Out of Time
Fifty-five seconds. Fifty-four. Fifty-three.
Nothing’s been going right today. First, I forgot my phone and had to go back home and get it. Then my heel broke, and I had to change into a new pair of shoes. And now, as I was rushing towards the intersection, the light turned red — and this is the longest red light in the whole city. For the first time in three months, I’ll be late to my 7am meeting.
I could just cross against the red light; I see no cars, and there’s nobody there, except for two old men on the other side, arguing loudly in Italian. But my mom’s Swiss, and she taught me to obey the rules. So I guess I’m stuck here for another forty-nine seconds.
Forty-eight. Forty-seven. The countdown of the traffic light is meant to relax me, but all it does is tell me that I’m out of time. It’s 6:54am, and there’s a nine-minute walk from here to the office; seven, if I hurry. And old McGregor likes to start his meetings on time, even when that time is 7am, when most normal human beings should be asleep. I can already picture his disapproving glare as I enter the room a few minutes late.
Forty-four. Forty-three. Loud music starts blaring from a balcony three stories above me.
I ignore it and stare at the light, willing it to go faster, when something touches my shoulder. I whip my head to the left and find myself looking into his eyes.
He’s around my age, somewhere in his mid-twenties. Tall, with an attractive haircut, prominent cheekbones, a charming smile, and dark eyes that I could lose myself in. His face belongs on the cover of a magazine.
“Excuse me,” he says. “Can you point me to the nearest Starbucks?”
He just said the magic word. I love Starbucks, and I didn’t have time for today’s morning coffee. But I can’t think of that; not when I’m late to my meeting, and the red light is counting down. I see it out of the corner of my eye. Thirty-eight. Thirty-seven.
I point to my right. “Go straight, take the second right, then the first left.”
He flashes me an apologetic smile. “You know, I’m bad with directions. Could you, maybe, walk me there?”
I look him up and down in the blink of an eye. He’s dressed in jeans and a black t-shirt that shows off his pecs. He’s gorgeous, and he’s looking straight at me; this could turn into a date, and I’d probably enjoy it. But I just don’t have the time.
I shake my head. “I’m sorry, I’d really love to, but I can’t. I’m in a hurry.” Twenty-one.
“But if you weren’t, you’d come.” He doesn’t take no for an answer.
I sigh. “I’m late to my meeting.”
“I could just stop time, for a moment.”
He snaps his finger, and everything stops, as if he’d pressed the Pause button on the remote control of the world.
It is eerily quiet. The loud hip-hop from the balcony has stopped, and so has the chatter from the two old men across the street. They stand there, frozen, the tall one’s hands in a comical position. Even the wind has ceased. As for the red light, the countdown has stopped. It says fourteen, and it’s not changing.
My jaw drops. “How… how did you do this?”
He shrugs. “I don’t know. Magic, I guess. Now how about that coffee?”
“Wait. Are you serious?” I still can’t believe my eyes and ears, but everything around us continues to stay frozen. It’s just him and me, in our little bubble.
He stretches his hand towards me. “I’m Brandon.”
“Sandra,” I say automatically.
“I’d really, really like to take you to Starbucks, Sandra. Will you come with me?”
“And my 7am meeting?”
“The next time I snap my fingers, time will start flowing again. We just need to make sure we’re here; and we have to be in the same position, or they will get really confused.” He points to the two old men across the street.
I take a deep breath. Is this real? In any case, I’ve read something like this before; a short story by Arthur C. Clarke. It did not end well.
“Fine,” I say. “Let’s go.”
He offers me his arm, and I take it.
“You took this very well,” he says as we walk.
“What can I say, I’m a sci-fi geek. Soon you’re going to tell me that you’re an alien coming from some strange planet, and that we have all the time in the world. Although why you’d pick me out of all people, I don’t know.”
“I know that story,” he says. “But, actually, this is more like the X-Men.”
“What do you mean?”
“Up to a couple of weeks ago, I was Brandon Jones, just another PhD student working on my thesis, and my days had twenty-four hours, just like everyone else’s. Then I discovered this. I have up to an extra hour every day, and I can use it whenever I choose; although I like to keep a few minutes in reserve.”
“And how much time do we have now?”
He smiles. “The whole hour. I haven’t used any of it until we met.”
“And you use your magical power to pick up strange girls on the street.”
He stops and looks me in the eye. “You don’t strike me as strange.”
I smile; first Starbucks, and now this. He knows just what to say. Many people did find me strange once, what with my love for books, and I didn’t use to have much success with guys. Admittedly, those extra twenty pounds I had in high-school didn’t help. I’m in much better shape now, but even so, there hasn’t been a man in my life for six months; there’s just no time. But I’m not going to share any of this with him.
We keep walking through the frozen world, and soon we reach the coffee shop. I push the door and it opens, but it doesn’t swing closed behind me. There’s a line and, out of habit, I walk to the back.
Brandon pulls me onward. “They’re all frozen. We could stay here until my time runs out, and no one would move. Or you could come to the front, and I’ll make you coffee. You strike me as a Mocha girl.”
I nod and we walk to the front. The barista is frozen as she is handing change to a customer, and Brandon walks around the bar and gets to work. He picks up a cup and pours coffee into it, and it actually flows.
“Why doesn’t it stay frozen?” I ask.
“I don’t know for sure. I’m still trying to understand how my power works. But things do move if I will them to move.” He smiles. “Of course, I’ll have to leave everything just the way I found it, or the barista will be very confused. And I’ll pull the door closed on the way out.”
He hands me my cup and carries his, and we sit at an empty table.
“You know,” he says, “I’ve never used my power with someone else before.”
I smile. “I bet you say that to all the girls.”
“Fine, you got me. I did use this with another, three days ago. It was Carmen, my cat.”
He has a cat. He’s tall, handsome, likes Starbucks coffee, can stop time, and has a cat. I’ve just met the perfect guy.
“I’d love to meet her,” I find myself saying.
He shakes his head. “Not today. We don’t have the time, not if you want to catch your meeting. Besides, poor Carmen is frozen now, just like everybody else. But perhaps some other time?”
So there’s going to be another time. “Sure,” I say. “Whenever you want.”
He smiles. “Tell me about yourself.”
I keep my story short; I’m more interested in what he has to say. I got my degree from Carnegie Mellon last summer, moved to the city for my job as a software engineer, and ended up on John McGregor’s team. It’s not a glamorous job, mostly maintenance work so far, but there are opportunities for advancement. I live in a small rental studio within walking distance from the office, and work-life balance is something that happens to others.
“How about you?” I say. I start with an easy question. “What are you studying?”
“Advanced time manipulation.” He smiles. “Actually, astrophysics. Most people find it boring.”
“I don’t. Sci-fi geek, remember?”
“I could tell you about my thesis,” he says, “but we’d run out of time. Besides, I think you have other questions on your mind.”
“Yes. What do you do with your time? With your extra time, I mean.”
“So far, not that much. I’m a scientist, so I’m doing experiments. Trying to understand how it works.”
“I’m not much further along than I was two weeks ago. I do know that I can move things if I want to, and I can take at least one other person — or cat — along for the ride. But don’t get too far away from me; this only works at short distance. At least that’s how it did with Carmen.”
“I can break it into chunks. Two minutes here, five minutes there… And I really need to leave things the way they were. The first time, I didn’t, and I had to talk my way out of a big mess when my time ran out. I’ll tell you about it some other time.”
“Fine. Have you thought what you want to use it for?”
He smiles. “Having coffee with a beautiful girl seems like a good use of my time.”
“No. Seriously. What else?”
“I could use an extra hour per day to work on my thesis. But that would be boring.”
I nod. “I’m sure you’ve thought of more interesting things.”
“Well, I did think of buying a ticket to Vegas for the weekend, and trying my hand at blackjack. Knowing all the cards in advance, of course.” He takes a sip from his coffee. “I wouldn’t make much, just 50k or so; I wouldn’t want to attract attention.” He looks me in the eye. “In fact, here’s a crazy idea. Would you want to come with me?”
I instantly shake my head.
“Separate rooms,” he says. “And I won’t try to get you drunk or anything. Scout’s honor.”
“No, it’s not that. It’s just… There’s no time. I need to finish this project by the end of the month, and I’ll have to work weekends.”
He sighs. “So many people rush through life, chasing something. Money, power, meaning, excitement… And as they do, so much time slips away. I wish people would make the most of their moments.”
“You mean, like, stop and smell the roses, savor a good meal, that kind of stuff?”
“Yes, exactly. You know, enjoy a beautiful sunset. Smile at a stranger. Look left and right before crossing the street. Or call your parents and tell them you love them.”
The last one strikes a chord in me; I haven’t called them in a while. They’re back on the East Coast where it’s almost 10am. I reach for my phone, then I remember; they couldn’t take the call. They’re frozen, just like the rest of the world.
“Waste a moment and it’s gone,” Brandon says. He sighs. “Time is the most precious thing we have. It’s the only thing we all share, and once it’s gone, you can never get it back. I wish more people would understand.”
“You say this, and yet you have all this extra time.”
“It’s still limited, and it only goes one way. But enough of this. You wanted to know what I’d use it for.”
“Well… this is going to sound silly. I’ve been watching a lot of Marvel superhero movies in the past few days.”
“I could see myself doing that, with some training. Imagine, me walking into a hostage situation. I snap my fingers, walk in, do my thing, and when I snap my fingers again the bad guys find themselves without guns, and perhaps chained to the wall.” He sighs. “But it wouldn’t fly. The world’s not like the movies; most likely I’d end up in a lab, chained to some machines as some scientists try to understand my power. And perhaps replicate it, for military purposes.”
“They wouldn’t catch you. You can stop time.”
“I can’t stop the blow that I don’t see coming. Anyway, I need to think about this more. And Vegas comes first. But now we must go.”
“Why?” Did I do something to offend him?
“We’re running out of time, Sandra. As I said, my power has limits. And we still need to clean up after ourselves.”
I take the last sip of my coffee; it was delicious. He does the same, and we stand.
“Wait by the door,” he says. “I’ll put everything in its place.”
For the next minute or so — wait, do minutes have a meaning here? — he slides our chairs underneath the table, puts our napkins in the trash, washes our cups, dries them with some paper napkins, and puts them right where he took them from. The barista won’t notice a thing.
Finally, he walks towards me. “That’s it. We can go now.”
He pulls the door closed as we leave, and we walk together to the traffic light where we met, the countdown still showing fourteen seconds.
“I had a great time, Sandra,” he says. “Perhaps I’ll see you again tomorrow, same time, same place?”
I smile. “Make it five minutes earlier, or I’ll be late to my meeting twice in a row.”
“Fine. Five minutes earlier. Don’t be late.”
I wouldn’t; not for this.
He gently turns me towards the other side of the street, where the two old men are still frozen. “You were facing that way. We were talking, and after I snap my fingers, I’ll walk on. They won’t notice a thing.”
I look him in the eye, but he doesn’t lean towards me; I’m not getting a first-date kiss. Then again, this wasn’t really a date; perhaps he just needed to tell another human being what he’s going through.
“Until tomorrow,” he says. He snaps his fingers and everything comes back to life. The two old men continue arguing; the music from the balcony continues blaring; and the countdown keeps counting down. Thirteen. Twelve. Eleven.
Ten seconds, and I’ll be rushing to my important meeting. Out of the corner of my eye I see Brandon walking away; I hope I’ll see him again.
Nine. Eight. Seven. I am staring at the light, willing the countdown to go faster.
Four. Three. Two. One, and then the light turns green.
Finally. I walk forward at a brisk step.
Loud honking jolts me and my head snaps to the right. As I stare towards the last instants of my rapidly contracting future, a runaway truck barrels into the intersection, heading straight towards me. I try to move, to jump out of the way, but there’s just no time.
I’m standing on the other side of the road and don’t know how I got there.
I look behind. The truck has passed through the intersection, and the two old men, having only taken a few steps into the street, stare back in wonder at me. Across and further to the left, Brandon is walking away.
He turns and winks, and I remember his words. “I like to keep a few minutes in reserve.”
Do you want to know what happens next? Read it here.