Aphelion Issue 223, Volume 21
November 2017
 
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The Man Who Broke Time

by Susan Anwin




The old lady – the kind you find on your aunt Mabel's mantelpiece – watched Alan from the shelf of the curio shop. He picked it up. It had a benevolent granny-look, with spots of blue paint for eyes in a nest of wrinkles. It had an oddly realistic feel to it, the rough texture of fabric, the strands of grey hair under the headscarf.

Alan put it back, but he must have made a clumsy job of it; he winced when he heard the crash.

"Damn!" He hurried to the front of the store. The owner was nowhere in sight. "Sir? Hello? I'm afraid there's been a little accident."

No reply came.

"I can pay for it, no problem."

There was no sign that anybody has heard him. Nothing moved in the dusty storage room behind the counter.

He glanced at the shop window and instantly forgot about the figurine. He opened the door and looked around.

There were no cars or people, no birds perched on the wires. The clouds hung on the sky as if they'd been painted there.

He walked to the neighbouring electric shop. The digital clocks all showed the same time, 10:34, never switching to 35 while he watched, as if they all broke at the very same moment. The only sign of life were the signs used to advertise sales. They were still flashing on and off. One of them read:

CONGRATS! YOU BROKE TIME!

He backed away from the shopwindow. "Hey, is this a "You've Been Framed" episode? Ok, very funny; you can stop now." Alan fell silent. He didn’t like the way his voice dropped at his feet like stones.

He walked around the bloc, but it was just more of the same; empty streets, desolate stores.

Alan got back where he began; the curio shop. He winced a little when he heard the bells jingling above his head as he stepped in. He went around the counter, and into the storage area. There was a small door at the other end of the room. He headed that way, hoping to find the elderly shop owner out there in a littered parking lot or back street, taking out the trash, perhaps.

He stopped abruptly when the smell reached his nose – the earthy, humid scent of vegetation, so out of place, so wrong in a storage room in the middle of a city that he felt the little hairs on the nape of his neck stand on end.

He made a tentative step forward. Something drew him towards that door. He had to see what was behind it, despite the vehement protest of every nerve. He walked up to the door in a sort of half-dazed dreamy slowness. The handle felt rough and cool under his palm. It stuck a little when he pushed it down.

He hadn't noticed holding his breath as he opened the door; it escaped from his lungs in a startled whoosh as he took in what was on the other side; not the littered parking lot he was hoping for.

Unknown birds flew among the towering trees of a primeval rainforest. Ferns of impossible size quivered from the passing of unseen animals. Something was off with the birds, but he wasn’t sure what it was.

Alan slammed the door shut with a scream. He stood shivering among the cardboard boxes. "Those aren’t birds…," he breathed. They were winged reptiles, giant pterodactyls.

"This must be the wildest trip of my life."

He tried to remember if he had got wasted, or high the previous day, but there was nothing. All he remembered of his whole life was just impressions, dream-fragments.

When he woke up from his reverie, he found himself in front of the shelf. There was no sign of the old lady; even the fragments were gone. On it's place was a grinning clown figurine. Alan shuddered and turned away.

It was just then that he took in his surroundings – the shop was just vaguely reminiscent of the shop he entered in the morning of this endless day. All sorts of knickknacks lined the wooden shelves of what looked like a general store from an old western. There was a cuckoo clock in the corner. It's arms never moved past 1 o'clock, ticking forever in the same place.

Alan squinted, trying to see outside through the wavy glass in the paneled windows.

He stumbled out to the street – or a version of it as it must have looked like three or four centuries back. A dirt road ran between rows of plank houses. Men driving horse-drawn carts shot him curious glances from under the wide brim of their hats.

Alan was relieved to see people. He went up to a cluster of women congregating nearby on the boardwalk.

"Excuse me, I think I lost my way…"

They said nothing, just watched him, whispering among themselves in some unknown language.

Alan left them and drifted down the main street. It vaguely registered with him that children followed him from a safe distance.

"Parallel universes… dimensions… time lines… got somehow detached from my own reality…" He nearly tripped over a herd of pigs crowding the street. A part of him still wanted to believe that he was drunk or drugged or dreaming, and kept waiting to wake up.

An official-looking man stood in his way and asked something. He sounded friendly, but his watchful glance belied his tone.

"Oh, hi. Maybe you can help me; I’m looking for the way back to my own time and place or something." Alan said, not knowing or caring if the man understood.

The other stepped aside, but his eyes followed Alan as he ambled down the street.

They took him from the pastures outside the village. He didn’t fight when they locked him up in a cart and took him to the gaol. The next morning the same man who had stopped him on the street came to see him.

"Why am I here?"

He opened a leather bound book and read out something, the charges against him, Alan supposed. He looked at himself, at his modern clothes. The way you look, the way you acted out there they probably think you’re a witch. He snorted. This is not happening. Not to me. None of this is real. Although the packed earth, the mud seeping up the seat of his pants and the rusty iron bars felt real enough.

The cell had a hole for a window, yet he couldn't keep track of the days. Time had an oddly stretchy quality here. He tried counting time from tasteless porridge to tasteless porridge that the gaoler shoved in under the door.

They shook him awake and dragged him out of the cell in the predawn darkness. The last trace of sleep disappeared from his mind when he saw the gallows.

"Whoa, wait a second…!" He tried to break away, but the guards held him firmly. This is not real. It cannot be real. "I’m not a witch," he shouted. "Not a witch, you idiots!"

The villagers shouted back at him, pelted him with rotten vegetables and occasionally stones.

"Please… this is a mistake. I shouldn’t be here."

They had to carry him up the stairs, while he kept howling and thrashing.

The crowd fell silent as they stood him on the trapdoor; they were all hard eyes and watchful silence.

"This is just a dream," he sobbed, as the official read from a book, praying for his soul probably, while the hangman tightened the noose around Alan’s neck.

He refused to believe even when he heard the hangman pull the lever and the plank disappeared from under his feet.

There was a yank, a crack, and then silence.

*****


"Are you alright?"

It was a perfectly average-looking girl in modern clothes, regarding him with slight worry in her brown eyes behind the glasses.

Alan let out a shaky breath. He was standing outside the electric store. His gaze was instantly dragged to the sign, but it just listed the actual sales: …every microwave 15% off! Only until the 20th!

He looked back at the girl, but he wasn’t sure what to say. He turned away and headed down the street.

"Mister? Hello?"

He just vaguely heard her as he neared the curio-shop, time stretching to hours between every step, to a lifetime between heartbeats.

The shop windows were as crammed as he remembered. He crept, rather than walked in. The old man behind the counter smiled at him. "Oh, there you are. Found anything you liked?"

Alan didn’t think he’d be able to say anything. "The… figurine…"

The shop owner laughed. "There are quite a couple of them around."

Alan turned to the back of the store, stealing between the shelves as if he was approaching a sleeping predator.

There she was, grinning at him with the same gleeful expression. There wasn’t even a hairline crack on the porcelain.

"You fixed it."

"I beg your pardon?"

"I broke it, or one just like this one." Alan turned to him. "I’m sorry about that by the way. You had another one in stock?"

The owner looked perplexed. "Oh no, there is just this one; there was always just this one. Isn’t she exquisite? Never seen anything like her. It’s like she is alive the way her glance seems to follow you. I got her from somewhere in northern Norway. I can give you a special price for her."

"Are you sure?" Alan heard despair creeping back into his voice. It took on an unpleasant, whiny note he loathed. The old lady looked back at him with indifferent brown eyes. "Listen, this might sound odd, but how long have I been in here?"

For an agonizing moment the other just stared at him. Alan wondered if he was considering calling the cops.

"You’ve been in the shop for the last five minutes. Are you alright?"

"Yes, I… I just had some kind of… blackout, I guess."

The skin folded into creases around the old man’s eyes as he smiled. "Well, it’s good to have you back."


THE END


2017 Susan Anwin

Bio: Susan Anwin was born and raised in Budapest, Hungary. Her flash-fiction Talk of Armadale trees was featured in the anthology My Favourite Place, published by the Scottish Book Trust in 2012, and her short stories Fog-People, Eddie's lousy Saturday, You'll die as fish, People of the Green Cloud, Dragonfly-man, Daddy is Driving the Car and Soul for Sale were published by Aphelion in 2016 and 2017. She's been featured on the cover of Aphelion in March and July 2017.

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