There are places where the world runs backwards. I am one of them.
The world broke apart, again and again. The city lit up like noon, but in the middle of the night. The ground shivered and bucked and convulsed beneath my feet like a body wracked with pain. Silence roared around me and clamor followed in its wake. I tasted salt and iron, ash and smoke. Static danced across my tongue, buzzed in my ears. The distant city fell. I didn’t see the skyscrapers tumbling and burning, but I felt the collapse in my bones, in the violent trembling of the earth. And I was curled on the floor, helpless in the face of utter wrath, unable to save even myself. Was it me screaming, or the world around me?
I am being stretched, molecules ripped in half. My vision is split. I see myself running, as I was just moments ago--a young woman. And then I am three. An old woman stumbling along, a young woman, and a child. Pain and electricity slice through my body like a lightning strike from head to toe. Grassy field and cloudy sky around me waver. I am torn to pieces and stitched together again. My scream is only an inhaled breath, and then I am falling.
My vision and sense return and I am sprawled across the sidewalk. My face is pressed against a crack in the concrete. I pick myself up, shivering and sweating and shaking my head. What is wrong with me? I can’t even remember what I was doing just now. I look down at myself. I’m wearing shorts, and tennis shoes. Earbuds trail from my pocket. Jogging? Was I jogging? I press the heels of my hands against my eyes. My head aches. I need to go home and lie down, I think. Maybe I didn’t drink enough water.
It is still the gray of early morning as I walk the quiet streets back to my home. My body aches, and my head. I am a little bit afraid of myself. I keep glancing down at my hands. What was that? I hope it wasn’t some kind of stroke or something.
I arrive at my house, but as I reach for the doorknob, something twists in my stomach. My face feels hot. I am filled with the squirming sensation of embarrassment. What the heck is wrong with me?
The door won’t open. It’s locked. What? I pat my pockets, searching for my keys. The door swings open and I look up. An older woman wearing a robe over a nightgown peers suspiciously at me.
“What do you want?” she snaps at me. “I thought you were some kind of raccoon or something, scrabbling at my door like that. You’re not a thief are you? I’ll call the police.”
“No...no ma’am. I’m sorry...I...live here.”
She scowls at me, looking me up and down. “You certainly do not. And last I checked, I didn’t have any grown daughters.” She squints at me. “You drunk?”
I stumble back from the doorstep, putting a hand to my head. Am I drunk? But I distinctly remember this house belonging to me. I kissed my husband in the kitchen. And how many times did I have to poke my head out the back door to check on my small children playing in the back yard?
I glance down at my hands again. My ring finger is bare.
“I”m sorry ma’am, I must have the wrong place,” I say. “I’m not feeling too well.”
“I’d say.” The woman slams her door shut.
I don’t live in a house in the suburbs. I live in an apartment complex with two of my friends. Why did I come here?
I finally make it home. One of my housemates has already gone to work, and the other is still asleep in her room. I drink two full glasses of water as I stand in the kitchen, one hand on the counter. I contemplate whether or not I need to call a doctor. Or maybe I ought to just go back to bed? I decide to make a bit of breakfast instead. I pop two pieces of bread into the toaster and start scrambling a couple of eggs in a pan.
The smoke became the incense of my temple. The air in parts of the city always smelled of it, from the fires that never died out. Even in the places where the smoldering had finally ceased the rubble still smelled of smoke and char. It was only fitting that the place where I held court was in the ruins. They called me Prophetess, or Seer, or Oracle. They called me The Knowing One, The Far-Seeing Eye. Some even called me Goddess. I refused to talk to those ones, always. Day and night the people came to me. They tried to make me a leader, and when I refused they made me into a figure of sacred wisdom like the oracles of old. They came to me asking for my advice, for mitigation in their conflicts, for a bit of peace from the pain, for guidance about the future. I couldn’t help them. I couldn’t save them. I tried to do what I could, using the few glimpses I had about what would come later. Some tried to give me gifts, but I always refused. There was nothing wise or magic or sacred about me. I was different because I bore the burden of broken knowledge. But in the end, I was mostly useless to them all. They came to me all the same.
“Hannah! What happened?”
The smoke alarm is blaring in our apartment. My roommate is standing in our dining room in her t-shirt and shorts staring at me wide-eyed. Smoke drifts from the pan on the stove. The eggs are a blackened mess. I snatch the pan from the burner, waving at the air above it furiously. My roommate opens all the windows and turns on the fan above the stove. I scrape the burnt eggs into the trash. The worst bits are stuck to the pan still. I’m going to have to scrub it pretty hard to get the remnants off the bottom.
“Is everything okay?” Alexa asks, once the smoke has cleared out and the alarm has stopped shrieking. “You were just standing there, watching it burn.”
I sit down in a chair by the window and put my head in my hands. I find that I am struggling not to cry, but I don’t know why. My chest is tight with emotion, but I can’t even name what I feel. Except fear. It is like ink streaking through the cloudy mixture of emotions.
“Oh, Hannah, what’s wrong?”
Alexa is half-crouched beside me, a tentative hand on my shoulder.
“I don’t know,” I mutter. “I’m...I think I just need to go lie down. I don’t have class until 11:30 today anyway.”
“Is there anything I can do?”
I shake my head. “Thank you, though.”
I go and lie down, after setting an alarm. My head is so foggy that it doesn’t take long to fall asleep. I dream of when I was younger. I dream of saying goodbye to my family when I moved away for college. I dream of my mother hugging me and kissing me on top of my head, trying to hide her tears and my father handing me the keys to my room and not letting go until I finally had to tug them free of his hand. But when I wake, it feels more like a dream than a memory. I sit in my bed for far too long, trying to remember what actually happened. But it’s like that event in my life was a painting dropped in water and now all that is left is blurred smears of color.
I don’t feel tired or sick now, so I decide it’s worth going to class. I drive to the university and park at my building. It’s a boxy, modern building, full of windows. But as I walk inside, and through the halls, in order to get to class, a feeling of strangeness crawls over me. And a bit of longing too. It’s strange, I think, to see the halls so full of people. Students with their backpacks and binders and books, professors and staff chatting idly outside their offices. Faces all bare, people standing close to each other, casually touching a shoulder as they leave. This isn’t how things used to be, I think. These buildings used to be mostly empty, everyone standing apart, faces masked and heads bowed.
And then I’m blinking in confusion once again.
I sit down in class. But as the professor starts, I’m certain that we’ve already gone over this material. The longer he talks, the more certain I am. We’ve covered all this. Why is he repeating it and why is no one saying anything? I raise my hand.
“Excuse me, professor,” I say. “But didn’t we just cover all this material yesterday?”
He frowns at me thoughtfully. “We just started this unit,” he says. “Didn’t we?”
The rest of the class nods as they glance my way. I can feel their eyes on me. But I remember every word he said.
“Sorry, just deja vu, I guess,” I say, slumping down in my seat a bit.
After class I head to a coffeeshop to study, even though I know all the material already. Maybe a little bit of caffeine will help me with this weird brain fog. The interior of the shop is warm and smells of brewing coffee and whipped cream. People chat amongst themselves, and the coffee machines whir as the baristas clatter behind the counter. Soft pop music plays overhead. This should help me focus. But then I catch sight of one of the ladies taking orders.
I was tired of the taste of canned corn and watered down chicken broth. The tinny taste from the metal cans never left my mouth. But that was the best we had. A young man had knocked on my door, his face apologetic when I answered. I knew what it meant. Another desperate person to disappoint. I followed down to the Hall. They had stretched a piece of canvas over the gaping hole in the ceiling. I had protested at first. I wanted to see the darkened sky. But they had done it for the supplicants, for their protection, and it had nothing to do with me. The woman who knelt at the bottom of the rubble heap of my “throne” gave off a vibe I had learned to recognize. This was someone who I had known in the past. It was a tricky thing for me, the past. I had no conscious recollection of it. To me, the past had become a dream, a thing of distant imagining. The shreds of it clung to me as feelings or drifted to me on the winds of my dreams. And this woman, she gave off a feeling. Not a strong one, however. So someone I had known, but not well.
The woman tried to clasp my feet when I got closer. Her tears dripped onto my toes. My attendants had to peel her hands away from my ankles.
“Please,” she cried. “Tell me if my son lives. Tell me if my husband will get better. Tell me of my future.”
“Please. Just tell me,” she begged. “Tell me of my future.”
“Please,” she said in a ragged whisper. “I just want to know. What do I do? I just want to know what to do. If there’s any hope…”
My heart always broke for these supplicants. They didn’t revere me like some did. They just were desperate for answers and for the slightest sliver of hope.
I laid my hand on her head. Her hair was oily beneath my palm. She gasped and looked up at me. Dark hollows lay under her eyes.
“I am sorry,” I said. “I cannot tell you your future. It isn’t that I don’t want to. But it just doesn’t work that way. I don’t see the future. I only remember it. The only things I can say are what I remember happens to me.”
“Miss. Miss, can I help you?”
The woman is standing beside me. I blink at her. But she’s so young and pretty. There’s no trace of the dark circles that haunted her eyes.
“Sorry,” I say. “Just lost in thought.”
“Let’s get you some coffee,” she says. “Looks like you might need it.”
“Yeah,” I say, with a half-hearted chuckle.
The afternoon passes in a blur, and when I get home, I can hardly remember what I did that day. I sit down at the dining room table, watching my roommate make dinner for us.
“I thought I’d cook tonight,” Alexa says to me. “Seeing as you tried to burn down the apartment this morning.”
I offer a weak smile in response.
“What’s today’s date again?” I ask.
“October 9th. Can you believe how fast this year has gone?”
In fact, I can’t. What even happened this year?
“And can you believe that next year is 2020? I don’t know why, but doesn’t that just sound like the future?” She laughs.
Alexa keeps talking, but I don’t hear her anymore. Because I remember 2020. Fires. Threats of war. A pandemic. Social and political unrest. And Alexa keeps talking about it with shining eyes. A new year. A new decade. The future.
I swallow. And I remember the years that follow.
I stand up abruptly. The chair scratches against the floor and threatens to tip over backwards. Alexa stops mid-sentence, wooden spoon in midair, and stares at me.
“What?” she says.
“The world is going to end,” I say. She gives me a look. “And I’m the only one who remembers.”
“Hannah...what are you talking about?” She says this ironically, one eyebrow raised.
“I gotta go,” I say, and I bolt out the door. I have to run. Have to clear my thoughts.
My feet pound against the concrete sidewalk. I have no destination. Just the sensation that if I run, maybe I can shake all the fog and cobwebs from my mind. The world is the gray of a fading evening around me. I reach the park. The sky is cloudy, and the grassy field ripples in a slight breeze. I stop for a second, upon reaching a crack in the sidewalk. Was I here earlier? I have the strangest feeling…
I kneel down and run my fingers along the crack. It’s the sensation of deja vu. I’ve been here before...well, I’ve run here many times. But this is different. This is where everything started. Or starts.
I glance around, the sharp edge of the cracked concrete pressing into my fingertips. Perhaps the future can change--just as memories of the past can be changed or even created. Perhaps there are others who remember the future. All I know is…
I am one of them. And there are places in this world where time runs backward.