I’m sitting in the chapel for school assembly when Headmistress Cisco says, “And now we’ll hear a special tribute from Rosaline.” Crap. There’s at least a few of these a year and I systematically avoid them all, but today’s is unexpected.
Rosaline takes the stage, all pretty, blond, and clean. She gives an exaggerated sniff, though not until everyone’s quiet, so as not to waste it. Even from here I can see that her big blue eyes have just the right amount of wet—enough to prove she’s still grieving after all this time, yet not so much that it smudges her coveted mascara.
“It’s been two years,” she says softly, then gives a dramatic pause. It hasn’t been two years, you self-aggrandizing cow. It’s been one year, eleven months, and thirty days. If it had been two years, I would have played hooky, because Rosaline always pulls this assembly love-fest rubbish on significant milestones. The girl really does live for such stuff. I don’t know how she managed to spin it the way she did, but serious props for a job well done. Nobody remembers the pesky little detail about how she dumped him and broke his heart. Hell no. In the retelling, she was his one great love and I was just the little skank who killed him. Well, mostly killed him, if you’re getting all technical.
Rosaline keeps talking—it’s a daisy chain of clichés, ready for the choking. I tune her out. I know what she’s saying because she’s said it all before, many times. Depending on how many tears she can muster, she might even get a standing ovation. Wouldn’t that be the icing on the cake for our dear little darling? One of her friends will have been briefed to help her off the stage, like she’s some delicate flower ready to crumple. Her mum—Headmistress Cisco—will nod ever so solemnly, but the stink of pride will still leak through. Afterward, a teacher will bookend it all with a call to arms about watching out for “signs of mental illness among your peers.” That last part’s for me.
Because it turns out my story wasn’t a love story after all. If I’d died, then it might have been, but I didn’t die. Not unless you count the nerve-dead arm.
Rosaline’s building up to her can’t-talk-through-the-tears bit now. She’s paced herself nicely. The trick is not getting too worked up until you’ve finished with all the sentimental nonsense. Over the years she’s become quite the expert, but what she’s gained in precision she’s lost in spontaneity. She’s formulaic. I know from experience that she’ll slot in the thinly veiled jibe at me right after she’s regained her composure. I guess she figures that’s the perfect spot for contrast and damage.
The audience will oblige her, and suddenly all eyes will be on the cause of the problem. Finding me in the mishmash of homemade uniforms isn’t exactly tricky. Most of the blazers might have worn out a generation back, but people still make an effort. They’ve found replacement clothes in the school colors, more or less. They don’t wear combat boots or black hoodies, for example. Nope, that special privilege is mine, all mine. It’s out of necessity, really. Hoodies are hard to come by regardless of color, and I need the pouch up front. Without something to tuck my arm into, it kind of hangs there, getting caught on stuff. Genuine health risk, I tell them. Honestly.
From behind a wall of dark fringe, I see that Romeo’s besties have spied me. Laurence is keeping it simple with a fairly standard glare. Paris has gone one better, mouthing “crazy” at me from across the chapel.
“In my heart of hearts, I know…,” Rosaline continues, bringing it home on the closing stretch. And I decide, stuff it—I don’t have to be here. With that, I get up and walk out the back door. It makes a loud clang, which isn’t ideal. I’ve probably just helped Rosaline give her best tribute ever. If she timed it right, she could have had me brazenly, heartlessly, callously leaving the chapel right when she was tearing up the most.
Stepping outside, I’m smothered by the quiet. There was this famous quote: “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life.” Now the poor old place is as dead as my arm, all sleeping and still. There are no planes in the sky or sounds of trains in the background. There’s no hubbub or buzz or din of commuter traffic, like I’ve read about in books.
And it’s not just the silence, either—the vista’s equally wasted. Everywhere I look, there’s nothing but yesteryear gloom. Crumbling mansions covered in bird poo, invaded by overgrown grass. Rust and cracks and fallen-down heaps; things that will never work again. Not that we let that stop us. Hell no. We fill dark fridges with canned food, hang corpse TVs on walls, and wipe down can’t-be-used microwaves. We cover our coffee tables in glossy magazines that advertise a world long gone and talk about things like “tech” in the present tense. It’s a performance, except without an audience … or a point.
In the distance, I can see the skyline of the city, and even that’s muted—like a theater set covered in dust. I’ve lived here my whole life, but I’ll never get used to the ghost-town feeling. It’s like being a tourist—squatting in a world that was built in the past, and peaked there. Died there, even. And yet here we are playing house, pretending there’s a pulse.
I walk down Johnson Street, following the faded white line that I’m told was for cars, back when cars were still a thing. I always take Johnson because Johnson’s always empty, probably on account of the rooster.
It’s not really a rooster—it’s a time-travel pod melded to an elm tree. But when pods appear from the past in places that aren’t empty? It can make for some serious weirdness. The one on Johnson is this mess of metal and tree trunk that kind of resembles a giant head. That’s not the rooster part. I guess the Traveler who was inside at the time got rearranged so bad that their bones jutted out the top. It looks like that thing on the top of a rooster’s head.
Well, I assume it does, from what I’ve read. I’ve never actually seen a rooster.
Johnson Street isn’t unique or anything. There are melded pods throughout the Settlement, same as everywhere. Dead time travelers are kind of a fixture these days the whole world over. But living Travelers? Nobody’s seen one in years. They used to arrive from the past all the time, steal our food, then leave again. Not anymore, though. I guess most of them have already jumped past this swan song moment. Gone for a better future that clearly isn’t there.
Here at the Settlement, we don’t believe in leaving. That’s kind of the whole point. We’re the descendants of the ones who said, Enough is enough. The rampant time travel has got to stop. We have to stay put, to live off what’s left.
Not traveling in time is everything we stand for. But if there was a pod that could send me back in time instead of just forward? I’d take it. I’d rewind the clock. Back, back, back—all the way to the moment that Romeo and I tried to kill ourselves. Because all that “O happy dagger” palaver?
Turns out: a mistake.
Copyright © 2021 by Kathryn Barker