All the Time in the World

The first time it happened, it was entirely on accident.

I remember lying there in bed, trying to get to sleep. The autumn breeze blowing in through the window was crisp and pleasant, the air still temperate enough that I could lie on top of my blankets. It had been a long day, like so many days had been of late, and my slight limbs were heavy with fatigue.

Depression tugged my spirits downward as I surveyed my bedroom. The trumpet I'd played throughout high school sat atop a bookshelf opposite my bed. I'd been playing earlier, hoping to let some of my feelings out, but the lady in the condo below mine had complained. Just another thing to be sour about.

Even when I shut my eyes, sleep eluded me. I was uncomfortable in my own skin. My underwear cut into my soft, heavy belly when I laid on my side, and just weighed down upon me when I tried sleeping on my back. My brain betrayed me, too. Thoughts ricocheted sluggishly through my weary mind, defying my every attempt to rest. I tried everything I could: long, slow breaths, thinking of nothing at all, even some meditation techniques I'd learned back at some New Age center back home in San Cristobal. Nothing worked, and the hours marched on.

I looked at the clock. Its glaring red letters reminded me of my failure to sleep. The next day at the office was going to be miserable.

Somehow, around half past three, lassitude crept into my limbs. My fingers and toes tingled. Slowly, the tingle crescendoed into a vibration that thrummed through my core, as if my body was a harpstring plucked by a careless hand. Terrified, I tried to rise from bed. To my consternation, my body was unyielding as stone. Just as my terror reached its zenith, I felt something tug me upward.

I rose, light as a balloon set free from its cord, thoughts of my body and bed banished from my mind by a sudden flood of sights and sounds. I floated in a vast space devoid of perspective or meaning. Constellations of prismatic light swirled by me, and silvery music played through me. In my strange, dreamy state, I accepted the impossibility of these sensations as if they were commonplace.

Other shapes of light streaked by me. Somehow I recognized that they were like me, people divorced from their physical shapes. With a thought, I neared one of them, and I swore I could feel his thoughts, their meanings tantalizingly knowable, until he passed beyond my mental grasp.

Staggered by the inexhaustible beauty of this place that was not a place, I remained and watched for what felt like decades. I might have remained forever, were it not for a grip on my thoughts that pulled me away.

The sense of having a body once jarred me like being thrown into an icy lake. I shot up with a gasp and opened my eyes. I was not in my bedroom any more. I wasn't even convinced I was on Earth any more.

Old, worn cobblestones, damp as if with morning dew, pressed into my butt and legs. I had been lying on them, and my back was moist. They continued for a few yards to all sides before being bound by brass railings, beyond which lay only darkness. A single gas streetlamp burned nearby. I had no time to think about its incongruous existence, as someone coughed behind me.

I rose. A beautiful young man leaned against one of the railings behind me, his back to me. When he turned to face me, I was immediately struck by his exotic beauty. His eyes possessed a peculiar jeweled hue, somewhere between garnet and amethyst, and his pale face was framed by hair as dark as ebony. To say he looked like a model would have been an insult. He was too perfect to photograph.

He was, I noticed as he came toward me, several inches taller than my five and a half feet. Lithe, hard muscles played beneath the lightless black shirt clinging to his torso. They bunched beneath a pair of tight black jeans. I'd thought nothing could make him more beautiful, but then he smiled.

"Are you well?" he asked. His voice had a faint lilt to it, an accent that I could not recognize.

"I've been better."

He frowned. "Are you well?" he asked again.

"I'm fine, I guess. Where am I? Are you the one who pulled me out of that... that place?"

"You are with me, in a place that is mine." He sounded perplexed. I figured it was about the only answer I was going to get.

I searched the darkness beyond the rails, looking for answers. "Can I go?"

"This communication is imprecise. I do not understand what you are asking. May I?"

He held up a single, slender finger, a questioning look on his face. When I did not answer immediately, he placed the finger against my forehead. A hot rush roiled through my body, like when I'd drawn near the other bodiless entity, but a thousand times as intense. For an instant, I knew him as wholly as I knew myself. Then, the contact was gone, and that knowing ebbed away, like wine spilling from an overfilled cup.

"What was that?" I shouted, backing away.

"Fascinating. You aren't from here," he said. The accent was gone. "And you're... linear? How droll. But if you're linear--" he broke off.

Still unable to think clearly, I backed away. "What the heck was that? My head, ow!"

"I apologize. I was not aware that you were not of this place. You must be wishing to leave."

"Yes, I wish more than anything to leave."

The beautiful man gave a placid nod. "I understand. Where shall you go?"

"I'd really like to go back to my bed. Is that... is that possible?"


"Now," I said.

"Your methods of communication are imprecise," he chided. "You are often in your bed. To which time would you like to return?"

"This time, right now!" I shouted, before realization of what he was saying dawned on me. "Wait. Wait. What do you mean, 'which time'?"

He considered me. "In this place, time has no meaning."

"So I could wake up yesterday, or tomorrow, or five years ago. You're really telling me that."

"I am. Is this important to you?"

I couldn't respond. My thoughts spun. If I could go back in time, wake up on another day, I could fix everything that was wrong with my life. My weight, my relationships, my regrets--this had to be a dream, however real it felt. I reached up and pinched myself.

Nope. Not a dream.

"Important?" I stared at him. "This is like--you have no idea. Yes, I want to go back. But how do I do it?"

"Simply focus," he said. "Let yourself be there."

"And I'll just pop back into my body at that time?"

A hint of perplexion passed over his chiseled features. "Yes. I believe that is how you would say it."

I considered that for a moment. So I could go back in time and do things over again, if this creature that looked like every wet dream I'd ever had could be believed. But there were so many things I didn't want to relive--tests, deaths, business trips--surely there had to be a way to make changes without having to do all the work of living over again.

"Can I get back here?" I asked.

"You know how to come here now," he said.

To my surprise, he was correct. After sharing my mind with him for that brief moment, I found that I knew this place as intimately as I knew my own home. I nodded.

"You don't mind if I come back?"

"A part of you exists here now. It does not trouble me," he said.

"Okay, then. Before I go, what's your name?"

He blinked. "Ah. Names are important to you."

"I'm Lee," I said.

"Call me Hal," he said.

"All right, Hal. Thanks, and wish me luck."

With a hint of trepidation, I shut my eyes and formed a memory in my mind. Doing so was easier than I expected. It had been seventeen years since the day I had made a choice that had affected the rest of my life. I remembered it too clearly.

"Lee?" a voice asked, and I opened my eyes.

It was my mother, but something about her looked wrong. I realized as I stared up at her that she was far too tall, her face free of lines and her hair pure brown, untouched by even a hint of grey. Only once I'd taken her in did the rest of the world flood in.

We were in my high school gymnasium, several feet from the band booth. Banners hung from the ceiling, announcing "Registration Day." I tried to conceal the absolute wonder that had stolen my words away, holding up a hand to silence my mother as she said my name again.

"Are you okay, honey?" she asked.

"Yeah, I'll be fine. Just thinking," I said.

"You look so pale. Are you sure? We can go home if you're feeling sick, sweetie."

"No, I'm great, I promise. Can I go to the bathroom?"

She nodded. I could feel her worried look boring into my back as I rushed to the restroom. It had been years since I'd been back on the campus of my high school, but I remembered the layout. Once inside, I shut the door, stood on my tiptoes, and stared into the mirror.

I was twelve again. Short, skinny, and twelve. I remembered that I'd been a little tall for my age at twelve, but I had sprouted only a few more inches in high school before settling at five foot six. My heart pounded as if I had run a marathon. I thought about all the things I could do, but I reminded myself that I had come back for one reason. Would it work?

My mother was talking with one of the teachers when I got back to her. I waited for them to finish their conversation. Once they did, Mom fixed me with an expectant look.

"Feeling better?"

"Totally," I said. "I think I've figured out what I want to do as an extracurricular activity. I want to do wrestling."

Mom blinked. "Funny," she said. "I really thought you were going to say band."

I could barely focus for the rest of the day. I'm sure my parents noticed that something was up from the wide-eyed way that I took in our old house, or from the way I barely paid attention to their interrogations over dinner. I was too focused on getting back to bed so I could prove my hypothesis.

Finally, night came, and my mother tucked me in. Instead of trying to fall asleep, I settled myself in and relaxed, focusing on finding my way back to the place between alertness and dreams. Hal was right. It was easier this time.

I found myself floating amidst the constellations of light almost as soon as I closed my eyes. With some effort, I focused on being back in my bed, in my time, and I felt myself streaking through the expanse like a bullet. I did not realize I was hurtling toward blackness until it was too late.

The darkness reared up before me, cold and dark and terrible, devoid of light. I struck it and careened off. My consciousness tumbled downward into blackness, sight and meaning vanishing as I pushed back into my sleeping body.

Light played over my face, pulling me back into alertness. I came awake with a refreshing abruptness, stretching my limbs and sitting up straight in bed. My first thought was that I'd had a lovely dream, and the second was disappointment that it had been only that.

But then my eyes caught on something. Rather, the lack of something. My trumpet was missing from its perch atop the bookshelf. I looked around the room, expecting to find that I'd misremembered where I had placed it. It was nowhere to be seen.

Suspicion dawned on me as I tried to remember my key fingerings. I held my hand up, but for some reason I couldn't get them to play the fingerings that had been so familiar to me last night. When I thought about it more, I realized that I couldn't even remember how many notes a scale had in it.

Maybe I was having a stroke. I jumped out of bed and was about to race out into the hallway when I passed by my mirror. There was something off about the reflection, but it was still recognizably me. Short, pale, belly, dark hair, dark eyes--I ran through the inventory, all certainty about my place in the world lost.

That was when I noticed the scar on my shoulder. It was a faded white line now, looking like it had been there for years, but it hadn't been there when I had gone to sleep. When I rolled my shoulder in its socket, a slight twinge--a half-remembered ghost of pain--tugged at me.

I called my mother. She sounded happy to hear from me. Too pleased, really.

"We've been so worried about you," she said. Although my parents weren't the type to overreact, I think they secretly suspected that one day, they'd call and I'd have overdosed on sleeping pills or something.

"I'm fine."

"Has he responded to your letter, or--"

"No, Mom. Hey, I have a question."

She sighed. "If you feel like you need to change the subject."

"Really, no, I do have a question. You know that scar I have?"

Mom paused. "Yes, why?"

"Do you remember when I got it?"

"Lee, are you all right?"

"I'm fine. Do you remember, though?"

"Your junior year wrestling meet, honey. Why--"

"Hey, I've gotta go," I said, and hung up the phone.

On shaky legs, I made my way back to the mirror. I was still in pretty bad shape, but now I could see that I had changed from the man I'd been last night. I'd gained a good fifteen pounds, maybe more, and had the look of an athlete who had stopped working out a while ago. I still had the same dark circles under my eyes, the same haunted look I'd been wearing for almost a year.

But still, it had worked. I'd changed the past.

That realization carried me through the rest of the day. I went in early to work, and though exhaustion began catching up with me toward the end of the day, my co-workers commented on how chipper I was. My good mood lasted until I got home and checked the mail.

It was the same old stuff: advertisements, bills, the like. When I went to close the box, I noticed a small envelope sitting toward the back. I knew what it was before my fingers closed around the edge. After all, I'd been the one to send it. I didn't bother looking at the reproachful, block letters stating "RETURN TO SENDER" on the front. I'd seen them before, several times.

That night, I went back to Hal's place and found him waiting there for me. On my first visit, I'd been too confused to really appreciate how amazing he looked. Now, looking at him took my breath away.

"Hey there," I said, a frog in my throat. "I'm back."


"I was gone, and I'm back now," I said. The slight rush of warmth to my groin cooled precipitously. However beautiful, Hal was so strange that appreciating his body was like fantasizing about a statue.

"These are linear terms."

"I'm linear," I said. "You said so yourself."

"In some senses, you are. And in some, you are not."

I shrugged that off. "So, I have some questions, if you don't mind me asking."

"Of course."

"All right. If I make you uncomfortable, let me know."

He quirked a black eyebrow. "You do not."

"So, first off, what are you? You're not human, right?"

"No. I am not human."

I nodded. "All right. What do you look like when you're not here?" I glanced down at myself. "I mean, I look like me." My clothes kept changing, shifting between button-downs, t-shirts, and polos, along with an incongruous fishnet drape that I couldn't get out of my head no matter how embarrassing it was. I got the feeling that if I could just focus, I could control that, but it seemed unimportant.

"I dwell here. Your perceptions give me shape."

"But what do you actually look like?"

"Anything," he said.

"Okay, another dead-end with that one," I said to myself. "Look, everything I know about the world says that this whole changing the past thing shouldn't be possible. Once something has happened, it's done with. So how did I change my life?"

"What you call the past is not immutable," he said.

"Experts disagree."

"Then why do you dwell there?"

"Sometimes you don't make much sense," I said, frustrated.

I did not get many more answers out of him that night. He was irritatingly obtuse at times, and I was more than ready to try making some more changes to my life. I'd altered my body slightly, but not enough. I was still fat and unhealthy, and now I knew I could be so much more. I thought back to places where I could do the most good.

My height had annoyed me for some time. I suspected that it had something to do with my habits throughout high school. I'd been a heavy soda drinker, had made a habit of getting three or four hours of sleep a night, and had eaten badly throughout. None of those were as easy to change as joining the wrestling team, but I had to try.

Bidding Hal a farewell, I slipped into another memory near the beginning of my high school years, about six months in. Knowing how disorienting it had been the first time, I'd been careful not to force myself into one where I was surrounded by other people. I was sitting on the floor of my room at home, watching cartoons at night, homework spread out before me.

Some things were different than I remembered. A scattering of recent photos sat on my dresser. One showed me in a wrestling singlet, looking decidedly more athletic than I ever remembered being in high school. Reflexively, I clenched my right arm and felt my biceps with my left. I was definitely in better shape than I'd been as a band geek. Still skinny, but now my arm was hard with boyish muscle.

"All right," I asked myself. "How do I avoid turning into a fat slob?"

I glanced down at the notebook open in front of me. At some point, my notes on Algebra had given way to careless ramblings about a story that I'd been thinking about at the time. They were amateurish compared to some of the things I'd written since, but I found myself smiling nonetheless.

There was no easy way for me to change the course of my life, I realized. I had to do something with impact. After a few minutes of pondering, the answer came to me so easily that I felt foolish for not seeing it sooner.

I flipped to the next page, grabbed a pen, and started to write.

"Dear Past Me,

I'm you from the future. No, seriously. Check out the handwriting. It's still awful. You're not having a psychotic break. Here's the deal. I'm kind of chubby and short. If you don't want to end up that way, you need to sleep and eat better, okay?



Afterward, I shrugged. Dumber plans had succeeded. I'd been so open to believing in magic and mystery as a kid that this harebrained idea just might work.

Just in case, though, I slid into a few more memories before returning to Hal's place. I went back to my grandfather's funeral and scribbled a note to myself on one of the programs. I traveled to when I'd gotten my first dog, an overexcited pit bull named Dirk, and wrote it in the margins of a book I was reading. I even wrote it in a fantasy novel I knew I'd get around to reading near the end of freshman year.

I made a final trip to the night after I graduated high school. I wound up in a body woozy from too much alcohol, but somehow, through a bleary haze, I managed to get up from bed. I was definitely taller by a few inches. I'd never been able to see over the top of the shelves in my bedroom at home, but now I could.

I stumbled to the bathroom and took off my shirt. It was all I could do not to whoop with joy. I was in possession of a body like I'd never had before, corded with hard muscle and blessed with a noticeable v-shaped taper.

With an impish grin on my face, I bounced my pecs, something I'd always wanted to be able to do. I flexed one solid biceps, and the veined peak would have stretched the tape somewhere around fifteen inches, unless I missed my guess. And this was with college ahead of me. Maybe I would be a serious athlete when I got back to my time. I had to see what had changed.

As before, I darted through the place with all the colors. This time, I avoided the dark thing that I'd collided with last time. I was curious about what it was. Something about its tenebrous bulk drew me, but I resisted, too full of excitement to stray from my course.

I woke up sprawled out, my arms hanging over the edges of the bed. Anticipation surged through me as I realized that my feet were stretching almost to the bed's foot. I was taller. My limbs were longer. I couldn't wait to see what I looked like now!

Again, the results were mixed. In addition to my new height, it was readily apparent when I flexed that I had once been in good shape. But the signs of weariness in my face still sullied my features, and much of my muscle had run to fat.

"I'm not good at this," I railed at Hal on the next night. "Maybe I'm making changes too far back."

"What is important about this time?" Hal asked. "The one to which you keep returning."

"I live there. That's my present."

"It is important to you?"

"It is," I agreed.

"Then why do you dwell elsewhere?"

"I'm not dwelling in these other times. I'm just popping in and making changes," I said.

He gave me a disapproving look.

I knew from visiting myself after graduation that I'd stuck with working out all throughout high school. Maybe whatever had made me stop working out was something in college. Perhaps I'd gained the freshman fifteen and never worked them off, I thought.

"I'm going back to college, Hal," I said. "See you soon."

When I shut my eyes and focused, it was on a pleasant, inoffensive memory of me sitting beneath a willow tree on the grounds of San Cristobal College. I found myself bathed in cold, winter sunlight, chill despite the scarf and hoodie I was wearing. I opened my eyes and looked around.

The college grounds were about as I had left them. They sprawled over a set of high hills, relying on a preponderance of stairs to connect the various buildings. I knew a moment's guilt when I realized I was probably going to make my past self skip class. I didn't even know when during the semester this memory had been.

To my relief, I was still buff. Perhaps a little bigger than I'd been during my last visit to my past self. I flexed an arm and felt it, savoring the rock-hard bulge that popped up under my sleeve.

"Hey, save some for the rest of us," said a voice behind me.

Suddenly, the winter's chill seemed harsher, the day a little less bright. I remembered why I had this memory, now. I longed to be anywhere else, to return to Hal, to my own time, but that wasn't how this worked. I had to get back to a bed before I could do any of that.

"I'm sorry?" I asked.

Tyler stood with his hands on his hips. Sunlight framed him, playing off of his shock of blond hair, haloing his athletic physique. The sight of him hit me like a physical blow, and it was all I could do not to flee.

"Your arm," he said. "You're enjoying the heck out of it. It looks like you brought enough to share."

That hadn't been his opening line the first time I'd experienced this. Then again, I'd been small and scrawny, then. He'd stopped to ask me for the time, I think, and then commented on--

"Wow, has anyone told you that you have really nice eyes?" When I didn't respond, he swallowed. "You are gay, aren't you?"

"What tipped you off?" I asked.

"Mostly the scarf. The hoodie's a size too small, but I'll let you get away with it because it makes your back look awesome," he said. "Also, I've seen you at some of the LGBT events. I'm Tyler, by the way."

"I know," I said, extending a hand. "I mean, I'm Lee. Nice to meet you."

He shook my offered hand. "Are you okay? Your hand's shaking, Lee."

"Yeah, it's just cold," I said. The words we exchanged were the same as they had been the first time around, but they had different meanings. I had been so terrified at being approached by someone as handsome as Tyler. This time, I was just full of dread.

He smirked. "Hey, I'm on my way to class. Do you know what time it is?"

I told him. He thanked me. The dread in me intensified as he started away. I could let him go, and rewrite everything, I realized. But against every instinct I had, I called out after him.

"You want to hang out some time?"

"Yeah, I would," he said.

I didn't bother making any more changes to my past that night. I didn't bother going back to visit Hal before making my way through the starry field. I was so consumed with thinking of him that I almost collided with the dark space on my way back to my body in the present. Somehow, I managed to avoid it at the last second, and I awakened to cheeks wet with tears.

On my way out the door that morning, I noticed the letter that had been returned to me. The block letters were still there, still shouting that it had been returned unopened. But I looked at the name, Tyler's name, that I'd hand-written on it and couldn't keep the tears from my eyes.

I threw it in the trash on my way to work.

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