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Losing Track of Time

by Dan Ormerod 4 months ago in Short Story
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The Man with the Red Hat

Losing Track of Time
Photo by Alistair on Unsplash

Mary jarred at the sound of the horn, which was incredibly loud and impossible to sleep through. It sounded like the whistle from an old train engine, like one you might see in a classic film. There was no reason any sound had to be that loud, Mary thought, angered by the shocking fright. The cool catch of her breath filled her with a tingling sensation that cascaded from her core, down her arms and out through her fingertips. The horn sounded again but this time she was ready for it, although it was no less irritating.

The engine revved and hissed. Mary could feel the wheels spinning in response before finally catching purchase and the train slowly began to lurch forward with a recognizable chug-chug-chug. It's official, Mary thought, I am on one of those old trains from the movies.

Mary sat up to take in her surroundings. She was cocooned in a fortress of suitcases, wrapped in a dusty old blanket with a leather duffel bag propped for a pillow. Mary had no idea why she was holed up in what appeared to be the luggage car of a train. The only light in the room came from a small window just above her head. She scooched over to look outside.

Two men were arguing on a wooden platform in front of a station. One man was wearing a red hat while the other looked to be the conductor. The train was plodding along at a snail's pace but beginning to pick up speed. The man in the red hat was scanning the length of the train as if he was looking for something while the conductor broke off the engagement and made his way back toward the track.

Mary raised her hands to the window sill in hopes of getting a better view when something poked her in the cheek. There was a small journal strapped to her wrist, using the elastic band necessary to keep it closed. She quickly removed the odd paper corsage and opened it to the last entry. Holding it in the light of the window, the words on the page came into view.

‘Hide. Don't let the Man with the Red Hat Find You!’

Mary peaked back out the window to discover the man wearing the red hat squinting in her direction. Mary quickly ducked down below the window so she couldn't be seen. She reread the page in the dim light of the car. She had no idea how she got on this train or who the man with the red hat was, but she knew her own handwriting. The engine kept working and the wheels turned faster, a walking pace now. Mary looked back through the window, rising only high enough to catch a glimpse of the platform, careful not to be seen.

Mary was relieved to see the man with the red hat still scanning the cars as they slowly crept by. The conductor was no longer on the platform and had probably made his way back to the train. The wheels turned along and the steam whistle sounded again, startling Mary enough to curse under her breath. Seconds later she was no longer at an angle to see the platform through the window and could only hope that the man with the red hat did not hop back on one of the last few cars of the train.

Mary slumped down the wall of the car and pulled the blanket close, deciding to stay hidden for a while or at least until the train put a few miles between her and the station. She threw the duffel on her lap and plopped the journal on top, wondering how she had gotten herself into this mess and if this little book held the answers.

It wasn’t long before the train was trotting along the tracks quite nicely. Mary had read the journal from front to back a half dozen times and was agitated because she had more questions than before. The first entry told her to relax, that her memory loss was only temporary. The next entry told her to have a cup of coffee… or two. Outside of a couple of doodles, there were no other entries except the last regarding the man in the red hat. Mary was frustrated with herself for not being more forthright. She thought that she must have been vague on purpose but that did little to abate her fear now.

Mary toppled her luggage bunker and made her way to the door. She couldn't stay here forever and if she was to follow her own advice, she needed a cup of coffee... or two. Just as she was reaching for the handle, the door swung open and she stood face to face with a porter.

“I'm sorry ma'am,” the young man said, “no one is allowed in the luggage cars.”

“I was just trying to find my bag,'' Mary lied, brushing past the boy. “It must be in my room. Now, which way is the refreshment car?”

Mary followed the young man's direction and cautiously made her way forward, scanning her surroundings for any red hats. Reaching the dining car unaccosted, she found a seat and ordered a coffee. The car was full of windows and Mary heartened in the countryside view. Miles and miles of undeveloped land galloped by at a relaxing pace. She set the journal on the table and gave it a displeasing glare.

Mary decided that there were few places she might hide on a moving train. Chances were, the porter would report her as a stowaway and she fully expected the authorities to approach her at any minute now. Mary had no idea why she was here or why she needed to hide from anyone and frankly, she was quickly tiring of the whole situation. She decided she would sit there and enjoy her coffee with the hopes that someone would eventually find her and explain what the hell was going on.

Well into her second coffee, Mary sat upright as a flood of memories rushed back. It was the caffeine she needed, a stimulant to help reset her mind. Mary remembered that she was on vacation! She was on a vacation in time and the man with the red hat was her tour guide!

Mary laughed to herself has she recalled the stupid online commercials: ‘Time in Time Vacations.’ Travel back in time and take the vacation you never thought you could. See the world as the first explorers did. Ride a dinosaur or match wits with a caveman. Experience the birth of this great nation by air, sea or land. Relax and let our experienced guides lead you through the vacation of any lifetime and still have you back before your lunch break is over. Everyone has time for ‘Time in Time Vacations.’

Mary also remembered the disclaimers at the end of the ad. ‘A small percentage of travellers may experience nausea, disorientation or mild panic upon awakening - symptoms vary in intensity but are not life threatening. Some may experience temporary memory loss or muscle fatigue. Consult your tour guide if symptoms persist longer than two weeks.’

‘Longer than two weeks’ was just Mary’s luck as she could only afford the one week package. Every morning Mary awoke on the train, she couldn't remember a thing until she relaxed with a cup of coffee. She strapped the journal to her wrist each night in order to calm her nerves the following morning. It could be worse, Mary thought, she didn’t feel sick at all… just forgetful for the first hour or so each day. Besides, there were a lot of products on the market with side effects far riskier than these. Mary decided she was happy to experience a little memory loss rather than a heart attack for example.. or worse, uncontrollable, explosive diarrhea.

According to ‘Time in Time Vacations’ and their top scientists, time travel is relatively harmless. Turns out, the time continuum isn't as fragile as everyone once thought. Actually, time is a little on the stubborn side. The brochure described time as a mighty river; no matter how many obstacles were placed in its path, the flow of current is only trivially diverted and subsequently, finds its way back to the riverbed and eventually out through the same channel to sea.

As a safeguard, every traveller is paired with a tour guide, to ensure the water doesn't stray too far from the banks of the river, so to speak. Although time travel is stable, relatively speaking, everyone must be accompanied by an experienced concierge that can safely guide them on their trip without creating too many ripples. After all, a pebble tossed into the water has little effect but a boulder on the other hand may have slight consequences in the future.

Mary was reminded of her father; he was a little on the stubborn side as well. And like a mighty river, no matter what happened during any particular day at the retirement home, her father would always be sitting in his chair by 11:00 pm to watch the news and enjoy a strong cup of coffee before finding his way to bed. Mary missed her father terribly. He had been the last of her family and every time she heard one of those travel ads, she thought of him. Ultimately, that was why Mary used her entire inheritance to purchase the vacation.

Mary remembered the name of her red hat wearing tour guide and felt a twinge of guilt. Ben was a wonderful man and a lovely travel companion. He took care of all the accommodations, comforted her with morning memory issues, alerted her to all the fascinating points of interest on the trip and had a playful sense of humour along the way. Mary immediately took a liking to him from the start and felt safe in his company. She knew he wouldn't let any harm come to her and would ensure her safe return, which was why she felt so horrible deceiving him, stealing away in the middle of their last night together, hiding amongst the other passengers' bags. She had no choice though, because Mary had no intention of returning home to a life of loneliness. Mary was determined to make this vacation last a lifetime.

The car door swung open and the conductor wedged himself through before lumbering down the aisle towards Mary. He gave her a reassuring smile as he approached. Mary's hopes that he might just be passing through dashed as he held up at her table.

“There you are, Miss,” he said, “your travelling companion with the awful hat was very upset he had lost you. I assured him that a young lady like yourself was more than capable to see to her own affairs.”

Mary thanked him, wishfully thinking he might be finished with the subject.

“Young Tim tells me you were hidden away in the luggage car?” the conductor continued, concern creeping into his voice. “Was that man causing you some kind of trouble?”

“No, not at all,” Mary replied, trying a reassuring smile of her own, “I just needed some space.”

The conductor nodded, but certainly didn't look reassured. “Well, he asked me to give you this.” The conductor handed Mary a folded parchment. “My apologies for reading it. I don't know this man and I needed to understand the nature of the message. I wouldn't relay anything upsetting! Albeit cryptic, the note seems harmless.”

Mary was relieved to hear that she had put some distance between herself and her travel handler, Ben. Her relief flickered when the conductor asked, “If you don't mind Miss, may I see your ticket, please?”

The conductor could tell by the look on Mary's face that she had no such ticket. The final destination for her itinerary had been at the last stop. That was it. The vacation was supposed to be over with a quick zap back to the present. She missed her scheduled terminal stop! Mary’s curiosity was piqued; was she in the clear or running on borrowed time?

“Don't worry, Miss,” the conductor said, looking at his pocket watch. “You can settle up at the next station which, by the way, is just coming into view…” He crouched slightly to look at the window with concern, “If you’ll excuse me, Miss.” He turned abruptly and hastily made his way toward the front of the train.

Mary quickly realized that something wasn't right. Peering out the window she could see the people, luggage in hand, waiting at the next station. The problem was with the train. Instead of slowing down in order to let the people on, the train appeared to be speeding up! Papers and hats flew skyward with the smoky waft of air that slapped the platform as the train sped past the station. What didn't fly up was knocked over! Some passengers found themselves on their keisters, suffering the unforgiving spank of the wooden planks under their feet.

Mary covered her mouth to stifle a laugh, glad to not be one of those unfortunate people on their backsides. The ladies would probably be more upset to have had their dresses ruined than to miss their train. Mary gathered that she would have to purchase her ticket at the next station, if they could wake up the engineer… or sober him up, maybe. Mary wasn't too concerned, convinced the conductor would get to the bottom of things. Frankly, she was glad to have something else be the focus of attention.

The train continued to accelerate and Mary's coffee cup began to vibrate. The terrific speed was a little unsettling. The folded note Ben had left for her was starting to migrate towards the edge of the table. Poor Ben. She snatched up the paper before it fell and opened it.

Mary, I hope you find what you're looking for.

Remember, every leap of faith,

starts with a jump!


A compact ball of lightning flooded the central pod of the office space. The air sizzled and popped as the powerball expanded, emitting an intense light. The workers shielded their eyes against the growing magnitude of the electric sphere. A massive explosion seemed imminent before the lightning fizzled out into a harmless fart, and a man wearing a red hat stood in its place.

“Boss wants to see you,” a co-worker shouted, before Ben could even step off the transmigration platform.

“Lost one did ya?” someone else chimed in. Probably Terry, that asshole.

Shoulders slumped, Ben made his way to the Admin Offices. Head down, he decided not to engage with any of his fellow employees.

“Don’t sweat it, Ben,” Sally spoke up, “It happens to the best of us. Besides, the runners never make it - that’s why we have the safeguards in place. Zeppelins catch fire, Cruise Liners sink and Trains crash over wooden bridges. By air, sea or land, history is full of disasters.”

“It can’t have changed anything much. We are all still here in this crappy office!”

“Look, his face is the same colour as his hat!”

“Shut up Terry, you asshole!” someone shouted.

Ben didn’t understand why he let Mary go. He had never lost a traveller before. He could have held the train for a thorough search. He could have collected her if he had tried. There was something endearing about her… If management ever found out he slipped a note to one of the clients he could be in real trouble and losing his job would be the least of his worries.

He left the building a few minutes later, a full investigation scheduled first thing in the morning. What a week, Ben thought, wanting nothing more than to be home with his wife, take a nice long shower and pour himself a stiff drink. He was just about to remove his hat to run his hand through his hair when he felt a tap on his shoulder.

“I knew it had to be you, Ben! Keeping Quiet nearly killed me, but I knew I couldn’t say a thing!”

Ben turned to see his Mother-in-law shaking uncontrollably, a river of tears flowing freely over her cheeks.

“What are you doing here?” Ben asked. “Is everything OK? Is Esther OK?” Unexpectedly running into his Mother-in-Law made Ben jump to the conclusion that there must be something wrong with his wife.

“Everything is better than OK,” she said. “For generations, this has been willed from mother to daughter with specific instructions: Be at this address, on this specific day, in order to give this to the man wearing the red hat!” She handed Ben a folded piece of parchment, stained by time and frayed at the edges.

Ben started to carefully unfold the note, his hands trembling with the anticipation of its contents. Barely unfurled, Ben recognized the last word he wrote and quickly re-folded the paper, sliding it in his pocket, paranoid that someone would recognize it.

“Oh my God, she did it! She jumped!” Ben exclaimed. “How long have you had this?”

“Little over a year now. Since my Mom passed,” She said. “If she hadn’t gotten sick, it would have been her standing here instead of me!”

“Does Esther know?” Ben asked.

“No, just me. And only after the will was read,” She said. “Only one person knew at a time. We couldn’t take any chances. But now, I guess… it's done. Everything has come full circle. It has finally happened.”

Ben stood face to face with his Mother-in-Law, trying to comprehend the magnitude of the moment, when she broke the silence.

“I think I saw her today! From across the street I watched her go into the building!” She said excitedly, “I think I saw Mary!”

“Well, let’s go home,” Ben said, putting his arm around his Mother-in-Law, “and tell your daughter, Esther, that we just bumped into her Great, Great… I’m not sure how many Greats… Grandmother!”

As the two continued on, Ben began to fully grasp the gravity of his actions. If he hadn’t written the note and had Mary not taken a jump of faith, Ben would have never met his wife. Esther simply wouldn’t have existed! Time, Ben thought, time for that stiff drink.

Short Story

About the author

Dan Ormerod

I love to tell tall tales. I've determined that I am left with two career choices - a writer or a fisherman. If you like a little humour tucked in with your tale, give my stories a try. If things don't work out, I'm buying a boat.

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