Time had come at last — and he was late, as usual.
Thought frowned from the kitchen when she saw the old man dodder from of the back of the yellow cab which’d pulled into her driveway several minutes ago. She could practically hear his joints click and wheeze as he swung his loafers onto the cracked cement of the driveway, stood, and began counting out yellowed singles. The cabbie beat the wheel in double-time. His expression was a near perfect match for hers, and she couldn’t blame him: the way conversations with her old friend went, the mortal must’ve been tempted by every guard rail which’d presented itself on the long drive through the mountains. Not that a sudden swerve and an even more sudden stop would be enough to silence his droning; not by a long shot.
Satisfied with the clump of unsanitarily old money, Time passed it through the window, blinked — and the car was gone, vanishing in smoke and the screaming of stripped gears. The driver hadn’t even counted the bills.
He blinked, again… and again. Looked up, around — trying to place himself. Thought hated seeing him like this: a tableau of confusion framed by the poinsettias in her planter window. She hated the gaudy things, but the local parish had been trying to find homes for them since Christmas past, and she could hardly refuse when they came begging her to take them. She set the mixer down with a sigh.
We’re all inside, Father.
The words pushed themselves through the glass and empty air between them. Time jolted, turning towards the unexpected intrusion into his psyche, and noticed Thought in the window. He gave a smile — all yellow, unflossed dentures — and waved. Thought returned the smile out of habit and picked the mixer up. His spotted brow wrinkled into deep creases as he started for the house. Though wondered if he was really thinking that hard about putting one foot in front of the other, or if he was trying to send a message back. He needn’t have bothered: she’d pushed the words his way — left a message instead of opening a line. The last time she bridged their minds, she’d received a headache no over-the-counter medicine could break and an existential crisis beyond the powers of any legal drug to cure. Neither faded for a nearly a month.
Time wasn’t just scatterbrained with age — though he certain was that (small wonder clocks seemed to be running on different speeds these days). No. The tweeded figure passing the hydrangea bed wasn’t just time, personified. He saw time — all of it, start to finish (or so she suspected: he’d never claimed to know the end) stretched out and happening all at once. She’d seen it too — though only for a moment. Impossibly incomprehensible… and she was the Lady Thought, for goodness sake!
The springs of the screen door squeaked. A chorus of welcomes — some genuine, most begrudging at best — carried through the walls from the dozen-or-so voices in her living room (the most dishonest one came from Councilor Truth, she was amused to note). Silence met them, before Time croaked a “morning all” just as it seemed he might not answer.
Thought frowned. They’d been rambling at the small matters of the universe for the better part of an hour now. Had the old man finally lost track of… well, himself? Could he really have forgotten…
She glanced at the clock above the stove. The all-plastic thing proclaimed the hour in bold red: 11:59, clicking over to 12pm. Her shoulders untensed and she restarted the mixer with a grateful swirl. The meeting of the metaphysiques was a luncheon, same as ever — since before the term “luncheon” had even been invented. He was just being precise, as usual. To the second.
The last yellow, fatty streaks vanished into the clouds of steam and potatoes. Last time she hosted, she’d served sandwiches and lemonade. No one had said anything, but she knew — soon as they stepped into her kitchen — that it hadn’t been enough. Not for this lot, anyways. She’d pulled all the stops this time. Let them eat cake, she mused as the tubers took a fluffy white delicacy.
It’d been that same meeting where Father Time tried gifting her — or, more likely, re-gifting her — an innumerably old cuckoo clock, to replace “that ruddy kitchen timer,” as he was so fond of calling it. She’d accepted: it’d be thoughtless not to, after all. The antique was now stored in the depths of one of the house’s many, many linen cupboards; she’d already forgotten which one. She’d never been very good at reading clocks — and the noise that wooden birdie made?
Thus, the tasteless thing hung still overhead. She hoped he wouldn’t notice: bad things had a tenancy of happening to people who slighted Time… even very special people like herself.
A belly laugh — Eternity’s, she guessed– brought her back to Earth. She shut the mixer off: the taters weren’t getting any finer than that. It was probably unfair of her to think of the clock as an antique: like most of her kitchenware, the mixer couldn’t be called new either. It’d been patched, repaired… even rebuilt once, when Friar Physics had graced one of their luncheons. Thought didn’t replace anything without good reason… hell, her mortar and pestle had been from the literal stone age, and she’d only stopped using them when they crumbled to dust in her hands.
Time’s the enemy of everything… but especially luncheons.
She thought this to herself, then pushed an entirely different message into the living room: It’s ready. Cheers rose at the psychic message, carried on the P.A. system of their collective minds. Footsteps began encroaching on her position behind the marble island, where she stood, ladle at the ready, armaments, laid out: ham and veggies, rolls and beans, and a bowl of punch, just subtly spiked. She’s slipped the red wine in earlier, hoping it’d put old man Time out for the count and enliven the rest of them… and not the other way around.
“Smells exquisite, Lady Thought, ” Eternity boomed, rounding the corner at the head of the pack.
“Lordie, would you look at all that!” Beauty blurted, “it was just sandwiches last time!” Their opal eyes, owl-wide, reflected the feast spread out before them. The others — Imagination, Light, Whit, Intention, Identity — trailed in. Not a bad turnout, Thought thought.
Time pulled in at the caboose. “Right on schedule,” he mumbled, just loud enough to be heard over the oven-fan, “Let’s eat.”
Eternity was cleaning the last scraps — the very last scraps — from his plate an hour later. The rest of the metaphysiques had cried off the meal long ago with hands to bloated bellies and praises to the chef. Thought could hardly keep from blushing. Now if only cucumber sandwiches could elicit that reaction; they were so much easier to make.
They lounged back in the armchairs, sofas, and folding seats which filled the room in a contented silence broken only by the smacking, slurping noises from Eternity’s corner. And it was definitely his corner; the physical embodiment of the neverending was somehow larger than he’d been last month. There was nothing he could do about it, or so he claimed: the universe was expanding faster than ever, and he had to change with the times.
Thought watched him scoop up the last of his double portion of mashed potatoes, somehow doubting it was the universe’s fault. Even if it was, Eternity was redshifting his way to morbid obesity and an early death at 13.8 billion.
He finally set his plate aside — managing not to lick the greasy remnants clean — and gave a rotund belch. “Bruhhhhp… ah!” he finished, “My compliments, Lady Thought. Most Filling.” She nodded graciously; Thought doubted Eternity could be filled, but it at least meant something that he’d said so.
“Should I clear the…”
The gathering erupted in perfunctory protest, cutting off “dishes” with “No, No,” and a few “We’ll-take-care-of-them-laters.” The lady smiled as she probed the minds around the room, pleasantly surprised to find only a handful of liars. She kept her distance from Father Time.
She hardly needed to — her stratagem had paid off. The old man had tottled off to dreamland halfway through his beans and mash. Thought glanced over to Sir Imagination, who occupied his own corner of the room. Unlike Eternity, it wasn’t because he needed to. He was almost sickly thin, wearing a pair of round, too-small sunglasses which matched his crisp white shirt, stark black suit, and nothing else… not this side of Hollywood, at any rate. She wondered what visions he was granting the old man, and decided she probably wouldn’t be interested in them anyways: the dreamlord had a tenancy of embracing cliché lately.
“So what’ve you been working on, Nate?” she asked as the chorus began to die down and Imagination noticed her eyes lingering on him. He’d know her thoughts soon enough if she didn’t turn his to some other object: namely, himself.
The metaphysique — who actually lived in Escondito, not Hollywood — jumped at his own nickname (Time’s dream probably taking an unpleasant turn) and squeaked “Me?” He turned to the group he’d intentionally separated himself from. “Me?” he repeated, paling beneath a semi-convincing artificial tan, “Well, um…” He cleared his chest. “I’ve, uh, been working on a writer. Screenwriter. Young up-and-coming. Got an idea for a space epic — you know, Star Wars stuff.” Eternity nodded, smiling approval — though it was probably for the effects of the meal he just ate. Nate — Imagination — thought it was directed at him, and picked up the pace. “He’s got a great plan for it too — couple trilogies, TV spinoff… shared universe even. You know how big those are trading these days…”
Thought barely kept her eyes from rolling. Imagination, indeed.
“…besides that, the usual,” he concluded, a donkey-grin bisecting his carefully crafted face, “dividends are coming in, so the surgery’ll happen fairly soon-ish. Not soon enough, though. Nobody’s going to take me seriously in Studio City with a snoz like this. ‘He with the nose knows,’ they say.”
Thought had no idea who they were, but she suspected they were idiots. Why he wanted another plastic surgery was beyond her capacity; in fact, she imagined he’d be better off picking up a few of Eternity’s extra pounds before worrying about his facial symmetry… but she kept her peace.
Beauty did not.
“That’s a silly saying if ever I heard one,” the aphroditic, androgynous creature spoke through perfect lips in a perfect face. Beauty was ancient, though younger than Thought — springing into existence the moment someone decided to smear jam on a cavern wall. It was still unclear if they were man, woman, or other all those eons later.
“Why should you bother changing yourself? To make others think you’re wise?” Their tongue clucked behind concert piano teeth. “If they believe such things as “the nose knows,” I shouldn’t over-worry about their opinions. I mean, how long have you had that face?”
Now it was Nate’s turn to blush. The thin orange spray-coat turned a hot vermilion as he muttered a number even Doctor Math would’ve trouble comprehending. Most of the metaphysiques had stopped being embarrassed by their ages when they began counting in the millions, but it seemed O.C. living was affecting Imagination more than he’d care to admit.
Thinking of Math, Thought said a silent thanks the professor hadn’t made it: he always reduced their lively discussions of sex, politics, and art to… well, academics. He called himself doctor, after all — as though the title were in any way official. Like the rest of them, he’d never even graduated high school. Bunch of dropouts with nothing to do, just hangin’. She smiled. Now where have I seen that before? One of Nate’s works on the boob tube, undoubtedly… a large body of them in the 90’s, actually. It wasn’t a perfect fit; this wasn’t a soundstage, and they weren’t technically dropouts. They’d just arrived a little too early and a little too wise to participate in the glorious social experiment of public education.
“Then why,” Beauty queried, “should you change your face for another? One which isn’t you?” The ask was genuine: looking for his answer rather than the one they wanted. It was just one of the reasons Thought — and everyone else — loved them so.
Nate flushed, sinking into the folding chair but not folding himself. “Because I’m getting old,” he shot back from between his shoulders, now tensed above his jawline. “Same as the rest of you.”
A pause — he was on thin ice. “And we can’t all do it as well as some people.” Glaring into Beauty’s tranquil, opal eyes, trying not to get lost in them: “Hell, if I don’t do something now, I’ll look like Grandpap Time over there sooner rather than…”
He was about to jerk a thumb towards the slumbering form beside him when it stirred in its sleep. He froze. The timing was a little too perfect — especially considering who was sleeping. The snoring paused — just long enough to make clear that Father Time was not dead to the world.
Imagination pulled his hand back from the gesture, looked around the armchair council, and smiled nervously as he ran it through the wave of jet-black hair and styling gel he wore on his scalp. He froze again. Something had come loose. He tried to be subtle as he glanced at the thing between his fingers.
It was a single silver hair.
“Well!” Thought clapped just before Nate could start screaming, pulling the attention of the room to herself, “It’s been a good day, hasn’t it? Don’t want to ruin it by stretching it out, right? Besides, I’m sure we could all use a nap.”
Her smile was forced, and the room reached consensus a little too quickly.
She watched Time tuck himself gingerly into the back of another yellow cab two hours later — he’d been unable to convince the first one to come back when he called the company. He hadn’t woken up until after Nate left, shaking and sicklier than ever. None of the others had mentioned what happened as they cleaned the dishes and piled into vans, ride-shares, and sports cars headed for parts unknown. She wondered if Time was even aware he’d cursed the metaphysique with the biggest ego to his own special brand of hell… but his crooked smile as he walked out the door made her suspect he did.
She shook her head as the taxi pulled out of the driveway, rolling over the winter cracks in desperate need of repair. The hum of an empty home settled into her eardrums as she dredged the last of the punch into a red plastic cup and settled against the counter.
Time was petty, Imagination vain, Eternity, a glutton. Even Beauty had their faults… though it was hard to see them. And she was… well, she was a good host if nothing else. But some people might call her a gossip, a busybody: running thoughts into people’s heads, rearranging them like pieces in a scrapbook.
She put the cup to her lips and pushed an idea into her own mind… just one, well practiced thought. Sometimes she needed to, just to keep her head on straight. Thank God we’re not in charge. Now that’d really be a cluster.