The station clock read 11.30. Half an hour to go.
Sitting in an uncomfortable, cracked leather seat at a sticky table, Ed wondered why it was that everybody held midnight in such high regard.
The Witching Hour. The time when Cinderella lost a shoe. The start of tomorrow. Ringing the new year in.
Why couldn’t people choose a more convenient time for such nonsense? Like, say, 7.30? He had to wake up every morning at 5 a.m. He was tired. He was cranky. And he had to wait, because his bus was late.
Ed hated waiting. He hated a lot of things.
Even his daughter had been born at midnight. The nerve.
Looking at it in a different way, the bus being late was not a huge problem. His daughter was sleeping at a friend’s house that night, there was nobody impatiently waiting for him at home. He could go on a jaunt around the city, if he was that kind of person, and be back in time to pick up his offspring for the school run.
He stayed where he sat. Maybe the chair was sticky, too, and Ed just hadn’t noticed.
He didn’t see her walk in. Ed paused in the middle of reading a story about a riot in the Times and glanced up – and there she was. A woman, sitting right opposite him, watching him with avid interest and the sort of air common to those who are not sure if they want to be noticed or not.
And her appearance was odd, too. She regarded him steadily through long-lashed placid eyes, her head, neck and shoulders thrown back in a way that suggested she could spit like a sailor.
Those eyes really were large and brown. Her pupils were huge, containing nothing but his reflection, and there was a hint of hazel around them. Her hair…there was something odd about her hair. He’d work it out in a minute.
“Can I help you?” he said coldly, and rattled his newspaper.
“Yes,” she said. “Do you have a light?”
On the word “light” a flash of very yellow, oddly square teeth appeared under her top lip. She had no incisors. Ed blinked.
“No,” he said. “Do you mind? I’m trying to do the Sudoku.”
“That’s my favourite dance!” she said. “So much better than dressage.”
Ed just looked at her. Her appearance did not bother him as much as it would have done at any other time; many late night revellers had passed through the bus station wearing an odd assortment of hats and scarves, tutus and fairy lights, deely-boppers, capes and wigs. It was all part of the end of the festive season. And there is a quality about the time of night, near the midpoint, which defies disbelief and relaxes certain types of people.
“Fancy dress party, is it?” Ed said. He wondered if she was wearing special contact lenses.
The woman didn’t blink. She had not blinked throughout the entire conversation. She looked left, then right, and over her shoulder to check no one was listening. Ed didn’t know why she bothered – the last load of people had got onto the number 34 and now there was only one elderly couple in the far corner.
She leaned towards him, flared her nostrils, and said, “No. It’s a reconnaissance mission, and if we’re lucky, we might find him, and then it will be a rescue.”
“Who’s ‘we’?” Ed asked, mystified. Was she on drugs?
“Us,” the woman replied. “You, me, and the others.”
She shook her head. “Never mind them, they’re all working undercover, part time. Most of them have retired, actually. Well, the ones who came before 1900 have. It doesn’t matter. You’re a stooge, you can afford to be a bit dim.”
Ed was floundering. Was this woman claiming to have worked with people from the eighteen hundreds? She was far too young for that. And then he noticed something else. The woman…her hair was hanging only down one side of her head, but none of it looked to be sprouting from the other side of her scalp. Moving of its own accord, and there was no breeze to stir it. It was like a red pile of snakes, or dreadlocks, and unusually thick for a human’s.
Ed deliberately folded his paper and attempted to put his reading glasses away with trembling hands.
“Either I’m going mad,” he said, “or you spiked my coffee. I’m leaving now.”
“It is vital that you stay put,” she said with a voice of iron. “If you do not work to the plan, one of them will have to take you out. They’re crack shots, the months. Especially Death Sember.”
Ed slowly sank back into his seat. “Who are you?” he demanded. “What do you want? Why me?”
“Easy, easy! I need you to help me find someone. My brother…or is he my father? Anyway, we have information that he’s trapped in your house.”
“There’s nobody in my house.”
“There is. We received an infogram from him on the twenty-ninth. He was hiding in your house from the enemy, but it didn’t look like you’d be opening your door at the right time for him to exit without being seen. Which is why we’re here.”
“Who’s ‘we’?” Ed asked again, annoyed. “Who is this man? Why are you wasting my time? I haven’t done anything to deserve it.”
The woman stuck out her hand. “Pleased to meet you,” she said. “I am Agent 2014. I work for the Y.R.S.”
“The Y.R.S. It stands for Year Recovery Squad. Normally they don’t send newbies out on missions, not since the Caesar’s time and we lost control of February. We don’t want more Rogue Months. But I can handle it.”
Ed was speechless. What could he say? The woman was clearly deranged. It would be cruel of him to leave her alone, here, for some stranger to take advantage of.
The doors to the bus station cafeteria burst inwards behind the strange woman to admit yet another mob of merrymakers, some of which were dressed in large football shirts and, bizarrely, St. Trinian – style wigs.
Ed was considering getting the attention of one of this crowd so he could call the police on one of their mobile phones, when the nearest braided footie fan waved at someone and his hand passed through the woman’s head. She wasn’t solid. He was hallucinating after all.
Agent 2014 was unperturbed, suffering no damage to her cranium whatsoever. She sat, waiting for him to answer her. Not knowing what else to do, Ed humoured the zanier parts of his brain for once and simply asked:
“Who do you need to find?”
“The one who was last on duty. Agent 2013. He was never very lucky, right from when he was a Second.”
“You know. Sixty of them work for a Minute. You can’t start at the top in this game. You get promoted over Time, climb through the ranks.”
“And who was this ma…Agent hiding from?”
“The Rogue Months. Normally, they come out with us and protect the Years, sort of like snipers, bodyguards, crack shots like I said. But the Rogue Months…they left us, formed their own kind of outfit. They’re trying to exterminate us.”
“Tell me why.”
“They don’t like Mondays.”
“Or Tuesdays, or Wednesdays. They hate being hated. You people…humans…you wish the early winter mornings, working hours and dark nights away. You live for the weekend. Consequently the Months often feel unappreciated, especially the colder ones. So some of them branched out and turned renegade. It happens.”
“Exactly! Where do you reckon Lost Weekends come from? John Lennon had a massive one.”
At precisely 11.40 that night, Agent 2014 led Ed out of the station and somehow hailed a taxi.
“It’s urgent,” she said to the driver as they bundled into the back. “We need to get to Mr. Ed’s house by midnight, if not before. Can you manage that?”
“Depends where you live,” the driver grunted.
Ed gave his address, with some reluctance due to the madwoman, or hallucination, huddled up beside him. How good was her memory? He had the feeling she could be a stalker. And oddly enough, she felt reassuringly solid to him, despite the hand-through-ghostly-head incident all of five minutes ago.
The driver laughed. “I can’t get you there by then! Not unless I get myself arrested for breaking the speed limit.”
“Just drive,” Agent 2014 suggested. “I have some Time at my disposal, I can manipulate it a little.”
“Well, ain’t that nice,” the driver said, and they set off.
Ed’s house stood dark and empty, a brooding terraced presence with four windows, a cluttered attic, and a starling’s nest in the gutter. As he knew, his daughter Zoe was sleeping somewhere else. There really was nobody in it. Of course there wasn’t. The place only had four rooms, the attic was full and inaccessible without a stepladder. There was no possibility that the year 2013 could be hiding in it. And he’d let this demented stranger trick him into taking her home. What did she want? A place to sleep? Money? A one night stand? She wasn’t his type.
He wondered if it was still too late to call the police.
“Shush!” The woman who called herself 2014 placed a finger to her lips, though Ed had not said anything, and then the taxi driver froze.
He froze. Literally. His body ceased to move, and he was trapped in an odd position with one hand raised to scratch his ear, his expression the sort that Ed would be embarrassed to wear in a badly timed photograph.
Ed gave up. He couldn’t explain it. “What now?” he said.
“I’ll go first,” Agent 2014 said. “I’ll ring the doorbell to let him know we’re coming to rescue him.”
“I don’t have a doorbell.”
“I’ll knock. And they aren’t expecting to see me. The Rogue Months are looking out for you. While I distract them, you sneak around the back and let yourself in that way.”
“I don’t have a back door key.”
2014 looked at Ed, her brows furrowed. “Then how do you lock your back door? You do have a back door, don’t you?”
“Yes!” Ed said. Somehow he got the impression that his not having a doorbell lowered his esteem in her eyes. “I meant I don’t carry it with me. I keep the key indoors, so I don’t lose it.”
2014 crossed her arms in a delicate motion. “That’s very silly.”
“Well, I can’t help it if -”
“Never mind. It’s nearly five to midnight. Now or never. You’ll have to smash the door in or break a window.”
“Break my own window?” Ed yelped, but Agent 2014 was already running up the path to his front door and banging on it.
Now or never, as she said. Ed opened the door on his side of the cab and ducked instinctively into the bushes lining the pavement, even though he saw or heard no sign of anyone, let alone a Rogue Month, anywhere. What did a Month look like, anyway? Were they small and scuttling, or humanoid and odd like 2014? Were they invisible? But if they were invisible, they wouldn’t need to go undercover, would they – or was that the Years? It was all so confusing. He’d always imagined the winter months to be blue, blue as dusk. He wished it was dusk now. He’d feel an awful lot safer if there was a tad more light –
Something rustled on the other side of the bush.
Something grabbed his arm.
“Ahh!” he squeaked – and saw it was Agent 2014. “What do you think you’re doing?” he hissed. “They’ll get me…”
Suddenly Agent 2014 started to laugh. She carried on laughing, from an enervated titter to a full- blown bray of helplessness as she saw the look of confusion grow on his face.
“What?” Ed said irritably. “What?”
2014 clutched at his arm feebly. Once the hysterics had rattled to a stop, she breathed and said, “I’m sorry. I’ve got the wrong house.”
“I’ve got my coordinates wrong. It happens sometimes. You aren’t the fellow we’re looking for.”
The world turned on its head.
Ed blinked at the young girl standing before him. He had a dim, unsettling memory of a woman with red, one-sided hair. She was not this girl. This girl was wearing a school uniform, one bag full of books on her shoulder. Next to her was Zoe.
“Made you jump, Dad!” Zoe giggled, and gave him a hug.
This was a turnaround. The most of Zoe that Ed had known for the past year had consisted of stony looks and moping silences from behind her closed bedroom door.
“Ira?” Ed said to her friend, taking a wild guess.
She nodded. “Pleased to meet you. Um. I have to tell you Zoe can’t sleep over at ours tonight. I have to do a huge bit of coursework which I forgot about.”
“You,” Ed frowned. “Are you the one who thinks Sudoku is a dance move?”
“Dad. You’ve never met Ira. Remember?” Zoe said.
“Wild horses wouldn’t drag it out of me,” Ed mused, and in the distance came the sound of the church bells striking midnight. It was the New Year, now, and Ed felt lighter in his heart as he welcomed his daughter and her new friend into the house and the fireworks started to explode overhead.
He was the last through the front door, and noticed something the two girls did not. He leaned backwards on the threshold and examined the wall next to the door.
“Zoe?” he called. “Since when did we have a doorbell?”
– Hannah Adcock (c) 2014
Just a little story celebrating the New Year. If you are Chinese, (unlike me) have a very lucky Year of The Horse.
My author page is at http://www.facebook.com/wyrdstories