[Author’s Note: For the 4th installment of my who/what/where/when/why series, I want to mix things up a bit. I was inspired to push my writing boundaries by my month of reading Ray Bradbury short stories during the January issue of Bel Esprit. Some of my favorite Bradbury stories straddle the line between science fiction and fantasy, but I truly fell in love with the stories that could pack so much meaning and heart into so few words. My challenge: could I use fiction to properly explore all of the themes and questions that are traditionally found in my non-fiction essays? Could I still answer the question when am I? I honestly don’t know if I was successful, but I do know that I had a hell of a lot of fun writing this short story.]
He folded the paper once, twice, then again until it formed a neat packet, which he placed into the chest pocket of his robe. A quick pat-pat secured it into place. It was a cheerfully bright morning, dulled only by the uninspiring crossword puzzle he had just completed (mostly) and the steady beep of the machines next to him.
"You finished it already? That must be a record!"
He smiled at the nurse as she shuffled across his room. She was kind, and she was the closest thing he had to a friend these days.
"You say that every time, Maryann." She laughed at his teasing. This was their ritual. He set his pencil down carefully on the tray in front of him, but even with all of his care, it began to roll, gaining momentum until it dropped unceremoniously onto the bed sheet. He left it there. After all, there was no point in returning it to the table. It would just roll off once again. It always does.
"Any visitors planned for today?" Maryann asked with genuine curiosity. There had been quite a few in the last week. She had initially thought that maybe they were family, but they never stayed more than a few minutes at a time.
A quick sigh escaped the old man's lips. "I guess we'll have to wait to see if anyone answers my call," he offered.
The woman paused as she contemplated the old man’s response. It was hard to tell these days how much of his behavior could be attributed to his naturally quirky style and how much was a result of the disease. Finding no answer in his eyes, she shook her head and exited the room.
Mere moments had passed when a commotion out in the hall startled the man.
“It’s time,” he whispered only to himself. He had been waiting all morning for precisely this moment. The first thing he saw of his new visitor was the toe of a boot. Brown. Leather, genuine by the looks of it. He had forgotten what could be accomplished with the skin of a once living animal. Next came four fingers curling around the door frame, and finally, a face. It was a pleasant face. Young, thirty-five, at least he hoped the age was right.
“Hello!” The old man shouted into the hallway. “You made it.” The younger man paused as he peeked into the room.
“I suppose I did. But where exactly would that be? I mean, I do recognize that I am in a medical facility of some sort, but I’m not entirely sure how I got here.” He took his first step into the room and explained, “I was minding my own business, drinking a nice coffee on my screened in porch on a perfectly pleasant Sunday morning, and suddenly, gone.” He snapped his fingers as he said the last word.
“You drink coffee!” The old man exclaimed. Interesting. “And the question you should be asking is less of a where and more of a when.”
“When? As in not the same when that I was in just a moment ago?”
The old man laughed as he answered, “Correct, although, I guess the where question is equally valid, especially given that you are also no longer on your porch sipping your coffee.” Another four steps into the room and the visitor had arrived at the foot of the bed.
“So out with it then, old man, when am I?” He was clearly irritated. But the room’s occupant was expecting that. After all, a trip like this can sure take a lot out of a person. He chose his next words carefully.
“The year is 2071. Do you know how old you'll be in ‘71?”
His retort was quick, “I'm guessing I’ll be about as old as you are. And given how much I'm beginning to dislike you, I'd have to say that in 2071, I'll be precisely as old as you are right now. I imagine that I’ll look quite a bit like you as well.” You catch on quick, the old man thought. He offered a gentle smile to his guest who opened his mouth to continue, "So, I figured it out then? Time travel?"
Hmph. “I forgot how cocky I was at that age," the old man muttered to himself. Addressing his counterpart, he spoke up, "Don't worry; you had a lot of help." The visitor paused, contemplating the direction of the conversation.
"By bringing me here, aren't you breaking the most fundamental rule of time travel: you should never interact with yourself from another timeline? Won't this mess everything up? A butterfly effect or some bullshit like that?" It was said as a challenge, but the old man knew it was spoken with genuine fear. This was all happening so fast, at least for the younger man.
"No... not seriously,” he countered. “Those warnings are all a bit overblown. We're surprisingly bad at changing timelines, even with advanced knowledge of the future. It seems we're doomed to repeat our failures. Probably in every timeline, if given the chance." The old man shrugged as he answered.
Before the conversation could continue, Maryann returned with a tray of brightly colored pills arranged neatly in paper cups. She wordlessly delivered the pills to the old man but she couldn’t stop the frown that pulled at her upper lip. How quickly the atmosphere in the room had shifted from a few short minutes ago. Her mouth gaped for a moment as if she were going to address the visitor, but the concerned look on his face changed her mind. For what wasn’t the first time this week, she made a hasty exit from the room.
As soon as Maryann had cleared the doorway, the younger man blurted out, “What’s wrong with you?” The resident cocked his head in confusion, so the guest continued, “We are, you know, in a hospital, so something must be ailing you. And I’ve already come all this way; I might as well learn something about the future.” The old man paused, considering his options. In the end the truth won out.
“Age itself. It’s the hardest thing for a mind to defeat.” While the words themselves sounded wise, nothing in that moment felt worth knowing. It was a demoralizing truth. It was an admission of something too painful to fully grasp. It caught both of the men off guard.
"So then,” the younger man paused, waiting for the rest of the question to dislodge itself from the back of his throat, “It's 2071 and we somehow figured out time travel but we still haven't found a cure for Alzheimer’s?"
“We figured out time travel in 2065; the memory problems had already begun at that point. There was no going back. In this timeline, I have accepted that I’m probably going to die of complications related to… my current state. You can't change what has already begun. It just doesn't work like that."
“But I don't want to go out that way. That’s horrible!” There was a tinge of panic in his voice.
“Don't worry, there’s no guarantee that you’ll have it too. Who knows, you could die in some grisly, freak accident while you’re driving to work tomorrow!”
“Tomorrow is Monday. I work from home on Mondays!”
“Well, that's promising.” The old man smiled at the absurdity of it all. “In any case, your timeline is different from mine. The world is different. You and I are different. In a few minutes, you'll go back and make some changes based on what you learned here and your timeline will go on as it was always meant to go on. And so will mine. And one day we will both die.”
The young man stood there at the foot of the bed staring down at his future self. “If it is going to happen, the dementia, is there anything I can do to stop it?”
The old man answered with sincerity, “I suppose you could devote your studies to finding a cure. You’re a smart man, and they were close when we got the diagnosis. You might be able to get there in time.”
“I would have to abandon time travel.”
“You would.” The apathetic response ignited something in the visitor. He was beginning to doubt whether any of this was worth it. All of the effort that he would surely end up devoting to time travel had to mean something more. There had to be a greater purpose.
“But how do I make a decision like that? It’s a bit unfair that you told me. Maybe I didn't want that knowledge.”
The old man scoffed. “You asked! And I'm certainly not going to lie to myself. That would be absurd. Besides, you'll make the right choice.” The young man wasn’t convinced, so his future self continued, “After all, every choice is the right choice once you make it.”
“That's not true.”
“It is. As a time traveler you should know that. Every choice, once made, becomes the right choice because it was the choice that was made.”
The younger man felt desperation sinking in as he countered, “But doesn’t time travel hinge on the idea that you can go back and make a different choice?”
“Sure, sure.” The old man was calm. “But then that choice becomes a whole new timeline. Choices aren't wrong. They just lead you down different paths. You can't change the past. You can only write a new story. You know this. Or at least, you will one day.” He glanced down at his hands, his eyes tracing the curve of the wrinkles on his palm. He picked at the specks of that morning's blueberry muffin stuck underneath his fingernails. This is it, he thought. This is where the end and the beginning converge.
They could both sense that the visitor’s time was running short. The younger man felt a sudden sense of urgency, as if time itself was about to disappear. “So then, if I’m going to follow in your steps, you had better tell me fast. What's the answer to time travel?” He stumbled slightly, feeling the weight of his question.
“Pick up sticks?”
“No, Pickup Sticks. The game.”
The younger man thought for a moment. "Huh, yeah, Pickup Sticks. That makes sense."
“I knew you would understand. In another timeline, I’m embarrassed to admit that our involvement in the discovery is going to be quite minimal. Not all versions of us could grasp the concept.”
“So, Pickup Sticks, then. Can you tell me more?”
“Of course. I’ll do my best with the time that we have left. Time travel gets too messy when you try to think of it as an infinite number of versions of ourselves running up and down one single timeline. It makes much more sense if you view it like a game of Pickup Sticks. Each stick is one possible timeline of a person’s life. The sticks are all made of the same material. The same substance. But they’re painted in different colors. Covered in different hues. They mix and mingle, crossing at unique spots on each one. It is at those moments of intersection that we found the portals. Pathways to a different time. The same thing, but again.” He paused for a moment to look at his window. The morning sun had shifted and was casting shadows through the leaves on the tree outside his room. He continued, “The timelines themselves cannot really be changed, at least not in any meaningful way. But like the game of Pickup Sticks, if you try too hard to move one stick, you run the risk of jostling all the others. Naturally, that can change where the portals are located, which makes travelling through timelines… complicated.”
The younger man was leaning forward in anticipation throughout the entire explanation. He nodded along as the old man spoke, and when he was done, he responded in earnest, “Honestly, it all sounds so simple when you put it that way. Obviously we’ll have to figure out how to identify the location of the portals, but I think I already have an idea about that. I do have one question though. If we can't change our timelines, why did you bring me here?”
“Honestly, I just wanted to remember, one last time, what it was like to be alive. Your life, your story, it will be your own, but I live on in you just as you live on in another time. I suppose it's quite beautiful, poetic even.” The old man started to reach his hand toward the end of the bed, paused, and then returned it to his lap.
“Even still, what if I didn't want to come? What if I didn’t want to know about the Alzheimer’s? You didn't leave me any choice.” He knew he sounded distressed, desperate almost, but he couldn’t control the shake in his voice.
“That’s true. I made that choice for you. But I am you. You are me. And don't be an idiot, people like us don't turn down opportunities for time travel. Never have, never will. It's in our blood. It's who we are.” The old man’s words weren’t unkind, but they still held a bit of an edge.
“I know. You're right. But you said it yourself, we're technically two different people…”
“That's fair. Don't worry, as with all great technological advancements, the ethics of it all will come much later. Another three decades from now, from what I’ve heard.”
“You've been to the future?”
“Oh no. I've never time traveled. Not this version of me, at least. Of course, the version of me that is you has now time traveled. Congratulations to us! As I mentioned, we just recently figured this whole thing out. But by that time, I was too old. There wasn't any time left for me to travel to. In a way, I wanted to give that to you. Assuming that time travel isn’t invented in your timeline until 2065 as well, you may not get the chance after that discovery to travel forward. But now you have! You’re technically an expert at this sort of thing.” It was clear that the young man was still missing a crucial piece of understanding, so the old man continued,”You see, we haven't figured out how to send people from one time to another; we’ve only figured out how to bring them from their timeline to ours. And we did manage to decide, quite early on in fact, that you can only bring yourself from another timeline, never someone else.”
“So if you’ve never been, how do you know about the future?”
“I met someone a few weeks ago, a young lady, that had been pulled into her future timeline. She was there when they developed the Council on the Ethics of Time Travel. It was quite fascinating really, from what she told me.” The younger man was intrigued, but he still had so many unanswered questions.
“So wait, didn’t you take this same trip when you were my age? Fifty years ago?
“Of course not. This didn't happen in my timeline.”
The visitor pinched the bridge of his nose. He also had the decency to look guilty. “Right. Right. Will I ever get the hang of this?”
“You will. Give it time.”
Clearly that answer was not the reassurance that he was looking for. In a rush of words, he countered, “But what if I don't? What if in my timeline, even after you’ve told me all of this, I still don't discover time travel?”
“Your team can figure it out without you. They’re a smart group of people, I should know.”
“That's unsettling. But what if they can't?”
The old man’s face softened as he offered the final word on the matter, “Then someone else will. Time has a way of happening, even if not always in the way that you remember it happening.”
When he considered everything that he had just learned, the young man began to grow frustrated once again. There were so many questions that he wouldn’t have the time to ask. How was he supposed to make the greatest discovery of the 21st century with so little information? He demanded as much with his next set of questions, “So then what’s the point of all of this? What’s the point in living? If our timelines are set and nothing can be changed?”
“I didn’t say that! Choices still have to be made! Life still has to happen!” The old man felt guilty for raising his voice, but this was important. It was essential that his younger self got this part right. “Just because we can travel through time that doesn’t mean that we have a crystal ball. We don’t know the outcome of everything. We don’t know every single detail of the timeline. You have to figure that out for yourself.”
“That’s the best you’ve got?”
The old man sighed. “Let me tell you a quick story: I met a woman who, like you, had once been pulled some 50 years into her future. And when she was there, she met a man who had once been pulled some 50 years into his future. And so on and so on. Generations of travelers, across dozens of solar systems, and by happenstance, a message was passed backwards. It was a message about the meaning of life.”
“Yes?” The young man leaned in close, ready to finally receive the answer that he was looking for.
“Five hundred and seventy-five years into the future... and we still have no fucking clue why we're here. We may never know the meaning of it all. Can you believe it!”
“What?” No, he couldn’t believe it.
“I know!” The old man could sense the disappointment, but he had a point to make. “So now you get to take that message back and tell everyone from your timeline the truth about the meaning of life. But don’t forget to change the time frame to ‘six hundred and twenty-five years’ now that we’ve added those extra fifty.” He knew that the young man was unsettled by his answer. He had been too the first time he heard it. How is it possible that, centuries into the future, we are still no closer to understanding why we are here. Yet now, at the end of his life, the old man was not nearly as bothered by the answer as he had once been.
The visitor looked at his future self with a deep sadness “So this is the end for you?”
“In a way, yes,” the old man replied. “But in other ways, no, this is just the beginning.”
The young man was now leaning against the foot of the bed. His hand hovered over the plastic footboard as if it were a safety net he was unwilling to use. The amount of information that he had received in the last few minutes made him unsteady on his feet.
“It’s time for you to go now. The window is closing.” The old man’s voice pulled him back to the scene in front of him. “It’s closing sooner than I expected, but I have no control over that. It’s time for you to return to your Sunday morning coffee on your front porch. Thank you for visiting. It was truly everything that I wanted it to be. I hope it was memorable for you as well.” He pulled out the paper from his robe pocket, unfolding it with intense care. His pencil was still sitting on the bed next to him where it had fallen earlier. “One final question. I was working on a crossword puzzle this morning and there’s a clue that I just can’t seem to decipher. I was hoping you could help.”
“Well, let’s hear it then,” the young man challenged.
“Seven letters. ‘Fruit-bearing bush’. Second letter is ‘u’. Last letter is ‘t’.”
“Kumquat,” he answered with a degree of confidence that made both men pause.
“Kumquat? Are you sure? Isn’t that more of a tree?”
“You don’t trust yourself?” He had a point. Surely if anyone knew the answer, it would be the person that could eventually discover time travel. The old man picked up his pencil and filled in the missing letters. He could see immediately that something wasn’t quite right, but the younger man didn’t need to know that. A simple nod indicated to them both that the puzzle was complete enough.
“If that’s all then, I think it is time for me to go. You’re right; I can feel the window closing. It’s hard to explain, but it’s there.” He turned to regard his future self, “Thank you. Sincerely. I can’t imagine anything else in my life will ever live up to this moment. I will never forget this.”
“Well, thank you for coming… even though you didn’t have a choice.” The younger man let out a deep laugh in response. Without pause, he turned and walked through the doorway out into the hallway.
The old man flipped over the sheet of paper containing his crossword puzzle and gently scratched a line through the final number, 2021. Maryann, entering his room, caught his movements out of the corner of her eye.
“Crossed off the last one then, did ya?” He smiled. He had indeed crossed off the last of the seven dates on his list, the final visitor in as many days.
“Hey Maryann, would you say that a kumquat is a bush or...?”
“It’s really more of a tree," she stated definitively. A moment passed between them before she continued, "I believe the word you’re looking for is ‘currant’.”
“Currant? Interesting.” He replaced the letters and smiled, folding the paper and tucking it back into the chest pocket on his robe.
"So, are there any versions of you out there that you don't particularly like?" Her question startled him.
"It took me some time, but I finally figured it out. It was the attitude. They were just like you. I heard the rumors when you first moved in… that you were that guy. You know, the guy that figured out time travel.” She whispered the last part while glancing into the hallway.
“It’s not a secret, Maryann,” he chuckled. “And anyway, it turns out that I might be a decent guy in every conceivable timeline."
"Just a decent guy? Don't sell yourself short there. You did, after all, discover something quite impressive. Surely that should count for something."
"Surely, it should. But you'd be surprised how little that matters to me these days." She paused her tidying to look at him fully. What she had mistaken for sadness now appeared as a look of contemplation.
"Well if you hadn't discovered time travel, you wouldn't have had all those visitors," she offered weakly.
"True. I did appreciate the visitors."
Sensing his willingness for transparency, Maryann pressed, "So did you figure it out then? The meaning of life?"
"I'm not sure what you mean." The old man sat there perplexed. The meaning of life?
"Isn't that what you were looking for?” She continued. “You brought all those versions of yourself to the future so you could tell them to live a good life? To not mess it up in the ways that you did? Wasn't that the meaning of it all? To fix your past mistakes. To give them a chance at a better life." He pondered her reasoning for a moment. The explanation sounded appealing, but it wasn’t true, at least not in the way that she intended it.
"Not at all, my dear Maryann. All of my visitors were doing quite fine on their own."
"So then why did you do it? What was the point?"
"I guess I needed to see that with my own eyes. I guess I wanted some reassurance that life, even my own, goes on after death.” The edges of his lips pulled into a grin. “Even when I die, and I'm afraid that I soon will, it’s nice to know that there are an infinite number of versions of me living out these amazing lives. I think that's sort of wonderful. I think maybe that’s enough."
She smiled back. “I think you might just be right, my friend.”