Shams’ mother didn't invent a time machine.
At least, she was sure she hadn’t.
Shams said this to the strange woman that stood next to a large black box in her living room. The box was as big as the TV and on top of it were two sets of antennas and several buttons and dials. A blue spark snapped between the stalks of the antennas; the lights in the room flickered.
The woman exhaled sharply, an impatient sigh. Her long, grey hair was tied up in a sloppy bun, thick curls escaping at all angles. A loose headscarf sat atop her mane, tossed carelessly across her shoulders.
The woman massaged her temples carefully. It was a familiar movement: two fingers on the forehead with the thumb on her cheek moving in a circular motion, eyes closed. The same movement Shams had seen for eighteen years.
“I didn’t say she did. I said I did,” the woman said.
An accent washed over her words, the inflection of her voice dipping and diving like the birds that flew above Shams’ family home back in Bangladesh. It was her mother’s voice but different, stronger and deeper.
“Who are you?” Shams demanded. “And how did you get in our home?”
When Shams had got home from school, the carpet disappeared beneath her feet. The entire living room had warped and twisted, and it all emanated from the black box. Her stomach rolled as her mind couldn’t keep up with the motion and she had almost screamed for it to stop until the woman reached over and pressed a button on the box which ceased all movement.
Now the woman folded her arms again. “As I told you five minutes ago, I am Doctor Parveen Haque. I’ve travelled from another reality, and this is not a time machine.”
Shams froze as the name echoed in her ears. She shook her head violently.
“You can’t be Parveen Haque. That’s my mother’s name. And why do you look exactly like her?”
Well, not exactly like Ammu, but that same stern face glared back at Shams. This imposter was slimmer, her skin a few shades darker, her hair wiry and frizzy. Lines spread across her face and deepened as she scowled. She wore a long grey lab coat and a pair of thin spectacles dangled from a chain around her neck.
“Look, you need to leave or I’m calling the police.”
“Why did I think this would be easy…” muttered the imposter before she reached into her pocket.
Shams flinched before she pulled out a small, white card with a photo on it. “This is my identification, if you really need it.”
It was there in black and white: a slightly scary looking ID photo with the title Dr Parveen Haque, Associate Lecturer in Quantum Mechanics, University of Dhaka beneath.
But Shams’ mother was not a professor of physics in Bangladesh. She was a teaching assistant at a primary school in Merton. She was no longer Parveen Haque, had relinquished that name over two decades ago when she married Shams’ father and travelled to this drizzly, cold corner of London.
As she stared at the ID card, Shams floated down to the sofa in their tiny, squashed living room. Dr Haque sighed impatiently again.
“I don’t have a lot of time. I shouldn’t even be here.”
“Then why are you here?” Shams asked, sarcasm dripping on her words. “Is there some kind of evil corporation bent on destroying our lives? Are you warning us from the future?”
Dr Haque snapped. “I told you, this isn’t a time machine. And don’t take that tone with me, young lady.”
Shams folded her arms, the ID card still in her hand. “Well, you’re not my mother, so I can talk however I like with you.”
The imposter sighed. “I should never have made this machine. I breached the natural laws a little too far, wanted to experiment a little too much. But I had to see if it could be done, you know?”
Shams bit back an unwanted smile; Ammu often ended her sentence with ‘you know?’, too. There was something strange yet compelling about the way she spoke and despite the odd introduction, the imposter felt like a familiar presence. But she didn’t need to know that Shams was secretly intrigued.
“The fact that I have travelled to another reality is dangerous, especially to my biological state. I realised I must have a counterpart in this reality, the reality I’ve been coming to. I have to warn her that there might be some changes in her health. There might not be, but I cannot be sure. This is a wholly new area of science that, perhaps, should never have been opened.”
Shams gripped the ID card in her fist. “You mean Ammu might get sick? Because of you?”
“I am her and she is me. The exact effects of travelling through alternate realities is not well studied, though I am the one who invented this machine and calibrated it to carry…” A hint of pride fluttered in her words before she caught Shams’ glare. She cleared her throat. “Your mother will be fine. I just… I felt responsible for telling her.”
“How are you even the same person?” Shams asked. “You’re nothing like my mum.”
Dr Haque placed a hand on the black box. Her eyes softened.
“Are you familiar with the term ‘the butterfly effect’?”
Shams nodded slowly, though she only remembered the film with Ashton Kutcher.
“A small change can make bigger changes happen further in the future, right?”
“Your mother and I are the same person, just in different realities. Every choice we’re faced with carries different consequences. Each decision we make creates its own reality. In my reality, you do not exist.”
“What?” said Shams. Her head started to spin again; she was never very good at science. “How? If you exist, then surely—”
Dr Haque held up her hand. “You will exist in other realities, but not my one. In my reality, I never married, never had children.” Her lips fell flat in a tight line.
“You never met my dad…” Shams glanced at the photos on the mantelpiece, a collection of memories of the three of them. One frame had fallen over, face down.
“Oh, I met him alright. I just didn’t want to uproot my life and my ambitions. I wanted to pursue my education. Back then, it was unheard of for a woman to reject a good suitor.”
Shams stood up and tried to piece together everything she had heard. She felt sick once more.
“So, because you didn’t get married, you’ve managed to create a time machine—”
“—not a time machine—”
“—where you can travel to other realities. My mother created this.” Shams looked up at the photos again. “My Ammu.”
“Well,” began Dr Haque, “I wouldn’t put it down to a decision as large as that. No, I’m quite sure that everything started to change in the summer of ’78 when I picked vanilla ice cream over chocolate at my uncle’s house.”
Growing up, Ammu was the one who fixed things around the house. She’d also take things apart and show Shams how to put it back together again; like if a fuse blew out, she’d teach her how to fix it. Whenever her mother spoke of the mechanics of electricity, a spark twinkled in her eyes.
The woman in front of her was not her mother, but she had that same strong spirit, a tenacity that Shams never really noticed. Now she knew it could not be anyone but Ammu, who had left her family at such a young age. Not for love or adventure, but duty.
It was there, on the sofa, in front of an imposter from another reality that the warm rush of guilt flooded Shams’ face; despite her mother’s sharp intelligence, her own daughter was ashamed to hear her clumsy use of English phrases and words.
Shams often wondered what life would have been like if her mother stayed in Dhaka. If she had been surrounded by the rhythm of her own language, with words that flowed like clear water and commanded your attention like a beautiful poem.
“Ammu would have liked to see that,” admitted Shams, nodding at the black box. “Would have liked to meet you, too. It sounds like you have the life that she wanted.”
Dr Haque picked up the face-down frame from the mantelpiece and stroked the wooden edge with her thumb. She handed the frame to Shams.
“I wouldn’t be sure about that. She looks rather happy here.”
It was a photo of Shams’ fifth birthday. Her hair was tied up in bunches with a red bow on each side. She stood in front of a cake with piped pink flowers. Ammu’s arms were around her neck, a rosy grin on both their faces.
“But she would have been so happy to have finished her degree and gone into research and teaching. Not cleaning up after snotty little kids.”
The imposter shook her head. “Just because we have different lives doesn’t mean they aren’t as fulfilling as each other. This might look amazing,” she gestured to the black box, “but there are many things I regret, too.”
Shams raised an eyebrow. “Like what?”
Dr Haque shrugged. “I liked who your father was. I just didn’t want to marry when I wasn’t ready. By the time I thought I was, he already had a family.”
She snatched the ID card from Shams and leant over the box to click a switch on the side. “Anyway, I must return to my reality. I cannot keep travelling like this, it won’t do me any good.”
She fiddled with the buttons and dials on the machine. “You must look after your mother, okay?”
“Can I come with you?” Shams asked to her own surprise. “See what you do at work?”
“Absolutely not!” Dr Haque fired up. “Do you know how much trouble I could get into? Not to mention you would probably find the journey quite painful.”
She held her hand up. “No means no.”
Shams scowled, recognising another favourite expression of Ammu’s. She folded her arms.
“Fine. Will this machine be made in our reality, then?”
Dr Haque laughed. “It’s possible, you know? But you let me know if anyone has the same genius mind as me.”
As the imposter spoke, the mantelpiece twisted in front of Shams, turning the line of photo frames into a thick swirl. The sofa behind her melted into nothingness. The carpet disappeared once again.
Blue sparks flew between the antennas of the black box and a strange ringing entered Shams’ ears. A bright light exploded from where the box was and spread a blanket of technicolour across the room.
Shams covered her ears with her hands and crouched down until the spinning stopped and the kaleidoscope of colours vanished.
Her cheek brushed against the soft carpet as her leg hit the coffee table. The room was back to normal as before. Dr Haque had disappeared.
Did she wake up from a weird dream?
Shams rubbed her eyes and sighed. A bubble had burst. All she was left with was the dull truth of a simple existence.
As she rose from the carpet, her foot stepped on something hard. She winced in pain before seeing the photo frame on the floor, so she placed it back on the mantelpiece.
There, in its place, was the ID card propped against the wall, with Dr Haque’s black and white face scowling back at her.
Madeehah is a pharmacist and freelance writer from London, UK. She writes short stories and creative essays and is studying for an MA in Creative Writing. You can find more of her work through Twitter: @madeehahwrites