This is a serialized writing prompt, explained here: 7 Steps for the Lonely Writer.
Today's prompt is: BACKWARDS!
Step Seven. Back to the Beginning.
Time crashed to a standstill.
The very air seemed to solidify, and his body was trapped as if inside some intangible glacier.
The conspirators froze. Their limbs stiffened against him.
The cat became a statue, a quaint portrait of a cobalt-gray kitty sitting on a grass-green lawn.
The greens washed away. The sky blanched. The sun dimmed. All color seeped into oblivion—everything down to the cobalt in the cat’s suddenly-lackluster coat.
The world was Time in a bottle, stoppered. He couldn’t move. Even the perspiration glistening down his brow had stopped in its tracks.
He did not know how long this nothingness prevailed. Seconds and hours passed in tandem. His mind had not escaped reality’s molasses effect. He could no longer process his own thoughts. All that stood out against the vast blankness of his faculties was a number, stripped of all meaning: TEN THOUSAND. He stared out across the still landscape and all he could do was think that number, over and over.
TEN THOUSAND TEN THOUSAND TEN THOUSAND—
The first change in this frozen tableau was a sound. It came to him from the abyss imperceptibly—one moment, silence; the next, this sound. It was...
She sang, and it was the most beautiful melody he had ever heard. Her voice hummed wordlessly, and for some reason he intuited that she was singing the world into motion once more.
Time trickled back with treacly viscosity, one grain of sand at a time. He felt his left foot push off the grass, felt his head rock forward, felt it connect with the bridge of a nose...
Wait. Something was wrong.
Something is wrong, he said. At least, he tried to say Something is wrong. But the words fell out of his lips in foreign vowels and clipped consonants. They weren’t right.
What was happening?
The cat was getting further away, and yet it did not move from where it sat—the conspirators had reversed their direction, pulling him backward. Time sped up, the cat receded faster, and limbs pulled at his body, words screamed themselves from his lips—alien sounds, not words—and from the lips of the conspirators.
Woo-yeem, said the cat.
“Woo-yeem”? he thought. What the hell was “Woo-yeem”?
And suddenly it clicked.
He was being pulled backward—away from the pits, thankfully; he was reliving things he had already lived. He had head-butted the woman’s nose again, but her nose hadn’t spurted crimson; it had, in fact, absorbed the blood like a sponge, and now her nose was perfectly whole, as if nothing had ever happened. Because, in a way, it never had. It had been undone, like threads in a cross-stitch of Time.
And “Woo-yeem,” of course, was Mew in reverse, as if the cat’s meow was one of those vinyls with hidden meanings if spun the other way.
This was the work of that humming melody—of her humming melody.
She was singing Time in reverse.
Time was flowing backward.
He had no control over his body. He had read as a child that time-travel, if ever made possible, would be pointless—it was impossible to change the course of events, for if you did, the change would have already happened, and you would have already felt its effects in the present; Time, therefore, was a Homo sapien construct used as a measurement of something over which we hold no actual control. And that was how this felt, this rewinding of Time. He felt helpless against whatever it was that controlled it all—her voice, humming, he supposed—and resigned himself to relive recent events in reverse chronological order with an all-consuming sense of impotency.
Counterclockwise, he moved.
The conspirators were back to their huddle, once again ignorant of the man walking toward them who had seen her just beyond the “world’s edge”—only now he walked away, not toward, his legs backpedaling strangely; and now he observed something new about the conspirators. Had he simply not noticed before, or were their bandages soaked through even more now than when he first met them? It looked to him, before his backward-walking put them out of sight behind the hills, as if the white gauze wraps were practically rotting off their bodies, too slick with blood and puss to cling to the wounds.
Now he retraced his steps through the endless expanse of hills, rolling, rolling, rolling.
Now he looked over his shoulder at the back of her statue, and now he walked in reverse once more into the valley, and now her gargantuan statue stood before him, and—
He gasped—or, at least, he tried to; even his lungs weren’t free of Time’s grasp. All he could do was stare at the giants surrounding her monument. The giants weren’t praising her stone any longer. They lay prostrate, their bodies intertwined with one another due to their sheer numbers, and he could see that they were dead. The giants’ corpses were rotted away as if they had simply stood at her monolithic feet for days, weeks, months, wasting away, and then Time had had its way with their bodies for years after that. Thick rib bones poked from chest cavities, eyes sagged in sockets, and these once-bulky, barrel-chested monsters now resembled matchstick marionettes whose strings Time severed.
This isn’t a true reversal of Time, he realized. His body flowed retrograde, true, but the things around him... they were in the future. He was seeing what would become of them.
This revelation was followed by another: the cat was nowhere to be seen.
By now he had left the valley, and his body was mimicking a desperate sprint—like the sprinting he’d done to escape the stampeding giants, except in an awkward backward galumph that defied natural physics. But now he ran alone, for the giants that had originally precipitated this frantic sprint were currently decomposing on the valley floor.
He was suddenly very afraid of what he would see when he reached the partiers’ bonfire, remembering what the cat had said: I’ve seen where they’re headed, and they’ll regret tonight for years. I don’t envy them their morning.
And here they were. The first thing that caught his attention was not the carnage but the fire, still roaring at an impressive height, its strange colorless flames dancing beneath a sky that was no longer day or night.
Then he saw the bodies, and he wanted to cry out but could not.
They weren’t dead, which was perhaps the worst part. The partiers lay scattered about the remnants of their night of reckless abandon, screaming and moaning and sobbing.
He could imagine perfectly what had happened after the party of the previous night—for yes, he was seeing their immediate future, not the distant future of the withered-giant graveyard—and his theory was only confirmed by the clods of broken earth surrounding them. The giants had burst from their earthen hillock wombs all across the land, and here, at the partiers’ bonfire, was no exception. He could almost see the stampede of giants trample through the party like a herd of elephants, could almost hear the drunken revelers’ nonsensical shouts of horror.
He wished they hadn’t survived. That would have been a small mercy.
The partiers had woken the following morning with wounds much more serious than their usual hangovers. The ginger-bearded man, for example, was now moaning and hiccoughing over his own legs, which had both been thoroughly trampled and had discarded their contents like a tube of toothpaste. The man’s tent-sized jersey dripped with blood and gore.
He could not bring himself to hone in on the details of the other partiers. He attempted to close his eyes against the atrocities before him, found he could not, and instead resigned himself to Time’s insistence that he walk away in reverse.
His revulsion over the things he had seen, the least of which was not the aftermath of the party, obscured his memory of his own timeline. He did not realize that he was approaching the wall until his body finally turned around, his arm reached out, and he was touching it. The wall’s skin, just barely brushing the skin of his fingertips, felt awfully rough. Abrasive. His arm dropped back to his side.
The stone wall filled most of his sight, its gray a perfect description of the dull monochrome Time imposed on the world in this backward adventure.
His eyelids squeezed shut, and a salty wetness climbed his cheeks. Tears forced themselves back into his tear ducts. His eyes opened, then closed again, then opened again, in a rapid blink against the wind rushing from his face.
A swatch of yellow. Bright yet soft, warm. Like custard.
And suddenly Time released its prisoner, and he could breathe in his own circulatory fashion, could blink by himself, could move his own limbs.
He looked up and he saw a woman.
You kept your promise, she said.
Always, he whispered.
To be concluded...
THE COMPLETE STORY:
Step 1. Ten Thousand Steps.
Step 2. A Companion.
Step 3. A Drunken Detour.
Step 4. The Hills Have Eyes.
Step 5. Her Graven Image.
Step 6. The Earth, Flattened.
Step 7. Back to the Beginning.
Step 10,000. Colla Voce.