Justin Alcala

Time Will Tell

Jasper was hungry. He’d put in another long night at work, skipping dinner in order to help prepare for the third acquisition this year. Jasper knew that it was this kind of dedication that earned him his position within the company, and he wasn’t looking to slow down now. Nevertheless, it didn’t stop his stomach from speaking up for itself. He needed to eat. Jasper decided to call it a night and stroll to the evening corner diner. He grabbed his coat and made his way out from the office’s cityplex.

It was another brisk spring evening. The crisp air caused sewer steam to ascend into the streets like a parade of beckoned ghosts. Jasper straightened the collar of his long coat and kept his head down. He was in a safer part of the city, but it didn’t stop him from scampering between streetlights. His company’s recent hike in prescription costs drove activists to protest day and night. All it took was one fool with a twitchy finger to ruin everything Jasper had worked so hard for.

It was Jasper’s presentation specifically that persuaded the board to raise costs. He didn’t understand why people took it so personally. Jasper was a simple white collar guy looking out for corporate interests. There was no room for sentiment in profit. It’s bad for business.

Regardless, Jasper shuffled through the mists in quickened haste. Every few steps he checked over his shoulder. He nearly reached the neon lit doors of the diner unscathed when suddenly a figure emerged from the restaurant’s alley. A silver mustached man with a braid of grey hair hung over the shoulder of his heather raincoat sidestepped from the lane. Jasper leapt backwards. After gathering his wits, he smiled and nodded to the man. The stranger did not smile back. Jasper retreated into the diner, eager to get to safety.

“Take a seat wherever you’d like,” shouted the gruff voice of a waitress tending to the sole table of customers.

While glancing behind him, Jasper hurried to an empty booth at the back of the diner. The mustached fellow didn’t enter. Jasper settled in the sticky bench and hid behind his menu, peeking along its edge at the storefront glass. The streets were empty. A mounted television near his table covered the evening news. A woman on screen used a 3D diagram to explain something to a puzzled reporter in a cheap tie.         

“What can I get you?” a raspy voice snuck up next to him. Jasper leapt out of his skin.

“Jesus,” Jasper bleated. The waitress, a middle-aged woman with windblown hair and a pastel uniform, frowned as she presented her decanter of coffee.

“Should I come back?”

“No, I’m sorry,” Jasper apologized. “I’m on edge today.”

The woman with a name tag reading Tammy smiled. “That’s okay, it’s kind of a spooky night with the fog and all. Now, can I get you some coffee?”

Jasper flipped his mug over. The coffee’s sweet aroma woke his senses. He smiled and took a sip. It was slightly burnt, but the baked caffeine compensated for the flavor. He hugged the warm mug with his fingers and exhaled.

“Oh, that’s much better,” Jasper cooed. “Thank you.”

“Nothing like a good cup of coffee to settle the soul. Now did you need a minute?”

“No, I’m starving,” Jasper scanned the menu for his favorite breakfast item. “Can I just get the Hakuna Frittata with a side of bacon?”

“Absolutely,” Tammy said, topping off his cup again. “You just getting out of work?”

“Uh, yeah. How’d you know?”

“Tailored suit, haggard look.” Tammy shrugged. “Lucky guess.”

Jasper chuckled. “Burning the midnight oil. Hey, what time is it anyway?” Tammy pointed to the digital clock illuminated near the kitchen entrance. Jasper heard the woman on screen mention time just as he glanced at the clock. It was nearly nine.

“We project that in ten years,” the woman on the television remarked, “we will be able to change temporal displacement from fringe science to everyday procedure.”

Jasper narrowed his eyes at the woman on screen, taking in her white lab coat stitched with his corporate emblem. She was with the company, but what department? Then it hit him. This was one of the lab physicists from the research department. Stale emotions dusted themselves from his memory. She always gave Jasper hell when he pressed them about venture production.

The physicist and her team were researching practical applications of cell rejuvenation. Their latest breakthrough proved that with enough resources, they could not only reverse organic deterioration, but subatomic particles of all types. Things really caught fire when the physicist claimed that one day they could reverse the linear structure of time itself. It was a dead-end project in Jasper’s opinion, but he didn’t cut off funding because his chairman, old Mr. Delchester, was highly interested in the concept. Jasper shook his head and wondered who approved this interview. He’d take a look in the morning.

Jasper’s concentration was broken by the painfully awkward pan of the reporter smiling into the camera. “Well,” said the mannequin-looking correspondent with a fake grin, “look out Marty McFly.” Jasper rolled his eyes.

“Crazy isn’t it?” Tammy interrupted as she collected Jasper’s menu. “Time travel. I don’t know how I feel about that.”

“It’s a fantasy,” Jasper interjected. “The only reason she’s on the screen is because the chairman of her megacorp is on his last leg.” He must have been tired because Jasper opened up to the waitress without restraint. A decade of built up venom will do that. He took a sip of his coffee in an attempt to shut himself up.

Tammy didn’t waiver. “Oh, you must be an important man to know these things.” Jasper shrugged. “Anyway, even if it is just a fantasy, it’s kind of fun to think about.”

Jasper indulged the idea. He’d fought tooth and nail for nearly eleven years to get where he was. Why would he ever want to travel back? Jasper fingered the large S-shaped scar snaking down his thumb. It had been so long ago, he nearly forgot how he earned it. They were a pair of art students traveling the world in a car without air conditioning, too busy running away from the world to deal with it. If he could get that time back, maybe he’d be even closer to taking Mr. Delchester’s position.

“If I did go back,” Jasper mused, continuing to stare at his scar, “It would be to make things better.”

“Oh, well that’s sweet,” Tammy chirped. “Well, let me get your order in.”

Jasper sat at the diner, shifting through the reports on his phone. They’d need to cut half of their acquired staff tomorrow, and the board looked to Jasper to do the dirty work. It was going to be another long day. Jasper sorted through his digital calendar and blocked off enough time to eliminate the positions before noon. He refused to skip lunch again. He confirmed his agenda with the click of a button, and then pitched his phone on the table.

As soon as Jasper brought his eyes up, his gaze drew to a new customer three booths away. It was the man with the silver mustache, and he was boring a hole into Jasper. Jasper pretended not to see him, looking up at the television. From the corner of his eyes, Jasper could make out the stranger continuing to gawk. It must have been one of those rabid protestors. They’d posted threats online. Jasper knew he might be paranoid, but he couldn’t take any risks. He stood up and walked to the bathroom.

The narrow wood-paneled hall had three doors. The first two were stamped with bathroom labels and the third held a sign that read Emergency Exit. Jasper entered the nearest washroom, locking the door behind him. If the stranger was watching, everything should appear innocent enough. Jasper turned the knob of the sink, causing a whoosh of water. He then turned on the outdated hand warmer, causing a crescendo of noise to spew from his makeshift panic room. Finally, Jasper flipped off the light switch. He blindly reached for the door knob, cracked it open, and slid out. He hugged the wall as he crept to the exit.

Jasper pushed the door’s aluminum bar handle with a cringe, fearful that it would trigger an alarm. Nothing happened. He snuck outside, letting the cold air bathe his face. A waft of spoiled milk and stale urine caught Jasper off guard. He was in the alley where the stranger had first emerged. Jasper didn’t waste any time. He slunk through the path, making his way to the main road towards his office. As he reached the outlet, a figure appeared from the lane. It was the stranger with the silver mustache.

Jasper opened his mouth to apologize, but the stranger’s clammy hand clenched his neck fiercely. Jasper gasped for breath as his assailant pushed him backwards into the alley’s shadow. The stranger’s momentum forced him to smash into a building wall. Jasper heard his back crack. He clawed at the stranger’s eyes while he struggled for air. The stranger kept his grip clasped on Jasper’s neck, digging in his coat with his free hand. He removed a revolver.

Jasper’s eyes widened. Desperately, he folded his leg to his chest and kicked at the stranger in order to pry him off. The stranger hurled to the ground, striking his head on the concrete. The stranger’s eyes rolled dizzily as he raised his pistol. He tried to aim, but Jasper leapt atop of him. Jasper mustered all of his strength and pried the weapon from the stranger’s hand. He stood above the dazed assailant and pointed the pistol.

“What the hell is wrong with you people,” Jasper hissed through his clenched teeth. Blood leaked from the stranger’s nose, painting his mustache rose. “Don’t you understand we’re trying to build something? You maniacs take everything so damn personal.”

The stranger shut his eyes and clenched his jaw. He shook his head and spoke, eyes still pressed closed.

“You’re going to kill millions,” the stranger sneered in a hoarse voice, “because you think doing well is more important than doing right.”

Jasper’s face went flush. He could feel his pent up frustration stirring like hurricane. He was sick of people telling him who he was. They never knew his struggles. They didn’t understand the worthlessness Jasper felt before getting where he is now. He was finally in a position to improve the world, and he was being told that he was a bad person for doing so. Jasper was sick of it.

“You’re never going to stop are you?” Jasper fumed.

The stranger opened his eyes, exchanging scowls. “No,” he said plainly. “But there’s a chance you still can. There’s a chance you can break free from your stupidity now instead of later, when it’s too late.”

Jasper didn’t know what came over him. The acrimony burning within emerged like a flaming sunrise. He aimed at the man’s shoulder and squeezed the trigger. Only Jasper had never fired a weapon before. His crooked aim went low and wide, striking his assailant in the heart. The silver mustached stranger choked a final breath before his mouth went slack. Jasper threw down the pistol.

“Oh no,” his anger spun into doubt, “what did I do?” He cupped his mouth with both hands, watching the life fade from the stranger’s eyes. He didn’t know how long he stood there, but after a long pause, the backdoor moaned open.

“My goodness,” Tammy exclaimed. Jasper turned to her and noticed that she’d hidden behind a large and brawny cook with an apron spotted in avocado. The cook gripped a pie knife with one hand while shielding Tammy with the other. “Darling, are you okay?” Tammy asked from behind her burly cover.

Jasper opened his mouth to speak. It took a great amount of effort to spew out, “I’m okay.”

“What happened?” Tammy prodded.

“He tried to kill me,” Jasper answered with no real life in his voice, “but I stopped him.”

“Oh my goodness,” Tammy covered her chest. “Tom, let’s call the police. Honey,” she called to Jasper, “come inside. Hurry.”

“Okay,” Jasper agreed. He stared down at the life he’d just taken. “Be there in a second.”

Tammy and Tom hurried into the diner. Jasper knew he was in shock, but he needed to know who this man was. Jasper needed to know why this stranger was willing to kill for his cause. Slowly, Jasper crouched down to one knee. He patted the corpse gingerly, as if it were a hot stove. There was no wallet or phone. Jasper looked at the man’s hand, which was locked in its pointing position. That’s when something caught his eye. As he examined the man’s index finger, a new beast woke up within him. It couldn’t be.

Jasper reached for the man’s palm and lifted it, narrowing his eyes. An S-shaped scar snaked down the stranger’s finger just as it did on Jasper’s hand. There was a long pause. He curled next to the body and cried. Jasper wasn’t hungry anymore.

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