She watched the second hand race around the face of the clock on the classroom wall. It dragged behind it the slow and steady minute hand, edging closer to the final bell. Her day had arrived and her livelihood in cosmetology waited just beyond that door.
Her eyes followed the long slender wand sweep its way around the numbers. Five…six…seven. The tension of the minute hand strained in anticipation. Eight…nine…ten. As the second hand crossed the number eleven, it froze with four seconds left to go.
She blinked her eyes before trying to rub away the illusion time had ceased its lollygag pace. When she looked back, the second hand remained suspended between eleven and twelve. Nothing more than a dead battery she thought.
But the bell should have rung even without this clock. And that’s when she noticed things were more serious than a stopped clock. As she scanned the room, every desk was empty. Void of any book, pencil, or person.
Where’d they gone? When did they leave? Her gaze had been fixated on the clock. Surely, she would have heard everyone scrambling to leave after the bell. The bell. Why hadn’t she heard the final bell? Or any sound for that matter?
Dropping her pen, she heard the familiar click-clack of plastic striking the stone tile floor. Ok, so she hadn’t gone deaf. Then where did everybody go and without making a single noise?
She looked back at the clock. Still stuck. She played back the last few moments of time. Rewinding and slowly forward again like a sports replay. Nothing jumped out as unusual except time stopping and everyone vanishing of course.
After gathering her things, she walked over to the classroom door and turned the knob. As the door opened, the absence of noise and people continued. She gingerly stepped out into the hallway but gasped before retreating into the classroom.
Once normal halls now stretched on into infinity both to the left and to the right. She rushed over to the windows. But what’s outside terrified her even more. Absolutely nothing. A blank white canvas waiting to be painted.
As she spun around to look back at the clock, she bumped into one of the styling mannequin heads. She caught it by the hair and lifted it up to her face. When she locked eyes with the lifeless head the room began to spin and the whir of rapidly turning gears filled her ears.
She closed her eyes and held a tight grip on the mannequin until the sensation of spinning ceased.
“Ow! You're crushing my skull, you imbecile! What the hell do you think you're doing?”
Her eyes snapped open and she released her hold on the woman’s head as she stumbled backward.
“Oh my goodness! I’m terribly sorry. I…I….”
She tripped over her words trying to figure out how the hell she got here let alone what she’d been doing to that poor woman’s head. One second it’s a dummy made of rubber and the next it’s alive and yelling. What happened?
“You better believe you’re sorry. A sorry excuse for a stylist! Look at this mess you’ve made of my hair. This is NOT the color I described to you. Are you color blind as well as deaf?”
Before she could respond, the woman rose from the chair, ripped off the styling cape, and threw it at her. She reached up to pull the cape off of her head. But instead of seeing the salon, she had returned back to her classroom, holding the mannequin by its hair.
She dropped the head and stumbled backward before crashing into a bookcase. A glance at the clock showed the same frozen face. She rested her head on the empty shelf and closed her eyes for a moment to think.
“Whatcha doin’ sleepin in the middle of the bookstore?”
An unfamiliar voice startled her from thought and she gasped when she opened her eyes. No longer in the classroom again, a young man now stood over her, offering a helping hand.
“Oh my, I must have drifted off while browsing,” she weakly replied as he helped her to her feet.
“But I thought you’d come by to see how all your purdy shelves look filled with books. Parents are just thrilled to pieces with the kids' section. How’d you cut them crazy angles?”
“I know I know, trade secrets and all. Well, anyway, I best be gettin’ back to the register. Sales have been through the roof since the remodeling job. Your bookshelves are another world.”
“Thanks. I guess I just have a way with wood. I mean tools.” Oh God, why couldn’t she shut up? She felt the warmth of her cheeks blushing with embarrassment.
She watched as he headed back to the register. Then she turned to find this amazing children's section she apparently had constructed. What she saw left her speechless.
A shimmering silver castle filled with books lined the back wall. To the left, a fierce dragon-shaped shelf had action-adventure kits. On the right, two knights on horseback faced off to win the hand of the princess.
She’d done this? When she turned back towards the front of the store, it transformed. Now she stood in the center of a workshop, the floor covered in sawdust. The sound of a table saw buzzing stopped and she heard someone call her name.
“How’d the visit at the bookstore go? Them designs you come up with are something to behold.”
“Thanks, um yeah. It looked…breathtaking.”
“And thank you for giving this old-timer something creative to pass the days. You’ve made waking up each morning worth doing. Them littles’ll buy every book in that store just to see the mighty dragon of Nanettia.”
She blushed, thinking back to the handsome bookstore owner. Did she know him in this life? She couldn’t remember if he’d had a name tag. Closing her eyes, she tried to think back.
A loud whoosh noise snapped her eyes open. She had returned to the classroom. Her legs became jelly and she collapsed into a chair. She looked at the clock drawing in a sharp breath. The second hand had advanced one click.
She retrieved her bag from the floor and a hairbrush fell out. She bent down to pick it up. As she stood up the room went black. When the lights came back on, the classroom had metamorphosed into backstage dressing rooms.
“What are you waiting for? I’m supposed to be on next! Are you finished yet or what? HELLOOOOOO?”
“Oh, um, yes, I think, I mean you’re all set.”
She put the brush behind her back and waited nervously for whoever this was to leave. Once alone, she sat down in the chair and wept. What was going on? Where was she now?
She blotted her eyes with a tissue and looked around for clues. She could hear singing on stage and talking as well. So she worked for a theatre company. She enjoyed going to plays in high school, especially musicals.
A roar of laughter erupted from the audience. After a while, the performance came to an end. Thunderous clapping filled the auditorium followed by the slamming of the dressing room door.
“Are you trying to ruin my acting career, you twit? My performance was a joke!! I’m out there singing about the many hours I spend braiding my hair WITHOUT any hair long enough to braid!”
“Oh dear, I’m sorry. I never…”
“You’ll never work again is what you’ll never. I’ll have you run out of town. GET OUT! I don’t ever want to see you here again!”
She rushed out of the dressing room, still clutching the hairbrush. When she threw it to the ground the hardwood floor shimmered like water ripples from a rock. It smoothed and became the familiar tile of her classroom.
No change on the clock yet. Her eyes surveyed the room to look for anything out of the ordinary. She spotted a tiny rocking horse on the corner of the teacher’s desk.
She’s sure she would have noticed that before. She bolted toward the desk and scooped up the miniature plaything. Holding it close to her heart, she closed her eyes.
A hand on her shoulder startled out a small scream.
“Didn’t mean to spook ya, love. I saw you standing here in the nursery looking so peaceful. Whatcha thinkin about?”
She opened her hands to show him the rocking horse.
“Is that for the dollhouse or is it a prototype for when the baby grows up?” he asked her while wrapping an arm around her waist.
His voice seemed familiar to her. She felt his warm hand on the bulge of her belly. Then felt the kick of a tiny foot. She took in a deep breath and the scent of his cologne unlocked the mystery of familiarity.
She spun out of his hold to look him in the eyes. A smile crept on her face as she confirmed her suspicion. The handsome bookstore owner from before now appeared to be her husband.
And if she really made this remarkable miniature that means her craft had improved since the previous trip? Vision? Whatever’s happening, she liked where things are headed.
“Everything ok, my darling? You haven’t spoken a word.”
“I’m wonderful and so amazed by everything that’s happened.”
She closed her eyes as he leaned in to kiss her. Her soft lips awaited the passion of his. She felt his arms wrap around her, cradling her in a gentle embrace. His love brought her peace and then she heard the long slow swoosh.
She opened her eyes and the classroom welcomed her back. She no longer had the rocking horse and her stomach had flattened. Her eyes locked on the clock to see that another second had ticked away.
Two down, two to go. She looked around the room for the next cosmetology tool to continue her time traveling lessons. So far she’d learned more than she’d bargained for on this unexpected journey.
In the back of the classroom, she saw a pair of shears. The silver blades reflected the bright light from the ceiling. As she got closer, the shine became blinding so she closed her eyes while grasping for the scissors.
The smell of urine fluttered her eyes open where she discovered the source of the offending scent. Before her, an elderly woman sat slumped to one side in a chair. She still held the shears in her right hand and now a comb in her left.
“Hey, are ya gonna cut my hair or what? I got shows coming on and I hate being late for my shows.”
“Of course. I, uh. How did you want it cut today?”
“The same as you always do. You going senile on me girl? If this is getting too hard for ya…”
“I thought you might like a new look.”
“Ya think I need a new look? What the hell do you know ‘bout looks? Ya ain’t had a man in the 10 years I’ve knowed ya! Just stick to the way I like it and don’t be tryin’ to think.”
“Yes ma’am.” She held the shears in a now quaking hand, uncertain of what to do. She stepped forward and tried to steady the scissors as she closed them.
“Ow, damn it girl ya almost cut off my freakin ear lobe. What the hell’s wrong with you today. Ya actin like you never been here before. Speak up!”
“I’m not feeling well. Excuse me for a moment.”
She ran out to find a bathroom. She burst through the door and into an open stall. The odor of ammonia pushed her nausea to the brink. After throwing up, she washed her face at the sink and tried not to cry.
Her reflection showed a haggard face. One she didn’t recognize. Etched in her forehead were deep lines of stress. Her glow had dimmed. She closed her eyes as a single tear broke free from her heart.
She opened her eyes and exhaled in relief to find her younger reflection staring back. She let go of the shears and they clattered to the floor. Behind her in the mirror stood a massive wooden dollhouse filled with hand-carved furniture.
She spun around and rushed towards it. Her eyes darted from room to room of the immaculate dollhouse. Was the tiny rocking horse inside? Yes! Next to the crib, she spotted the now familiar rocking horse. She started to reach for it then paused.
Maybe she’s supposed to touch something else this time? After all, the rocking horse already told its tale. She looked for something that stood out in the dollhouse for a clue.
She spotted it and she squealed with glee before plunging her hand into the living room. She retrieved an ebony grand piano and the sound of a concerto filled the air. She found herself seated in the balcony of a grand concert hall. Her biggest surprise yet sat at the piano.
The young woman could’ve been her twin except for the jet-black hair. But she knew just where that hair color originated. She felt the squeeze of her hand from her loving husband, beaming with pride.
Back with Mr. Bookstore, she smiled up at him. On stage, their daughter played the final notes and bowed to the audience. Cheers and whistles grew into a standing ovation and bouquets of roses poured onto the stage.
On the drive home, she listened as her daughter talked on and on about the upcoming tour.
“If things go well here, the tour manager said a European tour would be guaranteed.”
“Oh honey, that’s fantastic! Your mother and I are so proud of you. We know how much you’ve wanted to travel the world. .”
She looked out into the darkness. How could she have never considered this path? She closed her eyes for a moment when the slow swoosh of the second hand swept her back to the classroom.
One second left on the clock. Now what? She saw the curling iron hanging from a hook. Oh no. After clipping someone’s ear with scissors, she feared what would go wrong this time. She closed her eyes and reached for the iron.
The hissing of hot metal from damp hair brought her to attention. She found herself working on the hair of a popular news anchor for the morning show. She released the coiled hair and went to curl the next section.
As she lowered the iron, the newscaster turned to look up at her. In doing so, the curling iron made contact with the tv star’s cheek.
“AAAAAAH! My face! What the hell have you done to me? Don’t just stand there. You burned my fucking face!”
She dropped the iron and ran into the stage manager who’d heard the scream from the set.
“What have you done this time?!”
“Sir, I…it was an accident.”
“I told you the last time, one more and you’re fired! Now pack your shit and get the fuck out of my studio!”
She grabbed her things from the dressing room and ran out the back door of the studio. As she stepped through the doorway she found herself back in the classroom. Relieved, she sat down and rested against the door.
Looming above her, an ornate coat tree held scarves and winter jackets. At its base sat six pairs of boots, four adult-sized and two pint-sized pairs. She picked up the pair of pink snow boots and the classroom reconstituted into a log cabin.
She scrambled to stand as the patter of little feet came down the stairs.
“Grandma, grandma, did Santa find your cabin? Did you build the chimney big enough?”
She stared as two angels trounced down the last step and ran to the family room. She followed them to an enormous Christmas tree buried in mounds of presents. Stockings hung from the mantle bulged with treats and surprises.
Her daughter came out of the kitchen with a cup of hot tea.
“Hey, you two get to the kitchen. You know we don’t open presents until after breakfast.”
“Yes, momma,” they muttered as they ran off to see what dad made to eat.
“The cabin turned out amazing mom. You and dad created a palace.”
She opened her arms to give this beautiful girl the biggest hug she’d ever given. Her heart swelled with jubilation. A pride that grows from the good deeds done in life. Satisfaction from a job well done.
A buzzer sounded and she heard the rustling of people. She opened her eyes to see her classmates hustling out the door. She saw the clock had broken from the spell and all was right again.
She gathered her bag and headed toward the door. She watched as her classmates headed down the hallway to the left. She paused only for a moment before turning the other way to follow her true path.