Jason Fox is at the grocery store with Peter, a shopping list, and an envelope that breaks down about 3:1 coupons to cash by thickness when he finds out that he's thirty years old.
It happens like this: Peter runs the cart into a woman in the frozen foods section. "Sorry," he says, then, "Oh, no, sorry!" he gasps, when she turns and he sees the dark glasses, and then he really gasps... "Denise?!"
"...Peter? $*#%!", she says. She whips her cane around and flees for the end of the aisle. The haste of a blind woman is no match for an eager sixteen-year-old boy, though, and Peter's caught up with her before she's made it from entrees to breakfasts. "Denise!" he says, catching her wrist, "It feels like ages... what happened to you?"
He doesn't just mean "where have you been", he means: "when did you cut your hair?" "when did you gain twenty pounds?" "and start dressing up like that?" "and is that grey hair?"
Jason (who has been idly calculating the volume of gumballs he could buy with the tofu budget - the number of gumballs is trivial) looks up for the first time, and is suddenly paying attention. His stupid brother Peter may have no idea what's going on, but "She's obviously a time-traveler from the future!" He runs over to them. "When are you from? Do they really make a Watchmen movie? Are we back on the moon in 2015?"
Denise looks around nervously. "Is that... Jason? Peter, let me go," she says quietly. "I really can't talk to you."
Jason's eyes light up even further. "Are you on a secret mission? Am I a time agent too?" He's getting louder as he gets more excited.
"Sssh!!" Denise urges. "Look, Jason, I'm not - " she never finishes her sentence as a blonde five-year-old waving a box of Cheerios hurtles down the aisle towards them.
"Mama, I found the cereal Mama!" the little girl shrieks. "I'm helping! What's next Mama!" She puts the box carefully into Denise's basket.
Peter shakes his head. "What... you have a kid? You can't have a kid."
Denise blushes a little. "Well, that's what we thought too... I mean, it was the junior year of college, I thought I was sterile from the freeze field, but, well..." She smiles a proud mama smile.
Peter's shaking his head. "Denise, you never went to college. You're sixteen. You're in the same grade as me."
Jason can't believe how slow his brother is sometimes. But why would you bring your kid on your top-secret time travel mission? Don't they have babysitters in the future?
Denise sighs. "Oh, Peter. Peter. I was sixteen for eleven years. I know you don't remember... I didn't either, when I was still... Peter, I never wanted to leave you. But then I found out, and I couldn't keep doing it, couldn't keep living and losing that same year, and I missed you so much, and I never even got to say goodbye."
Numbers are flopping over in Jason's head. The equations are remorseless and he has never been able to not follow them through.
"So..." he looks from the little girl to the woman. "You're twenty-five subjective?" he says. "And... and thirty-six in the reference frame."
Denise combs her fingers through her hair a little self-consciously. "It starts catching up once you're out of the freeze," she says, and then catches herself. "But I shouldn't... I'm really not supposed to - "
Jason makes a small, scared noise and Denise drops to her knees in front of him, all mom. "Hey," she says, finding his shoulders with her hands. "Jason, honey. I know this is weird..."
"I must be thirty!" he says. "I can't be thirty! I want to go to college!" It's the same whine that protests tofu dinners and early bedtimes, but deeper somehow. "I want to work on unified field theory... I want to win the Nobel Prize!"
"Oh, Jason," she says, soothingly, squeezing gently. "I never should have let you see me. But they're going to let you out of here someday. They have to."
"How old will I be by then?" Jason asks. "Fifty? Sixty? I'll be older than my dad! I might not have enough time! What if I don't have enough time?"
Denise pulls him close, and for a moment he rests his head in the curve of her neck and shoulder. And then pulls back.
"There's this girl, Eileen," he says, and his voice only shakes a little. "And my, my best friend Marcus. Can you... can you get them out?"
Denise meets his eyes and nods slowly, solemnly, rising to her feet. "I think so. There's a few of us... yes. You can help by... well, I'm sorry, avoid them as much as possible. Try not to talk to them, or even see them. I got out during one of your summer vacations..."
Jason lifts his chin yes, biting his lip.
"I don't even remember," Peter says. "I remember you, and I don't even remember that you left."
"And you won't," Denise says. "The freeze... well, you sort of know what they think you should know, you know?"
They all force a laugh. It's really not funny.
"I should probably go," Denise says. The little girl has been dancing up and down the aisle but is now tugging on Denise's shirt. "Be... well, I know you'll be ok. But be ok, ok?"
She reaches a hand out and finds Peter's shirt, and leans carefully forward to kiss his cheek, then turns and walks away. They stand there until she's gone around the corner, giving her time to lose herself in the maze of the store.
Then Peter looks at the list and pushes the cart and Jason follows and they head out of frozen foods for the dairy case. "So..." Peter says, after a moment. "You like Eileen, huh?" He expects an outburst of vigorous, vehement, amusing denials.
Jason just smiles wistfully, and for a moment all his thirty years and more cross his face. "You'll never know how much," he says. "You'll never know how much."