An ON TIME Excerpt: “The Time Loop Loophole” by Madison Estes

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Enjoy an excerpt from Madison Estes’s “The Time Loop Loophole” featured in our new anthology ON TIME.

Vincent Stanson used to volunteer at a local nursing home, not because he loved doing gazillion piece puzzles with old people who weren’t all there in the head, or because he loved the smell of folks who no longer had full control of their bladders, but simply because the understaffed place needed help keeping the residents entertained. He also watched his sister’s kids every other Saturday since she couldn’t afford a babysitter. Vincent pretended he looked forward to Saturday nights with three kids under the age of ten because his sister felt guilty about not being able to pay him. Pretending he lived for his nephews and nieces’ affection gave her enough relief to keep asking him for help when she needed a break. As a single mom, she needed a lot of breaks. 

Vincent also always tipped his waiter even if the service was bad, gave every homeless guy this side of Houston a couple bucks, and helped his elderly neighbors with their yardwork.

I know I am making him sound like a remarkable guy. That’s because he kinda was. Just don’t get too attached to him, because he dies in this story. It’s a real downer, but that’s why I’m warning you ahead of time. So you can’t say you went into this not knowing.

It all started with an invite to Ryan Wendt’s birthday party. Ryan is known for throwing crazy parties that get a little out-of-hand. Vincent and I went to one last year where people were cannonballing into a swimming pool with all their clothes on, which is your standard stupid drunk college jackass behavior, except that they were doing it from the roof. Blindfolded. And there was the time some guy ended up on fire because of a poorly aimed firecracker. He was all right though, and people laughed about it later. Much later.

Other things make Ryan’s parties popular. Once, Ryan had a slip-and-slide filled with beer. Another time, he had a dunk tank filled with beer, and on Halloween, he had a cauldron for apple bobbing, except instead of water, there was—you guessed it—beer. A lot of Ryan’s parties are basically just adding beer to regular activities, but people clap and high-five every time, so it gets the job done. And of course, there’s beer pong and drinking games and this version of Dungeons & Dragons that involves doing shots when a NPC dies or a character drinks in the game. I don’t know exactly how it works; there are a lot of rules, and I prefer role playing video games. 

His parties are pretty great if you’re one of those people who likes voluntary socialization. As for me, I’m pretty selective about who I spend my social hour of the week with. Every now and then, I go a little crazy, decide to go to a party, and usually end up wondering why I thought I’d like it when I almost never do. And of course, the party that led to Vincent dying is no exception.

Anyway, Vincent got the invite and asked me to come along. Our conversation went exactly like this:

“Hey, do you want to go to Ryan’s party tonight?” Vincent asked, staring at his phone. “I hear they are going to have a moonwalk. A bunch of drunks and a moonwalk sounds like a hilarious combination.”

“Yeah, if you like being covered in vomit,” I said as I froze my enemies with an Endothermic Blaster. 

“Nah, we can just watch. And there will be other stuff.”

“Yeah, beer pong, beer D&D, and after a couple of hours, beer goggles.”

“Those beer goggles could work in our favor.”

“Like you need it.”

“I am not the Adonis that you think I am, bro. And I was just joking. Anyway, are you going to go? Overwatch will still be here when you get back.”

“All right. Give me a couple minutes to shower.”

When we got there, Alexandria walked over to us. She tells people to call her by her full name, not Alex but Alexandria. She always brings her hot friends, so we all put up with her “I can’t drink anything but white rum or else I get a bad hangover” demands and everything else that comes with her being extra. 

“Hey, Alex,” I said when we walked in, just to start shit.

“It’s Alexandria, not Alex.” She narrows her eyes, but I was already focused on her friend Kaitlyn. Our gazes locked. She has the cutest smile, with dimples and two tiny lines near the corners of her mouth. Before I could think of something clever to say, Alexandria-not-Alex was already grabbing poor Vincent and practically dragging him with her into the kitchen. Vincent looked over his shoulder, mouthing “help me,” and I sighed. Kaitlyn would have to wait.

“I gotta go save him,” I said. 

Kaitlyn nodded, and I left, hopeful we’d have time to talk later. Even though she was Vincent’s ex, he told me they ended things on good terms and gave me his permission to violate bro code and ask her out, further proving Vincent’s status as the most-selfless man in the world. Getting the courage to do it, or to even talk to her, was another matter.

So I followed Vincent and Alexandria into the kitchen where she was pawing at him while he tried to discreetly get away. I cleared my throat and asked very loudly about her boyfriend, and she soured.

“Ex-boyfriend,” she said. “And look, here he is.”

A bunch of lame drama followed, and Vincent and I snuck away. I spent the rest of the evening trying to get up the courage to talk to Kaitlyn while Vincent tried to get me to socialize. It was all horrible, and I try not to relive those moments.

Around 2 AM, the sky went from black to green. Several bright shooting stars lit up the sky, or at least, I assumed that’s what they were. Some people pulled out their cameras and started recording. Vincent and I went outside to get a better view. 

“What do you think it is?” he asked.

“Government experimentation,” I said. “You?”

“Aliens.”

“You always say aliens.”

As if to validate a lifetime of conspiracy theories, his skin started to glow green. I screamed, a high-pitched unmanly scream as green goo poured from his eyes, nose, and mouth. He trembled, then violently jerked before collapsing on the floor. 

Vincent died, and then a few seconds later, I was back in our apartment playing Overwatch, and he was inviting me to Ryan Wendt’s birthday party again.

***

You get desensitized to horrible things a lot faster than you think you would. The first time, you scream in horror because you don’t know anything about the time loop. You’re witnessing the death of your friend—green glowy light radiating from their skin, green glowy goo seeping out of every orifice, and I do mean every orifice. Your friend’s hellish screaming mingles with your own. The second time, you panic because you think you only have one chance to save your friend from their fate. When they die, you feel like you failed them until the moment when it all starts again. 

The third time, you are just confused and nervous, wondering if—yep, it’s happening again. The next few times are still unpleasant because green glowy deaths are not super fun to watch your loved one go through, but by the dozenth time, you are just kinda…bored, waiting for the loop to do its thing. Although it was interesting for a little while, maybe the seventh or eighth time, since I knew Vincent wasn’t going to stay dead, but the novelty wore off pretty quickly. Now Vincent’s death bores the shit out of me, like a cutscene you can’t skip.

I have no idea how many times I’ve lived through this time loop. I’ve lost count. I’ve tried changing this night so many times that eventually everything blurs into everything else. 

Have you ever heard of the butterfly effect? If you change one small detail, you can alter the course of history in major, unpredictable ways. A flap of a butterfly’s wings can cause a hurricane halfway around the world. Stopping to kiss your kids goodbye makes you five seconds late to the intersection where a huge truck decides to run the red light, and those extra seconds give you just enough time to see it and avoid collision. Or what about sleeping in and missing that fateful flight on September 11, 2001, like Seth McFarlane did? 

Imagine a world without Family Guy. I’d like to.

Well, I’m here to tell you that the butterfly effect is absolute bullshit. Most decisions you make don’t have any huge consequences—or any consequences. Fortunately or unfortunately, whatever you do or say doesn’t matter most of the time. No matter what I do, Vincent still ends up at that stupid party with its lame people and moonwalk and possibly aliens. 

Example #1 (Approximately My Four-Hundredth Attempt to Rescue Vincent)

“Hey, do you want to go to Ryan’s party tonight? I hear they are going to have a moonwalk. A bunch of drunks and a moonwalk sounds like a hilarious combination.”

“No, let’s just stay home and watch Breaking Bad or something. I’ve got a long Netflix queue.” 

That I have watched several times thanks to the time loop.

“Again? We should do more than just sit around and watch television and play video games. Why don’t we live a little?”

“We could go to the movies.”

“Oh my gosh, all we ever do is watch people do stuff. Don’t you want to do things? Have adventures?”

“Adventures are overrated.”

“Whatever, man.”

He left without me.

Example #2:

“Hey, do you want to go to Ryan’s party tonight? I hear they are going to have a moonwalk. A bunch of drunks and a moonwalk sounds like a hilarious combination.”

“Hey, let’s do literally anything but that.”

“Oh my God, you’re no fun. Blah blah blah—nagging, guilt trip, bribery, more nagging—blah blah blah.”

He left without me again.

Example #3:

“Hey, do you want to go to Ryan’s party tonight? I hear—”

“No, we should glue fake eyeballs to our skin and learn to speak to mermaids.”

He rolled his eyes before he left.

Just so you know, I suggested dozens of other things before I proposed mermaid linguistics. Everything from bowling to mini golf to laser tag. Nothing I said could convince him not to go to that party, and nothing I did short of tying him to a chair could stop him once he decided to go. Get this, I even crashed the car, and he still ended up at that party. We tried to hitchhike our way home because his phone died and I left mine at home. The people who picked us up were on their way to a party. Guess which one? We ended up being thirty minutes late, but it didn’t change anything, except we missed running into Alexandria-not-Alex—that alone was worth crashing the car. Same boring conversations, green sky, possible aliens, and time loop. So unlike preventing a collision at an intersection or getting on an ill-fated flight, most actions don’t have serious consequences that change the future in unforeseeable ways. At most, you’ll probably miss some lame small talk or dumb drama.

Some things are just meant to be.

No matter what I do, Vincent still goes to the party and dies. I’ve tried stopping this sequence of events at several different points during the night, and it seems to me that the easiest way to stop it, if that’s even possible, is to stop him from ever going to the party in the first place. 

So that’s why right after Vincent suggested going to the party for the five-hundredth time, I tied him up with duct tape and the cords from a couple of video game controllers. I had to improvise—not enough time to go to your local bondage store. He’s currently sitting in our living room. It’s been about thirty minutes since I checked on him and two hours total since I tied him up. I have no idea if this will work, or what will happen if this does work. Does Vincent still die if the time loop is stopped since he died in the original timeline? I don’t know. I suppose stopping the time loop before Vincent dies would create a time paradox. I don’t know a lot about that subject, but you never hear anything good about time paradoxes. Most of it is sort of in the realm of “time freezes indefinitely, end-of-the-world, you create a parallel universe, you stop existing, you never existed, everything just explodes or implodes, etc.” It’s all very doomsday-like. 

But you know, maybe it’s all bullshit like the butterfly effect. 

I’m willing to take the risk. 

Because maybe a time loop isn’t that different from a high score or the final boss in a video game. You either beat it, or you don’t. And if you are lucky, maybe you get to try again until you win.

(Fifteen minutes later)

Well, the bad news is, I just checked on Vincent, and he’s gone. Tipped the chair over, got out of the cords somehow. Probably chewed his way out like a rat. Left a not-so-happy voicemail on my phone mentioning going to the police. I tried calling him, but of course, his phone is dead again. Even if he’s going to the cops to tell them what a psycho I am—and an ineffective one at that—I imagine that somehow, someway, he’s still going to end up at Ryan’s party, if he’s not there already. Maybe his car will break down on the way to the police station, and he’ll get picked up by the same couple who gave us a ride after our car crashed. The timeline isn’t quite right; they should be at the party already, but maybe by tying Vincent up, I somehow altered their night, and they arrived just in time to give him a ride. Or maybe, Vincent gets picked up by another group going to the party. Or maybe, he makes it to the police station, but the cops get a noise complaint that reminds Vincent he’s missing an awesome party on account of his roommate’s mental breakdown, so one of the cops feels sorry for him and gives him a ride. 

I’d call Ryan, but I’m pretty sure I know where Vincent is and where he will be at 2:09. Again. Maybe next time when I tie Vincent up, I’ll sit and watch him the whole time. Maybe that will finally make this all stop. I have my doubts, but what else can I do? I either keep fighting the time loop boss, or I give up. Spend the rest of my life doing whatever I want in nine-hour intervals while Vincent goes to the fatal party over and over again.

There is one way I could try to close the loop that I haven’t tried yet. I call it the time loop loophole. If I can’t keep Vincent from going to the party and becoming a part of a time loop, I could…well, I don’t want to think about what I could do instead. Even though I have thought about it. A lot, lately. But it’s not an option. What’s the hurry, after all? It’s not like I’m totally trapped. I can do whatever I want on the last few hours of Vincent’s life. Vincent is stuck doing the same thing over and over, but he doesn’t know that, so he doesn’t mind. And it was a good day for him, until he dies. At least he’s not stuck babysitting. 

OnTimeBookCoverKINDLE

Madison Estes has had work featured in anthologies by HellBound Books, Twisted Wing Productions, Transmundane Press, Soteira Press, TANSTAAFL Press, and Abomination Media. She is a recipient of the Mystery Writers of America Helen McCloy scholarship. She received an Honorable Mention from the Ron L. Hubbard Writers of the Future contest. Her work is forthcoming in Unexpected Heroines(Grimbold Books) and Tales From Gehenna (Gehenna and Hinnom). She is currently working with six other writers on The Complete Guide to Writing Horror Vol 1. commissioned by Dragon Moon Press. 

She lives in southeast Texas and has three dogs. She enjoys reading, drawing, painting, and swimming in her spare time. 

ON TIME is out now. Get your copy at AmazonBarnes & NobleKobo, or the exclusive hardback at transmundanepress.com.

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