A Short Lesson On What To Pack
I made a mistake. It wasn’t supposed to be this way.
I take one last Polaroid of myself in the mirror, set the camera down and flap the paper back and forth to encourage the exposure. I write the numbers on it and tape my picture on the wall. Then I go outside and follow the path.
There is a pretty big oak tree with yarn wrapped around the trunk, out in the woods where I was walking. I know I might be close to the caretaker’s cabin because he has children. Wrapping a tree in yarn was, well, not something the caretaker would get up to. It is only another ten minutes before I reach it. Of course he wouldn’t be home, not yet anyway, so I let myself in.
The walls of the small, wood clapboard dwelling are cluttered with cooking utensils, meat grinders, metal claw traps, and what looks like stretched rabbit pelts.
On the dining table I see a note and the timepiece. It’s silver, a pocket watch with a winding gear on top and a clasp for a chain. What time is it? 3:15 PM. The note says, “I am Julian Gabon, Caretaker. Wait for me, please.” Sorry, pal. I have a time machine to ride.
I slide the timepiece into my pants pocket and go over to the writing desk. What a mess. There are newspaper clippings mounded in a pushed-over pile, falling over to the floor. Cut pieces of paper are arranged in a circle with numbers written on them. Maybe a clue? The journal is there, shoved to the side. I grab it and leave.
Outside, I begin to skim through. I wonder how many times I’ve read this. Are these my notes in the margins?
There’s a map. I follow it to the back lot, around a pond, and along a short trail that forks three or four times before opening up into a field. I make my way to the target area, which is near a sapling tree and marked with rings of metal blocks. These are the heavy magnets.
The ground inside the ring is scorched. This is the spot. Right-o. A little nervous, I flip to the instructions. OK. Got it. I hope my calculations are correct!
I check the dial on the pocket watch and did a little calibration ritual. Orient myself to true North. Empty my pockets of anything metal aside from the watch. Set the journal down. On the watch, I pull the winding gear up and spin the dial back to noon, take a deep breath, and plunge it down.
In the bathroom, there was a Polaroid camera on the sink and a picture on the mirror. I think it was a picture of me, but it wasn’t me. It looked like me but … older? Crumpled. Sad. Buddy, you should take better care of yourself. I pull the photo down, still doubting it’s subject and walk out.
The narrow hallway walls are covered in more Polaroids, each one was another version of me, I think. Most older, some younger, a few right around my age. Is this me? Uh … Freaky. I stick the photo from the mirror onto the wall with the others.
In the kitchen, there is a metal table and two matching diner-style chairs. Sitting down, I let my fingers browse the pile of papers there. Mail. All addressed to me but at 747 Boatman Lane. That isn’t my address.
There is a yellow legal pad filled up in dense writing. Like hell … no one handwrites anything anymore. Then I realized it was my handwriting, and so was the next page, and the next … dozens of pages of my chicken scratch. I look closer at the first page.
“You’re trapped in a time loop. You have to set the continuum right or we aren’t going to get out. I don’t think you can try more than five or six times before our material bonds degrade from the stress and you break apart during transfer. Or maybe you’ll just go crazy. Really, no one knows - the limits are theoretical. So, get this right. Please, for both our sake’s.”
Yeah that’s nuts.
I flip through and pick up at another section. It’s trying to explain space-time something, an Aharonov-Bohm effect? Laws of physics operate independently of time. There’s a bunch of handwritten formulas that don’t make any sense. I dunno, I never took physics so, clearly I couldn’t have written this.
Oh. The next page explains how I entered a doctoral program for physics in 2024. It says depending on what age I come through, either this will make complete sense or none at all. How convenient. Either it’ll be before or after my doctoral work. Physics? When would I have had time to learn that? Unless I … nevermind. I’m not playing that game.
There’s a section on the Middle House, a space between our time continuum and the other side, like a gate you must pass through. It is a cabin in the woods where the Caretaker lives. He holds the key to time travel and it is critical that you speak with him ... I exhale and look up. “Critical” is underlined several times.
OK, this hurts my head. I need a drink, something cold. I pull open the fridge door but step back right away. It’s apparently not been turned on for a really long time. Everything is rancid. Yuk. I shut the door. The smell is stuck in my nostrils.
OK. I need to check in with someone and make sure I’m not going crazy. And that fridge is gross. Whoever owns this dump should get it together.
I step out of the kitchen through a messy living room and over to the front of the house where I push open the screen door. The clean air outside fills my lungs, I draw it all in. I notice the house number is 747, just like on the letters. Whatever.
I am in a front yard surrounded by a low metal fence. A blooming white clematis vine covers one length in a thousand tiny buds. There is a dog chained to a metal pole in the corner.
The dog lifts his head to look at me, then I blink and his head is back down again, resting on his paws. Nice pup. He lifts his head to look at me again, but then his head is back down again, then lifts again, then back down. I am no longer blinking. I can’t process it any other way than to say he is on a loop, like he got stuck mid-motion and is just lopping his last process over and over again.
Getting pretty freaked out now.
I head over to the front gate, which is open. At the gate, there is a tomato stake in the ground with a wooden sign nailed to it. The sign says, in sloppy paint, “Follow the path to the caretaker’s cabin. Do it NOW!” What?
I turn around and look back at the house. The sky is a swirling gray torrent of storm clouds, not just in the sky but all around the house. The land ends just outside the fence. There is nothing to the left or right, no ground. Just the swirling, angry sky where the ground should be. The path.
I spin back and see the path leads ahead into a copse of trees. The trail gives broad berth but to either side, the ground falls away into the void that surrounds the house. More angry clouds. I’m thinking of the video games where you jump sideways or not far enough and your player falls off the board into the digital void. I can’t help it.
In the distance, just before the trees start getting thicker, I see two children playing with a ball, passing it back and forth. “Hey!” I shout.
They stop and both turn and look at me. The shorter of the two waves but the taller one walks over and pulls his shoulder close. He points at his wrist, like “Time,” then the two of them turn and run, disappearing under the cover of the trees. That was strange.
I need information. I run back to the house. The dog lifts his head then sets it back down again, again, and again. In the front room, I look around for anything familiar. There’s a bookshelf. Piles of aging newspapers, unread but stacked in anticipation. I check the date: January 22nd, 2020. Yeah. That’s sort of recent, right? Right?
I race down the hallway to the gallery of photos. Each has a number written on them … not a number, dummy, a year. They are all over the place, not organized — most of the years are in the future, corresponding with photos of older me, and then the younger ones have the earlier years. At least something makes sense. That was a joke. None of this makes sense.
The kitchen. I go back and pick up the yellow notebook. Looking for just a big note on the front that says HEY READ PAGE FIVE or something because really, I am freaking out.
Flipping through page after page of … of what? Something about quantum law and limits of atomic gravity. Pages explaining a theory on time travel and particularly strong magnetic field locations, a paragraph about remorse, not listening to colleagues. Further on, there is an oddly specific description of a watch and a journal with instructions, and a note about the caretaker’s routine maintenance on the portals, “ … returning home usually in the early evening.”
On the last page, there are final remarks, “… it’s unavoidable now that I’ve opened the gateway. I’m heading to the cabin again. The cycle has already begun. Only one way to close it. I’ll know more when I get back.”
OK — what’s the one way? I flip to the next page, but the rest of the pad is blank. What? Who does that?
Back into the bathroom hallway— the only one who would know is someone who has already been there, so I need to know when that might be. Postdoc me might … what am I saying? That sounds bonkers. Me? A Ph.D. in Physics? I guess when everything around your house vanishes, you’re willing to extend your frame of reference a bit.
How many photos have dates after 2024? I start looking for a grouping or any patterns indicating when I started the cycle, or whatever this is. The photos are just taped up everywhere, there’s no order to them. There! 2025, scanning, scanning, 2027 WHOA that dude needs to get some sleep, 20 … 20 … come on, come on … Eventually, I find a scattering of years that cluster around 2035, give or take. I start pulling them off the wall and moving them into chronological groupings. I can’t believe no one else thought of this. Good thing I showed up.
Yeah, 2035 seems like the center of all the groupings. Outside, thunder starts kicking around. The homemade signpost with NOW in capital letters is burning in the front of my head. Right. This is crazy. The path. The cabin. The caretaker? What do I have to lose?
In the kitchen, I look for a pen. A pen, a pen, a pen. I open a drawer by the sink, it’s full of junk, gum bands, clips, stickies, instructions for a burr grinder (I bought one of those?), and pens! Of course, that’s where I would put them … uh, yeah.
Turning to the last page of the notebook, I scribble, “It’s sometime in early 2020. I’m not sure … I think the world went crazy. I was in the bathroom …”
The bathroom! Again, I race down the hallway. The Polaroid. I hand brush my hair, smile, and snap a picture. Here’s to nothing. I write “2020” on it and use a piece of tape to stick it to the mirror.
The whole house shakes. Time to go.
I race down the path and into the woods.
In the distance, I see someone running along the path. Is that one of the kids? I try to catch up. Rounding the bend, I find a huge oak tree. It’s covered in yarn. The path continues. I keep going. And there it is! A cabin. A man comes out of the front door. I holler at him, “Hey!” He doesn’t look up but turns round to the backside and walks away.
I get nearer and see someone else going in. Where did that guy come from? “Hey!”
I get to the door and knock. No answer, but I can hear some low-level talking. I’m going in.
There are a dozen or more people inside. All wearing the same clothes, my clothes. All … me. At different ages. Some look young, or confused, others are hardened. Different life experiences. Some are frantic in their goings-on, others deliberate. All ignore me and ignore one another, just milling about or flipping through papers, murmuring to themselves.
I grab a glass from a nearby shelf and smash it onto the ground making a sudden break in the humdrum. No one pauses, they just keep rummaging around the cabin, one older version leaves, then another come in, a few years younger. I can hear them talking. Why can’t they hear me? The noise of all of them is making the space congested.
“WHAT IS GOING ON!” I yell. No response. I’ve heard that you are supposed to go crazy if you meet your doppelganger. What happens if you meet a dozen of them from different stages of your life?
The room is filling up with more of me. I wonder, have any of them solved this puzzle? Why can’t any of them see each other? How many times did I take this trip? How long have I been stuck in the loop?
I notice they all stop at the table and a writing desk. I go over. On the table, there’s the pocket watch I saw the drawing of in the notebook. And a note. “Wait for me … ” The caretaker. Over on the desk is the journal. It’s getting loud inside. I want to grab one of me and shake them. Seeing myself wasn’t mentioned in the journal. What’s different this time?
The door opens again. This time it’s the two kids who walk in, one holding a ball. I freeze. They look around the room — they can see all the time-traveling doppelgangers as their heads turn on a swivel around to me, where they stop. They can see me, too. I hold up a hand, “Hi.”
The tall one smiles.
“You can hear me?” He nods and waves his hand, beckoning me to follow as he and the shorter kid both move back outside. I go.
Outside, they are standing side by side waiting for me. The younger one has a big goofy grin. One of me brushes past into the cabin. “Excuse me!” I say. “Some people,” pointing over my back with my thumb, “can you believe that guy?”
The kids don’t laugh, and the little ones’ smile breaks into confusion.
“Do you live here?” I try.
They nod. The younger one speaks first, “You have any candies?”
I was going to make a big impressive statement, but I’m thrown off. “Candies? Is it Halloween? I’m stuck in a time loop, kid. No, I don’t have any candy. What, why would I, I mean should you be thinking about sweets right now? The whole world just went bonkers — did you see inside?!” I point inside. I’m heaving. The little kid takes a small step backward.
“It’s not our world that got looped,” the older one offers. “Just yours. Besides, you don’t have to be rude about it.”
“Looped? Yeah, I’m sorry, you’re right. I’m just, just a little off.” I run my hand through my hair.
“You should have waited for father.”
“Father? Is your father the .. is he the caretaker? I’ll wait. I’ll wait, sure I don’t mind waiting. Out here maybe. Not inside.”
“… the first time.”
I stand quiet for a moment while that sinks in. I think a future Physics Ph.D. me might understand a little better, but it sounds pretty ominous to the Creative Writing degree me, as well.
“How do I break the loop?”
The shorter of the two tugs on the taller one’s arm, “Come on, I want to play.” The tall one looks down at him and hands over the ball.
The tall one says to me, “I think you should go now.”
He turns to leave. I reach out and shout, “Go? Go where? You’ve got to help me!” but my hand, meant to grasp his shoulder, swipes through his body as though he wasn’t there. He pauses and looks at me, a hunt of sorry in his eyes, then the two of them scramble off and begin to pass the ball back and forth, into the forest.
I open my eyes. I’m in the bathroom. There is a Polaroid camera on the sink and a picture on the mirror. I’m a little confused. The picture looks like me, but a much younger, rebel phase. How did someone find a Polaroid of me from back then? That’s pretty cool.
I pull the photo down and smile at the image. There’s a year written on it. That’s about right, twenty years ago. Wow.
I walk down a hallway. Its walls are covered in more photos. I don’t understand. Each has a date that roughly corresponds to my age, but they don’t all seem like me, exactly. Some look like they led rougher, harder lives, or some look like they were more carefree.
Out in the kitchen, there is a yellow legal pad.
In big letters, across the front page, are written two words. “BRING CANDY.”