All the Stolen Moments

Submitted into Contest #234 in response to: Write a story about someone who wishes they could turn back time.... view prompt

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Drama Fiction Sad

“Can I help you?”

I come back to myself with a start, surprised as always that I lost track of time. It’s happening more and more lately, as I slowly lose control of the gift that I turned into a curse.

“Oh, uh, just this.” I place a carton of a dozen eggs on the counter, careful not to set them down too hard. Such fragile things, eggs. A bit like hopes. Or dreams.

“I don’t know, mister,” the smiling woman behind the counter says, eyeing the eggs like I’ve set an uncut diamond in front of her. Her nametag says “Melissa,” but I don’t need to read it to know who she is. “You sure you can afford this? Organic, cage free eggs? Nowadays these are pretty pricey.”

I muster a smile for her. She’s not yet middle-aged, though she looks older than her years. Graying, worn, and tired. Clear evidence she hasn’t had the life she would have preferred, and there just isn’t as much happiness as she’d like in her world. Ten years, twenty pounds, and a few better times in her life and she’d be lovely and vibrant. As well I know. But she still manages smile at every customer who enters her line.

“Don’t worry. I’m good for it.”

“Okay. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.” She passes the carton over the scanner in an easy, well-practiced motion, to an accompanying beep. “Eleven ninety-five.”

I make an exaggerated wince. “Ouch.”

“Warned you.” She cocks her head to one side, eyeing me speculatively. “Say, have I seen you before? Do you come around here often?”

Don’t I wish she was just being flirty. That sense of recognition, of familiarity, is to be expected. We’ve seen each other often enough, though I don’t imagine she remembers it. After all, the only times I ever visited her were to take something away from her. But that’s why I’m here: a reckoning. Atonement. A long time coming, but here it is.

I sigh. “Actually, Melissa, you’ve seen me before. Even if you don’t quite remember where or when.”

“Okay,” she says, drawing out the word. I guess this just got a little creepy for her.

“Please, I’ve got something that needs saying, and it’d help if you just listen.” I pause, searching for words I never thought I’d need. “This will sound weird. Unbelievable. And I know right off the bat that I’ve got no way to prove any of it to you. You see, it has to do with time.”

She stares at me, perhaps intrigued. The store around us is empty; there’s no one to interrupt us or listen in. I chose my time well. I’m good at that, at least.

“Time isn’t exactly what you think it is,” I continue. “It’s more… tangible. A commodity, so to speak. We each have a finite amount of it, and we use it up over the course of our lives. Some things take more, some take less. Momentous decisions, joyful experiences, great tragedies and sorrows: these take more time from us than the little, day-to-day things.” I take a deep breath. “And, like any commodity, it can be stolen.”

She blinks, and once again I can tell she’s getting weirded out. But she’s still listening, hasn’t told me to get out.

So I go on. “I was born with the ability to see time for what it is, and I… learned how to take advantage of that. How to take time away from other people. To steal it. That’s what I am: a thief. But a thief of the most precious thing we have. I can sense when a person is about to have one of those moments, one of those times. An event that will change things for them forever. There’s so much time at stake in those moments.” I shrug. “And I take it. I take it all away from them, and use it to create a time for myself.”

Now she purses her lips, a deep frown marring her forehead. “Look, mister, that’s… imaginative. But it’s really just plain crazy.”

I nod, expecting this reaction. “Like I said, there’s no way I can prove it to you. But I can remind you of the first time we met. You were a little girl, your ninth birthday. Your daddy was in the army, deployed overseas. He was coming home, the first time you’d seen him in months. You were so excited, so happy. His being at your party was the best thing you could hope for.”

Now she’s looking really worried. “Wait a sec… how do you know…?”

“Because I was there, Melissa. I knew it would happen, knew how much time you had invested in that hope. I watched the fabric of time swell around you, saw all that potential.”

“But he didn’t make it back,” she says, her voice faint and pained. “His leave was cancelled. He never came to my party.”

“Exactly. Because I took that time, Melissa. I stole it from you.” I run a hand through my hair. “I’m not making excuses, but it let me reconnect with my own father, before he died. Mend fences. Get me back in his will.”

There’s a glimmer of emerging credulity in her eyes, a hint that maybe she’s starting to believe. “That really upset me, Dad not being there. It destroyed my faith in him. Split us apart. I left home as soon as I could. Haven’t spoken to him since.”

“I know,” I say, nodding. “And remember that college exam, the one that would have gotten you into pre-med?”

Her eyes widen. “I studied for weeks. Pulled a dozen all-nighters. Still failed.”

I bow my head. “That was me. You should have passed that. Would have. But I took the time to help me pass the bar exam.”

Now her eyes narrow into an angry, suspicious glare. “The job interview for Google?”

“I got an internship with a good firm,” I murmur.

“My first date with that guy I really liked.” She snaps her fingers a couple times, trying to remember.

“George Winthrop,” I supply. I can’t even look at her anymore. This is even harder than I thought it would be. “Would have led to marital bliss. A couple kids, a dog, and a house in the burbs with a white picket fence and a walk-in closet.”

“You… you son of a…” She’s angry. Oh, so very anger. And with every reason. “Why did you do this to me?”

I squirm under her gaze, holding up my hands in a gesture of helpless sorrow. “I didn’t just do it to you. There were others. Maybe none with quite as much promise as you. But… but it’s the only thing I knew how to do. I could never have made the life I’ve lived if I hadn’t done it. That doesn’t make it right, but I hope it can make you understand.”

She stands there, trembling. I can see her grabbing the portable scanner and beating me to death with it. When she finally speaks, it’s in a voice choked with emotion, anger and sadness. “So why are you here now?”

“Because you deserve to know,” I say, speaking to a very interesting spot on the counter. “Because I’ve stolen so many moments from you, from a lot of people. If I could, I would give them back. But I can’t. I can’t turn back the clock.”

“So this is, like, penance? And… what? Am I supposed to forgive you, or something?”

“I don’t expect that. Or deserve it. You just… you should know that the bad time weren’t your fault. There is nothing wrong with you. There never has been. You’re… wonderful. After everything I took from you, after I ruined your life, you kept going.” I risk a glance at her, see the tears in her eyes, and look away just as quickly. “You still have it in you to smile every day. You should be proud of that.”

I hear her draw a shuddering breath. “Let me guess: you’re running out of time.”

I can only nod. Running out of time. That’s a good way to describe it. The gaps in my memory, the pieces of my life that just seem to disappear. It’s all going away, a strange sort of end, worse in its way than a terminal cancer prognosis. I’ve abused my power my whole life, and now I’m paying for it. Strangely, all I want to do with the time I have left is apologize for what I’ve done. And so, I’m here.

“And that’s the only reason you’re doing this.” That’s not a question. She just met me, but she already knows me as well as I know myself.

“Yes.” The word is barely audible.

“And nothing you or I do can change what you’ve done.”

Again, I nod. At that moment, I wish I’d never done it. I wish I’d never been born, never come into existence. I don’t know why I am the way I am, why I made my life be preying on others. But now I wish I’d never done it. Nothing would bring me more relief than to die right here and now, just to end this pain. But it doesn’t work like that. “I’m sorry.” It’s all I can think to say.

“Okay,” she says, in a tone that says she’s searching for something more to say. “Okay. Um.”

I wish she’d shout and scream, rage and lash out. Hit me. Hurt me. Do something so that I could justify running away. But she just stands there, hands clasped on the edge of the counter, so hard that the knuckles are white.

Then she speaks again. “Am I the last person you’re telling this to?” she asks. “Or the first?”

I look up and meet her gaze, surprised by the question. “The first, actually.”

She arches an eyebrow. “You have a long list to go through?”

I nod solemnly. So long. If it takes the rest of my life, what time I have left, I won’t have begun to atone for the wrong I’ve done. To make up for all the moments I’ve stolen. If there is an eternity beyond death, it won’t be pleasant for me.

“Well, then,” she says, blowing out a breath. “You’d better get to it.”

A dismissal. She’s releasing me. I was right: she is wonderful. I don’t know if that makes me feel better, or worse. I turn to shuffle off, shoulders sagging with relief and the weight of what I’m taking with me.

“Hey, mister…”

I slowly turn around, expecting that now it will come. The tirade, the fury, the scathing reproach. I brace myself for it.

“Don’t forget your eggs,” she says, holding out a grocery bag.

I reach out to take it. “Thank you,” I mumble.

She doesn’t release her grip right away, waiting until I reluctantly meet her gaze. “You paid for it,” she says. “So you’d better take it with you.” The smallest of smiles forms on her lips. “After all, it cost a lot.”

January 26, 2024 16:18

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