After the amazing success of the free/$2.99 ebook download of Talking to the Dead, I’m left dizzy with happiness to have so many people reading my work for the first time. I never expected such an intense and massive outpouring of love (and downloads) from readers.
Talking to the Dead was published in 2009. A quick check of the calendar reveals it is now 2013. So, where are my other novels? Why aren’t they published? What’s going on?
Publishing is a tough, tough business. It’s hard to break into, and harder to remain. I made some choices and decisions that may have slowed down my publication journey, but they are choices I know were right for me, and I have not a shred of regret.
I’ve completed three novels since I wrote Talking to the Dead (I’m working on two more at present). My agent is working on finding homes for two of those novels. I have no idea if or when this will happen. The only thing I’m certain of is I’m a writer, too far gone to stop writing, too bull headed stubborn allow the passing years without additional novels published to get me down.
Well, maybe a little bit down some days. But that’s when a cute guy named Steve, and two smoochie children hug me and make me feel good again.
In order to prove that I haven’t been sitting idly low these many months and (gulp) years, I’d like to offer up this Chapter One (and two) of my novel called Time and Time Again. (Later this month, I’ll post Chapter one of another one of my as yet unpublished novels: The Season In Between.)
Time and Time Again by Bonnie Grove
“What then is time? If no one asks me, I know; if I want to explain it to someone, I do not know.”-St. Augustine
Begin at the End
I imagine him splayed on the cold linoleum like a sacrifice. On his back, arms pushed to the sides, neck arching his head pushing into the floor. So thin I count his ribs, run my fingers over them like an instrument – quick and light over the keyboard of bones. I summon the pain of being ripped away, stitched back again.
This, of course, was before I’d heard his name, before I read his letters, before I loved him. Back then, all I knew was his descriptive, those two words – unbelievable as they were – time traveler.
If you were perched outside the second story window, a bird maybe, or a bit of paper pressed to the glass by a strong wind, there would be little to see; a massive mahogany table surrounded by twenty or more people clad in white lab coats, sitting, a morning meeting, and nothing more. There is an empty chair at the head of the table that no one in the room looks at. We study our cuticles, thumb through papers without reading them. We don’t speak. We are coiled, waiting, our faces arranged in bland expressions of professionalism.
Dr. Brad Johnson, The Center’s CEO and mouthpiece for its mysterious, international Board, strides in, fills the empty chair. Our silence intensifies.
He gets straight to the heart of the meeting. “Doctors, the rumors you’ve heard are true. We have a time traveler in our custody.” The silence now swirls to furious murmur. I drop my glance, notice my hands are still, not warbling with excitement like my stomach. We knew, I think, but now weknow. One of the doctors, Buster from nuclear science, smiles at me and nods he resembles a high school student having just received an A on a test. I look away.
Dr. Johnson makes quick work of the assignments – which doctors will take lead roles in the case. I ease back in my chair. I’m the head of the psychology department, and the only one qualified to work on such a case. Brad Johnson hands out assignment packages to first string doctors. I refuse to glance at Buster’s notes. Brad will give me a package; I’ll read it alone in my office where I can linger over the details. Most of the top medical staff have already examined the time traveler, Brad explains. Standard procedure. But before the meeting began I overheard rumors the time traveler was in bad shape. That he fought the guards once he found out he was being asked to stay. But I doubt those rumors. We’re scientists in this one-of-a-kind facility, studying people with extraordinary abilities and potential – we’re not the brute squad.
I feel a stab of pride as I listen to Brad talk about the time traveler, a miracle of humanity inside the same building where I’m sitting. This is what we are all about. We are scientific puzzlers who strive to understand what other institutions dismiss as unmanageable: a brain injured musical prodigy, a boy with sever autism who sees into the future, a girl with cerebral palsy who moves objects with her mind. We are the only facility in the world studying these people with a goal of unlocking the clues they carry within their bodies and minds – clues to the next leap in human existence. Maybe it’s a bit dramatic, but I view us as radical scientific humanists coming together on behalf of humanity in order to build a better world.
When Brad Johnson is done making assignments, he looks in my general direction and says, “Non-medical doctors will be working with this patient on an as-needed basis.” He has handed out all the assignment packages.
I flip open a notebook, pen poised pretending to write down every word Brad says. “As needed… meaning?”
“Meaning we’ll only call you, Gwen, if the medical team can make room for you. We don’t know what we’re dealing with.”
I sit higher in my chair. My department regularly runs tag team with medical departments, assessing psychological balance and health in the midst of their intervention and testing. Our work is done over a long term, but early assessment is critical. This is a curve ball. “Which is why I would argue the need for –“
“I know what you would argue,” he says, scanning the papers in front of him. When he looks up, he addresses the entire room. He is done with our conversation.
Brad’s voice fades to a static buzz, a hum I can’t swat away. The room expands, then falls into itself, becoming so small it might not exist. I don’t move, I’m carved from a single tree, hollowed out – not a twitch, not even a subtle lifted brow. I won’t let them see my mortification. Beside me, Buster buries his head in papers.
Brad’s lips move, he talks on and on, humming and buzzing. Buster nudges me and I turn up the volume switch in my mind, Brad is saying, “We are implementing Extraordinary Person Protocol with the time traveler. Twenty-four hour security. Everyone is checked going in and out of his room. Authorization for patient access comes through me.”
The last time The Center exercised Extraordinary Person Protocol, EPP, was when the former head of my department, and my mentor, Dr. Aatoon Ahmed worked nearly exclusively with the autistic boy able to see the future. The EPP protocol requires round the clock surveillance, as well as alternating sensory regiments, restricted diet, and exercise routines. Every aspect of David, Dr. Ahmed’s patient, was tested, adjusted, examined, and altered over time. It was hard on David who, despite his gift, often didn’t understand what was happening to him. After several meltdowns, Aatoon stopped cooperating with the research team, insisting they needed to work with David, not the other way around. David was removed him from the psychology department and Aatoon pulled from his case. She quit The Center soon afterward. It still bothers me that I haven’t heard from her since she left.
Brad moves on, explaining the details of the case, and there is no further opportunity for me to plead my argument to work with the time traveler. Doctors follow along, reading through the packages Brad handed out. I clench my jaw, the pull in a long breath. Relax, I tell myself. I’ll meet with Brad privately later. He won’t leave me out, I’ll make certain of it. I will work with the time traveler, I know it. I feel the certainty of it in the center of my being.
Morris the Time Traveler
You might guess burning jet fuel, the fury of disintegration, the heat of displacement— but it doesn’t feel like that, thank God. The sensation is unpleasant, but it’s small enough. The sting of the paper’s edge slid across the palm of your hand. Then it’s over and I’m back. Deposited in the now, but I know there is no such thing as now. At any moment I will be pulled or pushed through the narrow shiver of time again and open my eyes to find I’m inside another fully formed now which is not my now. I have no control, no say in whether I stay or go. If I did, I would never go at all. I would stay, plant my feet in the now I love best, the now I was born into.
That is what I would tell people, if I told people anything, about what it feels like to time travel. I would ask them, Would you like to move ahead in time, see your future? Really? Would you care to travel further into your life, discover the people and things you thought would always be with you were gone? Misplaced in the darkness between then and now? Would you like to revisit the dull moments of the past only to discover you’ve fretted away your best chances because you were frightened, or drunk, or simply blind to the things that make you happy? To replay your life in detail and still not be able to change a single moment. That is time travel – endless circling of my days and nights. Visiting and revisiting the places and people I’ve known. Always the same places.
There are rules, of course. Rules set in action by Providence, that unknowable, unsearchable God we all wonder about sometimes in the middle of the night, or crisis, or bad storm. I’m plucked at random, pulled through time for any reason, for no reason I can discern. But the rules by which I time travel are precise – grounding. The rules keep me sane.
When I’m yanked through time, I know I’ll arrive someplace familiar. The home of my childhood, one of the many dingy restaurants I’ve worked, my hiding place beside the river. Somewhere I already know. And when time is finished showing me whatever it is I’m supposed to see – and I almost never know what that is – I’m returned to the place I left from. As if time itself overflows with little red X’s to mark the spot. Always back to where I left, no matter how much I would like to be dropped off somewhere else – like paradise, or maybe a Broadway show. Not much to cling to, these rules. Most days, though, it’s enough.
But I don’t talk to people about time travel. I don’t ask anyone questions. It’s too impossible. How do you begin to talk about it? Hello. I like your shoes. I’ll have the tuna for lunch – unless I time travel and miss lunch. No. Better to be thought an unreliable jerk, a no-show-dish-dropping-forget-your-last-paycheck-you’re-fired loser.
I get headaches.
The one I have now is from the lights that constantly shine in my room at The Center. Lights they dim at night, but never fully extinguish. I crave darkness. They tell me they can’t turn the lights completely off – safety issues, they say. Whose safety? I’m in the basement near the morgue. Who will bother me? And then there is the lock on my door.
The doctors tell me they will help me—cure my time traveling—and I want to believe them. But at three AM, head pounding, stomach churning, from their damnable tests, I think they must hate me.
I am absconded by time, but my headache comes with me. I’m no longer in my room at The Center. I’m in the hall of my apartment building, leaning against the door to my apartment. At least I hope it’s my apartment – I don’t know the date yet, so I’m taking a chance. I cup my forehead with my left hand while my right feels for the spare key I keep hidden behind a loose board. I feel the cool metal of the key. This gives me a rough sense of when I am in time. I moved to this apartment five years ago, so I know I’ve traveled somewhere within those five years. I fumble with the lock and hope to find my former self at home.
Sure enough, there I am, me from the past, the very recent past from the look of me. We are wearing the same shirt, though mine is now frayed at the collar and cuffs, and faded, as if the future will be particularly hard on cotton plaid. He is clean-shaven, while I sport a five o’clock shadow. But time travel doesn’t wait for me to change clothes or shave. It is a cosmic come-as-you-are party held just for me.
My former self offers a small smile in greeting, unruffled to see himself standing before him. I often run into myself in my travels, it only make sense, given the rules, the way I pop in and out of my own lifetime. And I seek myself out, too, like I’m doing now. Why wouldn’t I seek out the comfort of my own company? There is safety in numbers, even when the both of us add up to only myself.
He takes me in, sees the look on my face, then switches off the side table lamp. I close the door and the room is in darkness. “A bad one,” he says, referring to my headache.
I feel my way over to the couch and sit down next to him. I am literally beside myself. “Bad enough. We’ll live.” I close my eyes and revel in the darkness. “So when is it?”
He says, “It’s March, 2010.” His voice is hushed, a result of the darkened room more than in deference to my pounding head.
My eyes have adjusted to the darkness and when I open them, I’m able to make out his shape beside me. “I’m in 2010, too. August, I think.” Time, a loose concept for me, has melted into itself. Lab tests at night, sleeping in snatches at odd times, and of course, the letters, have combined to make oatmeal of my memory.
He gets up. I hear him thump around in the tiny kitchen, which consists of a counter, mini fridge and hot plate on the far wall, less than ten paces away.
March. Tiny prickles of hope swim up my spine. “What day?”
He is beside me again on the couch. “Fifteenth.”
The Ides of March. How perfect. A sign from God if ever there was one. My heart picks up speed, adding volume to the throbbing in my head. I’m right on time. I remember this visit. I remember being him, that version of myself. I know what I’m about to do. Why I need to do it. He, on the other hand, has no idea.
He sits down again, hands me something cold—a soda —and I drink deeply. The caffeine rushes aid to my pounding head. Caffeine and carbs – my life bread. Without regular amounts I suffer headaches and depression. “What are you reading lately?” I ask my former self.
“Barth. Some Augustine.” I hear the shrug in his voice. It says, what else would I be reading? Who better for a time traveler to wrestle with than Karl Barth – granddaddy of reformed predestination theology?
I answer his question before he can ask it. “I’m reading the Psalms.”
He is quiet, then says, “The comforting ones, or the vengeful ones?” My answer will tell him plenty about my situation. Not the details, where, when, how. But my mood, my mental state. How I’m coping, and in turn, what he will have to deal with when he becomes me. The Psalms are my emotional reflecting pool. I discovered them at age ten, and though them, I began to believe that I—the time traveler—might be God’s own creation. When I found the Psalms, I found God, and this is the road of faith I have followed, however tentatively, ever since.
The sharp edge of my headache has slouched away. “Psalm fifty eight. And others like it.” I take another long pull of my Coke. My former self lets out a long whistle, but says nothing. He won’t ask why I’m reading imprecatory Psalms. These are the second set of rules, set in place not by Providence, but by me. My own grasp for sanity.
I never reveal the future to myself. I’ve learned the hard way how painful it is to know about something and not be able to change it. I know what it’s like to look at my future self and feel all kinds of disappointment. If you know too much about what is to come, you stop hoping for things. You stop making choices about your life. For a time traveler, continually confronted with what I will be like in the future, I have a ridiculous belief in choice. Free will is the greatest, most menacing gift of God. And it’s the reason I don’t tell myself about the future. I want to believe, and let myself believe, that my choices sculpt the future. That I participate in my fate.
Sitting beside myself in my darkened living room in March 2010, I am beyond tempted to toss my rule – and maybe free will – to the wind and tell my past self everything.Especially about her. I want to say her name out loud, roll the sound of her around in my mouth. When I am alone in my room at The Center, I lie on my bed and repeat her name like a prayer in some forgotten language.
But I’m here for another reason then to talk about her. Instead, I get up and turn on the light. I’m amazed to regard myself as I was before her. In the dim light, the former me is placid, unaware of what’s to come. A blank slate. A flash of near hatred for him stabs my mind. A version of self-loathing not found in psychology books. He is the me that is not yet a part of her. For the first time in my life I’m beginning to see the purpose of my time travels. Perhaps purpose is too strong a word. Use, maybe. They are of use to me now, as they have never been before. I’m growing confident that I can, by free will, bend time in my hands. “Get up,” I say.
He stands and, without needing to ask my meaning, he helps me push the couch to the far wall, clearing the center of the room so we can practice. My head still aches, but at least the pulsing is gone. Sweat and effort will hopefully drive it fully away. I pull off my shoes- a risk, as I might time travel before I can get them back on again. Even though I remember this visit from when I was him, I know I can’t trust even my memory. Time is impatient, fickle. We face off from opposite sides of the frayed rug, comfortable with our familiar routine. We make good fighting partners. Why not when there are two of us present?
He stands in his too-short jeans, white tube socks showing beneath the seam. I think: He looks like a dweeb.
“Go,” he says.
I step back and raise my arms to shoulder level, pushing energy into my palms.
He grins. “How very Kung fu.”
I return the smile, but I intend to beat him. I’ve been practicing martial arts enough these days that I know I can bring him to submission, and make him do the thing I did not do when I was him. I will show him the strong parts of himself, hidden in the mirror of me. He needs to believe he is not the shrunken, hapless man he believes himself to be. Maybe then he can escape my fate. That is why I’m here. To open a fissure inside of time and help myself escape myself.
We advance to the middle of the rug, and he swings a fist at my face which I easily side step. I push a fist into his kidney. His eyes flash equal parts anger and confusion. In response to his question—how did I get so strong?—I come at him with a one-two side punch to his ribs and ear, knocking him off balance.
He retreats, shaking it off. “Take it easy. Start again,” he says, but I’m right beside him, throwing my fist at his temple.
He responds with a simple punch and I block it with my left arm. For a moment we push against each other’s weight. “I could break your arm.” I say, my face inches from his. “It’s my choice.”
He stares at our intersecting arms. “You can only break it if you’ve already broken it.” He pushes against me, and I feel myself weakening. I’m still not fully recovered, this burst of strength is temporary, and waning. I hide my rapid fatigue by grabbing his right wrist and twisting it. “I can choose right now. It doesn’t matter if it happened before or not. I choose in the moment.”
He slaps me across the face with his left hand. “All roads lead to Rome,” he says, twisting against my thumb and breaking my grip. “What’s with the Bruce Lee act anyway? We’re just sparring a little.”
I lunge at him and he leaps back, but catches his leg on the side table and summersaults backwards.
I step back, sweating heavily. I can’t keep this up much longer. I say, “Not all roads. We choose.”
He’s on his feet. “I’m here. You’re there – in October-ish.” He‘s sweating, which makes me feel good. He says, “No matter what I do now, I’ll end up where you are.” He shrugs as if he’s made an impenetrable defense. “All my roads lead to your Rome.” It’s the same argument I have in my head nearly every day.
I bounce on the balls of my feet, preparing to finish this fight. “You can’t point to a random moment in time and call it a destination. You can’t say where I am now is an ending.”
“You’re being a jerk.” He attempts a roundhouse kick, aiming for my head, but he’s slow and I grab his ankle and pull his leg until his toes are level with the top of my head.
“I’m being a jerk because you need to pay attention. Change your mind, change your life.”
He is nearly doing the splits along the length of my body, but manages to punch me in the gut. I bend at the waist and drop his leg. I let out a cough. “Knowledge is the key to repentance.”
His body goes still. “Knowledge of what?” He squints, a habit of concentration I picked up at age ten when I began reading my mother’s family Bible. “What are you trying to say? Is there something I need to know?” Finally, he’s starting to get it.
I point to the couch and we put the room back the way it was without speaking. There is no such thing as awkward silence when you are alone with yourself.
He grabs two more Cokes from the fridge. He tosses me one, and I think about where to begin. I’m suddenly afraid. What if I’m wrong? If I tell him about his future, it will change my past. If the past changes, what happens to me in my time? A sharp knock on the door interrupts my thoughts. My hand shoots out and grabs Morris’s arm. I put my finger to my lips.
He whispers, “It’s only Greg.” Greg is a fellow dishwasher at the latest in a string of low paying restaurant jobs.
I say, “I know who it is. He can’t find two of us in here. And Greg isn’t a friend.”
Greg knocks again, this time he calls, “Morris? You there buddy?” The walls are paper-thin, he probably knows Morris is home – maybe even heard us thumping around if he had been lurking before he knocked. I wouldn’t be surprised.
I grab my shoes and we move to the far corner of the room, our heads close together. “He isn’t who you think he is,” I breathe. “He isn’t a dishwasher and he isn’t spending time with you because he likes you.”
“What do you mean?” He holds up a hand. “No. Don’t tell me.” But there’s no conviction in his tone.
I don’t want to throw his future at him all at once, but there’s no time to explain. I guess it’s now or never. “It’s his job to get close to people like you.”
“Who? – I don’t get it.”
“Has he told you about The Center yet?”
He nods. “He says it’s a research facility—the doctors are the best in the world and can help me.” He points to the door. “That’s where we are going now. I told him to meet me here.”
“Don’t you think it’s strange that a dishwasher at a greasy spoon knows so much about a high-tech research facility?” I know my former self had found it strange, but having a friend had been a good enough reason to feign blindness.
He says, “So, in your time these doctors don’t find a cure? They can’t help you?”
I hesitate, then say, “No. They say they are close, but-”
More knocking, louder. “Hey Greg. Hang on,” I holler at the door. “I’m in the can.” To Morris I say, “There’s no time. Just avoid him, okay? Quit the restaurant if you have to.”
He holds up a hand. “Wait. You’re saying Greg is some kind of – what? Bounty hunter on the look out for –“
“That’s a good way to put it.” I put my shoes on, balancing on one foot, then the other.
He shakes his head. “How would he know how to find me? I don’t exactly advertise what I am.”
“I don’t know how he found you. But it doesn’t matter – everything is about to change.” I push my former self into the shadow and walk to the door before he can ask another question. I open the door, “Hey man,” I say to Greg.
The look of annoyance slips from his face and he gives me a blubbery grin. He is grimly overweight for a bounty hunter. It’s probably what makes him so effective. No one would suspect him of a more sinister motive than wanting to eat your potato chips and drink all your beer. He says, “Dude.” The cool man shtick comes off lame to me now. But the me hiding in the shadowed corner is thankful for Greg. Largely because in his time he is otherwise friendless, deeply lonely, and verging on bitter. Not all that different from me now.
I slap a hand on Greg’s meaty shoulder, partly in greeting, partly to keep him from coming into the apartment. “Ready?”
Greg’s colorless eyes brighten. “Dude, I’m the one who’s waiting for you to get the lead out.”
My heart hammers and I fight to keep my face casual. “Let’s go.”
I close the door firmly behind me and fall in step with Greg. I’m on the way to her – I’m a free man. I’ll find her, and we can be together, the way we’ve planned. That’s if I don’t travel before we get there. Please God, I pray.
All rights reserved
copyright Bonnie Grove 2013