From the author: A dark fantasy short story exploring the consequences of messing with time. Originally published in Lakeside Circus, it's now only available here or in my collection, Crow Shine.
All the Wealth in the World
by Alan Baxter
The Time-Maker’s expression is serious. I can’t stop looking at her translucent skin. She must be a thousand years old. Her eyes are almost lost in folds, but dark brown irises glisten, bright and sharp, in the tiny gap. “Nothing without a cost,” she says again, voice heavily accented. Eastern European, maybe Russian.
“I know,” I say.
“Do you really? Not just money.”
“Whatever time you give me has to come from somewhere else. I get it.”
The old woman sneers and turns away, busily shuffles among the detritus on her desk. Her tiny apartment is packed with the accumulation of countless years of hoarding. Books and magazines, trinkets and souvenirs, all covered in dust.
She turns back holding a strange device of metal and glass. It’s beautiful, finely crafted and delicate. Cogs and wheels, tiny gears that interact with crystal spheres like miniature bubbles. I’m mesmerised by the craftsmanship of it and gasp when she moves away and sits, places it on her knees. She adjusts mechanisms, gnarled fingers sure and swift. She casts an appraising glance up at me, makes another adjustment.
“Speak,” she says.
“What do you want to me say?”
“Mary had a little lamb, its fleece was white as snow…”
“Enough.” Her disapproving expression reminds me of my mother. “Have you any idea how many people choose that rhyme?”
“Lots?” I venture.
“Almost all.” She shakes her head, returns to work.
I remember reading that when Thomas Edison built the phonograph, the first words ever recorded were “Mary had a little lamb”. I wonder if that simple act has resonated through history ever since.
The world is empty and quiet out of time. I had no idea how lonely I would become. The magic restricts a person in space, so the Time-Maker warned me. I chose my house, of course, my comfort. But it’s so quiet and still. No radio, no television. No news. No phone calls. No people. Nothing is happening. I’m outside time, living day after day in a tiny sliver between one moment and the next.
I have music and DVDs, but they feel so artificial. The inert world outside the windows, bathed in a white mist of temporal paralysis where I can’t tread, is too disturbing to look at for long. My eye keeps being drawn to one flower in the bed by the pond, leaning in a soft breeze and frozen there, like it’s desperately reaching for the water. It reminds me of her.
As time froze, after I’d rung the Time-Maker to tell her I was home and ready, I had a moment of panic. The fear has dulled to a quiet boredom.
It’s a small price to pay, the actual monetary cost notwithstanding. The first couple of days were the hardest, and strange. Meeting her disappeared, but the rest of our brief, torrid affair lived on in my mind. I still know what’s happening, because I still remember so much of our time together, but I’ve no idea how it started. It’s a strange dislocation, but I try not to think about it too much.
Will I remember this silent, misty time once all memory of her is gone? I can only assume I will. I’ll remember what I engineered. I have to make sure I don’t try to find out what it was. There’s a note on the fridge door, just in case, large bold letters.
Trust yourself, you needed to forget.
“How much time do you need?” the Time-Maker asks.
Her eyes widen, bloodshot yellow and white around hazel. “A month?”
“I know it’s a lot.”
She sits back in her chair, cups her chin, forefinger across lips. “People come to me for a few hours, occasionally a day.”
I shrug, embarrassed.
“You must be very wealthy.”
“You will be too, if you give me what I need.” I can hear the defensiveness in my voice.
“All the riches in the world can’t help some things, eh?” She chuckles, somewhere deep in her chest.
“That depends on you.” I gesture to the device.
“Giving a person more time is a delicate operation. If you spend an entire month outside the tempo of the world, you could wreak all kinds of havoc.”
“You’re getting a conscience?” I ask. “After all the time you must have given people?”
“I have a small and discrete clientele,” the Time-Maker says. “They call when they need hours to prepare for a business deal, get a jump start on the competition, or maybe they’ve forgotten an anniversary. They pick a place, call me, ask for a short time. This is powerful magic, designed for very concentrated use.”
“I’m sure there could be quite serious consequences with even the smallest amount.”
The old woman nods. “True.”
“So, enough with the conscience, eh?”
I can see in her eyes that she wants to ask why. She’s thinking about turning me down, but she must be considering the fee. So very much money. “You are well referred from a client I trust. I never thought anyone would pay for so much,” she says quietly.
I look around the tiny, crowded, dirty apartment, the Time-Maker’s threadbare clothes. I don’t ask the obvious question, make the crass suggestion. “I have considerable wealth. I need this.”
I remember nothing now of the initial good times, those few amazing days, but finally the horrors are starting to go. Today I’ll forget the first time she cut me, in a sudden and inexplicable fit of rage. Grabbing the knife from the kitchen bench, swinging it at me with hate and fire in her eyes. Tomorrow I’ll forget forgiving her.
In a few days I’ll forget the broken glass, the screaming and the restaurant I can never go to again. So much abuse and anger and violence in such a short time. Those few occasions when I had to fight back and the stain that leaves on my soul. The way my perfect life spiralled into madness so quickly. I’ll be a better person when the whole thing is wiped away. Money can’t buy happiness, they say. But maybe it can buy respite from things so beyond my control.
The Time-Maker nods, sits forward over the machine. “When would you like your month taken from? First month of life?”
“Is that how people do it?”
“First hours after birth, a day around one month old, things like that. Most people never use up more than one twenty four hour period of their life, even with several visits. Twenty four hours when they were nothing but a gurgling baby, nothing to lose. Time people think they would never miss. There have been mistakes.”
“One regular client thought to scatter the time taken throughout her early life, ended up picking the day she took her first steps. Had to learn to walk again.” The Time-Maker looks up me, wags one finger. “Consequences!”
This is hard, painful. I can’t remember anything about her, who she was, what happened between us. All I remember is her pale skin, the blood-filled bath like she lay in wine. Her eyes staring glassy at the ceiling, mouth half-open as though she was trying to cry for help.
What drove her to this? Whatever led her here must have been too painful for me to bear. The note on the fridge keeps reminding me to trust myself. If you can’t have faith in yourself, who can you believe? And I’ll certainly be glad when this image is wiped from my mind.
She’s so beautiful yet her death is so ugly. So violent.
As the day wears on I forget where I was before I found her. I forget finding her. Slowly, the memory of the frantic phone calls, the crying, the police, all wink out of my mind. It’s a frightening relief.
I don’t flinch from the Time-Maker’s hard glare. “I want you to take from March fourth to April fourth, last year.”
She gasps. “You don’t want more time at all! You want to forget.”
“I want it to have never happened to me.”
“It will still have happened for everyone else. They’ll still remember.”
I tap the side of my head. “As long as it’s gone from here. I plan to move away, start again. Wealth has a way of isolating a person anyway. There’ll be no one to remind me if I go away, cut all ties. There’s nothing here for me now.”
Her face is sad as she shrugs, adjusts the machine. “I hope it works.”
“So do I.”
She points to a dusty laptop, a note beside it with numbers and the name of a financial institution. “Funds transfer, please.”
I’m standing in my kitchen staring at this note and I can’t believe it. I needed to forget? All I have left is this one day. This last, tear-filled day and by tonight it too will be gone. I miss her so much. I love her so much, but I barely know her now. I don’t even recall what she looked like. I remember nothing of our time except this deep love and terrible sadness. Am I really so weak? Has my wealth become so great that I’ll do something like this, just to be rid of a painful memory?
I remember standing at her graveside, crying, my chest aching with the pain in my heart. Why have I chosen to forget everything that led to this? I recollect her friends and family casting me glares and suspicious eyes. Barbed comments like, You barely knew her and What did you do that drove her to this? Was it my fault? How did she die? Am I really paying so much money to avoid a memory of something heinous? To hide some terrible guilt from myself? Ease a bit of pain in my life? I’m a monster.
What happened to her? To us? What were we together? We must have loved each other deeply for me to feel this pain on her death, but all in so little time. Just one month. Has it really only been a month of forgetting, or am I misremembering that now? How can I be sure of anything? This cool, white nothing surrounding me feels eternal.
I can’t remember what it is I’ve forgotten and it’s driving me insane.
By this time tomorrow the magic will be done, of that I’m almost certain. I won’t remember the terrible beauty of this last day, her funeral, all the love and sadness around her, despite their disdain for me. Everything will be gone. I’m a fool.
I drag a notepad and pen from the desk drawer and quickly write down everything I remember before it fades forever. It’s all I have left now and I need to make sure I don’t lose it, so I can get back out there, ask everyone what it is I’ve done. They’ll tell me. I don’t have to give away the magic, I can quietly drop hints, ask questions askew, reminisce with them and piece together what it was I was too weak to allow myself to recall. I can fix this.
The mist has lifted and the world moves on again. I have no idea what it was I paid so dearly to forget, but whatever happened left me with nothing but grief. I’m hollow inside with loss.
There’s a note on the kitchen table, frantic scrawls talking about a funeral and love and recriminations and things that make no sense at all. But this aching hole in my heart needs to be filled. I have to go out and find my friends, start asking questions.
I remember the Time-Maker, waggling one finger at me. “Consequences!”
She was right.
This story originally appeared in Lakeside Circus.