She can’t remember much. Why she’s there on the beach, where she was going, where she came from. The answers to those questions were lost to the rising sun, her mind clearing like clouds separating over the open waters of the sea.
A moment earlier, she looked out from the beach, past the gently rolling waves to where the blue-green infinite horizon of the ocean met the yawning orange of the dawn sun. Thoughts slipped from her mind and she couldn’t recover them.
She takes off her shoes and wiggles her toes down into the cool sand. The sound of the ocean breeze and the smell of saltwater bring back memories of previous trips to the beach. Not of any specific trip, though. The memories coalesce into a unified singularity of all previous beach experiences.
Eyes closed, she concentrates on the sand beneath her feet, the breeze on her face, the glow of the coming dawn as it illuminates the thin skin of her eyelids. This is the kind of place she always dreamed about. The kind of place where she could be happy for the rest of her life.
Her eyes open again and she looks at her watch, time interrupting her thoughts. Not the question of what time but instead, how much time. She sighs and counts the rhythmic movement of the watch’s second hand (62 seconds precisely) before she picks up her shoes and begins to walk.
No more than a dozen steps into her walk, she notices something moving nearby. A lump of blanket stirs, the sleeper beneath it apparently roused by the warmth of the rising sun. A scruffy beach bum sits up, mutters what she assumes are a few curses, hurriedly kicks the blanket from his legs as if it were conspiring to tie him down, and pops up from his cardboard mattress. He slaps at his shirt and pants to brush off the sand.
One of the things she forgot suddenly returns to her mind. “Excuse me,” she says to him, “but can you help me find someone? I’m looking for Professor Abdullah.”
With a pronounced southern drawl, he responds, “Dammit, lady, you gotta be more patient. It’ll take me forever at this rate. I mean, it ain’t rocket science, but it ain’t See Spot Run either.”
“What? No, I was just saying I’m looking for someone. A professor who lives near here, I think.”
“Yeah, yeah,” he says, impatiently waving a hand in the air. “I know the professor, I know where we need to go.”
He begins to fold the blanket, then abruptly changes his mind and tosses it aside in a heap.
“Come on, let’s go,” he says, motioning for her to follow him.
She begins to protest but finds herself overcome by the man’s directness and sense of purpose.
“Where are we going?” she asks.
“To see the professor,” he says, continuing on his way up the beach. “Are you coming?”
She hesitates a moment, then decides to follow him, but only at a distance — she is unsure whether to trust him, even if he knows where she wants to go. He seems vaguely familiar, though she cannot place him.
They walk quickly along a path in the beach grass that takes them through a narrow copse of trees and onto a dirt road running roughly parallel to the beach. Once on the road, she abandons her suspicions and rushes to walk beside him.
He points up ahead. “There’s another road up a ways. We’ll take it to the house. Then you’ll see.”
“See the professor?”
“You’ll see,” he repeats.
“Look, I have some questions,” she says.
“Fine, just keep walking.”
“Who are you?”
“I’m lots of things. Think of me as a kind of tour guide. I’ll tell you what you need to know, what you need to do, where you need to be, and when.”
She is about to argue when another road comes into view.
“I think I know this road,” she says. “It looks familiar.”
“You remember it? I guess that’s progress.”
Although tempted to ask questions, she decides to remain silent, feeling as if things will make more sense soon.
Another minute or so of walking brings them to a rise in the road leading to a hill topped by a dilapidated three-story clapboard house, weathered just as she would expect from a place washed and bathed daily by sun and sea salt.
“We’re here,” he says, mounting the steps to the front door, which she can already see is ajar. He stops on the porch and looks around. “It’s aged a little since last time,” he says with some concern in his voice. “The house is the only thing that changes here. A splinter falls away. A crack in a window creeps along by a fraction of an inch. The squawk of a loose board is a tiny bit louder. This house is the center.”
“The center of what?”
“Of what’s happening to you. To us.”
He shoves open the front door, the creak of its hinges announcing their arrival to no one in particular. The hardwood floor has a light dusting of sand broken up by footprints leading in different directions.
A clock ticks, perforating the relative silence of the house. The only other sound is the breeze blowing meekly between the cracks in a broken window pane. Inside the door are two rooms. To the right is an open office populated by nothing more than a heavy wooden desk topped by a dusty leather desk set awaiting a working day it will likely never see again. To her left is a living room with a small unused fireplace and a mantle lined with carefully spaced picture frames. She steps into the living room to get a better look at the pictures.
“We don’t have much time,” he says but makes no move to stop her from entering.
She crosses the room carefully and inspects the mantle, attempting to see through the dust-coated glass of one of the pictures. The mantle, apparently untouched for some time, has the feel of an abandoned shrine. At first she is unwilling to disturb the frames, but curiosity gets the better of her and she takes down one of the pictures. As she does, she steps on a piece of glass. A broken picture lies face down on the floor at her feet.
She wipes away some of the dust to reveal the image of two people: a man and a woman, smiling back at the camera. The man, probably in his early twenties, seems familiar, as does the woman.
A brief stab of recognition startles her and is gone, but in that moment, the picture slips from her fingers, and it shatters against the wood floor. She looks down, expecting to see two broken pictures — there is only the one. How could that be?
The footprints. Those she made coming into the room overlap some of the other prints. All are of the exact same size and shape.
All the footprints are hers.
The man is standing there in the doorway, waiting for her.
“Come on,” he says, his tone patient. “I know you’re confused, but like I said, we don’t have much time.”
They walk down the hallway and pass the grandfather clock she heard when first entering the house. Every tick and tock feels important, as if it isn’t ticking away only time itself but life, too. The clock itself feels like the source of everything that is keeping her confused and forgetful. Forgetful or forgotten.
Who winds the clock? This man? Perhaps it is neither the clock nor the man, but this world itself keeping her trapped, an hourglass filled with sand from its own beach, and any minute now everything will be upturned and drained down a narrow hole to be piled in a heap, only to be turned back over to start the process again.
It’s all too much. She wants out of the house, with its oldness that seems never to have been young. She rushes past the man, almost knocking him over, racing to and then through the back door, bursting out of the house, tears of frustration and confusion filling her eyes. She drops to her knees in the grass of the back yard.
A moment later, he is with her, one arm around her shoulders.
“You’re starting to remember?” he asks.
“No, I can only feel it,” she cries. “I feel the memories but I can’t see them. Why can’t I see them? What’s happened?”
“It’s okay,” he says.
She looks up at him.
“Sorry, that’s a lie,” he continues, “It’s actually not okay. But I think it will be. With your help. Come on.”
He leads her past a set of unkempt topiaries, their original shapes long lost to untempered growth. They walk past a creek, algae caked thickly along the route of its shallow waters. In places, the growth on the rocks resembles green hair being perpetually washed, as if a family of tiny mermaids is sleeping in the creek, soothed by the flow of cool water.
After the creek, they find themselves on a well-worn path lined with knee-high grasses. The path terminates at a square piece of land bordered by a low wrought-iron fence around a small graveyard. He swings the gate open for her.
The fenced-in area has room for two graves, but only one is occupied. At its head rests a stone, and the name on it sends a chill down her spine: Myrah Abdullah.
“She’s dead,” says the woman.
The scruffy beach bum sighs and nods.
Memories fill her mind like raindrops soaking a piece of paper. “That was you. You were the young guy in the picture. And she was the girl. God, you were both so young.” Another memory resurfaces, and she strains to recall. “I was sent to find her, bring her back. No, she was going to bring us back. But if she’s dead…”
He sucks air between his teeth. “Yeah, about that.”
“You’re stuck. You’ve been stuck for a while, actually.”
“No, I just got here a few minutes ago. On the beach.”
“‘Fraid not. What if I told you that you’ve been here for a long time. And that we’ve already had this conversation, or variations of it.”
“Many, many times.”
It sounds crazy, but she knows it’s true. Another memory resurfaces. “Myrah Abdullah, professor of physics,” she recites. “Expert in the field of alternate reality and temporal displacement.”
“And I ended up here because I was trying to find her.”
“But she’s dead. And instead I’ve found you.”
“And you’re her…husband? Lover?”
“Something like that. We never married. Might as well have, but never made it official. Have the wedding rings, though. Always liked that as a symbol, really. A circle, unbroken.”
“What are we doing here?”
“We’re looping,” he said. “You’re looping, actually, and I’m sortof along for the ride. Been here for a while. Weeks. Maybe months. Maybe years. But it messes with my memory, makes it all swiss cheese, so it’s hard to be sure. See, it’s like you’re dancing to a song on repeat, except you never really reach the end or the beginning, you just keep dancing without noticing the song has started over. You’re experiencing roughly the same sequence of events over and over again, more or less infinitely. It resets each time. The loop isn’t perfect, though. Small things change and bits overlap, especially near the center.”
“Like with the pictures. And the footprints.”
“Like with the pictures and the footprints. Ghosts of memories linger.”
“Then how did I end up here? And how do I get out? What is all this? Why are you here?” Her eyes narrow at him. “Did you do this? ”
“Whoa, hang on there, let’s not start pointing fingers. There’s no point trying to explain how you got here. Let’s focus on how to get you out.”
“You’re in a reality bubble built from memories and points in time that have strong emotional resonance. You ever feel like you’re in a rut? You go through life every day getting up at the same time so you can go to the same job just to go back to the same house, eat, sleep, get up and repeat the same damn thing all over again? The days all run together. Your perception of time is fairly steady because not much seems to happen.”
“Sure. Perception of time, Einstein, Relativity Theory, all that. One minute with your hand on a hot stove, that kind of thing.”
“Right. But your perception of time changes when something really different or meaningful happens. Something with emotional resonance. You move to a new city. Change jobs. Take a vacation. Lose a friend. Start or end a relationship. You’re drawn to those memories.”
“And we’re here because I have strong memories of beaches. My family used to vacation near a beach like the one you and I were just on. I sure loved that beach. Those were some of my favorite memories. I don’t remember the house, though.”
“That memory isn’t yours. It’s mine. And Myrah’s. I came to help you out, and my memories got mixed up here and the house became the center of this little reality bubble. But it’s degrading with each cycle because it’s the only place that jars your memory and helps you realize what’s going on. It isn’t your memory. And that’s where it gets tricky. With awareness comes control but also change. The more aware you are, the better able you are to help me help you get out, but the more the place changes. If it changes too quickly, it falls apart before I can get you out.”
“So I’m racing against myself?”
“We both are, and I’m working on a solution.”
“What can I do to help?”
“What you need to do is give me more time. The loop revolves around you. Remember how I said it was like a song on repeat? You need to expand that time between replays. Between the time the cycle ends and the time I show up from underneath that blanket, I’m somewhere else — never mind where— working on getting you out of this. I get pulled back in here every time you start down the beach. Every second you can give me, I’m able to get more done. ”
“Why can’t I remember anything from one cycle to the next?”
“Your mind isn’t accustomed to it. Few are. Look, everyone is trapped in time. And on some level, we all know it, but we don’t want to know it. We live as if we’re going to live forever, repeating the same mistakes, getting in the same ruts. On the odd occasion we realize we’re just little cogs in a big clock, it makes us feel afraid and lost and unsure why we’re here. We deny our mortality as a survival instinct because the truth of it is a heavy burden to bear. But if we can become aware enough to understand that every morning is a new morning, a new chance to make things better, maybe we can get out of that loop and get on with the business of living.”
“Speaking of…” He looks up at the sun. “It’s almost time to reset. Get ready.”
“Wait! What if I get it wrong? What if I forget? What if…”
“You’ll do fine. Just stay focused. Now close your eyes.”
“No buts. Visualize. Think about the ocean and the beach. Think about soaking it all up. Remember to move slowly at first. Try to enjoy the beach. You’ve been to the beach other times, so think about those. Concentrate on how much you enjoyed them.”
Then the man is gone. The clouds in the sky are frozen, and all sound drops away into a silence deeper than anything she’s ever experienced. Forcing herself to remain calm, she takes a deep breath and focuses on the ocean, the sun, the sand. Holding on to those kernels of thought, she barely notices the world around her fading away.
Eyes closed, the sun warming her skin, she breathes deeply through her nose and lets the sea air fill her lungs. She opens her eyes and takes a moment to admire the beach and the rising sun on the horizon. Then she realizes she has forgotten something. Something important. Closing her eyes again and wiggling her toes in the cool sand of the beach, she tries to recall what it was, but the only thing that comes to mind is a question: Why am I here? Her eyes open again, she checks her watch and waits (67 seconds to be exact) before picking up her shoes and turning to walk down the beach.