The Observers: One Small Thing


One Small Thing

by F. C. Shultz

“What does it say?”

“Chamber is still clearing. Don’t have a read yet.”

“I’m opening it,” Thomas said.

“We have to wait or it will be unstable,” Melda replied.

Thomas stood in the corner of their small lab next to what looked like a wall-mounted oven with a glass window at eye-height. Well, not eye height for Thomas. White smoke shapes danced on the other side of the window like a family of baby belugas in an aquarium. He put his hand on the tank’s door as the whales dissipated.

“Now?” he asked.


The door opened from the top down and revealed a hand-held stopwatch laying on it’s back. Melda held her breath as she waited for the report from her husband. He reached his gloved hands into the belly of the machine and grabbed the watch.

“Time?” Melda asked.

Thomas sighed and clicked a button on the watch before reading the numbers. “One minute, twenty-one point zero four seconds.”

“Okay,” Melda said, dropping her head. She sat down in her chair and entered the results via audio-log. Thomas walked to the window overlooking the city. The cars looked like toys from the fifty-fourth floor. He could see the top of most buildings, but some rose out of view. “Dr. Melda and Thomas Burtle, trial number one-six-two…failed.” She took a deep breath before falling into the same speech she’d been recording for the last seven years. “Two identical stopwatches were initiated at exactly zero nine hundred. Watch number two was placed in the travel box and the Negative-One sequence was initiated.”

Thomas looked at the watch-face as he held it in his hand. Melda continued.

“At exactly zero nine zero one the travel box was activated for ten seconds.”

The digital numbers brought tears to his eyes.

“Then, the ten second cool down period was engaged.”

01:21 Their daughter’s birthday.

“Dr. Thomas Burtle removed the stopwatch from the travel box and recorded a time of one minute, twenty-one point zero four seconds. Identical to the control watch outside of the travel box.”

They hadn’t celebrated in seven years.

“End report.”

Thomas fell to his knees and leaned his forehead against the window. Melda joined him. The sun rose over the bay as Melda held her husband in her arms. “We’ll figure it out,” she said. “We’re close.”

“We’re not,” Thomas replied. “Seven years.”

“I know.”

“Seven years and we haven’t even gone back one minute.”

“I know.”

“It’s time.”

“Thomas.” She pulled him closer. “We’re going to go back.”

“We can’t,” he said more as a loss of hope than a statement of fact.

“We will. And then we’ll stay home that day, all of us, and the corner of Tenth and McMallay will never happen.”

“Seven years, Mel. It’s insanity to think we could go back.”

“We’re close.”

“No, we’re farther away. Now we have to go back seven years. Over three million minutes we have to go back through, and we can’t even send a plastic watch back one minute.”

“There’s gotta be something. One small thing we’re missing.”

“We’ve checked-”

“Are we getting enough power to the box?”

“We’ve blown the circuits in this building four times.”

“What about the watch?” Melda was standing now, pacing the width of the window while her husband sat with his back to the glass. “Let’s try something else. Something organic. An apple or something.”

“It’s unlikely,” he said.

“Maybe the elevation is throwing things off.”

“Mel.” “Could be the box. Maybe it’s time to build a new one.”

“Mel.” “We’ll need more funding for that.”

“Melda,” Thomas said with a voice loud enough to be heard anywhere in the room. He stood and walked toward his wife. He held her in a hug as their shadows shone long on the concrete floor. “There’s something I’ve been thinking about. Something we keep ignoring.”


“We haven’t asked if we should go back.”

“What?” She loosed herself from his hug and sat back at her desk.

“If we go back, and Ava lives, what impact will that have?”

“It’s one small thing,” she said. “Taking a different route to school. Taking a little longer to get ready.”

“I know.”


“Then it changes everything after that. Now she’s forming friendships she wouldn’t have before, she’s making things that don’t exist now, she could marry someone who doesn’t even know she existed, she could have a child that would never exist otherwise.”

“I want that,” Melda said through tears. “I want that.”

“So do I. But, the implications of going back and changing one small-”

“Stop,” she cut him off.

“I don’t want to talk about this anymore.”


“I need to sleep.”

“Me too. I’ll take care of this. Meet you downstairs?” Melda got up and left the small office through a solid, windowless, metal door. Thomas shut down the lab before he took the elevator to the first floor and met his wife in the lobby. They walked home in silence.

They slept through the day and stayed home the following night. A full day later they cut through the heart of the city as they walked toward the lab. Neither one spoke. Simulations and hypotheses flooded their brilliant minds as they prepared for another day of experiments. Some time in the past seven years, an unspoken rule had been established that the walk to the lab was time for them to prepare for the day’s work ahead. Nothing was ever discussed.

As the door to their building came to view, Melda noticed a man in a tattered flannel sitting against a thin wall of concrete between a row of large windows. He kept his eyes fixed on the concrete between his crossed legs. One hand held a cardboard sign with marker-black letters, and the other open for alms. The sign read SMALL CHANGE HELPS.

The Burtles walked by without giving the man a cent.

But, the man had given something to Melda.

It stuck with her as they reached their lab. It stuck with her as she ran simulations on her computer. It stuck with her as she prepared the travel box for another test. Melda had decided they needed a new subject, so, today, they planned to send an apple back one minute.

“I’ll take a bite, put the apple in the box, then we’ll initiate the Negative-One sequence,” Thomas said. He placed a bag of apples on Melda’s desk. “If it comes back without a bite, we’ll know it worked.”



“You’re right.”

“About the apple?” he asked.

“No,” she replied.

“About what?”

“About going back.”

“Melda,” he said as he walked toward his wife.

“You’re right,” she repeated. “If we went back, we’d have to be so careful not to change anything. Even a small thing could have a huge impact. It’s too risky.”

“I wanted it to be possible.”

“Me too.” Thomas grabbed his wife’s hand as she continued. “Did you see that guy outside the building this morning?”


“With the sign?”


“It said, ‘small change helps.’”

“What about it?”

“I’ve been thinking about it.”

“Since this morning?”

“Well, yeah.”


Melda leaned forward in her chair. She spoke her new revelation directly to her husband.

“We shouldn’t go back in time, because we might change something, even something small, right?”

“That’s the idea, yeah.”

“If we change something,” Melda paused. “We could ruin the present.”

“That’s right.”

“But, there’s something we don’t consider.”

“About what?” Thomas asked.

“About the present.” Melda stood. “We’re afraid to go back in time, because one small thing could change the present. But, in the present, we don’t think one small thing can change the future. We don’t care about the small things.”

“The small things, in the present.” Thomas said. His eyes lit up. “They can have huge impact for the future.”

“Exactly,” she said. “We can’t go back to change one small thing for Ava. But, we can be intentional with the small things in the present to honor her.”

“She would like that.”

“She would.” Melda walked over and wrapped her husband in a hug. Tears flowed from both of their eyes as they took a step closer to finding peace. She popped to her tip-toes and kissed Thomas’ forehead before speaking. “I know where to start. Grab the apples.”

Thomas grabbed the bag of apples as Melda led him out of the lab, onto the elevator and into the lobby. They left the building and Melda’s head swiveled, looking for the flannel man responsible for their peace. The man was sitting in the same spot as earlier that morning. Melda reached into her pocket and gave the man a twenty dollar bill. Thomas handed him the apples. They said “thank you” in unison before turning toward home.

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