Life had stuttered as far back as he could remember. The stutter started slow—maybe one second frozen for every five minutes. As a baby, his giggles cut off abruptly, and his parents hadn’t noticed the day older he grew in his first year.
And it sped—by the time he was six, one second in every minute failed to move the world forward. At eight, when it had quadrupled rate, he looked more like a ten-year-old. The doctors told his parents he matured quickly, but by then he knew better.
He started spending ten percent of his seconds in limbo. He used his moments outside the flow of time to watch the frozen expressions on his friends. They didn’t know there could be space in between their own thoughts, that the clock’s pendulum could stick midswing.
And the tempo kept picking up. He decided one morning to run away from home, but he crashed his father’s car into ever-halting traffic. He crawled out of the wreck and walked down one road after another. In the tenth year of his life, his fourteen-year-old body could take the punishment of wandering.
He found the temple around the time half his life was liminal. Some of the men there were so unstuck from time that they would grow beards in front of his eyes. He watched one woman develop laugh lines in an eyeblink. They were the only people he ever met who still moved when his time stuttered.
Is there any way to stop it? He asked. And he meant, How long do I have?
Be grateful you don’t have the inverse, came the reply, and he looked to the nursery full of sleeping children. Some of them are more than two centuries old.
He marveled at the changes, but he couldn’t help wondering if anyone could control it. At least in the temple, he couldn’t sense time passing in the same way. Not as many things froze for him. These days, he guessed he spent three seconds out of every four in limbo.
He wondered if any of them ever got to 100%, and he got more answers the farther he descended, able to talk to more and more of the shifters. It seemed to work asymptotically, and he was slowing down now, reaching critical mass. Some people burned out like flames in front of him, and he knew that was how he looked to the young ones.
Go back into the world, one of the older women told him. See how fragile it all is.
So he did, and he was the same age as his parents who didn’t even notice his presence, slow as they were. He hid from them every three minutes, when the real second would tick by. He watched their suspended bodies in the interlude, left his fingerprints frozen in their skin. He wondered if he should write a note, but the ink from the pen would take the rest of his days to leave its marks on paper.
He left them, explored the world in still life. He walked across rivers. He snuck into houses to watch paintings of families. He yearned for time to freeze completely, so he could get a snapshot of the whole world in one tiny moment.
Still, their lives ticked by every few days. He didn’t have to worry about being seen. People created ghost stories out of his passing phantom, but he was a hundred miles away by the time they thought to tell them.
When, one day, he lay down in some back alley’s back alley, he wondered if his corpse would flicker.
A neurodiverse writer and musician, Alice Alexandra Moore tends to stress over the distance between words and truth, figuring out the best ways to convey the absence left in the wake of others’ movements.