I’d say that my roommate Rochelle had to have the latest in technology, but that would be incorrect. Rochelle had to have the most expensive thing, and the trendiest thing, but it barely mattered what her accessories did so long as they didn’t clash with her cheerleader’s outfit. When she got a personal biometric scanner, I wanted to use the data to generate a customized probiotic treatment to optimize the bacteria in her lower intestine; she used it to send scans of her boobs to cute boys.
As assigned dorm mates, all we had in common was our love of hardware. That was why I was the first person who got to see her new iTime. It was made of white enameled metal, shaped like an old stopwatch, smooth as an egg except for the plug-timer on top and the recessed nav-wheel on the front.
“You got one?” I asked. “Isn’t there a waiting list?”
“Daddy paid four hundred thousand on eBay for an unbonded four-hour model,” she said, puffing out her chest. “He said it was worth it to get me something that was guaranteed to bring up my grades. I begged him for the eight-hour version, but he didn’t want to clean out my college savings.”
I reached out to touch it; it flickered away underneath my fingertips like a hologram.
“Oh, that’s the safety feature!” Rochelle squeed, clapping her hands in joy. “The salesman said it was bonded to my personal timeline; it doesn’t really exist for anyone but me. Otherwise, you could do all sorts of nasty things to me if you found it.”
“I dunno. He tried to explain, and I got bored. But ask me that question tomorrow, and I can rewind time back four hours to before you asked me, and everything would happen again just the way it did before I rewound. Except that this time, I’d read all the instruction manuals and stuff before I got here – so when we finally re-met and you asked me what things the iTime could do, I’d know.”
I rolled my eyes; Rochelle always treated her toys like they were ancient Elvish magic. “So why not rewind back now and show off?”
“I signed the service contract an hour ago. They won’t activate it until it’s too late for me to go back and unsign it. But think of how wonderful it’ll be for you! No more bugging you for my Chemistry answers – when I go to class tomorrow, I’ll be ready for any quiz. If I don’t know the answers, I’ll just rewind back an hour and look them all up before I get there! Straight As, here I come!”
“Rochelle, using the iTime to get great grades is like hiring an infinite series of typewriting monkeys to write your term papers. Why not get a real education by reverse-engineering that proprietary hardware?”
Her eyes went wide with horror. “You can’t be serious! At the shop? They told me about this kid who hacked the iTime and wound up frozen in an infinite loop. Now he’s like a ghost; he doesn’t even know he’s trapped. You can’t mess with this stuff, Claire.”
I sighed. How could you tell someone so terrified by technology that iCorp made up those horror stories to discourage competition? I’d dissected her old cell phones to show her how easily her technology could be reduced to simple circuitry and if/then loops… But no one cared, not even my fellow physics students.
“But it’s not just the grades, Claire,” Rochelle said, cuddling the iTime to her chest as though it were her most beautiful child. “The iTime is my ticket to S-Prit Descalier.”
“Claire, come on – haven’t you seen the commercials?”
“You know I don’t watch TV.”
“There’s this commercial where there a mean old guy says, ‘If you were my wife, I’d put poison in your coffee.’ And this poor girl doesn’t know what to say, and everyone laughs at her, and it makes me cry every time. But as she’s driving home, the perfect answer comes to her… So she rewinds back to just after the guy insulted her and says, ‘If you were my husband, I’d be happy to drink the poison!’ And then everyone laughs at the mean old man, and the words tell you that the iTime gives you S-Prit Descalier.
“I need S-Prit Descalier, Claire. I’m tired of saying stupid things. If there’s a boy I like, I can just keep rewinding the conversation until I can say all the things that make him think I’m adorable. Hookups galore!”
“I guess,” I said. But given that ‘making awkward morning small talk with her himbo pickup of the week’ had become a weekend ritual, I wondered how many more hookups she needed. “Still, maybe you should read the manual now.”
“Nope! My new slogan’s ‘Read it when I need it,’” she said proudly. “Just like the ads.”
“I bet,” I said. “Mind if I read the manual, though?”
“I keep forgetting what a little Sally Student you are, Claire,” she said fondly, reaching out to stroke my cheek; I blushed with the unexpected intimacy of it. “It’s almost like you like books better than people. But if you truly can’t resist, it’s in the bag in the hallway. But no tinkering with my iTime – oh, wait! You can’t even touch it! Oh, it’s so awesome!”
She flounced off, calling all her friends to tell them about the iTime party at our place tonight, where she would unveil the new and mistake-free Rochelle. That meant our apartment would be crawling with sorority sisters, eager to trade gossip and drink wine coolers.
I had to leave. I couldn’t stand the blank looks her friends gave me whenever I tried to explain how cool nano-spin batteries were; they nodded politely, and then helpfully suggested that my eyes would be really pretty with some peach eyeshadow. Their misguided attempts to socialize me just left me feeling like I’d made some disastrous choice I didn’t quite understand.
On my way out to the library, I fished the manual out of the black plastic bag. On the side, in neat white Helvetica letters, it said, “Esprit D’Escalier” – French for Staircase Wit, the clever retort you think about on the staircase days after it’s too late to say anything.
I suspected that it would take more than infinite time to grant Rochelle wit. But maybe she could look it up somewhere.
* * *
For the next week, Rochelle annoyed the hell out of me with her omniscience. We’d watch some comedy on TV and I’d ask, “Who is that actor?” and she’d rattle off a list of all the movies he’d been in.
“Would you stop that?” I snapped. “You didn’t know that. You just rewound back to before the show started.”
“I didn’t,” she said with perfect innocence. “I just spend a lot of time looking stuff up lately. Isn’t that what you’d do with an iTime?”
I couldn’t argue; I’d always told her she needed to do more research. But later, I had the unsettling feeling that she’d rewound that conversation over and over again until she’d found a way to shut me up.
Then she disappeared. I saw traces of Rochelle – clouds of steam in the bathroom, piles of dirty laundry in her room, sounds of sex in the middle of the night – but even when I burst into her room to confront her, she was nowhere to be found.
I wondered whether she had been there when I burst in the first time. Had I been rewound away?
The thought that she could control my actions made my skin crawl; I wanted, needed my own iTime. I knew I could build one, if I only understood the basic principles – I’d once built a crude cell phone out of old circuits and open-source software, then hacked into a signal on Verizon’s service. Of course, I didn’t have anyone I wanted to talk to, but the point was that it worked.
But though the hacking communities were berserk with theories on the iTime, no one had hard data; not only was the iTime technology locked down tighter than Coca-Cola’s formula, it cost thousands to get one. Plus, the personal bonding very conveniently made it so that the only person who could do research on it was the person it affected. You needed a very rich, very bold genius to reverse-engineer it, and no one had volunteered.
All my searches turned up nothing but annoying soft social stories. The President had an eight-hour model, they said, and what would that mean for the next election? Useless. I wanted hard data.
And in the middle of all my investigation, my Chemistry 101 professor sought me out.
“I know that Rochelle’s been very sick,” she said, thrusting a folder into my hands. “Would you mind bringing her her homework assignments?”
“Yeah, sure,” I said, going along with the lie out of inertia. “She’s our home-grown Marie Curie, you know. She probably got sick doing experiments with uranium salts.”
The professor drew back, offended. “Claire, I’d expected better of you.”
I felt that familiar squirm in my belly. “What?”
“A girl turns herself around like that, becoming the best Chemistry student in the class, and all you can do is mock her. Are you that jealous of your competition, Claire?”
“I’m sorry,” I stammered, scurrying off down the hallway. Why hadn’t I anticipated this? Thanks to her iTime, Rochelle was finding better things to do during class hours, and she still had the time to crib perfect homework from someone.
I left a note for her: “Dear Rochelle: Your homework is due and I don’t want to lie for you anymore.”
I turned around to discover an envelope on the kitchen table, containing her completed homework and a note: “Here’s my homework,” it said. “I wish I could make you a better liar.”
The handwriting was close to Rochelle’s, but not quite the writing I knew.
The next morning, I woke up to find Rochelle waiting patiently on a chair in my bedroom. The smooth skin around her eyes was crinkled with the first signs of crow’s feet – and even though she had on her trademark cheerleader skirt, it looked foolish on a woman in her late twenties.
“Look,” she said, her voice hoarse from too many cigarettes. “I’ve tried to do this conversation right, I really have. But you’re impossible, so let’s get this over with.”
“Rochelle,” I said, flabbergasted. “You’re…”
“I’m fine,” she insisted. “Every conversation I have is perfect now. Everyone loves me, ‘cause I know just what to say to make them happy. There’s nothing wrong with that, Claire. And so what if I look mature for my age? Isn’t that a good thing?”
“Didn’t you read the manual? It – “
“Yes, yes,” she snapped. “Would you stop talking about the damn manual? You’re like a bad videogame, you know that? Every time I talk to you, you say the exact same thing – manual, manual, manual. You’re scripted.”
“So what do I say?”
“‘You still have to live the time through, Rochelle,’” she quoted in a passable imitation of me. “You give me these big complicated lectures on personal timelines versus external timelines, and even when I look it up I don’t know what the heck you’re talking about. But believe me, I get it. I live it. Every time I rewind, the rest of the world goes back to what it was doing four hours ago. But me? I still lived through those four rewound hours. I keep aging four hours, over and over again.”
“Christ, Rochelle, you’re one time-jump away from menopause,” I said. “You have to – ”
“I’m not addicted.” She brandished the iTime at me like it was a weapon. “I just want to look good, that’s all, and there’s nothing wrong with being prepared for every conversation. Like this one. I know everything you’ll say, Claire; you can’t shock me.”
Just to prove her wrong, I grabbed a book off the shelf and flung it at her. She caught it in mid-air.
“You do that a lot, too,” she said, putting it down on my desk. “Look, you’re just trying to be a dear, but I have a good life. I sleep with anyone I want, and I never get carded at the clubs. Every night, I find beautiful strangers, and by the end of the evening they adore me. A perfect life takes time, Claire. Why can’t you accept that?”
There was something about her desperation that made it feel false – but when did talking change anyone’s mind anyway?
“Do what you have to,” I sighed.
She stroked my cheek again. “I knew you’d come around,” she smiled, and I wondered how many times she’d rewound this conversation to make it work for her. I wanted my own iTime to make it work for me.
* * *
Rochelle was gracious enough to avoid me after that. I think she realized how unsettling it was, seeing her; I’d catch a glimpse of a stranger’s face in my living room and think oh, the cleaning lady’s here, and the middle-aged woman in a cheerleader’s outfit would flash me a young Rochelle smile.
I spent my time in the library. That meant I was endlessly bumping into people I sorta-knew, hanging my head and muttering “Hey, chief” because I could never remember anyone’s name.
My fellow students found ways to make small talk with each other. They chatted, forming friendships out of nothing at all… But whenever I tried it, all I got were tight-lipped grins and quick excuses.
“Wow,” they’d say, pointing to the cover of Time magazine. “Is it just me, or does the President look really old this week?”
“I don’t follow politics,” I’d say. “All we ever do is vote for the guy who looks like he can drink the most beer.”
I’d feel the air congeal as everything lapsed into an itchy silence. After a few moments, they shifted to another seat. But what was I supposed to say? Why should I care if the President had fresh wrinkles?
I kept my eyes on my laptop, researching time theory. A forty-something woman in a too-short skirt sidled up next to me and asked if I had any breath mints.
It was Rochelle, of course. And I had the breath mints, of course; she wouldn’t have asked if I didn’t have them. She glided away without a word, sashaying towards a jock in a J. Crew shirt.
Shortly after that, rumors of the Mad Cougar began circulating on campus. There were so many people talking about it in the library that it was hard to concentrate on my research. According to the legend, there was this crazy old lady who was so charming she could talk anyone into bed – a fifty-year-old woman with a smokin’ body and an irresistible charm. Guys fell in love with her so hard that they were mad to find her the next morning. But all you got was one perfect night with the Mad Cougar; after that, she vanished.
Rochelle had honed love to a science. I searched the blogs and found her conquests gushing about what a perfect night it was, how the Mad Cougar had been so mindblowing in bed that they had to see her again. They took out ads on Craigslist, asking “WHERE ARE YOU?”
Some said she was a ghost. I knew better. I left notes, explaining that it was time to give it up – but though I heard the door slam, I never caught up with Rochelle herself. The clothes in her room changed from T-shirts and blouses into much primmer sweaters; the jewelry hanging off her mirror changed from charm bracelets and gold hoops to respectable silver necklaces and pearl earrings.
“I hope Rochelle is okay,” my chemistry teacher said. “Her grandmother explained the situation to me. Will she be back this semester?”
“Oh, yes,” I said. “She’ll be back more times than you can imagine.”
I needed to talk to Rochelle – to beg her for iTime schematics, to ask her to stop leaving me to clean up her crazy lies. But most importantly, I wanted to find out what the hell she was saying to these boys to make them so lovestruck. Yet she was nowhere to be found.
I came back home to find Rochelle, her gray hair combed dutifully into a bun. The only reason I knew it was her was her eyes, which had the same sadness she’d contained for weeks now; everything else had sagged into an old lady’s face. She smelled of sachets, and wore a flattering outfit that was still scandalous for a woman her age, but tame by Rochelle’s standards. And she looked brittle, like an old porcelain statue.
“I’m off it,” she said, thoughtfully rubbing the case of the iTime with arthritic fingers. “You were right, Claire.”
I couldn’t stop looking at her. “It’s been seven weeks, Rochelle. We’re not even halfway through the semester.”
“I’ve found Mister Right, Claire. A retired college professor I met at one of the senior dances. And… I don’t need to use the iTime with him, much.”
“What are you gonna talk about with a retiree, Rochelle? Your love of shuffleboard?”
“It’s not like that, Claire. He’s really sweet, and I think… I think I missed out on a lot of good people I could have stayed with, if I’d just tried to be me. But that’s hard. Really hard.”
“I guess,” I said. But I understood. The one thing we had in common is that we both hated being us.
“I can’t live like this,” she explained, looking off in the distance, sounding so wistful it made me shiver. “Last week, I saw this beautiful boy at the club – this broad-shouldered, long-haired dancer who was gorgeous in every way, but far too young for me. And I was jealous, because he was looking for someone with such an intensity, scanning the crowd to find someone he’d met before, someone he loved – and then I realized it was me.
“To him, we’d slept together two weeks ago; to me, it was thirty years. Do you know how weird that is? To have someone desperately in love with you look right at you and not even know you?”
“Of course not,” I snapped. “You know that.”
“I haven’t rewound this conversation, so I don’t. I have to get used to not knowing how things are going to turn out. But… I think if I was as smart as you are, Claire, I could have done it. Without being…” She looked down at the veins on her hands. “But I had to rewind a conversation forty or fifty times to find the perfect moment. I’d spend days trying to fit in. It was hard work…”
I shook my head; she was so old and so stressed, I was worried she might have a heart attack. “Well, you worked so hard you’re already at retirement age,” I joked.
“I’m only nineteen,” she protested. And for no reason, seeing this well-kept, geriatric woman claiming to be a teenager scared me more than anything else.
“You need to file a missing persons’ report for me,” Rochelle said. “I know you’re honest, Claire – but you’re so awkward, they’ll believe you. My Dad’ll think I winked out of existence thanks to some glitch, and he’ll sue the hell out of iTime… But that’s better than seeing his little girl older than he is. Isn’t it?”
I considered the matter. It was a little cruel to her folks, but maybe it was better than the truth. “It’s pretty fucked up,” I said. “But this whole thing is fucked up squared. I have no idea what works.”
She smiled. “I do,” she said, pushing herself out of the chair with an audible oof. She hobbled over to the door. “I’m going to lead a good life with my husband now. There is a happily ever after without the iTime, you know. You just have to adjust.”
* * *
Three weeks later, I got a registered letter in the mail and a small box from a law firm that I’d never heard of. I opened it up and found that I’d been named by Cynthia Cresselhorn as the sole beneficiary of her will.
The box held the iTime. Cynthia, who had killed herself a week after she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, had a listed age of seventy-five.
There was a personal note to me, in a crabbed, shaky hand that still had little hearts drawn over the Is.
Claire, it said, Michael kept asking me questions about why I didn’t remember where I was when the Challenger exploded, and I had to have answers. Plus, I said all these stupid things that started arguments, and I hated to see him mad, so… I used it. Just little bits here and there, but enough. And then I got so much older he started asking questions and I had to go elsewhere.
Now I’ve been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.
I’ll be stumbling and looking dumb to everyone. You know that’s my worst nightmare, Claire. So I’m going to take these sleeping pills. But it’s been a good life. I got everything I wanted…
Well, almost. I tried a million times to be your best friend, Claire. No matter what I said, it was always awkward between us. But you were always truthful, even when it hurt.
It turns out the iTime commitment is in objective time, so it’ll be active until the end of the month. I’ve transferred my remaining time to you; my security code is 11111.
I hope reverse-engineering the iTime brings you peace. If anyone needs it… It’s you.
I opened the box. There, the white enameling worn down into gray patches, the covering on the nav-wheel completely rubbed off, was the iTime.
I reached out to touch it, and felt the long-delayed satisfaction of wrapping my fingers around an iTime of my very own. The metal was warm. A hidden screen with missing pixels flickered on: “Rochelle Thibodeaux timeline: COMPLETE.” Then there was a tingle in my palm and the display changed: “New user detected. Enter security code to bond to new timeline?”
I looked at it. This was my future. I could make millions by reverse-engineering its hardware. I imagined myself, famous, standing before a crowd of reporters, asking me questions, and…
What would I say?
Rochelle’s words came echoing back: No matter what I said, it was always awkward between us. Rochelle wasn’t the brightest bulb on Broadway, Lord knows, but she’d devoted her whole life to making friends. How many rewinds had she wasted on me? Trying to crack the secret of my friendship, and yet never managing?
The iTime felt like a dead weight in my hand. Even if I broke open its secrets, I’d still be alone. I’d be famous, sure, but Rochelle had just confirmed that a thousand iterations of conversations with me never led to friendship, or warmth, or happiness.
I cradled the iTime in my palm, rubbing my fingertips across its tarnished casing.
With the iTime, every conversation could be a hypothesis: What should I say now? I’d approach it scientifically; varying my tone, changing my sentence content, documenting the results. And I’d always have access to the control sample, because the original, untainted data was just a rewind away. I could find my own friends, ask them what they wanted, and experiment savagely until I discovered the methodology to win their hearts.
If it took Rochelle fifty tries on average to map out a conversation, how many would it take me? Less, certainly.
I booted up my laptop and created a database: person, attempted response, reaction, rewind_time. Simple. Easy. Controllable.
I’d learn how to be happy, and then I’d hack the iTime. It chimed as I synchronized it to my timeline.
This wouldn’t take long.
Ferrett Steinmetz wrote for twenty years, but wasn’t much good at it. Then he attended the 2008 Clarion Writers’ Workshop and was reborn. Since then he’s published seventeen stories in places ranging from Asimov’s to Beneath Ceaseless Skies to this extremely fine joint right here, which he’s proud to be in. He lives in Cleveland with his wife, a well-worn copy of Rock Band, and a friendly ghost. Visit his site at www.theferrett.com (two Rs, two Ts) to see his latest blatherings on politics, polyamory, and puns.