A Man Travels Briefly Through Time

That morning he’d woken up and regretted it. A haze immune to Advil and sunlight had settled on his mind. Just like every morning, he told himself he should go for a jog. But most days he at least got out of bed, put on shorts and sneakers, went through the motions until he paused at his front door and said fuck it. Today he couldn’t even get up. Every time he tried he was seized by an overwhelming and inexplicable feeling that once he had his feet on the ground, it was all over. That was the ballgame. He made several abortive attempts, but the closer his feet got to the carpet the more urgent the feeling became, until he leapt back into bed wondering just what the hell was going on.

He contented himself with television, although getting the remote had been rather dicey since he’d carelessly thrown it on his desk the night before. Standing on the foot of his bed, he steadied himself on a chair with one hand as the other hand inched its way towards the remote. Twice he lost his balance and nearly fell, and both times the horror of touching the ground closed in on him, black and cold, forcing him into absurd acrobatic postures. Finally he caught the edge of the remote with his thumb and began the long, achingly slow journey back to the safety of his bed, nursing his fragile balance. Only when he was back on top of his covers did he realize he was drenched with sweat.

He took a steadying breath and flicked the power button. Showers of pixels sputtered and died on the face of his old television before the image of a large man screaming about exercise equipment shimmered into existence. Because that, he thought gloomily, is what I need right now. Someone who can’t see me telling me I’m inadequate. He resolved right then and there to shake off this creeping malaise, a resolution overpowered immediately by the sensation he experienced as he tried to plant his foot and stride boldly towards the toilet. Disheartened, shaking, beginning to wonder if he’d ever make it off this damn bed, he started flipping channels. Only the local news channels and PBS were showing anything with the potential to entertain. Why is it, he pondered, thinking that now was about the best time for pondering he’d have for a while, why is it that every station besides the news channels just gives up in the morning? Do people not get bored in the morning? And yet they play re-runs of shows long-cancelled, infomercials and public service announcements. Just feels like they’re missing out. Really, in America today, is there any time of day when there aren’t wakeful, tragically apathetic folk who want to stare at a television for a while? Hell, half the reason people go to work is to get away from shitty daytime TV.

A faint scuttle he knew all too well disturbed his reverie. Motherfucker.

The cockroaches had very nearly taken over his house. It had gotten to the point where they didn’t scatter when he turned on the light. They just lounged in his bath tub, dozens of them, fat and oozing, skittering in, around and on top of each other. Not one but two exterminators had thrown up their hands and walked away, agreeing not to send him a bill if they never had to get near this cockroach colony of an apartment ever again. A third had managed to stem the tide a bit, but he knew it would only be a matter of time before they would be back. And apparently, in an act of cosmic irony, they were choosing his day of weakness to re-invade.

He tried to tune out the faint scratching of their hideous limbs against the floor. There was nothing he could do. Hell, maybe this was the cockroaches’ doing. Who knows anymore why things happen.

He had a sudden image of a cockroach revolution, swarms and swarms of them flooding the apartments of people marooned helplessly on their beds, unable to do more than ineffectually wave their hands at the coming horde. Eventually, they’d be piled up so high they’d reach the mattresses, and then they’ll swarm there too, running over and around the people like the carrion they feed on every day, climbing down their throats, boring into their eyes, reducing them to roach-filled husks. They would have been purged of their fear of light by the CIA operatives who were, at this point, ruling the world, and each roach would have a little tracking tag on their right front leg that informed their handlers where they were at all times. In a few weeks there would be a living film of roaches everywhere on earth, making bridges across every ocean, adapting to breathe underwater so they could infest the whole planet. Only the underground bunkers the CIA men had built would remain habitable. And finally, with Earth itself sagging under the weight of billions upon billions of cockroaches, those men (they never have women in these bunkers, despite Dr. Strangelove’s advice) would flip a switch, and every cockroach in the world would simultaneously stop, the trackers in their legs deactivating their primitive nervous systems just like those scheming bastards had designed.  And then great sections of the earth, constructed during the meticulous planning of this massive plot, would lift off, carrying tons and tons of roaches, raising them straight into the atmosphere and letting their crinkled corpses burn. And into the charred, flat, barren world that remained would come the victorious operatives, basking in the oblivion they worked so hard to create.

Or, in an alternate history of this great attack, maybe one of the roaches got down into the secret bunkers. Everyone knows all you need is one. From there it bred (he figured that, at this point, they could spawn asexually), bringing the same overwhelming, crushing tonnage of cockroaches that was ruining the earth to the one remaining outpost of humanity. The steel-eyed, conspiring men would soon be overwhelmed, racing to and fro, the hubris of those who believe their gadgetry, secrecy and power will save them finally exposed. And as the last man drew his last breath, being trampled by the roaches that surrounded and invaded him, he would reach for the switch that could kill them all, and die with his hand outstretched, forever grasping and forever failing, eternally damned to being a hair away from salvation. And all would be quiet in that little fragment of the world, except the skittering of thousands of legs against the walls meant to keep them out.

Now that’s the sort of thing they should have on television, he thought, as he watched the anchor and the sports guy exchange forced one-liners. They should just have an Apocalypse channel, all the ways in which current human activity could lead to the end of the world.

Week One: Global Warming

Week Two: Deforestation

Week Three: The Large Hadron Collider

Week Four: Nuclear Power

Eventually they’d run out, and have to go to natural causes, or really wild speculative stuff about aliens, meteorites, laser beams, rogue agents carrying instructions from other worlds, secret governmental shit like the cockroaches and the CIA or a group of super scientists teleporting a black hole into the heart of the sun. But they wouldn’t just talk about it. No, they’d bring it to life, top-flight computer animation teams creating replicas of an immense and vibrant globe that only existed to be destroyed in some novel way each week. Sooner or later, people would pick favorites, discussing amongst themselves the way in which they want the world to go out. Everyone pretty much assumes we’re living in the End Days anyways; this would give them the illusion of control over their fate, help stop them from living in fear.

Of course, that could just be another trick. By making Armageddon seem imminent, the Powers that Be could claim they were acting out of concern for the people when they started herding them up and bar-coding them like cereal boxes. After all, they’d say, smiling that honest smile that was the only indication they were lying, we live in dangerous times! You’ve seen the shows! It’s high time somebody got cracking on making sure that we’re safe. And so would begin the end of the world that no one saw on TV, with those in charge slowly destroying the rest of humanity as surely and thoroughly as with the roaches. This was better, though. The people would be smiling on their way to the grave, knowing they were being protected. We, as a people, have yet to learn that the protection is almost always much worse than the threat.

Jesus fuck, man. All of these depressing trips are completely reflective of the shitty headspace I’m in. He realized he’d been slowly retreating towards the headboard, taking up as little space as he could, slowly sliding under the covers he still unconsciously thought of as safe. Whatever’s going on in my mind, he thought, it’s certainly getting worse. I’ve got to do something.

His eye was involuntarily drawn towards the news ticker at the bottom of the screen by… something.  He didn’t have time to register what it was he was seeing before it had been whisked away by JETS CB DARRELL REVIS QST FOR SUNDAY AGAINST BALTIMORE DUE TO A PULLED LEFT HAMSTRING. But he swore that he had seen something, something important. It stuck in his mind, and refused to be shaken loose.

And so he waited. He waited through the weather. He waited through sports, where he learned that Revis had been injured during practice but was expected to make a full recovery within a week or so. He waited through three commercial breaks, each of them featuring the same four commercials in a different sequence. He waited at the edge of his bed, chin on his hands and elbows on his knees, with his feet hovering about three inches off the carpet. He waited through a special on the wedding of two people he’d never heard of in a part of town he’d never been to. And finally, finally, with his back in knots, his brow furrowed, his legs shaking and his hopes wavering, he saw what he had seen before.

FIRE IN APARTMENT BUILDING AT 76TH AND BITTERSWEET. DETAILS COMING SOON.

His jaw dropped open, his hands dropped down, and his feet fell so close to the carpet as to almost skim the threads before instinct kicked in and he leaped back into his bed. He lived in an apartment building at 76th and Bittersweet. He lived in the apartment building at 76th and Bittersweet. And there had been minor fires there in the past; the alarm system threatened the eardrums and sanity of anyone within a half a mile. No way in hell the news knows about a fire in the building before that alarm has started wailing its head off. But if the system’s deactivated, or busted… what if the building’s on fire? He didn’t want to die in a shitty, cockroach-infested, threadbare apartment.

And then, with a wave of terror, he realized he couldn’t get out. It wasn’t a question of bravery, it wasn’t a question of resolve, and it sure as hell wasn’t a question of rational self-preservation. He knew, as firmly and clearly as he had ever known anything, that he was never getting off of this bed. He would die, not by roaches but by fire, purging any rationale and leaving only the baffling, unanswerable question of why a man sound of body and mind would let himself be consumed by flame while lying in bed. He had no answer for his posthumous questioners, and could only hunker down and wait for the inevitable end.

As his terror and desperation turned to resolve and resignation, the anchor threw it to an on-scene reporter. The first shots he saw were of indistinguishable burning rubble, zoomed too close to see any identifying features. As the camera pulled out to the attractive, toothy woman assigned to this particular tragedy, he saw that she was standing on Bittersweet, the street his apartment overlooked. He counted up from the bottom as rapidly as he could, looking desperately for the 17th floor, and finding it aflame. Oh, God. It’s right next to me. I have so little time left. And I’m sitting in bed because today is apparently the day that somebody decided to fuck with me. What’d I do to piss you off? I’m just trying to get the fuck out. Please, have mercy on my sinner’s soul.

Something wasn’t right.

The 17th floor wasn’t burning; the 17th floor was charred, ashen ruin. From the looks of it, the two floors above had crashed down, crushing everything below. Parts of the structure had crumbled onto the lower levels and into the street. Even as he watched, more of the building that’d been home for so long showered down in flaming bits.

And yet, he was sitting in an apartment on the 17th floor. He counted in from the left, sometimes having only newly-exposed I-Beams to reckon the end of one apartment and the beginning of another, and by his math his apartment- and, moreover, his current location- was mangled beyond recognition.

So, he asked for the thousand and first time that morning, just what the HELL is going on here?

He had been staring so intently at the television screen that he had failed to notice the sound of the roaches moving inexorably towards his bedroom. Eventually, a momentary flash of test screen muted the sound, and he heard it.

“Scritch… scritch… scritch…”

When he saw that slimy, filthy roach, something snapped. He knew he couldn’t leave the bed, couldn’t help himself, couldn’t even eradicate this loathsome creature. And he said fuck it, he was going to do it anyways. As the disgusting little critter got closer, he raised his foot higher, and finally, in the insane climactic act of this insane morning, as the rubble of the room he was sitting in came crashing down around him on television, and as the cockroach skittered its way across his floor, he brought his foot down with all the might he contained, and hammered the little creature into the carpet with force that echoed through the eons and came back to him in the form of perfect silence.

All was still.

The television was off. The movement of the roaches, which had been growing ever-louder, had ceased. And as he stood, posed in boxer shorts and socks over the corpse of his tiny victim, he looked down to see he had no victim. Nothing stood between his foot and the carpet, where by all rights the blood and guts of a reckless cockroach should be oozing slowly from its shattered husk.

He straightened, and realized that in that moment the fog had been lifted from his mind. He felt rejuvenated, fresh, abnormally perceptive and intelligent. He looked at his bed, at the television. For a long time he just patted down his bed in quiet, observant search, not knowing what he was looking for but knowing he would when he saw it. At last, defeated but not discouraged, still brimming with confidence and vigor, he headed to his bathroom to take a shower. As he wandered around his apartment he got a strange feeling of déjà vu, having seen all of this before in a slightly different light.

He didn’t realize he was whistling until he started brushing his teeth, and couldn’t anymore. He felt physically lighter, and noticed in the mirror that he was more relaxed, more upright and, generally, much more handsome. He decided to start some breakfast while he was in the shower: if he was going to live up to this new version of himself, he’d better start by being more efficient. Even his movement had more grace and command than usual.  He strode back towards the shower, already looking forward to the soothing sting of warmth.

As he stood in the shower, which seemed stronger and hotter than usual, he contemplated his fate. Here he had been granted by some unknown force a new lease on life, and he planned to take full advantage.  First he was going to clean- no, fuck that. First he was going to quit his shitty, going-nowhere job. He was going… well, now hold on. How could he afford to go back to school? Alright, fine. Get a better job, one that fits with his lifestyle, one he’ll be happy at. Working with people like him. Fuck the traditional model of success, right? Although, hey, the traditional model has the advantage of paying the bills…

Once self-doubt had entered his consciousness, it awakened trains of thought previously barred. He hadn’t just woken up this morning feeling this way. When he’d woken up, he’d felt- strange. Different. Horrible, even. And there’d been something about a cockroach, and a television program. Maybe it was the news. Maybe it was- no, that was it. There was something about a fire on the news. But what does that have to do with cockroaches. Unless the cockroaches were the secret weapon. He chuckled.

He stopped mid-chuckle. He’d had that thought before. In bed. This morning? Yesterday. No. When? What was it he was thinking? When was it he was thinking whatever it was that he was thinking about cockroaches and fires and television sets? A fire. He had a very vivid image. Exposed I-Beams and rubble raining down. Raining down from his apartment. But his apartment wasn’t on fire. He was in his apartment.

Even the heat of the shower couldn’t combat the chill he felt as all the blood drained from his face. Oh, God. I’ve been here before. The fire-

Of course, the steam from the piping-hot shower had prevented him from smelling the smoke, and if he’d heard the alarm his jumbled thoughts hadn’t allowed it to register. He raced out of the bathroom, naked and terrified, feeling about a hundred years removed from the confident and graceful man who’d stepped into the shower, and found he could hardly see his room through the billowing smoke. His kitchen was already a lost cause. Without thinking he waded into the smoke to gather up his valuables. His wallet, his journal, his watch. There was something else. He almost gagged on the smoke, his lungs hopelessly inadequate against its sheer volume. There was something else. He couldn’t see, he couldn’t hear, he was feeling his way hopelessly through the cloud towards

There was something else.

There was someone grasping at his arms, pulling him away from where he needed to be, pulling him before he could resist or even understand, out the door, down the long staircase, wet and naked and coughing and blind. The paramedics wrapped him in a blanket and began running some tests, but he could not stop staring up at his apartment. He needed to be back up there. He needed to protect it, whatever it was. It wasn’t going to be lost, it was going to be stolen, it was going to be used against him. The paramedics tried to get him to focus, decided he was in shock. He didn’t notice, and if he had, he wouldn’t have cared. His gaze was a palpable, physical thing, as though it could bore a hole through the wall of his apartment and grab it.

In the chaos of the fire, the refugees, and the emergency personnel, no one noticed all the creatures that had been smoked out of hiding. The collection of saved pets was barking or hissing or snarling or chirping, overwhelmed by fear. The smaller animals handled disaster, displacement, better. Mice and rats scampered from holes too small to distinguish from the rubble and slag, slinking off to more hospitable hideaways. Ants, orderly even in chaos, marched from their doomed hills and colonies with no grief or attachment.

A cockroach skittered out from the rubble.

It veered, winding this way and that, making its slow, inevitable way towards him. And as this putrid thing scooted over his exposed foot, perhaps in its own way shaking hands after a match well played, he saw a glimmer, a low metallic shine. On the right front leg.

The cockroach went on its way. The man sat down on the curb, then, gently, and softly wept.

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