First, I tested the contraption on objects: a heavy skeleton key, a glass of tap water, the watch I wore on my left wrist. I sent these things into the near future and as planned, they appeared in my home a week later without fanfare or fuss. Then I moved onto the living: a delicate orchid, a goldfish swimming circles in a plastic bowl, a rabbit so terrified that I could feel its heartbeat thrumming against my fingertips. Later, I found the orchid, dewy with all its petals and leaves intact. I found the goldfish opening and closing its mouth in silent consternation, suspended in crystal clear water. The rabbit, which had somehow escaped upon arriving at its temporal destination, was eventually located underneath my bed, shivering amongst its dusty kin.
Next I turned the dial backwards, stepping into the coffin-shaped room where the countdown of my own recorded voice preceded the whirring of gears and machinery. I had purchased a cheap wall-mounted mirror under the mistaken notion that it would make the chamber feel more expansive. I couldn’t tell whether my reflection showed terror or elation. Or maybe it was weary resignation, like a bird coming to roost after flying across an ocean.
I had programmed an exact date and time into the machine: two hours before we dressed in our best going-out tops and cheap heels, sharing lipstick and hairspray in the cramped apartment bathroom. Right before we drove to the bar to celebrate Gina’s new “big girl job” and met up with Celeste who had brought her nineteen-year-old sister. Marie should have never made it past the bouncer, but with enough eyeliner she looked older. She had just broken up with her boyfriend, and Celeste was the kind of big sister who knew how to procure a fake ID. We all drank too much, but I missed the last round of shots because I was in line for the women’s restroom.
In the machine, with my stale breath and pale reflection for company, I held the sharp aftertaste of a tequila shot in my mouth. I smelled Celeste’s warm amber perfume mixing with her sweat as we danced, sloppily throwing arms around waists and shoulders. I heard Gina’s raspy voice at the end of the night saying to me, you didn’t have as much as the rest of us. You’ll be fine to drive. I felt the stutter of hesitation in my chest before Marie let loose the tears that had been burbling beneath the surface all night, and Celeste said while casting me a meaningful look, it’s okay honey. We’ll take you home right now.
I did not remember how the keys felt in my hand, whether they were cool to the touch or as hot as a blade drawn from the forge.
The time machine groaned and my stomach flipped at the sensation of an elevator free fall. I juddered and lurched to a stop. I braced sweating palms against the plywood walls, heedless of splinters burrowing into skin. The door opened a crack on impact, letting in the familiar, aching scents of fresh laundry and that too-sweet tropical plug-in air freshener Gina insisted on using in every room. The other girls (because we were girls back then, nowhere near the sophisticated adult women we imagined) would not be home yet. In time travel lore, travelers were always warned of the peril of encountering their past selves. It could lead to accidental annihilation of the current self, a self-immolation like the lit end of a cigarette pressed to the exact place you inhabited in the fabric of space and time.
But this was my very reason for returning. I stepped out of the machine without fear and met my younger self lounging on her unmade bed with her dirty Converse sneakers on. I felt the full-bodied relief of knowing I had arrived in time, but also an unexpected stab of anger towards this untroubled self. I barely recognized her.
This thought was quickly chased away by pain, more pain than I’d ever known in my life. My fingers blurred at the tips and then dissipated into tequila-scented vapor. I gritted my teeth, which had gone soft and gummy in my mouth, and held out my hand, saying, take this and read it as soon as I’m gone. I had carefully written and rewritten the letter in the future, and hoped that my words would serve their purpose: a last-ditch caution, a desperate invocation.
The papers slid through my translucent hand and fell to the floor.
I begin the wrenching process of unexisting.
In the end, I do not think of Gina, or Marie, or Celeste. I do not think of my parents, aged and comfortably tucked away in their home of twenty-five years. I do not think of my past self, though she stands before me with a horrified expression, hugging my letter to her chest.
Instead, I focus on the memory of the rabbit, silent and still, yet suffused with warmth in my hands.
I recall the twitch of a nose, sampling the air of a different timeline.
Then I let go.
About the author:
Teresa Pham-Carsillo is a Vietnamese American writer who was born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area. After graduating with a BA in Creative Writing from the University of California, Davis, she became an office-bound marketer, stealing time in the early and late hours of the day to write short stories and poems. Teresa’s fiction and poetry has been featured or is forthcoming in several publications, including: The Penn Review, St. Katherine Review, Salt Hill Journal, and the Minnesota Review.