I squinted through the rusty portal, drinking in the pinprick of light that taunted me across a chasm of darkness.
The portal was only an inch wide. It may as well have been a thousand miles.
“Are you sure about this, sweetheart?” I turned away, feeling rather like an astronomer who has glimpsed a new star but cannot quite believe her eyes. “Somehow, I would have expected a time warp to look different than . . . than . . .”
“Than a keyhole?”
Brady leaned on the crumbling brick behind me, lost in shadow. Though could not see his smile, I heard it. My inventor husband never failed to appreciate the ironic.
As the first two people to travel back in time, we had hoped his contraption would land us somewhere interesting. Versailles during the reign of Louis the XVI, for example. Or the Battle of Hastings in 1066. Maybe even an expedition with Marco Polo.
Instead, our first ride had ended inside four mouldering walls with an iron door and nondescript but effective lock that could have belonged to any era.
Brady had assured me this was a mere technical glitch. “Temporality is like a prison,” he explained. “The past, the present, the future: they’re nothing but cells inside one giant jail. All we have to do is pick the lock.”
I wiggled my fingers through my coat pockets searching for anything long and slender enough to fit inside that portal. Meanwhile, doubts tickled at my chest. If time really were a jail cell, why was it, then, that I heard footsteps on the other side of the door?
The sound spurred me on. Before we climbed into the machine, I had emptied my pockets, but surely there was something we could use . . . somewhere . . .
I pulled out a stray hairpin and handed it to Brady.
“Be quick,” I hissed. “If the Prison of Time employs a jailer, he’s likely used to keeping prisoners in line.”
Brady slid my slender pin into the lock. I counted the seconds with my footsteps. At first, it was a solo. Then a duet. Then a trio. After quartet and quintet, I lost count. But underneath it all, the rattle of Brady’s hairpin sounded an eerie counterpoint.
“Are you done yet?” I demanded.
Brady gave the pin a turn. “Calm yourself, Love. The lock’s a bit rusty. You would be too if no one had ever opened you.”
But though I continued to pace, the symphony of steps was no longer beneath my feet. It thrummed through my heart, then rattled into my brain. “The jailer is coming!” I cried. “Brady, get us back to the present, now.”
“You mean the future?”
“I mean the other side of the keyhole—wherever that is!”
By now, every turn of the pin in Brady’s deft fingers had slowed to a clumsy crawl. I could neither will nor imagine away the footsteps either. They had melted, first into a terrifying silence and then into a chorus of murmurs on the other side of the door.
My mind ran a rat’s maze. Were these the members of our team back in the lab, anxiously awaiting our return? Were they grim torturists from the unnamed bygone we had penetrated? Or perhaps—even worse—the celestial keepers of the prison Time, waiting to recapture their escapees?
“Brady!” I shouted. But before he could answer, the door swung. I surged forward, trampling the hairpin as I drank in fresh air and blinding light. We were free again. Free of Time . . .
That is, until I ran straight into another wall. This one, a panoply of snow-white coats flecked with chrome instruments and an array of eyes, lost behind dazzled spectacles.
“Mrs. Brady?” The voice was a doctor’s. “Ma’am, you can’t keep doing this.”
An orderly stepped forward with a syringe. I glanced around, hoping Brady would stay his advance.
But Brady was nowhere to be found.
“I’m sorry about your husband.” The orderly’s words ran together, punctuated by a sharp prick and the slow release of fluid under glass. “You’re lucky we got you out of that machine when we did.”
They laid me down again inside the four walls. The crumbling brick had been replaced with white pads, my cloak with a hospital gown. I stared at the shadows in the corner, willing Brady to speak from them so I could hear his smile one more time.
He had been right. Time was a prison, indeed, where both the past and future were on lockdown.
Only the monotonous present remained mine, punctuated by the clang of the iron door and the whine of its lock, and the last fading echoes of footsteps down the hall.
* * *
Today’s flash fiction installation was inspired by the beautiful collages of artist Julianne Hunter. Visit Julianne on Fine Art America, and watch for a “People Who Inspire Me” interview, shortly forthcoming!
How about you? Did you write a story for Flash Friday? Post the link in the comments below, or share it via Twitter at #FlashFriday and I’ll share the link!