If you could go back in time, would you really change just one thing?

She left the path and stepped into the woods. Fallen branches crunched underfoot. A honeyed sunlight spilled in through the trees, glazing the forest in an amber glow. 

The air was redolent with that easy blend of charcoal and pine. She listened to her favorite album as she walked, but her thoughts had drifted when it got to the best part, so she skipped back to the beginning to start fresh.

It was always like that for her. No matter how eagerly she awaited something, she never enjoyed the moment once it arrived, because by then she was already waiting for the next. Sometimes, the anxiety of missing out led her to overcorrect, to ground herself so sturdily in the present that she lost sight of anything past her nose, like the massive spider web — and its resident massive spider — ahead of her, glinting threads unnoticed until they were wrapped across her face and — 

The air was redolent with that easy blend of charcoal and pine. She listened to birdsong as she walked, careful to avoid the spiderwebs that spiraled between the trees at eye level. Though she had a proclivity for identifying patterns, she found no semblance of order in the birds’ scattered jigsaw melodies. It seemed more like the disjointed free-for-all of an orchestra tuning up before a rehearsal. Still, there was a kind of accidental beauty to it.

When the lakehouse was in sight, she texted her mom that she was almost there — just enough notice for everyone to frantically dive behind the furniture. Surprise parties were more fun for the conspirators, and she wanted them to have the thrill of pulling it off by the skin of their teeth. She approached from the north side, so if her shock didn’t seem genuine she could always admit she’d recognized Janelle’s grungy Corolla parked down the road. But after she walked in and they exploded from their hiding places, nobody questioned her practiced squeal of delight. They would all have a better time if they believed it was genuine.

It helped that everyone was already a few drinks deep. Which is why she hadn’t originally noticed the stumble in her father’s step when he swept her up into a spinning embrace as he crooned half-remembered lyrics from Dylan’s Forever Young. Her buddies from undergrad didn’t give her a chance to dwell on it. They swarmed in for a group hug that would have toppled under their joyous momentum were it not for the support of her sober footing in the middle. It was as much their celebration as hers. She was the last in her circle of friends to turn twenty-one—despite being the first to earn her degree—and now the whole gang could hit the bars together.

She didn’t often mix friends with family, so watching the crossover of these separate worlds felt like living out a surreal dream. Her dad was loving it, though, whipping out all his classic dad jokes for the new appreciative audience that had gathered around the grill. 

“They’re not the best sausages I’ve grilled,” he quipped, “but I’ve done bratwurst.” 

She and her mom never looked more alike than when they rolled their eyes in unison, as they did now. They’d both heard that one so many times it was almost funny. 

When the sausages were ready, her dad made a big show of crafting her sandwich to perfection—extra mustard, extra sauerkraut, just the way she liked. “Here ya go, Giuseppe,” he said as he so graciously bestowed it upon her. Everybody was a Giuseppe to him in those days, from the talking heads on his cable news programs to the squirrels who stymied his efforts to defend the birdfeeder from their pillages. One of his charming idiosyncrasies forever tainted by hindsight. On many sleepless nights to come, she would audit every memory from that period and speculate over the missed hints of early symptoms, finding red flags everywhere.

Somebody had brought a bluetooth speaker, but it was low on battery and missing its charger, so they ate in silence as the food overtook the conversation. She hated the sounds of eating. The ugly, chugging rumble of ingestion that exposed the latent machinery of the human body and always triggered her into fretting over the flimsy assemblage of wires and ducts inside us that can so easily break down like a

Somebody had brought a bluetooth speaker, and fortunately she had a spare charger in her bag. She showed her mom how to pair it with a phone, and in doing so condemned herself to a lifetime serving as the family’s resident IT specialist. “So that’s the kind of top secret intel you’ve been studying at the lab, eh?” her mom said, only half joking. Her research was a subject of great mystery to the family, but there wasn’t much point in explaining the vast and — one would think — obvious differences between quantum physics and basic tech savviness. For all they knew, the entire landscape of scientific studies was a single field that centered on the recovery of forgotten iPhone passwords.

Once the party’s central glob of attendees trickled out into smaller conversations, she and the gang made their way to the lake. Most of them still needed time to digest and stayed on the shore to nurse their food comas under the narcotic sunlight. Gordon kept proposing boozy twists on classic swimming pool games, and she eventually bet him a shooter of Fireball that she could hold her breath underwater longer than him. 

With Matthew judging from the dock, they dove off at his count of three. She let herself sink all the way to the bottom and concentrated on the silky ribbons of mud threading between her toes to distract from the panicked urge-to-live stampeding in her lungs. Then she realized that the muck had formed a suction grip around both her ankles and tried to shimmy free, but the more she thrashed, the deeper she sank, until her flailing hands caught at the dock and she tore herself upward, choking on the dirty water in a coughing fit so violent that 

With Matthew judging from the dock, they dove off at his count of three. She resurfaced immediately and gave him a wink. Then they all had a laugh when Gordon splashed out almost a full minute later to find her lounging in a deck chair, sipping her drink at a leisurely pace.

Their laughter grew even louder back at the lakehouse, where her mild, oatmeal family was listening to Odd Future—apparently the result of her father’s hapless search for an oldie’s playlist on Spotify. It was just perfect. The sight of her parents trying to make the most of it with a slow dance — and her friends swapping in to show them some new moves — was a memory she would cherish for the rest of her life. Everyone was thoroughly tipsy by that point, so Janelle brought out the pack of floss she carried everywhere. She was studying to be a dental hygienist and would often use these sort of shindigs as an opportunity to hone her skills. And no matter how many times a friend flosses your teeth to the beat of Tyler the Creator, you never do get used to it.

Sweaty and sated from dancing, she and Matthew sprawled out on a hammock at the edge of the woods to watch the sun set. The sky obliged them with a flashy ripple of psychedelic whorls. They started talking about their post-college plans, and Matthew admitted that after spending most of his time bouncing between majors, he had no idea where the future might take him. 

Then he noticed her eyes and asked what was wrong, so she made up a hasty excuse about the pollen count. There was no easy way to explain how much she envied his blithe, linear unknowing. One more addition for the teetering heap of secrets she could never share with the people she loved. 

She continued to lay there long after the sun dipped behind the mountains, watching as Gordon and Mae giggled away from the party and snuck into the backseat of his car. She didn’t bother to intervene this time. That was one mess that would need to work itself out. Even the lab director would have to admire the Herculean restraint she exercised in this rare act of noninterference—if he knew what she was actually up to. 

It was clear by now that the director didn’t have the slightest clue what she’d been doing with her reiterations. On the first of December, he will recruit her for his revolutionary experiment as usual, and — in a histrionic speech that she almost knew by heart — warn her that she must do everything possible to preserve the original timeline when she embarks on the especially risky test run. 

With a solemn nod, she will promise to maintain the role of a neutral observer — just as she had the first time, when the promise was still heavy with sincerity. What she will not mention, is that she already completed the test run ages ago, that his original timeline is actually a palimpsest that’s been edited beyond recognition.

She’d long muted the ethical alarms that were blaring that first time she looped back to the recruitment date, when she’d somehow changed the outcome of a college football game. The director’s obliviousness to her alteration—as well as the trial itself—let her see how this was all just like the time she’d lost Pecorino. 

Little Rino, the only pet she’d been allowed as a child, was the pint-sized, pita-colored, Greatest Mouse Of All Time. She’d sobbed her way through an entire Kleenex box the day he escaped from his cage, and then danced with such unbridled ecstasy when she found him later that night that the downstairs neighbors complained. 

It wasn’t until the next week that her family realized their apartment had a serious mouse problem. And although she never questioned it at the time, years later she would wonder whether the squirming little rodent who returned to Rino’s cage was the original or an impostor. Like Rino, the mouse she’d found cowering under the dryer was pint-sized, pita-colored, and the Greatest Mouse Of All Time, yet for all she knew, her parents might have tossed the real Pecorino down the garbage chute after snapping his neck in a trap. 

 She understood now that there never was a real Pecorino — only the idea of one. Just like the original timeline was only an idea. 

Even if it came first, it was no more authentic than any of the others she’d doctored. And no better or worse, either. For despite her best efforts to undo the textbook disasters of her lifetime, the branches of each new timeline she crafted would inevitably veer toward tragedy, like tree limbs groping for sunlight. Whenever she managed to trace a tornado back to its butterfly, swatting it out was as futile as a game of whack-a-mole. In every reiteration, towns would get razed by wildfires, cities would sink into the ocean, and unsuspecting human bodies would become the nesting grounds for inoperable tumors. 

So on this, her umpteenth reiteration, all she wanted was to get a single day right. Just one. If she could pull that off, maybe there was hope for the rest of this rotten timeline. She was getting so close. In fact, this latest attempt was nearly perfect. Except now that it was almost midnight, she suddenly realized that there was still so much room for improvement, so much for her to fine-tune, so much for

She left the path and stepped into the woods. Fallen branches crunched underfoot. A honeyed sunlight spilled in through the trees, glazing the forest in an amber glow —

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Ewan Davis

Ewan Davis

Ewan Davis is a tech writer from Brooklyn whose short fiction can be found in LandLocked and Casino literary mags.

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