Fiction and speculation about science, technology, and the future of humanity

Out of Time

“You’re fired, Matt,” I said, and sighed sadly. “I’m sorry.”

The man across the desk did not appear surprised. He pursed his lips and, for a few seconds, stared blankly into my eyes, then dropped his gaze. He lifted his right hand slightly and ran the pad of his thumb over his fingernails.

“Of course. I understand. I know you couldn’t keep me on like this. I’m undependable,” he stated, in the same tone he used to talk about the weather.

I nodded. I might as well be honest about it. “You’re brilliant. The stuff you’ve written for me is the best I’ve ever had, no exaggeration. But I’m running a magazine here. I need articles on time and regularly. I have to do things by the clock. And you haven’t been able to meet that requirement.”

A bitter line appeared between his lips. “Time. That’s always the problem.”

“Why does it have to be you?” I said, more vehemently than I intended. “Damn it, Matt, I want your articles! I want you on staff, but not if you’re like this!” He said nothing, just kept staring at his fingernails.

“Never mind,” I continued. “I guess it’s my fault to some extent. I’ve known you long enough, I shouldn’t have made the gamble in the first place. I’ll get you the forms and information for the severance package. You can take it home with you.”

I pulled open a drawer behind me, fished out the papers I needed, and handed them to him. Matt took them gently from my hand and glanced at them, then caught my eyes with his own.

“I’m not going to argue with you,” he remarked, “but there are some, well, some circumstances that you should know about. I am inclined to tell you, and they might help explain. Not that they would convince you to keep me on, but they may make you feel a little less confused.”

“OK, shoot.” I leaned back in my chair and put my hands behind my head.

“How much time do I have?” he asked.

I checked my watch. “Exactly twenty-five minutes. Then I’ve got a meeting to look over the layout draft.”

“I’ll tell you what I can,” Matt said, and began:

“Time doesn’t work for me. Or I don’t work with time—I don’t know which. I’m … out of sync. With normal time, that is, what you and everyone else experience.

“You know how, when you’re doing something you greatly enjoy, time seems to fly, and it’s gone before you know it? Or how the seconds just crawl by when you’re in the middle of something unpleasant? Good. Now imagine that, sped up or slowed down a thousand-fold, and disassociated from whether you like or dislike what is going on. That’s a rough idea of what happens for me.”

“I’ll give you an example,” he continued, his voice taking on a tone of greater surety as he spoke. “I was waiting for the bus yesterday on 21st Street. Not much happening around me, very little traffic, I am standing there on the sidewalk beside the sign. I look down the road to my right, and when I turn my head back, the bus is there, as if it appeared out of thin air. I didn’t hear it drive up, didn’t see it getting closer out of the corner of my eye, I just noticed that it suddenly showed up. The doors are open, the driver is yelling something at me, not very nicely, about whether or not I’m getting on. I stammer, ‘Oh, yes, sorry, I was distracted,’ and go aboard. I’m on the bus for a little while. When I get off, I’m walking down the sidewalk near my apartment, and I see a leaf falling in front of me. Slowly. Leaves are supposed to twirl and flutter down in the air, you know, but I watched this one sinking ever so gradually, gently rotating, almost like it was falling through honey or something thick. I’m mid-stride, my foot off the ground stepping forward, as I watch this, and it takes ages for the sole of my shoe to hit the concrete. I felt like I could have recited Hamlet’s soliloquy in the meantime.

“So that’s what I mean. Things happen really fast, really slow, or at what I assume is normal pace—for you. I’m never quite sure. It doesn’t confuse me internally, since I’ve always been this way.

“Now, my body obeys normal time. I told you I felt like I could have recited Hamlet’s speech between steps. I could have done so in my head, but if I’d tried to say it out loud, it would have come out slowly—in my experience—and at a normal speed to you. I’ve tested this many times. I can’t make my body move unnaturally fast or slow, so you won’t see me falling slower or running faster than another person.

“That would be nice, wouldn’t it? I would be super-human.” Matt chuckled a bit. “I truly could be faster than a speeding bullet, sometimes. Of course, I don’t have any control over the speed of time for me, any more than you do. The pace of things switches randomly, all day long. Mostly, it changes gradually, in small degrees, but every once in a while there is a massive, sudden shift.

“Let me tell you how I got fired from the job I had after finishing college. I’d been working, interning actually, at a newspaper in Toledo. I woke up in bed one morning to my alarm going off. I usually set my alarm about fifteen minutes early just to be safe. So that morning, I hit snooze and rolled over to catch a few more winks. I woke up again after what seemed to my brain like only a few minutes. The first things I noticed were that my mouth felt horribly parched and I desperately needed to urinate. I got up, ran to the bathroom, feeling astonishingly stiff and sore, and, well, yes, I had an accident on the way. I realized too that I was bone-gnawingly hungry. My stomach was grumbling so intensely, it felt like it was trying to chew on itself. I got some food, cleaned up, finally got dressed. I noticed that it was a little later than I thought. I sped on my way to work—I had a car back then, since I was still driving—and got in about five minutes late.

“Other people looked at me askance as I walked to my desk and sat down. My boss came in about twenty minutes later, and asked me, with a very severe look on her face, where I had been for the last four days.

“Turns out, when I hit that snooze button, it had been Monday. It was now Friday. I think I looked like an absolute moron to my boss, and I was so freaked out and confused that my attempts at explanation didn’t help much. I was fired before lunchtime.”

Matt paused for a moment, staring off into space, his mouth once more bearing the bitter twist I had seen before. He resumed speaking a moment later. “That was an extreme incident. I’ve only had a few like that in my whole life. On one occasion, time moved the other way, decelerating, and I spent three days savoring every single moment at an astonishingly slow pace. You would be amazed how wonderful that can be, how much more you notice. I remember drinking a glass of wine. Before, I had always thought those wine critics were bullshitting everyone when they talked about a wine having a ‘nose of burnt pine-bark’ and ‘an acrid finish of warm rose petals and fall blackberries’, and so forth. I figured they were ridiculous and pretentious. I believe them now. Actually, they are barely scratching the surface of the flavors and aromas and textures in wine. My god, there’s so much there! That glass of wine was the best I ever drank. I could write a book about how many nuances there were in it. And I think all food, all experiences frankly, are like that. Time cheats you normal folks of a great deal. Of course, the reverse isn’t so nice.

“I’ve thought a lot about how it works. Sensations are physical, and my physical body keeps pace with everyone else’s. That includes my neurons. My synapses fire just as long as anyone else’s would, but I can pay attention to them, in my mind, for much longer—or shorter, depending which way things are going. So, in my conscious experience, the stimulus keeps coming and coming, and I can play with it in my mind, focusing in on one part or another. There is a difference between the mind and the brain, no question about it.”

“Just a minute,” I said, interrupting him. I picked up the phone, dialing an extension. “Hi, Stephanie, it’s David. Sorry, but I’m going to have to postpone the meeting. I’m tied up with something right now. At three-thirty? Sure, if that works for you. OK, thanks. Bye.” I put the receiver down and looked at Matt. “This story is way weird,” I declared. “Totally out of left field, and I’m not sure whether to believe it or not. But they say truth is stranger than fiction, and I’m fascinated, because this matches a few things I’ve noticed about you. So I’ll hear you out.”

“Thank you,” he replied. “To be honest, I’ve never shared this candidly with anyone. I’ve always assumed they would think I am crazy.”

“Oh, I’m not ruling out that diagnosis by any means. But keep going, since if you are nuts, it’s an interesting kind of crazy, not a boring crazy,” I observed.

“Right. Well, anyways, imagine how this can mess up daily life. I don’t drive anymore because I don’t know when time will go screwy, only that it will. The way I lost that first job was an extreme example, but every position I’ve been fired from since then has been because of this same predicament, in milder degrees. Your firing me is no different. I’ve missed a number of deadlines because time was moving too quickly. My mind was not running fast enough on the topic of the article to get it finished in time. It’s like the incident with the bus yesterday. I would look up from my keyboard to notice that time had zipped by. The flip side occurred as well. I’ve reasoned out some articles, composed them, and edited them into precision and beauty, almost entirely in my head, while time crawled by. That is why you’ve noticed the quality of my writing: apart from any talent I possess, I am favored by useful accidents. Unfortunately for me and you, slow time seems to be balanced quite evenly by fast time, so I don’t come out ahead in the end.”

I interrupted him, “How do you manage with all that? It must be stressful.”

“I’ve never known anything different, so it couldn’t stress me out. It is annoying, however, to see other people going along in their lives and being successful. Still, I get by.” He smiled briefly. It was the smile of a person who has a secret they’re not sharing.

I shook my head. “I still am not sure if I believe you. How can you prove this to me?”

“Well, when you made that call to Stephanie five minutes ago, time slowed down a bit for me. I was able to pay attention to you. On your left upper lip, there are one hundred sixteen grey hairs in your moustache. Go count them, and tell me if I’m lying to you.”

Again, he sounded like he was talking about the weather. There was no boasting in his voice, and that convinced me. This situation was utterly, perfectly normal for him. “OK. I believe you,” I said. “Not sure what to think of it all, but I believe you.”

“I don’t know what to think of it myself,” Matt replied. “I haven’t even told you all of it.” He looked slightly uncomfortable. “I don’t want to bore you.”

“Oh, you aren’t boring me! Tell me more stories about your … condition, for lack of a better description.”

“It’s even weirder than I’ve told you. It’s not merely the speed of time that switches around in my mind. It’s the thread of events as well. Or the track, or something. It’s like I’m a train that is switched from track to track, or there are bits of the wrong track on my track.”

I’m sure I looked confused, because he muttered, “That’s a bad description. I’ll try again. I remember things that I shouldn’t, because they never happened in my lifetime.

“I clearly recall a couple family vacations that my family didn’t ever take. And yet they are there in my mind. Only the people look different, and they drive a car that my family never owned. A rather older car. I have another memory of being a farm worker at some point in California, somewhere near Bakersfield. I earned twenty-five cents for picking a bushel of peaches. And I cannot, so help me God, place that event anywhere in relation to the events of my own life.

“There are dozens of other memories like that. But some of them, a few, I can place, indisputably, and they are the most disturbing of all.”

He shifted a bit in his seat, looked around the room, and started speaking in a quiet tone, leaning forward a bit. “I was born on April 6th, 1976. Bicentennial year and all that. And I remember, as clear as if I was seeing it this moment, the inauguration of Calvin Coolidge. That was on March 4th, 1925, fifty-one years before I was born. I was there in Washington, D.C., and I watched the swearing-in and Coolidge’s speech from a spot in front of the East Portico of the Capitol. It was a pleasant day—cool, a bit of a breeze from the south, a few clouds in the mostly blue sky. Coolidge was pleasant, too. He gave a very optimistic, idealistic, peacetime-pat-on-the-back-for-the-good-ol’-U.S.-of-A. speech, a bit long-winded. Definitely the Roaring Twenties. You should have seen his wife’s hat.

“And I was definitely there. I didn’t imagine it, and I didn’t confuse the memory with something I’d read or seen in a movie. I doubt any one ever bothered to make a movie about Coolidge’s presidency, in any case. But I had that memory of his inauguration in my head when I was eight years old. I remember—and this is real-me, this-life memory—watching Reagan’s inauguration on TV in ’85. Apparently it was so cold in D.C. that day that they held the ceremonies indoors, and I said to my mother something like, ‘I remember they used to do it outdoors on the east side of the Capitol. That’s what they did when I saw Coolidge inaugurated.’

“She just looked at me, flabbergasted, then she gave a laugh and blew it off. I imagine she’s forgotten all about it, but I never did. I had seen Coolidge inaugurated. I knew exactly what it had been like. Years later, I looked it all up, and my memories matched. The newsreel footage confirmed the visual. Coolidge’s was the first inauguration broadcast over the radio, so recordings of his speech survived, and when I listened to them, my blood went cold. It was precisely what I remembered. His slow, mellow, baritone drawl, which slipped upward in pitch at the end of most of his pauses. I had been there, and I had heard it.

“And I had been old then. Easily sixty. I had a grey beard and a cane, and stiff joints. That’s one impossible memory. I have a few others, too. There is one of dying in a battle, which was probably in the Civil War. I was wearing a Union uniform, at any rate, and I remember the stars-and-bars floating somewhere above me. What’s more, that was a moment when time had sped up. I’d been shot in the chest because I didn’t move fast enough to escape the Confederate charge. Time went back to normal just in time for me to die. Another memory in my head is of being a farmer back a long time ago, a very long time, in a little village in New York near the Catskills. I think it was the eighteenth century, based on the clothes everyone wore. I was married to a veritable shrew of a wife. Time was varying its speed for me then, too, and it got me into all sorts of trouble. I made a name for myself as an idler and a careless man. Certainly a worthless farmer.”

He stopped speaking. His gaze drifted around the room slowly, before it returned to me. He said, quietly and conspiratorially, “I know those memories were true. You see, in that life as a farmer, when I was very old and my wife was long dead, I took a chest with some treasures in it—not much, just some coins and a few possessions—and buried it in the woods. It had something to do with a game for some boys, I think, but they never found it. But I remembered where I had buried it. That memory is very, very clear.

“Six years ago, I took a trip out to the Catskills. All the town names have changed, the roads are in different places from my memories, but the mountains are still the same, so studying them got me close to the area. Then I had to look for a certain rock outcropping I remembered having buried the chest near. I found it, at last, after a great deal of trespassing, in a wood near the base of the mountains. I paced it off, and spent a night digging up the area where I thought it had been buried. It was about three in the morning when my shovel struck a crunchy-sounding piece of wood. I dug a bit more, and there it was: a wooden chest, the timbers fragile and worm-eaten, but still mostly intact. I extracted it from the earth and opened it up.

“And there it was: exactly what my memories told me that I had put into the chest. There was a handful of odd coins, including some pieces of eight, half-cents, and newly minted quarter dollars. There were also some marbles, an old pipe, and a penny-knife.” He paused for a moment, a gleam in his eye. “I keep the knife with me,” he remarked, and reached into his jacket pocket. He withdrew an old folding knife, its wooden handle darkened and rutted with age, and unclasped the blade, which was notched and speckled with rust. “This was my knife; I know it was. And I’ve seen ones like it in museums.”

He held the knife up and looked at me, as if contemplating whether or not to hand it to me. The smile that had danced on his lips for several minutes faded suddenly, and he refolded the knife and lowered it to his lap, out of my sight. “The coins were genuine, too,” he said. “I took them to a dealer and sold them for a tidy sum. That’s one of the ways I managed when I couldn’t get work because of time skipping around.

“And so, that’s my story. Time on a rollercoaster for me, and memories in my head that shouldn’t be there. Real memories. I’ve wondered if they are really mine, if they are snatches of past lives or something. Or maybe there’s a trick and other people’s memories were shoved into my head. But somehow I don’t think so. The memories match up in sequence. The Coolidge-inauguration guy would probably have been born just after the Civil War, when I had the battle-death memory. And the California peach-picking is as a young man, probably in the fifties, so he might have been born after the inauguration fellow died. I think I am—was—all of them, and as soon as I die in one lifetime, I get shoved into another, only I hold onto bits and pieces of the last that should have been erased. I think my soul only has one foot in the doorway of Time, and things aren’t running properly because of it. Lifetime after lifetime, I am tossed around, trying to keep pace with the world, and failing.”

I’m afraid I simply gaped at him for a little while after he finished speaking. Would you have known how to respond to that tale? I did not. After a minute, in which he sat silently looking at me, and I wondered whether time had gone slow for him, I uttered, “I’m sorry.”

He cracked a smile immediately. “This is the way things are for me. I’m used to it. Am I still fired?”

I knew that, if his time-troubles were real, there was no way he could be a dependable employee. “Yes, I think you are. I couldn’t rely on you for anything.”

“That is the truth. I’m glad you see it; I certainly wasn’t trying to gain your sympathy by telling you all this.”

“You did, anyways. And the fact is that your work has still been brilliant. If you’re interested in taking on freelance assignments, with flexible deadlines, we should talk about it.” If I could help it, I wasn’t going to lose a good writer completely because of a cosmic joke.

“I will call you. Now, I suppose I should head home and fill out these forms.” He picked up the severance papers on the desk, and stood up. I rose too, and we shook hands.

“Good luck,” I said.

“Thank you. I will need it.”

My eyes watched his figure leave my office. I sighed and scratched my head. I didn’t know what to do with his story. There had to be an article in this. Maybe I could convince him to do an fMRI scan or something, to see how his brain acts when time goes wacky for him. That could be viral material.

I checked the clock. It was ten minutes till my rescheduled meeting, and I needed to use the bathroom. As I walked around my desk, my gaze drifted to the floor. I saw there, next to the chair Matt had sat in, the colonial-era knife he had exhibited as proof of his memories’ reality. It must have slipped and fallen when he stood up to leave.

I stooped and picked it up. Figures had been carved into the handle, difficult to make out now. I pieced the letters together in my mind, and suddenly a gale of sudden comprehension struck me, blowing away all my logic and beliefs about the world. I stood frozen. The letters on the knife formed a name:



  1. stargazer

    Awesome ending!

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