This is from nearly two years ago, when the theme for the SFF World flash fiction contest was simply “the movies.” I went back and forth on this one, trying to come up with something to write about, but it just wasn’t coming. Almost to the deadline, it hit me: it was November. Which made it a good time to write about perhaps the most famous movie of all time: the one shot by Abraham Zapruder of the Kennedy assassination. With the requisite genre trappings, of course.
The whir of Abraham’s camera close to his face very nearly drowned out the roar of the crowd. It hadn’t even been his idea to bring it in the first place, but his assistant had kept hounding him about until he’d finally given in. Marilyn now stood behind him, steadying him from behind with her fingers through his belt loops.
He kept the limousine centered as it turned onto Elm Street. The camera was the best money could buy. Fitting, since it wasn’t every day you recorded history, even if he’d get all of thirty seconds of footage out of it. But it would be thirty seconds of the President of the United States; that would be worth it.
The limo drove behind a street sign. Figures, he thought with a grimace. But he could still see their heads poking above the top of the sign, and the limo’s speed would take it past it soon. Not the end of the world.
Abraham heard a loud crack over the crowd, like a car backfiring. You’d think they’d keep those things in better shape. But why was the President doing that with his hands…
Another crack broke through the air. Oh my God, he thought as the dread realization washed over him. His hands wavered, his eye still glued to the view finder. No, I have to see this for myself…
He let go of the button and lowered the camera.
Everything suddenly went quiet and still. The smell of exhaust hung in the air, but the cars weren’t moving, and the crowd stood frozen, faces etched with shock, fear, panic. The President leaned towards his wife, both as unmoving as statues. Abraham felt Marilyn holding him with stiff, lifeless hands. Everyone, everything remained locked as it had been at the moment he’d stopped filming. No, it can’t be.
He gave the button he barest push, just enough to send a few frames of film forward. The crowd around him surged to life, the noise filling his ears again. He quickly lifted his finger, and the scene once again grew still in an instant.
What the hell’s going on?
He reached behind him and pulled Marilyn’s hands off of him, then gingerly lowered himself from the concrete pedestal on which they stood. He felt oddly drawn to the limousine, to his wounded hero, frozen in moment of such vulnerability. He thought he saw a puff of smoke, hanging motionless in the air like a threadbare cloud, coming from a building behind the limo. He circled the car, seeing the pain carved into the President’s face, the terror in his wife’s eyes, made even more horrible by the unflinching mask it now was.
Ahead of the car was another puff of smoke, and mere feet from the President, a bullet suspended in the air. Abraham swallowed. He didn’t need to be one of those NASA scientists with all their slide rules to see where that bullet was headed.
He looked down at the camera, a chill running through him. He could stop this. He could stop the car, push the President down, knock the bullet off its path, something, anything to prevent the horrible eventuality he saw before him. As long as he kept the camera stopped, he had all the time he needed.
He started at the voice in the calm silence. Behind him a glowing man-shaped figure hovered above the ground. He could make out no features, just a bright blur where the face should be.
“A random moment,” the figure said. “A chance pause in the inexorable march of time.”
“I … I don’t understand.”
“You couldn’t hope to. Suffice it to say it is essential that you return to where you were and continue filming.”
Abraham’s eyes widened. “But he’ll die.”
The figure nodded. “Yes. He has to. He was meant to.”
Tears welled in his eyes. “But he’s a great man. He can do great things.”
“Sometimes the greatest thing a great man can do is die before he’s seen as less than great.”
Abraham’s mind reeled. Was he just supposed to blithely step back up on that pedestal and push a button that would condemn a man to die? “And if I don’t do it?”
“Then the natural order of things will have been undone. Oh, he may live, and millions may die in his place. Or he may go on to become a broken, ordinary man. Time will somehow exact its price for what you denied it. So, you can live with the certainty of his death, or the uncertainty of the consequences of preventing it.”
Abraham looked back to the limo. The President’s wife looked at her husband, but those eyes seemed to stare at Abraham, pleading for him to do something. But what if this figure was right? What if saving this man led to something worse? Could he live knowing he’d brought that about? Any more than he could live knowing he’d done nothing?
“Abraham. You can’t keep time frozen forever. Do what you have to do.”
He turned back. “I don’t want to remember.”
He walked towards the figure. “I’ll do what you ask, what you say the universe says I have to. But I don’t want to remember this. I don’t want to know I had the choice. No man should have to live with that.”
The figure tilted its head. “We can allow that.”
Abraham wiped his eyes. “Thank you.” The figure vanished. Abraham took one last look around, at the turmoil he was about to unleash. He sighed, then climbed back up on the pedestal, remembering to slip Marilyn’s fingers back into his belt loops. He raised the camera with trembling hands and put it to his eye, finding the limo and its horrible tableau in the viewfinder. His finger hovered over the button. If he didn’t do it now, he never would.
“I’m so very sorry,” he said thickly, and pushed the button.