In the hollowed-out skull of the sixteenth President of the United States, a miserable time traveler builds a modest studio apartment and isolates himself from his own time, his own space, his own species, and his own past. But when gruesome reminders of his life prior to intracranial habitation begin appearing in his freshly constructed apartment, the time traveler is forced to either contend with his memories or, failing that, to run further away from them.
The time traveler set up a studio apartment in Abraham Lincoln’s skull in the frozen moment before Booth’s bullet burst through and rewired history. The time traveler had written, once upon a time, a book that he had called Ruminations on the Mutability of Physical Space in an Elastic Temporal Reticulum in which he had argued that, if a person could reconstitute him or herself at a fixed point in history, nothing could stop that person from likewise reconstituting him or herself in a space in which he or she would—in the normal course of physical linear reality—not typically fit. In other words, if years could be recombined and rearranged, so too could a person be compressed or expanded to suit the pocket of timespace reticulum into which they traveled.
So it was that the time traveler made himself—and the time-reticulation chamber—small enough to fit inside Abraham Lincoln’s skull. He pushed a few innocuous keys on a boring white panel, opening up a gash in 1865 and commanding the chamber to reach back and build a replica of itself behind the president’s nasal cavity. One moment, there had never been a tiny glass closet in Lincoln’s skull, and in the next, there had always been one. A few more keystrokes, a couple thousand intricate calculations, and the time-reticulation chamber spread the time traveler out layer by layer, printed him in slices one atop the other until he stood in perfect darkness holding his shovel in one hand and his flashlight in the other. He turned on the flashlight and stared beyond the glass partitions of the chamber at the masses of presidential pulp, towering and frozen. If time had been running at its usual pace, the pulp would have pulsed and throbbed, veins would have swelled and contracted, breath would have rushed past the septum and into the great wet tunnels toward the lungs, where it would have oxygenated blood that would have gushed out of the tiny little hole Booth’s bullet was about to make behind Lincoln’s ear. But time was not running at its usual pace. Time, like space, like history, was mutable. The time traveler knew that better than anybody. He couldn’t pause time (time was, and would be, and there was nothing he could do about that, regrettably), but he could fit a year inside a millisecond and spend the rest of his days in solitude. The protracted hum of Harry Hawk’s best line in Our American Cousin would keep him company, muted by the layers of skull between the stage and the time traveler.
He opened the door of the chamber and set to work emptying Lincoln’s skull. It wasn’t really murder. The president was already dead, and would die very soon anyway. So the time traveler felt no consternation about loading great shovelfuls of brain and cartilage and assorted headmeats into the chamber and shipping them off to some other chamber, constituted in some time and space where nobody would ever be bothered by it.
The next part was the hardest. A skull—even an empty one—is not naturally conducive to the construction of an apartment suitable for human habitation, and the time traveler therefore required a great deal of lumber and lacquer and nails and tools. Those were easy to come by. He had purchased them all weeks before and stockpiled them in his apartment (his old apartment, where isolation and abandonment felt like a sentence he was serving out instead of products of his own agency). All he needed to do was tweak and twist the portion of the time reticulum where his apartment was and pull his supplies to him. But after that, there was work to do. There was hammering, and measuring, and leveling, and polishing, and Windexing viscera from bone until the walls shone white, and carving out and shaving down the ethmoid bone and the sphenoid bone. And in the end, after weeks inside of moments during which the time traveler slept curled up in a sleeping bag in the cup of the temporal cavity, he had built a split-level studio complete with a roomy bed loft in the upper portion of Abraham Lincoln’s anterior cranial fossa.
Outside, while the time traveler stacked his books on shelves and positioned his sofa just so and tried to decide whether he should arrange his DVDs alphabetically or chronologically and threaded his electronics through to the reticulation chamber’s power supply, John Wilkes Booth’s Philadelphia Derringer was pointed at the spot behind the president’s left ear where it would punch (and had punched [and will have punched]) a little hole and put an end to the time traveler’s experiment with the self-imposed flavor of solitude. But that was a long way off.
The time traveler’s life fell into a comfortable stasis inside the president’s head. Days passed, spent getting fat on order-in pizza (“Go to the following location and place the pizza on the floor of the closet-sized glass chamber you see there. There will be cash on the control panel. Don’t touch anything. You may keep the change.”), reading books, listening to vinyl records, the collection of which he imagined made him seem classically cool and eccentric. He thought about drilling a hole in the back of Lincoln’s head so he could watch the bullet slide like a colossal lethargic meteor through space toward his little planet, but he ultimately chose not to. Few things seemed sacred to the time traveler, but the image of a porthole peeking out of the back of the president’s head seemed to violate some unspoken and sacrosanct principle of the endeavor. Scooping out the president’s brains was one thing; he was the only witness to that particular messy chore. But a window went both ways, and although he doubted very much that anyone would notice the sudden construction of a hole in the back of Lincoln’s head in the few real-time seconds left of the president’s life, the time traveler didn’t like the idea that someone might, for even just a moment, peer inside and make eye contact with him and ruin the purity of his solitude.
So life went on until the morning the time traveler found his father’s corpse leaning against the glass of the time-reticulation chamber. He woke up the same as always, made coffee in his quaint kitchenette, went to sit in the recliner where he usually read his books. That’s when he noticed it in his periphery: a shape in the time-reticulation chamber where normally no shape existed, a mass taking up space. He looked at it and wished he hadn’t. His father, dead (no shock, the man had been dead for decades [or would be in a few hundred years], the result of a lifetime of booze and big dreams and bad decisions), crumpled inside the chamber, his face pressed against the glass, his left eye open, his right closed. The time traveler stared at his father for a long time, feeling nothing. When one’s dead father appears inside your time machine, there is no prescribed feeling to have. It’s very unlike a breakup or a rejection, which one’s brain contextualizes and prepares itself to feel anger and sadness and self-loathing over. This was stimulus without prerequisite, without reason or logic, a great black hole of bad dreams and nonsense in the shape of a man who had once said, “You don’t get to tell your father what success is. A man defines success for himself. Nobody else does that. You don’t let strangers do it, you don’t let your wife do it, and I sure as hell am not going to let my own son do it. Are we clear?”
The time traveler sat in his chair and stared at the time-reticulation chamber and tried to formulate a plan. This meant something. It had to. He drew diagrams in his notebook, followed the logical curvature of ratios and formulas. Mathematics was a great prosecutor of criminal phenomena Only mathematics, without compassion or flourish, could reset reality into logical alignment when it herniated. No pill, no therapist, no god, no lover had ever offered the time traveler the comfort and security he gleaned from the precision and stoicism of numbers and numbers and numbers.
At the end of that first afternoon, here is what the time traveler determined: his father’s body had to have come from somewhere. It had arrived in response to a stimulus. It had arrived inside of the time-reticulation chamber. And it did not appear to have been dead very long, relative to the space and time it occupied. If he was to assume from all available evidence mathematical, physical, and logical that the chamber, in its innumerable iterations across time and space and shape and size, had only ever been piloted by a single operator (not counting pizza delivery men), then it stood to reason that the time traveler himself will have had left his studio apartment, will have had visited the time and space where his father’s corpse will have had been stored, and will have had sent his father’s corpse back (forward [back]) to a previous iteration of himself because . . .
So it came to be that the time traveler mathed himself into a conundrum he couldn’t math himself out of. Because, although his functional understanding of time and space was vast, that tool was of no use in determining what possible reason he might will have had for sending his father to himself. And no matter how close he came to a working theory explaining his father’s corpse’s presence in his time-reticulation chamber, he was no closer to knowing what to do with the fucking thing now.
The time traveler dug a tunnel in the floor into Lincoln’s mouth and planted his father’s corpse beneath Lincoln’s tongue. Then he climbed up into his apartment, patched the hole, and tried to think of something suitably solemn to say. “You tried, Dad,” he said after a while.
The next day, as soon as his eyes opened, the time traveler knew his father would be back in the time-reticulation chamber. He woke up with the thought in his head, not in the panicked tenor of nightmares but with a calm and awful certainty.
A second iteration. Exactly the same, just one day later.
He busted through into the tunnel again and deposited his father’s corpse next to his father’s corpse.
A third day, and a third corpse, and a third burial.
A fourth, a fifth, a sixth.
Lincoln’s mouth swelled with the time traveler’s multitudinous father. Sometimes, the time traveler imagined what it would look like (had looked like) in real time when Booth’s bullet did its business and stole the tension in Lincoln’s jaw, and half a dozen of the time traveler’s father burst out of the president’s mouth and spattered the balcony’s rail.
Somewhere ahead of him, the time traveler knew that he would sneak into whatever anesthetic place his father was kept before he was put in the ground, and he would deliver the old man’s corpse back here. Then he would do it again. And again, and again, and again, and again. The only other possible explanation (however hilariously unlikely) was that some other time traveler in some other time-reticulation chamber was somehow patching in to the trajectories of his chamber and beaming his dead dad through from one chamber to the other, and the time traveler didn’t even know how that would work. And besides, the hypothetical second time traveler (Let’s call him HSTT, thought the time traveler) would have to have read and understood Ruminations on the Mutability of Physical Space in an Elastic Temporal Reticulum. Then, HSTT would have had to steal the time traveler’s designs for the reticulation chamber, discover one of the chamber’s innumerable iterations, and learn independently how to operate it. Otherwise, HSTT would have had to design an identical temporal mutability unit without influence from the time traveler himself.
A seventh version of his father never came. Whatever the time traveler was meant to do with the corpses, he either had done it or had failed to do it enough times that whoever was responsible had given up. It gnawed at the time traveler. Puzzles were meant to be opaque only up until their solving. In the moment following, they ought to seem obvious. But this one was entirely unclear from prologue to epilogue, and so the time traveler’s brain was stuck inside it still.
Eventually, a little lead pellet emerged from the barrel of Booth’s revolver. It came in the wake of slow flame and creeping smoke, and it was ancient before it singed the hairs on the back of the president’s head. Inside the president’s skull, the time traveler heard the forever thunder of the gun firing and he knew he was running out of time. That had always been his design.
His compulsion to end his own life had started when he was a kid. Perched on the roof of his parents’ little house when he was ten (one of many, progressively cheaper and more run-down, purchased in a succession of towns to which they ran mostly because his father was sure, always, that his destiny was waiting there), trying to convince himself to jump. Running a bath at sixteen and wondering if the cord to the hair dryer was long enough to reach. Stomping on the accelerator after losing his first university gig, sort of hoping he’d find a nice immovable object somewhere down the road. There was a precedent. A legacy, even. The great man, his grandfather—a brilliant oral surgeon the shelves of whose study had been cluttered with enormous replica sets of teeth—had gone into the office one evening, loaded up on anesthetic, and never woken up.
But the threat of commitment had always sent the time traveler on detours around the act itself. A depressed trigger was a commitment. The pressure he’d have to put on a blade to cut into his arms was a commitment. Putting the contents of an entire bottle of antidepressants in his mouth did not necessarily constitute a commitment, but swallowing them certainly did. So this—the right-time, right-place method of suicide—was what was left for him. Sit in the path of an enormous glacial bullet and wait.
The trouble was that, now that the moment was so close, the time traveler was perplexed. This, too, represented commitment. An unfinished puzzle or an unsolved equation were in their own way larger commitments than suicide. That was what drove him down into the moist pink basement beneath his apartment to stare at his multitudinous father and jot notes in a pocket-sized notebook. His fathers had failed entirely to decompose in spite of the heat and the moisture and the passing of relative time. It made the time traveler wary. Have I also been sitting here for years, perfectly preserved? he wondered, not sure why the idea bothered him so much. Did I embalm myself somehow? Is that what happens when you freeze a moment just to watch it thaw? He considered the probable locations in time from which his dead father might will have been shipped, analyzed livor mortis, rigor mortis, body temperature, skin color and texture. What if I’m immortal now? he wondered. What if I can’t die? What if my body is stuck in a state of perpetual animation, just like my father is stuck in a state of perpetual unrot? What if the bullet shatters the wall and leaves me small and broken and alive? He took note of the swelling in his fathers’ bellies, paid attention to the consistency and solidity of the eyes and soft tissue, looked for and found and catalogued patches of blisters and marbling on the skin. And soon, he had a pretty good idea of when, within the span of three to five days, his father’s corpse will have had been stolen. He thought about getting in the time-reticulation chamber and finding out for sure, but the truth was that he was scared. The answer, he felt, would necessarily be unpleasant.
This is my fault, he thought sometimes. This is all my fault. It was a familiar thought, the progeny of a pattern of thought he’d experienced since childhood, a pronged and persistent certainty that some mysterious element of his self was so impossibly shitty that it infected everything with which it came into contact. Taken in a pool of human experiences, those involving the time traveler were almost uniformly unpleasant. Those not involving him were sometimes pleasant. The time traveler was not so dense that he could not identify the common denominator in his marathon of trauma. And was it more likely that a single person had, by pure happenstance, stepped into an extended series of dogshit piles, or that the person had somehow orchestrated their own dogshit stomping? Occam’s razor, and all that.
So, armed with a timeline and the twin senses of responsibility and paralysis common to immeasurable self-loathing, the time traveler made a decision, but only after the bullet began digging into the back of the president’s head. It was a coffee cup that did it. He set it on the end table beside his favorite chair one relative morning and began watching a movie he’d already seen probably a hundred times. When he reached for his cup, it wasn’t where he’d left it. It had slid—only an inch and a quarter, maybe, but enough that he could see the streaks of condensation marking its navigation from the ring where it had been sitting to where it was now. The room was very slightly tilted. Which meant that the president had begun his precipitous jerk forward, propelled by the impact of Booth’s little bullet.
The time traveler lost interest in the movie and began watching the cup. As relative morning transitioned into relative afternoon, he watched the cup creep down the subtle slope of the end table. It took hours. But eventually, it dropped. And it shattered. And then, there were just white glazed ceramic fragments and spilled black coffee in which the time traveler could see the spider-legged glare of the ceiling lights reflecting back at him.
Someone on the television said something stupid.
Time to go, thought the time traveler. Time to see.
So he did. He got into his time-reticulation chamber and did the sorts of things time travelers are meant to do inside such devices, and the time traveler and the chamber were reconstructed in an antiseptic morgue with white tile floors and blue tile walls. He stayed inside the chamber for a long time. Only the emergency lights were on, dim pools of orange light that made everything look like a museum exhibit. Nighttime. Nobody else was there. Just the time traveler, maybe a lazy and underpaid security guard dicking around on his cell phone somewhere, and a wall of little cabinets inside each of which was a dead person, any one of which (and perhaps all of which, a gallery of Schrödingerian cats waiting to become either or not) could have been his father. It was overwhelming.
He realized that the last thing he had ever said to his father was probably something stupid and undramatic. That’s the way things typically work out.
He opened the door and stepped out of the chamber. He remembered this place. Being here (or rather, in the part of here that wasn’t here, the part of the hospital where doctors tell families gentle euphemisms about their dead fathers) all those years ago. The words he felt no pain and he went peacefully and I’ll give you some space slithered through his head. It smelled disconcertingly unlike a room full of dead bodies. There was a sharp, cold anti-smell, a smell notable for its lack of notability. It seemed like a lie. The time traveler thought about how messy his father had been, how clumsily honest, and for a moment the time traveler’s headspace was invaded by the sentimental notion that this place was in some way an affront to his father’s memory. He thought about rifling through the cabinets, opening each in its turn until he came to the one with his father, whittling down quantum realities until he’d crafted a value-one probability. Instead, he wandered around, tracing the surfaces of metal tables with his fingertips, listening to the sound of his shoes on the tiles. Then he leaned against a wall, slumped to the floor, pulled his legs to his chest, and started crying.
An infinite loop of his father’s pathos, his failings, his humiliations and stagnations ran through the time traveler’s head. Every bad business idea and sucker bet. Every stepmother, each just another instance of the same basic person, another broken child doting on the time traveler’s father for as long as his behavior would allow. Every moment of visionary purpose, his father beaming in absolute conviction that he had, at long last, discovered the one thing he could do that would remove him from misery and put his name in the sky.
Nobody came. No pre- or post-time traveler plucked his father up and sent him to 1865. No HSTT crept in and absconded with an old failure’s corpse. At some point, it occurred to the time traveler that, maybe, he—that is, the he that he was and not some other he from some other point in the reticulum—was going to send his father to himself tonight, and he promised himself that he wouldn’t. If he was the primary actor here, he’d go off script. He stayed all night and only returned to the moment after he’d left Lincoln’s skull because he was afraid that someone would come down and find him in the morgue, and he wasn’t sure what he’d say if they did. Nobody ever touched his dead father.
Once, when the time traveler was a young man, his father brought him to a river. His father held an urn in which were the remains of the time traveler’s grandfather. “Guy was a fucking asshole,” said the time traveler’s father. He was crying. “So many things went wrong,” he said. “You know? So many things went wrong.” He wiped his nose on his sleeve, and the time traveler stared in bitter contempt at the wet streak of snot darkening the flannel. The time traveler had liked his grandfather. His grandfather had been precise and careful and clean and quiet. It seemed sometimes that whatever emotional mechanism had allowed him to emote so sparingly had skipped a generation, leaping over his spastic emotional son and embedding itself instead in the time traveler. The time traveler hated to hear his father speak ill of the great man. It was so transparent. So pathetic.
“You know,” said the time traveler’s father, “he wanted to be buried in some big fucking mausoleum. He wanted a goddamn monument built over his corpse. Idiot. You don’t get to decide what happens to you. Not when you’re alive, and definitely not when you’re dead. You get what you get.” He opened the urn, didn’t so much dump the ashes as fling them out over the river. He swung the urn again and again, and then pounded on the bottom like it was a bottle of ketchup, growling, sobbing, shouting, “You get what you get! Do you hear me, Dad? You get what you fucking get!”
The time traveler, overwhelmed by how undignified and naked the whole scene had become, tried to take the urn from his father. They struggled. And his father flung the urn out into the river. It hit the water, splashed, and sank. “What’s wrong with you?” whispered the time traveler. “How did you become this?”
And then the time traveler saw his father like he’d never seen him. Saw some of the awful calm and precision of his grandfather sink into him like the urn into the river. The old man, breathing deeply, walked back toward the road and got into his shit-box car and turned the engine on. The time traveler stood there and wondered what he ought to do next. He felt suddenly afraid of his father. He’d never feared him before, but now, now that he’d taken on some of the countenance of the great man with the office full of teeth, the time traveler’s father was a fearsome mystery. There were depths undiscovered. And they were filled with such awful anger.
When the time traveler opened the passenger’s door and sat down next to his father, the old failure said, “You don’t get to tell your father what success is. A man defines success for himself. Nobody else does that. You don’t let strangers do it, you don’t let your wife do it, and I sure as hell am not going to let my own son do it. Are we clear?”
However obvious the irony, it had felt true. It still did.
It felt true now that the time traveler was back inside of Lincoln’s skull, waiting for the end of the play. He was exhausted, and the world felt hot and airless. He tried to reconcile himself with the notion that he might never discover why or from whom his father’s body had been sent to him. The notion sat like a too-large bite blocking his esophagus. He wanted to scream, but noise suddenly frightened him like darkness frightens children. He was stuck. And soon, he would die.
So it was that the time traveler got into the time-reticulation chamber and reconstructed it once more, this time inside his own skull, which, itself, was inside of Abraham Lincoln’s skull. He hollowed himself out, pulled to himself a second iteration of the same construction materials with which he’d built his first intracranial apartment, and started over. He drank coffee in the morning. He watched movies and ate pizza. And when his new apartment started to evince the same telltale tilt, he got into the chamber again and built another apartment inside his own head, which was already in his own head, which was in Abraham Lincoln’s head. And then he did it again. And again. An endless Escher hallway of himself inside himself inside himself inside himself. He did this not because he didn’t want to die. He did want to die, every day and with a longing that bordered on lust. But dying without knowing? Better not to die. Better not to die at all.
Each time, he would have to travel back into the previous layer of himself to fetch his DVDs and his books and his coffee maker. Each time, he would see himself, his previous self, hollowed out, dead but frozen, staring at him with eyes the optic nerves of which no longer had a visual cortex with which to communicate. Each time, it would occur to him that he had managed to kill himself after all, in a way, and part of him would find the idea hilarious, and part of him would find it ghoulish. Each time, he was astounded by how much he resembled his father. The first few times, he thought about saying, “You get what you get.” But he never did. There never seemed to be much point. And after a while, the urge to say anything at all to himself just sort of drifted apart under the weight of routine.
“Sic Semper, Sic Semper, Sic Semper” copyright © 2016 by Deandra Fallon Warrick
Art copyright © 2016 by Carl Wiens