A Twitch In Time.
Cash or cheque?
The dial spun. Its golden hands chasing each other around the diamond-encrusted face.
I’d done it! I’d finally done it.
Her face flashed before me. Her blue eyes. The freckles that formed constellations across her skin. Her wild mahogany curls.
I could save her.
My brother William stared at the rain spattered window, his gaze empty and unmoving. Both legs and one arm sacrificed to a war we had no business being in. If I was lucky, I could save two people tonight.
Two loud knocks sounded at the laboratory door. Evangeline. The heiress. Wealthy enough to keep a poor scientist stocked with supplies. So long as I also warmed her bed. I felt the ever-present twinge of guilt as her gentle hand tried the locked handle.
The pocket watch vibrated in my palm, the mechanism ticking faster.
I did what I had to do. The thought sounded like a prayer through my head. The phrase my constant companion on sleepless nights. Each leading up to this moment, this breakthrough.
“Isaac O’Neil,” she called through the door, “I have need of your skilled hands.”
I pulled my jacket over the singed woollen waistcoat and ran a hand over my scruffy beard and ruined face. A prototype from a few years back had gone wrong, carving a deep scar down my left side. I hadn’t the time to gussy up.
Would Beatrice even recognise me? The thought made me pause. Ten long years since I’d seen her. Ten years that were soon to be just a twitch in time. For her.
The clothes were a decade out of fashion, saved for this day, a disguise. But my hands were rough and scarred. My hair tinted grey. I wasn’t the boy she had just married.
Would she know me?
Better that she didn’t.
“I’ll be right with you,” I lied to Evangeline, as I took the watch in hand. I climbed the ornate stairs to the top of the aquarium pool. Bracing myself over the icy water. Like a glass coffin, it waited.
I braced myself. The water would act as shield against the cosmic radiation. The device I held would broadcast gravity waves at a precise frequency. Creating a loop back in time. One loop, one link, one chance.
The hands chased back the years across the clock face. Eight, now, Nine, Ten years ago. April 15th, 1912. Just after midnight. William stared up at me from his wheelchair. He raised his chin, bringing one burnt hand to his head in a salute. I’d remember his request.
I plunged myself into the frozen pool. The cold attacked me. Sinking its knife-like fingers into my muscles. I held my thumb to the trigger at the top of the dial and pressed.
A golden lightning shot up my arm spearing through my body and wrenching me back in time.
The room beyond the glass fell away, shapes beyond swirled, echoes of time. Sea monster like shadows in dark water. My lungs burned. My body fighting me for air. But still I held. I had to.
The watch stopped and all feeling of power drained away. As did the light. I hung suspended in the dark for an endless moment. Above me a glimmer of light, dappled and white. I surged towards the surface, pulling in a lungful of frigid air. Lights flickered above me, a porthole to my left. Letters floated on the water, like doomed life rafts. Never to see their intended. Mail room, RMS Titanic. Of course, it would be the mail room.
I’d done it. I cheered, slapping the water. The ship let out a god-awful groan and the sea flooded the room, lifting me off my feet. My time was running low. I swam to the door, pulled myself into the corridor, and wrenched myself up the stairs. I had to get to the Aft deck. That’s where she was. My Beatrice. That was where she died. Would die. Won’t die.
That was where I had to save her.
I made my way out of the maze under the ship. I’d spent the last decade memorising the path. Anything to cut down the seconds. I reached the Fore deck, throwing myself into the cold moonless night. People were screaming. They pushed and shoved towards the dwindling lifeboats. I barrelled past them. Pulling against the tide of frantic bodies. Scared faces flashed by me.
I thought of William's glazed eyes. By Gods’ mercy, I’d dodged the draft, but some survivors of this shipwreck wouldn’t be so lucky. I’d doubt they would have been so quick to clamber into the boats if they knew what was coming.
Pressing myself to the railings I skirted round the torrent of people. The frigid air worked to freeze my sodden clothes and leach the strength from my muscles. With half numb hands I pulled myself along as the boat began to tip. If I let go I’d slide back the way I came. I didn’t have enough time for that kind of failure.
I thought of my Beatrice. How we met. When a mix up in the mail called us both to the post office. I’d never forget opening the door of that daft post office and seeing her there. The neck of her blouse unbuttoned. Her hair in disarray. Coal smudged hands from drawing, and singed cuffs from her numerous experiments. A mad woman. I was in love before she said a word. And when she spoke, I fell in love all over again. She was a woman of science. preferring to spend her Sundays working on theorems, then on freezing knees in a chapel.
My whole life I felt like I was speaking another language to everyone else. Even William couldn’t keep up with me. But Beatrice could. Not only did she understand but she excelled. I remembered how her deft hands could sketch a specimen with such skill. Yet she still fumbled with the buttons on her dress. Every night after courting her I’d walk her back to her cottage.
“Cash or Cheque,” I’d ask, “Cheque,” she’d always say, preferring to kiss me when we were alone.
A man slid past me, clutching to my arm as he fell.
“Get your meat hooks off me!” I said, holding my precarious balance. I shook, hoping to dislodge him from my person.
“Isaac?” said the man. I knew that voice. William grasped tight to my arm. Clear-eyed and younger than I could remember him. The war had not yet done its damage. I dipped my chin. Hiding my face.
“You’re older, by Gods mercy, all that blathering about a time machine and you did it, didn’t you?” He sounded like Ma, “Have ye come back for us? To save us? An angel from heaven in the form of my brother”
The ship groaned sinking more as the icy sea sought to pull it under.
I had no time. I hauled us both up and across the deck. We pressed against the wall.
William clasped his hand around the back of my neck. Eyes catching on my scar.
“What’s happened to you, your face?” he asked. But I couldn’t answer. His last request echoed through my mind stealing my voice. I couldn’t do it.
I pushed off the wall, lurching to the railing on the mezzanine. Young William scrambled after me. I latched onto the railing below that the Aft deck spread to the end of the ship. Or it should have. The sickening sound of groaning metal reverberated through my feet as the deck lifted into the air. My eyes searched the far railing for who I used to be. Was it centre Starboard? Or Port? My hands fumbled in the cold, losing their grip. I fell, sliding down the boards to the wall. My feet landed on its panelled surface, as the ship continued to tip it became level ground. Too late. The deck rose like a whale lurching from the ocean. The lights flickered and I looked above.
There I was. Young, in love, and stupid. Gripping her hand tightly as they lost their footing. Beatrice. I remembered how cold my fingers were, remembered how they started to slip. Now no longer just a memory, I saw as my grip started to fail.
Too late, all this time, all this work and I was too late. Doomed to watch her fall into the icy water again, and again. My young numb hands lost their purchase, and she began to fall.
But instead of quickening her descent as gravity took hold, she slowed. She stopped, suspended above me in a macabre tableau. The screams cut off, like someone had snapped the strings on the world. Everything was silent and still.
“What’s happened?” Asked William at my side.
“Time has stopped,” I said out loud, my breath making ghosts in the air. I checked the watch in my pocket, but its diamond face stared back at me, dead and dull.
“Well done,” said a cold feminine voice, “I knew I made you smart,”
She sat on the railing now above us. A green gown flowing in an invisible wind. Her porcelain skin glowed in some imagined light. Like an actor on a grand stage.
“Evangeline?” I breathed.
She laughed, “Is that who I look like?” she raised a hand examining it as though it were new. With a twist of her head she looked to my wife. Beatrice’s arm outstretched to my younger useless self. Skirts billowed around her a state of motion now frozen still.
“Such trouble for someone so small.” Again, Evangeline angled her head, but something was wrong in the twist of her neck. She moved as if she had no bones.
With a fluid jerk she jumped off the railings, landing on the panelled wall beside me. She snapped upright shaking her shoulders as though trying on a new coat. The odd spotlight followed her, casting a cold glow on her red hair.
“Evangeline was never on this ship,” I said. The more I looked the more I was certain it wasn’t her. But when she turned her gaze on me ice pricked down my spine. Her eyes were not the familiar green that chased desire with guilt. But yellow. Her pupils elongated rectangles, like a creature of the deep.
“I am a God-fearing man,” said William, crossing himself.
“Typical humans, always fearing the wrong person” her breath made no mist in the air.
“Who are you? What are you?” I asked. Because this demon wasn’t Evangeline.
“Bored,” she said with a flick of her hair. She gazed up at Beatrice’s falling form.
I wanted to jump between them. As though this creature's gaze alone was a danger.
“What if I told you that I could save more people. Five say. Five people could live in exchange for your wife’s life. What would you say?”
I didn’t hesitate, “Save her,” I said, if it made me a bastard, so be it.
She paused her odd eyes examining me with a tilt to her head. I felt it like a touch, slithering over my body, face, then over my shoulder. To William. The corner of her mouth lifted up into a smile.
With a twitch she was beside him, like she had skipped through time and space. She glided a hand over William’s arm, leaving a black mark in her wake. The arm he was soon to lose.
“You haven’t told him.” It wasn’t a question, so I didn’t answer.
“Let me die on that ship, Isaac.” the creature spoke but William's war-weary voice sounded from her throat, “Dying in the cold. The arms of the sea. Anything is better than this.”
“Isaac?” asked William, his hands shaking by his sides.
“If I could save your brother, from this ship, from the war,” her yellow eyes pierced me again, “But you lost her?”
I closed my eyes “Same answer,” I said. The words hung between us. A weight over the world.
“It always is,” she smiled. Three rows of pointed teeth.
William collapsed, like she had cut his strings.
“I made him pretty, but I made him dumb,” she said. I let out a strangled sob, “Oh hush, he is just asleep. Dreaming. Pretty happy dreams, of guns and trenches and glory.” She paused “Oh, well not the last part.”
Anger dripped through me. Acidic and corrosive.
She clicked her red painted fingers and the air rippled. The frozen scene above us changed. Suddenly it was Beatrice that held fast to the railings and me that was falling. The relief was almost knee buckling.
“Tick tock, goes the clock, She’ll be here soon,” she said.
“Who?” I asked.
“Ten, nine, eight- “counted the demon.
“Who, dammit?” but she wasn’t listening.
“Three, two, one!”
A familiar figure dragged herself from the water at the Starboard side.
“Isaac!” she called staring up at the younger falling me.
She looked different. But I’d know her anywhere. The wild brown curls. The piercing blue eyes. Even the freckles, now cut by a deep reddened scar. It travelled the length of her face and disappeared into the collar of her blouse. Mirroring my own.
“Beatrice?” I choked.
She turned to the sound of my voice. A golden watch clutched in her hands.
“Isaac?” She breathed. Her eyes flicking between the younger me frozen in time, and the older, broken person in front of her.
My Wife, my brilliant wife. She was beautiful. Some grey glinted in her hair, lines shaped themselves around her eyes. She was older, ten years?
“Eight,” said the being between us, “I made you smart, but I made her smarter.” I didn’t care. My eyes drunk her in. Cataloging every difference. Every scar, wrinkle, every hair.
“Evangeline?” asked my wife. Her face paled.
The demon blew her a kiss reminding me of earlier thoughts. I did what I had to do.
“Not Evangeline,” I said.
“I needed a body you would both recognise, and she fit me like a glove.”
“What is this?” Asked Beatrice, “How is this happening?’
“Always asking the wrong questions,” snarled the being between us. “He dies, you come back. You die, he comes back. Again, and again and again.” She swung her finger around and around. Her head followed its movements like a blotto three drinks past prime at a public house. She stopped suddenly, then with another twitch she stood behind my brilliant wife. “Two-time travellers, stuck out at sea. D I Y, I N G,” she sung.
“A paradox,” said Beatrice. Warily stepping away.
“You’re a defect on the cd, a glitch in the hologram, a scratch on the record. A tear in my story.” The creature spoke of things I didn’t understand.
“Your story?” I asked. Risking a step toward Beatrice on the far side of the deck. She did the same.
“All stories are mine.” Said the creature. Another twitch and she was crouching over my brother's sleeping form. “The romantic, the tragic.”
“You claim to be a god then?” asked Beatrice, taking another step. Two more steps and I could have reached out and touched her.
“Nothing so mundane.” Laughed the demon. In a blink she was above us. Standing on the railings, she threw her hands into the air. “I’m the director. The grand improvisation!” In the next moment she was beside me. I jumped out of her path. “Stage directions are rare. But, when present, must be followed. And this is the end of a scene! The grand climax!”
She spread her arms, encapsulating the spectacle in front of her. The people caught mid scream, the rushing water, the terrified faces, and she smiled. I knew now why the priest had thought pride a sin. The expression on her face faltered. One corner of her mouth turned down, the opposite eyebrow pinched. Like she lost the battle one muscle at a time. Anger bled through her like a disease. “But you two wont let it end!” she bit. Power thrummed through the air. Like the end note of a song, a resonance hung in the air, barely audible but lingering.
She was going to kill us.
Beatrice flung her arms around my neck and buried her face there. I cupped her face, needing to see her, my eyes still greedy for every drop of her they could consume.
She ran a hand down my scar just as I ran a thumb across hers.
“Radial wavelength-“ she began.
“-Variable disruption,” I concluded, and we both smiled. We had made the same mistake.
“Not my best writing,” said the creature. She sat with my brother’s head in her lap. Idly touching his face. When she pulled her hand away red circles marked his cheek. Like something you would see in the deep ocean. He looked so peaceful lying there. A peace I hadn’t seen on his face in a long time.
“What am I to do?” asked the creature.
“Save us both,” said Beatrice. I clenched my hands on her arms.
“One O’Neil in the world can cause this much trouble, what would happen if there were two?” scoffed the demon.
“If we both live then there will be no reason for us to make a time machine. No reason for us to come back,” said Beatrice. My brilliant Beatrice.
The creature considered it. She rose, her spine and legs bending out from under my brother in an unnatural wave. She moved under our younger versions.
“Which us?” the creature asked.
I pressed my hand to my wife’s face. She nodded.
“Them,” I said, “save them.”
With a swing of the creature's arm, the scene changed again. Our younger selves now clung to the railing. But William. William wasn’t with them.
The creature sat back down next to my brother. Her human fingers played with his hair.
“It’s not in you to keep your promise,” she said, “I didn’t write you that way. Either of you.”
She brought him into her arms, cradling him like a child. "But I am good at keeping promises."
Shadowy tentacles rose out of the water, latching onto the deck and pulling down. The water rushed in. I pressed my forehead the Beatrice’s.
“Cash or Cheque?” I murmured.
“Cash,” she said and pressed her lips to mine as we were pulled under the icy water and into the dark.
There are no comments for this story
Be the first to respond and start the conversation.