Fiction: The Time Traveler

Note: The story originally appeared at How We Lost the Moon, which is now defunct.

David Wells, a young, twenty-something student at a small-town, community college sat on a park bench to do some reading between classes. The fall semester had just begun, and a cool breeze caressed his unkempt hair on this clear autumn afternoon. Despite the cloudless skies, a loud, thunderous sound, accompanied by a flash of light, piqued his curiosity. He looked around several times before an old man in a jumpsuit emerged from the bushes ten yards from him. Presumably this man must be a groundskeeper, but he had no tools and approached David with interest.

“Hello,” said the old man, with a glint in his eyes.

“Hi.”

“I have an important message for you.”

“Oh no. Is there wet paint on the bench?” asked David, lifting his legs to check the underside of his pants.

“Huh? No, er— I don’t know really.”

“Oh, aren’t you the groundskeeper?”

“What? No, I’m not.” The old man began to look uncomfortable. He looked down and to the side, as if searching for the right words to convey a tragic message. “I’m— I’m you. From the future. Fifty-three years from now, to be exact. I’ve come back in time to warn you about events to come.”

“Bullshit.”

“E-excuse me?” said the old man, flustered.

“I call bullshit. You’re not Future-Me.”

“Well, how would you know?” asked the man, now a bit defensive.

“Exactly. How would I know? How could I know?”

“I’m telling you.”

“So what? Who’re you?”

“I’m you. I already said that.”

“Well I’m the reincarnation of Elvis Presley.”

“No, you’re not.”

“Why not? I said it. Therefore, it must be true.”

The old man scoffed. “This is different.”

“How? It’s your word against my experience and reason.”

“But why would I make this up?”

“I don’t know. Maybe you’re crazy. Or maybe it’s a ruse, and you just want to trick me into doing something. You look sufficiently creepy to me. Maybe you’re a pervert.”

“I’m not a pervert. I’m you from the future.”

“Whatever Doc. You’ll have to do better than that.”

“Okay, well, I know that your parents’ names are Andrew and Karen.”

“So does Facebook.”

“I know that you broke your arm when you were six.”

“So does Myspace.” David shuddered. “Are you stalking me?”

“No, I am you.”

“Not convinced.”

“I know that you stole Spiderman comics from the local gaming store when you were eight.”

“Well, my mom called the cops to teach me a lesson, so I’m sure there’s some record of that.”

“I know that you cheated last semester on your Econ 102 exam.”

“So does my professor, unless he’s an idiot, which he’s not.”

“I know you had a crush on Kristy Terrington in high school.”

“So does my best friend John. And my mom. And probably Kristy Terrington because I was a bit of a dweeb in high school….” David turned a bit red and glared at the man.

“Isn’t there anything I could say to convince you? Who would know all this stuff?”

“A stalker. Or the NSA. Apparently they know everything about us now.”

“I don’t get it. I have important information about your future.”

“Big deal. I don’t think you realize how unbelievable your claim is.”

“I’m starting to,” said the man, sitting down next to David and holding his forehead.

“Let me put it this way: If you were me, you would remember this conversation. It would have already happened to you. Why would you try the same ineffective means to convince yourself that you were you?”

“Ugh….”

“I mean, that’s why Back to the Future has that whole thing about the space-time continuum. The writers knew it would completely compromise the viewer’s suspension of disbelief if Marty McFly ever ran into himself. A conversation like this just points out how absurd the idea of time travel really is.”

“Absurd? It’s science!”

“People used to think astrology was a science until it turned out their claims were all confirmation biases and vague generalizations that anyone could apply to their lives.”

“Time travel isn’t predictive though. It isn’t speculative.”

“Says the guy who’s trying to predict my future.”

“I’m not predicting anything. I know what will happen because I am you.”

“Back to your unsupported premise. Why, again, should I believe that you’re me? Oh yeah, because you’re me. And I suppose it’s necessary for God to exist because it’s necessary for God to exist. I know a tautology when I hear one. It might be reasonable for you to believe in time travel, but it’ll take more than your word to convince me.”

“It’s not a tautology if it’s true.”

“Right. It’s true if it’s true. What kind of argument is that again? I forgot the technical term.”

“You don’t understand; this is really important—“

“—I remembered: tautology. Who said that? I did. Apparently in the future I suck at persuasion.”

“I don’t get it.”

“Let me spell it out for you: I have no reason to trust that you are me from the future. Anything you say, no matter how convincing, isn’t more convincing than any plausible, alternative explanation based on real science.”

“What about quantum physics? Maybe I traveled to a parallel universe with only a slight difference. Maybe you forgot to brush your teeth this morning, and I didn’t, but otherwise this world is the same as my world except fifty-three years behind.”

“That’d be convenient.”

“Convenient?”

“Yeah, convenient. If we ever find something about me that you don’t actually know, you’ll just claim that must be the thing that’s different about this universe. And we’re back to astrology all over again.”

“Oh come on. You wanted a scientific explanation, but when I provide one for you, you reject that too.”

“What’s scientific about it? What experimental testing have you done to confirm this multiverse hypothesis? What’s your control group? Do you time travel with a pill so that you can give a group of people a placebo? Maybe someone just convinced you that you’re time traveling but actually you’re just the most gullible old man alive.”

“I’m not gullible. I travelled through time to warn you about the future.”

“How? With some magic, ‘multiverse’ travel machine? Bullshit.”

“Real scientists today, in your time, believe in this. I’m not just making it up.”

“So what? Some real scientists are also superstitious. Their professional demeanor in the lab doesn’t always translate to other aspects of their lives.”

“But people write whole books on the possibility of alternate universes.”

“I don’t think you get what it means for something to be possible.”

“What? What do you mean?”

“You’re thinking of hypothetical possibilities. Hypothetically, wizardry could be real, but that doesn’t make it just as possible as, say, life on other planets.”

“So aliens are more likely than wizards?”

“I think so, but that’s not the point. That’s a question of probability. The point is that actual possibilities only exist in the future. Once I choose A instead of B, that’s it. A, not B. Before the choice, A and B both lie before me as equally possible, but once I choose, say, white socks over brown socks in the morning, the possibility is actualized in favor of white socks and at the exclusion of brown socks.”

“You could always change your socks though.”

“Sure, but that’s an additional choice to the one I initially made, not a repetition of that choice.”

“But why isn’t it possible that there’s some universe where you chose brown socks?”

“That statement requires the belief that every time I choose anything, I am creating innumerable other worlds in which every other choice is actualized.”

“What’s wrong with that?”

“It’s speculation. I have a hard enough time understanding this world. I’m not going to act as if every imaginable world really exists and in some way may affect my life here and now.”

“But you could be wrong.”

“At least I’ll be reasonably wrong. Better to be reasonably wrong than irrationally right.”

“Really? I’m telling you that I have important information that will drastically affect the future of your life, and you don’t even want to know?”

“On what basis should I believe you? Your mere assertion? Supposed other universes that can’t be observed from this one? What?”

The old man shook his head and stared at the ground. He and David both took a deep breath, drinking in the September air’s warm embrace.

“Welp, I’ve gotta go to class,” said David after a long silence. “Hey, just for kicks, what was it you wanted to tell me?”

The old man glanced up at him from the corners of his eyes and sighed heavily. “Never mind.”