The clock has been in my family for three generations, handed down from father to eldest son. It is a mantel-piece, hand-wound, but no less elegant for its compactness and simplicity. And I alone will not pass it on, because I stopped winding it the day he died.
“Time,” croons Cron. “It is boundless, without beginning or end, and yet there is never, never enough of it.” He fidgets, a show of impatience and an irritating affectation, as is his gold chain watch, a fine old piece which he once again fishes from his pocket to merely glance at. But it is all show and pretense; he needs no watch to know the time, because time is short, and he is Cron, and Cron is the clock-daemon.
The world is happy. I slump on the subway seat. My day is done and home to another night of television. But the world is happy. The major powers are at peace. The fall weather has been magnificent, and a young woman has cured diabetes: Rebecca something or other, a local woman being feted as celebrity and genius both. But my world is in the indifferent whump whump down the subway line. Doors slide open, people enter and exit, doors slide shut and the world slides away.
The world is happy and it means nothing to me. I wait to be home, where I will wait for tomorrow, to do this again. Whump whump and the world slides away.
He comes to me here, an older man, a slender man of early old age and modest height, well-dressed in an overcoat and fedora. He carries no umbrella but somehow looks as if he does.
I don’t really see him at first. He is quiet and unassuming, and a few stops pass before a seat becomes free near me. Only when he sits down and sighs do I first even glance at him. He catches my eye and holds my gaze.
“Good evening,” he says. “I am Cron.”
And slowly, as smoke above a chimney on a still day, the other people in the car simply fade away and Cron and I remain alone. I am very, very chilled.
“Now then,” he says, “To business.”
He swings a briefcase onto his lap, undoes the snaps, and the top opens up.
“Have no fear, my boy, no fear at all. Fear wastes time, and time is short.” His hands rustle busily inside his case, yet still finding time to rub against each other in a strangely sensuous and undeniably feminine fashion. I am both fascinated and stunned to immobility.
“The others are fine; I simply alternated realities a bit. I speak more openly in private, don’t you?”
We are long past the next station, and somehow not yet to it. I am afraid, but also intrigued. I watch Cron, this dapper, proper gentleman, and wait for his next action. I do not have to wait for long.
He finds what he is looking for, and reads from a sheaf of papers he holds atop his briefcase.
“Now then,” he says, “Are you or are you not the David Hunter who three nights ago said aloud, when alone, and to no one at all, ‘I would give anything for another chance?'”
“I am,” I say.
Outside, our train passes without stopping through a station I don’t recognize. I see things; on the platform; for a moment I see a man on the platform. Nothing is really clear to see there, but I am very grateful that the train didn’t stop.
“Sea Black Station,” says Cron, and he shudders. “The local version of Hell, nobody gets off there.
“This is the standard contract – that’s me, party of the first part – and you, party of the second part. As I say, a standard contract. You agree to surrender one-tenth of your
natural life-span in exchange for my services.”
“Ten percent of my life? I thought demons traded in souls?”
“Ah, yes, we did, once,” and for a moment he looks wistful, “but the soul is an antiquated concept, and this is the modern world, a time of operating systems and CD-ROMs and telemagic. Times change, eh, and we must all struggle to keep pace.” And, by God, he winked at me!
“This is your copy,” he says, handing me a stapled sheaf of papers, “read it through, and sign on the dotted line.”
“What will it be, then? The past? The future? The frozen now?”
“The past,” I say.
“Yes, of course, the past, three years ago. A tragic thing, a sad, sad time for you.”
“Yes,” I say, “a very sad time.”
His voice quiets as he rubs his hands, which again look almost feminine.
“In a minute, maybe two, we will arrive at Bloor station, on March 3, 2013. Do your business, my boy, then return here for the train home.”
“Will I succeed?”
He doesn’t answer, and I don’t care. Any chance must be seized.
There was a gas leak. He was five, playing inside while his mother, my ex-wife Karen, chatted over the hedge with the neighbor. She was three days in intensive care, but she recovered and now has only a slight limp to remind her that we once had a son. And Jeffrey, little Jeffy, died when our house burned down. I flag a cab; it’s easy, I have two hours – time to spare.
She told me she had quit smoking. The fire investigators found a melted disposable lighter in the ruins. She claimed it was an old one, used up, but when I spoke to the neighbors, they told me she had cut down rather than quit.
Whump whump – the cab has a flat tire. We’re on Danforth, heading east, just past Broadview. I feel a rising panic, irrational, but I still have plenty of time, and I could walk there if I have no other choice. I pay the driver the meter and get out. I will take the subway to Greenwood station; from there, it’s only a ten-minute walk home. Chester seems closest, so I walk there to catch the subway.
I’ll tell her I’m sick, that’s why I’m home from work. I’ll make up an excuse, say anything to get them away from the house. We can go downtown, or maybe to the beaches, and wait until the time is past. Then, I’ll remember something I forgot at the office, something I must have, and tell her I’ll meet them at home. The house will burn, and we will forever wonder how I could have been in two places at once, but we will all be safe…
No heroes here. No heroes on that day, either, just a fire brigade that arrived too late, a fire too intense for any hero to brave, and a man busy in an office miles away, because he did not know what mattered most, that somehow his work served the son who was dying horribly and alone.
By force of habit, I walk to the closest end of the platform, where the train first enters the station. Naturally impatient, I suppose. Chester is a small station, and a crowd waits only because it has been awhile since the last train came through.
Heroes are ridiculous. A hero is as abnormal, as deeply pathological, as a serial killer. Florence Nightingale and Mother Teresa and Lenny Skutnik set the bar too high. They make us feel badly about ourselves. It’s okay to run, to be afraid, to freeze in place. Few of us are at the ends of the normal distribution; most of us are firmly in the middle. We are ordinary and it’s okay to be ordinary. I am in this for me. All I want is to see little Jeffy again.
A young woman walks to the end of the platform and stops a mere twenty feet from me. A little bit strange; mostly lone women stand well apart from lone men on the platforms. No heroes here, kid, and no villains, just a tired man enacting a part in a painful yet boring drama.
What will become of me? The me I am now? I am, these last three years, the product of a world in which my son died. When I save him, and that is all that matters, the future I came from will no longer exist. I ache with the need to save my son.
One possibility is that I will return to a changed future, and will have a kind of amnesia for the last three years. Another is that I will no longer exist; either one is fine, as long as Jeffy is safe and alive.
The train rumbles in the tunnel. The young woman steps forward, then jumps off the platform onto the track. With clever timing she has no more than four seconds to live. Which is a long time, count it out, one one thousand, two one thousand… I think I can do it.
I run, jump, and I’m grabbing her by the back of the shirt, near her neckline, as I land. I one-hand her to my left hand, then two-arm her over the partition dividing the tracks. She is still in harm’s way, now on the other track, but I have bought her some time. Distantly, I hear a scream of fear. I try to follow, but all time is gone.
Subway suicide deal. young woman, 25?, personal
matters. jumped onto tracks, eastbound, at west end,
Chester, as train pulls in. Weird thing, guy jumps
down, seconds before, heaves her out of way, onto
westbound track. Everyone says train hit him, but no
body found. Woman okay, bruises. Driver, Mcmillan,
also says no impact. woman in for psych. maybe run
a personal, see if we can find this guy.
~ Reporter’s notes for a story that was never printed
I sit alone in a chair in my living room in the dark. Although it is night, light comes in the window. Time passes. And with great disinterest I realize I am not alone. She appears first as a shadow. She is naked, brown-blonde hair to the small of her back. She is tall and slender; curvy and young and beautiful.
“Hello, David. I am Cron.”
“You are different now, why is that?”
“I take the form of your soul, David. Before I was an old man, as you were. Now, at least, you see the possibility of more life.”
My television turns on; a rectangular square of light in the dark, female faces and voices. The woman on the screen, an interviewer is saying, “…but just a few years ago, things were not going well for you.”
And it is Rebecca something, the young woman who cured diabetes, the woman I grabbed from the tracks earlier this afternoon, three years ago.
“My fiancé had just broken it off, I was having financial troubles, my school work suffered and I felt so alone…” She straightens and looks full into the camera. “But none of us are ever alone, not really, we feel that we are, but we aren’t. If you are struggling, talk to someone, get some help. Don’t ever believe that your situation is hopeless, because it never is. I am only here because a stranger helped me, and now I have had the privilege of this cure, and I have the privilege,” and her eyes glisten and her voice is full yet choked, “and now I have the privilege to help others. I am so glad to be here.”
The television screen dims, fades to gray, then black.
Cron walks to the mantle, reaches up, and picks up the key.
“I’m sorry, David, I really am.”
She winds the clock.
“I wanted to tell you, but you would not have believed me. The past is fixed, David, and not even a clock-daemon may alter it. You had to save her, it is the fixed past. You had to save her because for a short time three years ago you were in two places at once, and in that time you did save her. The contract is null and void, and you have your natural span.”
“Did I have a choice?”
“Of course. That is why it was offered you. I came to you, not to change what has passed, but to try to re-start your frozen now, and to free you from your own Sea Black station.”
Quietly, at the limit of my hearing, the clock ticks.
“How long has it been since you have been with a woman, David? How long since you last had a beer? How long do you plan to be a monk?”
“Forever,” I say.
She walks to me, she takes my hands in hers, and asks, “Why?”
She does not wait for an answer.
“You saved the woman. Why did you do that? You acted and sacrificed. She is someone’s daughter, someone’s loved one. And now she has saved thousands, tens of thousands, more, in her turn. Others will never have to know the loss you have lived with because you acted.” Cron pauses and straightens. “You have outgrown your monastery, I think, and it is time to venture back into the world.”
My answer takes form slowly, perhaps because it was not ready-made. It’s banality surprises even me.
“I don’t know what else to do.”
Cron stands silent while I brood; there seems to be more than enough time. Then, when the moment is right, she speaks again.
“Seven numbers, David, modern magic, to hear a voice across a city. Sorcery is never certain, but then, there is no certainty, anyway.”
“I can’t…I blamed her.”
Cron answers in an indicting whisper. “All the more reason you must call.”
And then she fades away
“Hello. Yes, it’s David. Yes, it’s been a long time, I know, yes. I’m sorry, too…”, it’s very hard to speak, but I can’t stop, either, “I miss him, Karen, I miss him so much, and I miss you, and I want to see you.”
She answers me, crying, and for a few brief minutes, not nearly enough time, but perhaps enough, we cry together.
BIO: Bill Suboski is an aspiring fiction writer with a background in computer programming. He is currently fascinated by proper procedures and protocols, and is still trying to decide what he wants to be when he grows up. Born in Indiana, Bill is a transplanted Hoosier living as a Buckeye by way of Canada and the Netherlands.