TRANSCRIPT: John R. Greenwood is a newcomer to published fiction, though he’s been writing and telling stories since he had lips to speak and fingers to scribble. He earned a bachelors in literature and a masters in writing oh so long ago, and appreciates a chance to put them to good use. This will be his world-premiere and he is thankful to the fine editors, actors, and staff of Gateways and Otherworld Theatre for this opportunity. This is “It’s About Time.”
I’ve been watching the young man in sweat pants through his studio apartment window for 45 minutes now and am having trouble staying awake. My watch buzzes telling me the sun will be up in just two hours. I don’t have time for this. How long does it take to eat a pack of Chicken McNuggets? I’m cramped into the darkest corner of the stairs leading to his garden apartment hoping he doesn’t glance my way. I don’t know his name; only his description, his address, and that he has the thing that can save Daniel. Mr. Cerberus promised.
A November gust from the Lake digs down my neck and I pull my coat closer. He picks up another nugget while staring at the tv—it hovers in the air a second—now he’s putting it back in the pile. Jesus! I stifle a yawn. How long has it been since I slept a full night? Probably not since Daniel was taken to St. Jude. First the fever, then the shakes, then his tiny body started wasting away. He grew smaller and smaller as the machines attached to him grew bigger and bigger. They say it’s “unconventional and accelerated failure to thrive,” whatever that means. All I know is my boy’s life is leaking away and the doctors can’t help. I peek at my watch and grind my teeth. I have everything else, I just need him to fall asleep. I just need more time!
After another episode of “24”, the man nods and falls asleep. I wait 12 excruciating minutes to be sure he’s completely out. Crossing carefully to his door, I insert the key Mr. Cerberus gave me. It clicks. I don’t stop to think as I step inside and close the door behind me. The studio is sparse and mostly unfurnished. The young man in the sweats has an old couch, probably from the curb; a mattress in the corner with a loose sheet, his tv and a cable box. He doesn’t have much. I don’t think about it. He’s snoring.
I unfold Mr. Cerberus’ note and take out “the ingredients,” as he called them, from my backpack. He’d been explicit in his instructions. It’s a bizarre collection: burned cigarettes; nubby pencils; used tampons; an empty pen; spent batteries. All junk I found lying around my house and in the building’s garbage. In his slightly high pitched whine, Mr. Cerberus had said, “Find those ingredients which you have worn with the passage of your life. Those flotsam you have consumed in their fullness.” I didn’t know what he meant, and I didn’t care. Daniel is the only important thing.
I set all the stuff in a circle around the man. Should I put them on the couch? The note doesn’t say, so I decide against it. I drop the last nubby pencil and step back. He’s still snoring, thank God. Taking the note in hand, I start whispering the crisply printed words. Mr. Cerberus’s script is in all caps, like a draftsman. The words are gibberish and mean nothing to me but I speak them as slowly and phonetically as I can. Several short words and a final long phrase. My tongue buzzes oddly and I can suddenly taste cinnamon. With the last word, I place a peach pit on the man’s stomach.
Nothing happens. He just keeps breathing the deep sleep of slumber. A minute passes.
Nothing. I chew my fingernail and watch. Another minute. He startles in his sleep and lets out a soft moan. The peach pit shakes and flips over. There’s something on the underside. Is that peach flesh? More peach appears around the pit. It quickly reforms on his stomach like a highspeed rot in reverse. All around the circle, the junk is reforming. The pencils lengthen and grow like corn. Cigarettes smolder with embers, but burn up instead of out. The tampons whiten and plump. I almost gasp, but cover my mouth with both hands.
He’s growing a beard. I watch it ooze from his cheeks. It’s brown for a few inches and then grows out white and down onto his chest. The skin on his skull tightens and draws back. Blue veins wriggle beneath the flesh at his temples and age spots sprout on his forehead like a ripening banana. His hands wizen and contract, the tendons standing out. His eyes open in shock and they’re milky cataracts. His jaw gapes in a soundless “O” showing teeth turning brown. Then, the peach rolls off his stomach and hits the floor. Everything stops. The man, now ancient, twitches and closes his eyes. His skin is thin and bleached. His hands are arthritic gnarls.
My body can’t move. I have to move. I have no time. I step forward once, twice; and grab the peach. The old man coughs, and start snoring again. His shriveled body is draped in the too- baggy clothing of man twice his weight and half his age. I rush from the studio, leaving the door open behind me.
The night is waning. It will soon be morning. I’m driving through red lights to get back to the alley behind the Indian Palace restaurant where I first met Mr. Cerberus. The peach is in my coat pocket. I can feel its warmth through my shirt. It doesn’t matter. I have what I need.
I pull into the alley and Mr. Cerberus is waiting for me, leaned against a dumpster. His body is revealed by inches in my headlamps as I idle forward. He’s wearing an umber and grey pinstripe suit with a wide brimmed grey fedorah tipped down. Even in my headlights, his face is shadowed. He holds up a hand, palm out—it’s covered in a lady’s opera glove the colour of burnt pumpkin. I stop the car and kill the engine. The alley returns to darkness.
Not waiting for my eyes to adjust, I throw open the door and rush to him. He smells faintly of lemon-grass. My words slur and stammer as I tell him what happened and ask what the hell is going on and if Daniel will be alright and if we still have time and who was that guy and what have I done and can he still save Daniel?
Mr. Cerberus holds up his hand, now palm up. My mouth snaps shut. I place the peach in his open fist. He wraps his long fingers around the flesh coloured fruit.
“Ah yes, this is perfect. You have drawn the right time, my dear.” His voice pitches higher and buzzes slightly, like a locust summer. Listening now, I can’t tell why ever I thought it was a man’s voice, or a woman’s. Mr. Cerberus squeezes the peach once, twice and then pops it into a jacket pocket. It turns toward me and a lighter patch appears part way down the darkness under its hat. Is it smiling? “And now, for the last piece. Your last piece. The hardest piece.” Mr. Cerberus’ voice crackles.
The weight of all the sleep I have been missing crashes down on me. First the diagnosis, then all the tests, then the “I’m sorry” from the doctors. Now, these last few hours and that horrible face of the old man in sweat pants. I sit down hard on the ground and hold my head in my hands. A knot tightens in my throat. I’m not stupid, I know what’s coming. I swallow the bile and ask what I have to do. I have a gun, pills, a rope. I know how this goes. I ask where I have to sign.
“Oh merciful Yama, no! What sort of specter do you see in me, my dear,” Mr. Cerberus croons. “Blood and bile are a realm all their own, and I find parchments insecure and signatures unreliable.” It pitches its head back and belts out a cough. Perhaps, it’s a laugh. Within the sound I hear the bells of St. Peter chime softly. But, those are all the way across town.
“Nothing of that sort, my dear. However, Sun soon comes, and we have but a sliver of night left to finish your deed. You brought half of what you need, but have you the fortitude to find the other? Will you give all for Daniel?”
I have no idea what Mr. Cerberus is talking about. I think back to my boy shivering alone in the hospital wrapped in those blue, scratchy blankets. His ribs strain with every breath and his little stomach spasms. In my aching head, I see tubes sinking into his chest, arms, and down his throat. His eyes squeeze shut as his tiny fists beat the air. He’s not making a sound.
I nod and acquiesce. Of course, whatever it is. There’s nothing I won’t do. The tightness in my throat is gone and my cheeks no longer feel hot. I stand and look Mr. Cerberus in its darkened face.
It places a hand on my shoulder. The burden is surprisingly light. “Very well, my dear. Then, walk away. Step into your car, drive onto the street, and away from the City. Never look behind, never think back, never return. That is the last ingredient. All that you would have given him in his life, give it to him now. All of it. Give Daniel all your love, and he will meet Sun and Moon and all their kin to come.”
The hand tightens on my shoulder, “Yet know, my dear. Should you return, should you glance behind to see and find, it is undone. All will fall. Do you understand? Do you offer this last?”
The question hangs between us a moment. I hear a second chime from St. Peter’s church. Time and blood course in my heart, and I understand. A third chime and I see Daniel in my head thrashing against the tubes in his throat. I find myself turning for the car clawing the keys from my purse. The Camry sputters to life and roars down the alley, jumping the curb and racking the suspension with a thunderous crack. I swerve around early morning traffic, earning horns and screams, but I don’t care. I need to get out before sunrise. I hear a fourth chime. Swerving around a Ford stopped at the on-ramp to the highway, I floor it into westbound traffic. Sunlight is just reaching the eastern edge of the Lake and I hear a fifth chime. My eyes are locked forward as the car picks up speed. Behind me, lampposts start winking out and the tallest skyscraper is just reaching into the morning. Ahead, I can see the city limit sign beckoning. The sixth chime strikes; there’s only one more.
I have just enough time for the last piece. I can see Daniel in my head. I see him through all the years all the birthdays and skinned knees and crying fits. The odometer hits 85. I see him through college and a divorce. In the hospital he’s taking an easier breath and relaxes his arms. I see him having his own child and I bounce that girl in my arms. His breathing slows and steadies and the blood stops pulsing at his temple. I see him at my bedside in the hospital where I am the one plugged into machines. His hands unclench and the little fingers flex and ease. I see him one last time as my eyes close and my breath stops and my hand grows cold on top of his. His breathing is easy and he falls into a comfortable sleep.
As I hear the seventh chime, I reach up and tear the rearview mirror from the windshield. The plastic shrieks. Morning streams through my back window and I drive hard into the west.