A Priori

Also available in the OutsiderSF Podcast on Spotify

Immanuel moves at relativistic speed through the grocery store. He will get home before the ice cream in his cart has been made. Arrive in time to see himself depart. Forget an item on the list he has yet to draft.

Or does time work the other way? He can’t be certain.

In the parking lot, he can’t find his car. Two parallel lines mark the empty space where he’d thought he’d left it. He mashes the panic button on his key fob but the sound never reaches him.

He races up and down the lot with his loaded cart. If only he could recall where he’d parked. When. He must slow down to see beyond the reality bending around him. Lights flash, red and blue. No, no slowing. He’ll use the speed to get safely home. He veers into an alley, the cart rattling madly, wheels threatening to sheer against forces he could never have imagined.

He arrives at home on time. Early, in fact, for the party. But no one else is here. The house is empty and cold. Layers of dust coat the rickety table. Trash piles the kitchen. The hands of the clock on the stove, frozen. A dilation Immanuel struggles to grasp has occurred. His ice cream has melted and congealed.

The damnable, inexplicable speed. Time must have worked the other way. Contrary to rational thought. Dozens of parties have happened while he was gone. He almost remembers them and chooses not to.

A photograph peeking from the rubbish tempts him with familiar faces. Certain knowledge. Necessary forms.

No. They are outside his experience where they must stay.

Too late. He can’t slow down now. He’s been carried forward on this careening trajectory to the point where existence collapses. A singularity. He escapes the house to view the ruins of civilization.

Empty buildings line the street. Shattered windows. Yards grown wild, devouring the careful planning of gentle hands. This is not a world others can or will claim. It is only for him to know, separated as he’s become from time.

He no longer has his shopping cart. Years of use passed in the minutes he understood to have possessed it and the wheels finally came off. Contents abandoned at the roadside, he took only what he could carry.

Echoes of a former life roam the sidewalks. People walk briskly on their way to work or rush home to their families along well-worn paths. They would all make it home in time, unlike him. He’s outside of their perception. Drifting somewhere between the sensations themselves and the unknowable essence of being, he navigates their flow like a specter. Unseen. Untouched. Part of no other experience but his own.

He wanders into a great cathedral. Buttresses of concrete compete with the open sky. He can almost hear the hum of angels. Their perches crisscross perilously high above, out of reach.

He remembers where his car was left. The harrowing moments. Fragments. The impression is not to be trusted. What he thinks once was truth, not real.

His momentum increases.

His path takes him to a tunnel at the end of a steep concrete embankment. This cleansing compression of space is another piece of the new reality he has failed to grasp. The humming angels become a whisper and their chorus stretches. Street noise from the crowds becomes less than echoes. A light beckons at the far end. He’d call this a rebirth if it didn’t feel so much like dying.

They say there’s no coming back. They are wrong. By now, he’s walked this event horizon countless times. Always, he comes and goes as he pleases. The real paradox is that he keeps returning and can’t explain why.

The confusion isn’t like him. He has all the answers. He used to share them with zealous authority when his world had sense and order. He followed the same predictable patterns as the rest. Like a pilgrim he walked with the harried crowds and with the angels he soared. They had no God he could describe, simply the immutable cadence of mundanity. A pattern he spiraled helplessly away from the day he arrived to an empty home.

Did he arrive too late or was he left behind? How much time had passed since he’d seen the faces in the yellowed photograph?

He finally slows. He is not too late here. The place he called home feels far away. Unreachable.

He never truly understood the nature of reality, he admits. The pattern he sacrificed himself to was an illusion. Once confident and certain of his place in all things, he’s allowed himself to become lost. Willed himself. And he’s fine with this.

Tarps flutter in the open space he emerges into. A jumble of nylon and canvas layered like mismatched hides creates a discarded pavilion. Immanuel draws aside the flap and crawls inside his sleeping bag. Tomorrow, maybe reality will once again make sense.

Categories: Free Fiction

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