Growing up in Albert Lea, Minnesota, I used to think my mother was psychic. She often knew when prices were about to change at the grocery store. She knew to take alternate routes before anyone had reported a traffic backup. And her pineapple upside-down cake always came out flawlessly.
It wasn't until I was a senior in high school getting the results from a college entrance exam that I found out she was not psychic. She cheated. She had the Franziska Magnus.
When I got the results the following morning for the APCEE, she informed me that college was too important, and she couldn't saddle me with such a poor score on the exam that would determine my entire future. She sent my younger brother, Olaf, to his room and then took me out to the garage and reached behind the freezer to show me an eleventh-century Norwegian battle axe she hid there.
"Fritjof," she began, "it's time you learned about this. This is the Franziska Magnus. It has been passed down in our family for generations, and it's time I passed it along to my eldest son."
I thanked her but looked at her askance. I had no idea how the axe related to my college entrance exam.
"You're going to take the test again," she continued.
"I can't, Ma. Not for another two months."
She continued to explain that I was to retake the exam by going back in time to the previous afternoon with the help of the Franziska Magnus. She took me down to the basement, handed me the axe, and told me to spin it around myself in one big circle parallel to the floor.
The axe was surprisingly heavy, even though it wasn't bulky. The blade was tarnished, but not rusted, its wooden handle intricately carved but smoothed somewhat over the centuries. There was a leather strap embedded in the end of the handle, but she insisted I hold it by the handle itself so that I wouldn't accidentally hurt myself with the axe when I swung it.
I was just trying to humor her. I am sure I had a poorly stifled grin on my face. I pivoted in a big circle holding the axe out in front of me, and when I came back to my starting point, I found my mother had vanished.
I figured that perhaps she was just playing a joke on me, so I laughed and started searching the basement for her. I didn't find her. With increasing feelings of panic and creepiness, I searched the rest of the house. My mother was up in her bedroom folding sheets. When I entered, she looked at the axe in my hand and then at my face and frowned. "Did you find that, or did I give it to you?"
I found the second part of her question disturbing. "You just gave it to me. Don't you remember?"
She stared at me for a full minute as if I were one of her crossword puzzles, the Sunday one from the New York Times. "You are going to do poorly on your exam this afternoon, aren't you?" she said somewhat rhetorically. "Well, you better hit the books a little harder so you don't get so many questions wrong."
At that she turned back to her folding. Over her shoulder she added, "Don't leave that axe out where Olaf can find it. Go put it back behind the freezer before he gets home."
I looked at my clothes. They were what I had worn "yesterday," not what I'd remembered putting on seemingly hours before. I found that I had gone back in time exactly one day, with only three hours before I would take the exam for the "first" time. I went over my history and algebra notes again, as those were the parts I'd flubbed on my other "first" time taking the exam.
The new score was sufficient to win me acceptance and a scholarship to NYU, and the Franziska Magnus, wrapped tightly in sheets and electrical tape, was in my suitcase when I arrived in Manhattan that fall to begin my studies. I left it in my suitcase when I shoved it under the bed in my freshman dorm room. I was too afraid I would be marked as a freak if anybody ever saw me with it, and I was equally worried I might lose it or get it stolen.
I brought it home with me for Christmas and summer breaks that year, because I was afraid my roommate or someone else might discover it. I didn't use it again myself, though I was tempted after a couple of really botched first dates.
I didn't pull it out and unwrap it until the fall of my sophomore year. I had moved into private housing near campus with my friend Dylan. On an evening a week before Halloween, I encountered Dylan on our second-hand couch sobbing. It was the first time I'd ever seen him in tears. He seemed broken. His backpack had been stolen that night. It had held all his sound editing and recording equipment and over two hundred dollars in cash.
I went up to my room and pulled out the suitcase containing the antique battle axe. I stared at it for about five minutes before I finally opened it and carefully unwrapped the axe. I took it down to the alley next to our building. When I was sure no one was about to come out to throw a pizza box in the trash, I held the Franziska Magnus out in both hands and spun.
I knew to avoid the scrambled eggs at the dining commons at breakfast this time around, and when I saw Dylan later that morning, I volunteered to go with him when he went to dinner. As we left the restaurant, I had to remind Dylan not to leave the pack behind under the table. I kept an eye out for the thieves. I noticed two tall guys in their thirties who had followed us from the restaurant and were gaining on us.
I didn't think I could take on the two of them if they made a play for Dylan's backpack, so I told him to pick up his pace, and I dropped back to make a bit of banter with his two would-be assailants. They threatened me and shoved me to get out of their way, but I delayed their pursuit enough for Dylan to escape.
When I went to bed that night, I kept going back and forth about whether I wanted to brag at least to Dylan about what I'd done for him. I was on such an adrenaline high. I had stowed the axe safely in the suitcase beneath my bed. I decided I needed to keep the axe and what it could do secret. I was so obsessed with it, though, I had to do something. I grabbed my laptop and started researching ancient Norwegian battle axes, and I came across one that seemed to fit the bill: an axe given by Otto III, the great-great-grandson of Charlemagne, to the son of St. Olaf, Magnus the Good. There was no reference to the power of the axe, but Magnus seemed to be an exceptionally successful and lucky ruler of Norway. He seemed to know when to attack and when not to, never making a single mistake.
I thought back to all the times in my childhood when my mother had seemed psychic, and there were a lot of them. She knew to send my friend Stevie outside during a birthday party just before he vomited. She immediately knew where to locate our neighbors' missing dog. She won big prizes in the Lotto twice, and then she got blacklisted. And she always, always had dinner on the table exactly when my father, a saw mill supervisor, came through the door at night.
I eventually fell asleep, but the next day, and every morning thereafter, I scanned through the police blotter at a crime-reporting website before I went to class. Three days into that routine, I decided to see if I could foil a diamond heist that had gone down the night before. Having only an incident report to go on, I had to guess at when the jewel thieves had arrived, and I guessed wrong. They had already come and gone by the time I arrived.
I groaned. It had already been monotonous reliving the day a second time, and I feared I would go nuts if I had to do it a third time. But I kept my eyes on the prize, and the second time I rewound time, I was able to see the thieves arrive and begin their break-in. I called 911, and the police arrived within two minutes and arrested them.
I continued that routine until mid-November. At that point, I had foiled thirteen crimes, but those escapades weren't the problem.
News reports told of small groups of people all over the world who were there one moment and not in the next. One day a group of students eating their lunch in Dayton, Ohio. Another day pedestrians near St. Paul's Cathedral in London. Two days later, everyone on one side of the road at a market in Marrakesh, Morocco. And that same night, half the patrons at a drag bar near campus in Greenwich Village. There were multiple theories from sunspot activity to alien abduction. After a couple of weeks, they started reappearing—in the same place where they had vanished with no memory of the intervening time. Some were traumatized, some were just disoriented, but everyone started panicking when the reality hit that every day, you could be the next one to pop out of existence for a matter of weeks.
When I got home from my last class of the day, I called my mother immediately. "Did this ever happen when you were using the axe?"
"Hello to you too, Fritjof," she replied calmly. "What in blue blazes are you talking about?"
I explained my theory about the missing people showing up weeks later with no memory of the time they were gone, like they were thrown forward in time. She snorted in a guffaw. "I used it several times a week for years after I saved your father, and nothing like that ever happened."
"You saved Pa?" I asked in surprise. "I don't remember that. Was I a baby?"
"You were twelve."
"Saved him from what?"
"Oh, your dad fell into a wood chipper, and it chewed up his arm and shoulder pretty well."
I had just seen my father at our family's Labor Day picnic weeks before. He seemed entirely intact. Evidently she noticed my stunned silence and continued. "He had been leaning on a safety rail that gave way. They shut off the chipper pretty fast, but he'd lost a lot of blood, and the doctors didn't think he'd survive the night. Your Grandpa Gunnar brought me the axe that night, and that's when I started using it. I went back to warn them about the safety rail, and they checked it and fixed it before your dad could lose his balance . . . and fall into the wood chipper. Are you still there, Fritjof?"
I finally overcame my shock enough to speak. "You don't remember hearing about random people being thrown into the future the whole time you had the axe?"
"Nada, honey," she replied curtly. "You've only done one spin with it, right?"
"Does it have other settings?"
She quickly relayed her father's caution to that effect and immediately excused herself to fix dinner for my brother Olaf.
When I got off the phone, my friend Jessica was standing two feet away. "Were you talking about that axe you have stashed under your bed?" she asked with an eyebrow raised in a way assuring me she knew the answer to that question already.
"Dammit," I cursed. "I thought I was being more careful than that."
She stepped closer and put her hand on my shoulder in a way that felt uncomfortably condescending. "Jeff," she said calling me by my nickname, "We've been sleeping together every night since the spring. You thought I didn't notice you sneaking in late at night and putting that thing under the bed all those times?"
"I didn't want to get you involved," I protested.
"We're in a relationship," she announced. "You can't get much more involved than that."
"We're in a relationship?" I had to think about it for a minute. I had thought of her just as a friend who stayed over because my place was closer to her first class in the morning. But she did have a point. We had sex several times a week, but I wasn't always the most observant guy. "Okay. Well, it's a magical battle axe that's been in my family for centuries. It allows me to go back in time one day."
I could see wheels turning in her substantial mind, but she didn't seem to be freaking out. "Awesome. That would explain several things that have been bugging me."
She ignored my question and went on. "So you've got this axe, and you've used it to go back in time . . ."
"It's called the Franziska Magnus."
"Catchy," she remarked as she led me to sit with her on our patched and re-covered couch.
"And I'm worried that using it has somehow started breaking the flow of time in the world. People keep disappearing for weeks or days at a time."
"Like at that drag bar in the Village, you mean."
"Like that," I confirmed.
We developed a theory. My crime fighting and my mother's repeated casual uses of the Franziska Magnus had so stretched the fabric of space-time that it had started to snap back in the other direction, and random people around the world were paying the price. Jessica suggested that the solution was to go back in time and stop Ma from overusing the axe. I had some reservations.
"I can only go back in time one day at a time," I argued. "That would take a really long time. My mother got the axe when I was twelve."
"How do you know?" she asked innocently.
"How do you know you can't use it to go farther back in time than one day?" she clarified.
I repeated my grandfather's and mother's cautions about only spinning once with the axe. She was a biologist, but she was convinced of the saving grace of the empirical method. "We should do an experiment. You should spin around two or three times at once to see how far back in time that would take you."
I groaned. "You have no idea how boring it is just to relive one day."
She eventually convinced me to experiment. I told her that with any luck, we would never have this conversation again. I went up to "our" bedroom and grabbed the axe, and she followed me into the alley because she wanted to watch me disappear. I told her she wouldn't notice me disappearing, because in the new timeline, I wouldn't. I would have already done what I needed to. She insisted that she wanted to watch anyway.
I held the axe out and started spinning. After the first spin, I didn't notice Jessica in the alley anymore. I had gotten accustomed to that jarring effect after the first few times. During the second spin, the garbage cans seemed to shift slightly. I came to a stop somewhat dizzy at the end of the third spin, and I saw Jessica standing in the doorway to our apartment building holding a grease-stained pizza box. Her jaw was agape.
"I just saw you upstairs," she shouted. "How did you get down here so fast, and why are you holding that axe, Jeff?"
I re-explained about the Franziska Magnus and about the experiment she had suggested in the previous timeline. She confirmed that the date was four days earlier. I reminded her that I had only spun three times, and she posited that perhaps the spins were exponential, not additive. First spin goes back one day, second goes back two days, third spin had taken me back four days—always doubling the distance back through time. She pulled out a pen and started doing some algebra on the pizza box cover.
"To hit the time when you were twelve," she explained as she calculated, "you need to spin eleven times, and then take a break when you were seventeen before doing the final twelve spins in a row to go back the additional five-and-a-half years."
"Will I be the age I am now, or the age I was then?"
She grinned. "I don't know. I'm a biologist, not a theoretical physicist."
"See you in about eight years." I set the axe down against the alley wall, put the pizza box on top of one of the trash cans, and embraced and kissed her.
"Make sure you leave the toilet seat down more often on your next time through," she teased as she stepped back, once again vainly hoping to see me vanish.
I had to really concentrate to make sure I didn't miscount my spins. When I finished the eleventh spin, I didn't feel different, but I noticed the stubble I usually had on my face was gone, and I was wearing clothes I hadn't worn since high school. I was seventeen again, but I was in the same alley in New York City. I needed to get back to Minnesota before I became a twelve-year-old; it was going to be hard enough as a seventeen-year-old. I borrowed someone's phone to call my mother to pick me up. She chewed me out over the phone for skipping school and running across the country. All that stopped when she arrived two days later and saw me living on the street with the Franziska Magnus she thought she had left behind the freezer in the garage. I falsely copped to her suspicion that I had discovered and taken the battle axe without permission. She asked me leading questions on the entire ride back to Albert Lea, but I stuck to the story about skipping school and stealing the axe.
When we were only a few miles from the old house in Albert Lea where I grew up, I pestered Ma to stop and let me pee. She didn't want to stop so close to the end of our long journey, but she eventually relented. She decided she was going to use the restroom too while we were stopped. When she was out of sight, I dashed back to the car and grabbed the Franziska Magnus and spun around twelve more times right there in the Sunoco parking lot.
I was so disoriented during the spinning that I don't remember much beyond getting shorter. When I stopped I seemed to be about twelve, but with all the memories of my twenty-year-old self. I looked down at the axe in my twelve-year-old hands. I had come to convince my mother not to use it so much, and I realized that the axe probably didn't duplicate, or there would have been multiple copies cropping up over the centuries. I had the only one.
That solved one of my problems, but I had to smooth things over with my grandpa and make sure he didn't have a duplicate either. I wrapped the axe up in my jacket and hitched a ride into Austin where he was living alone for several years after my grandma died. My grandpa Gunnar was in his front yard tending his garden when the truck driver dropped me off at his house. He put down his trowel and approached me with a nod. I unwrapped the axe, and he frowned.
"I see you have the Franziska Magnus," Grandpa said. He stopped about two feet in front of where I was standing with the axe in hand. "I suppose if I go to the rack in my basement where I keep it, it won't be there any more."
"I didn't steal it!" I protested in my squeaky twelve-year-old voice. "Ma gave it to me when I was eighteen to retake my college entrance exam."
"I see," he said as put his hand to his chin. "But last I checked you were only eleven, and I haven't given it to your mother yet."
"You shouldn't give it to her," I blurted. "I mean, she ended up using it way too often, and it causes random people all over the world to be thrown forward in time."
He invited me to come inside with him so his neighbors wouldn't see me holding a battle axe in his front yard. When we were settled at his kitchen table with coffee for him and hot cocoa for me, he said, "I must have had a good reason to give it to your mother."
I retold the story about my father falling into the wood chipper at the saw mill where he worked. I asked if he would take the axe back and fix that one incident. He declined. "The Franziska Magnus can only have one owner at a time, and it can never be used again by a previous owner. You will have to save your father yourself."
I sighed. I wondered how the young boy I had become again was going to convince his father not to lean on a weak safety rail, but I realized I could keep going back in time until I got it right.
"How many times did you have to spin to go back so many years?" Grandpa asked. I wondered if he was upset because he had drilled it into my mother to only go back one day.
"Twenty-three," I said. I panicked for a second imagining thousands of people being thrown into the future. Then I calmed myself, rationalizing that I had effectively erased the couple dozen times I had used the axe in my teens and the almost daily use by my mother before that. By just taking the axe back in time, I had solved the big problem.
"You look like you just took on a pretty heavy burden," Grandpa commented as he patted me on the shoulder.
"It's more than just saving Pa, Grandpa. It's having to relive the next eight years always second guessing whether to do things the same way or try something different and risk making them worse."
"You're going to be the most mature kid in your class," Grandpa teased. "It's mostly going to be good for you, I suspect."
"Everything except going through puberty again," I added.
"There is that," Grandpa agreed.