Well, it’s sure been a long time since I’ve done this. For many years I’ve wanted to write a time travel story, but the problem was that I just never had a believable device.
Welcome to – Time. It’s only a working title and, yes, it’s rather obvious.
Well, let me clarify. No time travel device is believable, but some are what I would call “acceptable.” In Back to the Future, it was a nuclear-powered DeLorean that reached 88 mph. That was fun, and it was acceptable for a comedy, not for a novel. Perhaps you read Stephen King’s 11/22/63. In that novel, the device was to enter a pantry in a diner, close the door, lift and plant your legs as if walking, and then you were suddenly going up a flight of stairs and would appear about 50 years in the past. Meh.
As for my time travel device, it came to me while watching a television show discussing the origin of the universe, the “big bang” versus “intelligent design. That’s when it came to me. Sorry, but you won’t get the guts of my device until about chapter 4. That’s not too far to ask you to hang in, is it?
I’d have to have “marbulls” in my head if i didn’t put a few questions at the end. Thanks for giving it a shot, even if you aren’t thrilled.
Time – chapter 1
Whether it was a plague of deja vu or recently turning 50, John couldn’t be certain. What was certain was how uncomfortable he was in a place he considered a home away from what barely counted as a home. Each time he paused for a sip of coffee while typing at his usual corner table, he sharply glanced around the Starbucks in Center City, Philadelphia, to see whose eyes might have just pulled away from him. It was not nearly a challenge for his bouts of obsessive-compulsive disorder to track everyone who had come and gone during the three hours since he had parked himself, getting up for two refills. He knew nobody else had stayed in the shop for more than a half hour. He also knew that only two of the forty-five patrons were faces he had not seen before. Still, something was telling him to leave.
John’s blog post, another rant on how attorneys and judges were ruining the country by making it impossible for struggling people to keep their heads above water, had been through four drafts and dozens of incidental changes. His shoulders dropped as he clicked “publish.” He closed his laptop, tucked it into his K-Mart backpack, and swung it on his back. By the time he returned from the restroom to be sure he hadn’t left any trash on his table, his cell phone chimed that he already had a comment on his most recent post. With most of his writings, he would be lucky if there were five comments after a month. For there to be one this quickly was a pleasant surprise.
John was very strict about the cordial aspects of blogging, his favorite pastime since discovering it only a few years prior. If someone left a comment, regardless of the tone, he replied politely, even to those who criticized him. If someone “followed” his blog, he followed back. He rarely followed first, but he always followed in return.
He opened his laptop again, found his post from only a few minutes earlier in which he reminded the world of the inherent sexism in the justice system, how separated and divorced fathers were guilty until proven innocent, and scanned the comment:
I’m sorry to hear about your situation.
It was generic, possibly spam or a “bot” that attempts to entice you to send a response and possibly hook you into an advertising campaign. Instead of deleting the useless comment, he replied simply.
Thanks for your thoughts. Have a great day.
John then checked the usual career search websites but held no expectations because it was usually the same crap offered. He thought more about his feeling of being watched, resigned it as silly, and began browsing. Just one, the thought, just one that doesn’t involve telephone sales, insurance, stocking shelves, or pyramid schemes. Instead, because of an inexplicable nagging which now seemed more like déjà vu than someone following him, he closed his laptop and zipped it in his backpack. He snaked through Starbucks’ chairs and tables without stopping until he reached the bus stop two blocks north.
It was only two weeks before Thanksgiving and colder than usual, but John kept things minimal with only a knit cap over his thinning hair and a t-shirt beneath a long-sleeved fleece, his cell phone in the breast pocket. His no-name jeans reached over his black suede shoes, ones that a sarcastic friend once referred to as “Bruce Lee shoes.” They were comfortable, lasted about 9 months but only cost $10. The fleece fit more snuggly than it had a year ago, but for good reasons including weight training and a lean diet. He ignored the punch of wind that traced the back of his neck and stepped aboard the 380 that ran back and forth from the city’s best section, where Starbucks was, to a lesser section, where he lived.
Shortly before the 380 reached his stop, he noticed a black SUV alongside. He wouldn’t have paid any attention at all except that the afternoon sun on the opposite side of the vehicle was angled enough to pierce the darkly tinted windows and partly expose the occupants inside. Being higher up in a bus seat, he could only see two sets of thighs, one thicker than the other, until a left lane of traffic forced the SUV to fall back before John could process anything further. It didn’t take long for the whole thing to slip his mind. He went back to assessing the other bus riders, superficially determining who might have committed a crime, who hadn’t, and who hadn’t yet.
John climbed seven flights of a seven-story building, bypassing the elevator because extra steps were extra calories burned. When he first moved into the building two years ago, he was out of breath by only the fourth floor. However, after a much-needed exercise plan, he could run to the top and down again without breaking a sweat. Although he was physically and visually a little younger than his 50 years, his occasional memory lapses made him feel older.
His door was at end of the hallway. His apartment overlooked the street and faced south, which usually meant plenty of sunlight through his windows. It also meant the Venetian blinds were always at an open angle to allow a greenhouse effect to save roughly $40 a month by keeping his heat off. It had been a sunny day, thus he was surprised not to see a bright strip of light beneath his apartment door. Instead it was dark.
After opening the three locks on the door in need of repainting, he was surprised to find the living room blinds closed. To the left was his bedroom and bathroom. To the right was a galley kitchen that opened into a living room with a dining area. Three dark windows stared at him, regardless of how certain he was to have left the blinds open. He stared ahead for signs of anything – a wrinkled throw rug, smudge of dirt, sofa cushion out of place.
Seeing nothing obvious, John stepped carefully to his right and into the kitchen where he traded his backpack for a paring knife. Then he silently moved left again, through the hall to his bedroom. He was only steps away when he reminded himself there was absolutely nothing of value to steal in his one-bedroom apartment, but he also had to remind himself that anyone who might break in wouldn’t know that until after they had broken in. That’s why he couldn’t take the possibility lightly.
He always left all interior doors open when leaving his apartment because to come home and find a closed door meant two things – someone had entered and someone was still there. On this day, no doors were open and, after a thorough search, John was certain nobody was there. However, he was not certain that nobody had been there before he had arrived.
It was the kind of neighborhood where break-ins were not a surprise and most people knew it was only a matter of time before you were on the victim list. Most people also knew that to arrive home and find someone had broken in was far better than being home when it happened. It was the “push in,” they feared most, when you were just unlocking your door and someone approached from behind, pushed you in, locked the door, and then hopefully limited their actions to just robbery.
It was a little after 3pm when he sat at his working/writing desk near the three living room windows. He had positioned his desk so the fairly good view of a fairly bad neighborhood was on his right side. He could never explain why, likely because he was right handed, but it always seemed natural that his right side faced outward, otherwise he couldn’t focus on anything.
He opened his laptop and smiled in thanks that his neighbor’s wi-fi was available. When it wasn’t, he would carry his laptop to the roof from where he could pick up a free public signal. The danger in that was when he would do so after one or two drinks too many and when he has on another writing rant. That was when, after finishing another angry blog post, he would intentionally wander too close to the edge of the roof.
Wanted: intellectually advanced men who can improvise, think on their feet, but are capable of following directions to the letter. Advanced memory, writing ability, and knowledge of history a plus. Position will entail a multi-year commitment with substantial payment but not until contract is complete. Expenses paid during commitment. Must have excellent social skills. Loners encouraged to apply. Interview involves travel to New York City, but you will be paid for the day.
“Absolutely none of this makes sense,” John said aloud, as he often did when alone, “but it’s interesting enough that I have to give it a shot.” John had lived most of his life in northern New Jersey and had spent countless days and nights in New York, so it was almost as if an old friend had come calling to see a job ad from Manhattan.
John’s reason to give it a shot was more because he had not held a steady, full-time job for three years. The “interesting” part was secondary. He found his standard cover letter and resume, which detailed his career work experience – except for the two accusations of sexual harassment – and retooled everything to stress his education, ability to think on his feet, and knowledge of history. He stressed his sense of social skills and ability to write by including his blog address and select articles focused on social commentary with historical significance. He stressed his single life and the ease with which he could spend a year or two in a long-term commitment that culminated in a financial reward provided expenses were paid. He also included a few references, people with whom he had worked years ago and, with some luck, would be willing to say a few positive things if called. He clicked “send,” and took a shower.
Being it was November and winter approaching, darkness was setting in earlier and earlier each day, so it was dusk when he returned to the living room after his shower. It wasn’t unusual for John to be naked as he had lived alone for nearly nine years. Less clothing worn meant less laundry and less money spent. Fortunately or unfortunately, increased time naked coincided with increased time involved in libidinous activities. Much like drugs that allowed the user to escape reality for a short time, masturbation had a similar but less costly effect.
John kept a strict eating schedule: breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, and dinner like a pauper. Dinner often meant a simple garden salad with a can of tuna. Dressing was a combination of whatever had not yet been tossed from the refrigerator, such as a mix of mustard, mayonnaise, lemon juice, and whatever spices remained. Croutons were bread, bread was carbohydrates, carbs added weight and were only an option for breakfast.
A little after 6 pm he was back at his desk to check email and found a response to his application for the unusual job to which he had applied earlier.
Dear Mr. Page,
Thanks very much for replying to our job posting. If you are interested, please follow these directions:
- Reply to confirm you will attend an interview
- Arrive in front of 525 East 68th Street, NY at 10 am tomorrow
- You will be greeted by a woman with a clipboard
- You will be paid $500 for the day, even if not hired
- Business dress, but bring a casual change of clothes
- Bring two writing instruments, no pencils
- Plan to be here up to four hours
- Lunch will be served should you remain until 1pm
- There will be approximately ten candidates total
- Bring a book to keep you busy while waiting
- Do not reply with any questions
- If you are not interested, please let us know
Your compliance is appreciated, and we hope to see you tomorrow.
Dr. Robert Darrow
“Dude, you got issues,” said John, “but I’m showing up anyway.” From his bedroom closet he removed his navy blue sport jacket, light blue dress shirt, red and black striped tie, and khaki pants that he had worn unsuccessfully to several previous interviews. As he ironed the shirt and pants, refreshed the jacket with a wet hand instead of a lint brush, and posed everything over a chair for the early morning, he considered the details.
“So $500. It will cost about $100 to get up there and back again. I can put $100 towards the attorney fees, $100 towards child support, and $100 just to eat for another month. And $100 to drink for another month.” He double checked his clothes. “Maybe $150 towards support and $50 for drinking.”
It was a Wednesday, John’s least favorite day of the week. Although most people disliked Mondays, he believed that most people slacked off more in the middle of the week and thus expected lesser customer service and other efforts on such days, but he had other reasons to dislike Wednesdays. The idea of an interview on a Thursday was far more appealing.
As darkness moved across the city, he put one light on and angled the blinds so he could see the highlights of the city without anyone at street level seeing him. He knew nobody at street level was interested in a naked, 50-year old man, but it was a habit.
Back at his computer, he worked backwards to figure out which trains and buses would get him to 323 East 68th Street by 9:30 am the next day. He figured out what time to leave his apartment, planned what he would have for breakfast, and which casual clothes he would pack, as per the instructions.
“This could be some stupid scam,” John said aloud again, “but I literally have nothing else to do, so what the hell. If it turns out to be nothing, at least I can take a detour and visit my brother for a little bit.” What he did not say aloud was, “Although I haven’t talked to anyone in my family for about five years.”
His phone buzzed that he had another email. He checked, and it was the same reply to the job application as before. “Okay, so I guess you want a reply now.” He typed:
Thanks for the invitation. I will be there shortly before 10 am tomorrow. Forgive my skepticism, but I hope this isn’t some kind of a scam or joke. The job ad and your previous email seem very interesting, and I would hate to be disappointed to learn it was not serious.
He clicked “send.” John detailed everything, the buses and trains and times, on an index card, took a picture of it with his phone, tucked it in the sport jacket’s breast pocket, and went to bed early. He expected the next day would be long and assumed there would be the usual disappointment, especially if a background check were involved. “When I consider all the shitty things that have happened to me over the past ten years, going to New York for a day can’t be all that bad.” His phone buzzed once more, another email.
We look forward to meeting you tomorrow.
He went to sleep.
1. The first line, “It wasn’t the first time John had sensed he was being watched, but it would be the last.” I was told this is overused, but I can’t think of anywhere else I have seen it. How do you feel about it?
2. I want John to seem somewhere between cautious and paranoid. I also want him to seem as if he has been suffering some bad luck, which I will elaborate on very soon. Does he seem that way to you?
3. Does he seem too “gullible” to be willing to travel from Philadelphia to New York for what might not even be a legitimate job interview? I hope it is more that he is not gullible but more like “desperate.”
Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts.