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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On Seeing

“You just have to have faith,” she told me. “It’s all there right in front of you if you would just open your eyes.”
My eyes were open. I could see everything in front of me. “My eyes are open,” I said.
“No,” she shook her head, hair swinging, lips pressed together. “They’re not. You’re refusing to see. Why?”
I shrugged. “There’s nothing to see.” I didn’t see anything. We were walking down the street. The sidewalk was gray. It was always gray, spotted and pitted and stained like it always was. The buildings were brick and concrete and steel just like usual. The men sitting on the steps hooted at us as we walked past, as they did every day. I didn’t see anything whatsoever out of the ordinary.
She closed her eyes. Her steps didn’t waver. Her hand reached mine, fingers entwining. “I can see,” she said.
“Your eyes are closed.”
She nodded. A smile puffed up her cheeks. She pulled my hand up and against her chest, hard. I heard a whistle, but as if it were far away. I saw.

The air moved. The stumpy trees, crowded between street and sidewalk, breathed. The man eyeing us from the corner made a small noise in the back of his throat. I saw it. I reached up to my face, but it hadn’t changed. My eyes were the same, wide open and staring but no bigger. They felt hot, but my fingers felt no heat through my eyelids. Everything was vibrating, shimmering, wrapped in silver and ringing. I blinked, and watched the slow motion movement of my vision shrinking as the bodies in front of me shifted, like walking through sand, running through water, held in place by time and the gleaming shattering air all around them.

When I opened my eyes again, she had dropped my hand. The world was normal again. The man on the corner was now looking at us with undisguised curiosity, his mouth twisted. Somebody’s dropped bottle of soda rolled across the sidewalk. She was looking at me, her eyes wide now, her lips tucked in.
“What?” I said, pushing hair back from my face, shaking my head.
“You stopped,” she said. “Did you see something? What happened?”
“I don’t know,” I said, closing my eyes tight for a moment. “Everything went funny for a second. What am I supposed to’ve seen?”
“Magic.”
“Magic? Please.”
She raised her shoulders, hands outspread, mouth still crinkled. “Maybe.”
I grabbed her hand again, and we started walking. My legs felt weak, shaking, as though I’d just climbed the longest stairway. “No,” I said, not looking at her. “Come on, be real. There’s no such thing.”
She was quiet.

Sometimes I still see it out of the corner of my eyes. Once you see like that, I guess, it’s learned. You can’t really unsee. Your eyes already know the shapes and patterns, the light that fills everything. The shuddering of the shadows and the way the brightness shakes, presses, bursts. The contrasts are overwhelming. It gives me a headache. I can’t wish I’d never seen. I just pretend that I didn’t, though. I press my fingers to my temples and take a breath and then go on as though nothing has happened at all.
She looks at me oddly when that happens, when she notices. It happens more around her, I think. It makes it hard to be around her, but of course I do anyway. I can’t stop loving her just because I see magic when I’m with her. She’s worth the pain in my head and that brief, disconcerting feeling that the world has shifted just an inch or so in between each shuttering of my eyelids. When she looks at the world, there is wonder written in the lines of her face. I understand why, I suppose, even though when I look at the world it’s ordinary at best. At worst, the beauty and the terror fleeting across my vision make me want to crouch down, eyes closed, head safely inside my arms and nothing before me.
Either way, we keep going, together. There isn’t much else to do, is there? Not for me, anyway. This is just how it always is. Her beauty, my pain. At the end of the day when we curl around each other, it’s night. The room is dark. The lights are off. We press our bodies together, skin to skin, touch over sight. Neither of us can see anything at all.

Rain

On 145th Street, there’s a building full of rain. I don’t mean that it’s flooded or anything. It’s not like when you open the door, the jangly glass kind at the front of a store, there’s water that rushes out and pushes you across the sidewalk in its hurry. There’s only perhaps an inch of water on the floor. It must leak out somewhere, and you can see the stain as it bleeds into the pavement at your feet when you’re right outside. You don’t get hit with a wave when you open the door. You just hear it; ppt ptt ppt ppt tpp prt. Thrumming against the concrete floor.

I found the rain room by accident. I was trying to get away from a thunderstorm, if you can believe that. I was running down the street with my coat over my head and my slippery-wet hand in my girlfriend’s hand, our fingers jamming together. We were laughing like mad. It had just started raining, out of the blue. Really, the sky had looked clear as any day when all the sun wants to do is wrap you in light, but then the clouds had come. They just sort of showed up, uninvited, and then they spilled all over us. Mel and I stopped strolling when we felt the first few drops, and our steps quickened. Then, right away, the rain sped up too and it began beating down on us. We ducked under our jackets and sprinted. Thinking back on it, I’m not sure why we were running. We were a bit far from anything, and we would’ve gotten wet by the time we reached a subway or a bus anyway. We just ran, hands clinging and feet slapping sprays of water onto each other. We ducked into a building with a half-cracked door and took a breath of relief before we realized that we hadn’t stopped getting wet.

Mel tipped her face right up to the ceiling and watched the drops fall toward her. I just watched her for a moment, too dumbfounded to talk. When I found my voice, I said, “Just our luck. The ceiling must be leaky. I bet this place is abandoned. Don’t do that, sweetie, the water’s probably all dirty.” In response, of course, she stuck out her tongue. She tasted the water that down the corners of her mouth.

“No,” she said. “The water, it’s just rainwater.”

“Of course it’s rainwater! It’s raining out. And it’s leaking.”

“Not out,” Mel smiled. She always was faster to catch on to things than I was. “It’s raining in here. Don’t you see?”

I looked up too. “Shit,” I said. “No it’s not.”

“Yes. It is.”

The ceiling was dropping water on us. Or at least I think it was the ceiling. I couldn’t really see any plaster or paint through the fog. Well, clouds, I suppose it was. The clouds covered the ceiling of the building and huddled in the corners in sulky gray masses. Mel smiled into the corners, the rain running down her face and twisting her hair into tendrils that streamed down her back. I started to laugh. She laughed too, until the both of us sank down and sat in the puddle that was the floor. We leaned against each other and laughed ourselves helpless at the escape we’d found from the rain outside. At the sheer absurdity of the building that rained on the inside.

We’d had a fight earlier that day, another one about her work that was taking all her time from me. She always answered that by saying, rather cattily, that if I only found something to do then it wouldn’t be a problem. I’d been sullen ever since, but now I laughed and when we paused to catch our breath I pulled her toward me. We kissed, sloppy and soaking, in the room that rained on us. I’m not sure there was a moment before or since that I felt us breathe and beat together like that as the rain trembled to the floor around us.

When we finally went home, we were so drenched with rain that a pool of water spread on our seats on the bus and poured itself down into the grooves on the floor. We were both shivering, still wracked with giggles, drawing stares from the three old ladies who were the only other people on the bus. We got home and took a long hot shower. We broke into laughter again the moment the water began to spray.

Everything’s a little different now. With me, with Mel, everything. I think it can be better, though. I haven’t seen her in a week, but we’re going to meet up on 145th Street. I won’t bring an umbrella, just in case.

Wishes

The poor boy just touched it, just a brush of the pads of his fingertips and the whisper of skin against the brass, and everything stopped. From the spout boiled something red and dark and quivering into a great cloud of bloody air which gathered and pulsed until in the mass of red could be seen the shape of a body.The man folded his arms and peered down at the boy, who quaked and tried not to whimper.

The red man sank to the ground. His body trailed into mist after the waist, but he could have been sitting. He spoke, and his voice was dark and shaking. “Listen, child,” he said, “Three, and that is all. Use them well, for you are a little lamb of a thing.”

The boy thought that perhaps this meant that the demon would take pity on him, and he drew in his breath to speak. “Please, sir,” he said, his voice a thread, “I didn’t mean to. I don’t know what I did. I am small, and, and, like you said, I’m not going to hurt anyone, I don’t know what I did.”

The red man bent closer and with his sharp red teeth showing, he smiled. “Ah,” he said to the boy. “A lost lamb, yes. So lost. I will explain to you, dear one, and then you will understand. You’ve heard stories, you know what I am. I emerge from that metal prison, I grant you three, and then I am suffering inside while you go on with your life, while you humans take what I have given and toss aside this ornament that is of no use to any, not even for light.”

The boy sat back on his heels and fixed his eyes on the red face. At last, he said, “Three? Any three?”

The demon nodded.

“I want a wife, please, Wait, though, I know how this works. I need to explain. I want a wife who the same age that I am, and alive, and well. She must be very beautiful, and she must be here. Please.”

The man nodded, and the woman appeared. She was very beautiful, so lovely that the boy was stricken. He gazed at the bright eyes and full lips and long limbs of his new wife, and he fell to his knees. “I love you,” he said. She spat in his face and walked out of the attic room without looking back.

The boy scrambled to his feet, knees jerking in his eagerness and despair, and followed her. For a week the red demon watched them as he tried to reason with her, tried to tell her how much he loved her, tried to make her understand that his heart beat for her. One morning, the boy came to the demon and said, “I need to use the second. I want my wife to love me. I want her to love me more than anything.” The red man nodded.

Barely had a moment passed when the boy heard footsteps pounding down the hall. The boy’s wife rushed in. She knelt in front of him and turned her lovely face to his. She said, “Oh, my husband, I love you,” and the sound of her voice was sweet and soft to his ears. He pulled her to her feet and kissed her. She drew him out of the room. The red man watched for a day as the boy lived in perfect happiness with his bride. The boy thought of nothing else until they woke the next morning. The boy walked into the kitchen and his wife followed him. He prepared breakfast, brought it to the table, and began to eat. His wife watched. When he offered her a morsel of food, she shook her head. He pushed a glass of water toward her, and gently she slid it back to him. The boy stopped eating and said, “My love, why will you not eat or drink? You must be hungry.”

She looked at him with something like surprise written on her face, and said, “My husband, I love you more than anything. I cannot love anything else more than I love you. I love you more than the wants of my body. I love you more than life itself.”

“I don’t understand,” her husband said. “You love me, and I am glad. You need to eat.”

She shook her head. Finally, he shrugged and finished his own food. They repeated this scene at midday and in the evening. They sat on a terrace before the lightless sky and he begged her to eat, but she only shook her head. “I cannot,” she told him, “for that would change things. I cannot.”

On the third day, the boy’s wife could not get out of bed. He lay next to her and put his arms around her, and her answering smile was week. On the fourth day, he tried to pour water into her mouth, but she choked and spat. On the fifth day, when he awoke, she wasn’t breathing.

The red demon smiled at the boy, whose eyes were swollen and sore with tears. His voice was ragged and he said, “I need to use my third. I know better than to wake the dead, so you won’t have me that way. I want to go back to before any of this. I want to go back to before I touched your lamp, before you appeared, before any of this happened. Please.”

The man nodded, and the world shifted. The boy was alone, with no horrors clouding his mind. He was trying to clean out the attic room at the top of the stairs, but it was so cluttered with the shiny forgotten pieces of somebody else’s life that he was struggling to find anything. He reached into the box in front of him, and his fingers brushed the smooth brass of an old lamp.

Writing in Real Life

The man at the counter at Starbucks did not have the kind of face you would recognize. He was all straight lines, droopy eyes, neatly combed brown hair. Most people could have turned away from him and been unable to describe him. They would have mistaken three other people for him without walking half a block. Robin had never seen him before, but she recognized him. At least, she thought she did. She thought she had seen his forgettable face before, but she didn’t know where.

After she bought her coffee she settled in the corner with her laptop. She had a weekly tradition of coming to Starbucks to write. It got her out of the narrow office that held her most of the time. Her husband knew she was in there by the clacking of the keyboard and her mumbles. She didn’t emerge often. He had occasionally sidled in, afraid to bother her but worried, only to find her sagging in sleep with her head tucked into the crook of her arm. On Tuesdays she stayed at Starbucks for hours, letting herself be distracted by the hipsters and businessmen around her, half-listening to the conversations about lovers and deadlines. It was buzzing and busy in all the ways that her office was not, papered in drafts and stained with the rings of many a mug.

The woman waiting in line for the restroom wore an expression of perpetual boredom and impatience, her thin lips pressed together. Robin’s gaze rested on her. The woman looked like somebody, but she was not sure who. Bored, thin lips, blond bob, chewed fingernails– “oh my God,” Robin said aloud to her laptop screen, “It’s Cara Selman.” Cara Selman’s name was hidden in the lines of text on Robin’s screen. She had just walked into the scene where Doug was leaning closer to his secretary, and Robin hadn’t decided yet what she was going to do. Cara was sort of loosely based off of Robin’s sister-in-law, but she was trying to make the difference imperceptible enough that she wouldn’t get in trouble with her brother for it when the book came out. The woman waiting for the bathroom to open was still there, studying her nails, and Robin turned her eyes away.

That was where she knew the dull man in line. He was Doug. Of course he was Doug. He was probably off now with his mocha nonfat latte to flirt with his secretary all day, because Robin was toying with the idea of making him a bit of a slacker at the office. He wasn’t her favorite character in this book, but she thought she might be able to do something with him if Cara got really angry. Judging from her expression as she stood glaring at the “Occupied” sign on the restroom door, the woman needed something to get worked up about. Robin thought that possibly Cara liked plunging herself and her husband into high-flown dramatics more than she actually liked her husband.

An old man sitting at the counter by the window turned and bent down, creaking, to pick up his newspaper. As he straightened his eyes met Robin’s and sent a spasm of electricity down her spine. Mr. Hilgood was at Starbucks too. He didn’t look happy. His jaw was tight and his hands shook. The wrinkles trailing from the corners of his eyes deepened when he clenched his teeth just the way she had imagined them to do. Robin’s stomach dropped. Last week she had written him into the doctor’s office and she knew that he had gotten some bad news. She didn’t think he was going to tell his wife, who was going to find it all out too late. Poor thing, Robin thought. She ached for the old man stooping to pick his paper up from the floor where it had fallen. He was a lovely man, and he was never going to get the chance to make amends with his children.

The Starbucks was too full of people who had, before, only populated her mind. Susan might show up, and Robin didn’t think she could bear that. She packed away her computer, her hands clumsy, and nearly dropped her bag as she stood. The smell of coffee was starting to make her feel light-headed. As she blundered toward the door, she knocked into Mr. Hilgood’s chair. Robin ordered her eyes downcast, away from his face. “I’m sorry,” she said to his shoulder, and then she left.

The Old Future

In the old future, Sandra waited until the very last moment and then she called Will. She sat at home, festering, the rotten anger building up inside her and heating her through until she burned with it. Everything in the house was infuriating. The art on the walls, the stack of unopened mail on the end table, the mug from his coffee that morning when he’d drunk it, scarfed down breakfast, and left. All without talking to her. Mornings had been hard lately. In the old future, things changed.

In the old future, he answered the phone. He said her name and his voice was soaked with relief. She let it bleed into her, holding the phone to her ear and sagging in the comfort where everything was okay. They both said they were sorry in a rush and laughed, words tumbling into each other, their voices woven on the phone connection, both their forgivenesses tightly spun in the air between the house and his work. He came home at once, didn’t even stop for the usual drink with Mike before he got on the train. She picked him up at the station instead of letting him take the bus. In the car he put his hand on her knee and even when they got out and walked into the house she could feel the heat pressed to her skin, the print of his hand still warming her.

In the old future they got into another argument in the kitchen, trying to decide what to do about dinner. Their voices, so recently entwined, knocked and hammered at one another again. Finally Sandra cried. She was so tired of hearing her own shrillness and seeing his face crumpled in frustration. She never cried, but now she did. He melted when she did. She backed into the corner and sank to the floor, shoulders shaking, and he knelt in front of her. His fingers lit on her arms, tentative, pulling her to him. When she looked up there were tears on his face too. “It’ll be okay,” he said to her. “We’ll be okay. We don’t need to fight.” She cried harder from the torrent of wonder, just imagining that things would change. They would be okay.

In the old future, they skipped dinner. They clung to each other and undressed each other and dissolved into each other in the kitchen. They fell asleep on the floor and Will was almost late for work the next day. He kissed her before he left, leaning over while he pulled on yesterday’s pants, his lips holding hers. After he left she could still feel him on her. She spent the day in a daze. Long minutes passed while she stared at her cereal, or at the papers in front of her, or at the blank black screen of the television. Her whole body was lighter now. She nearly floated.

In the old future, Will came home and nearly crushed her in an embrace. They ate dinner in bed that night, flicking crumbs at each other. Laughing.

In the old future, everything was okay. They lived together and they loved each other. Maybe they had some children. Only sometimes did they have moments of passion, but they always forgave each other.

In the old future, Sandra called Will and he picked up the phone. Everything was okay. The old future might have been true until he didn’t answer.

In the new future, the one that is true now, Will did not pick up the phone. Maybe he saw her name appear on the screen and he clicked “Ignore” because he wanted more time to mull the fight over before they talked. Maybe he was in the bathroom. Maybe he was already with Mike at the bar. In the new future, he went for a drink with his friend and then went home with Mike to sleep on his couch. He woke up in the morning and left for work. He was probably short of sleep from sleeping on the lumpy couch with snores drilling at his ears, and that’s why he didn’t look when he crossed the street toward the office. The driver of the car that hit him didn’t stop. They called Sandra from the hospital. She’d been angry that Will had never come home.

In the old future, everything could have been okay. The old future will always be okay, because it isn’t true. Sandra lives in the new future now.

Keep Going

Go go go don’t stop don’t look back. If you look back they can get you, the demons, the shadows, the ones who never slow down. Keep running they’re catching up. They’re always catching up. You said to me once that the truly terrifying thing, what makes you prickle cold with sweat at night and shakes your bones all day, what scares you is that you can go a long way pretty fast but they go slower they do they plod on but they never ever ever need to sleep. You slowed down and they got you.

If I keep going fast enough they won’t get me. If I keep running I’ll be okay. That’s what you told me. Your words go in my head keep going keep going keep going run run run and one syllable with every time a foot hits the ground so I’m saying the words as I go even when I’m walking because my legs might fall out from under me. Those words keep my feet forward, keep my bones working and my blood churning and my face turned up and ahead of me so I don’t look at the ground so long that I just sink right onto it. Sometimes the dirt looks so inviting.

There’s no way I give up, you have to know that, you might be gone to me but I can still talk to you in my head. It’s not like there’s anyone else to talk to either and I’d always rather talk to you than anyone. You know. You always know. Now when I have to do all the knowing when my brain has to work all the time and my body has to go go go all the time and I’m without you and all I have is your words that keep me going because I have to keep going. Now that it’s like this, I still talk to you in my head. I always did and always will. There isn’t anyone better to talk to. Even if there was someone they wouldn’t be better couldn’t not possibly because you’re always you even though you’re not here you’re not with me you’re still you. When I ask myself questions because I’m so so so tired sometimes I can hear your answers because I know what you would say. Sometimes I ask just to hear the answer you would say come back to me and I can pretend for a little minute there that you’re telling me how to survive how to be how to live and it’ll work and because of you, your words in my head, you’re gone but I have your words and so I’ll be okay.

Do you think I’ll ever be able to rest? No don’t stop run run run never stop.