Monday, October 21, 2019

To and Fro By James Rumpel

James Rumpel's character tries to live his best life while jumping involuntarily backwards and forwards through time.

The heart rate monitor droned on. The rhythmic beeping created an odd combination of annoyance and comfort. It may have been irritating and monotonous but constant noise reassured me that I was still alive. Every inch of my body was in pain. It took all of my internal strength to find the will to turn my head a tiny amount and gaze on the group of people standing by the door of my hospital room. There I saw another of the infinite supply of nameless doctors conferring with Susan, my son, John, and one one of my grandchildren. I was not certain of the grandchild's name, not because my mind was addled or my thoughts negatively affected by the pain, but because of the great number of grandchildren I had during my lives. It was difficult to keep track of all the different names my children had selected for their offspring during the different iterations of my existence.

Susan, lovely Susan, was clearly being given the obvious bad news. Her face, still attractive even as she approached the age of seventy, expressed her sadness. I wished I could tell her that there was still hope. I could still be granted a reprieve and we could be young and together again. I could not relay that information to her, however. My body would not let me speak. The cancer was that close to victory. Even if I could have told her, she would not have believed me. My story was too incredible.

My amazing journeys through life and time began when I was fifteen years old. That moment was one of the clearest memories I retained. I easily recalled many of the early incidents. It was the later, multiple events that became intertwined and confused. On that day, I was walking home from baseball practice. The day was no different than any other until suddenly it was.

Without any warning, I found myself sitting on the sofa of a cramped apartment. A beautiful young woman rested her head on my shoulder as we watched some sort of superhero movie on a flat-screen television set. The woman was Susan, my new wife. I turned my head and admired her. She looked up and smiled. Her smile radiated with love and devotion. The smile I returned did the same.

I knew who she was because my mind was filled with a multitude of memories from the last eight years. I vividly remembered meeting Susan at a college party. I had been instantly smitten and had known from the earliest stages of that initial encounter that we were meant for each other. I recalled all of our happy times and all of our sad experiences. My mother had died three years earlier. We had been married in June. As strongly as I recollected all of these things, something was not right. My mind was filled with memories, but I had not experienced any of these events. Even though I recalled hundreds of moments and incidents, I had not lived them. Somehow, I had jumped forward in time.

I never told Susan or anyone else about the strange disconnect I felt. I went on living my new life. It was easy to do, after all, I had all the memories I would have had had I actually lived those years. For the next five years, life was fantastic. Susan and I had our first child: an amazing daughter we named Sarah. We were not rich but we lived comfortably. We bought a small house in the suburbs and grew to love each other more each day. I was able to forget about the jump in time I had made. Everything was good.

The second jump sent me even further into the future. Now I was forty-two years old. Susan and I had three children. Sarah was a junior in high school. She had grown to be a fine young adult. Our two sons, Samuel and Steven, were both wonderful boys. They were full of energy and a zest for life. Susan's and my love for each other was as strong as ever. We had moved into a much larger house in the country. Again, I remembered many years' worth of events without having lived them. I wanted to tell Susan about the time jumps, but to be honest, I wasn't certain they existed. There was a strong possibility that these perceived gaps in time were just my imagination or some kind of minor psychosis. Maybe I had lived through all of these events and simply didn't believe that I had. For six or seven more years, life went on uninterrupted.

Suddenly I was sitting in my car in my high school's parking lot. I was eighteen and a senior. Today was the day of the conference championship baseball game. As I waited for the team bus to arrive to take us to the game, I realized that I had a lifetime of future memories. I found myself shaking uncontrollably as thoughts of Susan and our life together erupted in my mind. How could this be? How could I know with such exact detail what the future would hold? Then I remembered the time jumps. Instinctively, I knew what had happened. This time I had jumped backward in time. My body was that of high school age me, but my mind was that of the version of me who had lived nearly fifty years.

I didn't know what to do. Surely, no one would believe my story. I had a difficult time believing my story. I decided to just go on living my life. It would be easy. I was blessed with the recollection of much of what was going to happen. Maybe this time I would get to experience meeting Susan and falling in love. It would be more than a memory. I had the opportunity to fix the mistakes that I had made. I would be able to warn my mother and have her get a physical before she became too ill.

As I stood in centerfield during the final inning of the game, I was able to recall what was about to happen. My team held a one-run lead but the opposition was about to score two runs on a hit that dropped in front of me. I had always felt guilty about not making the catch and letting my team down. Now, I had the opportunity to avoid that guilt. I crept in a couple of steps, preparing for what was about to happen. At the crack of the bat, I started racing in. The hit was much shorter than I remembered. Even with my anticipated head start, it looked like I wasn't going to get to the ball in time to make the catch. At the last possible second, I went into a slide, attempting to get my glove as close to the ground as possible to make the catch. As I slid, my cleats got caught in the outfield grass. Searing pain shot through my knee at it was twisted and bent at an incredibly awkward angle. I screamed. It felt as if my knee and lower leg had been ripped from my body. The ball fall to the ground, untouched.

The doctor told me that he had never seen a knee torn up that badly in a non-contact injury. Every ligament in my left knee had been torn from the bone. Repairing the damage required multiple surgeries. I found myself missing a great deal of school and my many absences showed in my ACT results. I was unable to gain admittance to the university of my choice: the school Susan would attend. The path of my life had taken a dramatic and undesirable turn.

I made every attempt to find and meet Susan. I was eventually able to find her but by that time she had a boyfriend and did not have the time for a broke technical college student. I was going to live the rest of my life without my one true love. Yet, I was to be haunted by the memories of what could have, should have, been.

I made a jump or two forward during that life. I never married; no other woman could ever match the standard that Susan had established. I led a lonely existence as an air conditioning repairman. I did take some comfort from visiting my mother after her successful treatment. It was a good thing they had discovered the tumor early.

At one point I slipped back to a time in my late twenties and lived that portion of my life for a second, or third, time. I found myself to be a bitter man. How could I enjoy my existence knowing that I was meant to live one that was so much more rewarding? I was supposed to have the life I remembered experiencing originally.

Eventually, I was sixteen again. Now with two lifetimes of possible memories to deal with. I took every action possible to guarantee entrance into college with Susan. I let that ball drop without making much of an effort. I didn't care.

Four years later, at a college party, I spied Susan from across the room. It had been a lifetime since I had seen her. She was as beautiful as ever. Her shoulder-length light brown hair framed a perfect face. If I were not already madly in love with her, I would have instantly fallen for her as soon as she flashed her smile. A smile that instantly displayed humor, compassion, and intelligence. I could barely contain my emotion as I went up to her and introduced myself, trying to replay the scene as close to how I remembered it from all those years earlier.

We had a wonderful evening together. It wasn't long before we were a couple. However, something just was not right. I still loved her with my entire heart and soul, but I didn't feel that love truly reciprocated. After a couple of months, Susan broke up with me. It was then that I realized that I was not the same person I had been in our first relationship. I was much more jaded, negative. The lifetime of loneliness had changed me. I vowed to lose that persona and become the person Susan needed me to be. Luckily, I was given many more chances.

There were many more lives after that. The memories became a mixed jumble of similar but not identical lifetimes. Usually, I was able to be with Susan. We had many lifetimes together. I cherished all of them. I knew that at any moment I could be thrust back in time and have to earn her love once again.

I made mistakes in a number of my lives. In one iteration, I made the mistake of being forthright about my time travel. After much psychological analysis and treatment, I was diagnosed as schizophrenic. The medication affected me, changed me. That was not a good lifetime. When I finally returned to a point prior, I made certain to not divulge my secret ever again.

Scientist and philosophers talk about how a single seemingly insignificant event can have a huge effect on the future. I verified that fact when I attempted to take advantage of my time hopping by wagering on a sporting event. I had distinct memories of the Atlanta Braves winning game seven of the World Series on a ninth-inning home run the year I turned twenty-eight. I made certain to wager quite a large amount of money on the Braves to win the championship that season. I sat with a smug smile plastered on my face as the final game approached its conclusion. With two outs and a runner on base, the final hitter stepped to the plate. I jumped from my seat in jubilation as the batter made solid contact and sent the ball hurling to deep center field. Absolute shock and dismay took over as the ball nestled into the centerfielder's glove for the final out. I lost the bet. I was broke. I had failed Susan and my family. The rest of that lifetime was not pleasant.

I often wondered if I had done something to cause the change in time's path. It was conceivable. I concocted theories in which my failure to do something as simple as purchase an apple lead to the Braves' player not being at peak form for the game. It could also be that there is a degree of pure randomness to every path of time. Maybe some things just changed without cause from time to time. Whatever the reason, I learned to not mess with fate.

As I lay in the hospital bed, I could not begin to guess how many lives I had lived. Except for the really important events, they had all melded together. The most recent jump forward had placed me in a time when I was nearly seventy years old and sick with cancer. The doctors and my family explained my occasional confusion as senility or a result of the illness. I knew better.

As I waited for the end, I honestly believed that I would soon move back in time once again. I had no idea why I was chosen to constantly move to and fro across time but I knew there had to be a reason and that I had more to accomplish. I decided that if I were to make another jump backward, I would find a way to record my story. I planned to write it down or make a recording of all that I had experienced.

My attention was drawn back to the present as I felt someone take my hand into theirs. It was Susan. It was hard to focus on her through the pain and tears in my eyes. I managed to find the strength to mouth the words, "I love you."

She replied, "I love you too. I always have." After a short pause, she added, "You've led a full life."

Inside, I smiled and thought, "You have no idea."

5 comments:

  1. Interesting premise. I can relate to the jumps forward, several stretches in my brain feel a bit like that...

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  2. Well written story. The premise was intriguing, like Billy Pilgrim in Vonnegut's 'Slaughterhouse 5' unstuck in time, but in this case unstuck thru many lifetimes, which were always slightly different. Imaginative. A twist on the old adage 'what might have been'

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  3. Great take on other lives we live, or could have lived, in our imagination.

    I especially liked the line, "I led a lonely existence as an air conditioning repairman."

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  4. This is a well-worn premise but the author still makes it work by focusing on the volume of lives lived and their 'melding' together. I wished there had been a little more 'showing' instead of 'telling' to make us feel how shocking and disorienting this experience would be. Great conclusion to the story. Well done.

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