Horror Mystery Science Fiction Historical Romance time travel


By James Van Pelt
Jun 14, 2019 · 5,760 words · 21 minutes

The chimney

Photo by Ricardo Gomez Angel via Unsplash.

From the author: Everyone knows about time travel paradoxes and how they make travel into history impossible, but there are ways around the problems, and if you could go back in time, to your best and worst days, what would you discover? Could you answer your deepest mysteries?

"Some things happen that you have to figure out how to live with.  If you don't, they will kill you," said Pierce.

"You can't keep taking equipment without getting into trouble," said Linda, from her work station.  She looked concerned and grandmotherly.  "It's not ethical.  There are laws."

Pierce glanced up from the briefcase full of electronics.  His face dragged against the bones--full of exhaustion and whatever had taken the place of grief--and his brain moved too slowly to lie.  It had been weeks since he'd slept more than an hour or two in a row.  "You don't always think about consequences.  Go ahead and report me,"  he said, snapping the lid shut.  "Besides, her voice is everywhere," he whispered. 

He coughed twice.  Spring and summer allergies had settled into his lungs and turned into a dry, whistling hack he hadn't been able to shake.

In the hallway outside of the lab, he heard Linda say to his back, "Nothing you find out will make it any better."

She's probably right, he thought as he drove to Denver's City Park.  Even with the Aural History Institute's capability of going back in time to record sound, history was still a mystery.  Sound records only provided more questions:  why did people do anything?  Why did they behave the way they did?  Why did events turn out one way and not another?  Human actions weren't always the result of cause and effect, and motivations were still only guessed at.  Sometimes people just acted out.  History was a joke. 

He shook his head.  Surely there must be answers, he thought.  We only have to keep searching.  History is about making sense of the chaos.

Yesterday's recording of two days at the Chocolate Liqueur's manager's office a week and a half before Sarah's death, had been a wash.  Fourteen phone calls, all business related: a long bull session with one of the waitresses about house hunting and tropical fish and several short talks with restaurant employees over hours or what needed to be done for the day.  Evidently, Sarah hadn't spent much time in her office.

No mention of his name in two days, though.  Nothing about her upcoming wedding.

He turned automatically.  Today's recording wouldn't require subterfuge like yesterday's, where he had to sit in the new manager's office, pretending to fill out a job application while the sensitive instruments in the briefcase below him searched for the time he had preset, recording all the sounds that had taken place in the room then.  The mechanism whirred slightly, and he had kept shuffling his feet to cover the sound.  Annoyed, the manager took his application wordlessly and waved him away from her desk.

As good as the computer's search engine was, picking Sarah's voice from the hours of silence or other conversations, listening to everything she said had still taken several hours.  He'd played back parts, adjusting the mix, enhancing sound quality, identifying who she was speaking to.  A printout tucked into the back of the notebook listed one hundred and three voices from the hundreds of days of recordings he'd made, but only twenty-seven had names beside them.  The rest were unknown.

And in all those hours of voices, of Sarah talking, he hadn't heard her once say why she changed her mind.

If I can reconstruct the past maybe I can understand it, he thought.  Maybe I can understand my part in it.

That morning, as the sun washed coldly through the lab's window, Pierce had found himself listening over and over to the same irrelevant sentence: Sarah asking someone in her crystalline clear voice, "Are any of the avocados soft at all?" 

He fell asleep on a couch beside the Aural History file cabinets, and Linda found him there when she opened the lab.

City Park slid by on his left, and he almost missed the parking lot.  He set the dates before he got out of the car:  February 17 and April 28, the day they were engaged, and the day she broke the engagement.  The best of times and the worst of times, he thought.

Pierce squeezed the handle of the briefcase as he walked toward the park bench where both events had occurred.  Mid-morning on a weekday in August, the park was mostly empty.  A handful of toddlers with a single supervisor ran around the marble dolphin sculpture on the street side of the park.  On the other side, a row of high rises bordered the bike path and neatly trimmed grass.  A scattering of solid wooden benches stretched from Broadway at the east end of the park to Lincoln at the other. 

He sat heavily on "their" bench.  Dark green paint absorbed the sun's heat, and its warmth baked the backs of his legs.  His fingers rested lightly on the briefcase while he sat motionless for a long time.

Somewhere in time it's February, he thought; she's still sitting on this bench.  She's wearing the yellow ski parka I bought her for Christmas, has her hands underneath her because we'd cleared the wet snow to give her a place to sit.  Two kids play on the bike path, except it's snow covered too, and they're having troubles with their sled.  Its runners keep digging in instead of riding on the top.

Tiny heat waves danced off the bike path's asphalt now, but he could see the snow there too; the kids laughed, tugging at their sled, and beside him Sarah's breath came out in little fogs that danced around her face.

Through the smell of summer grass and cars on the street, he could also feel the sharp bite of winter air in his nose.  He took another deep breath, then coughed loudly, a pair of seal barks that trailed into whistles. 

What did she say, though? he thought.  What were we talking about before I asked her?  What did her voice sound like before she knew I wanted to marry her?  What, exactly, did it sound like when she said yes?  Can I hear in her yes a hint of the confusion that would come in two months?

He opened the case and pressed the record button.  He imagined a tiny microphone hurtling back to rest at this same spot six months earlier, recording everything that was said then.  Nothing physical really traveled, though.  The device reached back into the continuum to record what had happened in the past.  It didn't go there itself. 

The readouts confirmed the device was functioning correctly.  A short distance presented no problems in chronological drift, not like his current project at the Aural History Institute, which was finding early Denver political speeches.  Going back a hundred years meant he could miss by as much as a day.

His problems were tiny compared to the work some groups were doing, like the one trying for George Washington's inaugural, or the ridiculously ambitious group in Israel who hoped to capture the Sermon on the Mount.  Not only were they dealing with incredible chronological slop, but no one was sure when or where the sermon occurred, if it did at all.

Still, a six-month jump presented no challenge.  He wouldn't miss by more than a few minutes, and the device could hold two-days' worth of sound.

Pierce shut his eyes.  He almost felt Sarah beside him, her cheeks flushed in the cold air, her wide smile lighting the rest of her face.  She had rested her hand on his wrist.  He remembered how warm it felt.  "Yes," she had said.  "Yes, I'll marry you."  She put her head on his shoulder.

On the same bench, though--on the same bench two months later at the end of April she'd cried, holding her head in her hands, refusing to look at him.  Crusts of old snow, blackened with city soot surrounded the bench.  On Broadway, the cars splashed grimly through dirty water, and the clouds scudded across the sky like tattered ghosts.

Time held them both.

On July 2 she married Baylor, head of the Aural History Institute, and on July 7, while Baylor was in Dallas working on the Kennedy project, her Victorian house with its crummy wiring she'd planned on replacing  in the fall burned down with her in it.  Baylor flew back on the red-eye when he heard the news.  Now, in August, Pierce was sitting on the same bench, gathering the echoes of her voice solidly anchored in time.  Why did it all happen? he thought.  Where's the sense in it?

It all existed at once.  The bench beneath him now was warm, but once it was wet, and another time it was cold.  Sarah held his wrist and leaned against him, breathing winter in and out in fog and whiteness, and she also shook in tears, her face buried in her hands.  Everything, all of it, tumbled around and around.  But time wasn't like memory.  It didn't fade and mix.  It didn't change with perception or become disordered.  Sounds in time's continuum, at least, were measurable and retrievable.  In five years they might be able to capture visuals too, but presently they were limited to sound.  Sound would have to be enough, he thought.  In sound he would find the reason for the emptiness now.

The mechanism chirped softly, and he knew that it had finished with the February recording, capturing four hours in a few minutes.  The recorder moved on to April.

That afternoon, Pierce plowed through several hours of spidery sounding recordings of  state senate from the previous century.  The new recordings of Sarah at City Park waited on his desk, but he couldn't work on it until after hours.

Baylor's office stood open, revealing a corner of his desk and a droopy fern in a pot on the floor. 

Through Pierce's headphones, Henry Teller, one of Colorado's Republican senator's boomed out a speech he gave several times in 1893.  "We are neither cast down nor dejected, but this is mindless destruction," he said repeatedly, as a lead in to each point attacking the repeal of the Sherman Silver act, which would close hundreds of mines and put much of the mining industry into bankruptcy.  "We do not disguise the fact that we are to go through the valley of the shadow of death," he said with his particular hyperbole.

Baylor stepped into the doorway.  His grey suit seemed more businesslike than academic, and the athleticism of his build and stance only accented his nearly white hair and silver-rimmed glasses.  He scanned the room, nodding when he caught Pierce's eye, then said something to Linda that Pierce didn't catch through the headphones.  They laughed, and through the thundering conclusion of Teller's speech, Pierce watched his boss and Linda chat amiably.

Baylor didn't look like a man whose wife of one week had died in a fire a month ago.  He was relaxed and tanned.  He seemed well rested, at ease, and, as always, oozing with a breezy confidence that calmed potential clients, nervous about the thousands of dollars a thorough aural search cost. 

He'd come to work the day after, Pierce had heard, while Pierce himself spent the day in the waiting room at Denver General, consoling Sarah's parents and being consoled himself.

Pierce categorized the speech, stored it and moved on to the next step.  The computer displayed a circular grid with sound sources highlighted.  Teller's voice was loudest and brightest on the screen.  The other spots were coded and some tentatively identified.  Pierce ran the speech back, this time isolating on the weaker sounds.  One was a fan, he decided; another was a conversation between what was probably a pair of state dignitaries.  He entered his observations mechanically into the computer.  Maybe some grad student doing a paper on politics in the west would be interested later.

A third sound puzzled him.  It rumbled for a few seconds, then paused, over and over.  Pierce tapped a pencil against the monitor, switching from one sound filtering routine to the next.  The display next to the circular grid showed the pattern of sound waves in the familiar pattern of jagged lines.   Finally he decided it was a man snoring.

Baylor flicked off his office light, and with a start, Pierce realized how late it was.  Linda waved as she left, and a moment later Baylor closed his door, strode across the room and sat on the corner of Pierce's desk.

"You don't look good, Pierce.  Are you O.K.?"  Baylor’s voice was soft, which made it harder to find and record in time.

Every day since Sarah's death, Baylor had made an effort to make small talk with Pierce.  Pierce couldn't remember him being nearly as friendly before.

"Fine, yes," said Pierce.  A long pause stretched between them.  "Thank you," he added finally.

Baylor shifted on the desk, bumping his knee against Pierce.  "I know how difficult this has been on you.  Get through the Teller speeches and take a week off."

Pierce forced himself to smile.  "I appreciate the concern, but really, I'm all right."

"Maybe the weekend will help."  Baylor stood, then leaning over Pierce's shoulder, glanced at the computer display.  He pointed to the sound source Pierce had just been studying for the last half hour.  "Looks like a guy snoring."

After he left, Pierce loaded in the first recording, the proposal.

"Hey, buddy," she'd said.  They were her first words.

"God, it's cold."  Pierce didn't sound nervous to himself, but listening with his eyes closed, headphones clamped solidly, he remembered now how tense he'd been.  Every word was just delaying the question he wanted to ask.  He remembered thinking that at any moment she would want to know what was the matter, but she didn't say a thing.  She laughed instead.

"Here, sit on your hands like I am.  It's warmer, and you won't get your pants wet,” she said. 

He'd already forgotten how optimistic she had been.  Never, it's cold, but here's a way to stay warm.

"Of course, when you're older, like me, you'll know these things," she had continued.

He laughed, and it sounded easy.  "By a week!"

When he finally got to the proposal, it was just as he remembered.  He listened to her acceptance a dozen times.  It was always the same: totally sure, totally in love.  What happened in the next month?  How could she go from loving him to leaving him?  How could she possibly have married Baylor?

He let the recording run on, and she said something he didn't remember.  After she'd said, "Yes, yes I'll marry you," there was no conversation for a few minutes.  He remembered holding her; his throat tightened thinking about it, listening to the silence of their embrace.  Then she said, "You could go back in time and record us, couldn't you?"

"I suppose," he'd said lazily.

"That's nice to know--that it's always there."

"Like a contract," he said with a laugh.

"Would you ever do that?"  She sounded lazy too.  Her voice carried no edge.  Pierce remembered her forehead against his cheek.

Pierce joked, "That would be breaking the law."

"Yeah, but would you?"

"It's possible” A tumble of snow fell from a nearby tree, thumping solidly to the ground.  “I might, for you."

He ran the whole conversation through again, this time with a different filtering equation, trying to get the essence of her voice, the pure stuff.  The truth.  Were the seeds of her decision to leave him present even then?

They'd left the park holding hands inside his coat pocket, and instead of going back to work, had gone to her house and made love.  It was only the second time they'd been together, and they were nervous.  He'd gotten into her bed first, and when she came out of the bathroom, she had a bath towel wrapped around her.  She'd let the towel slip a little and said shyly, "How do you like this?"

The afternoon had passed in languorous glory in her old house.  He drowned joyfully in bedsheets and warm breath and moist pleasures.

Pierce shook himself and pulled the headphones down around his neck.  His ears ached from pressing the phones so tightly to the sides of his head.

He popped the recording out of the player and turned it over in his hand.  The other conversation would be there too.  The beginning and end of their love.  Bookends, so to speak, of sound.

Fluorescent lights buzzed softly in the deserted office.  It was long past midnight; he'd lost hours playing back the old conversation, listening for any clue to put some sense to the last few weeks.  But it hadn't helped.  Her words rang in his ears, "Yes.  Yes, I'll marry you."

Her twenty-fifth birthday would have been next month.  They'd celebrated Baylor's fiftieth at the end of January.  Thoughtful, Pierce opened the recorder, set new coordinates, then checked the office one more time to be sure he was alone.  Feeling paranoid, he moved softly across the room to Baylor's door, opened it, then slipped through the darkness to his desk.  The whir of the device sounded monstrously loud in the quiet room, and Pierce jumped at the click of the air-conditioning when it kicked on.

Pierce listened to the new recording.  The morning of Sarah's death, Baylor received Linda's condolences politely, refusing her suggestion that he should go home.  After Linda left the office, Baylor made quiet sounds as he worked at his desk.  Drawers opened and closed.  A pen scratched on paper.  He took some calls and made some others.  If Pierce hadn't known, he wouldn't have been able to distinguish this day from other days.

Mid-afternoon, on the day after Sarah died, Baylor made a call to his insurance agent.  Pierce listened intently.

"I'd like to report a claim," Baylor said, his voice matter of fact and calm.

"Right, My wife died in a fire yesterday."  Baylor paused.  "No.  No, I'd rather do it now.  It's better than thinking about it."  He answered all the questions, then hung up.

"Linda," Baylor called.  Pierce winced at the high volume.  "I think I will go home early today."

Linda's voice, very faintly replied, "Oh, I think that's best, dear.  You should get away for awhile."

Dawn broke gradually, and the sun was well up before Pierce listened to the April recording.  She'd started crying after Pierce had said, "I can't wait for the spring melt."

"What's wrong?" he said.  Cars mumbled in the background.  The bench creaked.  She'd continued sobbing.  He coughed in the recording.  The allergies were bothering him even then, each cough sliding into the airy whistle that just tickled his throat and provoked the next one. 

Pierce opened his eyes; scratches marred the desk's surface.  The computer display showed the orientation of the sound sources.  Lines jumped, and she said, "I'm not happy, Pierce.  I've got to call it off."

He hadn't answered.  Hands clamped against the earphones, he couldn't even hear his breathing anymore, just the hitches in Sarah's throat as she cried.  He held his breath now; it was like being there, her sounds were so clear.  A hot iron fist bunched in his chest, and he shut his eyes again.  Then she said, "It's not you.  It's me.  I'm not ready."

"Why?" Pierce said to the emptiness of the office.  He coughed and his lungs hurt.  Everywhere he'd recorded in the past weeks, he'd searched for that answer, and he hadn't found it yet.  She hadn't told anyone why, after six weeks, she decided she didn't love him.  She hadn't told anyone why she married Baylor.

Pierce took a recorder and went home.  He fell asleep without undressing, and when the phone woke him, it was already dark outside.

It took a few seconds for him to recognize Linda.

"One of the machines is missing," she said.

"I've got it."  He rubbed at his eyes.  Nothing in his brain functioned right yet, and he was afraid he sounded incoherent.

"Someone at the restaurant recognized you.  They called the police, and the police called Baylor.  I think they were just checking up on the complaint, but if they find out you took unauthorized recordings, you could be arrested.  You could get our license revoked."

Pierce blinked hard and shook his head before he answered.

"I was asleep.  Sorry.  Why'd they call Baylor?"

"People are afraid of aural historians.  It might seem like harmless work to you, but they're worried that everything they've said in the past could come back to haunt them.  Haven't you noticed how much harder it is to get the permits?  You know how many states have passed laws forbidding sound sampling less than fifty years old?  You can't walk into a place that knows what kind of work you do without them worrying that you're going to record them too.  A waitress recognized you. She didn't know your name, but she remembered where you worked.  They figured you weren't actually trying to get a job, so they contacted the police."

Pierce took a deep breath.  "Did you know Baylor called his insurance claim on Sarah the day after she died?"

Silence hissed for a long time on the line.  Finally Linda said, "Well, he's a cold fish."

"I don't think he loved her.  What kind of guy would be out of town without his wife a week after the wedding?"

"Pierce.  There's nothing you can find that will change what happened.  It doesn't matter."

He said, "I know, Linda.  Listen, I've got to get some more sleep.  I haven't been myself lately."

"Good.  That sounds like the best plan.  Monday we can straighten the restaurant thing out with Baylor, and we can get this behind us."  She sounded relieved.

When he hung up, Pierce rechecked the charge on the batteries in the recorder, then headed for his car.

At Sarah's house, yellow, plastic ribbon still surrounded the burned remnants.  In the streetlight's garish illumination, the broken timbers stuck up like a pocket lunar landscape.  He ducked under the ribbon, then carefully picked his way through the rubble.  His feet stirred ash and the smell of burnt wood.  A menthol cough drop coated the back of his throat.  The neighborhood was too close together.  If he were heard, someone would call the cops.

Her house had been a perfect reflection of her.  She'd hung art prints on the wall, mostly impressionists, and black and white photographs she'd taken herself of falling down barns and old country fences.  Standing in the remains of the house, Pierce tried to orient himself to what he remembered.  The burnt patch of land seemed much smaller than the original house.  He figured, approximately, that he now stood where the living room used to be.  She'd had a phone on a delicate cherrywood end table.  He placed the recorder about where it might have been and activated it.

A car turned the corner onto her street, and Pierce ducked low.  Charred wood flaked beneath his fingers as long shadows swept past him.  He stayed down until the tail lights vanished.

A chirp from the briefcase told him that the first recording was done.  Using a penlight, he reset the instrument and started it again.  He didn't bother standing up.  Cars came along often enough that he figured it wasn't worth the effort to get out of the ash, and he didn't feel he had the energy to do it anyway.

Finally, lying back, he stared at the stars.  The device hummed quietly beside him. Complicated electronics were right now holding a position in time, recording everything that they could.  They were there, where Sarah still lived and breathed.

Pierce remembered once when he was a student, he'd been taking an exam that he wasn't well prepared for, and as he struggled with the little he knew about the subject, the professor had walked by his desk.  The answers are all right there, so close I can almost reach out and touch them, Pierce had thought.  But the professor had walked on, and Pierce knew nothing more than he had before.  He could feel Sarah's presence like that.  She had walked through this burnt out space a thousand times.  She was all around him, in time, but he couldn't touch her.  The best he could do was send the recorder back and let it do its job.

Moving the briefcase into where the bedroom used to be, he recorded a few hours of the past.  Twice a police car drove by, sweeping the ruins with a searchlight, while Pierce hid himself behind a low remnant of wall.

Pierce let the computer kick out dead air time.  Then an index of sounds scrolled onto the screen, labeling when each section was recorded, how long it was, and, where possible, what it was.  Many of the segments were Sarah's voice alone.  Some were Sarah and Baylor.  A handful were not voices: refrigerator, air conditioner, telephone ringing, etc.  And some were labeled "anomalous"--the computer didn't recognize the sound.

Hand trembling and a little sick, Pierce picked July 2, the day Sarah married Baylor.  Linda was right, thought Pierce.  People should be afraid of the aural technology.  It is, essentially, limitless eavesdropping.  What person could stay sane knowing that anything he or she said could be retrieved later?  How could any moment remain intimate if a microphone out of time could drop into your room, into your life, for someone else's consumption?  He thought, what right do I have to listen to Sarah's final days?

For that matter, what if the technological advances delivered on their promise, and in five or ten years visual records of past events could be made?  What if the current prejudice against the admissibility of pre-present retrieval of criminal information changed?  For all he knew, his actions right now were being recorded for a trial in the future.  As soon as he played back the recording, he was committing an illegal act, albeit at this point a minor one.

He pushed playback anyway.

In the recording, a door opened.  Sarah's voice.  It was 4:30 on July 2, an hour and a half after the wedding.  She was too far away from the pick up, maybe standing outside the door, but clearly she wasn't happy.  The tone sounded upset.  She was arguing with someone, Baylor.

"It's our honeymoon night," Pierce heard her say clearly.  The reply was incomprehensible.

After more words, the door shut.  Her dress swished loudly as she passed the recording point.  Drawers slammed open.  A lot of clatter.  Then the shower turned on.  As far as Pierce could tell, she was alone.  Baylor hadn't come in.  Pierce knew he left for Dallas the next morning.  Until her parents called him on the night of the fire, he had assumed that Sarah was with him.

Later, she picked up the phone and punched in a number.  Then she hung it up immediately.  She did that twice more. 

By 10:15, she was in bed.  Nothing on the disk after that except household creaks and groans.  It was an old house, after all, and as the night cooled it shrank against itself with plenty of protest.

The 3rd and 4th were a repetition of the first night without the argument at the door.  She took a phone call on the 4th; it sounded like it was from Baylor.

"I'm doing fine," she said, her tone cool and reserved.  "And you?"

"That's good . . . How's the project going? . . . That's interesting . . . Uh huh . . . Uh huh . . . Yes . . . I'll expect to hear from you."  She hung up.  She didn't move from the couch; the recording point was only a foot or two from her.  Pierce heard her suck air between her teeth.  Then, distinctly, she said, "The shit."

Pierce drew back a bit and played it again.  Sarah never swore.  Never.  And it embarrassed him to have heard it from her.  Or worse, it embarrassed him that he'd intruded into her privacy to hear this.  Still, a little part of him exulted.  What if she were unapproachably happy in the marriage?  How would he feel about that?

On top of the embarrassment, he felt horrifying sadness.  He could taste it in his mouth and feel it in his face.  Her final days were not good.  She married, and her husband left town for a week.  Would he have wished that on her?

Why didn't she call him?  Everything would have been different if she had only called him.

Pierce  listened to her side of four more phone calls in the last days, each one more bitter than the last.  Sarah sounded baffled and frustrated.  Pierce couldn't hear Baylor's end of the conversations, but he could imagine his calm voice, reassuring her, calming her, refusing to argue.

"I'm not being a little girl!" she yelled once.  "This isn't what we talked about before."

They argued about money.  He wanted her to sign papers at the bank on the house and car.  She had stock.

"Maybe when you grew up, men behaved this way," she said.  "It's different now.  How about you sign over your mutual fund to me instead?"  That ended one of the conversations.

Pierce had lain awake the week after the wedding in agony.  It made his cough worse, and he hacked so hard that he thought he would throw up.  He didn't know she was still in town.  Every time he closed his eyes he could see them together.  He couldn't wipe it out.  Partly it made him desperate, although there was nothing he could do.  But most of all it maddened him.  Pointless, hopeless, boiling anger that made him want to punch holes in walls, to tear things down. 

He went to work instead, and imagined them in Dallas.  Pierce pictured her sitting on the park bench in the yellow jacket.  He pictured her in bed, and he could feel her hands on his shoulders, but they weren't his shoulders, and it wasn't him.  It was Baylor.

He had to sleep with the lights on.

Pierce looked around the office.  The late afternoon sun cast a butter yellow on the walls and equipment.  In the cabinets were thousands of files of sound samples, every one marked and sorted.  All of history waiting to be observed in its honesty.  No interpretation.  No prejudices of memory and subjectivity.  The actual sounds.  The real thing.  Unavoidable.  Undeniable.  Never to fade away.

Like the sounds of Sarah on July 7, her last day, crying on her couch.

She'd placed two calls to Dallas, and left a message both times.  "This is Sarah.  Please phone."

Pierce's eyes were shut.  He cried too.  She picked up her phone again, punched in a number, then hung up.  Was it his number?  He couldn't tell.  He tried punching his number on the phone to see if the tones matched, but they all sounded the same to him.  The recording didn't give enough tonal difference to be sure.

She cried on the couch for almost an hour, never moving.  Pierce didn't fast forward through the section.  He laid his head on the scratched surface of the desk, and listened to the rise and fall of her despair.  She'd always been so happy that it hurt to hear this coming from her.

Finally, she stopped.  The computer showed that a section of her voice was coming, but it didn't show any other sounds.  No telephone ringing or knock at the door, just her speaking.

Her breathing was soft and even.  Then she sighed.  "Pierce," she said.  Pierce jerked his head off the desk.  "Pierce, if you ever come and listen to this, I want you to know I was wrong about us.  I was wrong."

Pierce held the earphones to his head in disbelief.  He fumbled at the keyboard and played it back.  He clutched double handfuls of his shirt as she said it again.

He whispered into the empty office, "Oh, god, I'm so sorry."  It didn't matter why she changed her mind anymore.  At the end, she still loved him.

The file played on.  She stood from the couch, her clothes swishing, and she walked into the kitchen.  Pots clattered.  Water ran.  Pierce listened to the clink of silverware against a plate.

Outside, the sun set.  Pierce listened in real-time.  No fast forward.  Time crept in the recording at the same pace it occurred.  He heard her last hours.

She walked from room to room.  Light switches clicked on or off.  The shower ran.  Then, silence.  The computer showed that it was 10:30 in her world.  She was sleeping.

Hand shaking, full of dread and resignation, Pierce skipped to just before a sound at 12:15 the computer labeled "anomalous."

Through the headphones, the house was quiet.  Not even the creaks that were a part of the early evening.  No wind blew.  Then, a scratch.  The computer barely registered it as a jump in the sound levels.  Another sound: the tumblers on her front door turning.  A squeak of hinges.  A stealthy step. 

Pierce sat straight up, eyes closed, seeing the blackness that was the interior of the house in his memory.  Another tiny click, a flashlight going on.  He could see it in his mind's eye, a handkerchief blocking most of the light.

More whispery hisses like cloth on cloth.  A metallic clink.  Then, a crackling buzz: the kind of sound a shorted wire would make in an old house where the wiring was ninety years' old and the wood as dry as abandoned dreams.

Then, a cough.  A dry, awful cough that ended on a tiny whistle.  His cough.

Totally numb, Pierce listened to his own footsteps retreating across the living room--to the subtle rustle, like rainfall on cement, of fire building in the wall.

Still gripping his shirt, he heard the ravenous sound in a few minutes build into a roar.  Suddenly she began screaming.  It went on and on. 

Sarah wasn't supposed to be home.  She was supposed to be in Dallas.  And why did he go to her house?  What did he hope to accomplish?  He didn't know.  It was just anger and acting out.  Even now, having just heard it all, he could barely remember who he was that night. 

The last thing she had said was, "I want you to know I was wrong about us."

It was there, always, without explanation, in time.

This story originally appeared in Altair (an Australian SF/F/H magazine).

James Van Pelt

An interviewer asked the author if he wanted to be the next Stephen King: he said, "No, I want to be the first James Van Pelt."