“Dude, are you sure you don’t want to sleep in my room? You’re pretty wasted,” I asked Jai over the loud metal music blasting from the speakers in my hostel room.
Three of my other friends were seated in my room — two on the single bed and one on the floor with glasses of whiskey and cigarettes in their hands — now tired of headbanging to the music and watching porn on mute for the past two hours. On the corner stove, instant noodles were simmering in a steel pan, the delicious aroma of Maggi displacing some of the cigarette fog.
Jai scoffed, letting out a guttural laugh. “Dude, your room is a dump and it stinks.”
“And yet you never fail to show up whenever we have a party here,” I retorted, somewhat offended by his comment. “What do you understand what it’s like to live in a hostel? You live at home and your parents have a housekeeper. I bet you don’t even make your bed.”
“You bet I don’t!” he bragged. “And that is why I need to sleep in my own comfortable bed with the room’s air conditioner turned down to 21 degrees Celsius.”
He waved goodbye to the rest of our friends, promising to meet the next day in the Physics class, our first period on Monday mornings. Even though he spent at least one night a week partying in the boys’ hostel, Jai was poor at directions and had a difficult time finding his way to the parking, especially when he was drunk. And when he left the boys’ hostel at 1 o’clock in the mornings, he was usually pissed drunk. Luckily for him, his house was a stone’s throw away from the main gate of our engineering college and he usually reached home in five minutes and drunk texted me and his girlfriend — sometimes accidentally swapping the messages, sending me a kissing emoji and her an unmentionable word he used only for me — before collapsing on his bed.
As we passed by the security guard dozing on his chair below the hostel building, Jai threw a small pebble at his leg, but he continued to snore steadily. We often joked that even if terrorists attacked the hostel or an earthquake shook the ground, the security guard — nicknamed Kumbhakaran, the powerful demon from the Hindu epic Ramayana, who slept straight for six months at a time — would continue sleeping through the whole episode.
In the parking, I handed over his helmet to Jai as he mounted his bike and kickstarted it.
“Are you sure you won’t fall into a ditch somewhere?” I asked. “You finished the bottle today, dude.”
“Dude, I can drive with my eyes closed. You know I’ve been driving since I was like thirteen,” he boasted.
“Okay, but be careful. Text me when you reach home.”
“Okay, Dad,” he said, laughing as he drove his bike towards the hostel gate.
I was about to turn back towards block B when I noticed a man standing on the road right outside the hostel, staring directly at me. The nearest streetlight was a hundred metres away, so it was hard to see the man’s face. As soon as Jai reached the road outside the hostel, the man suddenly jumped in front of his bike, blocking his path. Jai braked hard, his bike skidding to a halt barely half a metre away from the man.
“Are you crazy, old man?” Jai yelled. “Do you want to die?”
I dashed to the spot, trying to figure out what just happened. Who was this man? What was he doing on our campus? There was security at the main gate. Who had allowed him in at night and why?
“What’s wrong?” I asked, panting as I reached them.
“Ask the crazy man,” Jai shouted, shaking with adrenaline.
I looked at the man and realized he was old, much older than my parents, probably in his sixties. His eyes seemed to have sunken into their sockets, giving him a wizened, other-worldly look. He was wearing a cap with a twisted infinity sign on it, one I’d never seen before.
“You are Jai Mishra. Listen very carefully for what I say will save your life,” he said in a deep voice.
“What?” Jai snapped. “Move out of my way.”
“There is another drunk driver nearby. Unlike you, he’s driving a powerful SUV. When you drive out your college gate and turn right, he will hit you head-on and you will die instantly. And no, this flimsy cricket helmet won’t save you.”
I was still gaping at the old man, my alcohol-impaired brain slowly comprehending his words, when Jai swung his arm and punched the old man squarely on his jaw. The man fell to the ground as something — blood maybe, it was hard to see clearly in the dark — flew out of his mouth.
“Get the fuck away from me, you moron!”
Emitting his typical guttural laughter, Jai gave me a high-five, kickstarted his bike and zoomed away from me, towards the college gate.
When I turned around to where the old man had collapsed on the road, he was not there anymore. I studied my surroundings, staring at the deserted roads and the grounds around me, the nearby Computer Science department and the library in the distance, but there was no movement anywhere. The old man had vanished without a trace. I turned on my phone’s torch and inspected the road below; sure enough, something yellowish-white caught my eye. I crouched on the road and examined the tooth that had fallen out of the old man’s mouth when Jai punched him, the only evidence that what we had witnessed wasn’t an apparition but an actual person.
The world slowed down as the door of the Operation Theatre opened and the doctor walked towards me, her face covered with the double surgical mask, making it impossible for me to read her expression. Her brown eyes gave away nothing. As she delivered the news to me, I could only stare at her scrubs, my gaze riveted to the two tiny drops of blood on her right sleeve.
“Your wife will be okay. I’m really sorry we couldn’t save the baby.”
Dazedly, I stared ahead as she explained the complications that had resulted in my wife going into labour at only 24 weeks and the reasons the baby could not be saved.
With a gentle squeeze of my arm, she disappeared into the OT, leaving me stranded in the middle of the hospital corridor. At some point of time, somebody — probably a nurse —led me to the chairs lining the corridor and helped me settle into one while I waited. I waited for her parents to arrive from Delhi — my parents were also on their way but she would need hers more than mine. I waited for the light to go off in the OT so that I would be allowed to meet her and together, we could grieve the loss of another baby. I waited for this feeling of helplessness to pass, this feeling of utter impotency and despair that paralyzed me. I waited for a surge of courage that would be needed if she decided after a few months that we should try again. How she found the courage to persevere after so many losses I have no idea. The losses that came before occurred much earlier in the pregnancy — at a time when, after the first loss, we had not dared to get our hopes up early on. This time though, it was nearly the end of the second trimester. We were halfway through decorating the nursery and had already shortlisted potential baby names.
I felt the gentle pressure of somebody’s hand on my arm and turned around, hoping it was my mother, having just arrived from the railway station. A strange old man was seated next to me, looking at me intently. Even though I had not seen this man before, he looked familiar somehow.
“Listen to me very carefully,” he said in a deep voice. “I know this seems like the end of the world, but it isn’t. Over the next few months, you will go through a very difficult time. There’s more to come that you don’t know of.”
I stare at him. “Excuse me, do I know you?”
“That is a very good question. Do you know me?” he said, chuckling. “I’d say no. You don’t know me yet.”
I pulled my arm from his grasp, wondering if there was a psych ward somewhere in the hospital where this man belonged. His cap with a twisted infinity sign on it looked vaguely familiar.
“Look, I only came to say that things will get better. Hang in there. And the thing that you’ve been contemplating doing, don’t do it. Just don’t do it. Your family needs you.”
I looked in the other direction, hoping the man would leave. Unease gripped me, making my palms sweaty and my heartbeat faster. He couldn’t know, could he? I’d never talked to anyone about my depression, not even my wife. So how could he, a stranger, know anything unless he was a mind reader? Besides even though I’d thought about it, I could never actually do it — not to my parents and especially not to my wife.
“There will be one more loss — there’s nothing you can do to prevent it. After that, you’ll have two healthy children. You’ll also lose your job and be unemployed for a while, but then you’ll go into the line of work you’ve always wanted to do but lacked the courage to do. Hang in there.”
Gently tapping my arm, the old man rose from the chair and walked away, limping slightly.
I realized that everything I’d thought about this old man was wrong — he wasn’t a mind reader. Nor could he read faces. He was just a sick man who had eavesdropped on my conversation with the doctor and decided to twist the knife by playing this sadistic joke. Shaking with indignation, I sprang from the chair and dashed down the corridor, turning the corner where the old man had disappeared. I spent a lot of time that day running up and down the hospital corridors, checking the security cameras and looking everywhere, but couldn’t find him. The old man had vanished into thin air.
The soft dewy grass felt wonderful under my bare feet. The air was fresh and smelled faintly of the spring flowers blossoming all around me. My wife and I used to visit this park for a walk each morning — a little antidote to my heart problems and her high blood pressure — but ever since she passed away three months ago, I could not summon the courage to visit this park again. If only she’d listened to me that morning and postponed her plan to visit our daughter in Mumbai, there would have been one passenger less who died on that fateful flight that crashed after take-off, killing everyone on board.
“Please sweetheart,” I had begged. “Take another flight today, any other flight. Just not this one.”
“I’m not going to postpone my plan because — what? You had a dream?” she’d laughed. “Listen Ajay, our daughter needs me. She’s going to have a baby.”
No amount of pleading or emotional blackmailing on my part convinced her to postpone her travel plans and within thirty minutes, she had boarded the airport taxi and was gone, waving at me cheerfully as the car drove off.
It was just a silly dream, I’d convinced myself then. Nobody could know the future, no matter how credible they sounded. The man with sunken eyes, who had appeared in my dream and begged me to stop my wife from boarding the flight, had terrified me and I’d woken up with my face wet with tears. Just a dream, just a dream, I’d kept repeating to myself until the moment I heard the devastating news.
“Is this seat taken?”
“No,” I said without looking at the man standing beside the bench.
As he settled heavily on the bench next to me, I could smell his cologne, a woody, spicy scent, the exact same one as mine. My wife’s favourite, one she gifted me on every occasion. Even now, I had a drawer full of new cologne bottles.
I turned to look at this man, friendly words of introduction dying on my lips. The man looked a lot like me, only older — by a decade or so. His hair was thinner and greyer, his body was lighter and the skin on his face was grooved with more wrinkles, but other than that, he looked a lot like me.
“Are you surprised to see me, Ajay?” he said in a deep voice I recognized.
“I’ve seen you before, many times I think.”
“Yes, you have. The last you saw me was...”
“In my dream,” I said. “Why didn’t you warn me properly — appear in person like right now?”
His eyes softened. “There’s nothing you could have done to save her. She was stubborn — you knew that when you married her.”
I sat in silence for a while, absorbing this piece of information. “Was it you, that night outside the boys’ hostel?”
He sighed deeply. “Yes. I was new to this back then. I thought I could save Jai’s life. I was wrong, obviously.”
“That night in the hospital...” I said.
“Yes, it was me. I had to see you at that time because I knew what was coming and I wasn’t sure you could handle it without some support. And a ray of hope — I had to give you that.”
Thoughts are rattling around in my head, making it impossible to draw a logical conclusion. “Just so I’m clear — you are me, right? From the future?”
He chuckled. “You’ve finally figured it out.”
I noticed then that he was missing a tooth. Maybe from the time Jai punched him.
“So you knew all along what was going to happen and...”
“... and you didn’t warn me when my Mom was about to die? You didn’t tell me the doctors were going to find a tumour in my Dad’s brain?”
“How could I deprive you of those life experiences?” he said.
My instinct was to punch him in the face and loosen some more of his teeth.
“Let me explain,” he said patiently. “During the first few times, I tried to warn you and save lives. I warned you about the flight crash. I tried saving Jai.”
“What? The flight crash was just three months ago.”
“For you, yes. Not for me. When I appeared in your dream, it was one of the initial times I time-travelled. That’s why I couldn’t warn you properly. I was still figuring things out.”
“That doesn’t make any sense,” I said, exasperated.
“I thought I could try a more direct way of warning people, by appearing in person as I did with Jai. Dude broke my tooth,” he said, rubbing his chin.
“Served you right,” I said bitterly. “Well, why didn’t you warn me again about the flight crash — after you figured things out? Why didn’t you try harder? Why didn’t you tell me about this time travel thing? I might have believed you.”
He took a deep inhale then, and an even longer exhale. “See that was the thing. I couldn’t time travel to the same period again. I tried, I really did, but I couldn’t. And then I realized something.”
“I realized that I could not change the past. I couldn’t prevent people from dying or bad things from happening.”
“It’s a pretty useless skill then, isn’t it?”
“Oh, I wouldn’t say that. I can still visit the past to a time when we were young, the summer I met Neha, the time our kids were little and adorable and looked at me like I was their hero. I can go back to my childhood and see Mom serving me besan chillas in the kitchen, Dad smiling — actually smiling — when I proudly presented him my fifth class report card. It was just a fluke, the third rank.”
“Wait a minute. So you were the creepy old man who was seen around our neighbourhood, peeping through our window? I remember you showed up only once a year or so.”
He smiled then, a smile that reached his bleary eyes. “I couldn’t go back to the exact same time, so I chose different periods of time. Plus I didn’t want to scar our childhood.”
I thought about this for a minute. “So when do I get this time-travelling superpower?”
“I’m not sure since when you’ve had it. But you’ll be able to use it for the first time on your sixtieth birthday. And don’t ask how – you’ll obviously figure it out.”
“So, why are you here, now? I’m all alone. Our wife is gone. Our kids live far away — they have their own families. Why are you here?”
He rubbed his knees thoughtfully. “Well, I don’t know how long I can keep doing this. Each time I time travel, it takes a toll on my health. So I just wanted to say something to you.”
I stared at him silently.
“You are on this unique, beautiful life journey. Don’t compare it with anyone else’s. Many times in life, you’ll feel like it all sucks and it’s not worth it, but I promise everything is exactly as it was meant to be. You have some beautiful and some not-so-good times ahead of you, just like everyone else. Life isn’t bitchier to you specifically. It doesn’t single you out. Everyone has their share of suffering. Be kind to yourself and everyone else.”
“Okay. Anything else?” I said sceptically.
“Yes,” he said, nodding. “Enjoy life before it’s over. Treasure every moment. Because believe me, it will be over before you know it.”
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Great story, Kanika. You packed a lot of trauma and grief and emotion and beauty into a short space. And I’m always impressed when writers can keep their time traveling timeline/events straight! That can be tricky to pull off. The twist of the main character being visited by his future self unfolded perfectly—even with knowing the prompt, I was actually totally surprised by that revelation. Great job, keep it up!
Thank you so much for your wonderful comment, Aeris! When I read this prompt, I knew I had to attempt a time travel story because I always find these stories fun and full of possibilities. There are so many ways this type of story can go. Thank you for your feedback. It made me smile. :)
This was a fun story. Each of the scenes were well realized, with a different setting and time in the protagonist's life. Once I saw what was happening, I was looking forward to what the time traveller would say next. The story explores an interesting idea. If you can go back, but you can't change things, then what's the point of going back? But if you can't change the past, maybe you can't change the future either, and you'll always go back even though you know it's fruitless.
Thank you for your comment, Michal. I initially planned to have one more scene, but if I included it, the story would have exceeded the word count. I'm glad I was able to narrate the story with these three scenes from three very different periods in the protagonist's life. I think time travel is interesting and there are so many ways the story can go. I've always enjoyed reading these types of stories and when I saw this prompt, I wanted to write one of my own. I hadn't actually correlated the premise of being unable to change the past w...
Kanika, your stories are written in a distinct voice. Each one is different, with different characters and plots, but they all bear your unique style. I enjoyed this one. It was a clever and touching response to the prompt.
Thank you so much, Mike! I enjoy reading your comments on my stories. I'm glad you enjoyed this one. Thanks! :)
This was really creative and inspiring!
Thank you so much, Dina.
This is an awesome concept. Great story and a very good telling. I really enjoyed the timeline events, and the twist of 'self' going back in time to keep his younger self from giving in to despair. Well told. Enjoyed the story!
Thanks a lot for your lovely comment! I'm glad you liked the story. :)
Different take on time travel, how you can't change the past. I like it. You told the story very well with a lot of emotion.
Thank you so much. I really appreciate your comment. :)
Well written and intriguing.
Thank you so much!
Awesome story! This really spun the plot to another level. Thanks for such a wonderful submission! I really liked it and you managed to keep the timeline straight and clear, which is really hard to do for time-travelling stories! Congrats!
Thank you so much for your wonderful comment! I meant to respond earlier but I haven't been on Reedsy for a while. It was lovely to open Reedsy and see this comment. Thank you. :)
Good story I wish I could remember this: 'I promise everything is exactly as it was meant to be....Life isn’t bitchier to you specifically.'
Thank you so much! I like that line from the story too and it's something that helps during difficult times.
I like much about this piece, and generally the writing is strong. I'm a bit of a critic on time traveler pieces; this one reminds me a bit of other stories read. Also, and probably this is just my bias, 60 is not ancient. I do like how the beginning and close form a satisfactory loop. Well done, and thanks for the read!
Thank you so much for your feedback, Lizzie. This was my first time-travel story and I enjoyed writing it. I agree - a lot has been written on time travel and my story was influenced by stories I've read. Agree - 60 isn't ancient and I should've made that 80. Thanks a lot for your feedback.
Incredibly well written! I started to catch on to who the man was but didn’t quite piece together it was truly himself until the very end. You did a great job reeling us in without giving too much away!
Thank you so much, Emma, for the lovely comment! I just opened Reedsy today after a long time and it was great to read your feedback. Thank you. :)
“ 21 degrees Celsius.” That’s the temperature my friend is calling a heat wave back home when we set our AC to 25 here because it’s usually 30-35 in summer. I lost sympathy for the rich boy when he punched the old man. I’d be annoyed but he crossed the line there. There was a while when the time jump makes me think this is about different people meeting a fairy godfather style character. I like that you stated the style of time travel and stuck to it. Some people have really vague rules when they write about this kind of thing and it can be...
I like the sci-fi aspect of your story, as well as how you "kept your cards close to your chest" till nearly the end. Well done.
Great flow to the story. It kept me riveted! I kept asking myself what will happen next and who this guy is. Great job!
Thank you so much! I'm glad you liked the story.
An emotional story - I absolutely loved it. You have a very rich writing style, and you told the story beautifully! It’s hard to pull off a time travel story so seamlessly, and you’ve done it. Great work.
Thank you so much. This is my first time-travel story and I loved writing it. I've been thinking about this type of story for some time and when I saw this prompt, I decided to attempt it. I'm glad you enjoyed it. Thank you. :)
Hello Kanika, I just re-read this story, and I want to tell you that this quote: “You are on this unique, beautiful life journey. Don’t compare it with anyone else’s. Many times in life, you’ll feel like it all sucks and it’s not worth it, but I promise everything is exactly as it was meant to be. You have some beautiful and some not-so-good times ahead of you, just like everyone else. Life isn’t bitchier to you specifically. It doesn’t single you out. Everyone has their share of suffering. Be kind to yourself and everyone else.” sums up...