Experimenting with Time

The man entered the lab and started casting. Thomas had watched this scene play out many times. His younger self began casting a protection spell that would only partially keep him from harm. He stopped watching before Matthew dispatched the intruder.

It had been almost a year since he had established his house, and most of that time was spent revisiting the moment he had been attacked. No matter how often Thomas observed it, he could find no additional information that might lead him to the identity or motive of the attackers. Because he only had a link to himself, he could not view any other members of the house; this fact had completely thwarted his attempts at getting answers. He needed to know more.

His research had led him to one idea; it was risky and might not work, but he had gotten nowhere merely observing the past. Under the supervision of his master, he had mastered a stasis spell that would protect an object from the flow of time. The spell was intended to preserve items from decay, but he had come to believe it could be used to insert something into a different time. If it worked, he could warn his past self about the attack before it happened.

The note was short and direct, indicating the date and time of the attack. He had written it by hand and ensured that his handwriting would be recognizable. The paper itself was folded into a small square so that the stasis spell wouldn’t need to be large and also to minimize the impact on the past. The spell was relatively simple, merely a modification of the spell he had originally mastered. The original spell rooted its target to a particular moment in time, isolating it from the normal effects of time’s passage. His modification unmoored the target from time entirely. His master would have vehemently opposed this use of the spell were he still alive to raise an objection.

Once the note was protected, he secured it inside his sleeve and began projecting his consciousness back in time. This trip took him further into the past, arriving in his old lab a month or so prior to the attack. If his memory was accurate, his past self would be working on the modifications he was currently employing in this experiment.

Looking around the lab for a suitable place to leave the note, Thomas noticed an empty table in the corner. He placed the note in the center of the table where, given his own fastidiousness, it should stand out to his younger self. Intending to wait until the note had been discovered, Thomas released the stasis spell. The instant the spell ended, however, the note vanished.

The anti-climatic ending to this experiment caused disappointment mixed with relief. His plan had failed, but it hadn’t caused a catastrophe. The other Thomas hadn’t even looked up from his work. Determined to figure out what had gone wrong, he returned to the present.

Back in his rooms, he discovered that someone or something had caused a chaotic mess. One bookshelf had fallen over, spilling its contents onto the floor. A small hole in the wall where it had stood suggested something from the outside was the cause. His writing desk looked like it had been smashed by a sledgehammer. Finally, in the center of a small clear patch on the floor, he saw a small square of paper. The note had returned to its proper time.

Rejection

“Jason. Thank you for coming.” Thomas sat in the parlor. It was his favorite room in the Mistress’s house. Bright and peaceful, he had spent many hours reading there.

Jason stood in the doorway. “I couldn’t say no to you.”

“But you also couldn’t be on time.” Over the years they had known each other, Thomas had learned to expect Jason’s lack of responsibility, but he still pointed it out.

“There’s a reason this time. I knew we would need to have a private chat.” Jason finally entered the room and sat in a chair.

“Why is that?”

“I don’t know. I just knew it would be better to be late.”

Thomas knew from experience that he wouldn’t get any clarity from Jason, so he dropped the subject.

“I asked you here because I have a proposition for you. I inherited some money, and I plan to use it to start my own house. At the meeting I asked you to attend, I invited Sarah and Matthew to be founding members. They both accepted, and I’m hoping you will join us.”

“No.”

The speed of Jason’s response surprised Thomas. “At least take a moment to consider it.”

Jason smiled in that mysterious way that always vexed Thomas. “See? I was right. We do need to talk. Good thing I was late.”

Exasperated, Thomas asked, “What do you mean?”

“I think Sarah and Matthew will be great choices, but I can’t accept your invitation.”

“Why not?”

“I have things I need to do, and belonging to a house will get in the way.”

“What do you have to do?”

“I don’t know.”

“You don’t know? The house wouldn’t stop you from carrying out your research or whatever else you need to do. You know this.”

“It can’t be helped. I can’t be part of a house right now.”

“You’re not making any sense.”

“I’ve tried to explain this to you before. I just know when something is a bad idea.”

“So you are saying my house is a bad idea?”

“No. I’m saying it’s a bad idea for me. I need to be free from such associations right now.”

“You are actually turning me down?” Thomas was not certain which surprised him more: Jason turning him down or the disappointment he felt.

“It’s not you. I would have turned down any offers. Just not my path right now.”

“Well, I must say this is unexpected. And unfortunate. I suppose we will have to move forward without you.”

“You’ll be fine.” Jason continued to smile, much to Thomas’s annoyance.

Inheritance

“Mistress? You wanted to see me?”

The elderly-looking woman glanced up from the table. “Ah, Thomas. Just a moment.” She wrote a few more words before putting her pen down. Thomas knew it was a mistake to take the Mistress’s appearance as genuine. She used illusions all the time, and he couldn’t be certain he had ever seen her true face.

“Thank you for waiting, Thomas. I dislike leaving a thought incomplete. Now, how are you doing?”

“My recovery seems to be complete. I would like to thank you, again, for opening your house to me over the past few months. You have been most generous.”

“Thomas, you are too serious for your years. Your master and I were old friends; I couldn’t not take you in.”

“Still . . .”

“Yes, yes.” She waved her hand absently. “I have two things I need to speak to you about.” From a small stack of papers, she pulled out a folder and handed it to him. “Inside is the final report from my investigating team. At least three different mages were involved in the attack on your master’s house. Unfortunately, the team was unable to identify any of them. Neither were they able to determine a motive for the attack.”

Thomas thumbed through the pages, not really absorbing any of the information. He hadn’t expected much, but this was less than that. An attack like this was unheard of. And they had managed to carry it out without leaving any identifying traces.

“I am sorry, Thomas. I hope you know that I will keep looking into this. I don’t like the idea of my friend going unavenged.”

“Thank you. I appreciate your efforts.”

“The second thing I have for you is likely to be bittersweet for you.” She handed him a large envelope.

“What is this?”

“Just open it.”

Inside was a letter addressed to him, written in obtuse legalese. He skimmed the two pages and found a check behind them.

“Your master was clearly fond of you. That represents the bulk of his mundane wealth. Money may not be important to us, but you may still find it helpful as you begin heading towards your future. It’s yours to do with as you will.”

Thomas had already begun to think about what he might do next. This unexpected windfall would allow him to move forward more quickly.

“Take your time, Thomas. You can stay here while you sort things out.”

“Thank you. Again. I do have an idea.”

First Meetings

*This story takes place before Thomas established his own house.*

Before there was anything else, there was pain. The air around him was warm and acrid. At first, Thomas was only aware of the pain in his head, but when he tried to move, he discovered that it was everywhere.

“You’re still alive?”

He didn’t recognize the voice. Thomas opened his eyes but blood flowing from his forehead obscured his vision. Wiping it away with his sleeve, he could make out the man standing over him, but he was a stranger. He was in his lab, but it was almost unrecognizable because of the destruction that had taken place. Trying to cast a spell to stop time nearly caused him to pass out.

“Who are you?” he asked, weakly.

“Don’t worry about it. You won’t be alive long enough for it to matter.”

How did anyone get into his master’s house? And this much destruction should have triggered the failsafes. None of this should be possible. Now this intruder was going to kill him? Everything was too chaotic, Thomas couldn’t make any of it make sense.

Six men appeared, all of them facing the intruder and ignoring Thomas. He hadn’t seen them come in, and they weren’t from the house, either. There was something else off about them… They were identical, Thomas realized after a few moments.

“I don’t know who you are.” The first intruder didn’t seem to be talking to anyone Thomas could see. “But if you are going to use an illusion to try to scare me, don’t make it so obviously an illusion. All six of these guys look alike.”

A female voice came from somewhere nearby. “Illusions work best when they let you hide something in plain sight.”

“What is that supposed to mean?”

“In this case, there are only five illusions.”

“What . . .?”

Electricity arced from the hands of one of the men and struck the intruder. He flew back, hit the wall, and slumped to the floor. The other five men faded from existence.

The remaining man bent down next to Thomas. “Are you okay?”

“I seem to be alive. Beyond that, I’m not sure.”

“Can you move?”

“I . . . I think so.” With the other man’s help, Thomas managed to get on his feet.

“Matthew? What are you doing? We shouldn’t be moving him.” The person behind the other voice was now visible. Appearing next to them was a young woman whose hair was constantly shifting colors.

“Sarah, we need to get him out of here. We don’t know what other dangers might be nearby.”

Sarah glanced around the room. “Fine. Help him. I’ll go first in case there is anyone else around.” She vanished as Matthew supported Thomas to help him walk.

Slowly, they made their way out of the lab. The destruction was everywhere; not a single room had been spared. The power required to cause all of this had to have been immense.

“Where is everyone else?”

Matthew ignored his question.

After several long minutes, they stood outside the ruined house, and Sarah reappeared.

“There is no way only one person did this,” she said.

“That sounds like an excellent reason not to be here any longer,” Matthew replied.

“Shouldn’t we figure out what happened?”

“I expect your Mistress would want you to get Thomas to safety and have his injuries looked after.”

“You know, Matthew, you’re a bit of a suck up.”

“And you’re mad that I’m right.”

Sarah looked at Thomas. “Can you hang on? We’ve got a car nearby, and we can get you to some help.”

Thomas managed to nod before slipping back into unconsciousness.

Stealing Too Much

The cloudy evening made it easier for Frank to hide in the shadows. He was growing impatient waiting for his partner. Their window of opportunity was closing, and he had begun considering whether he could do the job on his own. Before he could act, however, he heard a whisper from above.

“Psst! Where you been, Frank? I’ve been waiting for you.” George, his partner, was peeking over the edge of the roof two stories up.

“You’ve been waiting for me?” Frank muttered to himself. “Help me up.”

“Sure.” A rope ladder dropped down the side of the house. Frank climbed up, and George helped him on to the roof at the top.

“Okay, we still have time before they return. You remember the plan?”

“Yes, Frank. You told me a bunch o’ times. I go in, get the book and come back out. No noise. Don’t let anyone see me. You wait here in case they come back early. Easy.”

“Where is the book? What does it look like?”

“If you don’t trust me, you can go in, and I can stay here.”

“No, of course not.” Frank looked at his partner. George wasn’t sharp, but he was good at remembering and executing plans. He was the taller and thinner of the two, and he was quiet as a mouse. “It’s just that this is important, and I’m nervous.”

“It’s okay, Frank. I memorized everything you told me.”

“Okay. Here’s your earpiece.” Frank handed him the small button. After George put it in, Frank tested the transmitter. “Can you hear me?”

George gave a thumbs up.

“Good. I won’t call you unless there’s a problem. Get going.”

There were two attic windows built into the roof. George walked to the far one and began working on it. It didn’t take him long to get it open and disappear through it. Alone, Frank scanned the street in front of the house while trying to listen for sounds below him. Everything was quiet so far.

The book – really a ledger – was important to a lot of people, but Frank only wanted it to get rid of a debt. It should be enough to satisfy Roberts, and he would be able to stop looking over his shoulder. Then he and George would be free to do whatever they wanted.

Just as Frank was starting to worry that George was taking too long, his partner came back through the window. He turned around and pulled something out after him. It took several moments before Frank realized what it was: a wooden rocking horse.

“Uh . . . George? That’s not the book.”

“Don’t worry.” George pulled a ledger from under his shirt. “I got the book.”

“So what’s with the toy?”

“It’s cute. I thought my nephew might like it, so I grabbed it, too.”

“George, you know the rules. We only take what we came for.”

“I know, but . . .” George looked dejected.

“Well, it’s too late now. Come on. We need to get out of here.”

They began making their way back to the rope ladder, but before they got halfway, the other attic window opened. It was between them and escape. Frank tried to scramble up and over the peak to the other side of the roof, but his foot slipped. George grabbed and steadied him before he fell.

“Mister?” A child stuck it’s head out of the window. Both of the thieves pressed themselves against the roof to try to remain unseen. The child probably couldn’t see them unless he or she came out further.

“Mister? Could I have my rocking horse back?”

Frank shot George a disapproving look. The other man just shrugged.

“Please, mister. My mom gave it to me.”

Frank’s look turned to a scowl, and George’s shoulders slumped. He crawled closer to the window and held out the rocking horse.

“Here you go, kid. Sorry about that.”

The child grabbed the horse and pulled it inside.

“Thank you! And don’t worry. I won’t tell anyone you were here.”

The window closed, and the two men just stared at each other for a long time.

“Let’s go before anything else happens,” Frank said finally.

George nodded, and they made their way to the ladder.

“Hey, Frank.”

“What?”

“Do you know where I can buy one of those? I really do think my nephew would like it.”

“Shut up, George.”

This week’s story was submitted for the first round of the NYC Midnight 2021 Flash Fiction challenge back in July. I wanted to wait until the judging was finished before posting. This week, I’m working on the second round’s entry. Everyone participates in the first two rounds, so I won’t know if I advance until the judging of the second round concludes.

In Absentia

The apartment building looked like it was on the verge of being condemned. Most of the lights in the hallway were out, and the ones that weren’t revealed scuffed floors and the occasional stain of unknown origins. The walls were peeling, and there was several unpleasant odors in the air. Despite the poor lighting, Julia was able to find room 9 and knocked. After waiting a minute or two, she knocked again.

Finally, a voice came from the other side. “Go away.” Rather than angry or belligerent, it sounded resigned.

“Lou? Come on, open up.”

“Who is that?”

“It’s me. Open the door.”

“Me who?”

“Dammit, Lou.”

The door cracked open. A chain hung on the other side, and a single eye peered through the crack. “Julia?”

“Yes. Now let me in before a rat eats me out here.”

The door closed, and she could hear the chain slide back. It reopened wide, and she stepped across the threshold. The room inside was cluttered but otherwise taken care of. It stood in stark contrast to the hallway she had just left. Lou closed the door behind her. He had always been a large man, but he had become gaunt since the last time she had seen him.

“What’s going on? Why haven’t you been at the bar?”

“Nice to see you, too,” he gruffed as he pushed past her. He sat down on a couch facing a television that was on with the sound turned all the way down. He didn’t look at her as he picked up an open bottle of beer.

“Lou . . .”

“I sold the bar, okay? It’s no longer any of my concern.” He put the bottle to his lips and tilted it up.

“You sold the bar? Why?”

“What do you care? I haven’t seen you in years. Business dried up, and I got an offer. I took it.”

“I thought it wasn’t about business. It was about . . .”

“I know what it was about. Like I said, you stopped coming round. Pretty soon, no one would take the big cases. It wasn’t working any more.” Another drink. He still hadn’t made eye contact with her.

“There’s something you’re not telling me.”

He shrugged. “There’s years of stuff I’m not telling you. I wouldn’t have to tell you if you’d been around. But the place isn’t my problem any more. From what I hear of it, you should probably stay away, too.”

“So that’s it? Just washing your hands of it?”

“I know this is news to you, but for me, it’s in the past. I’d nearly forgotten about it. I assumed you had, too. Thanks for stopping by. Don’t forget to the close the door behind you.” He never looked away from the television.

Something was off about the whole situation, but it was obvious he wasn’t going to tell her anything else. She turned and left without another word. Maybe she was misreading it. Maybe everything was just like he’d said. Still, she couldn’t make herself believe that. The question was, where could she find out more.

A Decision for Humanity

“Jacob! You are needed.”

Jacob woke up. Still blurry from sleep, he could only tell that a bright figure stood at the foot of his bed.

“Who . . .”

“You are needed.” The figure repeated. The voice was both musical and terrifying. Even after blinking the sleep from them, his eyes wouldn’t focus on the being.

“Needed for what?”

“Come with me.”

A doorway appeared in the middle of the floor, and the creature gestured for Jacob to enter. This had to be a dream, he decided, so he played along. As he stepped through the doorway, he felt the world twist and then right itself.

He found himself in a large room with screens covering all four walls. The door by which he had entered was no longer evident. The only other thing in the room was a four foot high square pillar in the center. On the top was a black button. Before he could ask another question, the figure spoke again.

“From this room, you can end the world. You need to press the button.”

“What?!”

“Press the button, Jacob.”

“No! Why would I want to destroy the world?”

Screens began to flicker on, and scenes of destruction filled the room. Forest fires. Hurricanes. Earthquakes. Drought. Famine. War. Hospital wards.

“The world is dying. You can see it on every news broadcast. Instead of making everyone suffer through the slow demise, better to end things quickly.”

Before Jacob could even start thinking about how to respond, another figure, equally bright, appeared in the room. The newcomer spoke with a similar, but deeper, voice.

“This is low, even for you.”

“Exile, this is none of your concern.”

“Of course it is. We have an understanding. Both of us must agree to end the game.”

“Unless a human decides to end it.”

“So you brought him here to cheat.”

“I am simply giving humanity a chance to opt out.”

“You are being used, human.” The second figure addressed Jacob directly.

“I don’t understand what is going on. I was brought here to destroy the world?”

“I would advise against it, but the one who brought you here seeks that outcome, yes.”

“Misery and suffering have reached unacceptable levels,” the first responded. “Why not put an end to it before it becomes even worse.”

“So you would have them give up? Abandon hope? Take away even the possibility that they might overcome these challenges?”

“They have had decades with no appreciable progress.” The first’s voice was even and sounded matter-of-fact.

The second turned again to Jacob. “It is ultimately your choice, human. I oppose this course, but I cannot stop you. Indeed, I would not even if I could.”

Jacob looked from one figure to the other and back again, still unable to focus on either.

“I don’t want any more suffering and the world does seem to be a mess. But I cannot decide this for everyone. How much hubris would it take to think that I could?”

“But the world . . .”

The second cut off the first. “Enough. He has made his choice. You tried to manipulate the situation and failed. No more of this.”

The doorway reappeared. “Thank you for your choice, Jacob,” the second said to him. “Please return to your world.”

As Jacob stepped through, he heard the first call after him. “If you change your mind, you need only call out for me.”

The next morning, Jacob awoke in his bed, unsure of what to make of his rather vivid dream.

The Nameless Bar

The bar was dimly lit and quiet. Places like this usually fill up as the night gets longer, but not here. The only people that frequent this nameless bar were people who needed a particular sort of help and the people who provided such services. Or people who were lost. Julia hadn’t been here in several years.

The illumination behind the bar was from one of the few overhead lamps. A middle-aged, burly man was tending bar. Drinking was not the primary reason people came here, so he had a bored look about him. He barely looked at Julia as she walked over.

“Is Lou here?”

Before the bartender could respond, another patron approached her.

“I haven’t seen you before. Something I can help you with?”

She barely glanced at him. “I don’t think so.”

He clasped her arm to turn her towards him. “Hey, now. I’m just trying to be friendly.”

She widened the portal inside the sleeve of her leather jacket so that a knife could fall into her hand. Raising the blade closer to his neck, she said in a low voice, “No one comes here looking for friends.”

Immediately, he let go of her and raised his open hands as he backed away. “No problem. Sorry to intrude.” Sitting down at a table across the room, he blended back in with the gloom.

“That’s a dangerous person to piss off.” The bartender gestured towards her knife. “And put that away. Weapons aren’t permitted in here.”

The knife slid back up her sleeve. “Fine. Now, Lou?”

“He’s not here.”

“Upstairs?”

“Look, lady, I don’t know you. You’ve already threatened one of my best customers. Lou isn’t here. Hasn’t been for awhile. Now I think it’s time you leave.”

Julia hesitated. He was clearly not going to be helpful, but she hated the idea of just walking away. Still, she didn’t want to draw any more attention to herself, so she turned around and left the bar.

Halfway down the block, several figures emerged from the shadows of an alley. In front was the man who had approached her at the bar.

“We meet again.”

“Seriously? Are you just a walking cliché?” 

She tried to walk past the group, but the man grabbed her arm and spun her around.

“So rude. And after I offered my help.”

Whatever small bit of patience Julia had was gone. A quick spell opened a portal beneath him. He was halfway down the hole when she shrunk the portal so that he was stuck with only his torso sticking out of the pavement.

“What the hell!”

She bent down closer to his face. “Do I have to hurt you to get through to you? When someone tells you no, you leave them the fuck alone.”

One of the men who had accompanied him took a step towards her. Opening a portal beneath herself, she dropped down behind him and hit him with the hilt of her knife. The man crumpled to the ground. Everyone else took the hint and quickly left.

Julia walked back over to the man who was still trapped. “Now. What should I do with you?”

“What are you?” His terror was obvious.

“Who. Not what. People are not things. Didn’t anyone teach you that?”

“W…who?”

“Someone who doesn’t give third warnings. If I ever even hear about you, I’ll return. And you do not want to see me again.” Julia stood and began to walk away. Without looking back, she said, “Looks like it might rain. Don’t look up. I don’t want you to drown. You should be able to get out in a few hours.” She still needed to find Lou.

A New Shop

The empty storefront was in a small shopping plaza about a mile from the house. Inside, a layer of dust had built up in the small space. David didn’t need much room. The front was roughly twenty square feet, and the back area was half that. He could put small items for sale on one wall and have Julia set up a portal to the house in the back.

At first, Sarah had been opposed to the idea, but he managed to persuade her. Even throughout Rebecca’s rescue, he had felt superfluous. Life at the house had been stagnant; he had even considered leaving. Instead, he reflected on what he was really trying to accomplish.

The point in coming to the house in the first place was to learn more so that he could better help his people in the future. Moving to the house was freeing in a way; he was able to pursue research following his own imagination. But it was also isolating. Opening a shop was a way to connect with people, a way to learn what they really need. He would only sell simple, low power stuff. Things that would be helpful without being disruptive to the mundane world.

Sarah had helped him with the purchase and getting the necessary permits. The point wasn’t to make money, but to provide him with some structure. But first, he needed to clean the place fully. He summoned a small breeze and began gathering up all the dust.

Parting Again

“The Elder is gone?” Marie sounded unconvinced.

“Yes. My death ended him while I escaped. With my body empty of possession, Bailey was able to return my soul.”

Tears began streaming down Marie’s cheeks. “It’s finally over.”

Rebecca nodded. “Yes.” As she watched her friendly silently weep in relief, guilt welled up in her chest. “Marie . . . I’m so sorry . . .”

“Ten years,” Marie muttered.

“What?”

Marie tried to wipe her eyes clear. “Ten years under his thumb. Ten years where my life wasn’t my own. Ten years where my body wasn’t my own.”

“I know.” Rebecca couldn’t look her in the eye.

“Do you? Do you know what he did to me?”

“Marie . . . I’m sorry.”

Marie stood and faced away from Rebecca. “I understand why you ran. I didn’t then, but I do now. He was awful.”

“But he’s gone now, and our lives are ours again.”

Marie turned to look at her. “So we can return?”

That took Rebecca by surprise. “You . . . you want to go back?”

“Of course. With the Elder gone . . . Well, it’s our family. Why wouldn’t we go back?”

“With what we’ve been through . . . What you’ve been . . .”

It’s our home, and he’s gone.”

Rebecca looked down. “It hasn’t been my home for ten years.”

Marie stared at her with her mouth open. “What do you mean?”

“I won’t go back. Phillip thinks I died. Maybe that means Peter believes I’m dead, too. As far as they’re concerned, I’m happy to stay dead. This is my home now.”

“What about us? What about me?”

“You don’t have to go back, either.”

“It’s the only home I know.”

Silence feel over them. Marie turned away again, and Rebecca stared at her hands. She knew how hard it was to leave. Had she not been forced to it by Phillip and Peter, she might have found it impossible. But she had been forced, and now Marie found herself facing a similar choice. With the Elder gone, Marie could return safely, but how would she handle the constant reminders of her long trauma?

That wasn’t the only reason she didn’t want Marie to leave. The uncomfortable truth was that, with Bailey leaving, she didn’t want to have to say goodbye to another dear friend so soon. She was afraid of the loneliness that would almost certainly follow.

Marie finally broke the silence. “I don’t think I can leave. Just come back with me.”

“I can’t. I wish I could, but even the short time I spent with the Elder convinced me I did the right thing in leaving. I wish you would stay, but I can’t go with you.”

“So that’s it?”

“It doesn’t have to be. You don’t have to leave. At least you don’t have to leave right away.”

“I don’t think I should stay away too long.”

“Well we can still keep in touch.”

“Yes, I suppose.”

Neither woman could look at the other directly.