Before I quit my job at Quality Vending earlier that morning, I was the master. I could sell snack machines to anyone. My waistline and my love for refined sugar were my arsenal. My passion for snack cakes translated into excitement during my pitch. My sincerity sold.
Until my sincerity turned to bitterness.
I still ate loads of snack cakes, but they didn’t do anything for me anymore. They’re just a habit. Like breathing. Like masturbation for the ever-shrinking satisfaction of release.
Repetition had worn me down. Eleven years doing the same thing every day will do that to you. When months started to feel like weeks, and weeks like days, I lost my connection to everything. Life was passing me by, but nothing was happening. Time moved faster than I did.
Now that it was over, I needed to retreat to a safe place to figure out what to do next. And that meant Grandma’s house. She used to host Christmas, Thanksgiving, and Easter, and she’d throw you a killer birthday party if you called a few days in advance. The whole family used to come before we all grew up and moved away.
I drove around a curve in the driveway and a gap in the trees revealed my Grandma’s house.
My mother, the real estate agent, called it a lovely Queen Anne Victorian. Three levels with a wraparound porch, a gable roof, and two spire-topped turrets. All of it was still perfect. Grandma had her house painted the same blue-gray every five years, and she quickly repaired anything that broke.
There were two other cars in the parking lot. One was a van for her in-home medical staff. The other was a broken down Kia: dented and rusty. I didn’t recognize it
I got out of my car and several cellophane wrappers came with me. A gust of chilly fall wind blew them into the grove that surrounded the house, where they mixed with the fallen leaves.
I crossed the lot and went up the stairs, trailing my hand along the spindles of the whitewashed railing. I stopped at the wide oak door and rang the doorbell.
I waited a long time before I heard clomping footsteps coming closer to the door. Someone fiddled with the lock, swearing all the while, and finally pulled the door open.
Shit. It was my cousin Cassie. The owner of the crappy Kia.
Cassie frowned. It was one of her two facial expressions. The other was…let me think…oh yeah, bitch. Frown and bitch. They were all she had to work with. She was dressed in a mismatched sweat suit, the top was turquoise and the bottom was pink. Her blonde hair was brown at the roots, short, spiky and angry.
“You selling something?” Cassie asked. “Because we probably don’t want it.”
“No, Cassie. It’s me. Paul.”
Her frown tightened and her lips pulled back to reveal her artificially whitened teeth.
“Your cousin,” I said.
“What do you want?”
“To come in and see Grandma.”
“She’s in the bath.”
“I’m willing to wait.”
She put her hand on her hip. “Are you looking to stay for a while?”
“Just this afternoon, overnight at the max.”
Her frown relaxed to her face’s resting bitch setting. “Come on in then.”
The inviting warmth of the oak foyer brought me back to my childhood. My cousins and I had often scaled the heavy bannister of the stairway, sticking our little arms between the spindles and seeing who could climb the highest on the floor-to-ceiling newel post. Nobody ever got past halfway. The citrus scented wax made it impossible.
Too bad Cassie’s dollar store perfume overwhelmed the scent of the wax.
I followed Cassie down the hallway toward the kitchen. Grandma had finally replaced the black iron, wood-burning stove with a modern stainless steel monstrosity. It looked like it’d never been used. Grandma hadn’t been healthy enough to cook for a few years.
Cassie went over to the microwave and punched a few buttons. “She should be done with her bath soon. Then you can see her and be on your way.”
“Am I in the way or something?”
The microwave beeped and Cassie pulled her coffee out. “No. I just didn’t want you to think you had to stay, out of politeness, because you haven’t seen her in so long. She has me to take care of her.”
“Doesn’t the home health care nurse do most of the work?”
She slammed the mug down and coffee sloshed up over the lip of the mug onto the counter. “I do plenty.”
“Sorry,” I said, though I wasn’t. “It was just a question.”
Cassie stalked off and I used a paper towel to wipe up the coffee. I looked for a garbage can and finally found one under the sink. I heard steps, and steeled myself for Cassie’s return. She’d obviously done little with her life, and I was sure I could find the chinks in her white trash armor.
Instead I was greeted by a thin young man in aqua scrubs.
“Hello?” he said.
I got up and stuck out my hand. “I’m Paul. The grandson.”
He shook my hand and smiled. “Grayson.” He retrieved a mug from the cabinet. “Your grandmother is done with her bath and dressed if you’d like to go up and see her.”
“How’s she doing?”
Grayson sat at one of the stools that lined the counter and wrapped his long, hairy fingers around his cup. “She gets confused a lot, and the machines are keeping her alive, but she seems happy, comfortable even.” He nodded at me. “She calls me Paul at least once a week.”
I let out a single sob.
Grayson stood. “Do you need a moment alone?”
“No.” I stuck my hands in my pockets and looked at the floor. “I haven’t seen or talked to her in years. I feel…”
Grayson put a hand on my forearm. “It’s okay. You still have time. Go on upstairs.”
I grabbed a paper towel from the roll near the sink, blew my nose and headed upstairs. The back stairway, leading from the kitchen to the second floor, was narrow and wound to the right. Photos of the family lined the wall in a mosaic of generations.
The second floor hallway was full of golden sunlight. Its rays were caught in the intricate curls of the silver damask wallpaper. I ran a fingernail down the ridges of the wainscoting, creating the engine noise I used to make with my toy motorcycle.
I stopped. Did she know it was me or was she mistakenly calling for Grayson?
“I told you not to do that,” She called through the open door. “You’ll ruin the finish.”
When I got to her door she was looking at my waist, as if she were expecting me to be a child. She blinked and looked up, her face crinkled in confusion.
“Was that you out in the hall?”
She looked at my hands. “Where’s your motorcycle?”
I didn’t know what else to say. “I left it at home.”
“Good. You’re too old for toys anyway.”
She lay in a nest of tubes and blankets. Friendly white machines and screens with dancing icons surrounded her. This was her escape pod. It kept her floating inches away from death.
I went in and took her hand. It felt like thin sticks within a loose leather glove. Her grip was weak, but insistent and loving.
“It’s been a while,” she said.
I sniffed. “Sorry.”
“It’s okay. Sit with me for a bit.”
I sat and we caught each other up until she fell asleep. When I tried to pull my hand away she woke and her hand tightened around mine. Her eyes were distant, unfocused.
“Did I ever tell you about my clocks?” she asked.
“They’re magic, you know.”
I rolled my eyes. “Yes. You told me.”
“Don’t roll your eyes at me. This is serious. It’s why Cassie is really staying here.”
“Is she going to steal your clocks?” I knew they were old, but I didn’t think they were worth anything.
“You’re not listening, Paul. You’ve always had trouble listening.” She sat up and I packed the pillows in behind her to support her back. “She’s here to use the magic.”
“Okay, Grandma…maybe I should go get Grayson.”
I took a few steps toward the door.
“Wait!” Grandma said.
“You don’t believe me?”
The disappointed look on her face hurt me. The keen edge of her mind was showing the first signs of dullness.
“I’ve been telling you about their magic since you were little.” Grandma held out her withered hand, and I walked over and took it. “Have I ever lied to you?”
“There’s a difference between lying and telling fantastical stories to entertain children.”
“Didn’t you ever wonder why I was able to speak in so much detail about my childhood?”
“I just thought you had a really good memory, or kept a diary, or, like everybody else, forgot some of the story and used your imagination to fill in the gaps.”
“You’ve always been one of the smart ones.” She squeezed my hand. “It made everyone wonder why you never… went further in your life.”
I pulled my hand away. “I still have time to change that.”
“Yes. But will you?”
My face grew hot and I turned away to check the readouts on the machines surrounding Grandma’s bed. I had no idea what any of the numbers or bouncing lines meant, but no matter what Grandma–or anybody else in my family thought–I could learn them all and never forget.
“There’s no reason to get sullen,” Grandma said. “You have plenty of time to change your life. It’s why I mentioned the clocks.”
“What do you mean?”
“I remembered my childhood so well because I went back a few times, and then I made it easier to remember.” She saw my face crinkle in confusion. “Let me explain before you ask questions.
“There are two basic types of European cuckoo clocks. Traditional style cuckoo clocks are decorated with carved leaves and animals. Chalet style, both Swiss and German, look like little houses. There are Greek and Middle Eastern examples that predate the European styles, but all of mine are from Europe, and two of them are extra-special because they were made by Johann Franel.”
“I remember you talking about him, when you used to tell stories about your clocks.” I thought for a moment. “He’s an ancestor on your mother’s side, right?”
“As I said, one of the smart ones,” Grandma said, smiling. “Franel was a Swiss clockmaker in the late 1800s. But he was also a mathematician, a philosopher and an…alchemist.”
“And a spiritualist.”
A long line of crazy, from my Grandma all the way back to Franel, formed in my head. I wondered how long it would be before it took me. Grandma seemed like an indicator of late life onset. But who knows? Maybe she’d been good at hiding it?
And maybe I needed to start doing some research into my family’s medical history, and then make an appointment with my doctor. I didn’t want to go crazy. But, then again, brilliant people often had a touch of eccentricity. That I could handle.
“Franel was obsessed with time, and as he got older, and less of it was available to him, he became obsessed with learning how to manipulate it.” Grandma smiled and let out a long sigh of contentment. “Lucky for us he was successful.”
Maybe I could say I needed to use the bathroom. It’d give me time to ask Grayson when Grandma lost her mind and what we were going to do about it.
“I’ve manipulated time on five occasions,” Grandma said. “Three times to go back and revisit my childhood. Once to prolong the time my memories are stored in my conscious mind–I know that’s a bit confusing, but the rules by which this magic functions are rather fluid. It turned out to be a bit of a curse as well. Some memories are best forgotten. And a fifth time, to ask for a longer life. A good manipulation, but one that doesn’t buy you more than a few decades.”
“How old are you?” I searched my memory. She was eighty-five.
I gaped and she raised her faded eyebrows a few times.
“I don’t believe you.”
“What? About being one-hundred-and-thirteen or about manipulating time?”
One presupposed the other so I said, “Both.”
“Fine.” Grandma said. “It looks like you need some proof.”
“That’d be nice.”
“Here’s what you need to do.”
I opened the door to the clock room and one of the clocks signaled the hour. A flat, rattling gong was followed by the two-tone whistle. I checked my watch. It was only 4:15, but as far as I remembered, none of the clocks kept the actual time.
Clocks crowded into every conceivable space, just far enough apart that each pendulum constantly threatened its neighbors’ territories. All of them were made of dark wood from the forest primeval. Some were chalets and some were traditional animals and plants. Patinated pinecone weights hung from chains made their way up and down on their slower-than-the-eye journeys. The cacophony of clicks, knocks and whirrs would drive me crazy if I spent too much time in here.
I located the two Franels. They faced each other: the female on the south wall and the male on the north wall. Both were chalets, but the female had delicate, almost patrician architecture, and the male had the look of a deep woods hunting lodge.
On a whim, I crossed to the female Franel, pulled out the little drawer and revealed the tiny wooden nest. No egg. Damn. I giggled at myself for thinking it’d be so easy.
“What are you doing?”
I turned. Cassie stood in the doorway, a book in one hand and a folding chair in the other.
I made sure to block the Franel, and its open drawer, with my body. “Just looking at Grandma’s clocks.”
“You need to be careful in here. They’re pretty old.”
“Oh. Are they valuable?”
Cassie stuck her book into her armpit, walked to the center of the room and unfolded her chair. I quickly closed the drawer while she set up her chair. She plopped down onto the seat. “Not to anyone who isn’t family.”
“But you said they were old. I’d bet there are collectors who’d be interested.”
“She’s still alive, you know. There’s no reason to go around pricing things.”
“I’m just making conversation. You said they were old. And you never know who’d be interested in old…stuff,” in my mind I hit just the right note of subtle indifference, “like this.”
“Whatever.” She grabbed her book from under her arm and held it up. It was a grocery aisle romance. “Do you plan on staying in here? I like quiet when I read.”
I looked theatrically at the clocks around me. “This room is anything but quiet.”
“A little white noise is okay. It’s like using a fan when I’m sleeping. I’ve gotten used to it.”
I paced, circling away from the door, and loving the way her face went sour. “Are you in here a lot then?”
“No. I read in all of the rooms. There’s nothing special about this one.”
“But it has the ‘white noise,’ like you said.”
“There’s a little too much noise right now for my taste.”
I made a slow circuit of the room and passed through the doorway.
“Shut the door behind you, please.”
I did, but stopped outside it, listening for the distinct three-note song that only the Franels sang. Grandma had told me that if the male and the female struck at the same time the birds would mate and leave an egg in the little carved nest. It rarely happened because neither clock kept anything resembling perfect time. Due to age, and wonky design, the Franels sped up and slowed down randomly, and sometimes stopped altogether. But if I found the egg before it rotted–a process that took less than a minute–I could step into a chronologically null place and ask Franel himself for a time manipulation.
It all sounded so…impossible, but now that I wasn’t working I had the time to check it out.
Cassie and I shared the clock room that whole day and into the next one. She stopped reading in there, possibly to throw me off the scent, but she didn’t make it past the library next door. Once, when she slipped out to go to the bathroom, I walked through the library and saw an empty glass tumbler on a shelf that hung on the shared wall between the library and the clock room. I didn’t know if the ‘empty glass against the wall’ trick worked, but it proved her intent, so I did my best to become a shoeless ninja; pacing the hallway, or lingering around the corner.
Two days in, after several strained, awkward conversations where we both tried to discern the other’s intent, I seemingly gave in and went to bed early. Neither of us had slept much, or taken a break to shower, in the past few days, and both of us were showing signs of wear. I made a subtle show of sneaking off to bed, but I was sure Cassie knew where I was going. There was no way she could win. As Grandma had said, I was the smart one.
Grayson avoided us, and we agreed to leave him alone.
Headphones in my ears to silence my phone alarm, I laid my head against the pillow in my dark room. My eyes were glued to the thin bar of light under the door and I was listening as hard as I could—an idea that sounded silly, especially with my ear buds in, but I wanted to win and sleep deprivation had made me loopy.
Three hours later I woke to the sound of my alarm. I pulled out my ear buds and swore when I realized that the alarm was ringing through the speaker as well. I clapped my hand over the phone and watched the bar of light under the door. It was dimmer than before. Someone must’ve come through and turned off some of the lights. I silenced my alarm, pulled back the covers and slipped out of bed.
I pressed my ear to the door but didn’t hear anything, so I lay down and tried to look between the door and the floor. Nothing but hardwood flooring, and a side view of the carpet runners.
With two socks on each foot to pad my steps, I left my room, sidling down the hall and then the stairs, keeping my breathing slow and even. At the base of the stairs I edged one eye around the corner. The hallway was empty, but a dim light shone through the open door of the library. I listened for a moment, for the sound of breathing, or turning pages, but couldn’t hear anything.
Until I heard the sound that signaled my victory. A snore.
I raised my arms and mouthed a silent yahoo!
Then the silliness of everything that’d transpired over the last two days hit me. Magic clocks? Sneaking socks? Competing with my bitchy cousin for a ‘magic egg’ was just a fantasy to avoid making a decision about what to do with my life.
I lowered my arms.
While it’d been fun to mess with Cassie, and to visit my childhood sanctuary, I needed to go back to bed, get a good night’s sleep and find a new job. All I needed was a bit of a change. No imaginary magic clock was going to fix my life.
The elegant ding of two gongs and a three note duet sent me down the remaining stairs and to the clock room door before I realized what I was doing. The door slammed shut behind me after banging into the wall. I flinched and ran to the female clock.
The faint sound of clicking sounded within the clock, followed by a delicate rattle that came to a rest with a little knock in the drawer. I tore it open, and the drawer came right out. Something fell out of the drawer, but I caught it before it hit the floor.
In my palm lay a tiny speckled egg.
I turned. Cassie stood just inside the door.
“Give it to me,” she said. She was crying and her face was red. “I need it to fix my life. I can’t marry Jim. I need to go back.”
“But you’re divorced. It doesn’t matter.”
She took a step toward me, but stopped when I raised my hand and opened my mouth.
“You don’t understand,” she said. “I need to go back to when I was young. Before I…” She looked down at her frumpy body and I understood. “Please. Give it to me before it rots. I don’t have much time.”
“Maybe I’ll let you have the next one,” I said, and tossed the egg into my mouth.
Cassie screamed and I popped the egg between my teeth.
“The next one is mine,” Cassie said. “And I’m going to ruin you.”
The door of the male Franel opened, and then expanded until it was big enough for me to pass through.
“Too late,” I said, crossing the room. “My life is already a pile of shit.”
Cassie sobbed when my toe crossed the threshold into the null space, and I felt a twinge of guilt. She was my cousin after all. But none of my memories of her were good, and her life wasn’t my problem.
The door closed behind me, and I was in the chalet.
A chill ran up my back and I shivered. Behind me, the door rattled in its frame, as artic wind whistled through the cracks. I looked through the window near the door. A long, snow-covered slope wound down the valley, just past the porch. Twilight had turned everything deep, dark blue.
“Come away from the door if you want to keep warm,” said a voice from behind me.
I turned and moved deeper into the room. Heavy timbers lay in an angled row against the ceiling, and two oil lamp chandeliers cast amber light into the room. Trophy heads and furs hung between paintings of hunting parties and somber portraits.
“I’ll be with you in a moment.” A chubby man in a gray suit crouched near the fireplace. He struck a long matchstick on one of the rough stones that made up the hearth and lit the kindling at the base of the fire.
“Are you Johann Franel?”
“I am.” Franel tossed the spent match into the fire, put his hand on his folded thigh and pushed himself up. He circled a couch and extended a hand. “You’ve had an encounter with my clocks?” He had a wide, round face and a luxuriant mustache and beard. His dark hair framed the sides of his head in odd oiled wings that reminded me of Civil War photographs.
“Are you one of the family?”
I could only think of two people that I was sure he’d met. “Cassie Thorpe is my cousin, and Viola Grange is my grandmother.”
“Ah, two women that I know rather well.”
I knew Grandma had been here multiple times, but… “Cassie’s been here more than once?”
“Five times to be exact. And all for the same thing.” He waved his hand at the couch. “Please, sit down.”
I sat at one end of the couch and Franel sat at the other. The couch was a bit stiff and the fabric was decorated in what I’d always called Patrician Paisley. He spoke good English, but his Swiss accent made consonants sound extra hard.
“Why did Cassie keep coming back?” I asked.
“I find it impolite to talk about such things, but you are family…” He pulled out a locket, removed a red piece of candy and popped it in his mouth. He sucked on the candy, and it clacked against his teeth. I was surprised the bauble wasn’t a watch. I scanned the room. There were no clocks at all.
Franel slid the candy into his right cheek. “While you may only be familiar with one, Cassie has had…ahem…five husbands.” Franel blushed, as if he’d said something scandalous.
He shifted the candy to the other cheek. “I am afraid so. She keeps trying to get it right.”
Now I knew why she was so obsessed. Jim was no prize. Though, neither was Cassie. I wondered who the first four were, but all I could see was a line of alternate Jims. Women like Cassie always gravitated toward the same kind of men. She didn’t need time travel. She needed to make better choices.
“So,” Franel said. “What can I do for you?”
Cassie was proof that time manipulation was something that required practice to master. Grandma seemed successful, but she’d had lots of time, and had eaten lots of cuckoo eggs. I was at the beginning of the process, and I’d likely need to do this more than once to get it right. I searched my memories for the pitfalls of time travel, as I’d seen in books and movies, but came up short. Now that I was faced with an actual offer, I didn’t know what I wanted. My initial thought was to slow my perception of time, to make weeks feel like weeks again, instead of days. To be like a child, and live in the moment, without letting it pass you by because you were too jaded to appreciate anything. But now that I was faced with the power to make it happen, it sounded like I’d be cursed with eternal boredom. Every checkout line would be an eternity; every long-distance drive would be torture.
“It boggles the mind, doesn’t it?” Franel asked.
“Yes,” I answered. I needed time to figure out how time works. And I couldn’t do that with Cassie competing with me for the eggs. “It seems like my cousin’s problems are more pressing than my own.”
Franel narrowed his eyes and sucked hard on the candy, before shifting it and saying, “Are they?”
I wished I had a piece of candy to suck on. It’d give me more time to think. “Yes. And as a member of her family, it’s my responsibility to help her.”
“How kind of you.”
“I guess so.”
“And there are always more eggs if you decide to come back.”
“Yes,” I said. Did he know what I was thinking? Time to change the subject. “So. Why the eggs and the clocks? Why make it so complicated?”
His mouth spread into a smile. “The clocks were an obvious choice, of course, and I suppose the rest was a security measure. I couldn’t have just anyone coming here and demanding favors. I needed to make it difficult to weed out the idiots.”
In Cassie’s case, he’d failed.
“And I fiddled with the mechanisms in the clocks, to make them run, stop, and skip, on purpose,” Franel said. “So that the cuckoos would rarely mate, making the eggs all the more rare. Too many time manipulations can get messy.”
I wondered briefly if I could get someone to fix them, to make more eggs, but there was a chance that it would ruin the magic. And I couldn’t let that happen. “Makes sense to me.”
“I’m glad you see the good in limiting the power,” Franel said. “Now, what can I do for you?”
“I need to help Cassie. Her life has been hard.” I needed to keep her away from the clocks, so her life was my problem, for now.
“Are you sure this is what you want?”
“Then let’s begin. Where do you want to go?”
“Midafternoon. Christmas Eve, Nineteen Eighty-Five. Grandma’s house.”
“Do you want to travel as you are now, as an interloping observer, or would you rather I put you in your eight-year-old body for a time?”
“Eight-year-old,” I said. “How much time will I have?”
“As much as you need. But, I’ve found its best not to linger. It may have unintended effects.”
I stood. “What do I have to do?”
“Go back through the front door,” he said pointing. “When you’re done, knock on the front door of the male clock, and I’ll let you through.”
I went to the door and put my hand on the cold doorknob. I looked over my shoulder. “Why aren’t there any clocks in here?”
“Why would I, of all people, need a clock?”
“Right,” I said. “Thanks.”
I braced myself for a cold blast of wind, opened the door and stepped into the clock room.
Everything seemed so big, so far away. But soon I realized it was me that’d changed. I was four feet tall again, and dressed in OshKosh B’gosh overalls and a striped sweater. In my hand lay the toy motorcycle that I liked to run along the wainscoting upstairs.
All of the grandchildren were gathered in the clock room and Grandma was telling the story of her magic clocks. I listened, amazed at how much younger she looked, how animated her face was compared to now. Well, the now of the future I’d come from.
When Grandma was done, everyone filed out, eager to get back to shoving more Christmas cookies in their faces. Everyone but Cassie and me. She stood under the female clock, staring up at it in wonder.
“It’s all just a joke,” I said, nearly laughing at the sound of my voice. After hearing my adult voice for so long, I thought I sounded like a girl.
Cassie turned and scowled. She wore a green Christmas dress and a ribbon in her hair. “Is not.”
“They got me with it last year,” I said. We were the youngest of the cousins, and Cassie was a year younger than me, so it made sense that she’d be the last to know. “I spent every night in here, waiting for the birds to come out. I didn’t get any sleep and they all made fun of me.”
“I don’t remember any of that.”
“Robby threatened to beat me up if I said anything to you.” Robby was the second oldest cousin and the meanest.
Cassie rubbed the bruise on her arm. She understood the dangers of crossing Robby.
“It was mean and I don’t want that to happen to you.”
“How do I know you’re not tricking me right now?”
I managed to summon some tears and hoped that her seven-year-old mind wouldn’t see through the deception. “I’m not lying. Honest.”
She took my hand. “Really?”
“Yeah. Maybe we can think of a way to get them back.”
I used the next egg to solidify Cassie’s first marriage. I studied all the relationship books I could find, and befriended Cassie and her husband. She trusted me because of the newly formed childhood bond, and Tony went along for the ride because he was a weak-willed follower. At least he was nice to Cassie.
Over the next few years I stayed at Grandma’s house, acquiring eggs and making sure nobody else in my family used the clocks. If I was going to change my life, to become the man I wanted to be, I couldn’t let them get in my way. I helped some of them, but there were a few that ended up hating me, and I had to go back over and over again until I figured it all out.
Franel grew tired of me, and eventually, our conversations were honed down to a few simple questions. When, where and how?
At times, I struggled with my feelings about what I was doing. I’d manipulated the fates of almost everyone in my family to make sure I’d have exclusive access to Franel’s magic. I had no idea if I’d sent some of them to early deaths, sent them down the wrong career and relationship paths, or even manipulated some of their children out of existence.
To keep it all straight I expanded my operation. I set up my laptop in an unused, concrete-walled room in the basement, and ran hardline internet through a hole I’d drilled in the floor. I bought huge drawing pads, and graphed out everyone’s relationships, following their every move on all the social media sites, and showing up at every get together—no matter how big or small—to grill people about what they were doing. I hid my intentions behind idea that I was writing an extensive family history. Some people loved it and gave me tons of information, others didn’t care, and the rest didn’t want anything to do with the person I’d become.
I was every bit the disheveled author. Unshorn, unshowered, but packed with facts and wearing a worn blazer with patches on the elbows. I played my part and wore my costume, but soon I became the man I was playing. Every one of them needed my help, and nobody could make an informed decision. I didn’t know why. They had access to all the same people and information that I did. Maybe they couldn’t see the big picture?
It didn’t matter. They had me to take care of them.
My work grew more complicated, requiring more focus and finesse. I handled it perfectly, fixing my fixes, dealing with the unforeseen by going back with the advantage of hindsight.
Franel’s hostility eventually grew into full on rage, but he didn’t understand how much I knew. Didn’t understand how I’d refined the process. As I expanded my view of the massive interconnected web of my family’s choices and relationships, I could practically feel the new neural pathways being forged in my brain.
I ate the egg, my sixty-third to be exact, and stepped into the chalet. Franel sat facing the door. He looked pissed, but he didn’t say anything.
“I need to go back to Nineteen-Seventy-Three,” I said. “There’s-”
“I think you’ve done enough, Paul,” said a fiftyish version of my grandmother.
I never figured out how to remove her memory of how the clocks worked. She needed to be able to tell me about them when I was a child. There had to be a solution. I just needed more time.
“Can’t you see,” I said. “I’m helping them.”
“No. You’re not,” Grandma said. “They need to live their own lives in their own way.”
“None of them would’ve gotten this far without me.”
“Think about what you just said.” Grandma crossed her arms. “You’re not a god.”
I looked at the floor, scowled and then looked at Franel. “Tattle tale.”
Franel held up his hands. “I’m stuck here, and I have to follow the rules I’ve set in place. It’s how the magic works.” He pulled out his locket and tossed a red piece of candy in his mouth. “I needed someone who could get through to you. When your grandmother came through my door, I told her what was happening.”
“So, what happens now? Are you going to send her back to stop her from telling me about the clocks?”
“No,” Franel said. “That might be too dangerous. All of your manipulations have caused too much of a strain on the varied timelines resulting from your family’s choices. It’s as if too many threads of time have tangled together, and your constant attempts to reweave the patterns have weakened the fibers, and they are in danger of fraying.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?” I screamed.
“I tried to,” Franel said. “But you wouldn’t listen.”
I turned toward the door. “Let me get my notes. I’ll help you fix this.” I opened the door and was hit by a blast of alpine wind. “What the hell? Let me through.”
“We can’t do that, Paul,” Grandma said. “You’ve been naughty, and it’s time to take your toys away.”
I hurried past the couch and to my grandmother. “What does that mean?”
“I’m going back to your present, and hiding the clocks,” Grandma said. “The family will get them back after you’ve…passed.”
I gritted my teeth and raised my fists. “You can’t do that!”
For the first time in my life, Grandma slapped me.
“Don’t raise your voice to me!” She stuck her finger in my face. “Our family had this beautiful, powerful gift, and you’ve ruined it for everyone. Franel and I have been talking. The timelines need to settle for a few hundred years, before we can risk straining them again. And the timelines leading fifty years in either direction from your first manipulation may never recover.”
I slumped into a chair near the fire. “I’m sorry.”
“Sorry isn’t going to cut it this time, mister.”
Grandma had always saved one for the really big screw-ups, like when I broke her favorite antique lamp while playing frisbee in the house. I felt five again.
Before I knew what was happening, Grandma was at the door with her hand on the knob. I got up, but I saw that I wouldn’t make it in time.
“You’re going to sit here for a while,” she said. “And think about what you’ve done.”
With that she closed the door, and I was stuck with Franel.
“That must have been difficult for you,” Franel said. He pulled out his locket. “Would you like a piece of candy?”
I stayed with Franel for a week. Playing cards and listening to stories about the family from way back. When I got restless, I strapped on snowshoes, and after Franel showed me how to walk in them, trudged the Alps of Nineteenth Century Switzerland. Franel had based it on his childhood vacation home. The rest of the chalets were empty and no ski tracks cut the slopes.
I eventually found the edge of the null space. It bordered the base of the mountain. I couldn’t cross the border even though it looked like the land expanded off into the distance all around us.
At the end of the week, Franel took me to the door.
“It’s been nice having company for a little while,” Franel said.
“I thought you hated me for what I did.”
“I can’t hate you. I made the same mistakes.” Franel pulled out a handkerchief and wiped tears from his eyes. “I can’t go back to my own timeline, for fear of destroying it. The world you see around you is both a comfort and a painful reminder of a place I can no longer go.”
Franel hugged me, and offered me another piece of candy. It was awful, and I had no idea why he ate it, so I refused.
“Goodbye, Great to the Nth power Grandpa.”
“And goodbye to you, little grandson.”
I stepped through the door into the clock room. I hadn’t come through the male clock, but the door to the room instead. There were two blank spots where the Franels used to be. Before I left the room I checked every other clock. Just to be sure. But I could tell, by craftsmanship alone, that none of them were Franels.
I searched the house, and ended up in Grandma’s room.
“You’ll never find them,” she said. “They are in a safe deposit box, in another country. And according to the lawyer I hired, they can’t be opened for two hundred years.”
I turned, ready to begin another search.
“You’ll never find the paperwork either,” Grandma said. “In my age-addled state, I accidentally used them for kindling in the front room fireplace.”
“Fine,” I said, crossing my arms.
“It’s been nice of you to visit, but I think it’s time you went home and got on with your life.”
“Okay,” I said. I went over and kissed her on the forehead, and she smiled at me.
“It’s up to you to make something of yourself. No cheating. No manipulations. Just hard work.”
As I walked down the hallway, I trailed my fingernail along the wainscoting.
“Knock it off, Paul. Don’t make me tell you gain.”
“Sorry,” I said.
“It’s alright, Paul. It’ll all be alright, if you just do what I said.”
I packed my things, loaded them into my car and drove down the gravel drive to the highway. I pulled out and merged with the traffic. A pretty woman in an SUV, in the next lane, looked over at me and smiled.
I couldn’t help but wonder if she wasn’t a family member from the future, coming back to make sure I behaved myself. Or, maybe it was the guy driving the Jeep, or the guy on the corner.
It didn’t matter. I’d never let them beat me.
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