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art by Jonathan Westbrook

A Hole in Time

Ms. Gaertner is an aspiring writer just dipping her toe into the world of published fiction. Look for more of her work in Post Mortem Press' zombie anthology, New Dawn Fades and coming soon to Flash Fiction Online.

"Happy Birthday, Elspeth!"
She's just come back to her office to drop off a stack of papers to grade, and Luisa's greeting has interrupted her departure. Right away, the words are wrong: the "happy" and the "birthday" too cheerful, and the name too formal. Everyone calls her Elle, and Luisa of all people should know that this is a birthday she is loath to acknowledge. As far as Elle is concerned, all important people achieve success before they turn 30, and one year closer to her deadline is nothing to celebrate.
Still, she smiles over her sigh, and thanks her lab-mate for the well wishes. Even though they don't have much in common, Luisa has always been very sweet--if a little tiresome at times with her relentless overtures of friendship. With the week that Elle's had, losing months of work on a rejected grant proposal, she's just not in the mood for Luisa's awkward attempts at small talk. If she can only make it out the door, she can escape to a night of drinks and dancing with friends and maybe, at the end, a couple hours of amorous adventure between the sheets with a pretty girl who is closer to the age Elle wishes she were.
Luisa, as always immune to subtle hinting, presses on with her plan. "I got you a gift! Well, two actually--just in case you don't like one or the other. Though you're welcome to keep both...."
"How thoughtful!" Elle reaches out a hand to stop the other woman rambling. "But really, Luisa: you shouldn't have! I mean, I can't even remember when your birthday is."
The painful flinch is momentary--lived and discarded with well-worn practice. Luisa is far too excited about the pretty paper-wrapped boxes tucked off to the side of her workstation to be thrown off now. "Oh, well, it was just last month... but in any case, it doesn't matter! I'm so excited for you to open your gifts."
The quickest departure might be accomplished by playing along, so Elle moves over to Luisa's lab bench and examines the wrapping on her gifts: bright red foil covered in balloons, the sort of paper you'd choose to wrap a child's present. One gift is flat and rectangular, the other a near-perfect cube, just about the size of an old-fashioned hat box. "Which one should I open first?"
"You choose!" Luisa is so giddy with excitement it makes Elle twinge with sympathetic embarrassment.
With a conciliatory smile, she chooses the long flat rectangle and begins to slide her finger along the seams to loosen the tape. She can't help but notice a look of disappointment on the other woman's face. "Something wrong?"
"Oh no! It's just... I thought you'd open the big one first!"
An impatient sigh, and Elle looks at her watch. "You said I could choose. Would you rather I opened the other first?"
"Oh! No..."
"Are you sure?"
"Oh yes, it's fine..."
Elle watches Luisa out of the corner of her eye as she finishes loosening the paper. She wants to just rip it off and throw the gifts aside, get this painful show over with and be off to her evening plans, but she was raised better than that, and so she takes her time.
Luisa is fidgeting, nervously tucking and re-tucking the same strand of hair back behind her ear and re-adjusting her black-framed glasses on her short, round nose. It was strange to see a woman in glasses--far past being retro, no one had bothered with the things for 20 years at least. But something had gone wrong with her corrective surgery--the one in a million risk realized--and so the poor girl had to resort to the inelegant and old-fashioned solution.
Elle couldn't help but smile to herself: didn't that just describe Luisa perfectly? The one in a million dud.
Luisa notices the little smile and attributes it to her gift--she beams back, magnifying the gesture 100 fold.
Elle is immediately contrite. Her face softens, and she looks down at the thin, white box she's uncovered with a more convincing interest.
Carrington's: her favorite shop. Perhaps this won't be so bad after all.
Inside the box is a woman's silk scarf: expensive, exquisitely crafted... and hideously ugly. It's a red paisley pattern of intricate, intertwining loops and swirls. There's no question that the scarf is well-made and of a high quality, but it's much more the thing you'd find wrapped round the neck of an old society dame than that of a young, vibrant intellectual.
Elle puts on a polite and quiet smile, and thanks Luisa for her thoughtfulness. Mentally, she calculates how many times she'll have to let Luisa see her wearing the scarf before she can relegate it to the back of her closet, or donate it to the charity shop. Perhaps she'll wear it into the lab some day, and have an accident with an acid solution.
She starts to move toward the door, murmuring her goodbyes, and Luisa has to remind her: there's another gift to be opened.
This time, Elle doesn't bother with a slow, careful unwrapping: she tears through the paper and tosses it aside. The box inside has no outer markings and doesn't appear to have come from a shop. The walls of it are lightly crafted from some sort of plastic material, a dull matte gray that seems to absorb the light from the room. When she thinks back, she can remember Luisa working with a similar substance during her late nights in the lab.
Whatever is in this curious box, Elle is eager to get it open and get this over with. Dinner reservations were for 7:30, and it's very nearly a quarter past. Hastily, she grabs at the lid and is about to throw it open when Luisa stops her with a surprised squeak.
"What is it?" Elle snaps. The words are too harsh: she can recognize that, and yet she's very close to not caring. With a deep breath, she steels herself to patience: "I mean--did you have something to tell me about it?"
Luisa smiles and fidgets some more and mumbles something about her research, and a great accomplishment: she's giving Elle not just the contents of this box, but a share in her discovery. She'd like them to be partners, and she wants to bring Elle on board when she gets her R&D grant. As usual, she's using far too many words, and saying far too little with them.
"Wait a minute--I don't understand. What does that have to do with my gift? What is this?"
More mumbling and shifting, but finally Elle can make out a coherent sentence: "It's a hole in time."
Elle stares at Luisa, open-mouthed and rooted to the spot. She can't even begin to piece together the meaning of what she's just heard.
A certain spot, though not fixed in space, can be forever fixed in time. Continents shift, oceans swell and recede, and yet one particular patch of earth can forever be identified by the linear stream of time by which it's governed.
That same spot on which they stand was once in the middle of an enormous saltwater sea. Most of the earth was covered in water then, in fact. It was a terrifying diversity of deep blue-gray-green, and amidst that monotone of uniformity there floated, as if caught in a gentle breeze, an unmistakable flash of crimson.
In millions of years, that certain spot will raise out of the water, transformed into dry land. It is covered by great slow-moving sheets of ice, and the plants and animals that live there are sparse. A small pack of two-legged beasts are moving past the spot, and the color draws their attention like a beacon. They move closer to poke and prod, but if they can't eat it or hunt with it and it won't provide much warmth, they haven't a use for it. Before moving on, one of them leans his head down to the strange bright patch of color and feels the smooth, alien softness of it against the coarse hair of his cheek.
A young girl is walking past the spot on the way to her house when she sees something red in the road. It's a ladies' scarf, and it's lying right in the center of one of the lanes where it's sure to be run over by any passing vehicle--and yet it doesn't appear to be ripped or faded or soiled at all. She thinks of darting out into the street to scoop it up and take it home with her to give to her mother. She puts out her hand and closes her fingers around the cool, smooth silk, but when she draws her arms back to examine her prize, she finds her hands are empty. She tries again and again to pick up the scarf, each time with the same result.
Before she turns, puzzled, to walk away she has the brief, fleeting memory of seeing this scarf lying in the road before--in fact, of seeing it there many times before. For a moment, she realizes this scarf has been there for as long as she can remember.
But then she turns her head, and the realization is gone.
In a few thousands of years, that road will still be a road, though it will look slightly different: thin and sleek, coated with a liquid sheen of magnetized paint. The sky will be clouded and gray, but washed over with the sulfurous tinge of artificial sunlight. In the fake yellow glow, the bright flapping scarf will appear to be almost black.
Time stretches on so far in every direction, it easily surpasses the usefulness of counting. When something is measured in billions and trillions, anything smaller can be easily lost and forgotten. Even in our own small lives, we cast off little bits of nothing, swept aside like dust, because we find them insignificant. Dust is insignificant. Yet much of the universe is made up of particles smaller than can be seen by the naked eye.
At one time, space was full of big chunks of rock and gas, but as it expands and these chunks break apart, the dust will spread into a fine sprinkling of universe with great gaps of nothing in between. In this universe of dust and gaps, there will be in it one certain spot, a splash of red, once tiny and insignificant, but now much bigger than anything that's left.
"A hole in time? You're serious?" Elle is holding the drab box of insubstantial weight away from her as if it were a dead animal.
Luisa nods nervously, and smiles. "It's true! Elle, I've had a breakthrough: all of my research has paid off!"
Luisa's "research" was notorious around the university: she was a brilliant mind and a great scientific thinker who had published a lot of promising and ground-breaking research early in her career. But most of the faculty now agreed she was just a little too ambitious, pushing her ideas just a little too far. "She's trying to be Einstein in the days of Galileo," Elle's adviser had once remarked.
She begins to wonder if Luisa hasn't snapped. It wouldn't be the first time it had happened, that a once-promising scientist had succumbed to the pressure and collapsed into nervous breakdown. Elle eyes Luisa carefully, trying to size up her mood: there is a manic glint in her eyes.
Speaking softly, she tries another tactic. "What do you mean by a hole in time? Is it a metaphor?"
Luisa is grinning now, and shaking her head excitedly. "No, no! Well... I mean yes, it is a metaphor in a sense. Time is not matter, and therefore you cannot have a literal hole in it, but the way it functions--"
"What does it do?" If Elle doesn't take control of the conversation, Luisa could be lost in her dithering for hours.
"It allows you to remove an object from its time stream. I say an object, as I haven't tested it on anything living yet--truth be told, I'm afraid to! But I suppose we could start with a mouse.... Anyway, a thing passed through the hole is essentially removed from the normal governing properties of time, allowing it to be suspended just as it is across the time dimension, essentially expanding--"
"Stop!" The shout echoes through the empty halls of the lab. Elle can feel her heart racing, and her blood pounding in her ears. Luisa has gone mad, or is playing some strange, sick joke. "Why are you giving me this? If it even is what you say it is, why are you giving it to me?"
Genuine confusion clouds over Luisa's face. "Do you really not know?"
The sound of Elle's heartbeat is now almost deafening: she can feel it beating in her throat. Did she really not know? She pushes down the realization that should have occurred to her a long time ago, and instead returns the conversation to the gift she has yet to open. She has to open this gift before she can escape, so that's the thread she clings to. "How does it work? Can I test it?"
There's a beat before Luisa reacts. "Uh, yeah, of course..."
There's a dry crack in the other woman's voice that wasn't there before. Elle is on the verge of panic now. She didn't know... did she really not know? She's looking anywhere but at Luisa now. Her hands holding the box have gone numb. She grasps the lid and throws it open, then she peers down into the depths.
As far as she can tell, the box is empty. At least, there doesn't appear to be anything in it. But now the lid is open there's a strange crackle of static electricity in the air; she can feel the tiny hairs on her arms standing up. She looks to Luisa for instructions, but the other woman is busy chewing on her lip and avoiding Elle's eyes. "What should I do? How should I test it?"
"Well, you have to put something in it...." There's the strained note of held-back tears in Luisa's voice when she answers. The sound makes the back of Elle's throat burn.
It's almost over--let it be over. There has to be a way to end this moment. She doesn't know what to say or what to do now. She grabs for the first thing she can reach: the silk scarf. Luisa tries to protest, but she isn't fast enough: Elle has dropped it into the box.
There's a slight pop and a snapping noise, accompanied by the sensation you get touching a light switch after walking across the carpet in your bare socks. Elle swallows and blinks and waits for something amazing to happen, but aside from the small discharge of static electricity, there's nothing: the scarf falls straight through and onto the lab's floor as if there were a literal hole in the box.
The effect is so anti-climactic, Elle wants to laugh. She's annoyed and relieved at the same time, but mostly she's incredulous: "That was it?"
Luisa is staring with watery eyes at the expensive red scarf lying on the worn gray tiles of the laboratory floor. She doesn't hear the question until Elle repeats it, and then when she answers, her own voice is unbelieving. "Don't you see what's happened?" Her brow is wrinkled with confusion.
"Have I seen...? Of course I've seen what's happened! The scarf fell out of the box and onto the floor!" Even as she says it, she somehow knows it isn't true... that that's not quite what has happened. The feeling unnerves her further.
Luisa has stopped crying, and is now watching Elle expectantly. "No, but: can't you see it? You're at the center of the effect, but you should be able to see it eventually...."
The feeling that Elle is on the verge of understanding something she doesn't want to know only heightens her feelings of discomfort. "I don't see anything!" she insists far too adamantly. "All I can see is an ugly scarf lying on the floor!" The insult was uncalled for and has Luisa flinching again; Elle feels a momentary twinge of conscience. Luisa's shy confession, her gifts, her insistence that she's re-written the laws of physics: they're all swirling around in Elle's thoughts, creating a sickening simulation of vertigo. Panic rising up like the tide, all she can think about is getting out of that lab and getting away.
"I'm sorry, Luisa: I'm very sorry! I'm touched you remembered my birthday--really I am! Thank you for my gifts and for wanting to share with me whatever you've done with that box, but it's really unnecessary. I wish I felt... that is, I'm sorry about the other thing." She's moving towards the door as she speaks. She thinks of bending down and picking up the scarf on her way out, but then: why would she pick it up? Hasn't it always been there?
Luisa watches her hesitation silently: watches Elle bend down to touch the scrap of red only to shy away, standing back up and blinking at her hands in confusion.
"Bye... goodbye, Luisa." Her urge to be out of the room has only gotten stronger. "Thanks again, and goodbye." In her haste to retreat, she knocks a beaker off the counter, but now that she's built up the momentum she can't bear to turn back now. Half a dozen steps and she's gone: it's over.
Luisa watches her leave, then turns back to stare at the scarf on the floor. She doesn't try to pick it up. She already knows what Elle was afraid to accept: that scarf has always been there, and always will be there.
So instead she goes into the supply closet to get the broom, and slowly begins gathering up the pieces of the shattered beaker.
The End
This story was first published on Thursday, April 12th, 2012

Author Comments

I started with a simple idea: a red scarf lying on the ground. How did it get there? Well, that's where it got complicated: through time, and space, and heartache.

- Amy Greschaw
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