In All Reflections
Just This Forever
Published: November 05, 2023
Warnings: Explicit talk of suicide.
Blurb: Prompt: “Nestled in the backmost alleys of the marketplace, far past the murals, sits an unassuming shop that sells bottles of borrowed time.”
“Back again so soon, Chomyzi?”
“Not by choice,” he winced.
She flashed a smile at him, pausing to pluck a fresh mug from the array behind the counter. He, in turn, perched awkwardly on a stool, curling his tail around its legs, out of the way of any other patrons.
But, at this time of day - afternoon lull - there was only one other mortal, nestled deep in a corner booth. They had a computer in front of them next to a cleaned plate and a too-full paper coffee cup, but were occupied peeking at Chomyzi over the top of a folder.
He stared back, trying to remember their face. They seemed familiar - something about the eyes, maybe? But he was terrible with names, and the longer he stared, the more they seemed to shrink into the chair. So he turned back towards the bar.
“Not by choice,” the barista echoed, filled up the mug with warm milk, poured the cocoa powder in. “That sounds like an uh-oh.”
“Couldn’t find them in time,” he said, folding his hands together politely over the counter. “They were already dead. Suicide. Got it cleaned up, though. Don’t think I’ll tell the family....”
They were already most of the way through this year’s cycle. And at the drone of midnight, every slice of the fragmented Timeline and everything in it would snap back to Amaridan first. Like clockwork.
Eternal, unending, unstoppable clockwork.
So there was no point in telling them. Save them the memory.
She whistled, the sound clashing with the rapid clinks of the stirring spoon. “Stars. I don’t know how you do it, Chomyzi.”
“Someone’s got to.” the eternal mantra. The thing he told himself when he couldn’t quite get to sleep.
Not that he slept often.
He accepted the mug gratefully, brought it gently to his face to sniff. Perfectly made, mixed with a skill he could only imagine.
The infinite, tiny fractals of mortal life. A half decade of practice. Five cycles in Epsilon’s eternal wheel of torture. It was still precious to him, he hoped.
“Wanna talk about it?” she offered, with a sympathetic nod. Like all good baristas, she procured a washcloth from - somewhere - and set to work polishing a shining cup.
No, he thought. But said, instead, “Sure. It’s not really a great story, though.”
“Why’d they do it?” she prompted, like he knew she would.
He took a slight sip. The taste was immaculate. His eyes flicked to the other mortal, in the corner. They were looking to their laptop instead, but both ears were perked.
“That a regular?” he asked, first.
She glanced, then shrugged. “Seen ‘em a few times, recently. Haven’t gotten their name or anything yet. Orders the same thing every time, too.”
Their ear flicked.
It didn’t really matter. Everyone knew who he was. Everyone knew the state of Epsilon. It was impossible not to know.
He swirled the hot chocolate in his mug, watched the tiny whirlpool. It’d be better if he didn’t say anything. It’d be better if he were silent.
“They disappeared,” he said, “for cycles. I couldn’t find them. It was like they didn’t even exist anymore.”
Her eyebrows raised. “No way. Really? Were they jumping at the start of the year?”
“No, actually. I found out that they’d - figured out a way out of Epsilon.” he paused to drink, and didn’t lift his head. “I don’t know the details of how they got there, but they were found at the Coalition Headquarters. The Overseers were so concerned. Kept saying, they’d send operatives to help me.”
Turned them down, of course. They’d already tried that a dozen times. Nobody understood. They only stared at him, wide-eyed, uncomprehending, as they grappled with the soul-crushing reality of Epsilon, the eternal never-ending hell.
And then they never came back.
“They were screaming and crying,” he continued. “Said I couldn’t take them from their new life, stuff like that. I took them home.”
Probably shouldn’t say. Didn’t need this gossip proliferating, need people trying to seek them out and wrestle their Timeline-escaping powers from them.
He hummed instead. “Six million two hundred fifty thousand twenty forty-six.”
“Can’t trust the six millions,” she said, with a wink.
It conjured a weak smile on his face. It was a nonsense thing to say - the six millions weren’t any worse than any of the billions of shards of Epsilon - but, despite rational thought, he smiled.
That was why he always came back here. Always found himself in this slice, on this street, ears preening to catch the jingle as he threw open the door.
“Yeah,” he said, lamely, as segue, wiped his mouth with a sleeve. “Took them home. I knew they were going to - I gave them resources, took them back to their family. Checked in every month.”
“But they still...” with a click of her tongue.
She sounded so flippant. Did he blame her? How many of her family killed themselves at the start of the eternal year, exhausted of reliving the same stagnant thirteen months for every eon of their eternal lives?
How many were killed by jumpers, hopping back into better times, better years fresh in their memories, stealing those moments from their selves in those times?
How many times had she killed herself to spare her own fate?
“Yeah. Their landlord found them, called me because of the note they left. I handled it. Tried to pay their rent but their landlord didn’t care, said the cycle was almost over anyways.”
“Wow, a get-out-of-rent scheme that really works!”
All he managed was a weak “heh”. But she beamed, like she’d won the lottery with his halfhearted laugh.
“Being a landlord must suck,” she continued. “Why even bother fixing up your apartment or properties or whatever? Right? Oh, actually, it must really suck if your cycle starts with them all trashed or something.”
Footsteps. They both turned to the other patron, who stood over them. Their laptop was firmly tucked under their arm, and they bore a small smile.
With the two’s attention, the newcomer dipped their head. “People might ask you why bother mixing the same coffee every cycle, you know.”
“I get all sorts of people coming in here,” she protested, holding out a hand towards the door. “They all ask for different drinks.”
“I get all sorts of different tenants,” they replied, smile turning cheeky.
“Oh fucksit, Chomyzi, they’re a landlord. Why is it that you shittalk a landlord and they all come out of the woodwork?”
Chomyzi gave a one-armed shrug. “I wouldn’t know.”
The landlord reached into their breast pocket and procured a business card, which they presented to Chomyzi. “Nice to meet you, Chomyzi. We haven’t talked before, as far as I can tell.”
A broad statement. They probably just meant this slice, not every iteration. He stared down at the card, at their swirling logo, phone number, website address.
“I’m glad to have met you,” they continued, a little quickly. “I’d heard you sometimes appeared here, and I finally got lucky. I uh - I’ve been working my last few cycles on perfecting some low-income housing, and I’d love your blessing on the project now that I’m consistently getting it done in early Karshdan.”
She tilted her head. “No prayers?”
“I didn’t want to be a bother,” was the simple reply. “I’m sure Chomyzi has plenty of important prayers to be attending to. This is just - a small request.”
“I’ll see what I can do,” he said.
They beamed. “Th- Thank you so much, Chomyzi. Do you mind photographs?”
“Photographs are fine,” he said.
They gave a graceful nod, a half-bow, and scuttled out the door. The chimes rattled as the door swung shut, and filled the now-empty cafe with a strange, tense energy.
She clicked her tongue. “Can’t believe they were a landlord the whole time. You actually going to see their property?”
“It doesn’t hurt,” he said. “Everyone will remember it.”
“Until they go crazy and explode the entire place in ten cycles.”
He hummed. “Even still. There’s no harm.”
Her cup-scrubbing slowed, the squeak of cloth against porcelain only an occasional noise. Thoughtful? He glanced up to her face, and she stared back at him, almost unreadable.
“It’ll make them happy,” he said. “And, I want to encourage more... long-term, good projects like that.”
Why was he justifying himself to her?
“I can get that,” she said with a shake of the head, and set down her cleaned cup behind the counter. “You gotta make the best of what you’ve got, right?”
“That’s the ideal.”
“With how much everyone’s met of you, you’d think more of them would follow that line of thinking.” she clicked her tongue again. “Instead they’re killing themselves, jumping into other slices... I can’t believe so many people want to make your life harder for - for what? You’re a good guy, Chomyzi.”
“You can’t get too mad at them,” he said, sipping. “They just want something better.”
She put a hand on her hip. “Then they should just make better in their home slice, though? If everyone did that, we’d have a much better world on our hands.”
“It would be nice.”
She gave a little half-laugh. “I mean, fuck. My husband and I always used to argue like cats and dogs. Then we just started getting divorced at the start of our slice instead. We’re much happi-”
“Husband?” he asked, quietly.
She smirked. “Huh?”
He paused, staring at the rim of his mug for an aching breath of a second.
It took her another tick to realize her mistake. Her entire body stiffened, caught, bleached white in fear and the spotlight.
“Chomyzi,” she said. “I didn’t mean that. No, I mean - I - it’s not like that. I just don’t - I mean, I meant my boyfriend.”
A long pause stretched between them.
He tilted his head at her, thoughts congealing in unpleasant manners. He turned his head back to the cup, staring down at the grounds in the mug, a clairvoyant looking for a sign.
A sign. A signal. Something. Anything.
Don’t let it be true. Please.
“Let me stay,” she said, voice low, voice wavering. “Chomyzi. Let me stay.”
His voice, however, was alien. Strangled and tired. “How many cycles have you done this for?”
She didn’t respond. Just stood there, behind the bar counter, both hands on the woodtop, staring him down. Her face was unreadable. Something pained. That was all he could see.
“A lot,” he said, for her, and she jerked a nod. He continued, resigned, worn, tired. “More than you’d want to say. More than I’d like.”
“So? I haven’t been causing any problems, Chomyzi.” she tapped the counter, enunciating her words, “I’ve been just like I would’ve been here. I’m not causing any problems. Don’t send me back. You can’t send me back. We’re friends.”
The desperation was palpable. It grabbed fistfuls of his chest and squeezed it out of his ribs like hellish paste.
He only shook his head, sinking to brace his forehead on a hand, slouching.
She took a step away - but her ears pinned back. Was she taking his exhaustion as permission? Did she bank on their friendship to protect her?
Friends. They were friends. He’d thought they were friends. It always ended up like this, though, didn’t it? Always ended with him standing there, and someone pleading to him that they weren’t a murderer-serial-jumper-defier of the laws of nature.
To think she’d commiserated with him. Nodded along at the antics of jumpers, at the fires he was stretched so thin to put out.
Like it didn’t matter to her. Like a snake.
In a way, it was fine. The mortals never understood. Not really. They didn’t have to. Their reactions were understandable. Their hopes for a good life were deserved. All he could do was try to give that to them, so long as they didn’t...
...He didn’t want to know where the body was. Or how many times she’d jumped down to this slice, grabbed her younger self by the neck, and slit her throat, and donned her uniform and her little cafe and pretended to be her.
A facsimile of a life. Desperate nostalgia, clinging to better times. Better times now ruined and marred by the memory of killing her younger self to attain them.
He stared down into his empty mug, into the dredges, into the little clumps of leftover cocoa.
A little taste of respite. That’s all he ever deserved, ever earned. A little, fleeting taste, enough to stop him from clawing off the noose.
But it never ended, did it? And it never would. Over and over. They stopped mattering, stopped being individuals. There were millions of every single person, millions he had to remember and listen to and tend to and shear off his magic and his mind and time and sanity and take whatever scraps they gave him.
He didn’t even remember her name.
She froze. She didn’t know what she’d just sensed, but she feared it - like an animal of prey, ears perked, tense, waiting for the next signal of danger.
Misery squeezed him like a vice. A choking, tight little thing.
His halo popped.
She bolted, crashing through shelves of mugs and little coffee machines and paper cups. She didn’t turn, only splayed her arms out as she slammed into the door, and it clattered open and she fell to the sidewalk in a heap.
She was down for only a second, Chomyzi noted, watching her scramble to her feet like an unsteady foal.
He lifted a hand.
Magic did not course through him. Instead, his concepts lashed like a whip through the metaphysical, and tangled around the beating heart of her soul and pulled tight.
At the same time, a stomp of his concepts echoed through the little slice of Epsilon. The Timeline groaned in response, but obeyed his will - as it always did.
Leaves, mid-twist in their dance to the ground, found themselves suspended in midair. Birds’ flight slowed, stilled, wings still splayed to catch the air.
The chatter of mortals in the city quieted, then silenced as stasis settled over their minds and mouths and bodies, frozen mid-gesture, smiles still on their face, unaware. As ignorant as the leaves and birds and rocks and sun and stars who shared their fate.
And, so long as his concepts strangled the great vein of magic that tied this slice to its neighbors, time would not pass.
Chomyzi stood, keeping his hand trained on her.
Her eyes were locked forwards, staring helplessly towards the street. One arm extended, still, the other low, having just propelled her from the pavement. Tail spun perfectly for balance as she staggered, one leg trailing behind.
His fingers twitched, and his concepts flung open hers like a book. He thumbed over the etchings of her soul, rubbed at his eyes with his free hand.
Words spilled forth, thoughts and magics and dreams and identities. Everything she’d learned, been, that had touched her. All things that had flown into and out of her, laid bare, exposed and shivering as he licked a finger and flipped the page.
He knew where to find it, of course. In the deepest recesses of her soul - a seed, imprinted with simple instruction. A name, a breath of life, a home to call her own. Where she’d jumped from, in plain words.
It took a moment to match the description to the year. Chomyzi glanced up, imagining for a moment the great weight of every slice of Epsilon above them, stacked neatly on top of one another, trembling and swaying in voidspace.
It was impressive. Three hundred fifty two slices above. She made the trip every reset, crawling down artificial ladders and boreholes that all the jumpers risked every time they set out for a better life.
How hadn’t he noticed?
Maybe he just hadn’t wanted to notice. Hadn’t wanted to believe.
His wrist flicked up. His concepts yanked hers upwards, dragging her metaphysics north, up-up-up three hundred and fifty two times, and dumped her in the derelict-defunct-closed cafe in her proper year.
Her body shuddered before shattering, the pieces racing up to follow her soul. Chomyzi did not flinch. She would find herself whole and unharmed, sitting in that dark place.
Now. He spun to the counter, tapped it. Into its wood he forced a bundle of concepts - an alert, a signal. If her magic were to ever touch it again, he would know. He’d know, and he’d arrive, and tuck her under an arm and send her back home, like he always did.
Chomyzi stared down at the wood, at the swirling lines in its face, the knots, untouchable behind a veneer of varnish.
He snapped his fingers.
The roar in his ears as time surged forwards again ached. But he only sank onto the stool again, half-dazed, stare vacant, empty, listless.
The mug sat in front of him, waiting. But he didn’t even remember her name.
This, forever. Just this, forever. No end in sight. No hope, no change, nothing. Just this, forever. Just this forever. Just this forever. Just this forever. Just this forever. Just this forever.