13 December 2012

#fridayflash: time's arrow

And I don't care about this life,
they say there'll be another one
Defeatist attitude I know —
will you be sorry when I've gone?
— Felt, "Primitive Painters"
Daddy daddy, it's just like you said,
now that the living outnumber the dead
 —Laurie Anderson, "Speak My Language"
Brian was an historian.

He specialised in religious texts from the eighteenth century, with a particular interest in resurrection and reincarnation.

Karen was a physicist.

She was trying to prove that the theory time had no direction was true, and could be experienced at the macro level.

They lectured at the same university.

They were married.

They were both in the car when Karen was killed.

Brian had minor injuries, but walked away.

Several people told Brian about the different stages, how whatever they thought he was feeling was "normal", how he should seek counselling. In the end he chose to be in the anger phase, and threw them out of the apartment, all of them. It meant he had to clean up the hors d'oeuvres trays and the coffee-maker himself, but that was all right. It felt good to move around instead of chanting "thank you" every time someone said "I'm sorry".

The first week he couldn't handle being in the bed by himself, so he slept on the couch. The second week he lived life by going through the motions: wake up, shower, shave, e-mail the dean to say he didn't want to return to work yet, e-mail his grad students to tell them what to lecture the undergrads about.

The third week the set topic for lectures was a subject he could talk about in his sleep, and even though it felt like he would be doing that in a very literal sense, he decided to be on campus and deliver the lessons himself. The undergrads looked back at him with faces full of fear and sympathy. When the class ended he turned the lectern mic off, walked up to a grad student he trusted, and just said, "Was I intelligible?" The student nodded yes and started to say something else, but he turned and headed to his office without bothering to listen. He shut the door, locked it, and cried for half an hour, then threw the office chair against the door when he realised he didn't have any damn Kleenex on hand, and would have to be seen in the corridors with a mucky face until he could get to a washroom.

At the end of the third week, one of Karen's grad students knocked on his office door and asked if he could come over with some colleagues and review her notes. Brian told him they could come over Saturday afternoon. That night he went into Karen's office at home for the first time since the funeral and moved anything that had personal or sentimental value to his own office. He felt relieved to have got it done until he remembered he'd have to do the same thing with her office at work.

On Saturday the grad students showed up with a professor Karen had done a lot of work with. Even though they had all been to the apartment many times before, both for professional and social reasons, they all stood in the hallway like frightened cattle until he ushered them into her office. They kept saying they would try not to bother him. He noticed they had even brought their own coffee.

A couple of them made some comments about Karen's work as they shuffled down the hall into her office, but he waved them off. Brian liked geeks, but he wasn't one of them any more than any of them were artsies.

He didn't know what to do once he'd let them start their work, so he decided to go to his own office and at least pretend to get something done. Next to the box of Karen's personal effects was a courier package that had arrived from Scotland while he was off work. He figured he could manage opening the box, cataloguing the contents, and seeing if there was anything of immediate interest.

The box of books was a sealed lot from an estate sale that a colleague and friend of his had picked up and sent. Brian grimaced to realise the box of books had probably arrived on campus the day after Karen died. He pushed that thought out of his mind, pulled the exacto knife out of his desk drawer, and carefully opened the box.

The book on top was a collection of sermons that Brian already had a copy of. The next book was written for children, re-tellings of Bible stories with prayers and hymns mixed in, probably intended for Sunday school. The books were all remarkably well preserved, and some were of interest just for their printing and design, even if the contents were unlikely to shed any new light on anything. 

Brian paused and checked the outside of the box, cursing himself for not noticing sooner. It was an old soap box, probably from the 1920s. These books had been packed for a very long time. His friend had been lucky the box actually contained the sort of books the estate auctioneer claimed they would be. He sat back and wondered how many times this particular box had been shifted around without anyone bothering to open it.

About three-quarters of the way down he found a volume of sermons that he'd heard of, but never known of any copies to be extant. He pulled it out of the box and flipped it open, research possibilities rushing through his head.

A photograph was tucked in the flyleaf. Brian picked it up and glanced at it, then peered closer. It was definitely period, but the subject matter and framing were anachronistic.

The woman in the photo was wearing a shirtwaist. Her long hair was piled up on her head, and she was holding up a newspaper. She was pointing at the date on the front page.

Brian frowned and grabbed his magnifying glass from his desk. He could just make out the newspaper date. 3 August 1896.

Brian flipped the photo over. 

Dearest Brian:
I hope you like the book. It was hard to find, even now. I was right about time being directionless. You were right to pay attention to esoterica. I wish I could tell you more. I'll miss you.
Karen

13 comments:

  1. Whoa, what an awesome twist! He's still alone, but at least she's alive somewhere (someWHEN). Loved the line, "he chose to be in the anger phase, and threw them out of the apartment." And how the opposites attracted.

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    1. It's amazing how so many grieving people getting snowed with psychobabble hit that phase first.

      I was very relieved to read your comment, 'cos I wasn't sure anybody was going to get that ending.

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  2. It is a good 'twist,' though it feels so natural to what you'd said about her that it didn't even feel like a twist ending. It's more of a natural culmination on her end, where it had mostly been on his.

    What really spoke to me were minor choices or details. I love that he slept on the couch because he didn't want to be in bed alone, and chuckled at him choosing the "anger" phase. Instants like that populate microfiction so strongly. I think this is one of your best, Katherine.

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    1. Glad you liked it -- I almost didn't post it because I thought it wasn't that great (still do).

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  3. I disagree with John I really liked the thematic whole of this. The way you play with time, time passing, time being spent idly, time being put off and ignored all around death and life. I found this really effective. I wrote about humanity and time too this week, in the sense of breaking off from interminable endings.

    marc nash

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    1. Glad you liked it! I thought your story this week was especially strong.

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  4. Katherine,
    I'm fascinated by the use of time in fiction and have been reading Time Warped by Claudia Hammond. You've done a wonderful job of capturing time from the perspective of his grief and I love that she is 'resurrected' to a different time. I really enjoyed this story!
    Dawn

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    1. Thank you! I'll have to check out that book -- thanks for mentioning!

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  5. This is an extremely good story, Katherine. Thanks for sharing.

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  6. Now that was a good twist - and a very well told story!

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  7. It's a rather elegant take on the idea behind Back to the Future III! Pity he can't join her.

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  8. A long distance relationship taken to the next level. Poor guy. I wonder if he will get more parcels in the mail. Great story, Katherine :).

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