Behind the Hour

Standard

When the alarm went off, the soft music and chirping birds growing louder and louder, Audrey already knew that it was far, far too late.

Her clock, her watch, her phone, all of them should have automatically adjusted for the start of daylight savings time, but she could tell by the intensity of the light coming in through her bedroom curtains, that they hadn’t.

She dialed work.  The phone rang.  No one answered.  But that was no surprise.  Starting time wasn’t for another fifteen minutes.  The voicemail engaged.

“Hey…everyone, sorry I’m late.  I’m on my way now.  See you soon.”  Audrey hung up.

She got ready in a rush, threw some food in her lunch bag, and scrambled down to her car.  First vacation jet lag, now daylight savings.  Her internal clock was all out of whack.  The car’s clock had the same time as her phone and her watch.  For a moment, she wondered if she’d gotten the dates wrong.  But as she pulled out of her spot and headed out to the street, the time on the car’s clock blinked and jumped one hour ahead.

Audrey sighed.  The time on her phone still hadn’t updated.  Maybe it was some glitch or error.  She didn’t bother calling work again.  Hopefully someone had seen her message.  And even if they didn’t, they would figure out what had happened.  Audrey hoped there was at least one other poor sap who’d forgotten to set his alarm ahead, or who’d been betrayed by the devices he was counting on, as Audrey had been.  This was one of the challenges of working a Sunday through Thursday schedule.

The drive to work was strange.  Despite the fairly empty roads, she had two close calls.  She obviously wasn’t the only one who hadn’t yet adjusted to the new timeslot.

***

She parked in her usual weekend spot.  Only her team was working weekends those days, so it was easy to see that every single person was already there.

Audrey speed-walked past a few people in the hall, throwing out a “good morning” without waiting for a reply.  She rushed into the main office and to her cubicle, shoved her bags into the cubby under her desk, and went to go find the weekend supervisor.  She found him, typing away in his office.  She stood in the doorway, made a joke about her various alarms all failing, made an offer to make up the lost hour, and gave a brief status report of where she’d left things the previous day.  The whole time, he kept typing.  Audrey waited a moment.  She called his name, expecting him to acknowledge her finally in a burst of irritation.  But he just kept typing.

Audrey decided to do the old “back away slowly” routine and return to her cubicle.

She was already late.  She’d checked in with the weekend supervisor.  She should get to work.  But she felt some need to get an acknowledgement from someone that she was finally there.

On her way back to her cubicle, she called to her nearest neighbor.  He didn’t answer.  She walked over, leaned against his cubicle and called his name again.  He kept working.

You too? she wondered.  The silent treatment?  For being late?

Audrey sighed.  It was going to be a long day.  She returned to her cubicle and reached for the mug on her desk.  The handle was freezing.  Her hand recoiled instinctively, then reached back.  It was also, it seemed, going to be one of those days when every little thing would be hard.  She wrapped her hand around the cold handle.  It warmed up right away and she walked over to the break room to get some coffee.  The pot was, of course, empty.  Audrey prepared a new pot and walked out into the hall when she heard what sounded like people getting off the elevator.

She moved to intercept the three colleagues who were walking down the hallway.

“Hey all, sorry about—“

Audrey stopped and gasped.  All three people almost collided with her.  She stepped back, and they passed through her.

Audrey put a hand to her chest and glanced down the hall toward the three people who had just passed right through her.  She caught her breath.  She fell against the wall, exhaling and feeling a small bit of relief at the wall’s solidity.  For a few moments, she stayed just where she was, hoping that no one else came by.  No one did.

At last, she glanced at the open door of their office.

***

Audrey stepped slowly into the main office area, gulping.  Her gaze swept the room.  Four of her colleagues were huddled over one person’s cubicle, discussing something in earnest and loud whispers.

“Try calling her again,” someone said.

Audrey called out to them.  “It’s me.  I’m here.”  She waved a hand.

She was not surprised when they didn’t respond.

She was not surprised when her hesitant hand was not able to make an impression on one of their shoulders.

She was not surprised that she was able to touch and even manipulate the push pins arranged on the cubicle’s corkboard surface.  There were only enough pins for her to spell out her initials.

But she was surprised when those push pins vanished from the positions she’d placed them in and returned to their original positions.

She felt worry rising within her, her own and the nascent worry in her colleagues who hadn’t been able to reach her for almost an hour now.

She took a few breaths to calm herself and gather her thoughts.  Then she said out loud to herself, “Either you’re a ghost or you’re not.”

That was the first mystery she had to work out.

If she was a ghost, then she had died.  She hadn’t seen a body, but then, she’d been in such a rush to get to work, she hadn’t checked.  But if she was a ghost, then she shouldn’t have been able to operate her car, or touch inanimate objects.  Unless that part of ghost lore was wrong.

If she wasn’t a ghost…then she was still alive and she had to figure out why no one could see her or feel her, and why she was having such a seemingly inconsistent interaction with inanimate objects.

She would have to go home, and see if there was a body lying in her bed, her own body.  That would address her first question.  Ghost, or not?

But as she turned back toward her cubicle, the phone rang, and someone said, “It’s her!”

Audrey frowned and watched someone pick up the phone and say “hello” three times, then hang up.

“What did she say?” someone asked.

“Nothing.  It was silent and then it disengaged.”

“That’s definitely her number.”

“Maybe it was a glitch.”

“Did you hear any crackling?”

“No, just silence.”

Audrey glanced at the display on the phone.  It was her number, just as her colleague said.  But the time was wrong.  She had called them shortly after she woke and discovered she was late.  That was an hour ago.

Audrey peered at the exact time.  She checked her phone.  She’d had it on vibrate.  She hadn’t seen the three missed calls from her office that she’d gotten while she was driving.  They’d called because they’d never received her message, till now.  She checked the time she had sent it.

It was exactly one hour ago, to the minute.

***

Twenty minutes later, while Audrey still paced around the office trying to figure out some way to communicate with her colleagues, someone came rushing into the office.

“Guys, Audrey’s car just showed up in the parking lot,” he said.

A palpable sense of relief washed over the four people still huddled at the cubicle, and they all started talking.

“About time.  Now I can stop worrying and start planning some practical joke.  Where is she?”

“Don’t know.  Bathroom?”

“Maybe she went straight to the development room?”

“Did she check in with anyone first?”

“I’ll go find out.”

Audrey shook her head.  Her car just showed up he said.  But her car had been parked in that spot for an hour, right next to Emma’s car.  How could no one have noticed it until then?

One hour.  Once again, there was a delay of one hour.

Her partner glanced in her cubicle, under her desk.  “I don’t see her purse.  She must still be on her way up.  I’ll go see if I can catch her.”

Audrey frowned.  She checked the cubby where she had definitely left her bags.  It was empty.  But as she watched, her bags appeared.  She checked the time.  She had glanced at the wall clock just as she got to her cubicle.  It was exactly one hour ago that she had crammed her bags into the cubby.

“Why didn’t she leave a message when she called earlier?” someone asked, sounding calm now, and slightly annoyed.  “Why didn’t she call us back?”

“I bet she forgot her phone at home in a rush or something.”

Audrey listened to her colleagues trying to rationalize their apparent unease and suspicion about seeing signs of her but not seeing her.

Audrey went outside and wondered if the car had just appeared, like her bags, or if it had taken the same path she’d driven it on.  If she took it now, would it still appear to be in there in its spot, to everyone else’s perception?  What if they tried to touch it?

Was it safe to drive it?

Audrey shook her head.  She didn’t know, so she couldn’t take a chance.  She went back inside and grabbed her bag, noticing how cold it was when she first touched it, just like her mug handle.  There was a train station just across the street that had a stop about a mile from her place.  She hopped on, squeezed herself into a corner, and went home.

***

On finding no dead bodies in her apartment, Audrey found herself sitting against a wall and encouraging herself to breathe deeply.

Enough time had passed that someone must have seen her mug in the breakroom by now.  Soon they would see her initials spelled out in push pins on a cubicle corkboard.  They would see her bags appear and then disappear.

And they would perceive all of those things exactly one hour after she took the actions.

One hour.

All the clocks in her house were still one hour behind.  She reset them.  But after a few moments, they blinked back to their original time.

“This is not what I meant when I said I wanted more time,” she said, as she gazed at the souvenir she had picked up on vacation a few days back.  The one that now sat on her bedside table, right next to her clock.

***

Audrey was no different from a multitude of her fellow citizens who seemed to have “no time.”  She was one of those people who balked when others suggested that she “make the time.”  No one could make more time.  There were only so many hours in the day.  No one could buy more time, rent it, or sell it.  Time was time, and that was that.

But when she was having a relaxed rant about time as she sat in a lounge chair with a drink and a book, trying to tell herself she had all the time in the world, one of her fellow tourists had laughed and suggested that she get herself something called a sama-sphere.

It was an object of local legend, now replicated into souvenirs of varying degrees of quality.  Audrey found a metal one that had a kind of atomic look to it.  It was a sphere that could fit in her palm, divided around its circumference so that it appeared to have twelve wedges, each representing the twelve hours of the day and the twelve hours of the night.  The wedges were inscribed with writing in an ancient local dialect that told the story of a local god, a village god, known as the time-keeper.

***

This time-keeper god was supposed to manage time by keeping the balance, not too much, not too little.  But the most popular story about him was one in which his feast day approached…but not quickly enough for the god.

He accelerated time in the village, by devouring it, nibbling first upon seconds and minutes, then taking sips then gulps of hours, then swallowing entire days, weeks, months, a season, then another, and suddenly, it was the day of his feast.  At this point, he regurgitated the time he had swallowed so that his feast could last for an entire season.  In latter versions of the story, it was said he hadn’t really destroyed the time he had consumed.  It was said he could neither create nor destroy time, only manipulate it.

But in the earliest versions and other early tales, the god did indeed consume all of that time, and when he wanted his feast to last longer, he had to create more time.  This he did, and lost in his revels, he made, by mistake, a little bit extra.  Just one hour.

When the revels were over and the god realized his error, he prepared to devour the extra hour, but his supplicants begged him not to, for they found use in this extra hour.  The god agreed to this, but only in part.  He would let them keep the extra hour during the seasons when he left them to visit the other gods in their various abodes.

In time, this god invented a device known as the sama-sphere to help his highest clerics in keeping and calculating the time, not just hours and seasons, but decades and centuries, helping them to predict weather patterns and even celestial events.  It was a practical device.  But some said that it was also a means for the god to communicate with his clerics.  It was said that when the extra hour appeared, it appeared as an extra wedge in the sphere.

***

Audrey noted something odd about the sphere when she returned to her apartment to check for her own body or any other clues to her current predicament.  She did not notice what that oddity was at first, because the wedges were so symmetrical.  She did not notice until she counted that there were thirteen of them.

But when she’d first gotten it, there had only been twelve wedges…hadn’t there?

Could it be?  She’d gotten the sphere as a souvenir, and someone had given her some chants to say, affirmations really, to “activate” the sphere’s power in helping her get control of time, or the way she spent time at least.

One hour.

She seemed to be one hour behind.  It was as if she’d been left behind in the old hour.  The clocks in her home were one hour behind.  Her actions were one hour behind.  No one could feel her or hear her.  That cold feeling when she touched something…that had to be something to do with her being an hour behind.

Her clothes.  Her clothes hadn’t snapped back into her closet the way that those push pins she’d rearranged had snapped back.  Her bags hadn’t snapped back…at least not until she put them down.  It seemed as if whatever she was in physical contact with was in sync with her, and when she stopped touching it, it went back in sync with the rest of the world.

She wondered…whatever had happened had happened overnight, when daylight savings began.  Would it end when daylight savings ended?  Maybe it would, and at that point, if she came back into sync with everyone else, she would have a lot of explaining to do.  Not to mention that she hadn’t yet tried eating or drinking anything.  She’d only been awake for a few hours.

Then she thought about what could happen if she did meet with some accident or injury or other medical emergency while she was out of sync with everyone else.  And what if she didn’t fall back into sync when daylight savings ended?

***

Audrey needed to buy herself time, as ridiculous as that sounded for someone who seemed to have retained that extra hour that everyone else lost.  If she didn’t get in touch with her colleagues, with her family, people would have police officers crawling through her place in short order.  While it was a comforting thought that people would try to find her if she were missing, she wasn’t actually missing.  Missing in time, certainly, but not in place.

And conventional means of searching for her wouldn’t work.

Audrey wrote an email to her boss, apologizing for arriving late and then leaving without checking with anyone.  She said she had a dire personal emergency and had to leave immediately.  She would keep in touch when she could, and would try to get some work done, but her connectivity would be spotty where she was headed and she wouldn’t be able to talk directly.  Everything she told him was technically true, if vague.  She was confident that her boss would receive an email notification in his inbox in exactly one hour.  What she didn’t know was whether or not there would be anything contained in that email, or if it would be as empty and silent as the voicemail she had tried to send that morning.

She needed help.  If the email worked, then she had bought herself a small amount of time.  And whether it did or not, her best bet might be to go to the authorities.  But she had to go to the proper authority.

The thought had occurred to her that she could try to use the sama-sphere to summon the time-keeper god, the way his clerics once did, and ask him to bring her back in phase by swallowing that extra hour.  But she knew better by now than to tamper with forces she doesn’t understand.  That’s probably how she got herself into this mess in the first place, reciting chants when she had no idea what they really meant.

She needed to find someone who did or could understand.  Who dealt with cases of persons missing in time?  Not the local police department.  A government agency?

Audrey recalled a community event where a cop was advising everyone on the various numbers to call for different types of non-emergency problems.  When he got to federal agencies, someone asked who they should call if they thought their apartment was haunted.  Everyone could tell the question was rehearsed, but it was still fun when the officer answered with the “Spooky Agency,” referring to a fairly low-key government intelligence agency that supposedly focused on monitoring cutting edge science research domestically and investigating fringe events that might result from that kind of research.

At least that was all he said about it.

Audrey tried to look it up online to get contact information, the address of a local office maybe, but she got nowhere.  So she decided to go down to her local police department, hoping she might be able to peek over someone’s shoulder or something.  It was, luckily, within walking distance.

She’d never been inside the local police department.  Even though she’d just entered the front doors and was just approaching the front desk, she felt a little criminal.

There was a rack along the wall beside the front desk, containing dozens of pamphlets.  One of them stood out from the others.  It was all black, with no writing on the outside.  But it was right there, half a dozen copies, along with all the other community awareness pamphlets.  The writing inside was white.  It was them, the “Spooky Agency.”

Audrey sent a message to the email address listed inside.  She described her situation.

She knew the email would go through with her message intact.  She’d received a response from her boss by that time to her mysterious “personal emergency” notification.  He had tried to call her.  She had turned her phone off.  If she had tried to answer, he wouldn’t have heard her.  It would have just made him more suspicious.  But she listened to his voicemail messages.  He sounded professional, but with a restrained tone of concern and just a touch of irritation.  He was in a state of not knowing.  Not knowing if he should be furious because she was ultimately okay.  Not knowing if he should be worried because she was ultimately in real trouble.

She hoped that she would get an answer from the so-called Spooky Agency before her boss got too suspicious.

***

Audrey never received any email response, so she didn’t know who was knocking on her door a few hours later, until she peeked through the peephole and spotted a tall woman in a dark navy pinstripe suit.

The woman knocked gently, leaned toward the door, and quietly identified herself.  She was an agent.  She held up her phone, displaying Audrey’s email.

“You called for us,” the agent said.

Audrey stepped back and threw up her hands.  She had no way of telling this agent that she couldn’t just open the door right then and there.  She tried anyway.  She twisted the knob, then swung the door open, holding it there.  But the agent seemed to not see the open door.  She wouldn’t be seeing it for another hour.  Audrey sighed and let go of the door, which immediately rebounded and closed again.  She expected the agent to either leave or break in.  But instead, the agent waited outside.  She sat on the floor in the hallway and waited for an hour, when the door swung open, seemingly of its own accord.  The agent walked in, calling Audrey’s name, but not as if she expected anyone to answer.  She closed the door behind her.

The agent quickly searched the apartment.  A few minutes after that, she stopped and huffed out a breath.

Audrey realized that it would look very creepy, disturbing actually.  But she needed for the agent to know she was there.

She had written the words “I’m here” throughout the apartment.  On her bathroom mirror using the usual lipstick trick.  On her walls with chalk.  On a pad beside her bed, along with an arrow pointing to the sama-sphere.

She followed the agent to her bedroom.  The agent didn’t need that arrow.  As soon as she spotted the sphere, her posture stiffened and she went right to it.

She stared at it for a moment, then pulled out her phone, attached some device to it, and pointed it at the sphere.  She didn’t touch it.  She made adjustments on the display that showed up on her phone screen.  Audrey looked, but didn’t understand.

***

“If you’re listening, Audrey,” the agent said, after several minutes of monitoring.  “I’ve got some good news and some bad news.  The good news is, I’m pretty confident you’ll come back in temporal phase with the rest of us and stay that way if you let me help you.  Unless the object on your bedside table is vastly different from the ones I’ve encountered before.  I won’t know until I study it further.”  She turned around, and as it so happened, she ended up facing Audrey.  “The bad news is…you won’t be rejoining us in your native time for another seven months.”

Audrey exhaled, and her shoulders seemed to melt and she felt that momentary off-balance feeling of suddenly losing a heavy burden.  She believed the agent.  While waiting for the Agency to respond, she had managed to eat and drink something.  And she had thought of ways she might stave off her family, friends, and colleagues.  She just didn’t know how long she would have to stave them off.  But now she did.  She believed the agent, because the agent had just confirmed what Audrey had guessed and hoped on her own.  Seven months was a long time, but she could do it.  Now that she knew for certain that she would be back, back with everyone else, it felt doable.  She would only have to be gone for seven months…

Seven months…

Seven months…for seven months no one would be able to reach her.  No one would be able to follow up with her.  The agent could communicate with her—sure—but even the agent was prevented from reaching her.

But Audrey could reach anyone and everyone.  She was invisible and would be for seven months.  She blinked and she breathed.  On the inhale, she drew herself up.  Before, when she didn’t know if she could get out of her predicament, her condition was frightening.  But now, knowing it would end, now it felt as if she had a powerful secret.  Or maybe just a power.

What would she do with it?

 

 

Copyright © 2019  Nila L. Patel

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