PAST IS PRESENT
“Unh! What are these things printed on, lead?”
Zatanna Zatara sat a box down by the empty bookshelf in her new Gotham apartment. For a moment she considered just resting on the couch and using her magic to stock the shelves but quickly decided that would be wasting her powers.
The books in question once belonged to her mother, and although she’d lugged them from place to place over time, she never actually read through all the tomes on magic, spells, and other supernatural fare.
Inside the box, she found a handmade booklet with a beat up black cover. The faded writing read, “Emergency Spells.”
Intrigued by the title, she began reading and transcribed several useful incantations into a notebook. But when she read the description of a spell titled Tempus Mobilis, her eyes widened and she dropped the pen. “Oh, my God! I’ve got to try this.”
“It’s Thursday, sir,” Alfred Pennyworth said.
“So?” Bruce Wayne was busily scribbling equations and crunching numbers in the Batcave.
“The inaugural ball for Mayor Hill is Saturday night, and you asked me to remind you on Thursday so you could decide which young lady will accompany Gotham’s most eligible bachelor to the event.”
Bruce grimaced and put down his pencil. “I totally forgot. I’ve been working on these layouts for the new supercomputer. I’m thinking about putting it against that wall over there. It’s pretty flat. What do you think?”
“As good a place as any, I suppose. Now, regarding your date for Saturday….”
“Um, how about Cassie Anderson?”
Alfred sighed. “She got engaged last month, if you recall.”
“Oh, yeah. Okay, Amber Nelson. She always had a good sense of humor.”
“Would that be the actress Amber Nelson, who came out of the closet not long ago? Really, sir, you do need to keep up more with the society news.”
Bruce bowed his head. “Just pick someone for me.”
“As you wish, sir. But I don’t want to hear any complaints afterward.”
Fifteen minutes later, Zatanna was trembling with a mixture of shock and exhilaration. She had to calm herself down in order to be certain that she did what she thought she did.
Picking up the black book, she reread the notes on the Tempus Mobilis spell. “‘The power of this spell cannot be overestimated. It should be used only in the most extreme of situations, if at all.’ No kidding, Mom. This thing could change your entire life.”
Then the idea hit her.
“No way. Absolutely not, unh-unh. Don’t even go there.”
But then she began to dismiss her dismissal. “C’mon, how long do you think you could keep it to yourself, really? And shouldn’t it be his call? You’re just conveying information. Wouldn’t you want to know if you were in his shoes?”
With a sigh, she reached for the phone.
The telephone line from upstairs rang in the Batcave.
“I’ll get that,” Alfred said. “Wayne Manor.”
“Alfred, it’s Zatanna. Is Bruce there?”
“Miss Zatara, what a pleasant surprise. Yes, he’s here—physically, at least. In fact, he wanted me to ask if you would accompany him to the Mayor’s inaugural ball on Saturday.”
His words took her aback. “Wow…uh, that was unexpected.”
“My apologies for the abruptness. You know how he can be rather last-minute about certain things.”
“Oh, yes. This invitation isn’t the prelude to something bigger, is it?”
“Not at all. He just needs a date, if I may be so blunt. I’m afraid his other pursuits have pretty much derailed his personal life of late.”
She chuckled. “I understand. Let me check…. Yeah, I’m free then.”
“He’ll be delighted with your company.”
“Could I talk to him for a minute?”
“Certainly. Master Bruce, your date for Saturday wishes to have a word with you.”
“You found someone already?”
“It’s Miss Zatara, sir.”
“Zatanna?” Bruce took the phone from Alfred. “Hi, Zee. How are you?”
“Doing fine. So Alfred’s now your dating service, too?” she teased.
“He keeps me looking good for the gossip rags. Hey, I appreciate you doing this. It helps to have a date who’s…sympathetic.”
“In case you have to make a hasty exit?”
“Exactly,” he said.
“The reason I called, oddly enough, was to see if you have some spare time this evening.”
“There’s always time for an old friend. What’s on your mind?”
“Let’s just say I made a discovery that might interest you,” she said.
“I’m already intrigued. How does seven-ish sound?”
“Great. I’ll see you then.”
Punctual even when she didn’t have a show, Zatanna arrived exactly at seven, and Bruce ushered her into the study. “Can I get you something to drink?”
“No, I’m good.” Sitting on the sofa, she took a deep breath. Although she had rehearsed what she wanted to say several times, her nerves still got the best of her.
He could tell something was troubling his friend. “Are you all right?”
Sighing, she said, “Yes and no. How long have we known each other?”
“Ten years, give or take.” He sat down and held her hand. “You’re trembling.”
“It’s just…whew! For someone who talks a lot, I’m having trouble finding the words. Bruce, you know how much I care about you. I want the best for you in life.”
“Are you in love with me again, Zee?”
She laughed, which broke her inner tension. “No, this is definitely not a romantic overture. We settled that way back when.”
He smiled. “Then there’s no need to be uncomfortable.”
“Okay. Let me start over.” Her expression turned somber. “As a friend, I care about you so much. And I hate to see what your pain does to you. Even while you were training under my father, I could tell something had hurt you deeply. I always wished I could make it go away. I still do. But now, maybe I can.”
“How do you mean?”
“What if I said that it’s possible to go back in time and prevent your parents’ murders?”
“You can’t be serious.”
“I would never joke about something like that. This afternoon, I was looking through one of my mother’s old books, and I came across a spell she said could make a person travel into the past. My first reaction was, ‘Yeah, right.’ So I tried it. Bruce, I went back twenty years. My apartment building didn’t even exist then. The site was a tenement slum. I appeared in some guy’s living room. The TV news was all about the Vietnam War. Fortunately, he didn’t see me before I reversed the spell and came home.”
Her story mesmerized him.
“How long have you been Batman?”
“A little over two years,” he replied.
“Imagine if you’d never lost your parents. All that pain gone. No reason to be the Dark Knight. Your whole life, redone. Wouldn’t that be wonderful?”
“It can be a reality. Please, think about it.”
After a long silence, he said, “I’m not sure, Zee. There’s a lot of ramifications.”
She held up her hand. “Don’t reject the idea right now. I know what a skeptic you are. Do not say no without giving it some serious thought for a couple of days. If for no other reason, do it because that’s my price for being your Saturday date.”
“What you’re suggesting…it would rewrite the history of this city. It isn’t just my life that would change. Hundreds, possibly thousands of others would, too. I don’t want to be responsible for starting that kind of chain reaction.”
“Bruce, I can’t speak for anyone else, but if I ended up playing backyard birthday parties instead of packed theaters, it would be worth it for you not to have to go through the pain day after day and drive yourself to be a one-man crimefighting machine night after night.”
“You can’t necessarily take away someone else’s pain, Zee. Sometimes you can only walk with them through it. Things happen for a reason.”
“Including me finding this spell?”
“Perhaps. It’s a very intriguing idea, and I will consider it. Mind if I share with Alfred?”
“Do whatever you need to. But ask yourself if you really want to be Batman for the rest of your life, because that’s what you’re getting locked into. Whatever the alternative holds, it has to be better than that.”
Alfred said, “Since you became Batman, I’ve learned not to be shocked by anything I hear. But this…I must admit to being at a loss for words. What do you think of the idea, Master Bruce?”
“It’s so astounding, it hasn’t completely sunk in. Would I love to have Mom and Dad back? Of course. What orphan wouldn’t? I’m just not sure about everything that goes along with it.”
“Such as?” the butler wondered.
“All the other lives that would radically change.”
“That could be a good thing, sir. Your parents were not the only victims of the crime culture which engulfed this city. Others might get their loved ones back, too. I should think that preventing an innocent person’s premature death can only be positive.”
“So you think I ought to do it?”
“That isn’t for me to say. I’m merely trying to balance out your negative inclinations. On something so important, you must look at both sides fairly before deciding.”
Bruce rubbed his hands together. “You assume that bringing my parents back is automatically good. There may be a cloud to the silver lining.”
“If there is, I’m quite sure you’ll find it.”
Friday, Bruce sat in the Batcave brooding over the pros and cons of Zatanna’s offer. Never had he faced a decision like it. He knew erasing his parents’ deaths would have a domino effect, but he also knew that the farther it went, the harder it would be to predict or control.
He thought about a man at Wayne Enterprises whose mother died of cancer when he was ten. Her death had spurred him to become a medical researcher who felt he was close to a cancer breakthrough.
“But what if Dad was alive to detect the cancer early enough that she survived? Lee would have no reason to search for a cure, and now you’ve just made the world wait even longer. Or suppose Batman hadn’t been at the chemical plant the night he inadvertently helped create the Joker….”
After torturing himself with such scenarios for several minutes, he groaned and slapped the table. “This is insane!”
He stood and began walking aimlessly, finally ending up by the Batmobile. Peering into the dark chasm beyond the turntable, he felt as though he was staring at his own soul.
“You weren’t responsible for what happened because of their deaths,” he reminded himself. “So you shouldn’t feel responsible for what might happen if they didn’t die.”
It all sounded so much simpler when he said it than when he mulled it over.
“There’s only one person to consider in making the decision—you.”
Startled, Bruce turned around. “Alfred, I didn’t hear you come up.”
“I’m not surprised. You seem very preoccupied.”
“If I may be so bold, Master Bruce, I believe you’re giving this matter too much of the wrong kind of thought. I know how significant it is, but you can’t live based on statistics and probabilities and the effect on the man in the moon. That’s the way you run a business, not a life.”
“It’s not just my life we’re talking about.”
“Granted,” the butler replied. “But it is your life that will be most affected by what you decide. Don’t complicate it needlessly. Just ask yourself what you want. That is the only question you must answer.”
“That certainly makes it simpler. But not easier.”
“Miss Zatara phoned earlier to see how you’re doing.”
“What’d you tell her?” Bruce asked.
“That you were overthinking, overanalyzing, and generally making yourself miserable.”
“Can’t hide anything from you, can I?”
“Not that you haven’t tried,” the butler dryly commented.
“It’s just… I feel like I’m playing God. And that makes me very uncomfortable. I wish she’d never found the damn spell.”
“Well, I’ve said all I have to say on the subject, so I shall leave you to your sulk,” Alfred said as he turned around.
Bruce churned it over for several more minutes. He idly kicked a pebble into the sheer abyss and watched it disappear. Then he forced himself to make a decision. “Before my life follows that rock.”
After telling Alfred of his choice, he phoned Zatanna.
“Bruce, I’ve been wondering about you all day. Alfred said you’re driving yourself crazy.”
“Something like that,” he said.
“I’m sorry. I was hoping my offer might cheer you up. I didn’t mean to make you go all Hamlet.”
“I’ve decided. I want to do it. Now. Tonight.”
“Uh, okay,” she said slowly. “That’s kinda short notice. I have a show in Blüdhaven at eight. The earliest I could be at your place is 10:30, if I’m lucky.”
She knocked on the door of Wayne Manor shortly after 10:15.
Bruce let her in. “Hey, you’re early.”
“I made good time in traffic. Hope you don’t mind.”
“Not at all. It’ll keep me from trying to talk myself out of it again.”
“You’re under no obligation .”
“I know. But I want to. I want to get back the life I had stolen from me.”
She smiled reassuringly. “Can’t argue with that.”
“Let’s go downstairs so I can suit up.”
“Certainly. If you want to stop a murder, you have to dress like it,” she said.
“Plus, it’ll allow me to leave Batman in the past by scaring off the criminal scum who created him.”
“A fitting final act for the Dark Knight.”
Ten minutes later, the Batmobile roared onto the streets of Gotham, carrying Batman and Zatanna to a rendezvous with the unpredictable muse of history.
Batman parked the car on a side street and deployed the shields. Keeping Zatanna close beside him to protect her, he marched down the blighted, graffiti-covered street known officially as Park Row.
Crumpled newspapers and trash blew by in the dim light as they passed one abandoned storefront after another. Stopping about ten yards from the decaying movie theater, they slipped into a short alleyway.
“Time?” Batman asked.
“Only five minutes. Go ahead.”
She pulled a notecard from her pocket and held it under the only working lamp in sight. “Here goes.”
“Ipsum lorem cosmos tempus. Fugit nomo anteronis. Batman noctum calabrendum. Gnostis illeandrus mortis vivre!”
The space around them turned cloudy, then pitch black, then cloudy again. When the haze dissipated, they stepped out of the alley.
Park Row was alive again. The storefronts looked clean and neat, with unbroken windows and bright paint.
“It’s just the way I remember it,” Batman said in amazement.
“Wow!” Zatanna gasped.
Quickly shaking off the sense of wonder, he again asked, “Time?”
A pounding anxiety rose in his stomach. One hundred and twenty seconds until everything would be set right.
Thomas and Martha Wayne emerged from the theater with their eight year-old son Bruce between them. As the boy finished the last of his popcorn, Thomas checked his watch. “Eleven before eleven. Way past your bedtime.”
Martha pulled her coat around her and smiled. “What did you think of Zorro, Bruce?”
“He was super cool!”
The family walked slowly down the street and soon drew the attention of a pair of young street criminals. “Well, looky there,” the first one said. “Betcha those folks are loaded.”
“Yeah,” the other replied. “Dig those pearls!” He took a drink from his whiskey flask, pocketed it, and checked his revolver. “Get up, you bum. Let’s go to work!”
“Here they come,” Batman said. It was heartwarming yet heartbreaking to see his parents again. Then he noticed a movement in the shadows up ahead and sprang into action. “Time to give this story a different ending.”
Just as the thug was about to jump out and confront the Waynes, he felt a hard tug on his collar and found himself being pulled deeper into the alley.
As Batman lifted him up and slammed him against the brick wall, he growled, “Believe it or not, you’re gonna thank me for this later.”
The terrified hoodlum stammered, “Wha—what the hell are you?”
“I’m your Fairy Godfather,” Batman hissed. “I just saved you from making the biggest mistake of your miserable life!”
“Don’t play stupid! You were going to kill that couple. And if you had, man would you have regretted it!”
“I wasn’t going to kill nobody, I swear. Just a simple robbery…no one gets hurt. Honest.”
A scream and the sound of two gunshots pierced the still night air.
“Nooo! Dammit, nooo!” Batman roared. Tossing the punk away, he sprinted toward the street.
Zatanna witnessed the horrifying scene from the sidewalk and covered her mouth in shock. This can’t be happening, she thought.
Footsteps of the fleeing gunman faded as Batman helplessly watched history repeat.
Young Bruce knelt between his dying parents and sobbed uncontrollably.
Unable to stand the sight any longer, Batman retreated into darkness, and the wail of approaching sirens grew louder.
Zatanna shook her head and wept numbly.
Batman came charging up and almost tackled her. “Get me out of here!”
Trying to control her emotions, she nodded and took out the words of the spell. “Cosmos tempus ipsum lorem. Fugit nomo futuratus. Gnostis illeandrus vivus!”
Within seconds, the same mystical cloud enveloped them and returned them to the present. When the fog lifted, Park Row was once more the infamous and bleak “Crime Alley.”
Neither of them spoke on the drive back home. It was the most awkward silence Zatanna had ever felt, and she wanted—literally—to disappear.
As soon as he got out of the Batmobile, Bruce threw his cowl down and cursed himself. Pain of the missed opportunity cut like a thousand blades. “Dammit! I should’ve remembered there were two of them!”
Trying to be supportive, Zatanna calmly said, “It wouldn’t have made any difference.”
“Of course it would! I went after the wrong one!”
“Did you really?” she asked. “Who did you grab and pull into the alley?”
“The scum I saw shoot my parents twenty years ago.”
“Hell, yes! I could never forget that face. What’s your point?”
She approached and put her arm around his shoulder. “If you were roughing up the shooter, then who killed them?”
“The other one. But….”
“That’s what I’m trying to tell you. Even if you’d remembered the killer had a partner, you could only be in one place. If we went back ten times, no matter which guy you grabbed, the other one would do it. Your parents’ deaths were…inevitable.”
Moaning, he collapsed into a chair. “Awww…no, no, no!”
“I’m truly sorry, Bruce.”
“How can it be?”
“There are things you don’t know. Things about fate and time, about the powers and limits of magic. Things I’m only beginning to understand. Mother’s notes on the spell were quite a disclaimer. In short, she said some things in the past are changeable, and some aren’t. Like, if the South had won the Civil War, this country would be very different today. But if Edison hadn’t invented the electric light, someone else would have. That invention was bound to happen.”
“So there’s no way at all to prevent their murders?”
She shook her head. “I didn’t know that was one of history’s ‘inevitables.’ I assumed it was possible to change your life. It wasn’t, and I’m sorry.”
He embraced her. “I’m the one who should apologize, Zee. It’s not fair to be mad at you. You just told me there was a door. I made the decision to walk through it.”
“So where do you go from here?”
He pointed to the bat on his chest. “I still have the opportunity to change other people’s lives in Gotham, even if I can’t change my own. Maybe that’s what I’m supposed to do, after all.”
She picked up his discarded cowl and handed it to him with a smile. “Then don’t let me keep you from your destiny. I can show myself out.”
Putting the cowl on, he turned back toward the Batmobile. “Thank you, Zee. You’ve been more help than you realize.”
“It’s said that we learn more from our failures than our successes,” she replied. “I still wish the outcome could’ve been better for you.”
“In the long run, it may be. That history hasn’t been written yet.”
“We still on for the Inaugural Ball tomorrow?”
“Wouldn’t miss it.” He gave her a salute as the canopy closed and the Batmobile’s engine came to life.