Short Stories 366:255 — “Alex’s Choice,” by Barb Goffman

coverI’m at the end of Crime Travel today, an anthology of short crime stories with the linked theme of time travel, and the last story has left me with a bit of a perplexing note. I should be clear: I’m recommending this collection, absolutely. There are some stellar stories in there, and this is also a really well-written story. It’s just I’m not sure what the crime is. Or, I guess, there’s two potential crimes that might be the crime element, but I’m not sure about them, as one is barely an aside, and the other… well. Let me start with the set-up: Twelve year old Alex is living with his grandfather after losing his uncle (who was his guardian) to a speeding car (that’s potential crime the first, though it’s an aside). He lost his parents before he could really remember them, when he was barely a toddler. The only constant in his family has been his dog, Maxwell.

After a day spent wandering with Maxwell where Alex is sure he heard a woman or girl laughing at the cliffside beach—but there was no one there—he finds a completely white bicycle leaning against the shed at his grandfather’s mansion, and takes it on a ride, and for the first time in ages, feels alive and happy. When he and his grandfather exchange notes on the day, his grandfather becomes atypically excited: that bicycle, he claims, is magical, tied to the family, and can let him fix wrongs in time, if he concentrates enough while he’s riding it. His grandfather also explains what really happened to Alex’s parents, and Alex rides off, prepared to stop his parents from dying, and almost immediately realizes that something—Some force? Time itself? Just the wind?—is fighting against him in one aspect of the problem, and he needs to make a choice (hence the title).

This is where I almost quit the story, to be honest. I’m delving into spoiler territory here, so stop reading if you don’t want to know, but the choice is this: his parents originally died because his father threw a stick too close to the ocean and a swell swept the dog away. When the father dives in to save the dog and takes too long to return, the mother also dives in. Father does make it back to shore with the dog, but sees his wife is gone, so he goes back in… and they both drown. No matter how hard Alex tries to stop them from throwing the stick, they keep doing so, and he eventually decides to throw the stick himself, lie to his parents about the dog running off to chase birds, and basically kill his dog to get his parents back. Is murdering his pet the crime that puts this story into a crime time-travel collection? I’m not sure. Further spoiler: The denouement of the tale reveals the dog did survive after all, but by his own merit and with a life-long scar. So, I don’t know how to feel about this story at all—it’s well written, it’s got a charming time-travel idea (the bicycle), but… I’m not sure why it’s in a crime collection, and I’m not sure having the child to decide to sacrifice his dog, the one companion he had all his life thus far, for parents he didn’t quite remember really worked for me, personally. Given my threshold for “family is inherently worth it” is set very low, I think other readers with a more typical point of view would likely really find it moving. I’m not sure as a reader I forgive him his choice.

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