Visionary & Metaphysical

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An Ocean of Minutes
Excerpt

People wishing to time travel go to Houston Interconti­nental Airport. At the orientation, the staff tell them that time travel is just like air travel, you even go to the same facility. People used to be apprehensive about airline travel too. But when you arrive at the airport, it is not the same at all. Before you can get within a mile of the terminals, you reach a bus stop moored at the edge of a vast concrete flat, where you must leave your vehicle and ascend a snaking trolley, like the ones they have at the zoo.
A quarantine taxi makes its way to that lone bus stop, the airport appearing through a million chain-link diamonds. The driver is encased in an oval of hermetically sealed Plexiglas. In the back seat, Frank is wearing a yellow hazmat suit. The colour marks him as infected.
Now is the time for last words, but Polly’s got nothing. Frank keeps nodding off and then snapping awake, stiff-spined with terror, until he can locate her beside him. “We can still go back!” He has been saying this for days. Even in his sleep he carries on this argument, and when he opens his eyes, he moves seamlessly from a dream fight to a waking one. Already his voice is far off, sealed away inside his suit.
She pulls his forehead to her cheek, but his mask stops her short. They can only get within three inches of each other. The suit rubs against the vinyl car seat and makes a funny, crude noise, but they don’t laugh. Polly would like to breathe in the smell of Frank’s skin one last time, a smell like salt cut with something sweet, like when it rains in the city. But all she gets is the dry smell of plastic.
The news outlets went down weeks ago, but that didn’t stop the blitz of ads for the Rebuild America Time Travel Initiative: billboards painted on buildings, posters wheat-pasted over empty storefronts, unused mailboxes stuffed with mailers. there is no flu in 2002 and travel to the future and rebuild america and no skills necessary! training provided!
At first the ads were like a joke, gallows humour for people who were stranded once the credit companies went down and the state borders were closed to stop the flu’s spread, people like Polly and Frank, who got trapped in Texas by accident. Later, the ads made Frank angry. He would tear the pamphlets from the mailboxes and throw them on the ground, muttering about opportunism. “You know they don’t market this to the rich,” he’d say, and then an hour later, he’d say it again.
They stayed indoors except for the one day a week when they travelled to the grocery store, which had been commandeered by five army reservists who doled out freeze-dried goods to ragged shoppers. The reservists had taken it upon themselves to impose equal access to the food supply, partly out of good­ness and partly out of the universal desperation for something to do. One day, the glass doors were locked. A handwritten sign said to go around the back. The soldiers were having a party. With their rifles still strapped on, they were handing out canned cocktail wieners, one per person, on candy-striped paper dessert plates that looked forlorn in their huge hands. Ted, the youngest, a boy from Kansas who had already lost his hair, was leaving for a job in the future. He was going to be an independent energy contractor. There was another sign, bigger and in the same writing, on the back wall: 2000 here we come! It was a rare, happy thing, the soldiers and the shoppers in misfit clothes, standing around and smiling at each other and nibbling on withered cocktail sausages. But just that morning, the phone had worked for five minutes and they got a call through to Frank’s brothers, only to be told it had been weeks since the landlord changed the locks to Frank’s apartment, back in Buffalo. The landlord was sympathetic to Frank’s pre­dicament, but he could no longer endure the absence of rent. “But what about my stereo?” Frank had said. “What about my records? What about Grandpa’s butcher knife?” His voice was small, then smaller, as he listed off everything that was now gone.
Frank was usually the life of the party, but that afternoon behind the grocery store, he picked on a pinch-faced woman, muttering at her, “Why don’t they stop the pandemic, then? If they can time travel, why don’t they travel back in time to Patient Zero and stop him from coughing on Patient One?”
“They tried.” The woman spoke with her mouth full. “The earliest attainable destination date is June of ’81. Seven months too late.”
“What? Why? How can that be?” This clumsy show of anger was new. Frank was normally charming. He was the one who did the talking. Later, his sudden social frailty would seem like a warning of the sickness that arrived next. It unsettled Polly, and she was slow to react.
But the woman didn’t need someone to intervene. “That’s the limit of the technology. It took until the end of ’93 to per­fect the machine, and twelve years is the farthest it can jump. Or to be precise, four thousand one hundred and ninety-eight days is the farthest it can jump. Do you live under a rock?”
The tips of Frank’s ears pinked and Polly should have made a joke, offered comfort. But she was distracted. In that second, it stopped being a fiction. Time travel existed, and the plates of her reality were shifting. She felt a greasy dread in the centre of her chest. She wanted to drop her food and take Frank’s hand and anchor him in the crook of her arm, as if he were in danger of being blown away.
Now they are pulling up to the lone bus stop, and they can see the new time-travel facility across the lot bisected by trol­leys. The facility is a monolith, the widest, tallest building either of them has ever seen, and something primal in Polly quails. The only thing remaining of familiar airport protocol is the logistical thoughtlessness of the curb: once you reach it, the line of unfeeling motorists waiting behind you means only seconds to say goodbye.
“You don’t have to go,” Frank says.
“Say something else. Say something different.” Polly is smiling and shaking her head, an echo of some long-ago courting coy­ness that once existed between them. It has landed here, in the wrong place entirely, but she can’t get control of her face.
“You don’t have to go,” he says again in his faraway voice, unable to stop.
Polly can only muster short words. “It’s okay. We’ll be together soon. Don’t worry.”
The sole way Polly was able to convince Frank to let her go was through Ted, the reservist from Kansas. He and his buddies had a plan to meet in 2000. They had chosen a place and every­thing. “We can do the same,” she said to Frank. “I’ll ask for the shortest visa, I’ll ask for a five-year visa.” It was a setback when she got to the TimeRaiser office and they offered minimum twelve-year visas. But still he would meet her, on September 4th, 1993, at Houston Intercontinental Airport. “What if you’re rerouted?” he asked. He had heard about this from another patient, who heard about it from a cousin, who knew someone who worked at the facility, who said they could change your year of destination, while you were in mid-flight. Polly said reroutements were a rumour, a myth. Why would they send you to a time totally other than the one you signed for? That would be like buying a ticket to Hawaii and winding up in Alaska. But to calm him, she came up with a back-up plan. If something went wrong and either of them couldn’t make it, then the first Saturday in September, they’d go to the Flagship Hotel in Galveston, until they find one another. “Not just the first,” he said. “Every Saturday, every September.” This was over­kill, a lack of good faith, but he was distraught, so she gave in. And if the Flagship Hotel is gone, they’ll meet on the beach by its footprint. Even if between now and ’93, aliens invade and the cities are crumbled and remade, the land will still end where the sea begins at the bottom of Twenty-Fifth Street.
Still he is not satisfied. He puts his head back. His skin is so grey and drawn that it looks about to flake off, and it’s as if the brown is fading from his hair. When Polly speaks again, it sounds like when she is drunk and trying to conceal it, enunci­ating each of her words, a single phrase requiring maximal con­centration: “If I don’t go, you will die.”

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Strange September of Levi Pepperfield, The

Strange September of Levi Pepperfield, The

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Three Years with the Rat
Excerpt

The drapes are closed and only a little pale light filters in around their edges. I can see down the front hallway into part of the kitchen and living room. A blanket is neatly folded over the edge of the couch. Everything is tidy and unused, but it smells stale and musty and dead.
     I take a few more steps. Grace’s Bachelor of Science degree, framed on the wall. The standing coat rack, still buried under Grace’s jackets and shawls and scarves. The homemade shelf lined with their indecipherable textbooks. The only photograph John kept, its kitschy frame taken off the wall and now resting on the coffee table. And a flashlight sitting next to the photo.
     It quickly becomes clear that the apartment hasn’t been occupied in months. The refrigerator is a dank shock of rotten, twisted shapes and jars greening with mould. The garbage can is still full of John’s bloodied bandages. Though the apartment has been tidied one last time, the front closet remains jammed with newspapers. Bedding for the rats.
     It takes me a couple of minutes before I realize what’s wrong with the space. My attention is narrowed, grasping for strangeness in the tiny details, and the obviousness of it only comes to me when I sit on the arm of the couch for a moment. I breathe in sharply.
     The door to the second bedroom is open by a few inches.
     I stand and walk to the door, press my fingertips against the wood. The oversized key is in the deadbolt. John installed the lock and I strongly doubt he would have provided the landlord with a key. Why am I still holding my breath, trying not to make a sound? I push my arm out and the door swings open, bumping into something soft before the knob hits the wall. The toes of my shoes are on the threshold of the doorway. There is a faint division in the carpet, with the pile in the living room lighter than the bedroom. I step inside.
     The room is very dark and the light switch next to the door doesn’t do anything, so I flip open my cell phone for light. My eyes can’t understand the shapes inside. Some large piece of furniture dominates the centre of the room, all right angles and hardwood. I make my way around it to the covered window, peel the duct tape from the wall, and pull away the cardboard. Daylight floods in and for a moment I cannot see.
     In the centre of the room is a wooden box that is large enough to house a person, perhaps five feet in every direction. I circle it. The box is made from six identical, sanded pieces that seem to fit together without nails or hinges. The only noticeable feature is a handle at the bottom of the panel that faces me. Otherwise it is a perfect, symmetrical cube without any knots or imperfections in the wood. I have seen the materials of this box but never imagined what it might be when put together. It is a marvel.
     The rest of the room is no more comprehensible. A smaller version of the box, another perfectly sanded cube of wood, sits atop a TV-dinner table in one corner of the room. Instead of a handle, one of its sides has a hole lined with black rubber, and an additional slat leans against the table. Piled on the floor are little cloth pouches, their openings drawn tight with strings. They look like bags of marbles. Between the door and the wall is a large burlap sack with something dark spilled on the carpet around it, and next to it are some discarded tools.
     And last, I see the small table near the door. On it is a hardbound, sky-blue notebook, and resting on the book is a handwritten note. It is John’s writing.

I’m sorry to put this on you. It was my fault, all of it, and it was supposed to be mine to deal with. Don’t stay in there too long. Take the photo, the light, and one of those pouches with you. If you don’t see anything right  away, it can always be taken apart and put together somewhere else. This is the only way back for us. Thank you.
     Some vague story begins to thread its way through the last two years of my life.
     I put down the note and look at the large wooden box next to me. I reach down for its handle, first pulling outward without luck, then upward. The side of the box slides up a little and creates a crack of darkness at the bottom. I look down into that space, see movement, and jump back. A moment later I realize that it’s reflected light. The floor inside the box is a mirror. I tug on the handle again and the slat slides up by a few feet. The interior of the box is empty but completely covered in mirror, without frames or borders, the edges of the glass connecting seamlessly with one another. The entire inside of the box is reflective surface.
     I leave the second bedroom, pace the living room, open and close the fridge, sit down, stand up. I look into the master bedroom, then the washroom, but my thoughts are only of the box and John’s written request. I curse at myself and wring my hands. On the coffee table is the framed photo, John and Grace on the day they moved into the apartment. They are smiling without re- serve and I can see myself among the friends in the background of the picture. I grab the photo and flashlight and walk back into the second bedroom.
     I work swiftly. The picture frame comes apart without difficulty and I pocket the photograph in my hoodie. I pick up one of the small pouches and it is full of some malleable material. A quick inspection of the large sack on the floor reveals that it’s full of soft dirt. The pouch goes in my other pocket. I glance into the box, and after brief consideration I go back to the pile of tools. There I find the hammer, silver and shiny, and feel calm with its weight in my hand. I take one last breath, a pause to consider whether I am doing the right thing.
     Then I crouch and step inside the box, using my fingertips to gently lower the open face until I am enveloped by an overwhelming, total darkness.

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Making of Hominology, The

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Tiger, Tiger
Excerpt

Finally, I managed to seize on something. I lifted it, trem­blingly, from the bag, and Dr. Singh and I crouched together in order to gaze, with wonder and delight, at . . . well, at nothing. We could see almost nothing at all at the tweezers’ pinched end. I motioned to Dr. Singh to move aside, and in unison the two of us shuffled a pace or two so that our backs were now to the door rather than to the window, and the specimen was suddenly exposed to the light. Now, we could just barely make out a small speck, as inconsequent seeming as a mote of dust. It was so slightly different in colour and texture from the air that if we had not been looking very hard we would, almost certainly, not have seen it all.
     There it was. The tiger.
It had been Dr. Wolff, in fact—not either myself or Dr. Singh— who had stumbled on the idea. He who had first informed us of the team of Russian scientists who had recently unearthed the remains of a laboratory dating back at least a hundred years, since sometime before the Last War. The laboratory had evidently been affiliated with a wildlife sanctuary and had housed the genetic information of at least several now extinct Siberian tigers. The specimens had been carefully stored, and three of them had been recovered—it was tempting to say miraculously—intact. They were now being sold to the highest bidder.
     A lab in Moscow had already snatched up one of them, Dr. Wolff informed us. But their science programming hadn’t yet fully recuperated from the war, and it was doubtful that anything would come of it. The second specimen had been sold shortly after, to a collector from Brazil. He would keep it on some high shelf in his Rio penthouse, no doubt, Dr. Wolff sniffed. Show it off whenever he remembered it to his more fashionable guests. 
     The Chinese would almost certainly sweep up the last speci­men. Take it back to their laboratories and—hastily, without a thought to the consequences—create their own little monster . . .
      “Yes! That would be just like them,” Wolff cried. “A scien­tific approach like that of a spoiled child!”
      Dr. Singh began to fiddle with the top button of his laboratory coat. I gazed ahead, using a technique I’d perfected—my eyes making just enough contact with the doctor to suggest attention, but in fact gazing steadily past him, toward the row of high shelves that flanked his desk.
      The shelves housed the Wolff’s own collection—the extent and variety of which would have impressed even a Brazilian collector. And just like the specimens in Rio, there was no more promising future for these than to remain where they were, gathering dust and waiting for the day when, in a burst of paternal affection, Wolff would take out the feather duster he kept for the purpose and dust each jar—contemplating their secrets, which he alone now kept. His eyes would shine as he dusted the jars in the way that eyes shine only in moments of sincerest love.
      How quickly that light would go out once the job was done! It almost made you sorry for him, the way his eyes flickered, then turned inward, toward the trap he had made of his mind. To imagine him in there, shut up and alone—the last of his kind.
      Just as for Dr. Wolff, the jars provided me with a source of respite and relief by offering me something to look at while he spoke. For some reason I couldn’t bear to listen to him and look at him at the same time. One or the other, yes—but not both. And so I would look behind him at the collection of human and chimp fetuses floating in formaldehyde, their skin grey from long exposure to preserving agents, and think about how strange it was to decay that slowly—or rather, to not decay at all. Because it was the preservative process that was slowly eating away at the specimens, not the other way around—the possibil­ity of their own immortality that was now slowly destroying them. Sometimes I even imagined I could see it happen. That I could actually detect, in the length of time that I gazed at them, their incremental deterioration. (No doubt this was only my imagination; the oldest specimens, boasted Wolff, were nearly four hundred years old. It was quite ridiculous to imagine that given that great length of time I, who was witness only to the smallest fraction of it, might actually be able to see the moment in which some identifiable change occurred.)
     Other times, I would amuse myself by hazarding guesses at which of Dr. Wolff’s specimens were human and which were not, because often in the smaller, less developed specimens it was quite difficult to tell—especially from a distance. I tried to keep my eyes level, and my mind focused on this task, because if I let my eyes drift even slightly—according to some irresist­ible gravity—down toward the lower shelves, they would inevitably betray me.
      The lower shelves housed the doctor’s collection of preserved testicles—all of the human variety. It was the second-largest collection of human testicles in the world, Wolff would some­times boast, transferred into his care by the great-great-grandson of an ex-Nazi surgeon. Wolff maintained the collection “in the name of science,” though even he would have had to admit that, by this point, the evidence these specimens supplied was less scientific than spectral; from within their murky jars, they con­jured a gruesome past only Wolff was capable of looking in the eye. My own always blinked, compulsively, when they drifted to those lower levels. Or skittered away.
     It will be an immense relief, if and when the Wolff ever does finally retire, to clear out those lower shelves. Sometimes I even allow myself the brief fantasy of overseeing the operation. Of course, I would hire someone to do it; I could never bring myself to actually touch them. I would merely watch as the specimens were carried away by a sanitation engineer on a metal dolly, but it would give me a great sense of satisfaction—even pleasure—to see them go.

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