Stuck In the Past

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Stuck In the Past
by Michael Donoghue

The first time I saw myself was at the grocery store checkout. I wasn’t sure right away. I mean, who expects to see themselves while buying a six-pack of Fanta and three store-baked macaroons? But there I was. Older, wider, with less hair, a matching six-pack of Fanta and three store-baked macaroons.

“Hey,” I said, my Birkenstocks making a slapping sound as I walked up behind myself. “This is awkward.”

The way his head whipped around I might as well have threatened to stab him.

“Oh, it’s you.” His shoulders seemed to slump in relief. His – my – face was tanned, saggy, and had lines around the eyes. The tan, for some reason, struck me the oddest thing about the whole situation. “I’m here to warn you,” he said to me, leaning in. “Don’t place the ad. You won’t get her back that way, and it ends in a disaster beyond what you can imagine.”

My face went hot. “Don’t tell me what to do.”

“Trust me – you – on this.”

“Yeah, well. I don’t know how to tell you this,” I said, putting my hands on my hips, “but we’re not the most reliable person.”

“You change.”

“I change? Beyond vain tanning?”

“It’s the fucking ozone,” he hissed at me in a low voice. “There’s none left.”

The oblivious cashier sighed and said, “Could you two take this outside?”

I shook my head and walked away from myself, leaving my dinner behind.

Back at home, I thought about it. I’ve always been a bit of an idiot. That’s why Emily left me. But if I could win her back – then my life would be complete again. She said I had no ambition. No drive. “What’s a person with a Master’s degree in physics doing working at a New Age bookstore? For eight years?” Emily was, is, everything to me. And now she’s running around with some bozo because he’s got money.

I proof-read my ad one more time:
> craigslist internet engineering jobs
I will pay you up to $320 million to build a stable wormhole

Hello.

If you build a stable wormhole and prove it by just transmitting light/energy though it for only a few seconds, I will pay you up to $320 million dollars.

All you have to do to prove you’ve been successful is send a message through the wormhole to me, in binary or any acceptable information code that I can understand, with the winning lottery numbers for the upcoming $640 million SuperPowerBall draw.

I will then split the winnings with you 50/50.

Your Winnings:
I can either put them aside in a high-interest compounding savings account to be claimed in the future (your present) OR I can award it to your past self (to you) now, or to a designated relative. (Would make a great grandfather gift!)

Please identify the winning numbers and payment preferences.

This offer is only available to the first successful transmission.

While gravitoelectromagnetic control devices with a quantum foam stabilizer may be as common in your time as apps for iPhones are in mine, I do not expect the current rules allowing time travel to predict the winning numbers to last. SO ACT NOW!

Look forward to hearing from you.

P.S.
If this ad is unacceptable to any temporal law enforcement agency, then I’ll be happy to not place it. Send the request to have me not post it before I do, and I won’t. It’s that straightforward.

Compensation: Please see the above “Your Winnings” section. Telecommuting is ok. This is a part-time job. This is a contract job. OK to highlight this job opening for persons with disabilities. Principals only. Recruiters, please don’t contact this job poster. Please, no phone calls about this job! Please do not contact job poster about other services, products or commercial interests. PostingID: dHdpdHRlci5jb20vbXBkb25vZ2h1ZQ==

Yep, looks like I’ve got all the bases covered. And this evening’s encounter shows it’ll work beyond anything I had expected. I clicked the “submit” button.
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The next time I saw me was at the lottery award ceremony. I looked at him and he stood in the media scrum, staring right back, shaking his head.

Gripping the oversized check, the blonde model closest to me asked, “Is that your dad?”

“Evil older twin,” I replied, smiling for the photographers. The world would see my success, and that meant Emily would. Now, finally, she’d return one of my phone calls, emails, texts, Facebook pokes, Skype calls or Instant Messages.
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I had the dealer put a giant bow on the electric crimson Mazda sports car, but Emily wouldn’t even come to the window to see it.

“It won’t work,” said my voice behind me.

I didn’t turn around. Who wants to see an older, uglier version of himself? “Hey, I know what I’m doing.”

“No, you don’t. I know what you’re doing. And it won’t work. You don’t even understand her. It’s not money per se.”

“Per se?” That made me turn. “Since when did I start using lang— What,” I said, pointing at the offending mark on his shirt, “is that?”

“Huh?” he crossed his arms, but that just pushed the designer logo up and out, rather than concealing it.

“When did I start paying money to advertise some company’s brand?” I stuffed both fists into my organic hemp trouser pockets.

“Since when did you start buying sports cars? You haven’t even got your driver’s license yet.”

“Oh, so I get one? I don’t think I like the person I’ll become.” I made a silent promise not to turn into him. I’d never wear those clothes, never get that fat, nor get that tanned.

“Hey,” he said, resting his flabby butt on the hood, causing the car to sink closer to the ground. “Let me give myself some useful advice. One, don’t make promises to yourself that you can’t keep. And, two, if you want to get her back, do something productive with the money.”

“Stop trying to tell me what to do. Here, if you’ve got a license, why don’t you have it.” And I pulled out the keys and threw them at him. “I’ve had enough of you,” I said, walking away from that asshole.

 

After that, I started seeing him everywhere. The farmer’s market, the barber’s, the coffee house. It was maddening. Whenever he’d come in and try to talk to me, I’d walk out. I’m sure if I hadn’t already quit my job he’d be turning up at the bookstore. I never saw him at the supermarket again, though. But that was probably down to the store discontinuing those magical macaroons only a few days after my win. Shame, I really missed them. Still, why wouldn’t he just let me live my life? Most disturbing of all, he hung around my apartment. So I bought a gated house to keep him at a distance. And Emily still wouldn’t return my calls. What was wrong with her?

 

The next time we actually spoke occurred on Halloween. I opened my door to carry out the normal transaction of being a stranger giving candy to small children I’d never met, but before me stood myself. A ghost. Complete with eyeholes cut out of a white sheet.

“Look,” he said, “I’ve got to talk to you.”

I moved to slam the door, but he’d already braced his foot against it.

“If you want her back, then prove to her that you’re worth it.”

“You just can’t help giving me advice, can you? You’ve got to prove that you’re older, wiser, better than me. Get out of my life!” I aimed a kick at his foot, but he shuffled his and it was mine that whacked into the reinforced doorframe. Pain screamed up from my toes.

“Look, I know what you’re going through. I know how much it hurts, like there’s a hole in your soul. You feel so broken right now. I remember that. But you’re going about it the wrong way. You’ve got to stop living in the past.”

Hopping, I balled my fists and said, “Oh, really? I’m living in the past? I am? Do you want to reconsider that statement?”

“I know how much you’re haunted by her. By the memory of her.”

“Let me get this straight: my future self who keeps turning up and, right now, is dressed as a ghost, is giving me tips on how to avoid feeling haunted?”

“I can’t believe I’m telling you this. You have no idea the damage it will do. But if you want her back, go enroll in a university. Get a PhD. Make something of your life. Be productive. Show her you have value.”

I channeled all my rage into my fist, lashing out and landing a blow, more by luck than skill, square on his chest. He tottered back, and before he could regain his wind or balance, I slammed the door shut.

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He was completely wrong. I knew he was. Still, without the need for a job, I struggled to fill the time. My PhD thesis ended up being “The Theoretical Creation of a Micro Black Hole in a Controlled Environment.”

I had some advantages other students didn’t, like hundreds of millions of dollars for personal research, the certainty that it could be done, and an annoying smug advisor who would turn up whenever I got stuck or started going down the wrong track. Like an unwanted relative at Christmas, he’d appear at my front door, or in the University lab, looking slightly older than ever and saying things like, “I really shouldn’t tell you this. You have no idea of the catastrophe it will bring. But creating a permanent wormhole is possible. You can do this. Think of how a radio transmitter turns virtual photons into real ones.”

“Well, by the same principle, I guess I’d have to artificially inject a massive amount of energy into the spacetime foam? Right?”

He sighed, and nodded. Like he was disappointed that I got the right answer.

I laughed. It felt good. I had an idea on why he needed me to be successful. It seems simple. Without my triumph, he wouldn’t exist. Kill my project, it would kill him.

“You’re messed up. You know that, right? You keep telling me I shouldn’t do this, but you can’t help correcting my mistakes.” I handed him a can of Fanta and offered a donut. We’d tried dozens of different macaroons, but could never replace those perfect grocery store ones.

“It’s, well, it’s complex.” He blushed. It was nice to see him embarrassed for once. Still, I guess he was turning into less of a jerk. Or maybe I was just becoming more used to him. I’d certainly become more focused with age. I’d even let him teach me to drive.
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Creating a black hole in a lab isn’t cheap. Before I won the lottery, money was so tight my power bill used to scare me. But now, with each experiment’s data point using 50 trillion watts – it terrified me. Then there were the fees for using the heavy-ion accelerator at Brookhaven National Laboratory, rental charges for the Sandia National Laboratories Z-pinch system. My funds dwindled fast.

Yet, I started fantasizing about building my own collider, imploder and differentiator. While most new PhDs went on to do post-doctoral research in someone else’s lab, I was too old and too rich to be a prof’s cheap lab labour. I had my own thoughts on what research I wanted to conduct, and enough money to form my own company.

“How much would it cost to actually create a real live micro-black hole?” I asked myself.

“Longer than a Planck unit of time? About $60 million, that’s pretty much all you’ve got left,” he answered.

“Well, I’d ask you if you’re thinking what I’m thinking, but I’m guessing you’ve already thought it.”

“Yep,” he answered.

“If I get the other $320 million… maybe I’d be able to build my own set-up.”

“Maybe, yep, maybe. But you shouldn’t do it.” He squirmed in his seat.

And that’s how I ended up answering my own ad.
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The micro-black hole only lasted 2.393 seconds, but that was all I needed to secure the other half of the lottery win. I couldn’t be more than a few years off from when I first met myself. But still no meeting with Emily. All my gifts came back from FedEx unopened. Even getting Coldplay back together to do a private concert for us didn’t work. The empty auditorium only had the band, plus me and myself. I guess over time some of the hurt and consuming feelings had faded. I even had a couple of fruitless relationships – but they always ended after a few months. My heart just wasn’t in any of them, and I never knew if they were really interested in me, or my money.

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I was trying to decide between the hefty black Rolex Submariner and the Breitling Navitimer with the soft leather strap when I felt the touch on my shoulder.

“Hey,” she said.

I turned.

It was one of those times when all other sound falls away, your vision blurs around everything but the person you’re looking at. You feel like you’re falling down a bottomless shaft, even though you’re standing still.

“Hey,” I croaked.

“Look, I’m sorry about… you know.”

“You didn’t do anything wrong,” I said. I didn’t mean it, but in my soul of souls, I knew it to be true.

We just stood there, looking at each other. In another world, a salesman said something to me, and I handed the watches to him.

She looked amazing. Still.

After an awkward amount of time, I offered, “So, I went back to school.”

“I heard, I’m really proud of you.” She smiled at me. She smiled!

“Hey, you know I won the lottery right? Is there something here I can get you?” As soon as the words came out, I wished I could travel back in time and take them back.

Her smile collapsed, she shook her head.

“Look, I’m proud of you. You’ve really made something of yourself. Of your life. When I heard about your win, I worried you’d fritter it on one of your obsessions.”

“What? You think I have an addictive personality?”

“No, I didn’t say that. But you are obsessive. The way you feel about me is just one example. Remember when we were together? How many stores did you go to to find the perfect hemp clothing? You must have eaten in over a hundred places to find your ideal macaroon. You and your kooky projects.” Her head tilted, but a hint of a smile broke through her frown. “It’s one of the things I like about you, but sometimes it’s just not healthy. I hope your latest thing isn’t watches. I’m impressed to hear you’re doing something with your life now, though.”

“Impressed enough for coffee? Or would I need to win the Nobel Prize?”

“If you do something worthy of a Nobel Prize, I’ll marry you.” There was that glint in her eyes I’d missed so much.

“Really?” I asked, a bit too quick, and my eyes flicked to the fingers of her left hand.

The awkwardness had returned.

The ring was impressive, although the white gold was scratched and had lost some of its sheen. The two bands of diamonds intertwined around each other in a figure-eight loop must have set her scumbag fiancée back a couple hundred grand.

She gave a deep exhale, and then slid the ring off her finger.

My heart started to race.

“We’ve been married for a few years now. I came in to drop it off for cleaning.”

It felt liked I’d been punched in the gut, but I vowed not to show it nor vomit while she stood in front of me. I tried to think of the most banal thing to say to hide how I felt. “That’s nice. What’s he like?”

“Actually, he’s a lot like you. But a bit different. More focused on important stuff.”

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Something worthy of a Nobel Prize. My new goal. A few others had been able to make micro black holes, but no one had built a stable one.

That would be my breakthrough. That would be my Nobel Prize.

Work took up every spare moment of my life now. My hairline receded as my waistline expanded.
But finally, success.

Unbelievable success. I called the emergency number my older self had at one time given me. “Come to the lab, I’ve got something to show you that you won’t believe. And bring some booze. Really expensive booze!”

We sat, slumped in my office, a half-empty bottle of 35 year-old Scotch between us.

He sighed and said, “Do you remember those macaroons we used to eat all the time?”

“Oh, man, they were the best thing ever.” I wagged my finger at him and grinned.

“They changed the recipe a week after we first met. That so sucked.”

“You’re clever to use time travel to get more. Why don’t you ever bring me some?”

He just shrugged and took another slug straight from the bottle, “Hey, don’t let me fall asleep, okay, I gotta not do something, make sure.”

“You’re drunk,” I said, reaching over and taking a slug before passing it back. “You’re making no sense. You know what does? Using time travel to get macaroons. You can’t kill Hitler, you don’t know what the unexpected consequences will be. So it’s safer doing little things you can benefit from, without risking history, right? Seeing Star Wars on opening night. Catching the Beatles and Coldplay before they were famous. I’ve made a list. Bet you’ve done a lot of it. But out of everything, I think those macaroons are on the top. I really miss them.” A thought crossed my mind. “Hey, gotta take a leak, I’ll be right back.”

He closed his eyes and rubbed the back of his neck, and then started to snore.

I headed straight to the lab, my need to relieve myself only a mild sensation. The key to science is reproducible results; where I had one stable black hole, I could create two. And if you could get two…. Well, if they circle each other it should create a spot between them that you can slingshot into and end up being where you were before you started the journey. Only, it’s a one-way trip, so I wasn’t going to throw away my future for some macaroons, but if I could just….

Even blurry drunk, I worked fast. I’d been doing these tests so often it was automatic. By the time my bladder was about to explode, I heard my voice behind me say, “What have you done?”

“Check this out.” I pointed to the screen. “Ta-da! Two self-sustaining black-holes circling each other.”

He dropped the whiskey bottle on the floor and clawed at his head with his fingernails. “What have you done?”

In the room, two miniature donuts that could have been made out of glass, the way they warped the light, were orbiting each other. However, while their centers were only a pinprick in size, they were noticeable by being so devoid of any colour. Pure dense black.

“I’m not going to do anything with them. It would be a one-way trip. Not like you, always coming and going, I know I have more work to do.”

Just then, part of the wall inside the lab disappeared and the building shook. The tremor and our whiskey legs sent us both tumbling to the floor.

As we pulled ourselves up, he pointed into the room. “See how your new one is growing in size?” One of the two mini-donuts had gotten bigger, the dense black hole only a pin-prick larger, but it was noticeable.

“What? That’s… oh. Oh. Oh.”

The lights above us flickered and then seemed to drain away. The power from the screens gave our faces an eerie glow. He pointed to the display showing the shrinking orbits. “What do you think happens to two black holes when they collide?”

“With no constraint…” I tried to focus through the haze of booze, shock and fear. I didn’t need to fill out the formula M=10^{27} r to know he was right. They were growing, orbiting each other, and if left unchecked would overlap in only a few minutes.

“That new one,” he said, “is going to become a super black hole that plunges to the centre of the earth and eats everything. You, her, Earth, the moon, Mars, the Sun. Got it?”

I wanted to hit him. “Why did you let me do this? Are you crazy?”

“I told you it would all end in disaster. I kept warning you.”

“Think! Think! What can we do?” I scanned the control panel in disbelief, but the growing black holes required no power now, feeding off each other. I needed another solution, “When did this all start? When I placed the ad. You’ve got to go back and stop me from placing the ad. You’ve got a way to time travel back and forth right? You can fix it.”

“I’m not going back and forth in time. I’m you, you get that, right?”

“What do you mean?”

He gave me a one armed sideways hug. “I’ve been stuck living in the past until now. I’m you. You’re the one who goes back, it’s a one way trip.”

“Why didn’t you stop me if you knew this was going to happen? Because if you did, it would mean you wouldn’t exist, right? I thought we’d grown up, but we’re still so selfish!”

“It’s not that,” he sighed. “I know how much you still long for something.”

“Macaroons? This is all about my macaroons? I can’t believe it. I’m about to destroy the planet over a macaroon craving. Wow, I’m still an asshole. Think. Think. Okay, the ad didn’t make this possible. You did. I never could have done this without your help. I got stuck so many times, I was ready to quit so often, and you’d always show up and given me the clues to continue. It was you. I’ve got to go back and stop myself.”

“How will you do that?”

“I won’t help myself, but what if I’m already there? Is time a loop? Okay, if I’m already there, this-age version of me, then I’ll kill the other me. My age me. In the grocery store, they sell knives there. I’ll do it before the younger version shows up. That first encounter will never happen, and then you won’t be around to mentor me. No mentoring, no black hole, no end of planet. Is this what we decided to do before? Is that it?”

“I don’t know.” He grabbed his head and shook it. “We’re both drunk and we had this conversation so long ago for me, it’s all fuzzy. I’m not sure. But if you go back and kill yourself, then… Oh, it’s making my brain hurt.”

“I can do this, we can do this. Quick, sit in this chair,” I pushed him into it as the building shook again and parts of the roof fell around us. We saw one of the holes spinning in a wider orbit and consuming a hulking lab power transformer. There was a sudden flash of explosion, but no sound or shock wave reached us. We only had a couple of minutes before they’d collide. “You know what to do, right? The calculations should put me bang on the first date when we meet, right?”

“I remember this part, there’s some error,” he said, his hands touching the control board.

“What? Error, how much?”

“About six months. You’ll be freezing and disoriented when you get there.”

“Great, one way trip into poverty and the past. What am I going to do for money? How will I survive?”

“Don’t be an idiot. For money just buy the first edition of Harry Potter, shares in Synthetic Genomics or Skylander figures for all I care.” He shrugged. “You’ll be okay. I’m the one about to get sucked into a black hole.” He pointed forward. “But take this,” and then he pressed an obsolete USB memory stick into my palm. “It’s got all the data and experiments to try to stop the holes from colliding. It’s what I’ve been working on since I met you.”

“So, you’ve got a plan? We’re going to be okay?”

“No. It’s not complete. Still needs a few more years of work. That’s one reason you need to go back. As for surviving, there’s a place you can go for help.”

I raised both palms up in surrender, I didn’t have time for guessing games.

“Go to her place. Tell her everything. She likes the new, well, older you.”

“Six months before you and I meet?” I balled my fists, “That’s when we broke up.”

“Yeah, and remember when you tried to give her the car? I wasn’t stalking you that time, I was just coming home.”

“But… but she got married!”

He reached down to the floor and held up the bottle, still unbroken, raising it like a winning trophy.

Pulling off the cork, he took a swig before saying, “Hey, the sweet spot is about to disappear, you better make a run for it. And I would have invited you to the wedding, but you were already there, in a way.”
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Michael Donoghue mostly lives in his head, but resides in Vancouver, Canada. His stories have appeared in anthologies, literary journals, sci-fi magazines and online. Michael works in healthcare, where he spends much of his time preoccupied with hand washing.

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