Time Lost, and Found

His gnarled, brusque, tannin hands caressed the watch band. He’d found it and its watch face along Lake Superior; brushed it from forgotten memories and dormant agate stones. Now, warmed in his fingers, the band changed. He saw it new, cut, fresh, oiled; attached to his grandfather’s timepiece for his son’s eighth birthday.

A long time later for one as rough as he, the old leatherworker released a breath. Rising, he set the wind-worn watch on his curio shelf near a faded photograph and a curling crayon picture. Tears in eyes, he shuffled out to put the kettle on.

©2020 Chel Owens

In response to Carrot Ranch‘s prompt:

November 5, 2020, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less), write a story about lost time. You can write a realistic scenario or something speculative. How does lost time impact the character of your story? Bonus points if you include a 1982 brown rubber watch Go where the prompt leads!

Respond by November 10, 2020. Use the comment section [on the site] to share, read, and be social. You may leave a link, pingback, or story in the comments. If you want to be published in the weekly collection, please use the form.  Rules & Guidelines.

Skinwalkers, XXXVIII

Upon reaching his small sleeping area, Nathan stopped to get his hurried bearings. He squinted at each familiar object: bed, nightstand, walls, doorway, closet. The last was his goal and he groped to his clothes through blurred vision and the ever-present dimness of the cheap lighting.

I wonder if I’ll earn enough to afford good light, one cycle, he wondered. Remembering the importance of a powerful mindset, he cleared his thoughts and said, “I will get an apartment with good light. With daylight.” The near-barren hole that passed for a closet echoed his word-sounds and returned them in a garbled state.

His hands felt among the hangers till they gripped a plastic lining over a thick garment. His suit. He pulled the ensemble to his chest like a precious thing and carried it to where he remembered his bed rested. Laying the loosely-bagged suit atop his blanket wad, Nathan withdrew each clothing piece and began dressing.

Though the process took far less time than his last costuming, he knew his time was already gone. Grabbing his slipshods from the floor, he rushed and stumbled back to the bathroom. Shower, off. Panel, closed. Comm, pocketed. Wristwatch, strapped.

He flung a quick glance at his reflection and nearly jumped out of his skin. Either he was more shaken from his dreams than he’d supposed or he had heavy-handed the eyedrops. The man staring back at him from the cheap, splotched mirror was a complete stranger, somehow adept at following his every movement and occasional blink.

“I intend to demonstrate the full capacity of a united workteam, led by a competent manager,” he tested. The mirror man spoke as well; his words were powerful in the cramped, reflective space. Try me now, Caill, he thought.

His pocket vibrated. He withdrew it and read its angry message: Inpracticum set to begin. Status?

“Reply,” he told the message response system. “In transit.” Waving the answered query to the side, he instead pulled up Transport Request. Expenses be damned; he couldn’t risk further tardiness. The program *pinged* and a green transport icon moved to his virtual location as a real one simultaneously did so outside his apartment.

Nearly sprinting through hallway, lockdown, and out the exit; he just missed knocking into someone swaying across the landing. It was Franks, but Nathan hadn’t the time to deal with charge demands now. He hadn’t the time for anything. He sprinted up the stairs, as quickly as a man in a skin and full suit could run. There sat a transport; his transport, rocking a bit in its streetside idle.

He strode forward past the usual street dwellers. They sat in a chorus line of hunched, silent misery, too saturated to know or care that he passed. Just before he activated the door of the waiting transport, one face lifted. Nathan’s comm moved over the door panel and he ducked and entered his paid ride.

It was after the door closed that his brain recognized the long, pale, older face that looked up. Shin.

“Well, howdy agin!” an exuberant voice jerked him away from his shocked surprise. Rex the operator grinned back at Nathan with what was left of his teeth. “Where to now, Sonny?”

 

Continued from Skinwalkers, XXXVII.
Read to Skinwalkers, XXXIX.

Skinwalkers, XXXII

*Beep* chirped the wristwatch, intentionally raising Nathan’s anxiety levels. “I know,” he muttered as he and Shin waited outside Franks’ apartment entry. Shin raised a curious eyebrow to Nathan but did not comment.

It was late. Nathan was tired. He’d almost taken the wrong comm as they left, almost forgotten to lockdown, almost forgotten his future plan as Shin subconsciously shifted the satchel to his uninjured shoulder while they stood in silence.

Nathan resisted the urge to scan again. If Franks was alert, he’d come soon enough.

“Nathaniel,” hissed Shin. “D’ya think-”

The door pulled to the side to reveal a strange sight. After two or three double-takes and his eyes adjusting to the dim entry lighting, Nathan recognized Franks. His neighbor stood with the aid of the door frame. Stood in a rather unsteady way. Stood there wearing a second-rate skin.

Pulling his attention from the distracting bulges and blobs, Nathan looked instead to Franks’ bloodshot eyes. “Hey.”

“Hey.”

“Erm…” Nathan decided to ignore the obvious elephant’s skin in the room and cut straight to their purpose. “This is Shin, from work.”

The wrinkle-surrounded eyes flicked over to his friend, his satchel, then back to Nathan.

“He’s… I told… Well… We’ve got something we need to sell.”

Even with the aid of a skin, Franks was a terrible actor. He pulled away from his leaning stance and even shuffled forward a few steps. “Oh?” His hands drew together, felt the increased artificial distance, and wiped at his fattened thighs instead. “What is it?”

Nathan turned to Shin. Shin shrugged. “Couple-a sensory mods.”

Franks came closer. “Mods?” he asked, his tone betraying his interest. “A couple?” He peered at Shin. “How many?”

Nathan held his breath and tried to catch Shin’s eye. “Oh,” Shin said in a casual tone, “I think I got three.”

“Got?” Franks nearly shrieked. “Just now? Where did you find them?”

“Now, Franks…” Nathan warned.

Licking his lips and stepping back a pace, Franks changed tactics. “I don’t know if I can help you nudes. No one’s buying the old mods for much.”

Nathan laughed. “Not from what I’ve heard.” He felt the look his neighbor shot him, even through all the folds and bunches of skin. Still, Franks looked barely able to stand up straight, let alone follow through on threats. “Shin here picked them up brand-new.” Nathan paused. “I guess you haven’t been streetside yet.”

Confused, Franks answered, “No. Why? They handin’ out free mods?”

Shin chuckled nervously; Nathan did not. He instead rubbed at the back of his head and glanced at his feet. “I wouldn’t say that, Franks.”

“Oh.” A pause, then, “Ohh ho ho!

In a complete change of demeanor, Franks stepped toward Shin and extended a friendly arm. “Come on in,” said the spider to the fly. “We have things to talk about.” He pulled Shin toward his apartment.

Shin looked back at Nathan as he was awkwardly guided into the entry. “You comin’?” he called back.

Nathan shook his head slowly in the negative, and Franks’ door slid closed between them.

 

Continued from Skinwalkers, XXXI.
Read to Skinwalkers, XXXIII.

Skinwalkers, XXVI

Nathan stared at the message display far longer than necessary. Carapace’s truncated opening line drifted harmlessly above the tiny comm: N. Reed, We request…

A hundred tiny, useless details pulled at his attention as he felt his mind attempt to avoid whatever the rest of the text might be. His bed, as always, was unmade and carried a faint smell. The apartment was dim; was that vermin he heard? A light glowed from the edges of the night stand’s hidden drawer where he’d stashed the other, still-lit comm. The shower dripped. The security beeped. An air system lamely whirred.

Finally, he extended his left hand forward. Pantomiming a grabbing motion, Nathan pulled the Carapace text from its position; spreading the same hand outward, he maximized the airborne display.

N. Reed, We request timely response to the following action item: Secondary Interview. Set for Suncycle 3.14 1300. Team lead inpracticum.

The lungful of sustaining air he’d held onto came out slowly. He blinked. He couldn’t believe it, even with the success he’d felt after the preliminary interview precycle. He had passed the first test. They wanted him back, postcycle. He hoped he’d have enough energy after another full work session, a short rest between, and reskinning.

This second round would also be much more difficult, of course. It was one thing to read and respond to three executives; quite another to demonstrate his managerial and technical talents before an entire team with those three executives as likely audience.

His Midpath theatrics professor had been right, after all, in declaring their exercises to be only that. Nathan hadn’t believed her at the time. All four paltry students attending had felt her tests impossible. They’d been in public, lines fully committed, all while reading the audience response.

“Touché, Madame Dremé,” he told the empty room. Sighing, he added, “Display.” The messages returned to only show on the comm’s small screen.

Feeling utterly drained, he once again pushed the hidden knob and withdrew his work comm. He manually deactivated the light and returned it amongst the other memories stored there. The watch beeped. Just before the drawer closed, he removed it and strapped it onto his right wrist.

His stomach rumbled in hunger. His grandfather’s watch was antiquated, but correct: mealtime.

Grumbling enough to match his stomach, Nathan stumbled over the few steps between the bed and his food station. This time, he selected the pre-programmed Midmeal button and stood in usual, silent prayer as it ground and clunked through selections. The machine stopped after a few jiffs without his food appearing. He smacked the front, the side, then the supply chute.

A noise like an outlands beast clawing back to life came from the wall. Lights blinked back on and a singed bundle dropped into place. Half a jiff later, another singed bundle fell. Then another. Just before succumbing to permanent technical failure, a tiny tartlet -also singed- completed the food station’s final offerings.

“Zut.” If Franks was on better terms, he’d have been able to pass the extra food onto him -maybe even for some charge.

Nathan looked up at Sirius Sustenance Supply’s tarnished bracket still proudly attached to the top of his dead food source. He didn’t have time or charge for this. Grabbing the most edible-looking package, he bit off a chunk and returned to the sleeping area. He dropped his comm on the bed and removed the work one.

“Shin,” he told it, actually praying now. Please answer, please answer, please answer, sang his thoughts.

“Nathaniel?” Shin’s voice came through. Nathan released a silent, Thank you, with his relieved sigh. “Ever heard of messaging, you antique?”

“Yeah,” Nathan retorted, “You’re the one answering.”

Shin paused. “Hm.”

“Listen, I need a favor.”

“Hm?”

“My food station just died, but it dumped out three extra meals.”

“Hm?” Shin’s tone increased in interest.

“Yeah, I thought you might know someone who could use them.”

“I’ll be there. Message me location.” Nathan could hear him laughing as the call cut off.

 

Continued from Skinwalkers, XXV.
Read to Skinwalkers, XXVII.

 

Skinwalkers, XIII

Removing skin was always a tricky process, often more so than applying it. Nathan had learned the best methods from his SciTecMed research, although the subjects he’d carefully deskinned hadn’t benefited much from his gentle care. As always, he was greatly relieved to see his own, living, blemished features slowly be revealed -instead of the ghastly, half-fused faces that haunted his nightmares.

He felt exhausted. The billowing steam cushioned his tired body and whispered sleep to his clouded mind. Doggedly, groggily, he continued slowly rubbing, releasing, and removing the synthdermal layer at its seams.

The wristwatch chirped twice during the entire ordeal: once, to remind him that it ought not to be worn; he acquiesed by removing it and setting it on the sink. Twice, to note that steam really was terrible for its inner workings and, next time, Nathan should remember to leave it in the bedroom.

The watch would have to wait. Carefully shrugging out of the top half of his skin, he pressed the floppy shell into the Skin Conditioner’s moist grooves. He repeated the process with the bottom half. Blearily, he checked each piece; pressing more firmly at a finger, straightening the right knee, then stroking gently across the eye sockets. He checked each area again, and a third time.

Finally satisfied, he stood back and closed the SC. Just in time; the shower was cooling. Nathan entered the cramped stall anyway, wincing and quietly yelping as the short output’s sprinkle hit his midsection. Squatting and reaching forward with his right hand, he managed to switch the spray to Wash. He awkwardly sudsed his hair, face, and upper half from a scrunched-up position around the rapidly-cooling water.

Grimacing and beginning to shiver, his left hand found the Rinse setting. He stood beneath the frigid output as long as he could stand, distracting his shaking limbs by fixedly watching soap swirls disappear into the floor beneath his feet.

None too soon, he jabbed it to Off. Next, was Dry. A blessed blast of foul -but warm– air roared from the vents near his backside. His lower extremities flapped uncomfortably and he fought the reaction to gag at the smell, but persevered for the sake of returning circulation to the rest of his body.

Pressing Off again, Nathan left the stall and the bathroom. He took the watch with him, of course; it had complained when he almost left it behind. “Keep beeping and I’ll deactivate your sound,” he tiredly told it. 10:01, it displayed, in response.

He stifled a rising swear word; Grandfather had detested profanity. “Gotta sleep,” he mumbled, instead, entering his bedroom. He stumbled to the mass of coverings he’d lumped together on the bed and attempted to straighten them across its top. Good enough, he decided, climbing beneath them.

Carefully, he set his comm in its locking station. He checked to verify its alarm would activate in time, then allowed its display to fade back to black. “Off!” He told the apartment lights, and was immediately immersed in darkness.

He buckled the watch over his left wrist by feel. Just before falling asleep, he whispered, “‘Night, Grandpa.”

 

Continued from Skinwalkers, XII.
Read to Skinwalkers, XIV.

Skinwalkers, VII

Nathan found his attention diverted by infinitely more distractions on this level, though he forced it to focus on the three executives he walked behind. They set a rapid pace, clearly accustomed to scenes he was not.

After leaving the plant-furnished area beyond the entry doors, the hallway they took had immediately entered a large, busy working space. Unit after unit filled the areas to his right and left. Their raised screens pulsed and shifted with information. Figures and graphs rose and dragged with data collectors’ finger swipes. A talking reporter described current events, was paused, then resumed.

A growing excitement built inside Nathan at the sight of it all. His mind easily fell back the few short years it had been since he was last immersed in technological industry, during Advancement Studies. Simultaneously, he tasted the bitter regret of his forced, premature removal.

This time, he thought, No one will take it from me. He’d made it on his own, now. He would make it the rest of his life on his own merits.

The suited backs he had been following paused momentarily outside a window wall. A panel moved and they entered. Nathan followed, entering likewise. Four chairs rested around the sides of a hexagonal touchsurface table near the space’s middle. Three of the chairs were closer together, and to those the executives drew.

This side of the window walls was tinted in some fashion. Nathan suspected them to be dimmable, like the natural daylight of the entire complex. These details were noted from his peripheral vision, and he strove to maintain a businesslike composure and not move his attention from his interviewers.

He sat as quickly as he carefully could, across from the triad of black suits. The woman crossed her ankles, folded her hands in her lap, and gave him a critical inspection. The men to her side chose a side-by-side foot position, relaxed hands on thighs, and less-sardonic expressions during their scrutiny.

Nathan waited. His wristwatch chose to beep again, which startled his examiners. They spent a few jiffs locating the source, then relaxed once the watch was identified. Man #2 laughed outright. “Why do you have that?” He demanded.

Keeping his face straight, Nathan replied, “To tell time.”

Now was the woman’s turn to laugh. As Nathan suspected, the sound was that of a suddenly freed bird: surprised, uncontrolled, and unnatural. “Ask a stupid question, Pul,” she rudely teased the man who’d first spoken. The left corner of Pul’s mouth pulled downward as his eyes sullenly registered her insult.

“It’s an interesting artifact …like your outfit,” she stated. She gazed at Nathan, challenge in her eyes. He couldn’t tell if she was referring to his skin, the suit, or even his behavior. This woman was tricky. Whether she was fully skinned or no, he bet she could hold that stony exterior in any situation.

Confidence, he told himself. I can play this game. Aloud, he answered, “Thank you.”

He thought he saw surprise cross her face, if briefly. The latest model of skin, then, if present.

“Now that we’ve discussed what a wristwatch is,” the woman continued, “Let’s begin where we traditionally do, with introductions.” She squared her shoulders, sitting up more fully. “I am known as Caill.”

“I am Stone,” Man #1 immediately offered.

“And I’m Pul, as you heard,” Pul ended. His discomfort at Caill’s blatant reprimand was still written in his lips and his glowering eyes.

Mentally, Nathan flexed his muscles. Caill was clearly a difficult one, but he intended to show her he was up for the challenge. He would play her games, and he would win.

 

Continued from Skinwalkers, VI.
Read to Skinwalkers, VIII.

Skinwalkers, I

Nathan’s watch beeped a warning chirp of impending tardiness; a friendly, authoritative sound. Frowning, he glanced down at its innocent display. He smoothed errant arm wrinkles near the expensive band, and returned to his mirror-task.

Cool, panicked eyes of blue looked out from a handsome, even-tempered face. He tried a confident smile, opening a seam near his cheekbone. Hastily, he brought large, artificially-fattened fingers to press at the sides of his neck.

Confidence was always a difficult one for Nathan to master.

He closed the worried eyes, gripped the stuck-down edge of countertop in both hands, and began his meditative-breathing exercises.

*Thumpety, thumpety, thumpet, thumpe, thump, thump, thump* slowed his heart’s percussion-nervous beat.

“I am the boss,” he whispered to the Formica. It dully echoed the end of his words.

Nathan cleared his throat. “I. am. the. boss,” he spoke aloud.

He opened his eyes again, telling himself they now looked self-assured. “I am the boss!” He loudly told them, the chipped sink, the splotched mirror, and himself.

“You sure are!” Came the muted reply from his wall-neighbor.

“Thanks, Franks,” he called, sarcastically.

“No prob, Boss!” Franks yelled back drunkenly. “Now, go to work and let us lazy asses sleep!”

Nathan took a breath in through his nostrils, and out slowly through his lips. Realizing a tingling feeling in his actual fingers, he released the countertop. He yanked convulsively at the top bathroom drawer; revealing toothwash, razor, eyedrops, and sundry hairs and paint chips. He withdrew the bottle of drops, dusted it, removed its stopper.

Carefully tilting his head back against its facial folds, he inserted a single drop into each twitching orb.

Immediately, a burning pain filled his ocular sensors. He tried not to wince nor rub at his eyes; resisted crying or yelling. Franks was trying to sleep off a hangover, after all.

Almost as soon as it had begun, the pain receded. That, or Nathan had acclimated. He was never quite sure. He glanced, again, in the mirror. A hazy reflection stared back at him with very solid, somewhat red-rimmed eyes.

Nathan tried to smile. Perfect.

 

Read Skinwalkers, II.