The time traveler arrives at the door with a broken time machine and a promise:
“If you let me stay, I’ll take you wherever you want.”
So you let him stay. You feed him a breakfast of toast, butter, and black coffee every morning. He likes to read the books on your shelf, the self-help and get-rich-quick ones you keep buying but never finish reading. He totes around a small bag, perpetually collecting samples: rocks, dead leaves, broken crayons, and bottle caps. Anything can be a treasure if you believe it is.
Sometimes, when it rains, he sits by the window and stares at the puddles forming on the driveway, the pools in the rose beds, fat droplets hanging from thorns and jagged leaves. You wonder what the time traveler thinks of when he listens to the sound of the rain against the glass. You listen too. From a different window, of course, you watch the wet petals like lips, the soil spill open like flooded lakes. You imagine yourself sinking, drowning in them. Before the time traveler had arrived, you had already planned it too: the day, the time, the place you’d do it. You were sure you wouldn’t fail the next time.
Your friends from school don’t really get you, but that’s okay. The self-help books and the TV specials tell you that you’re your own person. You’re strong, you’re beautiful, and you’ve got your whole life ahead of you. Your best friend since middle school’s got a free ride to the best pre-med program in the country on her debate team scholarship. She’s great at convincing strangers they’re wrong, and she tells you you’re just overthinking it. And by it, she means everything.
She’s right. You do think a lot about homework, clubs, what to order for lunch. But there are things she doesn’t know too. Like the looks on your classmates’ faces as you pass them in the halls in your baggy clothes, the face you can’t stand to look at in the bathroom mirror. Like how much you dread college and everything that comes before and after it—the goodbyes and decisions: what to study, where to live, who you need to be. You’ve never been good at endings, but you’re even worse at new beginnings. You tell your friends you’re taking a year off, that you’re thinking of traveling, “widening your creative horizons” like the podcast your mother sent you while on vacation in Hawaii with her high school friends. It sounds true, which is sometimes more important than actual truth. Your friend with the scholarship purses her lips like she’s thinking what a load of bullshit, but she’s also weighing the pros and cons, the emotional weight of saying something—she’s got her own problems to worry about, everyone does.
“Cool,” they all say, which fills you with sweet relief, but something else is there too. “Maybe you’ll end up not wanting to come back to this hell hole,” they joke.
“I know right?” You laugh with them. It’s not so hard. Just a little stretch of the mouth, an unnoticeable quiver in your lips. You’re good at laughing even when you want to scream.
“What was your original time?” you ask the time traveler one day as the two of you step out of the supermarket with a bag full of groceries for dinner.
Your question startles him. He’s been so preoccupied with finding something that he sometimes forgets there was a time when he wasn't.
“I don’t know,” he replies, pulling up the canvas bag over his shoulder, carrots, onions, and white mushrooms poking him through the thin fabric.
“Then how are you going to get home?” you ask.
The streetlamps buzz to life as the sun dips behind the wall of apartment buildings. The air frosts in the twilight. You watch the time traveler’s hand as he lifts the canvas bag’s strap up his shoulder again, a nervous habit. You wonder what it would be like to hold his hand, how warm his fingers could feel. You wonder if, even just for a moment, the hands of a time traveler could show you a future where everything is a little less hard. Maybe you could tell him (but you don’t want to tell him) about the time you waited outside the train station in the snow, watching the snowflakes clinging to your wool gloves melt, wondering what it would feel like to disappear too.
“I guess I always assumed I'd remember when the time was right,” he says finally, smiling. “But I like it here too.” He lifts the bag strap again as a woman bikes past, her crying toddler strapped behind her. “Just buying groceries with you.”
The metal shutter on a fried chicken stand slides up, drowning out the words you want to say. The owner drags out the wooden menu sign, stopping to check the buzzing cellphone in his pocket.
You tuck your hands into your pockets. You can’t meet the time traveler’s gaze, feeling like your body is a cage around you.
You want to tell him you too know the importance and cruelty of timing.
When buds start to dot the curling branches of the cherry trees, you ask the time traveler if he wants to go to the flower festival in the park near your school. You used to go with your friends, but most of them have already left for college. You promised to send them photos of your travels, of the diving classes you told them you were thinking of taking, the new life you were supposed to be cultivating like a golden garden of possibility. You ignore the group chat as it floods with pictures of their dorm rooms, cafeteria sandwiches, and blurry photos of smiling strangers you’ll never meet. You don’t tell them about the festival. No one wants to see the same old flowers.
The time traveler is puzzled by the idea of a flower festival too. The last place he lived was a world covered in sand dunes, cities capped in air-tight steel domes, the sun and rivers only stained pictures in old books. The last flowers had turned to dust centuries earlier. He can still taste the gray nutrient pouches he ate day after day, the powder texture like clumps of wet soil on his tongue.
“What are you guys celebrating?” he asks. “Won’t the flowers be dead within a week?”
You think of the fleeting smile on your grandmother’s face during those few lucid moments your grandfather remembered who she was. The tenderness of her hands as she picked up the broken ceramic from his favorite teacup, the way she carefully folded each shirt he would never wear again as if wrapping precious Christmas gifts. You remember her answer when you asked why she didn’t cry afterwards.
“We want to celebrate that too,” you answer the time traveler. “How there’s beauty in how things end.”
Some days, you start planning again. You think of the color your skin will be when it’s done. The taste of the water before it sloshes into your lungs, the feel of the concrete under your broken bones. You wonder if it will hurt so much you won’t be able to take it. That you’ll wish you could go back but can’t. You feel sorry for the person who will find you. You pray it isn’t a child, like you were. You pray if it is, he or she will be blessed with poor memory.
On the day of the flower festival, the time traveler gives you a gift from one of his favorite times: a shell left over after the great Permian Extinction.
“Do you like it?” he asks, a tinge of nervousness in his voice.
The ribbed fossil gleams iridescent under your old desk lamp.
“What was it like?” you ask, tracing the grooves of the cold mineral. You’ve read more books about the history of the earth, time like a droplet that has become an ocean since he arrived. You know of the four great extinctions, the Permian one even greater than the one that killed the dinosaurs.
“The world came this close—” he holds his fingers as if pinching the head of a sewing pin, “—to just becoming another rock devoid of life. The calculations were at a 98.8 percent likelihood of complete destruction.”
The time traveler likes numbers, and you like the idea that anything, even a feeling, can be quantified, proven real.
“So us being here is like a one-in-a-billion miracle,” you joke, feeling stupid after the words come out.
“A billion miracles,” he echoes with a smile, “were needed for any of us to be here.”
He helps you clip the ancient shell to your blouse, his eyes unreadable. You stare at the scars on his hands, a map of tragedies he has not yet told you.
The broken time machine sits in your basement, the gauge on the front glowing red like a stop sign. You think about where all these gears and wires and metal have been. You think of who else has been inside, what types of stories they share with the time traveler, and something pinches your heart.
The time traveler doesn’t talk much about his previous stops. You can’t tell if this is a courtesy to you or an unavoidable demerit of the time machine, memories paid like fuel credits.
Still, you ask. You dig for landmines. Stories of unrequited love or unending passion, of beautiful women or men or adventures you can never hope to match. You want to be hurt. You want to be flung hard into the wall of rejection because that’s better than the unknown. The ugly leash of longing is new, and it is unbearable.
But your time traveler is kind. He answers your questions with nudging questions of his own. He asks about the photos on your wall, the dusty jars of shells you keep on the shelves in your room. What’s the ocean like now? Would you like to go?
You’ve always been good at swimming, that was never the problem. Your father died young and your mother, manic in her grief, left you too in a different way, but neither of those were the problem either. The problem lay in the way you couldn’t connect. Not to a single person, an object, or even a feeling. Everything was always ten imaginary feet away, just out of reach. Your friends wave to you from their own island, sometimes so far away you can’t even see the smiles on their faces. Your mother too, rarely at home, calls to remind herself of you, her guilt embodied in human form. You try to understand, to fit into the costume of “interesting person” so they don’t leave for good. You laugh and joke the way the books and magazines show you, like no one can tell the difference between real and fake, not really anyway, but the costume never fits just right. It dangles and flaps around in all the unsightliest of places despite your best efforts to hide it.
When you were little, still young enough to not care about anything, your father used to bring you to the ocean during the summer rains. He taught you that you can find the best seashells during and after the worst storms, the two of you collecting so many that he’d have to buy you jars to hold them. Your mother thought it was dangerous and she was probably right, but still, you liked the feeling of the rain on your face, your toes curling into the wet sand, your legs dipping underneath the waves. Your tiny life jacket buoyed you up like a magical cloud, and you were sure you could float to the other end of the planet this way. You wondered what would be waiting for you there. Maybe you could start over, be someone different there, someone better.
Televisions buzz about the hurricane days before it makes landfall. The biggest in half a century. The supermarket near your house crowds with people panic-buying. Nervous parents grab bottled water and toilet paper as their children act out sword fights between the aisles with long boxes of spaghetti. Toddlers gleefully swing their legs in overpacked shopping carts, arms out like airplane wings. You stock your shelves with a cannister of the time traveler’s favorite instant coffee and a fresh loaf of bread before the yellow-gray clouds finally swarm over your neighborhood. When the rain comes, it’s bad enough to shut down the trains and buses, water gushing out of manholes, plastic rooftops battered like the sound of fireworks, a child’s tricycle floating across the flooded streets. The birds hide silently in trees, waiting for the sun to reclaim the land.
In your living room, with the wall lamps warm and dim, the time traveler tells you a story about a time and place where there is no land left, only endless ocean, turbulent waves and the creatures that lurk beneath. His time machine malfunctioned then too, stranding him in the water. He tells you of the years he spent alone in that ocean, about the debris that floated by in its murky depths, plastic bottles with translucent labels that glowed against the emergency lights of his time machine, the cracked wing of a toy plane, a wrinkled glint of kitchen foil—traces of a humanity that was long gone.
“You forget your voice when you spend so much time alone,” he says. “You start to wonder if you ever had one.”
“How did you survive that?” you ask, imagining what it would have been like, a life spent sinking with the time traveler. If love means something different the deeper you go into the water.
“I don’t know if I really did. A body loses meaning with enough time,” he says, laughing, but his hands search absently for something to hold onto. They ball into fists under the table.
You want to take the time traveler’s hands, to gently coax the stories out of those old scars, but what do you know about meaning? Who are you to comfort someone who has seen so many endings?
You go to the kitchen and fill two mugs with instant coffee powder, waiting for the water to boil. You visualize the words you want to say to the time traveler. You rehearse them in your head like a difficult script, like a war plan, anticipating his responses. This time, you will get the words out, you will get them right. Your heart beats. The memory of saltwater stings your throat.
When you return to the living room, the time traveler is gone.
You throw on your green raincoat, pull on your black rain boots, and dash into the storm. Your body moves before your brain can stop it.
The volume of the rain dials up as you step out the door. A branch tears from one of the trees, narrowly missing your head.
“Are you nuts?!” someone shouts from their window, their voice washed away by the rush of water guzzling out of drainpipes.
Something green vanishes behind the corner fairy lights of the closed supermarket. You chase after that obscure smear of color in the downpour the way you imagine Alice must have felt drawn to that white rabbit, unsure if you’ve just been looking for an excuse to run this whole time.
The water is so high it laps into the tops of your rain boots, weighing you down. You see flashes of one of your earliest failed plans, the murky water that burned down your throat and up your nostrils, the double wetness of the salty ocean and the rain, the way your feet seemed to sink and float at the same time.
You are struggling to breathe by the time you reach the flooded lake by your old school, the one where your friends and you used to run laps for gym class, where you were always the last one to finish. With his hands in his pocket, the time traveler marches toward the torrent of gray-green water as if in a trance. He’s wearing the matching green raincoat you gave him, looking like a wet frog being pummeled under a spray of waterfall. You trudge in through the sewage and grab him by the arm. You pull his hands out of his pockets, the heavy rocks tumbling from them. You don’t demand an answer, but your heart beats like a sledgehammer in your chest. It demands even if you don’t.
“I’m sorry,” he says, reading your heart.
“You promised to take me with you,” you say, thankful for the rain on your face. “You promised, but we haven’t seen anything yet.”
“I’m sorry,” he repeats. His hands reach for you, but then pull back.
You want to ask the time traveler if he knows. If he too cannot reconcile his desire for the water with the desire to be saved.
You haven’t opened the group chat in weeks when the phone call comes.
“Hey, my dad said he saw you trying to act out your own Day After Tomorrow doomsday movie in the hurricane.”
Your friend with the scholarship, with the right words that always feel wrong, with a look that says she’s never planned a thing besides a summer barbecue with friends by the beach, says she wanted to see if you’re okay. Okay is an empty field full of traps—it can swallow you underneath in broad daylight and people will say "I don’t understand, she seemed okay." You remember how much you hate the word "friendship" and all the things the books, TV shows, and songs imply it means. You’re never alone when you have your friends. Endless pings of connections out in the world, glorious tendrils of memories and love, yet it always feels like you’ve reached a dead zone. It’s your own fault, you think. Your friendship plan just doesn’t cover service out this deep.
“I got a little adventurous with all the diving classes,” you laugh. “How’s college life?”
There’s a brief pause, another weighing of pros and cons.
“It’s okay,” your friend relents. You hear the buzz of a train platform in the background. “My dorm room is a borderline prison though—did you see the photos I sent to the group chat?”
When the gauge on the time machine starts glowing green, the time traveler has grown a beard. You know that he likes his coffee lukewarm. You still tease him about his cat’s tongue and the way he jolts whenever there is thunder. There is tenderness in the way you tease him, like these are your shared secrets.
You have not planned anything in months. No daydreams of sinking bodies, no silent apologies to people who have yet to find your remains. You open the curtains in the morning and let the sunshine warm your cheeks. You watch the leaves sway in the wind, the blanket of green, as people wait for the bus in front of the old church. You wonder if you could go to the beach again—it’s been years, but with the time traveler, you think maybe you could even sink your toes into the wet sand again without wanting to bury yourself underneath it.
He asks you what time periods you want to visit, what things you want to see. He knows you’ve been reading, diving into the bizarre gigantism of the Carboniferous, the boiling seas of the Pre-Cambrian, the quiet nothingness that followed the fiery end of the Cretaceous. He thinks you long for escape, for something new, something beyond human, and you don’t tell him the truth because it feels like a lie. How you want to stay here in this small house, drink instant coffee when it rains, and listen to his stories. How you want to tease out the murky water that’s steeped so deeply into his bones and heart. How you want to go to every flower festival with him year after year until you’re both like flowers yourself, slowly falling apart but happy to still be in the company of the ones you love. How, for the first time ever, you just wanted to stay.
“I want to see where you’re from,” you say instead.
You dismiss the sadness in his eyes as a misunderstanding. As the natural anxiety that comes with going home after a long absence. Hearts change. You remember the look on your mother’s face after seeing you for the first time in six years, when she finally came home. How a part of her longed for a person you could never be again.
“Okay, we’ll prepare our supplies today and leave tomorrow morning,” he says.
That night, you can’t sleep. You picture stick people walking across your ceiling: the time traveler’s family and friends. You imagine the stiff introductions, the extraordinary strangers from the future that will smell the stink of normality on you. You think of steel-domed cities and gray pouches. Of sunless days and flowerless springs. There is no instant coffee. You think of the time traveler’s mouth against the ceramic mug in your kitchen, the smoky smells of whatever drink the future holds. You wonder how it would feel to lie underneath him after both your drinks are emptied, the fullness of him.
When the blue haze of dawn peeks over your curtains, you get out of bed.
You head down to the living room, the wooden stairs creaking under your feet. The corridor is that quiet, deep-ocean dark before everything wakes, and you’re not sure if you are still dreaming, if you’ve ever stopped dreaming since the time traveler arrived.
The couch where he sleeps is empty.
You run down the stairs to the basement, chasing the faint smell of the sea, but the time traveler and his time machine are gone.
You are alone again.
You find his note on the shelf, tucked between the self-help books.
You plan, but not the kind you always expected. In the afternoon, you open a window and listen to the cries of cicadas, invisible in the lush trees, a banquet of summer leaves. An old couple sits at the bus station like content statues. A little girl pulls her mother toward the bus station, a gold foil balloon of the number 8 tied to her wrist. You wonder what kind of adult the girl will become, who she will love, what heartbreaks she will have, what kinds of plans she will make, how little a mother can do to protect her child in the end. The little girl trips in her hurry, and the balloon string snaps free from her hand. She and her mom watch it float away like a kite taking flight, like a baby bird leaping from a branch for the first time, a mixture of wonder and disbelief. You wait for the girl to burst into tears, for her mother to soothe her with candies or the promise of a new balloon. But the girl gets up and brushes her skinned knees like a cat licking its wounds, her eyes wet but not broken. You wonder when you learned to run away from the fear instead of with it.
You pack lunch and a thermos of coffee into your canvas grocery bag. You empty a small pouch of paperclips and spare buttons onto the table and stuff the drawstring pouch into your pocket. Today you will go to the beach and dig your toes in the sand. Today you will collect seashells along the shore, trace the curves of ancient crinoids and weather-smoothed sea glass washed up in the foamy surf. You don’t know if there will be any good ones, but anything can be a treasure if you believe it is.
The Permian shell gleams iridescent on your desk, next to the time traveler’s note.
The calculations were at a 98.8 percent likelihood of complete destruction.
You want to quantify, to make sense of the heartache, but some things cannot be measured until the end. Sometimes, you have to live your whole life before you can make sense of it. You press your fingers to the ridges of the shell as if you can bring him back, but time is like an ocean. A part of you always knew he would never let you drown in it.
Editor: Aigner Loren Wilson
First Reader: Angela Hinck
Copy Editors: Copy Editing Department
Accessibility: Accessibility Editors