At three-thirty in the afternoon, the sun had attained such a point in the sky that it was now shining with absolute brutality into Isaac Jacob’s twelfth floor apartment. The mercilessly bright light revealed a room that was, in a manner of speaking, a near perfect reflection of its occupant. Strewn about the wood floor were seven socks (most with holes in the big toe), four unwashed solid-colored tee shirts, two wrinkled pairs of jeans, a peel that had been stripped from an orange in one clean piece, a stack of five hardcover books (all of which coming undone at the spine), half a mug of day-old black coffee, an empty pillow case, and a myriad of more, equally as mundane objects.
Isaac, unable to withstand the all-out siege made on his apartment by the late afternoon sun, had been forced out of bed not fifteen minutes earlier; he now sat on the tiled bathroom floor, wedged, or more accurately crammed, between the enamel tub and the toilet. His hands were pressed to either one of his temples, holding his head as if it were a basketball. Since waking he had not left this post; he had been retching rancorously, but as it were he might as well have been trying, to no avail, to perform an exorcism.
His head in the resonant space of the bowl, Isaac made for another round of dry heaves when he heard, or rather felt, the vibration of his cellphone ringing in the next room over. He elected to ignore it and instead focus on this revitalized attempt to expel the demon in him. When the phone began to buzz a second time, however, he stood up and zombie-walked to the bedroom. He threw himself backwards onto the uncovered mattress and answered.
“Hello?” he moaned.
“Good morning, sunshine,” said a woman’s voice at the other end.
“Hey Alexis,” he started. “I am feeling absolutely—”
“Terrible?” she filled in. “Lousy? I bet. You were incredible last night. And by the way, weren’t you supposed to do something when you got home?”
Isaac draped his left arm over his face, shielding his eyes in the crook of the elbow. “I’m sorry. I guess I just passed out as soon as I walked in. I fell asleep with my shoes still on, even.”
“And here I was thinking you had died or something. I don’t even know why I let you leave by yourself. That one is on me. We really considered pinning a note to your jacket to remind you to text, or with your name and address on it in case you got lost. Haven’t you checked your phone all day? I must have sent at least a thou—”
“I couldn’t bring myself to look. I tried to once and the screen nearly made me puke on the spot,” he said. “Listen, did I do anything stupid? You sound kind of annoyed.”
“Stupid? No. Mean? Well, maybe a bit.”
“Oh god, what was it?”
“Sorry, pal. You’ll have to ask Jackson about that,” she said. “But honestly I’d be surprised if he’ll even want to talk to you for at least a week.” She fell silent; Isaac reciprocated. “You know what your problem is?” she asked after letting the last line sit.
“No,” Isaac said indifferently. “Do enlighten me.”
“Watch it,” she said. “Don’t take that tone with me. Your problem is that you don’t always know when to shut your mouth. You can be a real downer sometimes. It can kill a night just like that.” He could just about see her snap her fingers.
“Don’t I know it,” he said, rolling onto his side, away from the glaring sunlight.
“Eh, I like you anyway. Doesn’t matter.”
“Okay,” he began. “So you’ve confirmed I’m not dead, guilted me a bit—anything else on the agenda, or did you just call to torture me?”
“Not really,” she said. Her intonation had softened and her voice taken on a distant, boredish tone. “What are you doing tonight?”
“You’re my goddamn hero, you know that?” he said. “Do you really want to go out again? Even more to the point, if you think for a second that I’m in any state to—”
“Oh, come on, Isaac. Don’t be such a baby. It’s my birthday.”
“Wasn’t that last month? I remember because you made us do that stupid—”
“Hush. I am now exactly three hundred and one months old.” She dragged out the last word for emphasis. “What difference does it make? It’s Saturday and you’ve been in bed all day. Rise and shine, you’re wasting your life in that smelly apartment.” Isaac fell silent for a moment that was ostensibly too long for Alexis’ comfort. “You okay over there, or?”
“Fine, fine,” he faltered. “I’m just remembering something. I had the strangest dream last night,” he trailed off.
After a moment she became impatient. “Well? Aren’t you going to tell me about it?”
“Wait a second,” he snapped. “You’ll make me lose it.” He paused to collect his thoughts before starting. “Jackson wanted to break into this old guy’s place for some reason or another—to steal something, I don’t know. And you know Jackson, he’s really handsome and just, can be really convincing sometimes. So I say yes and now we’re both in this house, but I’m starting to feel all confident like breaking in is the right thing to do, like I’m supposed to be doing it, even,” he said. “There was this beautiful painting of a Greek character; I can’t see who it was now, but it wasn’t a god or anything, I know that much. Anyway, we’re looking at this painting and all of a sudden this guy bursts into the room and catches us. I sort of panic and hit him over the head with this crowbar I just happen to be holding. The guy hits the ground and Jackson and I book it out of there. We were with someone else, but I can’t remember who—they were waiting outside all ready to go. So the three of us hopped on this crazy three-person bicycle and rode off. We weren’t even halfway down the block when the guy we had just tried to rob, who I just clobbered and all calls up Jackson to say he’d really like it if the two of them could meet for dinner or something at this fancy restaurant downtown,” Isaac stopped for breath. “If he was free, for Christ sake. Jackson, I mean.”
“You really do have the weirdest dreams.”
“But what do you think?”
“What do I think?” she asked. “What I think is that you are a weirdo, and that you need to get your lazy ass out of bed. We don’t work tomorrow and I’ll be damned if I let you waste a perfect Saturday like this. What do you say? Nothing helps with analyzing dreams like a couple beers.”
At this point, Isaac was so worn down that he accepted, if only to stop Alexis’ incessant badgering. “Fine. Let’s do it.”
“That a boy,” she said. Alexis spoke in a way that could transmit a condescending pat on the back even through a phone call. “I’ll text you the details in a bit. Later!” She hung up.
Isaac dropped the phone; then, with a meandering gait not unlike a decapitated chicken, he rolled off the bed and shuffled back towards the bathroom.
Isaac emerged in the building lobby looking altogether refreshed. Since the phone call, he had showered, shaved, brushed and flossed his teeth, and put on a fresh set of clothes. He wore a knee-length charcoal topcoat, slim-fit black jeans, and a pair of three-year-old hiking boots that had been worn at the heel in such a way that his feet were angled in a slight but perpetual upward direction. The blond curls of his still-wet hair fell over his forehead in cherub-esque fashion, landing just above his green eyes, the whites of which had transitioned from veiny and bloodshot to a cloudy off-white. He checked his phone for an update from Alexis, but he had yet to receive anything beyond a few relatively irrelevant Facebook notifications.
On his way out, distracted by the screen, he all but knocked over the building manager, Liridon, who was in the midst of mopping the speckled beige floor, as was his custom to do every weekend.
“Careful, Mr Jacob,” Liridon said. “Still wet, could slip and fall.” His thick Albanian accent struggled with the syllables.
Isaac breezed by. “Thanks,” he said, flat. When he reached the glass double doors, he looked back at Liridon, who appeared completely indifferent to Isaac’s presence. As though acting on instinct, he stuck his right hand into the pot of one of the lobby’s several artificial plants. The oblong potting stone he grabbed was smooth and cold to the touch; he immediately jammed it into his pocket and opened the door.
“Enjoy the day,” Liridon called back as Isaac exited.
Once outside, Isaac bee-lined for the park across the street without bothering to check for oncoming cars. “Lunatic!” a driver called, slamming on the breaks and laying on the horn for a number of seconds. Isaac put both hands up in mock apology, but continued his course into the lane, onto the next, until he had made it safely to the opposite sidewalk.
In the park was a large terracotta brick water feature. It had a ruin-esque presence amidst the glass and concrete backdrop of modernity. In spring and summer, water would run from one side of the park to the other by way of a long, smooth canal that cascaded downhill into a wide, centralized pit that then shot the water up into the air in an intricate display of arches and spires. Now, in the middle of winter, its bricks were dry as bone. Isaac sat on the edge and swung his legs around into the parched basin. He grasped the stone he had taken and rolled it around in his pocket a couple times. Then, removing it, he chucked it up the canal. When its momentum had run out, the stone tumbled back down the hill towards Isaac, who gathered it and threw it once more. He did this several times, each attempt invariably leaving the stone resting back at his feet.
He was interrupted by a soft tapping on his shoulder. “Excuse me,” said a man’s voice.
Isaac wheeled around, surprised at the abrupt interference. Standing behind him was a middle-aged couple, both of them bundled up to an indiscreetly goofy degree in fuzzy toques, goose-down coats, and wide-knit scarves that wrapped around their necks not once, twice, but three times—and even still had the slack to hang at the beltline.
“Yes,” he said. The word seeped out of his half-closed lips like water through a hairline crack.
“Do you know if they ever turn the water on here?” the man asked. “It really is beautiful, isn’t it darling?”
“So beautiful,” the woman replied. “I just love it.”
Isaac looked at the man, then the woman, then at last set his eyes between the two. “I have no idea, I don’t come to this part of the city often,” he lied. As a matter of fact, it had been his routine all throughout the summer to visit the park with a handful of stones from the lobby and stolidly skip them against the current.
“Well, I’d sure love to see it,” the woman said. “We absolutely adore it here. Especially downtown. Are you from the area?”
“I am,” he said. For some reason he did not care to place, Isaac seemed to have somewhat of a constitutional aversion to telling the truth that day. “My whole life, actually. I grew up just outside of the city, I studied at the university, I—”
“What did you study?” the man cut him off.
Without missing a beat Isaac improvised an answer. “English,” he said. “And philosophy,” he added.
The man’s face somehow imparted a look of both interest and indignation. “I studied English as well, but back in those days we focused on the great masters of the language.”
“Oh, Joel,” the woman cut in. “He loves talking about his books. He’s my bookworm.”
“You know,” the man started in an acute pedantic timbre. “People used to care more about the classics—Dickens, Defoe, Hemingway, Fitzgerald…” he trailed off. “George Eliot, all those good men.”
“Is the weather here always so nice?” the woman asked. “It’s our first full day here and I’m head over heels. Joel and I have been traveling all over, all winter, to find the right place for us to retire. We promised, though, that we would need to be absolutely sold on a place before we make any decisions. We were thinking—”
“Christie,” the man said. “Let’s not bore the young man with our life story.”
“You’re right,” she said, raising her right hand in the air. Her cushioned hand looked to be encased in two pairs of mittens. “I’m just excited. There’s finally an end in sight. You know,” she said, turning to Isaac. “We just saw the most interesting thing.”
“Let me tell it, darling,” the man said. “We had just gotten off the metro and we heard—”
“Just the most beautiful baritone voice singing in the station!” The woman’s face lit up. “We walked through the station and there was this man, just standing there belting one of the loveliest arias I’ve ever—Mozart, wasn’t it, honey? The serenade from Don Giovanni?”
“O mio tesoro,” the man started, quite tone deaf. “Deh, vieni a consolare il pianto mio.” At this point, the man stopped singing and began to laugh at his own absurdity. “My pipes really aren’t what they used to be.”
“I still love it,” the woman said, kissing her husband on the cheek. Had his cheeks not already been flushed and pink from the cold air, he might have blushed.
“We were actually on our way out for dinner,” the man said. “Do you think you could give us a local’s recommendation?”
“Well, there’s this Greek place about four blocks west,” he said. “Anatoli’s. Big blue sign, you can’t miss it.”
“Greek?” the woman said. “I’m not sure I’d like that.”
At this new information, Isaac went into a deep, simulated contemplation. “Well, there is this Italian place,” he led cautiously, reading the woman for a positive response. When he saw interest delicately flare up on her face, he decided to traipse further into the deceptive inclinations. “Maurizio’s Bistro. They’ve got a meat lasagna that is just—” he touched his thumb to the middle finger and, kissing the nails, pulled them apart again. “Mwah!”
“Now that sounds more like it,” the man said.
“Would you care to join us?” the woman asked. “If you’re free. It would be nice to get some local tips from a nice kid like you.”
“Oh come on honey,” the man said. “We only just met him. He’s probably just waiting for us to go already.”
“Nonsense,” Isaac returned. “I’d love to, really. But as it is I’ve got somewhere I’ve got to be. Anyway—” he stood up from the fountain ledge and began to motion with his hand the directions to the couple. “What you’ve got to do is walk down along fourth until you hit Main—it shouldn’t take you any more than ten or fifteen minutes to get to that intersection. Cross the street and go right. Five more blocks and you’re there.”
“Thank you so much for your help,” the woman said.
“No problem,” Isaac said as they turned to walk away. “Enjoy your stay!” As soon as the couple were out of sight, he began throwing the stone again. After a minute he stopped and took out his cellphone to check for any updates from Alexis, but there were none. He decided he would catch a train for her direction anyway, away from downtown.
As he made his way along the sidewalk, Isaac looked up at the barren trees lining the way. The branches looked hopelessly dead against the sunset-cerulean sky. He remembered one year when he was a kid how he cried when the leaves started to fall. One morning, about halfway into the season, his grandmother took him in her arms and sat him down on her lap. She swayed, kissing the top of his head as she shushed him. “Don’t worry, baby,” she said. “The leaves have to go away, but only for a little while. They’re reborn in the spring, good as new. Don’t you fret.” Isaac rolled his eyes when he remembered this. Nothing just comes back like that, he thought. Nothing is reborn, just replaced. Trees are indifferent to their leaves.
All of a sudden Isaac was overcome with a renewed wave of nausea. Shaken, he lost his balance and kicked the heel of his right foot with the left–a mishap that sent him straight down onto the cold pavement. He picked himself back up, flustered, and looked around at the apathetic passersby. They were too absorbed in their own business. Embarrassed at his demonstration of clumsiness, Isaac walked onward with his eyes trained safely to the ground. Something gleaming ahead caught his eye after only a few steps; he leaned over to pick up the object. In his right hand he held a copper-colored rosary with black painted beads looped on a string just long enough around to fit his wrist. He palmed the cool metal cross and stuffed his fist deep into his coat pocket before continuing. With his left hand he sent Alexis a text: Hello?
By the time he arrived at the metro station, Isaac’s feeling of general queasiness had progressed into a vague sense of sweeping disorientation. He looked into the cavernous opening, down the fluorescent-lighted stairwell, and wanted only to be back in bed. Nevertheless, he pressed onward, drawn in by the reverberating drone of a full-bellied operatic baritone. Isaac stopped halfway down the stairs. The familiarity of the particular aria being sung left him paralyzed; he recognized its melody, but he could not place from where. His knees were weak, and he had to brace himself by tightly holding the left handrail. When at last he came to the bottom steps, he rounded the corner, edged into the hallway, and was there met with the owner of the voice.
The singer was a short, well-proportioned man. He had a reddish handlebar moustache and goatee, but softened facial features so that he had the overall appearance of someone who is neither too young nor too old. The man was exquisitely dressed; from head to toe he resembled a human masquerading as a peacock. He wore a pair of polished maroon gladstone shoes, a navy blue double-breasted coat with brass buttons as big around as dollar coins, a wide crimson sash ordained with a comical amount of arbitrary medals, and a similarly-colored houndstooth cap. The man paced the width of the corridor, gesticulating as a conductor would, but with such gusto that it is doubtful even the London Symphony Orchestra would have been able to keep time with the intensity and tempo of his directions. The singer, his eyes closed in concentration, did not regard Isaac as he passed on to the turnstile; Isaac, on the other hand, felt a frigid and anxious uncertainty come over him as he paid the ticket fare and stepped onto the platform. He checked his phone again, but it could not establish a connection in the underground station. The tune continued to mull around in his brain as he tried, to no end, to remember the words.
He did not have to wait long for the train to arrive. Isaac peered down the narrow shaft at the approaching lights. The deafening echo of the wind in the tunnel drowned the singer out momentarily. Boarding the train, Isaac sunk deep into the first available seat. When the cars began to move, a track of soft orchestral strings began to rise in the back of his mind; the bellowing voice of the singer carried on harmoniously.
Parallel to him sat a bedraggled character clad from the shoulders down in a long, milk-colored smock. They had a pitch-black short trim that had likely, at one not-too-far-off time, been shaved down to the scalp; the hair had grown back uneven and was inordinately longer at the crown, where it brushed backwards in a would-be cowlick, had it been only one week’s length shorter. The passenger placed both hands on their knees and leaned into the aisle, locking eyes with Isaac.
“La morte è il nulla,” they said, their strong eyebrows raised, adding a piercing element to their stare.
“I said do you know my name?” they slurred.
“Should I?” Isaac’s heart began to beat faster. He pressed his own eyebrows together, carving his face into a curious mixture of bewilderment and salient interest.
“Riley,” they said, extending a hand. “Riley the Fourth.”
“Riley the Fourth,” Isaac repeated, staring down at the hand then back to the passenger, who had yet to look away from him.
“Yeah,” they said. “That’s me. But sometimes people call me Nicky, like my sister. She calls me that.” They put their hand on their chin in thought. “You call me Riley the Fourth. That’s fine. Yes. Or whatever. It doesn’t matter.”
“Okay, Riley the F—”
“Listen, listen, listen,” they said, slanting further into the center of the car as it lurched to a stop. A woman grabbing one of the stanchions looked down at them over the cover of a novel; then, she closed the book over her thumb and quickly stepped off the train. The two were now alone in the train car. “I have come from the future.”
Isaac could not make out whether the passenger was tricking him or if they truly believed what they were saying. “How far in the future?” he asked, deciding to go along.
“I can’t say,” they said. “But maybe this will help you understand.” They reached under their smock and removed a cracked cell phone; shards of glass had broken off, revealing a static array of wires. “This is what they look like when I’m from.”
“Why did you come back to this time?” The music had begun to hit an almost deafening pitch that resounded in his ears.
“To give you something,” they replied. Their hands shook erratically, despite the peculiar calmness that settled in their eyes.
As the train approached the next stop, the passenger hiked up their smock to reveal a pair of khaki cargo shorts and slapped each pocket. They stood up and leaned in close to Isaac. “She sells seashells by the seashore—so who’s watching the wharf?” The car doors opened. Isaac felt the passenger drop something into his coat pocket as they bolted off the train, leaving him by himself.
He dug out the object and held it up to his face. It was a deep-green-colored stone, perhaps jade, with the circumference of a flattened golf ball. It had a waxy feel and appearance, except along the edge where there was a minor, jagged indent where it must have at one point been dropped or struck. The longer he looked at the stone, the louder the music grew in his ears. When the doors opened again, Isaac rushed out onto the platform.
He looked up from the stone and continued into the crowd, overcome with a profound awareness that beneath his feet the earth was turning at a great, incomprehensible speed, ready to slip away.
Isaac made it exactly twelve steps before the music hit its crescendo and he collapsed.
It could not have been more than two minutes until Isaac came to on the floor of the station. When he awoke, he found himself surrounded, in at least a ten foot radius, by a circle of clamoring people. From the center he heard their concerned murmuring.
“Are you okay?”
“I don’t know, I didn’t see it.”
“Is he alone? What’s going on?”
“Give him some air.”
“Do we call an ambulance?”
“I said give him some air.”
“Hey, buddy,” a woman said, leaning down. She was dressed in the dark blue uniform and reflective orange safety vest of a transit employee. “Are you okay? Do you need any help?” Though she did not know him, her concern was clearly in earnest. “Let’s get you on your feet.” She put out a gloved hand.
Isaac looked up in horror. He scanned the station, then rested on the transit worker’s arm. With his right hand still tight in his pocket and his left clenching the stone, he did not have a free hand to accept her help. In one unwieldy movement, he rolled to the side, stood up, and cut through the crowd, running, or more specifically sprinting, for the exit.
Outside it was dark, and the bitter chill of the late-winter evening breeze stung his face. In his breast pocket, with the signal reestablished, his phone buzzed without stopping for ten straight seconds. Even though he had only gone three stops from home, he could see the illuminated skyscrapers in the distance. Like a moth to a lamp, he continued his run for sixteen blocks until reaching the bridge that connected uptown to the downtown peninsula. His thoughts raced, competing for his attention. Why had he been so short with Liridon? Why would he send that couple off to a fictional restaurant? Why had he not stayed until the singer had finished his song and asked him the name of the opera? Why did he not look into the man’s eyes? Though quieter, he could still hear the faint hum of the orchestra, now unaccompanied and wordless. Desperately out of breath, he leaned against the cold metal guardrail and bent over, panting as he struggled to fill his lungs. His phone vibrated again, impatient for his attention. He had received numerous texts from Alexis.
Hey! So we’re going to meet at Milestones.
Just a couple drinks this time.
I’ll even buy.
He did not reply, but as he was reading he got another message, this one from Jackson.
Hey man. I just wanted to say that what happened last night doesn’t matter. It’s okay. I don’t want you to worry about it. Are you coming out with us tonight? Alexis says Milestones. It’s not far from Broadway station. See you there?
He ignored the messages and looked out to the city. Just east of the bridge was the large marina where the people kept their boats, and where for most of the year they remained, unused, forgotten. Watching over the harbor now, Isaac was reminded of the docks in his hometown, how on his last day there he had witnessed a family of five struggle to launch their pontoon, how the father had backed their pickup truck up and led the boat down the ramp, how the angle was not quite right, how the rudder had scraped loud against the cement. When eventually they managed to get the boat in the water the man waded in and climbed aboard. They all were laughing, careless in the bliss of a warm summer day. Then in a moment they revved the engine and sped off. Although it had not yet been half a year since Isaac left, the memory looked like a weathered sepia photograph in his mind’s eye.
Isaac realized that he was boring the rosary into his right hand; he had not let go of the cross in his palm for the thirty minutes or so for which he had held it. The crucifix had begun to dig into his skin, leaving a shallow but painful pit. He released it in his pocket and placed his now free hand on the bars of the guardrail, clinging to it as if it were a cell bar; in his left he turned the smooth stone over, rolling it from finger to finger. Out there people turned their lights off and on; they ate in restaurants, cleaned floors. The music came to a tacet stop—the end of the act.
Reaching out into the primordial silence of the night, Isaac dropped the stone into the dark water below. He smiled. For a moment he thought he heard the splash, but there was no way to be sure.