The time traveler walks into the pawn shop for the third time that day and immediately slams a fish onto the counter. The first thing Jordan notices is the fish is still alive, and it is bobbing its mouth open and closed as though gasping for air that won’t come. The second thing Jordan notices is the time traveler is about seven years old.
“How much for this one?” the time traveler asks. Her voice is undeniably a child’s, but it deepens peculiarly around the beginning syllables of her words. Jordan leans over the counter to get a better look at the girl, who wears a mask of unnatural stoicism. It’s a look not altogether foreign to her, although she has never seen it displayed across such youthful features before.
“How much do you need for it?”
The time traveler crosses her arms, raising her eyes briefly to the ceiling as though the answer might leak in through the holes in the roof. “Give me five dollars,” she says, “and we’ll call it even.”
Jordan shrugs, opens her wallet, and plucks out a wad of crumpled ones. She places them on the counter and pushes them forward. “Will this do the trick?”
The tiny traveler balances on the tips of her feet, reaching up to grasp the money from the creaky wooden surface. She grins as she shuffles through her newest acquisition, counting each of the three bills with barely concealed glee. “Pleasure doing business with you,” the time traveler says in a crude imitation of maturity. “Expect to see me again soon.”
As soon as the time traveler has left, Jordan forces open a window and throws the fish into the murky water below. She pictures that desperate mouth slowing, those frantic movements elongating, until the fish is roaming freely through the water. As though everything that came before was a distant memory, a nightmare which could be cured by the simple opening of its two beady eyes.
Jordan closes the window after two fat droplets of seawater strike her cheek. She reaches out her tongue to lick them off, wipes the fish-residue onto her jeans, and gets back to work.
Jordan’s sister is taller than her—significantly so. Every time she gets close, a dizzy feeling washes over Jordan, the feeling of her expectations colliding with a reality that doesn’t quite correspond. As she stirs a teaspoon of salt into what she hopes will be a promising pot of soup, she stiffens as Clara leans over her shoulder to get a better look. “This again?” Clara groans, putting what Jordan feels is an entirely unwarranted emphasis on again.
“You love minestrone.” Jordan says it like a question.
“Not the way you make it.” Even without turning, Jordan can feel Clara’s nose crinkling in disgust.
Jordan flicks a yellow card from the countertop, its hue possibly natural but more likely developed with age. There is a stain on the card from weeks ago, when a drop of tomato juice spilled over onto the left corner. Jordan, unobserved, had licked it off, and noted that it tasted more like dust than tomato.
“I make it the same way,” Jordan says, extending the card to her sister. “Look for yourself if you want. I didn’t change anything.”
Clara doesn’t take the recipe card, doesn’t even look at it. “I don’t like the way you make it.”
“Order a pizza, then.”
Clara huffs, but doesn’t protest. She takes five steps into the living room, where a small phone book is propped against the wall next to the landline. Jordan pretends to be occupied with her stirring while she listens to Clara pressing the numbers, one by one, into the phone. She pretends she can’t feel the weight of Clara’s shadow lifted from her shoulders. The button for the number six has been sticky for years now, and Jordan can hear the exaggerated pressure Clara places on the key, even from a room away. She watches bubbles rise in the soup, around lumps of celery and squash and cannellini beans, as her sister’s voice rises in pitch next to her.
“Hi, I’d like to order a pizza for delivery?”
Out of sight, Jordan’s sister shrinks in size until she barely comes up to Jordan’s shoulder. Her face gets rounder, her eyes get wider, and in a voice that hasn’t softened in the slightest, Jordan can almost hear her saying, “The red one. I think Mom would like the red one best.”
Clara hangs up the phone decisively, the same way she used to slam her plastic cups when she made declarations as a child. “It’ll be here in thirty minutes,” Clara says.
“Happy for you,” Jordan counters. She turns the heat on the stove down low and leaves the kitchen with the faint sound of bubbling behind her. She stands at the foot of the staircase and gazes upwards into the darkness of the hallway.
“Nan?” Her voice quavers around the call. “Nan, food’s almost ready.”
There’s no response.
The first time the time traveler came into the pawnshop, she looked somewhere between eighty and immortal. Somehow, the wrinkles chiseled into her skin seemed sculpted, intentional. Something practiced, just next door to perfect. Her eyes were large and dark, and her smile was wide as she leaned over the counter. Jordan hadn’t seen her walk in.
“You’ve heard about the missing girl?”
It was the word “girl” that ultimately made Jordan shake her head. You weren’t a girl at 43, not anymore. “No, I haven’t.”
“It’s a real shame, isn’t it?” the time traveler continued, as though Jordan hadn’t spoken.
Jordan hesitated, trying to decipher the careless smile on the face of the old woman. It wasn’t the sort of smile you’d expect on the face of someone truly distraught. Nevertheless, Jordan stammered out what she hoped sounded like a sincere apology. Once again, her words didn’t quite reach the time traveler, who began removing things from her purse—seven crumpled tissues, a single tube of Chapstick, and a yellow post-it-note with the words DON’T FORGET THE EGGS written in bold red marker—and placing them on the counter.
“How much?” she asked, pushing the small pile towards Jordan.
“Um…” Jordan looked around the shop, even though she was well-aware her boss had stepped outside for a “short breath of air,” a period of time lasting anywhere from thirty minutes to two hours. As the emptiness of the room pressed in around her, she couldn’t help but expect a voice like a gentle breeze to brush past her ear, to tell her exactly what to say and how to say it.
The time traveler crossed her arms. “I don’t have all day.”
Jordan reached into her jacket pocket and felt around for loose change. Her fingers rested on the cold surface of a quarter, which she drew out and presented to the woman. “Will this work?”
The time traveler took the quarter into her palm, dragging one finger around the indents which lined the perimeter. “Well, isn’t that funny?” she said in a slow exhale. “You always have just the right thing, don’t you?”
Jordan hadn’t the slightest idea what she meant.
Before leaving the shop, the time traveler turned around to face Jordan. “You really shouldn’t worry about that girl so much,” she declared. “By the time I come back, she’ll already have been found.”
With the proud smile of someone who’d done a tremendously good deed, the woman opened the front door and left.
There was an antique clock in the corner of the room, one with a broken hand and a chipped surface. It was Clara’s favorite thing in the store. In the empty silence of the air, it ticked to an uneven rhythm, a hiccup repeating over and over again. Jordan went into the back room, dropped down to the floor, and wrapped her arms around her legs. She sat there, unmoving, until the muscles in her throat hurt from the effort of maintaining silence.
Clara came in at twelve that day, bagged lunch in hand. Her grandmother made them for Jordan every day for a month after she was hired. Jordan was still in her first week. She smiled past the lump in her throat as she accepted the bagged offering. “You really shouldn’t walk here by yourself,” Jordan chided, removing a plastic-wrapped sandwich from the bag.
Clara sniffed. “It’s just across the street.”
“Still.” Jordan bit into the sandwich. The bread was stale, and there was nothing but peanut butter between the two slices. She didn’t finish her sentence. The word hung heavy on its own accord.
“I don’t like it here,” Clara whined.
Jordan shrugged, swallowed, took another bite.
“It smells like fish. All the time.” Clara didn’t meet Jordan’s eyes. “I want to go back home.”
“We live here now,” Jordan parroted. She wished she could swallow the words back as soon as she said them. They settled in fine when they sat, unexamined, in her stomach. It was only when she coughed them up that she could taste the lie in each syllable.
Clara gave an exaggerated groan, even as she reached out to examine the pile the time traveler left. She plucked the used Chapstick from the counter, toying with it as she leaned her weight against the counter. “Can I take this?” she asked.
“No. Someone left it here.”
Clara began sliding downwards. “Why not?” she asked, as though Jordan hadn’t given her a reason.
“The floor is dirty.”
Clara was already sitting. “We used to have these all over the house,” she said. “Remember? In our house?”
When Clara left, she had the Chapstick in hand. Jordan didn’t say another word.
The time traveler came in two more times that day. The second time, she must have been around fifty. Like before, Jordan never saw her walk in. The time traveler looked around the shop and asked if anyone had brought in a screwdriver. When Jordan told her no one had, she smiled politely. “Ah, that’s alright,” she said. “Just let me know when they do.”
The third time the time traveler came in, she could have been thirty. She carried a carton of eggs in one hand, and a very small bird in the other. Jordan jolted at the sight of the creature’s still body, assuming it was dead until she saw its tiny feathers begin to bristle, eyes blinking ever so slightly.
Wordlessly, the time traveler placed the eggs on the counter, picked up the sticky note, and beamed.
“You always have exactly what I need, don’t you?”
Jordan, finding herself completely trapped in the curve of the time traveler’s smile, only nodded. She watched the bird as it twitched in the time traveler’s hand, never once making a sound as the traveler moved about the shop. Inexplicably, Jordan felt a twinge of sadness when the time traveler turned and vanished through the front door.
Jordan moves up the staircase slowly, positioning herself to step on every creaky floorboard, as much to announce her presence to her grandmother as to convince herself of her own weight. She knocks on the door of her grandmother’s bedroom. “Nan?” she calls before applying pressure to the door.
It opens slowly, and Jordan sees her grandmother standing, completely still, with her back to Jordan. To her right, the window is wide open, and a small breeze leaves the curtains billowing against her grandmother’s shoulder.
“Dinner is almost ready,” Jordan says. “Are you going to eat anything?”
“We’ll just wait until your mother gets here,” her grandmother says.
Jordan forces a smile. “Nan, it’ll get cold. We’re going to eat now, okay?”
Her grandmother shakes her head. “It shouldn’t be long now. Any minute. Any minute.” Each time she repeats herself, her speech comes out more like breath, more like it’s the words themselves she’s taking into her lungs.
Jordan slips out of the room, back down the steps. She busies herself by setting the table—a plate for Clara, and bowl for herself, and an empty space for any one of the absences she has to choose from.
She and Clara eat in silence.
Clara pushes her plate aside when she’s done, wiping the crumbs from her jeans and onto the floor. “I’m going out,” she announces.
“It’s dark outside.”
“It usually is.”
“Are you going to be by yourself?”
“I’m not sure yet.”
“I mean, are you going to be safe?”
Clara rolls her eyes. “Enough for you? Probably not.”
“When will you be back?
“I’ll be back.” Clara slings her bag over her shoulder. “Relax. Only pretty girls go missing.”
Jordan can’t think of a response fast enough. Before she can open her mouth, Clara has vanished from her sight. There’s no voice over her shoulder to tell her what to say, and for the first time in five years, Jordan is furious at the absence.
“Sarah from school spread her great-aunt’s ashes last weekend.”
Jordan didn’t know who Sarah-From-School was, but at that moment, she hated her. She wasn’t feeling too fond of Clara either, who’d made a point of smashing Jordan’s bagged lunch as she handed it over. “I’m sorry to hear that,” Jordan said, her words mechanical. She gazed into the bag to see what could be salvaged.
“I’m not.” Clara picked up a china figure from a shelf in the corner. A customer had left it that morning, and Jordan already despised it for the way it sat motionless, always watching her in a half-assed imitation of humanity.
“Put that down,” she snapped, abandoning her lunch to yank the doll from her sister’s grip. “Are you trying to get me fired?”
Clara shrugged. “Have you ever noticed your boss is never here? Somehow I doubt she gives a shit either way.”
Jordan glared, wondering silently if Sarah-From-School was responsible for teaching her baby sister these new words. “What do you mean you aren’t sorry?”
Clara rolled her eyes. “I mean she’s lucky, when you think about it. It’s not like we ever got to spread ashes.”
“We don’t know anyone who died.”
For the first time Jordan could remember, it was Clara giving her a pitying look. It looked so out of place there, alongside the baby fat lingering on her cheeks. “Sarah said she got to drive all the way to the top of a mountain, because that’s where her great-aunt got married. She said they spread the ashes by her favorite tree.”
“No one has a favorite tree,” Jordan said, resisting the urge to roll her eyes. “They’re trees.”
“I bet Mom had a favorite tree.”
Jordan sighed, guiding her sister away from the back room. “Clara, I promise you, she doesn’t. Will you please go home?”
“You said you don’t like when I walk here by myself. You said-”
“Look,” Jordan interrupted. She brought her palm to her forehead. “Look, if you get out of here now, I promise we’ll spread ashes when I get home.”
“You said we don’t have ashes. Because we don’t have anybody to burn.”
Jordan took a deep breath. “We’ll find ashes, okay? I’ll get you some ashes, and when I’m home, you tell me where to take you and we’ll go there. Alright? Does that work for you?”
Clara paused, chewed on her lower lip. “Yeah,” she said. “Yeah, that works for me.”
When Jordan comes into work on Thursday, the time traveler is standing behind the front desk, her arms crossed. “You’re late,” she accuses, her eyes narrowing. Jordan tucks her keys back into her pocket, muttering an apology before starting the fan in the corner. She doesn’t know how the time traveler got through the locked door, nor can she bring herself to care.
A bead of sweat rolls down Jordan’s cheek. She feels her eyelids drooping, her mind fighting to stay alert. The night before, Clara came home at 3AM. The sound of the door slamming was the sweetest Jordan had ever heard.
“I asked you to hold something for me,” the time traveler says, hoisting herself onto the counter. She leans over and narrows her eyes at Jordan, her fingers dancing over the wooden desk. “Do you have it?”
The time traveler is young today, perhaps in her mid twenties. She can’t be much older than Jordan, who has not yet reconciled with the fact of her own age. Jordan can’t help but see the time traveler the same way she did when they first met—like something masterfully crafted, perhaps too much so—the kind of artwork that might leak out from its frame just to create an artist in turn.
“I still have the soda you left yesterday,” Jordan offers. “It’s somewhere in the back, I think.”
The time traveler shakes her head. “You’re thinking of someone else. I don’t drink that shit anymore.” When Jordan stares blankly, the time traveler smiles, tapping her front tooth theatrically. “I’m told I have to lay off, unless I want to ruin these.”
Jordan laughs, despite herself. Exhaustion fogs her brain.
“Listen,” the time traveler says. Her voice lowers to a whisper. “You don’t happen to know how a lobster trap works, do you?”
Jordan shakes her head.
“They put an entrance at the center of the trap,” the time traveler says. “Right in the middle of a prison. The suckers would be fine if they’d see the big picture and steer clear. But, see, they’re so hungry, and there’s bait at the entrance. Make it as obvious as you want, but still, all the lobsters want to do is come closer.”
“Is that what you left here? A lobster trap?”
“Hunger takes the lobsters from the entrance to the parlor. And once they’re in the parlor…” The time traveler licks her lips. “Well, they’re as good as dinner.”
Jordan crosses her arms, leaning up against the counter. It feels strange to stand this way, with the time traveler behind the counter, speaking so authoritatively down at her. “Why can’t they leave?”
“That’s just how it works. They come in, but they don’t come out.”
“Okay,” Jordan says, testing the word. “But why?”
“When they pull up the traps,” the time traveler continues. “The lobsters are stuck. They throw back the ones they don’t want—the tiny ones and the pregnant ones and the ones that aren’t lobsters at all—but the rest are left on the boat. Boiled alive and eaten, soon enough.”
“So you left a lobster trap here?”
“No…” the time traveler trails off, looking around the room. “The thing is, I think I forgot my soda.”
Jordan examines the time traveler’s face. It remains pleasantly blank.
“It’s in the back room,” Jordan says. “I’ll go get it.”
Before Jordan walks away, the time traveler grabs her by the collar of her shirt. Jordan doesn’t have time to register the kiss before she is close enough to smell the time traveler’s breath. It isn’t sweet, but it is breath, and Jordan had almost forgotten the way an exhale felt as it brushed against skin. The kiss feels something like direction, something that teases at certainty. The time traveler releases her, and Jordan moves to the door, momentarily forgetting what she meant to retrieve.
The time traveler calls out to her, softly, “How is it that you always have what I need?”
After Clara left, Jordan swept the floor and carefully eased the pile of dust she’d accumulated into a plastic cup. As she painstakingly picked out tiny rocks and bits of plastic, she recalled a story she’d read about a woman whose loyalty was tested with a concoction of holy water and dust from the church floor. The woman failed when she inevitably fell ill. As Jordan stood there, peering down into her own plastic chalice, she pictured tipping it into her mouth, dust and disease lining her throat. She pictured herself, stomach filled with ashes.
When she came home, Clara was waiting by the door. “Do you have them?” she asked.
Jordan held out the cup, which Clara eagerly seized. She gazed down into the make-believe ashes, swirling the cup and examining its contents.
“It’s missing something,” Clara said after a moment’s pause.
“Something like what?”
“I don’t know. I just don’t believe it.” Clara shook the cup again, glanced back inside. “I don’t believe she’s in there.”
Only after they’d driven to the nearest convenience store did Clara seem satisfied with her cup of ash. They roamed the aisles, Clara pointing to any small items that reminded her of her mother: a bag of almonds, a pack of lip-shaped erasers, and a single bag of glitter. When prompted to pick a color, Clara chose red. She claimed it was their mother’s favorite color, though Jordan didn’t remember that detail.
Clara opted to spread the make-believe ashes in the harbor.
“Sarah from school told me you get ghosts when people die before they finish a task. If I died while doing homework, I might be a ghost until someone finished the homework for me.” Clara sat on the edge of the dock, her legs dangling precariously from the edge. Jordan fought the urge to wrap her arms around her, securing her firmly to her place above the surface.
“Uh-huh,” Jordan said instead, taking another pinch of make-believe ashes and throwing them into the harbor. She winced at the thought of a fish gulping in a lungful of glitter, hating that their make-believe funeral could be the cause of real-life suffering, no matter how small the scale.
“This way, since her ashes are in the harbor, it’s like Mom got here after all. Even if she never, like,” Clara paused, lowered her voice, “actually got here, you know?”
Jordan shook her head. “I’m sure she got wherever she wanted to go.” Her fingers scraped the bottom of the cup. Already, their collection of make-believe ashes had diminished to nothing. “Are you ready to head back yet? It’s only getting colder.”
Clara shook her head. “No. I want to stay a little longer. Just to be with her while she goes out with the tide.”
Jordan rubbed her hands together, momentarily savoring the warmth of the friction. “Can I get you a blanket from the car?”
Again, Clara shook her head. “I’m fine. I’m not cold.”
Jordan retrieved the blanket anyway, making sure not to take her eyes off her sister for a second. Clara barely acknowledged her as Jordan wrapped the blanket around her sister’s shoulders, didn’t say a word as Jordan sat, cross-legged, beside her.
“Can’t you ask her to walk with you?” Jordan said, her voice barely above a whisper. “Just when you come down to the pawn shop?”
Clara kicked her legs back and forth, the tips of her shoes barely evading the water’s surface. “She doesn’t like to leave the house,” Clara said. “And I don’t really like it when she leaves the house either.” Jordan watched the pendulum-movements of her sister’s reflection as they flickered across the water’s surface. “She doesn’t always remember things quite right. She thinks I’m Mom when you’re gone.”
“It’s dark out. She might be worried.”
Clara gave Jordan a wry look. “She won’t be worried.” The two of them sat in a moment of stillness, a moment when the only sound between them was the calm rolling of undisturbed waters, the only reminder of time’s continual passage. Jordan was torn between equal desires to cling to the moment and to fling it from herself, as far away as it could go. “Sarah from school never actually spread ashes. I don’t even know if she had a great-aunt. I made that up.”
Clara shrugged. “Sarah from school went missing last week.”
Jordan stared down into the water, trying to find traces of the glitter she’d so unceremoniously discarded moments before. Instead of the shining red spots she expected, Jordan saw only her own face peering back at her.
Jordan comes home to find empty bags stacked on Clara’s bed. Next to them, all of Clara’s clothes are folded in a sloppy approximation of orderliness. Clara is transferring her shirts to an open bag, and she doesn’t stop when Jordan rushes in.
“What are you doing?” Jordan asks.
“I’ve been talking to a friend. She says I can stay with her for a while.”
If Clara hears the sharpness in Jordan’s tone, she refuses to match it. “Just someone I met. She has a place back home, and I’m going to live with her there.”
“Like, for the summer?”
Clara shrugs. “Maybe longer.”
Jordan tugs on Clara’s arm, forcing her to meet her gaze. Once again, a dizzying sensation washes over Jordan, a confusion at seeing a version of her younger sister who is not at all what she is supposed to be. This version of Clara, the Clara with distant eyes and a permanent scowl and a height that far surpasses Jordan’s own, feels like a stranger, someone far from Jordan’s reality. There are any number of questions she could ask this new, not-quite-familiar version of her little sister. When did she plan this? Does their grandmother know? Was Clara ever going to tell her about this?
Jordan says the only thing she knows how to. “You can’t go by yourself. You shouldn’t be traveling alone.”
Clara ignores her, reaching around Jordan to grab a shirt that is lying, unfolded, on the bed. “Maybe not. But we both know you aren’t coming with me.”
Jordan takes the shirt from Clara’s hand, ignoring the glare this earns her. “I don’t like it here any more than you, okay? You’re not the only one who hates the cold and the wind and the stupid restaurants that smell like sea water. You’re not the only one who’s unhappy. But that doesn’t mean you can disappear. It doesn’t mean people aren’t depending on you to be here.”
“It’s not disappearing if I tell you where I’m going,” Clara snaps. “I’m going home. And you could too if you wanted.”
“I have a job. I have to be here for Nan. You know she can’t be alone right now.”
“That’s all fine. You can stay here and be dependable for as long as you want. But don’t drag me into it. And don’t pretend you wouldn’t take the first chance you’d get to go missing, just like everyone else.”
Jordan shakes her head, unwilling to listen any further. “You can’t say things like that,” she scolds. “Just because you’re not happy, you can’t say that to me.”
“I’m not saying it because I’m unhappy. I’m saying it because it’s true.” Clara resumes her folding, her movements hurried and far more disjointed than they had been before. “You only want to talk until we start talking about things that matter. Until we’re talking about the truth.”
Jordan is halfway out the door when she hears Clara calling after her. “You know you’re just like Nan, don’t you?” she says. “I see you at the window when you think I’m not looking. I see you waiting for her to come home.”
Jordan races down the stairs, stomping firmly on the creaking floorboards, letting Clara know that she is here and she is grounded and she knows, of course she knows, she can’t retrieve the past. She doesn’t realize she’s still clenching Clara’s shirt in her hands until she’s slammed the car door behind her, moving the keys to the ignition without any idea where she’s going.
On Friday, two men come to fix a broken AC unit. Jordan, surprised to learn they even had one at the shop, watches the men eagerly as they promise a future of cool air and gentle breezes. After they leave, Jordan notices a single screwdriver on the floor, left behind.
“It’s okay, you know,” the time traveler says when she picks the screwdriver up. She’s young again, and not much taller than she’d been when she dropped the fish off some days earlier. “To wish it had been you.”
Jordan frowns, even as she extends a hand to accept the pile of quarters that the time traveler hands her in exchange for the screwdriver. Every time she thinks the time traveler has emptied her pockets, she reaches back in and adds another coin to the growing pile.
“It’s a privilege to go missing,” the time traveler says in that tiny voice of hers, the one that doesn’t quite accommodate the adult-ish lilt of her tone. “It’s a privilege to be missed.”
Jordan jerks her hand away. The newest quarter the time traveler has drawn from her pocket plummets to the floor, hitting the old wooden surface with a distinct clunk.
“Well, don’t look at me like that,” the time traveler says with a smile. “That’s the only way to know if something is beautiful: you notice it when it’s gone.”
“That’s not true,” Jordan says immediately. She doesn’t take the time to sit with her response, refuses to even weigh it before tossing the words out.
The time traveler, on the other hand, doesn’t respond for what feels like an eternity. She looks around the store, runs her hands over the counter, meets Jordan’s eyes and departs from them a hundred times over. The ticking of the antique clock remains as broken and halting as ever, consistent only in its inconsistency. “It’s been five years, hasn’t it? And you still miss her.” The time traveler shakes her head. “She must have been extraordinary.”
Where she should have felt anger, Jordan felt only a dull thrumming in her chest. “She really isn’t.”
“You can be extraordinary too, if you want to be. It isn’t so hard.” The time traveler smiles. Jordan’s eyes widen in surprise when she sees the brown outlines of the teeth which the traveler displays, small streaks of amber and yellow forming tiny sunsets below them. The time traveler closes her mouth when she notices Jordan staring. “Too much sugar,” the time traveler says with a wave of her hand. “That’s what they tell me. Nothing to worry about.”
“But…” Jordan does not have time to think about the specks of rot in the time traveler’s teeth before she feels a tiny hand gripping her own over the counter.
“Just think about it,” the time traveler urges. “Think about what I’m offering you. Think about how much it’s worth.” The time traveler reaches into her pocket, takes out another handful of quarters, and dumps them onto the counter. She leaves through the front door.
One week after Jordan and Clara packed their bags and moved into their grandmother’s house, the three of them sat around a red table. The restaurant behind them was practically empty, and Jordan held back a shiver as she gazed longingly at the empty tables inside. Clara, on the other hand, seemed to take a grim sort of satisfaction every time a breeze struck at her cheeks, whipping her already-knotted hair to the side. Having already achieved a certain degree of misery, it seemed to Jordan as though her younger sister was determined to capitalize on every inconvenience she could create. If Clara had to be miserable, she would be the most miserable she could be.
The three of them were silent as their food arrived at the table. Clara picked at the salad she’d ordered as their grandmother forced a smile. “The sea is lovely today,” she said, eying Clara pointedly.
Clara, who had chosen a seat directly across from the lapping waves, only shrugged, looking neither at her grandmother nor at the pool of deep blue which surrounded them. Jordan kicked Clara under the table, hoping a slight nudge might communicate everything she wanted to say. Please be polite and You know this is hard for her and For the love of God, don’t ask if she knows how many people go missing every year.
“Can I try some of those?” Clara asked, pointing at their grandmother’s plate of boiled mussels.
“Be my guest,” their grandmother said, pushing the entire plate towards Clara.
Clara picked up the first shell in the pile, prying the narrow opening wide with the short edges of her chewed-up fingernails. There was a loud crack before the soft fleshiness of the interior was exposed. Clara popped it into her mouth, chewing slowly.
“You know, your mother, she loves—she loved…” their grandmother shook her head. “I made these for your mother every time she visited. I had a pot waiting for her on the stove the day she said she’d drive down. But then…”
Jordan became very interested in the lobster on her own plate. She couldn’t remember what she’d been thinking when she ordered it, only that there was a lobster tank right at the front of the restaurant. All of their big red claws had been tied up with green rubber bands, as if to reassure the people who looked in them that these creatures, these strange little alien things, could never hurt them, not even as they were imprisoned in tanks and pots and plates. Jordan, slowly, began to remove the claw.
“Well, I hate for things to go to waste.” Clara nodded mindlessly as her grandmother spoke. Jordan noticed that, after Clara had eaten the first one, she was no longer putting the mussels in her mouth. She never even looked at the insides. She just kept on taking from her grandmother’s plate, gripping the shells, and cracking them open. The skin beneath her fingernails was red with blood.
Jordan tried to rest her elbow on the table’s surface, but found the whole thing was not quite balanced. It tilted precariously towards her, then leapt backwards as Jordan, startled, jerked her elbow away. She looked sheepishly at her grandmother, but found she hadn’t noticed.
“You know, you look so much like her,” her grandmother was saying. “You look so much like your mother.”
The time traveler is not there when Jordan unlocks the pawnshop. She isn’t there when her boss steps out for her regularly scheduled break, nor is she there when any of the day’s seven customers come through the front door. Jordan finds ways to keep busy, even on this stubbornly slow day. She finds a roll of dusty paper towels in the back room, wets them with her water bottle, and runs them over the equally dusty windows until a gray outline of her hand forms over its surface. She repeats these motions until the window is as clean as it will get, then she moves to other surfaces: shelves, counters, even the doorknob at the front. She does not think about red glitter, probably in the gut of some unfortunate fish, nor does she think of the mountain of suitcases and bags she’d seen as she ran out the door, piled haphazardly on the floor. The roll of paper towels runs out, and finally, Jordan stills to a stop. She watches through the window as the sun sets over the harbor and dusk settles over the churning waves. She sweeps the floor and does not think about the dust that gathers there, having been nothing and coming from no one.
That is when the time traveler leans over the counter. She is young and she is ancient and she is right in front of Jordan, eyes wide and searching. “You’ve missed me,” the time traveler says with a smile. “I can tell.”
There is warmth in Jordan’s chest when she nods. “Yeah,” she says in a drawn-out sigh. “I have.”
And then, inexplicably, the time traveler is behind the counter, and her arms are wrapped around Jordan and Jordan can feel her muscles weakening, her body slumping, and exhaustion washing over her. “Tell me about your day,” the time traveler says, and Jordan can’t remember the last time anyone asked her that.
“Shit,” Jordan replies. “It’s all shit.” Her throat closes up around the last word, and she knows with a feeling of dread that she is going to cry.
The time traveler doesn’t attempt to console Jordan as tears stream down her cheeks. She only stands there, arms wrapped around her, as Jordan shakes from the weight of her own sobs. As time passes by them, Jordan feels those arms tightening, tightening, until she is sure they’ll leave bruises on her skin. She can’t bring herself to care. Instead, she relishes in the security, the certainty, of the pain.
“It doesn’t have to be this way,” the time traveler says in a whisper as Jordan’s breathing begins to slow. “You don’t have to feel like this forever.”
“How else would it be?” The words ache as they leave Jordan’s throat.
The time traveler doesn’t speak for a minute, nor does she loosen her grip around Jordan’s body. Jordan can hear a familiar pulsing coming from inside the time traveler’s chest. It is not quite regular, not quite steady, something like the ticking of a broken clock. “You’ve thought about what I said, haven’t you?” she asks, finally. “About what it takes to be extraordinary?”
Jordan nods, thinking about clothes folded on the bed, suitcases lined against the wall.
“I could take you somewhere else,” the time traveler says. She raises her hand, rests it on top of Jordan’s head. “Somewhere far away from here.”
The time traveler’s fingers burrow in her hair, gripping it at its roots. “Where does anyone go when they don’t want to be found?”
Jordan huffs out her annoyance. If Jordan had known where missing people went, she would have gone there five years ago. In her frustration, she almost moves away, almost tries to free herself from the time traveler’s embrace. She becomes aware she might not be able to break away, even if she wanted to.
“I’m building a place outside of time for us.” The time traveler speaks in a low voice. “A place where you won’t have to worry about vacant rooms or open chairs or the stretching moments that pass between one wholeness and another. There’s a place where you don’t have to worry about the emptiness, because the emptiness will be you. There will be other people, other places, to do the worrying. There’s nothing standing between you and a better world. There’s nothing to stop you from being extraordinary.”
The time traveler continues speaking, but her words seem to dissolve into a stream of intangible warmth. As the time traveler speaks, Jordan feels as though she’d been starving before and is only just realizing it, as though now she is finally being fed, and the absence is closing up inside her, leaving her whole and alive and so impossibly heavy.
She closes her eyes and imagines withdrawing from time entirely. The floor sinks away, the walls collapse and crumble, and the sound of waves diminishes into silence.
“Come with me,” the time traveler says, and all Jordan can think is that finally, finally, someone is telling her what to do. “Disappearing is in your blood.”
When Jordan closes her eyes, she sees Clara at eight years old, sitting at the kitchen table and poking a scrape on her knee. Clara winces each time her fingertip makes contact with the wound, pauses, and then presses down on it again, each time longer than the time before. “Stop that,” Jordan says, batting Clara’s hand away.
“Sorry,” Clara grumbles, returning her hands to her sides. By the time Jordan has returned with a wet paper towel and a box of Band-Aids, Clara’s attention has settled back on the trails of red running down her leg.
Jordan sighs, removes Clara’s hand one more time, and dabs at the injury with a paper towel. Clara hisses dramatically.
“This is why Mom wants you to wear a helmet,” Jordan chides.
“I hurt my knee, not my head.” Clara eyes Jordan indignantly. “Don’t be dumb.”
“She’d still be pissed if she knew you were riding without your helmet.”
Clara makes another squeak of pain as Jordan wipes one last drop of blood, pulling a single band aid from the box and tearing off two white strips from the bottom. She opens her mouth to accuse Clara of being a faker, but changes her mind before the words leave her mouth. As she gingerly covers the scab, she whispers, “I won’t tell, okay? You just have to be more careful.”
Clara shrugs noncommittally, jerking her knee away from Jordan as soon as the Band-Aid has stuck. She jabs at its soft center with her finger, watching it sink into the wound. She doesn’t make a sound then, and more than wanting to call attention to the shift in Clara’s reaction, Jordan wonders if Clara is building up a tolerance to the pain on purpose, pressing and pressing until the sharpness of her body’s reaction becomes expected. Unremarkable.
“Do you promise?” Jordan urges, suddenly struck with an anxiousness she doesn’t know how to handle.
“I promise,” Clara says. Unexpectedly, she lunges forward, wrapping her arms around Jordan’s waist. Instinctually, Jordan raises her arms in alarm, her mind slow to process this new development. Clara’s voice comes out small. “Will Mom be home soon, do you think?”
Jordan moves to return the gesture, to wrap her arms around her baby sister and hold her close. When she reaches out, it is not Clara who she feels tightening their grip around her. What she feels isn’t quite human at all. Jordan becomes aware that the images playing out beneath her eyelids are just those—images. She sees red in the water, red on her recipe card, red in the shell-shaped indentations between Clara’s fingernails. She sees the thousand dots of red that are her mother, hopelessly and forever drifting in the harbor, beneath the docs, settling into the sand. Her heartbeat quickens, and she sees red beneath her eyelids, rushing through her veins.
She opens her eyes.
“Are you listening?” the time traveler says, and her voice comes out distant, as though Jordan were hearing her from under layers of troubled water.
It is then that Jordan pushes away. She barely registers the time traveler’s words, can hardly think beyond the quickening of her own pulse and the blood throbbing in her ears. All she can think about is blood—her blood, her mother’s, and Clara’s, each anchored hopelessly in time. “Is it in hers, then?” Jordan thinks of the time traveler, speaking in those same low tones to her sister. Jordan thinks of the time traveler, whispering to Clara about what kind of girls get to go missing. She thinks of the time traveler, beckoning her sister to be extraordinary. “Is disappearing in Clara’s blood, too?”
Jordan doesn’t wait for the time traveler’s answer. She runs.
“You’ll wish it had been you,” the time traveler calls, but Jordan is already out the door. She runs all the way up the street and does not look back.
Jordan bursts into her grandmother’s house, letting her footsteps ring loudly through the house. “Clara?” she says to an empty room. There are no suitcases lining the walls. The car is missing from the driveway. Desperately, still, Jordan searches, calling out for her little sister. Her footsteps are loud on the way up the staircase.
In the final room, Jordan’s grandmother is staring out the window. “Did you see her?” Jordan asks. “Did you see where Clara went?”
Her grandmother’s legs are shaking, but when she looks at Jordan her face is pleasantly blank. “You’re home,” she says, simply. “I’m so glad you’re finally home.”
Phoebe Houser is an English major at Kenyon College. Her chapbook of short fiction, “Overgrowth,” is available from Sunset Press.