People didn’t annoy George as much once he learned to time travel.
“Mind over matter,” his favorite extreme performers always said, interviewed on the morning talk shows. Walking on beds of nails, sleeping on hot coals, eating a hundred hot dogs in five minutes without choking to death — those were the sort of mortality-defying stunts he enjoyed. But only as a spectator. George didn’t risk his own life doing such foolish things. He couldn’t. He didn’t have the time.
Death walked by George’s side, urging him to make every moment count. Rome wasn’t built in a day. Nor a writing career. He couldn’t afford to dawdle.
George had little patience for slow drivers, old people, small children throwing fits in public. All of them completely clueless that they were in his way. Not to mention his coworkers, too self-absorbed to ask him about his life, his projects, his dreams, or to wonder about his invisible companion: the Grim Reaper who stood beside him not with a sharpened sickle but a lash, whipping George into action.
But of course, they couldn’t see the shrouded specter. They had no idea what George did when he wasn’t chained to his desk, filing insurance claims. He didn’t brag about it, despite his modest success thus far in token-paying publications. George’s office mates didn’t ask, so he didn’t tell.
Instead, they bemoaned their workloads and expected George to listen with rapt attention. They’d call him on it when his mind started to wander.
“Are you even listening, George?”
“Of course I am.” He’d blink at them, refocusing, while the paper cup’s soggy bottom leaked lukewarm water into his hand.
Once he learned to time travel though, they really didn’t irritate him as much.
If he concentrated on the future while he was stuck in rush hour traffic — or blocked in an aisle at the supermarket by an octogenarian in a wheelchair, or unable to sleep during a red eye flight thanks to a tantrum-throwing three-year-old screaming at her dear mother — George would close his eyes and project himself mind over matter into the future. It was as simple as that. And just as impossible to explain. All he knew was that it only worked with irritations. He’d never be able to win the lottery with this gift.
In the future, automobiles would be outlawed due to pollution from the manufacture of electric vehicles; the government wouldn’t allow anyone to live past his or her sixtieth birthday due to a bankrupt social security system; and due to overpopulation, children under the age of ten would become illegal contraband, sold on the black market. Weird stuff, most definitely, but it truly helped to alleviate George’s present tension.
The present tense seemed almost perfect in comparison.
When it came to his bothersome coworkers, all he had to do was attend their funerals. That’s the best thing about the most annoying people, George came to realize: they were going to die someday. So when he found himself trapped at the water cooler with a whiner for more than twenty minutes, George would simply project himself forward through time to admire the flower arrangements beside his coworker’s open casket. And when he or she abruptly reprimanded him, demanding his full attention, he would smile.
“Make every moment count,” he’d say.
Death’s whip would crack in George’s ear. His expression would falter, barely noticed by his slack-jawed fellow employee — amazed that George had anything of substance to share.
“You never know when it will be your last.”
Future tense also gave George a newfound appreciation for the cars blocking his route home. So many makes, models, colors. So much ingenuity in their designs. He started memorizing them, quizzing himself during the sluggish drive home. Audi? No. Definitely an Acura.
At the supermarket, he began helping the senior citizens load their carts — not to speed up the process and send them on their merry way, but to enjoy the moments he spent with what would eventually become an endangered species.
The same went for the screaming kids earning the enmity of everyone on board those red-eye business flights. George made a new habit of singing the most ridiculous songs at the top of his lungs, contorting his face either to entertain or frighten the tykes into subdued whimpers, earning grateful looks from their dear mothers.
George would miss them all.
But Death didn’t grant George a moment to bemoan the future’s losses. Nor was he ever allowed to become complacent in his own life. He knew he could be snatched from it at any moment, without warning. That’s the one sure thing mere mortals can hold onto: you’re only guaranteed the split-second you’re living. Maybe not even the breath you’re breathing.
If you’re lucky.
His own mortality kept George up at night, forcing him to make his mark on the world so there would be something worthwhile left for future generations. He was more than a life insurance clerk. So much more. He was a time-traveler, for one thing.
And he was an author. Writers write, but authors finish what they start. And he’d finished over a dozen manuscripts already, working into the wee hours on his trusty laptop.
The paranormal romance eBooks he self-published with minimal editing — revision only diluted a writer’s voice, after all — and template-generated cover art would outlast him, he knew. There would be an audience for his novels as long as ePub, Mobi, and PDF formats existed long into the future.
He had a hunch they would.
Death coiled his whip and hissed. Posthumous fame waited for no one.
George got back to work, but he knew he could escape Death whenever he wished. All he had to do was close his eyes and concentrate.
Mind over matter.
Milo James Fowler is a teacher by day, speculative fictioneer by night, and an active SFWA member. His short fiction has appeared in more than 90 publications, including Cosmos, Nature, and the Wastelands 2 anthology. His self-published reprints can be found wherever eBooks are sold.
In the New York division of the Financial Supreme Court (Automated Section), there were some odd cases in for adjudication today. The Director and his assistant were reviewing the files on holo.
“What’s this?” the Director asked. “Spraying lavender water on Wall Street? That’s a crime?”
“It’s market manipulation, sir,” his assistant replied.
“Lavender with intent, sir. The accused set up positions, then sprayed, and when the traders reacted to the scent the rise in stock prices was enough to clear him a profit.”
“Good lord! The things we call crimes nowadays.” The Director shook his head. “Don’t we have any fraud, or embezzlement?”
“Not even larceny?” The Director was beginning to sound wistful. “New York used to be famous for its larceny.”
“Not Wall Street, sir. The traders are making too much money already.”
The Director nodded glumly. “You think we’ve spoilt them?”
The assistant ventured a smile. “You can say so, sir.”
“Call me old-fashioned,” the Director went on, “but you have to think what we’re doing to the breed. In my day, traders had balls. Lavender!”
The assistant called up a file, then cancelled it and quickly called up another.
“Hold on, bring that one back,” the Director broke in. “Wasn’t it a class action? At least investors still have their mojo.”
Reluctantly, the assistant called back the previous file. The Director read half of it, then exploded. “Dog poop!?”
“I’m afraid so.”
“Don’t tell me it’s a hedgie with pre-arranged shorts?”
“No sir. It’s actually the mayor’s dog. His — ah — unanticipated contribution upset the market. A couple of traders stepped on it.”
The Director glumly read the rest of the report. “How is it worth their while?” he said at last. “The impact on the market, even in these sensitive times, must be minute.” He looked at his assistant. “And there’s the legal costs. How do they do it?”
“There’s apps for it now, I understand,” his assistant explained. “You just click.”
“Apps, is it?” The Director snorted. “I’ll give them apps!”
He flicked on his personal holo, waved through the icons, and pointed at a ‘J’. The case files were collected and processed, and reappeared stamped with their verdicts, arranged in order of severity.
“Apps, indeed!” the Director said with satisfaction.
Mick’s Jaguar hummed down the A4. Outside the cold December air whistled and danced through the barren trees. There was something mischievous in the air but it couldn’t penetrate the steel frame of the well-built luxury car.
Inside, Mick fidgeted uncomfortably in his suit and tie. He glanced over at his bride of 37 years sitting in the passenger seat. She looked fit and proper in her pink Chanel dress and matching suit blazer. It was hard to imagine this was the same purple-haired girl who married him at the courthouse wearing a jean jacket with the sleeves ripped off.
“You were wonderful tonight, Loretta,” he said into the thick empty air.
“Thank you, love, I know tonight was rather harsh for you, but it’s all for the best,” she replied.
She was right. Since the age of 20, Mick had lived life as an international rock star. He toured the world, hobnobbed with celebrities, and was mobbed by the public. But in the past ten years he could feel his relevance slipping. His concerts no longer drew fancy young birds, it drew their mothers. His albums barely scratched the surface on iTunes and his dinners were no longer disrupted by strangers asking for autographs. And tonight was the culmination of all he dreaded. He was no longer a God, he was an aging man who had passed his prime and a new slew of kids with guitars were ready to take his place. It was wretched and he had to do it in a suit and tie.
The A4 mocked him. It was the same stretch of road from London to Avonmouth that he had traveled his entire life. It never changed — the same signs, the same roundabouts. Boring. Tired. Uninspired.
In a flash of childlike impetuousness, Mick swerved the car onto an abandoned exit towards Brompton. Excitement bubbled through him; he rolled down the window and let the playful air rush in. He fished around the inside pocket of his jacket and produced a flask.
“Well, this is a right shocker. I don’t know what is more pressing, the fact that you’ve turned off the motorway onto an unpaved road or that the car now smells like the Jameson brewery.” Loretta shouted.
“Really, darling, coming from you — a woman who, high on cocaine, once quote-un-quote borrowed a 50-foot yacht and ran it into the beach in Antibes?”
“Are you mad? That was 30 years ago! I’m not that girl anymore, we’ve changed.”
“Not me, my hair is as black as the day I married you.”
“That’s because you colour it!”
“Exactly. Darling, we have to add some colour to our lives, or else it will continue to turn grey.”
“You’re a drunk old fool!” Loretta spat
“I was a drunk fool when you married me,” Mick swallowed, “I just wasn’t old.”
“Mick, darling, you can’t run away from getting old by pulling off the road. It just makes it bumpier.”
And in a moment of cosmic coincidence, the stealth Jaguar thumped and jumped and let out a loud yelp. Startled and jostled, Mick and Loretta froze in their seats.
“Bloody hell, what was that!” Mick finally squawked.
The two gently opened the door into the cold night, but upon inspection found nothing wrong with the car. Slowly, Loretta made her way to her befuddled husband. She wrapped her arms around his neck and looked into his eyes.
“Our lives have had plenty of colours. Can we please get back on the road and carry on with the grey?”
Boring. Tired. Uninspired. But not alone.
Hally Cohen: Tennis pro, writer, improvisor, lover of bacon.
Today my mother asked me when I was going to write a book. I told her I don’t have one in me but that is not true. I have lots of stories in me but they die away before I can cultivate them. I am the dead story cemetery.
She wants me to write her book. Little Saint Monika in the frigid and lovely Swiss mountains. Confined by religion and liberated every spring by ideas of romantic love and human sensuality. She was so burdened until she came here. Crossed the vast Atlantic like an ancient traveler and settled in a new shining land. It was here that she built her new life, one of frantic energy, and had her children.
In some ways we were always in the mountains with her. We were the goal, the brass ring she was reaching for and the kind of future that made her seem normal. In some ways the mountains were always in her. This secular world held little real charm for her, lacking as it is, any magic. With the four of us in tow, there were forays into dark places looking for mystical union and the sacred spaces where fear and awe are indistinguishable. On her own her journeys were even darker. She pushed her body to unsafe limits, doing noisy and ugly things that made us cry.
So, riding the train today, when she asked me about writing a book it gave me pause.
After we parted at the station, she moving toward her next crusade, me home to the lumpy couch and soup bowls of loneliness, I kept thinking about a book, the book she would want written about her. Walking past shop windows, reflecting the late afternoon sun, walking in the fumes of city buses, I could picture her blond and wind-burned, entering that mythological church, the real church that she said suffocated her and kept her from her true and beautiful nature.
What if my language is not my own? Perhaps my words are her words. Is my only purpose to be her record keeper, her portrait painter, her holy scribe. As she walks uptown and I down, her gravitational pull is intense and horrible and like an unborn baby I don’t know where she ends and I begin.
All along she has insisted, in her soft and convincing way, I am nothing but the story of her, a part of her, breaking off of her but orbiting her always.
She was born there and years went by and they were full of snow and sadness but also a lightness in the sky beyond the clouds that made her loosen her grip on the wooden benches she sat on to pray or bent over as the strap came down upon her thighs when she was punished. She loosened her grip all the way until she had completely let go and found herself here. And found her body splitting four times so that she could be in five places at once. So she could be all the senses and experience everything but maybe nothingness on certain days, too. I am the sense of hearing. And, sixth sense, but not the one you think. I am the sense of pen on paper, of memory drying in ink. I am the sense of weight lifting from you as you become legend because your story is told, is sung, is recorded and you are free of it now.
At home I call my mother to tell her I do want to write a book, to write about the mountains and the church and how cold and hungry she was but how it all made her blue eyes shine. But, she doesn’t seem to know what I mean at first. She wants to talk about herself, yes, of course she does. Yet other parts of herself, my siblings, have called before me today with even greater gifts and talents and she doesn’t need me now. She has moved past this idea already and left me with its husk, empty, dry and crumbling.
Here I am. And here is my mother’s attention running through my hand like something lighter than sand; like dust. And I am left with the clean air filling my lungs, air I worry might be Monika’s mountain air, but the lungs remain mine alone. I am small again and my mountains are made of glass and steel and reflection. I thought I was only the reflection of my mother but see now that an entire city was a reflection of me. I ran up and down those sidewalks then, the concrete solid underneath my feet and my hands reaching for the pen and my heart longing for the clean white page. I hang up the phone.
You should write a book she tells me another day, another year. But, that story, her story, has died and is in me no more. I am free of it now. In my hand is something new, a pen filled with my own blood and my own memories. I attack the page with a singular ferocity and my story is fiercely singular. Each stroke is a breath, clear and deep and almost too much and this story is the tiniest of seedlings coming up through a crack in the sidewalk with my own feet somehow still moving me forward.
Sarah Rachel Egelman is a professor and writer, among other things.
The third applicant, Andrea Stover, entered the interview room and sat down. She smiled. I noticed her pulse beating quickly in her throat. The data overlay from my Verimeter glasses highlighted seven other indicators of increased tension; their baselines adjusted for the applicant’s current emotional state and we began.
“Lie to me,” I said.
“My name is Maria Sinope. I grew up in Athens, Ohio and attended Stanford University.”
None of the Verimeter indicators lit up. I smiled at the young woman. “Nice to meet you, Andrea. Tell me why you’re interested in this position.”
“Well, obviously it’s a prestigious job which would leave me well-positioned for future career opportunities.” She hesitated just a second. “And, I know this might seem strange, but in a way I feel it’s an opportunity to do something good for the world.” Four of the indicators flared, two of them deep crimson. I went through the motions of the rest of the interview, but she’d already failed the test.
I spoke with two more candidates before lunch. Number Five got farther into the process than any of the others before he, too, was detected lying by the Verimeter.
In the cafeteria, Senator Karlsson walked up to me. “My niece interviewed today.”
He nodded. “Andrea Stover.” Number Three. “Do you think she’s got a chance?”
I met Karlsson’s eyes, each of us looking through our Verimeter glasses. I took a careful breath and replied, “The same chance as all the others.” It was, in a sense, true. But Karlsson — or rather the Verimeter — saw through my statement. He frowned and walked away without another word.
In the afternoon, Numbers Six through Ten were all disappointments. These were people who’d made it past the resume stage and background check. We’d hoped there would be multiple viable candidates. Right then I was hoping for even one I could justifiably recommend to my boss.
Eleven, Thomas Nash, was the next-to-last one for the day. He came into the room, relaxed as could be, and sat down across from me. The Verimeter metrics all reset themselves to match his behavioral and involuntary response profile.
“Lie to me,” I said.
“I have no interest in this job besides the paycheck. I suspect that the woman I’d be working for doesn’t have the first clue what she’s doing. Your tie is hideous. Also, it’s purple.”
My hand went to my tie — green, just like all of the Verimeter indicators.
“Insulting the interviewer. An interesting approach.”
He cracked a little smile before returning to his neutral expression. I ran through the questions and scenarios. He sailed through them with ease.
I looked Nash over; he seemed as relaxed as the moment he’d walked in the door. If he was simply preternaturally calm, this next one would trip him up.
“Tell me the truth about something and make me believe you are lying.”
“The downturn in financial markets over the past half year has significantly impaired President Anderson’s standing in the race for the White House. The decline in her approval ratings suggests that re-election is quite unlikely.”
That was all, unfortunately, quite true. Yet the sensors in my overlay were going nuts.
Nash leaned back, a confident smile on his face. “I don’t have a chance in hell at this job, do I?”
The Verimeter was back to normal readings, but I knew he couldn’t possibly be unaware of how well he had done just now. Showoff.
I felt my heart racing, but kept my voice studiously even. “We’ve got to review all of today’s results,” I said. “I can’t tell you how it will turn out, but you should hear back from us in the next few days.” I was glad candidates weren’t allowed to wear their own glasses during the interview.
I hurried through Number Twelve’s interview with a disinterest that bordered on unprofessional. But he had no chance. I’d never come across someone who could be as convincing at lying and as unconvincing at telling the truth as Thomas Nash.
After seeing Twelve out the door, I typed up a few short notes on his interview and rushed to my boss’s office. His assistant said that he was in, and sent me back.
Chief of Staff Leeson held up a finger and I waited as he finished his phone call.
“Tell me you have good news, Mark,” he said after ending his conversation.
I set my report on Nash on his desk. He read it over and a smile spread across his face.
“This guy’s the real deal, isn’t he?” Leeson said when he was done.
I nodded. “Absolutely, sir. You can tell the President that there’s one less thing for her to worry about.” It didn’t matter what technologies people came up with, there would always be people who could find ways to outwit them, and Press Secretary for the President was one of the best jobs on Earth for one of those elite few.
Michael Haynes lives in Central Ohio where he helps keep IT systems running for a large corporation during the day and puts his characters through the wringer by night. An ardent short story reader and writer, Michael has had stories appear in venues such as Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Daily Science Fiction, InterGalactic Medicine Show, and Every Day Fiction. He is the Editor for the monthly flash fiction contests run by Kazka Press and is an Associate Editor for the Unidentified Funny Objects series of anthologies. His website is www.michaelhaynes.info.