An End for Once
Rytera soaked in the cast-iron tub and looked out at the universe, as she had every day since her thirteenth birthday. As a Time Keeper, she lived her days in a series of rooms with no doors and windows opened to the stars. She watched as endless universe lines dipped in purple or green cascaded across the sparse bathroom. Her face was long and old now, and she’d gotten thin from days of not eating. It hadn’t always been that way, of course. As a girl, Rytera was blessed by golden long hair, soft skin and shining, green eyes, with just a few freckles on her cheeks. Slightly crooked teeth and a flush when she was flustered had only added to the charm of someone just born to the world and ready to learn.
She remembered the moment of her abduction when she'd come to this place. Rytera had been seated at the dining room table, surrounded by the three people from her class who had accepted her birthday invite. Rytera looked at Jason, with his musty odor and onion breath, then over at Cindy, who was chewing gum and texting. Mary looked out the window, probably frustrated with her own mother for making her come.
“Come on, make a wish,” her mother said, checking herself in the mirror. The room was silent, save for the clock ticking on the wall and the fan clicking away on the ceiling. Rytera looked at the thirteen candles burning softly on the cake, frustrated.
Do I make the same wish? Does being liked even matter at this point? Rytera took a breath, wondering if repeating a wish made it more or less likely to come true.
“Can we hurry this up? My boyfriend is picking me up at three.” Rytera coughed, extinguishing one candle as she glared at Cindy.
“You know what?” Rytera started, and then was hit with a feeling of vertigo. The walls and floor stretched into the distance and she felt her body straining against a weird pressure as the scene around her changed. She felt the breath knocked out of her as she hit the floor. The people were gone. The cake was gone. And, most importantly, her house was gone.
It was a drab, dark and dusty abandoned place with too-sharp corners, a carpet torn to shreds and walls slanted just a bit wrong. Fear buffeted her chest as she closed her eyes and took a breath. Don’t panic! Think of something familiar. She imagined her room. Almost immediately, furniture sprang up around her. She walked around the room, touching her desk, the stuffed animals on the bed. She reached up and felt the blades of the ceiling fan.
It’s just like home! The walls straightened, the carpet knitted and the color flooded back to the light blue she was knew well. Rytera blinked a few times to reorient herself and then tried to leave. Everything was identical to her bedroom now, but the door wasn’t real. It was just painted onto the wall in the same way that Wylie Coyote would paint a tunnel onto a rock to fool the roadrunner.
She once again imagined the room changing, but this time she concentrated on the door’s handle, picturing it in great detail. As soon as she managed a makeshift knob, she ran over, intending to throw the door open. The handle popped off as she touched it, hit the carpet and faded away. Over the next two hours, Rytera tried everything. She attempted to climb out of the open windows, but it was a sheer drop to a blanket of stars. She cleaved the wall in two by imagining it bending apart like reeds, but there was just more wall underneath. Eventually, Rytera managed to expand her living space until it took her a minute to walk from one end to the other. But still she couldn’t leave. She was in a bubble, and while she could make that bubble bigger or smaller, getting through it just wasn’t in the cards.
She sat in the corner of the room with her head in her hands and felt her stomach gurgle.
What I’d give for a Big Mac right about now. I’d even make do with some cake. The memory of that purple cake came back with its three layers and confectionary candy princesses, and moments later it dropped in front of her, uncut and with thirteen candles still burning bright.
Rytera had her first vision then. Her mother was back home, reclining in an armchair and drinking wine, tears on her cheeks. Rytera saw backward and forwards in time, all at once. Everyone at the party had attested to the daughter vanishing in the midst of the celebration. The police had visited and tried to help, but while they promised to send out search teams, it was clear they didn’t buy the mother’s story. More eyewitnesses didn’t make a spontaneous vanishing more credible. Over the next few days, they’d write reports, ask a few questions and then give up. Eventually, her mother would go searching herself.
For hours Rytera huddled in the corner, watching her mother and trying to make sense of life. She ate when she had to, created a toilet when she needed it and took a bath occasionally.
After two weeks, a new door appeared. A real door. It opened, and two visitors stepped into the room. The first, an obese Asian with a pockmarked face froze, then grabbed the smaller woman beside him. He held her close and stared at Rytera.
“Wǒmen zài nǎ?” he shouted.
Rytera frowned and took a step back. “What?”
“Wǒmen zài nǎ? Wǒmen zài nǎ?”
She replied, “I don’t know what you’re … hold on. A, nǐ shuō zhōngwén!” Ah, you are speaking Chinese. She’d never studied the language, of course, but now she was fluent in it.
She asked again, in Chinese. They answered that they’d seen the door appear as if by magic and entered into it. They then asked if she had any idea where she was (and by extension, they were.) Instantly the information dropped in like an unwanted guest, stamped into her mind, letting her know that she was a fortune teller in an intergalactic tent of sorts, and it was her job to tell this couple’s fortune.
Screw that, she thought, and left through the open door.
She woke up with the couple peering over her. Apparently, Rytera had gotten to the door and passed out in the doorway. It hit home, then, what this room meant, and she began to cry.
After explaining to the travelers that she wanted to leave, the obese man tried ushering her through the door. Rytera felt that sense of vertigo again and wound up on the floor, sore. According to the Asian man, he’d seen her body deconstruct itself into lines and reassemble on the carpet. He carried her out next, and this time she simply slipped from his large hands. Eventually, the pair gave up and left. The next day the room was smaller, and this time Rytera couldn’t seem to expand it.
More people visited over the next few days. She probed all of them for information, asking what they knew and wishing them well when they couldn’t help. She never once used her fortune telling ability. And every day, she woke up with less living space. Rytera intuited that the room changed to reflect her behavior. When it clicked, Rytera began divulging everything she knew about the people who came to see her. She explained their past, their future, and what they needed to do to keep on living. Everyone trusted her enough after that to take the fortune teller’s word as gospel. But when she was alone again, the room shrank, and this time it began to smell.
Through trial and error, she realized she wasn’t allowed to just flat out reveal the future. Her job was to hint at what might happen, nothing more. When she disobeyed, the room punished her. When she obeyed, she gained more information about the world. Over time, that knowledge grew to multiple worlds, and then multiple universes. Rytera learned about the stars and the pull and push of the cosmos. She could delve into any resident’s life, on any planet. In addition, she knew whether a universe would fare well or wink out after decades of warfare. And every time a new visitor greeted her, Rytera was blessed with every detail of his or her life lives. The knowledge was intoxicating, but it came at a price—people relied on her fortunes. If she obeyed the rules and gave out the bare minimum, there was a good chance those people would die. She had to weigh the pros and cons of every word she spoke.
Now she tried to relax in the tub, frustrated and tired. She put aside her lost years. Too many had gone by, and not one visitor had known how to get her out. Rytera remembered with a smirk the night a submarine captain had visited her- the sub door, protruding from her wall, had opened to a cascade of water splashing onto the floor. The visitor had been about two seconds away from drowning.
Rytera’s life had been exciting, to a fault. Fifty-two years of viewing an infinite number of histories would be the dream of any scholar worth their salt, but she only served as a witness to that history. In exchange for her imprisonment, something had given her the power to shape her room as she wanted and eat what she wanted so long as she acted as a guide to travelers. Luxurious beds, porcelain baths, and tea sets were all a flick of her wrist. A gilded cage.
In her youth, she’d fancied many travelers who came her way. Some even taught her how it felt to be touched, to be held. The lucky ones took away much more than that. But they always left. Now she was sixty-five, according to the clock she’d created after her arrival that prominently displayed the year, 2019. She was too old to have dreams of escape. And the worlds were ending, after all.
Still, Rytera found herself ruminating. So many times she’d sent people off to die because she was starving. She could make any food she wanted if she played her part, but that power faded when she disobeyed the rules or gave too much away. One time she told someone they’d probably die tomorrow if they didn’t stop visiting their mother-in-law. After those transgressions, she wasn’t allowed to eat. On bad days, she tried to conjure up lunch and found herself holding dead rats instead.
And so Rytera played the fool, spoke in riddles and pretended not to understand the pointed questions of the damned. She spoke carefully, making sure they understood every word. Search on a mountain east of here. Watch out for falling knives.
One time she met a man and his fiancée, a woman about to murder him for his inheritance.
“Someone you love will betray you,” she’d said with a sigh. He was close to all his family. He had over a dozen friends. She sent him packing knowing he’d wake up on the morning of his honeymoon with a knife in the back. She saw the aftermath through tired eyes. Satin bed sheets, red with blood.
The room was vicious when it punished her. It wasn’t enough to simply reduce the size and comfort of her living area. The room put nails in her bed, flipped the space upside down to put the toilet on the ceiling and made holes for her to fall into. Worst of all, it left her powerless.
None of that mattered anymore. After decades of living and rebelling, the timestreams were about to wink out. Every possible world’s reality was at stake, and there were travelers coming who could stop it. She was pretty sure the higher-ups would be watching, on high alert. It was their job to keep the order; it didn’t matter if that order ended, or if they died with everything else. Not that she knew if there were any higher-ups. Maybe there wasn’t a God in charge of this. Maybe the room was all that existed. Maybe the room was God.
She tried to relax in the cast iron tub as lukewarm water fell from the sky above her, a makeshift faucet. What she wouldn’t give for a hot bath. Apparently, temperature was negotiable for good behavior. She dried off and put on her itchy robe. The timestreams bounced around, uncertain of their places. Normally they traveled in packs,
arranged by world. One world carried a nearly infinite number of timestreams because anything was possible. A woman could choose who she'd marry, what she'd eat for breakfast, or whether she'd choose to kill. Every choice she made affected that world's reality. If she chose to kill, the man she would have married might choose not to drink coffee one morning. It was all very confusing, but this was the short of it from what Rytera had gathered.
Rytera had personified the timestreams over her years of watching them. Right now, they looked erratic and scared. Some threads wandered off from their world’s river of possibilities and joined others, with catastrophic results. She wanted to shout at them to keep it together, to keep moving forward and stick to the group—it wasn’t that hard. But the echoing blackness in the corner of the room stayed there, a stark reminder of the stakes of this meeting.
Very soon, Rytera would meet travelers and give advice on how they could save everything. There had been time for one more bath to peruse the new information she'd been given, and to decide exactly what to say.
She could tell the travelers of the threat they faced, what people to avoid and which bridges would crumble, and spend the years she saved taking cold baths in a bucket for her “crimes.” Or, Rytera could mutter some nonsense about encroaching evils and get some of her surroundings back. The old, Victorian paintings, the real marble floors, fountains made of crystal, and homemade lasagna from the best point in history. She could feel the ability just a stone’s throw away. Her stomach rumbled.
Be good, and we’ll give it to you. We’ll give it all back to you, the room seemed to echo.Rytera longed for her old velvet robe. Maybe the next robe would smell if she gave up too much. Or her room would get smaller. She might find rat droppings in her soup. Maybe they’d make another imaginary door just to screw with her, one that was painted on like the old cartoons. She remembered watching those, lying back on her bed, as they displayed against the wall. The power to view all of creation meant all mediums of creation as well; it was the ultimate streaming service. Rytera could watch any movie from history, even films lost to shoddy storage. Time was hers... just not space.
She had a job to do. She focused on that. Just meet with travelers and act as a psychic, giving hints and thoughts on what to do next. Who cared if more often than not, her truth was as shoddy as one shot in front of a live studio audience? Who cared if these travelers were extra important? Every life mattered. She’d ended enough personal worlds already. And she was tired, so damn tired.
Rytera picked up a magazine from a table that looked as if were hastily constructed in a beginner’s woodworking class. The paper caught on a loose nail. 1984. Information from over thirty years ago. The room was mocking her.
The strings of purple weaved toward the blackness, testing the waters. From what she could see, each universe had a personality. She’d pored through their histories; she had nothing better to do. Most timelines ended the same way, wars and anger and the general human condition, even if the residents of that timeline weren’t human. One line actually maintained peace on earth, but that one was dreadfully boring—lots of song and dance and very little competition because no one wanted to risk being angry at each other. That one was a shade of light pink. She couldn’t find it right now. Oddly, she hoped it hadn’t ended yet.
She didn’t know the travelers who could fix this, or their names. Her sight had gotten worse either from old age or as punishment for saving lives. Now Rytera could conjure up the films on her wall, but not the glasses she needed to view them. More and more, looking into history was like looking at a broken mirror. All she knew was the information on how and when the worlds would end.
The information had come from a vivid nightmare that had put her into a kind of faux-sleep paralysis. Two images overlaid themselves against her closed eyes. The first was her sleeping form, viewed from above. Rytera tossed and turned against the moldy, itchy blankets, opened and shut her eyes and gripped the pillow for safety. The second image was the actual dream.
Streams of energy passed through every world she'd known and loved. At first, they were playful, exploring and swirling and passing through valleys and rivers. It was nice to get a refresher on how these worlds were doing—there was only so much time in a day to check up on her friends, and she watched with joy as women, children, and men she knew worked and played as the energy passed by.
The first image was changing. Something was in the room with her. A dark, formless mass stood by her bed, watching as she tossed and turned. It reached out and touched her, immediately telling Rytera everything she needed to know without words.
In the dream, people were dying. The energy was erratic, passing through people like a lightning strike. The flesh it struck was infected. Men turned against one another, fueled by hatred, sadness, or deep loneliness. Either they wanted to kill or they didn't want to live. The result was the same.
As the being in her room touched Rytera, it tried to fill her with emotions. Only being asleep saved her from soaking it up and losing herself. Now the energy was toying with reality. Timelines where men died were pressed into the ones where they lived. Memories were torn as a result, leaving men and women catatonic when they weren’t overcome with rage or fear. The dream was a vision of the future, and the room’s message was clear- her next guests had something to do with this. When she woke up in a cold sweat, the information clicked into place.
Rytera watched as two universes in the room bounced against one another, tangled up and fell flat, twitching. Rytera breathed a sigh of frustration. She didn’t care what happened to her. She barely cared about what happened to existence. She’d had all of time, and only one human life to experience it. There were few joys.
A nice, hot bath. The feeling of sinking into pure, unadulterated bliss.
Jazz music playing from the ceiling, pulled from the memory of its composition. The scent of lavender oils and hesitant waves, lapping against a beach.
The taste of hundreds of family recipes, peanut butter cookies, warm, baked breads and soups. Visions of history, tales of loved ones leaving for war and coming home again. Whether a soldier would return was often down to the flip of a coin. Both versions existed and moved forward, the widow’s grief and the wife’s exaltation.
She’d barely lived, and yet she’d lived. In memories and in experiences from people long since dead, in the joy of the films she watched. She loved Singing in the Rain.
And she’d been loved and admired, her birthday wish come sickeningly true.
It was getting close to time.
The clock ticked on the wall. Once gold, now plastic, something you could buy at a dollar store. The battery was running low and the second hand twitched, unsure, like everything else.
The truth would take so long to tell, especially under a spotlight. Something might step in and stop her, perhaps violently; she had no way to know, given the circumstances. And the travelers needed to know so much. The information in her head was too long, and she was expected to figure out what to give away with so little time to prepare. What step was the most important?
The travelers would enter, as they always did. She’d put on her show, prove her gift was real and decide what to do. What words she should omit, which ideas to prod. Stroking an ego here, reassuring a timid one there.
One timestream got too close to the room’s corner and vanished, pulled into a premature end. What happened to the people? What happened to their souls?
Time did not have a beginning, she asserted to herself. Nor did it have an end. If an end were created, that meant the beginning of something. Something always came after. She’d never seen the end of anything. Even in universes long dead, something came after.
She had that information ready to go. It wasn’t hers, and she resented it.
Many timestreams had different ways to tell time. Some didn’t even acknowledge time at all. She flicked her thumb and the itchy bathrobe turned into a dress. The fates let her have flair when it mattered. She put on some tea on a new, pristine stove. In her free hand, she conjured and bit into an apple.
The darkness of the room retreated as time zeroed in on one point, a single timeline, the universe and moment that housed the travelers. That thread looked wiser than the rest,
somehow—complete and sure of itself.
As the last minute ended, the end of something for the first time in Rytera’s life, a door formed on the wall.