Participants can write stories and announce them in the comments section of the "Story Links for..." post on the OS Weekend Fiction Club blog, throughout the weekend.
This week's prompt was to write a story where something starts, and something stops. I also found myself responding to another prompt, a long-term one we had, which was to do something you've never done before as a writer. Here is my first attempt at science fiction. Well, science fiction lite, anyway. I hope you enjoy it.
Agent 235, whose name was Joe, watched the girl through the window of the ship as she walked by, wet and shivering. The doubtlessly cold rain streaked the glass, making it seem he was emerging from underwater, instead of hovering invisibly over a busy Parisian street near the Moulin Rouge in the fall of 1886.
He was on another long-term mission with the HMS – Historic Mystery Solvers unit, Art Division, of the Time Travel Bureau. As a kid, he’d dreamt of taking one of those little pod-shaped vessels back through the ages, on a journey more perilous, they grew up learning, than that of the astronauts who’d travelled into space in bygone days.
Time travelling was full of risks: accidents, time travel-related disorientation (even madness), and mechanical failure while out of range of modern-day communication device reception. But the worst, most horrifying thing that could happen would be if somehow a time traveller interfered with the world around him. That was why the ship – which, when not in Invisibility Mode, looked something like an office chair encased in a small, transparent, gear-filled globe – had to hover. If it landed, or fell, it could crush a person, animal, or even a plant. No one really knew what might happen then, but theories were grim; the peaceful present day could easily change into a world-wide war zone, due to all sorts of things happening or not happening because of the absence of that one living organism.
And then, of course, if you were discovered by people of the past, and they were able to figure out how it was all done (they weren’t stupid, after all), well, what would happen if, say, a monster like Hitler had the ability to travel through time?
Joe had never imagined that something he’d wanted so much could be so stressful. Or that, really, he would make no true connection with the eras he travelled to. It was as though he were visiting an open air museum, only a bit dirtier, and with no cleverly hidden modern toilet facilities. Not that he could get out of the ship to use them…
His mission this time around was to take photographs of Vincent Van Gogh at different periods of his life. There was only one proven photograph of the artist as an adult. Joe kept a copy of it taped to his control panel. It was one of the most frustrating photographs fans of the artist could imagine: seated with his friend painter Emile Bernard at an outdoor table in Asnières, Vincent didn’t turn towards the camera; the photograph shows only Bernard’s face and Vincent’s back. Looking at it, you couldn't help but think, “If only he’d turned around!”
For the last few weeks, Joe had been revisiting Paris during the years Vincent had lived there . This part of the mission was harder than most people would imagine – city jobs like this always were, what with pedestrians walking in front of the camera at the crucial moment, and the inability of his ship to get through the average apartment building’s door. Cafes were difficult, too, especially in this period, with groups of shabbily-dressed artists crowded around each other’s tables. So far, he hadn’t been able to capture the legendary painter’s face in any clear image. But he now knew that the man looked exactly as he’d portrayed himself in his self-portraits.
Deep down, though, Joe had to admit that all of those difficulties weren’t the only thing keeping him from completing this part of the mission. In the same neighborhood there was this girl. This beautiful, luminous-skinned girl, with wide brown eyes and – well, it wasn’t just that. She had a way of walking, so purposefully, almost ignoring the things around her, that struck him. It was a bit like how he had to live with this job, more worried about safety and completing a task than about living in the moment. But she was also funny. With his limited French and a few context clues, he could tell she made everyone around her – the fishmonger, the baker, the cobbler – laugh.
At some point this week he’d more or less given up on Vincent Van Gogh altogether. Instead, he spent his days hovering around this girl like a mournful ghost. He watched as she visited local bourgeois households, and sometimes succeeded in getting torn sheets and other faulty fabrics thrown at her by haughty maids. She’d nod thankfully, then neatly and impossibly quickly fold the cloth and put it into a large basket she carried in the crook of her arm. As the morning progressed, he’d watch her shift the basket to her shoulder, though it often slipped back down to her elbow. When it was too heavy, she sighed, her thoughts just as heavy, and started to climb the streets of Montmartre. Near the top of the hill, on an unpaved road, she would enter the shack where she lived, hang her hole-pocked black shawl on a nail near the door, and then sit down and sew until dark. The next morning, she’d wake and return the now-mended linens to their rightful homes, the maids no kinder despite her careful work.
What kind of a life was that, Joe often wondered. His training had conditioned him to this sort of thing, sure, but someone so kind and patient and funny hardly seemed to deserve it. After so many missions where he’d come to think of these people from the past as sort of inapproachable actors in a play, things had suddenly changed.
That wasn't the only change. Lately, he’d been thinking of a new approach to time travel. What if, with all the research and information available to them, he and the other agents could go back to an era and live there for a time, taking an unobtrusive job that might let them accomplish their missions? For example, what if he’d been able to come back here and set up shop as a photographer, using old equipment – or modern-day equipment carefully disguised to look like it? He could strike up a friendship with Van Gogh, and then seem to run into him from time to time as he travelled to different moments in the artist’s life. What if he could talk to the everyday people around him and learn what they were feeling and how it was, truly, to live in 1886?
What if he could invite this girl to have a coffee, or to go dancing just up the street at the Moulin de la Galette?
The tiny alarm to the right of his head started to beep. It was time to return to the present. He normally looked forward to this nice break – a weekend off, time to rest and enjoy modern conveniences. But this time he found himself hesitating. The girl was home now. He’d accompanied her there, wishing he could have been walking beside her. With a lingering look, he pressed the necessary buttons and flipped the necessary switches, and with a horrible lurch he’d never get used to, he was hurtling towards his own time.
It was a routine for him, as well, he began to realize. His home was better than hers, but just as lonely. He went to work and was faced in many ways with the same ingratitude. More and more he took refuge in his project to start his own time travelling company. He’d be going against the government, but then, this was a free world. He could maybe even get some of his scientist friends to help him. He could….
Two days later, he got into his ship again, strapped himself into the chair, and lurched back into the past.
When the pod stopped moving, he vomited, as usual. He pushed a familiar button and a small vacuum tube emerged to quickly remove the stinking puddle. When he looked up from it and out the window, though, he saw something beautiful. There she was, walking down the dirt road, setting out from home. The sun was setting behind her, casting her in a warm red glow, like a halo.
Night was falling when she arrived at the Moulin de la Galette. She must have wanted to get out and have fun and go dancing. He felt a twinge of jealousy.
The lamps in the garden were like fairy lights, twinkling as the trees’ last clinging leaves were stirred by breezes and dancing bodies.
He should have been looking for Vincent. He could operate the machine to fly up to the high floor of his apartment building. But then again, he couldn’t be sure Vincent was at home, and then again, there she was, this girl - his girl - her threadbare shawl forgotten, though the air must have been chilly, savoring a glass of something at a table and watching the dancing couples turning round and round like automatons.
He pushed the “Emergency Exit” button of his ship. Mission Control would never know; he was out of reach. For the first time, he jumped lightly to the ground of a world long gone.
His clothes were nondescript, he thought quickly, just a black cloth jumpsuit. He could say he was painting or constructing a new building, and as for any bugs or weeds he might have stepped on -- Entering the garden, these sticky thoughts were washed away.
Haltingly at first, then more boldly, he approached her table. “Why are you sitting down?” he asked in his shaky French.
“Because no one’s asked me to stand up,” she answered with a laugh and a mischievous look.
“Well,’ he said: “would you like to dance?”
She laughed again, and her brown eyes met his. “That’s even better.”
For years he’d studied the dances of the late 19th century, everything from the quadrille to the can-can. Suddenly, he realized that he’d forgotten them all. And yet, how easy it was to whirl and spin with her close to him. There was nothing but the feeling of her palms against his, her quick seamstress fingers curled gently over the backs of his hands. The world around them was a blur of laughter and light.
About the images:
The first picture is indeed the only known photograph of Vincent Van Gogh as an adult (image credit).
However, while searching for this image, I came upon a thrilling article that made me think of my blog's slogan, "Fiction and Even Stranger Truths": apparently, a carte de visite format photograph has been found of a man who bears an uncanny resemblance to Vincent (as he preferred to be called). There's a lot of debate about whether or not this is him, and apparently the article is a shorter version of a longer one mentioned in the link, and I will be reading both to get more of a sense of what's going on, but it was jarring to see such an image. If you're interested, you can click here to read the article (and to see the picture included).
Lastly, the photo I put at the end of my story is one I've been seeing for several weeks in the Metro. It love the look of it, the poses, the woman's costume. Some of you may recognize the man in the photo as Mikhail Baryshnikov. The woman is dancer Anna Sinyakina. The picture, which was taken by Anna Kartseva, is an advertisement for a ballet in which Baryshikov and Sinyakina star, called "In Paris". If you're coming to Paris and are interested in seeing it, or want more information, feel free to click here. If you don't read French, feel free to ask me and I'll translate the info for you. The picture really caught my eye and as I was formulating the idea for this story, I just thought, that girl is the girl - and though I imagine Joe a little younger, why not. I wanted this image to be somewhere with this piece.