Jack jumped up, his eyes darting around the room, searching. Brent and Megan sat behind them, just like last time, both staring intently at Pastor James. The little boy picked his nose. The young girl punched keys on her cell phone. Laura remained in her seat, her arms folded. She cried and stared at the floor as if expecting it to rise up and swallow her.
“Let’s go,” Jack said and grasped her hand.
He didn’t know, but they certainly couldn’t just sit here and wait for whatever happened next, whatever that might be. Would they grow old in here? What was his wife doing right now? In the real world, had he and Laura simply disappeared? Were they asleep or in comas? Were they dead? No. Time never moves past 12:08 p.m. and never starts before 11:46 a.m. ― a whopping twenty-two minutes. Did that mean the entire world repeated…
Dizziness swept over him, and his chest tightened as if a giant hand were inside him, squeezing his lungs. He couldn’t breathe.
“Daddy?” Laura gripped his hand, and he relaxed. Thank God for her, he thought. Thank God she’s here with me.
“Yeah, sweetie,” he said, suddenly feeling hot. “It’s okay. Let’s go out in the foyer.”
“But the scary guy’s out there.”
“Yeah, but he seems to know what’s going on.”
They strode quickly down the narrow isle toward the door. Jack stole one last glance at the clock before leaving the room: 11:47 a.m. They had twenty-one minutes to figure this out; either that, or start all over again at 12:08 p.m.
He shoved the door, and it swung open, banging against the wall with an eerie thud, as if the air had somehow swallowed up the sound. Jack didn’t think he’d ever heard a sound quite like that.
“Something’s different in here,” Laura said. She stopped and yanked her hand out of his. “It looks old or something.”
She was right. It was different in here. But old wasn’t the right word to describe it. His gaze shifted to his left, where three large picture windows provided a perfect view to the parking lot. There’d been sunshine when they arrived for church, but now the outside bore a dirty shade of gray, as if a major thunderstorm had rolled in. Except, no wind blew and no rain fell. There was just, nothing. Cars squatted in the parking lot like decaying relics; they appeared ancient.
Ruined, he thought. Everything out there looks ruined.
“Don’t go outside,” Jack said. He didn’t have a clue what to do next, but he for damn sure wasn’t going out there.
“I wasn’t planning on it,” Laura said. She had one arm folded across her chest and the other up to her mouth, chewing her fingernails.
“We’ve got to find that guy,” Jack said, breathing heavy, dangerously close to an all-out panic attack.
“Ya’ll didn’t lose me,” the voice echoed from a dark hallway ahead of them. “Ya’ll can’t never lose me.”
A shadowed corridor loomed before them with a small light at the end. Jack fought a maddening impulse to charge through it. I don’t want to go down there. God help me, I don’t want to do that. Because something foul lurked down there. A hoarse gasping drifted from that darkness; a wet sound, like something dying of rotting lungs might sound like.
He squinted into the blackness and caught two red eyes glaring back at him. Protectively, he stepped in front of Laura, shielding her.
“You can’t get away,” the voice called. “You got to face it. You ain’t got no choice.”
“Who are you?” Jack yelled. A putrid smell wafted through the foyer ― the rancid stench of something dead.
“I’m the man dat cleans up this place when someone gets stuck,” the voice said. “It happens sometimes.”
“What, like us?”
“You got dat right. Just like you.”
“What do you mean, clean it up?” Jack noticed something moving in that dark corridor, slithering on the floor. Those red eyes grew brighter, more intense.
“See, this here’s just a point in time, but you done gone and got stuck in it. I got to clean you out of here or the time can’t pass.”
“Damned if I know,” the voice echoed, followed by shrill laughter. “Every damn person that’s ever gotten stuck asks that same thing. I guess it’s like gettin’ a headache or havin’ a tornado hit your house ― I don’t know why it happens, it just happens. Can’t nobody explain why. But it’s the only way I gets to eat.”
Eat, Jack thought. Eat what?
“Why is it so gray outside?” Laura asked. “And it sounds weird in here.”
The voice laughed again. “Ah little miss, that’s a good question right there. See, this time has passed and it just keeps passin’. Every time you go through a loop, this time gets older, further away. Pretty soon, all that outside will be gone, as everything should be gone.”
“What do we do?” Jack shuffled backward.
“You need to die, of course.”
That’s when Jack saw more movement in that dark corridor. Whatever was down there no longer looked like one thing, but hundreds of things. As if every shadow morphed into a hundred creeping shadow monsters. Laura cried next to him.
Jack grabbed her arm and pulled her back into the sanctuary where Pastor James just kept right on preaching. They rushed to the front. Not one person batted an eye at them.
“Dad, stop!” Laura planted her feet and wrenched her arm out of his grip. “Where are we going?”
Jack peered back at the door. Hopefully, whoever or whatever was out there would stay out there. “Maybe we’re safe in here.”
She cried and covered her mouth. “What are we gonna do? We can’t just stay in here.”
“I don’t know.” An idea danced at the edge of his thoughts, something logical, but he struggled to grasp it. The dark man had said the loop always gets them farther away. From what? Time? So, if they’d gone through the loop seven times, that would mean that they were 154 minutes from real time. Technically, 154 minutes, behind real time. How many times had they gone through it? He thought it might be six; he recalled Laura saying something about four times when she’d first told him. Jesus, Mary, and Joseph… he couldn’t remember!
Jack checked the clock: 12:03 p.m. Five more minutes, and they’d be whipped another twenty-two minutes into the past, a past that was dying. A thought popped into his head, and another bizarre urge to laugh crept up. Time travel into the past is not possible because there is no past to go back to… I may be the only person on earth who actually knows that. Stick that in your pipe and smoke it, Mr. Wells.
“Listen.” He turned to Laura. “The guy said we get farther behind with every loop, right?”
“Do you know how many times we’ve gone through the loop?”
“I don’t know.”
“Try to remember.”
She splayed her fingers in the air in front of her and started counting them silently, mouthing the numbers, then said, “Six, I think. I’m pretty sure six. Six or seven.”
“I was thinking six,” he said. “That means we’re…” he did some quick math in his head. “a hundred and thirty-two behind.” That triggered another idea, but he couldn’t calm himself enough to digest it. Something he’d seen.
“You mean in the past?” Her lip curled as if such a thing were absurd. He cast his gaze at the floor. Think, Jack. Damn it. Think!
He said, “Yes, technically, I guess, in the past. Not the way I ever envisioned it.” He ran his hand through his hair. “Okay, so if we’re 132 minutes into the past, how do we catch back up without continuing to go backwards?” Something. Something…
“What if we’re not in here at the next loop?” Laura asked. He could see an idea forming in that brain of hers ― read it in her eyes.
“You mean, like, out there?” Jack pointed at the door.
“Yeah,” she said. He noticed her hands shaking. “One hundred and thirty-two minutes is just over two hours. What if we try to catch up to the loop before this one? There must be a way to get back to it.”
He hoped she had an idea. He realized, with numbed optimism, that her thoughts were along the same line as his. Stop going backward, that was the key.
But what if we can’t?
Laura kept talking. “What if time is just linear and that’s all? What if it’s no more complex than that?”
“Dash Einstein’s theory,” he said. He couldn’t believe this was coming from his daughter, the lover of pizza rolls and reader of goofy vampire love stories.
“Something like that,” she said. “Not light, just space. What if it’s in a straight line, and we could run back to it and catch it somehow?”
He mulled over her words and spoke out loud. “If we’re losing time with every loop, then real time must be the constant.” His brain kicked into gear. If real time were a cement pole at the top of a mountain and each loop was a step leading away from it, every time you took a step, you got farther from the pole. What if you turned and ran back?
She nodded. “Which means, if there’s a constant, it must still be attached to this time… as long as this exists, otherwise, this wouldn’t know how old it is. But, what if” ― her eyebrows furrowed ― “what if real time is moving also. Wouldn’t it be moving forward?”
“Then it would be variable,” he said, “making right now the constant.”
She nodded and actually smiled. “Because constant is static ― it never moves.”
“Exactly!” If we get out of this, I’m going to worship the ground she walks on… dear God, she’s smarter than me. “We have to find where it’s attached and run in that direction before the twenty-two minutes are up.”
“How far is that?” she asked. Her hands no longer shook. Talking about this calmed her. And, Jack realized, it was calming him too.
He shrugged. “I have no idea.” But yes he did. Damn right he did! The elusive idea plaguing him earlier suddenly coalesced and hardened into a steady stream of consciousness. “The corridor. That scary one. I think that’s it… I saw a light at the end of it. The light at the end of that corridor… I think it’s the loop prior to this one. We make it there and find the corridor again.”
Her eyes clouded with fright, and she shook her head.
“I think that’s why that guy is in there, to keep us from going down there.”
“He’ll kill us.”
“We have to try.” Jack checked the clock again: 12:07 p.m. “As soon as the next loop starts, we’re gonna go.”
She nodded hesitantly and grabbed his hand. “I love you, Daddy.”
“I love you too, sweetie.”
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