Almost out. A few minutes more, probably. I try not to stare at the clock too much, especially towards the end of my shift, lest it freeze out of shyness. That’s what I’d do, anyway. The mountains of dishes had been chiseled away, scrubbed and placed back properly. Plates, utensils, bowls, too many to count. My hands were dried out, like they’d shrivel and crack and turn to dust if I kept it up any longer. A quick glance at the clock--one split-second look wouldn’t freeze it, right?--told me enough time had passed that I could leave. Almost. Close enough, anyway. I didn’t want to keep Viv waiting. Not today. I figured it was fine rounding up just this once.
“I’m out,” I called back to the chefs on duty, two mammoth figures on the same roguish wavelength. They weren’t twins, but Clint and Cliff might as well have been. Two thundering, awful, lovable dumbasses with a tendency to talk trash. Like those two old guys from The Muppets, if they were four beers deep. “You guys have fun.”
“More fun now that you’re gone,” Clint called out without missing a beat.
“Yeah, would you leave already? I’m trying to enjoy my dead-end job here!” echoed Cliff. Exaggerated and devilish laughter from their own one-two punch. Their own biggest fans.
“My pleasure,” I said, flipping them off with both hands as mightily as I could as I began to leave.
Cliff put both hands over his heart in mock pride. “There you go, little man. We’ve taught you well. A classic and reliable response, always.”
“You know this is just how we pass the time,” said Cliff. “The day we stop being insufferable towards you is the day you know we’ve stopped caring about you altogether.”
I threw my jacket on, struggled my arms through the sleeves. “Makes perfect sense.”
“We’ve all got our own ways how we cope with this strange world. Speaking of which, you see all that weird stuff happening downtown?”
I froze with my hand on the door. “No,” I said. “What stuff?”
Cliff already had his phone out. Apparently they’d been following whatever this was all day. It was a miracle anyone ever received their orders here with these two helming the station. Cliff found what he was looking for and excitedly planted his phone directly onto my face. “Look,” he said excitedly, as if it were possible to not. I snatched the phone from his catcher’s-mitt hand and held it at a visible distance. A social media feed all posting about the same thing. “Wtf is that?” “How’d that just...appear?” “Weird shit!!!!!” “COOL-ADMIN” “yo this blew up, check my soundcloud at…” “should i be worried???” Pictures accompanying short bursts of consciousness.
I wasn’t sure what I was looking at. Or, couldn’t tell if it was real. A giant bubble had encapsulated an entire block of the city. Stretched to the skies, engulfing tall buildings whole. The color and texture of dreams. Difficult to see through from all angles, but this much was easy to tell: everything inside the fluid-like dome was frozen. Unmoving. Those encapsulated looked like statues of shadows through the filter of the strange bubble. Cars stuck mid intersection. A bird suspended on an invisible string. Like fossils stuck in amber.
I gathered up all my thoughts and spat them out in one scholarly glob. “The hell?” I asked.
“I know, right? Wonder what it’s all about.”
“A giant bubble froze a city block in time and you didn’t tell me all day?”
Clint shrugged. “You looked busy.”
“We can’t be expected to tell you every little thing that happens,” Cliff added. This, coming from the same person who once called me in the middle of the night to tell me his dog, Bastard, had taken a shit so big “I wouldn’t believe it and needed to come over right away.”
I kept scrolling through the newsfeed. Looks like nobody knew why this bubble had appeared. Not fair, I thought, that the world could be such a strange place and we were all expected to just roll with it. I scrolled more. Finger flicks up, blurr of words flies up, more take take its place. Something was stirring in the back of my head. What was it? The gears turned, slowly, rusted and aching. It all clicked at once--how did I not notice before?
“That’s Viv’s block,” I muttered, barely audible. A second later I was outside on my bike, speeding downhill, tunnel vision to the bottom, the world blurring away beside me.
It’s actually pretty beautiful, up close, I thought. Like a glimmering accessory on the ground to match the sky above. Dusklight reflected off the surface of the bubble in purples and oranges and blues. Swirling and strange in design. Had it grown since I left work, or did it just seem bigger now that I was up close? A smattering of people had gathered around the bubble, eyes glued, pointing and talking amongst themselves and asking questions nobody knew answers to. Others walked by as if they didn’t even notice, or didn’t have the time and energy to care anymore about every little thing that happened. Just another strange occurance in a world with no short supply.
“Just what I need,” barked a gruff-looking man leaning on a street lamp. Gruff wore dirty overalls and was more mustache than face. “This thing’s keepin’ me from getting back home. Game’s on.”
“Uh, I’m sorry,” I managed to squeak. “Here, watch this.” I leaned my bike on the lamp post and took off.
“Ha! Good luck gettin’ in there,” Gruff spat from behind me. I imagined his mustache started flapping and flew him to the nearest dive bar to watch whatever game he spoke of.
I got right up to the surface. Close enough to seem like the bubble was the entire world, and there was nothing else. Slowly, I lifted my hand to touch the edge. A sort of distorted frequency emitted. A pushback. Like two magnets repelling each other. Like it was trying to keep me from getting through. I applied some pressure, felt like my hand was pushing through a wall of jello, then said screw it, and lunged.
Crossing over was easier than I expected. After the initial resistance I passed right through. Inside time stood still, yet I was still able to move. The people inside had all been painted over in one solid color by a light that wasn’t quite light. They looked like the colors you seen when you rub your eyes vigorously, but brighter. The sky above was still beautiful, filtered through the bubble. Inside was quiet, but something could be heard emanating from the heart of the psychic-dome. A song? Apparently music was one of the few things that didn’t freeze up, piercing through the otherwise silent dome.
I felt like I was walking through a painting. Was any of this real? Maybe the reality of the situation didn’t matter as much as the situation itself. It didn’t take me long to figure out the song bore a connection to Viv, either. Using the sound as a compass, it was leading me to her apartment building. I walked past figures bathed in bizarre light and still tried not to make eye contact with them, past taxis and bikes and busses, all stopped dead in their tracks, until I found myself at the base of Viv’s apartment.
I went inside and started up the stairwell. The song grew louder, drawing me in. A number of agonizing stories to the top and I had arrived. Her door was wide open, which initially alarmed me, but I guess it didn’t matter if the rest of the world had stopped moving. The TV was stuck on un-moving white noise. A number of DVDs laid out on the table next to empty cans and a box of cereal. Boxes packed up, an empty kitchen, floors swept clean. A place about to belong to nobody, soon. I ignored the empty spaces and went outside to her go-to spot on the shoddy balcony where Viv was leaning on the railing, cigarette in hand, staring out into the lavender dusk.
She hadn’t noticed my arrival. A gloomy glaze settled over her, like she was staring right through the sky itself into nothing. I walked up next to her, mimicking her pose on the railing. She turned and sort-of smiled, pushed strands of dark hair out of her eyes.
“Oh, hey,” she offered up. Next to her the cassette player song on, “Hey, look over your shoulder. Hey, it’s me getting older.” Viv turned it down.
“I love this song,” I said.
“How’d you get inside here?” she asked.
“I dunno, I just sort of did.”
“Huh,” she said, took another drag. “Guess I must have wanted to let you in.” She held out a cigarette. I don’t smoke, but made an exception. Seemed like I was supposed to, anyway.
“So you’re saying this was all you?” I said, struggling to get the lighter to flick. The cassette player continued singing. “You came cause I told you...”
Viv let out a long grey cloud. “It’s almost time for me to leave, you know.”
“I think I just wanted to stay here, just for a while, and accidentally let out of a blast of subconscious psychic energy and it did all this. So scared of time moving forward I stopped it all together. I think it drained me pretty bad. Like my batteries need to recharge. Just one of those things, you know?”
I didn’t know the feeling, didn’t know what to say. “I know the feeling,” I finally settled on. Shit.
Viv continued. “I’m excited for this next chapter of my life. The last couple chapters were rough. Like someone else took over the writing in the middle of a book and it went off the rails. I’m finally ready to get things back under control. So why am I so sad right now?”
I let a billow escape from my cheeks and snubbed out my cigarette. “Endings are always sad. Even the good ones are sad, because it means something is over. But this next chapter is going to be a good one. I promise.”
“I know it will, but…” Viv trailed off, exhaled, her cloud dissipating just as quickly.
“Hey, look. Your subconscious field of energy or whatever probably won’t pop for while, right? Forget everyone out there, forget everyone in here. Why don’t we just enjoy it for now, and let your batteries recharge?”
Viv paused. The cassette player filled the void. “You’re gone, but it can’t be wrong.”
“You sure?” she finally asked.
“It’s pretty cool in here. Besides, you’ve always had my back.”
“Ha.” A laugh, almost. “Damn right.”
Viv lit another cigarette, and handed me another as well. Each breath existed for a moment, a hovering cloud of smoke that danced and twirled and then disappeared just as quickly as it had appeared, like it burnt itself out and needed to escape, the song in the background droning on, “You’re gone, but it can’t be wrong,” while we waited for the bubble to burst and the ending to come so the next chapter could start and have an ending of its own.