Welcome to the Spot Writers, bringing you your weekly dose of flash fiction. This month’s prompt is to write about waiting in line, making it as interesting as possible.
Today’s scifi-inspired tale comes to us from Val Muller, author of The Scarred Letter and The Man with the Crystal Ankh. You can snag a copy of The Scarred Letter for just $3.99 through January 15th.
Timehop by Val Muller
The line wound through ropes the way lines do in amusement parks, a labyrinth of time travelers waiting their turn at the portal. Paul sighed. This could take days. The woman in front of him eyed the line and then checked her phone. She turned to him with a smiling scowl. “I hear the line is always longest at the beginning of the year. New Year’s resolutions and all.”
Paul nodded, trying to say something snarky and witty. Guilty as charged, perhaps?
But the woman kept talking. “I was hoping to get this done before noon. I have an awful meeting with the boss, but if things go right this morning—well, you know. That meeting should cancel itself, right? I keep checking my phone, you know? Like, the whole paradox thing. If I am successful, wouldn’t my appointment have been cancelled already? But it’s still here in my calendar.”
Paul shrugged. “I’m not sure how it works, but I think you have to have your appointment first.”
She sighed. “I know that, but wouldn’t I always have to have had my appointment?”
Paul raised an eyebrow. The whole paradox thing was beyond him. Best not to think too hard about it, anyway. That’s what the brochure said. He eyed up the woman again. She looked about his age. Not too bad looking, either. But why was she here? Avoiding a meeting with the boss? Dressed in simple business attire, the woman hadn’t struck him as particularly sinister. What could she have done, anyway?
“Theft, honey,” she answered. “You have an honest face. I don’t. It’s the sweetness of my face that lets me get away with things. I stole from the boss. Wasn’t worth it, of course. Turns out I need the paycheck more than I needed the one-time payload. Wouldn’t’a been so bad, except for the criminal record and all. Now I can’t get a job anywhere, you know?”
“So you’re meeting with your boss?”
“Not that boss. He was done with me long ago. This one’s a different kinda boss. Parole officer. But I hope to fix things today.”
Up ahead, an employee dressed like a 1960s flight attendant was moving down the line. “Triage,” she announced. “Trying to move the line along. Please have your applications handy.” She carried a slim tablet and held up the camera to a paper application held by one of the people in line. Then she sighed loudly. “I’m gonna say this once here, for all of you in line. You need to have read the user agreement before signing it. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve had to send home today. For the last time, you cannot go back in time for the purpose of changing the outcome of the presidential election. Got that?”
A few of the would-be clients looked around nervously, then stepped out of line and shuffled away, heads down.
“Seriously, people. This is time travel. The secret service is already on our backs, and we’re this close”—she held her two fingers together—“to losing our permit. And that means none of you get to go back to do whatever it is you’re here to do.”
She paused as if she had finished, but then she continued her tirade. “And you think it’s cheap fixing what you people mess up? You’re all lucky we make you take out an insurance policy. You know how much it costs for us to send our SpecialOpps back in time to fix your mistakes? Every time you digress from your intended purpose, every time you ignore the contract you signed upon completing your application. I can’t even tell you! Listen. No politics. No assassinations. No kidnapping. No giving out lottery numbers or any of that nonsense. What do you think this is, Back to the Future part two? I can’t even tell you how many agents we’ve had to send to clean up those messes.”
A few more people stepped out of line, shoulders drooping. She continued her tirade, but Paul turned to the woman in front of him again.
“So theft, huh?” Despite her chosen profession, she was attractive and seemed witty enough. Maybe a good match for Paul?
She shrugged. “What about you?”
Paul felt his face blush. It was just the reason he was going back.
“It’s stupid,” he muttered.
“No it’s not. If it was stupid, you wouldn’t be here. We all know how much this costs. It’s obviously very important. So, out with it!”
Paul took a deep breath. “Okay. So I’ve always been so, well—vanilla. Nothing spectacular. As a kid I always amazed my parents and did brilliant things at home. But whenever I walked out my front door, I just closed up. Never spoke up for myself. I was thinking about it, and this one day, one stupid day in my childhood, stands out above the rest.”
“You’re much more interesting than a thief,” the woman said. “Do tell.”
His face felt impossibly hot. “It was elementary school gym class.”
She laughed. “Go on. I think most psychiatrists can trace everyone’s problems to elementary school gym class one way or another.”
Paul managed a chuckle. “A hockey game. I wasn’t the last one chosen, but I wasn’t the captain, either. The two captains were doing a face-off. I never heard of it. I just saw them standing there, in the middle of the gym, with the hockey puck between them. They just stared at each other. I didn’t know what they were waiting for.”
She raised an eyebrow.
“So, thinking I was being some kind of hero, I ran up to them with my hockey stick and smacked the puck toward the goal. Everyone was so shocked that it made it past the goalie. I raised my hands in victory only to be met by the gym teacher’s angry stare. I had to sit in time out for half the class. I was so ashamed that for the second half, I just kind of moped around by the corner, playing with a crack in the plastic of my hockey stick. I’m pretty sure it was the last time in my life I’ve ever taken a risk.”
Her smile faded. “Oh, honey. That’s no way to live.”
Paul nodded. “I know.” He sighed. “So you see, I think if I could just go back and stand up for myself, I would have found the footing to have confidence in other ways, too. Instead of a downward slope, it would have been the start of an upward climb. From getting shut out of sports teams in elementary school to not asking my crush to dance in middle school. Everything would have been different. And I’d be a lot better off than I am now.”
The woman stepped closer to him, and she was about to say something when the “flight attendant” approached. “Application?” she demanded.
The thief flipped a screen on her phone and held it to the attendant. The tablet beeped. “Eleanor Dietz.” The tablet’s screen glowed, and the attendant sighed. “I assume you read the user agreement before you signed it?” she asked.
Eleanor reddened. “I, um. Those things are all the same, you know? I mean, I skimmed it…”
The attendant shook her head. “Traveling back in time to avoid becoming a criminal is a violation of our user policy.”
Eleanor’s eyebrows arched. “Why? I would think causing fewer criminals in the world would be a good thing. I just want to stop myself from stealing the—”
The attendant shook her head. “Too many criminals were going back not to stop their crimes, but to improve them. With hindsight, they were able to go back and destroy evidence and cover tracks. Under our agreement with the EPA, DHS, and several other organizations, we are bound to prohibit anyone with a criminal record from traveling forward or back.”
Eleanor squinted her eyes at Paul, like maybe he could do something about it. But the attendant had already moved on, asking Paul for his application. “Paul Harper.” She scanned it, read her screen, and then looked sympathetically at Paul. “Sweetie, we should let you cut the whole line. Poor thing, but you’d probably be too afraid to, wouldn’t you? You go back there, and you make sure that little boy doesn’t hit the hockey puck, okay?”
The attendant continued down the line. Eleanor shook her head. “Well, life’s much more interesting with a parole officer, right?” She deleted her application with the swipe of her finger. “So what’s your plan, anyway? You gonna go and scare yourself? Or maybe you’ll go convince the gym teacher to take a day off? You know, so you can be the substitute for the day? Make sure you don’t make a fool of yourself? The young you, I mean.”
Paul shook his head. He hadn’t thought of that. “No, I have this book.” He pulled a small board book out of his pocket. “It’s about the rules of hockey. I was going to give it to myself a year or two prior to the, um, event. I figure, if I learn the rules of hockey, I won’t make an idiot of myself later on.”
“Not a very bold plan. You sure it will work?”
Paul’s feet grew heavy, sinking into the ground. Maybe she was right. Even after all the money he’d saved up, even after all the time he’d had to rethink his life, all the lonely nights, maybe he just wasn’t meant to be a somebody. Maybe he was simply destined for vanilla.
Eleanor raised an eyebrow. “You know, it’s never to late to start fresh. I don’t mean going back in time. I mean, how much does it cost for—” She turned to a chart on the wall, showing the cost versus demand for traveling back to the 1960s. Cost increased as more people travelled to an era—the more time travelers, the more complicated it was for Timehop to monitor the integrity of the space-time continuum. “Holy crud,” she said. His desired time period put him out seven figures. “Holy crud.”
Then her face melted into a smile, and she stepped close. Very close. “Paul Harper, I happen to know someone in the islands who knows someone who knows a guy who can fudge identities. And they always have need for couples willing to run businesses for tourists. We could, I don’t know, take some of your money, buy a fresh start, open a sunset cruise destination for tourists. Live every day in the tropics.”
Paul’s hands grew sweaty. He wanted to take her hand, to say yes, to step away from the others in line, the ones in their fancy business attire with their fancy jobs and fancy lives, the ones who hadn’t been afraid to say no. But how could he? The image of his gym teacher’s disapproving stare haunted him. He’d be punished again for taking a risk, wouldn’t he?
Eleanor took his hand, and the warmth travelled from his fingertips to his shoulder, and all the way to his chest.
“You know what?” he said. “Why not?”
Like a wild hockey player defying all the rules of the game, he grabbed her hand tighter and wove himself through the serpentine line, Eleanor in tow. He brushed passed a surprised attendant and sailed out of the door with his new love just as smoothly as a hockey puck sliding into an unguarded net.
The Spot Writers—Our Members:
Val Muller: http://www.valmuller.com/blog/
Catherine A. MacKenzie: https://writingwicket.wordpress.com/wicker-chitter/
Dorothy Colinco www.dorothycolinco.com
CaraMarie Christy: https://calamariwriting.wordpress.com/