The universe has its mouth wide open. Light blooms out, every colour at once, a symphony of sounds in a discordant harmony. Silhouetted against it is a man – a boy? – his edges blurred. He is a watery reflection of himself. He has tears on his face, and a word on his tongue but no voice to say it with.
Time unfurls before him. He can run his fingers through it. His eyes dart through the exploding fragments, desperately searching for the memory he has replayed in his mind over and over.
Over and over.
It had been his first Christmas in the big house. Ethan was seven, just tall enough to ride rollercoasters, a whistle in his voice after losing his first tooth. He had stayed up late the night before, despite his mother’s warnings. “The sooner you fall asleep,” she reasoned, “the sooner tomorrow comes”. And yet tomorrow, it seemed, was out of his reach, no matter how far he extended his arms.
The morning came eventually, as mornings tend to do. He remembers it in flashes: the bitter smell of the coffee his dad insisted they wait for, the cold tile floor beneath his bare feet, the bright blue of the wrapping paper taped over the cardboard box. The yelp. He remembers the yelp well. Before he had finished opening the box, its contents leapt up at him, a flurry of blunt claws, sharp teeth, and fluff.
“He’s yours now,” his mum had said, but Ethan could not hear her. The puppy had started licking his ear, breath and frantic tongue all he could hear. “What will you name him?”
He held the dog still, long enough to get a good look. His ears were too big for his head and paws too big for his feet, fur a patchwork of caramel and black. At this time, Ethan had finished watching Star Wars for the second time. He didn’t know that the awe with which he watched spaceships zoom and stars explode would never go away. His fascination with space would shape his whole life. Right now, though, Star Wars was just a really cool movie. And to him, Han Solo was the coolest person he’d ever seen. And what was Han without – “Chewie,” he said. “Like Chewbacca.”
The silhouette at the mouth of the universe stiffens. He grabs the memory before him. There’s Chewie, slobbery grin, all that fur. Ethan feels the memory thrum in his hands. Huh. The box was bare cardboard. There was no wrapping paper. The memory does smell like coffee, but it’s faint. Like a cup that has long been empty.
Chewie grew into his ears and paws much quicker than Ethan’s parents anticipated. His yelps became full-bodied barks. His fur lined the furniture in the home. Ethan and Chewie were inseparable. They shared a bed until Chewie outgrew the arrangement, and even then, Ethan’s mum had to intervene when she found him sleeping on the floor so Chewie could take the mattress. When Ethan got a spot on the school cricket team, he practiced bowling with Chewie as a fielder. When Ethan whined because he didn’t want to eat the beans on his plate, it was Chewie who ended up finishing his dinner. Ethan remembers these years as an idyll.
There was more to it, of course. There always is. No matter how much they tried, they couldn’t train Chewie. They joked that he wasn’t named for the character, but rather his taste for shoes. He barked wildly when skateboards rolled by. And he had a knack for escaping the backyard.
Time spins before Ethan like the wheels of a bike, each fragment a spoke. It’s hard to focus on everything at once. He has done this before – peeked into the folds of the fabric of time – but this is the first time he has torn it open. He is thirty-four now. He has worked on unravelling time his whole life. Well, not quite. At first, he just wanted to stop time. Then rewind it. But clocks, he had learnt, paint a deceptive picture of time. It doesn’t travel forward, marching the same path over and over. It folds. It crumples. It stretches. It wraps around you and spits you out.
There was one day he wanted to go back to. The day he had resolved to stop time. On that day, Ethan had missed his normal afternoon school bus; his desk was too messy, and his teacher made him stay behind to organise it. He often got in trouble for these sorts of things. When he stepped off the later bus, he saw his mother’s furrowed brow, her wringing hands. Chewie had gotten out again, she said. And she couldn’t find him.
Ethan rode through the streets on his bike until all the light had been wrung from the sky. His sides hurt from his panting. His throat stung as he yelled: Chewie’s name, over and over. Over and over. The streetlights danced in and out of his tear-blurred vision. His legs felt weak. He felt the rasp of asphalt against his knees before he knew he’d fallen, bike toppled over, wheels spinning aimlessly. Ethan sat and sobbed. He was too late. He was too late.
The door creaks open behind him. The memory he was holding disappears. The universe clenches its jaw, and time snaps back to normal. Ethan feels like a kid again, skinned knees, on the road without realising he’d fallen. He had been so close, so fucking close – “I’m worried about you.” His mother’s voice hadn’t changed much since he was a kid. Her words were still bubble-wrapped in worry.
He turns to face her. “You can’t just come in like that. It’s – it’s delicate. If you interrupt me, I lose it.”
“This is my house, Ethan. I can go where I like. And I don’t like this stuff. You know that.”
He did know it. She had made it very clear. At first, she had been supportive. When his research piqued the interest of local universities, and then less local ones, and the grants had started rolling in, she couldn’t have been prouder. She marvelled at the invites to speak at conferences around the world – Tokyo, Boston, Paris; to share his research with the brightest minds of their time. But Ethan didn’t want any of that. It was never about acclaim. This wasn’t a project or an exploration. It was an apology. An apology for having been just too late, in the only language Ethan felt fluent in: physics.
“Go outside,” his mother says, and she massages the fingers on her left hand. Her hands, he thinks, have changed since he was a kid. She still paints her nails, but her hands seem worn. Her skin is creased from all those years of anxiously playing with her fingers. “You never leave this room any more.”
“I do,” he says, but they both know it’s a lie. He has been awake in this room all night, recalibrating the machine on his desk. He clears his throat. Starts again. “I’m so close. Please, just let me be for a few more minutes -”
“You’ve been alone enough.” Her voice is harsher now – less cushioned. The words echo around the room. They bounce off the bits and pieces – prototypes made from Paddlepop sticks, boxes of cables, dozens of cups he hasn’t yet returned to the kitchen – but to her, it is empty. There is acid in her words.
When Ethan was eighteen, he missed his Year 12 formal. He had stayed back in one of the labs after school. It was the first time he had held time in his hands. It felt fuzzy, like TV static, like pins and needles. He had only held it for a second, but he had grasped it just long enough that that second felt like ten. The tingles it left on his skin stayed there for days. His formal date, Angela, had eventually gone alone. She left sequins on the couch from where she had sat waiting for him while his mother called, only to reach voicemail, over and over. His mum had thought Angela was a nice girl. She never spoke to Ethan again. He saw her once in a local shopping centre. “I’m sorry,” he had said, but even he wasn’t sure if he meant it. “I lost track of time.”
“Go fuck yourself,” she had said.
Perhaps he was alone.
“I’m not alone,” he lied again. “I’m busy with work.”
“You’re obsessed. It’s not healthy.”
“I’m not obsessed, I just -”
“I never see you any more, Ethan.” Her voice was louder still. “What’s this all for? Why spend all this time holed up in your room researching if you don’t want to share that research with the world? With me?”
“It’s hard to explain.” Another lie? He doesn’t know.
“Try,” she snaps. “You’re trying to turn back time. What are you looking for? What do you want?”
The word still sits on his tongue. His through still stings thinking about it. He has not said it aloud in so long.
“Chewie,” he whispers.
“Chewie.” Louder now.
“Yes, the dog. I want to find him.”
A pause. Time seems to have slowed, but Ethan’s machine is off.
“He ran away, and I was too late to find him, and I just – I don’t know how to explain.” His mind spins like the wheel of an upended bike, frenetic but going nowhere. Words fail him. He has never been good at using words.
“Chewie didn’t run away.”
The wheel stops.
“You said -”
Time stops completely.
“He got out one day and ran behind my car. I didn’t see him. I wasn’t going to tell you that at the time, but… Ethan, that was – that was decades ago. Is this…” She looks around the room, eyes dancing over every scrap, every pile. “Is that what all of this is about?” His tongue is too big in his mouth. Time splinters.
“This… this is no way to live, Ethan. Grow up.”
The door closes behind her. The floor opens beneath him. All these years, and he hadn’t been too late at all.
No way to live.
What was it then? All these prototypes, these scraps, all this time – what was it if not survival?
He blinks, and time surrounds him again. He looks at his hand. He had switched the machine back on without realising. He watches as memories fracture before him. His young self, desperately calling for Chewie, biking around the quiet streets. He did that every day for two weeks. He watches himself fall and scrape his knees. He falls over and over. Over and over.
His knees are scarred now. He looks at them. The gnarled skin is a kiss from time. Memories dance before him – his mother’s wringing hands, creased with age; his dad’s lukewarm coffee; the sequins left behind by Angela’s dress. The wheel of his bike, spinning and spinning. Maybe he was wrong. Perhaps time wasn’t something that you could stretch and dive back into. Perhaps it did march forward, no matter what.
A yelp. Chewie’s tiny face, dwarfed by his too-big ears. The image flickers: he’s older now, head on Ethan’s lap as he sits at the dinner table, sneaking beans off his plate to him. Another flicker. The heat of Chewie’s breath as he pins Ethan down, licking him, as he giggles uncontrollably.
Just too late.
The universe has its mouth open. Silhouetted against it is a man, who used to be a boy. He takes a deep breath. He lets go of the memory he has in his hands. The dog’s face fades away. He turns off the machine.
This piece was an entry in the 2022 Honi Soit Writing Competition.