Saturday, October 13, 2012
The following report was not easy to complete. The events depicted occurred more than a hundred years ago, before time travel became a part of everyday life. Given the unique nature of what happened, it would have been very easy for history to forget it entirely.
We have the unique benefit, however, of both our subjects writing about their experiences in a series of journal entries. These entries are really quite remarkable. Rather than subjecting you to a prolonged transcript of their thoughts, I will attempt to unify their common narrative into the single story it became.
Subject 1 we will call Jack. He is the younger of them. Subject 2 we will call John. He’s the older one.
Jack has been stressing out about his life. He is a uniquely modern individual, for he is doing this at a much earlier age than his predecessors. Where previous generations were remarked on their midlife crises, and more recent ones on quarterlife angst, Jack has been worried about the advancement of his goals for as long as he can remember. The more time passes, the more he finds evidence to believe that he will never amount to anything.
John is the opposite in almost every regard. He is very successful and fully confident in his abilities. He has lived a long time like this, and has forgotten it if he has ever had to worry in the manner that Jack does now. He looks at the struggles of youth the way any adult does, as a necessary element of life that must be experienced and endured, and not to be taken too seriously. In short, he no longer empathizes in the least bit with it. It is as foreign to him as an exotic dish, although John can say with some confidence that there are few things he has not eaten.
If there is one cause for concern in John’s life, it’s his latest project. He has approached it from several different angles, and has yet to find a means of entry. The project has him entirely stymied. He has on more than one occasion became upset over it. He has even considered giving up. There’s little to lose but a small piece of his pride. The problem is, pride is almost everything John knows at this point in his life. He values pride more than anything, because he has much to be proud of, and believes that pride in fact defines everything he’s achieved. He believes it even defines him.
Jack knows nothing of pride. He knows everything about ego, but nothing at all of pride. He is a desperate man, fully confident in his abilities, but an abject failure in everything he has ever attempted. It’s enough for him to believe that there has to have been some kind of conspiracy against him. How else to explain it? There’s plenty of ego in that conviction, but a certain amount of truth as well. Jack is a failure, but he is not an untalented one.
However, he is most definitely a failure. From an objective standpoint, it’s almost comical. In truth, if there’s been any sabotage in his life, it’s been from Jack himself. Self-fulfilling defeat defines much of what he’s experienced. He’s too caught up in himself to know what’s best. He knows a great many things, and is very good at what he does, but he doesn’t know how to execute it so that anyone else will notice. When they do, it’s as if he’s still a child in a classroom, precocious but easy to forget.
Such reactions no longer reassure him. He’ll admit with some coaxing that they used to, but that now they only sicken him. He knows this could go on for years. That may be why he jumped through the time portal without a single thought to the consequences.
Ah, the time portal. It was a bright light at the end of a sidewalk, inexplicable in every way. How did he even know what it was? He claims that he had a dream about it, and very likely he did. He was out walking one night, because walking was the one activity that never failed him, even if it sometimes sent him in rambling and pointless directions, though he was plenty used to that. It was dark and he was a little chilly, having decided to forgo a jacket, which is funny because he normally couldn’t be torn away from his favorite one, something he naively believed made him a character.
When he first saw the light, Jack secretly hoped it was a fire, a chance to catch a little warmth. Instead, he finds that it’s a time portal, which isn’t confirmed until he actually steps through it, which he does in moments. He only stops to make a note of it in his journal, on the other side. Jack’s journal is a notebook, kept on him at all times, along with a pen, which he jealously guards from coworkers who are constantly losing pens, as if that’s what gremlins take these days.
On the other side, he immediately notices that he isn’t in his own day anymore. There are subtle changes, the kind anyone would notice when separated by several decades from the time they know, enough to know that time has passed, but not enough so that times have absolutely changed. It’s recognizable, navigable, as much as he needs anyway.
His first thought is, where is the Jack in this present?
John has coincidentally gone for a walk, too, one of those walks people take to clear their heads, hope for inspiration, something mature people do, whether they’re old or not. Jack simply walks. John’s knees bug him at times, but not tonight. The moon is shining in the distance, full and orange, like a sticker in the sky. He’s wearing a sweater, because he never leaves home without one. He wears it while he’s at home, too, always trying to manage the temperature, and in that way having completely modified his perception of the conditions in any environment.
His head is still full of that project he’s trying to figure out. That’s why he doesn’t see Jack, although it might also be interpreted as the exact moment Jack emerges from the time portal, thereby making impossible for John to have anticipated the other man.
They collide in an awkward heap, all tangled arms and toes smashing into each other. John’s head hits first, and he has no idea what it strikes until he looks up. He’s surprised to see the young man, and offers an immediate apology.
“It’s my fault,” Jack honestly replies, although like everything else in his life there’s another interpretation he fails to register.
John stares into the stranger’s face for a moment, a glimmer of recognition registering somewhere in the bowels of his mind, but his glasses have been knocked askew, and even if they were on properly it’s doubtful that he would be able to see the young man with any real accuracy. He offers another apology and attempts to move along. Older people have little time for diversions, even though they have more unaccountable time than others, very much like the children they’re slowly becoming again.
Jack doesn’t let up so easily. Younger people have a lot of accountable time, but they’re constantly chipping away at it to make room for what they actually want to do, and since he’s out of his own time, Jack has more of it than usual, which means he’s feverishly looking for a way to fill it.
He asks John where he’s headed, mostly so that if it came up he wouldn’t have to answer it himself. He’s already looking for ways to use the situation to his advantage, because otherwise he’ll have to admit that he’s lost, and that’s something Jack has been stubbornly trying to avoid for years. As frustrated as he is, he still likes to believe his life has meaning. What other point is there to keep going?
John keeps walking for a moment and then stops abruptly. “I’m not sure,” he says, like a truly old man having forgotten. He’s not that old yet, but even he wonders if that’s the accurate interpretation of his statement. He raises his hand to his head, as if to physically remove cobwebs, then frowns and coughs. Finally, he tells the stranger now behind him that the truth is, he’s headed back home, because there’s no real point to the exercise at hand. It might as well be that, exercise. Go for a walk! He laughs without embarrassment. People his age do that more easily, almost as easily as very young children, and those young adults Jack used to know in college, when everything was a joke.
“Let me go back home with you,” Jack finds himself saying. He’s already asking John what he’s working on that’s got him so frazzled before he has a chance to think it. It’s a night for impulsive behavior. It all feels exactly right.
John thinks for a moment and decides the young man looks okay, so what’s the problem with humoring him? He raises his hand to his head again, seeming to remember something, something very important. Later, he will write a very extensive and very confused entry in his journal about it. His memory isn’t what it used to be, but he believes with an inordinately strong conviction that he ought to remember what occurred to him in that moment.
They walk together in silence and in perfect unison. Jack realizes it more quickly than John does, but neither makes a comment about it. In fact, the walk to John’s home is filled with silence for the duration. Jack keeps looking around, which starts to annoy John. It’s something Jack has done all his life, but he has more reason to do so now, and isn’t afraid to do it, even if he notices John staring at him. By the time they reach John’s door, they’ve finally exchanged names. Jack notes with a laugh that he has no weapons, and is miserable in a fight, which is only speculation because he’s never been in one. John does not seem reassured, but he motions for Jack to enter all the same.
With less hesitation than he might have imagined only hours earlier, John starts to tell Jack about his project, the one that sent him on that walk to begin with, and the young man seems to be intrigued. Jack goes so far as to say that he’s been thinking about very similar ideas, which at first John finds hard to believe, but the more Jack talks, the more John believes. Like everything else this evening, it’s inexplicable but natural at the same time.
Jack suggests he look directly at John’s notes, maybe get a better feeling for the nature of the project, and ways he might help improve it, get it done. To this John complies, and offers to make them some tea. John’s never drank tea in his life, but he has some in the house. He figures now’s the time if any. Absently he notices that the pot of coffee sitting on the counter has gone cold, though he doesn’t remember making it, which may explain what happened.
When he’s returned with two mugs filled with boiled water and a couple of packets for tea, Jack is sweating, like he’s had a feverish dream, or maybe expended more energy than he realized on John’s project. John makes a joke, and it’s Jack’s turn to omit laughter. They sit at John’s drawing table for a moment, letting the tea bags soak in their mugs, another awkward silence descending, when Jack gives a shout, which causes John to knock his mug of water all over himself.
Understandably, John becomes angry, a spell is broken, and he demands an explanation, whatever goodwill he once had toward the young man long gone, perhaps poured down the drain along with the stale coffee. He slaps Jack without hesitation.
Wounded in pride, of all things, Jack seems to have forgotten his epiphany. John takes a step back and asks in a quiet voice if Jack would like to stay the night, brushing everything away, an empty gesture that the young man readily accepts. Where else is he going to go?
Without any further words, John shows Jack to the spare room where he’ll sleep, and walks off. They both spend time writing in their journals, the hour getting later all the while. They’re both unable to sleep anyway.
Jack’s mind is as confused as John’s is. While John’s suddenly loses all concept of practical use, Jack’s fills up like it will never experience the like again. He’s still thinking about the project, about what had occurred to him just before the accident. He slips away back to the drawing board, careful to be silent, keeping all the lights out, counting on that giant orange moon, and sees that he was right. Jack doesn’t know, but John hears everything, and suddenly knows exactly what’s happening, or believes he does.
That’s where the journals fall silent, and only conjecture can fill in the rest of the story. We assume that John emerges behind Jack and becomes enraged once again. Jack must have found the device after completing his notes. With the improvements, he successfully opens the time portal that originally sent him to the future. John can’t know what he’s doing, when he strangles Jack. He can’t possibly appreciate it, but Jack can. He knows exactly what’s happening. Maybe a part of John’s mind finally awakens to the truth, but by now he’s become quite senseless to reality.
We don’t know why the journals survive. By all theories currently known, they should disappear along with both men. When one kills one’s past self, the whole life experience is erased from history. The time portal no longer exists. Jack no longer exists. John never existed at all. And yet the journals remain. Curiously, though the body should also remain behind, Jack does in fact disappear. Perhaps his body went back to his own time, and is currently buried beneath someone’s house. Perhaps his ghost haunted the owners into fabricating the journals. It’s as plausible as any explanation we’ve considered.
Time travel is dangerous. What happened is always going to happen. For Jack, for John, it’s an especially tragic fate, but it couldn’t happen any other way. Jack lost his future, perhaps realized in a glimmer of an instant that he would not have turned out to be the failure he believed he was. John lost his existence, inadvertently becoming the agent of his own undoing. Some sort of bizarre karma, a confirmation of shortcomings?
Well, we don’t like to judge. There’s enough hassle in our work as it is.