10 September 2011
I flex my fingers and whisper sibilant words: time stops, a frozen fragment of fixed finality. I cannot save her. I can see this, and it breaks me, shatters some vital portion of my soul. I can see the bullet, a rounded, hollow-pointed thing howling towards her, seeking with awful hunger her perfect, porcelain breast; it struggles against my control, shivers, wiggles, strains forward millimeter by millimeter, and I know that it will pierce her before I can reach her. I am leaping, I am in the air reaching for her, and I will not be fast enough. I scream, and it is a guttural roar of primal rage, coming from some demoniacal portion of myself heretofore unexplored; a beast within me has been unchained, and cannot be re-caged, now.
I am not a hero, nor yet am I “super” in any sense of the word. I cannot fly, or jump far, or bend steel, or stretch or shoot webs, I am merely a man who discovered a miniscule rip in the fabric of the cosmos and learned how to exploit it. It happened by sheer accident, though some may call it fate, or destiny. A scroll, a laborious translation from from one dead, archaic language to another and thence into English...words read aloud, directions followed...I am a timid man, a scholar, more used to archaic hero formulae than comic book action heroes, but it seems, through this twist of fate, that I am destined to be known as Chronos, rather than James Uriah Callahan.
To tell the truth, at that moment of which I speak—when the bullet burst through my spell and splattered her crimson life-blood on the crumbling cinder-block wall—James Uriah Callahan died, and Chronos was born in his place. I have nightmares of that moment, and I wish my spells could turn back time and allow to undo it, but if there is such a spell or power, it eludes me. I am no magician either, no wizard. What I call a spell is not really magic, nor is it a mutation or super-power, an incantation already ancient when the Sumerians were first learning to bake bricks, and it is limited in its use. From the instant in which I utter the incantation, time and the rules of physics are suspended, not broken or abolished, merely suspended for I have determined is thirty precious seconds of my own personal subjective time. Anyone and anything within a fifty-foot radius is affected, and has no memory of the suspension. During those thirty seconds, I can do anything within my abilities: I can move a person, cross an intervening space, strike a blow or a fire a weapon, or simply disappear. I stop time and the rest is up to my imagination and abilities, both of which are limited.
In that first frozen moment, she is screaming, mouth in a moue of terror, hands up in a futile attempt to stop the speeding bullet, eyes half-shifted to me, pleading with me to help her, to save her. I leap with all my strength even as I finish uttering the incantation, but she is fifty feet away and I sense time beginning to reassert itself, and then with a palpable snap the tableau is broken, the bullet strikes her with wet crunch, blood paints the wall behind her like a Rorschach image, and I slam into her a fraction of a second too late. I watch her die, then. She lies limp in my arms, eyes dimming and watery with unshed tears, breath coming in labored gasps, pink froth bubbling at the corners of lips. She whispers my name, clutches at me, and then she is gone. I set her gently to the ground, rise up and face her killer, a hulking ape of a man with heavy shoulders and mauls for fists, one of which holds a pistol, which looks in his grip like a toy squirt gun. He has mirthful, wrathful, scornful glee in his eyes, slips the gun into his waistband at his back, spreads wide his hands, as if to say, “What are you going to do about it?”
I show him. I stalk towards him, stand in front of him, glaring at him, letting my rage build, stalling for time. I am counting the seconds by the beats of my heart, and when enough time has passed, I flex my fingers again in the prescribed pattern, speak the words, loudly this time. He is puzzled, confused. The words are in a language that pre-dates the sinking of Atlantis, and they sound like the hissing of a maddened serpent. When the last words is uttered, he is frozen, the look of befuddlement on his face comical. Now, I let loose all the cruelty and evil within me. I take the gun from his waistband, fire it point-blank into his groin, and wait for time to resume. When it does, he collapses, screaming. I kick him, stamp on his face, and then a red haze of rage washes over me and I know no more. When I come back to myself, he is a pulp of gore on the ground and she is cold and stiff, and I am covered in crusted blood.
“Layla,” I whisper, finally allowing myself to feel my sorrow. She loved me, and for that she died. The dead man on the ground, he was the jealous ex who refused to let her go, who was us together and went berserk...
I leave them there, placing pennies on Layla's eyes for Charon, kissing her cold lips once more.
As I ascend the steps, I leave behind not only Layla MacPherson, but James Callahan as well. When I emerge into the star-washed midnight, I am no longer timid, or studious, or careful. I am reckless, and angry and violent.
But that formative night is not over. Stomping down the street, sparse traffic rushing by, I realize that I cannot go back to my old life, any more than I could have saved Layla. I am changed. I am altered. Do I like this new I? It is too soon to tell, I think. I am stronger, perhaps, for I care not what anyone thinks, or whether I live or die. Layla was my one love, the companion to my soul, and without her, I am naught.
I find myself wondering what havoc I could wreak with this power, what wonders I could perform. I tried to save her, and failed, but if I had been there sooner, she might still be alive. I was too late because I hesitated. I hesitated, and she died.
I wander aimlessly, distractedly, lost in my own thoughts, passing through pale pools of light and stoplights cycling green-amber-red; suddenly I find myself at the heart of downtown, deserted and silent at 3a.m. I hear, filtering to my awareness through the fog of my self-absorption, voices nearby. A woman's voice, weeping, pleading, no no no PLEASE NO and my action is decided by motion rather than thought. I slink through shadows to the mouth of the alley from which the sounds emerge, the sound of a hand slapping a face, a whimper, a rustle of clothes, the chink of a belt buckle...
She, an unknown faceless woman who now becomes her, is lying on the rough wet cement by a reeking dumpster, pale legs flashing in the lurid sickly glow of a hanging streetlamp, and I can see her hands are tied with zip-ties and her clothes are ripped off and the man atop her is hairy repugnant vile sweating eager...
I stalk like an animal closer by inches until I am a few feet away, and the gun I never threw away is in my left hand, my right is flexing and marking the air, the words are whispered so quietly as to be subvocalization, and then he freezes mid-thrust and she freezes mid-thrash, muffled moan of protest cut short. I throw him backwards and paste his brains across the alley in gray and pink, lift her up to her feet, stiff as a mannequin, remove the underwear stuffed into her mouth as a gag, strip off my sweatshirt and slip it over her and then reality reasserts itself and she finishes her shriek, starts in shock and confusion. She looks at me, then the corpse on the ground, the ragged faded U-Conn sweatshirt that doesn't quite cover her, mumbles and stutters, falls apart weeping. I catch her, settle her down, say nothing. Eventually, she gathers herself together and asks what happened. I find no words to answer except, “I had to stop it, don't ask me how, you wouldn't believe it,” and she doesn't.
I walk her to her door, a hundred feet away, shrug at her thanks, and vanish back into the night.
The next night, I wander forth, looking for trouble; I find it, easily. I try to redeem myself, moment by frozen moment, one fragment, one slice of chronology at a time. But none of it brings Layla back.