Erin swung her feet over the water, kicking to the percussion of waves breaking against the docks. Her legs sawed the chilled nothingness as she watched dark crests dash themselves against the wood only to disperse into foam and bubbles. A lamppost illuminated her, casting a blurry corona of golden light over her thick black curls. Erin didn’t know how long she had been watching the water, and she couldn’t remember when she had decided to sit at the edge of the docks. But there she was, waiting, living in that calming moment between everything and nothing where existence slowed to the sound of lapping waves.
There was the sigh of flipping pages and the gentlest thump of a placed finger, and then: “Erin Kowalski?”
Erin felt the man’s presence before he spoke, before she heard those whispering pages. The man stepped onto the docks, his steps so soft that the boards refused to creak beneath them. Erin didn’t have the words to describe that knowing of him being there, but he felt familiar, as if he had been at her shoulder for her entire life.
Erin tucked a fussy strand of hair behind one ear before turning to greet him. The man was not at all what she expected. Her waking mind failed to properly prepare her for the sight of him. He was dressed in a suit of starlight, his exquisite black shoes somehow darker than the waves below the docks. He held a ledger in one hand and clutched a pen in the other. He had eyes and a mouth and a face, and that was it really, and the rest of it Erin’s imagination did not have the wherewithal to properly describe.
“Erin? Kowalski?” the man repeated.
She felt her stomach turn, but not in that icky way of being frightened, more in the way of when the teacher is calling roll and you’re distracted by the pretty face of Chad Simmons who is for some ungodly reason flirting shamelessly with Yasmin Weathers and not with you.
“Yes. I’m Erin,” said Erin, and she fought the urge to raise her hand.
“Do you know why you’re here?” asked the man. He spoke slowly, carefully.
Erin glanced around. She was still sitting on the edge of the docks but could see that there were more than she had realized, and that some of them extended out much farther into the crashing waves beneath grey skies. At the center of the pier was a wagon wheel of stonework, a raised platform where lampposts were positioned in a faerie circle.
“Here?” Erin asked. “To this little pier?”
The man peered down at her with vortex eyes. “Is that what you see?”
A scribbling in the ledger. “Fascinating. Would you care to describe it for me?”
The man scrutinized her. “This. Place. Describe it, if you please.”
Erin looked around again. “Well, I suppose. I’m sitting at the end of a wooden pier and it looks like there are more piers all sort of meeting at this circle of grey stone, and the stone sort of vanishes beneath the waves. There are little bridges connecting the docks together and over where the stone platform is there are all these lampposts just kind of spaced out, like perfectly spaced out actually, like someone put a whole lot of thought into where they should be. And then there’s, like, a metal railing around the whole stone platform and it looks like maybe if I was standing up there I could see me down here. And there’s water everywhere. Like when I went to the beach and saw the ocean and it was just so big, so much water. Only I can’t see out too far and the sky is all overcast and grey, but I think maybe that’s because there’s a storm coming what with all the angry waves crashing against the docks, and the water right here is all foamy and frothy but further out it’s smooth as glass. I thought maybe I could kick off the side of the pier and splash in some of that water, perhaps just my toes, but it must be much farther down than I thought because I don’t seem to be nowhere near reaching that water, though that doesn’t seem quite right does it?”
Looking up Erin realized that she had been droning on in that way again, that way she so often did, that way that’s earned her punishment from her teachers and her parents and made the other kids not like her very much. It’s that thing she wished she wouldn’t do but can’t seem to help.
The man patted the ledger. “Well, Erin Kowalski, I will say you are quite descriptive. I appreciate that.”
“No, thank you. So, once again, do you know why you’ve come here?” asked the man.
Erin shook her head. “I’m not really sure. I can’t remember,” she said. “I’m sorry. I didn’t even ask your name.”
The man chuckled. “Oh, you know my name quite well. It’s right there on the tip of your tongue. Your mind simply doesn’t wish to let it go.”
“Let what go?”
Erin chewed on this. “Your name is…Time.”
“That’s right,” said Time.
She shook her head again. “That can’t be right. Time isn’t a person. Time is…”
Erin contorted her face as she thought real hard for the answer. She’d never had to think this hard before. What was time, exactly? Certainly it couldn’t be this ghoulish man standing before her.
“…me,” said Time, finishing her thought.
“Oh. Well then. For some reason I can’t think of any particular reason Time shouldn’t be a person.”
“You are very wise, Ms. Kowalski. You’ve arrived at the Nexus. Stay as long as you like. You’ll find that time doesn’t pass here in the way it passes where you’re from. And if you can’t quite recall what brought you here, don’t fret. It will come to you.”
Erin nodded. “Wait. Is there a difference between time and Time?”
She wasn’t certain how she was doing it but she could taste them on her tongue. The one with the capital T regarded her with some amusement.
“Yes,” he said.
Erin waited for him to expand or explain but he did neither, so she pushed herself up from the edge of the docks and brushed off her skirt, which was thankfully free of dust and wood splinters and water.
“The material world doesn’t have much influence on the Nexus,” said Time, answering her unasked question. “As I inferred earlier, what you’re seeing as the Nexus is not necessarily the truth of it. What you see is only what you wish to see.”
Erin frowned. “I’ve only been to the ocean once. I live in Iowa.”
Time clicked his tongue. “A shame.” He made a note in his ledger. “No one deserves such a punishment.”
This comment made Erin giggle. “Right?” she said, shaking her head. “There’s nothing to do. I hate school and I’m always in trouble even though it’s not my fault.”
“Ever thought about reading a book? Or drawing a picture? Or knitting a scarf?”
“I don’t like to read. The words swim all over the page when I try.”
Time made a sagely gesture. “That is truly unfortunate. I’ve heard of such afflictions in humans. Perhaps you’re here to fix your reading woes?”
Erin made a face. “I don’t think so. But what does reading have to do with time?”
Time looked aghast. “Only everything,” he said. “In terms of purely non-magical means, reading is perhaps one of the greatest influences of time’s passage on a personal level.”
A shrug passed through her shoulders to signify deference to his determination. “I don’t think that’s why I’m here,” she said. She curled and uncurled a lock of dark hair around one finger.
“I think I need somebody dead,” Erin admitted quietly.
Time tapped his ledger. “That’s not really the sort of thing we do here,” he said. “Not that Death and I aren’t great friends. We’ve summered together. But there is this common misconception that Time kills people. It doesn’t. I don’t. And Death, she’s a touchy little thing when our domains overlap.”
“I’m pretty certain that’s why I came here, though,” Erin said, continuing to fidget with her hair. “Only I can’t remember exactly who it was that needed to die.”
“Perhaps if you stretch your legs a bit you’ll remember,” Time said. “Walk from the…pier, you said? From there to your stone circle and your lampposts.”
Erin thought this could be a good idea and began walking down the length of the pier to where the raised bit of stone awaited with its circle of lights. Despite Time saying that the Nexus only appeared to the visitor in a way they could see, he walked alongside her without issue.
“Erin. I should tell you something that might help your deliberation,” said Time. “According to my ledgers, you have been here once before.”
Erin scrunched up her face. “I have?”
“Yes. Though before might not be the proper word. The Time that took down that information was possibly not me, and the you that was here was possibly not you. And that would mean that Nexus was not at all the Nexus you are seeing now.”
“That makes my head hurt, and I don’t know if I believe any of it,” said Erin.
Time scoffed. “You don’t have to believe me. It’s in my ledger,” he said, rapping a knuckle against the face of the document as if signifying its finality.
“How can I not remember?” Erin asked.
“Oh. That’s easy,” said Time. “Because the you that was here and the you that is here belong to a different spectrum of time. The you that has been here, whether it was the you from tomorrow or the you from next year or the you from a decade from now, is a you quite different from how you are now. The only thing unchanging is me, but this is also not true from a strictly objective sense, since time is erratic and wavering and strange, and Time must follow its patterns.”
“So you just live forever?” asked Erin. “You can’t die?”
“Death is not bound to me, not being mortal and all,” said Time.
Erin felt her face grow hot. “Bound to you?”
“Oh. I don’t think it’s something you can see by the light of your world. Death has a fetter at your wrist that spools off in a ghastly chain, connected to wherever she happens to be at the moment,” said Time. “Right. About. Here.”
Erin recoiled at Time’s touch and rubbed her wrist. She looked down in horror to see that, indeed, there was a chain clasped to her that vanished off behind the grey sky. In realizing the chain was there she accepted it, as if like Time’s presence over her shoulder some part of her had known that Death had been chained to her.
“I think I remember,” Erin said. She ascended the steps of the stone circle one at a time and stood beneath the halo of light cast by the lampposts. She could still hear the swishing of water behind her, and although Time’s steps were silent she knew he was there as she clutched the metal railing that overlooked the dark ocean.
“Remembered why you’re here?” asked Time.
Erin nodded slowly, pulling a few wayward strands of hair away from her face. “Uh huh. The person I wanted dead. I’m pretty sure it’s me.”
Time opened his ledger and flipped through the pages, scrutinizing his script. “I don’t think so. You wouldn’t be here now were that the case.”
Erin shrugged, her grip on the railing tightening. “I don’t know much about your rules or that little book of yours, but I’m telling you the truth. It was me.”
“It can’t be you. Your chain is too long. Death would have scooped you up long before you reached the Nexus. And besides, my ledger clearly states that you’ve visited here once.”
“So it must be a me from the future that came here, is that it?” Erin asked. “A me from the future has been to the Nexus. I can’t possibly have killed myself. That’s what you’re trying to say.”
The things that functioned as Time’s eyes and mouth pulled into some manner of a wince. “Certainly.”
Time tapped his ledger and closed it again. He looked around the Nexus, observing it like a kingdom, and Erin briefly wondered what he saw, before allowing that it was more than likely she really didn’t want to know.
“You can’t be hurrying to end your life if you came here to me,” said Time.
“I don’t know,” said Erin. “I didn’t ask to come here.”
“Oh, but you did. Some part of you wished for this place quite badly,” said Time. “So badly that you escaped the scraping teeth of Death. So tell me the truth. You must wish for a long and full life, yes?”
“Death will still come, no matter what,” Erin said to the sea.
“Perhaps. The chance of giving Death the slip happens rarely,” said Time.
Erin fought the urge to ask about that, and was momentarily distracted by something rippling in the water. She leaned over the railing to watch as the surface tension domed, bubbling only to release a storm of translucent creatures bobbing up and out of the ocean. They looked so much like jellyfish, with their dangling arms and kaleidoscopic insides. Some of them had arms of ice, some of golden leaves, some of vines sprouting pastel flowers, some with arms made entirely out of soft light.
“Are those jellyfish?” Erin asked, pointing.
“Oh, can you see them?” Time whispered. “Beautiful things.”
“They are, but what are they?”
“Perennial jellies,” said Time. “The very souls of the seasons in some worlds. Quite fascinating.”
Erin stitched her eyebrows together. “Some worlds?”
“That’s right. I don’t think…” Time flipped through his ledger. “No. They don’t exist in yours. I’m surprised you can see them at all. Oh, what a delight!”
Erin shook her head. She didn’t know what to make of any of it. Silently she watched as jellyfish rose up from the dark water and floated into the grey sky, vanishing behind the clouds. She watched them bob and undulate around her chain before they were gone completely.
“Don’t worry. When you return home you won’t be able to see your chain, just as before. In fact you won’t remember it’s there. You won’t remember a single thing about this place. And Death is far enough from you that you won’t need to worry for her at all.”
Erin sniffed. “That’s not fair. I won’t remember anything? I’m supposed to have a choice, right? About when I die?”
“Did you have a choice about being born? Life is no choice at all, Erin Kowalski. Death can be, sometimes, but even then it’s more complicated than you think.”
Wiping her eyes, Erin turned to look at Time. “So what is it you do besides jot down notes in your book and bother people with details they don’t want to hear?”
“I’m a caretaker. I observe, I guide. Time is no constant, at least not the one people believe it to be. It passes differently for each of us. Perception is the variable, yes? And yet perception seems to affect the flow of time, and so it is my business. Existence runs concurrently with all possibilities, otherwise there would be no such need for time at all, and you wouldn’t be here asking me these questions.”
“I don’t understand,” Erin said.
Time replaced his book somewhere on his person, and while Erin watched she didn’t understand what she had seen. The ledger simply vanished.
“Well, here we are. But somewhere out there at this exact same moment there is a younger Erin Kowalski sitting on the floor of her living room on Christmas morning, unwrapping gift after gift, revealing video games and clothes. That moment was real and it existed. In the passing of that moment was it erased forever? Did it cease to be? Is it gone, save for memories? No. These moments build upon each other like stones. I curate each and every one. You see, as these moments pass us by their foundations turn fragile, especially if we lose all connection to how they made us feel. A chain of memories binds us together, looping out of each individual moment, and the stronger the feelings the easier they are for me to curate. That Christmas morning was different for your mother and father, different from how it was for you. Your mother had recently been wounded by the dagger of infidelity, and would never again have such a Christmas morning. See, you can examine any moment from a hundred vantages and find a unique perspective each time. For you, that moment is a thing dearly kept, and it flows much easier along the river of time. For your parents, they are simultaneously manipulating that moment into something it is not, as well as trying to forget it in its entirety.”
Erin was crying. Big, fat, real tears that rolled down her cheeks and left salt on her lips. She didn’t bother to wipe them away.
“You see, Erin Kowalski,” said Time. “There is a difference between wanting to die and not wanting to exist. And sometimes that feeling of not wanting to exist is very, very temporary. The human mind is so fragile, and not quite evolved, and consciousness is not a polished thing. Death is quite lonely and quite greedy and is always searching for more to join her, because no matter how many she wraps in her shroud she doesn’t feel like it’s enough, because no one wants her. And that’s difficult for her. Believe me, I’ve tried to talk to her about it. We spoke over drinks one summer evening and she wouldn’t have it. Despite our friendship, it’s tough for her to listen to Time talk about such things when everyone wants more and more of me and less of her.”
Erin pushed herself away from the railing. The jellyfish had all gone now, and she didn’t want to look at her chain any longer. She crossed the stonework and stood beneath the lights.
“You said you don’t remember the me that came here before,” said Erin, index finger jutting out like a blade. “But her visit is in the ledger.”
“There is a record, yes,” said Time.
Erin nodded, the corona of light around her head casting shadows on the ground. The shadows spiraled out from her on the stone circle, each of them slightly different in size and shape than the other, culminating in one final shadow that didn’t much look like her at all.
“I wonder what you came here for,” Erin whispered to the shadows. “I hope whatever you found made you happy. I hope it made you grateful to be alive. Mommy and daddy don’t want to live together with me anymore. Everyone at school is so mean to me. I’m not pretty. I’m not smart. But maybe, someday…”
Erin stepped out of the stone circle and the shadows vanished. She turned back to look at Time.
“I think I want to go home,” she said.
Time nodded sagely. “A wise choice.”
Erin sighed. “Life is tough right now, but maybe it will get better. And I suppose I have to let time pass to find that out. I want to meet her, the future me. I want to know why she came here and what she saw. And I want to know what kind of person she is.”
Time grinned. “Of course, Erin Kowalski. I’m certain she would love to meet you too. It’s so easy to forget the people we once were. There’s so much to learn from one another,” he said, pulling out the ledger and giving it a firm pat. “Do you know how to find your way back?”
“I think so. I don’t quite know how to explain it, but I think I know.”
Erin turned and walked down the docks, leaving the stone circle and its light behind. The old wooden pier creaked beneath her steps, and by time she reached the end of it she was gone.
There was a rustling in the darkness.
“You lied to her,” said Death.
Time smiled. “I knew you were there. Couldn’t keep yourself away from me for long, could you?”
“I don’t care about you. It was that girl I wanted. You lied to her. You opened that book and you lied to her face. She’s the only one of her that has ever been to your Nexus. You lied to her to keep her from me.”
“A white lie, perhaps. Innocent. Oh, Death. You get to have them for so long. My moments are so fleeting.”
Death made an unhappy sound.
“Say,” Time said, thumping his ledger. “While you’re here, would you like to know what it says about you?”
Death grinned prettily. “It doesn’t say a damned thing,” she said, and in a ruffle of her shroud she was gone, clutching fistfuls of rattling chains.
Time watched her go, took one last peek inside his ledger, shrugged, and folded into the Nexus as if he was winding down a river.
Brandon Chinn‘s work includes the sci-fi/fantasy series The Kognition Cycle and the epic poem the Mistake of the World. He was published in the October issue of Moonchild Magazine and an upcoming issue of Selene Quarterly.