An Encounter at The Thirsty Camel

AG2 William Benson has a special gift: he can travel short distances into the future. With his wife out partying, he goes to a bar, where he meets a woman who can short distances into the past…


 

The cab dropped William off at a beachside bar with a statue of a camel out front.

He entered a den of cigarette smoke and conversation. He sat at the far end of the bar, alone, and ordered a Coke and Rum.

While waiting, William looked around the bar. Older crowd. They said a lot of Chiefs frequented this place. William didn’t recognize any.

The bartender brought his drink. William sipped it and out the corner of his eye he noticed someone sitting beside him. The woman raised her glass.

“Cold night.”

“And they’re only getting colder.”

“What’s wrong?”

“Did you just come in?”

“Nope. Been sitting here all day.”

She smiled. Black hair reached halfway down her back. She was thin, in a tight yellow shirt and black pants. She wasn’t dressed like she belonged in any bar, let alone The Thirsty Camel.

“I didn’t see anyone here when I came in,” William said, avoiding her eyes. She wore no makeup, and William quickly realized she didn’t need to.

“Well that makes two of us. I didn’t see anyone here when I came in.”

William nodded. Maybe he hadn’t been paying att . . . no. Something was wrong.

It was her.

“What are you drinking?” she asked.

“Coke and Rum.”

“Isn’t it Rum and Coke?”

“Sure, if you want to be wrong.”

She swished her own drink around. “I thought men were supposed to drink strong drinks.”

“It’s still early.”

“So? What do they say? Go big or go away?”

“Go big or go home.” He looked at her glass. “What is that?”

“Something too strong.” She got the bartender’s attention, and ordered a Rum and Coke. The bartender brought it and she sat stirring it with her finger.

William watched her drink. Something not right about her. She met his eyes over her glass and gave him a gentle smile.

“Where are my manners?” She raised her glass. “To strong drinks.”

Despite himself, William smiled too. How long since he’d talked with a woman? Chicks on the ship didn’t count — William would never seal the deal, no matter how comfortable the boat goggles felt. One misstep there, and you could kiss your career goodbye.

He toasted with her and drank. A big gulp splashed down his throat and before he knew it the woman was ordering two more.

“Don’t worry. I got us.”

William covered a burp. “I’ll get the next round.”

“If there is a next round,” she said. “Did you drive here?”

“Taxi.”

“Smart. I imagine your employer would frown on drinking and driving.”

“My employer would put me in jail.”

“Important job?”

“You could say that.”

“Government?”

“Close.”

“Military.

“Closer.”

“Come on. It is military.”

“Can you guess which branch?”

“Army?”

“You get two more guesses.”

“Four.”

“What?”

“Four. There are five branches.” She ticked them off on her fingers. “Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force and Coast Guard.”

“It’s easy to forget about the bastard Navy.”

“My father was Coast Guard for thirty years.”

“Sorry to hear that.”

She pretended to smack him. “For that, you are buying the next round.”

#

The drinking continued and they moved to their own table. AC/DC was playing on the stereo. Across the bar people were shooting pool and men at the counter kept throwing glances their way.

William was telling a story.

” . . . in the left lane has his right signal on, and the jackass in the right lane has his left signal on.”

“Of course.”

“And there it is, that’s it. Norfolk drivers, in one simple scene.”

He held back a burp and drank some Rum and Coke. He didn’t know how many that made — he wasn’t keeping track, of anything. The Rums and Cokes, the time.

The strange feeling hadn’t gone away. The Rums and Cokes had buried it, but the feeling was still there, calling out to him from beneath the empty glasses.

“Who’s got next round?” she said.

“There’s not going — ” He burped.

“No problem. I didn’t want another anyway.” She picked up her glass. “Two’s enough for me.”

She finished her Rum and Coke.

“I’ve had more than two,” William said.

“You’ve had enough, and . . . ” She leaned forward. William leaned forward too, their foreheads touching. “I have you right where I want you.”

William grinned foolishly, his world swirling. “What is wrong with you?”

“I’m glad you noticed.”

“No, I mean, everything. You come in here, you sit beside me, you act friendly but not too friendly . . . ”

“I was here before you. That stool, I was sitting there before you came in.” She took his chin in her hands, neat fingernails caressing his cheek. “Do you know how many nights I have come in here, looking for the right man? Too many. I was sitting at that stool, and then I came back, and there you were. I watched you, the way you drink, the way you move, and I knew. You are the one I need. So I went back, sat beside you, and . . . ” She searched her mind for the right words, her eyes rolling up. She blinked and gave him a sharp look. “Let’s say I changed history.”

William pulled her hands off his face.

“Can you feel it?” she whispered.

He could. He’d never discussed his gift with anyone — not his so-called shipmates, not his so-called wife, no one. The words gathered on his tongue, bursting for release. He let them go.

“Time slows down close to you.”

“Time speeds up close to you.”

“Why?”

“Keep your forehead on mine, and look to your left.”

William turned his eyes to their farthest stretch. A few tables away, a middle-aged couple having a quiet chat. It wasn’t their words, inaudible beneath Lynyrd Skynyrd’s guitars, it was their movements.

They were almost frozen.

“If they came closer,” William said, “would they stop moving?”

“Yes. Where fast time meets slow time there’s no time.”

“How long have you known you could do this?”

She leaned back. “I prefer not to think in those terms.”

“Someone like you . . . fuck.”

“Did you think you were the only one?”

“No. Honestly no, I didn’t.”

“Then why are you surprised?”

“I just didn’t think I’d run into you tonight.”

“I ran into you.”

“You saw me.”

“Yes.”

“You were ahead of me.”

“Uh-huh. When I was sure you had the right stuff, I climbed down a few steps. That’s what time is to me: steps. What is it to you?”

“I don’t know. Minutes, hours, stuff like that.”

“Amateur.”

“Did you go in the bathroom?”

“Nope.”

“So you did it in front of other people? They didn’t notice?”

“People only notice what they want to notice. It’s not like there’s much pomp to it. I stand still, concentrate on a step below, and when I can hear my old thoughts, I open my eyes.”

William nodded. He heard his new thoughts, she heard her old ones. Both of them had to play catch-up. He held his glass in a soft grip and asked, “What’s the farthest you’ve ever gone back?”

“Eight steps. Someone mugged me.”

“Really? Where?”

“Downtown. They took everything in my purse. Two men. When I climbed down, I called the police. The muggers were laying in wait. It just happened to be me.”

“And you still remember what happened?”

“What didn’t happen, you mean?”

“Sure.”

“But it still happened. I just remember it as a dream, like I remember seeing you. The new past pushes the old past away like cold air pushes away warm air. In time, the old past becomes little more than some unremembered dream.”

“Can I tell you something? Sometimes warm air slides over cold air. That’s one of the ways we get fog.”

“Does it now? Are you a weatherman?”

“It’s what I do for a living.” He finished his Rum and Coke. She slid her hand across the table, and he held it. “No more.”

She put her other hand on his and looked into his eyes. She wore no make-up. Alisha smothered herself in that shit. William told her she didn’t need to wear any, but she wouldn’t hear of it. She had lines here, aging there, fat everywhere. The name of the game was Looking Nice and she needed all the help she could get.

“I need to ask you something,” he said, thinking of how Alisha spent an extra hour or so to put on make-up for a trip to the Commissary — the fucking Commissary! “Can you take someone back with you?”

#

“Your words are wrong,” she said. They were sitting on the hood of her car. Across the parking lot a gang of youths was playing loud music, lights flashing under their cars.

“Why’s that?”

“Ahead, back. There are other ways to perceive time. Why not up, why not down?”

“Different ideas, I guess.”

“I do not hop back. Why can’t I climb? I climb down into the past, you climb up into the future.” She grabbed his arm. “To be safe, you should put your arms around me.”

He did. She felt warm through a dark purple P-coat. The gang of youths was dancing. To William they looked like high school kids up to no good, exactly what high school kids got up to. William had done his share, but he’d never gotten in trouble. Others had — alternative school for nine weeks, suspension, their chances at college ruined. William was lucky. Others weren’t.

“There’s a lot I would change, if I had your gift,” William said.

“You wouldn’t want to do that. Too much time playing catch-up.”

“I wouldn’t mind.”

“Too much. See that guy in that red sweater?”

He wrote something in the dust on the back of a Volvo. Volvo owner came around, saw it, and pretended to kick him.

“Close your eyes,” she said.

William closed his eyes. The world bent all around him. Then movement, like he was on a high speed train. Nothing like what he felt when he jumped ahead. Voices floated by

other ways to perceive time

faint, puzzled like lost travelers. Her voice rolled over them.

“Open your eyes.”

William opened his eyes. The scene looked the same. Still holding each other, they waited.

Soon, the guy in the red sweater wrote his message.

“I will only climb down here once,” she said. “Do you know why?”

“Because it will degrade. Like a fax sent repeatedly.”

“Interesting analogy. But yes, the step will crumble.”

“It’s alright. It’s not that interesting of a sight anyways.”

She let go of him. “Has the old past faded yet?”

“Almost.” William listened to the last of the old thoughts, from an ignored scene that was becoming just what she’d described: an unremembered dream.

“You are taking a taxi?” she asked.

“Yep.”

“Wise choice. You don’t want to get behind the wheel. You had a whole two Coke and Rums.”

“Rum and Coke, and I had four. I’m fine to drive. I just want to be careful.”

“You can never be too careful. Here. I have something for you.”

She pulled a rip of paper out of her pocket. She handed it to him.

“You might not call me for a while, but you should. You and I have a gift that we need to use. There are few like us.”

“Just us.”

“Yes. Just us.

#

She left. William read the note. Lisa, and her phone number below her name.

William waited for the taxi by the big camel. This late Davin was asleep and Alisha was still out, maybe in the arms of some drunken chubby-chaser who’d picked The Banque to troll for pussy tonight. He didn’t think about jumping ahead or climbing up while waiting for the taxi. He just waited and when it came he looked at the number and realized that he hadn’t given her his.


 

This was a sample from Keepers of Time. Samples, in order:

  1. A Step Ahead
  2. Thirty-Four with a Shrug
  3. An Encounter at the Thirsty Camel

Thanks for reading!

 

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