1: An uncomfortable homecoming.
“You’re kidding me,” Ms. Tabitha Moore groaned, casting a wary look at the colossal old-fashioned MRI. There was something familiar about the giant thing. “This thing looks even older than I am.”
“Almost!” the young nurse laughed, distractedly wafting and drifting holographic menu screens projected into the air from the ring on her hand. Her fingers danced as she navigated through the clusters. “She’s about half a century old, now. Don’t knock her age, though—somehow or other, this old girl gives us more comprehensive scans than our brand new ones.”
“Somehow, that seems… unlikely,” Tabitha chuckled uneasily. She pointedly glanced around at the hypermodern fixtures and glossy white walls of the chamber deep within the University Hospital complex. It was the year 2045, and at sixty years old, she was petite and frail, with short gray hair and weathered skin lined with wrinkles. She’d lived a rather hard, unforgiving life, and futuristic medical breakthroughs in life expectancy had plateaued in the 2020s—life expectancy even slowly declining with each succeeding generation due to increasingly unhealthy modern lifestyles. Which she was as guilty of as anyone else.
Still, though… Looking at this huge old machine, Ms. Tabitha Moore was even more nervous to get her recurring headaches looked at for some reason.
“No, it’s true!” the RN insisted, patting the giant old machine. “She’s special. Reads extremely fine deep-tissue electrical activity, catches all the little individual neurons as they’re firing. There’s some big legal deal, with the patent-holder not releasing the rights to the technology, or... something like that. University of Louisville Hospital has some sorta loophole that lets us keep using this one for patients, though.”
“And... it’s absolutely safe?”
“Of course! It had some sort of issue, only like, once, forty-seven years ago, I think.” the bubbly nurse assured her. “Do you have your PC on you? It’ll have to come off before we put you in, sadly. Not because this machine’s old! Even with the new ones, you can’t wear your computer inside them.”
“That’s fine,” Tabitha said, sliding her bracelet-style PC off a wrinkled wrist and watching it go dark. She set it on the offered tray and then caressed the unfamiliar absence it left behind. “It’s just, I’ve had a bad experience in an MRI like this, before.”
“Oh, do you get claustrophobic?” the RN asked, flicking a finger through the display of light to summon Ms. Tabitha Moore’s chart back up. “I think we can give you a sedative, if that’ll make you feel more comfortable. It just makes the whole process take a lot longer.”
“...No,” Tabitha slowly sighed. “No, let’s just get this over with.”
“You’ll be fine,” the registered nurse smiled, helping the older woman up onto the examination table. “Take deep breaths and lie still, and this’ll all be over before you know it.”
With that, she slowly slid the exam table and its reluctant old passenger into the MRI. Leaning inside to check on her one last time, the young nurse crossed a safe distance away and opened the holograph for the device with a spread of her fingertips. Indicator lights blinked into existence as it began powering up.
“You still doing okay in there, Ms. Moore?”
“It smells like old lady in here.”
“Hah hah ha, we’ll have to see what we can do about that next time,” the nurse laughed, shaking her head. “Alright, here we go!”
Deep breath, Tabitha, deep breath, Ms. Tabitha Moore frowned, squeezing her eyes tightly closed. It’s fine, that was a long time ago. And this is proven technology, this time. This machine hasn’t had a mishap in… wait, forty-seven years? Forty-seven years… wasn’t that—
A terrible screeching resounded from the prototype MRI device in the Emsie St. Juarez Children’s hospital. A noise like impossibly loud scraping glass, rising then to a high-pitched nails-on-chalkboard crescendo, before finally fading away with the disconcerting pop of an electrical breaker blowing out. Everyone within a quarter-mile of the facility visibly flinched, a stinging pain blossoming in their eardrums, and then the power went out across all of Jefferson county.
Thirteen-year-old Tabitha Moore was still screaming within the device when the hospital backup generators restored power to the MRI room—an enclosed space which had sharply risen over thirty degrees in temperature, and was rapidly filling with smoke. The fire alarm triggered, and the twitching and shuddering teenage girl inside the prototype MRI felt raw panic swelling up inside her just as an intense pain began to subside.
“Jesus fricking Christ!” The door set in the copper-lined wall shielding the room and its sensitive device from radio interference burst open. Tabitha’s ears were still ringing from the unearthly din, but she still heard a familiar-sounding male voice shouting out. “Get her the frick out of there!”
I’m never getting in one of these contraptions ever again, Tabitha resolved, quaking in fear and struggling with the hospital gown she found herself caught in. Where the hells did this thing come from? I don’t care what she says, or how bad the headaches get. These old things are goddamned deathtraps.
Several people pushed through the billowing smoke to yank the sliding examination table out of the hulking cylindrical aperture of the scanner. It was unbearably hot now, and to her horror, in the waning light of the smoke-filled room Tabitha discovered that her fingers now appeared bloated, looking like stumpy-looking sausage appendages.
In fact, she felt grotesquely swollen all over, her tissues... expanded, like a marshmallow microwaved for too long. Terror took over. Her breath hitched into tiny, useless gasps for air as she began to hyperventilate, and as the people were trying to help sit her up she realized her entire body was now shrunken, misshapen, her center of gravity agreeing that something was terribly wrong with her.
Eyes stinging with frightened tears, Tabitha looked up, saw the worried face of her father, Mr. Alan Moore—and promptly fainted.
“No, I’m not in any pain,” Tabitha insisted, scrutinizing the man who resembled her late father. Even her own voice sounded off, now, child-like somehow. “Mister…?”
“You sure don’t seem alright,” the man said, leaning in uncomfortably close and giving her a serious look. “Sweetie, you’ve never called me ‘Mister,’ before.”
Sweetie? Did she… know this young man? She seemed sure they had never met. A relative of hers? He was in his mid-thirties, and definitely from the paternal side of her family—a cousin, perhaps? The similarities to her long-dead father were simply uncanny.
“Did your goddamn piece of junk give her... what, amnesia, or somethin’?” the man turned to the doctor standing in the room again, his familiar-looking face filling with anger. “She’s sure as hell never called me ‘Mister’ before today.”
“Mr. Moore, there’s no, um, obvious indications of memory loss of any kind,” the doctor shook his head, “and no way of knowing for sure, without taking her to the University of Louisville for another reading, on their MRI.”
The first man snorted at that, clearly indicating that wasn’t an option for consideration.
“But, she’s been through some… trauma with this whole experience, so if she was experiencing short-term memory loss, it would be understan—”
All of the myriad clues seemed to fall into place, and the breath she’d been taking seemed to seize in her chest as Tabitha froze up. It can’t be. I’m not shrunken, or mishapen. I’m... YOUNGER. I’m a fat and useless trailer trash little girl, all over again. TUBBY fucking TABBY. You’ve got to be kidding me...
“Trauma? Dr. Powell, that goddamned piece of junk almost had my ears bleeding, and she was stuck in there right in the ground zero of it!” Mr. Alan Moore shouted. “If you think—”
“There’s no problem with my memory,” Tabitha interrupted with a sense of finality, staring across the room with a blank face. “Just... with my comprehension of this current situation. Mr. Moore, am I to understand this is not the University of Louisville Hospital?” Her powers of observation had apparently flagged in the midst of this ordeal. She was only now wryly noticing that the hospital walls here were terribly outdated—sterile plastic panels, rather than the glass-like enamel resin typical of hypermodern medical establishments.
“Sweetie… sweetie, no,” the man who seemed to be a younger version of her father blanched, looking at her with concern. “We drove to the children’s hospital, St. Juarez. Remember, it has the big, pretty sculptures in the fountain? Emsie St. Juarez?”
“...I see,” Tabitha nodded, struggling to keep disbelief from her expression. She turned to the doctor. “Then, may I ask what the current date is?”
“Thursday, May…” the doctor flipped the corner of a page on his clipboard and glanced at the date on her patient chart. “May seventh. Nineteen ninety-eight.”
Nineteen ninety-eight. Having her ridiculous suspicion confirmed stunned her into silence, and Tabitha stared down at her small hands and their now chubby little fingers in incredulity.
Forty-seven years. I knew that hulking goddamned piece of shit machine looked familiar. IT WAS ME. I was the one who was in their precious multi-million-dollar MRI when it went haywire, forty-seven years ago. So, in twenty forty-five, it sends my mind back to… the past one that went berserk? Back to ninety-eight, when that infernal machine was at the children’s hospital—when *I* was at the children’s hospital?
Time travel seems so impossibly… well, improbable. Nineteen ninety-eight. Dad’s still alive… this is really, actually him. He’s alive. Mom, too, probably. I’m in, what? Eighth grade? Ninth? I hope to God this isn’t real. That this is just some... electrical signals frying my brain into some death seizure in this MRI piece of shit. Please, ancient fucking machine spirit of the MRI, just let me die.
I don’t think I have the strength to do this all over again. Please, don’t make me go back to being this fat fucking useless trailer trash. I’m so tired of hating myself, I can’t do it all again. I really can’t. Letting out a choked sob, the overweight girl gripped the front of her hospital gown until her fists were shaking, and she rocked forward.
“Sweetie!” Mr. Moore leaned over her, alarmed. “Sweetie, what’s wrong?!”
“No,” Tabitha cried, shoving him back with flabby thirteen-year-old arms. “No, please, no!”
“I said I was sorry,” Tabitha repeated, once again breaking the awkward silence within the cab of her Dad’s truck. “I was upset. I didn’t mean to be… melodramatic.” They were headed on the long drive home, after an ineffectual round of tests on her and some additional angry indignation from her father, who was threatening the staff with a malpractice lawsuit.
“You don’t have to be sorry, Sweetie,” Mr. Moore said again. “I’m just concerned, ‘cause you’re still… talkin’ funny. You’ve every reason to be upset. I’m still upset. I’m not gonna feel better ’bout any of it ‘till I hear back from that lawyer. That piece of doo-hickey they shoved you in could’ve cooked yer noggin for good. Buncha psychos, is what they are, puttin’ a little girl in a prototype, where anything and anywhat could go wrong. Buncha crooks.”
“Do I still have to go to school, then?” Tabitha probed, trying to sound petulant.
Having been living forty-seven years in the future as of... just earlier this morning, her grasp of exactly when that original MRI mishap had occurred in ’98 was shaky. When as in, what had been going on in her life at that point. She’d remembered that she’d hit her head taking a bad tumble off a friend’s trampoline, way back then—the name of that friend had since then escaped her, but bruises on her head seemed to corroborate that memory.
Am I still in middle school, or am I already in high school? It being May would indicate that an academic term is concluding, and summer is starting. Right? Fortunate, because I’m rather unlikely to remember the names of any classmates. Or... even where my classes were.
“Well, I dunno, Sweetheart,” Mr. Moore said, uneasy. “You’ve got yer finals left to do yet… and you seem to be up and about okay, thinkin’ clearly. Tell you what, how ’bout I call yer counselor and have you off for tomorrow, and we’ll see what kinda shape you’re in come Monday morning?”
“...Fine,” Tabitha grumbled, genuinely unenthused. Just finishing out middle school, then, I suppose. The thought of having to repeat high school all over again, from the beginning, was a nightmarish prospect—all of her absolute worst memories were from that period.
Sighing, she gazed out the window at all of the antiquated-seeming models of car that seemed to fill the roads. Nineteen ninety-eight. What happened back in nineteen ninety-eight? The only major event she recalled from those years was the big plane-hijacking, that terrorist attack on the twin towers. And, for the life of her, she couldn’t recall if it’d happened in the year two thousand, or the years just after that. It was, after all, a lifetime ago. The phrase nine-eleven stuck out in her head. Maybe September, of two-thousand and eleven? That’s further off than I expected.
Not like I’d know where to even begin preventing that, she sighed. Or if I even should. Let’s see. I never memorized lottery numbers, and I was always too poor to pay attention to stock market trading. So, I guess getting rich quick is out of the picture. I’m not AMAZING at anything in particular, just... mediocre at dozens of things. Why ME? What’s the use in sending ME, of all people, back to the past?
She dreaded the thought of being forced to live it again, to be thirteen years old and be the fat, unattractive girl without friends all over again. Trailer trash, from the Lower Park. The social pariah, who smelled kind of funny, who wore yellowed T-shirts that never quite looked clean, and never really figured out how to take care of herself until it was too late. The dumpy young woman who forced herself on dates with asshole guys of the worst sort, simply because she was terrified of winding up alone. The Tabitha who made one, single genuine close friend in her entire life, a woman fifteen years her junior—a brilliant, talented young woman who wound up committing suicide.
Went to college to teach, but it seemed too difficult. Tried to become a fantasy writer, instead, and published two books of a trilogy before they terminated my contract. Then, I just gave up on writing. Worked at the Safety plant to pay the bills ’till I was out of debt from school, which took... most of my goddamned life. Julia killed herself. And then, I became a county clerk in Town Hall office for years… and that was it. Tabitha held a blank stare, feeling hollow and disappointed. Not much of a fucking life.
She shook her head, turning to watch the profile of her father’s face as he drove. Dad, you look so young. I have to watch you die, all over again. And Mom. I don’t know if I can do this.
“Almost home, Pumpkin,” he said, misreading her concern. He pulled past a familiar liquor store, and his pickup truck made a turn down the hill, passing the sign for the Lower Park. There had been an Upper Park, at one point, mobile homes filled with retirees and the elderly, but it had been bulldozed and replaced with convenience stores, a gas station, and parking lots. The already low property value of the Lower Park neighborhood plummeted even further as a result, more or less hitting rock bottom in their area. The truck lurched over the speedbumps ever-present throughout the narrow lanes of the park—a measure to keep reckless and impatient drivers from speeding through the confined spaces— and the familiar sight of their trailer came into view.
Her childhood home; a sun-baked and graying double-wide tucked into the rows of mobile homes. It actually looked less dirty and decrepit than she recalled. There were no gaps in the panelled skirting around their trailer right now, and the ugly hedge hadn’t grown in yet, either. The tree she’d remembered seeing last, back when she moved out in her late twenties, was still a scrawny little thing, not much more than a thin sapling. Uncle Danny’s car wasn’t there, either—in her past life it had been a permanent fixture of their yard for most of her time there, up on cinder blocks and wrapped in a faded brown tarp. Wonder when he’ll be dropping THAT little beauty off, so that he can go be in prison for the rest of his life.
“Are you okay?” Her father asked once again, as the truck finally rumbled to a stop in front of their trailer. He gave her another look, and she guiltily stopped peering around at everything as though seeing it for the first time.
“I—” She froze when she met his eyes. —Never appreciated how much I actually missed you. I don’t want to lie to you, Daddy, and I don’t think I can pretend to be a child. Wouldn’t even know where to start. “I’m fine.”
“Uh-huh,” he murmured doubtfully, reaching over to tousle her hair. He hadn’t done that in—well, it certainly felt like forty years. Tabitha fought to keep her eyes from watering again.
Her homecoming was appalling, as she’d expected. Her mother, Mrs. Shannon Moore, was still fat in a fresh, plump way, only just beginning to bulge at the seams. Nothing like the bloated and gigantic obese mass she would become in a few years. Tabitha pondered what the most tactful way to ask if she’d been diagnosed with diabetes yet was. Still, her mother’s knee problems didn’t appear to have surfaced yet, and she was getting around under her own power right now, at least. Even if she didn’t get out of her seat to welcome her daughter home from the hospital.
The trailer’s interior was cut off from outside sunlight by both curtains and blankets over the windows, dimly lit instead by the yellow light of incandescent bulbs. It was cluttered with mismatched, tacky, and worn out furniture, and it smelled. Body odor and greasy cooking. The carpet hadn’t met a vacuum cleaner in well over a year, black mold was accumulating in the corners of the ceiling, and dirty dishes were everywhere.
Tabitha begged off dinner on the fabricated excuse of a nausea that was becoming very real, but rigid family tradition dictated that she sit with them at the table while they ate all the same. Baked beans and toasted bread—why toasted bread?—was the fine meal that she passed up.
Nothing about the intermittent silence and small talk seemed real to her. Her stomach turned itself into knots as she warily eyed her surroundings in the trailer, because everything was half-familiar and half-horrifying. She could never determine which was specifically which, either.
“Hope you’ve learned yer lesson ’bout those trampoline jumpers,” Mrs. Moore finally shook her head. “Yer lucky you didn’t break yer neck.”
“Yes, Mother,” Tabitha nodded politely.
“Yes, Mother?” the woman asked incredulously. She glared daggers at Tabitha, as if warning her daughter not to sass her.
“Yes,” Tabitha repeated dispassionately. What, did I normally say... ‘Yes, Momma?’ I may have never amounted to much, but I WAS an English major. I’m not going to be able to keep up some ignorant kid charade, anyways. I have too many other things to deal with, right now.
“I’ve learned my lesson. I wasn’t being sufficiently responsible at that time, and the consequences of my actions were unexpectedly severe. In the future, I will mindfully endeavor towards more appropriate courses of action.”
“No need for attitude, Tabitha Ann Moore,” Mrs. Moore warned with a laugh, forking more baked beans into her mouth.
Tabitha found that her mother smelled. Mrs. Moore was gross, disgustingly fat, and petty, and Tabitha was beginning to hate her, all over again. Mom, when you died, I came to terms with everything I could, and buried the rest. So that I could just focus on the GOOD memories, and leave it at that. Why am I being made to go through this again?
“Kids’re getting smarter every day,” Mr. Moore joked, not looking up from his own plate. “Sweetie’s so smart she broke their brain-scannin’ machine. Guess she was clean off the charts.” No one had actually suspected anything of that sort. From what Tabitha had overheard, everyone was blaming the MRI’s apparent failure on an electrical fault that came about from a surge during the power outage.
“Shame they never get any more respectful,” Mrs. Moore frowned, pursing her lips.
With the wisdom and grace sixty years had given her, Tabitha kept silent, neither agreeing nor disagreeing. She stared instead at the yellowing floral wallpaper, and patiently endured the sounds of her parents eating.
Afterwards, she found her cramped bedroom was stuffy and strange-smelling, and she could only resign herself to accepting that some of the body odor this trailer was rank with belonged to her previous self. There was a brief but potent mixture of nostalgia at seeing all of her long-lost childhood toys, and repulsion, in really realizing her past living conditions. Taking a deep breath and steeling her nerves, she finally turned to face the mirror sitting atop her dresser.
She’d studiously avoided her reflection on the doors out of St. Juarez, and the windows and mirrors of her father’s truck. She feared the impact this sight was going to have on her psyche, and most of all... she simply didn’t want to believe. Because she already knew what she would find. She’d spent most of her life detesting and struggling with this.
A hefty thirteen-year-old girl scowled back at her in the mirror. Pudgy enough, at that age, to already have a protruding stomach paunch. Despite having just started puberty and growing taller, her breasts looked like fat, not like boob. They were the unappealing fleshy contours a fat man would have, moobs, not feminine assets she could push together to form cleavage. Her neck was fat, her chin—fat, fat cheeks, her entire face was wreathed in it, swaddled in layers of fat. She clutched the edges of the counter and dry-heaved. She pressed her eyes shut and took a deep breath.
Okay. Okay. It’s not that bad. I knew I had a complex about my weight and my appearance, I just… well, nothing was ever going to make me ready for this all over again. Never thought I’d miss the OLD LADY physique.
It wasn’t until her late fifties that she would drop all of the weight, mostly because of stomach ulcers that turned into a cancer scare. Not being able to eat certain foods without a trip to the hospital had finally transformed her into a rather normal-looking, even scrawny, gray-haired old woman. Her diet drastically changed, and on the orders of the nutritionist on her insurance, she enrolled in the local Taekwondo program for basic daily exercise. And that was when I became a martial arts grandmaster…
...Hah, yeah right, as if. Another prime example of her mediocrity. As the only elderly woman in that Taekwondo school, she’d been exempted from actual sparring, and never laid a finger on anyone. More often than not, she spent the classes corralling the younger ones, or resigning herself to practicing warm-ups, stretches, stances, and exercises with some of the girls who hated fighting. In the end, Tabitha felt about as qualified in Taekwondo as an amateur yoga instructor.
Although. I wonder, if… Out of a nascent whispering of curiosity, Tabitha carefully—carefully set her feet into a forward stance. Then, she shifted into a back stance. Dropping into a horse-riding stance, rising up into a tiger stance. Crossing her legs in a forward cross stance. Twisting into a backward cross stance. So, I CAN use future knowledge in my past body. At least that means those forty seven years weren’t some... absurd hallucination. Actually, these moves seem kind of… easy?
She let herself fall forwards in the scant space of her room, keeping her back rigid and catching herself with only her palms. It was a loud crash and an ugly struggle, but she just barely kept her nose from violently meeting the floor—and even managed to do a single proper pushup, before her protesting arms seemed turned to jelly and gave out on her.
Okay... doing that was dumb. But, also completely impossible, back when I was sixty. Guess it can be nice to be young. I could... actually get in shape. Not in my room, maybe. I could practice katas out in the yard?
I don’t… HAVE to be fat, this time. I’m already disgusted at the thought of eating fattening garbage like my parents always did, here. I... know how to cook, now. I can actually JOG now that I’m young again, basically whenever I want to! High school starts in, what, August? September? I can be in AMAZING shape by then! Everything can be different! All at once, the idea of changing her life began to brighten her perspective, illuminating all of the opportunities she’d been too distraught to see earlier. Her skillsets from the future may have seemed unimpressive then, but couldn’t she still apply them to the problems from her past? She’d had a lifetime to regret and dwell on all of them already, after all.
I can write my story all over again. GOBLINA, and GOBLIN PRINCESS. But, with all the feedback and techniques I’ve learned since about the story structure and pacing. AND, I can get it out there and published before the market’s oversaturated, this time. Tabitha thought, her mind racing. Julie… I can save Julie, I can fix things for her. Make everything right, so that she never even THINKS about taking her own life. I can save Mom and Dad from themselves, somehow! I can… I can do ANYTHING.
As night descended on the aging and worn mobile home lots of the Lower Park, the bright, beautiful laughter of a young girl resounded from one of the compact little rooms within.
“I’m never going to be trailer trash again.”