Two dogs, barking incessantly at every neighbor passing by their respective black wrought iron fences, drove me insane. My faded blue front door creaked on its rusty hinges as I stepped out onto my front stoop. The faded concrete steps, which led down to the street, were tinged green and had chips in various places. “Shut up you stupid mongrels!” They both turned their muzzles toward me and continued barking while drool flew from the mouth of the large black one. The short brown and grey miki’s body flew into the air and back toward the ground which each successive bark.
I continued my vain attempt at persuading two creatures bereft of logic. The small dog’s owner walked to her fence and picked up the rug that masqueraded as a canine. Her squeaky voice didn’t match her over-sized legs which rubbed together with each labored step. “Mr. Crane, my sweet Misty is only trying to keep this neighborhood safe.” Small white and black crumbs sprinkled down from her sleeve as she ruffled the fur on the top of the dog’s head.
“That thing? Look, it’s almost midnight, can’t you bring your dog in, or shove it into the trunk of your BMW, or heck I don’t know, maybe let our neighbor’s Boxer play with her for a little.” I pointed at the large snarling dog that had continued to bark through our interaction.
She grunted as she half-placed-half-dropped her fuzzy annoyance to the ground. It continued jumping up and down while it took turns barking at the Boxer across the street and at me. Ms. Molly returned into her home without saying another word. I tried one last time to silence the yelping dogs before retreating inside my house and slamming my front door. The foyer light fixture flickered and I sighed remembering that the landlord had not yet fixed the electricity in the dump she called a home. The wood floors squeaked with every step and the entire floor groaned when I slumped into my cracked black leather recliner. The grey stuffing tufted out of the left arm.
Two news anchors were snarling about the crumbling buildings in our financial district, while the dogs continued to bark.
Guns spit bullets in every direction, completely missing the good guys. Several bad guys tumbled lifelessly over the third story bannister of the mansion that the good guys were racing through.
In a brightly lit street, outside of a bustling night club, stood a couple with sculpted bodies and perfectly dressed hair. They were staring, wrapped in each others arms, as their faces grew closer by the second.
A gaunt woman stood over a middle aged man, while she francticly waved her finger in his face. The host of the show sat back and smirked at the confrontation he was responsible for.
The silent living room yelled louder than usual with the absence of the t.v. that I used to hide my feelings of solitude. I leaned forward in my chair and dropped the remote on to the coffee table. A quarter filled cup of yesterday’s coffee sat with swirls of ashes and four mostly smoked cigarettes. I picked up the middle can of energy drink that sat amongst its fallen brothers and sisters. I threw back my head and chugged the last of the liquid that the can had held. My tongue twisted in horror and I spat out the cloudy liquid mixed with more ashes than the coffee cup had held. Then I threw the old can across the living room and slumped back into my chair.
I knew that I had to sooner or later dust myself off and look for a replacement for the office job I was let go of almost a month ago. After seventeen years of fifty hour weeks, for close to minimum wage, I was finding it hard to go back and look for another job to escort me to a miserable death. The six year old cell phone sitting on the coffee table, now covered in the liquid I had expelled from my mouth, sat blank. No one had called or texted in at least a week. I bolted from the chair and marched to my bedroom. Tomorrow was certainly another day and maybe I’d find the motivation which life had hidden from me at least ten years ago. I kicked an empty aluminum can and the ting of its metal against my wall rang out through the house.
I turned in surprise and headed back to the front door across the creaking floors. In the street, between the dogs which usually barked day and night, the moon shone down on to the black top hat of a lone stranger. His black trench coat rustled slightly in the late summer breeze and he stared directly in my direction. It felt as though he was looking directly into my eyes. The two dogs sat placidly at the edge of their fences and wagged their tails at the man. He nodded his head, picked up the brief case beside his leg, then proceeded to walk toward my house. I slammed the door, slid the lock into place, and headed to my room. Before I was able to reach the doorway of my room, he was ringing my door bell.
I stood right outside my doorway as a grey fluffy house cat rubbed against my leg and purred. I picked her up and slowly rubbed my hand over the top of her head. He rang the doorbell again and then knocked four times. “Mr. Crane. I need only a moment of your time. I promise you that you want to hear from me. There is a large reward if you can accomplish a simple task, and if my boss is happy with your services then I’m sure he will offer you many more opportunities.”
My heart pounded and the hairs on my arms and neck stood on end. I walked on shaky legs to the front door and looked through the peep hole. His large eyes were looking directly at the door and he winked the instant I looked at him. I called through the door, “Who comes in middle of the night offereing large rewards for simple tasks? I’ll tell you who. Crazy people who have intentions of ruining other people’s lives with any number of scams and cons that only ever benefit the creepy old men who offer them.”
His deep slow laugh resounded through the door. “I assure you William Crane. You will regret not taking me up on my boss’s offer.”
“Why can’t you tell me now? Why do I have to spend hours discussing the matter before you’ll give me any information that makes any bit of sense?”
It was silent on the other side of the door for several minutes. Then he finally spoke, “William. If anyone or anything hears about my offer, then they will all want to be involved. If anyone else around here is involved, then you will not be. It’s a simple decision, all you have to do is open the door.”
The note, which had been setting on my night stand for the last week, assured me that I really didn’t have anything to lose. I unlatched the bolt lock, turned the front door handle, and swung it open.
A low rumble was followed by a high growl. Then the two growls turned into frantic barking. A small black briefcase sat on the cement stoop where the man in the black hat had stood ringing my bell. I ran down my front steps, out in front of my home, and looked up and down the empty streets. Both the large and the small dogs continued to snap and snarl.
On the way back to my front door, I almost tripped over the briefcase the stranger had left. Without slowing, I grasped the handle of the briefcase and brought it into my bedroom. The old wooden white chipped window pane stood agape and a small drizzle soaked the note I had written the week before. I tossed the case on to the small bedside table and slammed the window closed. The bed slid an inch on the floor as I threw myself onto its edge, placed my chin in my hands, and stared at the case. A dull ring flirted with my brain while my stomach felt strangely hollow.
The left latch on the case released and sprang up, then the right latch flipped open as well. My hand trembled as I slowly reached to open the lid. I knew that I shouldn’t have brought in whatever demon possessed box that man had left on my porch, but I also knew that I was lost in life and needed something to make it worth living again. I was finished struggling with indecision and flung the case fully open.
Thin dark smoke trailed from a dirty cigar that sat in a gold plated ash tray, which was on a large dark brown oak desk. A large man with thin grey hair and a raven blue suit talked into his desk phone. “Mr. Hadley I know what I asked of you. I know he’s a nobody and that you don’t think he’s worth our time. Yes sir. It’ll work out exactly as I planned. No, there isn’t an ulterior motive. I have…yes, that’s correct. I’ll make sure you’re kept apprised of the situation.” He looked at the phone with pursed lips and then returned it to its cradle.
The man’s desk intercom squawked. “Mr. Snider?”
“You know it’s me Beatrice. Please just get to your point.”
“Yes Mr. Snider. I’m sorry.”
Mr. Snider pinched the bridge of his nose. “What is it Beatrice?”
“Oh right. Um. Johnson said that the package is ready.”
A large grin spread over Mr. Snider’s face. “Thanks Beatrice.” His intercom shut off, he picked up the cigar from his desk, and took a large puff. He placed his feet on the desk and blew plumes of smoke into the air. After placing the burning cigar back into the ash tray he picked back up the phone and dialed. “I need to speak to Mr. Hadley?”
Frayed black curtains blew into the room through a broken window pane. Glass littered the ground around a small end table that held an open brief case which was covered in mildew. The corner of a yellow brittle note stuck out from underneath the case. The strong scent of mold permeated the entire bedroom as a gaunt and bent over man flicked his cigar ashes onto the threadbare carpet that covered the warped floorboards of what appeared to be my room. He snapped the case closed, picked it up off of the table, and walked to the other side of the bed.
Laying on my bed, I watched my bedroom’s curtain being sucked out of the window it had been blowing through a moment before. I held my hand in front of my face and it shimmered in and out of focus. Looking down at my legs, they were doing the exact same thing. My head felt as though it couldn’t focus on more than one thing at a time. I looked back at the old man standing beside my bed. “Who are you and why are you in my room? This is my room, right?”
“Who I am or why I’m here isn’t important. You’ve accepted the job and you made the first jump through time. In five minutes we’ll know whether you’re fit for our needs or not.” The old man sat on the edge of the bed and patted my legs. “You feel solid enough, now if your still here and in one piece at the end of the five minutes, then you’ll be hired for the job.” He flashed a thin wisp of a crooked smile at me.
I sat up then regretted it and slumped backed toward the bed while holding my head between my hands. “What job? I didn’t accept any job. All I did was open the brief case.”
“Yes, exactly. At any rate,” he pulled a flask from his jacket pocket and held it out to me, “drink this and you’ll feel better.”
I eyed the flask, but didn’t reach for it. “You never answered who you are.”
He took a large breath of air and released it through his nose. “Ah, yes, I’m Mr. Snider, but that’s not really important. Please, drink.” He pushed the flask back toward me.
“What is it? What does it do?”
He raised his eyebrow at me. “It’s water. It’ll help you not be thirsty.”
I took the flask and sniffed it. It smelled like the old metal canteen my father used to bring with us when we went camping growing up. I shrugged my shoulders and brought it to my lips.
The old man placed his hand on mine. “Drink slowly. It’s been fifty years since you’ve last had a drink of water.”
I shook my head, rolled my eyes, and chugged the water. My stomach was not at all happy with my decision and ejected the liquid back out as fast as I had put it in, along with everything else that it had contained. I rubbed my sleeve across my mouth and grinned in embarrassment.
He shook his head at me and pulled another flask out of the opposite pocket. “I’ve learned to come prepared. No one ever listens to our instructions. Well, not until they learn to trust that we’re not trying to con them.”
“How long does that usually take?” I accepted the second flask and handed him back the first one.
He replaced the empty flask where he’d originally pulled it from. “Usually the first water does the trick, but on a rare occasion it’s after they walk through their front door and realize that they’re actually in their old home and not in a dirty poorly reproduced replica.”
I placed the new flask to my lips and sipped this time. It was a sweeter water than the first one was and refreshed me more than I had realized I needed refreshing. “So, what exactly is the job?”
“We um…” He scratched at the bottom of his chin. “The easiest way to explain it is that we teach people to travel through time to fix problems.”
My eyes grew wide. “Wait. Time travel? You seriously expect me to believe…”
He stood up from the bed and pointed to the dilapidated room around me. “This doesn’t convince you? Follow me.” He walked out of my bedroom.
I took a few more sips of the water, then stood to follow him. My body swayed and I grabbed the edge of the bed. After a few seconds I stumbled through my bedroom doorway and walked through my living room. I ran my hands along the walls and door frames to keep my balance. By the time I walked out of my front door, I was no longer dizzy. The grass of my neighbors’ yards were as tall as their rusted wrought iron fences. Weeds poked through several cracks in the road and the sidewalk. Mr. Snider stood at the bottom of my front steps facing toward the yards where the dogs used to bark. I put my hand on his shoulder. “What happened?”
“Ah yeah, well whenever we recruit a new operator, we like to empty the neighborhood shortly before their arrival. It makes training them to travel back and forth in time less complicated. We don’t need witnesses seeing you appear and disappear, plus we have the added benefit of their house being empty when we retrieve them from the future.”
“I’m really going to learn to time travel? Where’s the time machine?”
He turned toward me and furrowed his eyebrows. “I’m sorry. There’s no machine.”
I furrowed my eyebrows back at him. "Then what was in the briefcase?"
"That was your contract."
I shook my head at him. "No, I never signed a contract."
A large ambulance and three pitch black SUVs lumbered up the street toward us. He smiled at me. "Opening the briefcase was your agreement to the terms of the contract."
I shook my head more vigorously and waved my hands at him. "No. No. You cannot..."
He placed his hand on my shoulder. "If you want to rescind your acceptance just say so."
"Then what happens?"
He pulled an aluminum case out of his pocket and flipped it open. A miniscule red disk floated inside. “We both know you're not going to so let's not worry about that. We’ll implant this into your skull. It’ll track you through universes. We wouldn’t want to lose you when you leave this timeline and shift to another after you’ve made changes to the one you travel out of.”
I looked out at the horizon, beyond the approaching vehicles. I knew nothing out there held any appeal to me, but this opportunity did. “Has it been five minutes? Did I make it?”
He smiled and nodded.
I clasped my hands behind my back and stood tall for the first time I could remember in more than fifteen years. I was excited to begin my new adventure.