They were watching a re-run of The Lucille Ball Show. “Be there in a jiffy!” Lucy said into the telephone.
“How long, exactly, is a jiffy?” asked the Time Traveler. He — or rather it, because the Time Traveler avoided gender assignations — was exceptionally curious about time.
“I’ve never thought about it, but it’s quick,” the Host said. “We don’t use the word jiffy very much anymore, to be honest.”
The Time Traveler munched on a bag of cheese popcorn. It stretched out its lanky frame, propping its large foot-pods on the sofa. This irritated the Host. “How many times do I have to ask you not to put those things on my sofa?” said the Host.
“How many times, and over what period of time, would you typically say it before someone would stop doing it?” replied the Time Traveler.
This type of conversation occurred regularly. It drove the Host nuts. When the idea of hosting a Time Traveler first came up, the Host thought well, what the hell? I’m between jobs, as they say, and I don’t have a lot going on. He had imagined showing off the more enjoyable elements of modern culture: snowboards, Resident Evil, Rihanna music videos. He had envisioned his Time Traveler making hilarious, adorable observations about everything, like Robin Williams did in that show where he was an alien.
“Get me one of those cold Mountain Dews, will you?” the Time Traveler asked.
The amount of junk food the Time Traveler could ingest in one sitting boggled the Host’s mind. Even with his host stipend, this experience had nearly bankrupted him. And the Time Traveler expected to be treated like a guest. The Host constantly plucked the Time Traveler’s rubbery, disposable onesies off of the living room floor, where the Time Traveler seemed to shed them like a snake’s skin. Some mornings the Host nearly tripped over the donut-like communication objects that the Time Traveler used to connect to its girlfriend, or boyfriend, or whatever it was. At night he could hear them having some kind of virtual sex, and it sounded disgusting. The Host always picked up the donut thingies with oven mitts and washed his hands afterwards.
The Time Traveler stretched, looking a bit like a tubular cat, and then leapt off of the sofa, scattering bright orange popcorn confetti onto the rug. “I think I’ll go for a little walk,” the Time Traveler said, clicking off the TV.
It took the Host a few weeks to figure out what “go for a little walk” meant. He started to get the picture when the Time Traveler returned to the apartment after only a few minutes with a sundial, or a cuckoo clock still bearing remnants of sawdust, or some other time-related object. Once he brought home a thin, oblong metallic disk that hovered in the air and made a pleasant whooshing sound every few seconds.
“Where have you been?” the Host finally asked.
“Oh, around,” replied the Time Traveler. “I picked up this used discotempogyrometer. Imagine! It still works,” the Time Traveler said, brushing his hand-pod fondly over the floating device.
“Dude,” said the Host, “Are you traveling in time? Because the rules—"
“Please don’t throw the rules at me,” said the Time Traveler firmly. “No one is going to be the wiser, so let it go. I’ll go about my business, you go about yours. Did you remember to pick up some of those Little Debbie Fudge Rounds?”
The Host had to admit, one thing the Time Traveler had done was to get him thinking about time. It was really the only subject the Time Traveler cared about besides junk food. Especially after he had smoked a little weed, the Host got to wondering why, during this period when he was between jobs, the days seemed so much longer than they were when he was working. And wasn’t that a good thing? Time should last as long as it possibly can. Rather than finding it boring, the slowness of the unemployed life actually suited him. He had become a host not just for the host allowance, but also because he thought he needed to do something to fill his days. He realized now that the only problem with longer days was that he was spending too many of the hours in them with the Time Traveler.
The Host didn’t want to get into one of those aggravating circular conversations with the Time Traveler, but one night at dinner (the Host eating a Lean Cuisine, the Time Traveler devouring lime Doritos bathed in microwave-melted Velveeta) he decided to ask some questions.
“You seem to know a lot about time,” the Host began, thinking flattery was a good opening.
“I sure do,” replied the Time Traveler, stalactites of melted Velveeta quivering across its central orifice.
“So, like, how much time separates this” —the Host swept his arm around to take in the dinette set as well as the rest of the apartment— “and where you live?”
“Well,” said the Time Traveler, “right now, none, because I’m here.” It wiped its central orifice on a paper napkin, leaving a Velveetic smear.
“But what if you were back there, and I was here?” the Host persisted.
“We would never be in those places simultaneously. Time would not permit it,” said the Time Traveler solemnly.
“Okay, let me ask it a different way,” said the Host, trying to be patient. “How many years would I have to live in order to reach your, umm, era?”
“I think I see what you are asking. It is premised on a concept of time as inflexible, whereas to us, time is more fluid,” said the Time Traveler. “If time were inflexible — marching on, as one of your expressions goes — I’d say a staggering number of millennia. More than you can likely imagine. I mean, look at me!” the Time Traveler said, running its hand-pods suggestively down its body. “It took a long time for all of these evolutionary improvements to happen!” The Time Traveler paused to inhale a podful of nachos. “It might interest you to know,” it said in a confidential tone, “that in my era, as you put it, I live more or less right in this area.”
“What’s it like?” asked the Host with genuine curiosity.
“That would really break the rules,” the Time Traveler said. “Let’s just say, it’s very warm. And wet. Speaking of wet, how about another Mountain Dew? Will you get me one that is already cold?”
The Host obliged him, and then asked his main question. “If time is flexible, can you slow down time?”
“Eeeffy,” said the Time Traveler with its central orifice full. The Time Traveler swallowed.
“Easy. If we want to slow time, we time-travel backwards from our current time-travel location.”
“I don’t get it,” said the Host.
“Let’s say I’m spending Thursday with you, here, in this apartment. Assume further that I decide to head back to the year 1800 to take a nature walk, which I am not interested in, but this is just an example, agreed?”
“Agreed,” said the Host.
“This city didn’t exist then. It was wilderness, actually. I take my little walk, build a little campfire, maybe run into some trappers and, as you say, hang out, share their grilled squirrels and their firewater. Before I know it, I’ve spent several sunrises and sunsets there. I can do this for a limited period, about a week, as long as I don’t break the rules of double time-travel, the main rule being I am not allowed to encounter myself in the environment I’m visiting. That’s essential. And when I come back here, it’s still Thursday.”
“Is that the kind of thing you’ve been doing?” asked the Host.
“Let me put it this way,” the Time Traveler said. “I like it here. I’d like to stay here forever, if you want to know the truth. So the more I exercise my wanderlust, the more I stretch out my time. Would you like to split a Moon Pie for dessert?”
“This not-encountering-yourself rule,” said the Host. “You’re kidding, right? What sci-fi movie did you get that from? It’s, like, a major cliché.”
“I am not surprised by your skepticism,” said the Time Traveler. “But in truth, I would characterize those movies as prescient. Though many details were erroneous, we honor the foresight of Back to the Future. One of our major time travel centers is named after Marty McFly.”
The Host put this nugget of information to the side. “How do you avoid running into yourself?” he asked.
“I usually go backward, rather than forward, to times and places where I am certain I have not been. And I make every effort not to repeat the same week. However,” the Time Traveler continued, “it is not a precise endeavor for most of us. There is always an element of risk. I can only roughly gage where I am going when I am time traveling from a time travel location like where we are now; it creates what you might call a double loop. I could explain it to you scientifically, but I am confident you would not understand.” Then the Time Traveler asked, “Do you want to know a secret?”
“Sure,” said the Host sarcastically. “If you’re confident I would understand it.”
“Sometimes I even drift away briefly without having planned it. That is not to be repeated, by the way.” The Time Traveler giggled. “Just last week I was sitting here, and suddenly I found myself outside, standing on the sidewalk. I could tell by the lighting conditions and the placement of the newspaper on the sidewalk next door that it was the previous evening. I dared not re-enter our apartment” — the Host was irritated by the use of “our" — “because I remembered that I would be inside, eating some Jelly Bellies. So I took one of my little walks.”
“Did that clear it up?” the Host asked.
“Yes, it did. When I returned, I was back in the present. Unfortunately, I had already eaten all of the Tutti Frutti Jelly Bellies the previous evening,” the Time Traveler said wistfully.
The Host thought a lot about this conversation afterwards. In real terms, the Time Traveler wasn’t spending any more time in his place at all, but the thought that it liked living there and wanted to stay, maybe forever — whatever that meant — had started to creep him out. In addition, timepieces and clocks now cluttered the apartment, souvenirs from the Time Traveler’s little walks. They had to eat sitting on the sofa now; ticking, whirring mechanisms from several centuries blanketed the dinette and its chairs.
One day when the Host returned from the grocery store, the Time Traveler popped up off of the sofa and extended its side appendages.
“Ta da!” the Time Traveler said. “What do you think?”
The Host blinked hard. The Time Traveler wore tight red jeans and an untucked, long-sleeved brown shirt buttoned at the neck. On its foot pods it wore a gigantic pair of Vans. It had piled its hair, which the Time Traveler called “pili,” into a messy bun. If he squinted, the Time Traveler looked pretty much like your average hipster.
“What the hell?” remarked the Host. “Did you take money from me to buy this shit?”
“Absolutely not,” the Time Traveler replied, dropping its appendages in apparent dejection. “I don’t do things like that, as I am sure you will recall if you think about it for a minute.”
“Well then, you’d better explain,” said the Host. The Time Traveler held up its hand-pod, waiting to speak until the minute it had requested was over.
“I sold a few of the items I have picked up on my little walks. The ones I didn’t care too much about, or that were duplicates. I got some money and I went shopping,” the Time Traveler confessed. “And guess what?”
“I can’t wait,” said the Host.
“I got a job!” the Time Traveler crowed.
“Are you shitting me, dude?” said the Host, incredulous and envious at the same time.
But the Time Traveler was not shitting the Host. It had been hired to sell clothes at the Hollister store in the mall. The Host remembered that store with its self-conscious SoCal vibe and interior as dark as a theater before the curtain rises. He had groped around in it as a teenager, trying to find a blue surfer T-shirt. Unable to see the price tags, his mother bought him an inferior one at Target instead. It had been a tragedy at the time.
The next morning, a Saturday, the Time Traveler rose precisely at eight o’clock — a dozen or more alarms from its various timepieces signaling the hour — and dressed for work.
“Why don’t you stop over to my store for lunch?” the Time Traveler said to the Host. “Since you don’t have a job or anything, you could bring me a little something. Maybe some beef jerky and a bag of those Flamin’ Hot Funyuns. And a cold can of Mr. Pibb. I’ll treat for dessert.”
Curiosity, more than a desire to have lunch with the Time Traveler, drove the Host to the mall at noon. Blinking to adjust to the shuttered gloom of the Hollister store, he eventually spotted the Time Traveler folding board shorts in the corner. In the perpetual deep twilight of the store, the Time Traveler looked like the clone of every other sales associate. Only the red pants distinguished the Time Traveler from the other bun-wearing employees.
“Welcome to my place of employment,” the Time Traveler said. “It is so fulfilling to have a job, don’t you think? Oh, sorry, I forgot,” he finished, faux-guiltily. The rest of the lunchtime conversation was along similar lines.
“See you back at home,” the Time Traveler said cheerily after lunch. “I have to work tomorrow, so maybe you can bring lunch again?”
The Host left the Hollister store with only one thought: I have to get rid of the Time Traveler. Brooding over a joint, listening to the various timepieces in the apartment jangle and tock, he turned on the TV.
“Don’t forget to Spring Forward!” a cheery newscaster was saying. “Tomorrow morning at two ay em. Adjust your clocks!”
“Hunh,” mused the Host. “Hunh,” he said again. He lit another joint, the cogs in his head whirring like the timepieces covering the dinette. Then, after a moment, he disabled the TV.
The next morning, the Host rose before the various alarms went off. His watch showed eight. He was relieved to see that none of the objects in the Time Traveler’s collection had sprung forward; all were still set at seven o’clock.
The Host shimmied into the red pants. They were tight, having been styled for young teenage boys; fortunately, Hollister’s revolutionary “flex” material created some give. Since he was quite a bit shorter than the Time Traveler, he had to cuff them, but the look was still good. He swept his hair into a bun and donned the brown shirt. The Time Traveler continued to sleep soundly. Once at the mall, the Host walked into Hollister’s employee entrance with purpose.
“Hey.” “Hey bud.” “’Sup, brah?” The Time Traveler’s co-workers greeted the Host laconically in the inky aisles, barely looking up from the tables of sweats, shorts and underwear.
The Host felt his way to the table of board shorts and began folding. He kept away from the lights at the cash register. About an hour later, the Host looked up to see the Time Traveler, wearing his Vans, his rubbery onesie and the Host’s bathrobe, push its way frantically through the gloom. The Host had just enough time to plant his feet on a small wooden step he had located for this purpose. Now he was as tall as the Time Traveler.
Looking around wildly, the Time Traveler seemed momentarily lost. Then it spotted the Host, methodically working on the board shorts.
“May I help you?” one of the sales associates asked the Time Traveler.
“Ummm, no, I work – well, no, I see something – something disturbing – have you seen me already today?” the Time Traveler stammered.
“I know, right?” the sales associates said. “Everybody kinda rocks the same look in here.”
The Time Traveler continued to stare at the Host for a moment, and then dashed out of the store. The remainder of the day proceeded uneventfully for the Host. After work, the Host left the Hollister store, saying goodbye to the other sales associates.
“See ya tomorrow,” one of them said.
“Sure, man!” the Host replied enthusiastically. He was going to like this job. Time passed so slowly in Hollister. It was almost like not having a job, except you made money.
The Host changed his clothes in the mall bathroom and dismantled his man-bun. When he arrived back at the apartment, an ashen Time Traveler sat slumped on the sofa, its pili in a forlorn tangle.
“You don’t look so good,” observed the Host.
“I’m afraid I have made a terrible mistake,” said the Time Traveler. “By the way, have you seen my red jeans?”
“They’re in the basement laundry room,” said the Host. “I forgot to tell you I was washing them. Now what is this about a mistake?”
“I violated the rules,” the Time Traveler wheezed. “I don’t know exactly how I did it, but I seem to have traveled back to yesterday, where I encountered—” it gulped, wringing its hand-pods. “I encountered myself.”
“How does that violate the rules again?” the Host asked.
“The one immutable rule of time travel is that you are never, ever supposed to encounter yourself. Therefore, I don’t know if today is today or if it is an altered yesterday. Or maybe an altered today. All I know is, I will not be allowed to be here anymore.” The Time Traveler wheezed again, letting out a sort of sob. “I loved it here. I had a job, I was stretching out my stay with my little walks, I was building a nice ancient timepiece collection, and the food is just—so, so good.”
“You’ll be okay,” the Host said consolingly. “There’s still half a box of Little Debbies in the kitchen. You can take them with you, if you want.”
Mary Hannah Terzino writes short stories. She spent over 30 years as a lawyer before turning to fiction. Her work has been published in The Forge Literary Magazine, Leaf Land Journal, and Blue River Review, among other journals. She was a finalist for a fellowship for emerging writers over 50 from The Forge Literary Magazine, and was a fiction finalist in the Michigan Writers Cooperative Press chapbook competition. She lives in Saugatuck, Michigan.