Aphelion Issue 275, Volume 26
August 2022
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Where Did The Time Go

by Russell Fike

Eyes glued to the clock, Steven tapped his foot in time with the ticking of the second hand. One hand white-knuckled from his vise-like grip on the side of the desk, Steven impatiently gnawed the paint off the number two lead pencil he held in the other. The pencil would be better used to take notes, but for now Steven was content to poison himself with flakes of yellow paint.

Mr. Deich's history class was notorious for being both incredibly difficult and unbearably boring. Still, as time seemed to move with excruciating slowness Steven knew that his biology class would follow. Science was his favorite subject as the concepts came to him naturally. For now Steven was trapped, awaiting the piercing shriek of the bell to cut-off the monotonous speech of the dull Mr. Deich.

Plainly dressed, Steven sat in what he dubbed his uniform. Single-color t-shirts and jeans filled his entire wardrobe like a cartoon character never seen out of his familiar trademark attire. The only defining article of clothing a navy blue blazer he thought went well with jeans and sneakers. He glanced at his best friends Jeff and Sarah.

All three, high school seniors Advanced World History was the only common class in their fairly empty schedules. Working the academic system to its fullest they constructed a course load that allowed them to go home at lunch.

Sarah was the most academic of the three. She felt a need to display intellectual prowess in contrast to her physical appearance. An attractive blonde with an impressive figure the definition of her facial features conveyed cuteness, but this description did not match her ferociously competitive demeanor. Typically she chose to sit in the front of every class. No teacher could miss her pleas to answer questions. Her arm shot into the air with frequency. Steven watched her voracious note taking with mixed emotions of benign humor and slight contempt.

A quick pan of the room brought Steven's gaze to Jeff. With long legs that barely fit beneath his desk Jeff was the jock of the trio. The power forward for the school basketball team wore shorts that would fall to mid-calf on most people and shirts two sizes too large. Steven was always surprised Jeff found clothes designed for Andre the Giant and smiled now as he saw Jeff flip through a Nike shoe catalog.

"I hope this review session has sufficiently prepared you for a test tomorrow," Mr. Deich declared pompously, his long wiry frame striding back and forth across the front of the classroom. Groans erupted throughout the class. "Sorry to surprise you," continued Mr. Deich with a smirk. "Many of you need help with your grades -- but I don't offer extra credit project, so study up."

The bell rang and the students shuffled noisily from their desks.

Sarah ran to catch her two friends after packing up the extensive sheets of loose-leaf paper she used for notes. "Are you guys ready for the test?"

"I've heard of a pop quiz, but can he really give a pop test?" Jeff said.

"I'll take that as a no," replied Sarah.

"I should be able to scrape a 'C'," Steven said with a shrug.

"We can have a study session," suggested Sarah.

Both of her friends groaned simultaneously as the three split for their respective classes.

Preoccupied with thoughts of the history test tomorrow, Steven found even biology hard to enjoy. Relieved when the class was over he trudged to his school locker to trade the interesting science books for the tedious history text he had to study. As the locker door creaked open, confusion contorted Steven's visage. A pile of unlabeled audiotapes lay on top of the jumble of books and paper at the bottom of the locker. Steven looked over his shoulder to scan the hallway scattered with students, none of whom provided an explanation.

"Must be mix-tapes from a crush," thought Steven dismissively as he scooped the tapes into his backpack. Multiple tapes seemed to be a little nuke-the-fridge, to say nothing of old-tech, but he'd heard of weirder stuff than that...

Most of the afternoon was wasted in front of the television and when nine thirty rolled around Steven figured it was time to begin the studying he'd put off. However, when he opened the backpack the tapes confronted him again. Too intrigued to study he located an old Walkman, put one of the tapes in, hit play, and sat leaning against his bed to listen.

"The mitochondria are part of a process that has to do with both chemical and cellular energy," Steven heard his own voice say through the headphones.

Steven threw down the headphones and jumped onto his bed startled by his own voice. It wasn't anything he didn't remember saying. He'd given the answer last semester in biology, but how had he been recorded? Where did the tapes come from? Who was following him? Why? Swamped with questions he ventured to listen to another tape.

"It's interesting that while DNA is stored in the nucleus of a cell there are separate DNA strands within mitochondrion," a deeper more aged voice told Steven.

"You believe there is a correlation between the isolated strands of DNA that vanish upon a cell's death and the aging process," a second voice replied.

"More than that, I believe that with a deeper knowledge of genetic coding some of these cells are programmable before birth to promote youthfulness and ensure the eradication of disease," Steven heard a much older version of himself continue. His breathing turned heavy as he realized he was hearing a conversation in the future.

Steven listened to a couple more tapes and while much of the discourse was beyond him he was fascinated by the theories. Without ever opening the history textbook Steven fell asleep listening to the tapes.

At seven-thirty A.M. Steven awoke sprawled across the floor surrounded by cassettes. Almost late for school he tore out of the house without saying goodbye. Confused as ever, he didn't have time to think about last night's experience. Listening to his footsteps he charged down the hallway and skidded to a stop in front of his locker thrust it open with the same loud creak and took out a pencil and eraser. He took off for Mr. Deich's class at a gallop.

With thirty seconds to spare Steven sprang through the door and into his seat. Some deep-breathing to calm down, a flip of the page and the test stared back at him. His lack of preparation glared. Yet his attention wasn't on the test because he noticed that the pencil he held had not been chewed. It was the first pristine pencil he'd used since the school year began. Hesitantly he placed the lead to the page and began to circle his answers to the multiple-choice questions.

The test went smoothly for a couple questions, but by the third he was thoroughly befuddled. As he applied his answer the dark lead appeared on the page as blood red. The crimson stung Steven's eyes. It stood out harshly against the white paper. Looking up from the test he expected this all to make sense, or to disappear, but when his eyes jetted back to the page the red circle remained. Steven erased his answer and tried another choice. The lead showed its familiar color. Similar incidents occurred with subsequent questions before Steven realized that the pencil was correcting his paper. Bemused, Steven finished the test quickly, but felt shameful about the pencil's help. He squirmed uneasily in his seat as again he waited for the clock that moved in slow motion to show the end of class.

"I can't wait to get the test results back," Sarah said excitedly to Jeff and Steven as they entered the hallway for passing period.

"Can't wait," Jeff replied with smarmy insincerity.

"How'd you do Steven?" Sarah asked.

"Fine," said Steven curtly.

"No way, man. Good luck scraping that 'C.' this test probably knocked me onto academic probation. Coach said if my grades drop any lower I can't play." Jeff informed.

"We can still have a study session. What do you think Steven?" inquired Sarah.

"Yes. Sure," answered Steven half-listening.

"Great!" yelped Sarah as Jeff sighed and the three separated for their classes.

Queasiness overcame Steven as the end of biology neared. He was doomed for another confrontation with whatever surprises his locker held. Counting steps in repetitions of five Steven tried to distract his mind from what he might face inside the locker. Another gift awaited him. The locker door creaked open to reveal a history textbook Steven had never seen before. "Why are you doing this?" he screamed at his locker. "Where are these things coming from?" demanded Steven. Several students turned to look at him, but laughed and walked away.

Staring down at the book Steven hesitated, then grabbed it and thrust it under one arm. With authority he slammed the locker shut. Nothing happened. He wasn't electrocuted, no hallucinations, but also no answers.

"It's just a normal book," Steven insisted all afternoon until without realizing what his hands were doing the book sat open. The air thickened with palpable tension as unease traveled on airwaves that spanned every frequency and enveloped the room.

Steven was in a stark white room where bright light bounced off the walls blinding him, but he could hear ominous, echoing voices.

"We all live on in these books," the mysterious voice said as Steven felt tremors strike his body. "If you become two lines of history in someone's textbook don't you live forever?" the voice argued.

"What is this? What are you talking about?" Steven cried, but timidity caused his voice to tremble and trail off weakly.

"When we live forever occasionally we can help one another. Some from the future and some from the past," the voice began to explain. Steven could still see nothing and when his eyes finally showed tangible objects in front of him he realized he had awoken in his room the following morning.

Trembling, Steven took his seat in Mr. Deich's class.

"You will receive your tests back at the end of class," Mr. Deich began, but Steven ignored everything as he pulled his new textbook from his backpack.

The book allowed Steven to visualize lectures like never before. Eyes closed, pictures formed in his mind out of gray blurs into a fluid recreation of the time-period. It started simply. A ripple in a pool of water or leaf that swayed innocuously in the gentle breeze as the textbook photos swam from the page into his mind. A lesson occurred through the osmosis of experience. The vicarious journey was so vivid that when Steven opened his eyes again he was shocked to find himself in the school cafeteria sitting across from Jeff and Sarah.

"You all right, man?" Jeff asked with concern.

"Fine. I think. Why are we in the cafeteria?" Steven asked.

"Dude, I got a 'D,' so I figured a study session might not be a bad idea," Jeff answered.

"I don't know why you would need help though Mr. Perfect Score," Sarah stated angrily.

"I got a perfect score?" Steven asked.

"Don't by coy," Sarah quipped.

"She can't get over her 'B-,'" explained Jeff.

"It was the second highest score in the class. It's nothing to be ashamed of," Sarah retorted.

The book breathed inside Steven's backpack. Preying on the display of human weakness outside its temporary cage it could sense its sway over Steven growing. "Soon," it thought. Perhaps even the next time Steven opened it up.

"I got lucky on a few of the questions." Steven attempted to console Sarah, yet unwilling to expose the reality of the self-correcting pencil.

"Don't try to be modest. You know Steven, if you put half the effort into Mr. Deich's class that you put into your stupid science studies you'd probably do this well on every test," continued Sarah, flustered.

"Let's just get started," suggested Jeff in an attempt to alleviate the tension.

Steven reached into his backpack where the book anxiously awaited his touch. Unconsciously the book was opened and with a simple tilt of his head Steven looked down into the book and fell through the portal. His friends appeared very small through a distant doorframe. Steven turned one hundred eighty degrees to see an elaborate laboratory with a man no taller than five foot four with bushy red hair, glasses, and a lab coat staring back at him.

"I'm glad you're here," the man told him.

"Who are you?" Steven asked surveying his surroundings.

The man chuckled before speaking. "I'm your lab partner. Most call me Professor Spates. We work together many years into the future. Your work helped cure many people from illness. Instances of cancer had dropped nearly ninety percent by the time I died. You outlived me by two years."

Steven was certain his jaw had hit the floor. "You're the one helping me?" Steven asked.

"A lot of people are curious about your life. Every scientist who influences history lives on eternally in text about them and many have reached out to you Steven, as you become one of them. In the future you're highly documented." Professor Spates explained. "Some of those tapes are recorded discussions from our lab, others are recreations of your past from movies about your life."

"No. I haven't done anything." Steven told the Professor.

"It's already been written as fact twenty years into your future. The pencil, the textbook, these were gifts from scientists who desired to help you through the arbitrary tribulations of life to accelerate your rise to greatness," professor Spates took slow steps toward Steven. "Life will pass. You will live forever here. You never have to return to regular life," Professor Spates told Steven who still felt like he had a life to live beyond whatever this "history" book depicted him to be. He didn't care if these medical breakthroughs were his destiny. Wasn't there a life before and after? Could there be now?

Steven felt contaminated as he realized he was doomed to become one of these jaded characters of history. Terror overtook his thoughts.

"I have to leave. Now!" Steven screamed frantically.

He could still make out the faint figures of his friends through the doorway that now seemed miles away. Sweat precipitated along Steven's brow and he hyperventilated as he tried to run. His lungs burst with a scream that came out silent, futile. The only sound was his footsteps as he trod down the long corridor. Thud, thump, thud, thump, one foot followed the other in rhythmic unison. Gasping in silence he was deaf to his own thoughts as animalistic instincts of survival controlled his body. He had to reach the exit. He had to escape. Only feet from the doorway through which he could see his friend's silhouettes he desperately lunged as the passage started to close. It sealed and vanished. He attempted to scream as the book, which he was made to call home closed, and Steven drowned in the darkness.


© 2008 Russell Fike

Bio: Russell Fike was born and raised in Long Beach California. He graduated from Columbia College Chicago with a Bachelor of Arts in Writing and Producing Television. Mr. Fike typically writes comedy and is the sole author of the book, “Reflections of a Man Not Yet Old,” a collection of comedic and yet poignant social commentary in first-person narrative. He continues to study improvisational comedy and a passion for standup as well as exploring a joy for fiction writing.

E-mail: Russell Fike

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