A Short Story About Time
“Bro, you’re getting slow these days.”
“Yeah.” Paul corralled the football that had slipped through his grasp. He thumped the pigskin and yelled, “Yo! Go long!”
Excessively eager, Brett dashed around the volleyball nets and through a basketball court. Paul fired a perfect throw, aiming well past the court, but the ball dropped like a shot-put slug onto the concrete. The ball ricocheted, and a meathead named Jimbo missed a scrimmage winning three-pointer. Jimbo’s muscles bulged like a balloon animal too tightly twisted. Even his eye muscles bulged.
“Jimbo man,” Paul said hurriedly, “sorry about—”
Grunting irately, Jimbo punted the football onto the dormitory roof.
Brett yelled, “What the hell man?”
“You wanna go?” Jimbo barked, knuckles cracking.
Paul jogged onto the court and grabbed his friend’s arm. “Come on, Brett. Let’s go. It’s just a ball.”
“Asshole,” Brett issued and turned away.
Inside the dormitory, a stained brick boarding house built in the fifties, Paul followed Brett to their room on the second floor. Brett tossed his damp shirt against the wall where it knocked down a poster of the varsity football team.
“Don’t worry man,” said Paul, brushing his short brown hair. He plucked out a long, unruly hair from the bottom of his neck where freckles flourished.
“How can you be so chill? That asshole has practically shat on you ever since high school. You’d think people would grow up. I want my ball back, man.”
“I shouldn’t have thrown it over the court,” Paul conceded and dropped onto his bed.
“It’s not your fault, bro. I didn’t know you’d throw it like a chick, though. I swear you’ve lost twenty yards.”
Brett crumpled the torn poster and tossed it into the trash. Last week’s marked exams, flaunting a pair of all too familiar red C’s, went in, too. “What a joke,” Brett said as he swept the rest of the garbage from their desks.
“Yo,” Paul said, sitting up. “I said don’t throw away my fortune.”
“Seriously?” Brett picked out the fortune cookie’s paper. “It’s junk, man.”
“Nah. Give it here.”
“Whatever,” Brett said and tied the trash bag. “You should go see a doctor or something about your arm. I swear you’re slowing down.”
“Yeah. I’ll think about it.”
“Peace,” Brett said and left.
Paul grabbed the tiny fortune and lay down. He knew he was getting slower. He hadn’t yet told anyone about his condition. He was tired, too, as if keeping up with the world required extra energy. And he lied about seeing a doctor. They’d think he was mad. Worse yet, they might name his condition Paulzheimer’s or something stupid like that. He fiddled with the paper. Most fortune cookies spewed that same bullshit: A new love interest will soon appear or Good news will be in your immediate future. Bullshit and bullshit. But this fortune was different.
He read aloud, “Avoid counting time. Instead, make time count.”
When the minute digit on his phone flipped, he counted the seconds until it flipped again.
Unfortunately for Paul, his biological clock was fine and so was his phone.
He again read the fortune. Make time count. He snorted.
Time was running fast—it was literally accelerating except for the inner contents of his body and mind.
He hadn’t seen his sister in years. Vivian was a number of years older, likely decades wiser, and perpetually elegant. When he was seven, after Vivian had broken up with her first boyfriend, Paul promised he’d marry her someday. Unabashed, Vivian swooped him into her arms and laughed. For years, she deflected the steady stream of neglect that their mother spewed.
“You’re so stupid,” Mother said as she tore apart Paul’s failed fourth grade test. “Just like your father. Brainless.”
Vivian countered, “Mom! Stop it! Paul’s a smart kid. Tests don’t show everything. Come on, little man. Let’s go for some ice cream. Just you and me.”
Unfortunately, his mother was right. It took some serious unethical effort to get into college, and nobody questioned why Paul and Brett had such similar grades. Paul had no clue what he was doing with his life. Always a step behind in the rat race. And now, as his soul ripped from the fabric of time while the universe aged at a quicker pace, it was even more difficult to keep up.
Someone knocked on the door. Three rapid muted thumps.
“Vivian,” Paul whispered as he embraced his sister.
“Hey little man,” she said even though Paul outweighed her by a hundred pounds. “Missed me?”
“Yeah,” he said. “Come in.” An old tabletop fan gurgled as it struggled with the stifled air, and the fluorescent bulbs above pulsated irregularly. “It’s been a while.”
She smiled and said, “Time has flown by. I swear you’ve grown a dozen inches since high school.”
“You haven’t changed at all,” Paul lied. In fact, her voice was of a higher pitch and quickened in tempo. He continued, “I have to tell you something. Let’s walk outside.”
The spring sun melted their skin as they ambled onto the common area. The trees were already in full bloom, sprouting dark green leaves engorged with water, and their breadth cast comfortable bubbles of shade across the grass. Although Vivian, from her point of view, strolled at a casual pace, Paul was nearly race-walking.
“Hey, sis, can you slow it down a notch?”
“Are you getting old?”
“Yeah. Hey, I have to tell you something. Weird things are happening to me. It’s hard to exp—”
An old motorcycle snarled as it swerved onto the grass. “Hey Paul!” Jimbo cried as he cut the engine. “Who’s that hot broad? You banging her or something?”
“Shut up, Jimbo. Leave us alone.”
Fondling the motorcycle’s black frame, Jimbo persisted, “She’s totally out of your league. Hey babe, are you his cousin or something?”
“His sister,” Vivian replied, her face flushing with red. She turned to Paul and muttered, “Can we go, please?”
As they walked away, Jimbo throttled the engine and called out, “Hey Paul! Give your sister my number, won’t you?”
Even in the shade, Paul’s skin oozed with unpleasant moisture as he trailed his sister.
“Hey—sis—can you slow down?”
“I just want to go home,” she snapped.
“I need to talk to you.”
Vivian sat at the base of a sprawling oak tree whose heavy branches curled toward the ground. “What’s up, little man?”
Paul sat down and said, “Promise me you won’t freak out… There’s something wrong with me… I’m slowing down. Like I’m caught in slow motion.”
Vivian tossed a woodchip into the underbrush that stretched along the common area. “You do look pretty sluggish,” she replied dispassionately.
“I’m being serious.”
“Maybe you should get some rest. Remember how cranky you’d get when you missed naptime? You’d toss your toys against the wall. It’s no wonder you got so good at throwing a football.”
Paul paced irritably while long shadows moved perceptibly at a snail pace across the grass. Although the Southern spring was in full bloom, its days were growing short. He often counted two sunsets while awake. Exhausted, he muttered, “Vivian, something’s honestly wrong with me.”
“I love you, little man, but sometimes the joke just isn’t funny. Anyways, it’s a long drive home.” She stood and brushed the soil from her skirt. “It was good seeing you. Hang in there.”
As if caught in a sudden hurricane gust, where time fluctuated with the movement of atmospheric molecules, Vivian fluttered across the common area with surreal haste. Storm clouds rolled in like gushing smoke. Inside the invisible eye of the storm, constricted by a pocket of relative calm, Paul sat at the base of the tree and watched the branches bob to an anomalous cadence. The leaves rustled like crumpling aluminum and, as bullets of rain sprayed the earth, an electronic white noise prevailed. He closed his eyes and listened to the static that distracted his tormented thoughts. Reality melted into the black of nascent dreams and, even in this illusory dimension, time escaped his familiar grasp. Pixelated memories flashed across his mind like childhood home videos stuck on fast-forward: Stealing liquor from Brett’s father when they were fourteen… and then throwing eggs at the principal’s house… and Mother slapping him…
A gunshot of thunder burst above, its resonance unearthly brisk and severe. Paul awoke drenched in sweat and water. Although the grey veil of rain was thinning, the clouds moved faster than he’d ever seen. The rain abated abruptly and a sparrow took flight with the wings of a hummingbird. And in the bush, a squirrel darted so quickly it made him dizzy. He covered his eyes with the palms of his hands. A haze of vertigo hypnotized his senses, imploring his soul to sleep, and once more time leapt onto a different metaphysical plane. As the haze diluted, Paul was trapped in a house of mirrors whose corridors twisted impossibly like an Escher construction. A pocket watch the size of a bowling ball was chained to his ankle, and it weighed more than an anvil. As he struggled with the chains, with his face distorted in a dozen mirrors, some of which were floating magically overhead, the pocket watch opened and revealed a pearly clock face whose numbers were melting. Startled, he tripped backwards and the chains snapped. The mirrors now showed familiar faces with empty eyes: Vivian sulked, Mother scowled, and Jimbo sneered. Their expressions, save for Jimbo’s, melted like the clock face. Paul started to run. With every dimensionless turn, though, Jimbo’s face still laughed. Inexplicably funneled to the same room with the massive pocket watch, Paul grabbed its chains and attempted to swing it like a flail; but, as if the metal mass had inherited an Excaliburian magic, it remained unmoved. Jimbo’s laughter echoed chaotically as his face multiplied like germs. Exasperated, Paul kicked through the clock’s glass dome and tore out the hands and gears. Piece by piece, he volleyed them at the mirrors, and glassy particles showered like sleet while larger shards pierced the fabric of space, revealing a silvery glow beneath. As the radiance devoured the projections in his mind, he could still hear Jimbo’s interminable laughter…
“You’ve been—all night—idiot.”
The morning sun glimmered through the tree line. Paul rubbed his eyes and then brushed off a couple ants scuttling on his damp clothes. He replied, “Oh. Alright. Thanks.”
Jimbo quickly replied, “Your sister—hot stuff—she’s such—sexy milf.”
“Shut up, won’t you?”
“You sound—a retard.”
Jimbo thrust his groin and strutted away laughing.
By the time Paul got up, with fists clenched and solid like metal barbells, Jimbo was already halfway to the dormitory. Instead of following, Paul headed toward the parking lot. It was difficult to walk; like a drunk stumbling along a hill, his strides were affected by a warped gravity where every direction was downward. Though ardently livid, he could only gingerly shuffle to the lot where Jimbo’s beloved motorcycle sat defenselessly. With an internal fire fanned by chronometric alienation and physical incompetence, Paul shoved the motorcycle to the ground and began kicking at its frame. The mirrors snapped, the headlight crunched, and the chrome scuffed.
“That’s for the football. And for being so ugly. And that one’s for my sister you jerk!”
A kid on the basketball court ran to the dormitory and, with the raw momentum of a freight train, Jimbo charged toward the parking lot. Paul readied his fists but Jimbo was lightning fast: A cannonball struck Paul in the midsection, followed by a tumultuous blow to the chin, and the blue sky faded to black before he hit the ground.
Paul opened his eyes and wished he hadn’t.
In a room with dull grey walls, nurses and doctors zipped around like white-tailed hornets. He couldn’t understand the breakneck babble they spewed.
“You gotta speak slower,” Paul slurred, his jaw swollen and tender, as additional doctors flocked to his bedside. One doctor was particularly fascinated by the monitor next to the bed.
Seven heartbeats per second.
Paul’s chest drummed wildly, the sensors affixed to his naked chest throbbing, and the monitor peaked to a hasty fifteen beats. The doctors flashed light in his eyes, jabbed needles into his veins, and tested his reflexes. Compared to them, he had the response of a toddler. They could have stolen his nose with ease. Eventually a nurse with straw blonde hair brought him a notepad.
She wrote, How do you feel?
The nurse barely budged while he scribbled a lackluster response.
She smile and jotted, What do you see?
He considered lying. Maybe then they’d simply discharge him as a mental case with freakish vitals. Though it only took a minute for Paul to reply—to describe the madness that revolved outside his existence—the clock on the wall made a quarter turn. The nurse remained wonderfully stationary. Her face was smooth and distinct, at least compared to the blurry expressions that raced around the room. When Paul was done, she grabbed the paper and zipped away. He closed his eyes and pretended to sleep.
Though he could still move, albeit unbearably slowly from the doctors’ perspective, they treated him like a vegetative patient. And the nurses hardly bothered to explain in writing what they were doing. They flipped and turned him whenever they pleased, and it was easier if he went limp like a rag doll being played with by a group of curious dogs. They finally left him alone when Vivian showed up. She embraced him for only a fraction of a moment, though it wasn’t nearly long enough to quell his fears, and a dozen emotions flashed across her shifting face, with tearful regret the most prevalent. He grabbed the notepad and wrote tersely as to avoid wasting his sister’s time. Almost instantly, Vivian replied with elegant prose that helped him find a fleeting moment of solace.
I always knew you were special, my little man.
“I’m scared,” he blurted.
Though it was only a dawdling slur to his sister’s ears, Vivian empathized and wrote, I know. Be strong. You were always the strong one in the family.
Paul replied, The troublemaker, you mean.
Vivian’s smile faded as she explained that the doctors were dumbfounded.
Paul sniggered. “I bet they can’t decide whether to treat me like a patient or an experiment.”
Confused by his babble, Vivian handed him the notepad. Paul shook his head and wrote, Never mind.
Hang in there, she consoled. They’ll figure something out.
“Screw them,” Paul muttered. “I just want to go home. And screw this place. I’m no test rat.” He ripped off the sensors and tossed aside the notepad, which fell to the ground in the blink of an eye. “Leave me alone,” he snarled and rolled to the bed’s side. He managed only a single clumsy step before gravity capsized his senses, tripping to the floor, his face colliding with the cold grey linoleum.
When Paul regained consciousness, a dozen faceless humanoids scurried around the room. They moved so rapidly he couldn’t recognize any of them, not even the thoughtful blonde nurse. His face throbbed, there was a purple lump on his cheekbone that complemented the blemish on his chin, and he tried to touch the wounds; his wrists, though, were fettered to the bed’s frame. He yanked at the bounds, cried for help, and chased the evanescent glances that were only blurs.
Vivian suddenly materialized at his bedside. As if affected by a ripple in the fabric of space, her figure twitched and her face showed a distortion of emotions. She stood, she sat, she paced, she swayed, she twirled—all in the span of a dozen seconds. The notepad appeared at his side. Vivian explained that after he had fallen, the nurses thought he was dead. The monitors showed only a flat line. In a surge of panic, they were about to power the defibrillator when a single beat broke the line. They plastered sensors onto his temples. There was brain activity, and after a minute, the flat line jumped again. Flabbergasted and incompetent, the doctors were going to transfer him somewhere else, though Vivian didn’t exactly know.
I’m going to die, Paul wrote shoddily with his bounded hand. I’m dying.
Though she possessed a plethora of comforting words in her diction, Vivian faltered. Off subject, she mentioned that Brett had visited, and she handed him the fortune. Avoid counting time. Instead, make time count. Paul laughed. He crumpled the paper and tossed it to the floor.
Vivian wrote, They’re going to transfer you soon. Today.
An electric chill coursed through his bones. Caught in purgatory’s tribunal, governed by faceless intellects subsisting in a different dimension, he feared the netherworld prison they’d condemn him. “I don’t want to leave.” He tried wiping away the water in his eyes but the shackles pinched his wrists. The bruise in his gut from Jimbo’s punch spread like cancer, gastric acid seeping into his chest cavity and bowels, and no string of words could cure his disease or neutralize that caustic feeling.
Vivian scribbled, Can I do anything?
Stay for a while longer, Paul replied. Smile for me.
As shadows crept across the floor like spilled molasses, hours compressed into minutes, Vivian sat motionless. With eyes locked onto his, a uniform smile buoyed, a face hardly blurred, she transcended time’s relativistic incongruities like an ethereal archangel. Paul began to write his gratitude—a heartfelt homage he too often neglected to communicate—when Vivian was distracted by commotion near the door: Lights flashed as bulletin fat cats and tabloid hyenas struggled past security guards, and before Paul could react, he was wheeled away at a nauseating speed down bleary grey hallways. Although imperceptibly fast, he felt the unmistakable jab of a needle into his skin. The grey disintegrated to nothing.
Blurry apparitions moved at the speed of sound while the sun tracked across the sky like a water bead running down slanted glass. Bounded by additional straps, with an especially thick one around his chest, Paul could not sit up. A cacophony similar to white noise berated his ears, likely a thousand words, clicks, and beeps compressed into a single sound wave. Imprisoned within sterile walls decorated with a single aperture, he was surrounded by Asimovian devices that spawned numerous computers and mysterious electronics. He twitched frequently as if demonically possessed, though he suspected it occurred only when the white-tailed ghosts played with his limbs and reflexes. The continuous whirlwind of moving parts and bodies made his mind shutter and his senses sick. It was easier to lie limply, stare toward the stagnant grey ceiling, and let the ghosts haul him along the chronometric speedway. As a new sun darted across his peripheral every few minutes, rational fear mutated into apathetic boredom. He was a freak of nature diverging from humanity’s linear path; medically sentient but relatively vegetative; a biological miracle and an enigmatic glitch; a deviant from the laws of the universe.
As the sun chased its own tail, whole days consumed, Paul realized that his body aged according to his own perspective: His nails were still nubs, his numerous freckles remained unchanged, and his bodily functions, though disconcerted by the frenzied solar cycle, were mostly normal. Chained to a bed and socially quarantined, he was the fountain of youth and perhaps the solution to eternal life. He tugged at the straps and laughed. Without error, the ghosts performed their daily tests. Lights darkened and flashed, computers churned and whizzed, and needles injected and imbibed. Here he would die as a biological absurdity whose freedoms were revoked, but at least he was somewhat sheltered by the scientific doctrine and its inspired ethics.
They hadn’t sawed through his skull just yet.
After a thousand more sleepless sunsets, after countless probes and needles and sensors, he could stay awake no longer. It was only a blink of rest. Now, the fireball hurtled past every second. The ghosts danced beneath strobe lights as they flickered in and out of existence. His skin burned with electricity. Suddenly, between his fingers, the paper fortune magically appeared. On the back, Vivian had written, I’m sorry. He imagined his sister’s phantom embrace. Dawn fused with dusk, the paper disintegrated to dust, and his body convulsed from the infinitesimal forces that harangued his existence through the millennia.
As he careened toward the black hole of death, caught in its inescapable gravity where time was relative and space meaningless, Paul wondered whether he would witness the end of mankind, and perhaps, if he was lucky enough, the collapse of the universe, too.