Backwards


When the time traveler spotted his younger self walking to school one morning, thirty-three years into the past, he remembered a gag business card his college friends had made for him at one of their reunions.  "Paradoxes are my business," it said.  He had lost the cards years (from now?) ago.  The night he received them, he went home and dug up a dictionary to see if "paradoxes" was the accepted plural, and not "paradices."

People reacted to the paradoxes in different ways, most of them bad.  Some acquired god complexes and tried to change history, which is where the police stepped in.  Usually, the insanity was more personal, like when one of the traveler's colleagues tried to relive the same day over and over until he was an old man building sandcastles with his soon-to-be-killed-in-a-car-accident brother.  After the cops dragged him away, people spoke of him in whispers, as if he could be watching them right now.

The traveler thought that he understood why people went nuts as he watched himself (the boy) at the age of twelve strolling to school alone, so thin and ignorant.  The traveler walked behind (himself) the boy, padding the sidewalk silently and keeping his distance.  He wanted to hear his old voice, to see if it had cracked yet.  But he knew that he probably wouldn't get the chance because he (the boy) had always walked alone, working out equations instead of daydreaming, and lined up silently with the other children when the bell rang.  It was on days like this that he (the boy) came up with the rudimentary principles that would make time travel possible years later (ago), thereby ruining everything for him(self).

All this thinking in parentheses was what made you batty, the traveler thought.

There was so much to say, and no way to say it.  After all, he had invented the equations proving that even the slightest change to the past would replace the present with a new timeline.  The traveler couldn't even say hello to (himself) the boy because he would then alter the future and cease to exist.

So, he couldn't tell him(self) to stop worrying about grades; they wouldn't matter much, and that ulcer wasn't helping anyone.  He couldn't tell him(self) to not hold a grudge against his father; he would regret it when the old man finally died, leaving in the will only the four-by-four plot of land where the family cat was buried.  He couldn't tell him(self) to not marry out of obligation, and to not come home early from work on that Christmas Eve to catch his wife with a better man.  He couldn't tell him(self) to stop searching for happiness in adventure, in the War, in travel, in science.  They were all things that should have killed him but only left him for dead.  If he relaxed more, enjoyed life, tried to be more like his supposedly-less motivated colleagues who used to tease him, he wouldn't be here now, hiding behind trees while his former self worked out algorithms in his head.

Maybe he could just hold up a sign.  Something simple, like "Carpe diem."  Or perhaps a blunter message, like "Don't" or "Stop."  Or "Change."  No, the boy wouldn't understand something so cryptic any better than he would a tedious conversation with an old man.  Perhaps the best thing to do would be to show (himself) the boy what he would look like in a few decades and hope (he) the kid was smart enough to recognize the face that he would earn.

But the traveler had more important things to consider, like what exactly would happen when he ceased to exist.  Would it hurt?  Probably not.  If anything, it would be a beautiful death, better than he could hope for otherwise.  A friend had once told him that humanity had it backwards—that we should start our lives as old men, proceed into the golden age of youth, be pampered as infants, and then finish as an orgasm.  That's what it would be like:  his atoms exploding as the space-time continuum realigned would be a cosmic orgasm.

It was a wonderful thought that got his legs moving.  Soon, he sprinted into the boy's view, and he (they) saw himself (themselves).  The moment their eyes met, the traveler gave a weak smile, and felt something like a breeze pass through him.  He was floating.  Everything went white.  It was like being born, spilling out of his mother, the world so bright and new, and the screaming of joy and agony deafened his ears.  Then everything went black, and his heart stopped making so much damn noise, and it was so peaceful.  There were no doubts, no memories, just quiet and blackness.


* * *

The boy heard a sound to his left.  He had been thinking of Einstein's Unified Field Theory—his teacher had called it "unsolvable" (a word he looked up.)  He was nowhere near solving it himself, but he didn't like the teacher's negativity.  It was as if she were jealous of the students, maybe because she feared that she would be dead by the time someone figured it out.

The sound could have been a laugh or a scream that seemed to drift away in the wind.  When he turned, he saw a man with gray temples wearing a blue pilot's jumpsuit.  The man was staring at him as if the boy were the culmination of a long search.

In one blink, the man was gone.  Swiveling his head, the boy couldn't find him anywhere.  For a moment, he felt a dreadful familiarity, a heavy weight that dropped into his stomach and made his thighs clench.  It was as if he had seen himself (the boy) through the man's (his) eyes.  But it went away as quickly as it came, and he dismissed it.  It was stupid.  He kept walking.  He was almost to school, and there was no time to waste on things that weren't real.  

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