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The Calf

by Vajra Chandrasekera

1536 words

About a week after you and Jorge turn twelve, time calves like an iceberg and the world slips down the slope of history.

You see it coming, not by much. The first signs came a year ago, right after Ma died. You remember the hushed voices at the funeral, even Pa, talking about the end of the world and obsessing over the news. All year the TV talked about nothing else and Pa watched with his jaw working and his bottle on his lap.

People shouldn’t panic, the TV said. It would probably be okay, though they didn’t know where everyone would all end up, or even if you would all keep falling and falling until you fell past the formation of the earth itself, or all the way down into the Big Bang.

That’s when Pa switched the TV off and started making his own plans.

When the day comes, you and Pa and Jorge are all wearing inflatable life jackets, because Pa says history is mostly water. You’re a cheerful blue and Jorge is bright yellow. You tie yourselves to each other like mountain climbers, and gather your gear.

“The important thing is to stay together,” Pa says, and he looks at you. “Look after your brother.” This is because, as Pa has never tired of pointing out, you are ever so slightly older.

“I don’t need looking after,” Jorge retorts, like he does every time.

You grin at him, muss his hair. “Bet you.”

Falling back into time is like having the world tilted. At first it’s just a little pull, in a direction at right angles to everything else. The tugging grows stronger and you realize that your feet are slipping. The day becomes a slope and the slope steepens. It gets hard to stand upright, so you all turn to face the slope and look down.

The ground under your feet is slippery like gravel and you’re stretching your arms out for balance — you try to hold Jorge’s hand but he shakes you off — when Pa sets off down the slope, slowly and surely, crossing back into yesterday.

“Control your descent, kids,” Pa shouts back.

So you and Jorge start to slip-slide down. Almost immediately, Jorge strikes ahead, pulling away so that the rope goes taut and drags you out of line. You stumble, and Pa looks up. He plants the pick point of his ice axe into about three in the afternoon yesterday, wiggles it to test for firmness. Feet planted, he hauls you and Jorge back to him.

“I’m not going to tell you again,” Pa says. His breath smells. Jorge looks mutinous. You don’t say anything. You’re too busy looking at yesterday. It looks just like you remembered it. You wave to yourself in the corner practicing your knots, but the yourself from yesterday doesn’t see you, because of course you hadn’t seen yourself waving yesterday.

Pa has grumbled that this sort of thing makes his head hurt, so you whisper it to Jorge instead, once Pa pulls his axe loose and moves on.

“I don’t care,” Jorge says “Don’t you know where he’s taking us?”

“He’s not taking us anywhere,” you say, confused. “We’re just trying to stay together while we fall.”

Jorge snorts. “Bet you.”

The first few days are rough. You stumble several times on the day before yesterday. But after a while it becomes easier. Last week is almost comfortable, and by the time you hit last month you’re a little bored. There is so much to look at, but Pa’s dragging you and Jorge faster, as if he’s in a hurry to get it over with.

You haven’t seen anybody else falling back into time, though there should be billions and billions of them. Maybe Pa was right about the ropes. Maybe without the ropes, you’d each be falling all alone.

“He’s looking for Ma,” Jorge says, while you and he cling to the crest of January for a breather. He nods at Pa, who’s sipping from his flask a rope-length below you. “He’s looking for when she was still alive.”

“But she can’t come with us,” you say. “They said on TV, that we can’t cross over — ”

“Time to go, kids,” Pa calls.

“I tell you, that’s where he’s going and I don’t want to,” Jorge hisses to you. “I can’t.”

“We have to stay together,” you hiss back. “Pa will figure it out.”

Jorge glares at Pa behind his back. He doesn’t say anything, but you know he doesn’t think Pa is ever going to figure anything out.

Pa sets a faster pace and you have trouble keeping up. Your knees are starting to hurt a little now that you’re doing something halfway between running and falling, feet barely touching the ground any more, wind whistling in your ears. You don’t realize you’ve fallen back a year until you see the people in funeral black in your house.

Pa rushes by the event without pause, and when you glance back you’re pretty sure Jorge had his eyes closed until it was past. You take a good look across the day — you spot yourself at the funeral, standing in a doorway. It’s the spot you remember hovering in, because it was easier to pretend to be either coming in or going out, depending on who you were trying to get away from.

You crane your head as it vanishes upward, trying to see yourself again, but it’s gone and you’ve already learned it’s dangerous to not look where you’re putting your feet.

When you look up you see Jorge’s face and it’s contorted, like it does when he cries, but he’s not crying, just wearing that ugly grimace like it’s frozen on him.

“Hey,” you shout up at him. “Did you realize we’re thirteen now? We just looped the last year.”

“It doesn’t work like that,” Jorge snaps.

“Sure it does.”

“So another five years down and we can move out,” Jorge shouts back.

You stifle a grin. At least that sounds more like Jorge. Past the funeral means that Ma’s long months of illness now stretch down below you, black and gloomy. You’re about to say something back, something — anything — to keep Jorge talking, but then the rope yanks you and Jorge right off your feet.

The slope is very steep now, almost vertical. Pa jumps, dragging both of you with him. There’s wind in your face and you’re flying and laughing involuntarily, spreading your arms. Jorge glares at you, fumbling with the rope at his waist. The wind gusts and he bounces off the day of Ma’s last biopsy — you remember it, because that was the day you learned the word — and it must be painful, because he clutches his knee and lets out a yelp of pain. You hope he didn’t see her again like she was that day. You wonder if he could smell the hospital through the jagged surface of the day.

The wind in your ears is loud, but your heart thumps louder.

Pa whoops and digs his pick into the top of a sunny day. It takes, and his fall stops sharp. You and Jorge fall past him instantly — you must have been two blurs, yellow and blue — but are almost immediately stopped, painfully jolted by the rope. It slams all the breath out of you and you dangle for a second hoping you haven’t broken a rib. Pa waits until you plant your axe in a nearby morning and hug it tightly. The morning is cold against your cheek. Your teeth chatter.

Pa climbs down carefully to join you.

“Here we are, kids,” Pa says. He’s looking at himself and Ma on the other side of the day. You tug at his arm, which takes a while for him to notice, but you don’t have the breath to speak yet. You point to the dangling rope.

“Jorge?” Pa says, and there’s a catch in his voice but his eyes keep darting back to himself.

You look down, past the frayed absence at the end of the rope, searching for the bright yellow of Jorge’s jacket. There’s nothing but a dwindling flicker far, far below — he must already be another year down.

Despite yourself, you look at Ma. You’ve fallen further than you thought: this is before you and Jorge were born. Pa and Ma, on the other side of the day that you’re clinging to, they look so young they’re strangers. You were kidding earlier to Jorge about aging for every year that you’ve fallen, but looking at them makes you feel older.

Pa is saying something. His voice is snot-thick and quavering and you’re not listening because the knots and buckles are difficult to work with the gloves on and the axe in one hand, but you daren’t let go of the axe. Once the rope’s gone, that will be the only way to stop falling.

“I hope you like it here, Pa,” you say. “I hope it makes you happy.”

“What are you doing?” Pa says, finally noticing the lack of tension on the rope.

But you’re already leaping, arms tucked to your sides, eyes fixed on that distant fleck of yellow, falling hard.

Vajra Chandrasekera lives in Colombo, Sri Lanka. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in, among others, Apex, Clarkesworld and Stupefying Stories. You can follow him on Twitter at @_vajra.

Issue 24

December 2013

3LBE 324

Front & Back cover art
by Rew X