“I’m really sorry, Kate,” said Jim, awkwardly extending his hand to shake hers, before realising that she was struggling with a box filled with five years’ worth of folders, Troll dolls and stationery.
“Forget it,” Kate sighed, trying to manoeuvre around her now ex-manager without attracting the attention of the rest of her now ex-colleagues any more than she already had. Finally fed up of maintaining her politesse, she glared at the meek man in his too-short tie and pale checked shirt until he was hit by a sudden realisation, punctuated by a silent, “Oh!” as he stumbled out of her way.
Kate walked through the converted shophouse office stoically, despite the hairs on the back of her neck bristling at the certainty that everyone else was watching her leave for the very last time—and breathing sighs of relief that they weren’t her.
The cab was waiting for her at the entrance of the shophouse. The late morning sun beat down on her as she opened the taxi’s door, slid her box across the back seat, paused for a moment, then slid in after it, without looking back.
He ran right into her as she got out of the cab in front of her flat, bowling her over and sending the contents of her box crashing onto the pavement. As she picked herself up and dusted off, he made an exaggerated, elaborate roll and leapt to his feet, looked around in a paranoid haze, before finally noticing her.
“What’s the date!” the stranger yelled in a panic, moving towards her, but halting the moment she put up her arms in a defensive gesture. He wore what looked like a badly worn set of black fatigues and muddy combat boots, and smelled of evaporating rain. Strapped to his left wrist was some sort of contraption that was either hastily assembled or very badly damaged. “Ho! Stand down, ma’am. I just need to know what year it is.”
“Oh, ha ha. Very funny, but I’ve heard this joke before,” said Kate impatiently, picking up her knick-knacks and files, and dumping them back into the box, while still eyeing him. A crowd was starting to gather, but kept its distance.
“I’m sorry?” the man asked, taken off guard.
“You ask me what the date is, I tell you, you run off yelling, ‘I made it back!’ and you pretend you’re a time traveller from the future, right?”
“Well, it’s no joke, but yes, that’s exactly it,” he said sternly.
“Ugh, I just said it’s not funny,” Kate said, picking up her box.
“Look,” said the man, straightening to attention, “I understand that it’s a little much to take in, but my name is Captain Buck Kitsune, Humanity Defence Corp, Inari Division. I come from the year 3099 and—”
“Whatever,” sighed Kate. “Look, I’m really not in the mood today, OK?”
“I’m sorry, but—” said the stranger.
“No, listen. You caught me at the worst possible time for your juvenile crap and…” she said, rolling her eyes, then raising her voice, continued, “Look, just fuck off, OK?”
“I don’t think you—” he stammered.
“What did I just say!” she yelled, looking around at the crowd, dispersing politely. “What? You’re all a real big help, aren’t you? That’s right. Off you go!”
The stranger stood dazed as Kate stormed towards her flat’s lift. She jabbed at the button with her elbow and stood defiantly, almost daring him to approach her again. A moment later, the lift dinged at the ground floor. Kate got in, elbowed the button for the third floor and, as the doors shut, finally released the heavy, but still controlled sobs she had been holding in all morning.
For the rest of the afternoon, Kate heard the stranger calling out to other passers-by with a rank-and-name salutation, followed by demands to meet some kind of authority.
“I need to speak to someone in a position to help me! Your future depends on it!” he yelled, frustration gradually creeping into his tone, loud enough to overpower the blast of her stereo as she puttered around the house, cleaning furiously and generally not giving herself a moment to think.
It was about 3:30 when she heard the dying sirens of a squad car as it pulled up to the neighbourhood car park. Lowering the volume of her stereo, she peeked out of her window to get a look at the commotion.
Two officers stepped out of the vehicle and approached the stranger cautiously. Their arms outstretched passively, they said a few things to him that she couldn’t hear, before he burst into his salutation and demands again, more forcefully than before.
There was a brief argument, but after a slight struggle, the stranger calmly let the officers escort him into the back of the car. The vehicle pulled out and drove off, leaving Kate with an odd—but slight—twinge of guilt, mouthing a name that she hadn’t thought of in more than ten years.
The next few weeks turned into a routine of sending out inevitably unanswered or rejected résumés, taking on several freelance jobs and watching her savings slowly, but certainly, run out. Every few days, her mum would call and ask how she was doing. Kate would politely humour her attempts at getting her to move back in, before making up an excuse to hang up. An hour later, her dad would call, making similar pleas.
It was a Tuesday when she saw the stranger again, loitering around her launderette. This time, however, he wore a bland and obviously second-hand shirt-and-trousers combination, and sported two-day old stubble. The contraption was still strapped to his wrist. He muttered a bit to himself, walking around in circles, before he noticed Kate.
“Ma’am!” he yelled, then lowered his voice. “Ma’am, I’m sorry, but we met a few weeks ago. I’m Captain Buck Kitsune of the—”
Kate interrupted him by replying with a polite, “Yes, I remember you.” He looked thinner than before, weaker. Kate couldn’t help but feel a little sorry for him. If he was sticking to his story, then it was obvious that this was more than some stupid prank.
“Oh, good,” he said, approaching her hesitantly. “Listen, I just want to apologise for before. I don’t want any trouble.”
“No, no. It’s fine,” she said, meeting him halfway. This close, she was hit with the stench of mould that radiated from his clothes. “I wasn’t exactly cordial either.”
“Thank you,” he said, genuinely. Still, Kate couldn’t help but wonder how much of that was because he was just happy to be talking to anyone but himself.
There was an awkward pause, before Kate said, “Right. I’m going to…” She trailed off, nodding first to her bag of laundry and then towards the laundrette.
“Sorry,” he said, stepping aside.
She smiled weakly, then started forward. After a few steps, she looked back to see him tapping on the device on his wrist intently and that name came back to her again.
“It doesn’t look like much, but to be fair, technological advancement came screeching to a halt in the early 3000s, then regressed exponentially within the century after,” Buck said, through mouthfuls of his tuna fish sandwich, gesturing towards the device. He wolfed down his sandwich eagerly, pausing only to speak or lick the mayonnaise from the side of his mouth, but always missing a spot.
A light drizzle had formed outside the café, but neither of them noticed. Buck spoke eagerly, while Kate only nodded, unsure of the right protocol in a situation like this. A very small part of her was worried for her safety if she cut him short, but there was another part of her that remembered what it was like for someone like Buck.
“I can’t recall the details anymore though. How the virus came about or anything like that. The science guys warned me that memory loss would eventually set in—an after-effect of the temporal jump, they said. Something about the human mind not being able to adjust to the time shift. And… well, my time in the institution hasn’t helped.” His chewing slowed and his eyes glazed over a little, before he regained his composure. “But that’s fine,” he continued, ignoring the slight spell. “The details are stored in here.” He nodded again to the contraption on his wrist, as he popped the remainder of the sandwich into his mouth, then washed it down with a large gulp of Coke.
Kate took a deep breath, shut her eyes and, without opening them, said, “I had an aunt when I was younger.” Buck looked at her, perplexed, but intently. “She was always so nice to me. She had my favourite candy waiting for me every time we visited her. Those thin maroon wafer things? What were they called?”
“I don’t—” Buck began, but stopped.
“Aunt Jolene wasn’t exactly the most… well-adjusted of people to begin with. I know that now. But when her husband died and her son abandoned her a year later, it all came crashing down on her.” Kate sighed, finally opening her eyes.
“She used to talk to a wall in her kitchen like it was cousin George. Like he was still there with her. I watched my favourite aunt lose herself and all sense of reality. She died when I was ten and I’ve always been… well, let’s just say that when we met, it wasn’t just that I had a bad day.”
“Ma’am,” said Buck. “Kate. I’m not crazy.”
Kate laughed softly. “I didn’t say you were—and please don’t feel like you’re some kind of pet project—but that’s what Aunt Jolene said too. She insisted—absolutely insisted—that George was still there with her.”
Buck stared at her, a gleam of intensity in his eyes. For a moment, that worry for her safety returned, but she brushed it off. “I… think I’d better go.”
“Buck…” she said.
“Even the way you say my name betrays the condescension you’re harbouring,” said Buck, standing up. “I don’t need your pity, ma’am. I need to speak to someone who can help me with my mission.”
“Buck, please. There are people you can talk to. The institution may not have been the best place to—”
“Thank you for lunch, Kate. It was nice.” Buck walked out of the café and into the rain.
A month later, Kate found a new job. Her routine changed again, this time back to the comfortable work-home-dinner-sleep schedule that she had grown accustomed to for five years. Her parents had stopped calling so often, and when they did, it was to arrange nothing more than a lunch meeting.
She thought less about Buck, though she would still visit the launderette on Saturdays, sometimes even quietly allowing herself hope that she would see him again, although she knew better.
Three months into the job, her hopes of running into him had dipped. Four months in, they’d vanished. Six months later, she hardly gave the stranger a second thought.
“Kate Lee?” the voice came over her phone. Kate rubbed the sleep from her eyes and blinked at her alarm clock. It was two in the morning.
“Yes?” she mumbled.
“I’m calling from Singapore General Hospital. My name’s Edgar, I’m one of the orderlies here.”
“He told us you were his emergency contact when he was admitted,” said the doctor. “But he specifically said not to call you unless… well.”
“I’m not even sure how he got my number,” Kate said numbly. “He was just…” She trailed off, staring at the lime green plastic chair in the waiting room. “What was it?”
“We’re not sure. It was some kind of virus. We’re doing our best to figure out what caused it, but until we run some more tests, we can’t be too sure. Do you know if he had travelled anywhere recently?”
“No. I… well, like I said, I barely even knew the guy.”
“Right,” said the doctor, fishing around in his coat pocket. “The patient did have one request though.” He pulled out something wrapped in his handkerchief. “He wanted me to give you this when you got here.”
Kate unfolded the handkerchief and stared blankly at its contents.
It smelled of evaporating rain. Some red LED lights embedded into it blinked at random intervals.
The waiting room’s television droned monotonously. “While the mysterious infection has affected cattle in both the United Kingdom and New Zealand, scientists are quick to point out that there is no cause for alarm. Meanwhile, in local news…”
Kate turned the device over in her hands, examining it absently. After fifteen minutes, she stood up and walked towards the hospital’s exit, pausing at the bin near the sliding doors.
She thought of the hurt in Buck’s voice that rainy day at the café. Then she thought about how ecstatic Aunt Jolene was when she spoke to the wall in her kitchen. She looked at the device in her hands again, then whispered with a sad finality, “I’m sorry.”
© Wayne Rée, 2015