The Time When Time Went Backwards by David Pring-Mill

David Pring-Mill's quirky tale of two friends looking for love while time collapses around them.

The buildings of downtown Vancouver were mostly made of glass, with bluish and green tints. New buildings were springing up all the time, and there was an Ikea-esque quality to their clean, modern style. Two young people wandered around beneath the towers. Emma had a wide smile and milky white skin. Pete was a tall man who was determined to grow a goatee, although the reddish follicles on his chin could not be persuaded. He kissed Emma goodbye at the steam clock in Gastown.

Pete had been raised in South Florida, in an area overtaken by gated communities and McMansions. Existence down there was lonely, and everyone was in denial. He often thought: We tell ourselves we want spacious homes. Then we create more space between us, in order to have more space for ourselves. Wanting a home... leads to alienation. And indeed, as a teenager, he had sat in one of the McMansions of his friends, and watched his friend's parents call out to one another across needlessly large living rooms and patios, and the echoes confirmed the emptiness.

Pete didn't miss Florida. Recently, he had seen a Brazilian friend's status update on Facebook, which read: "Saudades, Rio de Janeiro." When he Googled it, Wikipedia informed him: "Saudade is a Portuguese and Galician word that has no direct translation in English." It went on further to state: "Saudade is the recollection of feelings, experiences, places or events that once brought excitement, pleasure, well-being, which now triggers the senses and makes one live again."

Pete found it fascinating that the word had no direct translation, and the state was that of both absence and fond recollection - two contradictory feelings. He wondered what other emotional states lacked suitable English words. After a little contemplation, he landed upon "love dread," deciding that whenever he was falling in love, he also dreaded what he perceived to be the inevitable end of that love. He wanted to be able to grab a woman he was passionate about and say, "I love dread you," to both fill her with the affirmation of being loved but also make her aware that her status in this elevated position of love made him vulnerable to her; and thus, he also dreaded her. He thought telling her this would be the most honest of all possible expressions, if there was a way to tell it.

Pete put his hands in the pockets of his wool herringbone blazer, and he walked along the cobblestone streets of the remaining historic neighborhood. As he veered away from Cambie and Water Street, he did not notice a little red leaf rising up from the ground, fluttering through the air and reattaching itself to a branch. He was too immersed in thought to even pay attention to the reversed permutations of the Westminster Chimes, blasted out of the steam engine-powered clock behind him. The ornate streetlights turned on, then off, and all around Pete, the very concept of time seemed confused.

With total obliviousness, Pete called up his friend Maza. Maza was a short man who often wore T-shirts with images of his favorite cartoon characters.

Maza answered his phone and said, "I'm at a casino. Thinking about going up to the staff and saying, 'Excuse me, the machine ate my money.' I'm hoping I'll get away with it if I seem legitimately confused about the purpose of the slot machine and just keep insisting that I wanted a Sprite."

Pete paused for a moment. "No, that won't work."

"Yeah, you're probably right. I'm going to go brood. I'll text you."

Pete coordinated with Maza via text, and then met up with him in a café, whereupon Maza announced, "All thought is worry."

"What do you mean? That can't be true," objected Pete.

"Yes. It is."

"That isn't so."

"Well, most thoughts are worries."

"I suppose."

"No. All of them," said Maza, returning abruptly to his original stance.

Pete then realized another contradictory psychological state that deserved a confusing word: resentful gratitude. The previous month, he had asked Maza for a loan of $400. "Would $200 be good enough?" Maza had asked.

"I guess," Pete had replied, with resentful gratitude. He needed to accept any money he was offered; such was his financial position. Nevertheless, he had hoped that the loan amount would be more and had resented that it wasn't, while still being grateful to get his hands on any cash at all.

"Where is my $200?" said Maza predictably, before taking a sip from his cappuccino.

"I do not know. It is very difficult to trace the whereabouts of dollars once they are spent," replied Pete. "However, I could perhaps get you an equivalent amount, comprised of entirely different bills."

"That would interest me greatly," replied Maza.

Pete briskly left.

That night, Emma flopped down on her couch, grabbed a blue pen, and began her passionate, daily scrawl. She added a new entry to her diary:

I read online that the National Archives are desperately under-funded. There's this building in Washington, D.C. They have important papers there. Like, scrolls and treaties that were signed between colonists and Native Americans and that sort of thing. They use these special chemical processes to restore and preserve the documents, and they store them in a government-owned cave, because apparently a cave is just a really effective and natural way to preserve things away from heat and light and moisture. But the budget sequester is yanking their funds, and they have thousands of documents backed up.
It's like a race against time, against lack of funding, against inevitability. These are important pieces of history! But we lose history all the time, through carelessness. The old Penn Station was more beautiful than Grand Central. It was full of light, and made of pink granite, and it had these Roman columns and lots of ornate details... They tore it down and gutted it to build Madison Square Garden, a stupid stadium! Now it's just this dark thing with underground train tracks and it smells like piss. I went there once. So much for 'modernization.'
And once, Truman took bulldozers into the White House and just cleared out all the insides. So, the White House now isn't really much older than the 40s. It's not like the rooms in there are rooms that Lincoln sat in. All they kept were the walls, really.
And when I think about global warming, there are all these species going extinct, you know? I mean, we honest to God might lose the polar bear. But the world is constantly creating strange and new forms of life. When I think about these things, about polar bears going extinct, stained glass windows being shattered, and old documents crumbling to dust, there's something inside of me that sort of feels twisted. It's like a twinge that there's something wrong there. It disturbs me, in a nagging, restless sort of way. It's almost OCD, really.
I wonder if this compulsion to save these things isn't actually more personal - about me wanting to save myself, or the people in my life, or my experiences. I don't know. Because it can't be done! None of it can be saved, in the grand scheme of things. There will be natural disasters or our sun will burn up and burn out and this stuff will burn and freeze or however it all goes down. (Even the words that we use to assign meaning are not constant - languages change over time, and languages die. There are fewer and fewer languages, every year.)
A lot of people are ignorant nowadays, but really, even with the people who know their history, who can remember back longer than a century or two? I mean, with each decade back, there's just this increasing vagueness in my mind, and I try to be aware of these sorts of things. But what's the point? We're all going to fall into the vagueness of history.
But maybe that's good. Maybe this is how the Earth, and life on Earth, stays active and rejuvenated - by letting go of the old, by accepting that change. We think it's bad, but it's good.
Anyway. That's all for tonight. Xoxo Emma

Pete wrote nothing that night. He watched sitcoms on the internet and then went to bed. The next morning, there was a thumping, relentless knock on Pete's front door. When Pete answered it groggily, he was confronted by Maza and a thug.

"This is a thug," said Maza, nodding his head towards the thug. "He will break your legs if you don't give me my money now."

Pete chuckled nervously.

"It's not a joke," said Maza.

"You said it was a joke," said the thug. "I can't break a man's legs, I'm on parole."

"You just ruined the joke," said Maza.

"But you just said it wasn't a joke," said the thug.

"You can go now," said Maza. He paid the thug and the thug left.

Maza entered Pete's apartment and sat down on the couch. "I'm still thinking about Sandra," he announced. "That's why I was gambling, really... to forget about her. I miss Sandra deeply. She was purpose and she was mystery. Both at once! Do you know what I mean by that?"


"Neither do I."

Pete began to boil water in a kettle. As he did so, he said, "To me, relationships are starting to seem like they just aren't worth it. You know the expression 'behind every strong man, there's a strong woman'? Well, I believe that to an extent. I do feel more empowered and productive when I'm in a good relationship. The problem is, the time immediately before and afterwards - leading into a relationship and recovering from one."

Pete sat on the couch beside Maza and waited as the water boiled. He continued, "You see, a relationship is like a casino."

"Thank you for explaining this to me in terms that I, as a gambling addict, can easily understand," said Maza chirpily.

"No problem. So, the house always wins. You never have a net gain. I mean, you go to Vegas, maybe come out on top, five hundred dollars. So you feel like a winner. But you're mentally blocking out the times before that when you lost money, and you'll probably lose money on your next visit, and you had to pay money to get there and stay in the hotel. So you're never actually getting a net gain. That's what relationships are like to me. Intimacy is... a gambling addiction, so to speak."

"I would like to turn back the clock of time, to be with Sandra again, to do things differently," said Maza.

There was a sudden knock on the door. Pete frowned, and then went over and opened it. A gaunt man was standing in the hallway, looking kind of paranoid.

"Want to know a secret?" asked the stranger, his eyes shifting.

"Sure," said Pete, hesitantly.

"Have you ever heard of the space-time continuum?"


"I'm the one who broke it," said the man.

"It's broken?"

"As of ten a.m. this morning, yes," said the man. "Well, not this morning, a future morning. Ten a.m. to me. These designations went from being senseless to even more senseless, of course."

"Oh, okay," said Pete, reaching to close the door. "Thanks for the mind bomb, future man."

"You don't understand!" exclaimed the future man. "Time tore me out of the lab and propelled me here, to your dark century, the age of ignorance!"

"I wouldn't say we're the age of ignorance..." said Pete, somewhat defensively.

"You wouldn't say that because of how ignorant you are," replied the future man. "Within the coming hour, time will begin a process of reversal and the universe will collapse into itself. You should say goodbye to everyone you care about. In exchange for this information, all I request is a light meal of nutritional content packets and herbs."

"I'm sorry?" asked Pete.

"I think this dude wants to have lunch, on us," said Maza, who was now standing behind Pete.

"Time travel has indeed left me famished," admitted the stranger.

"We were kind of in the middle of a conversation, um..." stammered Pete.

"Let's go along with this," suggested Maza.

"Why?" asked Pete.

Maza shrugged his shoulders. "Because he's clearly a time traveler and he knows stuff. I want to show my ex-girlfriend a dinosaur. She would totally want me back if I could be the guy who took her to see a dinosaur," said Maza excitedly.

"I will try my best to manifest a dinosaur!" cried the future man.

The three men walked down the block to a nearby fast food restaurant. As soon as the future man stepped inside, a look of horror became plastered on his face. He saw patties of meat entering mouths, and people chewing and then wiping their lips with napkins, and he was revolted by it. He glanced up at photographs of the various menu items, and his eyes bulged out. "My God, it's true!" he cried. "People back then - people back now - really did eat mammalian flesh. Oh, the savagery. The savagery!"

At that, the future man turned and ran out of the restaurant, where he immediately vomited into one of the outdoor trashcans. Pete and Maza looked at the door as it swung shut. Then they stepped forward and filed into the line. They ordered burgers, fries, and sodas. Sitting at a table by the window, they discussed the recent development.

"He did seem genuinely shocked just now. I mean, it all seemed new to him. What if he's telling the truth?" asked Maza.

Pete thought about it. "You're right. Maybe we should say our goodbyes to everyone just in case."

Pete sat on a SkyTrain, which was heading over to Emma's apartment. As he contemplated existential matters and stared blindly ahead, he was brought back into reality by a baby and a woman, two seats ahead of him. The baby boy clutched onto his mother's shoulder, and peered at Pete with wide blue eyes.

Pete was struck suddenly by the honesty of a baby. He realized that adults have been taught not to stare at one another - but babies haven't been indoctrinated with this strange etiquette. They are unapologetically, unashamedly willing to observe and connect with another being's eyes. Pete smiled, and the baby smiled back. Then Pete looked away, even though he felt the baby continuing to stare. He realized that it was possible to communicate emotions with a baby through eye contact, and the baby would then mirror that emotion. Pete was afraid that the baby would somehow mysteriously be able to perceive his inner sadness and receive it, and he did not want that. He wanted the baby to stay as it was.

At Emma's apartment, Pete sat with Emma on her couch. At Sandra's apartment, an out-of-breath Maza arrived. And so the two men explained everything, and they kissed their skeptical love interests as time began to reverse backwards, and money and schedules were put into the proper albeit fading perspective, and the expanse of the universe swirled like water down a drain, and adults turned back into babies and shot up out of doctors' arms and into wombs and all of mankind became reduced in quantity across billions of Russian nesting dolls scattered across the crust of the Earth, and the Earth itself turned into soup, and everything condensed into one rock that knew nothing of its potential and lacked all cognizance.


  1. in no way is this my kind of story. but I started to read it and really liked it, the characters, the thought processes, a real stream of consciousness,
    but with some interesting points: things don´t stay the same, but shouldn´t we hold onto the good things?

    Well done

    Mike McC

  2. This is rich in possibilities. For me, some parts worked better than others.The banter between Pete and Maza was great, funny and sardonic with some nice twists. I got a bit lost around Emma's diary entry and the first two paras of the last section? However the overarching conceit was engaging, and I thought that it could lead to a longer form. I loved the exploraton of language and meaning. Thank you for a stimulating piece,

  3. Hi David, I got the message; what would you do differently if you could turn back time. (Not sure if the girlfriend would agree). I found this a light read, which was comical in places and full of interjections from the author's philosophical take on life - perhaps this was the main purpose of Emma's diary, which could easily have been left out without affecting the story. The 'joke -thug scene' I thought was brilliant. It was short, concise and gave us a great characterization of the thug. The ending for me came rather suddenly and jumped in context, although it was satisfying that the men got emotionally back with their girlfriends, the idea of a time reverse, I thought was the big question. Where did it all begin? We did not get an answer.
    Overall I enjoyed reading this as it kept me engaged, Pete was interesting enough to create intrigue for me.


  4. Your story reminds us that most of what we consider so important today and into which we invest so much emotion, really won't matter a row of beans in the long term. (Some of the personal stuff will be hard to recall six months don't the line!) Happiness really is a choice, dependent on how we choose to react to things. I loved the humour with which you touched on some of life's truths. I do agree with Michael, though, that we should hold fast to the good that comes our way. Yours is a novel and quirky take on life!

  5. I have not encountered people remotely like these characters since college last millennium. Today they would irritate me intensely now that all of my philosophical bones are gone.

    I share the opinion on McMansions. Many years ago I was in love/dread, so I can get next to that.

  6. story for patient readers

  7. This story is like casino. You have to be patient till the last words. I think that author know something about casinos I prefer this type of entertainment. It's relaxing and fun

  8. Great!
    I'd like to read the real end of this story!