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Science Fiction Mystery

It was Harper’s day off from work and, like every week, she spent it tucked in the back corner of the library reading old copies of the magazine Amazing Stories. That day she was engrossed in a story titled “The Girl Who Loved Death.” Rather self-consciously, she hid the front page of the magazine behind her bag, as it depicted a miniature, naked woman being pried at by a menacing man in a lab coat who she could only assume had bad intentions. Rather unimpressed with the ending, she placed the story back in its stack and caught the three o’clock bus uptown to her apartment. 

“Good afternoon, Ms. Monroe,” the clerk at the front desk said to Harper as she passed through the lobby. The clerk today was Laurence Walker, a frail old man who could hardly see past his bushy, overgrown eyebrows. Harper liked him because he remembered her name and because he tried to hide his mid-morning naps with a newspaper in front of his face. Harper suspected he did not know how loud of a snorer he was. 

“Hello, Mr. Walker. Any exciting evening plans tonight?” Harper said over her shoulder as she turned the key in her mailbox.

He chuckled and wagged a finger in her direction. His nails were long and yellowed like a tea-soaked napkin. “Just a date with my radio. Saturday nights are ‘Jazz Nights.’” 

Harper tucked the few pieces of mail under her arm. “Well, that sounds lovely. Have a good night, Mr. Walker!” A ding came from the elevator door and Harper stepped inside, closing her eyes as the elevator gently shook and swayed against its upward momentum. A mirror wrapped each wall of the little elevator, putting her in extremely close quarters with herself. Harper hated seeing her reflection bounce back and forth a million times into a tunnel she could never quite get a good look at, as her head was always in the way of seeing the very end. Mirrors made her nervous; she never wanted to look at herself for too long. She’d inevitably find something to be upset with as her mother used to; how frizzy her hair was, how large the mole on her cheek happened to look that day, how the color of her sweater clashed terribly with her skirt and she didn’t notice until consumed by the warm lighting of the little elevator, etc. Keeping her eyes closed was an easy remedy. 

The elevator completed its journey on the seventh floor and quietly descended to its next task. Harper flipped through the mail as she unlocked her apartment door. Voter registration reminder. Medical bill for her brother’s broken leg. A reminder from Gardener’s Monthly to renew her yearly subscription. Harper turned on the lamp by the kitchen table. One lamp was enough to brighten her whole apartment, as she lived in what felt like a shoebox. The room was as rudimentary as imaginable. A small stove and fridge; no counter but she made good use of the table and its two chairs. Her bed was in the opposite corner, beneath the window. It was a children’s bed, but Harper didn’t mind. She was small and it saved her a bit of space. A dresser was next to the bed. Its dark wood had deep grooves and scratches from a lifetime worth of moves. There wasn’t enough space for a bookshelf so stacks of books on astronomy, science fiction, and history were lined against the foot of her bed. A few of her brother Tristen’s oil paintings hung on the wall; one captured the waves crashing against the soft rocks of Bar Harbor where they used to spend summers; another was a still life of a China vase Harper had glued back together stuffed with catmint and daisies. It wasn’t much, but Harper felt safe there and loved the view from her window. The neighborhood looked like a dollhouse from such heights.

She shuffled to the last piece of mail in her pile and paused. Frowning, she sat at the table to get a better look under the light. The return address was blank. The handwriting of her address looked familiar, and for a moment she wondered if it was her brother who had sent it. 

Dear Harper, it read. I ask you not to write this off as a joke, as I expect you will. I am you thirty years from now. To prove this, I will tell you something only you know: at age 14 when Tristen’s cat died from eating the laundry soap you left out, you carried the body all the way to the beach and buried it. You dragged big stones over the covered hole so no animal could dig the cat up, and you told Tristen that the cat had run away. This is rather a silly secret, and you will soon have many dangerous ones worth keeping, but if I remember correctly, at this point, this is the only thing you’ve never told another.

Harper, confused, reread her deepest secret. Surely she had secrets worse than this, but all the others Tristen knew. She’d told no one this, never even wrote it down. She was terrified her brother would find out. She ran through all the people in her life she might have told this to. Certainly not her mother. Maybe Laurie, who she got drunk with once when she was sixteen. Harper doubted this. She never liked Laurie very much and trusted herself enough not to have told her such a secret. Maybe Tristen had known all along. But the handwriting was bizarrely similar to her own. The t’s were crossed low like hers, and the letters flowed together in a make-shift blend between cursive and print. 

The letter continued: Know that I would never breach such a serious rule of Time if it weren’t dire. Tristen is about to make a terrible decision, one that will have irreparable damage on his life, yours, and countless others. A man, Dr. Charles W. Woodward, will threaten to make Tristen fabulously wealthy. He is not to be trusted. Whatever it takes, you must stop Tristen from giving that man his paintings. Sincerely, You (Us?)

Harper blinked at the letter in her hands. For a moment Harper doubted the sincerity of it as she had never used the word “fabulous” in her life. That was something only her mother said. Then again, Harper understood that time changed both mind and spirit, and that was an unalterable fact. She hoped this did not mean she’d become more like her mother as she aged. 

Dr. Woodward was a familiar character in the city. He owned two newspapers and had funded several state horse races. He and the stories he printed had a clear distaste for unions, and it was rumored that he had earned his initial wealth through the exploitation of coffee farmers in South America. There were whispers of him seeking the mayoral office, but Harper hardly took these seriously. While certainly suspicious, Harper didn’t know anyone who considered the man evil. Yet again, Harper reasoned, she did not know that many people. Her friends in the city were limited to the artists her brother knew, and she felt they only tolerated her. Whether this was truly her future-self or not, the letter frightened her, but she could not think of a reason to doubt it. She could hear her brother’s teasing voice, “You’re too trusting, Harp.” Her mother used to say the same, only she’d add at the end with a skin-prickling hiss, “And one day that will kill you.” Harper felt this was dramatic and never believed it for a second, and, besides, who better to trust than herself?

She made the quick, ten-minute walk to Tristen’s studio and knocked before she unlocked the door. His leg was still healing from his fall while ice skating months ago; he moved around as little as he could to avoid the pain and she knew he wouldn’t come to the door. Sitting on a stool in a thin bathrobe before a canvas half-painted gray, Tristen didn’t look at her as she walked beside him. His eyes were locked on the color in dull concentration; the gray on his unmoving paintbrush had begun to cake. 

“What is it, Harper?” Tristen asked. His voice was coarse and he smelled like cigarettes. The ashtray beside him was full of cigarette butts and gritty cinders. The room was littered in trash and dirty plates. The couch in the corner of the studio had become his bed. A blanket spilled onto the floor and a few pillows were propped in attention. Harper was relieved that, at the very least, the curtains were pulled to the sides and sunlight flooded the room. 

“What is this painting going to be?”

Tristen scoffed. “You tell me. I’ve been staring at it for at least an hour and I still don’t know.” He looked up at his sister and offered a tired smile. 

“Oh, Tristen. Your leg will be better before you know it. Have you been doing your exercises?” Harper stacked a few empty mugs and brought them to the kitchen. 

He mockingly raised his leg a few inches off its perch. His exercises were largely lifting and lowering his leg one hundred times a day, which Harper knew infuriated him. 

Harper smiled. “Can I make you something to eat?” she asked as she poked her head in the fridge. Empty, save for a bottle of ketchup and a paper bag of moldy croissants. Harper worried for her brother and wondered how he was eating. She shouldn’t have believed him when he told her, “I have it all under control, Harp.” 

“Tristen.” Harper trailed back into the studio. She leaned against the windowsill and looked at him sternly. “I need to ask you something.”

He dragged a hand through his greasy curls and groaned. “Harper, please don’t patronize me. Not today. I told you this is all temporary, I’m fine, really I am–”

“It’s not about that.” She eyed the room. That discussion could be saved for later. “It’s about your paintings. Have you been in contact with that newspaper owner, Dr. Woodward?”

Tristen looked surprised. “Uh, yes. Just this morning, in fact. I got a call from his assistant who said Dr. Woodward was interested in a few of my paintings he saw at the January showcase.” From his bathrobe pocket, he pulled out a crushed pack of cigarettes. “He’s offering a pretty sum. Much more than I would have asked. How did you know that?” he asked curiously, an unlit cigarette dangling from his cracked lips. 

“Don’t laugh at me,” Harper cautioned. She expected he would anyway, but she couldn’t keep a thing from her brother. “But I got a letter from, well, myself–or someone claiming to be me thirty years from now. Though I have to say they included some convincing evidence–”

Tristen snickered and shook his hand to snuff out the match between his fingers. He blew a puff of smoke toward his canvas. “Harper, even I don’t believe you to be this gullible.” 

She snatched the cigarette from his lips and shoved it in the ashtray. She grabbed his shoulder and pointed her finger at his chin before he could protest. “Listen to me, Tristen. Do not sell your paintings to him. Please. Something in my gut is telling me to trust this letter, as ridiculous as that may sound. I am asking you to trust me.”

“Harper, what you’re asking me to do is turn down an amount of money that would turn my life–our lives–around. This is just some silly prank–”

“Do you trust me?” Harper demanded. She forced his finicky eyes to meet hers. “Do you trust me?”

“Yes. Reluctantly, yes,” he sighed. 

“Alright. Please, just don’t sell to him. Anyone else, just not him. Promise me?” He eyed her with suspicion. She squeezed his shoulder. “Promise?”

“God–alright, fine. I promise. I think you’re being ridiculous but if it means so much to you, fine. But you owe me big, Harper. Ok? I’m talking thousands-of-dollars big. Really. And another pack of cigs while you’re at it…”

Beaming, Harper kissed her brother on the cheek and shook his shoulders happily. He grimaced and wiped his cheek as he placed another cigarette in his mouth. 

“Thank you, Tristen. This means a lot. I’m going to run home and grab some food then cook us a nice dinner. Alright?” He waved her away and picked up the paintbrush again. Doused in a cloud of smoke, he held it carefully above the taught canvas. 

“Alright, I’ll see you soon!” Harper called as she walked out the door. 

As she walked back to her apartment, Harper wondered if the air should feel different, wondered if she should be able to detect the great cosmic shift that she hoped she had prevented. As she ascended to the seventh floor of her apartment, she inspected her reflection and thought how miraculous it was that she had communicated with herself in such a way. If the letter were to be trusted, that is. Yet she did trust it. She trusted this reflection, blurred slightly through the mirror rusted at the edges, as thoroughly she did her judgment and the judgment of herself in years to come. She smiled at how ridiculous it all seemed. 

She grabbed a box of pasta and the bunch of broccoli in her fridge and shoved them in her bag. She wondered if she should show Tristen the letter but decided against it. There was no need for him to know she accidentally killed his childhood cat. It was probably safest to hide the letter. She searched for it on the table, where she had left it, but both the letter and its envelope were nowhere to be found. Frantically, she sifted through the rest of the mail from the day. She looked beneath the table and beneath her bed, in case the wind had brushed it out of sight, but the letter was simply gone.

May 19, 2022 23:44

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RBE | Illustration — We made a writing app for you | 2023-02

We made a writing app for you

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