your smile faded. "I mean, you look familiar. I think I've met you before."

You crossed your arms. "We go to the same college. Mystery solved."

I opened my mouth but didn't know what to say, so I took a seat and waited for class to start. I don't know why I kept thinking about you, but I approached you after the lesson.

"Hey, I think we got off on the wrong foot before. What's your name?" I tried to make small talk for several moments, getting brief answers.

Finally, your hands balled into fists. "Can't you take a hint? Leave me alone." I apologized and turned, walking a dozen feet before you ran beside me. "Hey, I'm sorry. I shouldn't have said that. It's just, what did you mean about the church?"

I shook my head. "It's nothing."

"Grace Baptist is where they had my boyfriend's funeral. Two years ago."

"Oh. I'm, uhm, sorry."

"I shouldn't have snapped at you like that. It just threw me off when you mentioned the church. I promise I'm better mannered. Usually." I think you were looking for a way to apologize. "Want to grab lunch?"

We got to know each other over our college's best approximation of Mexican food. You told me about your boyfriend, David, about your social work degree, how you wanted to make a difference.

"Look, it's just... I believe Jesus did everything for me, and I love Him for it, so I want to do stuff for Him and for others. Be like Him, you know." (One thing I admire about your time period - people genuinely care. Unlike where I'm from.) "It's been harder now that David is gone," you continued. "It shouldn't be, it's just..." You waved your hand, searching for a word that didn't exist. "But you're a history major, right?"

"People say I live in the past." I smiled at my private joke.

We became friends over the next couple weeks. After two years of passively watching the world go by, it was good to interact on a deeper level. And if that distracted me from my mission... Well, I was good at my job. No one would notice.

We would meet after class, talk about God, about life. (I know you don't remember this, but it happened.) You'd take me on service projects, and I'd read you poetry. I love poetry, all the classics - Elliot, Dante, Donne. You'd smile while I talked about rhythm and meter.

"You ever write any?" you asked.

I shook my head. "I'm not very good."

You often talked about David, telling funny stories of things he said and did, often the same stories, but you seemed happy to tell them, so I acted like they were new.

"How did it happen?" I asked.

"Hit by a car. No one even called. I learned about it over Twitter." You looked down at your empty plate, playing with your fork.

I've made some stupid mistakes. This was the worst.

"Let me show you something." I led you into the parking garage and to my car.

You laughed. "You're not here to make your move, are you? Because I don't do that kind of stuff."

"Nothing like that," I said, "but you have to promise to hear me out."

"Oh, do I?"

"I just mean that I'm going to tell you something, and you're going to think I'm crazy or joking, but I promise I'm not." You looked concerned. I figured I'd build up the suspense long enough, so I blurted it out.

"I'm a time traveler."

You stared hard for several seconds then snorted. "What, did Doc Brown lend you his DeLorean?"

"No, it's more of a wrist thingy, like a bracelet."

You watched my serious expression then laughed. "You're so weird, man."

"I'm from three hundred years in the future. I was sent back in time two years ago to learn about life the 21st century. I'm a historian." I pulled a silver bracelet from my pocket. "This is my time machine."

"Not very stylish. You sure it's not a DeLorean?"

"You want to see?" You shrugged. I adjusted a small dial on the bracelet and held your arm. There was no transition, no warping of space, no gradual fade. One moment we were sitting in the car, the next, the car was gone, and we tumbled backwards onto an empty field. I stood, breathing deeply. The air was so much cleaner in the past. You stared wide-eyed.

"Take me back," you said.

"It's perfectly safe. Nothing's going to..."

"Take me back!" I adjusted the dial, touching your shoulder. The next moment we were back in the parking garage. Without another word, you ran.


But you were already gone.

You weren't at class the next day, and I was already questioning my decision. Two days later, you rang my doorbell at 4am.

The moment I opened the door, you blurted out: "Can you save David?"

"I'm sorry. I can't do that," I said.


"It's impossible to change the past. I could go back and shoot George Washington, but when I returned, nothing would have changed. Time is elastic. Nothing sticks."

"Oh." Your shoulders slumped.

I'm sorry.

"I can't save him, but I can let you see him."

We took the next day off from class and drove to Memphis where David had lived. I was going to take you back in time to that day in March two years earlier, shortly before the accident, when you were planning to visit him but canceled last minute because of school. I would take you back, and you'd surprise him saying class had been called off. By going to that moment, we would avoid the risk of accidentally running into your younger self, which would be quite awkward to explain.

"Do you think David will notice that I'm older?" you asked, as I parked the car in a field outside the city. We had agreed that you wouldn't tell David about the time travel.

"Never underestimate a man's ability to be oblivious," I said. "We'll meet under that oak tree at nine o'clock, okay?" You nodded. It was hard to read your expression.

"Part of me thinks this is some joke or I'm losing my mind," you said.

"That's how I felt going back the first time."

"I feel like this is wrong somehow," you said. I don't know what I was thinking doing this to you. You just looked so sad, and I thought if you could finally say goodbye, you might get closure.

"Remember, nothing you do will stick. You can't affect the past, but the past can affect you. When you get back, you'll remember it, but no one else will. And when your date is over, we'll return to the same moment we left. A full day will pass for us, but it'll only be moments for everyone else. Like Marty at the end of Back to the Future."

"What if I run into trouble?"

"You're going on a date. What kind of trouble do you anticipate? Russian mafia?"

We stepped out of the car. You were shaking.

"It'll be okay," I said.

"Do it quickly."

In a moment, the world changed. Where it had been afternoon, it was now morning. The trees adjusted their heights. Your eyes watered.

"Are we..."

I nodded. "Go find him."

You threw your arms around me and said, "Thank you." Your feet hardly touched the ground as you ran.

After killing several hours in town, I returned to the tree at 8:30 that evening. By 10, I was worried. I was about ready to look for you when you finally arrived, an hour and 20 minutes late.

"What happened?" I asked.

Your head was bowed. "Please take me back."

"Was he there?" You nodded. I adjusted the dial on my bracelet, and we returned to your time.

You never told me what happened that first trip. In fact, you hardly spoke as we drove back, but as we pulled into the school you asked, "Can I see him again?" It was then that I realized the mistake I'd made.

"I thought this was a trip to say goodbye," I said. You stared, eyes glassy. "But, of course, I'd be happy to." You hugged me around the neck for a long while. I thought I heard you cry.

The second time went much better. You smiled all the way back, told me about your date, about how wonderful it was to see him. It was good to see you happy again. But it didn't last. On campus, you were restless, distracted. You started skipping classes, missing church. Your friends grew concerned, and they'd look at me with suspicion, the man with whom you'd disappear for long hours over the weekend with no explanation.

I took you back eleven times over the next four months.

"How about Saturday?" you asked.

"I'm sorry," I said. "I've got to catch up on my assignments. Maybe next week."

"It's been two weeks."

"I know, and I'm sorry, but I can't this week."

"I miss him."

"I know, and I'm sorry. Maybe next week."

"What if I took your bracelet. I've seen you use it, and it doesn't look that complicated. Maybe, I -"

"I'm not comfortable with that. The machine isn't mine. It's my government's. I'm bending the rules already by taking you back."

"I'll do your stupid assignments for you! Please, I have to see him." Your eyes were red.

"This was a mistake," I said. "I shouldn't have done this."

"Don't say that. You gave me David back."

"He's not back! He's gone! You can't have a relationship with him because he's gone."

Your hands tightened into fists. "He's not gone. I've seen him. He's not gone."

I put my hand on your shoulder, but you shook it off.

"When we first met, you told me that you wanted to make a difference, to help people. How can you do that if you keep living in a past you can't touch or affect? Is that what God wants? I can't imagine how hard this is, but you can't be with David."

You dipped your head. "I know." And suddenly you hugged me, holding me for a long time before letting go. "Thank you."

I smiled, and you walked away. By the time I noticed you'd stolen the bracelet from my jacket pocket, you were halfway to Memphis.

I dialed your number, heard a dozen rings, then your voicemail message.

"Hey, it's me. I can't find the bracelet. Please pick up." Maybe she doesn't have it, I thought. Or maybe I'm a chump who thinks he's some poor girl's knight in shining armor. I bit my lip. How could I have let this happen?

I don't know what I expected to find when I pulled up by that oak tree. It was dark, but I could see you with my headlights. You sat against the tree, hugging your legs to your chest. You looked up, and I could tell you'd been crying.

I ran to you but stopped halfway. I studied your face, trying to make sure I was seeing correctly. It was subtle, but there was no mistaking it. Your face was slimmer, your cheekbones more prominent. You were older, at least two or three years, possibly more. How long had you been in the past? I imagined you travelling back to the same dates, reliving them time and time again for years.

Finally, you broke the silence. "I'd promised myself I'd never let a relationship become my identity, never let it consume my life." You shook your head. "David noticed my face. That I was older." I sat beside you against the tree, and you handed me the bracelet. "Don't let me go back anymore, even if I beg."

"This is my fault. I..."

"You tried to help me. That's all there is to it," you said. "Is this what our time is like to you, future man? A society of ghosts." My hand twitched.

"Come on," I said. "Let's get you home."

It was a long, quiet ride back. You kept your head bowed. I think you were praying. I mulled over your words: Is this what our time is like to you?

We didn't talk for almost five months after that, and I began to think I'd seen the last of you, that spending time together would be too painful for you, but one Friday, you called me.

"Want to grab lunch?"

We sat together in the summer light outside the cafe. You looked happier than you had last time I saw you. Stronger. I wondered how many people had noticed your extra age. We caught each other up on the last few months, never mentioning what had happened.

"Why'd you come back to our time?" you asked.

"I guess I'm a romantic at heart. I loved all the old stories, classic literature. I was young, just out of the school, saw that the program was taking applicants. I figured this was the least tied down I'd ever be. They trained me in observation, in customs, on how to blend in. I probably know more about this century's pop culture than you do." I laughed. "I wanted to go back further, late 19th, early 20th, but this is where I was assigned."

"You'd think they'd want to send people back to the Revolutionary War, or the Civil Rights Movement, or something more important."

"They've sent people to every year and location they can. But your time is important. Your era is one of great social and cultural change that will affect the world decades from now. We wanted to understand that - historical cause and effect."

"Did our century live up to your expectations?"

"I'm not sure anything can." I motioned upward. "Except Him."

You touched my hand. "Tell me more about the future." Our fingers interlaced.

I've made some stupid mistakes. This was the second worst.

I was supposed to return to my time after three years, but I didn't because I was dating you. My government hasn't discovered a way to track people sent to the past (though not for lack of trying). Still, I was painfully conscious that I was going against the will of the State.

It's funny that friends can fall in love so quickly. I remember sitting on the roof of the dorm, holding your hand, as you told me about your plans for the future. Adoption. That was your thing. You wanted to help children find a home, and you wanted to help as many of them as you could. Your eyes lit up whenever you talked about it.

I remember meeting your parents, having dinner with them. I remember your older sister eyeing me like I was going to steal the silverware. I remember laughing with you about your work stories. I remember our arguments. I remember sitting by that fountain in the park, smelling the fresh-cut grass, and saying, "I love you."

You said, "I love you, too."

And I remember the sensation crawling up the back of my neck, a sensation I longed to ignore. The same sensation you felt the first time you went back to see David when you said, "This is wrong somehow."

I didn't belong in your time.

It was less than a month before you graduated. I knocked on your door, fighting tears, and asked you to walk with me.

There was a trail through the woods that always looked beautiful this time of year with the flowers budding. It made me imagine what this place must have been like for the earliest inhabitants. I had to imagine because I could never truly experience it. Even if I went back, I could never really see it for the first time.

"I have to go," I said.


"To my time."

"Oh." You shuffled your feet. "For how long?"

I cupped my hand around your cheek. "Time is elastic. When I go, everything will reset, and it'll be like I was never here. You won't remember me." You stared. We were both crying now.

"You can't do that," you said. "Please, I don't want to forget you."

"Beautiful, I'm sorry, but I have to. I could stay here for the rest of my life. It doesn't matter. It wouldn't stick. Everything would still reset."

"But we'd still get to spend our lives together."

I was holding your hand so tightly that I was worried it'd break. "I love you so much."


"It would be like with David. A society of ghosts, like you said. I'd be living just for myself, never helping anyone, never making a difference. Not even to you. Even you would forget about me. Time would snap back into place. How could we ever be happy knowing that? Living so selfishly?"

"I want to stay with you."

"We can't live in the past. Neither of us."


"I love you. Goodbye." I pressed a button on my bracelet, and a moment later I was back in my own time. And I cried harder than I've ever cried in my life.

And that's what happened. You don't remember, but I do. And I'm sorry.

I know you had a good life. I looked up your records. A husband, children. You may not have revolutionized the adoption system, but you saw hundreds of kids placed into loving homes. You were happy. You served God.

And I'll see you again one day, in a world not of shadows but substance. A world solid and real. A world we'll see and hear and touch. And we'll stand before our Father's throne, loved and forgiven, and we'll worship Him with joy.

I love you.

Goodbye for now.


  1. Exceptional world building and compelling time travel rules. I love how the story escalates and culminates with the protagonist suffering the same loss of his girlfriend as she suffered for her old boyfriend! Great stuff - ingenious!

    1. Thank you, Adam. I appreciate your comments. Time travel is always contradictory, so I was trying to think of rules that could be consistent; glad you liked them. I tried to have the two halves of the story be reflections of each other, with both of the characters having to go through the same loss. Thank you for your comments.

  2. Wow! Making this a letter was sooo effective. So intimate. What moved me was the intensity of all the connections. So much at stake in their interactions. I absolutely was moved deeply by this story. Thank you!

    1. Hey, this is the writer. Thank you so much for reading and for your nice comments. I really appreciate it. This story was very personal for me, and I'm really glad you felt moved.

  3. Doug Hawley
    I don't like time travel stories because I can't believe them. This is the exception because it is a solid love story rather than a time travel story, that doesn't rely on time travel tropes.

    1. Thank you! All these nice comments really made my day. I'm glad you enjoyed the story. I love scifi stories with very human/relatable plots.

  4. This is a really fascinating story of star-crossed lovers caught between the insuperable boundaries of time. The writing style is so fluid and unlabored that I could have read a 20,000 word novella in that style, without stopping. My only complaint is that the story was too short. It reminded me of Douglas Adams. The characters are well drawn, slow at first to realize the foibles of the choices they’ve made, yet eventually cognizant of their mistakes. I know I say this again and again, but Matt’s story would make a terrific series – another Dr. Who, but with a reemerging love interest, as opposed to a Tardis. The actions and reactions of the two characters are believable – though it is sci-fi – and the dialogue is very good. The most compelling emotion I feel upon reading this story is one of heartbreak. Thank you, Matt, for a poignant and memorable fiction.

    1. Thank you! This story was heartbreaking for me to write as well, but I would like to think, ultimately, hopeful. I probably could have made it longer, you're right. I have a problem with shortening things too much haha.

  5. This story feels so poignant as so many people who fall in love cannot be together. It is often “the wrong time” or one person is involved with someone else. Well done, Matt

  6. I agree with Doug that this is elevated by the love story which makes this a very moving read. I really enjoyed the poetic, but also down to earth, style of writing too.