Illustrated by Liangdi Liu
6:15 AM April 13
Neal woke up in a cold sweat. All he could remember from his dream was the EXIT sign. The sign could have been from any of the places he’d visited yesterday, on his work trip to California. But he couldn't remember having seen it.
Watching the light of the night downtown, he thought: “My brain is just remembering this sign from one of those spots. That's it. It was just a dream.”
He had only just woken up, but already he felt tired. He took a shower, brushed his teeth and was ready for his morning coffee. The sun was still at least an hour form rising, but Neal cherished this time of day.
It was the 15-20 minutes of his day that belonged to him.
While the coffee machine prepared a coffee for him, he enjoyed its aromas. He anticipated this pleasure. It was so quiet he could hear his cat sniffing as he reorganized his thoughts and schedule your day.
On his phone a notification had popped up:
The departure time for your flight has been moved forward by 20 minutes.
“No way!” he said out loud.
He finished packing up as fast as he could, shoving his things in his backpack, and hurried towards his apartment’s exit, his cup of black coffee still in the coffee machine.
2:05 PM April 13
His flight, according to the round clock above the luggage carousel, had landed an hour early. Neal looked at his travel notes in his diary to confirm that, indeed, he still had about an hour before his lift would arrive. He made a note of the delay in his diary and then eagerly looked for a cafe, searching for half an hour up and down the corridors, dodging passengers who were streaming the other way.
But there was no of coffee anywhere, not even of a coffee vending machine. He found only a small combo souvenir / book store, where his eye fell on a little book.
Across the cover, in black letters, was written the title:
An Oasis in Time
It was exactly this book, the thought flashed suddenly through his mind, that Thomas had described to him on their last journey together to Thailand, where they had passionately discussed the role of time in their lives.
An old lady with white hair reached and took this book into her shaking hands and held it for a few seconds, not moving. With her eyes closed, it looked to Neal as if she were praying.
A notification on his watch.
“Oh, already time to leave?”
He paid for the book and went towards the meeting spot outside the airport.
5:05 PM April 13
As the driver pulled away, Neal was left standing in the suburbs in front of a tiny yellow house. Once again he checked the address next to the door and compared it to the address in his diary. He raised his eyebrows but went towards the entrance. He had expected a big building, not this tiny house. The door was small but in comparison to this house looked massive.
In the center the door was an encircled decoration: a dragon eating its own tail. There was also a small scratch in the door, which revealed behind it what looked like ten layers of different colors.
Neal pulled the handle and heard a bunch of squeaks as he entered the room. There was a small wood table in the middle with three tables the same color.
Nobody was there.
He sat down.
In the silence, he heard his heartbeat.
He looked around. Even on the walls, there were no clocks.
Neal took out his diary to double check the meeting time. He sat on the chair. He walked around the table.
When he checked the time again on his phone, an hour had passed.
One more notification, to tell him the battery bar on his phone was low. The network signal was not lit either. A minute later, the screen of his phone went black.
He stood up to explore the walls. No plug anywhere.
He checked his diary again. As he was about to close his backpack, he spotted the book in there that he had bought a few hours ago. He took it out and read a bit of it. It was really hard to concentrate. He checked his watches every five minutes. But soon his watch, already showing a very low battery, went black as well.
"Great!” he shouted. "No phone, no watch, no electricity!"
He calmed down for a minute, opened the book and kept reading. With nothing distracting him, he took a deep breath and continued.
Neal eagerly swallowed each word and every page.
How long had he been reading? He checked his watch.
“Oh…” he remembered.
At that moment, the door was opened and into the room walked a man. He was dressed in dirty blue clothes. He had a big yellow broom and a yellow dustpan with him as well as some other cleaning tools.
“Sorry,” asked Neal. “Does Mr. Jonson plan to come to the interview?”
The guy didn't react at all.
No answer. The man started to clean the floor.
The man continued carefully cleaning the floor. No reaction.
“Do you hear me?”
“Oh my god. I spend so many hours waiting to meet Mr. Jonson and finally meet this deaf man.”
Neal took his backpack and went away.
Outside it was as hot as a sauna. It was almost impossible to find any shade. All directions seemed the same. All of them were unknown.
Eventually he found one direction that was a bit shadier. The shadows looked like small pieces of tissue on the street.
“Alright,” he said, and went that way. But soon those shades vanished. There were only boring one-floor housings along the street. As he walked along, the houses became smaller and smaller.
He started to think about his book. He could not get the title out of his head.
An Oasis in Time
He walked like a ghost. He no longer had any particular direction. He went slowly and quietly. He had even forgotten the purpose of his walk.
He started to smile.
At that moment a hissing rustle came from the bushes. The sound drew closer and closer. The smile on Neal’s lips disappeared. Cold drops suddenly covered his face. He stepped back.
It was too late…
The snake, with a wide hood and chevron yellow spots on its neck, watched at him from less than a meter away.
Neal stood petrified. A shudder went through his body and somewhere down his legs.
His life depended on his next move.
Everything else in the world was gone. He let go of all his anger. He wasn’t angry that he had missed his coffee because of his flight. He wasn’t even angry that Joseph hadn’t come for an interview.
Something yellow shot near him. Something else small passed him, close by on his right. Scared, he moved back, stumbled on a stone and fell to the ground.
It was a man.
He was quick and deft. In one second, he caught the snake.
Neal recognized the man’s yellow broom. He felt as if a high-speed train were flying through his chest. In a few seconds, this train started to slow down.
He was about to get up when he figured out that he was sitting on a metallic sign. He turned around and saw below him white letters on the red sign.
The sign from yesterday’s dream…