Never Too Late Anymore
5:18. That's what the clock on the dilapidated stove said. All the time. Intellectually, Martin had always wondered if it was supposed to be A.M. or P.M., since there was nothing on the clock to indicate it either way. His gut, however, told him it had stopped at 5:18 in the morning; something about it felt early, like there was still time.
Next to the clock there were two flaking silver buttons labeled START TIME and STOP TIME; they didn't work either. Neither did the OVEN LIGHT button, the self-cleaning feature, or the timed-cooking feature. And there was small white printing at the top of the oven's door that read: Lift Here For Lock Lever. But there didn't seem to be anything to lift.
Martin identified with that stove. Lots of features, but none of the useful ones worked. In the fifteen months since he and Jessica had moved to Ohio - the result of her promotion at a pharmaceutical company -- he had been unable to find any job more meaningful than mowing lawns. When Martin informed his old boss that he was moving, an ugly blowout had developed. The company's owner exploded at the prospect of losing his best employee, demanding to know 'what kind of man left town to follow his woman's job.' Now his boss refused to give him any references. And without good references, no one would hire him. In the current economy, employers didn't need to take a chance on an unknown electrician no matter how highly skilled he might be; there were too many others to choose from.
Contrary to what the clock on the stove said, the clock on the microwave had just turned to 11:26 when Jessica walked in the front door late one night. Martin had the stove's top tipped back like the hood of an old car and was fishing around, trying to get at the clock mechanism.
His eyes flashed to the microwave's clock to confirm how late it was. He wanted to say, I wish you wouldn't work so late, but I sure am glad you're home.
What tripped out of his mouth was, "Another couple of hours and you could have showered, changed, and gone straight back to the lab."
His hands continued to probe the stove's interior, but inwardly Martin winced.
Jessica said, "I'm too tired and hungry to do this tonight, Martin. Please." She placed her black leather briefcase on the counter, adding "God, are you still fiddling with that thing?"
She probably hadn't meant to express anything more than surprise at his labors so late at night, but Martin took her comment as an attack on his skills.
"What can I tell you, it's good company. Always here for me, unlike some people."
Likely out of guilt - she did work a lot of late nights -- Jessica tried to ignore the jibe. "You'll figure it out, just don't quit."
But Martin was on a roll now. "Thanks for the advice, superwoman. Must be nice, having all the answers."
When pushed too far, Jessica didn't get mad; she got methodical. "Tell me, Martin, have you found a new job yet? Have you even cracked open the classifieds? Or aren't you done feeling sorry for yourself yet? I can't keep track anymore."
"You admit you can't do something? What's next, strawberry daiquiris in Hell?"
"Only if you ever spent your time doing something important like -- "
"Like your career is important? Like moving to this arm-pit of a city was important so you could get your fat raise."
"I worked damn hard getting a masters degree in molecular pharmacology. You of all people know that. And you know I didn't do it for the money; I did it because it's something I love. The same way you love tinkering with your machines.
"You've got a tremendous gift when it comes to repairing electronic equipment. In all the years I've known you, that stove is the only thing that you haven't been able to figure out. But when I suggested that you go into business for yourself, you quit before you ever got started."
Martin had been beaten up with that line of logic too many times. He shouted, "And end up like Tim Stark back home? You know he folded in less than ten months? $85,000 in debt? In this throw-away world, people don't fix anything anymore. They just buy a new one. Go on down to Wal-Mart; no payments, no interest until March 2020!"
"So find another angle. Or a way to change people's minds. If you were half as serious about starting your own business as you are about tinkering with these damn machines, you would never have quit like you did."
"I am so sick of you calling me a quitter."
Jessica narrowed her eyes and burned Martin with a glare that stung almost as much as her icy words. "Then quit quitting."
Martin had to look away. He tried to lose himself in the stove, hiding so he wouldn't have to see or hear any more. He never won these wars -- just let his frustrations over other things spill out onto Jessica, ended up fighting pointless battles, and then spent the rest of the night mentally kicking himself.
"Dinner's on the table," he mumbled, "I doubt it's hot anymore."
"I've lost my appetite. I'm going to bed."
Jessica went upstairs.
Searching deeper inside of the greasy smelling stove, Martin found a series of green and purple wires he had never noticed before. Nestled behind a large cable, they had obviously been added afterwards. Martin traced them until they vanished down the back of the stove. This was the sixth set of wires he had found that were clearly not manufacturer's originals.
What I wouldn't do to get my hands on the lunatic who jury-rigged this thing, he thought for the tenth time in the last few months.
To be honest, Martin had to acknowledge a begrudging admiration for the simplicity of those modifications; in many respects, they reminded him of his own meticulous style. They looked so familiar, in fact, that they gave him a feeling of déjà vu each time he lifted the stovetop up, which only rendered his inability to puzzle them out that much more infuriating.
Still searching for answers, he heaved the stove away from the wall and decided to hand tighten any electrical connections he could find. It was all he could come up with at the moment. Certainly not the most sophisticated solution, but experience had taught him that the simplest, most obvious answers usually turned out to be the right ones.
A few minutes later, Jessica reappeared. She was in her satin pajamas. "I don't want to fight, Martin. Come to bed."
Looking like a teenager working on his first car, Martin said distractedly, "I think I may be on to something here. You go ahead; I'll be there in a minute."
Jessica said something, speaking too softly for Martin to hear. He pulled his head out of the stove.
"I said I hope you figure it out."
Martin wasn't sure what she was referring to, but she disappeared before he could work up the nerve to ask. He stood silently, listening as she padded barefoot down the hall and then shut the bedroom door with a barely audible click.
That gentle click jolted Martin, smacking him with the realization that he had missed yet another chance to make peace. She had offered it - and he had stumbled obliviously past the opportunity.
He wanted to chase after her, to make a second chance for himself, but the longer Martin stood there thinking about it, the less likely his odds of success seemed. He grabbed one of the kitchen cabinet doors with his left hand and swung it on its hinges, repeatedly whacking it against his head.
"Stupid, stupid, stupid."
For emphasis he headbutted the raised stovetop, which promptly crashed down on his unsuspecting right pinkie.
"God bless mother pus bucket razzle frazzle frickin' freakin' frackin "
For good measure he kicked the stove hard enough to cause it to pivot a few inches.
"Useless piece of... "
The clock flipped to 5:19.
Martin almost forgot about his finger.
He began laughing. "I knew it! It had to work eventually -- it was just a matter of time." Still laughing, he fell to his knees in front of the stove. "After all these months."
He twisted the dial in the center of the stove's clock, setting it at 11:26. As he stood back up, he realized that 11:26 had actually been quite a while ago. He tasted an unsettling mix of embarrassment and resentment when he remembered why it was that that time stuck in his mind: it was when Jessica had finally come home.
When Martin felt sure that more than a minute had passed without any change from the clock, he approached the stove again.
"Come on, you idiotic..."
He kicked it again. Nothing. He smacked the stove, wincing when his wounded finger hit the START TIME button and --
He heard the front door being closed.
It was his worst nightmare come true; Jessica was walking out on him. He cried out her name.
"Yes?" she asked, walking into the room.
"What are you doing?"
"Coming home. What are you doing?"
Martin glanced at her coat and briefcase. And she was no longer in her pajamas; she had put her work clothes back on.
"Didn't you..." His eyes scoured the foyer; there were no answers lurking there.
"Didn't I what?" Jessica asked.
Cautiously, Martin completed his thought. "...already come home?"
"Have you been drinking?" She brushed passed him and went into the kitchen. "I'm famished, anything to eat?"
"Yeeaahh..." Martin said. He had no idea what kind of game she was playing, but he could play along. For a while. "Hang on a minute."
He lifted the cold plate of lasagna from the kitchen table and placed it in the microwave, never taking his eyes off of his wife.
"This is kind of nice," Jessica said.
"I'm not sure. You're obviously distracted by something, but it's better than the usual."
Martin's defenses instantly went up. "The usual what?"
"Be cool," she said. "I'm not trying to start anything. It's just that usually when I come home this late, you jump all over me and we end up fighting."
"Didn't we already do that?"
Jessica pulled out a chair for herself. "Twice this week."
"I mean tonight."
The microwave beeped. While retrieving the plate, Martin noticed that the microwave's dull green digital clock read 11:29. His eyes snapped to the stove. 11:29. It was running. But, he thought, it had only done so after he inadvertently pressed the START TIME button.
Fork in hand, Jessica said, "Yup, this is definitely better than fighting."
His eyes flying back and forth between his wife and the stove, Martin's brain flickered with a staggering possibility. Even as the idea grew, he tried to reject it, to expel it from his mind. It would not leave. After all, wasn't he the one who was always saying that the simplest, most obvious answers usually turned out to be the right ones?
"Excuse me a minute," he finally said, and went back to the stove. Standing before it, fingertips resting on the smooth metal surface, he stared at the buttons. It was too ridiculous to dignify with action. But there was only one way to know for sure.
He pushed the STOP TIME button.
The room was still and silent. Jessica froze, her fork halfway to her open mouth. Martin noticed a housefly in the air behind her. Motionless. Noiseless. It simply hung there - locked in place because Martin had STOPped time.
He went to touch Jessica, to see if this madness was real, and got two steps away from the stove before he was yanked back by an invisible arm. His feet went out from under him and he found himself unceremoniously dumped on his rear end.
Dusting himself off, he looked around as he rose to his feet. Cautiously this time, Martin stepped to his left, then his right, encountering the same reaction. He was able to keep to his feet, but for some reason he was unable to go more than 48 inches in any direction, as if he were tethered to the stove with a bungee cord.
Returning to the clock, Martin pushed START TIME.
Food went into Jessica's mouth. And he was free to move about the room again. He went to the table and picked up Jessica's empty glass, filled it with water, and placed it before his wife.
Martin caressed the back of her wrist with his forefinger. "My pleasure, Jess."
He returned to the stove and tried very hard to look casual as he leaned up against it, his hand next to the STOP TIME button. Jessica put another fork full of lasagna into her mouth.
Martin pushed STOP. She did not chew.
Martin scanned the room. Everywhere. At everything. It all looked perfectly normal. Except that time had stopped and Martin was stuck next to the stove.
He pressed his body as close to the stove as possible, then launched himself forward, lunging as hard as he could in order to gain momentum...
...and flopped to the floor. He landed hard on his chest, biting his tongue in the process. Time was still frozen. He lay motionless on the floor for a non-minute, tasting his own blood.
No, dammit! he cried within. His heart, mind, and spirit sank straight into the floor. This is the most extraordinary turn of events in my life. And it's useless. I can stop and start time - and I'm trapped. Trapped!
He pounded his fist against the linoleum.
Useless. I am just like this stove, he thought. All these features, but nothing worked right. Even the new part that did work wasn't good for anything.
He sat up and glared at the stove. It had become just one more thing in his life to taunt him. To remind him of his low place in the universal scheme; that he might as well quietly sit down and...
He was tired of Jessica calling him a quitter. He wasn't going to give her another excuse - no, another reason - to call him that again.
He spit blood into his hand and wiped it on his jeans. This was just another machine. He hadn't figured out how to use it properly, but it was still just a machine. And there wasn't a machine yet he hadn't mastered.
Martin rewound the clock to 11:26. When he turned around again Jessica was gone again. He grinned, because this time he knew what was going to happen. He pushed START and immediately heard the front door close.
Suddenly Martin was jolted by a vision a charge of inspiration equal to any electric shock he had ever received. He pushed STOP again. Then he rewound the clock to 9:22, and reSTARTed time.
Martin descended into their musty basement, searching for the bottle of champagne that Jess had bought in anticipation of the grand opening of that business he ultimately chickened out of. The whole time he was down there, rooting through boxes and bins they hadn't unpacked yet, his tongue fidgeted with the small gash at its tip while his mind explored ways to expand his sphere of influence when time was stopped. Maybe if he increased power to the stove he could get farther than four feet from it when time was waiting to be set free again. Maybe that's what some of those wires were for. Martin didn't know the first thing about time travel, but he began to wonder if the reason some of those wiring layouts looked so familiar was because they really were his work.
Finally the champagne emerged from its hiding place and Martin climbed back upstairs to the kitchen, beaming as he stashed the bottle in the fridge. He STOPped time, reset the clock for 11:22, STARTed it again, and heated two plates of lasagna in the microwave. After pouring two glasses of perfectly chilled champagne, he sat down to wait, thinking now only of the things he wanted and needed to say to his wife. Things he should have been saying all along.
Martin's heart smiled when he heard the door open. Though the clock on the stove said it was 11:26 at night, it felt early. Like there was still plenty of time.
Edmund R. Schubert began writing in 2002, during which time he's had over twenty short pieces accepted for publication (including the first chapter of his recently completed novel, Dreaming Creek), been reprinted three times, published once in England, and won first prize in Lynx Eye's Captivating Beginnings Contest. However, his greatest claim to fame remains that the underground newspaper he put out in college made him the subject of a professor's lecture -- in abnormal psychology.
Published by permission of the author.