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Tertium

“Hey, kid, get back here!” 

Clutching the newspaper to my chest, I ran through the neighbors’ well-kept yards, dashing towards the truck idling at the curb. My breath sawed in and out of my lungs, but my feet kept pace. 

“Kid!” His voice grew closer. “Kid, how many times are you going to try to get this paper? I forbid you to do so! Bring it back to me!” 

I knew I should save my breath for running, but the retort escaped my lips against my will. “Oh, wow, you forbid me. Nice one; you can’t forbid me.” 

“Well—” I heard him gasp for breath. “I guess, it’s forbidden, now. And I say that I make the rules.” 

“Nice,” I replied, picking up my pace. The energy I had for my headlong sprint was starting to wane. I needed to make it to the truck, fast. I waved furiously at the vehicle, and it began to move forward to shorten the gap between us, understanding my plan. “Real good comeback. Getting—” I paused for breath. “—tired yet?” 

He laughed, wheezing. “I’m always tired these days. You’ll see.” 

I didn’t want to see. That was the point. Suddenly, I whirled around, stopping in my tracks. The old man behind me skidded to a stop. His blue-striped pajamas looked ridiculous, just like always. Every morning, the same. Coffee cup squarely in hand, dangling from wrinkled fingers, blue-striped pajamas, and a plan to stop me. 

But this time, I had had enough. I felt the paper crinkle in my hands as they flexed angrily. “Why? Why can’t I take this from you?” I waved the paper in front of his face, and he tried to snatch it, still doubled over from catching his breath. 

“You’ll –” he gasped again. “—regret it. You won’t like what it says, kid. You’re not the type of person who should be reading stuff like it.”

“This loop that we’re in; it has to end!” Our matching brown eyes met, and I strengthened my glare. “I’m going to take this back with me and read it, and there’s nothing you can do about it!” 

He smiled sadly. “Of course you will. You always would.” 

I froze. “What?” I raised a finger and stubbed it against his chest. “Then why try to stop me, every time?” 

“You have to be ready to understand it first. And you’re not ready. You won’t be ready for a while, kid.” 

“Understand it? It’s a newspaper! It has news, and all I know is that I need to get it. The guy’ll pay me, and then he’ll read it with me. We’ll read it together.” 

“No.” He shook his head, hands on his hips, still recovering from our sprint across the neighborhood, the sun shining in his eyes as he squinted down at me. “Tell him to come now, instead of you. He can meet me and read it himself, but he certainly shouldn’t show you.” 

“Fine! I won’t read it. But let me have it, I’ll just give it to him, take the money, and get out of your hair, old man!” 

His shoulders shook with mirth. “You’ll read it. Just trust me, the temptation is way too strong. I should know.” He winked, and I hated him for it. 

“Well, you know what it says. So why can’t I? It doesn’t make sense!” 

“Just tell the guy to come himself. We can all read it, then, together. Deal?”

“What? Just let me take it with me now. I won’t get the money, otherwise. I need to be the one, he said that I—” 

“No. He’s wrong. He needs to be the one.” 

“Why?” I recoiled at his confident words. 

“He needs the information, he needs to be the one to come get it. And he needs…well, me. Okay?” He grasped my hand, pressing it tightly to his chest with his own. A cursive script was inked into the back of his wrist, just one word. 

Our hearts beat in tandem, emphasizing our connection, the connection I already knew about. The one he didn’t know that I knew. “You need to trust me, and you can,” he added. 

I shook my head. “The only person I trust is myself. And I know what I’m supposed to do. I don’t need you! I never needed you.” I paused, narrowing my eyes at him. “Because I know the truth!” 

He stepped back in shock. “What do you mean, you know?” His gaze searched my face. “Tell me! What did that man who promised you the money, what did he say?” 

I shook my head. “I’m not allowed to tell you. I’m not allowed to reveal what I know.” His shock had frozen him, his urgency, his need to know had stilled his feet, paused his heart. It was all the opportunity I needed. I fled, leaving him behind, his dark skin shining with sweat in the sun, matching my own. We were both tired, tired from doing this every damn morning, and I needed to win. Something needed to give.  

The truck stopped beside me. “Get in, son!” the man inside called. His hand beckoned to me, hidden underneath gloves. He always wore gloves. 

I turned around. The old man behind me stared down at his hands, crumpling them into fists. The telltale cursive tattoo flexed on the back of his wrist, matching the movement of his tendons, his veins. I stopped running. 

“Come on, get in!” My mysterious benefactor waved again, reaching over to try to open the passenger door. I reached over the edge of the open window and grasped the tip of his glove, holding his hand in place. 

“Only on one condition,” I said, my voice shaking. He froze, eyes flicking to the old man I had left behind before returning to meet my gaze with dark eyes of his own. “Take off your gloves.” 

He sighed. “You don’t understand.” 

I crossed my arms. “If anyone should understand, wouldn’t it be me?” I asked, nodding at his gloves. 

He laughed. “Well, I guess you asked for it, kid. I’m a practical man, after all. I’ll obey your requests, if it gets me what I want.” 

He drew his gloves off, one after the other, finger by finger. He faced the palms of his hands towards me. The central line across the palms were flat, creating a horizontal line that seemed to cut across both his palms. “Happy?” 

I shook my head. “Turn them around.” 

“No,” he replied darkly. “You need to trust me on this, okay? I know you need the money, and we already made a deal. Signed, sealed…” he paused, eyes boring into mine, a palm tipped forward and gesturing to the newspaper held in my arms. “Delivered.” 

I threw an arm to the side, tucking the paper into my chest with the other. “Why does everyone keep saying that I need to trust them?”

“Because it’s true,” the old man calls back. I turn to face him, having temporarily forgotten about him. “But son, tell your guy in the truck that he needs to step out. We need to talk. He needs to know why he can’t read that paper!” 

“I knew it!” my benefactor yelled, whipping open the truck door and slamming it behind him, the cloak on his shoulders trailing behind him. “I knew I couldn’t trust you!” He turned to me. “We…I need that newspaper. It explains…it explains how I die. How we all die. It’s – it’s got an obituary.” 

I looked at him, shocked. “You used the machine to get me here to find out how you die? You know you’re not supposed to do that. It bends the continuum! It messes with the future. It could have terrible consequences!” 

He slammed his palm flat on the top of the truck. “You don’t understand! I’m dying, and he knows why! He’s still alive, he must have done the same as I’m doing now anyway! I know you don’t know what I’m talking about, but…Look how old he is! No one, no one like us, lives that long anyway. He messed with time, and now he doesn’t want us to do the same.” He reached his hand out towards me, over the hood of the truck. “Give the paper to me, son.” 

I shook my head, stumbling backwards, and nearly tripped over the curb. “No…No! I know what you’re doing is wrong. Now show me the backs of your hands!” 

He laughed humorlessly. “As you wish.” He held up his hands, palms facing front, and flipped them over in one smooth motion to reveal the back of his hands. I stared in shock. 

“That’s—that’s impossible!” 

He stalked forward, reaching me in two large strides. My legs shook, threatening to give out. “So now you understand. He and I are the same, and he has the secret for how to survive. To end the sickness that ravages us! The solution to our problems! I need to know how he does it…how we do it. How do we make it past this stage? How do we rip apart this world that plagues us, rend it from limb to limb, and start over! How do we find freedom from the bars that hold us back – the bars of age, the bars of depression, the bars of hopelessness. How do I move forward? I need that paper, son. That paper in your hands. It holds the answers. The answer to how we die! If I know how we die, then I’ll know how we survive, to make it to that long!” he cried, gesturing fiercely toward the old man in the blue stripes. “But I guess when I become an old man, I keep my secrets. I refuse to protect others!” 

“NO!” the old man cried, stepping forward and drawing my attention. “You don’t understand – I also used a machine to get here, just to stop you from getting that paper. That paper in his hands…If I don’t protect my secrets, it has terrible consequences – we must wait till the time is right!” He paused, hesitating. “But I have something I can give you in exchange.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out a wooden ruler with a metal edge that glinted in the morning sun. “Take this, you’ll need it, but leave the paper, and take the boy back in peace. This is just between us, my cloaked friend.” He glanced at me quickly before facing the other man again. 

The two men continued to argue, and I stared down at the paper in my hands. Flipping to the back, I reached the obituary section, and found a photo of a man that looked like the pajama-clad man who had chased me every morning. Every morning that we had travelled here, reliving this day over and over and over again. God, I was so damn tired. All I had to do was read this obituary, and it would all be over. The continuum would be broken, I would know the truth, and the feud between two men fighting before me, the same man plucked forth from two different ages, would be over. There would be nothing left to fight for. My fingers shook as I put down the paper without reading it. 

It had to end. And I knew that I was the key. The old man remembered, but the younger had forgotten. 

I held the paper up in the air. “Stop!” 

Both men turned to face me, identical looks of horror on their faces. I held out my other hand towards the old man. “I know how we can solve this. I know what’s right. Give me the ruler.” 

The old man smiled at me proudly and handed me the ruler, and I realized he knew what I was about to do. My benefactor had forgotten, had forgotten he had lived this before, but as soon as I brought the ruler to the paper, he remembered. Reaching out toward me, he swiped at the paper in my hands as I ducked to avoid his grasp. “No, kid! Don’t trust the old guy! Listen to me! I am the younger, smarter, faster version. I have the knowledge.” Seeing that my motions hadn’t stopped, he attempted to cry out in desperation. “I have the money you need! I won’t accept—”  

I smiled. “Oh, I’ll be taking that money. Don’t you remember how this ends? You were here before, weren’t you? Here in my shoes?” I lowered my voice. “Don’t you remember your promise?” 

He blanched. “I wanted to stop this. I thought I could convince you, explain just enough to get you to trust me. After all, who explained the truth to you? Me or the old guy?” 

“If what you said is true, then that means you have been lying about your identity too!” I yelled back. I held the metal edge of the ruler to the edge of the obituary he sought and swiped the paper clean through, carefully cutting out the obituary without reading it. I handed the obituary back to the old man and handed the paper to my benefactor. He clenched his fists as the old man smiled and winked at me, folding the obituary clipping into his front pocket with a serene gaze. 

“You said you only needed the paper. You never said you needed all of it, and you know it too. You were in too much of a hurry to remember that that loophole would cost you, but now I know. I kept my promise, and you said that I could trust you. Prove it to me, pay me, and I promise to trust you next time.” 

“Next time! What next time?” he growled in frustration. 

I smirked. “Trust me, there’s a next time. You must have forgotten; you were young, after all, and it was more recent for me than for you. But you’ve lived it, and you’ll remember when the time is right.” I winked back at the old man. “I trust myself.” 

I paused, and raised the backs of my hands to face him. “So I trust you. As you well know.” 

The cursive script on the back of my wrist, matching those on the back of both mens’ hands, flashed in the sunlight for a moment before I ducked back inside the truck and awaited my return to my own timeline. I’d be back to this same situation twice more, after all. 

I looked once more down at my hands in my lap before my cloaked benefactor returned and revved the engine, wordlessly taking me back home, his loyalty to me, his loyalty to himself, binding. 

There was only one word inked on the back of my hands, a tattoo that I had gotten when I was young, probably too young to be legal. A tattoo that an older version of the man sitting beside me had forced me to get.

Tertium, it read. 

For the third time. 

July 11, 2020 21:53

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4 comments

15:00 Jul 23, 2020

Clever way to deal with the prompt. Keep going.

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Nandan Prasad
13:23 Jul 21, 2020

Hey, great story! Unique take on the prompt and I really loved it. In one word you italicized one letter but not the other, I think, but otherwise, amazing story with a brilliant twist. Well-done and keep writing! Also, would you mind checking out my story if it's not too much trouble? Thanks and good luck!

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Raquel Rodriguez
20:38 Jul 31, 2020

Yes! I love this boy's attitude, like, '“Oh, wow, you forbid me. Nice one; you can’t forbid me.”' Perfect. I love the line, 'My breath sawed in and out of my lungs, but my feet kept pace.' You're really good at writing! Keep up the good work! Could you check out my stories if you have the chance? ;)

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Wow, this was great! ~Ⓐⓔⓡⓘⓝ (ℙ.𝕊. 𝕨𝕠𝕦𝕝𝕕 𝕪𝕠𝕦 𝕞𝕚𝕟𝕕 𝕔𝕙𝕖𝕔𝕜𝕚𝕟𝕘 𝕠𝕦𝕥 𝕞𝕪 𝕞𝕠𝕤𝕥 𝕣𝕖𝕔𝕖𝕟𝕥 𝕤𝕥𝕠𝕣𝕪? 𝕋𝕙𝕒𝕟𝕜𝕤!

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