Escape Pod 287: A Taste of Time
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A Taste of Time
By Abby Goldsmith
On the night she turned twenty-nine, Jane sat on her narrow bed, watching TV and drinking alone. She’d gone through a bottle of wine and was mostly through a second bottle. Tomorrow morning would be painful.
Or she could stop worrying about tomorrow. The ibuprofen in her cabinet kept popping into her mind. Jane wasn’t sure if all those pills chased by alcohol would be enough to end her life, but the idea of looking up how to commit suicide online seemed just too pathetic.
The front door of her tiny apartment creaked open.
Jane leaned forward, peering through her bedroom doorway. A black wine bottle stood on the floor, with a placard dangling from its silver ribbon.
Her gaze immediately went to the deadbolt. It was in place, as she’d left it.
Jane shut the TV off and listened for noises from the hallway. All she heard were the sounds of Boston traffic outside. Several weeks ago, after she’d come home to find her boyfriend screwing a fat chick on her couch, she’d had the locks changed. No one could have gotten in.
Yet the bottle sat mysteriously on the wooden floor.
At last, Jane crossed her apartment, checking every shadow for an intruder.
She picked up the bottle. The placard had gilded letters, making it a potentially expensive gift.
Warning: There Is No Return
Jane flipped the placard over twice, but nothing else was written on it.
She listened, alert for any noise. Mystery had never been much a part of her adult life, and it gave her a strangely excited feeling. If the warning label meant something like poison, it seemed like a more dignified way to go than pills and alcohol.
Her reflection on the black surface of the bottle was disturbingly clear. There she was: Plain Jane, a frumpy woman with a double-chin and acne scars.
She unscrewed the cap and popped the foil underneath. A stringent smell wafted up, making her wrinkle her nose and salivate at the same time.
“Happy birthday, Jane,” she told herself, and swallowed a mouthful.
Jane gagged on the sour taste in her mouth. She was so dizzy, she’d fallen . . . but she was sitting in an office chair, with no memory whatsoever of leaving her dark and quiet apartment.
Florescent lights beat down on her, and the familiar voices of a call center surrounded her. None of this was possible. She was back at her old workplace. It was a workday, late afternoon, judging by the angle of light. Ultimata Insurance had laid her off months ago, yet here she was.
A man rapped his knuckles against Jane’s desk. “I gave you the files you needed, right?” Her old boss, Moore, didn’t bother to wait for a reply. He was always in a hurry. Jane barely started to nod before he rushed away.
The walls of her cubicle looked exactly the way she remembered. There was the photograph of herself and mom. There was the generic Ultimata calendar, flipped to October 2009 . . . Jane double-checked the year. 2009 was a full two years before the company downsized. If this was October 2009, then she was still employed.
And still dating the jerk, Aaron.
Her fists tightened, and she realized that her hand was clamped around the black wine bottle. She might lose her job more quickly this time, if they saw that. She hid it beneath her desk.
Jane swiveled to face Stephanie, who worked in the cubicle across from hers. Stephanie was slim with bouncy golden hair, and never deigned to speak to plain Jane.
Stephanie hurried across into Jane’s cubicle, giving a sneaky look both ways before crossing. She beamed at Jane. “Did I just see you sneak a bottle of wine under your desk?” she asked in a low voice. “Holy crap, Moore didn’t even notice!”
Jane searched for a good, attention-deflecting explanation. “It’s a gift.”
Stephanie’s look became sly. “Oooh. For your boyfriend. Is this your anniversary?”
Jane shrugged, unequipped to answer. She wanted to study the wine. Tabula Rasa. Blank slate. But instead of erasing her memories, it seemed to have stuck her in one. She blinked at her computer monitor, then Stephanie. But Stephanie had never entered her cubicle before, she was fairly certain. This all felt far too real to be a hallucination. She glanced down at herself, and was thrilled to recognize her white floral-print blouse, which she’d ruined with a grease stain. This was 2009, before the grease stain.
She decided to roll with it, and see how events played out. “Yes, our anniversary’s tonight,” she lied.
Stephanie grinned. “How long have you been with him?”
Jane was surprised by Stephanie’s interest. When she answered, she fully expected Stephanie to return to her own cubicle, but it seemed Stephanie wanted to talk about relationships. She’d just started dating a man whom she had doubts about, and wanted advice. Jane told her it was better to be alone than with a man who didn’t respect her.
“Yeah, that makes sense.” Stephanie gave her a little wave. “Well, I’d better get back to work, but thanks for the advice.”
The remainder of the workday passed without mishap, although Jane kept eying the clock on her monitor, wondering when–or if–she would wake up in January 2011.
She had trouble remembering the details of the insurance claims she was supposed to be updating. Instead of cross-referencing data, she kept checking the news online, verifying that it was indeed October 2009. Earthquake recovery in Sumatra. Astronomers discover 32 exoplanets. The news gave her a weird sense of deja vu. Was this stuff really new to everyone around her? She wanted to ask Stephanie about future events, such as the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Would Stephanie look at Jane and say, “You’re crazy,” or would she laugh?
Eventually, five o’clock rolled around. Stephanie wished Jane a happy anniversary and a cheerful, “See ya tomorrow!”
Jane kept expecting this hallucination, or whatever it was, to end. But the office was clearing out.
She had nowhere to stow the black bottle, so she wrapped it inside her light jacket as best she could, and hurried outside. Colorful leaves against a deep blue sky confirmed that this was indeed October, not January.
She walked to the T stop and waited, trying to not smell the familiar stink of urine on the brick wall. A sick feeling bubbled in her stomach. Aaron would be on her couch when she got home. Unshaven, unemployed, alcoholic Aaron. Jane didn’t want to deal with him. Part of her would be pathetically grateful to see him, especially knowing that he hadn’t met the fat chick yet. But how could she forget the sight of him cheating on her, in her own apartment? Jane wasn’t good enough for him. He’d made that clear.
The train doors parted, and Jane joined the crowd, taking the first seat that opened up. She studied the mysterious bottle as the T rattled its way across northern Boston. No label on its black mirrored surface. Why had it chosen a seemingly random day in 2009? Why not a more momentous occasion in her life?
She traced the gilded letters of the placard. People gave her strange looks, but she didn’t care.
Tabula Rasa. Jane vaguely remembered learning that term in middle school. It was supposed to apply to newborn babies, she thought. A baby was born with a blank slate, ready to receive every experience with no prejudgment whatsoever. A baby could become any sort of adult–lucky thing–but adults like Jane faced a far more predictable future, narrowed by years of layered experiences.
There Is No Return.
Goose-flesh rose on Jane’s arms. She looked around the train car, seeing it afresh for the first time. This was really October 2009, this was really her life . . . but her fellow commuters had never seen her study a wine bottle, before. Stephanie had never been friendly to her, before. Jane was creating a new future for herself. And she could not return to her old future. Her depressing twenty-ninth birthday was erased forever, existing only inside her mind. One swallow of Tabula Rasa had made her twenty-seven again.
She gripped the wine bottle for the rest of the commute, unwilling to let it out of her sight.
As Jane approached her apartment, she imagined dirty dishes piled in the sink, and dirty laundry strewn across the floor. Most of it would be Aaron’s mess. The thought of confronting him made her shoulders tighten.
She sat in the stairwell to collect her thoughts. The black bottle’s surface gleamed under the yellowed bulbs.
Jane wondered how far she could reshape her future, from here. Ultimata Insurance would still downsize her out of a job. Aaron would undoubtedly still cheat on her.
Maybe she didn’t have to confront Aaron. Maybe she could erase him entirely from her life. If one swallow took her back two years, perhaps she could return to a time when she was happy.
The cap of the bottle unscrewed as easily as before. Jane closed her lips around the bottle’s neck.
Gulp. Gulp. Gulp. Gulp.
The absence of various aches could only mean youth. Jane felt as if she could run a marathon. She ran her tongue over solid and healthy teeth. She was thin, with long legs drawn against the car seat in front of her. A duffel bag sat beneath her feet.
The red upholstery brought up feelings akin to love. She was in Luke’s car. Luke, the Harvard-bound kid, before he died in a car crash.
“Holy cow.” The redhead boy sitting next to her gaped. “Where’d that come from?”
Adrenalin flooded Jane’s veins. She screwed on the cap and tried to hide the bottle, struggling to remember the redhead’s name. Joe? Jason? Something like that. He was a skinny stick, not yet filled in to the width of his shoulders. Jane had dated him for a week or two. Was that before now, after now, or now now?
“What?” Karen twisted around to look at them–an incredibly young Karen.
“She has a wine bottle!” said the redhead boy.
“Damn, girl!” Karen giggled. “Swiped from your mom?”
Jane recalled how devastated Karen was after the accident in which Luke died. The couple had both been accepted to Harvard, but Karen took a year off and went to Stanford, instead.
All Jane could manage was a weak smile. She dreaded seeing Luke’s face, when the last time she’d seen it was at his open-casket funeral. This was like living a movie where she knew the plot. Worse, it was like riding in a car driven by a ghost. How could she look Luke in the eye, knowing when his life would end?
Would he believe Jane, if she warned him?
“Can I have a sip?” Karen asked.
“Me too,” said the redhead. Jane remembered him as a weak kisser, almost afraid of girls. She’d secretly been envious of Karen and Luke. But what was this redhead’s name? This would be embarrassing, if she failed to remember.
Green forest rolled by on both sides of the highway. They must be on their way to Hampton Beach. Nineties-era cars and SUVs passed them. The sky was a shade of blue she’d nearly forgotten. Her teenage friends had shaggy or curly hair. She had no idea what month this was, or even what year. Cell phones weren’t widespread, yet.
Unexpectedly, tears threatened. Had Jane truly erased her twenty-something self from existence? Was that entire decade of her life washed down the drain, a big fat waste that clogged her memories?
“Whoa.” The redhead boy brushed his hand over Jane’s barely covered thighs. “Major goose bumps. Are you all right?”
Jane wasn’t ready to deal with a day at the beach with her high school friends. She wanted to be alone, to think things through.
“I’ll share.” She managed a shaky smile. Her own youthful voice startled her. “But I’ll go first.”
She unscrewed the cap and licked the edge of the bottle. Just a taste.
The shapes around her darkened bedroom were achingly familiar. The glowing readout of her nightstand clock showed 3:37AM.
Jane heaved a big sigh of relief.
The bottle was noticeably lighter since her jump from age twenty-something to teen-something. She suspected that once the contents were gone, there would be no replacement, and she’d be stuck in whatever year she ended up.
This is 1999, she told herself. It might be 1998, but the difference seemed minute.
Tomorrow, or perhaps a few days from now, she’d go to the beach with Karen, Luke, and the redhead boy. And she would deal with it. She’d refrain from taking a sip of Tabula Rasa, no matter how much she wanted to escape. From now on, she would only move forward. She had a chance to redo all the mistakes in her life. This was a gift.
She capped the bottle and stuffed it in the place her mother was least likely to check; her underwear drawer.
Breakfast was a macabre affair. Her mother, transfixed by the morning news, insisted that Jane clean her plate. “And hurry, or you’ll be late!” she added.
Jane had to think a moment before she recalled the summer she’d spent working at Dunkin Donuts. “Oh. Right.” She had one more year of high school ahead of her.
This time, she would aim for the best college she could win a scholarship to. She wouldn’t waste time on the redhead boy, or any boy. Instead of getting drunk with Karen, she would try to emulate Karen’s study habits.
On the news, the anchorwoman announced the Power Lotto numbers. Jane’s mother shook her head. “Wouldn’t it be nice to win that jackpot? We could sure use eleven million dollars around here.”
Jane paused on her way out the door. She didn’t want to memorize the winning Lotto numbers, but they were so simple, they stuck in her head. 19. 5. 36. 24. 2.
They reemerged in her thoughts while she worked the dough-nut counter, a mental chant, like a song that wouldn’t go away.
The jackpot was up to sixteen million, the highest the state of New Hampshire had ever seen. Jane knew that someone else would win tomorrow.
“Please, Mom?” she begged. “Buy the ticket this once, and I’ll do all the house chores for a week, unless we win the jackpot.”
Her mother burst out laughing. “Oh, all right. I can’t pass that deal up.” She wrapped her hands around the cup of Dunkin Donuts coffee. “You’ve been acting strangely these last few days, you know that?”
“How so?” Jane asked.
The past five days had been torture. It was a small miracle that Jane hadn’t been fired; she’d forgotten the name of her boss. Now even Karen was teasing her about short-term memory loss.
“Well, just . . .” her mother thought for a moment. “You’re spending time with me. It’s nice. I like it. You seem a lot more . . . mellow.”
Jane laughed. She knew exactly how it felt to be an adult. Maybe her lost decade of life hadn’t been entirely wasted, after all.
“We’ve won! We’ve won! We’ve won!” Jane and her mother screamed together.
One day stood out in particular, to Jane. That day on the deck of the cruise ship, where she slipped perfectly into Robert’s arms, and he held her while they watched the sun set over towering thunderheads on the South Pacific. Then they danced in the ship’s ballroom. If she could relive any day over and over without making it stale, it would be that day.
But she hadn’t thought to touch the Tabula Rasa to bring back that outstanding day until decades later. By then, the intervening years stopped her from jumping back.
In her seventies, Jane had trouble sleeping. She tossed and turned, and kept touching the place next to her, where Robert should be.
He was in a hospice, with Alzheimer’s. Jane feared that she might be headed down that path, herself. She exhibited no signs of memory loss, but her mother had gone senile during her last years, and Jane figured it was only a matter of time.
For the first time in many decades, Jane allowed herself to think of Tabula Rasa.
She no longer kept it nearby. The temptation was too great. She’d used it often during her lottery-winning years, enough so that the catchphrase “a Lucky Jane” was common in households across the United States.
Jane belted her robe and slipped on her slippers. She found her walker and shuffled out of her bedroom, turning on lights as she went. The mansion was her dream home, yet it seemed huge and cavernous with just herself inhabiting it.
She shuffled through the glass corridor that crossed a stepped waterfall, and through the music room, with its view of the lush mountain valley. The elevator brought her to the basement level. Here Robert kept a wet bar, and Jane kept her seldom-used study.
She moved aside the Japanese wall hanging. Next, she had to use a box-cutter from her desk to cut away the wallpaper.
When the steel door was visible, Jane removed a tiny key from its chain around her neck, and unlocked the safe.
The Tabula Rasa gleamed inside. Its black surface was clean, as if forty-odd years locked in a safe had given it no chance to collect dust.
Jane swallowed, mouth dry. She suspected the bottle was still half full. She’d only taken tiny sips and licks since her first lottery win.
She sat at her oak desk, contemplating Tabula Rasa in front of her.
She could return to the year before Robert developed Alzheimer’s. But then she’d have to watch him grow senile, all over again. That thought twisted in her like a knife.
She could go all the way back to that one perfect day on the cruise ship. But then what? If she relived that day over and over, it would lose its poignancy.
She could smash the bottle. That idea filled Jane with horror and urgency at the same time. She’d lived a good life. She didn’t need to do any part of it over again. The young woman who’d wanted to kill herself on her twenty-ninth birthday was a long, distant way away. Jane hardly remembered her. Nor did she want to.
The bottle was cold and heavy in her old hands. She carried it to the wet bar, and swung it up, ready to smash it to pieces.
But her hands faltered on the downswing. Jane caught the bottle before it could shatter.
During her long life, Jane had assumed the Tabula Rasa was a personal gift. But what if she was supposed to use the elixir to help mankind? She could predict major events. Instead of keeping quiet the day before September 11th in 2001, perhaps she should have done something to warn people. So many catastrophes and disasters stood out in her lifetime. If the world media believed that Jane was a prophet, she could save millions of lives. Maybe that was her true purpose in life. Surely she couldn’t be meant to shrivel up and die, with half the bottle still full.
On the verge of touching the uncapped bottle to her wrinkled lips, Jane read the placard again. There Is No Return.
She and Robert had built up a store of happy memories together. Jane hated the idea of erasing those experiences permanently from Robert. If she returned to 2001, before she even met Robert, their paths might not cross. They might not marry each other.
But they’d had fights, hadn’t they?
Jane used to wonder if Robert only saw dollar signs when he proposed marriage to her. She used to suffer a lot of doubts about him. Sometimes, she regretted not having dated before gaining wealth, just to ascertain that Robert was truly the best choice for her.
Besides, poor Robert had already lost most of his memories. Tabula Rasa couldn’t change biology. He recognized Jane, but he couldn’t speak with her anymore. All he could do was hold her hand.
Jane swung the bottle up and opened her throat to chug. This time, she would save lives.
Gulp. Gulp. Gulp. Gulp. Gulp. Gulp. Gulp. Gulp. Gulp.
“I just know,” Jane said, frustrated. “Look, can’t you–hey!”
She listened to the dial-tone, incredulous, then slammed the phone into its cradle.
“What the hell’s your problem?” Allison, her roommate in the dorm room at Stanford, put her hands on her hips and glared.
Jane ignored Allison. She’d already relived this frustrating day three times, and no matter how hard she tried to get the FBI and CIA to listen to her warnings, she knew they didn’t take her seriously. Either that, or they put her on a terrorist watch-list. The next day . . . Jane hated having to relive 9/11. She only went far enough to know that her warnings had failed.
She eyed the black bottle. It was time for more drastic measures.
Back to high school.
“Trust me,” Jane said. “George W. Bush will be elected.”
Karen gave Jane a weird look. “You see all this stuff in dreams?”
Jane could clearly remember Karen as an old woman. Karen would have three kids and seven grandchildren. She shrugged, and tried to focus on the present.
“Weird.” Karen shivered. “You’ve been right far too often.”
“I see the future,” Jane said.
“Can you see my future?” Karen looked at her intently.
Jane gave a slight nod. “I see the future of everyone I know well. And Luke is going to die in a car accident two months from now, unless he listens to me.”
Karen’s hands flew to her mouth. She backed away from Jane, eyes wide. “Okay. That’s really, really creepy.”
Jane shifted on the bar stool in Karen’s house. She didn’t want to be creepy, but it seemed the only way to get people to listen to her warnings.
“I’m sort of tired,” Karen said. “Would you mind, uh . . . I guess we can talk tomorrow, in school.”
Jane picked up her purse. Karen gave her a cold, “Bye,” and Jane knew that Karen would take pains to avoid her.
When the Prophet Jane turned twenty-five, her mother got her a puppy. Jane knew that was a bad idea. She almost asked her mother to return the golden retriever, but it melted into her embrace.
“Cassi,” Jane named the dog.
Around the age of twenty-nine, Jane began to long for Tabula Rasa. She waited another seven years, until Cassi died.
Death was creeping up on her, too. Jane knew she was only in her thirties . . . but she’d experienced a total of one hundred and eighteen years. Life was not nearly as enjoyable this time around. No one wanted to befriend the Prophet. Jane had saved lives as best she could, but every decision in her personal life ended in disappointment. She’d managed to meet Robert again, but bungled their first few dates, plagued by fears of repeating their mistakes and watching him grow senile again. And it seemed pointless to cultivate any romance. She would end up hitting the bottle again, sooner or later.
When Jane brought Cassi to the vet for the last time, she realized that she needed to make a major, major change. A dog was hardly a family, yet Jane didn’t know how to face another year alone, without Cassi’s big smile.
It was time to hit the bottle. Maybe this time, she could prevent her parents from divorcing.
The remaining contents of Tabula Rasa swished near the bottom. Jane hurriedly stuffed it under her school desk before anyone could see. Too late! She defiantly took a swig in front of her eighth grade teacher.
Jane stood in front of her bedroom mirror, horror-struck. What had she done?
A ten-year-old girl gazed back with ancient eyes. Even as the taste faded, Jane wanted to vomit.
She ran into her bathroom and tried to force herself to sick it up. But all she could do was gag. There Is No Return. She began to laugh like crazy.
Eleven-year-old Jane lay on her bed, listening to a Black Sabbath cassette tape and yearning for high speed internet access. She ached to see Robert. Or Cassi. She wanted her college friends, or even her high school friends.
Her parents were monstrous. She’d forgotten how frequent and vicious their fights were.
School was no escape. Jane had already grown up, attended two universities, experienced a long marriage and countless relationships, mingled with celebrities and politicians, and managed a vast estate. These 1990s felt like ancient history.
Her classmates wanted nothing to do with her. They thought she was creepy. For her part, Jane couldn’t fit into their eleven-year-old mindsets. She failed to laugh at their jokes, couldn’t understand their stresses.
Suicide had crossed her mind more than once. Her depression only added to her parents’ stress, making the fights worse. Jane didn’t think she could take another year of living like this.
Despite the mess her life had become, it didn’t take much effort to avoid the bottle. As the Black Sabbath music drummed over her, Jane closed her eyes and saw the graveyard where she should have been buried, side by side with Robert. She should have smashed the Tabula Rasa when she was old. Now she would give anything to return to that lifetime, when the world remembered her as Lucky Jane.
The black bottle still held some elixir in it.
Jane swished it from side to side. If she estimated correctly, there was enough to erase eleven or twelve years.
She licked her lips. She knew she shouldn’t. She ought to smash the bottle. But . . .
What if she could be born again, as a completely different person? What if her parents raised a boy, or at least a very different girl? Would that child be ugly? Would that child always be plagued by regrets and envy?
“Blank slate,” Jane whispered. “I love you, Mom. I love you.”
She sat on the edge of her bed and chugged the last contents of Tabula Rasa.
About the Author
Abby Goldsmith’s short fiction and articles are published in Escape Pod, Fantastic Stories of the Imagination, Fantasy Magazine, and several anthologies. She’s an alumni of the Odyssey Writing Workshop and the Superstars Writing Seminar. A former animator and game content writer, Abby is credited on more than a dozen Nintendo games for Nickelodeon and Disney.
She works full-time as video editor, co-hosts the Stories for Nerds podcast, and lives in Austin, Texas.
About the Narrator
Mur Lafferty is the co-editor and sometime-host of Escape Pod.
She is an American podcaster and writer based in Durham, North Carolina. She is the host and creator of the podcasts I Should Be Writing and Ditch Diggers. Her books have been nominated for the Hugo, Nebula, Philip K. Dick, and Scribe Awards. In the past decade she has been the co-founder/co-editor of PseudoPod, founding editor of Mothership Zeta, and the editor or co-editor of Escape Pod (where she is currently).
She is fond of Escape Artists, in other words.
Mur won the 2013 Astounding Award for Best New Writer (formerly the John W. Campbell Award), and the 2018 Hugo Award for Best Fancast for Ditch Diggers. She’s been nominated for numerous other awards and is always doing new things, so check her website for the latest.