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Friendship Speculative Fiction

Nurse Alford noiselessly opened the door, just wide enough to poke her head around it. “Did you buzz?” she said to the woman who lay like a darkened splash on the slanted bed.

“Yes,” said the woman, tapping the translucent IV line attached to her arm. “Please get me some more of whatever this is. I can’t bear how these afternoons drag on.”

“Mrs. McKennitt,” the nurse said and sighed. “I would gladly ask the doctor to increase your medication, but you will need a better reason for it. An ‘afternoon dragging on’ is not reason enough, you know.”

“Really? Then why was cocktail hour invented?” She laughed ever so slightly. “Bring on the morphine, I say!”

Nurse Alford ducked her head as if to say “touché.” She answered a knock and flashed a professionally bright smile as she held open the door for an attractive sixty-ish woman, who in turn smiled back at her. “Well, here’s someone to take your mind off things, anyway.”

“Bette!” cried the visitor, opening her arms toward the bed-ridden woman.

“Shona!” Bette pushed herself into a fully upright sitting position on the bed. “What the hell took you so long? Don’t you know that when a friend on her deathbed asks you to drop by, you must drop everything?” The harshness of her words was mitigated by the playfulness of her voice and the smile on her face. “God, you look lovely. Look better every time I see you. Oh I hate you. No, of course I don’t, Sunny-bear! Just kidding. Well, actually, yes, I do hate you—you’re living, I’m dying—but don’t take it personally.”

“I know, I know,” sighed Shona. Hearing her old friend call her by her childhood nickname filled her with sadness. But no sense in having a “downer” of a visit, was there? “Ah, Bette, the old haves-versus-have-nots conundrum, isn’t it? We used to argue about it all night, didn’t we.” She pulled the visitors’ chair close to the bed and sat down. A couple of floral arrangements enlivened the décor but up close the blossoms were dessicated. “It’s wonderful to hear your voice. How long has it been?”

“Who the hell cares?” said Bette. “We dying folk don’t want to waste time toting up how long it’s been since we’ve seen so-and-so. We want to get right to the point, forget the niceties.”

“Right-o,” said Shona, glad that she’d bolstered herself with a stiff G & T before her duty-visit. “But sometimes the niceties are the whole point of it. I can think of times when we’ve visited and it’s been completely, dazzlingly superficial.”

“Yes,” said Bette. “Times when I just needed to hear another adult speaking in full sentences, like when our toddlers were this high.”

“Anyhow…what’s on your mind today?” said Shona, hoping her breath didn’t reek of gin. She placed her hand over Bette’s, noting it was cool and dry. “Please—tell me why you summoned me.”

Bette turned her hand palm-up so she could clasp Shona’s hand. “I have a little secret I need to tell you about. It’s strange… so strange, my little Sunny-bear, that you might think the cancer has spread to my brain. But I must assure you—it hasn’t. It’s not a drug-induced hallucination, either. The stuff they’ve been giving me ‘takes the edge off,’ but regrettably it doesn’t give me any decently electric Kool-Aid trips.”

“Well, that’s a pity,” Shona said. “Can’t you ask them to spice it up?”

“Good old Shona.” Bette chuckled. “How many secrets have you kept from your present fiancé?” she asked. “Oh, don’t look so startled, dear, I’m not about to ask what they are. But do you know what it’s like, to be close to someone and keep a secret from them for years?” She rotated the ID band on her skeletal wrist. “I haven’t kept a lot of secrets from dear sweet Ron over the years, but I’ve kept a real biggie. And I intend on keeping it secret, I might add. Which is where you come in.” She asked her friend to retrieve a container from the bottom of her suitcase in the closet.

“Yes, that’s the one,” Bette said. “Yes, yes, it’s the yellowed Tupperware container. I know it doesn’t look like a place where you would store your most precious jewelry but, hey, it’s watertight. Makes you wonder why Tiffany doesn’t switch to more practical packaging. Go ahead, open it.”

Shona saw that it contained a single item: an antique clock-pendant, nestled in cotton fluff. “My god,” she said as she carefully lifted it out, “Exquisite… you don’t see workmanship like this every day.”

“Look familiar to you?” asked Bette. “It should. It was fifty-two years ago this summer that you and I were walking home from a church picnic—”

“Oh yes, now I remember finding it—,” said Shona. “But it was on our way home from school, wasn’t it?”

“No, no, it was a Sunday,” Bette said. “I know because I happen to have written about it in my diary, you see. I kept—and in fact, still keep—a diary. Sometimes a gal just wants to note down something about her day, right? That Sunday, I mainly wrote about the church picnic, with great gusto too because I’d won nearly all the girls’ foot races. I also wrote about our little discovery, this pendant, lying at the foot of that oak tree… where anyone could have lost it.”

“Right, you won the foot races, but I won all the girls’ throwing contests,” said Shona. “We were invincible!”

“Now, the Tuesday of the week coming up, we had a History test. I won’t say I hated history, but I’ll concede that all those dates and events that we had to remember really increased my stress level. Not like nowadays, where they pitch low-balls to the students: ‘when was the War of 1812?’ and so on. Back then I had a pretty good short-term memory.”

“Phenomenal, I’d say.” Shona smiled.

“I always made a point of studying the night before,” said Bette. “And my plan was to cram for History on Monday night. But on the night of the church picnic, I set the watch, went to bed, got up the next day and went to school and then—boom—there was the History test! You can imagine how ill-prepared I was. I flunked!”

Shona said, “You were absolutely furious. I think you screamed at the teacher...let’s see... who was that...?”

“Who the hell cares?” said Bette. “I screamed at him because he had changed the test date without telling us. But here’s the weird thing, Sunny-bear: he hadn’t changed the date. It was Tuesday. It took me the longest time to accept that it was Tuesday, and not Monday. Finally my mother marched me down to the bank, where they have the big ‘Today is...’ calendar. Even then as a kid I knew banks were big serious places, so I accepted it. But it was very strange. It was just like I had skipped a day, you know.”

“What did your diary say?” asked Shona.

“There was no entry,” said Bette. “I sort of wondered if it had something to do with this watch. When I had tried to set it on Sunday night, I’d made mistakes, you see. I wasn’t used to the tiny little knob for setting the time. It could only move in one direction! So I had wound the hands around twenty-four hours more than they should have.” Bette leaned back fully on the bed, which was canted at a forty-five-degree angle.

Shona nodded non-committally.

“I say it with such assurance now, but I can tell you it took me a fair bit of convincing to figure out I had changed the time. Not the displayed time… the real time. I ran a few little experiments, and found I could skip ahead as needed.” Bette paused and adjusted her pillow. “Do you remember Color Night that year? Oh, we couldn’t wait!”

“Was that the year we both went with those twin brothers?” Shona asked.

 “Dennis and Dale. Oh my, they were good looking, weren’t they?” Bette laughed. “But creepy. Just think, that could have been the start of—of—what was that movie about the twin doctors?”

Dead Ringers,” said Shona. “David Cronenberg. Did you see it?”

Bette hesitated ever so slightly. “Yes, I’ve seen all the films of Cronenberg. And Anderson. And del Toro. Oh, I have a few favorite directors that I follow slavishly.” She asked for some water for her raspy throat.

“We were not permitted to date for Color Night that year, Sunny-bear. But we’d arranged to meet the guys there early and we were scheming to get them in the cloakroom alone and then pounce on them. Remember that?” Bette lifted her hands, curled and wasted, and moved them like a raptor coming toward prey. “We wanted to go so badly, didn’t we! So that very night I took this little watch and turned, turned, turned—and presto, when I woke up the next day, it was the morning of the big dance. I didn’t have to wait, you see.”

“Are you saying that this clock-pendant controls the progress of time?” Shona looked skeptical.

“God, no,” said Bette. “Have I ever struck you as a heavy-duty scholar of the space-time continuum? My dear good friend, you are the pinnacle of reason and common sense. All I can say is that it must, somehow, have affected my perception of time. So we had our little cloakroom rendez-vous at Color Night—”

“—what a fiasco!” Shona giggled.

 “Oh yes!” Bette laughed. “After that cringeworthy encounter, I lived day by plodding day for, oh, about a month. Then I became impatient for summer holidays. There was a full week before they would begin, but I didn’t care to wait. I flipped the hands ahead.”

“And presto, it was summer?” Shona asked. “And your diary? What did it show?”

“I had detailed entries for a month, then suddenly nada for the week before summer holidays,” Bette said.

“But obviously you passed your year-end examinations.”

“Yes,” said Bette. “I must have been physically present for the intervals—hell, I passed my year—but I think I was completely …blotto.” She fingered the IV drip. “Oh, I mustn’t laugh; it’s starting to hurt. But don’t worry. The doctor will drop by soon and I’ll bug him for a stronger dose.”

“Maybe I should come back tomorrow?”

“Heavens, no. I must tell you. It’s such a blessed relief. You have no idea.” Bette softly groaned.

“I don’t know how you kept quiet about it—from me, even!” Shona widened her eyes.

“I figured I’d lose this ability. Or I’d be locked up in a psych ward,” said Bette. “Time-control helped me through so many things! I was totally bored with school in the last couple of years, so I pushed time along. And then at university—ho! Do you remember living on a shoestring? Our crummy apartment? One unending pot of Mulligan stew. Dismal, it was. So I fast-forwarded.” Here Bette paused; Shona’s frown was becoming severe.

“But, Bette, you did learn the material. And you did all the regular stuff: late-night coffee, too-loud parties, test-driving boyfriends,” said Shona. “I don’t quite get how you did it.”

“Well, I learned a lot of tricks. Y’know, ‘hum a few bars and I’ll fake it’? Like that movie you mentioned. I had a system of watching certain directors. So even though I might have ‘watched’ the movie while I was in fast-forward mode, and had no real recollection, if someone talked to me about it, I could deflect the question. Or I’d mention another Cronenberg film, one that I’d seen in so-called normal mode, and then steer the conversation away from the sinkholes.”

Shona nodded quietly.

“It was irresistible, Sunny-bear. In my first job, I found out I’d have to spend a year ‘paying my dues.’ It was grunt work so boring that I used to pull the courier boy into the back closet once in a while—give him the real cloakroom treatment, you know.” Her smile was weak but still naughty. “So I fast-forwarded. Then I realized I wouldn’t be promoted to district manager until the V-P retired. What the heck, I figured: fast-forward. My long engagement did not seem so long, and my husband’s apprenticeship just kind of flew by. And then, ho! The babies!”

“You could fast-forward through night-feedings and potty-training and temper tantrums…”

“You betcha. I fast-forwarded through my pregnancies so fast it could’ve been adoption for all I know!” said Bette. “Imagine that: I never thought I would regret missing morning sickness. And labor pains. And long boring days spent with short people who only talk about themselves.”

“Sounds like the last office party I attended,” Shona said.

“What the hell, I’m getting stupidly sentimental now.” Bette dabbed at her tears.

Shona took her friend’s hand. “If it’s any reassurance to you, though, all of us look back and wonder where time went.”

“Magnificent words of wisdom,” said Bette, reaching out to take her friend’s other hand. “By the way, did I ever tell you that I forgave you for the affair with Ron?”

“He told me you’d found out,” Shona said with a sigh. “In fact, that’s why I thought you were summoning me here today.”

“Looking at it now—with a great deal of thought and prayer—it was kind of flattering. Ron has an irresistible quality to him, doesn’t he? Perhaps I was taking him for granted. Heck, during a blotto period, I might have slept with your boyfriend, too, you know—if you’d held on to anyone long enough, that is,” said Bette.

What might have been a cutting remark between another two friends was accepted by Shona with a smile. “I’ve always been a free spirit.”

“Ron’s affair had a funny effect on me. It happened around the time when I was just starting to regret all the years of fast-forwarding. I said to myself, ‘So you want to live in real time? Fine. Here’s a test.’ Ron’s silly indiscretion lasted two weeks, I observed. I didn’t fast-forward once. I made myself live every anguished minute of those days, end to end. It was hard, but I broke the addiction to moving time ahead. I swore I would never, ever set it ahead again.”

“You’re kidding,” said Shona. “Not even through all those horrendous weeks of chemo?”

“Nope. I know it sounds crazy, but I cherished the time I had— through every moment of mouth sores, bleeding, joint pains—did I mention nausea?” Bette smiled weakly. She plucked at the IV lines half-heartedly. “When oh when will that idiot doctor get here?”

Shona opened the door and looked up and down the corridor. “Hmmph. The hallway is as empty as the complaints box in heaven. Should I fetch that nurse who let me in?”

“You can call her on your way out,” said Bette. “You should go soon because I’m crashing tired now. But first, I must ask you, my dear dear Sunny-bear, to take this watch to the best jeweler in town and ask him to carefully open it and set the time back. Maybe by one day—just so we can see if the reverse mode works. Make sure you tell him to only move it back. In fact, demand to be with him while he works. You will do this, won’t you?” She suddenly felt utterly drained of energy.

Shona stared at the clock-pendant. No watch like this had hands that moved counterclockwise. The jeweler would treat her like she was a nut case. Besides, what dicey philosophical corner was she being painted into? Everyone wanted to live their life over again, didn’t they? Bette was sure to be just as greedy in this as in everything else—running the faster race, seducing the handsomer twin, finding the better mate.

There would be Shona’s own personal heartbreak of pretending the love affair with Ron had ended years ago—and keeping its continued existence a secret from his dying wife.

“Tell you what. I’ll get some little watch repair tools and we can open the case ourselves,” Shona said.

Bette, pale and breathing shallowly, closed her eyes momentarily. “Promise you’ll bring them tomorrow,” she whispered.

Shona lifted the clock-pendant from the bed-table and glanced at Bette, whose eyes were closed. Shona touched the delicate knob. Perhaps it would be kindest to put Bette out of her pain in the shortest time possible.

Bette’s eyes snapped open. She saw Shona’s fingers on the tiny knob. “Thief! You were the only one I trusted, and now you want to steal my last hours!”

Shona, startled, dropped the clock-pendant. Ping! A tiny, nearly inaudible sound.

Bette began to wail loudly. “Oh, the pain, the pain!” She fell back against the slanted bed.

Shona scrambled to put the clock-pendant in the container in Bette’s bag, which she tossed into the closet. It may have just been her imagination, but it seemed that the face of the little clock looked damaged. She wasn’t going to stick around to find out, she decided. She pressed the button to summon the nurse, then stepped out into the hallway.

Bette writhed and chanted, “thief, pain, thief, pain, pain, pain.” She found the rhythm or the motion to be calming and eventually she became quiet.

Nurse Alford noiselessly opened the door, just wide enough to poke her head around it. “Did you buzz?” she said to the woman lying on the slanted bed.

“Yes,” said the woman, tapping the translucent IV line attached to her arm. “Please get me some more of whatever this is. I can’t bear how these afternoons drag on.”

“Mrs. McKennitt,” the nurse said and sighed.

END

September 02, 2022 16:45

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4 comments

Sara Crutchfield
16:48 Sep 09, 2022

I enjoyed your story -- it has a good pace, the dialogue is real, and Bette's regret for fooling with time is a lesson for anyone who longs to be somewhere other than where they are.

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VJ Hamilton
00:27 Sep 10, 2022

Thanks very much. I was hoping to capture that irony of someone wanting things to pass quickly... but also wanting to live fully.

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Kit Gordon
20:03 Sep 04, 2022

Your dialog is so good. Something a fellow writer could learn from. Don’t mean to just lay compliments at your feet, I’m a poor critic. I like the story.

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VJ Hamilton
00:24 Sep 10, 2022

Thanks! I wrote and rewrote that dialog. Glad to know it paid off this time.

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