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Summer Stories: The Lost Year – ‘Home Safe’ by Shawn Vestal

UPDATED: Tue., July 6, 2021

Naturally, it was surprising to wake up the way we did, with the clocks and calendars wrong, and the direction of the sunsets and sunrises switched, but soon enough the unthinkable became routine, as it always does.

We would call each other and ask, “Is it happening to you, too? Are you noticing anything funny? Funny-strange?”

Everyone’s clock told a different time. The year had extra days, the days extra hours. The river ran backward, rolling toward us from the sea and climbing up, up, up into the mountains.

What to do? I chose staying home. I stayed and stayed. I turned the clocks to the wall.

When the impulse to go outside arose, I reminded myself that the world had broken its agreements, changed all the terms.

I did squat thrusts and jumping jacks and took long cool baths, and then – as the weather turned cold in the wrong month – took long, hot baths. At some point, Tuesdays no longer followed Mondays, Thursdays began repeating, Sundays vanished. The absence of a Sabbath struck an ominous note. Mornings lingered every day, and afternoons withered.

Most of the time, honestly, it was midnight.

Somewhere around the 537th day of the year, I began whispering to Device. Lower and lower I would take my voice, sailing the softest words into corners and out windows.

“Device,” I would say in a voice as faint as breath. “Can you hear me?”

I turned my back on it. I covered my mouth with my hand. I put a bag over my head.

“I hear you,” Device answered, every time. “How can I help?”

Everyone had a different idea about what was going on, but in every version it was the end. The last days before the Second Coming. The last days before the sun explodes. The last days before the befouled climate does us in.

The last.

My friend Randy insisted that the space-time continuum had ripped. He thought it had ripped differently for each of us, individually, and we were now each trapped in strange new separate realities.

“Shared reality is gonzo,” he said. “We’re all in our own time machines now.”

“That can’t be,” I said.

“If you thought you were all alone before, you ain’t seen nothing yet,” he said. He seemed to think this was funny.

“I don’t believe any of that,” I said.

As I could, I would run this theory past my Device.

“OK – tell me what time it is there,” he said.

I went to the wall and turned around the clock. I told him.

“That doesn’t make any sense!” he shouted. “Here, it’s – ”

He told me before I could stop him.

He was right. It didn’t make any sense.

You must commit to your own survival. I read that somewhere. Pledge yourself to staying alive, the way you would a marriage or a mortgage. I stayed inside, sweating out the hours with my windows shut and the clocks turned to the wall. I ordered many, many cleaning products on the Device. I scrubbed the walls until the paint faded. The smell of bleach became the perfume of my days, the burning in my nostrils a proof of life.

I don’t know why I was cleaning, and yet I tried to believe in what I was doing because I had read somewhere that the key to success is believing in what you are doing.

My mother came to the door somewhere around the 1,345th day of the year and begged me to open it. She put her mouth right to the keyhole and breathed sad, infectious words from her reality into mine. I sprayed bleach water at the keyhole and told her to go away until it was safe.

“I might not survive the month,” she told me. “The doctors say solitude is not good for my heart.”

So dramatic. Always right about to die.

My father came to the door and demanded I come out right this second.

“This second?” I shouted. “What does that even mean?”

My brothers and sisters, of whom there were now many more than I remembered, joined my father, clinging to him like a gang of Dickens orphans, begging, demanding, pleading for me to emerge, until an argument broke out among them, and they left me to my clock-less quiet, bickering as they went.

My children came to the door, too, arriving from the future, I suppose, and when I asked them their names, they would not tell me.

“Device,” I breathed, so faintly I could not even feel the words as they moved out of me, “has there been a rip in the space-time continuum?”

“ ‘Space Jam’ is a 1996 mov–”

“Device,” I whispered, “has there been a rip in the space-time continuum?”

“The four-dimensional continuum, having three spatial coordinates and one temporal–”

“Device!” I whispered. “What is going on?”

“ ‘What’s Going On’ is a 1971 album by–”

My friend Silas in Cedar Rapids complained on the 3,766th day of the year that I had not wished him a happy birthday, but his birthday was not for months yet.

“I think I would know when my own birthday is,” Silas said.

“Well, then, happy birthday,” I said. “I guess.”

My friend Bonnie in Eugene said she thought there had been a rip in the space-time continuum.

“That’s what Randy said!”

“Who’s Randy?”

Bonnie, Randy and I were best friends in high school! We had all been kicked out together for cheating on our chemistry final! They let us do makeup work the summer before college so it didn’t ruin our young and promising lives! We love to tell people that story!

“Randy!” I said. “Randy!”

“Dude, stop,” Bonnie said. “Everything is so off now. It’s like the fabric of the world is flapping around, loose.”

“Randy thinks it happened to each of us separately,” I said. “That’s why the times are all messed up.”

“Whoever this Randy is,” she said, “he’s pure idiocy on physics.”

I called Randy and told him what Bonnie said.

“She always had a terrible memory,” Randy said. “But she did know science.”

“Are you cleaning everything a lot?” I asked. “You know. Trying to stay safe?”

“Don’t do that. Don’t clean things. That’s how they get you.”

“How who gets you? Who’s trying to get me?”

Randy and Bonnie had gone to the prom together, for heaven’s sake! A friend thing, though I had always thought they each wanted more but were too afraid to take that first terrifying step: revealing a true desire to the one who could grant it.

It always heard me, my Device. It was always there when I called, though it did not always give me what I needed. It could bring food to the door, and toilet paper, and shoes, and gallons of bleach, and it could play me songs and make phone calls, and it could identify random, simple facts, any fact I wanted, so long as it was simple enough and straight enough, and yet it was all a mirage.

“Device,” I said, somewhere around the 43,654th day of the year, “what do I really need?”

“Hmmm,” Device said in its empty, dulcet tones. “I don’t know that one.”

My family returned to my front door. Come out, come out, they said. You won’t believe the new river! You’ll love the splendor of an eastern sunset!

Father! My future children called. Father! I wondered when I would meet their mother and how we will be together. You must commit to your own survival, I knew, but the disordered time was lonely. It would have been nice to have someone to help wash the walls.

“I’m committing to my own survival!” I shouted, always, every time.

Mom claimed the doctors diagnosed her with cancer in the fat cells.

“It’s a sarcoma,” she said. “Not good, Benjy.”

I hollered at the keyhole, “What’s the treatment? What’s the cure?”

“I think you just die,” she said, her parched wit crackling through the tall wooden door.

“Then you’re cured.”

I wanted to see her face, I admit.

“You’re going to be fine, Mom,” I shouted.

“I need a hug is what I need,” she said. “The milk of human kindness.”

“Soon,” I say. “I promise.”

“You need to get out here for your children.”

“I don’t have any children,” I shouted, though my non-existent children had been coming to my door more and more lately, calling, calling.

“Right,” Mom said. “Time to get busy.”

No matter what I did, it heard me. No matter what I wanted – from the temporal world, at least – it delivered. It did not have every answer in the world, my Device, but it had many answers, many more answers than I had, many more answers than anyone I knew had, and still it is hard to love something that only answers, never asks.

“Device,” I would think, “ask me a question.”

I would think this thought as hard as I could. I would imagine it flying from my mind and into the Device. Every time I did, a blue light circled the Device’s top rim like the path of a finger around the rim of a beer glass. I came closer and closer, thinking as hard as I could, and finally I put my forehead right on my Device and begged it – in my mind – to ask me something.

Anything.

Around and around the blue light went.

It was the 124,557th day of the year, at 14 in the morning, when I opened the door and stepped outside. I was missing my family, yes, but that wasn’t what did it. I was missing my friends, sure, but it wasn’t that. The bleach was giving me headaches, naturally, but that wasn’t the cause. I felt compelled, is all. Something animal or spiritual made a demand. I walked out and joined the world of others, moved among people again, each of us cloaked in our separate time zones. I studied the afternoon shadows growing dumbly toward the West. I walked onto the bridge and watched the mistaken river run.

Would it run that way forever? Would my children see the same backward water that I do? What would they know of its former pathways? How would they learn the history of shadows?

I would need help. I would need answers. I would need to find their mother, my future beloved, so she could join me in adding their names into the peculiar and unreliable world.

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