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Time Before Time

Image by TheDigitalArtist

 

By Lenny Levine

 

When it first happened at the Glenford Technologies employees’ Christmas party, Gus Wilson assumed it was because he was drunk. Well, not exactly shit-faced, falling-down drunk, at least not yet, but pleasantly buzzed enough to be flirting with the delectable Josie Baker from the sales division.

It had been his great fortune to be momentarily wedged into a corner with her as the caterers brought in several large hot plates.

“I really like your perfume—your perfume,” he said.

The odd thing was not the surprise repetition as much as the vague sense of a click before it happened.

“That’s nice,” she said as she looked away, apparently not noticing his stammer or not caring.

“What kind—kind is it?”

Again, that feeling of a click.

“I forget which one I put on today.” The final caterer went by them, so there was no longer an excuse to stand in the corner. She gracefully extricated herself.

“Will you excuse me? I see my friend Carol over there, and there’s something I need to ask her—to ask her about.” She moved away.

That click again. What was going on?

Well, whatever was going on, another drink would certainly be in order, wouldn’t it? Yes, indeedy.

After that he remembered nothing.

 

***

 

Opening his eyes was a torturous endeavor. His throat felt like molten lava, and his head felt like the volcano producing it. His wife, Doris, stood at the foot of the bed with her arms crossed.

“Must’ve been some blast last night, huh, Gus? Well, it’s high noon, honeybunch, so rise and shine!”

He groaned, which made his head feel worse.

“Need I remind you,” she continued, “that Emily is coming home today? In fact, she’ll be here in an hour, and you still haven’t cleared your crap out of her room.”

He’d forgotten about their daughter and that she was due home for the Christmas break. When she’d left for college three months earlier, it had been one of the best days of his life. He’d immediately appropriated her room, moving his computer and file cabinet in there along with various personal items, some relating to alcohol, others to porn. For the first time in eighteen years, he had a place in which he could get away from Doris’s relentless mouth.

He forced himself to get up, taking several attempts to do it, then staggered toward the bathroom as that mouth of hers kept moving.

“You should be thankful I didn’t just let you lie there like the rancid sack of shit that you are, but I’m doing this for Emily. I don’t want her to find whatever you’ve got hidden in her room and be traumatized for life.”

“Mmmf,” he muttered, closing the bathroom door behind him.

“You’ve got less than an hour!” she yelled through the door. “I have coffee downstairs, so make it quick!”

He gazed at his bloodshot eyes in the mirror, fumbled in the medicine cabinet for the Excedrin, shook out the last two in the bottle, and gulped them down.

As he swallowed, he felt the sensation of a click that he dimly remembered from the day before.

And then he gazed at his bloodshot eyes in the mirror, fumbled in the medicine cabinet for the Excedrin, shook out the last two in the bottle, and gulped them down.

He almost screamed.

What the hell was happening? He’d had hangovers before, worse ones than this. He’d had the occasional blackout; he’d even had moments of déjà vu, for God’s sake. But this was different, way different. This was inexplicable.

He somehow managed to brush his teeth and make his way downstairs to the kitchen, all the while, thinking, thinking.

It had to be the booze. What else could it be? Maybe this was the “rock bottom” that A.A. always talked about, the final straw. He vowed to himself that he’d never have another drink.

But he’d done that before, hadn’t he? Lots of times. And so, what?

He sat at the kitchen table, drinking cup after cup of coffee as his wife talked at him, her voice coming from far away.

There was no doubt. He was done with drinking. That click, whatever it was, and its aftermath shook him to his very core. If this wasn’t rock bottom, then he shuddered to think what was. It had to be all up from here, whatever it took. Or he’d lose his mind.

His headache, at least, was easing, probably from the Excedrin (had he, in his delusion, taken four of them?), and he remembered that he was supposed to be clearing his stuff from Emily’s room.

Doris was still talking at him as he pushed his chair back from the table, left the kitchen, and went upstairs.

The first thing, obviously, was to remove the file cabinet. He wasn’t concerned that she would find some of the things he had in there, because it was always locked and he had the only key.

The problem was how heavy the damn thing was. When he’d moved it into her room, he’d rented a dolly. Now, unfortunately, he’d have to move it out the old-fashioned way.

The clock by her bed said 12:42, so he had about fifteen minutes. Grunting, he laboriously moved the file cabinet across the room, one punishing foot at a time. He got it out to the hallway and stood, panting, for a moment.

Then he wrestled it down the hall toward their bedroom. He had to stop twice, the second time for a good few minutes, before he was finally able to get it inside.

He had just about caught his breath when he felt the click.

He was back in Emily’s room. So was the file cabinet. The clock by her bed said 12:42.

This time, he did scream. Or he thought he did, but no sound came out of him.

Instead, he began to move the file cabinet, unable to stop himself, his mind shrieking. He was forced to experience the same brutal ordeal, every excruciating moment of it.

Finally, he, once more, got the file cabinet into their bedroom. He stood there in terror, waiting for the next click.

Endless seconds went by, but nothing happened. He heard his wife’s voice from downstairs.

“Gus! Emily’s here!”

He couldn’t move. His body was rigid, expecting at any moment to be snapped back to Emily’s room, with the clock saying 12:42 and the file cabinet waiting.

This was not booze. This was something way beyond anything he’d ever experienced. Maybe this was Hell.

“Gus, did you hear me? Emily’s here. She needs help with her suitcase!”

He forced himself to speak. “I’ll be right down,” he said in a voice that sounded flat and robotic.

He willed himself to leave the bedroom, and then, with a plastic smile, he walked stiffly down the stairs. His wife and daughter were waiting at the bottom.

“Are you okay, Dad?” Emily asked as he approached.

“Sure, honey, I’m fine.” It was like he was on autopilot, while his mind whirled.

“You look so pale.”

“Don’t worry,” said Doris. “Your father must have been the star of the office party yesterday, judging by the way he’s paying for it today.”

He grinned feebly as his daughter gave him a kiss on the cheek. He returned it, then reached for her suitcase, which, of course, weighed a ton. It had wheels on the bottom, but they were useless on the stairs.

As he struggled, one step at a time, all he could think of was the click. When would it happen? When he got to the top? Would he find himself back at the bottom again, hauling the suitcase up the stairs?

If that happened…well, he didn’t think he could take it. He’d…

He’d do what? He remembered the helpless feeling as he battled with that file cabinet for the second time, experiencing all the pain and frustration of the first, knowing he’d already done it.

This wasn’t some dream or part of a hangover. This was real, God help him, even though it defied reality. As batshit crazy as it seemed, somehow, some way, he was being sent back in time. Little by little.

It had only happened for a few seconds at the office party. (It was funny how he remembered that, even though he’d forgotten everything else.) The Excedrin episode had lasted maybe thirty seconds, but the file cabinet ordeal; that took over fifteen minutes. The intervals were getting longer.

The next time he felt the click, and he knew in his soul that he would, how far back would it send him? And why was this happening?

He got the suitcase to the top of the stairs and then wheeled it into Emily’s room, with no click. His computer was on her desk. He knew he should move it but could only stare at it.

“Dad?”

Emily had come in behind him. He had to get it together.

“Hi, sweetheart, I was just about to get my computer out of your way. I seemed to have commandeered your room, but I promise I’ll have all my stuff out by tonight.”

“That’s okay, Dad, there’s no rush.” He could tell she was looking at him with concern. He had to stop thinking about the click and concentrate on getting through this.

“I know, but what the hey?” He tried for as much cheerfulness as he could fake. “I may as well get it off your desk while I’m right here. No time like the present.”

He unplugged the computer, realizing the irony of what he’d just said. Then he felt the click.

He was back in their bedroom again, standing next to the file cabinet, petrified and panting.

“Gus!” his wife called from downstairs. “Emily’s here!”

 

***

 

He didn’t panic. His mind did not shriek in protest as it did the last time. He was thinking clearly, and it was even starting to look like a plan. Why not change something? Even a small thing like kissing his daughter’s right cheek instead of her left. If he could do that, anything was possible, wasn’t it?

He found he was able to have these thoughts, even as he experienced himself standing there, feeling the same terror, dreading the click even as the observer part of him knew it wasn’t going to happen yet.

Maybe, he realized, he could change something right now. It would be easy. All he had to do was move toward the bedroom door before Doris called him for the second time. Just one step, even a flinch, would do it.

He couldn’t. Doris’s voice once again boomed out, “Gus, did you hear me? Emily’s here. She needs help with her suitcase!”

He tried to stop himself from saying, “I’ll be right down,” which should have been easy, since he’d forced himself to say it the first time, but he couldn’t do that either. Nor could he avoid walking down those stairs with the same plastic smile.

Forget about kissing his daughter on her other cheek or anything else. It was all the same, right up to the moment he said, “No time like the present,” and unplugged the computer.

He lifted it now and, zombie-like, carried it out into the hallway. A trace of memory was tickling the back of his mind. He was halfway down the hall when he stopped. 

It was being stuck in an elevator with someone, just before the Christmas party. Who the hell was it? For the zillionth time, he vowed to quit drinking.

“Dad, do you need me to help you?”

He realized he was standing in the middle of the hallway, clutching the computer.

“No, I’ve got it, honey.” He continued on into their bedroom. He had to think. He had to remember!

As he set the computer down on the dresser, he got a good whiff of himself. Man, did he reek! He hadn’t changed his clothes in two days, and he’d slept in them the night before. He was sure Emily had smelled him when he leaned over to kiss her, and he would have been mortified if he didn’t have scarier things to deal with. Anyway, he needed a shower.

And it would be a good opportunity. It would give him a chance to be alone, to try to recall what went on in that elevator.

He was aware that Emily had followed him into the bedroom and was watching him carefully.

“Honey, I’m gonna take a shower,” he said. “I know your mother’s probably making lunch, but it won’t take too long, and I’m sure we’ll all be better off.” He gave her an embarrassed grin.

She smiled too. “Sounds like a good idea, Dad. I’ll tell her.”

He went into the bathroom and cranked the shower pressure up to the max. He stood under it, alternating between hot and cold, trying to peer through his hangover fog.

He’d been taking the elevator down to the party, he knew that much, when it stalled.

It was only for a second or two; no need to panic, and he hadn’t. But there was something about the guy with him in the elevator. What was his name?

O’Connell? O’Donnell?

Whatever, he was the guy Gus had fired earlier in the day. Actually, he hadn’t fired him, Research and Development had fired him, but since Gus worked in Human Resources, he was the one who had to deliver the bad news.

It was not his favorite part of the job, by any means. The recipients of bad news tend to take it out on the messenger, and this guy was no exception, except a little worse.

O’Connell, or O’Donnell, was a large man in his fifties, with dark, piercing eyes that glared across the desk at Gus.

“Have you ever heard of Galileo?” he asked, making it sound vaguely threatening.

“Sure,” Gus said, trying to organize the guy’s termination forms and get this over with.

“Then you know he was the one who discovered that the earth revolves around the sun, not vice versa. And how did the great sages of his time take this news? What did they give him as a reward for such an astounding discovery? They ruined his life. They utterly destroyed him.” He glanced at Gus’s nameplate. “Well, Mr. Wilson, that’s who I am. Galileo.”

Gus finally got the papers organized and pushed them across the desk. “You’ll need to fill these out and drop them off with Payroll. I know it’s an inconvenience, but otherwise, your severance pay will be delayed.”

“Idiots!” The guy pounded the desk, making Gus flinch. “Worse than that. Pathetic excuses for idiots!” He pounded the desk again.

“I have discovered the true means of observing the space-time continuum. It’s the greatest scientific achievement in over four hundred years, maybe in history! But this so-called ‘tech’ company is being run by a bunch of idiots!”

“I hear you,” said Gus, “but what can you do? Look, I need you to…”

“I have discovered that the past still exists. Still exists! Not only that, but we can access it. Isn’t that remarkable?” His eyes gleamed. “And I can prove it!”

“Wow! And I’m sure that’s great, but…”

“Let me ask you something: If you could go back in time to when you were young, knowing what you know today, would you do it?”

He’d heard some version of this before. He always imagined the frat party where he’d been persuaded to take his first drink. Would he have gone back there and not taken it? In a flash. He’d also throw in not marrying Doris.

“Sure, I would,” he said, “absolutely.”

The guy snatched up the termination forms and rose from his seat.

“Then you, my friend, are as big an idiot as they are.” He strode to the door. 

“Remember my name,” he said as he closed it behind him.

O’Connell? O’Donnell? Or was that someone else?

Gus struggled to recall what happened next. It was slow, painstakingly slow, but the fog was lifting. He remembered that it was an hour later, including a couple of nips from the Jim Beam bottle in his drawer, that he got to the elevator and pushed the down button. 

The door opened, and there was O’Connell or O’Donnell with a folder in his hands, the only person in the car. Gus’s instinct was to not get on, but how awkward would that be? So, he got on the elevator, thinking it would only be a few minutes.

They descended in silence, their eyes straight ahead. As they were approaching Gus’s floor, the guy reached into his folder.

“I wonder if you’d take a look at this,” he said, pulling out a sheet of paper and showing it to Gus.

On it was one of those QR codes, a square pattern made up of squiggles that your phone can read and interpret. Gus blinked at it.

The elevator jolted to a halt. They were plunged into darkness.

But only for a moment. The lights came on again, and the elevator resumed its descent.

The sheet of paper with the QR code was gone. He must have put it back in his folder.

The doors opened.

“I think you’ve reached your floor,” said the guy. “In reality, if not symbolically. At least, not yet.”

A smile flickered across his face.

“Go on, enjoy your party. But there’s one thing you should know: The Universe did not start with a bang. It started with a click.”

 

***

 

Doris had made an elaborate lunch. Tuna salad, potato salad, bagels and lox, the works. She and Emily chatted away as Gus picked at his food. He hadn’t eaten since yesterday, so he should have been starving, but he had no appetite. How could he when he knew what was in store?

The clicks would continue, each one sending him back for longer and longer periods of time. Nothing would change. His life would become a nightmare train, barreling down an immovable track with him as a helpless passenger. And it would never end. It would just keep happening, again and again, time after excruciating time, until…

Until he finally killed himself.

No, goddamn it! There had to be a way out, there had to be!

He needed to find the guy, O’Connell or O’Donnell, or whoever he was. He’d only been fired the day before, so maybe he was still listed as an employee on the company’s website.

Gus stood up so suddenly his chair fell over. Doris and Emily paused in mid-word and gaped at him, but he was already moving toward the stairs.

In the bedroom, he plugged in the computer and then waited forever for it to boot up. He expected the click at any moment, sending him back for God knows how long before he’d get the chance to try this, but it was okay; there was no click.

He got to the company website and went to its Research and Development page. He scanned the list, and his heart sank. There was no O’Connell or O’Donnell.

But there was a Dr. Jacob MacDonnell. He tried his email address and was told it had been discontinued, which would figure, if he was the guy.

But with no email address, Gus had nothing. He could probably wheedle the guy’s personal contact information out of one of the secretaries at the office, but not until Monday, which was a thousand years from now. A sob came from his throat.

The icon for his own email box was blinking. Usually, it was crap, but he opened it now, almost automatically. There was one message waiting in his in-box. It was from Dr. Jacob MacDonnell.

Dear Mr. Wilson, it read, I’m afraid I owe you an apology for my behavior yesterday. I was quite upset, as you can imagine, and I took it out on you.

As you have no doubt experienced by now, the past is unchangeable. So, if you did manage to go back to when you were young, knowing what you know today, you wouldn’t be able to do a thing about it.

The powers that be at Glenford Technologies were very disappointed to learn that fact. It took away all of the project’s commercial value.

But they thought they saw a ray of light. Maybe people could still select moments of happiness from their past, then travel back and re-experience them. That would be very marketable indeed.

But unfortunately, as you have also seen, we can’t just jump back to a point in time and then, whenever we want to, return to the present. We have to experience all the time in between, just as we did originally.

They mulled it over, these geniuses, and then they asked me if, instead, I could devise some sort of travel into the future. I explained to them, as I would to a child, that the future does not yet exist, so there’s nothing to travel to. They were very disappointed to learn that as well.

And so, because I’d outlived my usefulness, they shit-canned me.

But you had nothing to do with that. What happened in the elevator was me acting on impulse, and, like everything else I’ve ever done on impulse, I regret it. So I will try to make amends.

I have added an attachment to this email. It’s another QR code. If you look at it, it will undo everything that was set up by the QR code in the elevator. Your life will go back to normal.

Again, I deeply apologize.

Yours sincerely,

Dr. Jacob MacDonnell

(But you can call me Jake.)

 

***

 

His hands shook as he opened the attachment and looked at the code. He tried to focus on it but didn’t have to, because instantly there was a loud sucking sound (the inverse of a click?), which he felt rather than heard. Then everything, for a second, went white.

The room came back. The computer screen was blank, the QR code, gone.

Maybe that was a good thing, because who knows what would have happened if he’d seen it again? Dr. Jacob MacDonnell must have figured that into his calculations.

Did he feel any different? It was hard to tell, but he did know that he was ravenously hungry. Also, he could sure use a good, stiff…

He shut down that thought with a vengeance. “No! No!” he whispered furiously to himself. “No!”

He went downstairs to the dining room. His wife and daughter stopped their conversation and carefully watched him as he sat down at the table, heaped a healthy portion of tuna salad onto his plate, and slathered some cream cheese onto a bagel.

“Everything all right?” Doris asked.

“A lot better than it was,” he said, still in wonder that it was really over.

“Was it some sort of business thing?” Emily wanted to know.

“More like a life thing.” He looked from one face to the other, his eyes starting to mist up. But he wasn’t going to cry.

“I’ve made a decision. As soon as I’ve finished this delicious meal, I’m going to look up the nearest meeting and go straight to A.A.”

Doris softly exhaled. “Oh, that’s wonderful, honey. That’s just wonderful!”

Honey? Had she actually called him honey? When was the last time that happened? He’d have to think about it.

“And while I’m at that meeting, would the two of you do me a favor? Would you empty every drop of alcohol in this house into the toilet? Would you do that?”

Emily was gazing at him with undisguised awe.

“Dad, I just want you to know how brave I think you are.”

He really had to work this time to keep from crying.

“Yeah, well, we’ll see.”

He didn’t feel brave. Desperate was more like it. But if, as according to his new friend Jake, the future did not yet exist, then the future was the one thing he could do something about. Or try.

He went back to eating, slowing down to make it last, understanding what lay ahead of him after this meal. But at least, it would only happen once.

His wife and daughter went on with their conversation about this, that, and the other for a while. Then Emily turned to him.

“I was telling Mom about this movie I brought home that I’m doing a report on for my film studies course. Maybe we can all watch it tonight; it’s supposedly a classic: H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine. Are you familiar with it?”

He felt a chill run through him.

But then he nodded. He took a bite of bagel and cream cheese and nodded again, even smiled.

“Been there,” he said. “Done that.”

 

THE END

 

About the Author: Lenny Levine attended Brooklyn College, graduating in 1962 with a BA in Speech and Theater. Immediately thereafter, he forgot about all of that and became a folk singer, then a folk-rock singer and songwriter, and finally a studio singer and composer of many successful jingles, including McDonald’s, Lipton Tea, and Jeep. He composed songs and sung backup for Billy Joel, Neil Diamond, Peggy Lee, Diana Ross, Barry Manilow, the Pointer Sisters, Carly Simon, and others. In addition, Lenny performed for a number of years with the improvisational comedy group War Babies.

Be sure to check out Levine’s new Mystery novel Diehard Fan at Amazon or Barnes and Nobles.

 

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My name is Jack L. Bryson and I'm the editor of Teleport. I studied literature at University of Montana. I live in Mountain View Ca, and my email is coffeeant1@gmail.com

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