I was shown into an empty movie theater by a tall man who looked like he could be a bond villain's henchman. He actually wore black leather gloves and a scowl. He directed me to a row in the middle of the theater and motioned for me to take a seat and so I did. Then he left. I breathed a sigh of relief. Then a thin aging man came in. Well, he practically scampered in. He was smiling when he came up to me, his eyes crinkling in genuine delight (I was a bit put off by this enthusiasm), and offered his hand. I took it and shook.
"Thank you so much for agreeing to participate," he said.
"Yeah. So when do I get my twenty bucks? Before or after the show?"
"Oh, after of course. You have to sit through the whole thing, but don't worry, it's only fifteen minutes long."
I looked at my watch. It was three forty-five. When I got done with this, I'd have time to pick up a few groceries before heading home.
"Well when does it start?" I asked.
"In a minute or two. You will be here alone."
I remember nodding, and then he was gone--just disappeared. The room felt suddenly colder. I stood up, my skin goosing up.
"What the hell..." I'm sure I said.
The thin little man came scampering in again, smiling broadly.
"How do you feel?" he asked.
"What? Where did you go?"
"I was just outside," he said. He cocked his head slightly, and I could tell he was examining me, the little creep.
"But you just--I don't--what happened?"
"You saw the show," he said. He put his hands on his hips. "You participated successfully. Oh," he dug into his pants pocket, "here's your money." He handed me a twenty dollar bill.
"That was the fee. Look, I can't afford more. This is just an alpha test after all."
"But I didn't see anything! Nothing happened...except the air conditioning came on." I'd finally sorted why the air was colder, but it didn't make any sense.
"Yes. When it works, you don't recall seeing anything, but you did. The film, let's say, enhances your subconscious--let's it take control over you, so you will do the thing you most deeply desire. It's your subconscious that is responsible now." He tapped his forehead as he said this.
"Really," I said angrily. I snatched at the money. I wasn't going to let any fool waste my time. I brushed past the little man and out into the relative light of the theater hallway. I felt light headed, so I stopped. I looked at my watch. It was four-oh-five. Something did happened. Did I black out? I'm still not sure. Then the headache started. It was at the back of my head, then it cascaded forward in a wave. The theater hallway buzzed and blurred, and then colors exploded right in front of me. They turned into a school of rainbow fish that shimmered and swirled, and then they dissolved.
The headache was gone. I looked at my watch again. Four-oh-four. I lurched forward, and out into the mall. There was a little more light and air here. I started to walk quickly to the nearest exit. I started to loose my balance, and so leaned against a standing mall map. The headache came back. It wasn't fish again precisely, more like large fireflies, still swirling. There were little bits of void mixed in. The sounds of the mall were muted around me. When the light show passed, I looked at the watch again, dreading. Four-oh-three.
I turned and started to go back to the theater once I had my legs again. Somehow it felt suddenly normal to be jumping back like this, but I needed to know if it was temporary or permanent. I don't know why I was so accepting of it--it was almost like it was the true state of existence. I saw the thin man exiting the theater. It looked like he was trying to flag down somebody else to try his experiment on. He kept approaching people when actively avoided him. I waved to him. He nodded in my direction, and I went up to him.
"What did you do?" I asked.
"I gave you a show," he said. "You have your money."
"But what does it do? Why am I...jumping backward through time?"
"Is that what it is?" he asked.
"What? You did this. Why would you not know?"
"I didn't choose that scenario for you," he said.
His face started to go fuzzy.
"Don't you go away!" I yelled too loudly. I looked at my wrist and could see the minute hand slowly turning in the wrong direction.
"You must have a strong desire to relive something in your past," he said. "To go back and change something."
"But that can't be done," I said. He shimmered; his limbs looked like noodles.
"That's your assumption," he said. And then he was gone--dissolved into a starburst of pink and red and yellow. When it finished, I was alone. Half of me didn't believe him. It was some elaborate trick, or maybe he'd slipped me some sort of hallucinogen on the twenty dollar bill.
I snuck back into the theater and found the door to the projection booth. I ran up the stairs, hoping to get up there before the next jump started. The projection booth was a long hallway that mirrored the hallway between the theaters on the ground floor. There were windows into the theaters below...but no projectors. There was no equipment whatsoever. I walked over to one of the windows and looked down. All the seats were covered in individual plastic bags. They were just being installed. How far back did I jump?
I stood back, waiting for the next jump to overtake me, but it never did. I walked back down and back into the mall. I went to the food court and asked the attendant at the pretzel place what day it was.
"Uh, Friday I think?" she said.
"But uh, what month?"
She looked at me with a raised eyebrow.
"Oh." I said. "Oh no. Is it July 17th?"
"Yeah, I think so, dude," she said. "Why?"
"It's my birthday."
"You gonna buy a pretzel?"
So that was it. The cruel joke of all this. The day I unconsciously wanted to go back and do over was the day I was born.