Day 160: Still Life

Jordan Stills was late. Again.

He fumbled for his car keys and bolted out the door, slipping on the ice built up on his doorstep and jumping into his car without remembering to put on a jacket. He started up the vehicle and backed out of the driveway, freezing his ass off for the ten minutes it took for his car to warm up. He cursed and banged his hand on the wheel, his eyes glaring at the dashboard clock which smugly told him that it was 8:10 and he was already ten minutes late, and wouldn’t arrive at work for another half hour at least.

Every night he went to bed thinking the next day would be different — he would get up on time, early even, take a quick shower, have some coffee, and stroll out the door with time to spare. And yet, every morning he would bang his palm on the snooze button at least three times before getting up, usually without even realizing it. He’d had this problem his whole life; school was a demonstration in frustration growing up — he spent more time in detention for being late than he did in class. Life in the working world was even harder: he’d lost four jobs for “lack of punctuality,” and he couldn’t afford to lose a fifth.

Just as he was thinking he would speed a little and be able to sneak into the office unnoticed before the morning meeting, his heart sank when he pulled up behind a very long row of vehicles that didn’t seem to have any intention of moving forward any time soon. A reasonable person could use bad traffic as an excuse to be late, but not Jordan — he’d used it too many times before to go crying wolf again. He checked the clock — 8:20, twenty minutes late and counting. He cursed his luck but recognized there was nothing he could do about it, so he settled in and waited.

And waited.

He considered taking a nap — after all, the guy behind him blowing his horn would wake him up — but figured that would only delay him getting to sleep that evening, which in turn would no doubt make him late again, so he decided to tough it out and keep his eyes open. He yawned. He found some chips in an open bag on the back seat. He munched on them. They were stale and disgusting. He put the bag back. He sighed again, and checked the clock. It was 8:20 — he was twenty minutes late.

He frowned. That realization seemed familiar. Wasn’t he fretting about that a good fifteen minutes ago? He went to check his phone, but remembered that he forgot it in his jacket, which was still at his house. It couldn’t have been less than a minute since he’d been in the traffic jam, could it? He tapped the clock on the dashboard. It didn’t change. He tried to adjust the time settings, but for some reason they wouldn’t change. Huh. Must be busted.

Jordan waited some more. Not finding anything else in his car to eat, he grew bored and thought beeping the horn would cheer him up, or at least wake him up, so he tapped the middle of his steering wheel with a fist. No sound. He groaned and punched it again, harder this time. Again, no sound. He pressed hard on it, holding it in for a few seconds, then started mashing it furiously, but no sound emerged. He turned off the ignition and attempted to restart the engine, but the car wouldn’t even turn off.

Since the traffic jam wasn’t moving forward, he decided to get out and check the engine. He prepared himself for the the chilly morning weather, but somehow it seemed to warm up since he got in his car. He didn’t feel cold, but he didn’t feel warm either. He shrugged and popped the hood of his car only to find that the engine wasn’t moving an inch or making a sound.

Since his phone was left at home, he sauntered over to the car in front of his. He knocked on the driver’s window a couple times and waved. No response. The driver, a middle-aged bespectacled man, simply stared straight ahead, looking extremely bored. Jordan rapped at the window again. No reaction. The guy wasn’t even blinking.

“Asshole,” Jordan muttered as he trudged over to the next car in the line. He knocked on the window, and the attractive young woman inside made no effort to roll down the window or even look in his direction. In fact, she had her mouth wide open as though yawning, but the yawn seemed to last forever. Jordan banged on the window some more, perhaps more forcefully than necessary, but the woman remained frozen in her strange open-mouthed expression.

Unsure what else to do, Jordan slowly opened the woman’s car door. “I’m sorry,” he said. “My car is dead. Could I possibly borrow your phone for a quick second?” The woman remained still as a statue. “Hello?” Jordan nudged her shoulder. She moved a couple inches from the gentle push, but her expression remained locked in an eternal yawn. Jordan snapped his finger in front of her a few times. Nothing.

He was beginning to feel on edge. What was going on? Was he being pranked? He went to a couple more vehicles and observed the drivers within them. Each driver was as still and silent as the last — one was even taking a drink of coffee, somehow not burning himself. Jordan prodded a few of them, pinched a couple more, tickled one, but never received a reaction.

Why this happened to him, he had no idea. It took him what felt like hours (though he couldn’t really tell the time because nobody’s clocks were changing, and the sun wasn’t moving), until he worked up the courage to strip a driver of his coat for Jordan to drape over himself and warm up before catching pneumonia. Being stuck in traffic always felt like time had stopped, but not like this. Must have been a hell of a collision up there, to make the whole world wait.

Jordan walked back home. It was a long trip, but from the look of things he had all the time in the world. On his way he saw birds frozen midair, bike messengers balancing perfectly on two wheels without moving. Jordan must have pinched himself a hundred times. This was no dream. The world was put on pause, except for him. Any attempt to speak to anyone was futile. He was alone.

He opened the door to his house and sat down on his sofa. He picked up a pillow and threw it, but as soon as it left his hand it remained suspended in midair. He nudged it, and it moved a few more inches, but didn’t fall. Later, he tried to take a shower to calm himself, but turning the tap did nothing. He guessed that things only moved by his touch alone — anything mechanical, with moving parts that he didn’t physically move, would remain in place forever.

Taking a nap didn’t help matters. He hoped he’d be able to wake up and everything would be back to normal, but no luck there. He must have stayed in bed for days, he thought. What else should he do? He didn’t know when things would go back to normal, if ever. He never felt hungry, he stopped feeling tired. He couldn’t watch TV or go on the Internet. So he went outside again, the air still crisp and chilly as it was when he first got into that traffic jam.

At first he just walked to the end of the street, then the block. He passed by the house he grew up in, and decided to go inside. The new residents were at the kitchen table, apparently in the middle of breakfast. One of them was pouring syrup, which hung halfway out of the bottle. None of them moved. Jordan sighed and left.

He went to friend’s houses. He went to visit ex-girlfriends, though he felt guilty about it. It took him a long time to work up the courage to go into the house of his last girlfriend, after their big break-up — what would happen if time started again and she found Jordan in her room, watching her sleep? He was there for days — or what felt like days — before he touched her face, his heart racing a mile a minute. She didn’t wake up. She didn’t move. He was still alone.

Jordan began to travel, first to other states, up to Canada and back down to Mexico. He never felt exhausted, and he looked at himself in the mirror often to see if he’d aged, but he never did. He cut himself once, just to see if it would hurt, but it didn’t, and he didn’t bleed, even though his skin was sliced open. He wondered if he could kill himself, but didn’t try. There was still so much to see.

He found out he could walk on water. He considered crossing the ocean, but there was still a part of him that worried time would start again, and he would drown halfway to Spain. Even if he didn’t care, it would take so long, and he would get lost, so he didn’t go. Instead, he began looking up celebrities he used to like, and visited them. He stopped being shy of girls in showers, but the guilt was always there. He would make up for it by moving people out of the way of cars that would surely collide with them, wrapping blankets around transients who huddled in the streets, and putting muggers who were in the middle of a hold-up into dumpsters far away. Perhaps when time started again, Jordan could feel good knowing he saved a few lives.

After walking the coast from Anchorage to Panama, seeing the sun disappear over the horizon and reappear again, visiting all his old friends and family, tracking down his childhood heroes and crushes, seeing how people lived from different nations and different lifestyles, changing things here and there and reading whole libraries, Jordan Stills finally returned to his car. It was still stuck in an eternal traffic jam. He climbed in, sat down, closed the door, and sighed. He had nowhere else to go. He would just sit, now. Maybe forever — he didn’t know how long.

He looked at the clock. It was 8:21. He was twenty-one minutes late. How the hell would he explain this one to his boss? He’d have to come up with something original this time, traffic just wouldn’t cut it, even if it was the truth for once.

Miraculously, the car in front of him inched ahead, then accelerated into a slow pace, then picked up to full speed, and before Jordan knew it he was cruising along the highway, late but considerably less late than he thought he’d be.

He didn’t remember a single thing about his time between time. He didn’t remember the faces of old friends, he didn’t remember the books he read or the people he saved. He didn’t remember what happened between 8:20 and 8:21, and he never would. He didn’t remember the countless times it happened before, and he wouldn’t remember the next time it happened, or the time after that. But it would happen again. It always did. Countless lifetimes, passing in the blink of an eye, with no recollection of them at all. If he ever actually changed anything, he would never know.

Today’s three prompt categories were, “Frozen in time,” “Traffic,” and, “The ocean.”

I wish I could get stuck in time. Those libraries won’t read themselves.

– H.

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