Man of Time

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Chapter 7 - Pizza in the Park

“Hey! Uh, you didn’t hear any of that, did you?” They raised a smile, masking their previous tone.

I fiddled with my hands,“No.”

“Oh, I’m sorry you had to hear that. You don’t deserve to be treated that way. She’s really been getting on my nerves recently.” Blake trailed off, “Anyway,” They waved their hand, “Would you like to go out for a little bit? I was thinking of bringing Catori and Ralph along.”

My heart sank.

“He’s not mad at you, I promise.” They rested their hand on my shoulder, reading my mind.

I shrugged. He looked fairly upset after training. With what I did to him, he should be mad. I was the idiot who went too far and hurt him.

“Why don’t you go get Catori, and meet me by the elevator.”

I nodded, relieved to avoid interaction with Ralph for just a bit longer. Walking to the farest room, I knocked on the wall.

“You may come in!” Catori spoke sweetly.

I pulled back the curtain and entered a sea of green. Plants hung from the ceiling and stretched themselves across the walls. An assortment of rocks were decorated around Catori’s bed side table where a pail of water sat. At the corner of her room, a small fountain poured water in peaceful harmony, relaxing my once consuming anxiety.

“Hey, Raymond, is everything alright?” Catori asked, setting down a large crystal.

“Yes. Uh, Blake wanted to invite you to dinner. I don’t know where we’re going, but they asked me to ask you.” I picked at my nails.

“That sounds lovely. Give me a moment to put on my shoes.. Oh, and let me grab a jacket for you. Going out in that sweater may expose you if we run into the corporation.”

My sweater? I curled my fingers around it’s itchy cloth. Something I noticed over the last few days was the fact that modern clothing was a lot softer than my time. Until today, I had been wearing a plain tshirt and pants that Bhaskar let me borrow. It’s cotton wrapped around my body in a blanket of content as opposed to uneased tension. There was no talk of getting me clothes, although I didn’t want to appear greedy. All of my money sat in a bank from a hundred years ago, and I doubt I could gather it now.

Catori reached into her dresser, and took out a thin black coat and handed it to me, “This should do. It’d be a little big on you, but it will do the job.” She smiled, sliding her brown leather sandals on.

“Thank you.”

Lifting up the jacket, I could tell it would be huge on me. I dismissed myself back to my room, and peeled my sweater off. The dark blue button up beneath my sweater exposed my thin figure to the mirror Blake for me.

I placed my hands on my hips, and felt a small bump. Confused, my fingers curled around a balled piece of paper. I pulled it out, and unraveled it, finding my Mama’s hand writing all over it. The ink smeared from putting my clothes in the wash. I could still make out the extensive grocery list she made for Father’s arrival.

I held the note in my hands, it’s thin weight held delicately. Mama would be proud that I was making friends. I never really had anyone growing up, besides her. No one seemed to like me much. I was always too anxious. At least in this time I had people other than my family to care… I can do this. It’s only a group of friends hanging out together. In the future… My hands covered my face.

This is fine.

I’ll be fine…

“That’s a wise choice.” Catori commented as I closed my curtain.

Looking down, I noticed Ralph sitting in his chair. He sat closely to Blake, looking at Catori, “I couldn’t walk that far even if I wanted to.”

“We’ve all had stressful days, let’s just forget about all this shit and have a nice evening.” Blake gesticulated with their hands, gesturing us to follow them to the elevator.

“I assume that work was difficult today?” Catori eyes softened.

“Yea. A elderly man was late to his appointment and, ugh. You know what? It doesn’t matter.” Blake shook their head as they pulled open the elevator doors, allowing us to enter first.

The others engaged in small talk as we traveled to our destination. We took something called an “Uber” all the way to a long stretch of land near the Brooklyn Bridge. It’s greenery contrasting the architecture of man. We walked down a stone path that curved around Brooklyn, outlining patches of grass and trees. Despite the chilly weather, the park was filled with occupants. The inviting sunset allowed for family and friends to mingle outside the cramped streets. Colored tables and chairs decorated the path, inviting people to enjoy themselves in conversation.

I noticed this when I was brought to the factory, but the detailing that stuck out most from the future was the lack of segregation. All races, white, black, asian, hispanic… All of them were integrated in society. No one looked at our group weirdly because we looked just like everyone else.

Except this one group.

A crowd of black individuals stood under a shady tree. Some held megaphones, chanting various words that were unrecognizable until we got closer. Blake, Ralph, and Catori seemed unphased by their presence. A good thing I suppose. But something seemed, off. Some people passing by seemed uncomfortable by the group, mainly those of a lighter tone. Children’s ears were covered and some took steps away from the group. To those unphased, they received pamphlets to read on their walk.

I found myself being drawn to them, I wasn’t processing their words, not until I was close enough to be grabbed;

“Brother… Join us in the march tonight. Stand with us against tyranny and injustice. March to avenge our fallen siblings…” A black woman gripped my arm, pleading with brokenness in her tears.

“Another black man, killed by the police!” A man beside her shouted into the megaphone, holding up a sign; “I can’t breath.”

The group shouted out, calling for action for anyone who would hear. THUMP THUMP. They mentioned names. Injustice. Violence. Hatred. Bigotry.

Things were supposed to be different here…

“Stand with us, brother.” She tightened her grip, piercing into my soul while the others surrounded her.

I thought we were free…

“Don’t let the white man control you!”

No…

“RISE WITH US.”

It can’t be...

“NO JUSTICE. NO PEACE.”

STOP

“Hey! There’s no need to grab him.” Blake ripped the woman’s arm off me, “Back off, there are other ways to persuade people.” They wrapped their arm around me, and led me away.

Catori and Ralph stood precariously on the paved stone, conflicting emotions flickering in their eyes. The group apologized as we walked away but Blake did not say a word. I looked up, their lip pursed, itching to voice their opinion. Their brows curled downwards as they focused ahead in a protective manner.

When Blake pulled their arm away they stood tall, muted by irritation.

“I thought I was free.” I choked.

“You are… But it’s, complicated.” Ralph pushed his chair with caution, unsure how to proceed.

“Everything’s complicated in America.” Catori expressed bitterly.

“I’m the wrong person to explain this.” Ralph raised his hands from his wheels.

“Well, uh. Technically you received rights about 50 years ago, well, it was supposed to be after the civil war... But there are still plenty of racist people in 2020.” Blake’s face hardened as they straightened their collared jacket.

“What do you mean? What were those people talking about. The police still brutalize black people? I thought you all said 2020 was safer.”

“It may be safer, but it’s far from secure. Many injustices are committed towards people of color daily. Many of whom don’t make it out of situations alive.” Catori admitted with folded arms.

This wasn’t fair. The group made it seem like people were free, that things were better. I knew the corporation targeted minorities, but I allowed myself to assume it was just an isolated case.

“Why do you think you were sent here, Ray? There are people like the Lothar Corporation who are willing to twist a story to target minorities so they can thrive, living in their million dollar mansions.” Blake scoffed.

“Not all of them.” Catori butted in, joining my side, “Many of them are working people too. It’s all about being above another, even if you’re a part of the lower class.”

“So… Nothing has changed?”

“That’s not true! There are still plenty of people who fight for equality. The American system may not be perfect, but we’re trying. The American people are trying anyway.” Ralph added, planting himself at a nearby table.

I suppose that was true. When Edith, Ralph, and Helda met me, they didn’t look at me in disgust. They saw me as a human, just like them. The color of my skin didn’t matter, the fact that we shared a mutual trauma is what mattered most.

We joined Ralph at the table, the plastic seating oddly comfortable to sit in. Blake stared happily at us, enjoying this moment among friends. Catori surveyed the area, noting any suspicion worth mentioning. Ralph leaned back in his chair, inhaling the fresh air with a grateful expression. I continued to observe the oddities of the future. Every day I discovered something new, and whether or not that something was a good thing, well, it depended on my new friends.

“Hey, there’s a pizza guy right there.” Blake pointed to a tiny silver building with a colorful rectangular umbrella.

“Why’d you think I decided to stop here? I was hoping you’d notice.” Ralph raised his brow, pointing at the same building with a grin.

“Pizza sounds great.” Catori nodded, “How about you, Raymond? Do you like pizza.”

“I’ve heard of it. But I don’t think I’ve ever had any.” The three of them gasped.

“YOU HAVEN’T HAD PIZZA?!” They all practically screamed.

“Uh, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to offend anyone.” My heart began to quicken.

“We’re not mad…” Ralph started.

“It’s just.. How haven’t you had pizza?” Blake’s nose scrunched sarcastically, “What kind of rock were you living under?!” They threw up their hands.

Catori giggled at Blake’s playful outburst before composing herself, “Where did you live in 1920?” She tried her best to remain respectful to my confusion.

“Here in Brooklyn.” I answered shly.

“OKAY we got to show him!” Ralph tapped his fingers on the table, begging Blake.

“Okay okay… What sounds good?” Blake laughed.

Catori took a moment to herself, and Ralph’s eyes grew judgmental. But, not in a rude way. I noticed amusement grow on Blake’s lips as we watched the two think to themselves.

“If you say pineapple pizza, I might slap you.” Ralph blurted.

Catori’s eyes widened, “Pardon me, but I very much enjoy pineapple on my pizza.”

“Pepperoni is so much better. Who would put fruit on a pizza.” Ralph stuck his tongue out, shaking his head, leading me to smile.

“Catori’s vegetarian, you’re not. It’s okay to have preferences.” Blake emphasised.

“I know I know… I just really like pepperoni.” Ralph pouted.

“Do you have any dietary restrictions, Ray?” Blake pulled out their walet as I shook my head, “No? Alright, 2 slices of pineapple, 5 slices of pepperoni? I’ll be back…” They spoke to themself before going off.

I slouched back in my chair, looking back at the group and woman who grabbed me. They were still chanting. Shouting. Trying to rally others to join their protest.

“America has a crude history of racism…” Catori looked over her shoulder at the group.

“I can’t even imagine living through what any of you have lived through.” Ralph sighed uncomfortably as Blake returned with our food.

“You still face struggles, you weren’t kidnapped for nothing.” Said Catori.

“Wow, I can’t believe that was over 3 years ago.” Blake expressed, sitting themself in reflection.

“I know…” Ralph shook his head.

A glint of mischief flickered in Blake’s eyes, smiling slightly, “It’s been 3 years and Catori and Edith still haven’t gotten together?”

“Pardon?” Catori’s jaw dropped mid-bite.

“Oh come on!” Blake exclaimed, pushing her shoulder, “Bhaskar and I saw how you two interacted at my apartment. It’s obvious you two have a thing for each other.”

“You’ve just caught on? As if they haven’t been lovey dovey since we’ve gotten here.” Ralph chuckled.

“Are you both gossiping school girls?” Catori straightened her posture, her tone defensive.

“Oh! Oh! You missed it a couple of weeks ago when-!”-”There’s really no need for this.” Catori blushed, dismissing Ralph’s story.

“Don’t be like that Catori! We haven’t been able to talk like this in forever.” Blake’s eye’s softened.

Catori crossed her arms, looking down shyly, “Well if we’re on the topic of love interests, how about yourself? We haven’t heard of any boys lately.” She smirked.

“Or ever.” Ralph leaned in, shifting his brows in a strange arrangement.

“You guys know I don’t have time with my job.”

“Excuses…”

“Excuses…”

Blake rolled their eyes, focusing their attention on Ralph, “I don’t see you talking to anyone, what’s your excuse?”

“I know it’s silly, but I don’t really trust anyone here…” He admitted shyly.

“Ugh, that’s boring!”

“Blake…” Catori trailed before Blake caught the air.

Blake rubbed their temples with widened eyes, shaking their head, “There are PLENTY of young, HOT, single men out there who would DIE to get a piece of you. I mean, have you looked in the mirror recently?”

Ralph likes men?

“I have haha… But are they worth the trouble?” Ralph took another bite of his pizza.

“Oh I felt that.”

“What about you, Raymond?” Catori composed her amusement, turning to me with sincerity. “We don’t mean to leave you out. Did you have a partner in your time?”

“A partner?”

I never had any friends, yet alone a partner. I wasn’t what you’d consider “charming”. Sure I held the door open for others and always helped whoever I could, but I wasn’t, uh, the attractive kind of charming. People just thought I was weak. So they masked their sympathy with kindness. I guess, I was taken advantage of a lot for my empathy for others.

“There weren’t any girls I took interest in.”

Truthfully, there wasn’t. Women were extremely angelic beings, and I always had high respect for them. But, I never found myself attracted to one.

Blake squinted their eyes, “What about boys?”

“Blake!” Catori scolded.

“What! We don’t discriminate! I know non-binary people weren’t big in his time so I just included the boys.”

Liking boys? I saw that homosexual couple on the drive to the factory but I just thought that was a taboo concept. Liking boys was okay in 2020? I mean, it must be if that couple was out pridefully. The entire time I’ve been here, Blake specifically made it known that they would accept me no matter who I am. No matter what my past or identity was. And their comments here, only reinforced that idea.

The other day we were sitting in my room, and I opened up to them about how I got here. The store. The men. The sunflower. All of it, and how the ticking of that timer paralized me with fear. I didn’t mean to talk about it. It was one of those things where it just sort of, happens. And I’m grateful for that conversation we had, it made me feel better about being trapped in this world.

“Mm, this pizza is amazing. I need to get out more often!” Ralph wiped his mouth with a napkin, gathering our plates and disposing of them.

The taste of delicious pizza lingered in my mouth, a delicacy I wished to indulge in again, “It was fantastic. Is all food this good?”

“Oh this is nothing compared to the 5 star restaurant across the-What?” Catori and Ralph held in laughs, “I can indulge in a bit of luxury every now and then!” Blake’s cheeks flushed, their tone higher pitched.

“They’re doing it again.” Catori leaned back, smiling.

“Doing what??”

“We can’t hear you through your richness!” Ralph tapped his temples.

“It’s like… I’m drowning in riches!” Catori joked, waving her hands around.

Blake scrunched their nose, “I earned my money fair n square!”

I parted my lips, “Like the squares on your earnings?” I pointed at their ears, causing Catori and Ralph to erupt in laughter.

Wait. They actually thought that was funny?

“I didn’t know you were capable of making jokes.” Blake smiled fondly, proud of my speech.

Which wasn't- You know what? Just go with it Raymond...

The palms of my hands grew sweaty, “I felt left out. Thought a comment was only appropriate.”

“Lighten up, Ray. You don’t need to be so serious all the time! You can let your guard down with us.”

“Yeah! We’re all friends here, and the corp- FUCK.” Ralph cursed in a hushed whisper, his body stiff as he stared behind us.

“Hey, is everything alright?” Blake’s eyes furrowed with concern before looking back, “Shit.”

I scanned the scene behind us, but didn’t spot anything out of the ordinary. “What’s wrong?”

Catori’s eyes narrowed on a target, “Lothar’s men. They’re here.”

Two men waltzed side by side, both white, wearing dark blue suits with silver ties. They seemed like ordinary businessmen, until my eyes scanned an embodiment within the fabric. A large silver “L”. It’s reflective surface drew attention to it’s symbol.

“Shouldn’t we leave?” I asked, watching them get in line to the pizza place we got our food from.

“No.” Ralph said.

“What do you mean no?” Blake’s brows raised.

Ralph didn’t answer. Instead, he pushed himself away from the table, and turned towards the line.

“What are you doing?! They’ll notice us.” Catori panicked, eying the men.

Ralph shook his head, “Not me, I’m not in the system remember? Besides, I look like every other white man.”

“Definitely not true, you’re way hotter, but I see your point.” Blake crossed their arms before Catori smacked them.

“Knock it off, Blake.”

Ralph ignored the comments, reached into his pocket, and pulled out a strange disk. It appeared harmless, but by the way Ralph studied it, I knew it was important.

Catori’s eyes widened, “What are you doing?!”

“I’m going to scan their phones, I brought this just in case.” Ralph held up the disk.

Blake shook their head, smiling, “Always prepared.”

“I try to be.”

“Well you can’t go alone.” Catori scolded.

“Sure I can.”

“Ralph...” I spoke.

Ralph huffed, “Fine. You can come with me. You were never fully programmed into the system since you weren’t captured.”

“How are you so sure?”

“Ralph knows the system of the corporation better than anyone, you’ll be okay.” Blake reassured before Ralph shot a glare.

“Uh, alright.” I gulped, standing up, joining Ralph’s side.

The beating in my chest quicken with every step. The corporation’s men looked relaxed. Like normal people. But they took people from their homes. They weren’t ordinary men. They were kidnappers.

Ralph leaned into view, providing reassurance as we strolled over. His chair wheeled over a patch of broken stone, and cracked loudly. This led to one of the men to turn around, taking note of the scene. Ralph carried on like nothing happened while my vision narrowed.

“Hold my hand.” Ralph whispered.

“What?” I tried to look calm, “Why?”

His hand slid into mine, “Public display of affection. People hate it, and we look less suspicious.” He said in a happy tone, leaning into side with a small giggle.

Blood rushed to my cheeks. Embarrassment wrapped around my brain. This was, uh… Different. Crinkles formed around his lids as his teeth were shown through his smile. Even if it was fake, his beauty brought comfort to the situation. I’ve been touched by Blake and Catori, but something hit different about Ralph’s head resting against my chest. When he pulled away I felt lonely, wishing for that feeling of warmth to return.

Ralph’s plan worked, and the man turned back to his partner. Ralph pressed his thumb into the disk, a small blue light flickered in response. He let go of my hand to focus on the disk.

I looked back to the table, where Blake and Catori crossed their arms, but their expressions were completely different. Catori’s face was stern, eyeing both of us, and the men carefully. Her feet and hands ready to run. Blake sat in a more relaxed manner, a grin brought to their lips. They nodded at me before I turned back.

The light from the disk was flashing faster. Ralph leaned the petite device on his knee to it get closer to the men. I listened to their conversation silently. One that consisted of small talk. The device clicked, and Ralph pressed his thumb into it again before placing it in his pocket.

“You know what? I changed my mind, I’m no longer in the mood for pizza.” He smiled, grabbed my hand and led us out of the line.

“What did that disk do?” I asked as we rejoined the table.

“It scans nearby devices frequencies and intercepts them. When we get back home I’m able to hack into the device from far away and do some searching.”

“That’s a thing people can do now?” Blake stood up. “How’d you learn that?”

“I can tell you later.”

“We need to leave, now. Please? I don’t want to make a scene.” Catori started walking, encouraging us to follow.

“I agree. I don’t want to stay here.” I nodded.

“I got what I wanted, let’s go.”

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