About Time

This is an excerpt. Find the complete story in SURVIVAL TACTICS, available August 10.

For Gerald


“Excuse me,” Nora asked the woman in the long coat, “do you have the time?”

Stupid question, she thought, even as the woman startled, turning away from the train tracks she’d been staring at with disconcerting intensity. But it was the only question Nora’d been able to think of: the subway clock, an ancient bright-red digital display, had stopped working again, and it gave Nora the excuse.

Nora might have left the woman alone otherwise. Despite the fact she’d watched the woman—Nora’s own age, more or less, but so much more poised and elegant—every weekday morning for nearly a year, there was no reason for Nora to believe there was anything alarming about the way she was looking down at the electrified rails, her expression almost wistful.

There was no wistfulness in the glare she gave Nora. She flicked her eyes toward the broken clock, and resignation took over her face. “Sure,” she said, her accent marking her as a local. She dropped her right hand into one deep pocket and pulled out her phone. “8:24.” She turned away again.

“Thanks,” Nora said. From the tunnel she heard the squeal of a train coming around the too-tight corner into the station; it would be the E line, the one the woman in the long coat climbed on every morning. Around her, people began to shuffle forward, raising their voices to be heard over the sound of the incoming engine. “Wait,” Nora added, wondering where her newfound bravery had come from. “Are you—is everything all right?”

She wasn’t sure, at first, that the woman in the long coat had heard her. But then she turned, and the glare was sharper, and she said, “Mind your own business.” And the crowd swept her away.

Nora kept her eyes on the train until it rounded the corner out of sight, and the station fell back into relative quiet, the only sounds the hissing of the HVAC and the hum of the electric transformers. Around her, people stood in pairs and groups, heads together, talking quietly. Nora stood alone.

She turned back, and out of the corner of her eye she saw the broken clock flash. Not numbers, oddly enough, but letters: TY.

Some kind of error code, she thought. When she blinked, it was displaying the time again.

Nora decided she would stop looking for the woman in the long coat, but the next day the woman found her.

“Listen,” she said. Her hair, shaved away from one side of her head and hanging long over the other, had fallen into her eyes; absently she swept it behind her ear. “I’m sorry. Yesterday. I was rude.”

She wasn’t glaring, but she wasn’t looking at Nora, either, instead staring somewhere over Nora’s shoulder. Her skin was warm brown, touched with gold, and Nora couldn’t tell if she was blushing, but something in the woman’s face suggested she was embarrassed.

“You weren’t rude,” Nora told her. “I interrupted.”

“That old clock though.” At last the woman met Nora’s eyes, this time with a self-conscious smile. “You’d think they’d replace it.”

“They figure we all get the time on our phones,” Nora said.

“You don’t have a phone.”

Nora did have a phone. Like everyone else’s, its lock screen displayed the time. She hadn’t thought about it, watching the woman stare at the train tracks. “It was at the bottom of my pack,” she lied, gesturing at her overstuffed bag. “But I shouldn’t have bothered you.”

“It’s okay,” the woman said. “It’s just the time.”

The E train pulled up; Nora hadn’t even noticed the noise.

“That’s my train,” the woman said. Then: “Okay. Well, bye.”

She turned and walked toward the edge of the platform, and Nora felt the familiar push of the crowd around her. She stumbled, and instinctively glanced at the clock to check on her own train.

Except this time the clock said NAME.

Nora blinked. The word remained.

“Oh!” She turned back to where the woman was receding into the crowd. “Hey,” she called. “Hey. I’m Nora.”

The half-shorn head stopped and turned back in her direction. The woman said something, and Nora saw her smile, and she disappeared on to the train car.

She must have heard wrong. That wasn’t a name.

When Nora glanced back at the clock, it said ELSE.

“But that’s not a name,” she told it.

A moment later, the clock blinked again, and said 8:26.

Excerpt copyright ©2021 by Elizabeth Hartwell Bonesteel. All rights reserved.