's 2017 Horror Write-off:

I Ruined Everything With the Push of a Button

Submitted by Samsinater (email)

I was so excited at first.

When I finished the calculations, and gave them their final physical form, I was ecstatic! And who wouldn't be?

Time travel is one of those ideas that you can't help but marvel at, get a tingly sensation down your spine thinking about all the mind-bending possibilities, all the ways it could go beautifully wrong or horribly right, and lead to any number of hypothetical phenomena -- from creating alternate timelines to paradoxically stitching the original timeline back into itself, with unintended side-effects big and small, ranging from nonexistent to world-shattering. I think that's what made it so exciting, back when I didn't know what would happen: the fact that without pure knowledge, anything could happen, and therefore anything would happen, if I could just get it to work!

I regret that I did. And it's a sour aftertaste, knowing I only have myself to blame for what I discovered.

I'll spare you the details on how many decades I spent kissing the asses of the wealthy and influential to achieve what I did, and start where I should have stopped: the moment I turned the damned thing on.

I was standing in my garage, staring in awe at a total assembly of parts not much larger than a VCR -- the compact size of which, given the many occasions prior when something I had been tinkering with kept her from parking in the garage, I am certain my wife was thankful for. ...My beautiful wife. She was the one I called for after I did the first official test run: just one push of the button, a quick look around to confirm that everything was frozen (or, to be more accurate, slowed down to an infinitesimal scale), and then a second push to undo it.

But she didn't hear me.

I left the garage and made my way inside, already babbling enthusiastically about how I'd finally done it, after all these years, but she didn't react at all. At first I was terrified; had I only succeeded in stopping time, but not in restarting it? Was that the unaccounted-for possibility that would ruin me? It couldn't be; I was certain I had already taken it into account!

Sure enough, sufficient staring revealed my wife was pouring herself a mug of coffee with unabated temporal success, before boredly sipping at it as she withdrew and checked her phone. But still she paid me no mind, even as I tried again and again to meekly sell her on my discovery, hoping she simply didn't hear me the last time. "Honey, you'll never believe this!" "Darling, can I show you something?" "Hey sweetie, you know that thing I've been working on...?"

I only realized once I touched her what was wrong.

It wasn't like being a ghost, where I could tap her on the shoulder, and she'd jump, then look wildly around, bewildered and confused. It was more like she was a clay puppet, or a simple robot just following a script. My gentle shaking of her arm caused her to spill coffee all over herself, and I immediately began apologizing, even going so far with my ignorance as to get a paper towel and offer it to her -- but she registered none of this. Her hand, offset as it had been by my selfish interference, carefully set the mug down on the space just in front of the counter, whereupon it fell from her grip and shattered, splashing her even more.

Her only response was to casually remark to herself that it looked like rain today, according to the weather app on her phone.

Careful experimentation, as was my most familiar tool, revealed that no amount of fiddling would deter my wife from moving and acting in a fully rehearsed set of motions, such as attempting to walk over and sit down somewhere while in reality still laying on her back where I had set her on our couch -- and worse still, no amount of fiddling would get her perfectly back into whatever astoundingly fixed, predetermined routine her life originally followed. God knows I tried, just as He knows the precision of a human hand grabbing a carton of milk is nothing to be trifled with.

I got as far as beginning to write down a daily feeding schedule, to stop my poor wife from slowly starving as she ineffectually mimed eating cereal, before I finally broke down, shaking with sheer, impossible understanding. Understanding that, as absurd as it was, I was "unstuck" from time, that no one knew or ever would know what I'd done -- and that neither would anyone realize they were all blind to the true state of the world around them, if my wife was any indication, all moving on rails through deterministic lives that only made sense if everyone followed the script. I could barely comprehend what that meant for myself, seeing what I saw and moving as I did, unsure if I was always meant to break character, or if this new hell was just one more part of the script, and I was following it to the letter even now.

I was shuddering in my armchair, head lost in my hands, when she broke my stupor by calling my name.

My heart stopped, and I hoped -- dear God in heaven did I hope against all hope -- that whatever nightmare I was suffering in had finally reached its end. She went on: "Are you still out there, fiddling with that thing? ...Honey?"

Concern was etched into her features as she played her cosmic part from our sofa, trying to lean in casual worry against a doorway, if the way she elbowed the cushion was any indication. "...Honey, are you okay?" Her legs moved, and as I imagined her walking into the garage, for a moment I forgot the gravity of my situation, so caught up was I in trying to picture what she was seeing, what she must have thought she was seeing, instead of the dusty ceiling fan above her.

Funnily enough, she went through much the same motions as I had, apparently trying to get my attention by waving a hand back and forth, and when that failed, snapping her fingers, and then pushing up against what must have been an immovable me, all with futility given her increasingly worried expression.

It was as though I was never meant to leave that spot, where I pressed that button. That for all my interest in meddling with the flow of time, I should never have been able to see its effects -- but I had for whatever reason, and the experience was all the worse for it. As though fate or God or whatever higher power in the universe, if there in fact existed one, was punishing me for seeking this forbidden knowledge.

My wife slowly began to cry, and soon I cried with her, both of us seeing the other in a state neither could bear to comprehend, both unable to communicate what we knew to the other we saw. She put out her arms in a desperate embrace with no one, and I'm not ashamed to admit I wrapped myself in it, accepting what may be the last form of physical contact my wife could ever meaningfully share with me. I relished her shivering warmth as we quietly sobbed in unison, together now but separated in a way irreversible.

I decided right then that I'd find a way to undo this, no matter the cost. I'd make things right again, Goddammit, even if it ultimately boiled down to simply pretending -- pretending not to know the universe's biggest secret once I had extricated myself from it. And already did I make that promise with conviction: as long as I could return order to everything, I swore I would never pursue my curiosity on the matter ever again for so long as I lived.

However... I never made any such promise for satisfying my curiosity in the time before I had fixed everything.

I'll admit, it was a tough pill to swallow when my son arrived home from school, ignorant of the fact that his father was watching him from the driveway, while paradoxically trapped not twenty feet away in the garage. He even seemed cheery, probably chipper from talk about nothing with his friends on the bus.

That changed when he approached the front door, pausing there a moment, then turning back with a queer expression, and for a confused moment I thought he had seen me somehow. The reality was he "heard" his mother still softly weeping, and approached where she should have been, in the garage. I had to stand an awkward distance between the two of them to hear my son from the garage and my wife from the living room, only thinking to move from the doorway into the open kitchen when my son appeared to be led inside by his mother.

They talked for some time about what his fool father had done, but for some reason she called me brave instead of selfish -- brave for daring to explore that which no man had ever before, brave like she knew our son would be, too, and soon he nodded along at that, stifling his tears to put on the unwavering mask his mother was struggling to wear.

In this time my thoughts raced, considering what I could do to help beyond just further tinkering with the device. I considered at length the prospect of trying again to "recalibrate" my wife's position, perhaps based on the position of our son, and the embrace their poses implied, but ultimately I decided against it: I had already pushed my wife off the rails she didn't know she rode on, and forcing our son to join her wouldn't do us any good.

The next week went by achingly slowly as I juggled such matters as caring for my wife, making sure our son's script wasn't affected by her displacement, and actually trying to fix my mistake. I thankfully didn't have to do the perilous cooking a father normally might for his motherless son, thanks to his constant striving to prove his maturity and independence: though he still relied on us for buying things like bread, milk, and cereal, he was more than capable of preparing a box of macaroni and cheese on his own, or following the instructions on the back of a microwave dinner. He even washed his own dishes, never mind the fact that it was often a chore of his to run the dishwasher, or put the plates and silverware in their respective cabinets; he would almost certainly be fine, for a while.

My wife, on the other hand, was a bit harder to account for. She prepared to use the bathroom from a spot on the floor where she had rolled off the couch, unattended during my absence tinkering with the stupid machine that caused this. I caught her just in time to rush back to it, push the button again, and then carefully move her to the master bathroom where she could relieve herself in peace.

I managed much less stressfully afterward by buying a bed pan -- or, rather, jogging down to the nearest superstore, taking one, and leaving some money near a cash register. While I could have just taken it, I reasoned that there was no point to fixing my manipulation of the time stream if I was to later be arrested for petty thievery. I wanted to play it safe. I was even able to manage all my purchases from then on by using an ATM to withdraw the cash necessary for any given transaction; the fully automated nature of certain parts of our society were extremely conducive to a man with whom social interaction was no longer possible.

This discovery, and my desire to preserve the on-rails nature of as many people as I could, is how I ended up buying a set of straps and bindings to keep my wife safely in position on our bed (our son used the couch sometimes, after all), just until I could sort all this out. I caught myself before I tried feeding her in this position, instantly aware that she was at risk of choking while laying down, so I... admittedly, stopped worrying about feeding her in the immediate time after my mistake. If I fixed all this, it wouldn't matter that she had skipped a couple meals because of me; I'd buy her all the fancy dinners and gourmet delights she could ever want once I was back, and I had revealed this technology -- a discovery surely worth billions!

So with that settled, I worked, tirelessly, sometimes wishing it were feasible to work with it while it was active, just for the sake of having that much more time at my disposal. Our son continued his routine more or less as normal, though sometimes he had conversations with his mother in the kitchen, where I was able to hear both sides of the conversation through clever use of a baby monitor. Rarely anything consequential; mostly small talk of grades, and what happened at work today (nothing, since she worked at a local weather station), etc.

On the subject though, it sometimes unnerved me even more than the predetermination of everyone I had ever met that devices like the baby monitor... worked. We didn't functionally *need* baby monitors that transmitted sound, or televisions with lights, or... or anything! Not if we were all going to do the same things regardless, following the same set of genetic instructions no matter what. It led me to believe that I might actually be pioneering some new branch of psychology, able to deal in the human mind's ability to be tricked into thinking it has more information than it does, and acting on that information with perfect synchronicity to the outside world. Surely, if the ability to stop time was not worth billions, then some new facts behind our existence had to be. It'd even be something concrete in that department for a change, ha!

At one point not long thereafter, some men came by, a couple of whom I recognized, and they were a mix of grant-offering fat cats, their professional hires, and some scummy fellow coworkers who I soon deduced were here about me -- not the still-walking-and-talking me, but the frozen-in-the-garage me. Only that wasn't entirely true, something I confirmed soon enough by moving the blasted, terrible contraption that started this all: at one point amid their idle condolences and legalese, one of them made to grab it where it had originally sat, only smart enough not to try turning it on, and soon after that they had all bid farewell to my wife, got back in their cars, and left.

The nerve of those dirt bags, probably off to pilfer whatever scientific advancements they could from technology that wasn't theirs! I don't care how many of them helped pay for it; I built the damned thing, and even if it didn't work like it should it served them right that they walked away with nothing! It was almost comical, watching Jameson mime holding a small box before hiding behind some rich so-and-so and then darting off, the rest surreptitiously following suit. I somewhat regret that I didn't choose right then to knock one of them off their rails with a swift kick in the ass, especially now that they tried to steal something from me. But, of course, it didn't matter what they did or didn't have -- no doubt they'd either line their wallets with the incredible discovery made by someone whose name wasn't mine, or act like it, brushing my existence and temporal illness neatly under the rug and maybe, maybe paying my wife and son to keep their mouths shut.

They'd have to, I reasoned: you can't very well hide a man who can't move, even if you give him a great shove, from the media or the rest of the world. So at least they'd be financially well-off until I was back, a consolation that only made my blood boil a fraction less, and that enabled me to still channel my rage into working full-time on a means of reentering the general consciousness of everyone around me, if for no greater purpose than to really stick it to those back-stabbing sons of bitches!

Before I knew it, two weeks of toil had passed, and I was no closer to undoing my terrible error than I was when I began. Nothing I tried changed anything of consequence with my invention, and half the time a given change prevented it from working at all -- like it was mocking me, telling me I'd already gotten it right the first time, and this sordid reality was the only possible result. Bullshit; there had to be a way out.

I ended up shocking myself around then by looking at my wife's face as I went to change her bed pan, noticing how gaunt she had gotten. She had never been much of a modest woman (not that I'd ever tell her that), nor was she yet, but the effect was quite noticeable compared to the photo of us on my phone's lockscreen. I felt guilty, but assured myself it was no great loss if she lost a little weight; she'd been telling me for a while that she'd like to, anyway, so in a way this was a reason for her to thank me once this was over with.

Once this was over with.

Three weeks in, I noticed something odd when I tuned the television to the weather channel, just to see if it was a good day to head out for some grocery shopping. The camera was filming a weather map, still actively scrolling and zooming around to different points as they were highlighted, but without anyone standing in front of it. It was preposterous; my wife wasn't the one handling the weather map, she just managed some computer details for them.

Perhaps in their version of reality, she had been promoted in the time since my mistake, though this I felt was unlikely. It was the only possibility that didn't make me uneasy, however; the thought that someone my wife might have otherwise interacted with had fallen out of their own routine, especially due to something as stupid as a missed handshake or a clipboard not being traded off, generated intense anxiety within me.

In turn, this spurred me to work even harder, as if such a thing was possible without starting to neglect my own needs as well. I had to fix this, but if it was possible then I'd do it at a pace that didn't kill me; and if I ultimately failed anyway, because whatever had already determined everything simply decided as much, then at least I could say I tried! I did eventually did wise up regarding my wife's declining health, thinking idly at some point about the branches of science I had never been interested in before, and remembering medical science in particular.

It occurred to me that if I could get an IV drip, my wife would be fully cared for, so long as I remembered to change out her solution in addition to the bed pan. A lesser man might have complained about his wife having effectively become a vegetable, albeit one that routinely struggled against the straps holding her down, but I was more than willing to do what I had to do to fix what was ultimately my own fault.

I'll say, too: it's surprisingly easy to obtain your own medical equipment these days, albeit a process complicated by no one registering anything you say or do. Thankfully, what I was unable to procure in nearby businesses, the nearest hospital had in spades. I couldn't drive there, of course, knowing that other drivers would never see me nor stop for me, but public transportation still worked just fine: the level of rudeness of someone trying to sit in the seat you're currently occupying is about on par with people who are able to physically spot you. (Unfortunately, that also meant I knocked someone new off the rails, though I still maintain he knocked himself off, given I was minding my own business.)

Once that facet of my wife's care was secured, I was a little more at ease continuing my work, if enough so that my curiosity got the better of me more frequently. I had already decided there was no point fiddling with the device while I was busy eating, so it was only natural that I began wandering around the neighborhood while I nibbled on a cooling, freshly microwaved burrito -- sometimes even activating the machine first, if it was in a fit state to do so, just so I wasn't wasting valuable time.

Often this only yielded mildly interesting gossip about my neighbors as I walked around, witnessing them in either their snapshot positions or active slices of life. I discovered Mrs. Garcia was cheating on her husband this way, though I never really planned on doing anything with that information; it was ultimately their business, even if I did happen to watch for longer than was, strictly speaking, necessary to understand what was happening. However, it was on one occasion while eating my lunch, when the machine was not active, that I made a far more disturbing discovery.

The Jenners, down the street, had a reputation for caring for all the stray cats in the area, regularly leaving bowls of food and water out for them on their back porch. I swung by to see how they were doing, and all seemed to be normal: several cats were casually munching at the various bowls laid out as the Jenner children watched through the window, a couple of the cats growling and swatting at one another to claim ownership over the prized dry food. I sought a closer look, circling further around the back of the house to approach, but in an instant my worldview was shattered once again.

The cats ran from me.

I even confirmed it, stalking several feral felines for a ways, cornering them sometimes in the fenced-off backyard, and it was always straight at me that they looked; not at something behind me, or to the side of me, but at me specifically! It was distinctly around and between my legs that they frightenedly darted, and not once did they bump into anything or unnaturally flop over and try to run, disoriented, on their side.

I was at a loss for words upon discovering that, trying to process how this was even possible, or why. It raised so many more questions than this failed experiment already had! Was this how sentience worked? Were humans the only entities trapped in unbreakable paths? For that matter, were we "programmed" to effectively predict the movements and actions of every animal we ever encountered? Was it possible that at one point humans were not as I now understood them to be, stuck following unbreakable routines and patterns -- and for that matter, how the hell did I fit into all this, impossibly able to perceive and think about it?!

I shuddered at the possibility that I really was just standing in my garage, merely hallucinating about what was happening. Maybe it wasn't everyone else who followed an unbreakable script, but myself alone; it'd at least be a more fitting punishment, knowing that only I had been ruined by my discovery, but for some reason it only made me want to fix everything even faster.

By two months in, more and more people were falling prone to the same illness of displacement I had first subjected my wife to. I would occasionally see neighbors flopping like fish on their front lawns, misaligned by some missed interaction I couldn't even begin to fathom the connections of -- but between my wife and whoever fell over trying to sit on me on the bus, and maybe some other subtle interaction I hadn't considered (money on a store counter? missing supplies at the hospital?) there must have been enough instability for it to spread, horribly, like a new disease.

The roads were somewhat emptier now, almost enough so for me to drive on them, though it was hardly a treat when I'd take a walk around town, seeing cars stop arbitrary numbers of car lengths behind one another, each acknowledging the presence of a driver who should have been there, but wasn't. I believe at one point I actually witnessed a car accident that didn't truly happen: a woman slammed on her brakes, swerving in the middle of an intersection, and all the other cars near her reacted similarly, but whatever ghost she thought she hit never appeared.

That didn't stop her from clambering dazedly out of her vehicle, and collapsing on the ground despite a total lack of injuries, nor did it stop several other drivers from leaving their own vehicles to investigate the scene. Before long all manner of ambulances and police cars showed up as well, securing the area, tending to the woman, and ultimately strapping her on a gurney. Somewhat to my amusement, a second gurney was used to mime picking up the nonexistent second party, and strapping them in as well! It was like watching some bizarre play, or a behind-the-scenes shot of a movie where the computer-generated character hadn't been inserted yet, so you only had context clues to go of off on what was "really" happening.

I realized by that point just how long I had been standing there, staring at Schrödinger's motor accident, and elected to hurry home; I had only dipped into town to buy more groceries, and I couldn't afford to let the shaky interactions of everyone around me stop me from keeping myself and my son fed.

Speaking of whom, it was nothing short of miraculous that he hadn't been knocked out of place yet. I had managed thus far by populating the fridge, freezer, and pantry with much the same food items he always used, purchasing them as close as I could to our household's original shopping routine, placing them in the same spots they always occupied too, and I must have done a fine enough job: he still fed himself, caught the bus every day, and came home afterward, only occasionally stopping by the garage to stare at me. It would have been haunting, seeing that happen as I worked fruitlessly on redesigning this blasted box, if I hadn't known I sat roughly where I had been frozen. Still, I took his saddened looks as just one more reason to keep working; I couldn't give up on this slab of junk, no matter how much I wanted to. Not while he was still stable. Not while it was still possible to save this family, even if all other humans on the planet were forfeit. Another month passed, and no matter how many avenues I explored, nor ideas I had, nor breakthroughs I thought I made, nothing made the horrid assembly I wanted more and more to spike on the ground do what I wanted it to do. I let myself have the day off at one point, tired of constantly going nowhere fast with it, and I saw just how much I had let myself go in the bathroom mirror.

I had still been shaving since this started, and sleeping and eating too, only I'd inadvertently dropped my regularity of it, far more stubbly than I was usually willing to accept, faint bags hanging under my eyes -- because who could ever sleep soundly knowing they'd screwed everything up as badly as I had? I noticed at the same time just how rank I smelled, instantly reminded of when I first realized my wife wasn't bathing either, and I'd regularly had to pull her into the shower and wash her while she struggled to type at an invisible computer, or talk with a coworker who was miles away, and might have been spasming on the ground for all I knew.

The dreariness of it all only really sunk in when the power went out, not like the brief scare I had once before but for good this time, and I think that's precisely when I finally accepted what the past three months had desperately been trying to tell me: I didn't have a snowball's chance in hell at fixing this.

It didn't help that I found my son dead in the street at much the same time, sitting like he had boarded the school bus, with the derailed car that had flattened him smashed into a telephone pole nearby. (Even if I haven't noticed the power going out, it was hard to miss the sound of that.)

I really wanted to die then, and the only thing that made me reluctant was when my son started speaking. "Nnoffay, jiss," he gurgled despite half his head being paste, or maybe because of it. He knew a girl named Jess, I think, but I stopped myself there at trying to interpret his slurred speech. I was more concerned (consumed, really) by another thought: if he was still following a script, even now -- despite not having an intact brain -- I really didn't want to think about what would happen when I died.

Following that, I just... walked. I left the machine I should have stopped trying to make anything of behind, and went out in the world to see what I could see before it ended for good. It seemed poetic to me that I go back inside the house and kiss my wife goodbye first, but I didn't have to stomach for it; she'd gotten an eye infection a while ago, and my cowardly attempt at letting her immune system sort it out only let it spread.

It's not beyond me that every horrible thing that happened since the original use of that stupid machine of my own design is entirely my fault. I had grown a list of "if I nevers" through all of this, starting with "if I never destabilized my wife," and ending with "if I was never interested in time travel," but the end result was the same: Everything was royally fucked, and there was no way to undo that.

Almost none of the television channels had any meaningful signals anymore, something I confirmed in a house that still had electricity, and it was hard enough to find someone who hadn't tripped over someone else, or bumped some body part of theirs against something and fallen because of it. The only one I did find, seemingly fine, was a homeless man, quietly sitting and holding up a sign at no one. He was probably only unaffected because he never moved far from the cardboard he sat on. I told him he could just go take some food if he wanted to; no one was in any state to stop him. He paid me no mind. I dumped all the pocket change I still had into the paint can sitting in front of him, plus my wallet and my phone too, and I carefully draped my jacket around him as well before I left. I knew it didn't mean anything, wouldn't change anything, but they were probably the most redeeming actions I'd taken in months.

That had to be worth something. Especially if there did turn out to be an afterlife, and I hadn't expertly booted myself from it by causing this mess. There was probably a fitting irony there, as well, that for all I knew now, I was still ever-curious, and now there were even more questions I'd never get answers to, on account of singlehandedly bringing about society's collapse.

For example: what about new births? Would there be ghosts of babies crying in the air if I went to a hospital, or had I entirely cut off the production of anyone who would have been born by someone whose path I disrupted? At a grander scale, if aliens existed in this universe, regardless of whether they ever came to earth, what side were they on? Deterministic like humans, or nondeterministic like the animals?

I never did hear any phantom wailing in the two hospitals I visited on my final walk, so I at least managed to quell that worry.

By then, I began wondering if there was anyone at all who would survive this plague I'd wrought. With airlines, there was no way I hadn't affected other countries, even if some parts of them might have remained untouched yet. A morbid thought reminded me that I didn't know what would happen if I slept with someone, and kept them alive long enough to raise the resulting baby.

But there was no chance of that happening for several reasons, the first of which being that I didn't even have the guts to sleep with my own wife since ruining her life, let alone for the purpose of trying to jumpstart humanity back into existence. And knowing my luck, the absolute best case scenario would be a baby that just... didn't think. That didn't move, didn't blink, didn't do anything except maybe breathe, if its subconscious at least knew how to do that. If everyone on this planet only walked and talked because of their predetermined nature, how could any offspring of mine -- a man who had apparently broken the bonds of his existence -- do anything but sit there blankly, unable to act without a script telling it what to do?

Humanity's best bet, I reasoned, had to be in those isolated tribes that met little to no contact from the outside world. The ones we knew about, but didn't interfere with, or better yet the ones no one had discovered; surely at least one had to be out there.

Although, even one of them would probably fall over something they weren't meant to at some point, too, if they ever expanded to a previously populated area. Be it a corpse, a building, or otherwise. Hell, they might end up dying before then anyway, with the animal populations of the world being affected by the nearby humans falling down, offering no resistance to any carnivores that wanted to make a meal out of them.

No matter how many times I ran it through my head, there was no denying it: I really, well and truly, had completely brought about the downfall of human civilization, all with one initial mistake -- a single domino, gently pushed over by my own hand, that just happened to be pointed in the direction needed to knock everything else down. And for what? All just to feed my own ceaseless curiosity?

It was fitting that I would die with the rest of the world, still wondering. I didn't have the patience or knowhow to cultivate the land and try to survive, nor the motivation to learn. I barely had the energy to walk and think at the same time, and I knew soon I wouldn't even have that. Near to the end, it'd have to be one or the other, and knowing my mind there was only one option.

I was going to die, laying on whatever patch of dirt or concrete I happened to be over at the time my legs finally gave out, just thinking about it. Replaying the past few months in my mind, again and again, ceaselessly thinking about it. Thinking about all of it. Perpetually, until the day I died, reminding myself of one simple fact:

I ruined everything with the push of a button.