“There’s Always Time” by Joseph Devon

There's Always Time

Sean walked down the street. It was a cold night and scattered rain was pelting the city, yet he was wearing a light, short sleeve t-shirt and jeans.

All of him was soaking wet and his clothes clung to his body and his shoes were soaked through. He stopped under a large window and looked into the bar on the other side. Despite the rain there were a decent number of people inside having dinner and drinks.

Sean took a deep breath and stepped inside. The bar was air conditioned and as Sean entered he noticed, for the first time, that his clothes were sopping wet as the chilled air hit his body.

Rain was dripping out of his hair and down his face and he sniffled as a drop ran off his nose. He looked around, over the heads of the crowd, and saw his brother near the back talking to two of the waitresses. Sean smiled and watched Robby as he managed the place, and he found himself staring for far longer than he intended before someone jostled him trying to get by and he remembered the crowd.

He breathed in and coughed as the cold air shook his lungs and he found a seat at the bar. He nodded at the bartender and got a bottle of beer. He felt the cool glass against his palm and without taking a drink he hunched over the bottle.

It was surreal, the way he saw everything now.  The simplest of breakthroughs in his research could grant him an emotional high like nothing else and a giddy smile stayed plastered to his face. He rolled the bottle against his palm again and listened to it rattle against the wooden bar. He wiggled his toes and felt how wet his shoes were, and he began to shiver as the air sunk into his clothes and he was dumbfounded to realize that while his body as cold, he wasn’t. His brain was so alive with joy and excitement that it was taking in the world on its own, independent of his shivering body. He turned and sat on the bar stool with his back to the bar and watched the people all interact.

“Sean-boy!” he heard his brother yell, and he turned around to face him. Sean was the younger brother, and even now, in their twenties and only a few years apart, Robby managed to keep his position as the elder in place. He was wearing a simple white shirt and jacket, but he still held his body like he was managing the bar and everything in it, Sean included. Robby’s eyes registered shock at the state of Sean’s clothes and he winced.

“Sean, you’re soaked,” Robby said, his voice loud over the low hum of the bar.

Sean’s eyes passed over Robby’s face, flickering over it, studying it. “Doesn’t matter,” Sean said, smiling a little listlessly at his older brother.

Robby ignored this and went behind the bar. He reappeared in front of Sean with some paper towels, which he offered to him. “Here. Dry your hair and neck while I grab a towel from the back.”

“It doesn’t matter,” he answered, accepting the towels but barely giving himself a pat before setting them aside. “I figured it out.”

Robby fumed lightly and picked up the towels and began patting at his brother’s head. Sean tried to shy away but gave in and grabbed the paper towels from his brother and tried to dry himself off, a difficult task as drops continued to roll out of his hair and down his neck and face.

Sean could feel his older brother’s eyes on him. “Robby…” he started.

“Don’t.”

“Come on!” Sean yelled. “I just told you I figured it out! It works!” Sean struggled to get a reaction from his brother.

“It’s too late, man,” Robby said.

“How is it too late?! I told you it’s working!” He reached a hand out and put it on Robby’s shoulder, pulling him in conspiratorially. “Robby…” Sean said, his voice husky in awe of what he was saying. “Robby…fully immersive, biometrically enhanced virtual networking with artificial intelligence. Robby…” Again Sean’s voice grew husky and he trailed off, just shaking his head, the import of what he was saying halting him in his tracks.

Robby shrugged his brother’s hand off and stood back up off the bar. “You’re always close, Sean-boy. You’re always figuring out one thing or another and coming in here all excited.”

“It’s different this time…”

“You’ve said that before, you’ll say it again.”

“No no no, man, this time I’ve really—”

Robby reached out and grabbed Sean’s arm, gripping it a little harder than necessary he turned it so Sean’s forearm was showing. Even in the dim bar there were very clear markings up and down Sean’s skin, a strange pattern of lines and circles about an inch in diameter.

“You’re experimenting on yourself, again?” Robby asked.

“I have to!” Sean hissed, his eyes flaring angry. “It’s the fastest way to learn.”

Robby put a slowing hand out and silenced his brother. “Listen. That’s not the conversation I want to have. Hell there is no conversation I want to have here, but I’ve been putting this off and putting this off and I swore if you came in tonight I’d get it over with.” Robby held his brother’s eyes, a little bit of guilt sneaking in. “I’ve got to tell you. I’m selling, Sean-boy. There’s an offer that came in from a chain restaurant. I’m selling and I’m…I’m moving.”

Sean’s face was hurt, a few more drops of rain trickled down from his scalp as his excitement melted away.

“You can’t do that. I fixed it! It’s working!”

Robby shook his head. “That’s really what you think isn’t it? That this is something that you can fix? You think everything will be okay if you figure out your project. This is my life, Sean! I’ve been looking after you for years but you’re a big boy now and…and this is my life. You aren’t fixing anything, you aren’t solving anything. You’re hiding. You’ve been hiding ever since mom and pop…”

“I didn’t think you’d be this way,” Sean said hollowly.

Robby sighed, a brotherly sigh of concern, but his eyes were tired and he looked more like a man struggling to get free of something than a brother looking after a brother. “There isn’t anything here for me anymore. Marriane wrote me a little while ago and we’ve been talking ever since. There’s a chance for a life for me in Boston. Here? Here even when you come out of your workshop…there’s just too much of the past here. I’ve moved on. I’m moving on.”

Sean shook his head, astonished. “I really didn’t think you’d be like this.”

“Look at yourself, Sean-boy. You can’t even keep the rain off of your head on the, what, two block walk over here? You’re still a kid, Sean. Mom and pop left us years ago. I keep trying to get you to pick up the pieces and rebuild, but you keep telling me I’m wrong and hiding in your workshop.”

“I figured it out. None of this matters,” Sean ran his hand over his hair and flicked some more water away.

The sound of crashing glass filled the air and the brothers looked over to see a waitress kneeling over a dropped tray of glasses. A drunk was wobbling over her, trying too hard to apologize. Some other clients had gotten spilled on and were looking upset.

“I can’t get into this now,” Robby said, “and you know that. You never visit me after work, you only come in here when I’ve got a bar to look after.”

Sean stared after his brother as he disappeared towards the back of the bar to manage the mess.

“We have time now,” he managed weakly.

“You ignore all my calls?” a voice next to him said. “And yet you have time to hang out at the bar?”

“Mary-Kate!” Sean spun on his stool. He was facing a cute girl with long red hair who was staring at him, shaking her head. “I didn’t ignore you. I told you to come here right, right?” Sean asked.

She looked at him with sadness, like he was a puppy that didn’t understand it wasn’t leaving the pet store that night. “I wanted to say goodbye to Robby, so, yeah, I came by.”

“Did you know about Robby?”

“Everyone has known about Robby, Sean. Everyone who has actually been a part of the world the past few years.”

“I didn’t think he’d actually…” Sean trailed off, his eyes growing puzzled.

“Oh, you really do have that cute little face down.” Mary-Kate said, and she brushed her fingertips over his cheek, kindly, but distantly.

“No one is listening,” Sean said, getting angry. “You all aren’t listening. We. Have. Time. Now.” And like he was trying to drive a point right into the bar itself, he slapped his palm against the wooden top with each enunciated word.

“Not how time works,” Mary-Kate quipped back. She smiled then, and his heart jumped. “I know you’ll get your life together again, Sean. I really do. You’re a good guy. But this hasn’t been anything but lost time for a while.” She leaned over and kissed his forehead. “I’m gonna go say bye to Robby, now.”

“Oh come on!” Sean blurted out as she walked away. “This is not right! You aren’t all supposed to leave me! This was supposed to fix everything!”

He reached out for her, desperate, but she disappeared into the rear of the bar. He leaned his head back and let out a groan of frustration, then sat in his barstool and stared off into space. His face went numb and his eyes tracked nothing in the room.

More rain ran fell through his hair and a few drops ran down to the tip of his nose before falling to the floor.

“Sean?” another voice said.

Sean’s mouth fell open and the flesh up and down his arms became covered in goosebumps. “No,” he said throatily as he turned towards the voice.

“This isn’t working, Sean.”

“Mom? Pop?” he asked, staring at the figures of his dead parents standing in front of him.

“No,” he said, his face getting angry. “No no no no NONONONO!” he grew louder with each repeat of the word, condemning everything he saw, screaming out at the entire bar as he reached up to his eyes and clawed at something there.

In the sterile neon light of his lab he ripped the virtual reality goggles off of his face, blinking hard as he gasped. He set the heavy, intricate eye-wear down on his desk. He held up his forearm and stripped off the biometric sensory input device, a long strip of cable with circles stemming off from it in all directions.

He was old, much older than he had been in the simulation. His hands were wrinkled and papery as he flung the biometric devices aside he gasped and sat still for a second. Then he broke down sobbing in his chair.

He fought to get himself under control, ancient memories of his brother and girlfriend and parents slowly fading back into the past, their memories growing distant again.

He stood up, slowly, his body hunched with age, and he walked towards the bathroom to splash some water on his face.

On his desk sat a digital picture frame that flashed old photos of his life from decades before. There were a number of images of him as a kid at his brother’s bar opening, and him with his parents before the accident. There were a few shots of old girlfriends long gone and a friend or two that he had lost track of decades ago as he labored away at his desk.

He returned, tired and joyless, and sat down and began typing notes into the computer concerning his last test run.

“Rain far too persistent in hair once proper cover from the elements has been found,” he typed, one hand absently reaching up to his silvered hair when the sentence was done. He stared hard at the screen as one last sob struggled to escape his mouth, causing his chest to hitch as he forced his lips together, banishing it altogether in order to get back to work. Once it was gone and he felt back in control he resumed typing.

“Simulation,” his fingers typed as his eyes stared coldly at the screen, “still insisting on change.”

 

 

 


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IMG_4358Hailing from New Jersey, Joseph Devon is sarcastic, caustic, abrasive, and yet a surprisingly good cook. As the eldest member of the arena’s cadre, Joseph has come to rely on discipline over flash and dozens of rewrites over bursts of creativity. He also sometimes remembers where he put his dentures. Joseph grew up fighting for attention over loud guidos and even louder New Yorkers and polished a knack for concise, striking imagery. A fan of most anything silly, Joseph also has a depth hidden under his love of talking animals that can rope in unsuspecting readers and make them think before they realize they’re reading anything of substance. Joseph is the author of the first two books of the Matthew and Epp trilogy, Probability Angels and Persistent Illusions and is hard at work on the third.

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  • 2014 Season 3 – 4
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photo credit: Have A Seat via photopin (license)

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4 Comments

  1. This has a very nearly perfect last line. As it stands, it sells the entire story pretty darn well and makes the journey worthwhile. I’m just wondering if, having established his level of emotional control in the previous paragraph, you need to tell us he’s staring “coldly”? Or even that he’s doing it with his eyes, come to that. These are things we already know.

    Other than that, the build up to the reveal is excellent. I believe the characters, even though they’re sketches, because we’re seeing them through the protagonist’s eyes and he filters everything. If they seem a little hastily drawn, the simple fact of his detachment explains it.

    My spidey-sense started tingling when he started talking about having time now, but the VR reveal isn’t the story. That comes at the very end, when Joseph reveals he’s drawn a portrait of an obsessive and the damage obsession can do.

  2. Obsession is the root of all mad science, but it is usually buried under tech and magic tricks. I love that this story has it out in the open. Even before you know it’s a simulation you see Sean losing control. He needs the moment, he needs their time, he needs everyone to stop moving forward. His life shattered in an instant and he refused to heal like they have.

    The twist wasn’t out of left field, I knew it had to be time machine or sim related because of what he kept saying but I liked it. He made the simulation too well, but now his life has truly passed him by. A sad story but a very strong one.

    Please forgive my proof reading. Words are still playing tricks on my eyes.

  3. Man this one hit hard for me. The image of an old man trying to relive the glory days that have long since passed him by is so powerful. The little details really sold it, the fact that he wasn’t dressed for the rain, the towels not having their intended effect, it all planted the seeds of something being not quite right without laying it on too thick. I also found it fascinating that the simulation he had made was still out of his control, a common trope in mad scientist stories, but employed with great effect here.
    The only problem I had with the story was that I was a little confused when the narrative left Sean’s point of view and got into Robby’s head. It seemed like those sequences broke the flow of the story a little bit, and once we get to the twist I’m not sure they even make sense.
    All in all, this was a great story, full of the poignant power I’ve come to expect from Mr. Devon.

  4. What a great concept. Like others, I expected a time travel element, but I was so certain of it that it set me up to be blasted by the reveal. Just the image of the old man’s hands makes this story shine. The only real thing this story needs is more readers.

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