Maria climbed the flimsy fold-out ladder up into the attic and blew a stray strand of hair out of her eyes in frustration. There was so much cleaning to do in this old house and the attic was no exception. It was a mess. There was a thick layer of dust coating all of the old bookshelves, boxes, and artwork her grandfather had collected. She thought cleaning would help keep her occupied enough to let go of the day’s frustrations. Moving her classes online and troubleshooting her students’ technical issues took much more time than the actual teaching. She was also worried about the future. How long would things go on like this? Would both of their jobs survive? Would they survive?

She started dusting off some boxes in a corner to see if they could be arranged in a more organized fashion when she noticed a large old painting on the wall in the back corner. She didn’t recognize it from when they moved into this old family home years ago and put some things they wouldn’t miss up here. She attempted to wipe away the dust to see what the painting contained, but her hand reached right through it. Maria held her breath as she stepped into the frame and then found herself to be floating, weightless, with inky darkness all around her. As a physics professor, this discovery was thrilling. Her mind raced with questions about whether she was in space or another dimension.

Toward the beginning of the semester Maria had explained Einstein’s theory to her students about how time isn’t absolute or independent of us. It can be stretched and squeezed depending on how fast we’re moving. She dazzled them with her response to whether time travel was possible. “It is!” she exclaimed. This was always her favorite lecture of the course. “If you travel close to the speed of light you can slow time down. When you stop, less time would have gone by for you than the rest of the world and you would essentially find yourself in the future!” She always felt the drop in enthusiasm when the students thought about how practical it was to travel at the speed of light, but she didn’t let that dampen her excitement. If only her students could see her now!

A huge virtual wheel appeared, similar to the Price is Right wheel but made up of three number dials. The first one was set to 4, the second to 24, the third to 2020. Even though the dials were more of an image than a tangible object, she noticed she could still move them with her finger, similar to the touchscreen of her phone. She lightly flicked the first one up and a frame appeared next to the wheel, the same size as the one she had stepped through. The number on the first wheel stopped on 1, and she saw an image appear in the frame. It was her and her husband from a few months ago. They were in the kitchen going over the bills and deciding which house repairs were the priority. Should they get the broken fence fixed first or the leaking bathroom faucet handle? They couldn’t afford to fix both. That must have been January 24th. This wheel could take her back in time. 

Maria’s mind was then flooded with thoughts of time evolution equations. Could this be a closed timelike curve? Would her experience prove Novikov’s rule or was this a parallel universe as Deutsch’s prescription proposed? 

She brought her attention back to the image in the frame. Life was so different then. Most of their problems now seemed simple, as their world was still functioning normally at that time. Back in January, going to the grocery store wasn’t a dangerous expedition that required extensive planning and sanitizer. Now everything was upside down and she was stuck at home, cleaning the attic, worrying about all the death happening out there, wondering who it would claim next. Her hand impulsively reached out toward the frame, wondering what it would be like to step back into that day. But she quickly pulled it back. There was a lot more to explore with this wheel and she thought about chaos theory, which made her nervous about causing some type of butterfly effect with anything she would do in the past through time travel. 

Maria touched the third dial and pushed it up until it landed on 2009. She moved the first and second wheels until they reflected dates around when she started grad school and everything was so exciting. The image showed her and her new classmate friends at a bar, learning about each other’s stories and research focuses. A bar! How free they had been to gather in groups and touch, breathe the same air. She noticed the image in the frame wasn’t as clear as the one from January. It appeared mildly faded like a decade-old painting. 

She nudged the year wheel up to where it stopped on 2007, then moved the first dial to 6, taking her to when she was in Italy. What an incredible trip! The Museo Galileo was everything she had dreamed and she remembered spending countless hours studying each item there, followed by relaxing evenings of wine tasting. That was a memorable time in her life, but this image was even more faded than the 2009 one, making the details a little fuzzy. 

This time Maria decided to pick a random date without looking. She swiped the third dial up a few notches and then flung the first and second ones to land on completely different numbers. She got 7, 16, 2005. Her heart sank as she remembered what happened early that morning. How could it land on that date randomly? She was hesitant to look at the image in the frame, knowing how heartbroken and gutted she felt that day. The pain of losing her best friend to a drunk driver was excruciating and she never thought she’d pull herself out of that level of despair. The image showed her on the floor, but it was so faded she couldn’t see the details of her own face, or the exact room she was in. 

She quickly tried to think of a much happier date and moved the dials to land on 5, 3, 2014. Their wedding day. She saw her husband at one end of the aisle as she was approaching him from the other. Her heart swelled as she remembered how full of love and gratitude they both were on that day. She saw her beautiful friends and family twisted in their seats to admire her. She thought of her flowing satin dress as she rested her hand on her heart. For a second she forgot she was in some strange time travel portal connected to her attic and got swept away in the joy of that moment. It wasn’t perfectly clear though. Along with the other images she’d seen, it was a bit faded, like it wouldn’t be there forever. 

Maria moved the dials to show 10, 28, 1999. Her 13th birthday! Her mother had thrown her a surprise party with all of her friends which was both humiliating and wonderful. This image was pretty faded though, where she could make out how many people were there, but not exactly who. She thought back on who her friends were at the time and what they cared about at that age. Being cool, talking to boys at coed parties, being smart but not too smart. It was better to be funny and nice. But not too nice. Those were such simple and unnecessarily complicated times. 

She moved the third dial up to 1992 and saw what must have been her 6th birthday party. Unfortunately the image was so faint she could barely make out what was going on. 

Oh! She was jolted by the realization that this trip down memory lane was interesting, but what if the dials turned the other way too? According to Einstein’s theory, it was easier to travel into the future anyway, so she might as well take a peek. Her pulse quickened with this thought as she had never fully made up her mind on whether she believed in fate or free will. Her science background helped her understand how the universe works, but the why was left up to philosophical theories. She typically leaned toward the idea of free will, but there was always a small part of her that questioned the idea. Maybe it’s a combination of the two? Maybe she was about to find out?

With a slight tremble in her hand Maria touched the third dial and guided it to 2020, which would put her at her next birthday toward the end of this current year. She saw herself and she looked happy (phew!) but it wasn’t clear who or what else was around her. The image wasn’t faded like when she went back in time, but blurry, like she was looking through a thick tinted window. She started to push the third dial down to 21 but then stopped. What if there was nothing there? Did she really want to know how much longer she would live? Especially with everything happening in the world, Maria felt more nervous about this idea than she ever had before. 

She suddenly felt a deep yearning flow throughout her body. She wanted to go home. She wanted to go back to the present day and time even though it had been an uneventful day dealing with online teaching issues, cleaning, and worrying about the future. Of course she now had this exciting adventure she could start writing about, looking for the theories to explain where she was, but her heart was pulling her back toward the attic as she left it. She wanted to find her husband in their home office and hug him and breathe in his scent of old spice with a touch of morning coffee. 

Maria carefully moved the wheel dials to show 4, 24, 2020 and let out a sigh of relief when the frame’s image was a clear view of the attic, just the way she left it. She reached toward it and her hand went through the image again. She stepped back into her dusty attic and her skin tingled with a new appreciation for the blood pumping through her veins and the air she was breathing. Everything she had been through in her life got her to this moment. She doesn’t know what exactly the future holds, but what she has right now is all she can really touch, and it is enough.

April 24, 2020 20:05

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Cynthia Prokarym
21:30 Apr 29, 2020

I love how you included the current shelter-in-place scenario in this story, as well as how you used physics to explain certain possibilities. Absolutely wonderful story. Great job!


Lauren Oertel
19:16 May 01, 2020

Thanks so much! I've found that sometimes it's helpful to write with the pandemic being a given, but not focusing on it. It can be hard to read so many books/stories where the world is like it was before it is now, feeling like everything is now so different. But I also don't really want to write about the pandemic directly... I noticed you did something similar with your story!


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