_It’s on Wattpad but I’m testing copy/pasting here_.
The Time Expats
“And, oh my goodness, I can’t believe I’m seeing you again, sweet child. You have not been home in five years!”
Claire tried to hold still as her mother’s friend, Amber, squealed. Amber was a great makeup artist, likely the town’s best (it was a small town) but in that moment Claire was desperately wishing her sister had chosen a stranger to do their makeup. It was so much uncomfortable for her to have a conversation as someone was covering up her zits.
“Yes, I have,” Claire wondered whether her mother realized that her friends thought she never visited home. Or whether her mother had started that rumor herself.
“I haven’t seen you.”
“I just come in to see my parents.”
“I see your parents every day.”
“You don’t go out when you come in? Never go to the bar?”
“Eyes up,” Amber clucked as she rubbed her brush in a palette.
Claire looked up at the ceiling. Her sister, Marie, had rented a fancy hotel room for the bridesmaids to get ready in together before the wedding. It was gigantic, with a sitting room and two bedrooms. A photographer was stationed in the room to take posed ‘candids’ of the women as they moved through their beauty routines.
“You never really were the type, huh?” Claire could smell Amber’s gum as she spoke while lining her lower lid. “Not really a going-out-to-the-bar girl.”
“Guess not.” Claire answered as Marie’s maid of honor, Amy, silently hung a bridesmaid’s dress on the door behind where she sat.
Marie had given them all wire hangers with their names spelled out in the wire–so Claire’s dress could be perfectly and clearly framed in the picture that the photographer was taking of her in the makeup seat.
Amber stepped back to observe her work, frowning in disapproval over something about Claire’s face that wasn’t behaving. “You did always keep to yourself,” she said, before diving back towards her with her eye liner brush. “Now look down.”
Claire didn’t respond. She knew what was coming next. Three of the other bridesmaids were nearby, waiting for their turn with the photographer. Claire noticed their conversation had gone silent as Amber grilled Claire.
“But I guess you were always with that boy.” Amber said this part slowly, as if it were an accusation. As if being with the boy meant she was kept from being elsewhere.
“Hold still!” Amber grabbed at her shoulder with one hand, pinching Claire stable without even missing a beat as her other hand kept lining Claire’s eye.
Once seemingly sure that Claire wasn’t going to move again, she let go of her grasp. “You ever see him when you’re home?” It wasn’t a question, it was a warning.
“He doesn’t live around here anymore.”
Amber stood back, hands on hips. “Where is he?”
“You know, I could’ve sworn I saw him just about a month or a week or something ago. At the Starbucks. Are you sure he’s gone?” Amber started to come back at her, this time with the mascara, “Now look up.”
Claire shrugged again, this time more emphatically as an attempt to signal how wholeheartedly clueless she was about that boy’s whereabouts. Instead, she bumped Amber’s wrist–causing the mascara wand she held to go flying up towards the dress hanging on the door behind her.
Everyone in the room gasped as they watched the wand smear black mascara down the lilac dress. Then, silence.
Click, the photographer took a photo.
Claire took advantage of the silence to breathe in slowly, leaning back in her chair.
And then she did her own version of a click.
“You never really were the type, huh?” Claire could again smell Amber’s gum as she spoke while lining her lower lid. “Not really a going-out girl.”
“Oh, don’t hang that there–” Claire put up a hand as Amy approached to hang Claire’s bridesmaid’s dress on the door behind where she sat.
“Why not?” Amy was taking her role as Marie’s maid of honor very seriously. She had a clipboard with a list of expected photo opportunities from Marie that she raised up to show Claire. “You know Marie will have my hide if I don’t get all of these.”
Claire smiled, “I’m so clumsy, I swear I’m going to like, somehow bump Amber and make mascara smear down the dress or something. Better to keep it in it’s bag.”
Amber chimed in, “My god, that’s right–you know that happened once at a wedding I was working but it was the bride’s dress. Horrible situation.”
“I heard about that! Wasn’t it Ryan Tate’s wife?!” A bridesmaid from across the room added in.
Claire sighed to herself in relief as the room started talking about various wedding disasters and Amy zipped her dress back into its garment bag.
“It’s almost showtime,” Marie’s wedding planner called out a few hours later. “Take one last bathroom break, or bite of food or drink and then get into your dresses. We have twenty minutes before we head to the church.” The bridesmaids disbanded to different areas tp discreetly pulled on their undergarments and dresses.
Claire had been dressed for the last hour before that announcement. She started putting on her dress shoes when she suddenly felt the air around her shift, like the whole atmosphere had been pushed down, compacted, by a heavy hand. She realized she’d been clasping and re-clasping her shoe over and over. She’d hook the little gold bar through the hoop and it’d be undone again immediately, right in front of her, as if she were watching a gif on loop.
She knew that feeling, her stomach twisting as she looked up to see everyone around her moving in slow-motion. She heard Marie’s wedding planner say again her announcements about showtime, but it was low and drawn-out, “Iiiiiiiiiiiiiiiittttt’sssssssssss–” Claire didn’t wait for her to finish, she pushed herself off the couch and out the hotel room door.
He’s here, she knew.
She walked past two bellhops in the hallway, one must’ve been throwing a pair of keys to the other. The keys crept across the air as if they were floating on water.
Claire heard a calamity below her and realized that she knew exactly where he was. She took the stairs down into the lobby, not trusting elevators as she silently thanked Marie for choosing a boutique hotel with only three floors.
As she reached the last flight before the hotel lobby, she took a moment to observe the man standing at the bottom of the wide marble staircase. His eyes were cold as he stared at the stairs, waiting for her.
Behind him, everything was a blur. It barely even looked like other people were present, instead just smears of skin-colored tones frantically rushing from one side of the room to another. A furry missile sped along the lobby ground, Claire had to assume in normal time that it was a dog. A cart jetted past with its food trays jittering wildly.
The man seemed completely non-plussed about the commotion, his eyes stuck, implacable and unmoving, at a single point in the distance. His arms were folded behind his back and his legs set shoulder-length apart with his lips in a stern line. Like a soldier reporting for duty.
Claire hadn’t seen Smith Farinton in five years, two months and six days–she mentally tallied the time as she stared at him. She was thankful that she hadn’t been able to get on her high-heeled shoes, knowing that she’d have tripped if she were wearing them. Her heart was beating so heavily that she felt dizzy.
Finally, his eyes freed from their fixed point and he looked at her, his face breaking into a different emotion–unreadable to Claire. Sadness? Yes. Fear, also. And a fury. She could barely stand to keep her head up as she approached, feeling the burn of his eyes on her. When she did meet his eyes, she felt in his look every second of the last five years: every moment apart, every bit of happiness or sadness, every party, celebration, low point, struggle–all the life they didn’t have together because of her.
When she finally reached him, Smith seemed amused by her arrival, his eyes mischievously crinkling as he took her in.
“This isn’t safe,” she said, unable to think of anything else.
His eyes flooded with a sort of desperation at her words, like he was suddenly brought back to reality. Smith cleared his throat. “We need you.”
She started to step back, away from him, startled by his words.
“Claire, listen,” he tried to reach for her arm.
She pulled it away, “I’m out, I quit. I did it for both of us. What could you need that’s worth me coming back?”
“Someone knows about us.” He swallowed heavily before continuing, “Someone dangerous.” Smith’s lips twitched after he spoke, as if he were holding back from telling her more.
“You’ve handled others without me,” she said, noting the surprised look in his eyes. He must not have known about Garret’s check-ins to her.
“This is different.” Smith regained his composure, “This guy is powerful.”
“I’d lose my job.”
“It’s more dangerous for us to be together. Stuck.”
“Then why are you here?”
“Did you really plan for it to be forever, Claire?”
She felt tears hot on the sides of her eyes and mentally cursed. Amber was going to be so angry with her if she messed up her liner. Thinking of Amber and the wedding, Claire’s tears boiled over. “Why are you here now?! Why now, why today?!”
Smith reached for her then and she let him, overcome by the familiar rush of comfort and anxiety felt by being with him–by being present. He still smelled the same, a strong vetiver scent that made dizzy with nostalgia.
“Can you believe Marie is getting married?” he murmured into her hair, still holding her closely.
“Why are you here?” Claire resisted giving into the nostalgia, trying to block out any slide into memories of him teasing Marie back when she was a gangly middle-schooler.
“We couldn’t find you until today. And you’re leaving tomorrow.”
Claire unlatched her arms from around him and looked hard into his eyes. “Tell me something, if I wasn’t in town, would you be trying to get me to help with this mission?”
Smith paused, pushing his lips together to consider her point.
She raised an eyebrow, “Figure it out. I know you can. Until then, let’s try to keep the world a safe place by staying far away from each other. Okay?” She turned to get back to the wedding party.
Smith’s voice broke as she started up the stairs, “Claire–”
Claire continued walking away, forcing herself to keep her pace and not look back. “I said I’m out.”
“Did you feel that?” Xes spun around to his assistant.
“Yes, sir,” his assistant replied.
“Oh, you always say ‘yes, sir’.” Xes waved his answer away. “Did anyone here feel that?” He now addressed the whole laboratory.
“We got it recorded here, sir,” one of his new recruits pointed to the monitor.
Sure enough, Xes saw the time shift denoted in its chart. “Good, good,” he nodded to the guy as he started to walk to another station.
The recruit held up a finger to stop Xes from walking away, “But it wasn’t who we expected.”
Xes halted. “Who was it?”
“The symmetrical pair.”
The recruit nodded.
Xes clapped gleefully. “Did you figure out their location?”
“Within a square mile, sir.”
Xes smiled at his recruit and turned to smile at his assistant. Both beamed back at him. It made Xes furious. “Don’t just stand there! Go get them!”