This Is the Moment, Or One of Them

May 11, 2021

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Other works by Mari Ness appear in Tor.com, Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, Nightmare, Uncanny, Fireside, Diabolical Plots, Translunar Travelers Lounge, Strange Horizons, Daily Science Fiction, and in previous issues of Apex Magazine. Her essay collection, Resistance and Transformation: On Fairy Tales, is available from Aqueduct Press, and her poetry novella, Through Immortal Shadows Singing, from Papaveria Press. For more, visit her infrequently updated website and blog at marikness.wordpress.com, or follow her on Twitter at @mari_ness. She lives in central Florida.
Content Warning(s):
References to a pandemic/epidemic

This is the moment when we first met. 

I watch as we exchange names with the rest of the group, listen intently to the instructor, reach for the clay and our tools, smile. I watch myself steal glances in her direction, drop the carving tools, turn bright red. Watch—for the first time—her reaction to all this, as my fingers hover over the screen.

And. 

Huh. 

She didn’t react at all?

I wish I’d realized that at the time. 

Options flash across the screen. My throat closes. I had so many choices here. Doing photography or painting or glass art instead. Staying home and not taking a class at all. Focusing on the other students. Leaving class after that first night. Not dropping the damn tools—well, no. I never choose to be this clumsy. 

That just happens.

I start carefully tapping the screen.

Next.

§

This is—apparently—the moment where I first started telling her a little bit about myself. My job, my family, my cats. Not much—probably because the classroom is full of other strangers who can hear everything, and occasionally jump in with a comment or two.

I say apparently and probably because I have completely forgotten this moment. All of it.

Which makes choosing an option here damn difficult.

Screw it. If I can’t remember any of it, how important could it have been? And if it turns out to be important—well. I can always come back.

Then again—

No. I have to stop second-guessing myself. And I don’t have time to review every option for every moment. The human body can’t stay awake that long.

Even loaded up with the maximum number of lattes they let me bring in here. 

I take another sip.  

Next.

§

This is the moment when she asked me if I wanted to grab a drink or a coffee or something, exactly eight weeks after our first meeting. I know the time not because I was counting every moment with her—not then—but because it was an eight-week class, and she only asked me at the end of the class. I’m sure of that. 

Something twists in my stomach. 

Review.

Absolutely sure.

Rain check?  I asked. I can’t stay out too late—things to do in the morning.

Wait.

No.

My fingers slam on the screen, scattering images and sounds throughout the room. 

Three moments? 

Just three moments from that class?

This can’t be right. 

I distinctly remember other moments. Other looks. I’m sure of this. When she came over to look at one of my bowls and said something kind about the glaze. When I admired the small bird she made, beautiful even before it had been fired. The argument about the best pizza places in our little city. Her skeptical looks at the little animals I tried to mold. We talked, damn it. I remember that. Surely that meant something? Surely some of that could be shifted?  

I’m equally sure that my memory hasn’t been shifted yet. That doesn’t happen until the end, they told me, and sometimes not even then. And I’m nowhere near the end. I’m equally sure of that. 

Ok, almost sure of that. The system does seem to be skipping a lot. But still. My finger pounds on the upper left corner of the screen. Menus pop up everywhere.

Back.

Select.

Back.

More pounding.

Review.

Oh come on.

Back. Back. Back. 

There has to be a way to do this.

Review.

Apparently not.

I am not going to cry. 

At least now I am sure that she didn’t ask me to grab a coffee or drink or something until the end of the class. Because if she had asked me earlier—

But I guess I never had that option.

I have to focus. 

Review.

§

This is the moment, exactly eight weeks after our first meeting, when she first asked me to grab a drink or coffee or something. 

Rain check?  I asked. I can’t stay out too late—things to do in the morning.

I thought you worked at home.

Doesn’t end morning meetings.

This is …

… better than I remembered.

Then what’s the point?

I get to spend more time with my cats.

Much less awkward. 

In fact, I don’t think I even have to tweak this.

It’s suddenly easier to breathe again. I take another sip of my latte, wishing—not for the first time—that I’d been allowed to bring more than three. That said, this one is already getting a bit cold, even in its thermal sleeve.

Next. 

§

This is the moment two months later when we finally went for that first drink. 

Or, I guess you could say, and the system certainly is trying to say, our first date. Not that I knew that at the time. Two months of near misses and texts and emails and sounds great/Thursday maybe/whoops sorry forgot this other thing hadn’t exactly screamed date to me. Even if it had, well—I’m so terrible at this sort of thing that I never know I’m on a date until the other person tells me that I’m on a date. Sometimes not even then. 

Which is not why I’m here. 

Review. Confirm. Review.

Can I ask why you were even in that class? You never seemed particularly into it.

Though maybe that’s the choice I should make, this time: know that I’m on a date. 

I thought it might be fun to try to do something with my hands.

You know, I saw your stuff when I went to go pick mine up.

I flinch.

At least that one thing was—colorful?

The penguin?

That was a penguin?

It was aspiring to be a penguin.

A laugh.

Plus, I added, I can always give that penguin to my mother, and she’ll be forced to say she likes it.

I watch the way her eyes moved down to linger on my hands, which I had left on the table.

Pause.

No. It was better not knowing that we were on a date.

I think. 

Next.

§

This is the moment four weeks later, the moment of our first, oh so brief kiss. 

Review. Review. Review. Review. Review.

Your current plan provides a limit of 50 reviews per original moment; 10 reviews per shifted moment. For more reviews, please upgrade to an Amethyst or higher plan.

Oh, come on.

First off, I haven’t even reached 10 reviews of this yet. And second, this is an original moment. I’m sure of it. I haven’t shifted anything yet. I’ve barely even looked at the options. So unless someone else has shifted something that shifted this and I previously reviewed this and forgot and—

Even if that happened, and it didn’t, I need to imprint this on my memory. To make sure I have it, no matter what shifts. I need to. Even the full fifty reviews might not be enough and—

Damn it.

Next.

§

This is the moment when we first went to bed together, when I first felt her fingers against me and her lips against my skin and—

—and I really don’t need this much judgement from a machine about my sex life and my failure to explore all of the options here the first time around. 

Next.

§

This is the next morning. It includes terrible coffee, the discovery that I was, in fact, out of pancake mix, some apples, an agreement that really, we should head to the local brunch place for something edible, the discovery of a huge wait at the local brunch place, some quick pastries and coffee at the café next door, a lingering final kiss, a reminder from my calendar that yes, I still had a deadline. 

Ok, yeah, this I can definitely tweak. At the very least provide decent coffee. Even though that would probably mean going further back and finding a moment where I could have but didn’t buy a French press, or one of those single serve coffee machines with the little pods, or a moment where I could have chosen to live right next to—or maybe even right above—a really good café. Which would have the added bonus of showing me exactly how much good—or even decent—coffee could have changed my life.

My fingers hover over the menu.

Assuming I can find any of those moments, given everything else that’s being skipped—

Next.

§

Although the system will show multiple options, users are warned that repeated studies have shown that multiple small shifts can be more effective than single large shifts. 

Awesome.

§

This is a moment at the beach. The—

Wait.

This was in late February. I’m fairly certain of that. I touch a few buttons on the screen to confirm. Yes. The last Wednesday in February when we both ditched our jobs to head out to the beaches just north of Cape Canaveral. 

Which means that the system has skipped both our first New Year’s and Valentine’s Day.

Well. 

At least this confirms that getting her different gifts wouldn’t have made any difference. 

I take another sip of my second latte. Or maybe my third. I can’t keep count. I have to focus.

Review.

§

This is a moment at the beach. The moment where I didn’t tell her that I’d fallen in love with her, with fallen definitely being the appropriate word here, as the waves crashed over us both, sending us flailing to the sands. I was waiting for a better time. A more romantic time, a more perfect time. A candlelight dinner. A silly moment in the car. A spontaneous outburst. No. A time where I could choose my words absolutely carefully and do it right.

Options splash over the screen.

I push a button.

Next.

§

By signing this, you acknowledge the risk of permanent memory changes. Side effects may include—

Oh, come on. Not only did I do this two hours ago, this is the third time this has popped up since I entered this room, and that’s not counting the warnings in the original sales pitch and the two weeks of origination classes. I know they have to cover their asses, but I also know I researched the hell out of this and signed about 200 pages of paperwork just to take the classes and another 200 pages of paperwork after that. And given the costs, it’s not like I have any money left to sue them with. Why keep making me review this?   

Unless I already—

No. I haven’t made any shifts yet. Everything matches my memory exactly. Everything. Well, almost everything. The moments that I can’t remember, or can’t remember clearly, don’t count. And they told us that nothing shifts permanently until I leave this room. Which I haven’t done at all. Not even to go to the bathroom.

Which I suddenly realize I really need to do.

What they should have had me sign was something about the risks of downing a large latte before starting this and bringing more into the room with me and what that could do to my bladder.

I can’t think about that now.

Changes made before a full review—

Damn it.

I rub my hands against my wet face.

Next.

§

Or, well. Not next.

Anywhere from 5 to 20% of users report being unable to remember their original timelines.

Yes. Got that. Thus why I’m back to reviewing, machine!

Next.

§

This is the moment when she gave me a little glass penguin.

What’s this for?

No reason.

It’s a good moment, a good memory. I can feel the corners of my mouth twitching upwards. Not an important one, at least, as far as I know, although they did say in training that sometimes random moments might show up, just because they were moments that could be shifted, unlike some of the more major moments. 

But also, not a moment with a lot of options, since, if memory serves, she just gave me the penguin and left, right? 

Review.

Right. 

My fingers linger over the Options button anyway.

Next. 

§

If I see another legal warning I am going to lose it. Really. I have one chance at this, one, and my bladder is killing me, so I don’t even know how much longer I’m going to last, and instead of reviewing and changing, I’m getting these goddamn legal warnings. I’m half-tempted to just fast-forward to when I initially signed these documents, and change some of that, to make sure that my time here isn’t wasted in legal warnings.

But, no. If I fast-forward now, there’s no guarantee I’ll be able to return, and I’m not sure what to change yet.

Breathe, I remind myself. Breathe.

Next.

§

This is the moment when I told her not to come and shelter in place with me. I only had a two bedroom place, I said. With a small yard, sure, but we would drive each other nuts. I had a mitral valve prolapse, a pre-existing condition.

You never mentioned that, she said.

It never seemed important, I said. Came up during a routine physical.  I’m asymptomatic, so it never seemed to be an issue.

Then why is it an issue now, she said.

Because there’s a virus.

I haven’t been near anyone who has it.

That you know of.

I have no idea why I’m reviewing this moment.

I do know I need more coffee.

Next.

§

Maybe I should just end this right now. Just go back to the beginning and remove that pottery class. The chances that we would meet someplace else? Presumably pretty slim. It wasn’t one of the options in the beginning. 

Maybe. 

I reach into the pocket of my sweatshirt, feeling the rough, misshapen object there that once aspired to be a penguin. 

Next.

§

We can Skype, FaceTime, whatever, I said.

You’re terrible at technology.

That I couldn’t argue against. Much. My mother is going to church via YouTube.

What the fuck does that have to do with anything?

I press the button. 

Next.

§

This is another moment where I start thinking that this—all of this—has to be a scam. Ok, yes, the system is definitely pulling up what seems to be completely accurate videos of my past—or at least, fairly close to what I remember of my past—seen largely from my viewpoint, or something watching close by. So if it’s a scam, it’s a damn good one.

But if it’s real, surely people would have changed things like this? I know, I know—in training they said that attempts to shift certain things—pandemics, wars, extinctions, assassinations—had failed. 

Apparently because we are only shifting individual timelines, not the societal timelines needed for large scale shifts.

No one would try to stop us, but we did need to remember that our fees were non-refundable. 

But what if we haven’t tried shifting the right people and the right pasts for that? someone—not me—had asked during training.

Who says we haven’t?

Silence from the class.

Next?

§

This is our first video call.

It’s terrible. The sound quality is terrible, the picture quality is terrible. I look awful. She looks awful. Watching it is awful.

The options—nearly all involving ending this call as quickly as possible—are equally awful.

Next. 

§

This is the moment when I spill what’s left of the second latte.

Partly general clumsiness, partly just overall shaking. I mean, I’m not even at the really painful part. And if I’m already this upset, I’m not sure I can review the painful part.

Next.

§

Next turns out to be a series of moments that I don’t remember, but which seem to emphasize that I had a lot more choices at the time than I thought I did, and wasted even more time marathoning terrible television than I thought I did.

Maybe I should start hitting the next button a lot faster.

§

This is the moment when I remember that, just maybe, I don’t have to shift anything: it could be shifted for me. After all, I’m not the only person in this building right now. Not the only person in a shifting room. They never told us just how many people can enter the system at once, and I’m pretty sure that at least some of the people who walked through the doors with me were  general employees, not clients. But presumably at least four or five. 

Which means somewhere in another room, someone could be shifting something that will cancel or change anything I want to shift. May already have done this. I mean, so far this all matches my memories, more or less, but parts do seem missing and—

What if she is in this building, removing me from her life?

Oh, god, I need to throw up.

§

This is the moment when she came by holding out a package of toilet paper in her hands, and I broke down and cried.

I should definitely review this moment. I know it’s important. 

But I can’t.

Next.

§

Major moments may be eliminated early in the process, thanks to minor alterations and shifts in previous moments. Not all moments can or will be removed; users should feel free to skip any moment that may be too emotionally painful or triggering to be reviewed. 

Therapy may be available post treatment.

I am not going to throw up.

§

This is the moment when she didn’t return my texts for five days. Five days. Despite knowing that cases were peaking again, that hospitals were overloaded again.

Next.

§

This is the moment when I reach into my pocket and pull a little glass penguin and clutch it so tightly that I think I’m bruising my fingers. 

§

This is the moment when she called me and said she’d stopped coughing, and she really felt much better now, and I said, then why aren’t you over here fucking me, and she laughed and cried a little and said, wait, since when do you want me breaking quarantine and I said I didn’t care, I didn’t, and then she said she would be right over.

It’s very hard to breathe.

Next. 

§

Users are warned that attempts to shift particularly painful or stressful events may lead to unwanted changes in current personalities, temperaments, knowledge or skills. Users are advised to strongly consider the costs of these shifts.

And bullshit.

This is another one of those "pain builds character" lies. Embrace the pain. You’ll be a better person for it. Something I actually believed, once upon a time. But not now. Going through this the first time didn’t make me a better person, or a stronger person. It just hurt like hell. 

This pain? Did not make me a better person. Did not lead me to new relationships.

Besides, if I liked who I am right now, would I be doing this?

§

This is the moment when she didn’t arrive.

§

Shifts in your vital signs, including your heart rate and blood pressure, have been detected. You may wish to terminate.

Yeah, no. 

In fact—

Back. Back. Back. Back.

§

Oh come on. 

§

This is a moment I’ve gone through a hundred times in my mind. A thousand times. Thought of all of the clever, brilliant things I could have said. Could have done. I watch myself standing in front of the door, awkwardly juggling yet another roll of toilet paper and a basket of cookies and chocolates. Huh. In my memory my hands were free. Shaking, but free. 

This is definitely one of the moments. I’m sure of it.

View options.

I reach into my pocket, feeling the hard object there.

This time I can get it right.

§

Option one: I leave the toilet paper by her door with a note. A carefully crafted note.

End.

This is the moment when I entered this facility and—

§

Option two: I knock on the door. Twice. Three times. Leave not just the toilet paper, but chocolate at the door, with a note. I text her afterwards.

End.

This is the moment when I entered this facility and—

§

Option three: I write up the note, and then text her the exact words before coming over.

End.

This is the moment when I entered this facility and—

§

Option four: Maybe the problem is the note.

End.

This is the moment when I entered this facility and—

§

Option five: I skip the damn toilet paper.

End.

This is the moment when I entered this facility and—

§

Ok. Wait. The moment when I entered this facility. That has to show up, no matter what I choose or don’t choose, because if I don’t enter this facility then I can’t shift anything in the past. So maybe the problem here is that I’m not looking at what happens before I enter the facility. But, if I get everything right, I’d never enter the facility in the first place, unless I keep coming back to this facility because I know I have to come to this facility in order to get whatever outcome I finally choose, which is why no matter—

Or maybe knocking on the door wasn’t the moment.

Back.

god no

Back.

§

This is the moment when she sent two words by text: fever. coughing.

§

This is the moment, right now, in this room, where I think of every reason why this was such a terrible fucking idea, and I break down and cry and a couple of tears fall on the screen and I don’t even care, don’t even care when the system starts droning at me again, when I reach into my pockets to find a tissue to find nothing there, when I try to wipe my tears with my sweatshirt, when I try to drink something only to find that my cup is completely empty, when I find myself crying again, and again, until I remind myself that I basically bankrupted myself for this, I can’t stop now, I have to keep going and—

Next.

§

This is the moment when I dropped my phone on the kitchen tile, managing to have it land on just the right angle to crack.

Next.

§

This is the moment when I take out the little glass penguin and stare at it again. 

§

How long will they let me stay in this room?

No, change that—

How long will they keep me in this room?

§

I’m so upset that I hit the wrong button.

Shifts are limited to what your past self was capable of doing at that moment. For instance, if you did not speak fluent Spanish at that moment, you will not be able to speak Spanish. However, you may have the option of going further back into the past and selecting the option of taking Spanish classes. Such classes must have been available to you at the time; selecting Spanish studies may shift other parts of your past and/or limit other later options.

… which I can’t help but take as a bit of shade.

§

This is the moment, later, when I thought I saw her on the other side of my favorite café. When instead of going over to check, or even trying to look a little longer, I immediately buried myself in my cell phone, ignoring the sudden pain in my chest, the tears in my eyes, the way I couldn’t see my cell phone, or taste the coffee I was trying to drink. 

I don’t really need to see the options here, though the system keeps throwing them up anyway.

Next.

§

This is the moment when I realized that I really did need to toss all of her things out.

Only to realize that I didn’t have anything to toss out.

Except that little glass penguin.

I watch myself throwing it hard against the floor.

Next.

§

And this is the moment when everything felt normal again. Or as normal as it could be. When I realized I no longer had the urge to stock up on toilet paper and yeast the second I saw them, when I didn’t flinch when I saw crowds inside a bar, or at the thought of going to the movies again.

When I finally let myself cry, and cry, and cry.

Next.

§

And this is a moment one year ago. My hands are gripped around my coffee mug, desperate to change things. Desperate to change everything. Desperate. 

I sign everything and everything.

Had I known just how many times I’d have to review that legal stuff again, here in this room—

But no. This I don’t want to change.

Next.

§

This time, this time, I think, I have it right.

This time.

My hands are freezing. I put them into my empty pockets to warm them, close my eyes, and remember that first terrible, terrible cup of coffee. The way she kissed me before and after that.

The way I kept staring at my phone, waiting for her text.

I pull out my hands. 

Restart. 

Review.

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1 Comment

  1. a_f00l

    This is such a delightful flavor of bittersweet. I love it.

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