Cover image for A shortcut in time
A shortcut in time
Dickinson, Charles, 1951-
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Forge, 2003.
Physical Description:
288 pages ; 25 cm
General Note:
"A Tom Doherty Associates book."
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X Adult Fiction Open Shelf
X Adult Fiction Open Shelf

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Charles Dickinson's novels and short stories have won widespread acclaim for their deft characterization, humanity, and humor. Newsday described him as "a writer thoroughly in command of his art," while the Chicago Tribune wrote "he can surprise us at almost every turn."Now Dickinson slips beyond the bounds of mundane realism to create a poignant fantasy that bears comparison to the work of Jack Finney and Jonathan Carroll.Euclid, Illinois, is a town of many shortcuts, between houses, through orchards, and across fields. Josh Winkler, a local artist and longtime resident, knows these irregular pathways well, but is thoroughly taken aback when a hasty dash down a familiar walk deposits him fifteen minutes in the past - literally. At first, Josh is more intrigued than alarmed by this accidental time travel. Then a lost young woman appears, claiming to be from 1908 . . . .As his life, his family, his town, and even history itself begin to unravel, Josh gradually realizes that his only salvation may lie in A Shortcut Time.Charles Dickinson has written a moving and unforgettable book about the way the past can affect the present as well as, sometimes, the other way around.

Author Notes

Charles Dickinson is the acclaimed author of such novels as Crows, Rumor Has It, The Widows' Adventures, and Waltz in Marathon . He lives in Arlington, Illinois.

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Perhaps the ageless allure of time travel stems from the desire to go back and "set things straight" or "get it right this time," itself born of stubborn resistance to the unstoppability of time. Yet modern science speaks of gateways in time that could conceivably allow really going back. Science can't, of course, predict the consequences of doing so. Quiet Euclid Heights, Illinois, is home to Josh, a painter; his doctor-wife Flo; and their daughter, Penny. Built with irregular pathways as shortcuts from one end of town to the other, Euclid Heights also provides a shortcut in time. A young woman suddenly appears, sodden despite the bright heat of the day, and claiming to be living in 1908. Josh might never have taken her seriously had he not accidentally "traveled" the same path a quarter-hour into the past. Can he help Constance return to her time and go back to reverse his brother's fate? In the manner of Jonathan Carroll, Dickinson conjures a notably mundane environment, then makes it extraordinary. --Whitney Scott

Publisher's Weekly Review

Author of such imaginative novels as Waltz in Marathon and Crows, Dickinson is a splendid writer who has yet to reach the audience he deserves. After a decade's hiatus, he edges close to sci-fi in this psychologically rich and engrossing novel about time travel. Reminiscent of Jack Finney's Time and Again, but with its own distinctive flair, the story begins with a subtle, clever twist on time-travel tropes. The hero, Josh Winkler, discovers he has the ability to move just 15 minutes backward in time. Unlike previous fictional chrononauts, he soon has his whole small town of Euclid, Ill., talking about his exploit, some believing, most not. Josh is a hopeful if unsuccessful artist. His wife, Flo, is a hard-working, family-supporting pediatrician, and their daughter, Penny, is a typical teenager. After Josh's unexpected temporal adventures, his life begin to unravel. He eventually manages to go back 80 years and encounters a mysterious 15-year-old girl, Constance Morceau, herself an unsuspecting traveler from 1908, whose plight is poignant. The narrative tension increases dramatically as her apparently hopeless situation becomes clearer. The reader shares Josh's highs and lows in a time-twisting game of blind man's buff over which he has little control. Dickinson's trick is intertwining stories, for Josh's own daughter is also transported back three generations, and he learns she will die in the influenza epidemic after WWI unless he can get her out. The conclusion to this intricate and sophisticated time paradox puzzle is unexpected yet logical. This is a low-key gem. (Jan.) Forecast: Dickinson has a chance to attract a larger readership with this new book. His previous novel, The Widow's Adventures, has been optioned by TriStar, with Angela Lansbury and Shirley MacLaine slated to star. (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Would you travel in time if you knew that your entire life might be altered? What if you could prevent a tragedy from happening to someone you love? Josh Winkler's settled life changes when he chooses a shortcut to town and ends up 15 minutes in the past. On the same path, he meets Constance, another bewildered time traveler from the year 1908. No one believes them, especially Josh's doctor wife, who orders neurological tests. To validate their experiences, Josh researches Constance's disappearance in the local library's newspaper archives and discovers that Constance's boyfriend, a suspect in her disappearance, was hanged by an angry mob; Constance needs to find her way back to 1908 to prevent his death. The suspense builds further when Josh's daughter disappears on the same path, and Josh finds her name listed in a 1918 newspaper. In a radical change of pace from his more realistic novels (The Widows' Adventures), Dickinson proposes fascinating questions about time, history, and sanity and illustrates how actions, even with the best of intentions, can have dire consequences. Reminiscent of Jack Finney's classic Time and Again, this fantastic page-turner is highly recommended for most public libraries.-Jennifer Baker, Seattle P.L. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



1964 This story began with a broken promise. It began in water over my head. It began with me, Josh Winkler, flying through the streets of the only town I had ever known, Euclid Heights, Illinois, six zero zero zero one. I was in a hurry because I didn't want to disappoint my kid brother. Again. I was old enough to know that you don't get a lifetime of second chances with people. Especially with people who don't really need you. And Kurt didn't need me. He'd jumped out of bed at dawn to complete an Eagle Scout project with his best friend, Vaughan Garner. They were teaching retarded children to swim and Kurt had asked me to steer the kids back if they wandered away from where he and Vaughan mimed the Australian crawl in the shallow end. I'd heard my brother get up that morning before his alarm clock went off, heard him wash, organize his clipboard, nudge me, whisper, "Josh, it's time," and hurry away in the dark. Next thing I knew, mom was shaking me, knocking the sleep out of me, the sun so high it shined on the floor of my basement bedroom. "You promised him, mister," she said. The Euclid Heights community pool was next to the American Legion baseball diamond and as I tore on my bike across the outfield grass I looked ahead through the chain-link fence for some sign of my brother, or Vaughan, or the retarded kids, some way to gauge how badly I'd let them down this time. But no one was in sight. Before I could worry or even think about this, Jack Ketch--Jock Itch to those of us who hated and feared him--came toward me on his bike from around back of the poolhouse, riding with his head down, pumping so furiously that a rooster tail of dew sprayed out behind him. He was a flat-topped bully, all blackheads and cruelty. He'd made more boys cry than Old Yeller . Jock Itch answered to no one. He had the law on his side. His father was Sheriff John "Jack" Ketch Jr., himself the son of a lawman of the same name. Imagination was not a Ketch family trait. Wielding power was. Itch's dad was half again his son's size and treated the town kids--his son included--with glancing disdain, like a lion that had just eaten. In that year, an election year, Sheriff Ketch was running unopposed for a third term. He gave his son the pick of the town's impounded bikes and that morning Itch was on a spaghetti-tired English racer, his mind--such as it was--evidently elsewhere. I was pretty sure he hadn't seen me. He was producing this weird squeak--like he needed oiling--and we were about to pass each other without incident when he swerved his confiscated bike in front of me. My front tire slid across his rear wheel. I went down head over handlebars. On my knees, my mouth full of grass clippings, I recognized the squeak he'd been making. It was "Wink. Wink. Wink." He turned up the volume as he circled me. " Wee-ink! Wee-ink! Wee-ink !" I righted my bike. "Is Winker all wet now, too?" He threw something--a small, blue stick--at my feet. I stepped on it without bothering to determine what it was. It snapped under my foot. I took a step toward him but we both knew it was nothing serious. No one really wanted a piece of Jock Itch. He was bigger and stronger than any two kids, and impervious to pain in that way the thickheaded and unreflective were. That morning his T-shirt was damp and wrinkled, like someone had recently grabbed a fistful of it and held on for a while, then thought better of the enterprise. "You're too late, Wink," Itch said, then he was on his bike and gone. Coming up on the poolhouse, I was struck again by how quiet it was. The retarded kids usually made a huge racket. They liked how their voices echoed off all that tile. At first I thought I was just so late that the lessons had finished and everyone had gone home. It was a Sunday and the pool didn't open until noon. Kurt and Vaughan had been entrusted with a key. On summer evenings, they ran the pool's concession stand. Both of them were slightly small for their age. Vaughan was student council president, tops in his class. He had a smile that he used with kids, a smile with a little of the devil in it, a smile that he kept separate from the smile he used strictly with adults. Kurt liked to build things from scratch and won bets with kids by multiplying four-digit numbers before someone else could figure the answer on paper. Inside the poolhouse, I saw a sign on the cashier's cage. No swimming. Pump broken . That explained why the retarded kids weren't there. But Kurt's bike was chained to a bench. Shower steam hissed in the boys' locker room. I stuck in my head. One shower was running. I tiptoed across the wet tiles and shut off the water. It just made the place seem emptier. "Kurt!" I yelled, startled by how scared I sounded. A towel trolley sat in the center of the locker room. It was about the size of a big, deep bathtub on caster wheels, with canvas sides and a hinged, wooden lid. It was half full, a small mountain of towels piled next to it on the floor. "Kurt!" I yelled again. "Vaughan!" Nothing. The surface of the pool water was absolutely still. The lane floats had been pulled out and lined up along the deck. I went and stood at the entrance to the girls' changing area. "Kurt!" I waited a few seconds, and then entered. Everything in the girls' locker room was the same as the boys' except that the tile floor was dry. "Kurt?" I said to establish my reason for being there. My mom didn't swim and Kurt and I had no sisters. Vaughan had a sister named Flo, short for Flora. She was my age, pretty enough, I guess, behind her glasses, but with a perpetual frown of concentration on her face. She was, like her brother, the top student in her class, but being number one didn't appear to give her any enjoyment. "Vaughan?" I said, in case she was there, searching for her brother, too, and wondering what I was doing in the girls' locker room. When I finally went back out by the pool, the day had altered fractionally. A cloud across the sun improved visibility into the water. Down in the deep end was a shape that registered immediately as horribly out of place. I hurried around the pool's edge, the blue-on-cream tiles spelling out 5 FT., then 8FT., then 12 FT. The cloud passed. A flash of sunlight off the water made me cover my eyes. I examined the shape at the bottom of the pool indirectly, half afraid to confront what was there. It was a towel trolley, right side up at the bottom of the pool's slopping floor. Its wooden lid was closed. A baseball-size bubble escaped from it and wobbled to the surface. Then I was diving down through the water, wishing I'd taken a bigger gulp of air. The water squeezed my head as I went deeper and I felt vital passageways in my brain begin to slam shut. With a final, exhausted kick I got close enough to grab the edge of the trolley's wooden lid. It was varnished and slippery, but I expected it to open easily. It didn't budge. I yanked harder. Nothing. Another bubble--shaken free--broke against my chin. Then I saw that the lid was locked, a ballpoint pen lodged in the latch. The pen was blue, with gold printing along the barrel. Removing it was easy enough. I tried to put it in my shorts pocket but it slipped out of my hand. When I grabbed for it I lost my grip on the trolley lid and bobbed to the surface. Someone--a girl--was running from the poolhouse. I didn't get a good look at her. I could only scream--"Ambulance!"--and kick back down. The water pressure on the trolley made it hard to lift the lid. A school of small bubbles fizzed past my face. The first thing I saw inside the trolley was a blue-white hand. As I lifted the lid higher I saw that the hand belonged to my brother. I reached out in a panic and grabbed a good chunk of Kurt's cheek and pinched. Hard. I knew he hated when I did that and I hoped the pain and outrage might travel down to whatever cold grain of life remained inside him and make him angry enough to return to me. He didn't respond. The imprint of my finger and thumb remained pressed into his skin like a dent in clay. He was folded into a fetal position. His eyes were half-open. I was pretty sure he was dead. A million times over the years that followed, I wished that he had been. I got my hands under his armpits, got my feet balanced precariously on the edge of the trolley, and lifted. He came free easily enough. He was a shrimp, light and cold. A strand of pearllike bubbles trailed out his nose as I carried him toward the surface. I felt a slushy thump in his chest as we ascended. The girl was kneeling at the pool's edge. She'd lost a high-heeled shoe. The tail of her blouse had come loose and there was a rip in the knee of her nylons. From far away, too far away to be of any immediate use, came a siren. The girl pushed her glasses higher on her nose, then grabbed the back of Kurt's trunks and dragged him out onto the deck, her eyes locked all the time on the trolley at the bottom of the pool. Then she put her hand on my face and pushed me back under. "Vaughan!" she screamed. Vaughan Garner hadn't moved. He reminded me of a kid sleeping in a bed he'd outgrown, his knees to his chest, his toes scratching against the trolley canvas. The only sign of something wrong was the nail of his left index finger jutting out perpendicular from its roots, torn almost off in his panic. I reached in and grabbed the back of his swim trunks. He came loose easily. He felt inert--empty--as I struggled with him to the surface. I delivered him into a flurry of activity. A firefighter went feetfirst over my head into the water, and then down, not knowing everyone was accounted for. Others worked on Kurt. The girl in one shoe stood off to the side. She chewed the tips of her fingers, but she didn't cry. I learned soon enough that this was Vaughan's sister, Flo Garner. She had come to the pool when her brother was late returning home. A spark of life was found almost immediately in Kurt and he was borne away. Vaughan was taken away, too, finally, but there was no hurry. * * * The police interviewed me just once, in our house at 1112 East Collier Street. "The latch was held shut with a ballpoint pen," I insisted. The cop held up the pen he was using to take notes. "Like this?" "It was blue." "You're sure?" "Yes." "Where is it then?" "I had it and dropped it. Did you check the bottom of the pool?" "We followed the drain all the way out to the street." "It had gold writing on it." "What did the writing say?" "I don't know." The incident was ruled an accident, the tragic consequence of two young men just goofing around. Nobody listened when I said that Kurt never goofed around. * * * Flo Garner stopped me in the hall on the first day of school. "How's your brother?" she asked. I shrugged. "Not great. My dad's already started complaining about the hospital bills." "Can I ask you something?" "Sure." "Did you bring Kurt up first because he was your brother?" "No. He was on top." She touched my arm. I thought she was going to thank me for at least trying. "I wish I could believe that," she said. * * * Mom was the only person Kurt recognized. He was an anxious, demanding new presence in the house. A curious, contemplative kid had been replaced by a young man who could not sit still for thirty seconds. He went into the hospital a boy. He came home needing a shave. He prowled the house inch by inch. Then he did it all over again. Mom grabbed me a week later. "Teach him his address," she said. "Why?" "I can't hold him. I can't keep him cooped up forever," she said, like she was revealing a shameful secret. "When I let him out I want him to know where his home is." It took a day of repetition, but Kurt learned his address. "One one one two East Collier Street, Euclid Heights, Illinois. Six zero zero zero one." His voice was flat, machinelike. The next day, he started walking. * * * Flo Garner came to our house on the first anniversary of her brother's death. "Want to revisit the scene?" she asked. I didn't, not really, but I also didn't want her to leave without me. As we crossed the baseball field, I remembered something from that hot Sunday morning that I had forgotten almost the moment it happened. I tried to find the exact spot where Jock Itch had knocked me off my bike. It was easy, once I had the moment in mind. I hadn't given much thought to the minutes immediately before I found the towel trolley at the bottom of the pool. Fifteen minutes, maybe, tops, between when Itch knocked me off my bike and when I hauled Kurt to the surface. It felt like the events happened in two different lifetimes. The details of one never added up to the consequences of the other. Rehashing the details wouldn't change anything. Then I told Flo to stop. "What?" she asked. It was a long shot. An entire baseball season had been played since that morning. The outfield grass had been mowed several times. I started where I fell, in right field. I began to search it inch by inch. Flo, still straddling her bike, came up behind me. "Do you think it's horrible of me to have derived some benefit from Vaughan's dying?" she asked. Without lifting my head, I mumbled, "No, I guess not." "Because--frankly--since Vaughan died my dad has really been a much better father to me," she said. I wasn't paying attention. "Yeah?" "Before--it was Vaughan, Vaughan, Vaughan. The golden son," she said. "He was the doctor-to-be. The star. But now--" Something sparkled in the grass. I knelt and retrieved a strip of gum foil folded carefully into an arrowhead. "Now I'm the star," she said. "By default." "Huh." "I've decided a star by default is still a star," Flo said. She didn't wait for me to answer. "I'm just as smart as Vaughan. Maybe smarter. But he was the boy ." She didn't say anything for a couple minutes. I walked back and forth over the grass. "Why aren't you in any of my classes?" she asked. "Because you're going to be a doctor," I said, "and about all I like to do is draw. Preferably in the margins of my homework." She didn't laugh. I expanded the area of my search. When I lifted my head to ease a crick in my neck she was a hundred feet away. "I do miss him," she called to me. "Don't think I'm a horrid person." I came back to her. "I don't," I said. She nodded. "Good." I followed her nod down from the point of her chin, down her body, down her long leg to the tip of her tennis shoe, which pointed precisely at what I was seeking. It was the barrel half of a ballpoint pen, half of the blue stick Itch had thrown at me. Printed on it in gold letters were the words REELECT SHERIFF JACK. HE'LL "KETCH" CROOKS! I didn't explain to Flo the significance of the pen. Nothing I said would bring her brother back. Kurt was gone for good, too. And--to be perfectly honest--I was afraid of Itch and his father. So I just put the pen barrel in my pocket and we continued on to the pool. When we got there she held my hand. Copyright (c) 2003 by Charles Dickinson Excerpted from A Shortcut in Time by Charles Dickinson All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.