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1:40 AM

Eliza Victoria is from the Philippines. Her latest book, the horror/fantasy novel Dwellers, was released in July. Her fiction and poetry have appeared in various publications, such as Daily Science Fiction, The Pedestal Magazine, Room Magazine, Story Quarterly, High Chair, and the Philippine Speculative Fiction anthologies. Please visit her online home, elizavictoria.com.

Before the man with a gun entered the convenience store, Grace was sitting alone at a sticky, soda-splattered table, her broken arm throbbing like a heart, the roof of her mouth burning from the coffee she had drunk too quickly. It was nearly two in the morning, and there were only three other people in the store. The cashier sitting behind the counter was playing some game on his phone and having an expletive-laden argument with it. There were two guys facing each other at the table behind her. She had glanced up and had made a swift assessment (cute, also cute; dead-tired and wary, alert and looking like he's making lists in his head) when they came in earlier, talking about a cab driver who had tried to swindle them or something. One of them, the alert-looking one, was wearing a mauve rubber wristband. An Institute guest, so the other guy probably worked for the Institute.
Grace knew about the wristband because she and the rest of her class wore it when they toured the facility last month. Researchers from the Institute made her nervous. Who knew what kind of experiments they were doing up there?
The convenience store was near Grace's house. She would have gone to a coffee shop but realized she didn't have enough money. She wanted to sit in an indistinctive place, somewhere quiet and dull, where she could think about Alice and the car crash, and the fact that it was Alice's birthday today, and that in fifty years, if Grace would be so fortunate, Grace would be dead, and in another fifty years after that, maybe everyone who had ever known Alice would be dead, and there would be no one left to remember or mourn her, and so every person or thing or memory, no matter how bright or searing, no matter how kind or painful, could be defeated by time, and could disappear as though it had never even existed.
Grace was crying. Because she couldn't even toast Alice on her birthday with a good cup of coffee, because fifty years felt at once too long and too short. She was aware only of her pain and her grief, so when the man with a gun banged into the store, she didn't look up, and so didn't see what was happening until the cashier and the man got into a loud argument, loud enough to make Grace stop thinking about Alice. There was a crash, a sudden flash of fluorescence as broken glass from the lights showered the grocery shelves, a shout ("Get down!"), and Grace was down, lying flat on her back on the cold floor (How did that happen, she thought idly), and the two guys from the Institute were bending over her, the dead-tired one taking off his jacket and pressing it to her chest. Her chest felt warm but her hands were so cold. The guy with the wristband, as though reading her mind, held her hand, touched her face.
"You'll be okay," he said, and Oh, Alice, Grace thought. Is this it, then?
"Excuse me?" Peter glanced at his watch. It was 1:40 AM. Sitting across the table was John, or so the Director said. To Peter, "John" sounded like a safe, monosyllabic code word. The Institute was big on codes--like NTW, need to know, which was what they told him when he asked who John was and Peter refused to just accept their uncomplicated answer ("He's the Director's guest"). Which meant the wristband they had slapped on John was not just a visitor's ID but also a tracker and a vital signs scanner, and this babysitting job was no babysitting job but a scientific investigation way, way, way beyond his pay grade.
Peter wondered what the experiment was. Behavior modification, sleep deprivation, a drug trial of some sort? He wouldn't be surprised; he'd seen and spoken with John for two weeks now inside the Institute and he sounded high most of the time. But wasn't this a bit atypical (and dangerous) to just let the subject go to an uncontrolled environment? Yes, with a researcher, sure, but--Or maybe, Peter thought, the team decided to just give him a break. God knows he was sick to death of making notes about the fucking mice.
Yeah. Right.
An instruction like, "John wants to go out. Take him where he wants to go and come back around 3 AM" does not a romantic date make, he thought.
But he is good-looking. Peter smiled, and shook his head. Fuck me.
"You don't remember?" John said, startling him.
"Remember what?"
"Fascinating," John said again, looking around at the empty tables, the girl with her arm in a sling, the cashier swearing at his phone behind the counter.
"It appears that space-time here has no chronology protection," John said, with a look of wonder. Peter mirrored the smile even though he couldn't understand a word. "It is completely malleable. Or did I somehow simply trigger a jump back in time, in my moment of weakness and fear, and this is not the same universe, but simply a universe that runs parallel to the other, where the girl--"
John stopped talking. He turned on his seat, looked at the girl, at the glass doors.
"What is it?" Peter said, and to his horror John stood up and walked over to where the girl was sitting.
"No," Peter said, standing up. "Hey, wait. Shit." But John was already talking to the girl.
"Hello," John said, and sat on the plastic chair beside her. The chairs were bolted to the floor, so the girl couldn't move hers away, so she just leaned away, looking frightened and unsure.
"Hello?" she said, glancing at Peter, who had stopped at a safe distance.
"Don't be frightened," John said, and Peter covered his face with his hand and groaned, because those three words just moved the conversation into creepy fuck/pedophile territory. The girl knew it, too. She looked about ready to bolt.
"How are you?" John said.
"I'm fine, I guess." She glanced at Peter again, and Peter nearly said, Nope. Nope. Don't know this guy. Stop looking at me.
"Do you remember me?" John said, and gestured toward Peter. "Us?"
The girl frowned, and Peter moved closer to grab John's upper arm. "No?" she said. "Am I supposed to?"
"I guess not," John said.
"Sorry," Peter told the girl, and pulled John away from the table and a possible lawsuit. They settled on a pair of stools near the glass doors.
"What the hell?" Peter said.
"I just wanted to check something," John said.
"Maybe we should leave."
"No!" John said it so forcefully that Peter jumped. "No," John repeated, in a softer voice. "Let's stay. I want to see what happens next."
A minute later the glass doors banged open and in came a large man in a jacket with an expression on his face that spelled trouble. He walked straight to the counter, and prodded the cashier in the chest with his finger. The cashier stood up, leaving his phone squawking near the cash register, and walked around the counter to face the man. Peter couldn't hear what they were talking about, but it was clear they were arguing.
Peter said, "I think we need to--"
Get out of here, was what he wanted to say, but before he could finish his sentence, he heard something shatter, and he realized in the second that followed that The man has a gun!--The girl!--and "Get down!" Peter shouted, and the man with the gun was running out the doors and the cashier was kneeling on the floor.
The girl was bleeding from her chest. "Call an ambulance!" Peter shouted at the pale-faced cashier, and he took off his jacket and placed it on the girl's wound.
Oh God, Peter thought. Oh God, this poor girl will die here. And we don't even know her name. "My name's Peter," he said. "And that's John. What's your name, sweetheart?"
John took the girl's hand in his. "You'll be okay," he said.
Peter glanced at his watch. It was 1:40 AM. John (if that was even his real name) was staring at his hands. Cute. Too short and too jumpy for Peter's taste, but sitting with him beat watching mice solve a puzzle for the 300th time.
"What did they tell you about me?" John asked, fiddling with the mauve wristwatch, tracing the Institute's logo with his forefinger.
"Not much," Peter said. "They said you're the Director's guest."
"'Guest,'" John echoed. "That's the word they used, huh."
"Are you okay?"
John looked at him for a long moment, long enough to make Peter shift in his seat.
"Are you happy with your life?" John asked.
Peter laughed in surprise. "What?"
"Is there something in your past that you want to change? An action you want to reverse? A death you want to prevent?"
There's this boy once, Peter wanted to say. But then there is always this boy once, isn't there. "Why?" he said. "Are you a time traveler?"
John smiled and looked at his hands again. Peter found his smile both pleasant and unnerving. Christ, get a grip.
"Why did you want to come here?" Peter asked.
John seemed offended. "I didn't." Then: "Oh, you meant here, the store."
Of course I meant the damn store.
"It's bright," John said, looking up at the lights. "And quiet."
Peter looked past him and saw the girl at the next table bent over her coffee, crying. He wondered if he should speak to her. But it could be something personal, family or boy trouble; she would hate him for his intrusion. Then he noticed her arm in a sling, and wondered if she were in pain.
"That girl's crying," Peter said. John glanced over a shoulder. When he stood up to approach her, John looked alarmed.
"Wait," he said. "Don't--"
Peter stood across the table from her and leaned forward. "Hello," he said. "I'm sorry--does your arm hurt? Do you need a doctor?"
Moments later Peter was lying on his side on the floor, his nose filling with the metallic smell of his own blood. He couldn't feel his legs.
"I can't feel my legs," he said, and burst into tears. John knelt beside him. He could hear the girl sobbing, the cashier screaming for an ambulance on the phone. "You'll be okay," John said. The terror and pain dissipated for a few moments as Peter felt surprise--awe, wonder--upon seeing the tears on John's face. The last thing Peter felt before blacking out was John's hand in his.
"What time is it?"
Peter glanced at his watch. "One-forty."
John nodded. He looked around. There was the girl with her arm in a sling, the cashier screaming at a gadget in his hands. Peter. Same as always. John wondered if the men back at the Institute were getting any interesting readings on their instruments. A spike of energy? A disappearance? A momentary burst of static as the universe changed stations?
John had the urge to just tear off this primitive tracker from his wrist, but he knew that if he did so a black car would swing into the lot and drag him back to the laboratory. They were the ones who brought him here; it must follow that they were the only ones who could help him go back home.
If they would let him go back home.
If they even knew how.
And yet: he couldn't leave yet. Not with what was about to come to pass.
"What a marvelous thing limited consciousness is," he said. Peter threw him that look he always gave him, that go-on-and-humor-me half-squint.
"It makes you blind beyond a trivial context," John continued. "For example, the larger context is this: sixty countries, involving 495 groups and militias, are in conflict on this planet. Six hundred and thirteen species of underwater fauna have just died in the past eleven seconds. Thirty-seven hundred stars are dead--have died --are dying--in a galaxy 13 billion light-years away from here. And yet just moments earlier you managed to focus your anger at this man, a stranger, who has rebuffed us."
"Hey, listen--that cab driver is a dick. It's against the law to--"
"I don't consider it a flaw. You have the capacity to make your world smaller, and yet make it remain as massive, as important, as the world itself. It's an incredible thing."
"Like love?" Peter laughed, but he looked disconcerted.
Love. John smiled. "Yes," he said. "Perhaps. Perhaps love can only be felt by beings with limited consciousness. If you love everything then it is as if you love nothing. With a limited consciousness, you have no choice but to love one thing, at most a handful of things, and derive fulfillment from it, but also feel wretched and inadequate all your life, for if you lost that one thing, what will be left?"
He looked toward the glass doors.
"Every single moment can collapse into one moment," he said. "One hundred seventy billion galaxies collapsing into the barrel of a gun."
John turned to him. Peter looked like he was trying to decide whether to speak or not.
"What is it?" John said.
Peter looked around the store. "I don't know," he said. "I feel like I just got hit by a massive dose of déjà vu. Has that ever happened to you?"
John turned his head and saw the girl looking at him.
"Do you remember me?" he said.
The girl looked hesitant to speak, but at last she said, "Is your name John?"
So not a parallel universe then.
The same universe.
I can't be the one doing this, John thought. Another force is at hand.
What is going on?
There was an umbrella stand next to the glass doors. John stood up--to Peter's protestations--grabbed an umbrella, and slipped it into the door handles. The cashier shouted a warning, a challenge, and walked around the counter, but stopped walking when John began pushing one of the tables to block the doors. From the corner of his eye he could see the girl standing with a hand over her mouth, Peter walking briskly and stopping a few feet away from him, like the cashier, like the way you stand away from something you don't understand. Something that terrifies you.
"John," Peter said. "What are you--"
"We need to get out of here," John said. The cashier turned on his heel and ran back to the counter. John followed him. He felt Peter's hand on his arm but he shook him off. "Listen to me. Someone with a weapon is going to go through those doors in a few minutes. A large man. An angry man. Someone you know."
"Is he high on something?" the cashier asked Peter. He had his hands inside a drawer, rummaging through the papers and knickknacks there.
"Listen to me!" John said, slamming a hand on the counter. The cashier jumped. The girl let out a soft, frightened whimper. "Someone's going to die if you don't--"
The cashier lifted his hands, and in his hand was a gun.
Ah, John thought. He stepped back from the counter, slowly.
Horror vacui, they always say.
But also: Horror paradoxa.
"Hey," Peter said, pleading. The girl had started to cry. "Hey, listen, why don't we all calm down? I know this guy. He's not dangerous."
"Then get him out of here," the cashier said.
That's what this universe is trying to do, John thought, and he nearly smiled. It's okay. I am not from here. I am not supposed to be here. Horror paradoxa. It's just the cosmos rooting me out.
"John," Peter said. "Come on. I think you just need some sleep. Let's get out of here."
John lunged at the cashier's neck, closing the gap, making sure there wouldn't be space for Peter to jump into, and the gun went off, as expected, the bullet finding its home. Someone screamed, perhaps the girl. John fell to the floor, hard, and he felt the heat spreading outward from his chest, felt the pain like a planet crushing his ribs.
He saw Peter's face as he knelt beside him, felt his hands applying pressure to the wound to staunch the bleeding. This is unfair, John thought then, grasping at Peter's hands slippery with his blood, despairing and at the same time marveling at the novelty of this emotion. I did not even ask to be here.
John began to cry. "Shit," Peter said, face crumbling, but he swiped at his eyes with his arm and his gaze turned to steel. "Listen," he said, and John listened, and all of the world became Peter's voice, saying, "You'll be okay."
The End
This story was first published on Friday, August 8th, 2014
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