“Time Crash” by Jane Elliott
So far, Catherine had watched the bullet enter the woman at the register 10,376 times. 10,376 times the woman’s mouth opened in a small ‘o,’ her brown lids pulled back to show the whiteness of her eyes, and she stared straight out into space before looking down and sticking a single finger in the slowly spreading blood. Every time it happened, Catherine dropped her half gallon of milk, and she waited for the end to come.
She was obsessive. That was what her mother had always said. It was like the way she’d watched her first video tape when she was five years old, sliding it in the VCR over and over, day after day, until her parents began singing “Part of Your World” in harmony while they cooked dinner in the evening. The third time that happened, her brother pulled the tape from its protective case and left it in a mass of glinting ribbons on the living room floor. Or, it was like the way she had stalked her first crush, Christian Landry, in high school, memorizing his schedule (Economics after homeroom, free period, weight-training, Lunch A, World History with Mr. Marsh, not Ms. Gingrey, at 1:00) until her brother, who was on the same basketball team, found out and told the whole locker room after school. It was supposed to be a joke.
“Like, you know, Catherine, funny,” he said.
Or maybe it was closer to the way she used to sit at the dining room table at 6:00 every weekday evening, pretending to do her homework but really waiting for James to come home. That was when early practice finished at 5:30, and it took twenty minutes, by bus, to get from the school to their apartment, plus ten minutes walking time. She continued to count every second after the half hour passed, waiting for him to crash through their front door, long after he was gone.
At 8:02, Catherine closed the milk case. The half-gallon of two percent dangled from the middle and index fingers of her right hand. She walked up the chip aisle and checked her phone for the time. She already knew that it was 8:02 because she always walked up the chip aisle at 8:02, but, still, she checked her phone for the time.
“Nobody move,” the man said.
Catherine stopped. With her head ducked to look at her phone, she was hidden by the top shelf of Game Size BBQ Kettle chips.
“You,” said the man. “Pop that register.”
The woman was shaking. Her hands were in the air, but they shook like her arms had been up for hours. Like the muscles were exhausted.
“No. One hand. Did I say take your hands down? Do it with one hand.”
Behind the chip rack, Catherine looked at her cell phone. Ten seconds ago she had checked the time. That was at 8:02. Now, at 8:02 plus ten seconds, her phone read, “9-1-1.”
Her hand shook too. The phone felt heavy, and her hand shook from its weight. She remembered the first time this had happened. She remembered that she had been afraid of what might happen if this man heard her make the call.
“Not so quick,” said the man. He walked toward the register. He always did that.
Catherine’s finger always hovered over the call button, and he always walked into view just before she pressed it. At that moment, Catherine saw him for the first time. Every day. She saw the black bandanna that covered the lower half of his face. She saw the hand that held the gun and saw that he was shaking too. It was almost cute. Like a kid playing cowboys.
“Not so quick,” he said. “I don’t want you pushing a button or anything like that. I don’t want you getting a shotgun.” His arms were straight out in front of him, but they were shaking just like the woman’s. Just like Catherine’s. “Nobody needs to get hurt,” he said.
The bandana slipped down. He hitched it back over his nose with his free hand, and Catherine knew it was all too late. She dropped her phone and sobbed out loud. The sound startled him. He turned.
Of course, she knew what happened next. She had watched it 10,376 times. Tomorrow she would watch it for the 10,377th time; she watched this scene every day.
For a moment among uncounted, identical, millions of moments, Catherine stopped herself to correct. Tomorrow was not exactly the right term, she thought. Neither was every day. If time had crashed or this was a loop or she herself had stopped in one small pool of time, then there was no tomorrow. And could Catherine use the phrase “every day” if now every meant only one? If, for years and years, every day had been a single day, then could she even say years anymore? Or really any word that indicated any passage of time? Catherine wasn’t sure. It was one of the few things left that she felt unsure of because every other part of her life, which consisted of a single day, had become so absolutely certain.
She was certain that at 7:15 every morning she would wake, and at 7:17, every morning, or just the one morning over and over again, she would step into the shower. She never pressed the snooze button; though she often tried. She tried almost every day to press the button or throw the clock against the wall or climb with the damned thing into the bathtub, but she never could because that’s not how it happened.
It was like when she was seventeen and had gotten out of bed early on a Saturday. She padded in bare feet down the hallway to the kitchen. That was where she found James passed out on the table with his headphones on. She knew he had been out all night. She knew her parents had stopped waiting. She put his arm over her shoulder and helped him down the hallway to bed, so her parents wouldn’t find him there again and kick him out for real this time, and after she tucked him in, that dumbass, she snuck back into her own room and reset the alarm for half an hour later, but she couldn’t sleep.
No matter how tight she closed her eyes against the light that filtered through her curtains, she couldn’t sleep because she knew he was passed out heavier than sleep, and her parents would find out, and they’d had it up to here. They said so over and over again. And going back to bed was like trying to make time move backward, or like she was trying to move backward in the constant flow of time, and, either way, it felt wrong. She couldn’t undo what had already been done. She got up five minutes later, checked to make sure her brother’s door was closed tight, and went to the living room to wait.
Now, every morning, she woke at 7:15, and she always, for that one day, peeled back the covers, hung her towel on the back of the bathroom door, and turned the shower head on massage by 7:17 because that was the way it was and just how time worked. No matter how much she wanted to change it.
At 7:30, she dried her hair; although some days she tried to leave it wet, and others she tried to wrap the dryer cord around her neck and jump from her apartment window, and, at 7:35, Catherine brushed her teeth.
For the first 1,000 days or so, she counted the number of strokes because there was so little else to do. That was one strange thing about time. She could not change the day that was. She could not change what she did with it, but her thoughts seemed to always change and grow and wrap in on themselves. Although the first day that was this day, she was sure she thought about the zit coming in near her nose, on any other day, at the same moment in time, she could think about the number of times she brushed her left incisor, whether the blood she tasted came from gingivitis, or if gingivitis even mattered when she might never experience the moment in time when she was struck with its consequences.
At 7:38, she walked into her six by six white tile box turned kitchen and fried two eggs until the yokes were hard (she had always hated the way easy yokes ran across a plate to pool and congeal in a ring around the edge), and she would lay them with a strip of bacon on top of her sourdough toast to make a smiley face, exactly like her mother used to do, and, at 7:55 AM, Catherine left the house for milk.
For the first 1,000 days or so, this was the part she tried to change most of all.
On the first day, she remembered, she had left the house for milk because she couldn’t drink her coffee without it. That had mattered sometime, long ago, that was also today. The first time today passed, Catherine believed she needed her coffee. She had a stressful job with the court of appeals. It was a job she was good at, and she loved it, she guessed, but some days it was too much to face without her routine. Especially when, every day, some part of her waited to see a familiar face cross her desk. Every day, some part of her waited to see a boy she hadn’t seen for a very long time.
Because, after 10,376 days, she had finally figured it out, the reason why she dreaded every new folder and every unknown file. The time loop had proved better than therapy, which she’d tried and found more self-indulgent than helpful. She had a lot of time to think in every day, which was really a single day, in which a fixed set of events repeated themselves, and Catherine was forced to go through the motions. She thought about her working class parents and her old school district, now closed down, and the number of kids she used to know who ended in gangs or dead or in jail or some combination of all three eventually. She thought about how her brother was such a sweet boy. She thought of him that way now, not having heard his voice or seen his face in more than fifteen years. She always thought of him as a boy, as though he would be younger than her somehow, if they met.
He really was a good kid, she thought, because when Christian Landry asked Catherine to the prom as a joke, James had punched him in the face and taken her himself, so she wouldn’t waste the dress. And when Catherine sat on the carpet in front of the blank television screen reciting The Little Mermaid from memory, her brother had walked to three different Blockbusters around the city and bought her a new copy with the money from his gorilla bank. And every night when he got home from early practice, he’d look over her shoulder for a minute before going to his room and say, “Damn, kid, you are smart. Probably gonna grow up to be a lawyer and save my ass one day.”
And it’s not as if her whole life was made up of significant events that she could pick up like polished stones and point to and say, Look, this is where it all comes from. This is why I am who I am, but living the same day for 10,376 days gave her a lot of time to think it over. To dig up the right rocks. To line them up, all in a row, and roll them around her fingers until their edges were worn and smooth. Because, Catherine thought, events do matter. The ones that will happen. The ones we can’t change.
Just like she couldn’t change that at 7:55 AM today, every day, she left her house for the Seven-Eleven. Sometimes she tried to stay home. After the first 1,000 days, she tried to wait on the street corner, so she could stop him before he got there. If she could, she would hug him, take his gun, empty her bank account and give him all her money, but she couldn’t do those things any more than she could finish her breakfast without coffee or get back in her bed and pretend to go to sleep. Time didn’t work that way.
The Seven-Eleven was one and a half blocks away from her apartment. After stepping out her door, Catherine walked a half block to the right; then she turned right again when she reached Thirty-Second street and walked one more block to Park. Every morning, she walked the distance in five minutes, no matter how hard she tried to take smaller steps or stop to chat at the newspaper stand.
At 8:00, Catherine entered the Seven-Eleven and walked to the cold case on the back wall. Every day, it was just the same because if a person wakes up at 7:15 AM, then she can’t wake up at 7:00 or 7:45, and if a person cooks her eggs until the yokes are hard and chalky, then they will never be uncooked, and if a family grows up with two children in a neighborhood where seventy percent of the kids become criminals, then both of those children just are not going to make it. They just won’t.
That is why Catherine could never go into the Seven-Eleven at any time other than 8:00 on any of those 10,376 days because every one of those days was really only one day, and when her brother walked through the door at 8:02 with a black bandana over his face, and she watched his arm shake so badly that she sobbed, he looked over at her, and he shot the woman behind the register. She had surprised him. He had already been so nervous.
And she could never yell out a warning or try to grab the gun from his hand or press the call button on her phone. She tried. She tried all of those things and 10,370 more, but that was not how it happened. She had seen him. She had frozen. She had clutched at the half-gallon milk jug. When the gun went off, she dropped the milk and clapped her hands over her ears, and the woman in front of her with the pretty blond short-cropped hair and white cotton t-shirt opened her eyes wide and made her mouth into a little “o” and touched her index finger to the blood that soaked out of her stomach, and Catherine’s brother made a kind of strangled sound and started toward her; then he looked at the woman who was dying, and he ran away. He bolted out the glass door and down the street.
The woman fell to the floor behind the counter. Catherine was the only one in the store. She lurched around the barrier. Her legs refused to work quite right, and she watched the woman’s eye lids flutter. At 8:04 she pressed the green call button on her phone.
10,377 now. Catherine had watched her brother shoot the woman at the register 10,377 times.
That’s what her mother had always said because, after James disappeared, Catherine took on four extra courses at the community college and graduated top of her class. She finished a double major in Criminal Psychology and Politics in three years and had her first job with the DA in two more. Her parents always knew, even when she didn’t, that she was looking, always looking for him, hoping to save his ass someday.
And every day after her brother ran from the front door of the Seven-Eleven, she waited thirty seconds to press the green call button on her phone. She pictured every extra step he could take with those thirty seconds. With those thirty seconds, she watched the woman as her breath softened and her blood pooled out onto yellowed tile.
“What did you see?” asked the police officer.
The woman was dead. The paramedics had covered her head when they wheeled her out, and that meant she was dead.
“Nothing,” said Catherine. “I didn’t see who it was.”
She said that every time that they asked because that was what she said. She said it because he was her brother and because she had been waiting for him, and, now, after watching that woman die 10,377 times, maybe she did want to give a different answer, maybe she tried 10,376 times to make another choice, but she couldn’t anymore.
Because that’s not how Time works. It doesn’t move backward or sideways or in branching streams. It is a constant flow, or, maybe, it is more like a mountain. And you can walk over the mountain or around the mountain or through it, or, sometimes, you can get stuck in one little mountain pass, but you can’t change the place where you’ve ended up. You can only wait wherever you find yourself. You can wait and you can pace and you can think and you can throw yourself against the stones forever, but, no matter what, the place will stay the same. In the end, after all the crashing, it’s only you that changes.
About the Author
Jane Elliott lives in Eugene, Oregon where she spends most of her time playing lava tag with kids at the park. Her work has been published in Daily Science Fiction.