Time is Like a River, and After Sunset, It Is Black

Categories Science Fiction

He came out of the warehouse’s dark hallway. Rita, who was twelve-years old that winter, noticed right away he had a familiar, pale, friendly face. He joyfully took her hands. “It’s so good to see you again,” he said.

“I don’t know you,” she said automatically. “Let go!”

He didn’t. Instead, he indicated an office in the building she had broken into–because urban exploration sounded so cool, because her thirteen-year old neighbor said she would have her back and no one would show up. But this man had come, with his familiar face.

And Rita’s neighbor had fled, abandoning her. Friends she made always did.

“Here is where we’ll spend the weekend!” He smiled as he kicked open the door. She could see snow falling through the broken window pane. Light filtered in from the streetlight outside onto the dusty floor. There, a new, sharp-cornered wooden casket sat.

She panicked, twisted, and pulled, but he held on. He was an adult and she was a child, even if she was the tallest girl in class. Even if she didn’t have any friends because they thought, not without reason, that she would wrestle them to the ground and laugh in their faces as she did it.

“It’s not what you think,” he said. “It’s a game.”

“I don’t like games,” she said through her teeth.

“Sure you do, Rita. Like when you and the neighbor shut me up inside a closet for two whole days when our parents were gone in Bahia. I was starving, thirsty, had soiled myself when you finally let me out. You made me promise not to tell anyone else.”

The hair on Rita’s arms stood up. “That wasn’t you. That was Jacob and that was last week.”

She did not feel regret over what she had done. She had been born with a sliver of ice in her heart. He was seven with sticky, chocolate-y hands that touched all her things. Even broke them as he laughed and looked up at her, waiting for her reply. Her mother already ignored Rita enough without having a first grader to take care of. He was a step-brother she had never asked for with his adult, inquisitive look and his imp’s smile. He was cruel, persistent, underfoot, and sure, and the sliver of ice in Rita’s heart knew he needed to be punished for it.

“I was afraid of small spaces, after that,” said the man whose familiar smile was, yes, Jacob’s smile, but older, distant, and amused. “It inflamed my anxiety. In fact, I developed acute agoraphobia. But, oh, I do not regret my fears! I became an inventor indoors, you see. I learned how time is like a river and one need only find where the river bank is to go back along the stream.”

She wouldn’t have believed him, would have demanded to know how long he had been spying on her family, but he had Jacob’s face, stretched out and sharped with the years. “Oh, God.”

“Not here,” he said. “Just me.”

“I can’t believe this! You idiot!” She kicked but he didn’t seem to mind. She kicked harder and he didn’t even flinch! It set her blood on fire. “If you invented a time machine, then stop me from doing that to you! Just break into our house and save yourself!”

He frowned. “But that would mean I would never make my first billion. Or travel in time at all. I am what you have helped me become and I shouldn’t undo it. I shall tutor you about paradoxes, Rita,” he said, and pried open the wooden box with the toe of his black shoe. It was plain wood inside with perfect corners. “We have at least three days, you and me. Don’t worry. You won’t be too dehydrated in that time. I have water ready for after.”

She screamed as he pushed her inside. “But I’m not even afraid of the dark!” she howled.

He looked sad as he pinned her, like he was about to put a butterfly under glass. “I admire you and love you, even now. It is our parents that are so very cruel, who lack the interest in us or desire for discipline.” From his worn blazer pocket, he pulled out a clear, plastic bag. It looked like it had black thread inside, but the thread squirmed. “I will give you the interest and discipline you so kindly gave me.”

She screamed but stopped right away when he overturned the bag of spiders onto her hair. He shut the box and was submerged in perfect black.

Rita lay there, too scared to open her mouth. They crawled along her scalp with their thin legs. She covered her nose, too, as she breathed hard and fast. The very same neighbor who had abandoned her here had once claimed spiders like to find their way up your nostrils.

Older Jacob, as he promised, recited his theory of time, paradox, and many stories of their lives now, soon, and after. He told her how they would make up one day and have a picnic on the riverside near a ravine. She would pretend to push him in. “Just like old times,” she would say and laugh until he did, too.

Older Rita, he said, would tell him about the time machine he would invent, the abandoned warehouse, the box, and the spiders, and the Sunday he would free her. She would tell him it was like being born again but covered in small, red bites and great, horrible tears. She would say all this, and stress how she would hate him, the river running beside them in a hushed roar. Then the sun would set and the river would become black as the inside of Rita’s box.

“But I love you,” Rita would say, Jacob said now over the casket. “Like all sisters, you are something like a friend to me, but the kind who would never leave.”

Gillian Daniels attended the 2011 Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Workshop and, since doing so, her poetry and short fiction have appeared in Strange Horizons, Apex Magazine, Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet, and Beneath Ceaseless Skies, among others. She currently reviews for The New England Theatre Geek.