‘Lucky .003’, Kassandra Kelly

Illustrations © 2008 Christina Cartwright

 [ The Dead Cat © 2008, Christina Cartwright ] After the cat died, time began to creep up on me.

One day I set out to water the tomato plants, and the next thing I knew I'd spent most of the day going through old clothes, shaking out wrinkles and remembering when I last wore this dress, that blouse.

In the trunk I also found a notebook. I don't know how it got there, maybe scooped up in my last frenzy of packing. We are taught never to write anything down, not even directions or lists. I've obeyed this rule so well that I had to teach myself to hold a pen.

You see, that was one way the cat helped. I wouldn't have lasted a month out here without her, in the beginning.

I've been thinking about human companionship since she died. Like writing, we were discouraged from making memories with another person, even other time keepers. Jaguar and I violated that rule, but everyone agreed we were more valuable together than apart. And now of course, friendship is not possible. People live here in the desert, more than Howard said there would be, but too few for anything like friendship.

The local people, the Safa, bring my water pods every week. They sit at the edge of my wire perimeter in their blue robes, watching me. We are curiosities to one another. I've never learned more than a few of their words, and they know nothing of me. They bring water because Howard paid them. Continues to pay them, I should say, which means that not too much has changed in the world since I left. When the Safa stop bringing water, that's how I will know.

The cat was called Isadora and she gave me the safety of the eternal present. Unlike cats, people slide between past, present and future restlessly, sometimes visiting all three in a single sentence. Maybe Is had her own tiny cat memories of other places, less dry and hot places, but all I saw of her was cat in the present tense. Is.

Now that I'm forcing myself to write, memories come to the surface. Today I recalled how the helicopter pilot insisted I take the cat when I didn't want her. He tossed the cat carrier out the door as he was lifting up, leaving me and the cat in the middle of nowhere, with our cases and boxes already sinking into the desert. If I focused on even the smallest detail of that memory, like the frantic scent of cat urine or the sandy grit inside my clothes, I could—as you know perfectly well—slide into that moment completely.

The cat died in a corner of my tent a couple of days ago. I found her the next morning stiff and covered with flies. I have to be careful the sound of insects doesn't become a trigger for time travel. I swept her into a hole in the sand and pulled a sheet of corrugated metal roofing over the top, heavy enough to keep the scavengers from digging her up.

I have no idea where the metal came from. Things rise out of the sand around here as often as they subside into it. I swear the metal roofing wasn't there a week ago, but then I also swear my grill was next to the fire pit yesterday. Or what passes for yesterday around here. I've found Coke bottles and orthodontic retainers, batteries, lighters, tires, and once, memorably, ten yards of white muslin. It was just a scrap of cloth flapping in the wind but when I pulled it, yards and yards of it unwound from the sand, no end in sight. Maybe it was a mummy wrapping, the old bones spinning under my feet as I pulled the cloth. I think there is a whole city under there. Sometimes I fall asleep imagining I'm on an ocean of sand.

Howard Reinnman was the one who found this place and made the arrangements. All I wanted was some place distant, isolated. I never thought I'd be out here for years. I told him, no supplies, but he arranged everything, including the water from the Safa. He probably thought of the cat. No doubt he still wants me alive, his secret weapon.

I thought it would be the other thing that got me. Ponderiosis. Drooliosis we called it when we were kids visiting the sick time keepers in their wheelchairs in the nursing home. I hated wiping drool off old fat chins, but I have some appreciation for it now. The first time keeper from my class developed stability problems at thirteen, and that's how I learned that while some of the people in the nursing home were old, most weren't.

Jaguar developed it at thirty-eight, late for someone who'd been so profligate with his ability. He liked to say he'd rather time travel for a pack of cigarettes and a fuck than for any paying gig. The last time I saw him, a child with latex gloves was changing his waste bag.

True, I could have the disease now and not know it. I've always had drifty moments and I seem to have them more often now. By day, I feel completely fine. It's only at night that things begin to slip. I am 48.

The sheet metal is gone today. I walked out to where I thought it was and kicked around in the sand, but the dunes have grown over the place. I hope the cat's body is down deep and not about to float to the surface some day when I'm not ready for it.

I beat the sand off my tent and straightened the posts that hold up my perimeter wire. Half the day's water goes to my plants and I make tea with the rest. Now I sit here, smoothing the pages of my journal and listening to the sound of my voice as I reread yesterday's entry aloud and consider what to write next. I wanted to write about my beginnings, my family of birth and how I was identified. But it gets complicated very quickly. My past has been rewired so many times that I can't even say reliably when my parents were killed. It was either at dinner when I was six or in a car accident when I was thirty-one.

The community was established to protect against biographical leaks. I've seen time keepers exploited for the flavor of a blueberry milkshake and turned into walking bombs. That's why we are identified young, taken to the school and have no further contact with our families. No memories but those the community can control, see? That's how it's supposed to work. But in the last years security was breached dozens of times. I don't know if the community even exists anymore. Nothing is secure and everyone talks under the right circumstances.

Nuance. That's one reason I've come to love the desert. It's all nuance out here.

Since I hadn't planned on having a cat, I hadn't planned for veterinary emergencies. I know how simple it would be, so simple, to slip back to the evening when Howard and I drew up equipment lists and add a few medical supplies. We were at his place on Lopez Island, we'd had Dungeness crab and a bottle of prosecco for dinner, and Howard leaned across the table and said—

"You can't stay here, Jenna. I can't protect you."

"It seems remote enough to me. Look out there."

Howard glances at the window and back to his wine glass. Though I've been here a dozen times, I can't tear myself away from the view. My shoes are off and my toes curl in the carpet which is thick enough to be lawn grass. Clouds roll in to finish the summer evening. Nothing in the water but a few sailboats tacking for home.

"But I know you're right, Howard."

"It kills me to say it, Jenna."

"But you'll say it again."

He stands up abruptly and walks to the bar. I know the stance; Howard's not a time keeper. He doesn't get our humor. How long have we been lovers? Howard would probably say six months, since the Atlanta job. But with all the iterations I've experienced or caused, the last six months has telescoped into what feels like ten or twenty years. I'm exhausted and not even sure if I'll be awake until sunset, let alone companionable while Howard drinks enough scotch to make his point.

"I wish it wasn't this way, Jenna. Drink?"

He hands me a glass of scotch and I sip. It tastes like rubbing alcohol. A time keeper would use this taste to anchor a slippage. Think of this nasty stuff sometime in the future and be here. This is the kind of memory Howard's enemies would pay elephant dollars to use.

"Don't wish that, Howard."

He doesn't reply. We're in an iteration where the London subway bombings have just occurred, and I spent part of the day watching CNN. I ache to call Jaguar and can't, so I sublimated by cleaning Howard's spotless black bathroom. There's no Jaguar to call, no phone that could reach him.

Howard was on the phone with his British associates this morning and spent a lot of time in his office with the door shut. Only the fact that I'd been with him for three days before the bombing keeps him from suspecting I have anything to do with it. That's how little he knows about time travel.

Howard takes his seat at the table, puts his elbow on the placemat and leans his head into his hand. He looks older than his years, though I'm never sure how old he's supposed to be. Multiple iterations usually have no physical consequences on non-time keepers. It could be Atlanta that's aged him, or maybe it's me. Knowing the unsteady sands on which we base our reality tends to make you lose sleep.

"How often do you do it, Jenna?" he asks suddenly. "Have you done it since we've been on Lopez?"

My turn to get up and go to the window. "I can't talk about it." The clouds are a bruised purple in the sky as if we are one moment away from night. The wind bends the fir trees on the bluff. Beautiful and unsettled.

He sighs. Ice clinks against glass. "I know I shouldn't ask."

"But you always do."

The window overlooks the hardscrabble bluff stone yard, not even a garden. In a fit of new home ownership zeal, Howard arranged the stones and planted small, rock-growing succulents, but since he visits this place so rarely, the thin soil has gone back to raising conifers with bent, wind buffeted branches. In all the times I've been here, in the real continuum or the bastardized generations of same, it has never looked more bereft and singular, more blue with darkness, more permanent unto itself.

"Come sit down," says Howard. "Have another drink."

I think ahead to the bed we'll share. It's a luxury to think forward, but the anticipated feelings of love and companionship, of possible sex, don't comfort. It is something, another thing, to get through.

"You're right. I need to go," I say. "You have to arrange it. Don't tell me where, just make it happen."

He ducks his head, looks away. "I have some ideas."

I stand stone cold and singular, watching him rub moisture out of his eyes. I know I should reach out and cup his cheek. I understand the value of the gesture and that things might change if I do it. I've never done it before.

So I reach out.

Sand ticks against the walls of the tent. I am clutching my journal as I come back into the present. Getting worse. It's one thing to relive a memory and entirely another to change it. This is why we don't write. We fortify ourselves in the narrow gauge of the present.

I push back from the spool table, a thing that had rolled out of the desert after a sandstorm, still feeling the glassy cherry wood of Howard's table under my hands.

It wasn't the slippage I'd seen with the sick ones. I wasn't free-falling through history. But I looked around the tent anyway, examining my things. Something might be different and it could be very small.

A cat meowed and Isadora jumped onto the spool table, purring. She had a bald spot on her face and a pink seam running from her ear to the corner of her mouth. I took a step backwards and stumbled against a chair while she stared at me with pale green eyes.

I barely slept that night. At first light the blue robed figures of the Safa were at the edge of the wire, squatting in the sand. I saw a new water pod. Nothing was out of place but I didn't move. The cat drifted back to the tent after the Safa left, mewing for food.

The scar gave her a gobsmacked grin. I tried not to look. She rubbed it against the chair leg and an open case of American cat food. When I got up to feed her I chose a can at the back of the box to avoid touching what she'd touched. I would find more cases scabbed with sand behind the tent. New information pressed against old memories, embroidering in some place, overlaying in others. Now the helicopter pilot hands me Isadora's carrier. Now I push antibiotics down her throat.

Before the new memories become fixed, I have to make note of the changes. How far did it go, how deep? I couldn't shake my new feelings about the cat. Her coat was glossier and fuller than before, her belly sagged and tufts of long hair grew from it. This morning she'd been with the Safa while they watched me, winding between them and rubbing against them. I could smell their dry perfume on her coat. Isadora had never done that before. She always hid with me in the tent.

I can't bring myself to touch her.

This ghost cat lounged in the sand in front of the tent, tail twitching. She jumped on the water pod and stared at me. In the afternoon, she disappeared until almost dark and came back smelling of the Safa again.

The cat is new.

That night I slept outside behind the tent, next to the wire. The Lopez memory now had a crisp, newly-minted quality, what time keepers called a sexy memory. You didn't need to anchor to a taste or scent, just step in anywhere, the water's fine. I had shown myself to be alive and still more or less in control of my mind. Though not my emotions. Reaching out to Howard was idiocy. I'd seen my whole family killed, and many others after that, without giving in to emotional tinkering. But I'd done it this time, why? Because I was lonely?

My last memory of family is saying goodbye in the community's public parking lot when I was seven. Or it could have been the pipe bomb that came through the dining room window to land in a bowl of buttered peas when I was six. The earlier memory came later, if you know what I mean, a biographical attack that was attempted after I became a time keeper.

I don't know which memory is real. Either my parents said good bye in the parking lot and went on to live regular, natural lives in Arizona, owners of a car that would flatten some twenty-five years later into a freeway abutment, or they vanished in a white flash as the window shattered. Both could be true. Both may even be false.

That's how it is, changing so much you can never keep up.

 [ Tent Scene © 2008, Christina Cartwright ] Just before dark yesterday, I looked up to a see a blue robe sitting at the perimeter wire. I was eating dal rolled in flat bread and sitting at the spool table. He could have been there a long time without me noticing, but the cat was just now sauntering over to him. It's like they rise out of the sand, these people.

I waited for the cat to make contact, realizing that in this version, that's how we did it, the cat and me. After the blue robe petted the cat and she insinuated herself around him, purring madly, I walked out of the tent.

The desert was already blue with night, the color swimming out of the sand like fog. In a moment the Safa would be invisible.

"Ho'aa," I said.

"Ho'aal, Jenna."

There was little I could see of him, not even his eyes. In the pressboard layers of new memories I found this man's name, Qhah. I knew he would not push back his hood until sitting inside my wire, and the first thing he would do once inside is tease a fire out of some dry dung he carried under his robes. It would burn blue and hot. I also knew we would speak in Safa, the quiet susurrations that sound like sand moving in the wind.

"Where've you been?"

"I've been in the mountains three days east of here. I would have come sooner." He dropped lumps of dung into the ashes and lit them with a battered Bic lighter, one of the more common relics delivered from the desert. "My brother has a radio."

"I didn't know you had a brother. Or a radio."

Qhah shrugged, universal Safa gesture for so many things unknown.

Some things I do know about him. In the blue flame, the wide plains of his face are visible, blunt stone overlayed with a tracery of wrinkles. He smells of dust. Paler skin is concealed within the folds of his clothing. I have never asked if he is western, though a shared heritage might make us easy in one another's company. He asks nothing about me.

"There is another war, Jenna." He uses the word for great burning in the sky which is Safa for both war and cataclysm. "Perhaps time is different? Changed?"

"Who made the war, Qhah?"

"It doesn't matter who makes the war when it's so close. We saw bombing from the mountains. On the horizon, little fireflies."

We sleep together in the dark corner of the tent, the cat jumping in and out. When I wake up it is to see him smoking a cigarette in the dark, and then I can't get back to sleep again. I carry a blanket behind the tent and sit in the sand.

In the morning I make him take the cat.

The impulse for kindness has no good outcome. I relentlessly shut down memories of the cat, of Qhah. Just days ago I didn't know about him and now his absence is consuming.

I sit on the deep sand, waiting to see what will surface next. Two days ago I didn't know any Safa, and now the entire language is open to me. Already I am forgetting what it was like before, when the cat was dead. It doesn't fade like a memory; I simply stop having faith that is was ever real.

I am less alone. Sometimes I see camp fires in the distance. Once I heard truck engines. I try to sort out which transactions of the desert are harmless and which are not. I sleep by day.

The most common question people used to ask me was why time keepers' memories weren't changed when the timeline changed. I reply that of course our memories are changed just like anyone's, rewritten along with the physical fabric of the world. Except in the two instances they aren't. One instance is if you enabled the change, and the other is if you are one of the (un)lucky .003% of us who is unaffected by time alteration at all. I'm not sure about this statistic; being born with time travel ability is rare enough, hen's teeth, you might say. Some community actuarial probably derived the data from what remains of the sick ones. The .003 must be the sickest ones of all.

The way they teach children to time travel is with taste. My teacher took us to a field on a spring afternoon, gave us all lime Popsicles in paper wrappers. I peeled mine and licked the green syrup from the paper and sucked the Popsicle until the juice was gone. Then we played a game for an hour. After that the teacher told us to think about the Popsicle. For Jaguar that was all it took. He went back in time, ate his Popsicle, knocked mine into the grass and ran off. What he achieved in one moment of heat shimmer slammed two memories together in my mind. I was the lucky .003. Not even Jaguar was that lucky.

"We should have a place," he said to me once, twenty years later. By then we'd done the jobs we were raised to do, the dirty and the clean. In fact, we'd just finished a complicated job worth several million that had required a thirteen year old version of myself to carry a gun into a school while a thirteen year old Jaguar did the same in another school two hundred miles away. Even though it was very real, it still had the fantastic thirteen year old flavor of a thing you did just because you could. Supposed to change a law. I'm not sure it stayed changed. I tend to lose track of the moral center of these jobs, especially since in my case three people got killed. Afterwards Jaguar suggested we agree on a place in the past to meet up when the slippage started. "Or whatever," he said, raising his eyebrows.

I don't know if this qualifies as whatever.

Headlights in the night. They tracked a northwest-south line, passing within a mile of my camp. In my notebook, I've written Lopez Island, Washington. Akumal, Yucatan, adding more pages to the stack on the left side of the table. The aroma of red snapper on the grill floats through the curtain of memories and Howard says—

"--this is them? The consultants?" Howard Reinmann, the client, waived off a Mexican waiter. He was shaping up to be the kind of client we all hated. He wore a white man in the tropics suit and flashed a watch that was so expensive it didn't even have numbers on it. "They look like junkies." To us, "What are you, junkies?"

"Never hired a time keeper before?" asked Jaguar. "Lucky man."

"I'm sorry, Mr. Reinmann." This was Caspar, a kind of broker. Jaguar was in a constant state of war with Caspar because he thought Caspar had hustled us out of some fees. Jaguar had never caught him at it, which meant that Caspar was somehow smarter than Jaguar. It worried me because by our very nature, we were smarter than everyone, if not at present, then certainly in the future. Time keeper joke.

Caspar introduced us, Howard blustered a little less and the waiter came back with beer. This was Akumal.

Howard wanted us to kill a man in Atlanta five years ago. Kill him, take his computer, wallet and cell phone. We'd done hundreds of jobs like this, and after watching Howard sweat and rant for fifteen minutes about how badly this guy needed killing, both Jaguar and I were yawning in our beers.

"You'll do it?" he asked, as if he hadn't already passed a briefcase to Caspar.

"Yeah, sure, what the fuck," said Jaguar. "Want to hit the beach, Jen?"

Akumal was on the Caribbean. Neither of us had snorkeled before and we drowsed around the reefs all afternoon, looking down into deep pockets of the world. Jaguar dove into the deepest rift again and again while I floated above. It was probably the first time he couldn't go somewhere by simply wishing it.

"Want this to be the place?" he asked as we dropped on our beach towels, exhausted.

We arrived at the restaurant late for dinner. Caspar and Howard were already drunk. Jaguar ordered the most expensive bottle of wine, slouched in his chair and yelled obscenities at the marimba band. Howard looked across the table at me and back at Jaguar, the blank expression of man confronting curiosities.

After dinner Howard took my arm. "What do you do?"

"Everything." I slipped out of his fingers.

There are, of course, timekeeper sex workers. Maybe that's what Howard thought I was when he knocked on my hotel room door later that night, waving a brick of Euros. It wouldn't be the first time.

"Whatever you want," he said. "I'll give you anything."

He was red-faced and rumpled, either from crying or throwing up. I held the door against him. "It doesn't work when you're drunk."

"Get lost, asshole." Jaguar stepped in from the balcony. The wind streamed through the room after him, lifting the gauze curtains to reveal the black desert of the sea beyond the margin of beach. Jaguar's shirt was open, showing the flat slats of his chest. No wonder people think we're junkies, looking at that. He clenched his fist.

Howard stepped backward and stumbled. I smelled scotch and cigarettes and ancient, tender grief. He clawed at my shoulder to steady himself.

"Jaguar, no." I raised my hand. "Leave him alone."

Millions of possibilities are born from saying no just once to Jaguar. I see him as he was, bunching Howard's shirt and marching him out of the room. I see Jaguar as he is in this version, hurling a beer bottle at my head. I see him shoving Howard; I see him shoving past Howard and away. I see him the next morning passed out on the lawn, a dozen Mexican kids watching him drool.

I come back, years or minutes later, still in the desert. I watch both horizon and sky, rising only to stay within that hour's shadow. It won't be long now. The Safa haven't brought water in weeks. The water pod is almost empty and my ration drops to spoonfuls per day. The tomato plants calcify and their leaves blow away in the wind.

Lopez, garden of rocks and moss. Akumal, a billowing curtain against the night sky, Jaguar's smoke harsh voice. Here, the shushing winds and water plinking against my plastic bowl. It's amazing the little things you remember.

"Anything you want."

Blades settle out of the sky, blowing my perimeter wire over the dune sea, useless. As the helicopter settles, Howard steps out. He looks exactly the same, dressed for the desert in sand-colored boots. Never hire a time keeper before? Lucky man.

"Well, Jenna," he says. "Are you ready to come back?"

"Seems remote enough for me. Look out there."

A flash against the window, a dog digging in the shrubs?

Mommy says, "I think you'll like your new school. Won't she, Daddy?" The margarine sits on a plate, she dabs a pat on the peas and it smears like a weeping eye.


"But, sweetie—"

Glass pieces fly like daggers, two piercing Daddy's throat. Jaguar is a seven year old time keeper with a pipe bomb, staring through the broken window with his perfect blue eyes. He has a video game in his pocket for the ride home.

"Want this to be the place?" he asks.

I close my eyes and fall.

© 2008 Kassandra Kelly

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