Paths Not Taken
It happened when David sat at his desk. He reached for a pen, paused momentarily to debate whether to reach for the black or the blue, and suddenly found that he cannot tell the different colors apart, or recall their names. Immediately after that, the right side of his body became numb, as if no longer connected to the rest of him. He stared at his fingers in bewilderment when they no longer responded to his commands. The world than faded around him, becoming dark and dim.
There was a moment of panic. The darkness was blacker than any he’d ever known. So black that he found himself wondering if the room he’d been sitting in had even existed in the first place. But as he gathered the strength to cry out for help, the gloom began to recede. A faint, white light emanated from beneath his feet. He suddenly found that he is once more able to move. He arose from his seat, relieved, though the world around him still appeared faded, nearly translucent.
The light under his feet, David noticed then, was illuminating a path. One leading towards the door. He walked carefully, unsure what to expect. Should he call his son, Nathan? Or, perhaps, doctor Rephaeli? But the curiosity that arose in him diminished his fear. Surely he could afford to explore this a bit further.
The path took him out of the study, leading to the refrigerator in the kitchen, where he’d recently eaten breakfast. He remembered deliberating whether to eat a fried egg or cereal. At first he opted for the egg, but cracking it into the frying pan had revealed it to be rotten.
The refrigerator door was glowing faintly, and David opened it. The egg carton was also giving off a slight glow, and so he peeked inside. The eggs were all there, including the rotten one he’d broken an hour ago. He stared at it, befuddled, and examined the carton closely. He then noticed that the milk carton was also glowing, in a dimmer light. Suddenly color returned to the world, his eyes felt bleary, as if he’d just woken up, and he was hungry as if he hadn’t eaten.
As he could make no sense of the situation, he reached for the milk carton. He had, after all, already known that the egg he would crack would be rotten. Or had he only imagined knowing? He ate his cereal, confused, wondering if he hadn’t merely dreamed it all. Then he walked to the study and sat in front of his desk. He reached out to choose the black or blue pen, and the world darkened once more.
What the hell was going on?
Again David arose from his seat, helplessly following the path into the kitchen. This time he saw that the path continued into the bedroom. He looked inside. His bed was glowing slightly, but there was a hole in its center shaped like him. A black, human-shaped cutout.
David walked toward it and hesitantly touched the hole. His hand disappeared inside, going numb. He retracted it with alarm, and the feeling returned to it. He looked at his fingers, relieved.
Where does the opening lead? He wondered. He was an old man, now, and not prone to rash decisions. But there still burned within him a youthful curiosity. Breaking routine had infused his life with a modicum of vitality, which had been recently missing from it. Chewing on his lower lip, he positioned himself over the hole, and allowed himself to fall through.
He opened his eyes, blinking tiredly. Had he emerged from a dream? He lay in his bed, his sheets mussed. They were tidy just a moment ago. When he arose, he saw that the faint path was leading back into the kitchen. Following it, he discovered to his surprise that it was now the bread drawer that was glowing, instead of the refrigerator. He approached it and peeked inside. A sliced loaf of bread was laying inside, as if he hadn’t eaten two slices of it yesterday morning. Once he touched the drawer, color returned to the world. A startled gasp escaped his throat. A strange notion flickered in his mind.
The notion made no sense, none whatsoever. David placed two bread slices in the toaster — as he thought he had already done yesterday — and walked outside to retrieve the newspaper that was waiting d on his doorstep. He had done this yesterday, as well, but this time around he took no interest in the contents. As he suspected, the headlines were familiar, as was the date.
He had gone back in time. But why? And how? He had no desire to relive the last day. His wife died years ago, his son would occasionally visit — sometimes by himself, sometimes with the grandchildren. He himself spent most of his time reading, and occasionally writing in his journal. What was the point in time travel, at his age?
When he finished eating his toast, he got up. The world dimmed once more. He wasn’t startled this time, but curiously examined his surroundings. The glowing path led to the bathroom. Yes, he could go there and carry on with his daily routine. Instead, he glanced back through the bedroom door. His bed was there, with the David-shaped hole in its center.
Huh. David scratched his chin, ponderously.
When he opened his eyes this time, he didn’t bother getting up, but rolled back into and through the hole in his bed. He did so again and again, morning after morning, for thousands of iterations. Until, one day, he opened his eyes, and when he turned to roll through the hole, he bumped into another body, lying beside his.
“David?” said Michal, drowsily, snuggling up against him. Her hair was white, her eyes still closed, and her body frail. She was so small. The sickness had taken so much of her strength, but she remained strong in mind until her final day. Tears rose in David’s eyes. He took her marbled hand in his.
“Good morning, love,” he mumbled.
“Good morning,” she said, smiling faintly, and breathed deeply. She groaned involuntarily. Under her closed eyes were the shadows of long-suffered pain.
He wasn’t sure he could take it, not again. She died today. They both knew the day was coming, but his heart still shattered within him when it had. If he got up now to make them breakfast, he would return to find her gone.
The world didn’t darken around him, but he could notice the faintest of outlines, almost invisible, leading to the kitchen. He held Michal tightly, turning away from the door. The tears were warm underneath his eyelids. He dared not open his eyes.
“I’m so tired today,” he heard her murmur. “My David. When I feel a bit stronger we should go on a trip. Maybe to Galilee. Remember we wanted to go to Galilee?”
“Of course, love,” said David, steadying his voice. “Tomorrow. Maybe we’ll go tomorrow.”
“That would be nice,” Michal sighed. Then her strength left her and she fell into a deep slumber. Her breathing became fainter and fainter, fading into a quiet rattle. Then the rattle, too, was gone. David didn’t let go of her even after it stopped.
Eventually he wiped his eyes, though it did nothing to stop his silent sobs. He had so regretted missing her final moments, carried that pain within him for so long. He began to rise from the bed, but the world darkened again. The phone was giving off a blue radiance. Yes, he should call his son. Call an ambulance. And, then again — the hole in the bed was still there.
They won’t be going to Galilee tomorrow. But what about yesterday?
Of course, she had been sick yesterday, as well. But he could go further back, back to when things were different. David closed his eyes and lay beside her still form. He caressed her wizened body one last time, kissed the palm of her hand, and rolled into the hole in the bed.
How long had she been sick? Five, six years? It mattered not. David passed from morning to morning, delaying only to embrace her fiercely before moving onward, backward. Thousands of mornings rushed by, and his body had begun feeling lighter. How easily he had grown accustomed to old age. Only when it had released its grip on him had he realized how much his knees would ache, how he loathed the constant pain in his back, how pathetic his eyesight had become. Each morning back, these ached faded, his eyes grew clearer.
One morning he opened his eyes and she was beside him, propped up on one arm and smiling down at him. A bit of gray had peppered her hair, by now, but most of it had still been dark chestnut. Her face was freckled, as it used to be. She was no longer the fragile, tired woman he remembered from her final days, but much more like the Michal he used to know back in the day, in his prime. He did not know where in time lay the border, after which people were no longer reminiscent of themselves. But surely, he had crossed that threshold, in his journey back through the years.
“You plan on getting up anytime soon?” she asked. Her eyes were clean of suffering, and the only signs of the passing years had been some delicate laugh lines near her eyes and mouth. He found her absolutely beautiful.
He smiled. How easily his skin stretched, now. How quickly he could become alert, truly awake. Only now had he realized how dull his mind had become over the years, now that he could finally think clearly again. “Why, are we in a hurry?”
“Well, you need to get to work,” Michal said. “And I promised Nathan that I’d drop him off at the train station. He’s spending the weekend at the base.”
David’s eyes spotted the line signifying the rest of the day. The faint glimmer marking his past actions was still visible, though he didn’t remember this particular day. He sat up.
“Here’s a better idea — thirty minutes from now, we’ll wake Nathan up, drive him together to the station, and then keep driving till we get to Galilee, where we’ll spend the weekend.”
Michal chuckled. “Are you crazy?”
“Yes. Be crazy with me?”
She started laughing, her eyes narrowing into slits as she donned a smile that was once a permanent resident in their lives. He sighed inwardly, a deep, longing sigh. Then she stared at him. “Are you serious?”
She was hesitant. David knew her tells perfectly, and recognized that she could be convinced.
“Why wait the thirty minutes?” she asked.
“Oh, we’ll be pretty busy before that,” he said, and pulled her closer. Her eyes widened and a choked giggle escaped her lips as his touch carried them both away from the moment.
He had but a vague memory of what desire felt like, but his current body knew it well, and the fragments of his latent memories came together to remind him of the hunger that he’d lost. Michal’s small moans, her face reddening in climax, those were the flavors of his youth.
“Wow,” she murmured when they lay, panting and sweating, afterwards. “Wow, Galilee? I’m no spring chicken, David, and I hope you don’t expect me to handle three straight days of that. Although, wow, that was fantastic.”
“You’re beautiful,” he breathed, and meant it. He was out of shape. “And so young. I want you again already.”
“Flatterer,” she said, but appeared quite pleased. “Though I could maybe go another round –”
“Mom?” Nathan’s sleepy voice carried from a distance.
“We need to get going,” she said, blushing suddenly. “Let’s get a move on.”
She leapt out of bed and left the room. David grumbled in protest. Come to think of it, why should they be forty-five when they could be thirty? When Nathan was in his twenties, he spent the majority of his time in the army. It would be much better if they could spend more time with him.
The path he walked in the past was growing vaguer, but the hole in the bed was still there. He threw a final glance at the door, drew a deep breath, and rolled back into yesterday.
At thirty, his breathing was light, and his body was so strong that he felt like a stranger inside of it. He took a brief moment to enjoy the feeling before he opened his eyes.
“Are you still asleep, or just dreaming?” Michal’s voice, bright and clear, caused his eyelids to lift of their own accord. She was already up, combing her hair in front of a small mirror, lost many years ago. The room was not the one they spent their later years in, the bed different from the one he’d fallen asleep in. his smile widened.
“I had a dream about you,” He said. Michal smiled at his glibness. He took the opportunity to suggest: “would you like to make it come true?”
“Go brush your teeth and I’ll consider it,” she said, her eyes playful.
David hurriedly complied, but upon returning discovered to his chagrin that his young boy was already there, talking to Michal with immense enthusiasm.
“Today I want to eat a sunny-side-omelet.” He said in a high-pitched voice. “Mom, make me a sunny-side-omelet. But without the yellow stuff because it’s not healthy.”
“Sure, honey,” said Michal, and winked at David. She would make him scrambled eggs, as usual. Until he was nine, Nathan could never even tell the difference. “And chocolate milk?”
“Yes,” said Nathan, decisively. “Lots of chocolate milk. Maybe… six glasses!”
“Of course. Drink the first one, and if you still want, I’ll make you the rest, okay?”
“Okay. Good morning, dad,” said Nathan, and hugged him.
David’s disappointment had dissipated instantly. Nathan was a beautiful boy, with large, innocent eyes, and smooth black hair. He loved the man his son had become, but had almost forgotten the magic of his first years. He hugged his father so naturally, so simply compared with the slight awkwardness that had always plagued the act as a grown man. His cheek was so soft against David’s.
“Good morning, Nate,” he said, and easily lifted him up, surprised by his own strength. “Did you sleep well?”
“I had a lot of dreams I think. I dreamt that they cancelled school today, I think. Yeah, that’s what I dreamed.”
“Oh, is that what you dreamed?” David asked. In his old age, he could never communicate with his grandchildren so easily. But this was his son, and a sense of mischief had accompanied his young body. “Do you think it was a prophetic dream?”
“A dream that’ll come true,” said Michal, weaving a hairpin into her hair.
“Yes, it was a prophetic dream,” said Nathan, excitedly. “I think it’s also prophetic that we’ll go to the park. I think I prophetic dreamed that, too.”
“Well, I mean, if it’s prophetic,” said David. Michal frowned at him.
“It’s too bad that mom and dad need to get to work,” she said, stressing the words.
Yes. Work. David made a face. He worked his ass off at thirty. Michal, too. She was a junior accounts manager, he was still employed at an architectural firm. He couldn’t just call in and say he wasn’t coming today.
As an old man, he’d done reasonably well. He owned the house he lived in, and left two apartments to his son, one to live in, and one to rent out. But to achieve this, he’d worked too hard. He didn’t enjoy their time together as he should have. But the David-shaped hole was still visible in the bed.
“Yeah, mom’s right.” He told Nathan, placing him back down. His son seemed disappointed. “Maybe it was a prophecy for another day. I’m going to get the newspaper, and you two get started on breakfast, okay?”
He went to get the paper. The dim lines that were still barely visible informed his that he’d done the same back then, during his first time living this day. Odd, the way that daily routine seemed to slip away from memory. It might have seemed familiar, but he could not know if it was because he’d remembered this particular day, or because he had gone through thousands like it with his family.
David lifted the newspaper, disregarding the headlines completely, instead seeking out the lottery numbers and committing them to memory. He heard Michal’s voice calling him back to the kitchen, but the task was of the utmost importance. He invested ten full minutes in memorization, until he was certain that he’d got it down perfectly.
He hurried back to bed and lunged into the hole.
Michal woke him with a kiss and a long caress.
“Morning, lover,” she murmured. “Do you want to keep sleeping, or can I wake you myself before Nathan gets up?”
David smiled. His body was young and brimming with desire. He didn’t need the faint outlines to remind him of what happened now. They made passionate love, trying to keep their voices low lest they wake their little boy.
Afterwards Michal was stretching in bed beside him, yawning contentedly. His eyes reveled in the sight of her body. “Oh, love, I wish every morning with you could be like this. I hate rushing to get to work.”
We won’t have to, soon, he thought smugly to himself. We’ll have countless more mornings, just like this one, better than this one. He shivered with excitement at the thought.
Countless mornings? Suddenly his heart grew cold. What the hell was he thinking? Lottery numbers? Had he already forgotten the sickness? The years it would rip away from them? Yes, there were more than twenty years before it sunk its lethal jaws into Michal’s flesh. But how could he live his life knowing that it eventually would? How could he relive the years upon years spent missing her with every fiber of his soul?
But, he pondered, perhaps it didn’t have to go like that. He knew what disease would attack his wife, spent several years reading all about it, meeting with doctors and insisting on getting every available sliver of information in the attempt to overcome the helplessness that had suffocated him.
He wasn’t a doctor, and there was nothing he could do. But what if he had the years needed to explore it, with the knowledge he had already accumulated? Why couldn’t he be a doctor, come to think of it?
He looked at Michal, still languishing in post-coital bliss. Her beautiful, freckled face, which would one day become tired and sallow, were peaceful. She deserved more time. Deserved better time.
With a twinge of regret, he rolled back into the past. Again and again, until he was a young man. Before they’d met, just after he finished his military service. His parents were still alive, and he lived a carefree, bachelor’s life. But he had a goal. He must become a researcher, someone who can cure Michal.
It was the day he registered for university. He knew this, because the application was lying on his desk, waiting to be sent. The required change was simple — pick up a pen and check the box for Medicine in place of Architecture. He decisively ignored the traces of his previous choice, still barely visibly on the page, and got to the task at hand.
David sat at his desk and reached for a pen. For a moment, his hand hovered between the black and the blue. The sensation was strikingly familiar.
Hadn’t he actually met Michal at school? One day when she walked into the building he studied at, asking for directions to the law school building? He fell for her instantly, insisting to take her there himself. She smiled at his persistence. Even back then, her smile marked the arrival of his finest days. How will they meet if he wasn’t there this time?
Her smile became so rare when she’d fallen ill.
As a doctor, he could save her life. His thought became blurred. He had already won her once and spent one lifetime at her side, he managed to think before the man he was vanished — that should be enough for anyone.
David heaved a sigh and chose a pen. The world faded around him.