I know that wooded hill behind her house.
One morning she took a headset camera and live-streamed the climb up a steep, unmarked trail to the entrance of a hidden cave. From there she pointed out people working in the patchwork of fields below and then panned around to show me the cave’s dark, mossy dampness.
Many locals believe it’s haunted. Nina assures me it’s not. She says if our time jumps ever cross this is the very tunnel from which I will emerge. I don’t understand how she can be so sure. Yes, we share the same chronotype but our clock genetics are way different. She laughs and begins the scramble back down to her world. She’s less than two hours left.
I’m home again. Watch says heartbeat’s one hundred sixty and dropping. I’m lying on my bed and breathing in great gulps of air. Thigh muscles ache like I’ve been running cross-country. Is this the same room I jumped from just two hours earlier?
Worried that my return trip’s gone wrong, I reach through the darkness and switch on the rustic bamboo-framed lamp. Soft light flows through its rice paper shade.
My eyes focus first on the cream-colored ceiling. Why dad spent hours painting it such a boring, sickly color I do not get one tiny bit.
The floor’s a mess worthy of the teenager-in-residence. Another reassuring sign. I see discarded, half-eaten energy bars, and a pile of smelly socks I ought to wash one day. Who knows what lies fermenting underneath this bed. I sure don’t.
A memory flickers. No visual this time. Just sound. “That lazy lout needs a good kick up the backside.” One of her more annoying utterances but then me and dad don’t talk much about the person we once knew as mum anymore. Good riddance to bad rubbish.
I glance up at the clock. Bet I missed eleven and twelve. We shall see.
Two, twins, binary. Can always rely on the power of two. I really, truly believe three’s a crowd but keep that to myself these days because I think dad’s still in mourning. It’s been more than two years since she disappeared.
I undress beneath the bed covers. Off comes two of everything: sweats, shirts, socks. It’s the same doubling every time I jump. Strange to think I’m sleeping with the enemy when the enemy is me: down to his very clothes.
Sweat trickles down my chest. Without air conditioning, this north-facing room is an awful sauna in summertime but even late October can still be bloody hot. I ought to shower but the noise will only alert dad.
Three’s a great time to get some journalling done. Never feel like doing much of anything before the witching hour. Too many taxis, trucks and drunks passing by, like they’re right outside my window. Don’t get me wrong. People like to party. Trucks have to move stuff. The world must turn. I just wish they’d all do it a little more quietly.
Another blast from the past begins playing in my head.
“Hey, pipe down, pissheads. And clean up your own disgusting vomit.”
Perhaps, with the benefit of hindsight, those particular words, delivered in an angry tirade of high-amplitude sound, and from the relative safety of an upstairs bedroom window, weren’t my wisest choice.
Even the inebriated can parse an insult if they hear it often enough. I might have gotten away with my little stunt too but for the water bombing.
A sudden cramp spasms my left calf and I grimace with pain. When the agony subsides I notice this movie’s second reel loading into working memory and I watch the rerun. All I really did was toss out the necessary cleaning utensils to land right in front of them, along with a reasonable volume of tepid water, and not scalding hot, as they later whined about in court.
They were not happy campers, I can tell you, soaked and splattered by their own goop.
I find that odd because most everybody knows how a bucket of warm soapy water and a scrubbing brush can work miracles at getting rid of chyme-addled curry. I have carried out the same experiment from this very window many times over the years and the results are always the same.
Never trust a drunk, though. Damned fool and his floozy went and slipped on their own stinking mess. Of course, falling objects are going to hit a pre-assigned target. I am boiling hot with rage now. They shoulda stopped swaying and staggering and stood absolutely still. Fools.
Forty-four minutes passed before the community’s own robot cops managed to show up in their dinky little patrol car. Not a living soul in sight and they soon left. His girl ran off well before their arrival, swearing and hollering into the darkness. Best decision she made all night, what with her skirt’s derriere all covered in yuck.
And as for the guy? Well, didn’t he go and make things ten times worse for himself by trying to throw a brick at our front window. Missed and hit the next door neighbor’s brand new beemmer. I tell ya, never touch a builder’s beemmer.
Off goes the ear-splitting car alarm and out comes one very angry builder. That drunk never knew what hit him. Well, maybe he did but he got no time to think things over or plead his case, because next thing I see is this builder dragging him along the street by one leg and then heaving him into a seven foot tall skip.
Did I tell you he was a builder?
See, he don’t speak much English, more like Armenian or something, so I’ll settle on him being an Armenian builder. Anyway, this drunk’s now at the bottom of the skip, groaning for a while, and then everyone just vanishes. Even dad, who failed to see the funny side of my violent neighborhood watch joke, returns to his slumber. He thinks the builder should be sent back. He’s strange like that, my old man. Luckily for me, he also failed to spot our brush and bucket down below. Oh, but they’re gone now. I reckon this builder must be a tidy Goliath. He probably chucked them in the dumpster along with the crumpled reveler.
Five’s when the world comes alive here.
I lean out of the window and watch lights go on in bathrooms and bedrooms up and down our street. Toilets flush. Coughs and throat-clearing cackles puncture the early morning silence.
What sounds like a murder of crows in the copse opposite starts up a racket of their own. Visions of big black birds dive-bombing and shattering bathroom windows, their stunned occupants caught pants down, flit through my head. And then the image stream vanishes without warning. But where did it go?
Oh! And what’s that beeping sound? I turn to see a message flashing on my computer screen. I bet it’s her. I go click on the app and crack open another energy drink. Must be afternoon over there in the ‘land of eternal warmth’; our sick little joke, given the state of the planet.
The video call connects and one of my kind comes into view.
“Hello, Nina. And today’s word is?”
She sounds happy.
We have this game, you see. Whoever calls first has to guess the word of the day. We got a pretty good hit rate too. Better than chance. But no luck today.
“Nope. It’s matchstick.” I pull a sad face.
Her head tilts and I get to watch her cute feet moving around the tatami floor. Nothing clutters up her precious living space. “Just six mats,” she once told me, that’s all I need. Now here comes the takedown. Hands on hips. Eyes fixed on mine. It looks like she’s gonna leap through the screen.
“Matchstick houses built from tombstones.”
She looks real pleased with her effort and bows expectantly.
“Very good. You still got time?”
“Yes. Lots. It’s gogo one here. Lost eleven and twelve. Like before. And you?”
Her accent’s a cross between that of a well-known English TV newscaster back in the mid-2020s and some washed-up rap artist from south of the river.
It’s not easy without clock genes to keep time right and I used to get her time-references all mixed up too. Now it’s quite clear. Gogo means after jumping and gozen means before. Well, they mean much more than that. For us, gogo comes right after twelve and twelve follows eleven. So, daily life’s a gogo if you come through that quirky pairing intact.
“Gozen five here. All’s cool. I got six hours left. Did you make it to school?”
Outside, a dog barks. A car engine starts. I guess the builder’s off early to work in his repaired beemmer.
She mimics a zombie and presses her face to the screen. “No, silly. I can’t just turn up like you can. Look, I gotta go help my father in the fields. See you in the gogo. And go to school.” She winks.
The feed stops and I stare at her frozen image until my eyes water.
Six is when my dad gets up.
He sleeps like a log in the back bedroom but I can hear him now, humming out of tune in the bathroom. Is he trying to drown out the sound of taking a pee? If he is, it’s not working. Anyone awake within a three-house radius is surely cursing the sound of water falling on porcelain. That’s the trouble with these ancient terraced houses.
The night sky’s calm and clear. I watch a few stars still twinkle in some secret code as the world moves from darkness into light.
My attention’s then drawn to six ants marching out of formation along the windowsill. Man, you guys are early. One more and they could be the magnificent seven but I fear ants don’t get classic movie jokes. I place a few moldy breadcrumbs in their way and in less than thirty-seconds they’re carrying them off to some secret base. Their leader’s at the front holding up booty in its tiny mandibles. Reminds me of that Mad Hatter character and his ginormous top hat.
“Have a nice tea party, guys.”
And with that I’m off to help my dad.
Seven’s a tricky time of the morning in the kitchen. We’re like a couple of hungover samurai ready to pounce on each other at the slightest mistake or misunderstanding. He listens to the tablet’s audio feed. I prepare breakfast. The news rehashes a babble of global economic anarchy and nature’s unrelenting fury. There’s no conversation between us at this hour and I busy myself with dicing the fruit, slicing the cheese and making coffee. If he’s gotta go face the dismal world of commercial property insurance, best do it on a healthy breakfast. I sound like that unperson we used to call ‘mummy.’
“Off to school today, son?”
He speaks but does not look up from that stupid business tablet they make him use virtually every waking hour.
I pretend not to hear and set a neat plate of pineapples, bananas and strawberries beside him on the table.
Nothing to eat for me until it’s gone gogo one in the afternoon. It strikes me that despite the constant drip of gloom and doom we get on the so-called news wires, hothouse Earth’s got at least one point in its favor; all the fruit you can grow to eat is done right here in the people’s republic of Britannia. According to our state-supplied boob tube, nature’s bounty is brought to us today by the scientific miracle of geoengineering and Blighty’s plucky corporate agrihorticulturists. So at least this fractured collection of statelets has that going for us.
“I told you before, dad, my name’s Brian. And no, I can’t go to school. Didn’t you read the psychologist’s report?”
Back when there were three of us living here that reply would have stirred up a hornet’s nest of trouble. She might even have backhanded me across the face. I was small then. But he doesn’t overreact anymore. Nowadays dad chooses to always respond in an appropriate manner. My sarcasm knows no bounds.
“Yes, er, Bria-, Brian, as a matter of fact, I did read it.”
He’s stopped eating and glances up in my general direction before his eyes return to their digital opium feed.
“Then you’ll know I can’t go because the doctor diagnosed me with a very unusual sleep disorder. Or is it a syndrome? It’s so rare they don’t even have an acronym for it yet.”
He gives me a disdainful look that can mean only one thing. Trouble, with a capital ‘T’. Oops, and here comes the classic paternal lecture on why I need to get an education to get a government license to get a decent job that doesn’t exist yet yada yada yada. He and I are like two pugilists sparring over pragmatism versus idealism. I suppose I could throw my sweat-stained towel onto the floor in mock surrender and agree to buckle down to their useless studies for another round, but I’m saved by the bell.
“Eight minutes to eight,” trills the neglected tablet in a tone far too chirpy for my liking.
I see disappointment written all over his face. That lecture will have to wait because the commuter taxis only trundle past our street in stately convoys at the top and bottom of the hour. He’s running late and will have to sprint hard to catch this particular wagon train at our closest designated boarding point about a quarter of a mile away.
“Get to school,” he says, squeezing on his smart shoes at the entrance.
I play dumb.
“Bye,” I reply, while he grabs briefcase, brolly and tablet.
And then he’s gone.
No need for a coat in October but the weatherbot reckons it might or might not rain, depending on when and where one happens to be located within their probability matrix. What a shame all that excess latent heat we put into the atmosphere can’t behave itself, not even for quantum-computed forecasts. Sunshine and showers. Same as it’s ever been, only warmer. Much, much warmer.
Nine and I’m knackered. Dishes washed, table wiped, beds made and washing machine loaded. Man, a young person’s work is never done.
Sweating from my chores, I flop down on our homemade sofa (whose presence is a long and tortuous story involving needless thrift and hours of piss-poor carpentry) and stumble through channels of sheeple edutainment on the wall screen, throwing my voice at it like I’m delirious with joy for their cornucopia of choices: pointless shopping specials, political indoctrination shows and, yes, even “eco-shopping with extra social credit bonus points.”
But, wait, there’s more.
Asking for “exciting sports” gets me professional baseket, a bastardized monstrosity derived from what they claim is a perfect mix of baseball and cricket. I shouldn’t complain. Much. They gave us an agrifood deal we could not refuse and artificially sweetened it with a lifetime guarantee of military protection from the effects of violent unrest on the continent. And in return, once they’d finished watering their own parched tree of liberty with the blood of whoever didn’t fit in, our worthless leaders sold off what remained of individual choice in our lives. I’ve heard there are enormous gated colonies of these resettled rich folks barely an hour from here. It’s a shame no one can get through the cordons to see how this other half lives.
Still, my pointless viewing has a greater purpose. Our social credit score’s been in the toilet, mainly because I never show up for my academy’s daily lobotomy sessions. They don’t like that one bit. No, sir. So I linger on the ‘do it right’ advice channels, take a few citizen awareness surveys, even turn on the control panel’s audiovisual sniffer and give the invisible code monkeys responsible for this totalitarian monitoring a cheery wave. Making sure to have a pile of my forever pristine school textbooks lying open on the coffee table (we poor folks get the older dead tree versions.)
I pretend to scribble with much aplomb in a futile attempt to solve some ridiculous algebra question. My solution also involves a number of self-copulating stick figures doing what comes naturally to a small legion of prohibited words in the paper’s margin.
Twenty minutes later and I’m bored stupid. I wonder if he’ll notice our credit gain tonight and perhaps acknowledge that at least his ‘bone idle’ son’s done something useful today.
I get up to go shower but another memory pulse tugs at me about something important I’ve evidently forgotten. “Shit,” I say in frustration.
The wall screen lights up and requests further clarification. Damn thing’s always lurking in listening mode. Our ‘big sister’ of a sniffer comes pre-enabled with a ridiculous timer of one hour (cheeky buggers) but I turn it down to fifteen minutes because I’m sure to say or do something those algos won’t like one bit.
Decisions, decisions. What should I do with this final hour? I sense some eternal sword of Damocles above, below and all around me. Inside my skull it feels like ten thousand needles of anguish and regret are busy stitching my thoughts one-by-one into yet another last will and testament.
I make it to the front door and stand frozen in fear on the threshold. There’s not a bird or a cloud in the sky and nobody on the street. But I can’t go outside. I just can’t. It’s too risky.
And even if I cycle real fast I’ll still only make the allotments, and be stuck halfway between school and eternity when I return.
The sun bathes me in waves of light and warmth. A faint crescent of a moon looks down and seems to smile at my predicament.
Aw, to hell with the bike.
I’m walking on sunshine now.
And then I’m running like the wind, faster and faster, getting closer and closer to an enormous fractal hologram of Nina and I together, mouth-to-mouth, flesh-to-flesh. I taste miso on her lips. Grains of sticky white rice pass like atoms between us. Nina? Wow! Where did you come from? I am so not your type.
“Shhh,” she whispers.
The sky ahead darkens in an instant, an opening appears, and I take a giant leap of faith into a pitch black hole of love or death.
I’m tumbling, falling, bouncing off trees and rocks, scrambling to my feet, again and again. I’ve no sense of time or space. My eyes are shut tight yet somehow I see all those missing minutes and hours zoom by in one unbroken, ever-expanding present.
There’s stillness now and my thighs feel that unpleasant burn again.
Am I back?
Am I dead?
I open my eyes to a different sky, an evening sky. There’s a bed of soft grass beneath me and the soothing, tinkling sound of running water.I sit up and hear cicadas crying in the trees at the base of the hill.
Am I here at last?
She’s standing on a small path at the edge of a patchwork of rice fields, silhouetted against the light of the farmhouse.
We’re eye-to-eye now.
Tears stream down our faces. We’re together at last.
Short Story Writer’s Journal:
The biggest win for me this first week of the challenge was that I finished a story to a real deadline. To do this I had to make a number of changes to my writing process.
Going to bed before 10pm and getting up at 4:30 for the next five mornings were both key in getting the story done. The world is fast asleep at that time and I was able to start writing without any fuss and with a mind refreshed and still in touch with the dreaming self.
I was also able to resist the temptation to peek at online news or, god forbid, check on my social media feeds, by using the setup I described in this post: Distraction-free writing with a smartphone.
As for the story itself, I did not plot beforehand and it was written in a discovery mode i.e. pantsing.
However, I did plant some story seeds via my reading over the previous week. The New Scientist magazine is a mine of ideas and one came to me in the form of an article about some schools starting classes at 10am or later in the UK because of changes in teenagers’ circadian rhythms due to late night internet gaming etc. I mashed that up with my ongoing interest in time travel theories and some readings about neurodiversity, and came up with Brian and Nina’s entanglement drama.
Since this is my first story of the challenge, I had thought of writing it in third-person limited viewpoint. Instead, the first-person present tense (I was horrified when sentences started lining up in real time) made itself known and Brian’s character refused to cooperate unless I continued in that manner.
Reading over the story again this afternoon there are other echoes I’d like to point out here. For the sake of brevity I’ll list them below in bullet form.
The story’s jerky flow is a reflection of Brian’s neurodiversity and the chronotype malfunction that powers his reality shifts twice-a-day for two hours at a time.
Big mainstream news stories that week included rapid climate change&and No-deal Brexit.
Digestion (including chyme in the stomach) was a topic I read lots about.
We escaped the Tokyo metro area for Japanese wine country (Yamanashi Prefecture) and that inspired the Sotayama reference at the end of the story.
Spelling and grammar (where correct!) are probably a sorry mash between English and American formats. I will need a copy editor to fix any mishaps. Apologies to readers knocked out of the story because of these inconsistencies.
Well, that’s story #1 done for me. Good or bad, it stands as is and I need to grab a shower and hit the sack before 10pm here Sunday night. Story #2 is waiting somewhere in the wings of my mind for tomorrow’s early start.
A summary listing of all short stories in this challenge can be found by clicking 52-in-52.)