Cynthia was rearranging her mom’s yesterday when someone aware came in.
She recognized the boy from somewhere. He looked about seven, her age, with a bowl cut. Normal enough, and that was the strange thing; he wasn’t like everyone else in the coffee shop. They were gray and wispy and hard to see. Even her mom looked streaky—even Cynthia’s daytime self did—and Cynthia’s English teacher, sitting at a table with a little notebook, was even harder to see. A few babies were real enough, crawling among the chairs or crying for their mothers—all babies can still dream the past, though they don’t know what to do with it—but everyone else looked like trees beyond a window on a rainy day.
The boy was like Cynthia: colorful and solid and right there. “What are you going to do?” he asked, and his voice was just as clear as him.
He made her nervous. She didn’t reply. Whatever he was doing here, Cynthia had a mission. She looked up at her mom, waiting by the counter for her coffee, and took a deep breath to yell ‘succulent.’ But before Cynthia had even gotten su from her mouth, something knocked the wind out of her. The boy had tackled her to the floor!
“What are you doing?!” she demanded.
He got to his knees, pouting. “You’re not gonna take my dad away from my mom!”
Twelve hours earlier
In the coffee shop they always came to, Cynthia and her mom reached the front of the line. Her mom ordered something with a really long name, full of words that made it sound fast but also relaxing, creamy and sweet but healthy, and she got Cynthia an oatmeal chocolate cookie. While they waited for the coffee, Cynthia munched her cookie and looked around. Her English teacher, Mr. Ferguson, was sitting at a round table near the counter, holding a notebook in one hand and pressing a pen to his lips with the other. A boy with a bowl haircut sat opposite him, about Cynthia’s age, drawing on a napkin.
Cynthia smiled and started to go over to Mr. Ferguson—he was her favorite teacher—but Mom held her shoulder. “We’re in a rush. Don’t wander around.”
“But that’s…” Cynthia began, but Mom was speaking to the aproned guy behind the counter. Mom sounded awkward today. She got her cup of stuff that smelled tasty but which Cynthia had tried once when Mom went to pee and so knew it actually tasted bitter and horrible, and they left the counter.
One of the ladies in the line touched Mom’s shoulder, smiling. “Oh! I was thinking of trying that one. How is it?”
Mom looked flustered. She’d been that since she’d looked at her phone an hour ago. “It’s… tasty.”
As they passed behind Mr. Ferguson, his head suddenly jolted up. He pulled his pen from his mouth, then bent to write furiously in his notebook. The doodling boy looked up too, and waved as though at a friend, but Cynthia didn’t follow his gaze. She wanted to see what her teacher was writing. She didn’t catch many words, because his hand was in the way, but she saw something about oats, and the phrase, ‘As though from highest heaven sent.’
When Mr. Ferguson moved his hand, she saw the last word he had written: succulent. She had no idea what it meant, but she liked the sound of it. It sounded like Mom’s coffee smelled like, what it should taste like but definitely didn’t. Mr. Ferguson said to the boy with the bowl cut, “I’ve got it!”
“Can I hear it?” asked the boy, looking up from his drawing.
“Just a minute. Got another idea.” Mr. Ferguson looked up as though he’d seen something where the wall met the ceiling, then bent back to his notebook.
Cynthia liked Mr. Ferguson, and more so now that she knew he liked oats enough to make a poem about them. He often read funny poems in English class to teach the kids new words. As soon as she sat down, Mom checked the texts on her phone. She looked really pretty today, with her long blonde hair tied in a pink ribbon, and a dress like a flowery meadow. But whatever she was reading on the phone made her face shrivel up like a grape in a food dehydrator. Cynthia kept looking over at Mr. Ferguson, trying to catch his eye so he might come over and read his new poem to her and Mom, but he was too absorbed. She bet it was a good one.
Before she went to bed, Cynthia looked up succulent in the pocket dictionary Dad had given her before he had left for good. She smiled; it was the perfect word to describe a buttery oatmeal cookie: tender, juicy and tasty. The word itself tasted good… succulent. And when Mr. Ferguson taught it to the class, she would already know the meaning. He’d call her learned; that’s another word he had taught them.
Mom made a weird sound in the living room, like a short bird call, then blew her nose loudly. Cynthia tiptoed out to see Mom curled in a ball on the couch, crying, her phone glowing in her hand.
“You wouldn’t even talk to me,” Mom said to the phone, but she wasn’t on a call. Cynthia knew who she meant. It was that stupid boyfriend, the one with the smile pasted on his stupid face like he’d drawn it on paper and stuck it there. Cynthia has seen that smile fall and he was like a skull underneath, all frightening and mean and only thinking of himself. From the house, Cynthia had heard him yelling at Mom in the car, swearing and saying all kinds of things that Mom said Cynthia should never say. Mom was better off without him, and she’d have more time for Cynthia now, so that was good too.
Cynthia sat on the couch and placed her hand on Mom’s knee.
“Your mommy’s getting too old to be liked.”
“I think you’re really pretty,” said Cynthia. “You don’t need him.”
Mom sniffed, watching her. “You’re a smart girl, you know? Only let people into your heart if they really love you, okay?”
“Why do you need a stupid boyfriend?”
Mom nearly laughed, but she seemed too tired. “I don’t need a stupid one.”
“Why? They just take you away from me.”
“Oh, baby.” Mom sat up, tears in her green eyes, and stroked Cynthia’s cheek. “A good man wouldn’t. He’d help me be a better mom for you.”
That night while she lay in bed waiting to sleep, Cynthia got an idea. So that night, when she dreamed of what had happened during the day, she was ready to make some changes. At first she dreamed of bits and pieces, eating an ice cream or petting a funny little dog on the sidewalk. It was always weird to see herself, gray and foggy Cynthia going about her day. One day when she was awake she’d have to remember to wave at her night-self.
Once she’d seen a movie about a man who had become a ghost, and when she got old enough to think about it properly, she had thought that maybe she was becoming a ghost every night. But the man in the movie couldn’t go back to make himself not die or anything like that. He was stuck in time like being on a tram track, like everybody else. He had to try really hard even just to push a bottle cap around. Cynthia couldn’t push anything, but that didn’t mean she couldn’t change things.
Before long she found her way to the coffee shop. There she was, washed out and wispy like everyone else, chewing on an oatmeal cookie next to Mom. A few real babies crawled around, and one gurgled and laughed at Cynthia. The wispy boy doodled, and Mr. Ferguson had his wispy pen to his wispy lips, looking at the ceiling as though trying to catch something there with his eyes and pull it down into his head.
Cynthia walked over to her mom and took a deep breath to yell succulent! but before she could get out su, something bright and colorful caught her eye. It was a boy, about Cynthia’s age, with a bowl cut and angry eyes. He looked familiar.
“What are you going to do?” the boy demanded, his voice just as clear as him: colorful and solid and right there.
Cynthia couldn’t get distracted. Mom’s coffee would come any second, then Mom would leave the counter and Mr. Ferguson would think of his great word and the chance for them to meet would be gone. Cynthia pulled in her breath again, but before she could yell, something bouldered her to the floor.
“What are you doing?” Cynthia yelled up at the boy.
“You’re not gonna take my dad away from my mom!” He rolled back onto his knees, eyes red.
“Who’s your Dad?” she asked, getting to her feet.
“Him.” He pulled her by the hand over to Mr. Ferguson, all streaky and thoughtful-looking, then to the doodling boy. “And that’s me.” The streaky boy looked up from his drawings and waved.
Cynthia gawked. “He can see you?” But no, the streaky boy wasn’t really looking at the real one, just off into space. It would be fun to try that. “What’s your name?” she asked the boy. She had to win him over, and she only had a few moments.
“I’m Billy and I’m seven.”
“I’m eight and I’m Cynthia,” she said proudly, but she was confused. “How can you do this when you’re so old?” She pointed at one of the babies, crawling around a table next to their twelve-hour-ago selves. “Usually it’s only babies here.”
“They think they’re dreaming,” said Billy. “They don’t know how to change anything.”
“How did you remember?”
“How did you?”
Cynthia said, “My cousin forgot when she went to middle school and I didn’t want to be like her, so I tried real hard.”
Mom was already talking to the guy behind the counter.
Cynthia turned to Billy. “Listen, I need to yell something at my mom.”
Billy balled his fists. “You just want her to take Dad away from Mom!”
“How do you know?”
“Because it worked,” he said, looking down.
Cynthia stared at him, mouth open. “You’re not just coming from half a day away. You’re from—”
“It’s about two weeks,” he said. “Yeah, my dad and your mom get together, all fuzzy and pink and stupid like in the movies, makes me want to barf. Then Dad leaves Mom for good.”
Cynthia looked toward the counter. Mom was already coming toward them, cup in one hand, phone clutched in the other. She looked pretty, even all ghosty, but sad. Cynthia had to do this now.
“How do you like the coffee?” a woman in line asked Cynthia’s mother, her voice sounding like it was underwater.
Cynthia pushed Billy aside and ran up to her mom. She tried to grab Mom by the leg but her hands went through, of course. Billy grabbed Cynthia from behind as she yelled, “Succulent!” As the boy pulled her to the ground she managed, “Succulent, succulent, succulent!!!”
Mom’s head jerked, and she nearly dropped her coffee. “Succulent!” she cried out. “The coffee’s succulent!” The other lady nodded politely, but her smile seemed too fixed in place to be real.
Mr. Ferguson turned and looked up at Mom, a mystified smile on his face. “That’s it! That’s the word I was looking for. How did you even know that?”
Mom touched her hand to her mouth in a most charming way. “I… It just came to my mind.”
Cynthia felt Billy let go of her back.
“That’s incredible,” Mr. Ferguson said, then looked down to wispy-Cynthia. “Cynthia! Miss, is that your daughter? You know, she’s a very smart girl.”
Mom and Mr. Ferguson started talking like two rivers mixing together. Mr. Ferguson said that of all his students, Cynthia appreciated his poems the most. Even he didn’t like them as much as her. Mom laughed more in a few minutes than she had in the last few months, her eyes kept asking Mr. Ferguson questions that Cynthia couldn’t understand, but his eyes seemed to answer yes.
Chest full of warmth and light, Cynthia heard a sound behind her like a clogged sink trying to drain. She turned to see Billy sitting on the floor, grabbing his knees with his arms, sobbing.
“I’m sorry,” said Cynthia.
“No you’re not! If you were you wouldn’t have done it!”
The next day, Cynthia’s mom smiled every time she checked her phone. She hadn’t even cried last night when her stupid boyfriend had broken up with her, and she’d given Cynthia as much honey and butter as she wanted with breakfast.
But Cynthia felt sad. She wanted to talk to Billy, though she didn’t know what she’d say to him. He seemed like a nice boy, and she’d for sure play with him if they were in the same class. Probably she’d come up with something to say, but where could she find him? She looked for him at the coffee shop, but Mr. Ferguson was never there. She’d never seen him there before that one day. Billy wasn’t in any of the nearby parks either, or in the library.
Then one day, she saw him in school, walking down the corridor between classes. Cynthia called his name and he turned, eyes wide and with half a hopeful smile. But when he saw her, he scrunched up his face and shoved his hands in his pockets and marched away as fast as he could.
That night, Cynthia went back to the hallway. There weren’t any babies here, just wispy students striding around, opening and closing lockers, laughing or fighting with each other, going in and out of classes. She waited a long time, hoping Billy would come back. Of course he wouldn’t. He was angry at her, and at Mom. If he did come he’d just yell at her. The school day wore on, and Cynthia knew she’d have to leave. She couldn’t stay on after her day-self had left.
It was only after the last dismissal bell that Billy showed up. He came in through the double front doors, hands in his pockets and shoulders raised. He hardly glanced at her, but shuffled into earshot and mumbled, “Just don’t say you’re sorry.”
“You didn’t—” His face was pinched up like he was trying to keep tears from leaking out. “They weren’t really together anymore, you know.”
“I kinda thought so.”
He let out a sigh like an emptying balloon. With the last of it gone he sat cross-legged on the floor, hands still in his overall pockets. “Do you wish your parents were still together?”
“My dad was kinda mean,” she said. “Not like yours. I like him.”
Billy rocked back and forth. “Your mom’s nice too.”
“Maybe we’ll be brother and sister.”
His lips twitched in a smile. “You better like dinosaurs.”
She sat too, listening to the voices rush around them like an outgoing tide sealed behind glass, out the door and into the street. Cynthia and Billy would soon fade out from here, wake up or go to some other place from their days.
She said, “What was your dad writing when we met in that coffee shop?”
“Oats.” Billy grinned, showing two missing front teeth. “It’s a poem, really good.”
“I wish I could hear it. I mean, I guess he’ll read it in class, but—”
“He wrote it down for me.” Billy foraged in his many pockets and eventually came up with a crumpled piece of paper. He cleared his throat and straightened his back, then read, “With butter they give a rapturous scent, As though from highest heaven sent, Even if I can’t pay the rent, I’ll eat oats for they’re succulent!” He put the paper back. “What’s succulent mean?”
“Mph. I don’t even like oats.”
“Really?” She found that hard to believe. “Do your dinosaurs like them?”
Billy’s green eyes lit up, and he nodded.
“If I feed them oats, can we be brother and sister?”
“It’ll have to be a lot of oats. They’re really big.”
She stretched her arms as though holding a boulder. “I’ve got more than anyone!”
“Okay.” Billy stood up, took his hands out of his pockets and wobbled from side to side. “Let’s be brother and sister.”
From then on, Billy and Cynthia went many places together, while awake and while asleep. He never learned to like oats, and the hunger of his dinosaurs was never satisfied, but they were the best brother and sister you’ve ever seen.
B.T. Lowry grew up in Canada, studied art, then practiced as a bhakti-yoga monk in India for about fifteen years, before leaving the monkhood. B.T. has been a finalist in the Writers of the Future Contest, had a few short stories published in Metaphysical Press and other online magazines, and has self-published a novel. Check out more work on Storypaths.net.