THE MOST IMPORTANT THING IN THE WORLD
Steve Bein is a philosopher, photographer, professor, translator, traveler, and award-winning author of genre-bending fiction. His short fiction has appeared in Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, Interzone, Writers of the Future, and in international translation. His Fated Blades novels have met with critical acclaim. Bein divides his time between Rochester, Minnesota, and Rochester, New York. This story was first published in Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine in 2011.
Ernie Sisco knows what the most important thing in the world is. It took him a long time to figure it out, but he knows what it is now. He knows because somebody forgot it in the back of his cab.
Ernie’s been driving cabs thirty-two years now, and in that time he’s seen people leave all kinds of things behind. Crazy things, things he’d never have believed somebody could forget in a taxi. Wallets and purses are commonplace. So are asthma inhalers, epi-pens, medications the fare’s literally going to die without. Once a fare actually left her baby in the back seat, a ten-month-old in one of those tan Graco baby carriers.
The kid was sleeping right behind Ernie’s seat, right where he couldn’t see her, and he’d gone on a good half a mile before he had to pull over to take a leak. Good thing for the fare, too.
When he drove back she was crying her eyes out on the street corner, too scared to tell anyone what she’d done.
Sometimes people will say their kids are the most important thing in the world, but Ernie doesn’t think that’s right. In any case the ten-month-old wasn’t what helped him figure it out.
What sent him in the right direction was folded up in a silver Samsonite carry-on.
Ernie picks up the fare at Logan, a skinny white kid, the type that doesn’t surprise a guy when they tell him to drive to Harvard. The kid’s got two bags, matching hard cases the color that car companies call Lunar Mist or Ingot Silver Metallic.
Ernie puts the big one in the trunk. The kid insists on keeping the carry-on with him in the back seat. “Plenty of room,” Ernie says, but the kid says whatever’s in the case is too important to risk getting rear-ended. It’s obvious the kid doesn’t think much of Ernie’s driving but Ernie shrugs it off and starts the meter running.
They get to the Yard and figure out where the kid’s conference is going to meet. It’s on theoretical physics or temporal physics or something like that. Ernie took physics in high school, but that was a million years ago and he was never any good at it anyway. He was never the math-science type; Ernie’s more of a reader. Look under the driver’s seat and you’ll find yellowed copies of For Whom the Bell Tolls and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Ernie doesn’t know anything about motorcycles, Zen, or the Spanish Civil War; he’s just got a thing for fiction that leans toward autobiography and lately he’s been boning up on American authors.
A lot of Harvard types don’t tend to think much of Ernie. They see a chunky bald guy behind the wheel of a cab and they make certain assumptions. But Ernie’s no dope. He’s got a cushy job where he can sit and read all day if he wants to.
Park it on the corner of Brattle and James and he can spend all afternoon reading without getting a call. Some might call it lazy – in fact, there’s one in particular who calls it lazy every chance she gets – but Ernie can read the same great books as all the other Harvard types and he can do it without dropping any thirty or forty grand a year.
Ernie drops the kid off on Kirkland and sure enough the kid forgets the little Samsonite in the back. The campus has that effect on first-timers. It’s beautiful, especially on a bright summer day: all green leaves and red brick and bright whitewashed windows. And there’s the whole reputation thing too. Thinking about how they’re going to impress all the muckety-mucks has a way of leaving people a little scatterbrained. Sometimes they ignore guys like Ernie completely, and then they go walking off toward the nearest red-brick building without leaving a tip and without remembering to check the back seat.
Ernie forgets all about it too, and doesn’t hear the case clunking around back there until he’s in the line at Fenway in the top of the ninth. There’s big business at Fenway, a lot of fares, and they usually tip pretty well when the Sox win.
They’re up six-nothing when Ernie pulls up, so he stows the kid’s carry-on in the trunk and figures he’ll drop it off the next time a fare takes him out that way.
One of the buckles comes undone when he drops the case in the trunk and curiosity gets the better of Ernie. He takes a peek.
Inside there’s this funny-looking suit, a bit like a wetsuit but with copper wires running all over the outside. The neoprene smells strongly of neoprene. It’s the same shade of blue the Royals wear, and with the hood and goggles it looks like something you’d wear if you wanted to get in a fistfight with Spiderman. On the chest there’s a steel box with a little readout screen and what looks like a phone keypad.
That’s as good a look as Ernie gets before the roar goes up in Fenway. It sounds like a third out pop fly. Ernie’s back on. By the time he’s done running Fenway fares he’s hungry, and by the time he finishes a brat and a soft pretzel he’s sick of working and so he heads home. It’s not until he’s a beer down and watching Sox highlights on ESPN that he remembers the funny-looking suit.
His first thought when he gets it laid out on his sofa is that he’s going to have a hell of a hard time fitting into it. Thirty-some years sitting behind the wheel of a cab hasn’t done much for his physique. But he’s just got to try it on. Whatever it is, the kid said it was too important to risk damaging. He’s careful with it, but he’s got to know what it is.
The boots are too big and the arms are too long, and it’s all Ernie can do to suck in his gut enough to get the front zipped. The stink of neoprene overpowers even the legions of cigarettes Ernie and Janine have smoked in this room. The stainless steel box hangs around his neck the way tourists hang their big black cameras, fixed to a sling of webbing, and on top of the box is that little readout screen. It’s about impossible to read the numbers on it unless he’s wearing the goggles, and as soon as he puts the goggles on he learns the big plastic rings around them house a bunch of ultra-bright LEDs. The goggles shift everything he sees toward the yellow-orange part of the spectrum, kind of like ski goggles, and the LEDs spotlight everything he looks at.
The readout screen on the chest unit is actually two screens. On the left you can set the date and time and the right side seems to work like a kitchen timer. The date and time are way off: six o’clock in the morning on March 13th, the year after next. Ernie sets it right, which for him means five minutes fast. Janine used to yell at him all the time for being late, and though he’ll be the first to admit she didn’t fix everything she says is wrong with him, at least he’s never late anymore.
Next he looks at the kitchen timer. By now he’s sweating his balls off even in the air conditioning, but he’s damned if he’s taking off this ridiculous suit before he figures out what it does. He sets the timer for two minutes and hits Start.
The world stops. The ESPN guy, in the midst of saying something about the Cubs, freezes on the “ah” of “Chicago” and just keeps saying “aaaaaah.” There’s a steady drone coming from the air conditioner, not the usual back and forth rattle but a constant monotone. The thin ribbon of smoke snaking up from Ernie’s ashtray stops dead and just hangs there.
“Weird,” Ernie’s about to say, but saying this is weird is like saying Ted Williams could hit a little bit, so Ernie doesn’t bother. Apart from him, the only things moving in the whole house are the numbers counting down on the kitchen timer.
Even the air feels like it’s stuck in place. Ernie’s got to suck it in like a milkshake through a straw. Standing up is hard and walking is like pushing through chest-deep water.
There’s a compression left in the couch cushion where he was sitting a second ago, still squished down though there’s no big cabbie ass to squish it. He wades over to the ashtray and touches the cigarette smoke with a gloved finger. It doesn’t move under a light touch, but a little nudge frees it up somehow and the part he touched starts its slow crawl toward the ceiling. The rest just hangs there like a question mark made of white cotton candy.
He fiddles with other stuff for a minute or two.
Everything he tries to pick up feels like it’s glued down, but he can budge it if he muscles it. The TV remote doesn’t do anything, though; it’s still just whatshisname saying “aaaaah” with a not-so-bright look on his face.
The kitchen holds the best surprises. That brat he picked up for dinner wasn’t doing the trick, so before he turned on the TV and cracked open that beer he put a pot on for spaghetti.
When he gets to the kitchen, the flames under the pot look like they’ve been airbrushed there. They don’t move a bit. The water looks like it’s boiling and frozen at the same time, the bubbles stock-still, a big one half-popped on the surface and looking like a crater.
Then bam, the world starts moving again. Bubbles bubble. Flames flicker. The couch cushion springs up from the ass print he left on it. The ESPN guy finally finishes whatever he was going to say about the Cubs. Ernie looks down at the box on his chest and he sees the timer’s at zero.
Ernie dumps some angel hair in the pot, then sits in front of the air conditioner and sweats, trying to figure out what the hell just happened. In the four and a half minutes it takes the angel hair to cook, he comes up with nothing. He goes back to the kitchen, grabs a black pasta spoon, and hooks a noodle to taste it. They’re perfect. Then the world gets funny again.
One second he’s holding the cheap plastic spoon over the pot. The next he’s holding a hot drooping handle and there’s spatters of black plastic all over the stovetop. The business end of the spoon is bumping around in the pot, half an inch of melted handle curling down from one side like a tail.
To beat that, his angel hair’s gone from al dente to mush.
He finds that out after he drains it and fishes out what’s left of his spoon. Right about then is when he sees the red light blinking on the answering machine. Ernie’s old school. He has an answering machine, a big brown-and-black one, and despite the fact that there were no messages on it when he got home, now there is one and he never heard the phone ring.
He plays the message. It’s Janine. She says she’s coming over in a few minutes. According to the time stamp she left the message while he was standing five feet from the phone, watching his angel hair and his pasta spoon turn to garbage in something like a millionth of a second.
Then it hits him. She’s coming over in a few minutes. He’s dressed to go scuba diving with Buck Rogers.
He struggles out of the suit, which is no easier getting out of than in. He’s in his boxers, shirtless and sweating like a dockworker, when he hears her key slide into the lock. He stuffs the blue suit behind the couch and gets turned back around just in time not to look suspicious. And desperate. He hopes.
She takes one look at him and says, “Jesus, Ernie.”
Janine’s the type of woman you can tell was beautiful once.
The tanning she did when they were in their twenties isn’t so easy to wear anymore, but hot damn was she a looker back then.
Gravity hasn’t been so kind to what used to draw long looks from every guy on the street, but back then every last one of them was wishing he was Ernie. She’s not what she used to be, but to Ernie she’s still Rita Hayworth.
He’s not even sure he realized that himself, not even just the night before, when the yelling got bad and she slammed the door on her way out. Now, after the day he’s been having, it feels damn good to have her in the house again.
“You’re letting yourself go,” she says.
“Just getting changed,” he says. “Long day at work.”
“If it was a long day at work,” she says, “you’d still be out working. You knock off after the game again today?”
“Again with the game,” he says, wishing he could take it back the second it leaves his mouth. “Look, they tip good over there,” he says. “I don’t have to work a full eight hours on game days.”
“I’ll worry about eight after you put in six,” she says. “I just came for some clothes.”
Ernie follows her to the bedroom and sweeps yesterday’s jeans off the end of the unmade bed. “You want to stay for dinner?” he says.
She doesn’t answer. She doesn’t need to.
She rolls an armful of bras and underwear in a T-shirt and drapes another shirt and a pair of jeans on top. Ernie asks her if she’s staying at her sister’s again tonight. She says yes.
On her way back to the door, she says, “Christ, Ernie, did you steal something from a fare?”
“No,” he says – maybe a second too soon. It’s been a point of pride for him. You wouldn’t believe how many cabbies figure a fare leaves something in the cab, that means they must not want it that bad. It’s been a point of pride for Janine, too.
She always said he was better than those other guys.
She gives him a cold look and says, “Where’s that suitcase from, then?”
The silver Samsonite’s sitting right there on the couch.
He only has to look at it for a second before he answers. “It’s for you,” he says. “I figured maybe you’d need it to get your stuff.”
Her eyes get colder. “Bull,” she says. “You’re telling me you’re making it easier for me to get out of here?”
“No,” he says. “I’m making it easier for you to come back.”
It softens her for a second. She puts her stuff in the suitcase. He invites her again to stay for dinner. “You put in a full day’s work and maybe I’ll stay,” she says. Then she walks out.
* * *
He stays up late thinking about things – about Janine, about the suit and the timer on it – and before he knows it it’s nine in the morning and the snooze on his alarm clock’s been yelling at him for over an hour. Some cabbies have to drive when the company tells them to, but Ernie owns his own car so he drives when he wants. That’s part of the problem with Janine.
By the time he fell asleep, he’d managed to convince himself things weren’t so bad. He didn’t steal the suit from that kid. Right from the beginning he meant to give it back.
He just forgot. And things with Janine weren’t as bad as they could’ve been. She was pissed, sure, but she still had her ring on. She never did get pissed off the way Ernie does. She stores everything up, lets it build, and it takes just as long for her to bleed the pressure off. Ernie, he’s more the firecracker type. Short fuse, short burst, then back to peace and quiet.
But he figures she meant it when she said she’d stay for dinner. Too bad that’s not going to happen anymore. It’s too late to get a full day’s worth of fares and be home by dinnertime. He missed the morning rush and the Sox are on the road. But before he nodded off he got himself an idea about the suit. He told himself he wasn’t going to go through with it, but that was before he slept through the morning rush. Now the more he thinks about it, the more he figures there isn’t another way. Before he tries it, though, he’s got to try an experiment.
He sets up the suit exactly the same way he did the night before – two minutes on the timer, the clock set five minutes fast – only this time he doesn’t put the suit on. He holds the suit up over his head and gives it a little upward toss the second he hits Start on the timer.
The suit’s on the ground without falling there. He’s looking at it overhead and then it’s on his feet. He never sees it fall. He’d have said this is pretty weird, but the weirdest part is this is exactly what he thought would happen.
He’s got five minutes to wait before the next part of the experiment, and during that time he learns five minutes is way too long to think about whether being near this suit is going to give him cancer or something. For all he knows, the suit’s radioactive. For all he knows, he ought to be wearing a lead jock strap.
At the end of the five minutes, he pokes and prods at the suit with a big stubby toe. He can’t move it. He kicks it.
Can’t even ruffle the neoprene. A harder kick and all he does is hurt his foot.
Just for grins he pours a glass of water on the suit. The water looks like it slides off the suit without ever touching it. Not like rain on a waxed car, where it beads up on the wax; it’s as if the suit’s not wet because the water can’t touch it at all. There’s a dark spot in Ernie’s orange shag carpeting and not a drop on the neoprene. For two minutes nothing he can do affects the suit.
By this time he figures he’s got a pretty good idea of what this suit is and what it does. He can’t even begin to imagine how it’s possible, but at this point he can’t afford to care.
This little jewel is the end of all his worries. Never mind a full day’s pay; what he needs is for Janine to take him back, and with this thing he can get her back for good.
He stuffs the suit in an old duffel bag and heads downtown.
He doesn’t turn his lights on, doesn’t roll by the hospital or the Huntington Avenue hotels to see if there’s a fare, doesn’t even bother calling in to dispatch. Whatever he’d make from fares isn’t squat compared to what the suit can do for him.
Ernie parks at the first Seven-Eleven he sees, grabs the duffel bag, and asks the old guy behind the counter if he can use the john. In the bathroom he changes into the suit, sets the clock one hour fast, and sets the timer for ten minutes.
Then he punches Start.
It’s hard to breathe again and opening the door feels like he’s pulling it through water. He finally manages to get it open, though, and outside the whole store’s frozen. The second hand on the clock isn’t moving. The little hot dog rollers don’t roll. The hot dogs don’t even blister under the heat lamps.
It feels like wading as he makes his way to the cash register. There’s a little portable radio on behind the counter; he can’t tell what it’s playing because there’s just the one note coming from it, like someone leaning on a car horn.
The old guy is staring at the chest of a busty eighteen-year-old buying Cosmo and cigarettes. Her eyes are fixed in mid-blink, her teeth at half-chew on her gum. Their hands are stone still above the counter, her change in mid-slide from his hand to hers. The till is open.
It’s hard to pull up the black plastic drawer, and not just because it’s stuck there like glue: Ernie doesn’t know if bumping into the old guy will be like nudging the smoke, freeing him, so he’s got to be careful not to touch him. It takes him about a minute to lift the drawer. One minute to make a solid day’s worth of fares. It wouldn’t be too hard to pick up the hundred dollar bills if he could use his fingernails, but they’re gloved under an eighth of an inch of blue neoprene and so he needs to use the edge of a quarter to pry them up. He takes all three, and the fifty too, and leaves the checks.
He leaves the rest of the cash too. No point in bankrupting the place. Nor does he go after the white Coach purse hanging from the girl’s shoulder. He’s got nothing against her. Nothing against the old guy or Seven-Eleven either. It’s just that he’s got to get his wife back and this is the only way he can see to do it.
He heads to the bathroom, drags the door open, and grabs his duffel bag. The timer on his chest says he’s got four more minutes. It takes him a little over a minute to open one of the cooler doors and pry a can of Dr. Pepper off the shelf. Another minute to wade over to the front door of the store. Half a second to realize that leaving now would mean that apart from the teenage girl and the old cashier, the only person the security camera’s going to show is a chubby balding white guy who walked into the men’s room and never came out. He wades back to the john, he locks himself in, and he waits.
When the timer hits zero, he unzips the suit and crams it back in the duffel. By the time he gets out of the bathroom, the girl’s gone and the old man still doesn’t have the slightest clue what happened. And why would he? He hasn’t opened the drawer again yet.
The clock on the dash said it was eleven o’clock on the dot when he parked the cab in front of the store. When he starts her up again, it says eleven-oh-four. Still plenty of time.
On the way home he stops by a J.C. Penney and buys a small silver Samsonite just like the one he gave Janine the night before. He tucks the receipt in his wallet, and when he gets home he stows the carry-on with all the rest of the crap he’s got piled up under the basement stairs. Then he waits.
Just before noon, he makes sure to be sitting right in front of his alarm clock. He waits for it to hit. He’s sitting on the edge of the bed looking at the big red digits telling him it’s 11:59. He blinks.
When his eyes open it’s 12:10.
He didn’t fall asleep. He knows he didn’t. The time just passed, like a movie he didn’t buy a ticket to. He hits the streets again with the suit in his duffel.
It turns out he got lucky at the Seven-Eleven. The next men’s room he uses is at a gas station, and when he gets to the cash register the drawer’s closed and nothing he can do can make it open. He figures he’ll make the best of it so he goes outside and tries to fill up on gas. He can pull the nozzle loose and force it into the mouth of his gas tank, but squeezing the handle doesn’t do a thing. It isn’t like the Dr. Pepper, where prying loose the can pries loose everything inside it. The gas is separate from the nozzle, and it’s all still frozen in that big reservoir under the pavement.
It’s a senseless waste of ten free minutes. He tries again at a Dunkin Donuts with the same results. The next time he wises up and hits a really busy gas station. He figures the way to boost his odds is to find a place where the drawer’s going to be open a lot.
The till’s got five hundred and thirty bucks in it, counting just the big bills, twenties and up. He leaves the rest of the cash; these people have to eat too, and Ernie really isn’t a bad guy. Taking out what he paid for the luggage, he’s close to seven hundred for the day. Not bad. Not bad at all.
This time when he gets out of the john, the cashier’s losing it. She knows the cash is gone but she doesn’t know how.
Ernie practically has a heart attack when she threatens to lock the whole store and call the cops. Breathing is so hard while he’s wearing the suit that he’s already feeling like he ran the Boston Marathon. Having her freak out isn’t any help. But Ernie’s luck is still holding: there’s a pair of young black men by the magazine rack in Charlestown High football jackets. Society is what it is, and that means nobody in this town is going to suspect a middle-aged, out-of-shape white guy of robbing a gas station when they’ve got two black guys right there in Bloods colors.
Ernie gets the hell out of there ASAP. Those boys aren’t going to see jail time for this. There’s no evidence against them. That’s what Ernie tells himself, anyway, and he’s almost certainly right. And, he tells himself, there’s not much point in taking fares today, so he goes home and cracks open some James Ellroy and waits for the call from Janine.
* * *
She’s not happy.
She doesn’t even bother calling. She just comes over.
“Where you been?” she says. Not even a hello.
“I been working,” says Ernie, and he shows her a fat wad of bills. “I had a great day.”
He tells her a story about a couple of French businessmen he picked up at Logan, how they didn’t really get the whole tipping thing and how even though he tried to talk them out of it they left him a hundred bucks each. “Bullshit,” she says.
“Your dispatcher called me,” she says, “trying to get a hold of you. They say some kid’s been calling every ten minutes wondering if anyone’s turned in a bag he left in his cab. Silver carry-on. Sound familiar?”
“Hey, yeah,” says Ernie. “Kind of like the bag I bought you, huh?”
“Just like it,” she says. “Don’t you dare try to talk your way out of this.”
He doesn’t. He shows her the receipt from his wallet, with most of the date eaten up by a convenient Dr. Pepper stain.
“You’re up to something,” she says. “Your dispatcher said you hadn’t logged in all day. Now you got two days’ worth of tips. What’s going on?”
“Nothing,” he says. He’s been making the airport run all day, he says, so what’s the point of calling dispatch? Janine doesn’t buy it. He tries to talk her into dinner. She’s not buying that either.
“Come on,” he says. “You said if I had the money, you’d stay.”
“It’s not about the money,” she says. “It’s about reliability. It’s about me not having to pick up extra shifts at the last minute to make sure the bills get paid. Good night, Ernie.”
“G’night.” There’s nothing else to say.
* * *
It takes him an hour to realize he’s got nothing else going that night, and with all the stuff with Janine he knows he isn’t getting to sleep any time soon. He heads out to the cab and calls in to take a couple of fares. Roberta at dispatch asks him where he’s been all day. Ernie says thanks a lot and tells her to go screw herself.
One of his fares takes him within half a mile of Harvard Yard. He can’t help thinking about that kid. He rolls down Mass Ave but the Yard’s dark and empty, the way it usually is when school’s out. Then he sees a dozen people walking past Memorial Church. Most of them look Indian or Chinese, but there’s one tall skinny white guy straggling at the back. It’s the kid who forgot the suit.
He slides into a parking space half a block down and leaves her running, his eye fixed on the rear view. Soon enough he catches sight of the Indians and Chinese and the skinny kid again. They turn down Dunster and Ernie figures he knows where they’re headed. He turns off the car, feeds the meter and makes for the Brew House.
John Harvard’s Brew House is just the sort of place you go if you’re a tourist who just got done with a conference at Harvard. It’s close, it’s popular, and it’s got that ambience the tourists go for. It is not, therefore, a good place to sit by yourself and drown your sorrows. By the time Ernie gets inside, the Indians and Chinese are talking loudly in the corner, boisterous and drinking like tourists. The skinny kid’s by himself at the bar, hunched over a beer like he’s whispering secrets to it.
He’s the kind of skinny Ernie only ever sees in pictures of foreigners, East African refugees or the Jews in Auschwitz.
He’s the kind of skinny that makes you stare. Ernie tries not to.
The kid finishes his beer and orders another. Ernie sits down two stools away and orders a Summer Blonde. They sit there a few minutes, quiet. The kid looks up at Ernie and his eyes are red around the edges. They have a kind of light to them.
Cruel, Ernie wants to call it. Cold. But as soon as he thinks he sees it, it’s gone, and everything in the kid’s face tells Ernie he doesn’t recognize him at all. That’s good.
Ernie asks him how he’s doing. Fine, he says. “You don’t look it,” Ernie says. “Hope you don’t mind me saying so, but you look more stressed out than I ever been in my life, and I been held up twice. Once at gunpoint, once at knifepoint. Even then I wasn’t as stressed as you.”
“Yeah,” the kid says, “well, the last couple of days have been pretty rough.” He knocks back the last half of his drink in one gulp.
Ernie orders him another. “Whatsa matter?” he says. “Lose your job or something?”
“You could say that,” he says. “My job, my fellowship, my future. Maybe my wife. I don’t know.”
“Come on,” says Ernie. “It can’t be that bad. You’re young and full of beans. You got your whole life ahead of you.”
He gives Ernie a disdainful look. “Platitudes and beer?” he says. “That’s what I need to solve all my problems? Maybe we’ll do a cliché chaser after this.”
“Hey, sorry,” Ernie says. “Just trying to help. The point I was gonna make is, whatever’s wrong, you got plenty of time to fix it. You’re smart, you’re young … how old are you anyway?”
“That depends on how you look at it,” says the kid. Ernie gives him a funny look and the kid changes his answer right away. “Twenty-nine,” he says.
“There you go,” Ernie tells him. “Plenty of time.”
“Mister,” says the kid, “no offense, but I know a lot more about time than you ever will.”
That’s the hook Ernie needs. Years ago, it used to be that people talked to their cabbies. These days they’re in the back on their iPods or cell phones or whatever, but for a good twenty years a big part of Ernie’s job was making chitchat. He’s still good enough at it that he can prod the kid in the right direction. Now that he’s got him talking about time, he keeps him there.
At first Ernie’s only pretending to be interested, but actually the kid’s got some pretty neat stuff to say. Once Ernie gets him talking about his research at school, it’s hard to shut the kid up long enough to order another round. The truth is, Ernie can’t follow half of what the kid’s telling him.
He’s been meaning to put Hawking and Greene and Tyson on his reading list for years; now he’s wishing he’d gotten around to it. His favorite used book store is right across the square and Ernie’s half-wishing they were still open so he could run over there and do some digging.
But they’re not, so he can’t, and at any rate he needs to concentrate a hundred percent on what the kid’s telling him. It turns out the kid is some kind of physics genius. Ernie never went to college – to him it always seemed like too much work for too little reward – but he knows enough to know you have to be some kind of genius to be finishing a double doctorate by twenty-nine.
Even if most of what the kid says is over his head, Ernie comes to understand they didn’t start with a suit. The first experiments worked with lumps of some kind of radioactive material Ernie thinks he remembers hearing of once. Cesium, it’s called. Ernie’s pretty sure cesium’s in the periodic table but he’s not positive. The kid explained how you can use whatever these lumps give off to measure the passage of time – something about half-lifes and atomic clocks and a bunch of other stuff Ernie hasn’t thought about since high school.
But Ernie understands the long and short of it well enough.
The bottom line is, the kid and his professor at school found a way to make these lumps spend some of their own future in the present.
“No way,” Ernie tells him. “That’s impossible.”
“It’s not,” says the kid, and he buries Ernie under a lot more stuff there’s no way he’d have been able to follow if he hadn’t seen the suit do its thing. It all had to do with “four dimensional space-time” and thinking of time as cause and effect, and what is cause and effect except the transfer of energy? By the time Ernie’s ass leaves the bar stool he’ll have forgotten almost all of this, but he’ll remember that question because the kid poses it to him about a hundred times.
Over the next hour Ernie wraps his lightly liquored brain around the idea that we’ve been storing energy and converting it and moving it around for a long time, and that if causality is a kind of energy then if you understand it right you can basically move cause and effect. Ernie tries to sum it up like this: “So what you’re saying is, you’re majoring in time travel.”
“It’s not time travel,” says the kid. “It’s more like borrowing time. Think of it as taking a link from a chain and inserting it earlier in the chain.”
He finishes his beer and Ernie signals the girl behind the bar for another round. The kid’s a lightweight drinking-wise, but Ernie has to admit he’s pretty damn smart even this many beers down. Ernie’s a couple behind him and he’s only an inch away from just plain lost.
The kid says, “Never mind the chain,” and he goes back to the radioactive lumps. Eventually he gets Ernie to see the big picture. You take two of these lumps, the exact same size, and you pop one of them in a machine that does what the suit does.
You set the machine to borrow an hour from one o’clock that afternoon. You turn the machine on and bam, lump one – the one in the machine – is smaller than lump two. Then, at one o’clock, all of a sudden lump one isn’t radioactive anymore. It stays that way for an hour, not radioactive and not shrinking.
Then, by two o’clock, both lumps are radioactive again and both of ’em are back to the exact same size.
It’s weird stuff. And Ted Williams could hit a little bit.
Ernie would have said the kid was full of crap if he hadn’t been doing that very experiment all afternoon. “So what’s the point?” he says. “Give a hammer and chisel and I figure I could make your lump smaller for you. I wouldn’t need two hours and a college degree, neither.”
“What’s the point?” asks the kid, and he squints at Ernie like Ernie just asked him which one’s worth more, a nickel or a hundred dollar bill. “We didn’t limit the experiments to lumps of cesium,” he says. “We built a bodysuit,” he says, and he tells Ernie all about it.
Ernie gets it. He gets it just fine. The suit is free money. It’s the ultimate blank check. According to the kid the college types invented it to see if something that borrowed time from its own future could pull other things into its timestream, but Ernie’s got bigger fish to fry. And he’s got bigger questions too, but he can’t ask them flat out without tipping the kid off that he has the suit. So he sits. And he listens.
And he waits.
When the kid’s done, Ernie says, “Sounds like you’re living the dream, sport. You and your prof went and invented the ring of Gyges.”
“What do you mean?” says the kid.
Ernie rolls his eyes, wondering what they’re teaching kids in college these days. He says, “In the suit you can do whatever you want, right? And nobody can do anything about it, right? ’Cause you’re the only time traveler? My friend, what you got is action without consequences. You got the ultimate get out of jail free card.”
“It’s not free,” the kid says. “And the consequences are far too high.”
Ernie’s finally got him where he wants him. “What’re the consequences?” he says. “What’s the downside to this time traveling of yours?”
“It isn’t time travel,” says the kid. “And it isn’t free. This is borrowing time. Take it from me: if you do it enough, you’ll destroy your life.”
Ernie’s balls shrink up into his gut. He knew it. He just knew it. There had to be a downside. Cancer. Something. But he can’t let any of that show on his face. Instead he says, “What do you mean? You don’t look dead to me.”
“Not yet,” the kid says, “but I’m living on borrowed time.”
He laughs at himself and drains his beer. They’ve had four together so far. Ernie orders another round.
“My life isn’t my own anymore,” the kid tells him. “My daughter was born the day after I defended my second proposal. Seeta. My wife’s family’s Indian. Beautiful, beautiful girl.”
He stops to take another drink. “I had a brand new baby,” he says, “two dissertations to write, and only a year before my grant money ran out. Do you know what kind of pressure that is? No. Of course you don’t. A year wasn’t enough. I needed more time.”
That look comes back in his eyes. “I put on the device,” he says. “Every night, as soon as Lakshmi and Seeta were asleep, I set it for eight hours. At first I was planning to use the time to write, but my computer wouldn’t work. I could dislodge the keys into my time-stream but not the electrons in the wires. So I wrote during the day and used my extra eight hours a night to read. I finished my thesis on Poincaré’s special relativity in ten months flat. I’m halfway through the second one now.”
“Let me get this straight,” says Ernie. “You been doing this every night?”
“I’ve been living thirty-two hour days for over a year,” the kid tells him.
“Jesus,” says Ernie. “No wonder you look tired. How much you borrowed so far?”
“Eight hours a night for a year is just short of a hundred and twenty-two days,” says the kid. He chuckles into his mug.
“I’d be in the hundred and fifty range by now if it weren’t for the interest.”
Ernie doesn’t get it, and says so.
“It was a recent discovery,” the kid says. “Six weeks ago we tried stopwatches instead of cesium samples, to make the results of the experiments more easily understandable to lay people. For funding, you see. It never even occurred to us that radioactivity would have anything to do with the time lending process.”
Ernie gulps. Cancer. The suit’s radioactive after all.
Then he figures out the kid’s talking about the cesium. Even with that realization he still wants to grab his nuts to make sure they’re still there.
“Borrow a minute from a stopwatch’s future,” the kid says, “and you get it back just over a minute fast. We haven’t yet figured out why. My advisor thinks it has something to do with the mass – the cesium was always lighter when it paid back its time – but I think it’s more to do with the radioactivity itself. At any rate, the discrepancy magnifies exponentially as you increase the time borrowed. Borrow an hour and it comes back almost sixty-six minutes fast.”
“How about borrowing eight hours?” asks Ernie.
“Nine hundred and fifty-odd minutes,” the kid says. “When it comes time, I’ll pay back nearly sixteen hours for every eight I’ve borrowed.” He finishes his drink and Ernie keeps ’em coming. “My driver’s license says I’m twenty-nine,” he says. “Chronologically, my body is approaching its thirty-first birthday.”
Ernie’s thinking, Cry me a river. Here he is, fifty-three and staring down the barrel of a divorce, and this kid’s bitching about thirty-one.
But Ernie doesn’t say any of that. He asks him where he’s getting the time from.
“Next summer,” says the kid, and just saying it makes him come damn close to puking.
“What’s gonna happen to you?” says Ernie.
“I had it all planned,” the kid says, and the words start tumbling out like they’re tripping over each other to get out of his mouth. “It was going to happen in the summer,” he says. “I was going to slip out of time. Secure a post-doc, find a little cabin in the woods, and just slip out. Now,” he says, “now…,” and all the rest is gibberish.
“Come on,” Ernie tells him, “hold it together. What’s gonna happen to you?”
“I’m going to slip out of time,” says the kid. His eyes are rimmed with red; he’s halfway ready to cry. Ernie can’t stand seeing a grown man cry. “When it hits,” the kid says, “when I get to the point I’ve been borrowing from, I’m just going to freeze. However I’m sitting right then, I’ll just sit that way. From May 15th next year until the following March.”
“What,” Ernie says, “like being in a coma?”
The kid shakes his head. Getting him back to talking about the science seems to sober him up a bit. “I won’t feel any time pass,” he says. “For everyone else, I’ll be like a statue. My heart won’t beat. I won’t breathe. If they try to resuscitate me, they’ll fail. If my eyes are open, no one will understand why they don’t dry out.”
“Jesus,” says Ernie. “You could wake up in a coffin.”
The kid nods and says, “I’ve thought of that. I’ll have to make it clear I want to be cremated.”
Ernie coughs up a mouthful of beer. “What are you, nuts?” he says. “You want to wake up burnt to a crisp?”
“You forget,” says the kid, “burning is a kind of change. Change can only take place over time, and I’ll have spent that time by then. When you’re borrowing time, dislodging something from its own time-stream into yours is difficult but it’s possible. Once you’ve borrowed the time, though, you’ve spent it; if you were to experience change then, that would be real time travel.”
“So nothing bad can happen to you,” says Ernie.
The kid gives him that sullen, cold-eyed stare again.
“Suppose the first one to find me is my daughter,” he says. “She’ll be almost two years old. Her father will be worse than comatose. He’ll be a zombie. A vampire.”
“Nah,” says Ernie. “You’ll explain it to her. Your wife’ll explain it. You got a year yet, right?”
“Then suppose I’m not at home,” he says. “What if when it happens I’m someplace where nobody knows me? Or what if I’m driving? If I’m in traffic when it hits me, I could kill someone.”
“Nah,” Ernie says again. “You’re a smart kid. You won’t let that happen. I bet you already got a backup plan.”
“You want to hear my plan?” says the kid. He makes a face like he’s gonna puke again. He says, “The big plan was to lock up a post-doc my advisor says I’m in the running for. He says our experiments make me a shoo-in. I secure the fellowship for next year’s fall semester. I take a summer vacation ‘to write’” – he gives Ernie the air quotes – “and find myself a cabin in the woods somewhere. I slip out of time for the summer, come back mid-October, and throw something together to satisfy the post-doc people in between mailing out résumés and applying for jobs.”
Ernie shrugs. It sounds like a good plan.
“Don’t you get it?” says the kid. “That was when I thought I’d be out for five months. With the discrepancy, do you know how much time I’ve got to pay back?”
“I’m guessing it’s not five months,” says Ernie.
The kid’s voice gets sharp and cold. “If I stop borrowing today,” he says, “I’m looking at three hundred and one days, fourteen hours, fifty-two minutes.” The numbers roll off his tongue as easily as his Social Security number. Ernie wonders how long he’s spent dwelling on this. “By the time I come back,” the kid says, “the best jobs will be gone. My fellowship deadline will be blown and I’ll have nothing to give them. Nothing. I’ll miss Christmas with Seeta. At her age she’s not even going to remember who I am. Her dad’s going to disappear on her for almost a year with nothing to show for it. Christ, what am I going to do?”
He’s practically crying now and it makes Ernie squirm in his seat. “Kid,” he tells him, “believe me when I tell you this: if that’s the worst this suit can do to you, you’re no different from the rest of us. Here I been thinking you’re gonna tell me the suit’ll give you a heart attack. Seriously, kid, nothing bad can happen to you while you’re slipped out of time? No cancer or nothing?”
“I’ll answer that,” he says, “just as soon as you give back the device.”
Ernie chokes on his beer and sputters. Then he puts on the most innocent face he can and asks him what he’s talking about.
All the kid’s emotion has drained out onto the floor.
“Face it,” he says, “cab drivers don’t usually go out to bars to discuss temporal physics.”
Wicked smart, this kid. Ernie’s looking at his shirt, his jacket, his hands, wondering what the kid saw that gave him away. He can’t figure it out so he asks, “How’d you know I was a cabbie?”
“You drove me from the airport,” says the kid.
Ernie says he thought the kid didn’t recognize him. “I know,” says the kid. “That’s what you were supposed to think. Now, do you have the device with you, or are we going back to your place?”
* * *
As the kid gets in the back seat, Ernie says, “So seriously, there’s got to be risks. Doesn’t there? To using the suit?”
“As if living on borrowed time isn’t bad enough,” says the kid. “As if lying to my wife every night for the last year isn’t bad enough.”
They pull out into light after-bar traffic. Ernie’s feeling a touch of fuzziness on the backs of his eyes. He’s in no shape to drive and he knows it, but the kid threatened to call the cops if Ernie didn’t take him straight to the suit.
“Come on,” he says. “Look at you. They invited you to bring your suit all the way to Harvard. That’s why you’re here, isn’t it? If it weren’t for that suit, you and I never would’ve met because you wouldn’t have your conference to go to.”
A guffaw from the kid cuts Ernie off. “Are you kidding?” he says. “I’m just here because my advisor’s here. He said he’d introduce me to – no, no, ‘the suit’ – hell, I was never even supposed to take it out of the lab. Do you have any idea how completely fucked I am if I don’t get it back?”
“Hey, take it easy,” Ernie says. The booze is taking over now, jumbling the kid’s words, getting him all excitable, and Ernie doesn’t want to wait and find out if he’s a violent drunk.
“My point is, you’re getting away with it, aren’t you? You caught me, kid. I’m taking you back to the suit. How can you say this thing destroyed your life?”
“You ought to know,” he says. “You’ve been wearing it.”
Ernie thinks about lying but he can’t see the point.
“Yeah,” he says. “It’s harder to move. Harder to breathe. Money feels like it’s glued down. I got to tell you, though, if that’s all there is, it isn’t much of a downside.”
“Isn’t it?” The kid’s giving him that dead-eyed stare in the rearview. “In my book selling out all your values isn’t such a small price to pay. Or is it your own glued-down money you’ve been stealing? You have been stealing, haven’t you?”
Ernie feels his cheeks flush. Better than those other guys. That’s what Janine always said. I guess she was wrong, Ernie thinks. I guess we were both wrong.
That doesn’t sit well with Ernie, so he does what he always does when it comes to stuff like this: he talks himself out of it. “So what?” he says. “You said it yourself: I took myself out of the loop of cause and effect. Even if it’s only for ten minutes, for ten minutes there’s no consequences.”
“What else have you done?” says the kid. “Do you find yourself lying more often? Breaking the rules in general? Even when you’re not wearing the device?”
“Hey,” Ernie says, “don’t get all high and mighty on me. You’re just a kid. What do you know?”
“I know I never meant to lie to my wife,” he says. “I know the human body needs a little something extra to make it through thirty-two hour days. I know.…”
Ernie can hear it in his voice: the kid wants to stop himself, but the booze went and loosened his tongue and now he can’t stop talking. He says, “I know the first time I fell asleep wearing the device I told myself I’d never make such a waste of it again. I’ve been taking ephedrine every night ever since, and to be honest I’m not sure I can stop. I’m on sleeping pills to counteract the epinephrine and I’m not sure I can quit on those either.”
The kid starts crying. “And what’s the point?” he says.
Ernie really cannot stand seeing a grown man cry. Maybe it’s a generational thing. Maybe it’s old-fashioned machismo.
Whatever it is, there’s not enough beer in the world to make Ernie cry in front of a man he hardly knows. His eyes dodge the rearview like they might see his sister in it naked.
“All that to finish in a year,” the kid says. “I’ve become a drug addict so I can look better on paper. So I can land a job where I’ll always have to wonder if the reason I got hired was because I had an unfair advantage. You had it all wrong,” he says, sobbing. “You never escape cause and effect. You just draw your cards from the deck in the wrong order.”
Habit makes Ernie glance up at the mirror. Big mistake.
“Jesus H.,” he says. “Why’re you telling me all this, kid?”
“So you’ll give it back to me,” the kid says, his voice quivering. His whole face is red and wet; his eyes are bloodshot. “So I won’t have to call the cops,” he says. “So I can get the device back without having to admit I lost it. So I can go back to screwing up my life, I guess.”
He starts crying again.
“Jesus,” says Ernie.
* * *
They get to Ernie’s place. “That’ll be fifty-eight fifty,” he says. The kid looks up at Ernie and laughs. At least he can take a joke.
Ernie asks him what his name is. “Ernest,” the kid says.
“You gotta be kidding,” Ernie says with a laugh. “That’s my name! My folks named me after Hemingway.”
“Mine too,” says Ernest. His voice is real quiet. “They wanted me to go into literature.”
“Hell,” says Ernie, “I don’t know what they wanted for me, but it sure as hell wasn’t driving cabs. Wait here.”
He goes inside, gets the Samsonite carry-on from the basement and crams the suit in it. It’s not a hard decision.
It might have been if they’d started their conversation on Ernie’s front porch, but they were driving all the way from Cambridge and Ernie had plenty of time to think. Plenty of places to turn off, places he could’ve dropped the kid and kept driving. This time of night, the wrong neighborhood, maybe skinny little Ernest never comes back.
Maybe. Or maybe Ernie just drives him someplace secluded, lets him out, breaks both his knees with the front bumper. Pick a dark place and turn the lights off and no one could get a good look at his plates. He could’ve made skinny little Ernest a speed bump, even backed over him to make sure, and the only description the cops would’ve had is “a taxi cab.”
Ernie could have done it but he didn’t. He can’t exactly explain why, either. Maybe it’s because he wasn’t sure he could have gotten away with it. Maybe it’s because he got away with everything so far and he didn’t want to push his luck. Or maybe getting away with it isn’t as easy as it sounds. Ernie’s not sure. He just knows this one wasn’t the hard decision.
Ernie gets behind the wheel, passes the case back to Ernest, and pulls a U-turn to take the kid back to the Yard.
“This isn’t my suitcase,” says Ernest.
“Yeah, well, the suit’s in it,” says Ernie. “Don’t get picky on me.”
“No,” the kid says. “You don’t understand.” Ernie can hear him futzing with zippers. “There was a journal,” he says. “It had a log of the time I’ve borrowed. I need it back or I won’t know where to start borrowing from again.”
Maybe you ought to lay off the borrowing, Ernie wants to say. Maybe it’ll help you quit the pills. But Ernie figures it’s not for him to get all high and mighty on this kid. “My wife’s got it,” he says.
“I need it back,” says Ernest.
Ernie looks at him through the mirror. “Kid,” he says, “you don’t know what you’re asking.”
All the kid says is, “I need it back.”
* * *
Ernie pulls up in front of Janine’s sister’s place and the living-room drapes are thin enough that he can see they’ve still got the kitchen lights on. He sighs and says, “Give me the damn suitcase.”
He rings the doorbell and her sister peeks out between the drapes. Janine comes down after a minute. Ernie takes a deep breath. “I need to tell you something,” he says, “and I’m gonna tell it to you straight.”
* * *
It’s a month later when Ernie gets a call. It’s seven PM and Ernie’s been driving since seven that morning. That’s become a regular thing for him. He knocks off for half an hour once or twice to grab a bite and read, but otherwise he’s running Logan and Brigham and Massachusetts General like clockwork. He does it for Janine, he says, but when he takes the time to think about it he knows it’s more than just that.
He’s got another regular thing going these days: he tends to take lunch at a particular Seven-Eleven. The old guy behind the counter there probably thinks Ernie’s a scatterbrain, what with him always forgetting his change on the counter when he leaves. Ernie would do the same at a particular gas station too, only the girl they used to have got fired. It wasn’t even over Ernie robbing the place. The poor kid was too honest to keep the change he kept leaving on the counter, and her boss canned her for being over whenever she closed out her register.
Ernie talked Roberta at dispatch into getting her a job but the kid hasn’t taken to it. Ernie’ll tell you it just goes to show how hard it is to do right by somebody after you did them wrong.
He’s at home on the sofa reading Sherman Alexie when the phone rings. It’s Ernest; he recognizes the voice right away.
He doesn’t know how the kid got his number, but then the kid is wicked smart. “I just wanted to thank you,” he says.
“For what?” says Ernie.
“Returning the device,” says Ernest. “And the suitcase and the journal.”
Ernie laughs. He ended up driving that kid all the way back to the Yard for free that night, but does he get thanks for that? “You don’t have to thank a guy for returning what he stole from you,” he says.
“Yeah, well, thanks anyway.”
“How you doing with those pills?” says Ernie.
“How are you doing with that wife?” says Ernest.
Ernie laughs again, but for once he’s pretty happy on that front. Janine spent the night. They both had a few drinks in them the night before and in the morning Janine said it was probably a mistake, but Ernie liked the sound of the word probably. She let him give her a kiss on his way out the door, and that’s not bad.
The night he came to get the kid’s carry-on he told her the whole shebang. She didn’t believe him. Called him a lying sack of shit, actually, but he was surprised to learn he really didn’t care whether she believed him or not. The big thing was that he told her the truth. It was the hardest decision he’d made in a long time. He still can’t say it felt good, but it felt right.
That’s not much comfort, by the way, and he’ll be the first to say so. He’ll say, You know that satisfaction people talk about? The one you get from doing the right thing? Well, that and a buck’ll get you a cup of coffee.
On the phone he says, “Let me tell you this, kid: it’s not easy to make things right with someone when she don’t believe you. It’s even harder when the true story is the most cockamamie thing you ever heard of. So thanks for inventing that suit, huh? And for leaving it in my cab. You damn Harvard types.”
Now the kid laughs. He says, “You’re the one who put it on. I suppose you’re going to blame me for that too?”
A memory comes back to Ernie: the image of a skinny drunk in his back seat on the drive back to the Yard, folding that suit over and over in his hands. He looked like he was thinking pretty hard about it. Ernie doesn’t know the kid well or anything, but for some reason he’s got hope for him.
“Hey, you’re not going to believe what happened to me today,” Ernie says. “I’m dropping off a couple of Frenchmen at their hotel and they don’t understand tipping. Fifty bucks they left me. I tell you what, me and Janine are eating steak tonight.”
“That’s great, Ernie.”
The kid’s tone is flat and Ernie knows their conversation is over. “Listen,” he says, “you take care of your girls, kid. Keep ’em close.”
“You too, Ernie,” says the kid, his tone still flat, and Ernie’s not sure he’ll ever hear from him again.
But if it’s the last thing the kid ever told him, at least it was good advice. Ernie’s going to keep Janine as close as he can. He’s already decided he’s taking her to Davio’s tonight if she’s up for it. If not, the next night, maybe. He figures it’ll all work itself out. They’ve got time.