For Dave and Bob, who made me laugh. “It’s not the cold or the dark that gets to you,” Gretchen said, peeling congealed wax from the end of the wick trimmers with a fingernail. “It’s the silence.” She picked up the phone and read the display. The recording icon was still flashing, and there was plenty of capacity left, but the battery was getting low. She set it back on the coffee table. “I hear the wind, but there’s no hum from the refrigerator, or constant exhalation from the humidifier. Those ambient background sounds leave an absence. You don’t pay them heed when they are around, but you miss them when they are gone.” Gretchen set the freshly trimmed votive candle back in its glass cup and lit it. It flickered briefly, flared, then burned steady. The coffee table was radiant. Taper candles in old brass holders stood among two jar candles, a trio of oil lamps, and a metal coffee can with four tea lights in it. Two snifters lay at the table’s edge, and the fire extinguisher was next to her on the couch. “But, we cope with what we have,” she continued, “or else we start to lose it. Our ancient ancestors made do with far less than my little tableau here, and I’m sure our distant descendants will find our methods of coping quaint. At the risk of sounding hubristically Zen, one’s demeanor in the face of times like these requires constant care, like a candle garden. For the flames to stay true the wicks must be pruned and excess wax poured off, or else you end up with a mess.” This was the seventh blizzard of the young calendar year, but the first one where much of the region had lost power. The winter was taking a hefty toll. In the past week several buildings had roofs cave in, and large old trees keeled resignedly under the weight of snow. Still, Gretchen had posted a new episode of Auntie Gretchen’s Guide to Life every weekend for over three years now, and she wasn’t about to let the worst winter of her lifetime end her streak. “And so, my little snow monkeys, its time to sign off. This is Auntie Gretchen hugging you all. Stay warm.” She stopped the recording and saved the audio file. The phone still had a solid signal, so she sent the file to her website. Then she keyed the phone to camera mode, snapped a picture of the candle garden, and sent that to the site as well. Her work done, she shut off the phone, poured herself a glass of wine, and looked out the window. From six stories up, downtown looked like a mess. A few cars tried navigating down unplowed streets, and in the distance she caught a glimpse of fire truck lights. The room was relatively warm and moderately bright with all the candles. She lay on the couch and read for awhile. After a time (and a couple more glasses of wine) she decided to get some sleep. She usually had a little fan running to provide some white noise, but the fan wasn’t battery-powered. Instead, she grabbed her portable radio, tuned it to static, and set it on the table. The idea that the background hiss of the universe would lull her to sleep made her smile. She had just snuffed the first of the votive candles when a voice said “Excuse me, can I speak with you?” She paused, snuffer still cupped over the votive, and listened. Nothing. She picked up the phone to see if it came from there, but it was still off. She was getting up to check the front door of the apartment when the voice said “Can you hear me?” “Yes,” she replied, voice lilting up as if it was a question. “Ah, excellent. May I speak with you?” It was coming from the radio. She picked it up with both hands and looked at it, asking, “Where are you?” “That’s difficult to say. But I would like to come speak with you. It’s about your podcast.” Auntie Gretchen’s Guide to Life had garnered a respectable following over the years, and she had met several of her regular listeners. They were usually fantasy fans or Goth chicks-turned-housewives, but there were quite a few engineering types as well. Hacking a dead frequency she had chosen randomly was damned impressive. “I suppose…” she said. “I’ll be right there.” The tiny flames of the candles, and all the highlights and shadows they cast around the room, seemed to pixelate for a moment. Everything went noticeably out of sync. It was like watching a video on a bad wireless connection, where the picture freezes suddenly while the audio continues, then the motion abruptly accelerates to catch up. Gretchen felt a swift rippling of the hairs on her arm, and heard the static of the radio pitch down as if Dopplering away. In that moment, a man stepped out of nothing with deceptive simplicity. No flash. No swirly portal. No effects budget. Just him. He was tall, bald, in gray clothing. He stood at the edge of the candlelight, squinting his large eyes first at the coffee table, then around the room. “Hello?” he whispered, then found her, and his face lit up in an almost silly grin. “You’re Gretchen Marlowe! Excellent! Is that a radio?” She looked at the object in her hands as if was someone else’s colicky baby, and then, inexplicably, handed it to him. He snatched it excitedly and began turning it over, peering at it, running fingers across the dials. “Oh, this is beautiful,” he said. “Plastic! And it has little knobs!” Gretchen, wishing she hadn’t had that last glass of wine, inched back on the couch and managed to say “ummm.” The man looked at her and raised his eyebrows. “Oh, I shouldn’t, I have things to do.” He set the radio down on the table, drawing his hand away quickly, as if not expecting candles to give off heat. “Listen, I know this is totally inappropriate, showing up in someone’s home. I am so sorry, but this is important. I am from the future. I’m doing research, and I think you can help. Wait.” He began patting his clothes, feeling for something. Gretchen looked at him closely. His head seemed a touch too big, and he had an accent. His words were too rapid for her to pin it down, but it was certainly— “Here!” he said, pulling something out from a pocket somewhere. In the light it looked like a thin transparent card. He squeezed the corner between finger and thumb and it emitted sound, a voice. “At the risk of sounding hubristically Zen, one’s demeanor in the face of times like these requires constant care, like a candle garden.” She arched her eyebrows and looked at the card, then at the man’s face. “I found this in an archive,” he said. “I am a, well, I’m like a historian. I don’t have enough time now to explain. Initial contact windows are limited.” He put the card away, stepped forward as if to sit on the couch next to her, then stopped. “This is inappropriate, me coming here. I’m so sorry. Look, my name is Aaron. I am researching something. Something we lost. I don’t know how to explain it yet, but I will. I promise.” He looked at the table, then stepped forward and snatched up the votive she had snuffed and held it up to her. “This is proof. Or will be. Watch for this.” Gretchen felt a confused dizziness rising in her. She gripped the arm of the couch. Aaron stepped back to the spot where he had appeared. “I’m so sorry about this. This is my first time. But I can do this. I will see you soon.” The room flinched, and he was gone. **** When Gretchen awoke, she had no memory of snuffing the candles or going to sleep. Just a hangover, and the fragments of a bizarre dream. **** The video showed Gretchen, slightly inebriated, dancing at a concert. After a few seconds of flailing, she threw her hands in the air and began to spin around, made it almost a full rotation, and fell onto her back, hard. Tim had shot the video that night, back when they were together. Before everything went bad. He had showed it to her the following morning while she was pressing an ice pack to the bump on the back of her head. She had laughed when she first saw it. That had been months ago. What Tim had done now was replace the sound of the concert with Benny Hill music, and a cartoon slide whistle when she falls. Her fall then played forward and backward a few times, with different sound effects, ending with a loud unmistakable fart. Tim had posted it on YouTube under the title AUNTIE GRETCHEN DANCE MONKEY. He also provided a link to the original clip, inviting the denizens of the web to remix and edit the video to their own tastes. They did. By the dozens. Gretchen watched it many times, but not because she was offended. She didn’t care if the moral and intellectual weakling tried to slander her. He was an imbecile who hadn’t gotten past his frat boy ways, and she had fostered a web presence long enough to know that poor attempts at cruelty were common. She watched it because at the moment in the video where she pinwheeled her arms, there was a bald guy in grey standing at the left edge of the screen, behind the two bored-looking hipsters. And right before the video ended, he looked directly at the camera, smiled, and held up the blunt form of a votive candle. **** “Well, my little Rapture-monkeys, the world failed to end this week.” Gretchen was walking through the wrought iron arch entrance of the park. It was gorgeous out, and despite the still-sizable snowbanks there were people jogging, riding bikes, scurrying in the playground, and walking dogs. She had her phone in her jacket pocket and a headset on. “All those billboards and websites guaranteed us the world would be judged with divine fire. Guaranteed! I look forward to the myriad dishonest justifications we’ll hear from those who hung their entire belief system on the word of an ailing recluse with a sizable marketing budget, only to have the central tenet of that belief fail to occur. And to those who blew all their savings in order to party up to the end, well, quite frankly, homelessness is too good for--” She stopped. Aaron was sitting on a bench ahead. He saw her and waved to her. Gretchen saw people (she kept herself from thinking “witnesses”) all around, and walked towards him. She tried gathering her thoughts. She remembered he said his name was Aaron. She remembered most of what he said that night, and how he appeared and disappeared. “I apologize for not contacting you sooner,” he called when she was about twenty feet away. “Coming here is a tricky business.” “Oh?” she replied, “how so?” “Coordinates. Vectors. Planetary rotation and its path through the galaxy. Lots of things to calculate. These are pigeons.” She looked at the birds congregating around the bench and showing no intent to leave as she stepped up to it. “Yes. Resourceful things.” She looked around, saw several people still nearby, and sat next to him. “So, you’re a time traveler.” He looked at her, the faint hint of blush on his cheeks. “Yes. Not a seasoned one, mind you, but--” “Well, the trick on the video was impressive, though popping into a woman’s living room during a power outage is a bit creepy, but you have my attention.” Aaron hung his head and shook it slightly. “I know, I know, that was bad. I’m sorry. Initial contact has to be precise. Power interruptions are perfect, less ambient energy flow to skew the passage. I honestly didn’t think it would work.” She watched him closely as he looked down and spoke. His head really was big as she remembered. His ears looked atrophied as well, and there were tiny silver-lined holes near the base of his skull, like earphone jacks. She was looking at those when he turned to face her. “But it did! So this can work!” He raised one arm to emphasize the point, and the pigeons flew off. He watched them for a second, frowned, and turned back to her. “We’ve lost something,” he said. “Who?” she asked. “Everyone where I come from. When I come from. Something is missing.” “What? Like an artifact?” “No,” he smiled, “nothing so dramatic. I study humanity. All the aspects of what we are, what we consist of. We have archives and records, historical simulations running on vast computers, but every time we study this period our understanding breaks down.” “So you came to see me?” Gretchen said, raising one eyebrow. Aaron pulled the little see-through card out and held it up. “I’ve listened to all of your recordings. You’ve said things that have gotten me on the right path, and…will say things I’d like clarification on.” “You won’t screw up the timeline, or alter history or something like that?” Aaron laughed. It was weird sound, like stuttering hum, but his face almost split. “No,” he said, catching his breath, “I’m just an observer, with questions. I have to go now, but I’ll be back regularly throughout the year, when things go wrong.” He stood up, and Gretchen grabbed his arm. “Whoa! What does that mean? What goes wrong this year?” He looked at her and smiled. “Lots of things. This is a horrible year. It’s perfect. See you soon.” And then he vanished. Gretchen’s mind tried to comprehend what he had just said, then realized she had really seen a man disappear while she watched. She looked around, but nobody in the park was looking her way. She sat on the bench a long time, thinking. Then she reached into her pocket, pulled out the phone, and pressed STOP on the recording screen. **** She posted a short audio clip of the conversation with Aaron on a linguistics forum, and asked if anyone could identify the accent. There was much argument over the finer points of neo-European consonant stresses and the preponderance of fricatives, but in the end everyone agreed that, to their considerable knowledge, that specific accent did not exist. **** “I found out today that my friend Ben died,” she said into the phone, “but to be honest, thinking of him as a friend makes me feel guilty. We’d fallen out of each other’s influence a long time ago. We were tight once, spent evenings with friends watching old horror movies or going to clubs. We were young, and rather reckless. I outgrew my bad habits. He didn’t. He was a man who never got out of his own way, and in the end it did him in. Five minutes in the presence of someone who gave a damn about him might have saved him. But he lived a long way away, and months would go by without me thinking about him. Your Auntie Gretchen needs some time to think, so I’m making this one short. Go out and find your friends, and give them a big long hug. See you next week.” She uploaded the file and shut off the phone. After a minute she poured herself a glass of wine, went to the window, and looked out at the scornful silence of the world. **** The tornado watch had been up all day, but when Gretchen saw the funnel reach down from the bubbling cloud ceiling into the heart of downtown she felt her legs go weak. Even so, she didn’t wait to see what direction it was heading before grabbing her keys, running into the corridor, and sprinting down the stairway. By the time she reached the basement level the sound outside was apocalyptic. When she and others from the building went outside, they were stunned. Their building was untouched, but the structures a block away were totaled. Cars lay on their backs. Sirens blared. A toilet lay inexplicably unbroken on the sidewalk. She wandered for a bit, then when back inside. The power was out, so she took the stairs. She knew Aaron would be there before she opened the door, but she hadn’t expected him to have set out her candles. He was lighting the last as she walked in. “This is wonderful!” he said, holding up the lighter. “Is it butane?” “This really isn’t a good time,” she said, dropping onto the couch. He looked at her, studied her face, and his eyes lit up. “It’s perfect. Tell me, right now, what are you feeling?” “What!” she barked. “The city just got slapped around! How do you think I feel?” “I do not know; that’s why I am asking.” She stared at him, saw curious fascination in his eyes. “I feel…helpless.” Aaron tilted his head. “But you are not helpless. In fact, you are quite formidable.” “That’s not what I mean. Things like a tornado, we can’t do anything about them. We have to stop what we are doing until things get back to normal.” Aaron stood up and paced for a couple seconds, then said, “Your daily routine is interrupted by factors beyond your control. All your plans are cancelled due to an atmospheric disturbance.” He took another few steps, then knelt on the other side of the coffee table. “So what do the candles mean?” She looked at him puzzled. “You said candles require maintenance. You have battery lanterns and chemical heating packs, I saw them. Why do you set these up instead?” Gretchen looked at the table. He had actually done a passable job of setting up her garden.
“Part of it is to keep busy, and part of it is precisely because they require maintenance. You can never get it perfect, but you keep working towards it.”
Aaron’s eyes widened. He was silent for a long while. Gretchen thought for a moment, then leaned forward until her face was almost over the flames. “In your time, there isn’t much beyond your control, is there?” An expression came over Aaron’s face then, one she could not decipher. He inhaled sharply and said “I have to go.” The candle flames flickered as he vanished. **** “I’ve been thinking a lot about the things I can’t control,” Gretchen said. The clean-up effort at the park had been going on for a few weeks now. The bigger uprooted trees had been taken away, and most of the debris had been cleared. The tornado had cut a diagonal across her favorite part, and the scars were still visible. Gretchen snapped a few pictures while recording. “There have been many little annoyances recently. The flavor of gum I liked has been discontinued, as has my favorite shade of lipstick. An actor I once met was caught in a sex scandal. A couple TV shows I follow have been cancelled. The used book store two towns over closed, as did the Indian place down the street. My bank announced new fees for next year. My phone network was down for three days last week.”
She stepped over a fallen tree limb. “None of these things are critical to my survival, but they are irritating nonetheless. Right now I’m walking through a park which has taken a lot of punishment this year, but it is still here, and so am I.”
There was a squeal, and Gretchen turned to see two children running through the playground, their tired parents on a nearby bench sipping coffee. “We take our joys where we find them,” she said. “Remember that.” **** The previous year, Gretchen had treated herself to a fancy pocket watch she ordered online. Since then, she had found herself besieged with a frightening variety of upscale catalogs. Most were full of overpriced trinkets and gadgets, others with more puzzling items. If the economy was so bad, she thought, who was buying this stuff? She was flipping through the page after page of upscale designer bird houses and had just read the four-figure price of one modeled after a Japanese pagoda when she heard a glass break in the kitchen. As she set the catalog down, she heard a nearby thump thump thump, and realized her framed Goya print was swinging where it hung. “Oh dear,” she said. The earthquake was a minor one, but ran the length of the coast and lasted over a minute. It brought to mind recent devastating city-crippling quakes overseas that had affected millions of people. The thought made Gretchen shiver. Locally, the power had gone out for about half an hour, a few windows in town had broken in their frames, and there was a scattering of fallen brinks on the sidewalks. Gretchen opened her laptop and began typing notes for her next podcast. She was on the second page when she realized Aaron had not appeared. “I’ll be back…when things go wrong,” he had said. Apparently this didn’t qualify. Gretchen shivered again. **** She was taking pictures of the protestors who had set up camp in downtown, when Aaron appeared next to her. “They are angry,” he said flatly. “Nothing gets past you, does it?” It was a modest gathering, not nearly as big or newsworthy as in other cities, but it disrupted traffic enough that police made their presence known. She took a few more pictures, then grabbed Aaron by the arm and said "c'mon, we need to talk." They were silent on the walk home, but when she shut the apartment door she turned on him. “You never answered my question on your last visit. I’ve been thinking about it a lot, and I think I know what you are looking for. You said your understanding of this period breaks down when you study it.” He looked at her, and nodded his head. “And when I asked you about things beyond your control, you got a look on your face, similar to the one you have now.” He touched a hand to his cheek, but said nothing. She sat on the couch and opened her laptop. “I want you to listen to this.” She found a text file and opened it. “This is from a psychology site. It says ‘emotion and cognition influence each other. Each emotion distinctly affects human motivation, nervous function, learning, physical action, and communication.’ Does that sound about right?” Aaron was next to her on the couch now, staring at the words. “What we feel influences what we know and how we act on it. We know this. We just don’t understand how it works.” Gretchen shut the laptop and faced him. “That look on your face … I think you are feeling something that you don’t know how to express. Your facial muscles have forgotten how to react to it.” Aaron smiled and took out the transparent card. She heard her own voice say “We take our joys where we find them.” He slipped it away and said, “When I heard you say that I suspected that you might be able to help me, at least tell me what I am looking for.” “Disappointment,” Gretchen said, “and frustration. I’m going to take a guess that in your time you have so much control over everything that you don’t understand what those things are.” “Yes. We’ve lost them. Some of the older ones remember, but when they try to tell us about it, something gets lost in translation.” Gretchen was calculating in her head exactly how much she’d give to live without frustration for a while, when she heard a sound from outside. She went to the window and looked out just as the lines of protesters and police a few blocks away collided. “Oh no,” she said, and turned. But Aaron was gone. **** When she heard that the tropical depression forming in the Atlantic had been called Gretchen, she knew it would hit her. By the time it became a Category 3 raging up the coast, she had all her survival supplies in order. When the images of the damage farther south appeared online, she started getting concerned. “Last week,” she recorded, “I joked about the Rapture failing to occur yet again. Now I am thinking I may have spoken too soon.” Gretchen had diminished to a tropical storm by the time it hit the city, but it was still impressive. The power went out just before midnight. Gretchen was still setting up the candles when Aaron appeared shortly thereafter. “You want to help me with these?” That silly grin threatened to split his face again, and he sat next to her. She handed him a set of wick trimmers and he went to work. “So explain to me,” she said after a minute, “exactly what the problem is.” “It comes down to progress,” he said, “and how it happens. We live in fabulous habitats, we’ve terraformed worlds. We can record our thoughts, and copy our minds into computers” -- he touched the jacks on the back of his neck -- “load ourselves into new forms, and gauge the precise chemical reactions in our brain as easily as you can check your skin for blemishes. We spend vast amounts of time in simulated environments. We can reshape matter at the molecular level, build whatever we need with little power. But…” “Nothing is changing.” He dipped his head, then looked at her. “You are very astute. Yes, nothing has changed. Our cultures have been stagnant for a while. I look at history and I see brief periods where change just explodes, where innovation runs rampant until the world is a different place. Historians have traveled back to those periods looking for the reason, an event or a condition that spurs that change, but I’ve never been happy with their conclusions. Then I look at this period, all the change that has occurred just in your lifetime, and the eruption of transformation that occurs in the years after…” “After what?” “I shouldn’t talk about it. I’m just an observer.” “Right. Well, despite all the scientific marvels of my age, we are still sitting here in the dark. So what do you want to talk about?” “Tell me about your friend Ben.” So she did, long into the night. **** A week after the October blizzard struck, there was still no power in most of the region. With what little power she had in her phone, she recorded a podcast about the influx of out-of-state work crews who were arriving to assist in the devastation. “Mmmm, strapping Canadian workmen coming into town by the hundreds,” she said into the phone as she walked towards the park. Then, in a mock southern accent, “It’s enough to make a girl’s heart flutter.” She would have to save this audio file until the networks came back up. That was just one of the ongoing concerns. People were being admitted to hospitals because they ran generators or grills indoors. Rivers were still recovering from flood-level surges from the tropical storm over a month ago, and now meltwater was making them rise again. Some roads on the edge of town were completely washed out. On her way to the park she had seen at least ten fallen power lines. “In any case, I was lucky. My building was spared yet again, and--” She stopped as the arch of the park entrance came into view, and the phone slipped from her fingers.
The arch was just about all that was left of the park. Every tree was toppled under the weight of snow and leaves. Splintered stumps jutted up amid the tangle of limbs. The various structures in the playground were twisted. Police tape and barricades encircled the entire park.
She didn’t realize she had fallen to her knees until Aaron’s arms took her by the shoulders and helped her up. She didn’t realize she was crying until he handed her a handkerchief. Aaron picked up the phone and walked her home. Later, she was sitting on the couch, still holding the handkerchief, watching Aaron fit a candle into a holder when she said, “You want to know what I’m feeling right now, don’t you?” “Very much.” “I can explain it great and excruciating detail, but it means nothing if you don’t know what I’m describing. It’s a deep, gnawing ache. Every thought feels fatigued. You think you’re near the end when the finish line gets moved, again and again and again.” They were both silent for a time, until Aaron said “I wish I knew what that felt like,” and vanished. She looked at the handkerchief, and realized for the first time that it must be from the future. It was white and incredibly soft. She had wiped her eyes and blown her nose into it several times since he gave it to her, but it was unnaturally clean. A drop of melted wax was running down the length of one of the taper candles. She caught it with the handkerchief, and it was absorbed to nothingness. . “No mess,” she whispered. “Must be nice.” And an idea began to form. **** “It was a blissfully uneventful month, my little turkey-monkeys. I needed the time to mentally prepare myself for my family’s usual abysmal Thanksgiving. I have spent today entertaining myself with videos of Black Friday shopping violence. It is the duty of these idiots to harm each other for my amusement. “I want to thank each of you who posted or commented your concerns about me over the past few months. Each of you gets a hug. And for everyone who has asked, you’ll be happy to know I have decided I will be recording my Christmas Eve podcast this year. “Oh, and Aaron, if you are listening, you are invited to stop by.” **** He arrived just as she was hanging the last ornament. She turned and asked, “Do you still have Christmas in your time?” “Yes,” he said, staring in wonder at the tree, “but our trees are projections.” “It’s okay, this one’s fake. Want some cider?” She showed him her decorations, and told him about her childhood holidays for a while. Then, with no fanfare, she said “I have a present for you.” “You do? I did not bring you anything.” “I know exactly how to give you what you need, so you can record it in that future brain of yours and upload it to everyone else.” “Oh, yes, please!” “But I am not going to tell you.” Aaron blinked at her blankly. “Why not?” “I really don’t see how you deserve it. You show up here uninvited and tell me the year is going to be horrible. Then you want to observe my reactions as disaster after disaster strikes. I’m your little lab rat. My maze is a world where economies are crumbling and the space program has ended and soldiers are coming home bitter and disillusioned and TV is clogged with incompetents yelling at each other. Life is just one enormous obstruction after another, and anger just accumulates, and you want to know what it feels like to be miserable. Forget it. You’re just the ribbon on top of a year that sucked.” He grabbed her by shoulders suddenly and yelled, “YOU HAVE TO TELL ME!” His face was pleading, eyebrows quivering and lips close to trembling. She knew this expression. She had seen it on everyone’s face this year. “Tell me what you are feeling right now,” she said, smiling. He stepped back, puzzled, and put his hands to his temples. “This is…oh…hormones are flooding my brain. Neurons firing. Wanting… struggling…I feel it! Oh, Gretchen, we have to find a new way of doing things. This is horrible. This is wonderful.” “Emotion affects motivation,” she said. “Frustration is a catalyst for change. You don’t have any messes to clean up, so the urge to innovate has atrophied. You trimmed your candles so far they can’t burn at all.” “We’ve done so little. All that power and technology, we should be spreading through the stars! Seeding intelligence! Evolving! I have to go back and tell them, show them.” “In all my years of misanthropy,” Gretchen said, “I’ve never had the chance to give the gift of misery. Thank you, Aaron.” “No, thank you, Gretchen Marlowe.” He drained the last of his cider and set the glass down. She stepped up to him, placed the handkerchief in his hand, went up on her toes, and kissed him on the cheek. He was gone before she finished. Gretchen looked around at the room, the tree, and the candles. After a moment she sat on the couch, picked up the phone and pressed REC. “Merry Christmas my little mistletoe-monkeys! This is Auntie Gretchen wishing you all a good holiday. We’re here at the end of the year looking back and wondering: What was the point? Trust me, there was one. It’s a long story, and maybe I’ll tell you someday. Change is coming. Some of it is already happening. We have to be ready for it. But tonight,” she picked up the lighter, “I want to talk about tending your candle gardens…”
Copyright 2011 Bad Day Studio