Read the first part of The Hourglass Runs (a selection from The Next World is Always Better)
The Hourglass Runs
The hourglass waits for Bonnie at the far end of a spyglass alley.
“I’ll only be a minute,” she tells Ambrose, and then she darts into the alley that telescopes before her.
She’s spied something different down there, as if the end of the alley blinked open like a lens, and she glimpsed…? Not a glitzy window front sparkling with diamonds, tanzanite, and emeralds, but a flash of something all the same. Gold, she thinks.
She saw a shop back in Nassau selling real gold coins from real shipwrecks, but they started at over $300 apiece, f’goodness sake. She wants one. She wants one badly. Gold fever runs through her veins, and not just any gold.
Too bad, she has no extra money. She’s clipped coupons for five long years, squirreling away her savings, saving so as to surprise Ambrose with this budget tour she found against the odds in the small print of the classifieds. And what does it matter? Here they are now, on an island that the big cruise ships have forgotten even exists. Surrounding them is the same Caribbean with the same sapphire horizon and aquamarine bays, the same golden sun and white sand.
“Not the fuck again,” Ambrose says from the main drag of tourist row that she’s left behind.
Ambrose grumbles about everything these days. It’s too f-ing hot, or the beach is too f-ing crowded, or people around here move too f-ing slow (mon) or the f-ing taxis are too fast, or you can never find an f-ing taxi when you f-ing want one.
Bonnie should’ve left him home. Come alone to paradise. Maybe she should’ve just left him. Period.
Through the narrow door of the shop ahead she spies movement, a sparkle of gold, the lure into the dark. Quick as a wink, it’s gone again. Whatever it is, whatever it was, it doesn’t exist. It isn’t. She isn’t. Not anymore. Never more.
Goosebumps prickle her, bubbling up through cocoa butter slathered across her skin. A cool breeze touches the back of her neck. Or perhaps it’s the tip of her ponytail, dripping salt water onto her bare flesh.
“Hello?” she calls.
Where is everyone? Odd that no one’s here. She was so certain she saw someone moving around inside. Where’s the shopkeeper? Where are the ever-present tourists?
Then she sees him. “Oh!” An old man watches her from the shadows. Hardly…
A cheesy, life-sized statue of a pirate guards the door. He has a peg for one leg and a hook for one hand and a patch covering one eye. Tough life, poor guy. And she thinks she has it bad.
Wait, he’s a statue. He’s not real. Some days she wishes she weren’t, either.
She walks inside.
“Sure, sweetie,” says a rumbly voice from the ether behind her.
She whirls around, wondering how anyone has managed to slip up on her like that. A glass eyeball glints from the reflection of some distant light coming from somewhere. Or nowhere. The pirate statue by the door has turned, faces her. So life-like except for that glass eyeball. Then it smiles, showing off a gold tooth.
“Oh! Are you talking to me?” She’s sure he’s a statue. That is, was a statue. He’s alive now. Now she’s not sure of anything.
“Sure, sweetie,” he says again.
His three-cornered hat shadows his face, and she finds herself staring, open-mouthed, at him. She tries to look elsewhere, but her gaze keeps slipping back to his eyeball. A patch covers the dead eye. How does he see her at all? Dreadlocks hang down to a tattered jacket. He holds out a shaky arm in her direction. God… He’s a panhandler who’s followed her down the dark alley, cornered her in this abandoned store. Alarm hammers through her. Next thing she knows, her life will play all the channels of the six o’clock news. Missing tourist woman.
They always suspect the husband in cases like that. Especially when the husband is no-good like Ambrose.
She stands taller to peer around her stalker at the patch of light waaaay behind him, the light that designates her escape route toward the main drag at the other end of the tunnel alley. Light floods the edge of the rest of the world. Ambrose isn’t there. Where the hell is he when she needs him the most? That’s always the way it’s been.
The stalker shoves his hand closer to her face, close enough that she feels the tiny breeze of the paper fluttering in his hand. He is so close that with one quick turtle snap, she could bite his fingers, should she dare. But she does not dare. His fingernails are ragged and yellowed and streaked with dirt.
“No, thank you,” she says in a shaky voice, shrinking away from the pirate, who is either real or imagined. She does not know. She does not know many things these days.
“This one for you, darling.” He gives the paper a shake, unfolding its folded edges like a fan. His other hand–not a hook–leans against the handle of a cane, and when she sees his walk aid, which she must’ve mistaken for a peg leg, she feels the patter of her heart rate ease up a bit. She, as a result of her faithful but pointless circuit training back at the Y, is stronger than he. He doesn’t frighten her. No. Boldness flows through her like an elixir. At times, she doesn’t recognize her old self anymore. It’s as if something…she doesn’t know what…is calling…calling to her…
“What is it?” she says, curiosity overcoming any doubts or long-lost common sense.
“You let me feel?”
Before she understands how to respond, the leathery fingers of his free hand–a stump instead of a pinkie–brush against her temples. A fleshy eyelid glides shut over his glass eyeball, leaving her with an image of minds melding through the tips of his fingers resting against her skin. His hand arches, thrusting his knuckles up into giant knobs. She stiffens, pulls away from his cold touch, and yelps.
“Okay, all right, darling.” His eye opens. “You the one.”
“Oh, you mean my fortune?” He probably wants to read her palm or something. Instinctively, she balls up her fist.
“Yes, fortune. I show you where it left you.” He crooks his index finger, beckoning her to follow.
She’s not going anywhere the hell with this pervert. But before she can turn on her heels and reach the threshold of the curio shop and get the hell out, he rattles the bit of paper wedged between his other hand and the cane. Smoothing its edges, he lays it out, filling the surface of a glass countertop. From the dark ceiling, a spotlight shines down on the unfolded paper, and she can see that it’s a map. She steps closer. Not a real map, but an artist’s map. Fish leap out of the sapphire sea, and she feels the memory of herself swaying with the swells of the waves. In one corner, golden arrows of a compass point north, and to the south, a golden-haired mermaid winds her tail round an hourglass, whose sand sifts out of the crescent-shaped beach she guards.
To read all of The Hourglass Runs and two other stories, please purchase The Next World is Always Better:
Also available for most other ereaders