It is the present and the sun is about to rise. I can see its fire-glow orange light licking up the dark oceanic horizon.
I am standing on a beach of what was once the Gulf of Mexico but is now nameless, claimless land. Empty miles of sand meeting ocean, sand made by the ocean, sand that has been eroded by the ocean since the beginning of time and will keep being eroded until the end of time, from past to present and never the other way around.
In the pre-dawn light, I see something sticking out of the sand. Something unnatural. Something manmade. Something distinctly human.
I stoop to dig it free. It is a child’s toothbrush. Pink and green, with Tinkerbell on the handle.
I had a toothbrush just like this once. I hold it in my hand like I would to brush my teeth. It feels so much smaller than it did then. It could very well be the same one I had when I was five years old. They said all our plastic crap would stick around for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.
They were correct. I know this because I’m a time traveler.
All humans are time travelers, in a way. Throughout our brief lives, we travel through time in one direction: forward, from past to present. According to the world’s most prominent quantum physicists of my time, this is the only direction in which time travel can work.
I don’t know if they were correct, but it doesn’t really matter anymore, does it?
It’s like this:
If time is Interstate-90, with Oregon being the past and Massachusetts being the future, we all drive on the highway from the west coast to the east for as many miles as we can go before our cars, much like our frail bodies, break down. A heart attack leaves the engine smoking, unusable. A stroke takes the whole transmission out. Our tires flatten and we can’t pull over to replace them. We have to fix the car while we’re driving, and if we can’t fix it, whatever the problem is gets worse, exacerbated by stress and wear and tear, because time comes for us all, whether we’re cars or people or mountains or stars or even galaxies, even the universe itself—or at least it’s supposed to.
We hit mile marker after mile marker after mile marker on the highway of time, each one in order. Cruise control is permanently on; it is set to a certain speed and cannot be reset. We can look in the rearview mirror and consider what we’ve passed, but there are no U-turns allowed. There are no exit ramps. No off routes. We can see as far ahead as the horizon through our windshield, and no farther. There are no shortcuts. When you’re dead, you stop driving. You can only stop driving when you’re dead.
In the rearview mirror, I was five years old and I had a toothbrush just like this.
I was five years old and I was sitting in the doctor’s office. My mother held my hand. The doctor pressed play on a blue-black moving image on a screen on the wall that I would later come to understand was an MRI scan of the blood vessels of my brain.
That day, I learned the word “aneurysm.”
Later, I would come to understand the concepts of “operable,” and “inoperable,” and the crucial difference between them.
I remember my mother squeezing my hand so tight it hurt to my bones. I remember the doctor had a mustache like my dad. I remember I asked if we could stop at McDonald’s on the way home, and my mom said yes, right away—I didn’t even have to ask twice. I got a little purple plastic Furby in my Happy Meal. My mom watched me make its dramatically-lashed eyes blink open and closed, open and closed, and cried, right there in the corner booth of the PlayPlace.
I wonder where that Furby is now. Could it be buried somewhere else in the sand like this maybe-my-toothbrush (which I’m holding onto so tight, like my mother once held onto me), or sunk deep in the toxic earth of a former landfill in the tiny town I grew up in, or perhaps it’s at the bottom of this ocean, which stretches as far as my eyes can see? I grew up near the Pacific and this is the Atlantic, but it’s all one ocean, really; “Atlantic” was just a name we gave to part of it so we could situate ourselves on the land within its vastness. Atlantic, for Atlas, the Titan who held the world on his shoulders. Am I holding it now? Is that why my shoulders and my neck and my back never stop aching? Or is that just time finally catching up with me?
I imagine my Happy Meal Furby in the deep, dark depths of the world-ocean: surrounded by near-darkness with the occasional shaft of dim, watery sunlight piercing through. Overgrown with algae, brushed by swaying seaweed, inspected now and then by creepy-crawly bottom-dwellers. Perhaps its bulging eyes and Troll-doll-esque tuft of white hair would not look as pretty or poetic on the seafloor as a broken statue of a Grecian hero jutting up out of the Mediterranean coastline or a Viking sword rusting in ancient Arctic mud, but it would be an artifact of human existence all the same. An artifact of my existence.
For Christmas the year I was five years old, after the diagnosis, I got a real Furby. I also got a Barbie Dreamhouse and a Sega Dreamcast and a pink toy Jeep that I could actually drive—all the things I always asked for and my parents always said were too expensive. I didn’t understand what Make-A-Wish was. I thought it meant I made a wish, and it came true.
Years later, I made another wish that came true. Sort of.
Imagine you’re on the highway of time. You’re driving along—driving forward, obviously. You’re about to cross the border between Oregon and Idaho. But your car can jump now, sort of like in that old Dreamcast game, Crazy Taxi 2, where you can make your vehicle do a Crazy Hop to bypass traffic and other obstacles to get your fares to their destinations faster. You press that proverbial green Y button on your controller and your car launches itself so high up in the air that you skip over Idaho’s panhandle entirely and land in Butte, Montana. Now you’re farther along on the highway than everyone you know and knew. You can’t turn back. You can’t slow down. You can’t speed up. You’ve jumped ahead, and now you must keep driving from where you are. Or you can jump again. You can jump as many times as you want.
My wish was for a cure. What I got instead was a way to search for a cure.
I spent my youth insinuating myself into the inner circles of, first, the world’s most prominent neurosurgeons and, when I realized they didn’t have what I was looking for, second, the world’s most prominent quantum physicists. Through hearsay and whispers and warnings I ignored, I met a scientist trying to make theoretical physics a lot less theoretical. He was sure his device would work; he just needed someone willing to test it.
Enter me: a thirty-three-year-old so obsessed with the fact that death via inoperable brain aneurysm could strike her down at any moment that she wasn’t afraid of a predictable, potentially far more painful death via crackpot time-traveling experiment. I thought once I found a cure, I’d have all the time that everyone else got. Time to be with my family. Time to make friends. Time to fall in love. Time to live without faceless Death tap-tap-tapping me on the shoulder, holding up one of those old-timey gold watches on a chain, swinging it back and forth and pointing to the hands tick-ticking away with his long bony finger.
The watch tick-ticks away to this day, like the time-bomb in my head. I always thought it was a countdown, but if it is, I don’t know what it’s counting down to anymore.
It doesn’t hurt, the jump. It hardly feels like anything. It’s sort of like when you’re really cozy on the couch, watching a movie with someone you love, and they poke you and say you fell asleep, and you say you didn’t fall asleep because you never felt like you fell asleep, but the movie has skipped ahead and you’ve lost the plot, so they must be right—you must have fallen asleep.
Except your eyes are open the whole time.
I searched for years. I jumped, and hopped, and skipped, and at every new present I reached, every new mile marker I made it to, I was stymied: They had yet to develop a way to operate on my inoperable brain aneurysm.
Still no cure.
Everyone I knew remarked on how little I aged as the years went on. I was doomed to a potential premature death from birth, and yet I seemed to have tapped into the fountain of youth! How ironic, they said, smiling at how I was still alive, still alive, a miracle! As their engines started smoking and their tires burst one after the other and their transmissions failed, faces drooping and speech slurring, limping along the highway, getting closer and closer to death. I left them all behind, eating my dust. I watched my grandparents die, then my parents: Dad first, then Mom.
I couldn’t stick around much longer than that. I was afraid people would start to get suspicious. I could look 33 at 50, reasonably; I could not reasonably look 33 when I was supposed to be a septuagenarian. So I left town and I kept pressing the button, moving forward in time, looking for a cure in all the future generations of eminent doctors and scientists that humanity produced. I told myself once I found the cure, I could settle down. I’d never press the button again. I’d start a new life. I’d still be 33, and there would be new friends to make, a new family to create, new love to build, without death looming over me with his gold watch. Without the time-bomb ticking away in my brain.
Eventually, there was no one left alive that I knew. I didn’t see my siblings die, but I knew they must have. I didn’t see my nieces and nephews die, but they certainly did.
It was as if I was an astronaut attempting a mission to reach the center of the Milky Way Galaxy. My theoretical spaceship traveled so near to the speed of light that time slowed down for me and me alone, while everyone I had ever known crumbled away to less than dust—broken-down cars rusting in the towering scrap heaps on the sides of the time highway.
I kept pressing the button and things kept getting worse. Crazy Hop. Impending climate disaster. The decline of democracy and the rise of fascism. Crazy Hop. Wildfires. Land swallowed by the rising sea. One-hundred-year storms became five-hundred-year storms became one-thousand-year storms. Crazy Hop. World War III.
After the second global fascist takeover plunged humanity into a third Dark Age, there was nobody left alive who had the technology or know-how to even find my aneurysm, let alone cure it. No one could tell by looking at me that I was anything other than a perfectly healthy 33-year-old woman.
Crazy Hop right over the Sixth and Seventh Mass Extinctions.
And here I am, in the present.
There is nobody left who can see me now, a seemingly perfectly healthy 33-year-old woman who is also the last human being alive on Earth, standing on this lonesome beach, clutching this Tinkerbell toothbrush so tight it hurts, crying so hard I’m starting to hyperventilate, because I’m still not feeling any of the symptoms that I have been constantly terrified would overtake me at any moment since I was five years old: a severe, sudden, thunderclap of a headache; a stiff neck; vomiting; pain when I look into the light.
The sun begins to rise. I stare into the shimmering, white-hot orb until my vision blurs.
By my slapdash calculations, this sunrise marks the dawn of my 34th birthday.
I could keep pressing the button. I could try to make it to the end of Interstate-90, to the proverbial Logan International Airport of bygone Boston, Massachusetts. Maybe there I could leave my car, exit the highway, and take flight. Maybe my plane could become a spaceship, hurtling me past Alpha Centauri, past Barnard’s Star, past the Andromeda Galaxy, into the beginning and the end of time at the site of the Big Bang that started it all, 13 billion years ago.
I sit cross-legged on the beach. I take off my shoes and let the tide run up over my feet. I bury the toothbrush in the damp sand. Scoop up handfuls of seafoam and blow them away like candles on a birthday cake. I don’t make a wish. They never come true like you hope.
The device that’s brought me here, to the end of the world, fits in my pocket. I take it out and rest it in the palm of my hand. It’s a black metal disk, thick in the middle and thinner on the sides. It has one button: circular, made of black plastic that sits flush with the metal surface. I thumb over it gently.
I stand and hold the disk between my forefinger and thumb. I flick my wrist and let it fly. It skips like a stone over the ocean’s surface toward the rising sun. Once. Twice. Three times. Four. After the fifth jump, it sinks below the waves. I sit back down and sink my toes in the sand. I breathe in the ocean air. I close my eyes and feel the morning sun on my face.
I can’t leave the highway until I die. Might as well try to enjoy what’s left of the drive.