Lightspeed: Edited by John Joseph Adams




Nitrate Nocturnes

Fiona’s timer read 40 33 04 21 53 08. Years, weeks, days, hours, minutes, seconds. Her first girlfriend had done the math one day in bed. “You’ll be sixty-four when you meet your soul mate. I’ll be twenty-two,” the girl said with a gesture that revealed her frail, luminous wrist, which was lit from within, like a lightning bug. Fiona watched her own timer tick down through her girlfriend’s hair, feeling as though she were trying to catch up to the world, as though she’d always be one step behind. One day, she would reach completion: 00 00 00 00 00 00. Her timer would ring out, as if she had just won a sweepstakes at a supermarket, and the numbers inside her wrist would flash repeatedly before fading quietly into her skin. But the timer could not tell her if she would be happy. Oftentimes, soul mates, having spent their entire lives waiting for completion, had to reconcile their fantasies of the future with a bleak and unsatisfying reality. Not all soul mates were immediately compatible, and not all soul mates fell in love. It could take years, decades—a whole lifetime, even—just to understand why. Why this person, of all people? It was all so unfair, Fiona whined, watching her girlfriend’s timer. 06 29 05 14 50 07. 06. 05.

“You’re just jealous,” her girlfriend said with an ugly self-assurance.

Fiona should have broken up with the girl right then, but sixty-four years was a long time. Much too long to be alone, she knew. It was easier to stay—to wait—when there was someone to hold on to late at night, when the weight of years pressed down on her, making it hard to breathe. None of her lovers were meant for her, but she collected them all the same, cherishing what little time she had with them. And then she let them go, as if releasing paper lanterns at a wedding. She had watched with envy as her first girlfriend met her soul mate, learned his name, proceeded to undo him—to uproot everything he thought he’d figured out about himself (his wants, his desires)—and then seeded him with her favorite things, transforming him into the kind of person who wore boat shoes and drank good whiskey alone because he was ashamed. She’d always liked broken men. Fiona remembered this, just as she remembered the peculiarities of her first boyfriend’s laugh, the imperial red jacket that attracted her to a one-night stand, and the strains of the jazz band in the background as one of her good friends confessed that she didn’t know how to love her soul mate, because in her heart she’d been expecting someone different—quieter, kinder, cleaner. Fiona had loved them all with a kind of happiness that brings with it a relief from longing. For her own sake, she’d learned not to isolate herself and to instead seek solace from others in a similar situation.

Her current boyfriend was Marcus, a dark, dispassionate Southerner with a resonant voice Fiona often described as oaky, like red wine. His timer read: 25 16 08 07 49 52. He’d be fifty-two, just ten days shy of fifty-three, when he found his soul mate, whom he imagined as a tall, willowy woman with gray hairs and pink reading glasses that matched the healthy color of her tongue. He was getting a PhD in sociology and intended to be a tenured professor by the age of forty, so that when he finally met his soul mate he would have his half of their life already prepared. Fiona met him at a graduate student mixer in the fall of her third year. She knew just from the calm way he fixed himself a drink without bothering to glance at her timer that he was like her: a long-gamer. He smiled when he finally noticed it. He led her outside, where they sat in the shadow of the barn where the mixer was being held. “It’s curious,” he said. “These short-timers act as if they’re on the verge of unlocking all life’s mysteries, like they’re winning some sort of race toward maturity. But most of them can’t fathom what it’s like to wait. They’re too impatient.”

Fiona leaned back against the soft hay the owners had left out for show. “My mother used to tell me a short timer isn’t necessarily a blessing. My father was an alcoholic, and when she met him she was at some dive in Pittsburgh celebrating her twenty-first birthday. He said she just kept crying: ‘He’s so old. What am I supposed to do with him?’ She wasn’t prepared. None of them are.” Marcus nodded, asking if it ended badly. When she told him that it had, he laid his hand quietly on hers and let her decide if she wanted the weight of it—the weight of his arms, his hips, their firm curves nestled between her legs as if he had all the time in the world. She’d invited him into her life in spite of his reputation for treating women like amusing diversions. Fiona had heard the story of a girl who went mad for him, having somehow managed to convince herself despite all the evidence to the contrary that their timers were wrong and Marcus was the one. He ended up having to get a restraining order. The experience left him wary of relationships, aware that women could break against him, like waves against a cliff. One night, he confessed all this to Fiona, then added that he liked her because she wouldn’t break. She would outlast him, he said. When the years had worn him down as thin and soft as tissue, Fiona would still be standing, like a lighthouse on the shore.

When Fiona decided to move in with Marcus in the fall, her mother had misgivings. “It’s a little early, don’t you think? Most people don’t settle in for the long wait until thirty.”

Fiona was making dinner at the time, throwing lentils into a stockpot to simmer.

Her mother heard the clattering of pots. She sighed. “He can’t even cook, can he?”

“He’s just busy right now. He’s preparing for his A exam.”

“Don’t you think you’d be happier with a woman? That’s what you always wanted.”

“I’m not unhappy with Marcus. He’s safe. I need that right now.”

Her mother paused. “Has it been bad?”

With a sigh, Fiona told her that most of the people in her program had already found their soul mates. One of them had asked his classmates to help him film the last hour of his wait. Six of them circled around, holding booms, pushing dollies, watching his face as he strutted through the halls of the performing arts building, smiling like an idiot. Fiona had criticized the project, called it self-indulgent and vacuous, something better suited for YouTube than a senior thesis, but when Fiona said this one of her classmates groaned, “God, why do you have to shit on everything? Just because it’s sentimental doesn’t mean it’s stupid.”

“That’s ridiculous,” Fiona’s mother said. “You’re the most sentimental person I know.”

“Tell them that.” She sighed, stirring the lentils. “I’ve started to hate going to class.”

“It just sounds like they got a bad batch this year. Next year will be better.”

“Next year five of them are going to meet their soul mates.”

“Are they going to film those, too?”

Fiona laughed once but otherwise didn’t respond.

“You know what you used to say to me, Fi? You said, ‘Mama, I know who my soul mate is. I know her name.’” This started when she was a little girl and first took up watercolor. Her mother didn’t understand her sudden fascination with art and music, because before that she’d never even been interested in finger painting. When asked why the sudden change, Fiona fixed her mother with a long, baleful look and said, “This is how I meet her, Mama. This is the best way,” as if she’d considered all their possible futures together and determined that this one would be the best, the happiest. “That kind of conviction is rare, Fi. Don’t forget it.”

Fiona nodded and said goodbye, but the truth was she didn’t remember saying that. What prompted it? What had she known that her timer hadn’t? It frightened Fiona to think that there was or could be more than one possible future. Was this, in fact, Fiona’s best possible life?

Her timer read: 40 33 03 16 23 08. 07. 06. 05.

Fiona finished cooking the soup and invited Marcus over. Then, when he had come in her mouth and fallen asleep on the sofa, she reconsidered the numbers pulsing on her wrists. In them, Fiona could see her future laid out, like a series of milestones hidden inside a digital alarm clock: in one month, she and Marcus would sign a lease on a new apartment for the fall semester; in just three weeks, she would have midterms; in April, she would fly down to Mississippi with Marcus, where his family would either approve or disapprove of his choice in a waiting partner; and then nothing, absolutely nothing. Darkness stretched out before her like a sheet, obscuring everything, even her timer. How long would the darkness last, she wondered. Late at night, when the campus emptied, Fiona climbed down into one of the gorges, bringing only a video camera and a thermos of coffee. Earlier that semester, fences had been installed on all the bridges on campus to prevent students from jumping off. Fiona’s latest project was to film these students from below, zooming in until their faces blurred together into a single, tremulous mass. Fiona understood their fear, the way it circled them like an owl gliding toward its prey. No matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t shake the thought that she had taken a wrong turn, lost sight of what was most important in life. She was on the verge of ending things with Marcus when her timer began speeding up.

• • • •

It started in class: a brief flash, immediately followed by a sound like a hiccup in her right wrist when her timer whirred into its new position: 40 23 06 19 47 08. One hour had been lopped off her original time, bringing her incrementally—and unexpectedly—nearer her completion date of 2047. Her friend Siobhan, sitting next to her, hurried to explain what happened to their curious classmates, and their teacher, a prim blond woman in her mid to late fifties, lifted Fiona’s arm, scrutinizing it carefully. “I’ve heard of this happening,” their teacher said, sounding disappointed, because Fiona’s numbers had stopped whirring and they wouldn’t be able to film it in real time. “I know there are researchers in Canada who’ve filmed a man’s timer growing longer, but no one to my knowledge has managed to capture the reverse phenomenon—yet.” Though it happened four more times during that class, none of them aimed a camera at her wrist, not because she would’ve objected but because they didn’t honestly believe it would happen again. Each time her wrist hiccupped, Fiona jumped, and her classmates gazed at her in wonder, as if she’d prove interesting after all. She was invited to a party that night, to everyone’s surprise. She didn’t bring Marcus.

Her timer had shaved off forty-three hours by the time she arrived at the house. She could hear laughter swelling in the backyard. Siobhan was there with their classmates and a few people she had seen walking around between classes. Her cheeks were nearly frozen. She happily joined them in front of the fire pit, where she perched on a log and accepted a cup of mulled wine. Their host said, “Someone’s excited,” with a knowing smirk.

Fiona just blushed and pulled her sleeve farther down her wrist.

Curious, the host settled beside Fiona on the log. “I’m Roman. Ramona to my mother.”

Fiona nodded through the steam of her mulled wine. “Have we met before?”

“No, but I believe you know Matt,” she said, pointing across the fire pit to a schlubby guy with a frosted beard and a lumberjack’s cap. “He’s my guy. My rock.”

Fiona looked Matt up and down. “He seems very sturdy.”

Roman sputtered beer, laughing. “Matt said you were a bitch. In a good way, I promise.”

This did not faze Fiona. She had heard it before. She turned to Siobhan, who walked over with a bag of marshmallows and the fixings for s’mores. “Just one,” she said, pointing to Roman. “I know how you get.”

Roman, who had already stuffed two marshmallows in her mouth, lifted her hands as if to say, “I’m innocent. Don’t shoot.”

Siobhan scowled. “Don’t give me that face. I’m on to you. Go find me some sticks.”

With an exaggerated pout, Roman trudged into the house in search of roasting forks.

Once alone, Siobhan whispered to Fiona, “Everyone’s talking about your timer.”

Fiona shrugged. “I’m more interested in whatever’s going on between you and Roman.”

Siobhan smirked but didn’t deny it. Her mischievous gaze drifted to where Roman and Matt stood framed in the small window of the kitchen. Matt had taken off his lumberjack cap and matching jacket and appeared to be snickering at something Roman had said. His flask rose to his lips, but Roman took it away from him before he could drink. He didn’t take offense at this or demand it back, only rolled up his sleeves and set about doing dishes while Roman returned with three roasting forks. Matt looked up briefly and waved to Fiona where she sat, wondering if that was what happiness was made of: confidence, ease. Having refilled her cup of wine and located a half-full box of graham crackers, Roman plunked herself down in the grass and began loading a roasting fork with marshmallows. “How many you want?” she said, asking Fiona.

“All of them.”

Roman laughed, holding ten over the fire. “I like your style.”

Fiona crouched next to the fire, holding her graham crackers at the ready.

Siobhan laughed. “It’s gonna be a minute, Fi.”

“I know. I wish I’d brought my camera.” Hovering above the flame, the pale underbellies of the marshmallows began slowly to caramelize, reminding Fiona of a burning filmstrip—how the celluloid bubbled, then burst, leaving browned pockets of color where images used to be. She had burned an entire movie once—shot it on a reel of overexposed Super 8 film, then lit it on fire one frame at a time just to see it for herself—just because, she told them. She remembered seeing the image of her own hand glowing hot in the flames, the fingers and palm turning orange, losing shape. Roman deposited the roasted marshmallow on her graham cracker just as it began to ooze. “Thank you,” she breathed. After one bite, her phone flashed. Marcus had texted. You up? It took some doing to write back without getting chocolate and marshmallow on her phone.

Her frustrated growl made Siobhan giggle. “Not in the mood tonight?”

“I’m just really into this s’more. It’s my boyfriend now.”

Siobhan tilted her head like a psychiatrist. “You seem to have a thing for dark chocolate.”

Fiona was in the middle of a bite and could only mumble the words “shut up.”

Roman leaned back, loading another set of marshmallows. “You seein’ someone, Fiona?”

She nodded, waving her hand as if it meant nothing. “Marcus. He might come.”

“He know about your timer?”

This question surprised Fiona, who had never considered the possibility that the single most essential thing about her—the length of her wait—could shrink inside her, become small and dark and secretive, like the inside of a camera, where images wait to be found. Her number seemed to change of its own volition, losing a minute here, an hour there, without asking her consent or giving her time to adjust to her new identity. When in the light of the fire her timer began to wail, spinning and stopping and then spinning again, her brain, fuzzed over from wine, struggled to understand just what was happening from one moment to the next and couldn’t process the numbers: 00 18 05 23 14 06. Or: 42 05 06 14 38 02. Or even: 00 26 06 09 14 23. It lingered on this last time long enough that people began to do the math.

“Twenty-six weeks. That would be . . . August.”

“Summer? Orientation, maybe.”

“You think it could be a prospective student?”

When her timer began to vacillate between August and March, it became clear: This was a prospective student (a graduate student, she hoped) who’d been admitted to several programs and was deciding between them, wondering which ones they would visit. Fiona’s timer suggested they’d decided on her school, but then all of a sudden rolled itself back to the beginning, to: 40 23 04 13 47 06. Her friends leaned back. One of them said, “Oh,” unwilling to voice what they were all thinking: that Fiona’s soul mate had chosen not to come, and there was nothing Fiona could do about it. When she looked up, she saw Marcus’s face materialize in the shadows, his broad mouth and distinguished stubble lit from below by his phone; the mere sight of him there made her want to cry.

Marcus comforted her as best he could. He walked her home after the party and let her cry herself out, then he kissed her, his warm satin kisses preceding his fingers as he told her to relax. He took his time, thinking this would soothe her, but when it was over and he was in the shower she went rummaging through a box of old clothes for a pair of leather cuffs that her father had made for her before he died. “Timers can be so cruel,” her father had said, fastening the cuffs around her wrists to hide the numbers glowing under her skin; he had sobered up by then. Thirteen years of hard work on her mother’s part had turned him into the man her timer had anticipated and demanded. United, they brought out the best possible versions of each other; that was what made them soul mates. Patient and considerate, humbled by his alcoholism and his past, Fiona’s father tried making amends with small acts of kindness like the cuffs; then one day, at an ATM not far from their house, he was killed in broad daylight by a high school senior attempting his first robbery. “I needed the money,” the teenager said in custody. “I’m supposed to meet my soul mate in a month and I need to support her.”

• • • •

Someone had carved their numbers into the wall of the library: 33 19 06 15 47 03. No one knew if the numbers belonged to a real human being or if they’d been auto-generated by the artist under the cover of night, but everyone understood the meaning of the title: I REFUSE. When people began adding their own numbers to this list, critics noted with some disdain that all of them belonged to long-gamers and that the piece smacked of a kind of juvenile self-pity in which only a disgruntled and unloved artist could indulge. But then short-timers began adding their numbers, as did professors and enders who had long since reached their completion date. Fiona was surprised both that the list had filled the library’s western wall and that the administration allowed it to continue even after campus religious groups referred to the piece as an abomination. In their opinion, timers were a gift from God, and rejecting that gift was a form of blasphemy.

Marcus asked if she was going to add her number to the wall. She hesitated. “Are you?”

“I just think it’s silly,” Marcus said, watching people scratch their numbers into the wall with keys and scissors. “You can’t escape fate. Even if you do reject your timer, it’s going to count down anyway. You’re going to meet your soul mate. So why fight it?”

Fiona dipped her head. “Don’t you find it exhausting? Living up to these expectations.”

He shrugged, setting his coffee on the table. “I’m a patient man.”

His remarkable self-assurance made Fiona uneasy, and she regretted having joined him in the library café. Exhausted by a nasty sinus infection she’d been fighting since mid-March, Fiona lifted her gaze, head wobbling as she glanced around the room. It seemed everywhere she looked, harried students were working at a feverish pace, desperate to return to their nice warm beds. Her brain felt like a watercolor, its pale, amorphous lobes ridding the world of its edges, and her thick, phlegmy cough rattled in her chest like the cogs of a broken-down machine.

“Fiona,” Marcus said, reaching out to touch her hand. “You need to get some rest.”

Fiona withdrew, pulling her sleeves down to hide her cuffs. “I just need to finish this.”

Marcus sat back, disappointed. “You shouldn’t be wearing those things.”

“That’s not your decision.”

“Suit yourself.”

Fiona blinked up at him, wondering when he stood. “Are you leaving?”

“I’m just getting another coffee. Do you want one?”

Fiona felt her mind nod irrespective of her head. As Marcus walked off, the asymmetrical patterns of his turtleneck unhinged, like the colorful pieces of a tangram she couldn’t fit back into its box. He used to make sense to her, but ever since the night in front of the fire, he felt different. She had begun distancing herself from him, making room for her soul mate, in case she arrived early. Of late, she had taken to imagining that her soul mate had already arrived, that she could sense this woman all around: in her house, in her bed, lingering beside her as she got dressed and went outside to greet the world with a secret happiness, a kind of intricate joy that kept her from feeling alone. Once or twice, she told Marcus, she’d even caught herself thinking in terms of “the two of us,” her and her soul mate, as if she were making decisions for the both of them.

When he returned, she was doodling in her notebook. “What’s that?”

“A picture,” she said, rotating the book so he could see: a woman’s head, its rounded chin and high, elegant forehead framed by a ring of loose curls. Fiona imagined the curls were blond, but otherwise had no real insight into the woman’s precise features. “I wish I could see her face.” Where the nose and mouth would be, she had drawn a blank.

“Fiona. This is unhealthy. You have to keep living your life.”

“What if she decided not to come because she doesn’t want to see me?”

Marcus wiped his hand over his temple. “We’ve been over this. You can’t know what her intentions are; you’re just guessing that she’s a prospective student. There’s no proof.”

Fiona shook her head. She did know. That night by the fire, one word had passed through her mind: “money,” its sad truth ringing like wires that had suddenly been drawn taut in the back of her brain. That was the reason her soul mate originally decided not to come. Fiona’s private liberal arts college was prohibitively expensive for most people, and if not for her father’s life insurance payout, Fiona wouldn’t have been able to attend, even with a scholarship and stipend. Sometimes she wondered if her soul mate’s timer had sped up, too, and if she’d known when she first decided not to come what that would mean. But Fiona couldn’t really believe that, and she placated her gnawing fears with thoughts of the future: growing basil, mending dresses, walking hand in hand down streets painted with red leaves, their pale pink underbellies thin as paper and just as lined.

Without realizing it, Fiona had begun to cry.

Marcus shut his book. “She’s not going to like you like this.”

“I know.” She said this quietly, mournfully, turning so she would not have to see his face. Her gaze drifted toward a tiny swaddled freshman girl who floated in and out of the crowd gathering at the art installation. Had she seen this girl before? Fiona couldn’t remember anymore. Faces had started blurring together, appearing once, sharply, then receding into a haze Fiona could no longer decipher or distinguish. Her only thoughts upon seeing someone new were “that’s not her” and “don’t worry.” It had been a long time since she last hung out with friends or with anyone besides Marcus. Siobhan had taken her to coffee two weeks before, and Roman had, with Matt’s blessing, invited her to dinner. But Fiona had declined. She knew it would only make them uncomfortable to see her like this. She did not want their pity.

When she turned back around, Marcus had already left.

That night, awakened by her coughing, Fiona pulled on her boots and mittens and trudged through the deserted campus, photographing the snow, which rose and fell like sand dunes on the Arts Quad. Halfway to the library, Fiona stumbled across a peculiar set of tracks in the blanket of fresh snow: big, plodding boot prints (almost certainly male) accompanied by a deep gouge made with a heavy object of some kind—perhaps a machine. Hidden behind a tree, Fiona screwed on a telephoto lens and pointed it at the library’s western wall, where a man stood on a tall ladder. His hands and face were obscured from this angle, but judging by height alone Fiona guessed this was the unknown artist behind I REFUSE. Getting closer, she realized he had deepened the numbers scratched into the stone earlier and was adding new ones above them:

21 37 06 09 45 02

05 09 01 42 53 28

56 37 04 03 29 08

Half an hour later, the artist descended the ladder and began slowly dragging it back to his hiding place inside the fine arts building. His tracks would be filled by morning, Fiona knew, so nobody would be able to follow them or uncover his identity. She would keep his secret. She didn’t tell anyone that she added her numbers to the wall. Her video camera, stationed some thirty feet to the right, recorded her untying her leather cuffs, considering her timer, and then covering it again before scratching her original numbers into the wall: 40 19 03 07 49 18. Ever since the fire, she had been counting down her old timer in her head, comparing what it would’ve read had it never changed to what it read now. This was her secret: that the morning after she put on the cuffs, her timer began whirring indecisively, resetting itself every night for a month before finally settling on a time: 00 22 05 03 16 35.

Her soul mate would be arriving in the fall.

• • • •

Fiona started preparing in August, when she moved into the new one-bedroom apartment she’d originally intended to live in with Marcus during the long wait. He’d taken his name off their lease at her request and later helped her move her heavy furniture into the apartment, lifting, hauling, and reassembling as if he actually intended to be her friend. In truth, his interest in her had long since waned and become primarily physical, and now whenever he came over, there was a faint air of bemusement about him, as if he couldn’t understand why she insisted on playing house alone. He studied her table lamps, her stoneware plates, the new down comforter she made him turn down before getting into bed, wondering if this was what she liked or what she believed she should like for her soul mate. It was all so strange to him. “I feel like I’m eating another man’s food,” he told her once over dinner, not because it upset him but because he’d never been in such a position before and found it rather intriguing. From a sociological perspective, he assured her.

Fiona’s mother worried she was getting a little ahead of herself.

“Timers aren’t supposed to do that, Fi. What did your doctor say?”

“What they all say: ‘Blah blah blah, there’s still a lot we don’t know about timers, blah.’”

“Did he run any tests?”

“Waiting for the results. But I doubt they’ll find anything if they don’t know what they’re supposed to be looking for.” Her doctor had been wholly unwilling to think there was anything at work other than Fiona’s romanticized ideals, but Fiona had her own theory about what was going on. Her research revealed rare cases in which timers had gone dark, their numbers appearing to be erased, only to turn back on, weeks or months later, for reasons that weren’t entirely clear. The timers, it seemed, weren’t perfect, didn’t account for accidents and random acts of violence. They couldn’t predict if a person would be satisfied with their soul mate or if that would have to wait for the next life—or the next. Perhaps dissatisfaction had led her soul mate to make a life-altering decision that changed the course of their future; then again, maybe it was fear.

Weeks passed, and Fiona couldn’t get the thought out of her head. “What if she’s running from something?”

Siobhan pushed her glasses back. “Who?”

Fiona blinked. “Oh, I didn’t realize I said that out loud.”

“Jesus Christ, Fiona.”

Fiona shrugged defensively. “I’m allowed to worry, given the circumstances.”

Siobhan sighed, running a hand over her face. “Can we please just finish this project?”

“Right. Of course.” A second later, Fiona asked, “You going to the party tonight?”

Siobhan dropped her head into her book, pounding it in frustration.

“I’ll take that as a yes.”

While getting dressed that night, Fiona decided to unlace her leather cuffs. Her timer read: 00 03 01 16 38 02—three weeks, one day, sixteen hours, thirty-eight minutes, and two seconds to completion. It amazed her how quickly the timer was counting down now that the first two digits had reached zero. Fiona had waited twenty-four years for this sight; now whenever she saw it, she flushed with pride, as if it were a reward for her hard work and determination. Siobhan would die if she knew.

Fiona arrived late to the party. “Daydreaming again?” Siobhan asked.

Fiona laughed but didn’t deny it. “What kind of cake did you get?”

“Double-double chocolate.”

Fiona joined Siobhan at the tail end of the bar, where she was busily counting out candles for Roman and Matt, whose birthdays were just forty-five hours apart. Both of them were turning twenty-eight. “Are all these people here for the party?” Fiona craned her neck over the crowd.

Siobhan glanced over her shoulder. “I think so. You should go say hi to Roman.”

Fiona pushed off the bar, through the gaps between bodies. Peanut shells cracked underneath her boots. Classmates milled about, drinking well liquors and two-dollar cans of PBR. One of the local pool hustlers missed a shot Fiona had seen him make fifty times. Way in the back of the bar, Fiona found her friends: the birthday boy and girl were nestled in a booth, arms thrown around each other as they ate fries and mean mugged for the camera.

“Fiona!” Roman said, french fries still dangling from her lips.

Fiona lifted her eyebrows in surprise. “You changed your hair.”

A blue shock of hair rose like a ponytail from the center of her otherwise shaved head.

“You like it? Matt did it himself.”

Matt nodded drunkenly. Five empty beer cans sat in front of him.

After Fiona pulled up a chair, Roman leaned over and whispered conspiratorially, “Fiona. I need to talk to you about Siobhan. I can’t seem to get through to her. Can you hook me up?”

Fiona glanced at Matt, then back at Roman. “I thought you two . . .”

“What—Matt? No. He’s like my little brother. I’ve known him since I was two.”

Fiona understood now. Matt and Roman were platonic soul mates, life partners who found romantic fulfillment in others. This sort of arrangement was not uncommon, particularly among those of different sexual orientations or religious faiths, but Fiona herself had never met a couple like this before; she found it refreshing. “I can talk to Siobhan, but we all know she’s into you.”

Roman nodded glumly. “Maybe. But that’s not the same thing as wanting to be with me.”

“It doesn’t have to be.” Fiona shrugged. “Just wait and see what happens.”

Matt grinned, lifting his beer in toast. “To putting yourself out there!” Only then did Matt realize Fiona didn’t have a drink. “Can I get you something? An old-fashioned?”

His face when she said no made her laugh and suggest a game of pool to cheer him up.

He rubbed his hands together gleefully. “Prepare to lose.”

Fiona snickered, allowing the giddiness of the night to seep into her. She was terrible, just incapable of playing pool with grace or skill, but she did like listening to the balls clack around on the felt, their hard, shiny resin gleaming in the light of the low-hanging lamps. In between turns, she watched Matt’s stripes roll and spin as he attempted shots he wasn’t capable of yet, shots that sent billiard balls flying into the crowd, where Matt’s party guests dodged them with increasing skill. Fiona followed these runaway balls under stools and jukeboxes, wondering when she did if anyone would see the numbers on her timer or if they were more concerned with the eight ball upending itself at their feet. During one of these retrieval missions, someone from a class she’d taken asked if he knew her. When she shook her head, she noticed that her timer had grown soft and that the numbers in each column had gotten stuck, trapped somehow between two and three, six and seven, one and zero. Puzzled, she looked up at the stranger, who shook his head, knowing he wasn’t the one. Fiona glanced around, seeking new faces, ones she thought she could trust, and then, when she turned, her timer blared its end: 00 00 00 00 00 00.

Here she was: gray-eyed, smartly dressed, with painted nails that glinted like the surface of the ocean at night. Fiona’s soul mate stared at her in a state of wonder and disbelief. Her lips parted, and Fiona felt a sudden wash of affection. She felt her life aligning inside her, like the gears of a puzzle box turning, clicking into place in preparation for the moment it would be solved. With equal parts hope and sadness, Fiona’s soul mate pulled back her sleeve, revealing her wrist. Her timer hadn’t stopped.

“Oh,” Fiona said, grabbing her wrist like a prisoner released from handcuffs. Her face felt totally numb, and she was shivering inside her winter coat. Her soul mate touched her arm gently, but she couldn’t feel it through the puffy sleeve. For some reason, Fiona said, “I’m sorry.”

“It’s not your fault. My timer must be wrong,” the woman said, even as a man grabbed her elbow with a familiarity that said she was his for now. Marianne, he called her, tugging on her arm with just enough force to make her take a step toward him. “Just give me a minute,” she said.

Feeling light-headed, Fiona staggered back, as if about to faint. “I have to go.”

“No,” Marianne started to say, but, distraught, Fiona turned around and headed straight to the door, remembering only at the last second to drop her billiard ball into the palm of a bemused but not unreceptive stranger who wished her a good night. Outside, the cold midnight air soothed her, and after several deep breaths she was able to remember which way to walk to get home. For a moment she considered dipping into the bar’s alley, resting her head against its cool stone walls as she thought of the neon signs inside, of the gratifying curves of the ancient jukebox, and of the thin hearts carved into the wooden tables and booths. But there were people sitting on the steps of the bar, and she didn’t want any of them to see her like this. She’d come too early, Fiona realized. She’d made a mistake. Marianne’s timer didn’t know her yet.

• • • •

Her timer was still visible. Its numbers had turned black and had stopped glowing, but the individual digits had not faded into her skin, lingering there months after completion. Their presence mocked her, making her think of branded cattle or whirlwind lovers, their bodies adorned with the initials of their beloved: MQ, Marianne Quennell, daughter of Mia Noémie and Edouard Jérôme Quennell, two linguistics professors at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, where Marianne lived until she decided to attend graduate school in the United States. Perhaps this explained the indecisiveness of her timer. It must’ve been a difficult decision, leaving home, particularly when home was so very beautiful. Fiona had seen photographs online: of the ferries Marianne rode across Puget Sound, of the books she read and the misty beaches where she lounged, watching pods of orcas drift past. What had brought her to this cold, snowy campus, where the prettiest thing was the sound of a waterfall roaring beneath your feet?

Apparently, Marianne had a long-term boyfriend. Charles Tremblay. The man who held her arm at the bar that night. “I guess she tried to break up with him before she moved here,” Siobhan said, having heard the story from a friend of a friend. “But he wouldn’t let her go. He called and texted until finally he wore her down and she agreed to take him back. I give it another month, tops.”

Fiona blinked a few times, just trying to absorb the information, but she couldn’t seem to fit it inside her head. Siobhan had dropped in on her at a bad time, while she was looking at a series of homemade videos shot by people who had rejected their timers: people who attempted to cut out, burn off, or otherwise remove the numbers from under their skin. Fiona was barely able to gather herself and now sat on the far end of the couch, hugging a pillow to her chest.

“She wants to see you.”

Fiona shook her head. The mere thought of it was unbearable.

“You can’t stay cooped up in here. It isn’t healthy. You have to go out. Shoot a movie.”

“I’m not sure I want to be a director anymore,” Fiona said, pulling at a loose thread.

“That’s nonsense and you know it.”

“I just feel like I’ve spent my whole life making myself into this thing. And for what?”

Siobhan considered her for a moment. “You couldn’t have known this would happen, Fi.”

Thinking back on it, though, part of her had known. On her fifth birthday, her mother had recorded her having a conversation with her great aunt. Fiona was caught saying of her soul mate, “She’s very pretty. She has curly blonde hair and speaks with a French accent.” When asked how she knew all this, young Fiona grinned knowingly and said, “She told me.” It seemed so innocent at the time, just another childish fantasy played out in the living room while her mother spoke on the phone. Now, years later, thinking back on that conversation gave Fiona a sinking feeling deep in her stomach. She feared she’d been lying to herself, pretending she was prepared for the long wait, when in fact she was just drowning. In her lowest moments, Fiona texted Marcus and asked him to come over—but he was rougher than she remembered, his thrusts sharp and selfish and his hands bruising, as if using her to work through some dark and buried anger. It frightened her to think what she’d become to him. How ridiculous she looked now.

It had been three months. Fiona rarely left the apartment except for class.

Occasionally, she rallied, braving the cold for a trip to the library or a night at the cinema. Fiona felt safe there, in the silence of the theater, where the heated stairs and the scent of buttered popcorn transported her to another world. This was her sole comfort in the dark, early days of the year. More often than not, the sun set shortly before Fiona crawled out of bed, making it feel like no time had passed at all. Life was just one long night stretching into eternity. December became January. Monday became Tuesday. Fiona’s mother grew worried. “What happened to that doctor you were talking to? What was his name?”

“He was a researcher, Mom. He wasn’t interested in me. Just my timer.”

“Well, did he at least figure out what was wrong?”

“Nothing’s wrong. She just isn’t the one. Or I’m not her one.”

In the silence, Fiona imagined the angry line of her mother’s frown.

“Anyway, I’m fine. I’m going to a party tonight. An Elegant Winter Party.”

“Please tell me it’s not another one of those ridiculous mixers they hold in a barn.”

“For your information, it’s a fund-raiser for the cinema, and I’m excited about going.”

That year’s theme was the Roaring Twenties. Attendees were encouraged to wear period costumes and buy drinks at the bar. On the walk over, Fiona saw more than a few tipsy donors in flapper dresses and cloche hats traipsing through the snow. Inside, ushers in tuxedo-mimicking T-shirts checked coats and directed guests toward the hors d’oeuvres table. Fiona lingered for some time over the miniature quiches, pleased by the compliments she received on her cocktail dress: a satiny black sheath with gauzy sleeves and a dramatic white sash that flowed down from her bust to her stockinged feet. In it, she felt like someone other than herself—the product of a bygone era whose passing had left her radiant and sophisticated but not at all prepared to see Marianne.

“Hello. It’s Fiona, yes?”

Fiona shivered with fear and hope. “I wasn’t expecting to see you here.”

“Yes, well, I thought you might come tonight, and I love the cinema.” Marianne shrugged prettily, with a motion that caused the silver tassels of her dress to shimmer around her throat. As she smiled, the halide lamps in the ceiling warmed up, glowing a soft pink. Marianne pointed up. “We had these in Vancouver, too, but ours were yellow.” Her eyes fell to Fiona’s. “It’s softer, no?”

Fiona did her best not to blush. “I think they only turn them on for special occasions.”

Marianne hummed quietly, pleased to have Fiona’s attention. “Have you seen this film?”

Fiona shook her head. Marianne’s finger was pointing at the screen, conjuring the pictures Fiona knew from this fund-raiser’s invitations: a woman smiling in her lover’s arms, a man gazing up at the newly risen moon, two lovers clinging to each other on a riverbank—the man reclining, the woman resting her hand over his heart. Fiona remembered working at a theater much like this one in high school and standing onstage, allowing the bright light of the 35mm projector to shine over her head and superimpose images of cows, aliens, and sunrises on her face. In this state, she watched a coworker at the back of the theater signal with his hands: adjust the curtains, raise the volume, pull the focus, perfect. She told Marianne that every time she walked on that stage it was like stepping through a portal into a world of light and magic. Before love, before time, there was only this: endless, soundless ecstasy.

Marianne’s eyes sparkled. “Maybe one day I will get to see this preshow, as you call it.”

Fiona smiled sadly. “You can’t. Everyone’s switching to digital now.”

“Pity.” Marianne glanced around, then touched Fiona’s arm lightly. “Shall we sit?”

“You don’t have to do this,” Fiona said, withdrawing. “You don’t have to be nice to me.”

“I want to.” Marianne pressed a hand to Fiona’s cheek, giving her a kind, confident smile. When Fiona protested that Marianne wasn’t meant for her (that she had someone else, a soul mate waiting for her on the other end of her timer), Marianne hushed her with a soft clicking noise and assured her there could be any number of reasons their timers hadn’t synced up. “Please, let’s just sit down.” She’d picked out two seats for them near the back of the theater, on the aisle to the left of the stage, where the pianist would walk when the lights began to dim. Fiona noticed as she settled in that the small track lights bordering the aisle were orange and that they shone faintly on Marianne’s sparkly hemline. While she sat, her eyes fixed on Marianne’s timer, the famed pianist accompanying the film delivered a lecture on its history. Evidently, its original negative had been destroyed in a big fire in Little Ferry, New Jersey, when a vault of nitrate films suddenly went up in flames. While she listened, Fiona couldn’t help thinking she should’ve known this already, should’ve known that desire was a spectacle and that she would spend all her time with Marianne contorting herself into the woman she thought her soul mate wanted. She accepted this future like she accepted the premise of a film with no color and no audio. In the gaps between chords, Fiona heard nothing, only the soft, sure sound of Marianne breathing in the dark.

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Ruth Joffre

Ruth Joffre

Ruth Joffre is the author of the story collection Night Beast. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Lightspeed, Nightmare, Pleiades, khōréō, The Florida Review Online, Wigleaf, Baffling Magazine, and the anthologies Best Microfiction 2021 & 2022, Unfettered Hexes: Queer Tales of Insatiable Darkness, and Evergreen: Grim Tales & Verses from the Gloomy Northwest. She co-organized the performance series Fight for Our Lives and served as the 2020-2022 Prose Writer-in-Residence at Hugo House. In 2023, she will be a visiting writer at University of Washington Bothell.