They’d been lucky to get a booth inside.
The weather was proving unpredictable. They ended up not needing their umbrellas. A brisk wind had cleared away the morning’s rain clouds. But everyone who thought to take advantage of a warm sunny June day being back on the menu by sitting on the diner’s cramped terrace was getting a free side dish of exhaust with their lunches given the midday traffic jam on the boulevard.
Maya stabbed at her Caesar salad. A wedge of Gracie’s tuna on rye swam in and out the edges of her vision as her friend talked with her hands.
“Wait till you see the centerpieces my sisters are getting for the tables. Pink zucchinis!”
Maya flicked aside a stubborn crouton stuck to her fork.
“I’m glad we went with the Same Penis Forever theme. My grandmother’s going to bust her gut laughing. Not sure how my mother’ll take it but whatever. It’s my bachelorette party. Couldn’t invite grams without inviting her. I’m doing a separate spa afternoon with her and Kyle’s mom anyway.”
The waiter stopped near their booth. The crisp smell of cinnamon that trailed after him had Maya glancing over. Creamy rivulets of melting ice cream were dribbling down the wedge of warm apple pie the waiter served to the man seated at a table beside them.
“My cousin Christine still hasn’t rsvp-d. Cheap ass bitch probably doesn’t want to cough up for a gift.”
A gift. That’s right. I need to get one soon.
“Oh, my sisters want to set up a props photo booth at the party too.”
The waiter reached into his apron pocket for his order tablet. Maya frowned as his fingers swiped through his billing screens, then she blinked, a “payment confirmed” message flashing in her memory. I ordered concert tickets last night. I did get a gift for Gracie already. Why did she think she hadn’t before?
An angry volley of car horns accompanied two men who came through the diner door.
“Fuckin’ traffic is nuts today,” Maya overheard the one sporting a faded red cap say. “Every suit and tie this mornin’ thinks my cab’s got wings.” He flapped his hands in the air. “It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s Phil’s fucking flying taxi! Yeah, right.” The men got in line at the order counter. “I had three fares to the airport offer me extra if I got them there before flights. ‘Sorrys buddies,’ I says, ‘Today, walking’d be fuckin’ faster.’”
“Yeah, I had a pick up across the river. Took me over an hour instead of fifteen minutes,” said the other who sported only a stringy comb-over. “Phone kept cutting out when I tried to tell dispatch. My GPS ain’t working right, neither. Keeps giving me directions to drive to Australia.”
Red cap slapped his hair-impaired friend’s shoulder.
“Whatsa matter, Gerry?” he laughed. “Can’t hold your fuckin’ breath long enough under the ocean to go visit the kangaroos?”
The two ordered coffees to go.
She snapped her head forward. Gracie was scowling at her.
Gracie huffed. “Girl, have you been listening to anything I said? I asked you what time your brother’s coming over for Zoe’s pizza dinner tonight.” She eyed Maya critically. “Maya, are you ok? You seem really out of it today.”
Maya shrugged. “Sorry Gracie. Ever get the feeling you’re forgetting something important but can’t think what it is?” Before today I can’t say I ever have.
She was distracted by the smell of cinnamon again. The warm smell of cinnamon and apples… The apple turnovers she made this morning. Did I forget to turn off the toaster oven?! Frantic pats to her empty jean pockets had her wrenching open the zipper of her purse. She needed to call Mrs. Schultz.
“Maya? What’s wrong?”
Her phone wasn’t in her purse.
Maya tensed. No, wait. She distinctly remembered pulling the plug of the oven. It had plunked down onto the counter… right next to where I left my phone… atop the receipt for the cupcake order she was supposed to have picked up and delivered to the daycare.
“Damn! What time is it?” Maya scrambled out of the booth, grabbing her umbrella and yanking her still open purse over her shoulder. The apple pie man looked up at her.
“Gracie, I gotta go. I forgot the cupcakes for Zoe’s daycare. Cover for me til I get back? I’ll pay you for lunch later.”
Rushing out onto the sidewalk, she bolted into the street between the idling cars to get back to the hotel.
She’d wanted to call the daycare from the hotel lobby but ended up blanking out on the phone number. Who bothered to memorize phone numbers anymore? In her Here and Now, she’d become comfortable with letting technology keep store of details like that. Asking the desk clerk if they kept a phonebook handy earned her a blank look. What am I thinking? She hadn’t seen a printed phonebook in over a decade. The internet was down so the computers at reception were of no help. Snippets of conversation she’d caught from people coming in and out of the bakery and the lobby were mostly complaints about the phone networks being down anyway.
Cupcakes in hand, she hesitated. There were too many people about for her to transport herself to the apartment to get her phone. Would it be working anyway? No, every minute counted now that she was so late. Not wanting to waste more time, she made a run for it instead.
The taxi drivers weren’t exaggerating about the traffic. Maya grimaced at the acrid blast of exhaust she got in the face dodging behind a city bus. Same as with the hotel, materializing directly at the daycare had not been an option either. It was on a busy avenue where at any time someone could be on the grounds, let alone kids or staff anywhere inside. How to explain Zoe Linden’s mom just poofing out of thin air?
Her umbrella and the bag with the box of cupcakes banged against her leg as she briskly criss-crossed her way through another gridlocked intersection whose lights blinked red. She gave a fleeting thought to the cupcake frosting. I’ll just tell the kids they’re cake pops.
“No, you listen to me! I’m telling you, that vault was time-locked. There’s no way it could have— Hello? Hello? Goddamn piece of shit!” She rushed past the businessman on the corner who’d been shouting into his phone and now slapped it against his briefcase.
How late am I running?
She cursed under her breath. I’m a temporal guardian and I’ve no idea. Why was she struggling with getting a sense of what time it was? It was like the whole day was becoming a confused blur in her head. Emergency sirens blaring in the distance added to the surreal feeling of the day.
The sun’s rays stung her eyes when she squinted up between the trees lining the sidewalk. The leafy branches did little to dampen the glare. The Earth’s mother star was slightly to the west of its zenith. Past Noon’s watch then. Maya glanced at the electronic billboard on the side of the bank that normally displayed the time. A “404 Not Found” error code message was on its screen instead.
Rounding the last street corner, Maya sprinted to the daycare building and charged up its short stairway. No one answered when she first pressed the doorbell so she allowed herself to take out her frustration by knocking perhaps a little louder than necessary. Through the lace curtained window of the vestibule door, she spied the coordinator, Pauline, finally hurrying through the hallway to get the door.
“Yes, yes, yes. Sorry. The power’s ou—“ Pauline gawked at her when she opened the door.
“Ms. Linden? How come you’re back? Is everything ok?”
One of the younger group’s teachers came into the hallway just then. “Pauline, we could really use a hand. None of the kids want to take a nap. It’s like somebody called happy hour.”
“Ms. Linden, wait!”
Without understanding why, Maya rushed past Pauline and down the hall to Zoe’s daycare classroom where she walked straight into the dimmed room.
“Zoe?” she whispered.
A dozen pairs of wide eyes blinked up at her from the floor. None were her daughter’s gold-flecked grey. The children of Zoe’s group were laying down on their mats with blankets and pillows. No one was sleeping here either. A lullaby played on an old battery operated cassette player on a shelf near the partially drawn window blinds.
Zoe’s daycare teacher, Annie, was quietly gathering up crumb smeared paper plates and cups from a ballooned decorated table in the back. She gave Maya the same questioning look Pauline had when she noticed her there, then smiled, a raised finger indicating to Maya to wait a moment. The younger woman headed to the shelves along the wall.
“Where’s Zoe? Is she in the bathroom?” Maya walked around the huddle of children. She turned to see Pauline coming up behind her. She handed the coordinator the bag of cupcakes. “I’m so sorry I’m late. Is Zoe really upset?”
“Ms. Linden, what’s going on? Zoe left with you an hour ago.” The daycare coordinator opened the bag. “More special cupcakes?”
“What do you mean Zoe left with me?” A pang of fear stabbed through Maya’s chest. “Zoe’s not here?”
“You have a new umbrella.”
Maya spun toward the small voice that spoke. A little red-haired girl was eyeing her umbrella.
“I liked the other one better. It was shiny.”
The brown umbrella she’d left the apartment with this morning trembled in her grasp as Maya crouched near the girl.
“What colour was the umbrella I had before?”
“It was all silver,” said the boy next to the girl.
“Did you come back for this, Ms. Linden?” Annie had come over from the shelves and held out a leather pouch to Maya.
“We found it on the table after you and Zoe had left. We figured you’d dropped it. I was holding it for you until you came back tomorrow.”
A deep sense of foreboding gripped Maya as she took the pouch. Something heavy and pointed jutted out from the inside. Pulling open the drawstring, she reached her fingers in.
It took a moment for her to realize how she recognized what the bent piece of iron she withdrew was. It was nearly identical to the one that turned in ceaseless rotation on the wall of her bedroom; the minute hand of her wrought iron Clock, only slightly different. The hands of her Clock were more filigreed than this one. This minute hand consisted of thicker bands.
Eleventh always did prefer more solid designs.
The world fell away as Maya stared at the broken piece of her brother’s Clock, a folded piece of cardstock jammed in a crack along its length. Working the paper loose with ice cold fingers, she opened it out.
Happy 4th year of motherhood to
my best copy-cat sister! to the final hour of this day. You will present yourself to the Circle for your watch, Twenty-third. Zoe and I will be waiting.
She stared at Midnight’s sigil written beneath.
⇛ Next part: X – By the grave and stern decorum
⇚ Previous part: VIII – Deep into that darkness