Dad had navy blue lint between his toes again. I was lying on the couch, staring at his fuzzy feet.
“What’s going to happen at midnight?” I asked.
“Nothing,” he told me.
“I mean, when midnight is over.”
“You know this. Time will end and we’ll start going backwards.”
“And it’s all the same? I’ll ask you this question again?”
“I don’t know. We’ll see.”
“But what do you think?”
“I think we’ll see.”
The microwave clock glowed a faint blue, still visible from my spot on the couch. We were an hour away from the end of time.
The news first broke three years ago. My science teacher streamed the press conference for us. A balding scientist leaned into the microphone and announced they had successfully pinpointed time’s outer limit, an other-dimensional wall where time would cease to progress. The team hypothesized that after hitting the wall, time would move in reverse at the exact same rate we knew it to move forward. When they finished explaining, everyone applauded. They were heroes, the news reporter announced, for making such a ground-breaking discovery. The years they poured into this research, the progress it represented. My science teacher’s eyes welled with tears, which he didn’t even try to hide.
To honor the achievement, an international celebration was thrown. Mom flew to Switzerland to photograph the event. It was a big job, even for her. She spent a week there, probably the longest she’d been away since I was little. When she boarded the flight home, she sent us a selfie to let us know she was on her way. The plane crashed into the Alps less than an hour later. Mechanical error.
“I feel like we should do something,” I said, sitting upright.
Dad looked straight ahead and considered. I knew he was prone to drifting away in thought, now more than ever. He was a product manager at an adhesive corporation, a job he took very seriously. I did a show and tell on his work back in third grade titled: My dad’s ideas stick.
“What would you like to do?”
I thought he’d shake me off, tell me what he always told me—“There’s nothing to do”—but now he was saying yes. I was unprepared.
“Well, if time is about to go backwards, our last thing should be what we want our first thing to be.”
Dad smiled. “To the kitchen?”
I slid across the floor to the fridge. Our townhouse was small and open, but we liked to act as if each corner was its own distinct room. Dad followed me with soft, quiet steps. He used to be a much louder person, given to stomping and singing.
I peered into the belly of the fridge. “We have eggs. Maybe we can make brownies?”
Dad gave a nod. Silently, he pulled out a bowl and I cracked the eggs and he added sugar and I poured in the oil. Dad leveled the flour and cocoa powder evenly with a knife. He had taken to baking with dutiful precision and I enjoyed watching him, my student, as Mom must have watched me.
Davis was in North Carolina. We had talked to him yesterday and he sounded fine, but I could tell Dad was hoping he’d call again. He was probably in the cafeteria with the bad reception or hanging out in someone else’s dorm.
“You want to mix it?” I asked.
“No, you go ahead.”
The batter turned a rich creamy brown, like wet eyes. I mashed the lumps against the side as I’d always done. In my fourteen years, I’d been making brownies for at least nine of them. Dad called me his little chef, or he used to anyway. There’s no need for names when it’s just one calling another in an open-concept townhouse.
“Better stick it in the oven,” Dad nodded toward the microwave clock. I started pouring the batter in the pan and stopped. We looked at each other for a second and broke into those low exhales that served as laughter in our home.
“We forgot…” Dad started.
“We forgot to preheat the oven.”
Dad walked back to the couch. “Bring it over. We’ll enjoy it as it is.”
We spent time’s final minutes licking brownie batter from the bowl with a spoon and spatula. Mom would have hated this. She found salmonella very concerning.
The microwave clock clicked. 11:59. Dad’s phone rang and he sprang off the couch.
“Davis!” he said, “Everything OK?”
Dad: “Yes. OK.”
Dad: “I know.”
Dad: “Can I put you on speaker?”
Me: “Hi, Davis.”
Davis: “Hi, Britt.”
Dad and I both smiled at the phone, but Davis didn’t really have anything to say. That was OK, I thought.
The microwave clock seemed to hang on midnight. I could hear Mom saying, A watched pot never boils. Everything came back to the kitchen for her and now, I couldn’t keep away either. My eyes were fixed on the microwave.
Then, the numbers clicked.
My head didn’t think backwards, but forward. I thought, Oh.
We had reached time’s wall and bounced off.
Unlike my head, my body did move backwards, back toward the couch after saying hi into the phone, back to the bowl, to the brownie batter with the chocolate chips. The movements all felt smooth and easy. Everything, after all, was very familiar.
Davis was no longer on the phone then and I could see, more clearly, how Dad’s face had changed from hearing his son’s voice, to thinking something might be wrong to sitting on the couch with a look as numb as night. I felt a flick in my chest, a feeling I couldn’t place.
We were back in the kitchen now. I should have realized we wouldn’t be making brownies as our first thing. We would be unmaking them. I took out the oil, Dad removed the sugar. This time around, I didn’t feel any special way about the brownies, which is probably what Dad had felt the first time. I looked at him and wondered if he was seeing things my way now or just watching me see them his way.
“And it’s all the same? I’ll ask you this question again?” I heard myself say.
Eventually, Dad’s navy blue socks were back on his feet and I couldn’t see the lint between his toes. Eventually, I was pulling the plates out of the sink and back onto the table for dinner. Eventually, the plane extricated itself from the side of Mt. Weisshorn and our phones buzzed with that unfiltered selfie of Mom, smiling, safe and on her way. A week later I hugged her goodbye, which was now hello. She seemed different than I remembered, which made me mad at myself for forgetting. I looked at Dad, but he showed no sign of thinking what I was thinking. He looked happy.
And so, Davis was home and without a goatee and Mom was home and Dad was singing loudly, like a famous Italian soprano. I watched everybody change like coloring books being filled in. Dad’s hair came back thick and brown. Mom taught me how to crack an egg. No eggshells ever got in, even there on my first try. I let Davis push me on his skateboard up, instead of down, the hill behind our neighbor’s house. I unwrote My dad’s ideas stick on slick white poster board.
I felt no nostalgia, just a deep awareness of what I had missed before—the dark circles around Mom’s eyes, her nervous nail-biting when Davis left the house. Dad must have adopted all her worrying after the crash because he seemed so breezy now. Where’s my little chef? he called from the couch. Every moment was unfolding the same, only now with new meaning. I saw how wide Dad used to smile and felt a loneliness I had never known.
Time kept retreating and we all got younger. Dad threw me on his shoulders and paraded me through the farmer’s market. He pointed out the apple cobblers and portobello mushrooms and the fluffy dinner rolls I liked so much. I had forgotten all about this. He tapped the top of my foot, a song of sorts, and I wondered who exactly it was from.
Brooke Randel is a writer and copywriter based in Chicago. She studied advertising and English at Penn State University and has won awards for her copywriting work. Her fiction has been published in Ropes, Punchnel’s and Beecher’s Magazine.