The sluggish rain pattering on the skylight pulled Suzanne out of her sleep, in which she, together with several other people, was trying to close a pair of wooden doors to hold a crowd of zombies behind them. When Suzanne woke up, the door had not yet closed fully and now the image would bother her all day like unfinished business. It was ten to four, ten minutes till her alarm went off but Suzanne didn’t stay in bed. She had a guest house to run.
The cook who took care of breakfast and lunch – which was all the place offered its guests – came in at six every day, which gave Suzanne two hours of alone time during which she made sure ever second counted. She turned on the lights in the ground floor hall with the tiny reception she spent most of her time behind, then the kitchen, and finally in the small office hidden behind a nondescript door in the hall behind the kitchen. A sign on this door said “Supplies” and Suzanne kept it locked after five-fifty in the morning when she left it.
The office contained a cheap wooden desk with a laptop on it and a chair. Opposite the ensemble sat a yellow Ikea couch, which looked out of place like a bright yellow patch on an old leather jacket. Suzanne sat behind the desk and fired up the laptop. She went into her calendar, which said Danny 4:20, Amanda 4:40, Ling 5:00.
Three clients per day was Suzanne’s usual and preferred workload for this office. She only took clients between four-thirty and five-thirty before the town woke up and people, like ants, started crawling all over the place. Danny and his four-twenty appointment were an exception because the guy was desperate and Suzanne eventually gave in to his pleas for an earlier appointment. And now, at four-ten, Danny was already here, by the back entrance of the guest house and was calling her phone.
Suzanne got up with a groan – those extra thirty pounds she had been carrying around for the last five years made her acutely aware of every last ounce of gravity when she got up and sat down. She went down the short hall to the back door that suppliers for the kitchen used, and opened the door she took care to be regularly oiled. The door swung in noiselessly.
“Ms Allen,” the boy whispered. His eyes shone in the yellow light from the single street lamp on this side of the building. Suzanne’s lips twisted into a fake smile and she put her index finger on her lips. Danny’s head bobbed up and down in an energetic nod. She gestured him in and closed the door behind him.
“Danny, this is the last time we’ll do this,” Suzanne said as she sat back down behind her desk. “I can see it is having an effect on you and I don’t like this effect. Okay? Last time.”
Danny, an eighteen-year-old college student with plans for a medical career, stood in front of the desk with his hands in the pockets of his leather jacket. He didn’t nod this time.
“Danny, I need you to confirm you understand me.” Suzanne’s voice was normally as soft as her skin but not this time. This time the granite base showed.
“I don’t see why,” the boy said. He took his hands out of the pockets and walked up to the desk. He propped his palms on the surface and faced down Suzanne. She did not move a muscle. “I’m paying you for a service and I expect to get it however often I need it.”
For a while Suzanne watched Danny’s shiny eyes, his slightly trembling lower lip and the quick, shallow breaths he was taking. Then she sighed.
“I’m really sorry, Danny. You’ll have to go.”
“I’m not going anywhere.”
Suzanne was yet again reminded of gravity when she stood up and propped her own hands on the desk. Danny drew back.
“Go.” This time it wasn’t just a granite base in her voice. There was a promise of suffering if events continued in the current direction.
“I just want to see my mum, Suzanne, it’s not like I’m doing anything wrong.” Tears filled Danny’s eyes and spilled over, cracking the façade.
“Your mum is dead, Danny,” she said, all soft again. “I know you miss her but going back every week is not healthy and it is most certainly not safe. I really am sorry.”
Danny brushed his cheeks with the back of his palm and nodded.
“Sorry about this.”
Suzanne shook her head.
“Don’t worry about it. Go and have a life, Danny. Don’t live in the past. That’s never worked for anybody.”
Danny’s mother had died of breast cancer when he was ten. The boy missed her painfully. He’d heard about Suzanne and the pack of cigarettes she kept in her desk drawer from a friend she had helped and had called her. Today had been his last visit. Suzanne had no doubt he had got the message.
That’s how Suzanne operated: by word of mouth. Discreet word of mouth. Her services did not come cheap and, more importantly, they did not fall within any officially recognized, legal service category. So far it worked. During the day she ran the guest house and before the day began she sent people to the past to fix mistakes they’ve made, get revenge, or, like Danny, see someone they really missed again. She never judged them. It was not her job to judge.
A light knock on the back door pulled her out of her thoughts. Amanda. Suzanne stroked the knob on the desk drawer. It looked like the simplest possible knob – a light faux wood ball, to go with the light faux wood of the drawer – but it was in fact a masked lock that only opened the drawer for Suzanne. She was the only one who knew the code.
She’d only spoken to this Amanda person online, in the parenting and lifestyle forum she used as a means of communication with prospective clients. She’d been vague about her intentions and Suzanne’s brain had flagged this but she had agreed to meet her. Amanda had spoken like a deeply troubled woman. Yet when Suzanne opened the back door, it wasn’t Amanda she saw. The client had sent a picture of herself, which was standard procedure, but she wasn’t the one standing at the door now. It wasn’t a woman at all.
Suzanne recoiled the way people recoil when they encounter a venomous snake and pushed the door with all the strength she had, for once forgetting about the noise that could wake up the lighter sleepers among the guests. The man put his foot in the space between the door and the wall and stopped it from shutting. The door was metal in wooden disguise and it was heavier than it looked, but it didn’t hurt him. His smile stayed where it was while he pushed the door back with his foot, walked into the hall, closed the door and even locked it.
“Long time no see, Suzie,” the man said. His voice was soft and quiet, a voice you’d expect from a therapist or a doctor. Yet Charles Hewitt was neither. Charles, Suzanne’s ex boyfriend for five years now, was a drug dealer and a superb manipulator she had only managed to escape from on her fourth try. And now he was back.
She was walking backwards down the hall without taking her eyes off Charles who followed her. She gasped when her back met the edge of the wall by her office and finally tore her eyes off Charles’ face to see where she was.
“Suze, it’s okay.” Charles raised his hands, whether in surrender or to show her he wasn’t armed, but Suzanne’s heart beat didn’t slow down and her skin didn’t stop crawling. Still backwards, she went into her office and he followed. After a glance around she slipped behind her desk for all the modest defense it could offer, and pressed her belly to the surface of the drawer. Her right hand crept down to the knob and held it tightly.
“What do you want?” she said.
Charles stood a foot from the desk, his hands still in the air. Now he slowly put them down. He was as tall, dark and handsome as he had been five years ago, his skin as smooth as a boy’s while Suzanne had recently noticed the first lines of time on her forehead. She shuddered.
Charles raised his hands again and Suzanne shifted her weight from one leg to the other. He was acting as if he was under threat, as if she was holding a gun to his head. She squeezed the knob harder. Her palm was sweating.
“I know you take people back in time. Amanda told me. I need to go back. I need your help.”
“You forgot to kill someone?” Suzanne said and let go of the knob to cross her arms. An absurd urge to laugh in Charles’ face gripped her and she took a deep breath to prevent the laughter from spilling out. No matter how unthreatening Charlie looked, her memories of their time together were very clear as was the terror that had numbed her skull and pushed her pulse above a hundred beats per second.
In the four years they were together, Charles had killed at least five people. Suzanne knew about five but there were probably more. She had witnessed one of the murders and still had nightmares about it. Charles didn’t look like a dealer or an enforcer and this was one of the things that made him so good at his job. He looked like a good guy, a rich guy, a safe guy, a guy who couldn’t hurt a fly with these thin-fingered hands of his. Which was where everyone made a mistake.
Yet it wasn’t just his professional skills and accomplishments that made Suzanne’s life the hell it was when they lived together. The murders frightened her but this fear was only a facet of the much larger, much heavier fear she had of Charlie. Of the long silences and hurt looks when she disappointed him in some way, of the assurances she was the most wonderful thing that had happened to him but could she try a little harder to make sure the house is really clean and not just almost clean, and of all the times she had to literally plead for his attention after he concluded she was not worth it because she had fallen short of his expectations.
Now Charles nodded once.
“I deserved that. But that’s in the past now. I’m done with that kind of life. Actually, I’m studying law at the moment.” His thick dark lashes fluttered for a second over his equally dark eyes. “Yeah, I know it sounds ridiculous but I am done with all that life of crime stuff, Suze. Honestly.”
Suzanne shut her gaping mouth and recrossed her arms.
“Good for you. What do you want from me?”
“I told you.” He made a small step forward, raising his hands yet again. “I need to go to the past for just a little while. I need to retrieve something. It’s silly but I need it.”
“I will need to know what it is.” This was her curiosity speaking. She did ask her clients their reasons for traveling to the past and she made sure they knew the risks but she didn’t insist when they’d rather not share their reasons beyond a general “I need to fix a mistake I made five years ago.”
Charles hung his head. He ran his fingers through the hair he still wore a little longer than standard. Finally, he looked up.
“Just please don’t laugh, okay?”
“I won’t.” The urge to laugh at him had gone.
“It’s my baby blanket. I want to have it.”
For a second Suzanne forgot how to speak. As shocking revelations went this was a pretty good one.
“Your baby blanket.”
Charles shoved his hands into his trouser pockets and looked down.
Suzanne uncrossed her arms and sat behind her desk.
“You want to go to the past to retrieve your baby blanket.”
“What the hell for?”
Charles rubbed his forehead and put his hand back in the pocket.
“Because I need it. My parents… They took it away from me and hid it when I was four and I remember how angry I was with them and how I cried myself to sleep for weeks. Jesus, I couldn’t sleep for weeks because of the bloody blanket!” He closed the three feet between him and the desk and leaned over it. Suzanne drew back into her chair. “Suze, this is no joke, no evil plan or anything, I just really want to get my Blankie back.”
She stared at him.
“I want to change. I am changing. But I need, you know, some moral support.”
“From a blanket?”
Charles straightened up and then brought his hands on the desk with a loud thud.
“Yes!” he yelled. “Oh, shit, I’m sorry, Suze.” He was panting, tiny beads of sweat forming on his forehead. “I’m sorry.”
Suzanne did not move. She could not move. She was on a trip to her own past, when in the blink of an eye soft-spoken, gentle Charlie transformed into a savage yelling creature that had killed before and might kill again any time.
“Suze? I’m sorry.” He was leaning over the desk again and she regained enough control over her body to push back further into the chair. “Please help me.”
“Okay,” she said. Her head was no longer numb and her limbs were no longer heavy. “Okay.”
“First I need to know if you have told anyone about this,” Suzanne said. She had propped her arms on the desk in her usual manner reserved for clients, with her hands crossed at the wrists, which seemed to relax the person across the desk.
“I haven’t,” Charles said. “Amanda doesn’t even know I know you. I just begged for her to switch with me.”
Suzanne swallowed the urge to ask who Amanda was. Charles was telling the truth. She could tell truth from lie. This went with the portal as well as the power to discourage excessive behaviour as she’d done with poor sad Danny.
“Once I send you back, you have seven minutes but that’s seven minutes here. There, you might end up staying a minute or a year. Nobody knows which it will be. Nobody can manipulate there-time. Do you understand?” She leaned forward slightly.
“Yes. I might not get to my… target.”
“Okay. Oh, wait. Do I pay you now or when I come back?”
“Whenever you prefer.” Suzanne said. She had forgotten about the money. It wasn’t important. “Now, have you drunk alcohol or taken any drugs in the last twenty-four hours?”
His eyes darkened in offence.
“I don’t do drugs, Suze, you know that.”
“This is none of my business but if you have drunk or taken drugs in the last day you might end up anywhere. It’s a precautionary question.”
“No drugs. No alcohol.” He was standing in front of the desk like a student called to the headmistress’ office. His shoulders had slumped, his head was hung and his hands were back in his trouser pockets. He looked sad and pathetic, and Suzanne caught a whiff of sympathy in the air around her.
“Right. You can sit on the couch or stay as you are. All you need to do is imagine the place you want to go. Make it as clear as you can in your mind. Tell me when you’re ready.”
Charles nodded and closed his eyes. He hadn’t asked to see where the portal actually was. This meant that either he wasn’t interested or that he had plans. Without taking her eyes off him, Suzanne started turning the knob on the desk drawer, three times to the right, first only slightly, then a hundred and eighty degrees down, then ninety degrees to the right. She then turned it to the left, once, slightly, and two more times to the right, ninety degrees, followed by another hundred and eighty. She felt the drawer loosen under her hand. It made no noise.
Suzanne pulled it just enough to take out the portal and pushed it back. She put the pack of cigarettes on the desk and tipped the top open.
“Are you ready?”
“I think so,” Charlie said after a while. He opened his eyes. “I think I can’t make it any clearer than this but it’s my parent’s house. I should remember it well enough, right?”
“Is this it?”
“It is,” she said, smirking on the inside. He couldn’t feign indifference for long but he didn’t make a grab for it, either. “Don’t ask how it works because I won’t tell you.”
“Yeah, sure, no problem.” Her ex-boyfriend and tormentor took a deep breath and released it. “Okay, I’m ready when you’re ready.”
“Close your eyes and focus on where you want to be.” He closed his eyes. Suzanne took the pack and pushed the top all the way back. The pack, a Benson & Hedges Gold, king size, was full. Suzanne took the third cigarette from the right in the front row and pulled it out. Charlie vanished. Suzanne looked at her watch, which said four-forty one, and then at the Benson & Hedges Gold, which her grandma had given her as she lay dying in the nursing home. It was a classic deathbed scene: Grandma Davis taking this pack from under her pillow and shoving it into Suzanne’s unwilling hands.
“I thought you’d quit twenty years ago,” she’d said.
“These are not for smoking,” Grandma Davis had said and she’d told her what they were for or rather, what the third one from the right was for.
Nobody knew how the portal worked. Grandma Davis had accidentally discovered its powers when she was a girl, and when she’d just as accidentally sent a friend of hers twenty years into the past. It had only lasted seconds, this first accidental trip, because the frightened girl had immediately put back the cigarette she’d intended to smoke behind the school with her friend. She’d then sworn the girl to secrecy and, oddly enough, the girl had kept the secret.
So did every one of Grandma Davis’ later clients and so did Suzanne’s because the portal came with a bonus, which Grandma, on that proverbial death bed of hers, had called the power of the voice. People did what you told them to do, that’s what it came down to, although Suzanne had to admit her grandmother’s name for that ability did sound grand. It was because of the power of the voice that nobody told anyone about the portal unless – another oddity – it was a person who needed it, a potential client. All this from a Benson & Hedges Gold bought seventy years ago from a local corner shop. And now Suzanne was thinking about putting an end to the oddities, and end to the miracle of traveling back in time.
Charlie had appeared at her door and had brought back a lot of memories with him. Some of these were nice, painfully nice. Others – most – were just painful. And with the memories had come the longing, that same longing to not be alone, to have someone sleep beside her, someone to make breakfast for and talk to and laugh with, that had made her stay with Charlie so long despite the fear. Now this longing came back with a vengeance. If she didn’t crush it fast and forever it would fester until she went back. And she knew Charlie would take her back. Charlie wouldn’t mind having her back at all.
Suzanne glanced at her watch. Four forty-five. She had three minutes to decide but that also meant she had three minutes to hesitate and end up doing nothing. She set the portal cigarette on the desk and closed the pack. She took it in her hand and gripped it tightly but didn’t squeeze, not yet.
Once, about two years into their relationship, Charlie had come home drunk, with another woman in tow, as drunk as he was, and had asked dumbfounded Suzanne to make them some coffee. Which she did, too shocked for anything else. Charles groped and kissed the other woman openly. Suzanne gave them their coffee and went and hid in the bedroom. In the morning, she found both passed out on the couch. At the time she’d felt better that they were fully clothed. Now she thought differently.
Four forty-seven. She squeezed the pack harder and the edges began to give way. The cigarette, the object that transported people in the past, lay on the desk. Suzanne stared at it for a second and then set the pack back. She picked up the cigarette and looked it over. She had done this before, she had studied the pack and the cigarette in as much detail as she could but she never found anything unusual about either of them. A plain cigarette and a plain pack. Perhaps it was odd the cigarettes smelled fresh after seven decades but it wasn’t half as odd as what the third one from the right could do.
Suzanne rolled the cigarette between her thumb and index finger. The tobacco crackled inside. She opened the drawer again and took out an old, scratched Zippo lighter, another heirloom from Grandma Davis, or rather Grandpa Davis who had died before Suzanne was born. Staring at a point in the empty space between the desk and the couch, Suzanne flicked the top of the lighter and struck the wheel. The flame rose calm and steady. She put the cigarette in her mouth and brought the flame to its other end, sucking in. She swallowed a doze of burning dry leaves that contained, according to pack warnings, more than seventy chemicals that caused cancer. Suzanne didn’t care. She was not a smoker. This was a ritual of parting. Final parting.
Charlie was not coming back. She was out of a profitable business that actually helped people get closure about the death of a loved one or fix mistakes they’d made in the past that festered in their present. But Suzanne was at peace. She was safe from her own urges and everything they could lead to. She inhaled another doze of tobacco smoke and blew it out in a shapeless cloud. The sun was probably beginning to rise. She smiled.