People assume- and frankly, they shouldn’t- that the people involved in an accident have the ability to remember all the details of the outcome. With that in mind, if someone comes to you asking about what happened during the past month, don’t come to me for answers. I used the time machine for the first time on the twenty-second of January, 2023. I’ll tell you, it’s hard—the instant after you realize you’ve just made the biggest mistake of your life, and it’s gonna take you another lifetime to set things right.
When I woke up after my first trip, I felt as if I had been slammed to the ground. My stomach had collapsed in on itself, momentarily closing off all access from throat to lungs. The loose lyrics of some rock song floated aimlessly around my head even after I took a second to mentally shoo them away. A bright lightbulb that was screwed into a rusty socket hung inches above my face. I thought I’d gone blind until I darted my eyes away from the light. I forced myself up onto my feet. The physical after-effects of such an experimental process as time travel were quite foreign to me at the time. After looking desperately around the messy room for something to stabilize my disoriented tottering and leaning, I caught my balance on a wooden bed frame. It finally occurred to me where I was; my own bedroom. I glanced at the calendar on the wall to my right: December 20th, 2022—roughly one month before I left. That was the first sign I was doing something right.
A heavy pair of footsteps stormed up a staircase beside my room. I knew that stomping all too well. Somehow, my stomach felt more empty than it had moments before. Sweat soaked my reddening hands as my legs swayed like trees in wind. Fight or flight, a voice said, bouncing around in my head. You know what’s about to happen. Stand your ground! “Get out of my head,” I muttered, louder than I would’ve preferred.
“Daniel!” A deep, moody voice shouted from the hallway. “Get out of my room!” The footsteps stopped abruptly in front of my closed door. I watched the space between the door and the floorboards in silence as the boy’s heels turned to face me. I held my breath as the doorknob slowly rotated. In time travel movies, they do their best to tell you the consequences of making the mistake of meeting your past self, but they do a horrible job in prepping you for such an encounter. However, in my case, this was the first step in my plan. All the same, it’s one thing to tell yourself that something will work out perfectly, and it’s a whole other thing to see it happen right before your eyes.
As the door slowly creaked open, I put on my best smile, as if posing for a picture. Is it weird that I wanted to make a good impression? This was the second time I would live through this moment, therefore I knew exactly what it was I had to do.
“Daniel, you idiot!” The voice repeated as the boy stepped carelessly through the door frame. “If I catch you in my room one more time, I’ll tell Dad. I shouldn’t have to tell you twice to stay out of my goddamn—”
The excess flesh on his face fell flaccid as his mouth fell open. “What the hell?” His voice was hoarse, almost empty. “What’s going on?”
For the first time in his life, our eyes, which just so happened to be the exact same ones, met. Meeting myself wasn’t why I took the time and effort to travel back to a day which I’d rather forget. Once was enough for me. I just needed to get rid of myself in order to do what I came here for in the first place.
“Listen,” I told him sternly, just hoping that he’d pay attention. “I’m not sure I’m capable of explaining why or how I’m here, although I think you already have a pretty good idea of the how part.” As he tried to figure out what was going on in a series of head tilts and random dumbfounded openings of his mouth, I started to walk slowly towards him. “Alright, if you want me to tell you why I’m here, you’re gonna have to hide in the closet.”
He kept his body still, except for a slight nod of his head.
I spent the next minute spilling out my motivations and details of my plan. He tried his best to convince me that I should allow him to help me achieve my goal (that, obviously, wouldn’t have been ideal). Fifteen minutes later, I found myself strolling confidently out of his room, the door closed behind me, hoping that it would take as long as possible for Dad to notice the sloppy head-shaped imprint of blood on the inside of the door, as well as his unconscious son with a broken left wrist (not that he did anything about it once he found me like that, anyway; I still have the scar on my forehead).
The next part of my plan was by far the easiest, but that’s not to say it wasn’t the least demoralizing. Todd Garrison was the reason I traveled here. I remember, about a year before I left, he and his gang ruined my life by turning most of my friends against me—all except Darrell and Scarlett. They stuck with me. I owed my life to Scarlett, especially. She fully accepted me when almost no one else did. If Todd hadn’t gotten in the way, we’d be much closer. Tomorrow, Todd will turn my reputation upside down, making me the most hated student in my fifty-three person class (he has a way with words). But that technically hasn’t happened yet. I thought I could screw up his life before he got a chance to do so to me. All it took was a text message to the right person.
I always had a tendency to leave my phone on the living room sofa whenever my little brother Daniel snuck into my room, and that’s exactly where I found it. I shook my head in disgust upon picking it up to find it sticky with sweat and some weird, brown, syrup-like substance (God knows what that stuff was). I managed to turn it on, greeted by an atrocious lock screen as well as a bunch of new text messages and one voicemail. I impulsively ignored the voicemail, assuming, as I always did, that it was just some spammer calling in regards to an “urgent social security issue” or some “new lineup of state-of-the-art toasters”. As I said, the text messages were the things that actually mattered.
I unlocked the phone with my fingerprint after scraping away the crap on its surface with my fingernail, then examined the message feed closely. A warm tear rolled down my cheek.
Todd (3): (2:20 PM) Where the hell were you today?!
(2:23 PM) You can’t keep skipping. She’s gonna notice. I’ll rat you out if I have to.
(2:25 PM) Can’t u answer your phone once in a while?! Jeez, what is it with you?
Scarlett (1): (4:14 PM) Heyy! I was looking forward to seeing u today 😦 where’d u go?
Darrell (2): (3:30 PM) Todd talked shit about u again. He told me not to tell u, but I thought you’d wanna know.
(5:26 PM) Any progress on your machine thing? I’m free right now if u want help.
It was like breaking into a locked archive of bad memories which I’d tried very hard to bury. With the phone in my hand, I knew exactly the message I wanted to send. I’d thought of it days ago. It took me seconds to type it out. After I pressed send, great emotional stress lifted satisfyingly from my mind. I glanced in the direction of my room upstairs, imagining myself still lying on the floor. It would be minutes until he’d re-awaken. You’re welcome, I thought.
I woke up back in the present with the same breathless sensation as I had when I traveled back to a month ago. Again, I thought I’d gone blind, but it turned out I was engulfed by the darkness of my bedroom closet. I stood up, pushing the door open quietly. I knew I was back because of the lack of dirty clothes on the floor and the disappearance of that “mysterious” bloodstain on my door. I heard footsteps climbing the stairs with light, simple steps. A lump in my throat formed even though I knew who it was. As the door opened, I smiled and walked happily forward. My brother, Daniel, stood in the doorway. He opened his mouth but didn’t get a chance to say anything before I wrapped my arms around his thin figure. I must have squeezed all the air out of him because when I let go, he backed away a few steps, almost losing his balance. I guess since he was so used to me being a dick to him, that hug really caught him off guard. “Daniel,” I started, but shut my mouth after one word. Now’s not the time to apologize, I thought. I had a feeling something was up with him by the way he stumbled back. It was only when I looked down at him, really observing his movements when I concluded something was wrong.
His hands, I noticed, were trembling. His eyes were wide, glazed with tears. His jaw was slightly agape. “I’m sorry,” I stuttered. “I didn’t mean to surprise you like that.”
His head shook from side to side. “You—” he stammered. “I mean—” He backed away, even more, stumbling down the stairs before he finished his thought.
The following day, I was greeted at school with a bony punch to the face and the pleasant line, “Jack, you son of a bitch!” I don’t know which traveled faster, the fist or the words. My head slammed against a nearby locker. Something cracked inside my nose and my jaw felt as if it had been slightly misplaced.
“Tell me what you told her,” Todd said as he recoiled his arm. He spoke just loud enough for me and the small group of his followers standing behind him to hear.
For a second, everything spun as my mind tried to refocus. “What are you on about?” I managed to spit out. My words were jumbled due to my injured jaw. My sleeve was pressed tightly against my nose in order to stop, or at least absorb, the blood gushing from both nostrils.
“Don’t fake ignorance, Jack,” Todd said, still no louder than a murmur.
As the bell rang, students flooded the hallway. “I gotta go to class,” I said, gently pushing Todd out of the way.
“Don’t touch me!” Todd shouted, shoving me back a few steps until my back crashed into the same locker which had just acted as a landing ground for my face. This time, everyone in the hallway quieted down and turned their bodies to face me and Todd. Some of them smiled, while the rest had a glimmer of fear in their eyes. I could tell by the shift in Todd’s own eyes that he didn’t like the sudden attention. He silently pointed finger at me, scowled, then walked slowly back toward his classroom. “I wanna see that text by the end of the day!” He yelled as he backed into a classroom.
As far as I knew, that incident in the hallway or anything even remotely like it had never happened to me, or anyone before. Todd had bullied me every day for almost a year, but not like this. His methods were always more manipulative than physical. The Todd Garrison I thought I knew was the teacher’s pet; the one who would always have the right answer only because he copied his work from someone else. He would never consider using violence, or even profanity to get his way. My text must have ticked him off. In my mind, that was an achievement.
My desk first thing in the morning was right behind Scarlett. After sending that text, I was honestly wondering if she’d still like me. To my relief, she turned around and smiled. She waved, and I waved back.
“Where have you been?” she whispered. “I missed you.”
She offered me a container of mints. I took two then popped them into my mouth.
I hesitated. If I told the truth, she’d hate me. If I lied, I’d hate myself. “I was busy,” I said. “I had to take a trip.”
She nodded. I wasn’t sure if she believed me. “We’ll catch up later, yeah?” I gave her a thumbs-up before she turned back around to face the teacher. I looked down at my palms, noticing they were sweaty and red.
My physics classroom was dirtier than I had ever noticed previously. Dust and cobwebs had gathered in the corners where the wall met the floor. Instead of a clear laminated banner of famous physicists hanging above the whiteboard at the front of the classroom, there was only a series of helpful formulas written sloppily on letter paper taped next to each other. I guess I had also never noticed Mr. Jones’ walrus-like mustache hanging messily from his face, picking up beads of sweat and mucus. His lecture was the same as it had always been: boring and unnecessary. I’ll spare you the details. The only element of the scene that really sparked my interest was the date which Mr. Jones wrote on the whiteboard. My eyes widened as I repeated the words in my head. December 23, 2022. I gasped as I stood up and backed out of the classroom, hoping that Mr. Jones would just assume that I was heading for the bathroom.
When I got across the hall, I took my phone out of my jeans pocket and composed a text message to Darrell:
(12:15 PM): Hey, meet me at the Bridgewood Cafe on Beverly and Chase St. after school.
Five minutes later, I got a text confirming the plan.
“I used the time machine,” I said matter-of-factly once we were both seated at a table in a dimly lit corner. Darrell nodded while stuffing his chubby cheeks with french fries. That was no news to him, he had helped me build it. “But I made a miscalculation,” I continued. “After I traveled back a month to December 20th and I sent the text to Scarlett, I meant to return to my time in January. I thought that that was what I did when arrived in my bedroom last night. But then I noticed today’s date in Mr. Jones’ class. Now I realize, I didn’t travel a month into the future. I only traveled ahead two days.”
“So now there’s two of you?” Darrell asked with a smile. “Isn’t that dangerous?”
“Not really. We’re both from our own separate timelines. My timeline can cross his as many times as I want. Despite having the same personality and body, we’re essentially two different people. All I need to do to prevent him from coming to school is sedate him, hide him in my closet, and turn off his morning alarm.”
Darrell gawked at me, trying to process my explanation. “So what happened?” He said in between chews, uninterested as to what I had just explained. He just wanted to know how the trip went. “I mean, did you get your revenge?”
“See, that’s the thing,” I said, snagging a fry from Darrell’s stash. “I thought I did. I was so sure I did the right thing when I sent that text. But since then, more and more elements of my life have become… different.”
“How different?” Darrell asked. He sounded almost skeptical.
I rested my forehead in my open hand. “It’s hard to say. I got beat up by Todd before class, and my brother acted all weird as if I’d done something to upset him that I don’t know about.”
Darrell’s eyes widened and chunks of chewed fries fell onto his plate. “Jack, you idiot,” he said softly. “How stupid are you? Part of time travel is foreseeing the consequences of your actions before you actually take them.” He paused, waiting for a reaction that I didn’t give. Instead, I motioned for him to continue. “You can’t play God, pretending everything will always work out in your favor. It’s unreasonable for you to think that talking trash about a classmate to his girlfriend isn’t gonna result in some backlash. In your case, that backlash is that Todd’s out to get you, man! I dunno what the hell that text message said, and I don’t think Todd does either, but he beat you up earlier because he knows that you were the reason why Scarlett left him.”
I must have stared across the table blankly at Darrell for something like five minutes. It made sense now, why Todd beat me up, why he was so violent. He loved Scarlett. I thought ripping her away from him would satisfy my need for revenge. Turns out, revenge would only make the issue worse. Hundreds of thoughts whizzed through my ecstatic mind, competing for my attention: You really screwed up, Jack. You had one job and you blew it! How are you gonna get out of this one? How is Scarlett going to accept you once you tell her the truth?
“Wow,” I finally decided to say. My voice was hoarse and faint, as it is after you realize you’ve made a mistake. It was as if I was constantly on the verge of another accident now, and doing so much as talking might trigger it. “Thanks, Darrell, for telling me this.” He nodded. “Are—are you okay? Did Todd hurt you?”
“Nah,” Darrell said. He had finished his fries during my prolonged silence. “He trusts me.”
I chuckled. “Well, if he knew you were with me right now, talking about him behind his back, he’d be slamming us both against lockers.” We both laughed.
The two-mile walk home from the Cafe was the only calm part of my wild day. As I walked alongside the decades-old decommissioned railroad track, the foreshadow of a frosty night nipped at my hatless ears as dozens of dead orange leaves swirled in the soft wind current around my legs before blowing over a rusty fence. The glimmering sphere that was a bright midday sun just a few hours before was now a rich orange dome ready to descend into the distant horizon. The way I thought of it, once the sun was set, the horrific events of today would come to a close. With the messy chronological mix-ups of time travel now a dominant force in my mind, having a live sunset to signify the time of day was a comfort.
My pensive mindset was abruptly interrupted by a rapid vibration against my right leg. Frustrated, I dug into my pants pocket, past my house keys, past my wallet, until my fingers reached my phone. I noticed as I brought the screen to my face, that it was a call from Daniel.
“What?” I snapped, phone against my ear as I crossed into my quiet neighborhood.
Daniel didn’t sound as flustered or afraid as he did when I saw him the previous day. “Dad wanted me to tell you that he found something in your room. Neither of us knows what it is, so he wants you to come home now.” In the background, I could hear my father yelling some vulgar phrases at Daniel before the call ended as abruptly as it had started.
Daniel had always known that I’d been trying to keep the secret of the time machine from my father since day one. I guess the reason he didn’t recognize it when he called me was just that the model from December 2022 in my garage didn’t really look anything like the one I used to travel for the first time in January 2023. Nevertheless, the time machine was still my way out if something went wrong (and I think it might already had judging by the events of today). I couldn’t risk my father breaking it, as he does with basically everything else in his life, so I picked up my walking pace.
“Hey!” I heard Todd shout from somewhere behind me. Since I was surrounded by an interwoven system of suburban streets now, he could’ve been coming from anywhere. I tried to ignore him. Another punch to the face was the last thing I needed. What I did need was to get home. However, this attempted ignorance lasted only about thirty seconds until I heard his dreaded voice again. “Jack!” He was much closer now—only a few feet away. “Don’t think I forgot about earlier! I’m not gonna hurt you again, but you still gotta show me that text!”
I turned around to face him. “What I did was wrong,” I shouted. “I get that. But you humiliated me in front of half our class. Because of that, I don’t think you deserve to see what I sent her. You need to really consider backing off while I get this situation under control. I really need to get home.”
As he walked closer towards the sidewalk that I was standing on, I noticed that his grungy white Nike sneakers were caked in mud, printing tracks on the cold concrete under him. He must have been running a long way to get here. I picked up a dead stick from the ground in case he tried to make a sudden move on me. “Hey! Hey! Chill!” He shouted, motioning for me to put down the stick. I still wasn’t totally sure whether or not he was on my good side. “Look, I’m sorry for what I did earlier. It was impulsive. I was really pissed, y’know? Just put that thing down and trust me.”
I shook my head slowly. This is how he always got his way: manipulation through deception.
“Tell me why I should.” I no longer cared about getting home soon. If he was going to explain himself, I wanted more than anything to listen.
He hesitated, now standing no more than two feet away from my face. We were both on the sidewalk now, and the sky was half dark. “All I want is to see that text. I don’t give a damn what you make of your life after that. Fighting you’s not gonna satisfy that want.”
“Then why the hell did you—”
“I beat you up because I was angry. For the past two days, she’s barely even said a word to me, and I had no idea why until I overheard her saying some sweet bullshit about you to one of her friends in between classes. Now, I have no idea who or what she sees me as, and that’s scary. I felt like I had lost control of the only good part of my life, and I guess I tried to regain that control by getting back at the source. My desire for easy revenge outweighed my desire for the truth. But now, I have my priorities sorted. I’m not trying to be an enemy. You shouldn’t see me as one.”
I stared at his eyes. Several teardrops were stuck in between his eyelashes. His cheeks were red. Not because of the cold weather or the running to get here. They were red because he was nervous. He had just taken a risk—releasing sensitive information to a guy he’d bullied for a year. I had all the power now. I bet if I ordered him to turn around and leave right now, he would. What he said was a valid plea, but did he really deserve to get what he wanted?
“I left my phone at home,” I lied. “That’s actually where I’m headed.”
“Y’know,” Todd started. “What I told you just now, Jack, I wouldn’t even consider telling anyone else.” I don’t know why I thought lying to him would be my best choice. “I honestly have no idea why you’re still trying to hide this little thing from me after I spilled out my insecurities. Show me the text, and I swear I won’t bother you again.”
That’s what I needed to hear. Without saying anything, I pulled the phone out of my pocket and pulled up the text from December 20th. “Here,” I said bluntly, handing Todd the phone. I watched his eyes carefully analyze each word. His face surprisingly maintained the same uneased expression. He spent roughly two minutes looking at the screen. He either decided to re-read the text over and over again in his head until he came to accept what it meant, or he was just a very slow reader. I assumed the former—that’s why I gave him all the time he needed.
He looked up when he was done. The small teardrops in his eyelashes had turned into something of a lens which coated both eyes, making them seem slightly larger than they were. His face was clearly overcome by pain, but there was a newfound shade of respect. He was angry, perhaps angrier than he had been at school, but this was a different kind of anger; not rage, just a mix of sadness and acceptance.
“I get it now,” he said softly, passing my phone back. The words obviously didn’t come out easily. He cleared his throat. “I didn’t know—I mean, I just assumed that it was some kind of phase. I didn’t know you thought of her like that.”
“Now you know,” I said. “All I ask is that you don’t tell Scarlett.”
“They’re your feelings, man,” Todd replied before turning and walking away.
I watched Todd for a little while as he strode, back hunched, presumably to his home. I felt at peace as I headed to my house, in a way that I hadn’t felt in a long time. A part of my mind that I had unknowingly buried for over a year was set free.
My father met me at the front door. The sky was dark now. “Where the hell were you this whole time?” He barked. “I thought I got Daniel to call you like thirty minutes ago.”
“I got sidetracked!” I shouted as I shoved passed his mass of a body that blocked the doorway. “What did you want me to see?”
My father motioned for me to come upstairs. When we got to my room, the time machine lay partly disassembled on the floor next to my bed. My past (now present) self still must have been lying unconscious in my closet. “What kind of goddamned bomb have you brought into my house?” I rushed to the machine, scurrying to put the missing pieces back where they belonged.
“It’s not a bomb,” I said quickly. “It’s a project that I’m working on for science class.”
“Oh.” My father took one last glance at the machine, then walked away, probably going downstairs to yell at Daniel some more. No matter how much he tried to control me, he knew I was smarter than him. This had been the case since middle school; whenever I said something even remotely related to anything educational, he’d simply leave me to my own devices.
As I put the last loose piece back on the machine’s main body, my phone, which rested next to the foot of my bed, buzzed with three texts. I unlocked it and read the messages:
Hey Jack! I just wanted to see if u wanted to hang out tomorrow or something.
I wanna see u more often. You’ve been really distant lately.
Just get back to me when u can. I know how busy ur life can get 😉
Before I got a chance to respond, a hand reached over me and picked up the phone. I looked over my shoulder to see present-Jack standing over me. “Is that her?”
“Yup,” I said.
“So did the plan work?”
He smiled. “So what now? Is there anything else you need to do?”
I stood up so his eye line matched mine. “Actually, I was wondering if you wanna take over
for me for the next month. I belong in January 2023. That’s where I came from, and I kinda want to return to my life there—see how everything goes. Think you can do that for me?”
“Yeah, no problem. Just fill me in—what did you write in that text Todd kept talking about?”
I took a deep breath, trying to remember what exactly I wrote. “I told Scarlett how much he hurt me over the past year, how much better my life would be if he wasn’t a part of it. I asked her if she really wanted a guy who took so much pleasure in making people’s lives suck, and that it was only a matter of time until he did to her all the stuff that he did to me. Lastly, I thanked her for accepting me for who I was and helping me get through the times when I needed help.”
Present-Jack stared frowning at me. “That’s just hypocrisy. Your manipulation of her was no less than what Todd did to turn all those people against us.”
“I get that.” I placed my hand on his shoulder. “That’s why you have to admit my wrongdoings to her. Whatever happens after that is up to you.”
“Gotcha,” he said. “You know you’ll have no memory of anything that I’m gonna do between now and January, right?”
“I’ll figure it out,” I said, holding the time machine in my arms. “I trust you.” My last glimpse of December 2022 was the wave of present-Jack’s hand.
Moments later, I found myself collapsed in the middle of my bedroom floor. Only one version of me was in the room, as far as I could tell. The bed had moved across the floor, and the digital clock on my bedside read 10:03 AM. Present-Jack must have been at school. But now I was present-Jack. My life was in my hands once again. A new calendar page was pinned to my wall. January 2023, the page read. Something—a small slip of paper which hung on the wall over my bed by a piece of tape—caught my eye. I stood up, jumped onto my mattress, then leaned in close. It was a printed out selfie of me, Darrell, Todd, and Scarlett. We looked happy, all four of us with smiling faces. A grin spread across my face. Finally, I thought as I exhaled a sigh of relief. I can relax.