A Matter Of Time — A Short Story

hourglass on beach

By Tobias Hrothgar

It began in a small, quiet home out in the country. Picture it in your head: No more than ten miles from town, in one of the more peaceful and undisturbed parts of the wood, lies a somewhat minuscule house, intended for no more than one person. Can you see it in your mind? Good.

Now let’s consider the man who lives here. We shall call him Penn. You don’t have to know every aspect of his life, so we will primarily focus on the fundamental details. Penn was a transcendent writer. He hadn’t published any works, but he had written many stories. He kept them systematized meticulously in numerous random localities around the residence. Of course, “systematized meticulously” merely intimates that everything was at such a place that he could remember where it was and retrieve it effortlessly. On the other hand, a visitor would only see an irredeemably calamitous labyrinth of indecipherable documents.

But I’m not here to write Penn’s biography. I’m here to tell you a story about one particular moment in his life. He has never forgotten of that time, but he is often unsure of its truth.

But you likely tire of waiting. Let us go down in his study where he sits late at night, thinking and writing, waiting for inspiration to come to him…

Penn glanced up at the clock. 11:34 p.m. He ignored the voice in his head screaming at him to get in bed and he barred it into a special little place that it had grown accustomed to over the past ten years or so. He needed this story to be perfected as soon as humanly possible. He found himself to be incapable and unwilling to do so much as rest his eyes knowing that he had a plotline left unresolved.

As the time drifted by, the ticking of the clock hummed pleasantly in his ears. His head nodded up and down, drifting toward the strangely muddled hodgepodge of words printed before him.

Tick, tick, tick, tick. The sound echoed in his mind, growing louder and louder. It took him in its arms and completely enveloped him in the pounding rhythm of the clock. Tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, thump.

Penn jerked his head up off the table, startled by the sound. So he had been drifting off. The clock ticked softly as ever before. He glanced up at it to find that it was already 1:16. He sighed, finally deciding to give in to the callings of fatigue. Closing his book and putting away his pen, he drudged up the stairs toward the comfort and security of bed. He would’ve gotten there, too, if the stairs didn’t decide to perform a nasty trick by coming to an abrupt halt before he’d even reached the second story.

The steps dropped out from beneath him, sending Penn plummeting to the, regrettably, solid ground. The air was knocked out of him and he lay there gasping until he could comfortably draw in a complete breath. The glare of the sun made him grimace as he gradually processed the change in lighting.

It would appear that 1:16 didn’t mean a.m. after all. Voices called from all around, conversing and quarreling over controversies. Penn stood up slowly, looking around him. His house was gone completely and in its place stood a simple log cabin. As he took a better look around he saw several similar cabins with smoke drifting from chimneys, evenly spaced to form a small village.

The frigid air was filled with laughter and noises of all sorts. Children were running about, playing with small wooden toys. Men worked in fields and built more domiciles. Women attended to laundry and some forms of construction.

But the most peculiar thing was their clothing. It was unfamiliar and outdated. This, Penn came to realize, was a seventeenth-century British colony. However, there was one problem with that. It was the seventeenth-century bit. It didn’t make an abundance of sense.

“Ah, it’s a cozy place, isn’t it?” a voice said from behind. When Penn turned to see who spoke, he found himself rather disoriented. Apparently, this chap didn’t get the memo about which century he was in, because he was dressed for the early 1900s. On his head was a grey driving cap, and he wore some tattered brown slacks held up by suspenders over a grimy white shirt with the sleeves rolled up over the elbows. Under his cap was a pair of eyes so bright green that they seemed to shine.

The man held out his hand to Penn. “Afternoon. Linus Gilstrap. I’s a pleasha ta meet yourself’s acquaintance.”

Penn slowly reached out and shook the man’s hand, not entirely sure that the hand existed. However, he found himself grasping on to a very solid and firm hand. “My name’s Penn.”

“Indeed it is. I invited you as a matter of fac’. Thought you’d like to see.”

“Invited me? What do you mean?”

“I mean I invited you.” Gilstrap smiled pleasantly as if this should make perfect sense before he began walking down the street. When Penn didn’t move, Gilstrap turned back and gestured for him to follow.

No one took a second glance at the anachronistic duo striding down the narrow path. When Penn inquired of this, Linus only chuckled as if he’d made a joke. They kept walking until they came to the beach. The sea was quite peaceful, and the wind quite mild. Penn turned to Gilstrap. “Mr. Gilstrap, if you invited me, what do you want me for?”

“Call me Linus. I thought you might like a little nudge forward, a spark of inspiration. Says I, ‘1677 oughta do the trick’.” He smiled warmly. “An’ I also thought you’d be wantin’ a know that there are other ways than the one yer familiar with.”

“Sorry, other ways?”

“Ah, nothin’ much. I’s jus’ a matter of time.”

Penn watched the strange man with confusion, hoping some understanding would come to him, but the man just smiled the same as ever, completely indecipherable. His shining eyes had a mischievous look to them, standing guard over the barrier of his mind. Just behind that barrier could be far more than anyone could imagine one mind might hold. As the sun drifted just slightly lower behind them, Linus’s shadow seemed to grow shorter rather than longer. Just another oddity to add to the list.

“Well,” Gilstrap said, breaking the silence. “It’ll be beginning near soon now. I bes’ be going.”

He turned and began to walk off, but he stopped as if something else had come to mind. “I almos’ fergot, you need to be prepared. A storm is a-coming, and you bes’ not be without an umbrella.”

Penn furrowed his brow and turned to ask the man what he meant, but Linus was already gone without a trace. It didn’t take too long after that for everything to go dark.

The trees shivered as a strong gust of wind blew over and the last light of the sun faded away like the flame of a candle being snuffed out.

Penn stumbled blindly toward the village, but when he got there, everyone was perfectly silent. In the dim starlight, he could see people staring up at the sky, too astounded to make a sound. Penn lifted his gaze to see what they were looking at and found himself staring just as silent and in awe as the rest.

The silhouette of a large, winged creature drifted past the stars, covering half the sky as it flew noiselessly as an owl. After circling about a few times, it drifted off to a resting place just beyond the horizon.

Shortly after the colonists were beginning to shake off their stupor, the sky burst into flames.

Everyone ran screaming for cover, except for Penn. He was still completely transfixed on the beauty and wonder of it all. It was a dragon, he realized with astonishment. There  was a dragon in America!

The flames didn’t fade as the sun had. Instead, they drifted slowly down, dripping like starlight to the earth. Penn foolishly reached out and touched a small tongue of flame, only to consider too late that fire burns.

He yanked his hand back and squeezed it, trying to drown out the pain of the burn. However, before he had much time to focus on his hand, he realized what fire raining down on the wooden village would mean.

“Everybody to the beach!” Penn ran through the small colony, banging on doors, but no one seemed to notice. There was no response. It wasn’t until the houses ignited that anyone made any attempt at escape, but by that time the main blanket of flame was already close enough to feel.

Only Penn and half a dozen others made it to the beach in time. They dived into the water just seconds before the fire came to a rest. If anyone screamed, it could not be heard over the boiling of the surface above him. Even as deep as Penn was, it burned.

The firelight cast an eerie glow under the water. Linus Gilstrap stepped into the light, hovering in the middle of the water as if he were standing on solid ground. He still had his smile, but his eyes looked sad and downcast, their glow duller than before.

“A storm is coming, brother,” he said softly. “And it will not come without loss.” He sighed, then finished in a whisper, “It’s only a matter of time.”

Linus shifted into an older man with green robes and his eyes closed, barely standing out from the murky water. He faded away and Penn squeezed his eyes shut.

He tuned out everything but his steady heartbeat, a constant rhythm he could find security in. Thump, thump, thump. He allowed it to surround him and overwhelm him, the world drifting away. Thump, thump, thump, thump, thump, thump, tick.

The gentle sound of the clock pulled Penn back to reality. He kept his eyes closed as he felt the rough papers against his cheek. The solid familiarity of it gave him comfort.

After several moments of absolute stillness, he opened his eyes and sat up. He was still holding his pen, and a long streak of ink was scratched across the page following some completely illegible text he’d written when he was dozing off. He scratched this off and looked out the window. A very faint light was beginning to show outside, indicating the start of another day.

Penn turned back to the desk and grabbed a new piece of paper. After a couple moments of contemplation, he began to write, the words flowing from his memory out the tip of his pen, smooth and strong as polished marble, yet as fierce and beautiful as dragon’s fire.

He would never forget what he saw, but he would doubt it. He might have dismissed the whole circumstance as just a dream, but every time he doubted he would look down at his hand and see the scar still left from the flame.

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