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Today's Story by Kaitlyn Gentile

I was this monster who destroyed your whole life despite the fact that I don't even know you?

The Branch

“The earworms are the worst part,” she was saying. 

Ivan looked up from his beer.  She was staring at him with a nervous half-smile, her eyes wide black holes in the dim of the bar.  Her fingers interlocked around a glass of cranberry juice that she still hadn’t brought to her lips.  “What?” he asked.

She straightened.  “You know what an earworm is?  It’s a little bit of music that catches in your head and plays on a constant rotation.  Have you ever spent a day humming the same line over and over?”  Ivan nodded.  She continued.  “The only way to get rid of an earworm is to listen to the song from start to finish.  But that’s the problem.  If I get a song stuck in my head, I have to wait months before it’s even recorded.  Before it’s even written.  For weeks I’ve been humming this one chorus that I can’t remember the lyrics to, and I won’t find out for years.”

Ivan scowled.  This doe-eyed talk of earworms was an attempt at charm, and he didn’t want to be charmed.  “So that’s the worst part about the future,” he said.  “Vague unwritten choruses?”

“I’m not from the future,” she answered.  “Stop making it sound so sci-fi.”

“Where are you from?”

“I’m from right here, same as you.”

“But you knew me in another life.”

“The same life.  Just another thread of it.”

The waitress stopped beside their table.  Ivan made a swirling motion with his finger to indicate that they each needed another drink.  The waitress nodded and continued toward the mahogany bar, ducking between tables circled with happy hour revelers in wrinkled business casual.  Ivan returned his gaze to the girl across the table.  She was still staring at him, absently drumming her fingernails against her glass.

Ivan sipped his pint and licked his lips.  He felt like the butt of some carefully-orchestrated joke.  At any moment a curtain would be pulled and the studio audience would applaud.  Her sheepish presence across the table unsettled him.

“What did you say your name was?” he asked.

“It’s Amy,” she answered.  She paused.  “And you know it’s Amy.  You always do that when you meet people you don’t like; you pretend to forget their names.  You told me once you do it to make them feel less important, and I told you that was mean.”

“Thanks, Amy,” Ivan said.  “And when did this conversation take place, exactly?”

Amy sighed.  “That’s hard to explain.”

“When we were dating, right?”

She nodded.

“And when was that?”

“That’s hard to explain, too.”


“We would have started about six months ago.”

“We would have, but we didn’t.”

“Yeah, I get it,” she said, rolling her eyes. “God, Ivan, why are you being so nasty about this?”

“What is ‘this’?” he asked.  “I don’t know you.  You’re just some lunatic who appeared from nowhere and dragged me to a bar to say you were my girlfriend in another life.”

“You have a birthmark in the shape of a heart on your left butt cheek.”

“You have an apartment across the street from mine and a great pair of binoculars.”

“And before your mother died she used to tell you it was where an angel spanked you, to remind you to always be good.”

Ivan choked a little on his last gulp as Amy shook her head.  “I’m sorry,” she said.  “But I want you to know that I’m not crazy.  I really do know you.”

The waitress returned with the drinks and placed them on the table.  Ivan slugged his pint and watched Amy pull the lime from her new glass of cranberry juice to squeeze it into the old one.  She dropped the rind onto a piece of ice and laced her fingers around the sloshing red of the glass, still without drinking.

It was she who broke the silence.  “Time is linear, right,” she said.  “It only moves forward.  Usually.  My life moved forward, on a regular old timeline just like anybody else’s.  The difference is that one day I hit a certain point and I jumped back, like a rewind button.  And then instead of moving forward on the same path I’d taken initially, I made different choices.  Where your timeline is a straight stick, mine had a branch that forked off to the side.  Now I’m living that branch.”  Ivan didn’t respond.  “It’s like a do-over,” she said.  “A second shot.”

He took another long drink.  His head was spinning and he knew he was drinking too quickly, muddying an already senseless situation.  But he needed the mouthful and the accompanying swallow, needed to buy himself some time.  

Amy continued.  “On the initial stick, the first timeline, you and I used to date.  If I had gone through my life on the path I took the first time, we would have started seeing each other six months ago.”

Ivan stared into his glass, watching the suds pop one by one along the surface of the beer.  The comment about his mother had shaken him.  He coughed and tried to sound sarcastic.  “So where did we meet, exactly?”

“At a stupid bar.  The usual thing.  We went home together but we ended up hitting it off.  You used to say it was a one night stand that got out of hand.”

“What happened this time around, you just avoided that bar?”

The corner of her mouth twitched.  “I’ve been,” she answered.  “I even went that same night, to see you.  But I hung back and we didn’t talk.  You went home with some other girl.  A blonde.”  Her voice wavered a little on her last word, betraying a twinge of jealousy.

“That’s cool,” Ivan sneered.  “That’s adorable.  You go to bars just to watch me, you pounce on me on my way out of work and beg me to buy you a drink, and then you tell me you know what my ass looks like because you were my girlfriend in another life.  This is really spectacular; you’re making quite a splash.”

Tears collected in Amy’s eyes and she swallowed hard, staring at her cranberry juice.  It was driving him crazy that she still hadn’t touched it, while he had nearly finished his second beer.  Again silence swept clean the table, and he looked at her hard, watching her lower lip wobble.  She wasn’t unattractive, really.  A bit plain, maybe.  It was no wonder he hadn’t noticed her at a bar night six months ago.  But she had deep, dark eyes that he found enticing, even when they were wet.  And a nice rack, he thought.  There was no denying that.

When Amy cut the quiet again, her voice was low and controlled.  “I know,” she said.  “I’m sure this is a lot to take in.  And I’m sorry if I startled you by grabbing you outside your office, but I remembered that you use the side door, and you always leave fifteen minutes late because you don’t like sharing the elevator.”

“Will you stop doing that?” he said.  “Stop describing my personal habits.  All you sound like is a really accomplished stalker.”

“I’m trying to explain myself.”

“Why are you even telling me this?” he asked.  “You’re saying you knew how this whole scenario would play out, so why didn’t you just follow the script from your other timeline?”

“It didn’t go well last time,” Amy answered, lowering her eyes.

“You thought it would go better if you threw this alternate-ending director’s cut crap at me?”

“Look,” Amy answered, meeting his unblinking gaze.  “It’s been almost two years since my whole life was restarted.  I’ve had plenty of time to think about this.  At first I planned to avoid you altogether, but I wanted to see you.  And not in a fake way, pretending to be some stranger who seduces you at a bar, acting surprised when you get that promotion a year from now.”  Ivan raised his eyebrows and she finally looked away.  “I know this doesn’t make sense to you,” she mumbled. “But I missed you.”

Ivan shook his head.  “This is quite a fucking story,” he said.  “Have you had these sorts of meet-ups with a lot of people?”

He’d been attempting a joke, but Amy didn’t laugh.  “No,” she said.  “It’s a little too crazy to explain to everybody.  I haven’t really bothered trying to befriend people from my old life. I thought I should take the fresh start for what it was, and build myself a whole new future, all surprises.”

“Then why me?”

She shrank into her chair, flushed.  Finally she lifted the first cranberry juice to her lips.  She took a sip and dropped the glass on the tabletop, her eyes averted.  “Because,” she said finally.  “In that other life… on the straight stick, you meant a lot to me.  You were important.”

Ivan didn’t respond.  The waitress came back to the table and he nodded without looking at her, making the same circling motion with his finger.  Amy brought the juice to her lips once again.

“So…” he said, searching.  He was uncomfortable with the idea of a shared past with this woman, even a past that played out on another plane of existence.  “If you’ve changed your whole life, has the world become dramatically different?  Isn’t that the butterfly effect?  The idea that everything everybody does affects everybody else?”

Amy smiled.  “I thought about that,” she said.  “I wondered if that would happen.  But for the most part, the rest of the world seems to be rolling along as expected.  Headlines are all the same.  I guess in the scheme of things I’m not that important.”

“Have you tried to prevent any crimes?  Murders?  Or, hey, what about the lottery?  Can you always just pick the right numbers?”

“I thought about being a superhero, but I don’t know how to do it without getting into trouble.  It’s not like I could just call up the police to say, ‘Hey, there’s a bomb going off in this building tomorrow.’  And I never bothered to memorize any winning lottery numbers.”  She paused.  “I did okay in last year’s Super bowl pool.”

“Where do you think the old you is now?  The one on the straight time stick.  You think she’s still out there, living out your life in some parallel universe?”

“I don’t know if she exists,” said Amy.  “I don’t really care, I guess.  I’m here now.”

“On a twig full of earworms, right.”

She smiled.  “Yes.  Earworms from the future.”

“How far along did you get before you jumped backwards?”

“About three years from now.  Three and a half.”

“And how did it happen?”

Amy’s smile faltered.  She brought her cranberry juice to her lips again as the waitress deposited another round of drinks on the table in front of them.  Ivan’s empty pint glass was whisked away.  Amy placed her juice glass back on the table, in a straight line with the other two. She drummed her fingers against the glass.

“How did you do it?” Ivan persisted.

She hesitated, opening her mouth twice before any sound came out.  When she finally spoke her voice was apologetic.  “I didn’t do it on purpose,” she said.  “I mean I wanted it to happen, but I didn’t think it was possible.  Why would I?”

“How did you do it?”

Amy took another sip of cranberry juice.  “I was at a really low point,” she said.  “Really low.  And all I could think was that I wished I could go back… ” She coughed and straightened again in her chair.  “I wished I could go back and never have met you.  I thought if you had never been in my life, none of it would have happened and I would have been better off.  And I used to just say that over and over in my head, like a mantra, ‘Go back, go back, go back,’ like if I said it enough times I could make it happen.  For weeks, probably months.  I was obsessed with it.  And then one day I woke up, and it had happened.  I didn’t know how.  But I had jumped back to my life before you—way before you, actually.  I calculated and I think I went back about five and a half years.  I mean obviously at first I didn’t believe it was real.  For three days I thought I was having a very vivid dream.  But eventually, when I saw everything play out the way it had before, when I started to act differently and to see that I could make changes to my future, then I started to believe it. ” She looked at him with raised eyebrows.

“That’s it?” asked Ivan.  “Just ‘Go back’?  You altered the space-time continuum through the power of your mind?”

She shrugged.  “I don’t know why it worked.  Maybe because I said it enough times, maybe because I thought it hard enough.  I have no idea.  Like I said, I just woke up one day and I was five years younger.

“You’re glossing over something,” he said.  “The fact that you wanted to go back to a life before me.  What did I do that was so horrible that you had to change the rotation of the earth to undo it?”

Ivan watched a little shiver work its way through Amy’s shoulders, left to right.  Her breasts bumped briefly against the edge of the table, a subtly intoxicating movement.  If he had ever picked her up at a bar, he thought, she would have been wearing a V-neck.

“We got serious,” she said.  “We were living together and it was pretty good.  I started law school and you were making money with your promotion and we were doing okay.  But then I got pregnant, and it messed everything up.  I didn’t want to drop out of law school and you didn’t want to get married, so we decided that I would… you know.  That I would terminate it.”  Her hands shook a little as she brought the glass of juice to her mouth, barely making contact with her lips before she dropped it back to the table.  “And it turned out, you know, it turned out I just couldn’t handle it.  I got so depressed… I felt so guilty.  This crazy sense of loss.  And you didn’t feel that way at all.  You didn’t really… care, I guess.  At first you tried to comfort me, but after a few weeks I was getting worse and you were mad that I couldn’t snap out of it.  I stopped eating, stopped going to class, after a while I stopped getting out of bed.”  She took a deep breath and met his eyes again, searching for something, but Ivan looked away.  “So, I mean, naturally, that was a pretty serious strain on our relationship.  You couldn’t take it and you didn’t know how to deal with me.  So you moved out.  And I couldn’t do anything, I just lay in bed crying and wishing that I could go back.  Because if I had never met you, none of it ever would have happened.”

Ivan’s beer was a little warmer than it should have been for a fresh pour.   He was trying to feign indifference, but something inside him was twisting.  He felt suddenly furious with this woman for trying to make him feel guilty about something that had never happened.  She was just some stranger, insistent that their intimacy had ruined her life.  And yet an aching sense of culpability chewed at his stomach.  It confused him and made him even angrier.

Amy was lost now, her dark eyes gazing past him at the dark bar.  “What’s weird,” she said, “is the way I feel today.   I really did change my whole life.  I didn’t go to law school; I went to nursing school instead.  And on weekends I volunteer at a nursery for HIV-positive babies.  But I still feel so guilty.  Even though, in this life, I never did it.  She never even existed, but I still miss her.”

“Her?” said Ivan.  “You anthropomorphosized your abortion?”

Amy blinked and dropped her eyes.  “Fuck you.”

“Lady,” said Ivan, “What the hell are you talking about?  You’re like my own personal Ghost of Christmas Future, trying to warn me about the dangers of unprotected sex.  Who are you?”

“You asked,” said Amy.  “You wanted to know so I told you.”

“You told me you rewound your whole existence to write me out of it, and then you came to find me anyway.”

“I wanted to see you,” she said.  “I missed you.”

“Because I was this monster who destroyed your whole life despite the fact that I don’t even know you.”

“I told you,” she said, “I didn’t do it on purpose.  It just happened.  Everyone has regrets, I’m just the lucky one who got a chance at a re-do.  Don’t tell me you wouldn’t like to change your past.  Isn’t there a point you’d like to go back to, to start again?”

“I don’t know,” said Ivan.  “Is there?  You seem to know everything about me; you tell me.  What is it I want to undo?”

Amy stared into her half-empty glass of juice, still gripping it with both hands.  “I think,” she said quietly, “that you’d go back to Columbus Day weekend of your freshman year.  I think you’d tell your mom not to come pick you up.  Tell her not to get in the car.”

Ivan rose from his chair, jostling the table.  Some cranberry juice sloshed and dribbled down the side of one of the glasses.  “Well,” he said, “I’ve got to be somewhere.  And it looks like you’ve still got quite a bit of juice to finish here.”  He pulled out his wallet and tossed two twenties in Amy’s direction.  “Thanks for the chat; it was nice meeting you.”

“Ivan, can you wait?” she asked.  “I know you’re confused, but I’d really like to talk to you—”

“You know how to get a hold of me,” he spat.  “Right?  You probably know my address and phone number, don’t you?  What else?  My credit card?  Social security number?  I’m sure you’ve got all of this information, since we were so tight in that other dimension.  You think of something else to say, come find me and say it.  But I’ve got nothing more to say to you.”  Ivan took one last hard look at the girl shivering across the table, at the bills soaking up the red juice.  Then he turned and barged between the other crowded tables, leading with his shoulder against the boisterous after-workers who blocked his way out. 

The heavy front door swung behind him as he stepped into the chilly city streets.  Ivan shoved his hands in his pockets and tucked his chin to his chest, stomping against the wind in the direction of his apartment.  Go back, he thought.  Go back go back go back go back…


Kaitlyn Gentile has lived out of a suitcase on four continents, but she finally unpacked in New York. She writes personal essays and travel pieces. This is her first short story.


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