Angela Rydell’s flash fiction has recently appeared or is forthcoming in Whiskey Island Review, Storyglossia, Inkwell, Daily Science Fiction, Fast Forward Presents: The Incredible Shrinking Story and other journals.
Olivia didn’t want to open the soft padded manila envelope, not at first. No return address. But Steve’s heavy, angular handwriting was unmistakable. Anything Steve-related still made her stomach lurch, even two months after the break up. Still, he knew how to get to her. She’d never said no to his gifts. She couldn’t resist them. They were all such mysteries. Once he gave her a small doll the size of her thumb that did nothing but breathe.
Another time, a small levitating globe that glowed in darkness—not with continents, but constellations. Then a
wristwatch wired to a tiny bundle of faux dynamite. They creeped her out, but were always fascinating.
Olivia blew a small Juicy Fruit bubble, then another, her fingers tearing at the wrapping before she could stop herself.
A CD in a pristine white sleeve slid out of the package. The label, in bold red magic marker, read, “CD Mix to Play in the Last Twenty Minutes of Your Life.”
“Asshole,” she said aloud, and dropped the CD, like a hot coal, onto her claw-marked kitchen table. The scratches were from Zeus, Steve’s cat, who, like Steve—hisses and bad litter box training and all—was finally gone from her life.
She drew the CD out of the sleeve. What was she supposed to do, wait until she understood she would die in twenty minutes, then listen? Or keep it in her car, anticipating an Orwellian announcement? “In twenty minutes, the aliens will suck your brain from your skull. So it’s time, dear listener, to enjoy that CD from your no-good, paranoid schizophrenic ex-boyfriend.”
Even before the break-up, Steve constantly made ominous threats that weren’t really direct. This was the most creative attempt so far. She started popping the package’s padding. Along with her gum cracking and the hard patter of rain on the windows, it sounded like someone unloading an AK-47 in her kitchen.
Maybe, after listening to whatever Steve crammed onto the disc, in twenty minutes she’d want to kill herself. Chew up the bubble wrap and asphyxiate.
Olivia had the urge to step on it and then feed it to her garbage disposal. But once that urge died, she pictured putting it in a safety deposit box as a way to stave off death.
Hands trembling, Olivia stopped popping bubble wrap and pulled the scrunchie from her hair, stretched it until the elastic gave out and it snapped back to shape. Did it again. It was a scrunchie in the shape of an infinity sign, or was it a mobius strip? Something Steve had given her.
Steve was a manipulative bastard, true, but also very smart. Brilliant even. Eerily so. He knew things about quantum mechanics, time and space that continually made Olivia feel stupid, insignificant. And in awe. He liked to talk about time travel, about how objects were connected to time in ways that most people couldn’t fathom. Time, he said, affected us on the level of subatomic particles. We think of time as a line. But he was working on a machine that could induce time travel on the level of particles. He wasn’t crazy, no. It wasn’t a time machine for people. He thought outside the box of the time machine. This was a machine for things, not humans. You change the thing, then you, as a human, keep the thing with you at all times. And time changes. You might not realize it. But time changes. It was either brilliant, or lots of bullshiting. She used to think it was bullshiting. Mostly.
If the CD could somehow foretell her final twenty minutes, if she had it with her, would that mean she could control death? Or if she hid it away, maybe she’d never reach the last twenty minutes before death?
Olivia considered calling him, a thought pleasant as driving nails into her eyes or swallowing cyanide. He knew that talking to him tortured her. And now, not talking to him would also torture her.
Olivia picked up the phone, “Steve.”
“Yeah. Twenty-Minutes-Before-I’m-Dead Olivia.”
Olivia stretched her scrunchie again, as tight as she could.
“You’ve thought about it, then? What it means?”
“Thought about it? All I’ve done since I got the thing is think about it.”
Steve hung up.
She called again. No answer. Not that day, or the next. A week later the number was disconnected. She went to his apartment and found a “for rent” sign out front.
By then Olivia had burned the mix onto a dozen CDs. Carried one in her purse. Downloaded the MP3 onto her iPod, into her computer, her Web space. On her desk at home was a growing stack of extra CDs.
When she came home she stared at the stack. If you reproduce something connected to time, and you can hold that something, are you controlling time? Is it there in your hands? Should she make just one more?