BY DAVID ROGERS
This is the first of a two-part story. Read the conclusion tomorrow. Copyright is held by the author.
I HAD to find out who was trying to kill me, and why.
The street was dark and quiet, except for the odd gunshot and occasional footstep from an unseen stalker. I had no doubt about the gunshots because, when you hear them in real life, you also hear the ricochet.
A bullet rattled the lid of a trashcan. I ran for my life.
last thing I remembered before the chase and the dark street was the nursing
home. I was there to visit Aunt Judith, who didn’t know who I was. No matter.
She seemed to appreciate the visit, though she asked several times where Bobby
went. I said, “Who’s Bobby?” but she didn’t know, or wasn’t telling.
She also asked, “Who are you?” every five minutes, so by the time I left I’d said, “I’m Jena, your niece,” half a dozen times.
On my way out, I passed the sign. Peaceful Rest Nursing Home. Beneath the name was the slogan, Where dreams last forever. The slogan did not mention nightmares or how long they last.
Two blocks away from the last gunshot, I slowed to a walk, breathing hard. To make a living, I am a toll-taker on the big road with lots of lanes. Not a job conducive to frequent exercise. If I’m lucky, I take a walk to burn off some calories after supper.
“Hello?” I said, and stepped toward the figure in the shadows.
A man walked out. Middle-aged, by which I mean 50-ish. Of course, that’s not middle-aged unless you live to be a hundred, but we love our little fictions. He stared at me and asked, “You don’t remember me, do you?” He carried a large briefcase in his left hand, a furled umbrella in his right. Both accessories looked black in the dim light. Graying hair cut short over a clean-shaven face, eyes still in the shadow of his forehead. A strong jawline.
“Remember you? I never met you before. Why would I remember you?”
He nodded and smiled. “Time has that effect on people sometimes. Not to worry. I just have some paperwork for you to sign.”
“I’m not signing anything until you tell me who you are, and what you really want. And why you think you know me, and why you are lurking on a dark street.”
He sighed, “They told me you might be difficult. Very well, then. You and your family are Timekeepers. That is, your family have been Timekeepers, for centuries. You and your Aunt Judith are the last of the line, as far as we know. And your aunt seems to have grown unreliable lately.”
“First, I encounter a homicidal maniac, and now a harmless lunatic. Note I said ‘harmless.’ I’m giving you the benefit of the doubt because I’m tired of running.”
He nodded. “I know it’s hard to believe. The idea will take a while to sink in. Learning one’s destiny is often a shock.”
“I believe in free will, not destiny,” I said, wondering why I was bothering to argue with a crazy person. “Why have I never heard any of this before?”
“Oh, you have. You forgot. One of the little ironies involved in being a timekeeper. You people are very forgetful. That’s why I’m here — to remind you.”
“And what is a time keeper, anyway?”
“Not time keeper. Timekeeper. One word, capital T. You are sort of like lighthouse keepers. Except, you know, with time.”
“So, what do you want from me?”
“I just need you to sign to acknowledge I’ve given you a new copy of the Handbook and answered your questions.”
“Somebody tries to shoot me, and you want me to do paperwork?”
I’d rested long enough. I ran away.
The next day I was tailgated by a huge black truck. One of those monsters that have wheels almost as tall as I am. The truck was inches from my back bumper. It stayed there, mile after mile, clearly acting in aggression. From the driver’s seat of my car, I could see the bottom of the engine and suspension of the thing that threatened to squash me if I so much as let off the accelerator or breathed on the brakes. The driver was out of sight above the massive hood of the truck. In any case, the brief sliver of dark windshield, barely visible over the immense grille in my mirror, revealed nothing.
I could only assume this was the same person who had shot at me the day before, or an accomplice.
When I slowed — ever so gradually — and managed to turn toward home without being crushed, the truck kept its grip on my bumper. No way I was leading this maniac to my house. I hit the accelerator, hard, and sprinted a hundred feet ahead of the black menace, slammed on the brakes, careened down an alley, and cursed: the little street dead-ended at a trash-can-lined wooden fence between two buildings. Unlike the movies, where the driver crashes through the fence and continues down the alley, I stopped the car and climbed over the fence and ran.
This wasn’t supposed to be happening to me. Where did my delightfully boring and hitherto under-appreciated life go?
I ran through alleys and streets until my feet hurt, my arms ached, and my burning lungs could swallow no more air. I slowed to a walk. Briefcase-Umbrella stepped out of a doorway, as if on cue, like he knew just where to wait, when I would again be too exhausted to run any farther. For the moment, at least.
“Your aunt is very worried about you,” he said.
I stared. Stared, and breathed hard.
“She’s asking about Bobby for a reason. Don’t you want to know what it is?” he continued, as if we were old friends.
“And who are you? How do you know all this? Assuming you’re not just some lunatic making stuff up.” A little voice in my head demanded to know why I was even listening to this guy. I must surely be the crazy one, or I’d have run away by now. Tired legs or not.
“I’m a seraph.”
“You’re a seraph — as in, an angel — like the Nephilim?”
“Not really. Angels are a construct of Christian mythology.”
“Well, if you’re not an angel, what are you? Do you at least have a name?”
“You can call me Neph.”
“Just Neph. We don’t have last names. Causes problems with bank accounts and so on, but we manage.”
“Well, then, go on, Neph. Tell me how you differ from angels. Are you a demon?”
“No. Not a demon, either.” He laughed. The sound was like the echo of a very large bell from far, far away. “Angels and demons are relatively modern, oversimplified constructs. They represent human notions of good and evil. Before Christianity was invented, the Romans thought of us as minor deities. The Greeks called us muses, furies, Naiads, Pleiades, and so on. Before that, some called us Titans. Other myths refer to us as Ganapati or avatars. Some of these entities are friendly to humans, so humans say they are good, or angelic, others not so friendly, so they are labeled demons. You get the idea — many names, many manifestations, limited understanding on the part of humans. We are much older than any language or system of human thought.”
I’d heard enough. Too much, in fact. I walked away.
The next morning, he was leaning on the tree at the end of the driveway outside my house. Same furled umbrella, graying hair, silver now in morning light, and black briefcase.
I stopped dead in my tracks when I saw him. “So why are you stalking me?”
“Not stalking. ‘Looking out for you’ would be more accurate. Also, my secondary mission is to remind you of your purpose. As I said, I have a copy of the Handbook. You might find your aunt’s, eventually, if she didn’t lose it or throw it out, but we can’t wait for you to stumble across it.”
“As a Timekeeper. As I said before, you’re forgetful. Being a Timekeeper overwhelms your memory. There’s too much information for the typical human brain, so you tend to become forgetful.”
“What, pray tell, is a time keeper?” I know, I already asked that, but it was possible the answer would make more sense this time. Also, answering would keep him busy while I decided if he might be dangerous.
“Timekeeper. Hear the capital T? Anyway, time is the sort of thing that requires maintenance. Someone has to keep track of it, or it rapidly decays. The order of the universe requires time to function properly. When time’s fabric grows ragged, space itself soon begins to break down. The three dimensions of traditional shapes go one direction, and time starts to flow in other ways. Chaos will spread. Quickly.”
“How can anything be quick — or not quick — if time is not functioning properly?” Despite my fear and skepticism, he had caught my interest.
“An astute question. I don’t know. That’s one of the paradoxes that the mechanics of time tend to generate. Frankly, they make my head hurt. That’s why I’m not a Timekeeper. And why you are. Your mind clearly runs along the necessary lines of logic and reasoning to keep time on track. The world needs you. Desperately.”
I’d heard enough from this lunatic. Again. He seemed harmless enough, and stayed well outside the zone of my personal space, but something about him scared me. Or maybe it was just the things he said, as if on some level I feared they might be true.
Sanity reasserted itself. “One person can’t be expected to save the world. Real heroes always have help,” I said, and started to back away.
“I’m not asking you to save the world. Just don’t let it fall apart.”
Two more steps backward. He saw he was losing me, I guess, so he asked, “Why do you suppose your Aunt Judith is in the Peaceful Rest nursing home? There are so many other options in this city.”
“How do you know about Aunt Judy?”
“I told you. She’s a Timekeeper, too. Peaceful Rest is where all the old Keepers go. The place is a veritable nexus of time loops, because their dreams get kind of wonky and radiate out into the local time stream.”
“You’re nuts. Stay away from me!”
I turned and started to walk, then sprint, toward the spot where I’d parked. At the neighbors’ request, my battered, rusty vehicle was out of sight around the street corner. I wished I didn’t even own a car. I hated the things, in fact. My job didn’t help. I saw them, smelled them, heard them all day. She who works in a candy store . . . .
My legs had recovered remarkably from yesterday’s run during the few hours of fitful sleep.
“You can’t run away,” I heard him call. “I’m not your enemy. You can’t escape destiny!” he shouted. “Time is out of joint. You have to fix it!” The voice sounded like it came from where he had stood the whole time. Maybe he wasn’t following me. But I sprinted until I was out of breath, just in case.
Read Part Two of this story tomorrow.