Hope played a cruel game of hide-and-seek with me.
She did not want to be found, so I stopped looking.
(August 15, 2024)
I am returning home from the talk show. What’s tonight? Where I’d been the guest. Hulk is napping in the front passenger seat. My watch is displaying the perfect time—local on one side and GMT on the flip side. This will all end in a minute, as soon I enter my house. Since the evening of August 13, all my mechanical watches have been acting erratically while on my property. I know what it means.
My car automatically plays Chopin’s Ballade no. 4, an opus I removed from my playlist six months back. That’s not supposed to happen. Up ahead, I see my brightly lit Pacific-Northwest house peeping through the evergreens.
“Porsche, open garage door.” I turn into the driveway. Hulk lifts his head, barks, and wags his tail. He’s usually calm when we reach home. I touch his forehead. “What’s wrong, bug?” He whimpers, desperately trying to free himself from the harness.
“OK, bug, let’s inspect.”
I wrap my scarf around my neck and get out of the car with Hulk, holding tightly to his leash. As I walk toward the front door, Hulk pulls with all the strength he can muster from his sixteen-pound body, and I let him loose. He runs toward someone sitting on the bench by the door. And there she is—my Emika—after six months. She is wearing a tan suit with an untucked, white chiffon shirt underneath. When Hulk reaches her, she picks him up, letting him lick her face. After a moment, she sets him back down on the grass and walks toward me. She touches my shoulder. “You look so different.”
“Still your Vince, Emi.” I tilt my head. My eyes widen with joy. “But you are here.”
She shrugs. “Well, whatever. I was just in town for an interview.”
“Nardin Robotics—about leading their memory transfer division.”
I take a deep breath. Will she come back to me? Placing my hands on her shoulders, I ask, “Are you taking it?”
“Six months, and that’s what you ask?” She removes my arms, smirking.
“I left a voicemail two days back. Did you check it?”
“Nope.” Her phone rings. “Hello, this is Emika.” She turns to me, covering the speaker, “It’s Nardin Robotics. Can I quickly get in and talk?” She knows the door will recognize her thumb.
I wait as she goes inside, sensing that she will decline the job.
Less than a minute later, she comes back out. “It’s cold inside. Not that I care. I just came here to return that.” She points at Akane’s violin case, resting by the front door. Her eyes well up, and she pauses before adding, “Your pocket square is in there.”
A white Camry pulls up on the driveway. “That’s my Uber.” Her tears reach her chin as she turns back to me. “I saw you on TV today. You said your love is unrequited. But you’re wrong.”
She starts walking toward the cab, but I outrun her and grab her hands. I can feel each throb in my heartbeat. “Can’t you stay for one day? At least let me drop you?”
“It will be hard for both of us,” she says, giving me a brittle smile. “Like last time.” She picks up Hulk, kisses him. “Take care of Daddy for me.” After gently placing Hulk on the glass, she looks at me one last time through her teary eyes. “See you later, Vince.” She gets in her Uber and leaves me.
“Goodbye, Emi,” I murmur, watching the disappearing rear lights of the Camry.
I collect the violin and Hulk, and I enter my home. Walking toward my bar, I notice that my wristwatch stopped ticking at 8:00 p.m. I fetch a whiskey and then look out the window. It’s morning already? I take out my cellphone to check the real time. My heart almost stops, and my jaw drops. The phone screen reads November 15. It was August 15 when I pulled in my driveway just moments ago. I see a robin pecking at my glass wall, and it flies away as soon as I hear my doorbell three times in succession. I open my door and see a petite woman in a cobalt blue jumpsuit staring at me. She has a smile that I have never forgotten. Her brown eyes, her beautiful mole above her lip and to the left—they are etched in my mind. She comes to me and wraps her arms around me. “Found you, silly. Watashi no ai. Watashi no amai, Vincent!”
I take her arms from my shoulders and kiss her palm. “What took you so long, Akane? Thirty-three years?”
She wipes my tears, shuts her eyes, and kisses my cheek. “I was caught in the time turbulence, silly. Been trying to free me since December.”
“Free from what?”
Her smile shuts her eyes into think lines of eyelashes, and she tilts her head. “Emika. We were the same… till August 14.”
I take her hand in mine. “Let’s go in. Tell me everything.” Notes of Debussy’s Claire de Lune ring in my ears, and I look at my hand to find it empty. Where is Akane? I turn back, but there is no one, and it’s evening again. Dropping to my knees, I begin to breathe hard. I recheck my cell phone, and I am back on August 15.
The notes of Claire de Lune get louder, and I can feel Hulk licking my face. Yes, I’m home. Yes, I’m awake. Did I once again dream about my future? Have I already attended the talk show? My cellphone tells me I haven’t. It’s August 15, 6:30 a.m., and I am due at the studio at 3:00 p.m.
Since childhood, my dreams have given me fragments of my future before it happens. I wish they didn’t. I wish I didn’t wake up. It’s far better to die while dreaming than wake up every day to find my dreams are dead.
Wait. Akane said that she and Emika were the same until August 14. So what I did on August 13 worked? I had to free Emika. I had to end her suffering—at the cost of her forgetting me altogether.
But what about Akane trying to free herself since December last year? That was the time when Emika’s behavior changed. And how come Akane was back? And as an adult, no less? Was that a dream within a dream? Fuck it. I have a busy day ahead.
It’s 3:00 p.m., and I am at the studio, sitting on an Eames Lounge Chair overlooking a large glass wall. My briefcase is resting next to me, with my scarf just beside it. The girl at the reception desk assured me that someone would escort me in.
I look around. The TV is broadcasting a documentary on Swiss watch movements, reminding me of my childhood. I was raised in a boarding school in the Montagnola village of southern Switzerland. When I was eight years old, one inescapable incident scarred me for life on November 23, 1991. I was never the same again.
(Boarding school, November 23, 1991)
I was missing Akane too much to even taste my lunch in the school cafeteria. We did everything together. If she learned a new violin piece, I would be the first one to listen. If I drew something new, I would rush to show it to her. We studied together. We were partners in the culinary club. In her presence, I never felt like an unwanted orphan. Why wasn’t she back? She’d promised. Just two days, Vince, I will be back before the first snow. And yet, it’d been nine days. I kept staring at my food as my tears soaked my eyeglasses.
I looked out the windows at the majestic view of snowcapped mountains, watching the snow flurry—the first one of the season. We had always played together on the first day of snow. I kept looking around, hoping she would spring from somewhere and say, “Found you.” Her maroon and mustard striped scarf was still wrapped around my neck. I touched it. When will you be back?
I felt a tap on my shoulder and looked up to see Fred, my roommate. “Hey, Vince, let’s go and play in the snow.”
“I can’t. Where is she?”
My classmates Sasha and Krista joined us. Krista gently rubbed my hair and wiped my tears. Sasha tilted her head at me and smiled. “She’ll be back, buddy. Come see the flurries.”
“She promised me that she would be back before the flurries.” I took off my glasses. “I won’t talk to her when she comes back.”
Sasha lifted one eyebrow, smiling sarcastically. “Right. You should tell her that.”
The three of them and the rest of the students went out to see and touch the first snow. I was struggling to eat, my shoulders were shaking, and my eyes were soaking wet. A heavy hand landed on my shoulder. I looked up and, through my tear-stained eyes, could make out my culinary teacher, Chef Marcel.
He touched my face. “Hey, what’s wrong?”
“Why isn’t Akane here, sir?” I asked, sniffling.
“Why don’t you ask Mr. Kruger? I will get someone to collect your plates.”
I rushed to the restroom to wash my face before seeing Mr. Kruger. Then I checked my uniform—no visible wrinkles on my maroon blazer, clean school emblem on my left pocket, spotless white shirt, and one inch of cuff visible under the blazer sleeve. My gray trousers were ironed, and my black shoes were polished. I was allowed one personal effect—Akane’s scarf.
I climbed the stairs to Mr. Kruger’s office. On the right of the stairwell stood a majestic, tinted-glass wall, depicting the tree of life that spanned across ten floors. When I reached his office, I could hear that he was listening to Chopin’s Ballade no. 4 on vinyl. I knocked hard on the door, under the nameplate—David Kruger–Headmaster.
“Come in,” Mr. Kruger answered in his baritone voice that resonated through the door. As I opened the creaking door, I saw him put on his thick black eyeglasses and then pause the vinyl. He pointed at the sofa by the fireplace. “Shut the door and take a seat, Vincent.”
He came around his desk and sat on the chair perpendicular to the sofa, then touched my shoulder with a trembling hand. “This is not going to be easy. And you need to be strong—stronger than ever.” He took four deep breaths. “Akane is not coming back.”
I could suddenly feel every beat in my heart. My eyes widened, yet the sudden tears dampened my vision. Running my fingers across my eyes, I asked, “Why, sir? She promised me. She is my best friend.” Have I lost her?
He coughed as if to hide the tremble in his voice. “Vince… she can’t come back. She and her parents were taken by time turbulence on November 15.”
“What’s a time turbulence?” My voice quavered.
He placed his hand on my wrist as he explained. “It’s a tear in time that swallows people. Akane and her parents went to see the World Clock’s repair and launch in Berlin at Alexanderplatz. Small turbulence occurred, and a few people were taken, including them. I am so sorry, Vince.”
“We don’t know.”
That’s it. I won’t see Akane again. Why? Why can’t I have one person who loves me? The one person who calls me family. I shut my eyes, and I could see her smiling face, her bright eyes. Every moment we’d spent together flashed behind my eyelids—the first time I saw her, the moment she wrapped that scarf around me, up until she came to my dorm room to say goodbye before leaving for Berlin. Would that be my last memory of her? I’d only known her for two years. I could not accept that. It had to be a lie.
I got down on my knees and clasped my hands together as tears flooded my eyes. My lips trembled. “Sir, please take me to the time turbulence. I will beg it to give her back. Sir, I will clean your office, arrange your records, and polish your shoes to repay you. Please take me to Berlin.” I nudged his cuffs. “I have no one. Tell me where I can find her.”
For the first time, I saw tears in Mr. Kruger’s eyes. He held my face with both his hands and wiped my tears with his thumbs. “Why would you ever think of repaying me like that?” he croaked. I know what she was to you, and I would trade my own life to get her back. I wish I could find her for you. But the time turbulence appears randomly. You can’t bargain with it.”
How could that be acceptable? Why must I lose everything? Why was the world so cruel to me? My breaths came rapidly. I clenched my fists and felt a sharp tingling in my palm. Spreading them open, I saw lightning-like sparks jumping from my fingertips. My jaw dropped as I looked up at Mr. Kruger. “What is this?”
Mr. Kruger clenched his jaws and bolted up from his chair. “Don’t move.” He rushed into his private restroom and fetched two towels. Coming back and kneeling in front of me, he wrapped them around my palms, extinguishing the sparks. “Thank God, it’s not electric,” he muttered. Then he met my gaze. “Did that hurt, Vince?”
“No, sir. But what were they?”
He shook his head. “I am not entirely certain, but I feared this day would come.” He shook my shoulder. “Vince, listen to me carefully. When you see these sparks, put your palms under your thighs or wash them. Then divert your mind. Solve the puzzles I sent you or draw something. Get your mind off it. OK?”
“Vincent, no one must find this out.” He grabbed both my arms and shook me. “Do you understand me?”
After a moment, he rose to his feet and went to his desk. “You know some people come back from the time turbulence.”
My tear-stained eyes widened. “She’ll come back, sir?”
He took out his pocket square and dabbed his eyes. Turning back toward me and forcing a smile that didn’t match his broken voice, he said, “She can’t stay away from her sweet Vince forever, can she?”
I wiped my tears, my lips wobbling. “No.”
He got behind his desk and brought a cardboard brown box marked ‘Akane Egami.’ “Till then, why don’t you keep some things that’ll remind you of her? If she comes back, you can give them back.”
I picked two items from the box. One was a photograph of Akane and me sharing a bowl of ice cream. Her scarf was wrapped around both of us. It was encased in a platinum photo frame. The other item was her violin. “Can I keep these two?”
“Can I see the picture?” he asked, pointing at the frame.
I handed it to him. Blinking back tears and pressing his lips together as he looked at it, he said, “I took that picture, remember? Two days before your eighth birthday. Perfect Kodak moment.” He handed the frame back to me. “Take care of them and always keep them with you. That scarf, too.”
As I stood up to leave, he came close to me and formed a fist. “From this point onward, I want my Vincent strong. It’s going to be difficult, but can you do that?”
I ran Akane’s scarf over my eyes. “Yes, sir.”
“Then go to your dorm room and wash your face. I will let your teachers know that you won’t attend today’s remaining classes.”
“Thank you, sir.”
I shut the door behind me as I left and placed the violin and picture frame on the bench just outside his office. A knot in my stomach tightened. Trying to steady my breathing, I sat down, heart pounding against my sternum. I’d become an orphan again. I took some deep breaths, stood up, and climbed onto the bench. I brought the photo frame and violin case close to my chest and shut my eyes to picture her face—large brown eyes, black hair, lips red like an apple, and smile like the sunshine. I pressed my face into her scarf. How could you leave me, Akane?
I hugged her violin tighter. Please come back to me. I miss you. I am begging you. When will I ever see you again?
A robin pecked on the winding, seeking my attention. The clock struck noon—Westminster chime followed by twelve dings. Mr. Kruger resumed his Chopin’s Ballade no. 4. A ray of sunlight pierced through the clouds and entered the hallway, forming a shimmering image of a young lady. She had short black hair and was holding an umbrella. She looked at me, smiled. Then in the next second, her image vanished, and the robin flew away. Who was that sparkling lady?
I climbed down from the bench. Tightening Akane’s scarf around my neck, I placed the violin in my left hand and the photo frame in the crook of my right arm. I descended the stairwell and walked across the campus to my dorm room. I kept my head down to hide my tears. I should have stopped her from going to Berlin. I’d dreamed she wouldn’t come back. This was my fault.
(Back to the studio, August 15, 2024)
With time, that memory almost faded away. Before Emika’s arrival last year, all my struggles had been limited to moving on from my partner’s death in a plane crash and my resulting inability to invent something pathbreaking. She’d been everything to me, and to cope, my only goal had been to make my center the best AI facility in the world. And then came a barrage of political shit and conspiracy from the last December. I had to protect Emika by not sharing anything about it. She misread, and I found out the extent of her suffering. My mission became clear on August 13—I had to end her torment. I became the time corrector in the process, and I found out who I was beyond a worthless orphan.
“Sir, Dr. Abajian… We are ready. Could you please follow me?” asks a young man while gently nudging my shoulder. “I’m Jim, and I’ll be escorting you to the dressing room, then to the studio, back to the dressing room, and your exit.” He has curly hair and is wearing tortoise-framed eyeglasses—he looks overqualified for this job. I get up, straighten my trousers, pick up my briefcase, and follow him. We start walking, but he stops and points at the lounge chair. “You forgot your scarf, sir.”
I run back to pick it up and then hold it to my chest, closing my eyes. I lift my glasses to sniff the scarf and hold it against my face. Walking back to Jim, I touch his shoulder. “I can never thank you enough.”
I can barely keep my eyes open with the makeup lights glaring at my face. Sophie, the show’s stylist, is struggling to make my face presentable, using all kinds of pigments. She sees a little sweat on my forehead and quickly rubs it. The chair is squeaky, with no lumbar support, and I shift uncomfortably. I’ve placed my briefcase and scarf on the chair next to me. The wall opposite the mirror has eight posters of Maurice Johnson, the host.
“Nervous, Dr. Abajian?” Sophie asks around the makeup brush in her mouth.
“I didn’t think you would be.” She takes the brush off her mouth. “I saw how you rebuked the senators in the hearing. That was totally awesome.” Her eyes glow.
I shut my eyes and recall every incident that led me to the Senate floor in April this year. “They had it coming.”
“Dr. Abajian? Did you mean it when you said that politicians can be replaced with algorithms?” she asks, squinting at me.
I smile. “Yes. And it doesn’t have to be a complicated one either.”
She fans the brush across my face. “It will be just a sec.” As she leans closer, the top note of her perfume is revealed—jasmine. Then she leans away again to look at her art, smiling. “You have nice wavy hair.”
“Thank you, Sophie.”
She puts her brush back, contemplates for a second. “Can I ask you a favor?”
After reaching into her bag, she hands me a paperback of The Time Fixer: Three Lives of Philip Nardin. I scribble, “Dear Sophie, The future has already happened. But you can change it, Vince—August 15, 2024.”
Grabbing the book with both hands, she jumps up and down. “Thanks so much. Can I take a selfie with you?”
“Absolutely, but you should know, I am not on social media.”
She tilts her head. “I know that.” Then she gets uncomfortably close to me, pouts her lips, and snaps a selfie. “Jim will come and get you soon. It was totally awesome to meet you.”
I blink. “Likewise, Sophie.”
She leaves, waving at me as she goes out the door.
Alone again, my mind starts racing, and my chest begins to pound. What questions will Maurice ask? About my book? About my performance in the Senate that put three senators in jail? Those are easy ones. What if he asks about my personal life?
I snap my fingers. Sparks transform into a miniature core—a white luminant sphere levitating an inch over my palm. As I examine the sphere I think about what it means. I am the key to the time turbulence, a secret I discovered only a few days back. Inside the time turbulence, I can change the past and the future. Closing my palm, I dissolve the core. Mr. Kruger never revealed what I could do with the sparks, and only recently had I understood why—I had to find out myself.
I straighten my necktie and adjust my pocket square. The necktie button has gotten looser. I’ve lost fifteen pounds, five of which were since August 13, when I did the unthinkable. Yes, given the task’s magnitude, I’d had my doubts—my incompetence with the sparks to create turbulence. And, even if I could muster the power, should I? Emika would forget me. But, as my resolve strengthened, I could create turbulence through these sparks. There was no stopping me. Emika is now free, and I am OK with her not remembering me. Maybe that’s why she never returned my voicemail that I left on August 13. But, that dream this morning… Is she coming back?
I lift my cuff to look at my watch. It’s 4:25 p.m. My JLC Reverso is now ticking beautifully at 21,600 vibrations per hour, 6 ticks per second. But, it stops when I enter my property, just like all my mechanical watches. It means only one thing—my action on the thirteenth removed my property from this reality.
Which dial goes better with my blue shirt and charcoal plaid suit? The white dial with local time or the black dial with GMT—Emika’s time? Let’s toss a coin. I throw a penny into the air, and there’s a knock on the door. As soon as the door opens, I can hear the crowd chanting “Maurice, Maurice” against the poorly orchestrated sound of the trumpet, drums, and bass guitar. Jim comes forward. “We are ready for you.” The coin lands on my left palm. Showtime.
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