By Alithea Wrights
The phenomenon first happened when I was seven years old.
Mud caked my pants and the tip of my nose as I stirred an earthy concoction with a stick. “Leaves!” I commanded, my hand outstretched.
My friend Lily scurried toward the bushes. Within seconds, she returned and placed the ingredients I’d requested in my palm. Careful not to break the surface of the murky water, I spread out the green embellishments and removed my makeshift utensil. “Soup’s done.”
“But, Oliver,” Lily whined, “we don’t have a bowl!”
I stood and pointed toward my house. “My mom’s got one. I’ll be right back!”
“Hurry, or our meal will get cold,” Lily called after me as I raced out of her backyard and down the street. When I rounded the giant hedge at the corner of our property, Father’s red sedan monopolized the driveway. He’s home early. Why couldn’t he be late for once?
I concentrated on avoiding the cracks in the sidewalk leading to the front steps and heaved the screen open. “Mom! Do you have—”
“I can’t believe you!” Father’s booming voice made me lose my grip on the handle, and the door banged against its frame. I ducked instinctively, but my parents continued arguing.
“We talked about this, Margret.”
“Well, let’s rehash it!” Metal clattered on the kitchen counter as Mom set down the pan that probably held our supper. “Go ahead. Explain why I’m a disappointment to you today. I’m ready.”
I edged into the living room, my spine pressed against the wall, and craned my head around the kitchen doorway.
“I just—I can’t tolerate your selfishness!”
Father towered over the island, leaning across it as if he resented the barrier. On the opposite side, Mom clenched her hands against her hips.
“Oh, I’m the selfish one? Where were you when—” Her eyes met mine, and her complexion paled from crimson to ashen. “Ollie.”
Father whirled and glowered down at me. “What do you want?”
My legs quaked, and pressure built behind my eyes. No, no, don’t cry. Not now. He’ll say I’m a wimp again.
“Tom!” Mom moved closer to me, one arm extended, her other hand still balled into a fist that she pounded on the counter. “Don’t yell at him. He’s—”
“Bowl,” I forced out. “I need a bowl.”
Mom began rummaging in a cabinet and removing items. Father narrowed his eyes. “What for?”
“Lily and me—”
“Lily and I,” Father corrected.
I can’t ever learn to speak right. “Lily and I are makin’, um—”
“Tom, enough!” Mom knelt and offered me a red plastic bowl. “Does this work, honey?”
I nodded and reached for it.
“Good.” Mom brushed my bangs out of my eyes and planted a quick peck on my forehead. “Your father and I are in the middle of a … discussion. Go have fun playing with your friend.”
I shuffled across the linoleum and onto the carpet, wishing we had a back door. I couldn’t escape before Father hurled another complaint. “You baby him too much.”
Not waiting for Mom’s response, I charged out to the hedge, where I sunk to the ground and hugged my legs to my chest. Someday, they’ll be happy again. They have to be. I squeezed my eyes shut so tightly that light spidered across my pupils. Maybe, if I imagined the future clearly enough, I could drag it into the present.
And that’s when the breeze that had been tickling my neck stilled. Bird chirps and the hum of passing cars went silent like sound had been sucked into a vacuum. I jumped up, clutching the bowl until my knuckles whitened. An abyss of fog surrounded me.
The void didn’t remain empty for long. A figure materialized, much taller than me but shorter than Father. He turned, and if a chill hadn’t swept over me, I might have believed I was peering into the smudged mirror above my parents’ bathroom sink. The same round nose and shaggy brown hair confronted me.
“Who are you?”
The older boy cringed. “Unfortunate timing.”
I studied his oversized sweatshirt, the slant of his mouth, his slouched posture. Had I actually succeeded? Had I torn a hole in time? “Are you me from the future?”
The older boy chuckled. “Yep, in the flesh—or whatever I am in this in-between weirdness.” He swatted at a wisp of mist and skimmed me up and down, his expression souring. “I’m fifteen. Gosh, what a runt I used to be.”
I jutted out my jaw and mimicked his body language. “Gosh, we still have baby cheeks?”
Older Me clapped his hands over his face, his ears reddening. “Hey, you’re insulting yourself too!”
“Whatever.” I plopped down and patted the space beside me—though I had no idea what I was touching, only that a hardness existed underneath the fog. “So, you’ve been through this before. What happens next?”
Older Me shrugged and took a step, but he didn’t sit down. “I don’t exactly remember. Kinda pushed it from my mind, I guess.”
“That’s okay! What we talk about here isn’t as important as what your life is like there.” I motioned in the direction he’d appeared from.
Older Me stiffened. “What do you mean?”
I chewed on my lip to control a grin that would have stretched wider than the crooked one Lily stitched on the rag doll her mom helped her sew. “This is just a dream or something. But you can tell me how everything else turns out. Are Mom and Dad finally—”
A shout filled the void and sliced through me. The echo was so disorienting that I couldn’t figure out where the noise had come from at first. “D-did you say n-no?” I whispered.
Older Me pinched the bridge of his nose and panted in and out before answering. “You may be stupid, but you’re not deaf.”
“W-w-what d-did I—”
“Stop stuttering!” Older Me snapped. “If you can’t speak without chopping up your syllables, then don’t open your mouth at all.”
He sounded like Father. Do I take on his habits as I grow up? But shouldn’t that please him? I swallowed the quiver in my throat, shoving my question out in one thrust. “What did I do wrong?”
Older Me’s eyes widened, his anger seeping away and leaving behind a boy pretending to be a man. “Everything.”
Despite my strongest efforts, the corners of my eyes prickled, and a drop slid down to my chin.
“Of course you’re bawling now. That is so like you.”
I climbed to my feet, stretched onto my tiptoes, and with all my courage hissed, “I hate you.”
Older Me didn’t even flinch. “Yeah, me too.”
I hadn’t travelled to the future. I’d tumbled into a nightmare. Clamping my hands over my ears, I screwed my eyes shut and pictured the faded blue siding of my house, the hedge that begged for a trim, the gurgling soup, and Lily’s paisley jumper.
A second later, I was blinking at that bright yellow fabric. Lily crawled closer to me, frowning. “Oliver? You’ve been gone a long time.”
I swiped at my cheeks and rushed past her. “I had trouble finding a bowl, but I have one now. C’mon.”
I promised to give whatever I’d just seen no further thought. It couldn’t be the truth. Could it?
* * *
Inhale. Exhale. I rubbed the report card in my pocket, half hoping the sweat from my palm would smear the ink. My Algebra grade would earn me a lecture from Father, if not worse. Inhale. Exhale. I pulled on the storm door’s handle and tried to ignore the reflection of the red sedan in the glass.
I kicked my sneakers off, planning to slink up to my room, but one thumped against the baseboard. Smooth, you idiot, real smooth.
A chair creaked in the den, and paper rustled. “How was school? What’d you do?”
I stifled a curse. That kind of language would really bring him down on me. “Uh, nothing special, I—”
“It’s report card day, isn’t it?”
I slapped my jacket onto the stair banister. Why couldn’t I have spent this week at Mom’s instead?
“Oliver, get in here.”
Still fingering the report card, I inched down the hall and into the den. Father slammed the footrest on his recliner and set his beer can on the side table. “Hand it over.”
I withdrew the small rectangle from its hiding spot and glanced at the front. Creases, but the print was still legible. Father snatched it and scanned the columns, his eyebrows lowering at the fourth one.
He never accepted excuses, but I had to save myself somehow. “So, listen. You know that day you had me skip—”
“Oh, your failure is my fault?”
“No!” I shot back, louder than I’d intended. “But an exam was scheduled for that date, and I couldn’t make up for it, so—”
“One missed test doesn’t lead to a C, Oliver.” Father rose from his seat and jabbed the mark. “You think this is satisfactory? That God would approve of your laziness? Were you even paying attention to the sermon last Sunday?”
I shrunk into my sweatshirt, just like I’d shrunk into the pew that morning and zoned out.
“The Bible warns that children who disobey their fathers will die young.” Father tipped his beer can and chugged the last swig, then pitched it into the wastebasket. “That prophesy applies to this house. You’re not to leave your room until you’ve studied enough to improve your grades. Understand? With your attitude, you’ll be lucky if you pass high school.”
“Yes, sir.” I kept my head bowed as I trudged out, but I dumped my books onto the floor once I’d entered the safety of my room. The Algebra module flipped open to a lesson the teacher hadn’t assigned yet, mocking me with its jumble of letters and numbers. I shoved it under my desk. With a life like mine, I didn’t want to graduate from high school, not that I would have a choice.
I flopped onto my bed and covered my face with my arms. A hazy image of myself approaching a podium formed in my mind, and I strained to bring it into sharper focus. When I became an adult, would I be free of my parents’ disapproval? Would I have a successful career?
I couldn’t hear any applause as I received my diploma in the scene. I couldn’t hear my alarm clock ticking beside me anymore either.
I bolted upright, sending the white, filmy air swirling. The urge to run pricked at my feet like needles of blood rushing in after one of my limbs had fallen asleep. I couldn’t be hallucinating again. I’d written off the incident as a coping mechanism I’d relied on as a child.
The same child who now gazed up at me with intense blue eyes. “Who are you?”
I scrunched up my face. I should have listened to Father instead of fantasizing. “Unfortunate timing.”
Little Me cocked his head from one side to the other. Seconds elapsed, and his awe intensified at the same rate as my discomfort. “Are you me from the future?”
I released a shaky laugh. “Yep, in the flesh—or whatever I am in this in-between weirdness.” I waved to clear the thickening fog. Little Me crept closer, his dirty T-shirt hanging loose from his scrawny frame. He stood no taller than my thighs. I didn’t remember being so small. “I’m fifteen. Gosh, what a runt I used to be.”
Little Me puckered his chin and folded his arms. “Gosh, we still have baby cheeks?”
The girl who’d refused to go out with me last Saturday had teased me about looking like a middle schooler with giraffe legs. Heat surged up my neck. “Hey, you’re insulting yourself too!”
“Whatever.” Little Me dropped onto his bottom and signaled for me to join him. “So, you’ve been through this before. What happens next?”
What did happen next? And how were we even having this conversation? Had I found a time portal? Was I slowly going insane? As usual, I’d paid no attention to an experience that might have kept me out of trouble later. “I don’t exactly remember. Kinda pushed it from my mind, I guess.”
“That’s okay! What we talk about here isn’t as important as what your life is like there.” Little Me stared behind me as if I was obstructing his view of the latest blockbuster.
My fight-or-flight instinct triggered again, stronger than before. “What do you mean?”
Little Me nibbled on his lip, but he couldn’t conceal the smile twitching at the corners. “This is just a dream or something. But you can tell me how everything else turns out. Are Mom and Dad finally—”
“No!” I wouldn’t relive the screaming matches, the lawyers and their legal gibberish, and me shuttling between Father’s house and Mom’s apartment. My parents hated each other. They hated me. And it was my fault. Little Me would recognize that soon enough.
“D-did you say n-no?” Little Me eked out, his voice barely audible.
I gulped in a couple breaths. If he didn’t shut up, I was going to explode again. “You may be stupid, but you’re not deaf.”
Little Me shriveled and began to tremble like a weed in the wind. “W-w-what d-did I—”
“Stop stuttering!” At least that’s one habit I managed to curb, thanks to Father’s badgering. “If you can’t speak without chopping up your syllables, then don’t open your mouth at all.”
Little Me’s Adam’s apple bobbed twice, but his body went rigid. “What did I do wrong?” he asked with so much emphasis that spittle flew.
How many times had I repeated that question to myself when I awoke in the middle of the night to Mom sobbing and Father’s sedan screeching off? Or when classmates gossiped about me and my dysfunctional family? The answer never changed, and wouldn’t change. “Everything.”
I reached toward Little Me—to comfort? Scold? I wasn’t sure. But as tears brimmed in his eyes, the deep shame that had been my closest companion for years stabbed me in the gut. I retracted my hand. “Of course you’re bawling now. That is so like you.”
Weak. Useless. Pathetic. That’s why Mom left. I couldn’t stand up to Father—still couldn’t stand up to him—let alone protect her from his abuse. She’d allowed him partial custody of me because I deserved it. Otherwise she would have fought for me, right? If I couldn’t make Father proud, I was nothing.
“I hate you.” Little Me’s statement seared through my thoughts and branded me with the words I muttered to myself every morning. He’d pushed himself to his full height, his expression fierce despite the streaks on his skin.
I had to give him credit for trying, but he couldn’t intimidate me, or hurt me. Not with the truth. “Yeah, me too.”
Instead of retorting, Little Me warped like a glitch in a video game and disappeared. I lowered myself to a fetal position and waited, expecting to regain consciousness on my bed—or maybe the floor if I’d thrashed too much in this nightmare. I even shut my eyes and pinched myself.
The setting didn’t shift. My alarm clock didn’t resume ticking. The silence only pressed in on me more.
Great. Would I be stuck here forever?
“You were too hard on him, you know,” a man’s voice said behind me. That meant—
No, I wouldn’t talk to this next version of myself. He’d be a clone of Father. Or a deadbeat. Or both. I’d run until I plummeted off the edge of the abyss, if it had an end, before I let Older Me dump his mistakes in my lap.
I moved too late. The second visitor came around in front of me, his downturned mouth all too familiar. But the toned muscles that rippled beneath his sleeves surprised me. A book poked out from under one arm, and the gold leafing on the pages indicated it was a Bible.
A Bible? Of all the things I might have guessed I’d become, a spiritual sap would have been the last. God didn’t care about me any more than Father did.
“And too hard on yourself.” Older Me finished the sentence that I hadn’t realized he’d left hanging. He gestured to the place beside me that Little Me had vacated what felt like hours ago. “Mind if I sit down?”
* * *
Chatter drifted across the basement sanctuary as I paced backstage. Lily watched me from the corner, her lips quirked. Whenever I passed her and caught a whiff of her vanilla perfume, my cheeks flushed. She’d taught a Sunday School class all summer and had volunteered to help me prepare for today. I couldn’t understand why. Sure, I sang with the church band and mentored a few kids, but when Pastor encouraged me to share my testimony with the youth group, I’d sputtered excuses. I was no role model.
Lily clicked over in her heels and pried the notecard I’d crumpled out of my fingers, exchanging it for my dog-eared Bible. “They’re going to adore you, Ollie. Don’t be nervous.”
“I’m not. Really.” I adjusted my clammy grip on the Bible and fumbled as it slipped, flapping open. Two bookmarks fluttered down to the concrete.
Lily swished her blonde ponytail from side to side. “Oh? Then what are you?”
A laugh bubbled out of her like a spring, and my blush deepened. “You have a powerful testimony, Ollie. One that people can relate to.” She smoothed down the collar of my polo shirt, then leaned toward my ear as she guided me through the door. “And I’m blessed to have witnessed it firsthand.”
A dozen feet from the lectern, I paused. The teenagers couldn’t see me yet because of the sound equipment that occupied half the stage. This was my last chance to back out. But is that what You’d want, God?
I’d sensed the answer weeks earlier, or I wouldn’t have agreed to Lily’s coaching, but I needed to visualize myself surviving the next twenty minutes. I’d finish walking to the lectern—not tripping on the tangle of cords—and set down my Bible. The teens would hush, hopefully without a rebuke from the youth leader. I’d begin describing my childhood and—
Frothy whiteness obliterated the projector screen hanging on the wall, the clique of girls tapping on their phones in the front row, and the lump in the carpet near my right toe.
Now? Right now? I hadn’t even shut my eyes. Why do You keep putting me through this, God?
In the distance, seven-year-old me cowered beneath fifteen-year-old me, each of them spewing self-hatred. When they quieted, seven-year-old me faded, and fifteen-year-old me curled into a ball.
I couldn’t recall the conversation between my two younger selves, nor my interaction with fifteen-year-old me afterward. But I never forgot the sensation of a hole boring into me, and the desperation for something, anything, to fill it.
Maybe God hadn’t transported me here to add to or alter my journey, but for a different reason. Out of all the gifted preachers and disciples and martyrs, He had chosen to connect me with my past. I should trust Him to show me why.
I filed through my memories from the counseling sessions and pulled out the best advice I had. “You were too hard on him, you know.”
Younger Me didn’t react, except to unfold his legs. Had I arrived as he was about to vanish?
I circled him, and finally his head snapped up. The startling intensity of his glare made me wonder if I still possessed that much determination. “And too hard on yourself. Mind if I sit down?”
“Yes, I do.” Younger Me rose and shoved both his fists in his sweatshirt pocket. “Why the heck are you toting that around?”
The Bible Lily had given me a couple birthdays ago was still tucked under my arm. I stroked the letters of my name embossed on the cover. “Because it tells me who I am.”
Younger Me snorted. “Right. And you enjoy hearing that?”
“Yes! My life is so much better now and everything makes so much more sense.”
“So, Father is proud of you, then? You don’t mess up anymore?”
I struggled to keep my face from contorting. I hadn’t talked to Father in two years. After I switched college majors, he kicked me out and blocked my cell number. I spent two weeks in a homeless shelter before Mom found out and lined me up with a job I lost a month later. But none of that information would help Younger Me.
“Oliver—” Is it weird to address myself by name? “The divorce wasn’t your fault.”
“Nice avoidance tactics. I don’t buy any of that.” Younger Me spun and stalked off. The mist blurred his figure, but I couldn’t let him return to the real world until I’d lightened the pain he carried.
I sprinted after him and cut off his path. “The approval of your earthly father can’t compare to the love of your Heavenly Father. And you don’t have to be perfect to—”
“You’re lying! I’m disgusting trash—that’s been drilled into me from the pulpit, and Father, over and over.” He grabbed my Bible, and my insides ripped along with the binding as he dangled it between two fingers. “This book claims that everything works out for the oh-so-special people God loves. You’ve proven that’s a fairy tale. Look at you. An adult, and you’re still a wreck.”
I touched my cheek. Damp. I hadn’t even been aware of the tears spilling. The hollowness that I believed I’d sealed off long ago erupted, and I lunged at Younger Me, catching him in a headlock. He wriggled, but I hung on.
“You’re not a disappointment to God. You’re loved!” I shouted over Younger Me’s protests. “Redeemed! Valuable!”
Younger Me drove his heel into my shin and squirmed out of my grasp. The snarl he wore mimicked Father’s the day he threw me and my stuff out of the house. “Weak and pathetic and useless, that’s what we are, and no one can ever fix that. Not even God.”
Younger Me disintegrated, and my Bible fell with a resounding thud.
Dizziness tugged at me. I’d failed. Again. Was this the answer to my prayer earlier? I couldn’t convince my younger self to pursue faith, so how could I impact the youth group?
“You’re still too hard on him, you know.” A man with gray-tinged temples bent and scooped up my Bible. He thumbed through it, massaging the wrinkles out of the pages. When he straightened, he winked. “And yourself.”
Won’t the cycle ever end? “What are you doing here?”
“I could ask you the same question.” He extended the Bible, and the glint of gold on his left hand drew a gasp from me.
“What—how are you—” Father’s rants about stuttering blared in my head, and I restarted. “Who would marry you?”
Older Me smiled lopsidedly. Much to my relief, his facial features had matured. “She’s a pretty consistent rock in our lives that we’re blind to for longer than we should be.” His eyebrows furrowed. “But why are you so skeptical that a girl would be interested in you?”
“Didn’t you hear the spat between me and our younger self? He listed all the facts.”
“Doesn’t matter whether I did or didn’t. That’s not you anymore.” Older Me crossed his arms. “Or is it?”
What a fraud I am. I’d been pretending I belonged in the friendly little church, that I’d outgrown the teenager who avoided responsibility and conflict. Last month I’d called in sick to miss a meeting with my supervisor, and a few weeks before that I’d binge-watched sitcoms instead of reading the next chapter in the book my Bible study group was discussing. “I’m always wrestling with some new problem. Who’d willingly bond themselves to that?”
“Oliver.” Older Me rested a hand on my shoulder. “Everyone is broken. The world is broken. But is that a sign God’s rejected us? Or that we’re impossible to love? Who have you become because of the hurt you’ve experienced?”
I didn’t need to reflect on that for long. “A twenty-two-year-old college dropout with extreme anxiety and self-loathing.”
Older Me sighed. “No, try again. Where were you and what were you doing before you came here?”
“On a stage, probably about to bore a crowd of teenagers with—”
Older Me held up a hand and shook his head. “Shift your focus. A fifteen-year-old boy could be sitting in the audience, depressed that he’s the only one who can’t seem to measure up. What does he need that you can provide?” He patted me on the back. “Think on that. Meanwhile, I have someone else to speak to.”
I followed his gaze. A shape wobbled toward us, half-leaning on a cane. Older Me set off and converged with Senior Me, neither one attempting to run. Senior Me waved in my direction.
Unsure how to respond, I stepped back—and bumped into Lily. “Ollie, are you okay? You’ve been frozen for the past five minutes.”
“Yeah.” I raked my fingers through my hair and squinted to readjust to the dim lighting. “I just … remembered something I need to include in my story.”
The youth leader announced me, and as I hurried over, I noticed a boy hunched over on the last bench, his hood pulled up and his jaw clenched. The girl beside him nudged his elbow to get his attention, but he scooted farther down and angled his body toward the exit.
For the first time in years, I didn’t feel inadequate. I couldn’t earn love, but I could give it. And maybe, just maybe, I was enough.
I unhooked the mic from its stand. “Thanks for welcoming me. I can’t promise that I won’t ramble or act overzealous, but if you take away anything from my talk today, I hope it’ll be this: your struggles don’t define you—and you’re not alone.”
The boy in the hoodie swiveled around, confusion registering on his face.
He was going to be all right, and so was I.
Alithea Wrights is an aspiring author who’s determined to show the amazing love of Christ through her works. When she’s not fighting with her characters, you can find her drawing, singing, dancing, and generally being a menace to her friends and family of twelve. But, in the end, she always finds a way to make them laugh, which was her real goal all along. In her writing you’ll find mystery, conflict, and a subtle arrow pointing to the truth of Christ.