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Unwound

Tom Jolly is a retired astronautical/electrical engineer who spends his time writing SF and fantasy, designing board games, and creating obnoxious puzzles. His stories have appeared in Analog SF, Daily Science Fiction, Compelling SF, New Myths, and a number of anthologies, including Shards, As Told by Things, and Tales from the Pirate's Cove. His fantasy novels, An Unusual Practice and Touched, are available on Amazon. He lives in Santa Maria, California, with his wife Penny in a place where mountain lions and black bears still visit, especially if you own any chickens. You can discover more of his stories at silcom.com/~tomjolly/tomjolly2.htm and follow him at Twitter @tomjolly19 or Facebook @TJWriter.

The peculiar idea occurred to Bradley while he was in the shower. He noticed for the first time ever that when he showered, he always turned clockwise to rinse off. What, he thought, if all this turning like a clock was what made a person older and grayer, marking the passage of time? What, he wondered, if he turned the opposite direction? Would it make him younger? Would his hair darken and his wrinkles fade?
He stood there, staring into the drain where his gray hair would eventually clog it up once again, and then he turned counterclockwise cautiously, unused to the unfamiliar motion. He moved slowly; showers were always a hazard, especially for the elderly.
But it worked! He could feel it. A few seconds fell away, then a few more, but by then he had sent himself backward in time far enough that he had erased his own memories and forgotten why he was doing what he was doing or what his revolutionary idea was, and resumed his normal routine of clockwise turns.
Then he had a great idea about turning counterclockwise and becoming younger again, and, well, the idea of "rinse and repeat" was never so applicable as to his present situation, with Bradley turning left and right in the shower like the agitator in a washing machine.
He might have died there, perpetually turning, but the hot water ran out and a stream of shocking cold yanked him out of his timelessly repetitious revelation, and he forgot for just a moment about his rotating remedy for old age. Angela was a little angry with him for using up all the hot water, and he wasn't entirely sure why he had done it. He never took long showers.
But great ideas are hard to kill. And even some of the mediocre ones put up a pretty good struggle.
The same day, Angela pushed him out the front door to walk their dog, Madge. Madge jumped up and down excitedly, ready to go, despite the boringly repetitious route they took: a clockwise loop around the block that took little more than ten minutes, with a brief stop at the Murphy's house to drop a little present in their yard.
As he pondered the nature of his daily walk, the niggling idea encroached yet again on his mind, and he wondered, is this daily clockwise routine somehow making me older, and would it be possible to unwind the aging process merely by walking the other way around the block?
And so, on the heels of the thought, he spun around and walked Madge the other direction, but by the time he returned home, the erased memories made him forget the idea entirely, and not only that, but forget that he had walked the dog at all. So he headed out yet again, only to bump into the same idea, turn around, and unwind his life a little further. Madge would have been ecstatic about the extra-long walk, had her memories not evaporated as well, so they kept up this routine until it was dark, and Angela was standing at the front door with a flashlight, wondering where he had gone off to.
"What happened to you?" Angela said. "Did the Murphy's finally catch you?"
"I'm taking Madge for a walk," Bradley replied, starting off down the sidewalk.
"You just got back!" she said.
"Nonsense. I haven't even left yet."
Angela seemed worried, wondering if, perhaps, he'd had a stroke, but he seemed sound enough. "You just came up the sidewalk now. I saw you."
Bradley stared at the sidewalk, confused, and wondered why it was already dark. He never went walking after dark. He shook his head to loosen any cobwebs, but couldn't remember the walk at all, and finally went inside to have dinner and feed the dog.
Later, in bed, Angela asked, "Are you feeling okay?"
Bradley pulled the blankets up around his neck. "I think so. Why?"
"You forgot that you'd gone for a walk. And you were gone so long."
He frowned. "Maybe I was thinking about something and became distracted. You know, like when I used to drive to work, thinking about something important, and then I'd arrive and not remember any part of the drive there. It's probably something like that."
"Hmm," Angela said, concern wrapped around the sound. She kissed him, rolled over, and went to sleep.
It only took a dream or two for Bradley to realize that when he rolled over, never comfortable on one side or the other for very long, he always rolled over in the same direction. And one thing led to the next, and by the time Angela punched him in the arm he'd already rolled back and forth some thirty times in less than an hour, and she'd had enough of it.
"What the hell are you doing?" she said.
"What is it? Was I dreaming?"
"No, you keep rolling back and forth, back and forth, and it's keeping me awake."
"I do? But we've only been in bed a few minutes."
"Do you know what time it is?" she asked.
Bradley looked at the clock, and because he was in the part of his rolling cycle where the strange idea had come to him, he gasped, and finally realized what was happening. He explained it to Angela in a rush. She looked skeptical, but it did explain the strange events of the day.
"So you can turn back time, but lose all the memories of who you are? Who you have become?"
"Well, yes. But I... we... could be young again!"
She stared at him with little but moonlight through the window to let him interpret her gaze, and she sighed. "You wouldn't live any longer, you would just be replacing some of your memories with others. Is there some part of our life that you want to erase and forget? Like holding hands in the movie theater? Or sitting on the patio, drinking wine together and watching the sun set?"
Bradley tried to think of some bad times, but then, all the good parts in between would have to be erased to get there. He shook his head. "No. I guess not."
"Every gray hair and every wrinkle I have marks a memory," Angela said, "and I would not trade them for anything. I like the path we've taken to get where we are, and I have no interest in forgetting it. Now, go to sleep. And stay still!"
Bradley lay still as Angela's soft breathing slowly turned into a delicate snore, but the idea was persistent, and he wondered if sausages could be made fresher by rolling them over in a pan differently, or if the tires on a car would get thicker treads if the car backed up. Perhaps there were birds that circled overhead, now one way and then the other, a thousand years old and completely unaware of it, memories lost in a swirl of clouds. Eventually, he drifted off to sleep and dreamt of grandfather clocks running backwards.
Outside, the world turned.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, October 29th, 2021


Author Comments

The inspiration for the story "Unwound" was my morning shower, which shouldn't be any surprise at all. I noticed that day that I have a tendency to only rotate one direction in the shower, and that it felt weird when I rotated the opposite way. Why would it feel so odd? And the story was born. Other similar one-way rotations in my life came to mind and were incorporated, and the interesting issues that naturally arise whenever you go back in time, for better or worse.

- Tom Jolly
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