BY DAVID ROGERS
This is the conclusion of a two-part story. Copyright is held by the author.
THE NEXT day was weird. Weirder than the previous days, I mean. I listened to the news over coffee that morning. Planes were falling out of the sky. School buses the day before had inexplicably returned kids home by 10 in the morning. Stock markets were in chaos because no two computers agreed with each other about what time it was. And so on.
Many of the drivers passing my booth looked harassed and confused. Driving is enough to do that to anyone, but that day had a high percentage of chaos.
When I left my tollbooth that afternoon, nobody seemed to follow me. I got home, locked all the doors, checked the windows, and turned on every light in the house. The neighbors would think I was strange. Let them.
When I went in the bedroom to turn on the light, the clock on the nightstand was blinking, as if the electricity had been out. I checked the back-up batteries by putting them in my flashlight. It shone brightly. Very odd.
What had the mystery man, Neph, said? Something about time being out of joint. And I was supposed to do something about it. Yeah, right.
After supper, I went up to the attic to poke around. All day I’d thought about what Neph had said about my family. If half of it were true, there must be some evidence. Timekeeper memorabilia. Diaries, photographs, or journals.
I pushed the creaky door open. Rusty, screechy hinges protested. No one had been up here in years, not since Aunt Judith went to Peaceful Rest. Blinking cobwebs from my eyes, I pulled the string to turn on the light, a single bare bulb that hung on a cord from the ceiling, and sneezed. The dust was too thick. The swinging light threw weird shadows around the room.
The dark old wooden case of my grandmother’s grandfather clock sat at the far end from the stairs, the only place it would fit under the slanting roof. The clock had been relegated to the attic when I was a small girl, because it no longer ticked. Clock makers had been consulted, to no avail. Cleanings and minor repairs had been done, also without success. The clock worked for a few days or hours and then stopped. The last expert to examine it declared herself mystified, unable to explain or remedy the dysfunction.
The cardboard box under the old bureau said “Bobbie’s things” in smudged pencil. Bobbie — the name rang a bell. Then I remembered. Aunt Judith must have been asking about Bobbie, not Bobby. Why had I never heard of this person before? Or how did I forget? Stooping under the low side of the roof, I knelt and opened the box. It had been folded shut, flap-over-flap. More dust billowed up, and I saw what was inside. A ring, silver, with a small red stone, a book that looked like a diary or journal, a baseball glove, and a hat. A watch cap.
I opened the book, and saw that it was actually a photo album. It was filled with black-and-white snapshots, Polaroids, and examples of the lost or dying art of 35-millimetre film photography. The common element in all the photos was a girl, Bobbie, I guessed, and various adults, posed near famous clocks and sundials. Big Ben, the four-sided Penn Station clock, the Strasbourg astronomical clock in France, the Tower of the Winds in Greece, and many not-famous park sundials and bank time-and-temperature clocks were represented. Toward the back of the book, the little girl had morphed into a teenager.
I set the album aside and picked up the hat. A smooth blue stone the size of a softball, oval, like a melted mutant grapefruit, slid out and landed in the pocket of the glove. I picked it up. It felt heavy, like lead, but more so, and I almost dropped it. It looked like polished turquoise, but with the oddest red inclusions I’d ever seen. When I held it in both hands, it felt warm, and something told me that if I turned out the light, it would glow. I put the stone back in the hat.
The phone rang. Startled, I dropped the stone. “Are you still convinced I’m just a lunatic? Do you still think you can run away?”
I recognized the voice.
“Pick up the stone.”
I looked around, frantic. “Where are you?”
“Far away. Why else do you think I called you on the phone?”
“Then how do you know what I am looking at? You bugged my house?” I stood and knocked things this way and that, boxes of old clothes, a lamp with no shade, a stack of Aunt Judith’s beloved romance novels. “Where’s the camera?”
“Just pick up the Stone.”
“I did. Stop changing the subject. You’re working with whoever’s trying to kill me, aren’t you?”
I could hear him sigh. “No. But I know who they are and why they are doing what they are doing. Would you like me to tell you more?”
“You have my attention.”
“Come out in the back yard so we can talk. And bring the Stone.”
“I thought you were far away. Now you’re in my back yard?”
“I will be shortly.”
I’d tried walking away. I’d tried running away. It hadn’t worked. I went downstairs and out to the back yard.
“You forgot to sign for your new copy of the Handbook.” He was sitting on the concrete bench by the birdbath, under the big oak. Streetlights cast dark shadows across the yard. A large book lay on the bench beside him.
It took me a minute, but then I remembered. The first time I saw him, he’d said he wanted to give me a book.
“People are trying to kill me, and that’s your big concern? A book?”
“You want answers. The book has them. And no one is trying to kill you. Yet. Just distract and intimidate.”
“Well, it’s working. But gunfire is a rather extreme distraction.”
“If he’d wanted to hit you, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”
“Why are they trying to intimidate me? I’m nobody.”
“Because if they kill you, someone else is called to be the Timekeeper. Then they have to start over, first by finding out who the new Keeper is. Better the devil they know, from the Chaos Lords’ point of view. But they don’t want you to accept your destiny, either, and take up your duties. So, they distract you.”
“Make some sense, or I’m going back inside.”
“I see you are the impatient type. Just like your Great Aunt Athena. Very well. Which part confused you the most?”
“Let’s start with “chaos lord” — what’s that?”
“Chaos Lords — capital C, capital L — are natural enemies of Timekeepers. Like owls are to mice. Chaos Lords are nocturnal, too, though they can function anytime. They glide over time, above time, and swoop in when they see prey.”
“So, I’m the mouse in this story?”
“It’s just an analogy. A mouse with immense powers. Here’s what you need to know. After you read the Handbook and learn tohandle the Timestone effectively, your powers are unlocked.”
“What powers? And what’s a Timestone — with a capital T, I assume?”
“Your Timekeeper powers. They manifest themselves in spells.”
“I don’t know any spells. I’m not a witch or wizard.”
“You will. There are some in the book, a few classics, but you can write and use new ones. As a matter of fact, your people used to be called Time Witches, but after the Salem incidents you stopped calling yourselves that, even privately. It was a desperate time.”
“You’re saying my ancestors were witches? At Salem?”
“One of your cousins ran afoul of the Puritans, unfortunately. They’d no idea of her actual powers, and cared nothing for all the good she had done–she was a healer as well as a Timekeeper–but they were outraged by her refusal to kiss the feet of the self-appointed deacons. So, they put her to the water test. If the accused could float or swim, she was guilty, and if not, well, the Puritan’s cruel God would supposedly not only welcome the innocent with open arms but approve the murder.”
“So, what happened to . . . what was her name?”
“Mattie. A very strong swimmer. She swam away, under water, and climbed out where the crowd could not see her, under the boughs of a willow tree on the bank. She escaped. But the ordeal scarred her. Many who screamed for her death were ones she had healed. Or she had healed their sick children. She told me about it the next day, shivering, bedraggled, hidden in the hayloft of the barn where she took refuge. I can still see the pain in her eyes.”
“You were there? At Salem?”
“Of course. Your family has a long and proud history, most of which you don’t remember. As I explained earlier. But your Aunt Roberta, or Bobbie, as everybody called her, was one of the finest Timekeepers ever. She was number one on the Chaos Lords’ intimidation list.”
“What happened to her? I think if I’d ever met her, I’d at least remember that.”
“Bobbie’s adventures are tales for another time. Your own challenges as the new Timekeeper and dealing with the Chaos Lord are what must concern you for the present.”
“About that — I have no idea what I’m supposed to do.”
“Right. That’s why I brought you a Handbook. Pretty much everything you need to know is in here.” He tapped the big book beside him and produced a small tablet from his pocket, flicked the screen, and handed it to me. “Just initial here to acknowledge receipt of the book.”
Obediently — not my default mode of operation, but one can resist only so much weirdness in one week — I took the device and initialed. He said, “Thanks,” and put the tablet back in his pocket. “I’ll check back in with you in a few weeks.”
“What if I have questions?”
“Check the book.”
“Books don’t always answer everything. And you didn’t explain what you mean by Timestone.”
“That’s no ordinary book,” he said, rising as if to go. “The Timestone is the big blue rock that felt especially warm and heavy when you picked it up. By the way, it also makes a good blunt instrument for self-defense.” he said. “Did you bring it?”
I pulled the rock from my pocket, still in the watch cap. “You mean this?”
He nodded and sat again on the edge of the bench. “See how it glows? It senses the book. I was going to show you how to use it, but now you can read all about that.”
“Give me the executive summary,” I said. “You know, the basics.”
“It’s a sort of talisman. A charm, but extremely powerful. Its possessor has the essence of time at her command.”
“‘Essence of time?’ What’s that supposed to mean?”
“How much do you know about calculus and quantum mechanics?”
“Not a lot.”
“Well, then, just remember that the stone allows you to control time, specifically, the locations of people and objects on the temporal plane.”
“You mean time travel?”
“More or less. That’s what H.G. Wells called it, but of course that’s an imprecise description, because we travel through time all the time. The Stone allows you to prevent — or induce, when necessary — anomalous flow of timelines.”
“So . . . time travel.”
“Close enough. Though using the Stone for time travel tends to be a waste of time. Other than the ordinary linear flow through time, which you humans take for granted and often ignore, time travel is not advised.”
“People want to go back and fix mistakes. But you tend not to make better decisions the second time than the first, so it’s best just to go forward and deal with the consequences of your choices.
“But I really must go now. Time is still out of joint. There’s a dispute between the atomic clock people in Boulder and the traditionalists in Greenwich. Not too serious yet, but if it gets out of control, it could be a real crisis.” He got up to leave again.
“What happens when I put time back in order? How can I tell it even worked?”
Neph shrugged. “You’ll know. You’re a Timekeeper.”
“You at least have a phone number? Email address?” I said to his back.
“I’ll know if you need me,” he said over his shoulder.
“The same way I did before,” he said from the shadows, and was gone.
I lugged the heavy book back in the house and started reading.
A couple of hours later, I tried writing my first spells.
After I scribbled and marked up a draft to the point of illegibility, I made a clean copy and spoke the words aloud.
Oh, Sacred Powers
that guard the universe
track the days and hours
let chaos be undone.
May the holy clock towers
Make day and night
as always follow the Sun.
I reconsidered the spell, decided it was too wordy, and started again. The new spell went this way:
Let chaos be undone
Time’s natural order restored
Let course of Sun and Moon
Run as they did before.
The rhymes were sketchy, but it might do. One way to find out. I read aloud. A mechanical thunk and whir broke the silence. I jumped, startled, and saw that the old clock, which had not seen action for decades, had started to work. The pendulum swung left and right with hypnotic regularity. The tick-tock seemed loud as thunder in the quiet attic.
The next day, the morning news made the world seem remarkably placid, but that afternoon, the giant black truck was back. At times, I thought it was going to ram me. It followed me all the way to the last red light before the nursing home, where I was going to check on Aunt Judith. When the light changed, it did ram me. My car was slammed violently forward, my neck pinned momentarily on the headrest. Then my forehead smashed against the top of the steering wheel. I thought I would black out, but adrenaline gave me strength.
I was done being intimidated by this jerk. I opened the car door and stepped out. In my right hand, I held the Timestone, nestled in its watch cap. Mister Big Black Truck climbed down from his deathmobile. He was dressed in black jeans, black tee-shirt, black boots, black sunglasses. His skin was the most pasty-white I’d ever seen.
He looked surprised. I guess he expected me to keep running away. I stood still beside the open door of my car and gripped the Timestone tightly. Through the cloth of the cap, it felt warm, almost hot, in my hand. The Chaos Lord — as I had no doubt he was — walked toward me.
Someone in the gathering gaggle of onlookers was dialing a number on their phone. I assumed the police would arrive shortly. This would all be over before then.
Black-and-Pasty-White stopped within swinging distance. He appeared to be unarmed. His well-over six feet of bulk exuded arrogance and overconfidence, as if he intended to kill by pure intimidation.
He opened his mouth. Before he could say anything, I swung the cap and Stone, overhand, as that was the only way I could reach his shaved head. The blow caught him off-guard and landed with a satisfying thump. He went down, legs folding under him neatly, looking for a moment like he had decided just to sit in the street. Then he collapsed backward like a wounded bird of prey, legs sprawling, canted and awkward.
I pulled the small sheet of paper from my pocket and began to read the other spell I’d spent hours composing the night before. Or rather, the last of many versions, the one that seemed right, if not elegant. I read it aloud, doing my best to enunciate clearly and ignore comments from the curious, growing crowd.
May time’s goddess put forth her hand
From ages of the dinosaur
Before mammoths roamed the land
And let this Lord of Chaos
trouble time no more.
Mr. Big Black Truck vanished, leaving behind only a vacuum that filled instantly with air, sounding like a small crack of thunder. I was hoping the time goddess could take a hint. I didn’t know for sure, but if my speculations were accurate, Mr. Big was about to find himself serving as an hors oeuvre for a hungry T. Rex, or one of his voracious cousins.
The baffled policeman did not believe the truth, which was why I felt free to tell it. Especially the part about how the Chaos Lord simply vanished in a poof! from this region of the space-time continuum. I doubt he believed that part of my story even when curious onlookers confirmed it. I wondered what he would put in his report, but I didn’t worry about it. He was the one with the gun and badge. Let him figure it out.
I smiled. I hadn’t done that in a while. It felt good.