Volume One, Issue 3

Once Time

Charlie Bast

I'm supposed to know better.

My friends, I call them dicks, because they take me out to try to forget her. Almost like they never knew her. Then I come back, and I pass out on our queen mattress, and when I wake up, the box of her shit that she didn't bother to pick up trips me on my way to the bathroom.

My friends really aren't dicks.

I just want someone to be angry at who's still here. Real. Like the bruise that always yellows the front of my shin, just below the knee wrinkles.

How does someone stop being that kind of real? Like, she used to sleep right here where my shoulder dips, like that was her spot sometimes marked with drool. And now, if I never bruised, she would just be a phantom. At the edge of being forgotten. A phantom who liked to study more than she loved me.

If I call her an asshole, I mean it, because she's the one who said she loved me first. But I haven't said it yet.

Five weeks is too soon. Four weeks since our last Skype chat.

One week since the emailed photos of Paul Revere's house. It's gray. And there are a lot of bells.

Last time, during the Skype chat, I almost told her about the ring. How I dropped it into the box of shit she should pick up. How all that time away from her before, at work, was so I could spend more time with her after. That's not the paradox. It's this: she spends all this time studying time, and now she's the one who never has enough.

Until this afternoon.

Three words in a text message on my phone, and they make no sense.

'it missed you'

It came at five-thirty, during a late meeting that trapped me between beige walls and people who don't talk enough about things that matter. I escaped when they all started laughing about the weather. At home, I didn't check my phone until I dropped my jacket onto the dining chair.

I lie on her blue fleece blanket, always too small for the queen but big enough for us together. I've been flicking the screen on and off for an hour.

Maybe she sent it by mistake. Not worth a follow up. But it could be for her lab. By now she's probably figured out her error. It's nearly midnight where she is.

She might be having drinks with the guy she wanted to receive the message.

Screw it. I do know better. I delete the text.

Another one comes in to replace it: 'are you still alive'

That's not an accident. She has to know she's sending these to me.

I don't like that I don't know where this is coming from. It's not Ilsa. When she talks about time, she uses a strong sense of logic. That's why she got a full ride for the PhD program. She can logically break down concepts most people would rather just accept than talk about. I would let her talk and talk, because she didn't mind if I stroked her soft waist while she did it.

I type in 'Are you okay?'

But it doesn't send. There's an error saying that number gets no service. Which is impossible. It just sent me two messages.

I switch over to call her. An automated voice tells me the same thing. No service for that number. When I go to another app to shoot off an email, it spits back a delivery failure. Her account doesn't exist.

"Bullshit." I sit up. I was there when she chose her username for that account.

Ilsa exists. She's texting me.

There's some kind of mass tech error. After I delete the last message, I restart the phone. In the time it takes for the app to come up again, I reach down into the box of Ilsa's shit. Her seashell collection rattles in an open tin. I could've sworn there were more sand dollars.

Ilsa's still going. 'i cant stop it'

That's replaced by: 'i cant come back'

My heart pounds. I'm starting to get worried. I try to call her best friend, but it goes straight to voicemail. I should've paid attention when she named people where she is.

Another text from my end doesn't go through.

With her last message deleted, nothing else comes in.

I would try Ilsa's relatives, but they'd know less about this than me.

I dig through the box, past the seashells. Some names in her thesis might help.

Before she left, Ilsa spent the better part of the last year and a half writing 180 pages on the idea that certain types of energy waves could travel to points in different locations and different times, creating "folds" of time with each trip. She humbly called it conjecture. Like getting a PhD in Dark Matter. If she could logically argue for it on paper, it was technically possible. Her thesis committee passed her in less than a day.

A bleached hair is caught in the binder clip holding the pages together. Her hair used to get caught in everything. Like my buttons. Or the screws on her thin glasses. I tug the hair out without breaking it, as if it were still attached to her, and I flip through the pages.

This is the only copy, just submitted online, not yet published. I've proofread it enough to know there's something different about the table of contents. As if it's longer, maybe with an extra appendix. If there's a new one, it's the one I've never heard about.

Appendix H: Degradation of Energy Quality Between Points of Time

My phone buzzes.

Another text: 'destroy everything of mine'

"What?" I say.

Now the thesis page looks wrong. Like something's changed. But I can't remember what it was before. Something is different.

There's an appendix I never heard Ilsa talk about.

Appendix H: Harmful Effects of Time-Degraded Energy

Chills slide down my arms.

Ilsa wants me to destroy this. But she loves time studies. Even if it is mostly conjecture.

This isn't right.

Ilsa's real. I still have her shit. And I was going to marry her.

I'm not going to be the one to erase her.

I have to get out. Breathe.

I drop the stack of pages and grab what I need, one thing in each pocket.

The back stairwell is abandoned, as usual, and in the winter chill the stained cement steps don't smell so much like piss. It's a good day for a walk.

Before I push into the lobby, alarm in my gut makes me stop. I look in through the window.

My neighbor, Mr. Stalks, is at the mailboxes. He's blocking a small woman. Her faint voice echoes, eerie and faint, into the stairwell. She asks if Mr. Stalks remembers Ilsa Jinashi. Mr. Stalks doesn't look up as he pulls out his ads. After the absentminded "yes, of course" slips out, a loud crack makes me jump back.

Mr. Stalks falls.

The stranger holding the gun has thin glasses and long hair that's part-bleached.

I can't breathe. In another life, those tired eyes, that gaunt face, they could've been Ilsa's.

I duck back into the stairway. The adrenaline in my system tells me to run.

Away from Ilsa.

If she hadn't said her own name, I'd do better at imagining this was someone else.

Now, she's someone I have to avoid for my own safety.

In my right pocket, I tilt my phone up to see it. Instantly, a new message replaces the old one. 'dont remember me'

At least she agrees.

Panting, I peek through the small, square window. The stranger turns in my direction. I pull back and hold my breath.

I have to help Mr. Stalks.

No, I have to be careful, first.

It takes a few seconds, but I figure out the next move. She always takes the elevator. "Wait for her to get inside," I whisper, forcing my own calm.

I dial 911 into the phone. My hand trembles, aching to hit send as I wait for her to get out of earshot.

After two minutes, the elevator bell dings.

She's going upstairs.

I burst into the lobby and tear over to Mr. Stalks. The wound is in his chest. He's unconscious, but weak life beats through the artery in his neck.

She wouldn't have done that to him. Not before she left.

He felt Ilsa's pulse like this after she fainted. When he called 911 a year ago.

"Mr. Stalks." I squeeze his shoulder. I don't know how to apologize for what just happened. "That wasn't her. I swear to God that wasn't her."

As I raise my phone up, a loud explosion upstairs shakes the whole building.

"Shit!" I sprint for the front door.

The fifth floor spits out dark smoke above. The debris outside floats like gray snow. Ash fills my lungs and I cough into my sleeve.

That's our apartment. Our room faced the main street. I didn't see her with any explosives, there wasn't anything dangerous in the apartment that I could remember.

I didn't know she was capable of doing that.

People crowd around the lobby as if some magnet pulled them.

I hate to leave Mr. Stalks, but whatever's happening, it has to do with Ilsa. And me. I need to get as far away as I can.

"We need some help!" I yell. "Someone's hurt!"

The dialing contest begins. I head into the flood of onlookers to get away.

Shoulders and elbows slam into me. In a half-daze, I burrow through them.

I don't know what I'm supposed to do. Or what just happened. Who Ilsa has become, because she's not Ilsa anymore. And she's wrecking the Ilsa I love. The life that Ilsa left behind.

The text said I'm supposed to forget her. She wanted me to destroy everything that was just destroyed.

But I don't know why.

Someone knocks my phone out of my hand just as I delete the previous message.

I dive, but it's all legs and shoes in my way, kicking the phone and me in opposite directions. I'm half-trampled by the time I reach the edge of the crowd. Footprints paint my sleeves like a fashion statement.

Someone else has my phone.

She's standing at the mouth of an alley. Her coat is too big for her, and her tired, sagging eyes are too small.

I wish she didn't look so much like Ilsa.

Everyone across the street is paying attention to the building, the sirens, and the emergency responders.

I sprint down the sidewalk opposite the fire trucks. A half-block away, there's an alley that's cut off by another alley. My shoe slips on some old papers, making me stumble. Before I reach the other opening, the shooter pops up, panting heavily. Always a good runner.

"Who are you?" I ask. I shake my head, already denying the one answer I can't take.

The woman's arm shakes as she keeps the gun raised. "The ring?" she asks.

I don't move. It's in my pocket. She looks so unlike herself with that gun in her hand, I know I should lie. Maybe she'll believe me if I lie.

But it takes me too long to deny it.

As the crack splits the air, she jerks from the kickback of the trigger.

Something slams into my chest, shoving me backward.

Asphalt cracks the back of my skull. My chest is tight. It takes too much effort to breathe.

Then liquid pushes up into my throat, my mouth. It's metallic. Blood.

The woman stands over me, whimpering. She holds herself, cradling her own arms.

I cough to clear my airway, but it doesn't clear. Ragged, I push out: "Why are you doing this?" The words take all the air I had left.

She sobs. "This is better."

"Better than what?" Everything is too heavy. I'm reaching for her and all I get is her ankle. I just want her to be herself one more time.

With a yelp, she pulls away. "You were always going to die. I tried to stop it. But once time sees something, there's no unseeing it. There's just fucking it up more. Every time. You die. Sooner."

I shut my eyes. It's too cold for mid-October.

"You traveled through time?" I groan. I think I'm shaking. I can't tell.

This should've been the height of her life. I gave her up so she could have it.

Her unbleached roots betray how long she's been doing it. How long she hasn't been herself.

"I'm fixing it," she says. "It has to stop." And her voice sounds so young and small, like a little girl's. Like the woman who left me five weeks ago, who could never stop talking about time.

I remember her thesis. The addendum about degradation through time travel.

She has been through time, watching me die, chasing it. Letting it chase her. And whatever originally happened, my death has degraded into this moment.

This Ilsa is like a piece of paper folded over too many times. That's why she is so worn.

With longing, I watch her read my phone.

I don't know why she sent the text messages if she was going to kill me anyway. I wished the real Ilsa had sent them.

In my pocket, I close my hand over the ring box. The only thing I have of her now. My whole arm shakes from the effort. At least it doesn't hurt so much.

Then a tingle surges through my knuckles, up to my elbow.

"Crap," Ilsa says above me. "When did I text you?"

Strength comes back to my fingers, and I make a fist. But there's nothing in my palm. The engagement ring is gone.

"No," I say.

This Ilsa didn't text me.

She wasn't the one trying to erase us.

Light shines, so bright and hot that I can't open my eyes. It pierces through my eyelids, a fierce white, blazing right into my eyeballs. My brain. My memory—

And for a second, I don't know why I'm hurt. Why I'm on the street. This street, in a city I left after college.

As I shut my eyes and force a breath, I remember seashells on a beach, cold and crusty in my palms, before I drop them back into the packed, wet sand.

Then there's this girl I used to see at the coffee house during the summers in high school. Glasses, bleached hair. I never even talked to her. I would've given a lot to talk to her.

But I've heard of her.

"Ilsa?" I wheeze. That could be her name. Something happened to her.

Someone told me once, when I asked, that she just disappeared.

My chest is so tight.

"No!" someone yells, very far away. "You can't leave me here!"

Her face is a blur.

Her name slips off the edge of my memory.

That painful light burns through my head—

Then something knocks my side.

Mr. Stalks grimaces down at me. I haven't seen him since I graduated. The pain sharpens in my chest with each breath, and my head is throbbing and my ears are ringing. This happens too often, me ending up on a sidewalk. I'll need to see a doctor soon.

Mr. Stalks taps me with his cane again.

"Hey!" he half-shouts, because he's hard of hearing. "Kid, you remember me?"

Charlie Bast: "I first nurtured my love for words by curling up with a thick, blue medical encyclopedia at a young age. My works in poetry, short fiction, and creative nonfiction have appeared online and in print. When I'm not trying to get my novel published, I like to judge poetry contests and attract butterflies."

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