Today, I want to share a short story with you guys, one I’ve been holding onto for quite a while. Of all the short stories I’ve written over the past ten years, this is the one I’m most proud of, and it’s about time travel.
Time travel is one of my favorite topics, because it presents so many fascinating paradoxes and puzzles. For a science fiction writer, it’s less about “could it work?” and more about “how would it work?” Even within time travel, it’s easy to get caught in the abstract, and that doesn’t always make for compelling stories. This particular idea was so striking to me, because it tapped into a place of humanity and yearning, and it uses time travel to explore that question further than it could otherwise.
So, why hold onto it until now? I’ve written a great many short stories in the past ten years, and a lot of them will be seen by my eyes only, for one reason or another, but this one is special. It demands to be seen. After giving it some thought, I decided that it was time to share this story. I hope you enjoy it 🙂
Forward and Back
Hello, my dear friend. You don’t know me, at least not yet, but you are the closest friend I’ve ever had. Let me introduce myself; my name is Julie Thorne. It’s nice to meet you too. If you were watching me write this letter, you would think that I was a 65-year-old woman, and you would be half right. I certainly feel like an old woman, and when I look at myself, I realize that I am an old woman. It’s just that I don’t look nearly as old as I feel. If you are a young man or woman reading this, I bow to you. You have so much of your life left ahead of you, but then again, perhaps I do too.
I apologize, I’m not doing a good job of starting this. The truth is, it has gotten difficult to keep the story straight in my head, but I’ll do my best to tell it. The beginning is easy. I was 17 and bubbly, excited to finish high school and step into another adventure. My boyfriend Eric was the sweetest guy, always my chivalrous knight. Neither of us were particularly ambitious, but we were happy. With college approaching, neither of us knew where we were headed, but we both thought we’d figure out a way to be together somehow.
It was a Friday. The one day I can never forget. I had stopped at Freddy’s diner after school for a quick bite, waiting for Eric to meet me. The entire restaurant was designed to pattern a 50’s diner, and the owners went to great pains to echo every decoration, from the checkered floors to the leather upholstery. Even the waitresses wore those awkwardly bright uniforms.
It had been a long week. My best friend Jennifer and I had gotten into a fight over some trivial nonsense, and things had escalated because we were both too stubborn to admit we were wrong. Jennifer was a sweetheart, and I had known her since we were both little girls, so we knew each other a little too well by that age. I hadn’t seen Eric all week, and with everything going on, I really just needed one of his hugs.
The waitress came by and took my order, putting on the brightest smile she could muster. I commended her effort. As she walked back toward the kitchen, I heard a crunch as her foot stepped on something. She didn’t break stride, but I was oddly curious, so I looked over the table and noticed a small, silver key lying on the tile floor. Stepping around the table, I picked up the key and twirled it in my fingertips. One side was blank, but on the other was an inscription that read “temp”. I didn’t think much of the key, but it seemed like a quirky, little item, and I was into knick-knacks like that back then. I was about to ask if someone had lost a key, but no one else in the diner seemed to notice, so I stuffed the key in my pocket with a smile.
Not a moment later, Eric surprised me from behind with a “boo” and a tickle. He knew I hated that, but I was so happy to see him that I didn’t mind. I spun around and grabbed the hug I had so desperately needed. We sat down and I dove into my tale of the week, and Eric listened intently with that glistening smile he always had when we were together. I miss him so much.
Eric drove me home and gave me the warmest departing kiss. Back in my room, I plopped down on my bed, decompressing at last. I thought about going out, but I was pretty tired, and some Netflix binging with a warm cup of tea sounded better. Slipping into my pajamas, I remembered the key in my pocket. It seemed so plain, like a house key from the Home Depot, aside from the inscription. I wondered who had lost it and what it unlocked. Running my fingers slowly over the letters, I found myself mouthing them. “Temp”, I whispered involuntarily.
The moment the word escaped my lips, I felt lightheaded, and my vision became cloudy with specks of purple. Something was very wrong. Inside, I was frightened, but my body wasn’t responding to me anymore. I tried to reach for my phone, but before I could, I felt flat on my bed, completely unconscious.
Gradually, I came to. My eyes parted, and I looked down groggily at the key in my hand. Something was off, but I couldn’t place it. Suddenly, I heard a “boo” at my back and two hands tickling my sides. I was so disoriented that I jumped forward in alarm.
“What’s wrong?” Eric asked, alarmed and concerned. As I peered around, it hit me: I was back in the diner. The waitress was detailing my order to the chef. A middle-aged man with a hunch sat in the corner booth, slurping his soup. We Are The Champions was playing from the jukebox. My table was clean, because my food had not arrived yet.
“Are you alright?” Eric asked softly. I must have looked insane, staring wildly from side to side, wide-eyed and antsy. It took a few more seconds for me to calm myself. I grabbed Eric in a tight hug, this time for an entirely different reason.
“I’m okay. Just a little spooked,” I told him, forcing a smile and trying to laugh it off. I didn’t know how to explain what had happened, so I didn’t try. Eric sat me down with my hands in his. He picked up on my discontent, but he didn’t press me.
“How was your week?” I told him about everything that had transpired with Jennifer, and we ate our dinner, but it was different. I was on edge. The conversation went in another direction. On the drive home, I stared out the window, preoccupied. At my house, I rather coldly told him goodbye and rushed up to my front door. It didn’t seem possible that what I had experienced was real. No, I must have had a dream or a premonition or something, except that it felt real. I had to know.
Back in my room, I set the key on my desk and turned the lamp on to get a closer look. Again, a blank front side with the word “temp” inscribed on the back. I noticed a few harsh scratches along the edge, but nothing that gave any clue to its origin. It was just another house key. I scooted my desk chair back and stood up with the key in my hand. It must have been a dream, right? Somehow I knew it wasn’t that simple, and it seemed foolish, but I was afraid. Part of me wanted to toss the key in a drawer and forget about it, but I also knew that I’d never be able to forget. Looking down at the key, I slowly uttered the word “temp” once again. The same dizzy, lightheaded sensation washed over me, and I passed out on my bed.
Waking up, I was back in the diner with the key in my hand. Eric yelled “boo” and squeezed my sides once again. It is a uniquely surreal experience reliving the exact same moment. Though everything around you may be precisely identical, you never see it quite the same way. Any surprise quickly fades. You start to notice the details you hadn’t before. A white Volkswagen passing up the street just after we sat down. A young boy in a booth, pouting as his parents tried to feed him.
I sat down with Eric for a third time and had yet another, completely different conversation. While I could not explain the situation, I did not doubt its authenticity. I was no longer afraid, but intrigued. I already knew the questions he was going to ask and the thoughts running through his mind. Midway through our meal, I clutched the key in my hand and whispered, “temp”.
“What?” Eric asked, a puzzled expression washing over his face just as my vision faded to black and I was reset once again to the moment I picked up the key. Waking up, I smiled. It was like a game where I could save and reload anytime I wanted. I started playing out different scenarios at the diner, seeing what kind of reactions I could elicit from Eric. Poor guy, he was my unwilling guinea pig. I’d play up a sullen mood to see if he really cared or act super surprised about something that I knew he had already told me a million times. Occasionally, I’d try and get him to admit that he was cheating on me. God, I was so insecure with myself then.
When I grew bored with Eric, I started toying with the diner. I found that if I scooted my chair back, the loud squeak alerted the man in the corner, and he raised his head. If I went to the restroom, the waitress took longer to bring my food. For a time, there was nothing more exciting to me than seeing what I could change in that little world. I felt like a god, and the diner was like play doh in my hands. Between the uncertainty of college and my relationship with Eric, all I wanted was something I could control. My mind ran wild with ideas, and I saw no reason to restrain them. I couldn’t say how long I spent playing in that diner, but I’m embarrassed to think that it might have been months, though perhaps no “real” time at all. I retained all the memories from every reset as if they were separate realities coexisting within my mind.
Eventually, I grew tired with the diner. It was so limited. Rather than resetting myself every few minutes, I started spending an hour at a time, then a day. This yielded even more fascinating results. Good lord, I sound like a twisted scientist saying it like that, don’t I? But it’s true. I’d spend my Saturday heading as far away from home as possible before resetting myself and exploring the other direction. Everything, even the minutest observation, became a noteworthy puzzle piece in my mind. I wish I could say that I had altruistic motives at heart, but truthfully, I just liked seeing my changes at work. Then one day came the wake up call.
I was driving to the store with my mom, staring out the window, when I heard screeching tires. Whirling around, I barely caught a glimpse of the truck before it careened into us, sending our car flying upside down. When I woke up, I was upside down, with the blood rushing to my head. My mom was unconscious in the driver’s seat. A fire had started under the hood and was spreading. I felt a pounding in my head, and when I reached up at my forehead, I realized that I was bleeding, badly. Just as I struggled to free myself of the seatbelt, I noticed the lights from another car headed right for us. Quietly, I slipped my bruised hand into my pocket and grabbed the key, whispering the magic word. The car slammed into our side just as my consciousness slipped.
When I was reset back to the diner, I awoke with a shudder. Suddenly, it had all become more real. I was not immortal, and I had to be careful. Additionally, while my body was reset to its 17-year-old self each time, my mind was not. The combined time of all my reset timelines was adding up to full years now, and my memories were beginning to scramble together. I had trouble keeping my current reality separate from all the previous threads, and each morning I woke, it became harder and harder to make sense of it all. I was done playing scientist, and I knew that I couldn’t keep resetting myself every day or two. After some thought, I resolved never to reset myself again, but this was a difficult promise to keep. They key had become an addiction, always lingering in the back of my mind.
I managed to go four days into that life, the furthest I had ever traveled since finding the key. Those days were peaceful, not free, but content. I relaxed with my family on the weekend, trying my best to reacquaint myself with them as people and not test subjects. On Monday, I went to school for the first time in years, and I was alarmingly rusty. My classmates asked if something was wrong, but they had no clue how much I had experienced in that single weekend. On Wednesday morning, I was walking up the street, when I noticed my neighbor’s newspaper lying on his driveway. I wasn’t in the habit of reading the paper, and I’m not certain what drew my eye, but the headline read “Former CEO Dead” with a picture of the former executive below.
The picture seemed oddly familiar, but it took me a few moments to realize why. When it finally hit me, I stepped back in shock. The man in the picture was the middle-aged man from the corner booth at the diner, the one who always sat there, eating his soup in silence. I sped through the article. The man’s name was Richard Stevenson, and he had been the CEO of a fortune 500 manufacturing company that went under several months prior. He had left a note apologizing to all of his former employees before throwing himself out the window of his 30th floor loft downtown.
I was stunned. I had seen the man in that diner hundreds of times, and yet, until the moment I read that article, I had never thought to ask who he was or why he had eaten there. I stood in my neighbor’s driveway thinking back upon every expression I had seen on the man’s face, and it dawned on me just how dispirited he had seemed sitting in that corner. I knew I had to go back, even though I didn’t want to. I felt like it was my fault, or at least my responsibility, and I needed to save this man. I had found the key for a reason, right? It couldn’t be a coincidence. And yet, I had been doing so well. I reminded myself of all the days I had spent toying with the people in that diner, and my guilt won over. I pulled the key out of my pocket and reset myself once again.
My eyes parted, and Eric appeared from behind me. I greeted him mindlessly, muscle memory of a thousand identical experiences guiding me. After our meal, I walked over to the corner booth. Mr. Stevenson looked up at me. He had bags under his eyes. I knew from the newspaper that he still had millions of dollars despite his company’s collapse, but in that diner, on that day, he had chosen to wear a ratty jacket with holes and a black t-shirt.
“Is this seat taken?” I asked. He shook his head and returned to his soup. I sat down and clumsily asked him how he had been. I couldn’t tell him just how sad I knew he was, but I could express an interest and provide a listening ear if he wanted to share. After a few minutes of uncomfortable prodding, he opened up, and I could tell that no one had cared to listen to him for a very long time. Talking to Richard Stevenson in the diner that evening, I changed the course of his life. I felt accomplished, but more than that, I felt that I had repaid this man a debt he never knew I owed.
The following Wednesday, I passed by my neighbor’s house once again. I kneeled down to look at their newspaper hesitantly, hoping I had saved this man. Replacing the headline about Stevenson’s death was a story about a missing girl. I optimistically unfolded the paper and read on, but when I had finished the story, my heart sank. The missing girl was none other than my best friend Jennifer Gray. She had never made it home from volleyball practice the night before. I thought back on the silly argument we had gotten into before I found the key, and it all felt incredibly distant.
I was furious to the point of tears. I had gone back and saved a man, but somehow, because I talked to Mr. Stevenson that night in the diner, my best friend had gone missing. The connection made no sense to me. It wasn’t fair. I was too stubborn to accept the truth of the matter at that point, so I reset myself again, and again, and again, each time determined to save Mr. Stevenson and prevent Jennifer’s disappearance within the same reality. The only time I managed to achieve both, a young boy was shot instead. Where within the diner I had felt like a god, I was powerless to provide balance outside of it. I felt exhausted and disheartened. I can’t even remember now which reality I left things on when I stopped trying to save them.
Next came a phase of apathy that grew into acceptance. I reset myself to the diner with the intention of merely living my life straight through once again, and this time, nothing was going to pull me back. I must have been at least 30 years old inside of a 17 year old body then, and it was beginning to become torturous, reliving the same days over and over. All I wanted was to move forward with my life. Even if my body would never catch up with my mind, I figured the gap would no longer matter at some point.
I managed to go 11 years without touching the key. Looking back, I’m awfully proud of those years, to go from days to over a decade cold turkey like that. In those years, I went to college and eventually married Eric. He entered a career as an engineer and I worked as a journalist. We had two children, a boy named Tommy and a girl named Elizabeth. We were happy. Oh how I miss that.
One evening, I was washing the dishes and scolding Tommy when the phone rang. Eric was late coming home, so I expected it to be him telling me about a long day or a terrible traffic. I wiped my hands and answered the phone without bothering to check the caller, but I quickly realized it wasn’t Eric. On the other end of the line was a doctor at Southeastern General Hospital. Eric had been mugged and left for dead at the door of his car, and he was in the hospital, not expected to survive the night. I threw up on the spot.
Grabbing Tommy and Elizabeth, I told them to get their shoes on as fast as possible.
“What’s going on mom?” Elizabeth asked me.
I yelled from the master bedroom. “We have to go sweetheart, I’ll explain in the car. Please, just put your shoes on.” I slid a box out from the closet and took out the key. It was the first time I had thought of the key in years.
Standing in the hospital, my children cried their eyes out as they said goodbye to their father, his body hardly recognizable under the tubes and bandages. I was heartbroken and inconsolable. Tears streaming down my cheek, I twirled the key in my fingers as an idea popped into my head. I thought that maybe, just maybe, if I could go back, I could keep him alive. I knew that I would be resetting myself all the way to the diner 11 years ago, but I was emotional and irrational, and I couldn’t bear the thought of going through the rest of my life without him. I wasn’t ready to bear the pain I knew was coming, so my desperation won out. I told myself that I could do everything exactly the same as I had this time around and change the path a few days before his mugging to keep him alive. I was wrong.
11 years is an interesting amount of time. It is not a lifetime, but it can easily feel like one. In my despair, I underestimated just how torturous it would be to know what was coming for such a long period of time. I just wanted time to speed up so I could get back to my children’s smiling faces, but I was trapped years before their existence. Every day and every moment dragged on for an eternity.
To make matters worse, I wasn’t able to stay on my previous path. With so much knowledge of the future, all of my surprised reactions were faked. Even if I had been a better actor, I doubt my memory would have been up to the task of replicating every single action perfectly for 11 years. It was just too long, and the smallest changes make such a massive impact down the line. After two years, I was so far off course that I knew I couldn’t return to the future that had been my past. I wept for Tommy and Elizabeth, because I knew they would never again exist. The agony I had felt in the hospital room was nothing compared with my regret at going back.
Only three years into this reality, Eric broke up with me. I couldn’t blame him either. I had been a shell of a person. I hated myself for a time after that, knowing that I had created my own undoing, but then I asked myself whether I would have been happy after Eric’s death anyway. Those kinds of questions can easily lead to madness.
You already know what happened next. I went back again, determined to live my life free of any resets, but I was unable to break free. In one life I married a fisherman and moved to Malaysia. In another I became a high-powered stockbroker. A homeless old maid. A revolutionary. A computer programmer. An oncologist. I learned so many skills that I could have done anything. Each time, I thought that I would be able to let go and live free of the key, but I always committed some crucial error that I felt compelled to correct or I discovered something I thought I needed to fix. Without fail, there was always another reason to go back, even when I told myself there could never be another reason. The temptation in that ability was simply too great. The key became the ultimate addiction for me, and knowing that I could go back provided me with an everlasting source of misery.
I’ve had more children than I can remember. I don’t know if they exist, or if they once did, or if they never did. I don’t know much of anything anymore, but here is what I do know. My name is Julie Thorne, and my body is 65 years old. This is the furthest I have ever gone without resetting myself. My husband was named Mark Robinson, and he died of lung cancer two years ago. We had three kids, John, Maria, and Hope, who are all grown up and have carved lives for themselves out of this universe. I feel bad leaving them, but I know there is one more thing I have to do.
I’ve spent almost my entire life reliving my life. I’ve gone through anything you can possibly imagine, certainly more than I could imagine. I feel old. Going forward and back so many times has left me weary and drained. I don’t know if I have it in me to do this, but I have to try.
You see, after my husband died two years ago, I began to think about the key once again. It occurred to me that I have never discovered why that key was on the diner floor in the first place. Perhaps it’s not a question I am meant to answer, only question, and as I’ve grown older, that idea has sat better and better with me. I am no longer the oblivious 17-year-old I was then. The thought of experimenting with reality no longer seems appealing. After all, what is the point of having all the time in the world if you don’t have anyone to share it with?
In all my trips back to that moment, there is only one action I have neglected to take, and that is leaving the key where I found it on the diner floor. I know that if I do this, I will never be able to reset myself again, and I will be forced to live with any choice and every mistake I make. Considering everything I have done, that seems more like a blessing than a curse, to be finally able to live like a normal person free of this damned temptation. I only hope that I have not ruined myself, that I still have the spirit in me to live a life.
So, you may be wondering, why did I choose to write this at all? I have decided to reset myself one final time, and that probably means that this letter will cease to exist because I will no longer be here to have written it. However, I don’t claim to understand how time works, and should this letter somehow manage to survive after I have gone, I wanted someone to know who I was and that I lived. Because of the unique nature of my lives, I have never had a witness to my existence, and I’ve never been able to explain to someone exactly what I’ve gone through. I’ve never had a friend like you.
I’m holding this key in my wrinkled, arthritic fingers, knowing that when I say the word, I’ll be back at the diner where I spent so much of my life. And when I arrive, I’ll drop that key to the floor where I found it and spin around to surprise Eric just as he sneaks up on me. We’ll share burgers and laugh about teenage nonsense, because we’ll both be teenagers again. When we’re both done, Eric will hold the diner door open for me on the way out, and as I pass through the doorway, I’ll take one parting glance at the key before stepping out into the cool, spring air of that moment, feeling it for the last time, but enjoying it at last.