Written in response to the following from Reedy’s story prompts: “Write about a character who can suddenly only ‘remember’ their future, not their past.”
“Oh, hello. I didn’t see you there.” The man behind the desk closed the folder in front of him.
The girl hesitated, her hand still on the doorknob. “I …”
“How’d you get past my secretary?”
The man let out a laugh that would sound at home in America’s Wild West; here in the city it clanged of incivility.
“Just jokin. Don’t have one. No room for one nohow.”
The girl stayed where she was, by the entrance of the office. Morning sunlight edged in through the partially closed blinds, printing a frantic pattern on her face. The man knew that the light would not last; soon clouds would climb across the sky and suspend themselves there.
“Why ain’t you in school?” he asked, when the girl made no move forward. In her young face he saw the cagey eyes of one who might bolt for the door at any moment.
Her shoulder rose and fell with a jerk. “Went to the stop. Then walked off ’fore it came. The bus, I mean.”
“You’re playin’ hooky? And how’d you get all the way to the middle o’ London?”
The girl ignored the accusation, if an accusation it was, and she paid no mind to the question either. She fixed him with a firm gaze, as if counting the pores on his face. “You him then? You the Yesterdetective?”
A wry smile greeted his lips, then was gone. “Guess so.” He leaned back in his leather chair, which of everything in the office was by far the most luxurious. “Just call me Harlan though.”
“But you’re American!” Her face was slack with disbelief.
“If you say so, then American I am.”
At last she moved forward a step or two, regarding him with a quiet wonder. The bold sunlight fled her face, which softened in the ambient light of Harlan’s three table lamps.
“Your parents don’t know you’re here, I take it.”
The girl either didn’t hear this, or her mind shrugged the words away with an easy indifference. She was still busy assessing Harlan, her eyes roving over his dark complexion, his everyday outfit. Now her wonder was molting into amusement.
“Well, you hardly dress like a detective, do you?”
Harlan cocked one thumb through each of his suspenders, looking down at himself. “I dress like this, and I am one, so I’m inclined to think I do dress like a detective. ’Sides”—he gestured at her, with her red floral shirt and crisp overalls—“it ain’t so different from you, is it?”
“But why’ve you got a cowboy hat on?” She giggled.
His deep maroon hat, glowing in the window’s backlight, was indeed a cowboy one. Harlan put on a fair imitation of John Wayne. “Ain’t no law ’gainst it, is there? Anyway, don’t think you wanna see this.” He drew the cap away, and his bald head shone where it had sat.
The girl put a hand to her mouth as though to imprison the escaping laughter. She was finding comfort here, which warmed Harlan’s heart, despite what he knew would come.
“Though I really do need to call your parents now. I’m sorry,” he said, as she protested, “but I do. You got no business bein in a strange man’s office. Didn’t your mom and dad never tell you that?” He stood. “Never told me your name, by the way. And that’s against common courtesy.”
“I’m Samira. And you’re not a strange man at all. You’re the Yesterdetective!”
“You say that as if I don’t know. And there’s some who say I am very strange.” He had picked up the old-fashioned telephone receiver from his desk. With his other hand, he threw a come on gesture her way. “Now what’s the number?”
Samira folded her arms, her lips sealed.
“Come on, Samira. I need to let your folks know where their kid is.”
She bit her lip. “I’m not that much of a kid, you know. I’m in double-digits now. That means I’m grown.”
“Grown.” Harlan chuckled. “Yeah. Right.”
He angled his face down, peering toward her: Gimme a break. “Tell you what. If you don’t wanna give me the number, guess I’ll dial …” His fingers moved. “Nine … nine …”
“No, don’t!” cried Samira, rushing forward.
Harlan froze, his hand poised to push the last digit. When he saw the tears standing in the girl’s eyes, he softened. “Hey now,” he said quietly.
“Please, I …”
Samira, who only a moment before had been giggling freely, now looked ready to have a meltdown. “I haven’t got parents, all right?” She blinked, and two solitary drops dashed away from her face.
“No? Really?” It was all Harlan could think to say. He sank back into his seat as if he weighed a half a ton.
“Please, I just need your help,” said Samira. “You can solve anything! That’s what they say ….”
“No parents …. So you came here from a foster home? You left?”
Samira shook her head before his words had finished. “My aunt’s. But you can’t call her! Please. She’s awful. She won’t even care I’m here.”
Seconds stretched. “Sit down, Samira,” said Harlan distractedly. He had the folder open again and was scanning its contents.
She sat in the cushioned wooden chair, and in her despair she shrank within it. They sat within a silence.
“So it’s my help you want,” he said finally, looking away from the papers on his desk.
“Yes.” She tried again, louder: “Yes, I … I didn’t know where else to go.”
Harlan nodded. “You know my services usually come at a substantial fee.” He barely considered the words as he said them.
“I’ll bring the money! I can steal—I mean, I’ll find it—”
But the detective was waving her exhortations away. “First, let’s talk. What is it you want me to do?”
“D’you mind if I ask something first?” Samira’s voice was timid.
Harlan nodded again; he had expected this. He always expected it. “How ’bout some tea?” he said, before Samira could loose another word. He rose and busied himself at a side table; when he sat back down, a kettle was sighing as a portable burner heated it.
“So,” said Samira, still in that miniature voice, “how do you …?”
“Live backward?” said Harlan.
“All right, all right.” He launched into the words he repeated nearly everyday. “I go to sleep at night. When I wake up the next day, it’s yesterday.”
Samira stared. “Yesterday,” she whispered. She sat pondering, and the natural next question came, as it always did. “Well, what if you stay up all night!”
Harlan was shaking his head already, smiling. “Don’t work. For one, I get abysmally tired. Like, more tired than your average joe. Think it’s part of my affliction. I can only stay up for ten hours, max. But don’t think I haven’t tried pullin an all-nighter.”
“And?” said Samira, leaning forward. “Does it all change round you?”
Harlan shook his head again. “No. Weirder. Everythin slows down … slows way down. At first, I wasn’t sure it was happenin, but oh, it was. The last night I tried it, I was walkin the streets. It was the wee hours—probably just after midnight, now I think of it—so not a lot of people was out, but eventually I noticed the folks ’round me, and the cars too … they was goin slow. Real slow. Hard to tell at first, like I said, but … got impossible to ignore, after a point. I kept watchin them, and after a while, it was basically like they was frozen, and me the only one movin.”
“Blimey,” Samira breathed.
“Tell me ’bout it. Seem like a cool thing at first, right? Maybe. But real quick, it started feelin creepy. Like I was a ghost. And the more I wandered ’round, the more still everythin seemed: birds, wind, clocks—everything. So I did the only thing I could think to do.”
“Went to sleep.” Harlan got to his feet and attended to the steaming kettle, pouring two mugs and bringing them over. “Let it steep, now.”
Samira set her mug gently on the desk before her, eyes still on Harlan. “And the next day?”
“Next day, it was yesterday. Like always.”
She had nothing to say for a while. Then: “How do you cope? I mean, how do you get on like that?”
Harlan shrugged, and from his wide mug steam slithered up before him. “You learn to live with what you got. I leave notes for myself. My past self, you know. Kinda weird, but it works. And if I ever need to keep a bit o’ info or somethin with me for tomorrow—yesterday I mean, for you—I jus’ sleep with it on my person. And it comes through with me.”
“So that’s how you can solve it all!” said Samira. “You can go back—solve the murders and all before they happen!”
Harlan shook his head ruefully. “Don’t work like that. I don’t think of myself as a time traveler, but you know the rules they say: can’t change nothin. And it’s true. Believe me, I tried.” His eyes got lost for a moment, then came back. “No, can’t affect anythin directly. I can only influence what I do. And what I know.”
“Well, what advantage is that!” Samira said.
Harlan cackled, and this time his laughter sounded less alien. “Not much, ’cept”—he tapped his temple with one finger—“knowin is half the battle.”
They resumed their silence, and after a while, Harlan brought over some milk and sugar for their tea. They sat sipping for some moments before he said, “So what is it brings you here?”
“Well. They say you’re the best—”
“So they do.”
“They say you can solve it all—”
Samira waited. “It’s my brother.”
Harlan let the statement spread its tendrils into the room as he drank from his mug. He set it down. “What about your brother?”
The Yesterdetective brought the mug to his lips again. Behind him, embers burned on the curtain’s right edge, the only remnants of that morning light.
“How can you go on drinking tea!”
Harlan took his time before setting the mug back upon the desk. “Young lady, livin the way I do, you learn quick that the only time exists is the Present. So you had best live in it. And presently, this tea is delicious.”
Samira gaped at him.
“Your brother,” he went on. “He a younger brother?”
“How old then?”
She hesitated. “Nineteen.”
“Mmhm. And he live with you and your aunt?”
Samira shook her head.
“So how you know he’s missin?”
“’Cause he hasn’t come home!”
“Drink your tea ’fore it gets cold. Home from where?”
Harlan knew Samira was only pretending to look out the window as she sipped, avoiding or postponing her answer.
“Russia,” she whispered.
“The war,” Harlan said.
She stared. “How’d you know?”
Harlan said, “Why else would he be there?”
Samira nodded, drinking her Yorkshire Gold. “He’s been gone so long. He said he’d be home before Easter, but he hasn’t phoned since New Year’s.”
A somber silence sat between them.
“I just miss him. Ever since Mum and Dad … He’s the only one I can count on.”
“I understand, Samira.” Harlan’s tea was gone, and he was sad. “It’s a hard thing, to feel like you’re without somebody.”
She nodded distractedly, then brightened. “So you’ll help me! You’ll look for him then?”
Harlan sniffed, looking aside, toward the teakettle.
“Yesterdetective?” She leaned forward, setting her mug down. “Mr. Harlan? Like I said, I can get money—”
“Spoke to your aunt.”
Samira blinked. “Aunt Flora? But I didn’t give you her n—”
“Not by phone, child. Went to see her. Or … I will.”
“But—” Gradually, understanding came to Samira’s eyes. “You mean …?”
“Mmhm,” said Harlan, the sound a soft rumble in his chest.
It was so quiet you could hear the wind blow outside. The detective sat for a while judging the emotions in Samira’s face before he said, “Maybe I oughta call her to come get you after all.”
“No … no,” said Samira quietly.
They sat this way for another while.
“It ain’t easy, what I’m gonna tell you.”
“What? That you couldn’t find him? Is that it?” Her voice had the bite of anger in it. “I thought you could solve anything!”
Harlan rested a gaze upon her full of pity and empathy.
“Now, you know your brother Omar—he went off to fight. He went into danger.”
Harlan did not stop. “He knew the peril he went to. He went bravely.” He cleared his throat. “On January 20th, Samira, his company attacked a Russian base in Belarus—”
“It seems they had strong intelligence that their company had the numbers to overtake the base . . . but they were defeated.”
He paused, swallowing a lump in his throat.
“They either died or were captured.”
Samira leapt to her feet, and in the thunder of movement, her mug teetered on the edge of the desk.
“Your brother, officially, was never found. He’s M.I.A. They presume he—”
“Won’t you stop it! Why’re you telling me this!”
“Believe me, I don’t want to!”
It was too late; Samira was crying. She fell back in her chair as a sob wracked her small body.
“Here now,” said Harlan, rounding the desk. But here he stopped, unsure how to comfort the girl. She sat there using her hands as tissues. Finally he said, “Brings me no joy to say these things.”
She looked up. “Then why say it?”
Harlan’s eyes drifted around the room. He jerked halfheartedly to his right, as if to leap over and heat up water for more tea. Instead he stood looking down at her softly, watching as she wiped her face.
“The truth is a hard thing. An uncaring thing. But we gotta face it. We gotta face it, Samira. If you avoid it, you can never be yourself again.”
“I don’t wanna be myself! I want Omar to come home!” The tears didn’t return, but her eyes shone.
He put a hand on her shoulder. It was enough, for now. “I know. But he won’t. He can’t. You know he loved you, and if he could come, he would in a heartbeat. Fast as he could.”
Samira’s gaze had left him and now it was her who was looking around the room, not seeing any of it. “How could he leave me all alone?”
“Hey,” said Harlan, kneeling. In her face he saw her need, and reaching out tender, hesitant arms, he offered her an embrace. When she leaned into his chest, he could feel her trembling. “You’re not alone,” he told her. “Okay? You’re not alone. Livin this way’s given me an odd view of death.”
Samira said nothing, so he went on.
“Everyone I meet, everyone I care about, I never see ’em die. Or if I do, it’s the first thing I see. Then the next day, they’re back. But mostly I don’t meet ’em like that. I meet people in the middle. Or like you, for instance. Even if we became friends, you’re only ’bout ten years old. I could never know you my whole life. Only for ’bout a decade or so, at the most. ’Cause I never met you ’fore today. And you don’t remember seein me, do you?”
Still in his arms, Samira shook her head.
“See. So … this is probably the only day we know each other. The only time is the Present, like I said. You gotta savor it. You got to savor it, Samira. And the other part? The more I know people, the less they know me. It fades like an hourglass. I drain away from their memory.”
The girl sniffled, then lifted her head to look at him.
“Don’t you get lonely?”
“Sure. Sure I do. But I get to thinkin that it’s the same way for everyone who knows me. You see? They’re goin forward in their lives, while I forget them day by day. Or so it seems. We got to appreciate the time we have, ’cause it’s here and gone. Here and gone.
“But don’t let me babble. I know you love your brother. And you miss him. But don’t think of him as gone. Think of how alive the moments were when you was together. Those moments still real now, if you can dwell on ’em. Do just that. Let ’em live.
“Ask you somethin?”
“Hmm?” said Samira, as Harlan drew away from her and she sat back in her chair.
“Is your aunt really so bad?” When she didn’t reply, Harlan said, “I don’t think so. Just don’t know each other yet. She’s tryin to help you. You gotta let her. You gotta let her in, okay? Remember what I said. Savor these present moments, Samira. She’s your family now.
“And as for your brother … I’ll be goin back. Back a long ways, to before the war. Might be I can find him. Or least, contact him. I can let him know how much you love him.”
Samira’s eyes welled again, and she was quick to wipe them.
“Won’t change what happened,” Harlan said. “But it’s somethin. It’s somethin.”
She nodded. “Thank you. Thank you, Mr. Harlan.”
He glanced at the analog clock ticking away to the right-side wall.
“Now, why don’t you go run back down to the curb, see if your aunt isn’t pullin up to meet you any second now.”
When Samira was composed, she hugged him one last time, and headed out, past the door engraved with the words Harlan Delapres, The Yesterdetective — What You Task Me With Today, I Will Solve Yesterday! and down the iron stairs, to where her family was waiting for her.