Authors: Julie L. Casey
A novel by
Julie L. Casey
© 2014 by Julie L. Casey
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be transmitted or reproduced in any form by any means without written permission from the publisher.
Book design by Julie L. Casey
This book is a work of fiction. Any names, characters, or incidents are the product of the author’s imagination and are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead is purely coincidental.
Printed in the United States of America.
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For my family
without whom survival would be pointless.
Time had always played a mino
role in my life, lurking in the shadows, only bursting out to assert its pompous self-importance in the excruciatingly slow last three minutes of history class or the gut-wrenching last thirty seconds of our football game, when the other team had the ball and the chance to eek out the win. On other occasions, it would sweep events in front of it, in a hurry to get them over with and out of the way, like during our all-too-brief lunch periods or gone-in-a-flash summer vacations. But mostly, Time was something I never thought about; it was just another ever-present force like the geomagnetic field surrounding the earth. Who could have known that both those constant, universal forces could be brought to their knees in a matter of seconds by a force greater than both of them?
I can barely remember back when Time worked to my advantage, when it embraced me in its comforting arms and held my hand during long stretches of happiness. I remember walking to the park every day with my mother, one hand held securely by her, the other holding onto the snack she always brought me when she picked me up from daycare after work. We’d walk slowly to the swings, while Mom would ask me about my day and laugh at the cute little things I’d say. Then we’d swing together, mom on the next swing over, her hand covering mine while I grasped the chain of my swing. She’d help me swing that way, unlike the other moms, who pushed their kids from behind. I remember thinking that she was the coolest and most beautiful mom in the world, and I the luckiest boy. I have one particular picture of her in my mind: she is leaning back in the swing, her golden hair flowing out behind her; her eyes are closed and her mouth is curved into a big smile. I’m not sure if this is a real memory of her or one I’ve created to cope with the loss of that happy time.
Another snapshot I guard protectively, locked away in the chest of treasured memories in my mind, is of her opening the present I gave her that last Christmas before the split. I remember my dad taking a rare break from his endless pursuit of financial success to help me find the perfect gift for her, one that I was sure would ease the tension that I could feel growing in our household. I had an idea of what I wanted to get for her. Mom was a nurse at a family clinic just a few blocks from our house in North Kansas City. She always wore a nurse’s watch pin on her sweater to use when she counted a patient’s heartbeat. Mom always wore a sweater over her scrubs; she was always cold, even in the summer, when she complained that the air conditioners made her feel like she was in the arctic. A few weeks before Christmas that year, her watch fob broke and she had had to carry the watch in her pocket instead of pinned to her sweater. In my still-childish, 12-year-old mind, I thought the broken watch was the source of her sadness and somehow the reason she was suddenly less available to me in the evenings, often leaving me at home alone until after dinner. Sometimes Dad would even get home before she did and I could tell it upset him that she wasn’t there.
Dad took me to countless jewelry stores that Saturday before Christmas, until I finally found the perfect one: the watch face was set in a gold, heart-shaped case and suspended by a gold chain from a red, enameled bow, which had a pin on the back. As with all nurse’s watch pins, the clock face was upside down so that Mom could see the second hand whizzing around while she took a patient’s pulse. It was expensive—I remember Dad pulling out three hundred-dollar-bills to pay for it while he half-joked that just because my name was Benjamin didn’t mean I should spend all his “Benjamins.” It was the most I’d ever seen him spend on anything; I think he felt the importance of the gift, too.
On Christmas, Mom sat off by herself with a little sad smile, watching me as I excitedly opened my new Xbox 360 and several games to go with it. Then I gave her my gift. The jewelry store had wrapped the gold box with a big red bow and I had made a little card shaped like a heart with a picture of us swinging drawn on it. Mom’s eyes got all teary when she saw the card and when she opened the box, she merely smiled and held it against her chest, murmuring,
Thank you, my sweet boy.
It wasn’t the reaction I’d hoped for. I had envisioned her exclaiming with joy and embracing Dad and me in a giant hug, but she just sat there, trying not to cry. I remember being so confused and disappointed by her reaction and when I looked at Dad, he looked sad too. I think that is when I knew our family wouldn’t be together much longer. I don’t know how I knew; I just did. I grew up faster that day than in all the twelve years preceding it.
After the holiday break, I was almost happy to be back at school. I was already tired of playing video games by myself all day. Sometimes, one of my friends’ moms would come pick me up and take me over to their house to spend the day, but since no kids my age lived in my neighborhood, I spent most of the holidays at home alone. Back at school, at least I had people to talk to for a good chunk of the day, which was a relief, even if I had to do some homework along the way. On the bus rides home from school, though, the loneliness would begin to swell up in my chest again, especially when we passed the park filled with happy toddlers and doting mothers. Even though I was way too old to swing and hold my mom’s hand, I remember thinking that I’d give away everything I owned just to be able to spend another day with her in the park, while Time looked the other way and let us be for a while.
Time was no longer good to me; when I was alone, it crept along like a slowly melting icicle, but on the rare occasions that my parents would spend time with me, always separately and desperate to win my favor, Time would flow like a raging river after the spring thaw. One bright, cold day in February, Dad moved to an apartment in the heart of Kansas City, just a few blocks from where he worked as an accountant on the 14
floor of the tallest building in Kansas City. I remember counting the floors of that building one day and discovering that it was really the 13
floor, but Dad explained that people were superstitious about the number thirteen, so they skipped it in tall buildings.
One unexpected benefit of Dad moving out was that he made a point of picking me up every weekend and actually doing things with me like playing video games and taking me out to eat. We got closer than anytime I could remember in my life, but at the expense of getting further away from Mom. Their divorce was final the summer after my 13
birthday, which is on April 13
, and I began to believe in the evil of that number. It seemed that being born on the 13
had destined me to an unlucky life. Mom seemed happier than she’d been in a long time and, for some reason that angered me. When I found out that she had been dating one of the doctors at her clinic, I was furious—how could she betray both Dad and me, choosing someone else over us.
I began to beg Dad to let me move in with him and before the next school year started, he agreed to ask Mom. She was adamantly opposed to the idea at first; I thought it was because she didn’t want to look like a bad mother. I picked fights with her many times over stupid little things and at other times I was just angry and sullen. Finally, she reluctantly agreed, as long as Dad could arrange to drop me off and pick me up from my same school.
After I moved in with Dad, I began to see less and less of Mom. I just couldn’t get over the fact that she was to blame for the breakup of our family. Even our phone conversations became strained and I began to ignore her calls when I saw her name on the caller ID. Once, when I was staying at her house on the weekend, she had her new boyfriend over to meet me and have dinner with us. I could barely be civil. If Mom deserved the blame for turning my world upside down, then this man had to be the reason she did it; he had to be more important to her than me. I was filled with anger and loathing toward him and it was all I could do to get through dinner without choking on the baseball-sized lump in my throat. I didn’t see much of my Mom after that night. I made up excuses like I was staying at a friend’s house or I didn’t feel good, to avoid my weekends with her. I figured she’d rather spend the time with her new man anyway.
Mom and Lyle got married just before my 14
birthday, completing the misery of that unlucky year. I was forced to walk Mom down the aisle since her dad had died before I was born. I refused to say anything, though, when the minister asked,
Who gives this woman to be married to this man?
, I just let her go and went to sit down, with my eyes on the floor for the rest of the ceremony. I didn’t want to add a picture of this travesty to the treasure chest of memories in my head. After the wedding, Mom moved into a nice new house with Lyle and sold our family home. Now my childhood was boxed up and stored away like the memories of my happier days.
The Day Time Stopped
My 13th year was when my family fell apart, but my 14
year was when my whole world, or more precisely,
whole world, collapsed. I had thought 13 was the unlucky number, the year that Time turned its back on me, but I was wrong; that year, it was I who had turned my back on Time. The following year, Time was turned back for everyone.
The August of my 14
year, I started high school at a charter school a couple of miles or so from our apartment and rode the school bus every day, which I despised. Dad promised that he would buy me a car when I turned 16, so I wouldn’t have to ride the bus anymore, but that was still a year and a half away. As usual, I didn’t like school much, except that I had made the Freshman Football team, not because of size, but because of speed. I liked football, mostly because it gave me something to do after school while Dad was still at work and it meant I didn’t have to ride the bus back home. Dad would pick me up at 5:30, after practice, and we would grab a bite to eat before he took me home and went back to the office for a couple more hours of work. Mom tried repeatedly to get me to come to her house when Dad worked late, but I always made excuses to avoid it.
On Monday nights, Mom and Lyle would come out and watch me play in the Junior Varsity games. They’d sit by Dad and they’d all three talk civilly to each other and cheer me on. It felt so weird seeing them together like that. I wished Mom wouldn’t come; then I wouldn’t be forced to pretend to be happy to see her or to let her hug me after the game. I wouldn’t have to shake Lyle’s hand and pretend I didn’t want to tackle him to the ground and pummel his face in front of all my teammates. But Time chose to make those moments stretch out uncomfortably long, so I’d try to hurry into the locker room after the game without seeing them. I’d be the last one out, hoping they’d already be gone. Sometimes they were, gratefully, but then I risked making Dad mad with my tardiness. Either way, I felt I couldn’t get a grasp on Time, to use it to my advantage.
On November 1
, school started just like any other day. I rode the bus to school and spent the extra few minutes before the first bell talking with my buddies and teasing some of the freshman cheerleaders. Football season was almost over and we were talking about whether we were going to try out for basketball or wrestling. I was leaning toward wrestling because it meant lots of out-of-town weekend tournaments, but most of my friends were going out for basketball. It didn’t matter. I knew that Lyle was on call most weekends and that Mom and he wouldn’t be able to come to most of my tournaments, so that made it worth choosing wrestling.
Time plodded along at its normal dull pace until lunch hour. Just as I was sitting down with my tray of barely edible cafeteria food, the lights began to flicker, then went out altogether. The cafeteria was in the basement of the school, and except for the emergency exit signs, it was pitch dark. Several girls screamed and someone dropped their tray of food. There was a stunned silence for a few seconds, then the vice principal came in to usher us all up the stairs and out the doors. A couple of hundred students from other lunch periods were already outside the building, but were trying to get back in for some reason. It was chaos, and I couldn’t see anything over the much taller students around me. Amid the noise and confusion of panicking students, I thought I could hear pops outside like gunfire, then an explosion and hundreds of sirens. Coach showed up then with a hand-held loudspeaker and started calling out instructions in a voice that I could tell he was straining to keep calm, while telling all of us to remain calm. It was already too late for that, though.
Eventually, Coach and the vice principal got us back to our homerooms, which lined the outside of the building and had windows for light, where we waited to hear what was going on. From the windows, we could see the tops of some power poles on fire, street lights out, and dozens of cars stalled on the street below. Our teacher, Mr. Heim, just let us talk and look out the windows for almost an hour until the principal came in to explain what had happened.
The whole city is without power. A massive coronal mass ejection, known as a CME, from the sun has hit the earth and taken down the power grid. We’ve been instructed by the police department to keep you here until your parents can come pick you up.
We didn’t really understand a word that he said except that we were without power and that it was going to be awhile before it was back on. Mr. Heim allowed us to try to call our parents on our cell phones, even though we weren’t supposed to have them in class. No one could get a signal and several of the phones appeared to be completely dead for some reason.
Outside, we could see people streaming out of the apartment building across the street and heard one lady shouting hysterically that her son was trapped inside the elevator and needed help getting out. I instantly started worrying about my dad being stuck on the 13
floor of his office building downtown, but there was no way I could contact him. That fact made me feel helpless and alone, even though I was in a room of 28 other people. I could tell that other people were affected by it, too, because they started trying to make calls on their cell phones again, even though we knew there was no service.
I was standing near the teacher’s desk at the front of the classroom when I noticed Mr. Heim messing with his watch. He had it off his wrist and kept tapping the face of it, then holding it up to his ear, and tapping it again. When he noticed me watching him, he looked a little embarrassed.
It stopped working. It’s an atomic watch and I guess it can’t find the signal to reset itself. It must have something to do with the… thingy, you know, the corona thingy.
Mr. Heim chuckled when he saw my dubious expression and explained,
I’m an English teacher; what do I know about science?
Just then I remembered that the nurse’s watch that I had given Mom for Christmas almost two years ago was an atomic watch as well. For one brief instant, I felt an enormous surge of love and concern for Mom, something I hadn’t felt in a long time. I know it must’ve shown on my face, so I turned away quickly and looked out the window, while I struggled to stuff those feelings back into the chest of memories in my mind. I was certainly not ready to let Mom off the hook for what she did to Dad and me. Instead, I forcibly turned my feelings and my worries toward my Dad who I felt was alone and vulnerable. I worried about Dad the rest of that long afternoon that we were stuck in the school.
Several of the older students who either had cars or could ride with other students were allowed to leave, but the school held on to those of us who were under 16 until our parents or another trusted adult could come pick us up. Some of us waited a long time, in fact it was getting dark outside by the time my dad finally showed up. He was on foot, having walked the twenty-two blocks from his office building. He told me we would have to walk home, because his car wouldn’t start and even if it did, he couldn’t get it out of the office building’s underground lot.
While we walked the fifteen blocks home, Dad told me about all the problems in his office building. The first problem was all the people that were stuck in the elevators. Dad wasn’t one of them, thankfully, but he had stayed to help those that were climb up out of the hatch at the top of the elevator cars and up the ladder on the side of the elevator shaft to the floor above where it had stopped. Then everyone had to walk down the thirteen flights of stairs to street level.
As we walked, there were still tons of sirens and police cars, ambulances, and fire trucks whizzing by every which way. We could see huge plumes of thick black smoke coming from several different locations in the distance. Dad said he had tried to call Mom to check on her, but couldn’t get a signal, and that made my stomach do a flip-flop. I wasn’t sure what upset me most: not knowing if Mom was okay, or that Dad was still concerned about her. Maybe he was just calling her for my sake, but in either case, I just looked away and changed the subject.