Solving for Oxygen

by Colin Alexander

Underwater again.

Cold green water, his stomach contracting. Diffuse light from all directions, giving no clue to the surface. He was going to die if he didn’t work the problem.

Lungs aching, he started flailing. He inhaled deeply, icy water burning the back of his throat like chlorine.

He woke in front of the machine, an airtight metal box the size of a commercial refrigerator. He blinked away the outline of halogen lights from the backs of his eyelids. He’d been having trouble sleeping. He always did, before a breakthrough.

He’d solved for energy, location, and time. He’d sent a paperclip, then a quarter, now a tennis ball. After the electric surge, they showed up where and when he’d intended. He’d found the tennis ball with his initials under the dock, fifteen years of mold and decay under the microscope. Now, he needed to solve for oxygen.


His father had wanted to play catch, but the pull of the dynamical systems and differential equations assigned by the college math department was too strong. Sitting on phone books to reach the table, he’d missed the sun setting, refracting light from the nearby lake.

“Think fast,” said his sister, a softer-featured doppelganger, but it was too late. The baseball struck his water glass. Greek letters, numbers and charts written in miniscule black pen dissolved before his eyes.


It was one thing to risk melting a paperclip, another to risk death. When he placed the writhing squirrel in the box, he told himself if things went wrong, he’d return to fix it when he eventually got it right.

The squirrel turned up in the sealed box he’d placed under the dock by the lake house, but the peanut butter and water were untouched. The progression of the bacteria in its stomach told him it had been there for two weeks, as intended. Its stiff body and bulging eyes told him he still needed to work the problem.

The process required an absence of oxygen. He’d welded the time machine himself, hand milled the door so it barely needed plastic edging to vacuum seal. Displacing the oxygen with argon gas was fine for hunks of metal and plastic, but living subjects asphyxiated.

It took two minutes, thirty-two seconds to fill the chamber with gas after adding the extra pumps. Another thirty-four seconds to charge the machine, which he couldn’t trim further. Two minutes, eight seconds to transfer a hundred and fifty-eight pound mass fifteen years into the past.

Five minutes, fourteen seconds.

He’d drugged the squirrel to reduce its heart rate, but it still breathed in the chamber, dying slowly from argon asphyxiation. The process, however, was sound.

He’d recorded holding his breath for two minutes, twelve seconds. He suspected he’d held his breath longer, but lost consciousness briefly during testing, hitting his head on the hard metal edge of his work table on the way down. Unable to calculate how long he’d been on the concrete floor, he began recording his sessions for accuracy.

He was underwater again. This time, he’d solved for the surface by emitting small bubbles from his mouth, watching them travel upwards. When he tried following them, he realized his feet were tangled in an old fishing net. He pulled hard towards the surface, and the synthetic netting cut deeply into his skin. He yanked at it, clawed, but it was no use. His body began to jerk. He saw his mother, but she was the mast of a sunken ship. An open metal locket dropped past his field of vision, but the portraits inside it faced away. One last, large bubble of oxygen escaped his lungs, and upon breaking the surface released a scream.

He took in a deep breath, then exhaled, emptying his lungs. Then he took another full breath. He relaxed, imagining a seesaw balancing. When he couldn’t hold any longer, he let the air out, taking deep inhales to recover. He held his breath at the back of his throat, not his lips. Repeated the process.

In the lake, he tracked how many laps he could complete beneath the surface.

He plateaued at four minutes, twelve seconds, then worked the problem. He could take drugs, reducing his heartbeat like the squirrel, but worried they’d compromise his mind. He tried Metroprolol. The beta-blocker left him dizzy, nauseous and slow, like other medications he’d discontinued. They also affected his sleep.

He was underwater again, shrunken. That, or the locket had gotten bigger. Its thin chain was wrapped around his waist. He couldn’t break free. The more he struggled, the more his lungs emptied, the tighter the chain became. He felt the spasms, knew he was going to die. The water felt like the center of a glacier.

He lowered the temperature of the box to sixty degrees. Cold enough to slow his metabolism, his heart rate, but not so cold as to waste energy shivering.

Four minutes, forty-seven seconds. Not enough time. Then he thought about his size in the dream. He restricted his caloric intake. He drank water and black coffee, ate hard-boiled eggs without salt. When the sheriffs came, telling him he’d be evicted the next day, he told them it didn’t matter. He’d be gone by then. He was down to a skeletal hundred thirty-two. The machine would only need four minutes, forty-four seconds for the lighter load.

He was underwater again. Under the dock, he’d spotted the bright yellow tennis ball, then dove. He was light headed, delirious, determined. He saw himself above, the barefoot boy with the book standing on wooden planks, aroused by the splash. Below the surface, he saw long blonde hair, much like his own before the grey, and a pale leg snared by pondweeds. Now, he knew not to focus on the leg. He kissed the girl with the locket, breathing oxygen from his lungs into hers. Vision blurring, he thought he saw a look of recognition in her eyes.

Now she had time to work the problem.

Colin Alexander is an attorney living in the San Francisco Bay Area with his wife. He currently reads first drafts aloud to his dog Woodrow, who is supportive, particularly when characters find bones or take walks.
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