A Narrow Slice of Time: Chapter Six

Donald stretched and yawned and slowly opened his eyes. He saw an unfamiliar landscape painting above a chest of drawers that was not his. The sheet that covered him had purple flowers on it. He could smell the scent of lavender coming from a candle on the night stand next to him. The only things that looked familiar were his shirt and pants folded neatly on a chair by his side of the bed. He heard the sound of someone scraping a skillet and smelled coffee brewing. When he felt a bit more alert he sat up and began to put on his clothes. Brooke—he had spent the night with Brooke.

He stumbled off to the bathroom halfway down the hall and splashed his face with water. His reflection in the mirror above the sink looked ridiculous: he badly needed a shave and his hair stuck out at bizarre angles. He took his morning piss, washed his hands and found a clean hand towel, wash rag and bath towel piled in a neat stack on the bathroom counter. A woman’s razor lay nearby, but he doubted that she meant for him to use it. Little bits of black stubble were caught between the twin blades. He wondered if he should make an appearance in the kitchen first or take a shower. The smell of hot food, bacon, eggs and toast, drew him to the kitchen.

Brooke was seated at the table with a coffee mug in hand. She wore a white bathrobe, powder blue men’s pajamas and fuzzy brown slippers. Her unbrushed hair was a bushy tangle. She smiled and gestured for him to sit down across from her. A plate of food with a cover on it waited for him there. She got up and poured him a cup of coffee, sat back down and began to eat her breakfast. Donald tucked in, dipped buttered toast into the yolk of his eggs over easy, and crunched down on a piece of crisp bacon. He usually had no appetite for breakfast, but this tasted good and he was ravenous.

“I can make you another egg if you’re still hungry,“ Brooke said after he ate the last bite.

“No thanks. Everything tasted great. I don’t usually eat this much in the morning.”

“Ah…not much of an early riser then?”

“No. I don’t really wake up until I’m halfway to work and I’ve had a second cup of coffee.”

“Well, I better get you another cup, then. It’s 7:30. What time do you have to be in?

“9:00. How about you?”

“The same.”

“Would you like a ride?”

“Hmm. I’m doing a calibration check in Rama Suite today. If there’s nothing but good vibrations I usually can shut things down around 6:00. Is that too late for you?”

“We’re still going over the cupcake mission. We haven’t figured out what went wrong yet, and there’s some pressure from above to deliver a report soon. They’re still spooked about the recent string of failures.”

“Oh. So you don’t know when you’re getting off. We’d better go separately.”

“Too bad.”

“We’ll have to plan things better next time.”

“Next time?”

“How about Saturday? Then we can sleep in and take our time getting up. What do you usually do on Sunday mornings?”

“Recover from a hangover…go over some figures for Monday…watch a news show.”

“Not a church going man, are you?”

“No, I’m not all that religious. Are you?”

“I go ever so often when the mood strikes. I was raised Catholic. Most Sundays I read the paper or putter around in the garden. Sometimes I catch up on my housework if I’ve let things go during the week. I can be a slob sometimes. I get the impression that you’re very tidy and organized, Donald. Am I right?”

“God, no. I spend the whole week trying to be exacting and precise. I don’t give a damn about being neat at home. It’s a common misperception that all historians are tight asses.”

“I stand corrected. You want to shower first? The heater is pretty small and there’s not enough hot water for two long showers.”

“We could save some water…”

“We could, but I’m afraid that we might be late for work. One thing can lead to another.”

“One can only hope. I’d like to see you before next Saturday. Is there any room for me in your schedule?”

“Room for what? More sex? I suspect, sir, that you have begun to see me as nothing more than an object of sexual pleasure.”

“Not really. I barely find you attractive. Last night was a tragic mistake. I think that we should go back to being Platonic friends right after we take a shower together.”

“Sure, sure. That’s what all the boys say when they want to make more mistakes with the ladies…” She leaned over the table and gave him a kiss.

They barely made it to work on time. They held hands at the stop lights as they rode together in Donald’s car. They could not meet for lunch, and agreed that Brooke should catch a bus home after her shift ended. They would spend the weekend together. Brooke did not finish until 6:30 and decided to read her romance novel in Donald’s office while he edited a report. She made them a late supper of Italian sausages served over penne pasta when they got back to her place at 8:00.

When Donald woke up early the next morning he stretched and yawned and slowly opened his eyes. The dresser, the painting and the purple flowered sheets all looked a bit more familiar. Brooke lay beside him and snored quietly, her hair a wild nest of tangles. He kissed her forehead to wake her up, but she barely stirred. He got up and started the coffee. She stumbled in with eyes half closed while he was busy scrambling eggs, and she put two bagels in her toaster oven. She smiled and kissed him and her mouth tasted like stale bologna. He handed her a mug of coffee and said, “Drink this, dragon breath.”

“What’s the matter, Donald? Don’t you love me? Give me another kiss. Please, please, please.” She pushed her lips out in a ridiculous pucker and waited for him to comply.

Donald kissed her again: more stale bologna. Then he kissed her again. The flavor was growing on him.

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A Narrow Slice Of Time: Chapter 1

Judy and I are working on our third novel in our sci-fi time traveler series.  I’m going to post one chapter a week from the first book, “A Narrow Slice of Time”, until we finish “Stitches Nine”.

narrow slice cover 4

Grasping at Time is a fool’s errand. The faster it slips by the quicker our release from misery and regret. And only a Fool wishes to go back and relive his life, to undo mistakes made, to savor in full the precious moments he once neglected to treasure. If he could return and make his corrections, then another line of errors would spring forth; if he cherished an instant he had previously ignored, then he would forsake another sweet demand upon his attention. Tis better to live in the middle of each minute and advance as Providence allows, looking neither forward nor back. Do not concern yourself with the Speed and Course of your Days, but swim in time’s stream from Birth to Death like a fish gliding through tranquil waters.
R.L. Mundicutt, 1832, Cottage Whyteford, Sussex.

Chapter 1

2036 (Standard Timeline)
Bill Plum and Aubrey Piazza climbed the steps to a gleaming, white building that resembled a knock-off copy of the Taj Mahal. The cylindrical towers on either side of the faux mausoleum were made from a material that looked like marble when viewed from a considerable distance. A sign carved in bas relief above the central, arched doorway was inscribed with the corporate logo: GURUTECH. The letters had the lilt and tilt of Sanskrit.
Aubrey was a hard faced, large boned, somewhat muscular woman of forty. Her auburn hair had a few streaks of grey near the temples. She wore tan slacks, a black silk blouse with a plunging neckline, and leather sandals. Her sunglasses were very dark, and her eyes were concealed by the reflections on the surface of the lenses. She had deep grooves on either side of her down turned mouth, and when she paused as she spoke she sometimes twisted her lips and grimaced as if she were sucking on something distasteful.
Bill was a nondescript rabbit of a man. His doughy face was dominated by a large, barrel shaped nose that skewed slightly to the left. His midsection sagged over his belt and his shoulders rounded forward. His suit was gray and rumpled, his hair mouse brown, and his black shoes scuffed. He had the neglected appearance of an aging bachelor, a threadbare man who had exhausted his meager promise long ago. Bill pulled Aubrey aside before they reach the entrance.
“Did you study the packet, Aubrey?” he said.
“Yes, of course I did,” she answered.
“I know that you don’t believe in their mumbo-jumbo, but they won’t let you take your trip until you satisfy them.”
“Why do you keep after me about that? I studied. I’m not stupid.”
“Tell it to me again. I helped you pay their fee and negotiate your errand. I don’t want to waste my time and money.”
“It’s always about that, isn’t it? It’s all about the cash.”
“Yes, dear, it is. Recite.”
“Jesus, what a pain…GURUTECH was founded in 2028 by a bunch of swamis from Kerala who enlisted the aid of a theoretical physicist from Stanford University named Fleming Anderson. Together they discovered that all moments in time exist simultaneously; they’re stacked like slices of bread. Every narrow slice of time has its own vibration signature and, and…and then they go on about string theory, Heisenberg, fluid time and gravity constants, mumbo jumbo Einstein, blah, blah, unified field, blah.”
“Correct so far. They won’t expect you to totally understand the physics, but I would leave out the blah, blah, blahs if I were you. Go on.”
“Right. If a person can attune their own personal vibration signature to the signature of a particular time period, they are instantly transported to that moment. Then there’s something about a law of affinity and spontaneous attraction. That part always sounds like a pick up line to me.”
“Aubrey.”
“Bill. Stop fussing. I’m not going to say that to the techs when I walk through that door.”
“Continue.”
“Most people cannot attune their personal vibration signal, or PVS, or maintain it long enough for the transportation to occur. GURUTECH’s engineers developed a wave mirror chamber that echoes and enhances the chance vibrations that are synchronous with a distinct time period. The person gradually comes more and more into alignment with their target destination, and within an hour they find themselves in Ancient Rome or 20th century Europe. They are allowed limited engagement with the events of the target time period, and must return within seven minutes. A chip embedded in the base of their skull acts as a portable enhancer and causes the traveler to fall into a trance at the end of seven minutes. A warning buzz in the ear alerts the traveler to their imminent departure. Traveling back to one’s own time is easier because the traveler is naturally in synchrony with their own period. The transportation goes much more easily, however, if the traveler assumes the correct mental posture just before the portable enhancer goes off.”
“And you’ve been practicing that, I hope?”
“Yesss—you’re such a worry wart. Yes, I’ve been practicing. You close your eyes, center them on the magic spot in the middle of your forehead—“
“Stop calling it that! Third eye. Be sure to call it the third eye!”
“Yeah, yeah. Then I watch my breaths. I say Om when I inhale and moo when I exhale.”
“Stop being such an ass. Om and aum. Om and aum.”

“Don’t call me an ass. Can’t you recognize when I’m telling a joke by now?”
“This is serious, Aubrey, very serious.”
“Yeah, yeah…Are you sure that it was okay to tell them about what I plan to do?”
“Yes. Telling your ex-husband what a jerk he is, or was, or will be will not significantly alter the present. The man had literally no impact on anyone but you. But remember to carry out your assignment too. You have to buy the last vanilla iced cupcake from that shop near your old apartment. That’s vital. And it’s part of the price of your ticket.”
“Messing with Jeff’s head is okay, but it’s vital that I buy a cupcake. That’s weird.”
“Vanilla iced cupcake with pink sprinkles. The gurus know what they’re doing. Carry out the deal as stated in the contract or they might send you to medieval Germany at some random moment. They don’t like it if you fail to carry out your part of the bargain.”
“Are we done now?”
“Yes, dear. You know it’s not just about the money. I care about you and I’m worried that something bad might happen. Promise me that you’ll be careful and do as you’re told. Please don’t lose your temper and do something rash.”
“Stop talking and let me get on with this.”
“It won’t really help, you know. The satisfaction will be momentary, and it won’t improve things in this time.”
“Bill, at my age I’ve learned that all satisfactions are momentary. You and I have proved that over and over. Last night was another example.”
Bill sighed and let go of her arm. They climbed the last few steps and entered a doorway to the right. A sign above their heads told them that they were entering the Hall of Time. The smell of sandalwood incense overwhelmed them as they passed inside. Orange robed monks and nuns walked about with quick, light steps, entering and exiting through arched doorways on either side of the hall. The men had shaved heads, and the women wore light scarves that covered their hair. Bill and Aubrey walked down the long, marble-floored hallway until they reached a reception desk. A few armchairs upholstered with a shiny, orange material were placed in a semicircle off to the left. When she studied the chairs closely Aubrey saw that the cloth was stitched with magenta threads that formed pulsating, interlocking patterns. The receptionist wore a fixed smile on her face. Her lips curled serenely, but the slight clench of her jaw gave her an air of willful determination.
“Namaste. Good morning. Welcome to the GURUTECH Hall of Time. What is the nature of your business?”
“My name is Aubrey Piazza. I’m scheduled to make a journey today.”
“Ah, yes. I have you down on my roster. Forgive me for not recalling your name. We have had many travelers the last few days.”
“Don’t worry about it. What’s next?”
“You will have to fill out some paper work: some forms giving us final clearance, a legal statement freeing GURUTECH from liability in all instances save technical failure, and a form declaring that your present physical and mental state is sound.”
“I thought that I already signed off on that.”
“Oh, no. Many of our clients make that assumption when they begin training. Those forms just cleared you for the training program. These forms are for the actual trip. And after you’ve finished with these there’s a short test that tells us whether you have studied the process and are aware of the parameters of your mission. Please take a seat over there and use the touch screen attached to the arm. This should only take about twenty minutes.”
“Seems like a lot of paper work for a seven minute trip.”
“You may back out of our arrangement if you wish, Miss Piazza.”
“I’ve come this far. I might as well go through with it.”
“We would be most pleased if you did, Miss Aubrey, as our technicians have devoted a great deal of time and effort in making your dual mission safe, comfortable and full of purpose.”
Aubrey took a seat in the nearest armchair, swung a padded arm over her lap and booted the touch screen embedded in the arm. Bill watched her type in her answers until he heard the receptionist cough politely.
“Sir, will you be traveling today also?”
“No, I just wanted to make sure that Aubrey, Miss Piazza, was taken care of.”
“She will be fine, sir. Her trip has been planned meticulously, and our technicians will watch over her with great care.”
“Yes. I remember you telling me that when I went on my mission. That didn’t go as planned. Did your technicians watch over me?”
“It’s Mr. Plum, is it not? I believe that I have seen your face before on memos received from our legal department. Your complaints about your experience have been taken into consideration, and your journey is now used as a case study when we train new technicians. We are pleased that you made it back to our time and that the errors that you introduced into your time line were insignificant and easily erased. I trust that your trip to Magdeburg was not too unsettling.”
“Magdeburg! Do you know what that was like?”
“Yes, Mr. Plum. All employees of GURUTECH are given a simulated experience of our default destination. There were many choices that we considered during the Thirty Years War in Germany. The 17th century in Europe was rife with wholesale slaughter, religious persecution, famine, pestilence and aimless destruction. We narrowed our selection down to the Fall of Magdeburg as it was an event so utterly chaotic and disastrous that no amount of interference by our travelers could significantly change the flow of time. Such moments in time are rare, Mr. Plum. We regret any discomfort that you experienced there, and hope that the basket of fruit and bottle of brandy we gave you on your return relieved your anxiety in some small way.”
“I spent four weeks in a psych unit having the emotional scars erased. I still can’t go to a barbecue. My memories of that place are nearly gone, but I know that it was total hell.”
“Yes, sir. Many of our default travelers describe Magdeburg with those very words. If you wish to file another formal complaint about your experience, I can ring this buzzer and two of our most considerate monks will escort you to our public relations office.”
The receptionist pointed to a buzzer on her desk with her index finger, and looked over her shoulder in the direction of two burly men in an office behind her. Bill raised his hands in supplication and took a step back from the desk.

“No, no. I don’t want to make a complaint. I just want to make sure that Aubrey—Miss Piazza is taken good care of.”
“Your concerns will be noted in our log. Perhaps it is time for you to wish Miss Piazza a successful journey, sir. Will you be here tomorrow in case Miss Piazza needs assistance following her return and processing?”
“Yes. Do you still have my number on file?”
“Yes, sir. We know all about you.”
The receptionist smiled as she said these last words, but there was no warmth in her expression. Bill took another step back and turned in Aubrey’s direction. She waved the back of her hand at him to dismiss him, and Bill stammered out a weak, “Good luck,” before hustling away.
“I’m ready,” Aubrey said to the receptionist as she finished her last entry. The receptionist transferred Aubrey’s forms and the completed test to a screen on the reception desk; she maintained her fixed smile for the most part, but frowned occasionally as she clicked buttons on the keyboard and touched icons on the screen. At one point, as the receptionist carefully studied a form, she reached for a phone, but hesitated and withdrew her hand. She glanced up at Aubrey with doubt in her eyes as she reread a passage several times, and then scrolled through all of the documents one more time.
“Why yes, Miss Piazza. You are ready,” she finally replied. She gave Aubrey her cold smile and waved to the burly monks in the office behind her. They stepped forward and Aubrey was surprised to see that they wore pistols in the orange sashes around their waists.
“What’s with the hardware?” she asked the receptionist.
“Bon voyage, Miss Piazza,” said the receptionist.
The two men rapidly came up to Aubrey and stood on either side of her. The one on the right took a gentle hold on her elbow and began to lead her toward the office. When she jerked her arm out of his grasp and tried to pull away from them, they simply picked her up by the shoulders and feet and carried her end to end as if she were a rolled up carpet.
“Bill!” she screamed once before disappearing behind the doors of the office.

Black Birds (A Short Story)

She had planned it poorly when she agreed to let Tony pick her up for lunch. Linda had a nagging feeling when they sat down to eat that she would soon be dumping him. But she was more surprised than he was when she blurted, “I wanna break up with you,” right after their bony young waitress laid their meal on the table and walked away.

Linda got up and left him sitting there staring at their food: her taco salad, his giant beef and bean burrito, her sweet tea and his Dr. Pepper. She briefly returned to the table to grab her sweet tea, but walked away quickly before he had a chance to argue with her or plead. She hated when he did that.

Her glow of satisfaction faded quickly when she stepped outside into a sauna of damp heat. The August sun bore down with vindictive energy on her particular spot in Winter Park, Florida, and she squinted as she struggled to pull her shades from the bulky, white purse slung on her arm. She realized that she would have to call her sister for a ride, and saw that her sense of timing had been exquisitely poor.

Her cell phone pulsed and throbbed in her hand before she had a chance to flick it open. It was a text from Tony: “Want a ride?” Linda glanced over her shoulder but couldn’t see past the reflections on the plate glass window of the restaurant into the interior. She assumed that he was staring at her smugly from the coolness inside, and she texted “No!” She wandered down the length of the shopping strip and decided to hide inside Whole Foods. She wasn’t going to discuss anything with Tony, and certainly wouldn’t ride with him in his car. He might trick her.

Tony closed his phone and put it back into his coat pocket. He wanted to track her down and make her explain, but decided to let her go. If this latest episode in their series of break ups was just a product of one of her moods, then it would be smarter to let her work her way through it without any guidance (“interference” was her term) from him. If she really wanted to break up, then he’d let her. He was tired of making the effort to keep her happy.

He glumly ate a few taco chips and started on the burrito. He put too much hot sauce on it and had to ask Melissa, the waitress, for an extra soda. He mopped his forehead and watched his server’s hips sway as she walked away. She swiveled around and smiled at him as if she knew that he was studying her curves in action, and he turned away in embarrassment and looked out the window. He picked just the right moment to see Linda pass by. She was wearing heels and looked hot and uncomfortable as she impatiently walked back and forth on the sidewalk.

Linda’s torso was shaped like a pear with narrow shoulders and a wide ass, and her short, floral print dress with loud, tropical colors did little to hide the fat accumulating on the back of her thighs just above her knees. Today she had pulled her frizzy, brown hair into a pony tail on one side of her head, and she looked like a refugee from the eighties, an aging material girl who was getting too old to “just wanna have fun”. Tony finished his burrito and burped. He began to eye her taco salad. Break ups with Linda always made him hungry.

She couldn’t get Bobbi to answer the phone. Her sister was forever hauling her brats back and forth from the doctor, the supermarket and school, and she never picked up when she was driving. Linda debated between waiting at the bus stop at Lakemont and Aloma and walking home. The bus service was notoriously bad, and she didn’t know if she’d have to circle down town Orlando twice before finally traveling in the right direction to get home. It had to be 95 degrees out and her feet were already killing her. She needed a ride.

And she was getting hungry–she had been too nervous to drink her diet shake at breakfast–and now she felt a little woozy. She began to long for the taco salad waiting at Tony’s table for her to devour, but resisted the urge to go inside. She went back to the Whole Foods to buy something to nibble.

Linda wandered through the narrow aisles amongst aging hippies and New Age wannabes, and couldn’t seem to find anything appealing. She got trapped between two grocery carts blocking her path at the meat counter. A 30 year old blonde couldn’t decide between ground buffalo and free-range beefsteaks. She had a baby in a papoose slung across her chest and wore Birkenstock sandals. Earth Mama asked the clerk whether the methane emissions of cattle were more detrimental to the environment than buffaloes’, and Linda forced her way past when the clerk began a long winded spiel about bovine digestion. She was accosted at the grain bins by a sixty year old man wearing a golf cap and sporting a white goatee. He asked her if she like to bake bread while he stared at her breasts.

Her phone lit up as she backed away from the creep, and she told him that her fiancée was calling. She snapped the phone open and cried, “Hi, Tony!”

Tony was surprised when she answered, and her tone of voice sounded too friendly even for a good day when they were getting along. It usually took at least a week for her to respond after a break up, and he had expected his call to go straight to voice mail.

Linda said, “Sit tight. I’ll be right there!” and hung up before he could say a word. Tony raised two fingers to get Melissa’s attention, and he ordered another taco salad for Linda and a beer for himself. He knew that the drink would make his belly feel more bloated than it all ready did, but the restaurant didn’t serve hard liquor.

She breezed in a few minutes later and sat down across from him. She picked at the scraps of the first salad left on the plate in the middle of the table, and seemed surprised when Melissa arrived with a fresh order. Tony waited in silence as she chattered about her sister, the hot weather and a shopping trip that she planned to take with her mother. When she had chewed and talked her way through her meal she wiped the grease off her lips, paused, and nervously smiled at him without making eye contact. He decided to show her some mercy and said, “Do you need a ride home?”

“Would you give me a lift? Thank you, Tony.”

“No problem.”

He went up to the cashier and paid, and they walked together in silence to his car. He didn’t open up her door for her, and drove faster than usual down Aloma toward Semoran.

They got stuck at a light. A sunburned, homeless man with dirty pants and the scraggly beginnings of a beard stood on the curb next to them and held a cardboard sign. The letters were too small to read, and when she stared too long as she tried to decipher the message, the man came over with a tentatively hopeful look on his face. She rolled down her window and gave him two quarters she hurriedly dug out of the bottom of her purse. And when he took them and said, “God Bless,” she was too flustered to notice the sarcastic note in his voice.

They pulled up to her house, and Tony didn’t respond when she leaned against and kissed him on the cheek. She no longer knew whether or not they had broken up, but he had made up his mind about something. He seemed to be made of stone as he sat gripping the steering wheel with both hands.

She got out of the car and walked to her door, but she didn’t hear him start the motor and drive away. She looked back and saw him staring straight ahead. Nothing remarkable caught her eye when she surveyed her neighborhood. There were parked cars, puddles in the curbs, cinder block, ranch houses and trees. Her neighbor, an anorexic twenty year old named Tammi, wasn’t out sunbathing in her pink bikini. Tony kept staring.  Her curiosity was piqued.

Linda got back into the car. He glanced at her long enough to register her return, and went back to staring straight ahead. She said, “What are you looking at?”

“The black birds,” he said.

She squinted up past the rear view mirror and saw a row of bedraggled starlings perched on a telephone line. They crowded against each other, rustled their wings and looked wet and miserable. There must have been a sun shower in the neighborhood while they were at the restaurant. A black bird occasionally took off to stretch its wings, but soon returned. His spot might be taken, and if it was the prodigal just shouldered his way back into the line at another spot. The starlings mostly ignored each other, but made sure that they remained huddled together with wings touching.

“Do you like the birds?” she asked.

“They’re okay,” he said, and then he took her hand and gave it a squeeze.

She wanted to remove it, but instead she leaned over and rested her head on his shoulder. When the car got too hot they went inside and made love in her bed. Their post coital drowsiness slid into a nap, and when she woke up Linda discovered that she was huddled tight against his hairy, sweaty body.

She gradually separated herself from him and rolled off the bed without waking him. He farted in his sleep, and she knew that she had made a timely escape. The faint whiff she got was familiar—she knew from ten years of experience that the man couldn’t handle beef, beer and beans at one go.

She padded in bare feet to the kitchen to get a glass of water, and as she shook ice cubes from a tray she made a mental note: the next time they went out on a date she would drive herself to their rendezvous.  He wouldn’t fool her again.