Sixteen, again

Image of Short Story

You press the button on the machine. It whirs gently as the paper curls from the slot like a puppy’s tongue.

You gently hold the coiled slip in your hands. You scan around. You don’t know what story the paper will give you—would others judge if they saw what you were reading?

In the terminal strangers pass in blurs and colours unfamiliar to you.

Your life has been a monochrome carnival of regret. A pitched tent at the edge of town, always glowing in the distance, calling you back to a place that you left long ago. A place you want to return to.

If only you could visit your younger self.

You answered the advert.

Revisit your past. Put things right.

The brightest minds at Cambridge treated you like a specimen, a lab artefact. Tests, assessments and trials.

You are one of two, selected from millions.

The day is here. The time is now.

The instructions are vague.

Don’t pack anything. No possessions. No jewellery. No ID.

Go to the machine. Press the button. It looks like one of those magical free short story machines, but it’s not.

Await the age that you will be transported back to.

The paper you clasp in eager hands says only two words. But they are the most life-changing words ever uttered in the English language:


You board the craft. The doors seal.

A one-way ticket.

Your consciousness will exist in another you.

The scientists explained the multiverse. They drew pictures of trees. Everything connected through the trunk, but decisions, choices, outcomes, cause the infinite universe to split. You are as numerous as the scars on the bark of an ancient tree, as scattered as the tentacle roots, as individual and endless as the boughs, branches and twigs that claw the firmament.

You get to live your life again from the age of sixteen. Take over the body of a different you, in an identical world. Everything you were, returned. Everything you are now, yet to be.

You close your eyes. The ground reverberates as if God is pounding a treadmill.

You arrive, moments pass, and you open your eyes. You gasp.

1. Isla

Isla steps out tentatively into the NYC sun. She is wearing the summer dress she wore only two years ago, on her sixteenth.

In three days, she will meet Scarlet ‘n’ Jess.

In five days, she will take her first tablet. It looks harmless, it’s childlike image of a superhero, somehow reassuring. Scarlet ‘n’ Jess have taken dozens over the last few weeks. It’s fine. It’s safe. It’ll let you be free—Isla remembers the promises clearly.

Isla’s never had friends like S ‘n’ J.

Mamma’s fake plastic friends with their Barbie-doll children and synthetic bleached smiles were backstabbing losers; not like S ‘n’ J.

Papa’s church cronies—the men with their touches that lingered too long and the kids that hid their inner turmoil behind starched bow-ties and sarcastic prayers, were not real friends—not like S ‘n’ J.

In five days, Isla will kill a ten-year-old boy.

Hit and run.

It’s never traced to her.

Since the event she has become superhuman.

Gained new powers.

She can see in the dark.

When her eyelids close, she can see the boy in every detail. The chubby contours of his cheeks. The promise of eyes that have seen so little. The instinctive shock of approaching headlights. The raising of his eyebrows. The opening of his mouth.

She hears the silence of her own breath knowing she can’t stop in time. The clockwork sound of her mind racing, racing, racing—how much did I have? Her mind asking what the hell is a kid doing out in the dark? She hears the sickening whoomph of metal hitting body. The screeching of brakes. The secondary thump of body versus hood.

She feels the shaky grip of the door handle. The firm comfort of the ground beneath her feet. She avoids the dark pool of liquid, careful not to leave evidence.

She watches, frozen, as he takes his last breaths.

Caught between revulsion and self-protection, she can’t do anything for him now.

She can save herself, right?

No point in wasting two lives, right?

It’s not her car. S ‘n’ J dared her to steal it.

They were going to have some wild times later.

She remembers the bottle of liquor in the trunk. The smokes. The matches.

She remembers that alcohol cleans. She pours some on tissue paper, wipes the door handles and anything else she’s touched.

She remembers that alcohol burns. She pours the remainder on the driver’s seat. Steps back. Strikes the match and flicks it in.

There is a whoosh.

Then, as she runs, she sees the flash from behind as it darkens her shadow before her, then, a moment later, hears the explosion. The screaming vehicle alarms. The shouting of people nearby.

She runs. Hopes the CCTV doesn’t catch her.

She doesn’t think about the dreams. Or the boy. That will be later.

When she closes her eyes to sleep.

The nights will hold her prisoner.

She will beg for daylight.

But none of this has happened yet.

There is time.

To never meet Jess or Scarlet.

To save the boy.

To sleep once more.

2. Bertie
Bertie Armstrong stumbles, not through weakness but through unfamiliar strength. Before he would have doddered, with trepidation, across the broken concrete before him.

His bandy legs, straight. His rickety gnarled fingers no longer clasped on his trusty elm walking stick.

In the muddy puddle, he grins at his reflection. He runs unblemished hands vigorously through his slick and bountiful midnight black hair. His face, thin, handsome, not riddled with age, with lines... with guilt—he has more than seventy decades of that still to come.

But he has a choice.

In two years’ time, he’ll avoid Churchill’s call-up. His ankles weak from birth, he’ll exaggerate his ability to walk long distances and to carry heavy weights.

He could still contribute, from the relative safety of London. They would still need young men like him. He’d be more use to the British war effort alive, than dead in a Godforsaken battlefield on the front line.

He was weak. More prone to falling and injury. He’d be a burden.

That’s what he would tell himself.

Why was he back here, again?

Maybe to see Pearl. She’d been dead twenty years.

How he had suffered without her.

To be alone after such a lifetime of love, was to live every day in purgatory.

Perhaps it’s what I deserve.

But in this world, this time, she was still here. Young. Beautiful.

They could do it all again.

What he would give for that.

He closed his eyes and imagined her hazel eyes piercing through him once more.

She knew him... more than that. She knew everything he was. Everything he would become. Everything that made him a failure... and a coward. Yet, yet, she loved him with every fibre of her being.

To live that life once again.

What a blessing.

What a curse.

The evening air filled with the wailing siren-call. People scurried like rats, seeking makeshift shelters, Underground stations or the huddle beneath the stone archways of ancient buildings.


Tracer fire filled the skies. Long strings of reverse lightning dancing upwards spearing the cordite-filled clouds.

He knew he’d survive. He’d been here before. He’d bump into Pearl in just a few seconds. It was how they’d meet. Then, he would have even more reason to continue his charade, to avoid service.

He holds the crucifix which rests beneath his shirt and tie.

Silent, questioning eyes look at him.

Their husbands, brothers, fathers—all fighting—or dead.

Towards the shelter and safety, was love beyond anything he could dream of. There was Pearl.

Towards the flames, pain, death and redemption.

He knew there was no glory in war.

He thought of the future and the faces that would be lost to him. He thought of the unending rows of identical sun-bleached crosses jutting from lush green fields in a foreign land.

He looked, briefly, towards Pearl. She was scuttling away. This is where he would bump into her. She turned and smiled.

He smiled back. He tipped his hat.

He walked away.

Didn’t look back.

He stood straight. One foot in front of the other.

And marched towards the flames.