Bad Timing

What he saw was so out of place that for a moment he questioned whether he had jumped through time. There somebody was, right in front of him, talking on a cellphone! It was pressed to her face hard enough to leave lines on her face, if she ever peeled it off. He definitely was not in 1814 anymore. What was happening?

“Harold,” he said to himself, “Don’t be ridiculous. Take a breath.” He took a long, steadying breath. He blew out, lips pursed, and shook himself. Of course he had jumped through time. He couldn’t very well have stayed in 1814 forever. It was simply too difficult, tripping over ladies’ hoop skirts all day and having to worry about tuberculosis and such. Not to mention the cows. Centuries ago, there were entirely too many cows all over the place. And then there were horses, too. It was just not to be borne, and so Harold would be very glad to be back, once he got over the shock.

It was always a jolt to his system every time that the time changed. The jump wasn’t a choice, exactly. Once, he had been able to control it. With just a squint of his eyes and a moment of concentration, he could skip back to the Jurassic Period and run from some dinosaurs until he got bored and decided to come back. He had done that, and some other epochs as well, until once in the early Middle Ages he had gotten stuck. He had lived among the filthiest people for a full year before he was able to pull himself back to the present. That seemed like a good time for a break, and several hot baths in a row. Eight of them, actually. Luckily, nothing bubonic had happened yet when he had been, or anything else that came back with him. It was, in a manner of speaking, a clean break.

Eventually the skips had just started happening, dragging him along without his doing anything and certainly without his consent. There really is only so much time one person can spend in the past. Before too long, you get bogged down, held back, tied up, and entirely irritated. All in all, Harold was relieved to see a cell phone, though he’d been in the nineteenth century for such a time that it took him a full ten minutes for figure out what had happened.

“Well, I supposed I’d better get out of these clothes,” he muttered, tugging at the cravat. Once he had untucked his blouse from his pants and disposed of the frock coat, he felt almost normal. At least when he traveled, he stayed in approximately the same place. This had been awkward for a while until he figured out that he’d better make sure the heights matched. He’d gotten quite good at doing research on past architecture and geology. This meant that he wasn’t far from home, now that he was back to his time. He could walk, and he did.

When he got home, the door was locked. Nineteenth-century gentlemen don’t carry around twenty-first-century house keys, so of course he didn’t have one with him. There should have been one under the frog statue, but he couldn’t even find the frog. “Bloody hell,” he said to himself, and pounded on the door in frustration. He sagged.

“Yes?” Harold almost fell into the hallway when the door swung open. A young woman was looking at him, a phone in one hand and a sponge in the other. Her eyes narrowed to see a disheveled man in a blouse with sideburns falling down. He looked up at her.

“Cecilia?” He was flabbergasted. His mouth hung open.

“Yes, Harold?” She was impatient, and fit herself into the crack between the door and the frame so that he couldn’t see past her.

“What on earth are you doing here? You, um, you died. You died in 1813. A year ago. I mean, two hundred and two years ago. What? What.”

She rolled her eyes. “You’re such a man. My goodness. You think you’re the only person in the universe, the only person like you, and the rest of the humans are all just little ants or something, don’t you?”

“What. What? What?”

She slapped him across the face. Gently. “Well, you couldn’t expect everyone to live like that forever, right? I was quite fond of you, but my God, embroidery gets very boring. And I didn’t know you could time travel too. I’d just gone on little trips before, ones that I could get away with.”

“What?” Harold scrunched up his face and opened his eyes wide. He was definitely awake. “You’re a, I mean, you time traveled?”

Cecilia sighed. “Yes, I did. And do. And I came here because I thought two hundred years would make a nice change. I looked up your last name, on a whim, and was very surprised when I found you. There can’t be that many Harold Edgartonvilles in the world, so I lied to a locksmith and got into your house. I’ve been living here ever since. I didn’t expect you back, honestly.”

Harold stared at her. It was like a fairy story. “It’s like a fairy story,” he said.

“Why?”

Suddenly he was nervous. “I mean, because I liked you. Um, I loved you. And then you died? But now you’re here.”

She smiled. He had missed that dimple in her cheek, and the way she glanced down when she was happy about something. “So my parents said I’d died, huh? Of course they did. They probably assumed I’d run away or something. Can’t have that. How weird.”

“Cee, uh, what about me though? You’re living in my house. I need to live here. And you could, you know, say something back about how I feel. How you feel. We’re not in the nineteenth century anymore.”

“Oh,” she said, her dimple deepening. “I can answer you.” She tilted her face up and looked him in the eyes.

He blinked and the world wrenched itself around his body. When his eyes opened again, he was in the countryside. In a field, far off, he could see a peasant girl bent to the ground. He was surrounded. He sighed. Cows again. So many cows.

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Breath

He had missed the lilt of her eyelashes when she looked up at him. Sam missed her intoxicating smile and the comfort, the cool sheer relief, of seeing the wisps of hair curl away from her face the way they always did. All was quiet in the room, though he was breathing a bit too loudly, from the nerves. She was patient, fingers pleating and smoothing the fabric of her blouse. He could almost smell her perfume, faint and sweet.

“I miss you,” Sam said, and she nodded. He took a deep breath, filled himself with air, and launched into speech. “I missed you for a long time and I still kind of miss you. I can see you right there in front of me and it’s like you’re not really there, and I miss you still. You look at me like you’re looking over a long distance and you barely recognize me, like you don’t care, like you don’t want me. What’s wrong with me that you’d leave me? What’s wrong with me that you don’t want me? I’m sorry, love, I am. I love you anyway, but I don’t understand. Why don’t you love me anyway? Why don’t you love me still?” He paused to catch his breath, and his gulp for air snagged in the silence after his words.

She didn’t move. She sat folded in the armchair, her legs under her. She didn’t make a sound. She just looked at Sam with her dark eyes welling with tears, but he didn’t know why. It could have been sadness or anger or fear. Or he could be imagining it. He was choking on his disappointment and his pain. The bemusement in the twist of her mouth was clogging his throat, like sawdust he’d swallowed. It tasted bitter in his mouth. The words he wanted to say were crammed in his chest until his ribs ached with them. They crowded until they burst out again, all tripping through his mouth.

“I just can’t, I don’t know what else to say, but why are you so far away? Why, I mean, what happened to make it like this? I want to be able to go back, you know? I want to make it like it was. Or at least, I don’t know, I want to be able to have what we did, but better. I know it’s not like that and I know that everything happened like it did, but my god, I don’t know.” He stopped talking for a moment. The sunlight from the window had turned yellow and bright in the last gasp of day. She moved in her seat, and the light shifted and trickled down her face and shoulder like gold. He took a deep, shuddering breath.

“I didn’t think that would really be the end. I didn’t really think about it, I mean, I didn’t let it sink into me that you were just going to be gone like this. It still is hard to think it, like it’s not real, that it’s never going to be like that again. How can that even be? That it’s just gone and there’s no getting it back? That seems like it can’t really happen. I can’t believe it. I really can’t. That I’ll never get a chance to have you again, to be yours again, to make it right and make it real? How could I let that be true?” Sam rocked back against his chair, as though the words had given him a parting kick on their way out.

She looked at him with crinkled brows and a different twist to her mouth now. It might have been pity. His words were still repeating through his head, a skipping song lyric stuck and playing over again. She shrugged, and faded, and then she was gone. The armchair she’d been sitting on was smooth and undisturbed, without a dent or wrinkle. Sam slumped, his shoulders loose and his head lolling back. He was still grasping at the air with lungs full of dust. The room was just starting to empty of light, the shadows stretching from one wall nearly to the next. The lamp hanging from the ceiling seemed brighter now, bravely bursting with light in the oncoming dark. Sam sighed, his breath soughing over the heavy knot in his throat, and glared at the empty room.

Empty Chambers

For Rent: Two chambers of the heart belonging to a 31-y-o woman, available for lease or sublet, mostly furnished, very clean and spacious. Please contact Meredith Elton, 839-2983 or email meredith.love@hotmail.com.

There were often long stretches when nobody answered the ad. Meredith got busy during those times. She reorganized the kitchen and swept clean the tiled floor. She wiped down the counters and table and she did loads upon loads of laundry. She sat in front of her computer and hit “refresh” while the same page disappeared and returned, still with no answers. Usually it was a while before she heard anything, but usually too there was an inquiry from someone before she started to seriously worry. Only once did the waiting go on long enough that she had no laundry left to do and no reconfiguration of cabinets to try. It had been so long that Meredith was probably less careful than she should have been. When a new email finally slipped into her inbox, her pulse stuttered. She flew up and sat herself back down. Her fingers twitched and hurried over the keyboard.

They set up a time to meet for an interview the following week. When she walked into the café, she recognized her new tenant at once. It was a man this time, a lanky bearded man with blue eyes and dark hair. He smiled when he saw her. She sat across from him and they had a pleasant conversation. The words shivered and dropped into the air between them like coins into water, shimmering to some distance away and then resting at the bottom. The words didn’t matter so much. Meredith had already decided that this would work.

The man moved in at the start of the next month. She helped him. It was difficult at first, between the heavy furniture and the boxes filled with the miscellany of his life, but it all seemed to fit, more or less. She was sure that even the oddities would find a home on a shelf somewhere. He seemed very glad at first to be there. He looked into her with a smile she knew would grow familiar, and she trusted him. She gave him the keys and a brief lecture on things he shouldn’t do, though she told him she was sure she didn’t need to say these things. They rested their tired shoulders against the bare wall and watched the light filter in through the windows.

She was often wary about people staying in the chambers of her heart. After they left, the lease done with and ripped up and the keys returned, there was work to do. She had to scrub the traces of them from the rooms they had just left. She had to pick up the litter they left crumpled in the corners. She had to decide what to do with the movie posters, the folk music CDs and the canned black beans left hiding around corners like thieves. Then she had to get used to her empty heart again. She walked through the rooms that echoed with each footfall and paused in the hall, knowing that nobody could see her there with her hand caught in half a caress of the doorframe and her fingers fitted to the bumps in the molding.

With this new man Meredith was not wary. She didn’t worry about the scuff marks of his shoes on the floors or the scrapes he might leave on the counters. He settled himself into her heart and she let him without reservations. He looked like he belonged there. She thought the color of the carpet in the bedroom was just the same shade as his eyes. The windows were the right height for him to look from and his bookshelves fit across the living room wall as though made for them. He walked into her heart and belonged there like nobody else had done.

When he left it was a surprise. They were halfway through the lease. She knocked one day and nobody answered. When she went back for her spare keys and let herself in, worried, there was nobody there. She found a note taped to the refrigerator with too few words on it. She let herself sink in sadness against its cold smooth surface. She’d thought this one might stay. He’d taken most of his things. She walked through the rooms, forcing herself to step through each doorway and look at the neatly made bed, the swept floors, the empty bookcases he must have decided to leave. He hadn’t left her anything to do. It was all clean, without even a whisper of him. Her heart was left empty.

Meredith had to be busy, so she did her own laundry. She cleaned her kitchen and she swept her floors. She stayed out of the chambers of her heart. She had nothing to do there. She spent her time crinkling her forehead at stains and resting her aching back. She hasn’t decided yet whether she will let out her heart to someone else again.

Yellow Moon Future

He couldn’t find himself in the painting. Mason knew he was there. He’d felt the shapes of his head and his shoulders somewhere, and he felt the curve of the light slipping against his skin in the tender smudge of yellow. It could have been anywhere though, anywhere tucked into the details of the trees and the buildings. He’d painted a slow yellow moon precarious on the horizon, fat and round against the deep blue-black of the sky. When he looked at the painting, he tried to look for himself. The moon kept pulling his gaze back, though. It almost shone from the canvas. Sometimes he was amazed at the light that came from the smeared shapes of oil and pigment.

There – maybe he was there, in the corner. What was he doing? Mason squinted, leaned, and smiled. There he was, definitely. Now that he’d found it, it seemed obvious. The light trickling down the side of his neck was a ridge standing out from the painting. It would be bumpy and hard when it dried. He – the him in the painting, the little one – was curled against a tree, fitted into the waves of the trunk. The leaves spread out over him in points of light, like a string of Christmas decorations pinned up on the sky. When he looked, Mason could see his head bent and his arms clenched around his knees. He wondered what he was doing, what he was feeling, when this would happen.

The Moon as seen in Hockessin, Delaware.

As it turned out, it was only the next week. Once the paint dried and he could run his hand across the wrinkly-smooth surface of it, the moon was hanging heavier in the sky. He drove out to see Alan. When he pulled up to the house and got out of the car, the balance of the light on the trees and the shape of the leaves on the sky was suddenly and differently familiar. In his painting he hadn’t noticed that forest there, but when he saw the trees he could see his own strokes curling up the sides and pressing in the shadows. When he got into the house he knew something was wrong.

Alan made him a cup of tea. Mason was fidgeting, at once, his fingers moving to scoop the sugar and turn and pour, as he usually did. His heart tapped a rapid tattoo against his ribs. He watched the steam puff and billow over Alan’s shoulders and thought it might spill down his hunched back, the bony spine that curved toward Mason while the rest of his body reached away. Alan poured, stirred, and turned to bring the cup over to the table. When he sat down, Alan looked into the shimmering surface of the tea and said, “Listen, honey, I want to talk to you about something.”

When it was over and the silence had stretched too long, Mason escaped. He curled and bent like Alan had, like a leaf withering and twisting on the ground in the autumn, like he was trying to fold into himself or wrap around the edge of pain in his throat where he wouldn’t let the tears come. He walked, without thinking, not toward his car. He got to the edge of the trees and listened to the creak of the forest, the chirp of the birds and crickets, the timid crunch of his shoes on the bits of forest carpeting the ground. He nearly walked into a tree. It loomed over him, leaves tipping and straightening in the night breeze like uncertain dancers. Mason knelt and leaned, fit himself against the curve of the tree and nestled into it like a lost lover. He stayed there, huddled against the tree, until he realized that he had painted these moments. A canvas at home was splashed with the colors and the beauty of this heartbreak. He closed his eyes then against the glitter of light on the edges of leaves, the fat yellow moon, the forbidden glow of the windows half-hidden.

Apart

I said goodbye to you without crying. I left what remained on the sidewalk there with you to be run over, stepped on and kicked aside. There wasn’t much left anyway.

Ours was a relationship that crumbled. We held it tight in our sweaty hands, clasped together, but it was seeping slowly through the cracks. We tried to catch it and let it pile again, make a shape, build on our palms. All it did was run over our skin. It was smooth as it dripped and slipped and slid away, it was soft and lovely, and then it was gone.

Perhaps, someday, we will find one again. A relationship, a life, something. We will never find those powdery remnants of love that was. Those are lost. Maybe someday we will find a new place, a new way, and it will be something too strong and solid to ever crack. It will never crumble. We will never have to grasp, frantic and falling, at one another to hold it together.

Five Minutes to Breathe

Clouds stood crisp and white against the blue of the sky. The edges furled and wrinkled, faraway fjords in nothing but sunlit mist. It looked so close that he could touch it. Higher up the clouds dissolved and swirled like sheer scarves of gauze. Brian settled back onto the grass, letting the soft blades tickle the back of his neck and his shoulders. He had five minutes left. Then he’d have to get back to the factory for another four hours. He let out a long, slow breath.

A sigh sounded next to him. He’d nearly forgotten that Tam was next to him. She scooted over to press her arm against his. The warmth of her skin thrilled against his own, deeper and more solid than the sun melting on his face. He turned his head to smile at her. She was looking at the sky too, her eyes fixed on a cloud or maybe just lost in the dusty blue. He smiled at her profile instead, at the intent eyes and the peace smoothing her face.

After a moment she turned and saw him looking. They were so close that her breath whispered against his cheek. Abruptly she shifted, pushing a hand onto his shoulder to lever herself up. Once standing she offered a hand and pulled him to his feet. She kept her hand in his, her fingers small in his, and tugged him toward the road. “We should start walking back,” she said. Her voice was husky after the silence, raw in the still air.

Trees and sunlight

Photo credit: Takashi(aes256)

They walked side by side on the scruffy grass at the side of the road. She let go of him, and his hand felt empty. He curled it into a fist, and his curled hand hung by his side. The sun was high in the sky. The trees were shattered kaleidoscopes of light. The greens and yellows and blues tangled and sliced together, bright and beautiful. Brian could never walk past this street without staring a little. Even after six years in this town, his eyes went to it at once and stayed.

Tam checked her watch. She had to get back at the same time as he did, though she was going to the school instead of the factory. They were right across the street from each other, though. They stole off nearly every day during lunch to slip down to that secret spot of theirs. Sometimes they even brought food, though mostly they forgot. That had been their tradition for a year, since Brian graduated and had been working at the factory. On days when Tam couldn’t meet him, he wandered around listlessly. Sometimes he felt like when he didn’t see her he was holding his breath. The world faded a little bit, and when she was there again it was like the air rushed back into him and he could breathe again.

They were still a ways away from the school factory. They should have left earlier. Lines were creasing in Tam’s forehead as she fiddled with her watch. “We’re going to be late,” she said. Her voice had evened out, losing the quiet rasp it always got when she didn’t speak for a while. He loved that rasp.

“Race you back,” he said. Tam grinned, and then sprinted off. “Hey!” he called, jumping forward. She laughed back at him over her shoulder, her eyes bright in the midday sun. She ran, her feet kicking up little puffs of dust and her elbows swinging. Brian took a quick deep breath and followed.

Darkening

The people in the park around them were dark and blank against the slipping light of the sunset. The skyline jutted in great bricks of black to carve shapes out from the sky, where the colors spread and dripped past the horizon. Charlotte closed her eyes, leaning against the warmth of his chest, and sighed.

Martin’s arms tightened around her, and she turned to him. He wasn’t looking at her, and she tipped her face up. He noticed, after a moment, his eyes flaring. He kissed her, a brief touch, and then let her nestle against him again. He didn’t move to hold her. Before long, of course, he wanted to leave. They walked, hands clasped, down the street and toward her place.

When they got into the apartment, Martin hissed out an exasperated breath. It was a mess. It was always a mess. He had used to think it was cute, the way she forgot about her coffee mugs and dropped discarded clothes over chairs. That had been months and months ago, though. She scurried from one corner to another, catching up dishes and shoving them to clatter together in the sink, flicking the sweater and the scarf into the bedroom. “Sit, babe, I’m just going to get some water.” He sat and she hid in the kitchen for a moment.

In March, when they were still flushed and smiling about one another, she’d said nearly the same thing. The words rang in her head with the memory echoing behind them. He’d stood instead, surprised her at the sink and wrapped his arms around her waist. She’d set the glass down and turned, forgetting to turn off the tap so she could kiss him.

Charlotte watched the water fill the glass. She thought it would be very dramatic to stare and let it overflow until her hand was shiny and slipping, but she didn’t. She could hear the chair creaking from where Martin was shifting his weight in the other room. The glass wobbled in her hand, water leaning closer to the edge, threatening to spill. She carried it out of the kitchen and sat across the table from her boyfriend.

The room was tinged with darkness. She’d forgotten to flip the light switch. Martin’s hand was on the table, the window sending its shadow to stretch long and straight away from the light. She reached for his hand, curling her fingers around his. He didn’t move, and she felt a heaviness settle in her chest. She was used to the feeling. In the shadowy room she watched him hold still, his eyes downcast, away from her. After a long moment he looked up.

“Actually, Charlotte, I should probably get going. I told Mike we could hang out tonight, you know, I should go grab some food before I meet him. Or we could go for dinner, I don’t know. You okay?”

“Yeah,” she smiled at him. The sadness sat and swelled. “Sure.” Martin stood, slipping his hand from hers, and walked to the door.

He half-turned to her, sitting in the darkened room by herself, and spoke over his shoulder as he opened the door. “I’ll text you or something tomorrow. Love you.”

“Okay,” she said, watching him go. “Bye.”