"So, before we start, can I please have your name?"
The still, pale man seated before me paused to take a breath, and slowly moved his eyes towards me. His eyes were slower now, and I'd been told he assured staff he expected them to stop in place any day now. They were some of the last moving pieces he had, and you could almost hear them scraping with every glance he took.
Robert's voice was almost as dry as the materials he believed to have overtaken his frame. The stillness of his posture was almost more unnatural than the oddness of his movement. It was like a sculpture, coming to life to give a brief snippet of conversation. Which I suppose he was, in his own way. I cleared my throat.
"What can you tell me about your condition?"
He pursed his lips momentarily. "Well… it was two years after Wilson came into office, nineteen-fifteen. I remember it because I was helping campaign for him, down in Norwich. It was a tough spot to be campaigning, and I was out all hours of the day. I was active in those days, although of course that was a long time ago…"
He was still.
"So, how did this relate to your condition?"
"In a moment, please. I'm attempting to get there, by memory. Your head isn't as full as mine is, so give me a few minutes to recall exactly the day it occurred."
His eyes left me, and gazed out the window.
"It was a Tuesday. I'd been working in the church that day, when I met him. He was a queer-looking fellow, about your height. I asked him what he was doing, and he told me to mind my own business. We had a few… words, that aren't to be shared in polite company. I was a hothead then, you see, didn't wait for anything. After we'd been at it for a few minutes, he pulled out his pocketwatch, and asked me for the time."
I raised a brow. "He asked you?"
If Robert could nod, I'm sure he would've. "He asked me for the time, and told me I needed to wait a little more. Of course, I didn't know what he meant then, thought he was making fun of me. But, then he went onto the curse. Told me that I'd done too many quick things, and it'd hurt some friends of his in town. Said someone had to answer for it, and it might as well be me. So, the curse."
This is what I had come to hear about. "The curse?"
Robert's eyes came back to me. "That's how I came to be in my condition. On that Tuesday, in nineteen-fifteen, that's where I am. Or at least some of me. Parts of my eyes and lips are still in the present, aging like a hundred-year-old should. But my mind, my heart, the insides… stuck like concrete back in that time. Still waiting for me to learn some patience. That's what I told them, in the asylum. Took them a while to believe me."
Before I could respond, he went on.
"I sometimes like to think… that maybe, when it's all done, I can look out my window one more time, before these old eyes finally dry and set like the rest of me. Maybe when the last words leave my lips, I'll be concrete all over, and break away like I should've done fifty years ago. If I wait long enough, and see."
Once more, his eyes swiveled away from me.
"Goodbye, friend. I hope time is more kind to you, than it has been to me."
Seated before me was a pale, boney, wasted husk of what might once have been a young woman. At one point her hair might've been a dirty blond, but it was almost gray now, with some flecks of color scattered through the wiry mess intermittently. She had tough, bony arms resting on the table, which had similarly skeletal hands at the end. A black cloth was wrapped tightly around her eyes. I sat down in front of her, and quietly went over my notes.
I looked up. "Beg your pardon?"
"The black. It's rotted off." She drummed her fingers on the table. "I can see through it, to the wall."
In a very deliberate way, she began grasping at something only she could see, in a sort of slow, jerky and methodical picking of nothingness. It was an odd sight, seeing such precise movements done for nothing.
"Miss… can you hear me?"
She started. "Oh, yes, sorry sorry sorry."
I coughed, and looked back down to my notes. "So, uh, hello. My name is Stanley, and I have a few questions for you."
Her shoulders shuddered, then hunched close together, almost appearing to fold in on themselves. She threw her head up, and stared at the ceiling.
"Can't tell you much. They don't let me see, like we used to."
"Well…" I said, tapping my pencil on the desk. "When did you first start… seeing?"
She stiffened, and turned to me again. "… Ten. I was ten years old. That was the first time I saw it. When the flower was there, and it was wilted. I was fine. I might've seen two but it was okay. Then I woke up and mother was broken and calling me for breakfast but her face was gone she was hanging and splitting and it was wrong. She was such a nice lady. She made me pancakes every morning. She's dead now."
She tapped her fingers more quickly.
"Now… we don't need to talk about that…"
"It got worse, after that. I couldn't go outside, or talk to my friends. If someone took me into town, all I could see was the rotting shit in the windows and broken toys in the shops. Not all of it, at first, but then there was so much and it was so… just, everywhere. I couldn't take it. That was the first time I lost my mind. Left it somewhere behind."
I blinked a few times. "Well-"
"They're going to take you now. We don't talk anymore."
I waited, for a moment. Nothing happened.
"There's not anyone coming?"
She shrugged. "I'm sorry. I just… that usually makes people go."
"You don't like talking to me?"
She tilted her head down. "… I don't. You're just another one of the endless parade of people, trying to talk to me. Get me to talk to them, about the future or something. Sometimes I can see them, and I don't like that. But you already knew that. You know everything. You read my file, saw what they do. Saw the pills, and the pictures of me when I can't control. Why are you even here?"
I paused. "I just wanted to know about you. Reading a file isn't like talking to a person."
She sighed. "If I look at you, will you leave me alone?"
I shrugged. "I can't promise for the rest of them, but I'll be satisfied."
Without further hesitation, she slipped her blindfold off, and we stared eye to eye. They looked much younger than the rest of her, two sharp blue orbs not wrinkled or dulled in the slightest.
"Your hair's cut… and your eye's black."
I brushed my hand over my head. "So, you can handle it better, now?"
She nodded. "It's easier… here. I hate them, but they keep it from overwhelming me. I can't take my eyes out, and if I went outside… I wouldn't be able to handle it. Even if I just went outside, I'd be broken by the rotting trees and broken animals. You ever see a roadkill deer?"
"I've only seen roadkilled deer."
I paused. "I'm sorry."
"Not your fault. It's just life, seen? We have to have something bad happen to us. Just when the luck fairy was going around, she skimped on me."
"Alright… thank you for your perspective, Miss…"
"Just say one-eighty-seven. I get in trouble unless you do."
"Alright, then…" I stood there awkwardly, for a moment, before gathering my papers and heading to the door.
I turned from the door. "Yeah?"
"Keep an ice pack handy, okay?
I feel sort of odd, conducting an interview like this in a public place. Or at least, as public as the Foundation lets it be. We're in a public park, with a tarp over the whole pavilion with the statue. Signs say that there's some indefinite construction going on. I'm told the locals don't complain much, even though they've been at it for what, something like twenty years? Guess we have some kind of pacification method, or something.
I see the guy, or statue, or whatever you want to call him, he's up on his pedestal. I'm told he likes to stand up there, on his own. They've set up the interview table right in front of him, so I sit down, and pull out my pencil.
"Can you hear me?"
He nods. It's odd to see such smooth motion from someone literally made of concrete, especially after seeing how Robert moved. I thought he'd have some of the same, jerky motions, but it's smooth as butter.
"Alright, can you tell me your name?"
"Private Chester Smith, 17th Regiment Kentucky Volunteer Cavalry, at your service."
"Is that the person you represent, or is that who you are?"
For a moment, he pauses. "I would like to believe… that it is who I am. There are no black places, or missing pieces in my mind. I can remember it in continuous ways, if that makes sense."
I begin writing. "So, you think you're the same person that you were, ah, designed to represent."
Chester slowly nods. "That is what I believe is the case, yes."
"So, what's the earliest memory you have?"
Looking down to me, he begins to stroke his chin. I can hear the stone grinding.
"Well… I know who I was, before the war. Born here, but I served in Kentucky. Went there to get out of the fighting… but it went and followed me from my front porch, to my farm. Don't remember much, besides my mother and father. I joined up in April, 1864. I got to live in hellish barracks for months, training with the most damned son-of-a-bitch officers this side of the Mississippi. And for what? I got to be the first casualty in my regiment."
The grinding intensifies. "I used to be bitter, but… not worth being mad, when the poor bastard who shot me got hisself killed sometime. All of his friends, too."
He chuckles a little, deep from his hollow stone body. "Sorry, I occasionally become slightly morbid about these matters."
I try to laugh with him, keep things casual. "I understand, friend. What happened after that?"
"It was dark, for quite some time. Stiff, too. It was very uncomfortable, to feel myself falling away… from myself. It was a confusing feeling, being so stiff, and yet so loose. Thankfully, it only took about a hundred years for some nice young men to make me this statue, which I now inhabit."
Before I can say another word, he chuckles.
"I got to go from being rotted and stiff and on my back below the earth, to being above it, but in the same state."
"So… when did you get to be… like this?"
Chester kneels down before me, and gestures for me to come closer. I get up, and walk over, leaning my ear to his mouth.
"It was… the birds. They… landed on me, and… I am certain you know what would come next."
I nod. "I get the picture."
He continued. "I would take my rifle, and try to shoot them… that was how I found out I had a rifle. After that, I started to take a look at what had become of the world around me, and… well, I tried to focus on the birds. If it hadn't been for my friends here, I may have caused much more trouble than I already have."
I check my notes, although I already know what I'm going to say. "It says here, that when the Foundation handed off containment, you… met someone?"
He instantly frowns, gripping his rifle. "I don't think that's what you came here about, is it?"
"Well, it's part of your history here, isn't it?"
Chester frowned at me, and at my present spot, right near his face I could see every crack and imperfection on his stone face. "I would really rather we not pursue this avenue of conversation."
I tried to put on a pleading expression. "Are you certain? Knowing how things changed with knowing a new person, it would really help-"
The next thing I knew, I was flat on my back, with chipped stone and swelling pain in my right eye. The interview was over.
It feels slightly odd, to be conducting an interview in a notebook. They gave me a pencil, sharpened with a nice, pink eraser and sent me in. The journal itself is a leather one, with ancient pages I thought would crumble to dust the moment I touched them. But, it stayed whole. On the first page, there were three words written in fancy, cursive script.
Fred says hello.
I wrote in blocky script. It was embarrassing, compared to the curvature above it.
Do you have to talk in third person?
After a moment, the writing appeared on the page itself. The letters didn't fade in, but seemed to be written from another side, and written backwards from their perspective.
Nah, sometimes I just like to have fun. Y'know? I don't get to talk to folks every day.
I paused. Do you write backwards so other people can read what you are doing?
In a quick, scribbled pace, less neat now, he replied I was about to ask you the same thing.
I take it you get these questions a lot
Well, when you're around long enough, you hear the standard gamut one too many times and it gets pretty boring. Even if I do have my stories.
I checked my watch, waiting for thirty seconds to pass.
How long has it been since you wrote that reply?
A quick, jotted answer. Depends, are you the same guy I just got to talk to?
Then beats me, doc. You're the guys who keep track of that stuff.
How does time pass in your books?
This time, the reply is longer, and written slowly. I like to believe that it made him think.
I've actually not heard this one before. I think time passing in books is like… a little path, where I can retread the same steps and words infinitely without a moment going by, and I likes it slow. I guess it's like floating down a little lazy river, seeing a story unfold on the banks. Once you've floated the whole way down, you can turn around and see the whole thing again.
Do some stories take longer than others?
Well, I'm usually in the story. When time passes there, it's like a pocket. Things are normal for what I see, or at least I think it's normal, then for the bits I ain't around in I just float through and watch, sometimes chatting, but I prefer to be the patient observer. Y'know?
I think I do. Is there anything else you can tell me?
Beats me, doc. I wouldn't even know where to ask. All the clocks I ever see are in storytime.
I understand, thanks for talking to me
Excerpt from research document by Stanley J. Gillespie.
Time is a subject near and dear to my heart. My colleagues can attest to my love of the subject, from the instruments we use to measure it, to the theories that we spin about it. For a long time, I wanted to do my own study, not on time, but on the perception of time. How the people who are different see time in their own unique ways. Some, like that poor girl, can see their own reflections, and the reflections of others in front of her. Some might have called her a prophet, in times past, but today we'd just say she's another unfortunate person who can see too much, and they see something disgusting.
Some of them, like Robert, don't have to care about time. They're effectively immortal, so the passing of the clock doesn't pose much of a threat. They sit, as days lapse into weeks, and into years. They set like concrete, binding in with the clock until it stops flat for them, unchanging. They're still, awaiting the eternity of lonesome night that inevitably awaits them. The one thing Robert liked to look at, was his window. I like to think it was his way of still seeing change, and growth, a special window from his private hell. But I know in the end, he doesn't care.
I don't think any of them like it, to have their lives shaped this way. That the clock should deny them respite, or any kind of honor. It can leave someone more than slightly bitter, to have every opportunity for a semblance of normality. Instead, they watch as they die, and their friends die. The enemies die too, but there's nobody to celebrate with, because you outlived them all. I don't blame Chester for hitting me… what else could he do?
And finally, we come to the few that don't abide by the rules. They don't exist as bodies, but as concepts, with time only applying to them in certain contexts. They neither recognize its rules, nor abide by its consequences. They quite literally have all the time in the world, because they will persist with or without another day going by. Fred can exist forever, in his books, seeing the same times day in and day out. He can speed through them quickly, or slow down to watch the same scenes unfold over and over. To him, time is a plaything.
In the end, we can know that time is just a matter of how we see life. It can be a short series of deadlines, with a big X at the end, or it can be a circular pattern, and some of us can recognize these patterns more than others. But in the end, we don't need to worry about it. As the poet Henry Dobson put it:
Time goes, you say? Ah no!
Alas, Time stays, we go.