The Immutable Mr. Jenkers

Chuck’s challenge for the week: The Opening Line challenge. I took a few weeks off from the flash fiction game, but it’s time to saddle up again. The task at hand: choose an opening line from another author and build it into a 2000-words-or-less story.

I took a line from a guy calling himself Nicholas. The first line is his. The rest is all me.

The Immutable Mr. Jenkers

The 3rd time I killed Mr. Jenkers I knew i had a problem.

Not because he came back to life. That happens all the time. Once is rarely enough when you start talking about quantum murder. Sorta like fixing a wobbly chair. You shave a few millimeters off one leg, then it’s wobbling the other way. Go back and try again. Or like swatting cockroaches. Sure, you get that one, but there’s a thousand just like him in the walls just waiting to pop out. That’s why there aren’t too many guys working solo like me anymore. Murder’s one thing, but that’s one universe, one reality. You want somebody well and truly wiped out, it takes legwork. Timelines have to be rewritten, sometimes memories have to be wiped, hell, I once had to take a two-hundred-year detour to make sure this one woman didn’t date any men from India, so that her descendant’s bloodline could be clean enough for her to marry into a rich family. People ask for the craziest things. And I’ve been back and forth across time so often, sometimes it feels like I’m older than the dirt itself.

Certainly felt like that after Jenkers. Who hires a hitman for a cat, I should have asked. Why not just, you know, stop feeding him, or drop him off across town. But it’s a hard thing to say no to a hundred thousand credits. And besides, how hard could it be?

I should’ve asked around before I took the job. I did, after the fifth try. Turns out, this cat’s been around for over three millenia, and maybe longer — they just don’t have good records going back past ancient Egypt. And no, I’m not making that up. Best I can make out, there have been over 800 documented attempts on the life of this particular feline; most of them successful. But like a bubble under a static sticker, you squish it down, it just pops up somewhere else.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The owner’s this sweet old lady. ‘Bout 60 or so. All white hair, glasses on a chain, looks like a librarian except for the dark circles under her eyes and the smell like she hasn’t bathed in a few months. And she wants Mr. Jenkers whacked. “Do it humanely,” she asks. On account of she still loves him, despite the fact that she’s pretty sure he’s eroding her sanity. Those were her words. “He never sleeps,” she says. “He just watches me all the time. Like he’s accusing me of something. Like I had tried to kill him and he knew all about it.”

I know, right? She didn’t get the irony, and I guess that’s fair. I didn’t get it right away either, but of course she was trying to kill him, and he absolutely knew about it.

I’m getting ahead of myself again. It’s a hazard of the job.

Protocol says you always go the straightforward route on the first try, because you never know when once will do the trick. So — that afternoon, picked up a cat carrier, came by Harriet’s place (her name is — was — Harriet). Jenkers in the carrier along with a couple of bricks, and into the river he goes.

Next morning, he’s back. I fire up the ReClocker and arrive at her house a day earlier. No frills, just a hammer to the back of his head. Get back to Now, the cat’s still there. I try this a few different ways, go back a few years on the cat, come to find out she adopted him fully-grown from a shelter. So I go back further. Try to kill him every time, naturally, but sure as the sun, there he is every time I go back to Now. Trace him back to another family. Two kids, picket fence, and this psycho-eyed cat. Thing is, though, I’ve gone back five years now, and the cat looks exactly the same. Killed it over a hundred times, now, and every time, he’s back. Mr. Jenkers. Orange stripes, big chunk missing from his ear, eyes sparkling like black diamonds. And now, Harriet’s words are in my head, and I feel like when he looks at me — in the past, you know, not in the Now — he knows what I’m doing.

I go back ten years, and there’s Jenkers. Same as ever. I go twenty years back. Same old Jenkers, same old scar on his ear, same evil eyes. He’s living with some World War 2 vet, and I can’t bring myself to kill him in that timeline, so I go back even further. Thirty years. Then fifty.

When you first suit up in this line of work they tell you not to go getting crazy notions in your head about drastically altering the flow of history. Can’t go back and wipe out Hitler, for example — something’s broken on that guy’s reality and he always comes back. Can’t scrub out Mussolini, or Pol Pot, or Rasputin, or any of those guys that the history geeks would really like a crack at, right? Thing is, those guys — and I’ve gone back and messed with them, who wouldn’t? — they at least exist in a normal timeline. They’re born, they turn into big world-altering jerks, they die. And you can’t erase them from the Stream, but at least they’re just little contained pockets of horror and atrocity.

But not Jenkers.

This thing is beyond anything I’ve ever seen, beyond anything the Bureau’s ever seen, and maybe beyond anything the universe has ever seen. You go back to the Renaissance, Jenkers is there scratching at the edges of a Botticelli painting. Go back to the Middle Ages and Jenkers is chasing plagued rats down alleys. Ancient Egypt, like I said, was a good time for the old boy — they worshipped cats back then, you know, and with his eyes like eternity, well. You think cats get spoiled now when they end up with somebody like Miss Harriet, it’s nothing on Egypt in the pyramid days. He had his own entourage.

Suffice it to say, as far back as we can go — and we can go pretty damn far — I can’t find an origination point for this cat. For all I know, he’s existed since life first crawled up out of the swamps. He can’t be killed. Can’t be erased. Can’t be unmade. He’s like a scar in the fabric of the universe.

So what else could I do?

I adopted him from Miss Harriet. Took him back to my house. Bought a bunch of toys, you know, feathers on strings, little jingly balls. Found this guy on the internet who sells catnip by the pallet — god knows Jenkers will go through all of it.

It was unnerving at first, coming home every night to those empty black eyes staring at me like death itself. But he grows on you after a while. I always laughed when people said their cats had personality, but Jenkers… he’s got a sense of humor. Like, he’ll run under my feet when I’m coming downstairs in the morning. As if he were trying to kill me, to get back for the thousands of times I killed him. But it’s all in good fun. Late at night, he sleeps on my feet. When I’m reading, he’ll nose under the book and demand to be petted, with that one floppy, chewed-up ear.

I still kill him at least once a week. Just to see what happens.

But he always comes back. Dependable as the Sunday paper. Watching me with those eyes like midnight at the bottom of the ocean.

Things Writers Need — TIME

School is back in session, and as you might have noticed if you’re a regular here at Pavorisms, it’s taking a toll.  My writing has suffered a vicious setback at the hands of being back to work and will likely continue to be set back until I get a handle on a new routine for the year.  That said, today’s topic for “Things Writers Need” is particularly salient.

Today’s thing is time, bloody precious uninterrupted sacred time.  Time to make deadlines, time to think up story ideas, time to actually write the blighted thing.  Specifically, I want to talk about the actual time you need when actually actively writing.
Let’s get this straight.  Writing is HARD.  Even when you’re writing about something you love, it’s knuckle-whitening, teeth-grinding, marathon-running HARD.  The best writing is a greased pig with a hot poker applied to its nether bits; it darts this way and that, wails like crazy and will kick mud in your face the moment you think you have a handle on it.  Even if you do manage to lay hands on the thing, without the utmost focus it will twist right out of your arms, leaving you sprawled in the mud and wondering whether the sweet savory taste of bacon is worth all the trouble.  (It is.)  You can’t corner it.  You can’t strategize it.  You just have to chase after it and hope to get lucky enough to scoop it up every now and then before it leaves you in the dirt.  Every once in a while the magic just happens.  But it can’t happen if you don’t have time to chase the pig around the yard.
There’s a quote I loved from the much-adored John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, “What a slut time is.  She screws everybody.” Doesn’t even buy you diner first.
The fact that I am realizing lately more than ever before in my life is that time is a fixed, non-renewable and ultimately precious resource.  Life is filled up with so very many things we must do that it can feel like a mug’s game trying to decide what to do with the time you have left over.  Writing, sad to say, takes up a lot of time.  Even on a good day, I can get maybe 1000 words an hour.  Measure that against the novel I just drafted at 89000 words and that’s ninety hours at a minimum, but let’s be more pragmatic and assume it was closer to a hundred and fifty.  Where does a guy with a full-time job and two full-time kids get that kind of time?
You get it at the expense of other things.  You have to cannibalize the things you hold most dear and use the sweet sweet time you harvest from their still-breathing husks to do the thing that matters.  My thing is video games and TV.  I’ve been a video game junkie since I was five years old and played my first round of “Skier”, in which you steered a pixelated blob down a white expanse dotted with pixelated tree-like green things and pixelated brown lumps and pixelated H-shaped things which somebody assured me you were supposed to navigate between but I was too busy crashing my pixelated blob guy into trees and cackling like a Bond villain to care.  (Seriously, ask my dad about my experiences with “Skier” and he will laugh until he’s blue in the face.)
And TV, holy god!  I used to think that TV was a drain on my life before we got Netflix.  Now it’s a ravenous all-consuming black hole.  On one side you’ve got brilliant network shows one-upping each other with crime dramas and sitcoms, on another side you have cable shows pumping out blistering tour-de-forces in character study and horrible dark drama, on another side you have premium channels hawking epic escapist fantasy and historical fiction, and then there are the on-demand streamers giving you a smorgasbord of bizarre and compelling no-holds-barred excursions in the secret lives of everyday people.  I really think one could watch eight to ten hours of television a DAY and still miss out on some of the incredible programming that’s coming out of TV in the last ten years or so.  I say that not as a rant against television but more as a statement of awe.  There’s SO MUCH GOOD STUFF out there.  As a writer, watching a good show is research, right?  RIGHT??
Point is, it has to go.  Or at least, most of it has to go, because, see, if you want to create, you need large, unbroken swathes of time to let your mind stretch out in.  You need to be able to stew in your thoughts, to fart around with your characters and work on the Gordian knot of tangled plotlines and entrapments that your stories turn into.  I’m not even talking about the actual act of writing, I’m talking about just thinking about writing.  You have to carve out these huge chunks of time in which to operate.  Writing isn’t a microwave dinner, it’s a slow cooker.  You can’t catch ten minutes here, twenty minutes there and expect to turn out Hamlet.  (I understand that some writers work that way, and bully for them.  Honestly.  But how much better could they be if they didn’t have to write that way?)
I read a fantastic article a few months back on (yeah, ‘net browsing is another thing that could do with some cannibalizing) called “Why ‘I don’t have time’ is a Big, Fat Lie”.  Steve Kamb has it right here.  It’s true.  So true, it hurts.  In short, the article encourages you to change the way you think about time.  We all have the same amount of time in our day, no matter how much we might wish it otherwise, and some of us are doing amazing things with that time and others are withering on the vine.  Instead of saying, then, that “I don’t have time” to write that novel or run those three miles before work or cook that nice dinner, Steve encourages you to say instead “it’s not a priority.”  Because we make time for the things we prioritize, even if the decision to do so is not a conscious one.  Sitting on your donk and watching TV or playing a video game gobbles up your precious time, so while you’re doing that, you’ve made it a priority.  This is not to say, of course, that TV or video games should be eschewed entirely.  Far from it.  (TV is research, right??)  But we (and by “we” I mean “I,” and by “I” I mean “writers,” and by “writers” I mean “everybody”, really) have to make time for the things we want to do even when the making of time is difficult.  And I really shouldn’t say “make time”, because the time is just there.  You just have to steal it away from the other unimportant sharknado in your life that wants to steal it first.
So you have to fight for your time.  In full battle-armor and with broadsword polished and flailing and a tiny little holdout dagger in your belt ready when the fighting gets really gnarly, if necessary.  You have to carve that time out of your schedule anywhere there is meat left on the bone, and when there is no meat left, you might just have to cut the bone, too.  I operated on six hours of sleep most nights this summer because I’d stay up late writing after sprout #2 went to bed late and then wake up early when sprout #1 popped out of bed like a happy tornado at six AM.  (Of course, my wife operated in staccato bursts of two hours of sleep at a time, so I bow to her masterful experience there!)  It sucked, but I got it done.  I’m trying to find the groove now for being back at work with two kids at home leaving footprints in the jello, and it’s difficult, but I’ll find that groove somewhere.
However you find it, you have to make writing the priority, and that means you have to make the time to do it.  That’s the bottom line.  Writers need time to do what they do if they want to do it well.  If you’re a writer, you have to claim that time however you can.  If you’re dating or married to a writer, well… maybe cut him (or her!) a break once in a while.  Give him (or her!) an hour’s break from the kids — take ’em to the park or something — or take a girls’ or guys’ night, or I dunno, build him (or her!) a temporal displacement chamber in the basement so that he (or she!) can by god create more time and get some damn writing done, paradoxes like meeting your future self or becoming your own grandfather be damned.
No, seriously, if anybody has any leads on that temporal displacement thingy, let me know.

What Day Is It, Even? (Or, a teacher’s ode to Summertime)

I mentioned several posts ago how babies are basically localized black-holes that wander through your house and crash into your coffee table, sucking up space-time and stuffing stale Cheerios in their mouths, those slobbery, germy little event horizons.  So time has no meaning in my house at all right now.  Basically, if it’s daylight out, we try to remember to eat and wash the stale sweat off ourselves.  If it’s dark out, we try to put the kids in their beds so that we can put ourselves in our beds.

But that’s life as a new (repeat) parent.  (As soon as I typed “repeat” before parent, just there, it immediately struck me that the phrase was not so very different from “repeat offender.”  Which is horribly apt.  Parents of multiple children should be referred to as repeat offenders: obviously they didn’t learn their lesson the first time around and they need to go into the penalty box again.  The penalty box filled with poop, urine, vomit and tears.)  I’m down with that.  Trouble is, I’m also a teacher, and for teachers, a similar phenomenon takes place annually.Read More »

Daylight Savings Time is Government-Sanctioned Time Travel

So here we are, at that time of year wherein we have to “give back” the hour that we “gained” back when we fell back in fall.

It’s not for me to say that for the vast majority of the country, the practice is arcane and distracting.  But it did spawn an interesting idea, perhaps and probably influenced by my short story from yesterday.

Time.  Never enough of it, always slipping away.  Sometimes it creeps by and stretches out for miles, other times it’s gone before you can say “Sharknado, I’m late.”  So here, we have this bizarre practice.  A bit of give and take.

In the fall, you get this extra hour.  In the spring, you give it back.

Put aside the fact that the extra hour comes in the middle of the night.  They just say that to throw you off. Time is time, and just like energy, nobody but nobody can destroy it nor create it.  No gain without sacrifice.  No yin without yang.

So we have this extra hour in November because society decides that we do, and then we skip an hour in March to bring balance to the force.  But all we did was move the hands on the clock; we might as well have switched out the labels on our day-of-the-week underwear.  What, you don’t have those?

But what if we actually – really – honest-to-goodness – gained and lost time once every year?  Even if it were just an hour, imagine the possibilities.  You cut a bargain with the gods (or devils) of time.  Sign it in blood, because, you know, that makes it for realsies.  You get to live one hour over again, and then you have to lose out on an hour as payment.  What could be better?  Didn’t kiss that girl at the end of the date?  Go back and try it again, for the low, low price of missing out on an hour in the office.  Got to the bank five minutes after it closed and thus missed your mortgage payment and they’re gonna repossess your house?  No, they’re not, because you just went back in time and cashed that check.  And you just have to give up one hour of sleepytime.  Wanna relive the time you found that $5 bill on the sidewalk and declared it the best day ever?  Knock yourself out.  You only have to skip over the hour when the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Photo Shoot bus broke down in front of your house and all the models had to pile in and borrow your phone and your shower.  Well, you can’t win EVERY time.

But why stop at an hour?  Would you give up a day to try one over again?  How about a week?  A year?  Would you give up a year wearing adult diapers and puttering around the house remembering the good old days to try another year in your twenties and fix everything you screwed up?  Pass on your fifties entirely for the chance to be a teenager again?  Or maybe you could skip over the boring kid years and gain some extra time on the back end.

I think there’s something there.  If time is so insubstantial that we can simply shuffle the board around and say we’re on the same page, then what does it even mean?  Never mind, forget I asked that, let me just go back to watching this video of a dog saying “I love you.”

300 Years a Thief

Here’s a little ditty for Chuck’s flash fiction challenge this week.  My first official one.  I went a bit over the limit but I’m cutting myself a break since it’s my first go.

I rolled a 7 (a time machine) and a 7 (a hard drive filled with secrets).  A happier combination for me may not exist. The title sucks, but I’m stuck on it for now. May change later. I am trying to improve, so if you’re out there, let me hear it.



It was unlike any electronic device she’d ever seen; a tiny silver box, no bigger than a toddler’s alphabet block; gleaming, square, perfect.  And her design for it was now perfect.  Ugly and functional, but perfect.


She didn’t believe that it had been anything at first, it was so insubstantial.  But when she followed Karn’s directions and got it close to the ports in her laptop, it had crazily sprouted wires that reached out for the connection, witches’ arms, grasping.  A flash of light and the smell of burned electrics, and when the smoke cleared, she saw that her old beloved laptop from freshman year was melted and charred, buzzing pitifully as the mechanics tried to spin back into function.  Some heavier gauge wires, lots of insulation and a newer machine had allowed her to successfully connect the cube to her desktop: it powered up happily, flashing strange symbols across the monitor and displaying a progress bar in green along the bottom.  Then the cube had started to hum – its alien mechanisms spinning up to speed – louder and faster until, with a sudden clang and a zapping sound, it launched itself across the room, tearing all the wires and punching a hole in the drywall.

It might have been useful for Karn to warn her about the innocuous little box, but his guidance had carried her this far.  The time for questioning him was long past, not that it was even possible.


Lisa pushed her goggles up, the last solder finished.  She slid the cube into place and clamped it down.  Silvery tendrils snaked out to make the connection with her snarled cluster of industrial wires.  Almost a sigh as the humming started.  The parade of arcane symbols marched across her screen.  She wiped her grease-smeared fingertips on her cruddy jeans and cast an anxious glance at the doorway.  The green bar on her monitor began to fill.


Seven months ago, she had heard that Karn’s estate was slated for demolition.  Some business had been invented about it spanning multiple district lines, containing materials that were a threat to public health or safety or well-being.  When she went digging, the city referred her to the county, who referred her to the next county over, who referred them back to the city, until she got tired of asking for permission and just broke in.

The inside of his big, dark house had been a rat’s nest of science textbooks, wires, defunct mechanical equipment, hastily scribbled notes and vagrant trash.  It was such a mess that she’d all but given up finding anything of value until she sat at his desk and toppled a pile of notes and garbage to the floor.  But it wasn’t the notes that caught her eye.  It was the network of symbols etched into the desktop, with an IP address scrawled faintly beneath it.  She’d made a rubbing and left disappointed, and the house simply wasn’t there the next day, as if some careless creator had reached down and wiped it out with a giant eraser.


The green progress bar filled and disappeared.  The cube hummed happily to itself, vibrating in place on the benchtop.  Her screen blanked out and was replaced by simple, ancient dot-matrix text which blipped into the bottom corner of the screen and asked, directly and bewilderingly, “Displacement vector (hours)?”


The IP address had led to nowhere, an empty site.  It was an easy task to set her system to monitor the site, but over the following days it saw no traffic and never got updated.

The funny little chart she’d copied from his desk turned out to be a cryptograph, a bizarre recursive system where a symbol could stand for a number or a letter or another symbol, filled with redundancy and apparent nonsense for good measure.  But there were no messages to decipher.

Until one day, a few weeks later, she noticed a stream of characters had been broadcast on the mystery IP address.  A stream of characters that looked remarkably like the ones in her chart.

Deciphering the first message had been like trying to follow a rabbit through a tangle of kudzu, but follow it she had, and once she got the knack for deciphering the messages, she started noticing them everywhere.  They arrived at unpredictable intervals, sometimes popping up on her computer screen, rarely making sense at the first reading.  She’d had to dedicate a wall of her workshop to his communiques before she started to understand what he was hinting at.  Bits of yarn connected one scrap of paper to another in a gigantic and cascading web of cryptic messages that should have been indecipherable.  Messages meant for somebody else.  Messages that told her how to build the device, how to stabilize it, and finally, where to find the power source: the little silver cube, the hard drive which housed the mind-bending circuits, calculations, and parameters to open a portal in time.


When Lisa started translating the messages, she had noticed that each one had a string of characters on the end.  Numbers.  A date.  A timestamp.  Three hundred years in the future.

“Displacement vector (hours)?”

She took a deep breath and keyed in 269274.


The cube’s humming climbed in frequency, became a whistling in her ears and then a soundless pressure in her head.  It glowed a bright, luminous blue, an impossible blue, spreading and intensifying, the entire room looking as if it were made of neon lights.  She felt her skin beginning to hum, her insides vibrating in time with the cube, the floor resonating with the impossible frequency bouncing in her brain.  Then a blinding flash, a deafening roar.  She thought, crazily, of the time she’d been skydiving; the sudden, world-shattering wind in her ears.

The cube’s hum died away.  The resonance dissipated.  The computer shut down.  Rain pattered softly at the window.

Had it been raining a moment ago?

She lost consciousness.


She’d tried to learn who Karn really was, but there were not very many records to go on.  A recluse, certainly; a genius, probably; and there was also the matter of his being undeniably, bewilderingly, mind-numbingly insane.  One day he’d been an inventor of some repute, living off the patents and income of some gadget he’d thought up around the time Lisa had graduated high school, and then one day he’d quite simply stepped off into the abyss.  He talked about seeing the future and meeting with himself from a hundred years hence, and how he could bring back the technology to save humanity, and what’s wrong with you all, you can’t lock me up like this, you’re all going to die, and … that’s when they took him away.  There had also been the small matter, of course, of him blacking out the power grid for half the city and blowing a crater a mile across in the desert outside of town, whereupon it had rained ash for three days.  The authorities tested the ash and found it to be perfectly harmless, but it had scared the hell out of everybody, and after that, Karn had disappeared.


It was, therefore, a great shock to Lisa when she woke up and found Karn himself standing over her, wild-eyed, soot- and grease-stained, raggedly-bearded, holding a device – no, it was definitely a gun, it’s impossible to mistake being held at gunpoint, even if the gun looks like something from a bad Star Trek ripoff – about an inch from her nose.

“Wh… y…” he mumbled, licking at his lips and working his jaw impotently, as if he had not spoken in years.

“Who in the blue FUCKING blazes are you?” He finally spat.

She swallowed hard, tried to focus on him and not on the barrel of the device that had to be some sort of gun.

“I’ve been getting your messages.”

“My messages?” he said, blinking.  He shook his head fiercely, his beard flapping madly.  He pressed his gun into her forehead, pinning her to the floor.  “Those were for me.  For ME.  You should be ME.  I should be… WHO ARE YOU?”

The gun-thing and his raving drove coherent thought out the window.  “I… I…” she stammered, shaking her head feebly.

He slammed her head to the floor, placed a finger to his lips, and darted to the window.  He crept over to it and ducked just below its sill, surprisingly spry for as old as he was.  How old was he?  He stole a glance out then dashed over to her, helping her up off the floor and shoving her toward the back door.

“What -”

“No time.  Run.  Hide.”  Once outside, he blustered past her and broke into a dead run, his unkempt hair streaming behind him.  “They’re COMING.”

She called feebly after him, still shaken from fear, “They who?”  But he was already shrinking toward the line of dead trees in the distance.  A thought nagged at her – those trees weren’t dead before she activated the cube – but she pushed it away.  She looked back past the little house.

Robots.  Hundreds of them.  Coming.

She ran.