The club was silent as music blared. The floor was still as people danced. Multicolored lights cast unmoving shadows behind motionless bodies. On the far side of the spacious room, behind the DJ frozen in place mid-mix, hung halfway up the wall, the room’s clock stood as still as the rest. Shards of glass from the clock’s cover floated in the air in front of it, locked into position where they were when the wayward shot glass that hit the clock snapped off the hour hand. The clock was broken. Time was still.
A door opened. Light from the rising sun flooded the entranceway. Two figures walked in, unfazed by the stillness that trapped all else in the building. Watches adorned their wrists, ticking silently into the nightclub that morning left behind. One of them carried a black duffel bag. The other scanned the room’s walls until she found what the duo sought. She pointed to the clock. The man with the bag nodded.
The pair walked to the clock, weaving through whatever small gaps they could find between frozen partygoers. Reaching their destination in no time at all, the man set down and opened the bag. It was full of parts—gears, clock hands, and glass covers, in uncountable combinations and sizes. The woman gestured some hand signs to the man, her estimates for the dimensions of the clock hand that needed replacing. The man rummaged through the bag and pulled out a piece. The woman examined it. It was a good fit. She nodded approval, and the repair commenced.
As her partner tended to the clock, the woman set out a large tarp between the revelers and the repair area. It wouldn’t do to have stray shards of glass hit the patrons of this establishment as soon as the job was done. The proper precautions were always necessary. Luckily, until the job was done, the typically-unwieldy tarp would stay up on its own.
The clock was not as accommodating. Shards of glass locked in place formed a labyrinth around which the man had to deftly navigate. He maneuvered long needle nose pliers through the maze, the replacement hour hand firmly in their grip. It was a struggle, even with all his years of experience, all his precision, all his patience. He focused. There was nothing here that could distract him—no wind to brush against his skin, no noise to drown out his thoughts. He knocked the cracked half-hand out of its socket. He was pure determination. His world was empty, except for himself, the clock, and the thousand points of glass between them. The new hand snapped into place.
Sound flooded the hall. Lights flashed. The glass shards erupted from their stillness. The man was hit.
People saw the protective tarp appear before them, covering the only clock in the room. They knew what happened. Music was drowned out by screams. Bodies moved in all directions at once.
Some ran from the building, greeted by unfamiliar daylight. Some froze in place, trembling, sobbing, gasping for air, choking on it, overcome by panic. Some got out their phones to call loved ones, desperately hoping those loved ones would still be there to answer the calls. They had no way of knowing how long they were out.
Amidst hysteria and horror, the man and woman kept calm with a casual indifference. The man shook particles of glass off his arms. “Come,” he said to his partner. “Let us get out of here.”
Anton Markus and Mara Landis were professional clock repairmen. In this world where time ran on clocks rather than the other way around, the job was a necessary, albeit dangerous one. In this world, a broken clock meant you were lost to Time’s touch. A broken clock was a death sentence, and it was immortality, and it was everything in between.
The city bustled around them as they drove—people rushing down sidewalks, cars rushing down side streets, everyone wanting to reach their destination on time. Anton always saw a kind of irony in it. As much as people wanted to believe they were in control, most could do nothing if a clock stopped on them. Only the wealthiest of individuals could afford a portable timekeeping device, or a “watch” as they had come to be known. Only the extravagantly wealthy… and federally employed clock repairmen like Anton and Mara.
The duo drove through one of the city’s many business districts. Brick buildings showed their age with varying shades of red and brown. On every block, a clock was hung beside the traffic light, swaying alongside it with the wind. Sometimes, though rarely, there were two or even three of them on a single pole. You could always tell a city’s most important intersection by the number of backup clocks it carried.
As the sun crept further up the sky, the number of people on the road dwindled to few more than the pair of traveling technicians. Anton eased the car to a halt at a red light.
“I do not know you to be so quiet, Mara,” Anton said in his thick Russian accent. “You have said little since we received our assignments for the day.”
Mara was staring out the passenger window, eyes looking at and through a building on the side of the street. It was the office of Leap Century, a chronogenic freezing company. Businesses like Leap Century offered services in which they essentially walked you into a room and turned off the clock for as long as you paid to be frozen. The shortest packages were days to weeks, but true to their name, they also had year-, decade-, and even century-long packages for real high rollers. Anton didn’t understand why anyone would ever want to freeze themselves into the future. He thought it was reckless, foolish, and dangerous. But for whatever reason, it was a quite popular and profitable business.
“What?” Mara said, several seconds later. “Oh, right, what about our assignments?”
Anton raised a suspicious eyebrow. “Are you well? You do not seem like yourself today.”
“I’m as fine as I ever am,” Mara said. She paused for a moment on the cusp of saying more, then shook it out of her head. “We should go. It’s green.”
“…So it is.” Anton stepped back on the gas, and the drive continued in uneasy silence.
Their next assignment was in a residential area on the outskirts of the city. Word had come of the outage just before they left headquarters this morning. Luckily, no people were caught in this one, making it lower priority than the nightclub. But in many ways, this one was just as serious. A time outage on a road was always significant.
“Are we getting close?” Anton asked. He was wary of accidentally driving into the frozen zone. He and Mara would be fine, of course, thanks to the watches, but trying to exit a frozen car was not a pleasant experience.
Mara looked at the passing road signs. “Third Street… It should be just up ahead, at the next intersection.
Anton took them another block down the road. He slowed the car to a halt before the intersection’s traffic light, currently green. They waited and watched. A minute later, it was still green.
“Looks like we found it,” Mara said. “Let’s go.”
Anton nodded and turned the car off right there. No one else would be coming this way anytime soon. By now, news of the intersection outage would have reached every ear it needed to reach, and there would be plenty of detours set up going around it. Anton was proud to be part of such an efficient system.
They got out of the car, Anton carrying the duffel bag of clock parts, and walked into the intersection. As if passing through an invisible barrier, the world changed. Everything looked exactly the same, but there was no sound. Any attempt to speak would have been met with failure. There was no wind. The air in a timelocked zone was stillness in raw form. Every step through the frozen air was resisted. Not with much force, thanks to the watches, but it was still unsettling every time.
Mara pointed to the intersection’s broken clock. It hung from the side of the traffic light pole at eye level, in all its round, numbered glory. A surface inspection didn’t reveal anything to be wrong. Anton nudged it away from the pole ever so slightly. Aha. One of its power wires was very badly frayed. Anton related the finding to Mara through hand signs. She took the bag and rummaged through it.
This was a common ailment with clocks, of late. It must have just been the timing of when all of the city’s electrical infrastructure was last updated, Anton thought. But until all these aging wires could be replaced, a simple patch would suffice. Mara handed him wire strippers and a roll of electrical tape. The fix was applied, and time returned to the vicinity.
“We must log our used supplies,” Anton said. Recently, the Department had noticed inconsistencies in their clock parts inventory numbers, presumably due to shoddy record keeping. Since then, the mandate had been to log everything. Anton did not mind the extra layer of organization.
Mara rolled her eyes. “Even for an inch of tape?”
“Every inch matters,” Anton said.
Mara relented and got out the inventory sheet from the bag.
“That was our last assignment until tonight,” Anton said. It was rare to have a day with so few clock outages, but when they came along, the extra time was appreciated. Anton and Mara were free until tonight’s check-in at an old community center in Westbrook.
“Yeah… Tonight…” Mara said. She seemed distracted again, but Anton did not want to pry. Whatever was bothering her, if it was important enough, she would tell him if he needed to know.
Something in the window of a nearby house caught Mara’s eye. A potted flower in front of a closed curtain. Its thin petals bloomed in vibrant shades of pink and purple. “Hey Anton, do you see that?” She pointed.
Anton looked. “The flower? I see it. Why do you ask?”
“An orchid,” Mara said. “Blooming out of season.”
Anton stared at her in confusion for a second, then his face went grim.
Mara took the lead in walking up to the house, with Anton trailing just behind her. She rang the doorbell, and they waited. Footsteps shuffled inside, coming closer to the door, until they were greeted by a middle aged woman. Hair dyed dark brown to hide any gray, her worn face still revealed her to be in her early to mid fifties. “Can I help you?” she asked.
Mara held up her federal ID badge, as did Anton. “My name is Mara Landis, and this is my partner Anton Markus. We’re with the Department of Temporal Assurance.”
Anton stepped up. “We are responding to a report of suspicious temporal activity at this location.” He didn’t need to tell the woman that the ‘report’ had come from Mara just now. “Do you mind if we come in and look around?”
The woman remained silent. She looked back and forth between the federal clock repair agents. “All my clocks are working just the way I want them to,” she said. “Please leave me alone.”
“Are all of your clocks functioning?” Anton asked.
The woman fidgeted. “Well, um… Not exactly, but—”
Anton interrupted her. “By Article 5 Section 2 of the Temporal Security Act of 1973, it is law in this country that all clocks in all residential houses must be in functioning condition. If you have a malfunctioning clock, I am afraid you cannot refuse its repair.”
“I know what the damn law is—” The woman stopped herself. She took a second to regain her composure. She sighed. “I’m sorry, but the clock must not be fixed. Please, come inside and let me explain.”
Mara and Anton exchanged uneasy glances, then followed the woman into her home. Anton immediately began scoping out the front room, looking for its clock and anything out of the ordinary. Everything looked to be in order.
“What’s your name?” Mara asked.
“Ruth,” the woman replied.
“Well, Ruth, we’re just going to fix your broken clock and be on our way. If you’re worried about cost, there’s no charge.”
“It’s not that,” Ruth said. “It’s…”
Mara saw the door that must have led to the room with the curtain-covered window. She walked to it.
“No!” Ruth shouted. “Don’t go in there!” Her breathing became more rapid, and she looked to be holding back tears.
Mara opened the door. She immediately regretted it.
In the center of the room stood a teenage boy, eyes closed tightly, a gun in his hand, the barrel against his forehead, his finger pulling the trigger. A spray of red trailed from the back of his head, hanging in the air like mist, leading directly to a clock on the wall. There was a bullet hole in the clock.
Mara felt sick. She backed away from the open door. Anton took one look inside and turned away. Ruth stared into the room, unblinking.
“I haven’t seen Pete in so long…” Her voice lacked emotion. “I didn’t want to ever look at him again like this… I didn’t think I would be able to handle it…”
Mara fought to hold back tears. “How long?”
“Six years,” Ruth said.
“This is not right,” Anton said. “This is… not right.”
“I always thought someday they’d find a way to save him,” Ruth continued. “Advances in science, medicine, something… Please, you can’t unfreeze him! You can’t kill my Pete! I just want to keep him safe until I can help him…” She was crying now. “I wasn’t able to help him before.”
Mara put her hand on Ruth’s shoulder. She tensed. “We aren’t going to unfreeze him.” A glimmer of hope shone in Ruth’s eyes. “But the proper authorities do need to be told about this. This can’t be your secret.”
Ruth nodded despondently.
Mara continued. “I understand what it’s like to lose family. I understand the desperation of wanting to put all the pieces back together the way they were. I promise you, I’m going to do everything in my power to get you your son back.”
Ruth silently mouthed “thank you” and her façade broke. Tears streamed down her face. She hugged Mara. “I can’t lose him again! I’m losing him every day but I can’t lose him again!”
Anton walked into Pete’s room. He twisted the gun out of Pete’s hand, careful not to let the trigger be pulled again. He walked out, carrying the gun delicately. “This should not be kept here,” he said. “I will see that it is destroyed.”
Ruth broke off from hugging Mara. “Take it,” she said. “I never want to see it again.”
Anton closed the door to Pete’s room. Ruth flinched when the door clicked shut.
The agents said their goodbyes to Ruth and gave her their contact information, in case she ever needed them again. Ruth was just grateful they understood her plight and didn’t fix the clock in Pete’s room. She ushered them out of her house, and the two of them returned to their car. They sat in silence for a long time.
It was Mara who broke the silence. “So… What do we do?”
Anton shrugged. “Protocol says we must report the situation to our manager. It is for him to deal with, not us. But… Protocol was not written with this kind of situation in mind.”
“We can’t tell them,” Mara said. “You know the higher-ups wouldn’t think twice about demanding the clock be fixed or replaced, nuances of the situation be damned.”
“I know,” Anton said. He closed his eyes and rubbed his hand against his face. “It is an unfortunate situation.”
“It’s awful,” Mara said.
“It is,” Anton replied.
The silence returned.
“I did not know you have lost family,” Anton said. “You do not speak of it.”
“Because I don’t want to,” Mara said, and Anton wisely dropped the subject.
Another minute of deafening silence passed.
Finally, Mara grabbed the keys and started the car. “Put your seatbelt on. It’s time to go.”
“Where?” Anton asked. “We have hours before our next assignment.”
“The place I go when I need to think,” Mara said. She buckled in, and they drove.
Mara drove them into the neighborhood of Steel Falls. An eerie lifelessness hung over the district, a mostly abandoned slum that few dared to tread. Time clearly left its mark on the area. Buildings so old they should have been crumbling for years stood in pristine squalor. Streets that should have been bordered with multiple clocks scraped by with the bare minimum of one per block. And above it all, several metal beams stood eternally plummeting to the Earth.
Thirty years earlier, during a citywide renaissance of construction projects, the Fitzgerald Tower was nearing completion when the wire lifting a dozen steel beams snapped, hundreds of feet in the air. Only the crane operator’s quick thinking managed to prevent the incident from turning into a tragedy. Sheldon Lucas smashed the clock running the crane, freezing himself and the beams in midair before they could hit the ground and the hundreds of people below. Further construction of the tower was halted, and the entire project was soon canceled. After attempts to extract Sheldon from the timelock proved too dangerous, he received a posthumous medal of valor.
Anton did not like this place. The Department of Temporal Assurance had stopped maintaining it long ago, when it first became clear what a time sink the entire area was. After this many years, he could only imagine it was absolutely riddled with pockets of frozen time. And yet, there was still the occasional person out and about on the sidewalks. He pitied these people, forced to live in such conditions.
Mara parked the car in an empty lot that once belonged to a shopping plaza. “Get out. Follow me,” she said. “And bring the bag.”
Anton did as he was instructed. He followed Mara out of the parking lot, down the sidewalk. The bag was heavy in his arms.
They walked for a long time, neither of them saying a word. Then, Mara stopped. She looked around. Her eyes settled on a lamppost on the other side of the road. She walked to it. Anton followed. Then he felt it. The air went still. All sound disappeared. Time was frozen here. A chill crept up his spine.
Sure enough, the lamppost had a clock on its side. Anton watched as Mara examined it. When she was finished with her examination, she hand signaled her diagnosis to Anton. The clock was in perfect condition, but it needed new batteries. Mara waited expectantly. With an unheard sigh, Anton opened the bag and got out batteries of the appropriate size. Mara smiled. She took them and performed the installation herself.
A cool breeze caressed the agents.
“It is you,” Anton said. “You are the reason clock parts have been going missing. You have been stealing them… for this?”
Mara shook her head. “Anton, the DTA may have condemned this neighborhood to rot, but there are still people here. People live here. Real people, with real lives, who deserve to be able to live those lives without fear of being frozen in time for who knows how long. We have the power to help those people. It’s our duty to help them.”
Anton didn’t know how to respond. He understood what Mara was saying, even agreed with it, but it went against all Department regulation. But then, was Department regulation really an appropriate moral standard to measure up to? Anton wasn’t so sure anymore.
Mara took Anton’s silence as disapproval. “I never told you because I knew you’d react this way.”
“Mara, I understand why you are doing this.”
“You couldn’t possibly understand.”
Before Anton could reply, another man walked up on them. “Both of you, put your hands up!” He pointed a gun at them.
Anton dropped the bag and raised his arms above his head. Mara laughed. “Seriously? Of all things? This is the thanks I get?”
“Shut up!” the man shouted. “Give me all your money. He aimed his gun at Mara. Mara put her arms up.
“There is no need for threats of violence,” Anton said. “We will cooperate.”
The robber turned his attention to Anton. “What’s that on your wrist? Is that… Is that a watch?” He saw the matching band on Mara’s forearm. “And you have one too?”
“Two watches…” the robber said to himself. “I could do a lot with that… Forget money; give me those watches. Now!” He waved his gun at them.
With his arms still raised, Anton took the watch off his left wrist. Mara did the same.
“Throw them to me,” the robber said. “You first.” He pointed to Anton. Anton threw his watch to the robber. The robber caught it. “You now,” he said to Mara, and she repeated the procedure. The robber studied the watches in his hand, turning them over, marveling at them.
“You know,” Mara said, “we could give you a lot more than watches.”
“Oh yeah?” the robber asked.
“You see that bag there?” She gestured toward the duffel bag at her and Anton’s feet.
“Mara…” Anton said.
“Yeah? What’s in it?” The robber kept his gaze firmly on Mara.
“We’re with the Department of Temporal Assurance,” Mara said. “That bag is full of state of the art clock parts.”
Mara nodded. “That bag is worth more than you can possibly imagine.”
The robber chuckled. “Well I’ll be damned. I just hit the jackpot! Show me.”
Mara slowly lowered her arms and got onto her knees. She dragged the DTA bag across the ground until it was right in front of her, all the while never breaking eye contact with the robber. She unzipped the main pocket of the bag and lifted the top flap just enough to conceal as much as possible from the robber without raising too much suspicion. There it was. The gun.
“Mara, please do not do this…” Anton said.
“I’m sorry, Anton.” She picked up the gun. “I have to.” She fired, shooting at the robber through the top flap of the bag. He was hit in the shoulder. He screamed and staggered back, dropping the watches. By the time he regained his footing and had his gun back on Mara, she was standing, arm stretched out to her side, her own gun pointing at the lamppost on the side of the road. “Don’t move,” Mara said, “or I’ll freeze us all.”
“Mara! No!” Anton shouted.
The robber kept still. He kept his gun directly on Mara. “You’re bluffing.”
“You want to try me?” Mara put her finger on the trigger.
The robber hesitated. “You’re DTA. You won’t. You can’t. Besides, I can handle losing a few days.”
Mara laughed. “Days? I’m the only one in the DTA who ever comes all the way out here. It’ll be decades.”
“It is true,” Anton said. “And with a scene such as this, police officers will be ready to apprehend you as soon as we are unfrozen, no matter how far into the future.”
The robber’s eyes widened as he realized the situation he was in. He pointed the gun away from Mara and put his own arms up in a show of surrender. “Please. Let me go. I’m just trying to help my family. They need me. They can’t lose me. Decades… Don’t freeze us. For my family. For your family.”
“My family already lost me,” Mara said. “Seventy years ago. I have nothing else to lose.” A tear rolled down her cheek.
Anton looked at Mara, stunned. She had never told him this. He could see the hurt in her eyes. She wasn’t lying. She glanced at him. “Spare me your pity,” she said.
“Mara, why did you not tell me?” Anton asked.
“This isn’t the time,” Mara said. She still held the fearful robber firmly in her sights, and the gun firmly in her hand. “You want me to let you go?” She didn’t wait for the robber to respond. “Put down the gun, turn around, and walk away. Leave the watches on the ground. Find another way to support your family.”
The robber nodded emphatically. “Yes. I’ll do it. Anything you want.” He backed away a few steps, enough for Mara to see he couldn’t reach the watches anymore, and put down the gun. Then he turned around and ran, never looking back.
Mara waited until he was out of sight before lowering her own weapon. She heaved a sigh of relief. Her body went nearly limp. Her eyes sagged shut. “Wow,” she said.
“Indeed,” Anton said. “We have much to talk about.”
Mara sighed again. “I suppose we do.”
By the time they made it back to their car, the sun was beginning to set. Rays of light refracted shades of pink and orange through frozen clouds and swiftly moving clouds alike. Mara wondered how any cloud could be anything but frozen in time. Surely there were no clocks up there. She thought it might have something to do with shadows. Supposedly, the first ancient clocks were certain naturally occurring rock formations, tracking time by the passage of the sun via shadows. Mara didn’t entirely understand the idea, but many very prominent physicists thought it might be true. Or maybe they were philosophers. Either way—
“You cannot put it off any longer,” Anton said, snapping Mara out of her thoughts.
They were still in the parking lot. The sun was still hovering above the horizon. No more time had passed inside Mara’s head than outside it. “It’s not easy to talk about,” she said. “I’ve… never told anyone before, unless they had to know.”
Anton put his hand on hers. “I am your partner. I have to know.”
Mara flinched at his touch. She knew he was just trying to be reassuring, but it was still so hard for her to trust. She lowered her eyes. “I was ten years old.” She waited for him to interrupt. He didn’t. She continued. “We didn’t live in a city, or anywhere near one. Honestly it was pretty much the middle of nowhere, but I didn’t mind. I didn’t even know. I was only ten.
“We lived near a big forest, miles and miles of trees and nothing else. I used to love exploring it with my sister. She was about the same age as me, a little older.” Mara stopped to wipe away tears. She didn’t know when she had started crying. “One day I wanted to go play in the forest and she didn’t. So I… went without her.
“She was always the one who made sure I didn’t stray too far from the path. Of course, I didn’t know it at the time, but the path was where the clocks were. Stupid… So, stupid young me, I wanted to explore further than I’d ever gone before. And the next thing I knew, there was an old man in a suit right in front of me, telling me to stay calm, that everything was going to be okay.
“Everything after that happened so fast… Most of it is a blur now. I try not to think about it anymore. But once I understood what had happened… that my family…” She cupped her face in her hands. “The DTA helped me find a new life. And one way or another, I’ve been with them ever since.” She wiped her face dry on her sleeve. “That’s it. That’s my story.” She looked at Anton. He regarded her thoughtfully. “Well?”
“I am sorry,” Anton said. His voice was soft. “You did not deserve to experience such misfortune. No person does.”
“I know,” Mara said. “I’m just grateful I can do my part in making sure no one else ever does.”
“For how long were you frozen?” Anton asked.
“Forty four years,” Mara said.
“And your family? They were all… gone? By the time you were found?”
Mara hesitated. “… My sister was still alive.” She hesitated again. “My sister is still alive. But I never saw her again after I was found. I didn’t want to. I still don’t want to. She probably thinks I’m dead.”
“Why?” Anton gasped. “Why did you not go to her?”
“You have to understand,” Mara said. “I was a child, and suddenly my child sister was older than our mom had been. I was… afraid. Afraid of her, of how different she would be. Afraid that she would have forgotten me. Anyway, the DTA must have dealt with that kind of thing before, because they understood. They had a whole process in place. I went into foster care.”
“I do not agree with this process,” Anton said.
That was the first time Mara ever heard Anton disagree with one of the protocols of the DTA. She shrugged. “What’s done is done.”
“But it has been decades since then,” Anton said. “Why have you not contacted your sister in all that time? Surely you are not still afraid of her being older than she had been.”
“Guilt,” Mara said. “She’s old now, around 80 years old. She’s had a lifetime to come to terms with… what happened. If I came to her now, I’d just be ripping that wound open all over again. And worse, if she blames herself for what happened… for not being with me that day…”
“Do you blame her?”
“No,” Mara said immediately. “For a long time I blamed myself, but… No one did anything wrong. Not me, not her. No one is at fault. It was just… a random tragedy.”
“Then what do you have to fear?” Anton asked. “How can she blame herself if you do not blame her?”
“It’s not that simple,” Mara said.
“It should be.”
The top of the sun disappeared behind the roof of the abandoned shopping plaza. It was getting late. Mara sighed. “It doesn’t matter anyway. I never reached out to her, but I know where she is. I kept tabs on her, watching from a distance, making sure she was okay. And she was, so I never revealed myself to her. But now…”
“What is it?”
“She lives in the Westbrook Senior Center.”
The sky was dark by the time Anton and Mara arrived at the Westbrook Community Center and Senior Apartments. The night’s last assignment, as was usually the case, was a simple clock checkup. With emergencies usually taking priority during the day, that left nighttime for the more routine maintenance visits. The black sky gave a suitable backdrop to Mara’s mood.
“We’ll be in and out of there as fast as possible, right?” Mara asked yet again. “I don’t want to be here any longer than we have to.”
“Yes, Anton sighed. “We will be quick.”
They walked into the lobby. After trying so hard to avoid the place for so long, Mara never thought she would be going here for work. A secretary pointed them in the direction of the clocks that needed to be checked. Apparently there were a few of them. “If we split up, we can cover more ground faster,” Mara said.
“Are you sure?” Anton asked.
Anton shrugged, and he allowed himself to be led further by the secretary.
Mara got to work on the first clock she had been shown. It was a good model, one known for its longevity, if not its durability. It could probably use a stronger glass cover, but that was about it. She made a note that the electrical wires should be replaced in the next four to five years, and she was done with it.
She hustled to the next clock, and the next, trying not to be seen by too many people, and where that wasn’t an option, trying not to be noticed by too many people. The clocks themselves were easy to diagnose, where anything was wrong at all. She expected as much. A place like this was well funded, and that always meant quality clocks.
When she had finished with her share of clocks, she went off to find Anton. She was hurrying down a hallway when a voice from behind her stopped her in her tracks.
“Mara? Is that you?”
Mara froze in place. She knew that voice. Her body went cold with fear. She hadn’t heard that voice since she was a child, since the speaker was a child. She hadn’t even dared imagine the voice in decades. It was an old woman’s voice, now. Matured, refined, long past its prime. She suppressed quaking dread and turned to face the speaker.
Eyes as blue as Mara’s stared into hers. A constellation of faded freckles dotted the woman’s right cheek, unearthing long buried memories. The woman’s small mouth quivered, stretching muscles that had long forgotten how to smile. It was her. It was Anna.
“I…” Mara began, but she couldn’t continue. There were no words. Nothing could make this right. She was getting lightheaded.
“Can it really be you?” Anna asked. “I thought you were… We all thought… Oh God, Mara, is it really you?”
Mara couldn’t think. She wanted to tell her sister everything. She wanted to say nothing at all. She wanted Anna to understand why Mara hid all these years. She wanted Anna to forget Mara was ever here. She wanted Anna’s forgiveness. She wanted her sister’s love.
Another voice saved her.
“Eva, my darling, there you are,” Anton said, walking toward the women, looking directly at Mara.
After a brief moment of confusion, Mara caught on. “Anton, my dear, what took you so long?”
Anton chuckled gently. “My father had much to say about the current state of affairs in the world.” He turned to Anna, pretending to notice her for the first time. “Ah, I see my Eva has been making friends. Who are you?”
“I-I was just…” Anna stuttered, pale cheeks reddening with embarrassment. “I’m sorry, I must have mistaken your wife for someone else.” She turned back to Mara. She looked like she had aged years in the last few seconds. Long forgotten hope had floated to the surface, only to be crushed in an instant. Long remembered sorrow filled the void. “You look so much like her…”
“I get that a lot,” Mara said. It took everything she had not to break down. She couldn’t stand doing this to her own sister. But the alternative, the thought of Anna finding out she had left her sister behind and grown up without her, was too cruel to allow. This was the lesser of two evils. This is the way it needed to be. Mara had to keep telling herself that.
“It was nice to meet you,” Mara said. “Anton, are you ready?”
“Yes,” he said. “Let us be leaving now.”
They walked casually, but Mara’s mind raced. She forced herself not to look back. She couldn’t let herself see Anna again. It was too much. Finally, those endless hallways led them to the exit. When Mara stepped out into the cold summer night, she finally felt safe again. Anton was still by her side.
“Eva?” Mara asked.
Anton blushed. “I have always been fond of that name.”
Mara chuckled. Then she let somber solace overtake her expression. “Thank you,” she said.
Anton shrugged. “I do not agree with your decision to hide from your family, but it is your decision. I will not take that from you.” He stopped walking. His gaze fell to the floor. “I always thought I knew what was right from what was not. The world today is not as simple as I believed it to be yesterday.”
Mara looked at him, really looked at him, possibly for the first time. Ragged clothes and rugged face veiled a man whose moral code had been clocked and shattered. Gentle, just, trusting. Suddenly, she couldn’t understand how she never fully trusted him before. He was her partner. Why had she not been his?
“I’ll tell her someday, when the time is right.” It was a vow to herself more than to him. Whether Anton ever said it out loud or not, he was right. Anna deserved to know. And she would, but not before Mara was ready.
Someday, the time would be right. After all, making the time right was her job.