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Time and Time Again

Kat Otis lives a peripatetic life with a pair of cats who enjoy riding in the car as long as there's no music involved. Her fiction has appeared in Orson Scott Card's Intergalactic Medicine Show, Daily Science Fiction, and Flash Fiction Online. She can be found online at katotis.com or on Twitter as @kat_otis.

"Smoke break?" My co-worker Paul leaned back in his chair to peer around the side of the wall separating our two cubicles.
"You said you were quitting," I said, pretending to focus on my monitor even as my adrenaline spiked at the thought.
"Not cold turkey," Paul countered.
My hands itched to open the top drawer of my desk, to pull out the e-cigarette laying in wait there. "You also said I was supposed to hold you accountable."
"I haven't had a smoke all day. This is my one and only; scout's honor."
I waffled for a few seconds, but he was going to go outside to smoke with or without me. "Fine. But just this once."
There was a corner semi-sheltered from the biting wind just outside the twenty-foot no smoking zone radius, where we joined two other smokers from another office that I vaguely recognized. We nodded to each other as Paul fumbled a cigarette out of his pack and made a face. "I think someone's been stealing from my stash." He turned the pack upside down to demonstrate its emptiness, then tossed it to the ground, ignoring my frown.
I put the e-cigarette to my mouth and mimed a primer puff, catching the nearly invisible switch on a tooth and switching it to the on position. Then I slowly and steadily inhaled--but not a chemically enhanced vapor.
I inhaled time.
Lifting time has a bad reputation, mostly thanks to creeps who tried to lift from babies and old folks. The first was just disgusting. The latter was pitiful. Either was likely to get you caught by the cops, who knew what signs to watch out for. No, the secret was to find adults who performed the same repetitive motion over and over again, who wouldn't notice if one or two of them vanished when they had the memory of ten or twenty more to cover the loss.
"Long time no see. Cancer still in remission?" The semi-stranger on the left asked as he used the stub of his almost-finished cigarette to light up the next one.
I exhaled, surprised he'd remembered such a brief conversation from months earlier. I couldn't even remember his name and a twinge of guilt filled me. Not enough guilt to keep me from nodding and inhaling again. Each of my companions had years of life to spare, years they were risking with their addiction.
Years I needed more than they did.
We finished our cigarettes in silence after that and trooped back into the warmth of our respective offices. I made myself a cup of coffee in the break room then returned to my cubicle and got back to work. I hated to waste even a precious second of my stolen time with such useless inanity, but discreet time-lifters didn't come cheap.
I was about halfway through my cup when Paul peered around the side of the wall again. "Smoke break?"
"You said you were quitting," I reminded him.
"Not cold turkey."
"You also said I was supposed to hold you accountable."
"I haven't had a smoke all day. This is my one and only, scout's honor."
I drew in a deep breath, tamping down on guilt. I needed this. I needed this. A body couldn't be blamed for doing whatever they needed to do to survive.
"Fine. But just this once." I grabbed my time-lifter and wondered which of us was deluding ourselves more.
I was pretty sure it was me.
The End
This story was first published on Wednesday, July 4th, 2018

Author Comments

I think it's safe to say I'm not the only person in the world who has habits that get so ingrained that I sometimes perform actions and afterwards have a moment of "wait, I must have done X but I don't actually remember doing it." Driving to work, cleaning the cats' litterbox, and all those other little routine moments end up happening on autopilot while my mind is focused on far more interesting things, like figuring out the plot of my next story....

- Kat Otis
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