The traveler’s dilemma

J Lopes
J Lopes
Jun 7 · 19 min read

Day 1

Two fifty-seven, points the Kit Cat Klock. Her office is deliberately designed so that even by itself, it can bring a sense of comfort and trust. This piece is her magnus opus, her effort to control the mood in the room.

The tick-tock is hypnotic, with eyes shifting to each side every second, lifting and easing sobering moments and deep dark confessions from the weights that pull them down.

She sits behind her desk, breathing deeply while contemplating the clock. She knows she needs to be harsh and difficult in the following minutes.

Three o’clock, points the Kit Cat Klock. She presses the intercom. “Laila, could you please call in my next patient?”.

“Right away, doctor”.

A silhouette appears in front of the frosted glass door and knocks.

“Please, come in”.

A young man appears from the silhouette. Well dressed. Can’t be older than 30. She opens a drawer and takes out a pen.

“Good afternoon, my name is — ”

“Have a seat”

“Ehm… Sure”, he replies, estranged by the interruption. “Is here ok?”, he asked, pointing to the chaise longue.

“That’s fine. But please don’t lie down”. She drops the pen on the desk, gets up and sits in a chair next to the patient. “What brings you here?”

He stares, stupefied. “May I introduce myself now?”

She nods, without saying a word.

“Jesus Christ, lady. For a therapist you’re doing a shit job at first impressions”

She stares back with a smirk. “What if I told you I was trying to shake you from your initial shyness?”

“I would say it worked. Holy…”, he replied, following with a long sigh.

“So, what brings you here?”

“…But I haven’t said my name yet.”

“Your name is Benson Neely. This is your first appointment. I believe that is all I should know from the start, so I can analyze what you have to say as fresh as possible”, she replied with a cold tone. “So, what brings you here?”

He looked at her thinking he might have made a huge mistake. “I, uh… I want to — ”

“Look, I’m sorry…”, she replied, interrupting him once again. “I usually only accept patients when referred by colleagues or hospitals. You deliberately sought me out. Why?”

“I want to kill myself!” He was finally able to say, out loud. He didn’t want to give her a chance to interrupt him again.

A long pause followed his announcement. She was unfazed.

“Go on…”

“Holy shit, lady…”

“Call me Eve, or doctor.”

“…What is wrong with you?!”, he asked, while raising his arms in disbelief.

Removing her glasses and staring directly to his eyes, she leans in and replies. “I can’t trust people that come to me directly for an appointment, without a good reason. Especially those that insist in addressing me as lady, and nothing else. I’m still waiting to hear it”

“I-I just told you I want to kill myself!”

“No you don’t. Stop it.”

He kept quiet, frustrated and without retort.

”If you really did want that, you wouldn’t be here. You’re looking for validation from me. But why? Why isn’t your life worth one more second on this earth?”

“…It just isn’t. And I am to blame for everything”

She remains silent. Crossing her legs and laying back on her chair she replies “I’m ready to hear what you have to say, when you’re ready to face what really brought you here.”

Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

Taken aback, he releases a long sigh. “I killed someone, many years ago. And my child isn’t born. Nothing happened like it should.”

“Wait wait wait…”, she replied, raising from her chair. “Take a step back. You came to me for help, please be as descriptive as possible”

Releasing a sigh, he replies “I’m not asking for help. Even though you’re acting a bit too self-righteous, I really want you to listen. That’s the thing.”

A long awkward pause took place after his announcement.

“Let’s make some sense of this then”, she finally announced. “Can we agree on starting fresh?”

“…Sure”

“Alright. Let’s start with the then. You, your family, your life. Not the now.”

The Cat’s eyes seemed to shift furiously. The rhythm remained the same, but the timbre felt like needles piercing Benson’s ears.

“I’ve lived in this town for most of my life. Been an upstanding citizen, coworker, friend. Until that night…”

“Go on…”

“There was a party at the university. It was quite late when it was time to leave, and I had one beer too many. Still, I felt able to drive back home, since I lived just up Big Hill. Going up the hill I was nearly hitting a pedestrian, swerved to the left to avoid them, and collided with the vehicle driving the opposite way.”

“That’s funny, I live in the area. I don’t think I’ve ever heard of an accident like that happening a few years ago.”

Tick, tock, tick, tock.

“Both of us went down the slope, hitting a few trees while trying to avoid others.”

Tick, tock, tick.

“I woke up a few days later in the hospital. After answering questions and questions from doctors and police, they finally answered one of mine: is the other driver ok?”

Tick, tock.

“She was dead.”

Tick.

“I lost my sense of self, of well-being. Spent most of my time traveling nowhere in my head. Couldn’t get out the stump that someone’s else life ceased to exist because of me. I felt my life was worth less than the one I deprived of living.”

A buzzing sound emanates from the desk, ceasing after a few seconds.

“I guess this will do for today.”, the doctor replied.

“…but I wasn’t even nearly starting!”

“It’s alright, I will remember where we left this. Keep in mind that the route to happiness is long and arduous. You’ve been — ”

“Well, that’s a load of bullshit!”

“Excuse me?”

“You were just about to throw a bunch of feel-good pre-made sentences as a weak attempt to make me feel, what? inspired? Not wanting to kill myself? Lady, do you know how hard it was for me to have the nerve to come here and talk to you? You — ”

“Stop, now. Please. I understand that what you feel this dire need for help. I get it.”

“You seriously don’t. You have no fucking clue…”

“Look… You need to respect the limited time we have to talk. It’s there for a reason.”

“Yeah… you just want to squeeze more money from your patients and — “

“Listen…”

“I’ll stop…. I’m sorry. I’m trying to find reasons to hate you, and I shouldn’t. I need to go”, he replied, getting up and walking towards the door.

She wanted to ask “Will you be okay?”, but all that came out was “I’ll see you soon!”

He leaves unceremoniously.

Noticing the coast is clear, she moves towards the desk. Opens the drawer and reveals a recorder. The stop button is clicked and the recorder is put back in the drawer.

“Lucy, could you call in the next person for the session? Thank you.”

Night time. Blinds are shut. Lounging on the chair behind the desk, the doctor replays the session on the recorder.

“…and now my child isn’t born”.
Rewind.
“…killed someone…”
Rewind.
“…kill myself”
Fast forward.
“…and now my child isn’t born”.

“What a mindfuck”, she muses gleefully.

While dressing her coat, she turns off the light and turns on her phone:
Three missed calls. “Fuck…”

Photo by chuttersnap on Unsplash

Day 2

Eve loves to imagine all the obedient humans as worker ants, so busy moving from one place to the other. They look so small, so insignificant while overlooking through her vantage point.

She closes the blinds so that only enough sunlight peers through the gaps. All that matters is control, and she controls the mood. Or so she wants to believe.

“What should I say when he comes in?” She thought, as Benson’s appointment drew closer. “I hate being like this. I hate the fact that I love it. But the asshole deserves it.”
She definitely wanted to expose her issues with him if time allowed it.

Three o’clock, points the Kit Cat Klock. She presses the intercom. “Laila, could you please call in my next patient?”.

“Yes, doctor.”

Three loud knocks are heard on the door, cause by the smoked silhouette.

“Come in”.

“Good afternoon, Dr. Eve”

“Welcome. Sit.” she says, as she removes a pen from the drawer.

He didn’t fight the coldness. He knew this time that he needed to stay leveled in order for the doctor to not interrupt, or fight back. A verbal diatribe was not constructive.

“I’m really sorry again, about yesterday. I guess I didn’t want to leave what I was going to say halfway through.” he apologized while sitting down.

Leaving the pen at the desk, she sits on the chair next to Benson.

“It’s fine. In fact, it’s actually a good sign: having the need to talk about it.” Leaning in, she continues. “Would you like to proceed where we stopped yesterday, or would you like to talk about something else?”

“I want to, but you wouldn’t understand, at all.”

“By all means, enlighten me.”

“… I’m sorry, truly.”

“It’s okay. To be honest you’re not the first patient to react like you did.”

Benson begins an awkward silence to distance his train of thought from what he was about to start. In order to maintain control, Eve falls into his trap.

“So… you would like to continue from what you were talking about yesterday?”

“Yes. Sure…” He releases a deep breath before starting from whence he stopped. “Being responsible for the death of someone affected me deeply. I thought many times how I would end my life. I even tried to go through with it. But I stopped myself. I pondered which would be the lesser coward way to go. Should I poison myself and go down in agony? Should I find the highest bridge and — ”

“I get your point. I don’t need to hear you explain all the forms you idolized your own death.”

“What?!” He was stupefied once again “No, that’s not what I meant.”

“You were romanticizing those moments. You needed to be pulled back, to stay grounded and as objective as possible.”

“I, uh… okay.”

“Can you tell me in your words, what did you do to snap yourself out of that phase?”

“I actually don’t know… One day my thoughts just flowed from feelings of worthlessness to actual determination. I couldn’t tell if there ever was a trigger.”

Eve nods as he candidly answers.

“I tried to abstract from any responsibility. Maybe do something that would make the world better. I used most of my savings to travel around, to help wherever I could. Visited deserts, forest, mountains and beaches. All had the same answers. All had the same questions. No matter how deep I looked, all answers seemed shallow and man-made. Anyway, from a moment of epiphany I decided to honor the person whose life I took. I decided to completely change my purpose in life into something positive. But I couldn’t do it on my own, not yet at least. I decided to come back to town and go through grief counseling.”

Eve crossed her arms and raised an eyebrow. She remained silent but weirded out that this was her immediate reaction to what he said. In hindsight it was understandable, as it looked like he spontaneously decided to do these things, while reality proves there is never anything of the sort.

“They helped me get back on my feet. My sponsor was a super nice and open person. She suggested that I should meet the victim’s family and make amends. And so I did. I introduced myself. Gave them a face and target for their hatred.”

Benson picked up a pen that was lying in the low table, just in front of his table.

“I Became their nemesis, and yet I was persistent. I begged for forgiveness over and over and over again. They hated me for the longest time, until the hating became something else… They finally conceded and accepted my presence.”

The pen was easily to handle, and he started flipping it around his fingers.

“Ultimately, it was a good step forward. They accepted me as a human being for a change, but it would take a very long time until they found a place in their hearts for me. Only then could they start their healing.”

“Did you ever consider that they could only start their healing process because your presence was threatening it?”

Suddenly he stops flipping the pen, and lays it on top of the table, right where it was before.

“Oh yes! In fact I was expecting it. I mean, I may have forced them towards a worse process. But I became an unavoidable and uncomfortable truth.”

“That is a lofty statement. Did it ever strike you that you come out as holier than thou?”

“…definitely? I mean, I wouldn’t consider any other way without subterfuge.”

Eve starts shaking her foot.

“My sponsor and I became very close. We kept talking after I joined to help. We met and hung out many times until we revealed that we had strong feelings for each other. The best part of my life can be summarized to a few words. We got married. We had a child together. Our child was the best part of me — “

“What’s the kid’s name?”

“Her name was Eve…”

“Eve?!”, she lets out loud, exasperated by the coincidence.

“Yes. Funny that.”

“You said ‘was’. Can you tell me how she died?”

“Strange how you reached that conclusion with only the way I said it… It could be that I had only said it without such intention, but yes… I’d rather not. Not yet at least… Would you mind if I continued where I stopped?”

“Sure”, she replied while trying to tap an imaginary pen placed around her fingers.

Photo by Patrick Perkins on Unsplash

“I became obsessed with work, and I was spending too much time in the lab. Even though on the outside I was apparently fine, I let the victim’s death linger in my thoughts once more. It wasn’t really my sense of guilt not fading away. It was more of a sense of duty”

“A sense of duty?”

“Since I was coming back mid-term, I could not restart the project I was previously working on. Instead, I decided to focus on assisting my colleagues in getting the data they needed to prove their theory. They were working on machine assisted theory that could prove time thread reposition was possible.”

“What is that? Sound like a sci-fi term for time travel”

“And it is. In a way.”

“What, actual time, time travel?”

“More or less. I’ll try to explain as simply as possible: Imagine a ball of yarn. Imagine you’re a dot in the ball, traveling from one side to another. That dot’s material is history is coded throughout the string. What was, what is, and what may be. In theory the dot can trick the universe travel to any point from its inception to its demise.”

“I… have so many questions! That is so fascinating and creepy.”

“But not why I’m here.”

“…But not why you’re here. Right. Please continue”

“Sometimes I would work the graveyard shift in order to gain access to the lab. I could read their notes, make sense of what they were going for. Make my own calculations.”

“Were you an expert in the field?”

“Not particularly. That doesn’t mean I’m not smart enough to know what they’re doing. It’s not that complicated, and with perspective you can boil it down into simple sets of equations. They would get there eventually, but I wanted different results than what they hoped to achieve.”

“Different results?”

“Yes. I mean, while they were trying to get empirical results by studying in cells, I saw the potential already on multi-cellular organisms.”

“And what made you believe you could do it?”

“I couldn’t think of anything else.”

“I’m sorry. Isn’t that like counter-productive? Biased? bad science?”

“What do you mean?”

“Trying to reach conclusions with only one result in your head. Disregarding the possibility of not being right.”

“Yes, and… it took me more than 23 years to prove myself right.”

“23… ” Eve takes out her glasses and squeezes the top of the nose. “How old did you say you were?”

“I didn’t. And it’s not relevant.”

“Indulge me, please.”

“I’m… 32 years old. Yeah…”

Eve stares blankly at Benson.

“So this… time thread…”

“Reposition”.

“… reposition, yes. The machine makes you younger?”

“No. That’s not how it works at all. Can I please go back on topic? I would prefer not to spend the rest of the time we have explaining the ins and outs of the theory”.

A brief silence was shared.

“So you believed you were smarter than them? Do you think?”

“Not particularly. They were younger, still hadn’t branched out and incorporated other schools of thought. The point is, I lost myself at work. I lost my family because of it.”

Tick, tock, tick, tock.

“She couldn’t bare taking care of our child without my help. For many countless nights we fought, and I made promises I would consistently break.”

Tick, tock, tick.

“One of those nights was the tipping point. They left me. I was too blind to see what the most important thing was then. I realized it too late.”

Tick, tock.

“I saw that it was my mistake. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t change the memories. Until…”

Tick.

A buzzing sound emanates from the desk again. Benson sighs in frustration, as he was not able to get to his point today.

“Right…”

“Yes, our session is up.”

“Tomorrow will be my last day. It’s all I will need”

“Once you let out all that you believe that I need to hear, we can start working with it and around it. The path is long.”

“Right. Goodbye.”

Night time. Blinds are shut. Eve’s phone rings.

“Hey! I’m so sorry, I’m just about to leave.”

“Babe, your dinner is in the microwave.”

“I’ll be right there, just wrapping up on something here.”

“That’s okay. Take all the time you want, now. Baby’s in bed. I’m going to bed too!”

“…I’ll be there in no time.” She replies, and turns off her phone, while almost immediately dropping it on the table.

Standing up with her hands on the table, Eve lets out a “Fuck!” in between sighs.

Day 3

Three o’clock, points the Kit Cat Klock. She sighs, feeling worn and tired. “Laila, could you please call Benson in?”.

“Sure thing, doctor.”

This time Benson opens the door without knocking, and sits in the couch. “Hi.”

Eve looked stern.

“Is there a problem?”

With crossed legs she squints at him and and fidgets her foot.

“…Should I come back in? And knock this time.”

“That’s fine. All I needed from you was admission. And now we can continue. Last time you were here, do you remember talking about being able to change your memories? What did you mean by that? Or would you like to rephrase?”

“I was going to tell you about my travels, actually.”

“Your travels? The year you took off?”

“Sort of. Not really.”

“Stop that. No more vague answers.”

“…I was going to talk about how I was eventually able to make the machine work. Only it didn’t.”

“Here we go…” Eve lets out, removing her glasses and applying pressure in between her eyes. “Look, in order for me to help you, you need to be as clear as you possibly can. I don’t think I can help you otherwise. Now please, help me help you!”

A long uncomfortable silence spreads like smoke through the cold room. Not even she could help the uncomfortable feeling she let out. She felt she needed to push the truth now. She feared he would just leave with all those secrets, and felt the uncanny feeling that it was extremely important to hear.

“I’ve tried for the longest time to come up with a way to explain this in a way that you would get. Ultimately, I don’t think you’re going to believe me, no matter how I phrase this.”

“You won’t know how I’ll react, unless you try.”

“You say that now, but you still have no fucking clue…”, Benson stops for a moment to collect his thoughts. “The machine worked, but not really as I intended. I assumed it would allow me to send my consciousness into a younger version of myself. It would virtually erase my former self, replace my thoughts, and allow me to correct my wrongs.”

He expected some kind of excitement, surprise, horror or constipation. Nothing besides a cold stare.

“But?”

“But this is not IT!” he moved forward from his seat an set his hand on his head. “This is not my past. This is not the ME I remember! Something seriously fucked up happened, and my consciousness… it… I fucking went somewhere else!”

Benson covers his face with both hands, and with irregular breather begins to sob. Eve stands up and fetches the box of tissues that was on top of the desk, and offers it to him.

A few good minutes pass until he’s able to breathe normally again.

“ You mentioned it went somewhere else… What do you mean by that? Where should it have gone but your own younger body?”

He can’t believe how unbiased, accepting, or just plain not correcting she is with all he’s talking about.

“Everything is upside down! The fucking world is upside down. I was pulled into an uncertain time earlier than the accident, but not early enough. The when where I landed in my own body was just before it. I was fucking drunk, just about to leave the party…”

“Let’s say for a minute, that you were actually able to travel, and that this idea that you’re not in the right universe is not an elaborate projection… What was the thing that made you have that realization?”

“You’re alive…”

by Stephen Maurice Graham

She’s taken aback.

“I’m sorry…” she asks, while removing her glasses. ”…but what the fuck do you mean by that?”

With a sigh of painful temperance he announces, as if he was removing a stake that had impaled him years before.

“You were the one I ran over, 2 weeks ago. I-in my time…”

A sign of relief is felt from one side of the room. That is something he felt the need to say from the moment he stepped into the office and had such a lukewarm reception. No, even from the moment he found her alive when she shouldn’t be.

A sign of shock and disgust is felt from the other side. The realization that she displays feeling externally was not lost on him. He was looking forward to this. No matter how painful.

“You… ran me over? Me? When? …How? I’m sorry, but this is very hard to take. I mean, what the fuck?”

A sense of calm came over Benson. He can finally finish his explanation. She will not interrupt. Or so he thinks.

“You’re 43. You will be 44 in 3 months. Your wife calls you every night, because you’re consistently late. Your child is called Emma.”

“Stop!” she yells, while extending her arm with her palm open. “Fuck…” her head lowers, because she knows what’s coming. She’s seen this kind of weird plot twist unfold in cheap late night sci-fi movies. “Have you been stalking me? Is this your fucking idea of a twisted joke?”

“When you were little you broke your leg in three places. You were in love with Jimmy at age 12. Then Emily at age 15.”

“…Fucking stop!”

He stops for a few seconds.

“How the fuck can you know all this?”

“I spent a very long time atoning for what I did, with your family. I learned so much about you, Eve. Probably better than you knew yourself then.”

“But… but why… no… I’m not buying any of this!”

Eve moves her hand to her head.

“Finally some emotion!”

“Fuck you…”

“It doesn’t matter now.”

“Fuck you.”

“There’s only one thing left to share, and then you’ll finally understand.”

“Fuck you!”

He stopped for a second, waiting for her to raise her head.

“In this fucked up place, you survived. And I’m glad you’re alive, don’t get me wrong…” pausing for a second, Benson carefully chooses his following words. “But someone else had to take your place in this cosmic joke…”

Arrhythmia sets in. He feels offbeat.

“My wife…”

Her eyes became bigger. Her body had no idea how to take in such conflicting emotions. She felt the need to say something even though she really did not want to. Situations like these leave her extremely uncomfortable.

“How… did your wife die?”

“I was injected in the worst moment possible. I was about to leave and had 3 beers too many. My mind needed to readjust to the injection, but my body was in control. Eventually I did sober myself up, and was already driving up the hill. I was adamant to stop it from happening, by any means necessary.”

Swallowing dry air, he struggles to continue. This hurts to his core, but it’s now impossible to turn back.

“Driving up the hill, mentally sober, I managed to avoid your vehicle by staying my course. But I… I did not avoid the pedestrian.” Delirium starts to set. His brain is trying its best to not let him continue. “I swerved after the impact, went downhill again. I woke up 2 weeks later at the hospital. They told me she didn’t survive. At first I thought it was you. Then I found the only piece of news that would be worse than that. My wife…”

“She was the pedestrian…”

Tick, tock, tick, tock.

He nodded while sobbing.

“My wife died, by my own hands. We never became one. My child will never be born.”

Benson lies down in a fetal position in the couch. He feels defeated, and still senses he accomplished what he came here to do. Whatever that was.

Eve is at a loss for words.

Tick, tock, tick.

“You don’t have to say anything. That is all I wanted to tell you. I wish to leave and figure this out in peace, to bring no more misfortune into this world, to be no one to nobody else. I wish you all the best”

After cleaning up tears on his cheek with his sleeve, Benson slowly wakes up. He walked towards the door and tried to handle his breathing.

Tick, tock.

“Wait… Why?! What do you expect…”

Tick.

“Nothing. Closure. Someone knows my tale now… Might as well be you.” Benson opens the door and finally says “Goodbye”

A buzzing sound emanates from the desk. Benson closes the door.

End of day.

Eve serves a glass of whisky and lounges on her chair.

In a semi-catatonic state, she slowly reached for the recorder.

“What a mindfuck…” she muses in a sorrowful manner.

And she presses the ERASE button.

J Lopes

Written by

J Lopes

A meat popsicle that likes writing, and pie.