A Ship Outside of Time
by Jonathan Ruland
She had seemed excited and talkative when they sat down, but now she looked disappointed, carefully chewing every bite of her roasted chicken with alfredo sauce. She hadn’t looked at him in at least a minute.
“Is something wrong?” he said.
She finished chewing, swallowed. Her eyes flickered up from the table but didn’t quite reach his. “No. No, everything’s normal.” So normal wasn’t what she had been expecting.
“Come on. What’s the matter, Ellen?”
She put down her fork and sat back, looked out the window where cars sped by beneath the orange street lamps. “I don’t know. It’s just... I guess I thought...” She shook her head. “What’s going to happen to us, Ray?”
“What do you mean?” he said, thinking he knew the answer.
“It’s been two years, you know? Are we going to take this any further?”
He swallowed and studied his own plate. She had been hoping for a ring. “I don’t know.”
“What don’t you know? Look at me, Ray.” She smiled her biggest, sweetest smile, and it almost melted his heart right out of his chest. “Come on, what don’t you know?” She reached across the table and took his hands. Her skin was cool and soft against his fingers.
“Ellen, you know how much I lo— how much I like you.” Her smile faded. He thought, Ray, you’re such an idiot. “I wish I could... I don’t know. If I could just...”
She sighed and released him. Her hands found their way back to her lap. “Becky was right,” she muttered.
“Nothing. Are you done?” She looked at his plate.
He sighed. “Yeah.”
They left the restaurant.
When they reached her apartment she stopped in the doorway, with one hand on the door and the other on the frame.
“Sorry, Ray,” she said. “I have work early tomorrow.” She reached up and pecked a kiss on his lips, waved, and closed the door before he could say anything. He knew it was a bad thing — not just disappointing.
The next day after work he decided he needed a good book to bury himself in, so he went to the little bookstore on the corner where he got all his books.
“Hey, Ray,” said the shop owner, smiling through his big glasses as he approached the counter.
Ray handed him a trashy thriller. “Hey, Ben.”
Ben scratched his white, curly hair as he punched in the price. “Why the long face?”
He shrugged, a small shift of his shoulders. “Just don’t feel like smiling.”
“Come on. It’s more than that. That’ll be eight forty-seven.” He bagged the book as Ray handed him a ten, looked around the store. No one else was there.
“Ellen wants to get married.”
Ben counted out the change into his hand. “And you?”
“Yeah. Yeah, I do.”
“So why don’t you?”
He chewed his tongue, shook his head.
“I don’t know.”
“I never said that!”
“But you are. You’re afraid that you’ll get married and find out five years later that she’s the wrong woman.”
“No! I know she’s the right woman!”
“Then what’s the problem?”
The door dinged, and a man walked in and headed for the mystery aisle.
Ben leaned close and whispered, “Ray, what’s the problem? You’re afraid she’ll find out you’re the wrong man?” He froze. Ben nodded. “I understand. Really, I do. And you know what? I think I know someone who can help.”
He frowned. “What, like a psychologist?” Psychologists were for people with serious problems. He didn’t have a serious problem. No, he didn’t.
Ben laughed. “I doubt he even knows what that word means.”
“Then what does he do?”
“He — well, I can’t really tell you without getting it wrong. It’s hard to put into words. Why don’t you give him a try?”
He shrugged. “I probably can’t afford it.”
Ben held up his hands. “Oh no! He doesn’t charge a thing.”
“He doesn’t?” He was running out of excuses. But that sounded strange...
“Not a thing. Here, let me give you his address. You know how to get to Fifth and Ronald?”
“Yeah.” He waited as Ben jotted on a slip of paper. The door dinged again and a woman entered. The man brought a paperback to the counter and Ben rang him up.
“Thank you, enjoy!” Ben picked up the slip of paper and handed it to him. “Here you go. Now remember, it may seem a little weird at first, but you have to trust me.”
“OK. Fine.” He turned to go, but Ben’s hand landed on his shoulder.
“Even if it gets really weird, just trust me, all right?”
He hesitated. Really weird? “I... trust you.”
Ben nodded. “Now go get ’em.”
* * *
When he arrived at the address, he wondered if he had gotten it right. What he saw was a brick building with peeling paint and boarded windows. But the address matched the one Ben had given him, so he found a parking spot and tried the door.
It wouldn’t open, but whether that was because it was locked or rusted shut, he couldn’t tell.
He went around back and found a little staircase leading down to another door. This one was locked too.
He sighed and looked at the instructions as the smell of old cigarettes played at the edge of his brain. “Hm,” he hummed. “‘Click the doorknob twice’? What?” Then he thought, If you’re going to talk to yourself, do it in your head.
He tried the doorknob again. It clicked once like it was locked. He clicked it again.
It opened. He stepped into a black room, slowly. “Hel-?”
He froze, his mouth open. He was looking into a small wooden room where sunlight streamed down from a narrow staircase and little square windows. A man with long, curly black hair and a shirt with brass buttons looked up from a desk, revealing a mustache and a scar across his cheek.
Then he realized he was moving up and down, up and down like he was on a...
The cry of gulls echoed in from the window and a brisk breeze brought the smell of salt. The man grinned and stood, spreading his arms. “Come in! Come in!”
Ray closed the door with a slam, and he was at the bottom of the little staircase outside the ruined building. The smell of old cigarettes and burger wrappers was all around him.
“What the h–” Oh, right. What the hell?
He clicked the doorknob twice and opened the door a crack. The man with long hair stood smiling with his arms across his chest, and he heard waves breaking. He shut it quickly.
Of course! I’m dreaming.
He smacked his hand against his forehead. He wasn’t dreaming, he was just standing at the bottom of an old staircase getting ready to try this door, because he hadn’t yet.
He turned the knob and it clicked once, clicked twice, and then it opened and...
The man took his wrist in an iron grip and pulled him through the door. He let out a cry that ended up being a squawk, but the man pushed him away from the door and shut it fast.
“Welcome!” he said. “It’s been a few years since ol’ Ben’s sent someone through that door. So you’re here for the treatment, eh matey?”
Ray wet his lips. “What treatment?”
“Whatever it is yer condition requires. But I guess it’s all the same, really.” The man laughed and offered him his hand. “The name’s Smitter. Cap’n Smitter, to you.”
Ray took it, studying him. He was a lot older than him but a lot younger than Ben — forty, maybe — and now that he looked close he could see two more scars on the other side of his face. And was that a gold tooth? Who had gold teeth these days?
Smitter motioned to a chair across the desk and took his own seat. “’Ave a chair. Now, what can I do for ye? What’s yer trouble?”
Ray hesitated, thinking, He mentioned Ben. He explained his problem.
When he had finished, he felt the tips of his ears burning. Smitter sat back in his chair and pressed his fingers together, studying him. A small smile played across his face.
“I can help ye,” he said. “All I ask is one year of your time.”
He blinked. “A year?”
“Oh, don’t worry about the time in your world. When you step in here, time stops, so to speak. This ship travels outside of time, you see. When ye get back, that bird crap will fall the rest of the way and land right on yer head.”
“Here’s what I ask. You come with me and my crew, and become one of us for a year. When ye get back to your world, you’ll have everything yer askin’ for. I guarantee that.”
“What would we be doing?”
Smitter rubbed his chin. “Ye might call us freedom fighters. We... redistribute things, so to speak.”
Ray noticed a saber lying across Smitter’s desk. Yes, this was getting very weird. “You’re pirates?”
“Call it whatever you want.”
He shook his head, stood. “This is crazy.” He headed for the door.
“Or,” said Smitter, sharply. It froze him. “Ye could go back out that door and feel that splat on your head, and ye know what it’ll mean? It’ll mean ye backed down from another opportunity. Last night you backed down from the greatest one of your life. Bet you didn’t know it was that important, did ye? And why? You’re not a real man, that’s why.”
He spun, his fists balled. “Shut up!”
Smitter laughed with glee. “Ahah! I’ve hit the mark, have I?”
“I’m as much of a man as you are.”
“No, you aren’t.”
“Yes I am!”
“Sure. Look, mebbe you’d better just head out that door and accept what’s coming to you. After all, it’ll be dangerous...”
“I’ll do it,” he said. Something nagged at the back of his mind, something about a hasty decision, but then something else whispered that he was dreaming anyway.
Smitter examined his nails. “Oh, all right. Ye see that door?” He pointed to the door Ray had come from. “If it gets too tough for ye, ye can give up at any time.” Ray noted that he had said “give up” instead of “go back.” But he didn’t give up.
Yes, you do.
Shut up! he told himself.
Copyright © 2005 by Jonathan Ruland