Wednesday, December 14, 2011

#50 -- Ending Time

"This specific you. This version of time where you happen. . . by all rights, nobody should have discovered you."

When the alarm went off, he tightened, and he felt pressure on his face, realizing after a moment that he'd already made his hands into whitening fists, and he lay still. Making sure not to wake her, he devoted half of his energy to controlling his breathing and half to thinking of an answer to her question that had wriggled ceaselessly in him as he'd slept. She was still asleep, and he sort of was too, thoughts mingling right alongside dreams, socializing, the two halves discussing how things had gone in the rather restless night. There was no chance she would wake up before him. It had never happened. On most days, she barely made it out of the bedroom, and when she did, she had to step gingerly over book stacks that were growing like weeds in the Amazon, an annoyance he'd grown accepting of. She didn't always finish with her shower before he left, but she would, without fail, make breakfast for them, and they would sometimes eat together, seated at the kitchen table, which was wooden and heavy and cheap, smeared with a covering that was plastic, and was not mahogany, and she picked and tugged at its chipped edges when she became bored. The cooking was a thankless task that he hadn't asked her to do and it was the only thing he ever saw her do. He assumed she spent the rest of the day reading, his return home at six o'clock or so always brought new conversations and new thoughts that she wanted to share because she was inquisitive and loved to wonder aloud about the nonsense parts in the novel or what songs she thought of when reading a certain chapter. She had a hummingbird's brain. She drank it so fast, mind switching thoughts 90 times per second, making sound-effects, and if nothing else, he felt her's was rapid, fairly high-level readings of the texts, something he did not fault her for, he admitted that he could not have gathered nine out of ten of her observations. Nine out of ten wasn't bad. He tracked her progress, it was easy to see. Thinner paperbacks were handled with care, the glue on the spine still uncrinkled when she got to the last page. If she couldn't finish it in one sitting, she'd use the receipt as a bookmark and no matter the day of the week, her fingers smelled like blue ink. Tuesdays were usually when she'd return them to the corner shop, seemingly unread, and the boy that worked there on Tuesdays never gave her any trouble for it. He would nod, never admitting to a smile, accepting her story time and again about relatives that already had copies of whatever it was she'd bought, or despised the author, or had just bought it themselves. He always accepted the return. She hadn't paid for a book in full since 2001, when she purchased a copy of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, which read, and then lost.

Lying parallel to semi-consciousness now, he kept thinking about the question. It was pointless and he didn't know why she always asked it -- why he let her ask every time. He rolled over, feeling a hard-cover novel's corner jab him in the arm, but he remained only half-awake and didn't consciously care, or even summon the energy to shift position again. His neck hurt. The discomfort infiltrated his dream and the lucid sensation ebbed and flowed without his consent. He hated this bed. Was his alarm going to go off again? 

There was an outside chance. 

It might have been the snooze, it might have been turned off entirely, his hand had worked on its own before, zombified. Odds were high that he would check the clock again in exactly fifteen minutes, that was always how it went. One eye opened and small, blue light flecks drifted into his cornea, causing discomfort and showing him an approaching day. Enough of that. He'd rather lie there and listen to the rain and never have to get up at all. A perpetual state of pre-dawn didn't sound so bad to him. His mind constructed thoughts fastest during these hours and minutes.

Crafting a complex thought, sleep suddenly took him completely. It wasn't a dream, he was more awake than he realized, rain continued stinging the roof tiles, but it was all he could hear -- no traffic, no voices from neighbors through the walls, no heating clicking on underneath the bed. Just plain old rain, draining into him, pressing his body down into sleep. 

Then he woke up. He smiled happily and he rolled over to look at the clock.

It had been exactly fifteen minutes. He nudged her awake with his elbow. She balled into herself, waking audibly.

"Ah, yes! It's not cold," she said happily, bending around so she could see his face. "Thank God, hmmm? But it's raining. Yuck, I don't think I'll be able to do anything today."

He didn't respond right away. "I have to get up," he decided out-loud, eventually. He put his feet down on the floor, keeping the covers across his legs though, despite the fact that she was right, and it was not cold. "Not much is going to happen today, it might bump up my timetable."

"Oh," she intoned, books falling off the side of the bed when she sat up. "Oh, hey, so when do you think you'll be coming home?"

He breathed out hard. "Umm, I dunno. I don't really have an answer yet. Would you let me think about it for a minute?"

The sound made when half a dozen books hit the floor jarred him to his feet. For a second, for once, he actually thought about her question. It was entirely innocent and it still made his insides tense up. She meant something by it, she had to -- precisely what, he wasn't sure. 

Then time moved one second further and he faced her. She was sitting straight up, legs half-curled underneath, beaming at him. Part of her hair was falling down over her eye and even though she had fallen asleep with her little glasses on, they were still sitting perfectly on her nose without any effort or possibility of failure.

"Don't do a thing," he said. "Stay here. Do whatever you want."

"Okay," she answered. Her eyes tilted away, trying at mischief. "I want to ask you if you can stay home today. You said I can do whatever I want. That's what I want to do."

"Ask me that?"

"Ya-huh, boy. Also --" He was almost out of the room but stopped. "-- I had a dream," she added, pausing for a moment, then continuing. "In it, I was in a car with seats that smelled like blue leather. And I was sitting outside of a bar that was just off the side of the road. It was in the middle of nowhere, dark in every direction and the only light came from the bar, and I felt that if I looked away, all the lights in the world might go out. So I stared at it and the lights stayed on. There was somebody I was supposed to wait for but even if I'd wanted to, I couldn't just leave, because the car was actually parked in a swamp. I'd been told by somebody, maybe it was the person that I was waiting for, that the car would work in the swamp but it didn't work and that meant somebody had lied to me, and that was just annoying me constantly. Then four drunk guys came out of the bar, really loud, they were all I could hear. It was an overpowering sound until one of them stopped. Then they all stopped. And the sound stopped. All I wanted to know was why sound itself had stopped and I asked them but I couldn't hear my own voice. I don't know why they even stopped to look at me, maybe, I don't know, I reminded them of somebody. They stared at me for a few minutes, full minutes, then the one came over. I put down the window and through it, he handed me a key that said do not duplicate on it and he said to me, 'Proclaiming happiness is to denying --' No. Wait. What did he say? Oh, he said, 'Delusion is no different from --' Shit, what was it? This is gonna bug me, he said something like --"

He was standing over her, unloosening her from what she was trying to remember, a toothbrush now planted between his teeth. "I get it. It's okay."

"Yeah," she murmured.

He leaned in and let her hug him. "I love you."

"I know."

"I'll be home early. I'll try to stop by the store. We'll have time tonight, so we can try to make something --"

"-- Thrilling? Layered? Rich, mayhap?"

"What? Well, maybe, I don't know. It will require time and attention."

"Sounds good. I'll be here."

"You're acting weird this morning."

Thirty-five minutes later, he was gone, and she was left to her own devices as usual, poring over the pages, brain crackling with ideas as she read, and she all but forgot about her dream. She was exceedingly intelligent, nurturing life's exponential possibilities, and always one to notice esoterica mere moments after hearing a new idea, and because of that, he loved her. The tea kettle clicked and kept spewing steam for a few more moments. The coarse Sumatra grounds she'd bought were more expensive but she'd convinced herself day by day that it was worth every cent and that it gave her the bravery she needed to sit, read, and wait. The time would come -- it had to. A few more minutes passed and the coffee had become cool enough to drink. It rained a little bit more before the sun came out and the afternoon was actually quite nice once it warmed up and things dried, giving the room better light.

He was able to walk home without needing an umbrella. She was there waiting but she didn't get up out of her chair or say anything until they made dinner. She finished quickly and then watched him eat. Then she did the weirdest thing.

After he fell asleep that night, she vanished from existence.

It was cold as hell out there and it was the exact opposite on the inside. The steel door slammed shut, knocking dirt loose, and the hinges rattling on those damn stripped screws, bound by rust, heat, and decay, and they barely held together under the impact force, which was weighted with a violence that came from expansive years away from decency. He felt tense vibrations in his fillings. It singed his nerves. 

"You can make a choice," the man said, holding onto his boiling voice as best as he could. He had to spit up something yellow before he slid his finger and the safety burned red. He made himself speak slower. "Hold. Hold still. You can keep struggling or I can give your skull a new hole to breathe through. Funny. The Aztecs used to think that sort of thing brought more air to the brain and made people smarter. The Aztecs don't exist anymore. They were fucking dumb. That's why they themselves all got shot in the head by the invading Spaniards and that's the reason why they don't exist anymore. Now, again, look here! Look here and answer me: do you want to keep struggling, or do you want an Aztec skull-piercing? There's a clear and definite right answer to the question, and it should be a logical choice, but I must ask, how's it gonna be, lady? Out of courtesy."

It was an ugly sight to see and the black-red blood had crusted so hard on his face that if he smiled the wrong way, it would probably crack right off like cheap paint. The woman was sitting, smoldering in the new heat, vapor escaping off of her head back into the coagulating air. She was tied twice-over to the creaking chair with two lengths of rope -- one heavy and fraying, the other finer and trembling, the second one added after she'd escaped earlier in the morning -- and she knew exactly what she wanted to do. There was no debate anymore. What she wanted to do was a simple thing. It required superb timing and it required finesse. Those were the ingredients -- oh, did she ever enjoy the wait. 

Bad as things had gotten, and in years past, she'd seen worse still, she knew where the line ended. She knew what was coming.

His lungs were kinked, the air in the room felt burned, by now just carbon and dust and overcooked horse-meat. There were scrap-iron fans high up above that weren't welcoming electricity those days, no matter how much or how hard he willed them to spin some cold air with his mind, no, those machines were long dead, and they were happy that way, thank you very much, quite comfortable indeed.

The heat was a pain and it kept deepening. He looked at his watch. It was 6:blurry-something AM. This would be his third dawn without sleep. The sun was coming up, relieving his tunnel vision, but his thoughts stayed boiled, and this caused him to fear himself and the mistakes he might make, and the mistakes could be lethal, especially in front of her, because she had tricked him before, and she was dangerous when she looked him in the eye. The morning tipped red light into the room, making his hands tense into whitened fists, and he took caution when she moved just a little, and yes, as far as he could tell, time was moving, if ever so slowly.

"Getting there," he reminded himself, looking at the door now. "When people told me you were going to be such a tall drink of trouble, I never could have imagined you'd somehow out-do the legend they'd distilled out of all your lies and your daring and your. . . gall and your bullshit. Twelve years? More? Getting you extradited out of Zurich was brutal. Now, my momma warned me about girls like you. But it was my daddy that taught me what do with --"

"-- Your mouth," the woman finally wheezed, claiming his attention. She swallowed a lump and she rocked back in the chair she was tied to, making the thing creak harder and harder, and the soft wood bent into loosened nails and screws. "Your mouth is weird. You'd think that thing'd be more useful. You'd think that thing'd be more than just a big-ass-hole in your head. That thing is weird. That thing -- shut it!" 

She coiled. She lunged at him. Her mouth was gaping with rage and she bit the gun straight out his hand in stupidity and recklessness. Some kind of miracle would keep her alive. The blow knocked him down and the surprise paralyzed him. The chair shattered into splinters on impact and he could only come to his knees before she had freed a hand, chambered a round while the slide was still clenched in her teeth, and kissed his forehead with the 9mm barrel. "This ain't my first rodeo, but it was kind of you to give a lady a choice," she breathed easily. "Fine young gentleman that you are."

"Only to the girls I like." He put his hands behind his head without being told like a casual Catholic saying a prayer. "You know that."

"Goddamn, do you want me to shoot you?" He wanted nothing more in the world. A bullet in the head would sure as hell make life a billion times easier. "Hmm. I shouldn't even bother asking you that question. I know you hate when I do."

"You didn't bother to ask when you shot me through the cheek in Chicago last winter."

"Oh, but that handsome doctor at Mercy fixed you up even better than before didn't he?" she laughed, squinting and checking the pistol's sights, maybe deciding where exactly was her favorite place to put the bullet. "Gave you a face worth bringing home. Ah, but that was so long ago for you and me, really. I was so much older then, I'm younger than that now. Then again, you do get to chase me around a little bit more than usual this time. I had always assumed you counted that more than just a professional kindness I'd done for you, letting you live. It was so much more than just a bullet --" 

He reached a hand into his coat, his punishment of a broken nose was welcomed willingly, feeling the thing sting and crunch all the way back behind his eyeballs, and then he sparked his prized, loose cigarette, smirking at her with satisfaction at the end of their transaction. 

"-- Don't. . . move, boy."

"You," he murmured. "Hit like a girl I used to know. Lunatic." He dragged ash into his lungs, overstating the nihilistic panache on display, praying it would either placate or rattle her -- anything to give him even a meager moment. Anything to give him his opening. "You. You are somehow even kinder in person than my finest memory."

"We both know I outsmarted you, so I take that as a compliment -- it counts!"

"No, miss. Not today. I used to think that you could never go out of style. I used to think I could never fake a smile in front of you. But not anymore. Not today." He nodded off to the side, letting a nasty clot of blood fall out of his nose and off his face that looked dense and that it shouldn't have come from a living person. "Would you give me the gun back?"

"Why should I?"

"Because," his head wobbled with satisfaction. "I want to have two." 

He drew down on her with the hidden snub-revolver. Then she did the weirdest thing. 

Putting her back to him, she threw her gun away toward the far side of the room, and it parted a dust canyon into the air as it flew, sailing over the floor like an impossible insect, eventually tumbling to a halt, and with that done, she knew he wouldn't have the courage to shoot her.

Bending at the knees, she placed her open palm on the floor, then, tugging on her fingers one by one, she took off her gloves and her jacket, keeping her face behind wilting hair that shook side to side until she sat down altogether right where she'd stood. There, she stayed mostly still, fumbling with her head a little, and she coughed once, but she didn't look at him when she raised her eyes at last.

"-- What?" he asked, more of the world itself than of her. 

"Goddamn," she proclaimed, ignoring him as much as he did her, wiping at her mouth and her eyes, scanning the rotting, rusted room as if she suddenly found it very comfortable, despite beginning to shake right there where she sat. She looked like she was going to be sick. "I am gonna feel this one. Time well-spent? Fuck it. N-n-no-nowhere close."

No voice sounded a warning when she vanished, no ground to put her feet upon, no choice was given, and she felt her rebellion was punished unjustly, so her cry went on into rage and then to pity as it became lower, bringing no audible call to the big empty that felt nothing for a thing as alive as she, and it brought no response, not then, and not in the millenia she stayed there for. She flew, moving into space, drawing near stars greater than the sun, blue, and red, and yellow, passing by them, leaving their light to pursue her and then she out-lived it, going on without it, until its absence cracked her, and she faced back the way she'd flown, to feel her envy illuminated, and that feeling became despair, and that became a smaller thing that in time, she'd learn to undo, lest it would undo her. In time, visible darkness displaced all light, leaving her to travel places out of sight and in her mind, seeing thoughts and half-conquered things, disregarded and monumental, and she stayed there for a long spell. She made no show of force, never welcoming fear nor bidding farewell to hope, even as she descended further and further beneath the physical mould. A pit with no edges caught her, and she imagined what it might hold, thinking to herself whether it contained this or that. Palm lifted up, dust went between her fingers, but she felt nothing until she closed it in her fist, and then, instead of feeling fear, as she expected, she felt bravery in her heart. Her grip tightened. All out of sight of the stars by then, she flew further and deeper, in the total dark for a while more before seeing a first sight again, coiling spirits, tiny and close, went around her, filling her eyes, uttering small words that she made herself learn. What began as lights high over the dark, changing what they touched right before her eyes, she looked onto them long, and she came to understood that they did not move, so she looked up and began to climb. Going faster now, they spoke, then would vanish, but she was one, and they had been made infinite, choosing to grow in light as she ascended on. And then what they spoke became true words, the spirits cracking in two each time they said something to her, never shrinking, connecting to where they had come from with lattices of light, and connecting to her too until they covered her body whole. She stepped then and stood at the peak, above them all, dauntless, seeing the darkness awash with breathing, woven stars, exploding and growing from themselves and from each other in unearthed colors that she'd imagined long before and would never forget again. From there, she could feel the hill grow solid between her toes, and she was the victor, a cure that the noxious black choked upon.


She puts her hands together and then rests them on the deep-yellow tablecloth that the waiter had smoothed between them a second earlier and before he can gather himself, she adds weird emphasis in her echoing response. "Time-travuuuhllll," she announces to him, admitting it again. "Time-travel. Really. No joke. You'll get no argument from me, it sounds stupid because it is. But it's true."

"So time-travel like Back to the Future?"

"Well, yeah. But it's weirder than that. It's not, quote-unquote, complex, but it's weirder."

"Okay," he laughs, laying his phone down beside the silverware, fully absorbed by the joke now. "Okay. Prove it to me. You traveled through time. Prove it."

"You're happy."

"Right now? Yeah. Sure," he says, polishing a tooth with his tongue and feeling compelled to avoid eye contact, something he usually can't bring himself to do around her. "Sure. What, you're saying that because I'm happy in our relationship that that's proof that you're a time-traveler?"


She says it, confident, and leans on the wall their table is up against, taking a little bit of a moment to be alone with her sole thought, and she pretends to look around the place, not really buying time, but finding some comfort before what is going to happen next.

"So this time-traveling," he goes on, playing with his silverware, keeping an eye on her until he cracks up a little and chuckles quietly. "So this time-traveling, it's less like Back to the Future-rules and more like Groundhog Day-rules. You've had this conversation with me a million-billion times and know everything about me after all those tries?"

"Almost exactly. Almost. That's a good place to start. So, look, at some point in the future, humans master time-travel. We can go anywhere in history, do anything, and I was one of the first five to go."

"Naturally," he states, complying with her smiling explanation. "They would pick you."

"Of course. Because I'm a genius. But what we didn't realize was that not only do we not alter a singular timestream, we can't control where we travel to." 

She takes forks and a steak knife. She lays them flat in front of him, knowing that the meal won't arrive to spoil her explanation as long as she makes it quick and he is listening hard. "With every instance of somebody moving matter through time," she restarts, tracing lines around the forks in blue ink with a pen, "A new timeline is created, or 'discovered,' whichever you prefer. Every occasion that I jump through time, or change what you consider 'history,' I find a new version of time to inhabit. See, matter is infinite because choice is infinite when you can navigate time and space. The other times aren't destroyed, they go right along existing without me, deeper than I'd ever bothered to notice. It sort of stops being time-travel and it starts being. . . everything. Time-travelers have meddled with history an innumerable number of times and America certainly wasn't a superpower in the original version of what you've learned to be human history. In the original version of time."

"Tell me," he whispers. He doesn't know that he needs to hurry up. "If you would. If it's not a Super-Confidential Time-Secret. How old are you?"

"Well, I'm partially-infused with infinity," she laughs at him, finding herself thoroughly amused. "But the timeline we're in now, the one where you and I are happy in this present moment, is, I dunno, one of a trillion-trillion attempts I've made at, I guess, clarity, or, constancy. Those were heady words. I shouldn't have used them."

"What do you mean? Are the bad guy time-travelers after you?"


"Galactic Federation?" 



She bows her head and contains part of the laughter. "No. Far from it. I've never even seen another time-traveler, and if I did, chances are, I walked straight through that version of time and right into another. Understand that time-travelers have already altered what you would perceive as forward-moving events, and have been ad-infinium. We don't notice, people can't notice, because time isn't reset as a result of the divergences. It just makes versions. There's a version of the universe where the universe doesn't exist, thanks to time-travelers. There's a version where I tip over the table in anger with you." 

She lays her hands flat on the cloth, looking him in the eye, and smiling. 

"Do it," he whispers, grinning like a kid and saying it again as he sees the look in her eyes turn to mischievous joy, urging faster, "Do it, do it, do it, do it. Do it. Alright, fine, don't. Killjoy. Wait, so this would confirm that it's like Groundhog Day, because you can replicate these events and see how things go if you'd made slightly different decisions." 

She nods, seemingly satisfied. "In this case, yeah, but it takes a lot to get back to those exact circumstances. It's not instantaneous. I have been there though, at that decision-point. It was a long time ago and it was very similar to this reality, slightly different just a smidgen. In that version of time, you weren't quite you -- meaning, you weren't you, the person, the right person to look at me and laugh at me, at my admission, at my very suggestion right now that I've traveled through time to be in this place." She slows down so she can add up her words in metered, wary confession, something that he'd never seen from her, "You weren't there in those times, because that version was different. Then again, I wasn't technically there either because a few katrillion years changes a person. God, I hope you understand. Like I said, it took me a while to find my way back here."

"Hah!" He speaks the laughter. "This is insane. Just one man's opinion, but you're insane. 'Ha-ha' insane. Beautiful insane. You are both beautiful and insane, clinically." 

"Why, thanks!" she chirps in earnest, but in a moment, she's biting her lip, looking like she's thinking very hard, trying to remember something or avoid mentioning something else. "Thanks, but, insane though? Well, sure, yeah, I mean, potentially. But again, like you said, that's just one man's opinion. All opinions are just one man's opinion, and therefore, they're all worth the same." 

"Yeah, not on subjects like insanity," he defends, chuckling at her sudden turn. "Not on subjects like. . . goddamn time-travel. I think I've got you on that. I took physics." 


"Thrice. I get straight-B's every year. Two in high school, one in college. Who's the mathlete?" He points. "This guy."

She turns up a quizzical eyebrow and adjusts eyeglasses that she doesn't wear. "Hmm, arbitrary subversion of the conversation under meager authoritarian pretenses. Very well, then I decree my opinion on the matter of opinions themselves to be more highly-esteemed than yours." She slaps her hand on table and the silverware rattles. "Calling it. Paradox. Suck on that honorary psychiatry D.F.A. Let's see you talk your way out of that one."

"Okay, you are a woman of superb timing and finesse, but that is fucking cheating, I swear. I swear, that's like wishing for a million wishes -- doesn't count!"

"We both know I outsmarted you, so I take that as a compliment -- it counts!"

"Right, well, I pray you don't spontaneously blink out of existence, and this has been an intriguing conversation and all, but --"

"-- I'm going to hit up the bathroom before you start musing on destiny with steak knives."
               "I'm going to hit up the bathroom before you start musing on destiny with steak knives --"

He's on his feet, and he's rubbing the back of his neck, realizing that thing. That thing. That thing. That thing. She had messed up and loathing has crawled up out of her throat and is creeping over her face.

"Hold on, why do I suddenly. . . believe you? Hey, wait a sec, look at me."

What had happened was coincidence. 

What had happened was coincidence. 

He knew well that it hadn't been. She'd known every word on his mind and now she swears under her breath. "Jinx?" is all she says, remaining still, hoping. "Goddamn. Fuck this."

"Don't you move." Then he does the weirdest thing. 

In one motion, he curls his his fingers around both the salt and pepper shakers with one in each hand, looks to the ceiling, and flings them both straight up in the air, one-two. They rise, curl, and hang, and he makes a gun with his finger, mouthing bang-bang as their contents drizzle over the table where they slam down, salt first, then pepper right on top of that, both perfectly upright. The noise they make is louder than even he expected, so surprising him and everybody at the surrounding tables that they stare over to see what might have happened, and the waiter is beside him a moment later, demanding an explanation.

"That certainly was lucky," she says to herself, plucking the pepper shaker off of the top of the little tower as he reiterates to the waiter that they were a couple of excitable idiots on a date and in love and that he would clean up the mess. She waves at the waiter, grinning, who then looks at the man, contemplating for a moment if he'd even seen him do what he thought he did, but these two had been kind and funny throughout the evening, and they'd made this shift a little less awful, and after looking back down at the woman, still seated and sort of laughing, the waiter complies, and honoring his offer, hands him a damp cloth to clean with, suggesting he enjoy his fillet, it will be ready soon. 

"Hey. You're still here," he reminds her after it's all clean, putting his hand on hers. "And hey, I am too. Sorry for the scare. Right, so, I'm going to sit down. Then I want you to say whatever you want to say." He taps the pepper shaker. "And this wasn't lucky. It was right."

She shakes her head at him, denying the very idea. "C'mon, how do you know that?" 

"Because it's better than the alternative," he says to her as he sits back down. He picks at a few remaining salt grains still on the tablecloth. "Just keep going. Please. That's all I want. The way you were talking, time-traveler or not -- and if you are two buhjillion years old, I'm kinda indifferent --"

"-- I got scar on my elbow from my fight with Mary Todd Lincoln, if you look hard, you can notice it." 

"You have to actively look to notice it. But either way, I was afraid if something utterly random and surprising didn't happen, you'd up and vanish from existence. So, please, keep going."

Her fingers unroll from her palms, the familiar whiteness relieving from her knuckles, and she continues with her story, talking slowly at first. "I don't get to pick where I go when I move from one time to the next. If I mess up now, I don't know how long it will be before I get another chance, before I find another, similar version of time. Maybe better, maybe worse," she explains, letting him look her over, but she's still there. And she doesn't vanish. "I'm always moving," she goes on. "And removing, and guessing, and changing the way I talk, feeling the way people react, feeling the way you react, never getting to choose direction and sometimes losing my way entirely. I miss timelines altogether and I have to double back, hoping at some point I'll get to land where I actually want to be. It's a process that I don't have any control over. I don't always do it this diligently, but I have been at this for a long time. To put it plainly though, here with you, I've stopped moving." 

He sits back in his chair, having listened intently, trusting her for the moment. He wants to. He knows he can. 

"I'm not going anywhere, I swear," she laughs at him. He can't keep a straight face either.

"So don't," he encourages."Please don't."

"I've been known to in my time," she confesses and takes a small sip from her drink. "Did you know that I've caused, and prevented, a half-dozen world wars? I saw the sun explode a few times. I tell ya, that was cool. With all that time though -- some of it to yourself, but not all of it -- it's strange because you eventually stop consciously learning and you stop thinking, but you don't stop changing, and you don't stop taking it all in. I couldn't stop it if I wanted to. Eventually, I believe you arrive at a balance, and I think you become something, maybe the best thing, maybe exactly the thing that you're supposed to."

"And that ain't luck. So, tangentially, I'm guessing you're secretly a concert cellist master? I mean, with all that time on your hands --" 

She shakes her head. "No," she is forced to admit. "I tried to learn a long while ago, but I was born cursed with a lack of rhythm."

"Are you immortal?"

"One version of me is. This version, I suppose. Every time I make a decision, my body diverges, and I assume some of those versions died, but this version of me discovered immortality, far in the future of one of the timelines. I don't remember a lot of it. How could I? It might've been a few million years ago or a thousand lifetimes from now. It sucks sometimes, honestly. People you care about will die and you can never do anything. As a rule, there are more awful moments in a single human being's life than good moments. For me, multiply that by forever and subtract seven -- calculate it however you like. That is how much shit has sucked. Bad things happened. Ya know, that old thing. It was terrible. I could barely bring myself to notice, well, movement in the world. It was bleak. I felt like I was stuck in a fucking swamp. I once was a copy-editor at Little, Brown and Company and I had the opportunity to prevent Twilight from being published, but I didn't because I was being pissy -- sorry."

"When good people do nothing --"

"-- I know, nothing can make up for it," she chuckles at him, wagging a finger. "After a double-gazillion human lifetimes, I got over it, all of it. I encountered a semi-flawed version of this-here human history, found a good moment in time, maybe even an ending time, and I felt myself becoming simpler and content."

"So this present time you encountered, you. . . built me? I'm a part of this place you've come to or that you've constructed out of pure. . . choice?" he cracks his knuckles to calm his nerves. "Sorry. That would've been a weirder question if I was talking to anybody else besides you, but. . . still. You can answer it, can't you? Where do I come in? You can go anywhere? Can you make anything?"

"Kind of." She thinks for a moment and hears her heart beat a little louder. "But also not at all. I find where things happen. I found where you happen. In time. Coincidence has ceased to be a powerful enough word, and I suppose eventually, I'll have to think of a better one. I suppose that you're some kind of a miracle. I traversed and traveled a lot of times where I knew you, alternate versions of you that made infinitely random decisions to become wholly different people, but like I said, you were different and I was different and in order for me to be with you in those times, it always ended up. . . wrong. I'd work myself into that existence and only now, a few hundred years later, do I realize that I was greedy. I was forcing it. It wasn't right. I couldn't do it."

He kind of hiccups in response and suddenly finds himself a little embarrassed by what he's just heard. "Excuse me." He clears his throat and adjusts a tie that isn't there like it's a cartoonish habit. "Jeezum. But why tell me? Technically, you could have manipulated time and manipulated your way to happiness, here or elsewhere. You could've manipulated me like you were a cross between God and Bill Murray. You're only human. Why not do that?"

Unoffended, she states it plainly, "You know why."

"Because. Because that's not you," he agrees, realizing it and looking down. "Goddamn. You aren't like that. Even if this isn't true and you're making it all up, you're entirely right. I believe that you, even if you were given the ability to alter the goddamn space-time-continuum to be with me, to change me into some sick abstraction, you wouldn't. I know you wouldn't. You would go out of your way to concede to some noble rules or some bullshit that you actually believe in. Because that's who you are. Holy shit. I trust you. I actually believe you." 

"Then I don't think this qualifies as luck anymore," she concludes as cautiously as she can manage.

He scratches his nose and a second later, finds himself covering has mouth with bent fingers, saying to her in a quieter voice, "You're still here. And I believe you."

"You are weird like that. I've been through a hajillion garbage timelines -- in some of which, you've made yourself into a terrible fucking human being -- and now I've come across you. This specific you. This version of time where you happen. Out of pure, endless chance, by all rights, nobody should have discovered you, least of all me."

"Of course you should have -- you're the one that could. I wish I could've spared you from that."

"If you had, I wouldn't be here --" 

"-- Even so."

She makes herself keep going. "I can't choose a time out of the infinite on purpose, I can only roll into them and hope. Here, I didn't get lucky -- I got right. Out there though, I saw some stuff you couldn't imagine.

"In some timelines, dinosaurs ride giant humans -- don't you laugh, they're huge and pink and terrifying! Let me see. . . in one timeline, it rained sugar-water all the time and all plant-life had a lifespan of maybe five minutes, but they'd grow super-giant. Another time, I met you when you were a very old man, and I was too late to save you. In other times, there is no matter whatsoever, only undulating energy and spiraling light, and it kept going on and on, and I still never got used to it, and it was limitless and exquisite and beautiful. I can't even remember how long I spent there just. . . staring at it, collecting myself, deciding that I wasn't cursed, just reckless. I still have never seen anything like it anywhere else. That is, until I came here.

"Now, sometimes, the world is a much hotter place. Sometimes, your head is shaved. Once, I broke your nose and you bled all over the floor of a meat-packing plant. You, he deserved it. Another time, you were really sad, and I had to be sad too to get you to notice me. It was boring, but I got a lot of reading done. Oh, sometimes, Earth doesn't happen, and sometimes, life doesn't happen, anywhere, ever. Universes blink in and out of existence because of people meddling with time, and it took me forever to grasp that because it makes me feel so microscopically inconsequential, but you, boy, are the only speck of existence in time that actually matters. Believe me, I think I've been to all of them. You're it. You're all that's left."

The waiter arrives later and removes their plates, handing them smaller menus. The two of them examine the print and don't read a word, their heads and eyes staying down, feeling time's stubborn refusal. She scratches the tablecloth with her nail. "I have to wonder how honest they're being when they describe the cheesecake as being 'thrilling, layered, and rich.' How do you think that'll hold up under close scrutiny?"

"Fuck it. I want it anyway. What about you? Do you want to get dessert?"

She smiles widely and answers slowly. "In my life, I've seen more than my share and I've been more than everywhere. I'm the Time-Traveler. For all you know, I invented sunshine, grass, cows, barbed wire, cheese, cheesecake, forks, plates, and the entire fucking concept of dessert."

"Yeah. I can end on that."

-- Alex Crumb
on Twitter  |  @GhostLittle_WTF

Recommended related reading:
[The Organ] by Ghost Little
[The Scotsman And The Whale] by Ghost Little and Doberman
[V.i.] by Ghost Little

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