Someone walked up to me while I stood in the gray dampness, waiting for the public transport, and asked me if I had the time, with a peculiar emphasis on “time”. “What Time do you have?” What made this particularly strange was that I had been asked this same question, with the same peculiar emphasis, several times that day, by different strangers. After I glanced at my watch and supplied the answer, this person immediately asked the same question of the person standing next to me. “What Time do you have?”
My fellow public transport user said straightaway, “It will be tomorrow.”
The questioner seemed satisfied with this reply, and walked off down the street. I studied the man who had supplied the inexplicably satisfactory answer through the corner of my eye. I was conscious of a senseless impression I was missing something important in my observation of him, something malign that was not conveyed by the blob of expressionless flesh that was his face, or even through the gray, cloudy eyes.
That evening, ascending to my apartment, I stopped on a landing and looked back down the stairs. I was not in the habit of counting steps, but there did appear to be fewer of them than I had thought there were. Did each step seem to be higher than it had been? But no, the stairway was the same worn, stained stairway it had always been for as long as I had used it. I was not in the habit of counting steps, but I counted them then, for future reference.
Sitting at my cluttered kitchen table, sipping from a mug of cocoa, I gazed through a window at the lights outside, trying to relax. My gaze ran absentmindedly over patterns of squares of light that were the windows of buildings on the other side of the street. I noted that there seemed to be fewer lights in those buildings than usual.
Sitting at my cluttered kitchen table, sipping from a mug of coffee, I gazed through the window at the day outside, trying to bring myself out of sleepy stupor to something resembling alertness. My gaze ran thoughtfully over the surfaces of the buildings across the street. There seemed to be more blank wall and fewer windows than there had been. There was a featureless surface of stone just above the doorway of the building directly opposite me which I remembered always as containing a window. My hand shook and coffee sloshed onto the table.
I did my best to count the steps as I hurried down the stairway, without curbing my downward momentum. There seemed to be the same number, give or take one or two…Emerging from the dim interior into the bright sunlight, I saw a figure moving by in the brightness, and heard it ask of another brightness-obscured figure, this one sitting on a bench, “What Time do you have?”
“It is today,” came the reply.
The questioner moved away down the street before my eyes adjusted to the surprisingly intense brightness of the day. The person on the bench, the assembly of expressionless flesh on the bench, was looking at me. Though apparently only sitting and looking at me, I was conscious of a senseless impression this person was occupied with some other, immense activity; something that caused me to stumble, disconcerted as I backed away.
I hurried along the sidewalk, unobtrusively studying the passersby. There was something unidentifiable about every one of them that disturbed me far beyond their uncanny expressionlessness and dead-seeming eyes.
Every car I saw was parked and silent. Some of the buildings seemed unfamiliar to me, though I had traversed this street innumerable times. There was a side-street I did not recall ever having noticed before. I thought perhaps I would explore it some other day, when my mind was more at ease. I recognized the name of the next side-street, but the buildings on it appeared unfamiliar and oddly designed. I thought there should be more windows, particularly in street-facing walls. This seemed also a valid criticism of some of the buildings on the street I was on, which was something I did not remember thinking before.
I came upon a building I was certain I had never seen before. I walked back and forth in front of it. This brick building had a doorway without a door, and notably few other features. There was not one window in any of the walls visible from the street. These great surfaces of brick seemed to have an ominous quality about them. The interior was dark; I could see nothing but the rectangle of sunlight on the floor just inside the doorway. The few passersby seemed to take no notice of this building. A man walked up to me and asked if I had the Time. I said, “It is Today.” He widened his mouth into a poor facsimile of a smile; something that expressed nothing; it was a widening of the mouth that seemed meant to convey to me that he saw behind my mask, saw that I did not understand the meaning of my answer, saw that I was terrified of him. He entered the doorway of the windowless building. He stopped where the sunlight through the doorway became weak. He was perfectly still, deathly still. I watched for some long minutes. His fingers did not twitch. His weight did not shift. An image came to mind of a wind-up toy run down and placed on a shelf. I turned and walked quickly away in the direction of my apartment. I did my best to ignore my surroundings, but this was difficult as the day became increasingly and unnaturally bright. Things around me glittered and shimmered and distorted into distinctive eye-catching forms.
Sipping from a bottle of vodka, I gazed at the clutter on my kitchen table, at the crumpled receipts, the empty cans, the mold on the grimy plates. I had turned on all the lights in the apartment. I had knocked on the doors of all the other apartments in the building that still had doors. No one had responded.
I picked my hand up off the table, scattering some of the crumbs that littered its surface, and placed it against the uninterrupted white plaster of the wall next to me.
I stumbled outside, and squinted in the intense sunlight. There was someone on the bench. I hurried over and sat down. Her eyes were uncommonly large and round and the pupils remained perfectly centered even when she turned her head to look at me. The rest of the face was rigidly inanimate, like a plastic mask. It was the owlish eyes that seemed the dominant feature.
“What is happening today?” I asked.
She spoke with an accent I could not identify. “You are being relocated.”
“I’m not planning on going anywhere.”
“You are being relocated, gradually. The distance is too long for it to happen any faster. As you can see, many things still appear familiar to you. I, for instance, doubtless still appear somewhat like a human being…Your accompanying us on our trip back is apparently by accident. None of us knows how it happened.”
I stood up and walked quickly away, repelled by and fleeing from her words, back into the apartment building.
Now each step in the stairway was at about the height of my knees.
There were no longer any apartment doors. Where some had been, now was only featureless wall. Where others had been, low arched corridors led into darkness. The corridors emitted distant warbling sounds, like metallic automaton opera. Where my own apartment door had been was a low arched opening like those of the corridors, but beyond that my apartment was still there.
Or it was at least very similar to my apartment. I sat in an armchair. The fabric I expected to be soft was not, and was slightly sticky. The metal legs had feet that branched and merged with the wooden floor. I waited uneasily to see my surroundings depart further from those that were familiar.
I noticed a group of forms in a dim corner of the room that nothing had previously occupied. I saw many round eyes there, trained on me, and many ears, presumably listening. It was not at all apparent how many creatures there were, or which ears belonged to the same creature as any given set of eyes. In folds of gray papery material an opening formed and spread into what I somehow knew was a grin of welcome.
This “accident” eventually occurred a second time. I was drawn along again with those beings on one of their journeys, and saw remembered earthly things gradually emerge, taking the place of grotesque forms that were animated by vitality I was uncertain was life.
Of course it came into my mind that an accident that could happen twice could happen a third time. After my return, my attention moved constantly among many otherwise inconsequential aspects of my surroundings.
Graham Lowther lives in Maine. He sometimes carves strange and surreal wood sculptures. A story of his appeared on Phantasmagorium Horror Literary Journal‘s online “Story of the Week”, and a flash fiction of his appeared in The Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities.
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Story illustration by Lee Copeland.