“I won’t go back. The past is in the past. I won’t go back. The past is in the past.”
It was no use. As Tobias slammed his eyes shut he felt his presence begin to slip. Warmth and tingles began to wash over him. Starting at his toes and then to his legs, the feeling rose. As the feeling hit his waist, he clenched his fist, his knuckles turning white in hopeless defiance. He was overcome now, his stomach in his throat and still he whispered, “The past is in the past.” But the sensation continued to engulf him and he continued to slip, as if falling forward while lying still.
As his stomach settled and his fists eased, Tobias allowed himself to slowly open his eyes. For a moment, he considered not opening them at all.
“Perhaps if I don’t, it will pass,” he thought to himself.
After all, what was there to see? He knew where he was. He didn’t know when but he knew where falling down the rabbit hole had led him. To the same place it always did; his former self. Back to past moments of his life long-lived, no longer his, and no more than memories to his present self. Good memories, bad ones, absolutely pointless ones, it didn’t matter. There seemed to be no rhyme or reason as to why Tobias continued to tumble back into himself.
“A bloody curse!” he mumbled, tears streaming from his still half-closed eyes.
At first, he thought it was a gift. An opportunity to right the past, to truly live out the age-old question of what one would do differently if they could go back. But it made no difference. Calling the girl back, accepting the job that seemed too risky at the time… the past and the future remained unchanged. And the good memories? The ones you think you’d want to relive? Those made his heart ache the most. Nothing more than exuberant nostalgia tinged with the knowledge of the loss that was yet to come. His fingers curled around the edges of the cold porcelain sink. He wanted to scream. Instead, with eyes wide open, he stared at himself through the steam that was fogging up the bathroom mirror. A sopping wet former version of himself stared back.
“Oh, c’mon! Are you kidding me?! I know this one. I know this one and no! No. I don’t want to be here!” His heart began to race. “Fuck!” His teeth clenched as he paced through his own puddle of shower water. Try as he might, he couldn’t will himself out of the moment. “Come on!” he yelled through gritted teeth, his frustration leading his fist forcefully into the mirror.
Jan’s familiar voice called from just beyond the closed door, “Everything okay in there?”
Tobias struggled for words, his breath taken away at the sound of her voice. “Um... I… I…”
“Tobias? What’s going on? You’ve been in there for almost an hour.”
“I’m… fine! I was feeling a little dizzy but I’m good now. I’ll be out shortly.”
“Okay. Well hurry up or we’re going to be late. Your mom already drones on about how you’ve been late your entire life. ‘Always fifteen minutes late for school. Twenty minutes late for your own wedding, and —’”
“’Two weeks late for my own birth,’” Tobias chimed in, a smile audibly settling into his voice.
“Let’s not make them wait that long for you to show your face at their anniversary party,” Jan quipped.
“I won’t. I’m almost done. Promise.” Tobias listened as Jan’s footstep trailed away from the door. “Fuck!” he whispered to himself.
Pacing once more, he attempted to calm himself. He knew there was nothing he could do. These slips, as he called them, came as they pleased and were always just beyond his control. Ten years of slipping to and from himself and he still had no idea what was causing it or how to stop it. But this slip was different. It had been almost six months since his last slip yet this was the second time he had found himself in this bathroom, just finishing a shower, and on his way to his parents’ 50th wedding anniversary party. He’d never had the same slip twice.
“I just need to --” His thought was interrupted by the sudden turn of his stomach. His sight grew dim. “Well, this is new,” he mused to himself as he stumbled toward the sink. Typically, each slip lasted a few hours. “Think! Think! Okay, uh... This was what — Ow!” His vision began to fracture as a sharp pain surged behind his eye. “Um... Fifteen, twenty minutes tops! That’s not long enough. That’s not long enough! What is hap —”
Tobias awoke to find himself face down on the bathroom floor, staring at the same black and white tile that he had just drenched when he didn’t bother to towel off after his shower. Well, his former self’s shower.
“Did I slip? Like actually slip?” he wondered, but as he pulled himself up, he realized the floor was dry. He was also fully clothed. In clothes that he didn’t recognize.
Drip. Drip. A warmth began to run down the side of his face and pool between the adjoining hexes of the tile floor. He smudged at the green-hued liquid on the floor. It didn’t make sense. He reached for his right temple. A wet, green-hued liquid stained his fingertips. “Clearly, I’m bleeding from the fall, but why is it green?”
Still dazed, he steadied himself with the edge of the tub before pulling himself up to sit on the toilet. With his head resting in one hand, he reached back with the other and grabbed the hand towel near the sink. The fibers were rough in spots and overly worn in others. It was a terrible hand towel. It did nothing that a hand towel was intended to do. Nevertheless, he couldn’t throw it out. It was Jan’s first embroidery project. She was so proud of the tiny red and white flowers she had painstakingly stitched onto nearly every inch of that towel. He never had the heart to tell her she had robbed the poor cloth of any hope of ever being absorbent. It was comforting now, pressed against his temple, even if it felt mostly like sandpaper. He missed her.
“This isn’t right,” he said aloud as he pulled the towel from his temple into his line of sight. He pressed one of the tiny green flowers between his thumb and forefinger. “It’s supposed to be red. It’s always been red! And blood is supposed to be red! What the hell is going on?” He wondered if his last slip had taken him to a different time, a different place, to a different him.
“Jan?! Jan?!” he cried as he lunged for the door. “Maybe she’s still here. Maybe in a world with green flowers and green blood, she’s still here.” It wasn’t until the knob was within reach that he saw it. A small, yellow Post-It note right at eye level. He stumbled back toward the toilet as he read it, “SHE’S NOT HERE.”
Thick and heavy, a sense of panic started to settle in. His chest tightened and his breathing shallowed as the acid from his stomach made its way into his throat. He reached up to the sink and braced himself to stand. His fingers curled once again around the cold edges of the porcelain. He used every muscle in his face to close his eyes as tightly as he could. He didn’t want to be here. He didn’t want to be where he was before either. He just wanted, so desperately, to live his boring, thirty-something, crappy-job life. A life where nothing exciting happened but at least it was happening for the first time.
He waited. For tingles. For warmth. For anything to indicate that he was slipping back into his present. The sound of his heart pounding in his ears was unbearable. With an exhale he opened his eyes wide ready to confront a past version of himself in the mirror. But the mirror was devoid of any face. Instead, it was filled with Post-It notes. Meticulously numbered and completely covering the mirror. He pulled the notes off of the mirror one by one and read them aloud.
“Number one: You’ve developed protanopia. (Colorblind) You can’t see red.”
“Number two: The slips caused your protanopia.”
“Number three: This is where you are supposed to be.”
“Number four: Yes, you’ve learned how to control it.”
“Number five: The bathroom, the party, Jan — all significant. It’s why you keep returning there. You don’t know why it’s significant.”
“Number six: This is where you are supposed to be.”
“Number seven —”
A glimmer of light off the now exposed mirror caught Tobais’ eye. He didn’t recognize the face looking back at him. It looked like him but the hair, the face, it was wrong. This face had grey hair and time-worn skin. As he touched his face, a hand touched the face in the mirror as well. He pulled at his cheeks and pinched his nose. The hand in the mirror also pulled at the stranger’s cheeks and pinched the stranger’s nose.
“How hard did I hit my head?” he wondered. “This isn’t me. I’m not old. My hair is black, not grey. What the fuck?!” The room began to spin. He reached for the edges of the sink but the note labeled number seven was still in his hand.
“Number seven: THIS IS THE PRESENT.”
“This can’t be happening. What happened to my life? How old is this person? Sixty? Sixty-five? I was in my thirties!” Tobias heaved at the thought. “This can’t be right. Okay. Think. Think.” All he could think about was how exhausted he was, his head still throbbing from the fall. Any thought of any possible solution alluded him. He sank to the ground. “A bloody curse!” he mumbled the tears spilling from his eyes. As he reached to wipe the tears, he realized one of the Post-It notes was stuck to his hand. He reached for it, violently pulled it from his skin, and tore it to pieces. He screamed in frustration and sunk his head into his hands once more.
That’s when he saw it, on the floor, between his legs, note number four: “Yes. You’ve learned how to control it.” He sprang to his feet and looked at the old man staring back at him in the mirror. “This is not me. This is not my fate!”
He felt warmth and tingles begin to surge through the tips of his toes. The feeling rose. One last defying glance in the mirror and a final remaining note caught his eye.
“Number eight: The past is in the past. DO NOT GO BACK.”