The Backwards Man

by Preston Dennett

I remember quite distinctly the day I met him. One does not easily forget the strangest day in one’s life. It was a soggy morning, gray and overcast; fitting indeed I should think for what would soon take place. He stood at my doorstep, gripped my hand with unearned familiarity and smiling at me, attempted to enter my house.

While he appeared vaguely familiar, I was quite certain I had never made his acquaintance. “Pardon, sir,” I said abruptly, blocking his path. “But I am not in the habit of allowing strangers into my home.”

The man’s smile fell quickly, and he looked at me with such shock and sadness that I questioned myself. Had I perhaps met this man and not remembered him? No, it was not possible. His bright red cheeks and large round eyes made him an unforgettable figure. He appeared to be an older gentleman, near my age, dressed smartly. He looked friendly enough, but I felt certain I had not met him before.

“You do not remember me,” he said. It was not a question.

I searched his face and saw only sadness in his eyes. I did not know this man. “No,” I said. “If we have met on a prior occasion, please allow me to apologize. I do not remember you.”

“Oh, Stanley,” he said, “if you only knew how many times I have told you that this day would come. I just did not think it would be so soon. I should have known from the way you acted at our last meeting. You truly do not remember me?”

“No,” I said, mystified. “Should I?”

The man looked up at the sky. The light sprinkling of rain was quickly becoming a shower. “Yes, you should. And if you permit me,” he said, “I would like to explain. I fear this will be my last chance. May I come in?”

I paused for only a moment, then by some impulse pushed open the door. I watched with utter fascination as this strange man walked into my home. He knew exactly where the coat rack stood, and he flung his jacket and hat upon it with the ease of one who had done it many times before. He walked quite directly to my liquor cabinet, chose the most expensive bottle and poured himself a glass.

“Shall we go to the library?” he asked. “Your favorite room.”

“Yes,” I said, stunned. My favorite room. “I suppose you already know the way?”

“Oh, yes,” he said, laughing. “I do apologize. I confess, you made me promise not to surprise you like this, but we both knew this day was coming. Some things simply cannot be avoided. Alas, I shall not speak to you again after today. So I have allowed myself one small joke at your expense.”

Small?, I thought. I had never been so perplexed in my life. Who was this man who seemed to know me? I poured myself a glass and sprang after him. I found him already seated on a leather chair in the library. I sat down across from him and searched his face for some clue of recognition.

“I can see that you are puzzled by my appearance. You may trust, my friend, that I am as puzzled as you.”

“I quite doubt that!” I said. “You speak as if you know me, and yet, I am certain you have not been in this house before this day.”

“Oh, but I have. In fact, my dear Stanley, from my perspective I have been in here many times. I do apologize. I know this will come as a fantastic shock to you, but we are good friends, or were until of recent, when you began to forget.”

I frowned and swallowed the rest of my drink. “Now, see here,” I said. “I’ve had quite enough of this. Who are you? And why do you persist with these lies?”

“Oh, I see this is going to be more difficult than I had anticipated. Please do sit down, Stanley, and I shall attempt to explain. But please be patient. I’m afraid you are going to find this all difficult to believe. I’m not sure where to start.”

“How about your name?” I offered. If only this chap were not so friendly, I should have tossed him onto the street by now. But there was something oddly familiar about him.

He smiled. “Yes, of course. A thousand pardons. This is all so strange for me. My name is Franklin David Hawke. I know you do not remember me, but I remember you. Stanley, we have been friends for many years. I know many things about you. I could prove this to you in an instant by revealing these facts, but you made me promise not to reveal my secrets.”

“I made no such promise.”

“From my perspective, you have. Oh, this is frightfully difficult. But I see no other option. I hope you will forgive me, Stanley. What shall I tell you? Shall I speak of your fears? Your fear of cats, perhaps? Or better yet, how you have always feared water following the drowning of your sister Doris? How your dear mother, Estelle, blamed you for her unfortunate demise. Your father, he was never the same afterwards. I know, Stanley, how close you came to taking your own life.”

“How? What?” I sputtered, angry and upset. “You cannot know these things! How is it that you know all this? Tell me!” This strange ebullient fellow had stabbed precisely into the darkest of my secrets, and I’m afraid I acted rather rudely.

“You will not believe me. You were difficult to persuade during our last meeting, so I can only say that I hold little hope of convincing you today. Nevertheless, I shall essay to do my best. Would you agree, Stanley that time flows differently for different people? For example take the case of a young child waiting for Christmas morn. Time flows quite slowly for the child. And then we have an old man like you.”

“I’m not that old,” I protested. No older than you are, I thought.

Mr. Hawke continued without pause. “Time for you would flow more quickly.”

I shook my head. “A trick of perception.”

“Ah, exactly, my dear friend. A trick of perception, isn’t time nothing more than that?”

“If you have a point, Mr. Hawke, please make it.”

“Such impatience! You haven’t changed in years. I guess I may as well just say it. For me, Stanley, time flows backwards. I cannot fathom why or how, I can only tell you that with each passing day, I grow younger. I have no memory of a childhood like yours. But I do remember being old Stanley. I remember my past quite well. My past, or from your perspective, the future.”

“You can’t be serious,” I said. I eyed the doorway, imagining various strategies to evict this lunatic from my home.

“I am serious, Stanley. Oh, I didn’t want it to end this way. For you this is just the beginning of our friendship, but for me this is the end. I wanted to depart more amicably, but I can see you are getting angry, Stanley, so I will let myself out. I do apologize if I have upset you. If it is any consolation, the day will arrive when you do understand. You see, Stanley, you helped me when I needed it most.”

“Now that’s quite enough,” I said, standing. I motioned to the doorway. “You are correct about one thing only: I do not believe you. Now I suggest you vacate my home at once. I will not tolerate being made a fool.”

“I am leaving, Stanley. But remember, for you this is our first meeting. I can recall many others. Your future is my past. How do you think I know so much about you?”

“You have been spying on me. I see no other explanation. You must have broken into my home, gone through my belongings. I do not care. You are a sick man, and I will not have you in my house. You are not welcome here.”

“Goodbye, Stanley. It was nice having made your acquaintance.”

To my great relief, Mr. Franklin Hawke stood and left, pausing only once to say, “You do not believe me now, Stanley, but the truth is I have already convinced you. You will see.”

* * *

“Stop!” I said, furiously. “No more predictions.” This was at least my tenth meeting with Hawke. I had hoped never to see him again, but he kept showing up at my doorstep, and I found myself letting him in my home. For some reason I couldn’t understand, I liked the man and I secretly looked forward to our time together. Even after several visits, I couldn’t shake the feeling that this was a man whose mind had taken a journey into madness. But then there were those pestering predictions: Sunday’s awful hailstorm, the unexpected telegram announcing the success of a particularly important investment, the carriage accident right outside my home. How had he known these things? And here he was, armed with another. I held up my hand.

“Let’s say I believe you.” I said. “Let’s say all these predictions you have given me will come true and that you truly are a man from the future. It sounds like a rum story to me, but for the moment let us presume I believe. The question remains, why have you latched on to me?”

“For saving my life, Stanley. There was a time when you were my only friend. You had faith in me when nobody else did. We’ve been friends ever since. You do believe me, don’t you?”

“Your explanation seems unlikely. Perhaps you only think you are perceiving time flowing backwards.”

Franklin sighed with patience. “I wish it were so. Perhaps I am wrong, Stanley, but if you have a better explanation for how I know so much of the future and nothing of the past, I’d be obliged if you would share it. I don’t want to be this way. I don’t like being different. I don’t know why I’m like this, Stanley. I truly do not know. It certainly has not made my life easy.

“Who, may I ask is your employer?”

Franklin laughed. “Well, it just so happens that my condition, difficult as it is to live with, makes it quite easy for me to make money. I’ve always had money. I’ve never questioned where it came from. I learned long ago that I wasn’t normal. People thought I was stupid because I couldn’t remember what happened yesterday. And yet, I knew things other people didn’t know. It was all very confusing in the beginning. You helped me sort it out, Stanley.”

“So you already know everything I’m going to say?” I asked. “You’ve heard all these conversations before.”

“No, no. Don’t you understand? Both of us are having this conversation for the first time. I have no idea what you’re going to say. I could tell you some of our past conversations. But you’ve made it clear that you don’t want me to talk about your future. And I’d appreciate it if you do not speak of mine.”

“This is all so confusing.”

“Confusing for you, my friend? Imagine how it feels for me. You say that I have been in your house many times before this. I am glad to hear it, for I quite enjoy your company, but I have no memory of it. You could quite accurately tell me of my future conversations with you, and for me, it would be an utter prediction. If you think you find knowing the future uncomfortable, just imagine everybody in the world except you knowing about your entire future. It quite spoils the surprise of things.”

“I think I begin to see your point,” I said, “though I continue to find this all exceedingly perplexing.”

“Ah, on that we agree,” said Franklin. “Now, do tell me one thing. Like you, I am normally not interested in knowing of my future. But tell me this at least. Did our first meeting go well?”

* * *

“I am still quite convinced you are mad, my friend,” I said. “Or perhaps you are pulling some sort of joke on me.”

Franklin laughed uproariously. We both knew that I had passed the point of disbelief long ago. We sat in the favored library, each with a pastry in one hand and a cup of tea in the other, our Saturday morning ritual for several years running. “Stanley, you do have a marvelous sense of humor. I’m so glad to have met you. I can’t thank you enough for all that you’ve done for me.”

“I haven’t done anything, Franklin. We just sit here and talk. We’ve been doing this for years. I suspect we’re going to die doing this. I haven’t helped you at all.”

We had an agreement. He avoided speaking to me of the future, and I avoided the past. It wasn’t always easy, but we managed our best.

“Okay, Stanley. You can believe that. But I’m going to thank you anyway. Soon you’ll know why.”

“Fine,” I said. “I don’t know what it is I’ve done for you, and I don’t want to know. Let’s just leave it at that.”

“It’s good to finally have learned so many things. I think I finally understand how things work now, thanks to you. Explain to me again, Stanley, what you told me earlier, that I experience time flowing backwards from other people.”

I looked at him in surprise. “I told you that? When?” I looked sharply at him. Franklin had been changing quickly these days, becoming more and more child-like.

“Well, yes. You explained everything just a few days ago. But would you mind explaining again? I want to make sure I understand.”

“Tell me, Franklin. How long have we known each other?”

Franklin smiled cherubically. “All my life,” he answered, and took another bite of his pastry. He was enjoying it altogether too much for a grown man, I thought.

“And how long has that been?”

“I don’t know. It seems like forever.”

“How old are you?”

Franklin looked suddenly hurt. “I don’t know why you keep asking me that. I’ve told you, I don’t know.”

Lately it was like this with Franklin. I’m not sure why I continued to entertain him. I still knew almost nothing about him, what he had done with his life or who his family was. And with each passing year, he remembered less and became more like a child.

It didn’t take a genius to see that Franklin was approaching the end of his strange life. Or rather, the beginning, I corrected myself.

* * *

“You came!” said Franklin, smiling weakly from his hospital bed. He tried to rise, but was too weak.

“Of course,” I said. “We are friends, are we not?”

Franklin began to cry. “I know you say we are, Stanley. But I don’t know why you say it. We just only met. You act like you know me, but I don’t know you. I don’t remember much of anything. The doctors say I have lost my memory. They tell me I’m going to die, Stanley. Am I going to die?”

“No, Franklin,” I said. “Your case is special. You are not going to die. You are going to live a very long time, but you should know something about yourself. Let me explain.”

I felt an odd sense of déjà-vu as I explained to Franklin who he was, how he perceived time. I told him that he was just like everybody else, except for one tiny difference. He lived his life backwards. I told him enough about himself, I warranted, that he would have no choice but to believe me.

I was therefore surprised by his response.

“You are a strange man, Stanley. Why do you keep telling me this? You told me the same thing yesterday, and the day before that. Are you being serious with me?”

“Yes, Franklin,” I said. “One day you will see.”

He looked at me thoughtfully. “Well, it would explain things,” he said.

* * *

The doctors told me Franklin was near death, so I visited him daily, explaining to him his strange and unique condition. I knew the day would come, but I was shocked when it arrived so quickly.

“Franklin,” I said. “You are looking well.” I sat next to his bed and tried to ignore the disagreeable hospital odors.

He looked at me and narrowed his eyes. “I’m sorry, have we met?”

So there it was. I wasn’t sure whether to weep or laugh.

“You do not remember me?”

“No,” he said. “Should I?”

The memory of a Franklin appearing at my doorstep rose in mind. He had tried to convince me that we were friends, when I knew quite certainly that we were not. And now, evidently, I was to return the favor. It’s the least I could do for a dying man, I thought. Or rather, in Franklin’s case, one who is newly born.

Again, I did my best to convince him that we were friends and he was a man with a unique perception of time. Not surprisingly, he did not believe me and thought me quite mad. I could not blame him. He was angry and confused. He had almost no memories. He was like a baby.

That was our last meeting, or from Franklin’s perspective, our first. He died that evening. Or was born, I no longer know for certain. I only know that from my perspective, he was gone, and I had lost a friend.

I felt a strange jealousy for my strange companion. While my life would soon reach its natural end, his had only just begun.

* * *

In the weeks following Franklin’s death, I was unable to shake him from my mind. Who had this strange man been who had such a profound influence on my life? What of his childhood? His family? There must be some record.

I hired a detective, gave him the name of my friend and instructed him to retrieve Franklin’s history. I did not mention Franklin’s condition. At my age, I avoided any hint of mental aberration. I said only that Franklin was a friend.

I was not surprised when the detective returned nearly empty-handed. Franklin David Hawke had seemed to slide through life largely unnoticed.

He was an orphan, said the detective. He had been transferred from several different orphanages, apparently because of inappropriate behavior. He made several property investments at a very young age that earned him large sums of money, enough to live on for the rest of his life.

There was nothing else, nothing to answer the question as to why Franklin never sought me out after our first meeting, and yes, I shall call it our first as that is how I perceived it. What force of nature brought us together on that cold dreary day, I do not know. But I shall remember it always as the day I met a most remarkable gentleman, and a true friend.

Notes …

Preston Dennett has worked as a carpet cleaner, fast-food worker, data entry clerk, bookkeeper, landscaper, singer, actor, writer, radio host, television consultant, teacher, UFO researcher, ghost hunter and more, but his favorite job is writing speculative fiction stories and books about UFOs and the paranormal. He has sold 20 stories to Andromeda Spaceways, Grievous Angel, Perihelion, and many other venues, and has written 18 non-fiction books and more than 100 articles.  He has also earned nine honorable mentions in the Writers of the Future Contest. He spends his days looking for new ways to pay his bills, and his nights exploring the farthest reaches of the Universe.  He currently resides in a crowded suburb outside of Los Angeles, California.

Preston Dennett writes, “Sooner or later, every SF writer tackles the time travel trope.  It’s hard to find anything new on such a well-beaten path, and this story was my attempt to do it.  The idea came to me while reading about the possibility that time can flow not only forwards, but backwards as well.  Time flowing backwards? Now what, I wondered, would that be like?

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2 comments on “The Backwards Man
  1. Connie Platt says:

    Interesting concept. Not sure I understood but still an enjoyable read.

  2. Dick Noble says:

    excellent dialogue that kept the tension up and very nice reversal of roles during the second part of the story

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