In Real Time
by Avra Margariti
The kites frozen across the sky dapple the lawn like stained glass. Human statues dot the park, caught mid-motion: picnicking, dog-walking, sun-bathing. They might have been unnerving, once. Now, the utter stillness and silence soothes me like nothing else. In Frozen Time, scents are amplified tenfold. Grass, flowers, sugar. I drop a few coins into a vendor’s tip jar, then fill a clear bag with candy worms, chewing as I stroll down the small hill.
When a shape weaves between the stationary people, I think it’s only an optical illusion. A vase, two faces, now a vase again.
I blink, and the silhouette has drawn closer. It belongs to a kid not much younger than me in appearance, although there’s really no way to tell with people like us, who know how to manipulate time. The kid nods at me, casual like we’re meeting in the street and not in a frozen world, then steals a fistful of my candy.
“Who are you?” I ask once my tongue unglues itself from my palate.
“Like the insect? That’s not a real name.”
The kid raises a sharp eyebrow. “Isn’t it?”
Shaggy hair, loose clothes, a voice that is low and pleasant even when it taunts me. I cannot tell the kid’s gender, and it unsettles me. It awakens my heart into a frenzy. Nobody ever told me you could look like this. That it was allowed.
They pop the gummy worms in their mouth, one by one. “And you?”
Suddenly it’s imperative I don’t give this rude, unexpected visitor my name from Real Time. I don’t think they’ll use it against me. But In Frozen Time I’ve only ever been alone, therefore nameless, and I’m not ready for that to change. My eyes dart around the park, landing on the amusement rides in the distance, all paused in strange configurations. Their lights don’t flash, but illuminate their space-themed decorations nonetheless.
“Buzz,” I say, breathless. “Buzz Lightyear.”
Ant doesn’t comment or challenge me. Only looks down at my candy again. Before they can sneak out another handful, I give them the whole bag.
“Well, Buzz. Guess I’ll be seeing you.” Ant turns around and weaves back between the statues. They pull some kite strings, untie the frozen people’s shoelaces. A minor nuisance giggling to themself.
“Wait!” I call, but they’re already gone, leaving me with empty hands and a racing pulse.
The next time we meet, we’re in a busy street lined with shops and cafes. I’m coming out of a mattress store, where I’ve spent the last however many hours napping to shut up my overthinking brain. Ant is in the middle of traffic, hopping between cars. They pull faces at mid-flight pigeons, and leave muddy footprints on car hoods. It’s not wise to disturb the world around us when it’s paused, but something tells me they wouldn’t appreciate a lecture.
“Ant?” I ask before I can talk myself out of it.
They puff up their chest like they’re used to defending themself. “Like I said, that’s my name. Problem, Buzz?”
I balance on the sidewalk’s edge but don’t step into the unmoving sea of vehicles. I’m not Buzz, but I’m not really my other name either, the one I withheld our first meeting in the park. It was months ago In Real Time. More, IFT.
I don’t make the same mistake as last time. “No, sorry, I like it.”
There’s no spoken agreement, but soon we’re walking side by side, arms swinging between us. This is what I do alone when I will the world to stop spinning. I walk through my town, past my school, my house, all the places I’m allowed to visit IRT and the ones I’m not. When everything else moves, it’s like I’m the one who freezes. I need this calm and quiet to hear my own thoughts, to process and breathe and just be without outside interference.
I catch Ant’s reflection in a storefront. I expect another grimace, googly eyes, fingers-in-nose. Instead, the look in their eyes is too melancholy for their face to contain.
I cast around for a distraction. “How old are you?”
Ant scoffs. Whatever sadness I thought I saw is swallowed by gruffness. “Now that’s a stupid question. How old are you?”
Point taken. I look fifteen. I should be fifteen. But I can’t know for sure, that’s the thing. There’s no way to tell how long I’ve spent IFT, where clocks don’t work. The more I step outside of time, the harder it is to leave this little bubble I make for myself. I feel about a thousand years old. Then again, I’ve always felt that way.
Ant thrusts a hand into their jeans’ pocket and offers me several hard candy, a silent apology. “Here, for you. Swiped them from my shrink’s office.”
I take one, savoring the burst of lemon. IFT everything tastes, smells, feels better. The world is mine and I, too, feel like a part of it, rather than a trespasser.
“Is that where you were when you messed with time?”
We’re walking loops around the same city block, but neither of us seem to mind. When we sidestep the human statues, it feels as if we’re dancing.
“Yep.” They shrug, faux-casual. Smile with crooked teeth, only it’s more like a wince. “She won’t use my pronouns. I needed a break, so I froze time, took all the candy from her desk, and here I am. You?”
“Music lesson,” I say. “I’m not very good at it. I guess I was tired of feeling stupid.”
Ant nods as if they get what it’s like to feel so small, so inadequate.
“Do you talk to your therapist about this? Frozen Time?”
“I tried using metaphors. She calls it dissociation–leaving yourself and going elsewhere. Except in my case I take my body with me, unfortunately. It’s other people I leave behind.”
“I’m sorry,” I say, although I’m not sure what for.
Ant smiles. It’s still crooked, but brilliant too. “Don’t be. I have you, yeah? You understand.”
I start to carry candy in my pockets because of Ant’s sweet tooth. They roam the same places I’m known to frequent In Frozen Time.
Sometimes months pass before we meet again. On one occasion I’d rather not repeat, nearly a year. That first meeting should have been an outlier. I’m not naive enough to think I’m the only one capable of manipulating time with my mind. There must be others like us, but it’s rare to meet one, as it requires two people pausing time simultaneously. How weird is it–how miraculous–to be able to subconsciously synchronize our need for escape?
Except, it’s not miraculous at all. We’re not on the same wavelength, Ant and I. It’s just math. We both freeze time, all the time. The world stops spinning and it’s safe. Stagnant, but safe.
Sometimes I spend weeks just walking. Resting wherever, eating whatever. The sun doesn’t move across the horizon, and I feel like a pilgrim or a prophet or a poltergeist, but I’m only haunting myself. I pretend I’m a field mouse dozing among wildflowers. A crafty urchin from Victorian London. Buzz Lightyear floating through deep space. Buzz Aldrin stepping on the moon. I bring or borrow clothes, but they’re all a costume, an armor. So many roles, so many storylines. Anything but what I am IRT.
“B., you okay?”
I nod stiffly. We’re in the park where we met. Four years have passed IRT. In our frozen timeline, who knows?
Ant spots a flower with a bee in it, fat and fuzzy with pollen. They take my hand and make me wave at the bee. Then they blow kisses at the ants nestled in the grass.
“Hello, hello, babies. Bees and ants, get it?”
Their antics can’t make me laugh today.
“I’m supposed to be taking a quantum mechanics exam,” I blurt out.
I’d enrolled in the local university–even though that meant living at home–because I didn’t want to lose Ant, now a high school senior. We don’t meet outside of these stolen pockets of stillness, and it’s not like I could ride a bus or drive through traffic IFT to find them. The cars are all locked in place, and there’s no public transport when the only person in the world is you.
“Yeah?” Ant asks. “How’s that working out for you?”
“You’d think I’d be better at it, seeing as I can literally bend time. And before you ask, no, I’m not cheating. I just put my pen down and walked until you found me.”
I sit down among the blades of grass, careful not to crush the flowers and insects. Who cares if someone notices the grass stains I don’t know how to explain once I’m back IRT? Nobody would blink twice if I walked into class wearing the clothes I normally hide in my backpack, the ones only Ant is allowed to see me in.
Nobody would care. Right?
Ant plops down next to me without comment. They reach into the pocket of their oversized hoodie and produce a candy bar and a bag of pot.
I probably shouldn’t, but I pick the pot and watch as they roll a joint for us to share. I look down at myself as they work. My mix-and-match clothes in particular. Maybe I am a fraud. Maybe I do it for the attention, never mind that I only dress and act the way I want IFT, where there are no witnesses.
We pass the joint back and forth, not talking, just breathing in the smoke and the sunlight, nudging each other now and then. It should be peaceful, but I itch all over, squirming like a snake during a shed.
“You’ve never asked me,” I say. Bad, bad, idea. “When it first started for me. When I first stepped out of real, and into frozen, time.”
Ant’s first was during their grandmother’s funeral. They told me they walked up to her open casket, staring at her for hours. But they couldn’t make time move backwards. Pause and play, not rewind. No fast forward, either, to a place where things no longer hurt.
“I thought you didn’t want me to know,” Ant says. Not like they’re hurt, but matter-of-factly.
I want you to ask, I think, anger-red. I want someone–you–to know.
“I was ten. All my relatives had come over for my birthday party and everything was pink and girly–the decor, the presents. I wore a princess dress. And I know now I don’t hate pink, and dresses are nice sometimes…”
“But you dislike the word ‘girl’ ?”
I spend a few moments coughing. The smoke from my lungs streaks the sky; proof that I’m here, then gone.
“I dislike being called something I’m not. So we’re waiting for the cake, right? Pink roses, pink icing. I remember that. Birthday girl, birthday girl. And I picture myself getting up and opening the door and just… walking. I visualize it as best as I can. Doormat, fence, neighbor’s bike, stop signs. Even the birds perched overhead. Then I look around and everything really has stopped. Frozen. I’m free to leave, do anything, be anyone. But all I do is hide under the kitchen table and cry until the world starts up again.”
I stop talking and push my face between my knees. I don’t want to see the look on Ant’s face. Will they laugh and say You’re a copycat, do you want to be like me so badly? Or worse, will their mischief turn to pity? Poor little Buzz Lightyear. Walking and running but never feeling free.
I’m sick of Ant’s pot. I scramble away, the sun in my eyes, spots dancing and converging. Pareidolia. That’s what everything is.
“B.,” Ant calls, running after me. “I’m sorry. Let’s forget I heard that story.”
“No, that’s not it. I…” But I don’t know what I want to say. Even IFT, I’m still exposed for all the world to see. I don’t like this violent vulnerability, I don’t like it at all.
Ant looks disheveled, frantic. Wordlessly, they tow me toward the tree-shade. We sit for hours. We could grow old here for all I care, not that our bodies would know the difference. The sun doesn’t change positions but the buzz and the itch fade eventually. My skin is left hungry, but for what? Ant hands me a water bottle and rubs my back.
“This might be a terrible idea,” they say, “but can I kiss you?”
My heart soars, then plummets, all in the span of a not-second. “If you do, I’ll never want to leave this place again.”
“Okay,” they say, backing away. “Okay.”
I kiss them.
I thought our mouths might be bitter with smoke.
Ant’s lips taste of sugar.
Things change after that.
Turns out, I was wrong. I don’t freeze time for weeks after the kiss, then months. It’s the longest I’ve gone living solely IRT, and it hurts in ways I imagined and ways I did not. When I finally enter Frozen Time, Ant is there, small and scared. It makes me wonder how long they’ve been trying to find me. Why did I ever stay away?
“Did you regret…?”
I say we’re good, we’re fine. And we are. We borrow bikes and race each other across the lane, avoiding the other bikers like it’s an obstacle course. Ant falls and skins their knees, cackling because they won and I lost. Their laughter dies, however, when I find a first aid kit and disinfect their abrasions.
“So I’m starting my bio degree next month. At your university, apparently.”
And things change again. Even when I don’t want them to.
I didn’t think they would choose to stay here like I did. I still live at home, and sometimes I have to remind a bitter part of me that I did it for them, not because of them. But this new development brings with it complications I should have foreseen. Like Ant asking me to meet IRT.
“No,” I say. My hands are sticky with blood and band-aid glue.
Ant’s elfin sharp face falls. “No? Why?”
Why? Why? Why?
I mount my borrowed bike and pedal away. Put it back where I found it, clean the blood from my hand, remove any indication that I was ever here.
When I first see Ant In Real Time, I hide behind a car parked across the campus courtyard. They look exactly as they do IFT, from their never-seen-a-comb hair to their genderfuck getup . Something sparks inside me, equal parts pride and envy. They haven’t spotted me. I know because their prickly exoskeleton is in place. Ant wears it with everyone else, but they always let me peek at the soft, silly parts underneath.
I’m building up the courage to say hi. I’ve turned down their invitation to meet so many times, but surely it’s okay if it happens by chance. I can do this. Atone for leaving them confused and alone IFT.
“Ant! There you are.”
A girl sprints across the campus green. Freckled, lean, with smooth hair flowing down her tailored coat and plaid skirt. She hugs Ant and they hug her back. Their scowl melts into a smile, and together they step into the nearest coffee shop.
I could call out too. Introduce myself (poor little Buzz Lightyear). Ant would be happy to see me. But.
But she’s so girlish, so pretty. And my heart is a lump of coal in my chest.
The rain hangs frozen in the park where we first met. It’s not a storm yet, but judging by the purple gathering clouds, it will be. For now, the raindrops are sparse enough to walk between them without becoming wet.
A different storm brews in the space between Ant and I. They’ve been wanting to pick a fight with me for months, I can tell.
“You’ve been avoiding me,” Ant demands.
“I saw you on campus.” I force my spine straight, although my body wants to curl in defense like a pill bug. “With that girl. I wanted to talk to you, but…”
Ant has the kind of face that makes confusion comical. “Indi? She’s in my class.”
“She’s so pretty.” I don’t know what I’m saying, only that I can’t stop the pettiness, the assumptions I would have hated to have aimed my way. “I’m sorry I can’t–won’t–be like her.”
“Indi has a girlfriend. But even if she didn’t… ” Ant rakes their fingers through their hair until it turns into antennae over pointy ears. I’ve never seen them this agitated, not even when they talk about their family, or therapy. “Buzz, B., please don’t be like that. This isn’t about envy. I know you. Talk to me.”
And they’re right. I’m not envious. This is about roles, and identities. This is about fear.
A fear that grips me tight as I ask, “Do you, though? Know me? Do you even care?”
This is about anger.
Anger that makes Ant’s voice go tight and tunnel-like. “I’ve asked you to meet me IRT so many times and you always refuse. I wouldn’t ever expose you or force you to come out or… You know how much I–”
“Maybe you and I can only exist together in this bubble,” I say. Lies, so many lies. “A vacuum and nowhere else.”
They deserve better than my lies. Than everything I have to offer.
Ant is trembling so much I fear they’ll restart time by accident. “Maybe you just don’t want to be seen with the likes of me in the real world, huh?”
But that’s not it. I can’t allow myself to believe in a life, much less a relationship, IRT. Because when it all inevitably falls apart, I’ll step into Frozen Time to protect myself and never want to leave again. I’ll become a god in a world of my own. Anonymous, ancient, alone.
I’ve stayed silent for too long. Ant’s eyes stop trying to plead with me even through their anger. With a shake of their head, they turn around and march back into Real Time. Away from me.
I remain in the frozen rain long afterward. My face is dry, except for my own tears.
Enough time has passed for me to know Ant wasn’t the one trying to pick a fight that day. I was. Maybe if I pushed them away–if I let them believe terrible things–I could keep both worlds the way they used to be. I wouldn’t have to make any changes.
This, here, is a choice. My bathroom door locked, my fingers holding a pair of scissors, my hair sectioned and loosely braided.
The clock ticks the seconds from somewhere in my parents’ house as the first locks of hair fall in the sink. The urge to freeze time is there, but I swallow it down like bile.
The first snip I make is for Ant. Because Ant deserves someone who won’t act like they’re ashamed of them. Of being with them. I don’t want Ant to find someone braver than me, so I guess I have to become a braver version of myself.
The rest of the snips of the scissors, however, are solely for me.
Once again, I don’t freeze time. Out in the wilds of Real Time, I laugh and cut and cut and laugh. I’ve always felt like my time is running out, even when I hold all of it between my palms. Now, I exist in the moment for the first time in ages. It’s just hair. It’s also so much more.
A haircut won’t make me who I am, but it still feels pretty damn good.
By the time I’m done, my hair barely grazes the tips of my ears, much shorter in the back. I hope Ant will like it. But even if they don’t, even if my parents and my uni friends and everyone else hate it, it doesn’t matter. Because my shoulders feel less heavy, my head clearer than before.
Because I’m still grounded In Real Time, but it feels like I’m walking on air.
Some things change fast. Others have been shifting for so long they don’t know how to reach that final stage of metamorphosis.
The campus is filled with people: napping, making out, studying on the grass. A frisbee hovers midair like a UFO. I duck under it on my way to the picnic table where Ant awaits.
“I didn’t think you were coming,” they say.
“I asked to meet, didn’t I?” I messaged Ant for the first time in our long friendship, arranging a meeting instead of letting our pain and longing sync.
They shrug, eyes distant. “Still.”
Already this is going all wrong. We have the power to manipulate time, Ant and I, but we can’t do magic. A haircut isn’t magic. A text message isn’t either. We’re so old and so young, so smart and so stupid.
I stick out my hand. “Bee, like the insect. They/them pronouns. Nice to meet you.”
Hope and caution war in Ant’s eyes, and I don’t blame them. “Ant. Same.”
Their hand is steady in mine, dry and a little rough from the cold. I’ll have to knit them a pair of winter mittens. If they let me. If they still want anything to do with me.
“I owe you an apology,” I say.
Ant’s eyebrows draw up in alarm. “You don’t owe me anything.”
“I’m sorry I pushed you away and acted ashamed of being your friend. Thank you for letting me go at my own pace.”
Ant is blushing, not used to thanks or sorry. They grumble under their breath, but then squeeze my hand three times.
My pulse jumps, then settles, soothed. There’s more to talk about, to apologize for, but we have time for it, as much as we need.
“I’m ready, if you still want to walk with me into Real Time.”
Ant looks up. “You don’t have to.”
“No, but I want to.”
We’ve never done this before. For all the times we’ve entered the same frozen patch of time, we’ve never left it in sync. And I want to. I do, even though my whole body tenses as if to keep me here where I’m safe, and in control. Lonely, too.
“On the count of three?”
Ant climbs over the picnic bench to stand beside me. We’re still holding hands as we walk across campus, over the invisible line where times converge. The air changes against our skin. A cacophony of laughter and conversation envelops us. Everything is moving, and I have to close my eyes momentarily to escape the vertigo. Ant’s hand doesn’t budge, their footsteps do not falter. I open my eyes, breathing in Ant’s familiar sugar scent. We walk together and my world shifts again, from too much, to just enough.
About the Author
Avra Margariti is a queer author and poet from Greece. Avra’s work appears in publications such as Lackington’s, Baffling Magazine, Daily Science Fiction, and Fusion Fragment. You can find Avra on twitter @avramargariti.
About the Narrator
When Julzerator was a kid they thought actors were actually experts, and their dream was to be on Star Trek: The Next Generation so they tried to be an expert in everything, just in case the show called up. Originally from the Pacific Northwest they now call Melbourne, Australia home. They sling code by day and have too many hobbies by night. (I mean, Picard is now filming, right?)
About the Artist
Alexis is a multiclass disaster-human living with her husband in Cincinnati. When she isn’t prepping art for Cast of Wonders, designing pins for pin-y.com, or yelling about TV into a mic for Bald Move, she dabbles in a revolving menu of hobbies and art projects. To list them all would be sheer madness. Like any good bisexual, she has a lot of jackets. You can find her on Twitter @alexisonpaper.