Escape Pod 592: When All the Clocks Are Wrong
When All the Clocks Are Wrong
By Beth Goder
Jen locks her bike and heads towards the theater. She needs a break from studying, but more importantly, she needs to find Ash, who has her Soil Science notes. Jen promises herself she won’t try to kiss Ash–they’ll see the midnight movie, Ash will hand her the notes, and then, summer vacation. That’s it.
Before she reaches the theater, Jen feels a familiar frisson, disorienting, dizzying. When the red lights of the marquee blink 12:45 a.m., Jen isn’t surprised. The clock thing is happening again. She left her house with enough time to meet Ash outside, buy a ticket, grab a soda. But now, it’s 12:45 a.m. One hour later than it should be.
All her life, time has disappeared like this.
She buys a ticket–it’s not too late to catch the end. In the darkness, she stumbles between the rows but can’t find him. The movie lights up the screen–a romantic comedy or a tragedy–she’s too nervous to pay attention. When the credits roll, Jen is pushed out with the exiting crush. No Ash.
Jen passes Soil Science. She doesn’t see Ash until sophomore year, when he introduces her to his girlfriend.
Two years after college, Jen is interviewing for a job.
The lobby of Conservation Station reeks of faux forest scent. Jen smooths down her suit jacket and hopes that no one will notice it’s the same one she wore to the initial interview. She’s had plenty of jobs since graduating, but nothing that wasn’t temporary work. Nothing like a career. Nothing like this.
She ducks into an empty hallway to review her notes–after all, she’s forty minutes early. When the frisson glides through her, Jen twists, as if she can push it back by willpower alone.
She rushes back to the lobby, which now smells like a forest burning on the edges, like disaster almost too distant to sense. When Jen approaches the desk, the admin assistant frowns. “You’re late.”
He leads Jen into a room where three executives are already waiting. As she scrambles to set up her presentation, Jen bangs her watch against the table. The interviewers wince. Even though her chances of getting the job are hopeless now, she goes through her slides on sustainable fishing. There’s a knock at the door.
“I’m sorry,” says the head executive, a woman with a blue scarf. “Our time is up.”
When Jen gets home, she applies for a tutoring job. It’s not that she’s giving up on helping the environment, but it’s been two years since she graduated. Two years living with her parents.
As she scans job listings, her watch ticks softly.
The coffee shop fills with the lunch rush. Jen crushes herself into a corner chair, then pulls out a turkey sandwich. No way is she buying an overpriced boiled egg. Her mint tea steams when she removes the lid.
A stack of biology tests sits on the table, ungraded. After five years of teaching, Jen still hasn’t learned how to grade tests quickly. Right now, she’s too nervous to even look at them.
The time shift happened in the car this time, after she squeezed into a parking spot. Frisson. Disorientation. The realization that it was thirty minutes earlier than it should have been–thirty minutes before she was supposed to meet Valerie.
The wall behind her is papered with flyers. Bright construction paper. Glossy pictures. A plain one–small and clean, with a bird in the middle–draws her attention. Jen likes how it’s written like an invitation. “You are cordially invited to observe majestic birds in their natural habitats.” She rips off a tab and stuffs it into her pocket.
Jen wonders what she’s in for. Whenever time shifts, there’s always a result–something strange or mundane, meaningful or random. Sometimes the effects are immediately perceivable. Other times, they remain unknown. Whether the changes are large or small, for one still moment, her life fractures, then comes together again. She imagines a meteorite crashing into the building. Perhaps someone will spill coffee down her back. Maybe Chandak will call to cancel dinner on Saturday and they’ll never get their second date.
Jen’s stomach twists. Maybe something bad will happen to Valerie. But when Valerie bustles through the door, she’s smiling.
“You’ll never believe what happened at work.” Valerie launches into a story about some researcher at the archives who wore a ridiculous feathered hat and refused to take it off.
It’s funny story. Valerie’s good at funny stories. But Jen doesn’t say much.
After a long silence, Valerie asks, “What’s going on? Are you nervous about your date with Chandak?” She wiggles her eyebrows, which usually makes Jen laugh.
Jen grips her cup with both hands, letting the warmth flow into her palms. “I can’t–” She breaks off and tries again. “That’s not it.” Now that she’s started, the words tumble out faster and faster. “I’ve never told anyone. I couldn’t, because they wouldn’t believe me. But this thing–it’s really happening.”
Valerie leans forward, all humor gone from her face. “What’s wrong?”
“There’s a reason I’m late, sometimes. Or early.” Jen takes a deep breath and tells Valerie everything. The frisson. Time shifting forward and backward. How she can’t control any of it. Valerie sits quietly, listening to everything, only interrupting with brief questions or to make sure she’s understood correctly.
When Jen stops talking, Valerie says, “Let’s make a list. Every time it’s happened, that you can remember.” She pulls out a notebook. There’s no doubt in her voice. No questioning.
As Valerie sketches out chart headings–date, location, time distortion, effect–Jen unclenches her tea cup. She didn’t expect Valerie to believe her. No one else ever has. Relief runs through her. Dealing with the frisson is difficult, but Jen’s used to it by now. The worst part is keeping it a secret. The worst part is lying to people she loves. Jen wants to hug Valerie, but Valerie has never been much of a hugger.
“When did it first happen?”
“When I was eight, at Mom’s baseball game.” The diamond had been wet from rain. Jen left the bleachers to buy a hot dog and wandered off into the scrubby trees. By the time she finished the hot dog, three hours had passed. She’d missed her mom’s grand slam. “I felt this–now I call it a frisson, like everything is shifting around me. Sometimes my stomach is weird. I get vertigo. The first time, I thought I’d gotten sick. And then it happened again, when I was ten.”
Valerie fills out the chart as Jen talks. It’s so like Valerie to want to record everything, to sort through it, as if smooshing all the pieces together could create order, as if there’s any sense to the frisson at all. The coffee shop grows empty, then fills up again. Her tea grows cold. Tides of people flow around them.
After Jen recounts everything, they examine the data. Twenty-eight instances. If there’s a pattern, Jen can’t see it. There’s no consistency. She once went three years without an incident. Another time, the frisson happened twice in one day.
Even Valerie seems daunted. “Let’s do some calculations.” Valerie fills a sheet with equations, but no matter how she works the numbers, she can’t find a pattern. “And you never get any warning?”
“It happens in different places, at different times of day. I never know when it’s coming. And all the clocks change. But not my watch.”
“What do you mean?”
“The clocks show a new time, either earlier or later. But the watch stays the same, if I’m wearing it.”
“And the results of these shifts?”
“Varied. I get fired for being late, or see a beautiful sunset, or get caught in a rainstorm just as my car breaks down.” Jen motions to the list. “The parade. The bonus sandwich. The broken arm. None of it makes sense.”
Valerie circles the effects column. “The consequences keep branching out. It’s not just the first event that matters. Like the broken arm. You couldn’t write for a month after that.”
Jen rubs her arm, remembering. “And who knows how many other things in my life shifted, because of that.”
They pour over the charts until the coffee shop closes. Valerie hands Jen the notebook. “Record every time it happens. We’ll figure it out.”
When Jen gets home, she fills pages in the notebook. The effects column grows rapidly once Jen starts thinking about secondary consequences.
The tear-off tab from the birding flyer sits in her pocket like an unhatched egg. Jen goes to three birding meetings before she remembers where she found the flyer, and why, and when. Another consequence to add to her chart.
Jen’s on time for her wedding. Her bridesmaids don’t know that she’s been at the winery since last night, that her sleeping bag’s still nestled among the grapes. No way is she leaving this day to chance.
When Valerie styles Jen’s hair, she doesn’t mention the twigs nestled there. “I wouldn’t let the wedding start without you,” she says. “You know, if the time thing happened.”
As Jen waits for the ceremony to start, she tries to pinpoint the moment she fell in love with Chandak. Was it that night on the beach, when the baby turtles hatched and he watched over them for hours, making sure they got to the ocean? The museum trip where Chandak stood transfixed before an exhibit of World War I stamps, taking pictures to show his tenth-grade history class, his face intent and focused? The winter night when he cooked her warm mullangi sambar, then recited odes to the kitchen appliances–the mixer, the wooden spoon, the dishwasher–which made her laugh until her sides burned? Jen realizes it wasn’t one of these moments, but all of them–the accumulation of shared memories, which envelop her with the warmth of their weight. It’s those quiet moments, too, reading by the fireplace, their long walks past the river, that created a space for them–those times where no one had to speak, moments that blur, memories melded into one continuous whole.
Chandak beams as Jen walks down the aisle. He’s never late.
They can’t say the same for their daughter, who is born one week after her due date. When Jen holds Esha for the first time, she repeats her name over and over, full of wonder.
Curled up with the sleeping baby in her arms, Jen wishes she could sleep, too. When the frisson jolts her, she wonders if it’s sleep deprivation, but the clock says she’s gained two hours.
Time has lost all meaning for Jen, because Esha is unaware of time. Jen sleeps when she can, eats when she’s able, and the days blur into nights, which blur into other days and nights. The cycle of newborn care is endless, and yet, this clutch of time contains moments so fully focused and present–Jen singing to Esha right after she was born, the first time Esha smiled, the way Chandak held the bottle one night at 4:00 a.m., as if Esha were the ocean or the sky, vast and endless and beautiful, so that he couldn’t look away.
Jen waits, knowing something will happen. The storm comes without warning, gently at first, then wailing.
While holding Esha with one arm, Jen records the incident in her notebook. She hasn’t given up on figuring out what’s going on. So far, she’s only identified one pattern. The frisson always happens when no one is focusing on her. Even surrounded by people, it’s possible to be alone for a moment–in a car, or a movie theater, swimming underneath the water, stepping outside to breathe. Nestled next to a sleeping baby. These moments, these spaces, exist everywhere. And it’s in these spaces when the frisson hits.
A branch slams into the house, waking Chandak. Wind gusts against the window. He takes Esha into his arms, and Jen drifts into exhausted sleep.
That evening, (which could be morning or afternoon, except it’s so dark outside), Valerie comes over. She holds Esha like a cactus, away from her body, shifting Esha from arm to arm as if she doesn’t know where to put her. When Jen reclaims her baby, Valerie says, “I’ll do the dishes.”
In the following months, Valerie visits less and less. When she calls, she talks about her work at the archives, or her dating life, or the newest action movies (all of which Jen hasn’t seen.) Jen’s world is bottles and diapers, smiles and crying and baby milestones, waking up at 2:00 a.m., eating Chandak’s home-cooked meals in quick bites (although there’s never enough time to finish before Esha needs something.) But still, Valerie calls, and they talk.
“I’m going birding for the weekend,” Jen tells her family. She goes once a year. The birds don’t care if she’s late or early. They don’t care about time at all.
In the woods, Jen spots a finch. She pauses, listening for chirps, noting the coloring on its head. A purple finch, she decides.
She’s never felt the frisson while birding. It’s almost as if time doesn’t exist while she’s there.
The purple finch flaps its wings, circles the tree, and lands on the same branch. Three times, the finch loops around. Each time is different–the way it beats its wings, the fury of the wind, the position of its talons. Each time, the finch ends in the same position, where it started.
Jen shifts her leg. A twig breaks, but the bird isn’t frightened. Again, the finch loops, wings stretched against the sky.
At seven years old, Esha is getting a new bike. When Jen pulls into the parking lot, it’s already after 5:00 p.m. She’s two hours late.
The frisson happened while Jen was hiking, right after she spotted a gyrfalcon. As she scrambled back to the main trail, her phone rang. Valerie was ecstatic with the news–she got the job. More responsibility. More pay.
Five hundred miles away.
“Nothing will change with us,” said Valerie. “We can call. Write.” But so much has changed between them already.
Jen gets out of her car. Esha is riding in wide circles around the park. Chandak stands nearby, clutching a helmet box too tightly. Jen knows that box will sit in the garage for years, unused, while the helmet hangs on handlebars. Chandak saves everything, claiming they’ll use it all someday. The only organized room is the kitchen–Chandak can’t cook unless he knows where everything is.
“You were supposed to be here at three,” he says. In the silence are all the things he doesn’t say. They’ve had this fight too many times.
Jen apologizes, making up some excuse about losing track of time. It’s not enough, but it’s all she can say. She wonders if Chandak hears everything else behind it. She’s given up trying to tell him about the frisson. He doesn’t believe her. At best, he thinks it’s an excuse. At worst, some strange disorder.
Esha pedals over, brakes carefully, and hops off the bike. “Dad helped me pick it out.”
Jen tries to hug her daughter, but Esha grabs the handlebars. “Dad’s here. You can go home.”
Jen tries to explain, but Esha is already pedalling away.
Beside her, Chandak grips the helmet box tighter.
Jen thinks of her notebook, shoved into the back of the closet. Just another thing cluttering up the house. But she can’t throw it away. She hasn’t given up hope that she’ll find a pattern.
As her daughter bikes, Jen makes a resolution. Maybe she can’t control the frisson–when it happens, where, how–but she won’t let the frisson control her life.
The next weekend, Jen takes Esha riding in the park. Esha pedals faster and faster, more confident each minute. Jen runs after her, unable to keep up. When Esha comes up the path and zooms past Jen, lapping her, Esha has to stop because she’s giggling so much. They go every weekend that summer.
Jen will never be able to buy her daughter a first bike. That experience is irretrievable. Lost. But there are some things she can control.
At twelve, Esha asks to go birding. Jen’s delight is pierced by anxiety–she wants the trip to go well.
Esha’s on the brink of teenagerhood, and already, everything is changing. While putting away the laundry, Jen found lipstick hidden in Esha’s sock drawer. She pictures her daughter trying on one shade, then another, in front of the mirror late at night, squeezing her lips together like they do in commercials. Jen doesn’t wear makeup, but Esha knows she wouldn’t forbid it. Still, the makeup is hidden. A reminder that Esha needs her space. A reminder that her daughter has secrets, too.
Jen rents a cabin for the weekend. The tent is too small for both of them, she reasons. Nevermind that buying a bigger tent would be cheaper. She does buy an extra set of binoculars and a new guide book. It’s important for Esha to have her own things. Jen wants to show her that she understands.
Esha examines the birding book with interest. “I can mark everything I see?” Her face lights up, and Jen is reminded of how Esha used to look after riding her bike. Exuberant. But now Esha says that biking is for little kids.
Breakfast is delicious–bacon, eggs, blueberry pancakes. All cooked by Esha. Chandak has been teaching her. Esha balances a blueberry on her nose, then tosses one at Jen, who catches the berry in her mouth.
Before they set out, Jen warns Esha to bring a jacket. “It’s colder in the mountains. Not like home.”
But Esha leaves her jacket at the cabin. Deliberately. Willfully.
In the woods, Esha rubs her arms, shivering, but refuses to wear Jen’s sweater. Jen points out a purple finch. “You can mark it down in your book.”
Esha breaks a twig in half, bored. “You do it.” She hands Jen the birding book and pulls out her phone, but can’t get any signal. “Can we go back to the cabin now?”
That night, the frisson pulls Jen out of sleep. The cabin is silent, except for crickets. The room smells like pine trees. Beside her, Esha breathes deeply. She used to sleep like that in her crib, all curled up on her side. She’s so much bigger now. The angles of her face have changed, but asleep her expression is just the same as when she was a baby. Jen thinks of the morning, when they will pack up and leave. She feels nostalgia for the trip, even though it isn’t over. Is there a word, she wonders, to describe this feeling–nostalgia for a time that hasn’t yet passed?
Jen can’t tell if she’s been pulled forward or backward in time. It doesn’t matter. She falls asleep.
In the morning, Esha goes hiking while Jen packs. Esha is supposed to return by ten. At ten-thirty, Jen leaves a note on the door and follows the trail.
She doesn’t find Esha in the first half mile. Or the next. As she hikes, Jen’s worry grows, until it’s clawing at her, until she can barely breathe. There’s no phone signal in the woods. She sprints back to the cabin, the pounding of her footsteps no match for the furious beat of her heart.
Her note is still on the door. Jen runs through the cabin. Esha’s not there.
Jen is deciding whether to call Chandak or the police when she hears someone coming down the trail. Esha strolls around a bend in the path, a makeshift walking stick in hand.
In moments, Jen is holding Esha. “Where have you been?” She means to yell, but it comes out as a sob.
“Mom, calm down. I told you I was going for a hike.”
“It’s been three hours.”
Esha pulls back. “No, it hasn’t.” She checks the time on her phone. Her eyes widen. She drops the walking stick.
Jen takes a breath to calm down. “Did you feel anything strange while you were hiking? Were you sick to your stomach? Vertigo?”
Esha freezes. “How did you know that?”
“I know because the same thing happens to me. It’s been happening since I was a kid. Younger than you.”
They sit down on the path. Birds fly past, chirping. Wind sweeps through the trees. Esha checks Jen’s watch again and again, then both cell phones. She runs into the cabin, returning with an old clock shaped like a hedgehog. All the clocks say the same thing. Missing hours. Lost hours.
Jen explains as best she can, starting with the first time it happened to her, at the baseball game. She doesn’t tell Esha about how terrifying the shift can be–how awful it is to never know when the frisson will hit. Instead she says, “I’ll help you through it. You won’t be alone. Never alone.”
At first, Esha just listens, but soon she asks one question after another. How many times has it happened to Jen? Is that why she was late to the piano recital and never got to hear Esha play “Fur Elise?” What does it feel like? Has she ever thrown up? Can she control it?
Jen answers as best she can. She wants to reach out to Esha, as if holding her could stop time from shifting. A mother must protect her daughter, no matter what comes, no matter how impossible.
But Esha seems more curious than anything. She says the ability to shift time is like a superpower and makes up superhero names. The Time Twister. The Clockonator. The Interval Avenger. Jen wants to tell Esha this isn’t a joke, but instead, she makes up names too. It’s better, Jen thinks, to laugh.
“Why didn’t you tell me before?” Esha balances the walking stick on her legs.
“I didn’t think you’d believe me. Chandak doesn’t.”
Esha gives Jen a look. “Well, it’s Dad.”
“But I never thought this could happen to you. I would have warned you.”
Maybe time shifting is genetic, or maybe it’s contagious. A curse. A punishment. She should have protected Esha, somehow. She should have foreseen this possibility.
“When will it happen again?” asks Esha. “How many times has it happened to you?”
When they return home, Jen pulls out the notebook. She shows Esha the charts and calculations.
“I could never find a pattern,” says Jen.
“What’s this?” Esha points to a drawing of a bird sketched in the margins.
“Just a doodle. I saw this purple finch, once. It was circling around a branch. So calm. Like time didn’t matter. I guess I wanted to remind myself–” But Jen’s not sure what she wanted to remind herself of.
After the birding trip, Jen becomes obsessed with finding a pattern. The work distracts her from guilt. If only she had worked harder, maybe she would have had an answer by now. An answer to give Esha.
Jen enrolls in a statistics class, the first of many. She teaches herself how to program so she doesn’t have to waste time in beginning classes. In her machine learning course, Jen persuades her professor to help her develop a new algorithm, which she uses to analyze a particular set of data.
There are some patterns, but not many, and her results are inconclusive. The algorithm isn’t great at predicting when the next frisson will hit. The main problem is lack of data. When Jen mentions the data problem to Esha, she’s surprised to learn that Esha has experienced two more shifts.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” asks Jen.
“It’s not a big deal.” Esha is fifteen. She’s perfected that elusive teenager shrug, which she uses now to great effect. “You get so freaked out, but it’s just a few hours, one way or another.”
Jen buys a new watch and a clock–an expensive set, able to keep time to within a fraction of a second–then syncs them up. When time shifts, she’ll compare the two. Jen reads up on relativity. She takes a physics course online, then plans several simple experiments. For the first time, she’s eager for the frisson to happen.
The frisson next hits outside the grocery store, a twenty-minute jump forward. No one’s around. Through waves of nausea, she observes her watch. It ticks on, oblivious.
She tries to grab a pebble by her feet. As she gets closer, her hand meets with resistance. The time shift ends before she reaches the pebble.
Jen races home to check the clock. She notes the difference between clock and watch, down to the nanosecond. While the world moves on, something is happening to her. She’s traveling differently.
Do I blink out of existence, she wonders? Do I speed up or slow down? Get pushed into an alternate world?
The next few time shifts show the same results. She can’t affect anything outside of herself. She can’t move very far. No one else is ever around.
Her readings are more accurate, her notes grow more detailed, but she’s no closer to figuring out what’s going on. Not enough data. Not enough opportunities to experiment. For once, she wishes she could trigger a time shift, but she can’t–she’s tried.
Late one night, Esha catches Jen reading in the living room, the light forming a dim circle around her. Jen closes the book, a collection of physics essays. The notebook sits close by. It’s never far.
“I’m worried about you,” says Esha.
This is such an inversion of their normal relationship. Jen is quick to comfort her daughter, but Esha shakes her head.
“I’ve been thinking about our superpower.” Esha grabs the notebook and flips it to a new page. “It’s like this.” She sketches a bird, its wings stretched out, mid-flight. The bird isn’t much more than a lopsided oval with a triangle beak. Drawing has never been one of Esha’s skills.
Esha draws another bird and another, swooping in different paths, always coming back to the same place. Jen sees before her the lines of flight, each path different, divergent in some way. They all begin in the same place. They all end at the same point.
Jen has seen diagrams like this before. She remembers a whiteboard, red and blue lines curving, a professor saying something about path independence.
“It’s like us,” says Esha. “We’re all going the same way, no matter how we get there.”
Jen pauses, then says in a rush. “It’s my fault. Something I gave to you, somehow. Or something I should have protected you from.”
Esha slouches, defensive. “Mom, I’m fine. You’re the one being weird.”
She hands Jen the notebook, wanders into the kitchen, then sticks her head back out. “Where’s the mac and cheese?” she asks, as if they hadn’t just been discussing something serious.
Jen goes to bed. Chandak is still awake, reading a book about economic systems in the middle ages.
“I’m pretty sure that Esha is smarter than me. Way smarter. The way she thinks about things.”
Chandak closes his book and pulls Jen close. “I know she’s smarter than me. Did you read her essay on the declining bee population?”
Jen nestles into his shoulder, comforted by familiar warmth, hoping the moment will last. That morning, they’d had another fight. When Chandak gets angry, he never yells, only pulls back from her. These rough patches have appeared throughout their marriage. Sometimes she thinks they won’t make it through, but then there are days that are so wonderful, like the time, months ago now, when they went walking by the river, like they used to do. He’d pointed out a black-bellied whistling duck, then smiled at the frantic way Jen motioned for him to be still. They’d watched the bird for over an hour.
There is a comfort that comes from being together for so many years–she knows just how he’ll open a book, putting it up to his nose to inhale the scent, and that every morning he’ll brush his teeth for exactly one minute, moving methodically from left to right. These small intimacies promise a certain sameness, a continuation. Their marriage isn’t perfect, but what marriage is?
Between them sits Jen’s secret, the way that time shifts around her, a part of herself she can never share with him, because he doesn’t believe that what’s happening to her is possible. Jen wonders if this omission is the root of their problems, a gap in understanding they are both trying to reach across.
They talk into the night about Esha and work and what to make for dinner the next day. Eventually, Chandak falls asleep. Jen puts his book on the nightstand and turns off the light.
She can’t stop thinking about her conversation with Esha. In the following months, she studies the philosophy of time. Time is a circle or a wave, linear or simultaneous. Time flows across many worlds, all splitting off from each other, or perhaps confines itself to one place the past and the future, the present moment and the spaces in between. Time happens all at once, forever. Time is a series of events, one moment engendering the next, from the first particles formed. For the individual, time is the fixed point between birth and death. Time is incomprehensible, undefinable, or perhaps just a tricky area of physics. Time is quantum. Time is static. Time is relative. As experienced by a conscious entity, time is the before and after and now, moving at an uncontrollable rate.
When Jen opens the notebook to record the next frisson, she sees Esha’s birds. She closes the book without writing.
That’s the last time Jen looks at the notebook for years. She wants to leave it that way, with Esha’s birds on the last page. The notebook sits in the closet as Esha enters college, becomes an honors student, joins the marching band. There it remains, undisturbed, when Esha introduces her family to her first girlfriend, and when she wins an ecology essay contest, and the rainy day when Chandak, Jen, and Esha sit down, just the three of them, playing board games for hours.
One winter, Jen searches through the closet for an extra scarf and comes across the notebook. The birds are still there, circling, circling. Still headed for the same place.
Maybe it’s enough, she thinks, to experience what I’ve experienced, to live the life I’ve lived, without understanding the effect time has on me.
What she doesn’t want to admit is that it has to be enough. Time is mysterious, uncategorizable, unknown. No matter how she interprets the data, she won’t be able to control what’s happening to her. To Esha. But she can control her reaction. She can choose how she’ll live her life. She’s wasted enough time fighting against a larger force, a disinterested force, like a bird flying against air currents.
Jen puts the notebook back in the closet.
The university library is never quiet, it seems. Students scurry in the aisles or camp out in study carrels. The ceiling is painted with an incredible scene, a forest of books. Jen spends several minutes admiring the twisting trees and curled pages before heading into the stacks.
Esha is giving a presentation on climate change. It’s a requirement for her PhD program. Esha enjoys presenting, or so she tells Jen during their weekly calls. Her research on coral reefs reminds Jen of her own college days, back when she wanted to change the world. In two weeks, Esha will be traveling to Australia for a seminar. Such energy.
Jen can’t find the conference room. She darts down a deserted row. Books tower over her–academic texts bound in rough cloth. She touches the spine of a biology journal, and a familiar feeling churns in her stomach. The frisson eases her away, slowly at first, then faster. Gradually, the world stops spinning.
These time intrusions, Jen has decided, are gifts, no matter what the outcome. She always carries a book, in case she’s early. She has a set of excuses if she’s late. Esha has helped Jen accept what they can’t change. “It’s our superpower,” Esha says.
Jen worries that time has shifted forward, that she’s missed Esha’s talk. Her watch ticks softly on her wrist. But the clock on the wall shows that time has shifted backward. One hour–a gift.
Jen wanders the library. A rare book room hides behind the fiction section. Medieval manuscripts, a first edition Christmas Carol, a letter from Lincoln. An archivist sits behind the reference desk, transcribing a faded document. Jen wonders where Valerie is working now–if she gets to sit behind a desk like that. It’s been so long since Jen has talked to her.
Jen grabs a pamphlet on archival collections and reads it until it’s time for Esha’s talk.
The conference room is bright, with too many chairs. Jen slips into a seat next to Chandak, who kisses her on the cheek. Esha waves. They share a look, relieved that they both made it on time.
Esha’s talk goes well. Jen is amazed that this person–so serious, so knowledgeable–is the same person that used to ride around the park, green streamers flapping from the handlebars of her bike.
When Jen gets home, the pamphlet falls from her purse. It’s been too long, Jen decides, since she’s called Valerie.
Her hands shake as she dials. Valerie answers the phone. When she hears it’s Jen, she gives a little shout. They fall into conversation as if they’d only spoken yesterday. In fifteen minutes, Valerie runs through fifteen years–new jobs, dating, acting in a community play, scuba diving, vacationing in Peru.
“Let’s make a promise,” says Valerie. “We’ll send each other letters at least once a month. Not an email. Something I can put on my desk.”
Jen buys stationary with birds on the side. It’s been so long since she curled her hand around a pen. Were her fingers always this stiff?
It’s the start of a long correspondence. Silly postcards. Birthday notes. Letters that go on for pages, filled with their hopes, fears, dreams.
Their relationship isn’t the same–it can’t be the same. They’ve both changed, but some things are as they always were. There’s a comfort, Jen realizes, in the history of a friendship. All of the moments before. Their shared experiences. There’s a comfort in the past.
Jen saves each letter in a box on her kitchen table. She reads some of them out loud to Chandak. Others, she saves only for herself.
The doctors have told Jen that she has a month to get her affairs in order, but she’s never been good at keeping appointments.
The garden is beautiful in June. Peonies. Cucumbers. Grass that’s turned mostly to clover. She sits under her favorite tree, the huge oak.
The noise of Chandak’s cooking follows her. Pots bang. Spoons clash. Even in times of crisis, Chandak cooks joyfully, his hands a whirlwind of spices. Jen hears Esha shouting to him, probably chopping vegetables or dodging a storm of turmeric. Esha’s the only one who has ever been able to cook next to Chandak. Ordered chaos.
Although Jen hasn’t looked at the notebook in years, she never stopped reading about theories of time. If time happens all at once, as some theorists believe, then every moment is this moment, continuous, and all the other memories of her life. Every moment is the sound of Chandak’s voice. Every moment is Valerie’s laugh. Every moment is newborn Esha nestled in her arms. All of these moments, contained within her, exist eternally–her whole life, wrapped up and unfolding out, again and again.
The wind rustles the leaves of the oak tree. A bird chirps above her. A finch, by the sound of it.
When the frisson passes through her, she lets it carry her. The sunlight crystallizes. Silence bathes her. She thinks of other times like this, when all the clocks were wrong, and the life she would have had if they’d been right. Not a better life, or a worse one, perhaps, but a different one, full of other paths.
The leaves of the oak sway above her as she waits for one last gift–a letter, a meteorite, a quiet space to breathe.
About the Author
Beth Goder works as an archivist, processing the papers of economists, scientists, and other interesting folks. Her fiction has appeared in venues such as Escape Pod, Fireside, and Flash Fiction Online. You can find her online at http://www.bethgoder.com.
About the Narrator
Ibba Armancas is an Inland Empire PBS writer/director and TV host whose COVID-themed educational kids show “Pandemic Playhouse” airs Friday starting January 2021. You can find out more about her, it, and her puppet pals at https://www.