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A Matter of Time

Jaime has sold short stories to Lone Star Stories, Triangulations: End of the Rainbow, and now, Daily Science Fiction. Her novels are represented by Tamar Rydzinski of the Laura Dail Literary Agency. Jaime's novel, Delia's Shadow, won the 2009 Columbus Literary Award for fiction, administered by Thurber House and funded by the Columbus Arts Council, a fact that alternately stuns her into incoherence and sends her skipping around the house with joy. She writes a lot. She reads as much as she can.

Myles strolled over to my table in the lunchroom and said he'd die for me, just like that. I didn't know how to answer him or if I'd heard right.
"What did you say?" I had to crane my neck back to meet his eyes. All these months we'd worked in the same carbon-fiber recycling plant and I'd never noticed how tall he was. I'm not sure I'd paid much attention to him at all until that moment.
"I asked if you'd allow me to be your replacement." Myles hunched up his shoulders and stuck his hands in the pockets of his jeans. It made him look like a little boy caught with his hand in the candy bin. "I didn't think it was a difficult question, Julia. Will you take the years I have left?"
Filling out property distribution forms, tying up the loose ends of my life occupied all my attention when I wasn't working or in the studio. I'd already been notified of the date, told which Balance office had scheduled my passing. For a total stranger to make a serious offer to take my place was a shock.
There'd been other offers to replace me. When my name first appeared on the termination list, someone from the black-market contacted me. Selling time to desperate people was a big business and the government's dirty secret was they did little to stop it. Replacements were easy to come by if you had enough money. The calls stopped when they discovered I couldn't pay what they wanted.
Intellectually I'd accepted I only had six months left. I'd made my peace with leaving things undone. Now the prospect of having time, any amount of time, shredded my serenity. Guilt followed close behind the realization of how eager I was to take what Myles offered. "How many years?"
I'd never seen him smile before. It softened the lines around his mocha-brown eyes, made the sadness I saw there almost disappear. "As of the last accounting, more than twenty."
That stopped me cold. Tears stung my eyes as I tried to imagine a span of time that long stretching out before me. The paintings, the projects never started because there wasn't enough time left to me; they were all in reach. I wasn't sure I could trust my voice. "I hardly know you. Twenty years is a lifetime. Why?"
Myles turned his head away slightly. His eyes followed people as they flowed in and out of the packed lunchroom, found tables and met friends. The silence stretched on for so long I was afraid he'd changed his mind.
"The truth is I can't face another twenty years." Myles met my eyes and shrugged his shoulders. "I've wasted most of the time allotted to me. I saw your work in the art show last month. You have talent. You'll do something worthwhile with the time."
"Myles--" A flurry of thoughts whirled through my mind. I tried to hold just one of the questions I knew I should ask. They all eluded me. "I still don't understand."
The smile was smaller, a quiet response to my confusion. "It's enough that I understand why, Julia. I'll notify the Balance office of the replacement in the morning. It should only take a day or two to get the paperwork filed." Myles gathered all the property forms on the table into a neat pile and picked them up. "You won't need these any longer."
"Wait." I grabbed his arm before he could walk away. "I can't believe you're willing to hand me your life without wanting something in return. You must know I don't have any money. So what is it? What do you want?"
The sound of my heart was all I heard, drowning out the clatter of silverware on cheap glass plates and the voices of the people around us. I waited for Myles' answer, terrified there was a condition attached to his offer I couldn't meet.
An eternity passed before he nodded. "You're right. There is one thing I want in exchange. I want you to paint my portrait."
My hand dropped off his arm. "A painting? You're giving me a life in exchange for a picture?"
"I want to leave something behind for my family." The light from the overhead fixtures glittered in Myles' eyes, tiny sparks that mirrored the anger in his voice. "A small token to remind them of my existence. Will you have enough time to finish it?"
"There should be plenty of time." It seemed like an odd thing to ask for in exchange for twenty years of life. Even as I counted off free days and evenings left until the date set to report to the Balance office, calculated how long it would take for the sketches I'd need to do before the actual painting, I walled off the relief that tried to bubble up inside me. I still expected him to change his mind. "Even if I just work on it evenings, a simple portrait should only take me a couple of months."
"Simple will do. I'll leave the ostentatious displays to my sister. Enforcing my right to have my portrait added to the family gallery will be a big enough shock for all of them." Myles folded the property forms and stuffed them into the pocket of his work shirt. "I'll meet you outside the main gate at the end of the shift tomorrow night."
There was no way for me to sort out my feelings as I watched him walk away. Numb was the only word for how I felt. Myles glanced back at me and smiled before he blended into the stream of people going back to finish their shifts, his blue shirt and jeans no different than any of the others, just one more face in the crowd.
Until Myles appeared at my table that's all he'd ever been to me; just one more face in the crowd. Now he'd offered everything to me and asked nothing in return. I didn't understand why. I wasn't sure I ever would.
I went back to my place on the line and tried not to cry.
There was a pattern to the movement of people ending their shifts, almost a dance that became vaguely hypnotic the longer I watched. The weary slump of shoulders and fatigue around their eyes matched my own. They were lemmings, focused on nothing but reaching the transit pods and home. Weaving through the mass of humanity surging out the gate, the crew for second shift fought their way against the tide, jostling and bumping anyone too tired to get out of the way.
I huddled back against the fence, hands jammed into my jacket pockets, bouncing slightly on the balls of my feet to keep warm. Spotting Myles sliding through gaps in the crowd wasn't difficult; he stood a head taller than almost everyone. I tried to smile when he changed direction and angled his way toward me.
Little bits of gray in his beard caught the last flare of sunset, flashing silver as he smiled. "I'm sorry I'm late. Have you been waiting long?"
I shook my head. "No, not really. Only a few minutes."
"Good." Myles reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a document folder. "The paperwork for the time transfer is ready for your signature. If you sign off on all of it tonight I can finish the filing in the morning."
Tremors rippled through me. It was real. I wasn't going to wake up and discover it was all a dream.
"You're cold." Myles took my arm and guided me toward the transit pods lined up at the curb. "Which district is your studio in?"
"I live out in the old Mission district. We can only go part of the way riding the transpods," I said. "The lines don't go that far. We'll have to walk the rest of the way. I'm sorry."
Myles steadied me as two men shoved past and almost knocked me off the transpod steps. He blocked the entrance until I got inside. "What are you sorry about? Walking won't hurt me. I thought most of the Mission district was torn down to make way for the new power plant."
"It was." I threaded my way to the very back row of chipped gray plastic seats, relieved to find two in the corner empty. "That's why the lines don't go all the way out there. Not enough people live in Mission now to make it worth the resources used."
Myles was silent as the driver pulled away from the curb. Streetlights blinked on one by one, the solar panels on the top of each one perched at an angle like a rakish black cap. The yellow glow of the lights softened the edges of the concrete and steel high-rise buildings, hid some of the chips and the cracks so visible in daylight. I watched the scene flash past outside the window, grateful that the quiet between us wasn't uncomfortable.
"Can I ask you some questions, Julia?" The confident mask he'd worn until then dropped away and I saw the shyness underneath. "I'd like to know a little more about you. I hope you don't mind."
"I think you have a right to ask any question you want." I smiled, but my voice wavered. "You hold my life in your hands."
The light in his eyes died. "I don't want it to be like that. I want us to be friends in the time we have left. You don't owe me anything."
There was something in Myles' face and the way he didn't flinch from looking me in the eye that made me trust him. I knew then I'd believe anything he told me.
"That's not entirely true. I owe you a painting." Relief flooded across his face as he realized I was teasing. "Ask your questions. I want us to be friends too."
"I'd like to know one thing, before I ask anything else." Myles twisted a little in his seat to face me. "You're only thirty-seven. You shouldn't have appeared on the termination list for another thirty-five years if you stayed healthy. What happened to your life?"
For just an instant I considered making something up, finding a reason that didn't make me look so pathetic--like such a loser. He was still practically a stranger, but what Myles thought of me mattered. I took the risk he'd understand and told the truth.
"I gave my life away." The irony hit me hard and what started as a laugh ended closer to a sob. "Someone I cared about always seemed to need the time more than I did. My sister's second child, paying for my grandmother's treatments when she got sick, a man I thought I loved. I wasn't keeping track. Before I knew it, there wasn't anything left for me."
I struggled to stop the tears, fought hard not to embarrass myself in front of him more than I already had. When he saw me crumble, Myles put his arm around me and pulled my head down to rest against his chest. We didn't talk for the rest of the ride. Words didn't seem as important with the sound of his heartbeat filling my ears.
The walk from the transpod stop to my front door only took ten minutes. It was the longest walk of my life. I kept waiting for Myles to say something, to ask more of the questions he said he had. That he didn't was an unspoken comment on my choices; my life.
Myles stood behind me on the front step while I unlocked the door, looking up and down the shabby street I lived on. The cheek by jowl single story houses with their faded, peeling paint looked less than impressive, but I loved this neighborhood. I could breathe here. People weren't stacked up in layers over my head, crammed into apartment towers so tall the tops vanished into the clouds when it rained.
The odor of thinner and oil paint washed over us in a wave when I pushed open the door. Myles' nose twitched a little as we walked inside, but that's all. I think he was too focused on the paintings leaning against the walls to notice the smell.
"Did you paint all of these?" It amused me that he made himself right at home, flipping through stacks of canvas like a prospective customer in a gallery. Myles smiled over his shoulder. "These are all very good. Different than what I see in most art shows."
"Thanks." Praise made me blush. I turned on more lights and hoped he wouldn't notice. "That's always a nice thing to hear."
Myles held one canvas up to study it, a painting of the farm where my grandmother grew up before the land was seized for a food processing plant. That he'd chosen on of my favorite pictures for special attention was a pleasant surprise. "Do you sell many?"
"Not a one." I laughed at the expression on his face. "There isn't a big market for paintings that remind people of what they've lost. About the only way I could sell any of them is if I got a gallery showing. An artist needs connections to do that."
"I think you'd be surprised at how many people are interested in paintings like this. And there is always a market for good work," he said. "I know a couple of people I can talk to about setting up a showing. If that's all right with you."
"You'd do that?" My stomach did a little flip when he nodded. I reminded myself not to get too excited. There were no guarantees in life. "Thank you, Myles."
I hung my coat on the peg next to the door. "Take off your jacket while I get my sketchpad. We only have a couple of hours. I want to get started before they cut the power down to minimum for the night."
"How did you get a three room unit to yourself?" His voice seemed to fill my bedroom as I gathered up my supplies. It was an odd sensation. I tried to remember the last time anyone had been in the house with me.
"My grandmother left it to me. Without any other family around to share it with me, I ended up alone." I moved my hammer and a roll of unstretched canvas off the chair. "Sit here. Try not to move if you can help it."
"Am I allowed to talk?" He squirmed a little before settling into the chair. Myles' hair seemed darker against the pale yellow fabric, the glints of silver at his temples brighter. I wondered if it would feel as soft as it looked.
"You can talk. Just don't fidget so much." I pulled my one kitchen chair over to sit across from him. "Try to relax. I'm not going to bite. Have you thought about what style of portrait you want?"
He rubbed a finger across the worn spot on the arm of the chair, a frown deepening the lines in his forehead. "Most of the family portraits are full length. It's kind of a tradition. But I haven't followed their rules so far. There doesn't seem to be a reason to start now." Bitter was the only word for the tone in his voice. "I want the family to see my face looking down at them every time they walk into that room. Can you do that?"
I nodded. "If that's what you want. I can paint the picture head and shoulders only."
Myles sank back into the chair, his fingers still worrying the threadbare patches in the upholstery. There was so much anger in the stiff way he held himself that he frightened me a little. It was a sharp reminder that I didn't really know anything about him.
I started to sketch, losing myself in the flow of the lines and the shadows on the paper, glad to have an excuse not to make small talk. Concentrating on my art was the way I shut out most of the unpleasant things in life. The placement of each line, each stroke of the pencil, built the protective wall around me higher. When I drew I was the one in control.
"Julia, I'm sorry. There's no excuse for my snarling at you." The rage drained away. He looked deflated, as if anger was all that held him together sometimes. Whatever the drama Myles relived behind his eyes, it was an old friend and had nothing to do with me. "My family's sins are not your fault and I shouldn't take them out on you. It won't happen again."
I put my pencil and sketchpad on the floor. "If you're having second thoughts about the transfer...."
"No!" I flinched at the sharpness in his voice and he looked stricken. Myles held a hand up in apology then dropped it back in his lap. "No, I'm not changing my mind. I said I'd file the papers in the morning and I will."
He gripped the arms of the chair, staring off into the distance. I thought he'd forgotten I was there until he spoke. "Have you ever heard of Alissa Rand?"
"I'm not sure. Maybe. Is it important?"
"It might be." The smile didn't banish the sadness from his eyes this time. "I think you should know whose life you're getting and where it came from. She's my sister."
Her name was familiar. The sense of recognition toyed with me until memory pulled me up out of my chair. I prowled the small bit of open space between easels and stacked canvas. "Senator Alissa Rand? She's your sister?"
Myles nodded and leaned forward, hands on his knees. "I'm not sure she'd claim me. I had the bad taste to disagree with the way my family uses their money and power. Even worse, I disagreed in public. Part of me thought I could shame them into doing the right thing."
I stopped pacing and took a step toward him. Myles' hair was longer, the beard was new, but the face was the same one I'd seen on the newscasts.
"Why did you stop? The news made it sound like you'd changed your mind." Or died. I sank down on my chair, tucking my hands underneath me. They shook so hard it was the only way to keep them still.
"My family found an effective way to shut me up." He watched me intently, waiting for me to judge him, to reject him for his actions. I wondered how many others had condemned him for being human.
"What happened?"
It was the oddest thing. I could literally see Myles gather himself together before he spoke. He pulled the resolve to tell me around him like a cloak.
"Friends, people I cared about, started turning up on the termination lists. Young people. None of them were even close to maxing out their allotted time." Myles got out of the chair and went to stand in front of the easel by the window. The painting sitting there was one I'd done from a photograph in a book. His finger traced the shape of horses grazing in a meadow that no longer existed.
"My family made sure they all looked perfectly legal," he said. "Errors in the annual accounting overlooked by the Balance office, the sudden discovery of years never deducted from the total for medical care in childhood."
"Julia, let me finish. This is hard enough." He sighed and turned to face me. "The reasons were different, but the result was the same. Each time I made a statement, a new name appeared on the list with an almost immediate termination date. So I shut up."
The nightmare we all wanted to deny existed looked at me out of his brown eyes. We all knew the system overseen by the Balance office wasn't perfect. The reality of just how twisted it was--that was something entirely different.
"Is that why you're handing me all this time?" Suddenly I couldn't breathe, the ache in my chest growing to encompass all the grief he'd suffered. "Guilt?"
"Guilt is part of it. People died because of me. I've spent the last five years searching for a little redemption." He sat on the floor next to my chair and for the first time I didn't have to look up to meet his eyes. Up close I could see the tiny flecks of gold in the brown.
Up close it was easier to see the pain peering out.
"My family hands out years like party favors. Time never had any value to me, there was always more." He brushed a tear off my face. "I had eighty years left in my account when I started giving them away. You're not the first person I've given a life and I have faith you won't waste one minute of time. Now that you know, do you still want the time I'm offering?"
The desperation and terror I'd kept at bay since my name went on the list filled me to bursting. I wanted to live, wanted life so much I choked on the words. All I could do was nod.
Myles retrieved the document folder and a pen from his jacket. I signed in all the right places, words a blur through the tears. When I finished he kissed the top of my head, tucked the papers back in the folder and put on his jacket. He didn't say a word as he left.
Three weeks later he took me to the opening night party of a prominent artist's newest showing. The gallery owner was a friend of his. Myles spent the entire night talking about my paintings and bragging about the portrait I was working on. I left with the owner's business card and an open invitation to bring some of my work in for him to look at.
Myles said goodbye outside my door at the end of the evening and started back to the taxi he'd insisted on paying for. Maybe two glasses of champagne gave me the courage to ask. Whatever the impetus, I was terrified.
I grabbed his hand. "Don't go. Stay."
The smile on his face faded away. "Julia... no. This is a bad idea."
"Why? We've been together every day for the last three weeks. I've never felt this close to anyone." I wrapped both hands around his, rubbing the skin on the back of his hand with my thumb. "I don't want you to leave this time. Stay with me."
I couldn't read his eyes in the dim light on the porch. When he didn't answer I dropped his hand and gathered what was left of my dignity around me. "I didn't mean to put you on the spot. I thought... never mind. Forget I asked."
Myles' hands on my shoulders turned me around to face him. "You didn't put me on the spot. But the last thing I want to do is hurt you. Getting closer wouldn't be fair to you when I only have a little time left."
"Then take part of the time you gave me back! We can share the years, I don't need all twenty. I want you in my life."
"The time is yours. I can't take it back now." He took my hand, holding on tight. "My family is happy to let me commit slow suicide this way. I don't want to put you in danger by taking back part, even a year. You don't need that threat hanging over your head."
"Is that the real reason?" I knocked his hand away. "Or are you afraid I'm not worth your time? I wouldn't want to disappoint you, Myles."
He brushed the hair back from my face. "I don't regret one second of the time I've spent with you. Giving you the years I had left is the only worthwhile thing I've ever done. But if I give in to the feelings I have, I can't begin to imagine saying good-bye. That terrifies me more than the thought of dying."
"How terrifying do you think that will be for me?" Each time I thought about him taking my place in the Balance office, a chasm opened up inside me. If I faced that empty place, I'd fall in and never climb out. "You knew I wouldn't waste my life. Don't waste the time you have left because saying goodbye is hard. Live."
Myles backed away from me, chest heaving and hands shaking; staring as if I'd stuck him. He didn't say a word, just spun around. My world narrowed down to the sound of his shoes scraping on the concrete. I wasn't sure of his decision until the taxi drove away and he started back up the walk.
I met him halfway. We clung to each other, crying and facing the pain head on.
The choice to live is the hardest one of all.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, December 31st, 2010

Author Comments

"A Matter of Time" came about as a result of pondering time, how life is finite, and that none of us can afford to waste a single day. It's also a reflection of a personal credo, "When in doubt, choose joy." Those two things came together and a story was born.

- Jaime Lee Moyer
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