John Searcy | Flash Fiction

I answer an ad for a study about a time machine. They’ve built a working prototype, but it can only send people back to 1993. I have to sign a bunch of forms, acknowledging that things might go wrong, I might never come back, I might be stuck forever in the past, wandering a world of endless faces. This all seems fine. I sign the papers and go back. When I get to 1993, it is not as I remembered. Certain things are not right: the music, the curtains, the sounds that cars make on the road. I can’t tell if the discrepancy stems from my faulty memory, or if I’ve actually been sent to some lesser 1993, if the past itself tends to spoil and this is a weaker 1993, less vivid and potent, drained of all its taste and all its flavor. When it’s time to return, things go wrong as predicted. I’m stuck in 1993 now, in this blank flaccid past, in which everyone is bored, in which even great events seem perfunctory and stupid. Eventually I meet a woman who has traveled here from some point even further in the future. To her, this 1993 is wonderful. She describes how vivid the colors are, how delicious the tastes. It’s like living in a dream, ripe with marvels. I can only imagine that the time she has come from is somewhere dismal indeed, so that even this pale simulacrum of 1993 is a wonderland of joys and sensations. We go to a bar, where they’re playing soft, insipid grunge music. The president is on TV, but he’s thinner, more confused than I remember. He stares at the camera like an actor who’s forgotten his lines. I ask the woman what life is like in the future—the distant time she has come from. She says everyone is angry all the time but also very tired, and this tired, weary anger expresses itself in strange ways, minor threats and irritations. Most people own rabbits. To avoid insulting each other directly, they’ll say things like “My rabbit doesn’t like your rabbit” or “Your rabbit’s not fit to live in this area.” They’ll stand on their porches and hold their hateful rabbits, thrusting them forcefully at passersby. Joys are few and far between. Once she thought she was pregnant, but it was only the wind, a hint of moisture on her skin, a creeping shadow in the kitchen. Somehow this all sounds familiar. We stay until the bar closes. The bartender snaps a Polaroid of us and sticks it on the wall, next to similar photos of couples and individuals. There seems to be no rhyme or reason to the photos: they’re just people at the bar, drinking beer, playing pool. Nevertheless, we feel special. We go back to the loft that she’s renting downtown. We drink cinnamon schnapps in an effort to feel something. She cries after we make love but says that it’s nothing, it’s not important, it’s not important. The only art in the loft is a photo of a family. She says it came with the frame. I go out to buy cigarettes, but I can’t find my way back. I walk for hours along the sidewalks, gazing into empty windows that seem to grow darker with the dawn.