Click, click, click.
Hazel sits at the desk facing the wall in the corner of the room, a stack of papers by his side, his fingers coughing out a cacophony on the keyboard.
Sixty two papers transcribed; nine hundred and thirty eight more to go.
The clock clicks twelve, signaling lunch break and the instant rush of chatter, but Hazel continues typing. Today marks the 1,603rd day he neglects his break, which he knows only because it is also the 1,603rd day of his employment at this office. He — then, like now — has no need to talk to people who don’t know him and who will never matter in any significant way.
It’s simple math: some play their cards right, get lucky, or were born into fortune — they are the ones who become billionaires, find partners, and live happy lives with their happy families. The vast majority are left to repair their private jets and chauffer them from gala to gala, or to work nine hour days at minimum wage, six days a week, at data collection and transcription companies, with no one to talk to and no lunch break during which to talk.
Sixty three papers transcribed; nine hundred and thirty seven more to go.
Sixty four papers transcribed; nine hundred and thirty six more to go…
The gun rests heavy in his hand, his fingers having traced every inch so well and so frequently that he could reconstruct it perfectly from memory. Slide up to feel the groove on the left side; the notch on the right; the barrel. Safety. Trigger.
The sun is warm and the sky is clear. Hazel watches people hurry by on the streets from atop the roof of the skyscraper. Fascinating how these people remain completely ignorant of the fact that an assassin right above them holds a weapon that could end any one of their lives in an instant.
Hazel assumes his statue-like sniper position. He can’t afford to slack off. His first job must be perfect.
He has been tracking Target 314 — a man named “Daniel Peterson” — for several days, and has already mapped out his daily schedule, the route he travels on, and the buildings he goes to. Peterson works as a florist at “Growing Up,” on 442nd street, Monday-Thursday from 7-5, before traveling to his apartment two streets over, usually on foot, and cooking dinner before his husband and two kids come home for the day.
From this roof, Hazel has a perfect view into Peterson’s apartment (third window down, seventh to the left). He knows, from the cursory examination he made when he snuck in while the family was gone, that his bullets will pierce the glass on their windows.
The light in that window flickers on. A silhouette moves inside—
and Hazel freezes. Dimly, he suspects the rifle only stays in his hand because of his statue impersonation from earlier. That’s good — moving to pick it up would be an impossible challenge. Moving at all seems just as likely as suddenly gaining an extra pair of limbs.
He needs to pull himself together. What did he expect? This is his job , this is what he’s been trained for , this is what he needs to do in order to protect the timeline, which is something Daniel Peterson’s continued existence would have threatened.
Daniel Peterson. Daniel Peterson. Daniel Peterson.
((the gunshots still ring in his ears.))
Mechanically, Hazel begins to disassemble his rifle, the one that just killed a man cooking dinner, waiting for his family to come home.
Hazel climbs the steps to his apartment two at a time, since the elevator is still broken — they keep saying they’ll fix it but it’s been two years and the “out of order” sign still hangs on its door. Even after all this time, he’s still out of breath by the time he reaches his floor, which is situated on the fourteenth floor of the building.
His apartment is... fine. "Fine” is an apt descriptor of the absolute lack of homeliness his apartment exudes. Three “rooms:” a bathroom, bedroom, and kitchen, all littered with some remnant of unproductivity. Cardboard moving boxes still partially unpacked, their items scattered out when needed; the half-painted wall in the kitchen (a terrible decision, he needs to paint it back sometime); the clothes on the bedroom floor he still has to wash; the counters unscrubbed and covered in grime and dust.
So many things to do, yet so little will to do anything. Not that it really matters. No one will be visiting anytime soon.
Hazel sets down his work folder and opens his fridge. The only thing inside is some milk and leftover Chinese food from two nights ago, which he takes out to eat cold — there’s really no point to heating it up, since it will all be going to the same place in the end. Straight in front of him, if he searched, he would still find the scuff marks that have been there since he moved in. He would see the two dents in the left corner of the room, if he looked. And since he already knows what he would see, he doesn’t bother looking.
So many days wasted here in this apartment. So many hours wasted going to work and copying papers and doing nothing of substance. And so much more time that will be wasted thinking about all that he has never done, and that he will never do.
What do normal people do at his age? Call up friends or family? He hasn’t spoken to either in many, many years, and will likely never be able to build either relationship for himself. He hasn’t been someone who could be a friend for so long, much less a partner. Besides, the chances of finding a romantic partner this late in life, once most everyone has already settled down, are infinitesimal.
Do normal people have pets? Hobbies? Goals? His work schedule doesn’t account for the well-being of another living creature he has no idea how to take care of. What “hobby” could he possibly attempt? What goal? Save up money to go to Disney World? He would have no one to enjoy the experience with.
He has everything — a job, an apartment, food — and yet he still feels his life slipping through his fingers every single day he lives it.
Hazel sighs. The food disappeared long ago, leaving him with its empty container that he tosses in the trash, which is overflowing since he hasn’t remembered to take it out recently. The clock he had dug out of its box and plopped on the table once he moved in reads 8:13 pm. It must be dark already outside.
Sleep would be easy to fold himself into and slip away inside, but something causes him to hesitate. The decision hangs in a delicate balance between the relief of turning off his brain and the reminder that he accomplished nothing today and that when he regains consciousness it will be to another day full of the same monotonous drudgery.
He sits for a while, not entirely sure how long. The kitchen, like his office, has no windows.
“Hazel. Welcome back,” the Handler smiles, all teeth and plastic. Hazel nods. He’s covered in blood.
“Your past few missions have been very successful.” The Handler tracks Hazel’s movements with her eyes as he begins to unload his supplies from his latest job: assassinating the CEO of some car company in Japan. The back of his neck starts to prickle. “So, due to your success, you have been assigned a partner for your work.”
Hazel pauses. “I work better alone.”
The Handler laughs, “I don’t think I made myself clear. You will work with a partner for all your future operations. Your skills will benefit one another, and you will become twice as efficient together than alone.”
All Hazel can do is nod. The Handler grins in response, letting out a sarcastic little clap as she moves towards the door, knocking on it only once before it opens. A woman enters in.
The Handler starts, “This is—”
“Cha-Cha,” the woman who just entered finishes. She stands with a sort of bold confidence, extending one hand for him to take. He takes it.
“Excellent! With you two working together, our efficiency will increase by 156 percent...!”
The Handler smiles, placing her arms around their shoulders, and neither Hazel nor Cha-Cha smile back.
Hazel is late to work.
Today should have been completely normal. His alarm went off right as usual, he left the same time as usual, and then everything went to hell. The subway was delayed by half an hour and the traffic was unusually bad, so he couldn’t even hail a taxi. Walking would have added almost an hour to his time, so he had no choice but to sit and wait for the subway to come. Now, right down the road, the crosswalk sign counts down, switching to the red “stop” symbol right before he can try to sprint across.
“Dammit!” he mutters, smashing the crosswalk button on the traffic light pole. He slams it again a couple more times for extra measure. After a short eternity, the light finally turns green, a gaggle of tourists bumps into him, and his hand must be too slick with sweat from the stress because he drops the folder with his stack of papers in it for work. Hilariously, the pages decide to mock him by fluttering all over the crosswalk.
And he thought his day couldn’t get any worse. If murder wasn’t illegal, at least a few people on this street would be stripped of their right to breathe.
Hazel tries to catch as many pages as he can, but there are too many people and too many papers and too little time and the crosswalk sign is counting down again…
“Here.” Hazel turns to see an arm extended, holding the rest of his papers. “Are you well?”
“I’m fine. Thank you,” Hazel intones, taking the papers before turning and striding away towards his office building.
“Are you sure, friend?” the person rushes to catch up, grabbing Hazel’s arm. “You look frazzled… I’m just heading to breakfast right now, you can come with me! I’d pay—”
Hazel turns back around, shouting, “No! I’m in a hurry.” Some part of him protests at his words, but he’s too tired to care. That person chose to help him. That doesn’t mean he has to be nice back. Besides, they’re acting annoying and getting on his nerves “I don’t have time to come and play nice with you. Goodbye.”
“Oh… okay, but—”
Hazel rushes off towards his office building, turning his mind towards only the papers he has to copy. He only remembers the person who helped him once his manager takes him aside during the lunch break to scold him for being late, and then puts them out of his mind once and for all. They don’t matter. He will never see that person again.
Hazel and Cha-Cha land in the alley behind the building. His vision swims for a moment, head tight with nausea, before the familiarity of this old routine settles in. He breathes, in and out, and his vision starts to clear.
“Our motel is on 49th street,” Cha-Cha mentions, already reading the file for this job. She always recovered from the “time travel hangover” better than him.
Hazel nods, still trying to regain his bearings. “Great. Let’s… start walking then. Not much time before night.”
“We landed on 49th street,” she says, meaning “you idiot.”
He didn’t know that. “I knew that.” He retorts. “We should still start walking.”
The corners of Cha-Cha’s mouth start to curve up at his blatant lie, and he is pleased despite himself. No matter how many people they’ve killed, sometimes it’s easy to forget they’re both still human. Despite his hesitance to work together at first, he finds that her ruthlessness complements his indecisiveness, and he remembers the tiny details she does not that makes or breaks a case. Each mission together turns out better than the last, and honestly, he is grateful for some sort of a companion.
“Who’s the Target?” He asks once safely inside the motel.
“Perry Andersen. We even got a picture of them this time. And the reason why they need to be eliminated.”
Hazel snorts. “Management feeling generous today?”
Cha-Cha lets out a tiny half-chuckle, which Hazel likes to think is because she knows he’s right. Normally, the higher-ups would give only the name, and leave them to scrounge for all other information they have once they arrive in the timeline.
Hazel glances at the photo. Some lightbulb flickers on in the back of his mind at the sight of the picture — an old connection he can’t quite yet make. He brushes it aside.
“So, what’d they do, then?”
“Apparently, Andersen attends one of the Robinsons’ dinners and inspires teleporters a decade early. And that’s not all — they even gave us the time. This dinner is tomorrow night.”
“Damn. They’re really not cutting us any slack. Would it have been so hard to send us any further back?”
“I’m sure they have their reasons,” Cha-Cha says, annoyed but not annoyed at his griping. Just like his annoyed-but-not-annoyed annoyance at management — it won’t be hard for them to find one person in just a couple of hours, especially with all this extra information being handed out like candy.
“We should head out, then.” Hazel doesn’t move.
“Yes. I’ll go to the library, you go look for clues in the city.”
“You went to the library last time. How about…” Ah. Hazel reaches down to find a penny stuck between the wall and the grate. “Heads or tails?”
Cha-Cha rolls her eyes, but obliges. “Tails.”
Hazel flips the coin. Tails.
“Fine.” Hazel picks up the briefcase — ridiculously heavy, they really should put more energy into making these things lighter, seeing as they have all the time in the world — and stands up to move towards the door.
“Meet back here by eight,” Cha-Cha calls.
Hazel doesn’t reply. He shuts the door and heads out across the sidewalk, towards the police station—
—and immediately trips over something long and tough, his briefcase flying across the ground.
“Are you alright, friend?”
Hazel freezes. He’s heard that voice before. The lightbulb in the back of his head burns brighter, and Hazel shoves it aside. It can’t be.
“Fine.” Hazel stands and doesn’t turn to look. He doesn’t want to — can’t — see their face. Of course, the person just walks around to face him, and Hazel’s breath catches in his throat.
“Hmm… I think I’ve seen you before. Oh! You’re that man with the papers! From the crosswalk! Forgive me, I have a bit of a photographic memory,” says the person with the same face of the person in Cha-Cha’s photograph and the same annoying voice from his memory.
Of course it is. And of course they recognize him, too.
“Well, I’m glad I ran into you again! I never got a chance to introduce myself. My name’s Perry. Perry Andersen.”
With this one meeting, his job just became much, much harder. Did the Handler know she sent Hazel to kill one of the only people who was ever nice to him in this past decade of his life?
“Hey, do you live around here? I’m having a party at my house tonight. What do you say to stopping by?” Andersen offers. Hazel just breathes, trying to force his mind to think.
This is the perfect way in: go to the party, find Andersen alone — it shouldn’t be hard to take advantage of their kindness. He should say yes, tell Cha-Cha he found the target, and tell her the address Andersen will give him so they can plan. Kill this person who will disrupt the timeline by attending one little dinner.
Instead, he reaches out for the phone in their hand and smashes it against the sidewalk. Stomps on it again until it’s all broken glass and machinery.
“What— Why did you do that?”
“I’m sorry,” Hazel says, and he does mean it, but this way Andersen will never receive the invitation to the Robinsons’ dinner. Andersen’s eyes follow him as he stands, probably still in shock from Hazel’s actions. Hazel’s pretty shocked himself. Without anything else to do, he starts walking away towards the motel.
He really just did that. He really just abandoned his job and the timeline for some annoying guy that invited him to his party. If anyone from the Commission finds out, he will be in real deep shit.
What’s he going to tell Cha-Cha?
“I ran into our target,” Hazel tells Cha-Cha once he gets back to the motel.
“You just ran into them? Just like that?” She sounds skeptical, even though this is one of the only things he will tell her in the next few minutes that’s actually true. He can’t tell her the whole truth — she’d rat him out to management for sure, no matter how much bonding they’ve been doing on their various murder missions.
“Yeah. Took them into an alleyway and shot ‘em. Shot someone else in the alley who protested too — it’ll look like they fought each other.”
Cha-Cha blinks. Hazel thinks she’s going to question his story again, but she just says, “Management will have to give us a raise — this must be our fastest job yet.” She pauses a moment, and Hazel feels his anxiousness start up again before she breathes, “That’s really all?”
Hazel internally sighs in relief, feeling the anxiety in his stomach subside. “That’s all.”
There’s someone in the office, which is only unusual because of the inherent strangeness of this person, the source of which he can’t quite place.
No one ever comes into the company except for its employees, and this person is not an employee. They look rich, but not the management kind of rich — their richness manifests as less stuffy and more phantasmally unreal. Their suit appears both old-fashioned and futuristic at the same time, and they carry a leather briefcase. No one here carries briefcases; this is honest-to-god the first one he’s seen in real life. The person appears to be reading something from a newspaper, but Hazel sees their eyes peek out over the paper, surveying their surroundings. Why?
They make eye contact with him, and Hazel looks away, eyes back to his screen without processing the words. When he looks back, the person is gone, and Hazel is left blinking at thin air.
“Birdwatching is my favorite hobby. The doves are just delightful this time of year.”
Agnes certainly looks delighted. Hazel could spend an eternity in the simple pattern during which she spots a new bird, writes it down in her notebook, and then sketches out each line of its form with careful strokes. Somehow, no matter how terrible the world is — how many gunmen shoot out her restaurant — she consistently finds more and more moments of quiet beauty in her life than Hazel has ever known.
An odd feeling builds inside him as he watches her. He ignores it in favor of listening to her talk — this time, about her plans for the future.
“I think maybe I’d like to retire soon, you know? Disappear for some time. Just go wherever the wind takes me.”
Oh. Guilt. That’s what this feeling is.
Agnes has spent her whole life working in a donut shop, yet she saved up penny by penny to retire in order to watch birds in her spare time. Hazel has spent his whole life hating everyone and everything with no greater plan whatsoever. He stood atop buildings and pointed a rifle at ordinary people — people like her — and chose who should be allowed to head back home that day and who shouldn’t. How could he possibly think anything between them could ever work out?
Cha-Cha is even more ruthless now than when they first met. If she found out his uncertainty with the Commission she would try to hunt him down, because that’s what happens to people who flee the Commission. Cha-Cha’s their best — she would absolutely be able to find and kill him and Agnes, too, if she knows about her. Which means by even interacting with Agnes, he’s putting her in danger.
“I have to go.” says Hazel, who suddenly feels very, very sick.
“I’m sorry.” Hazel thrusts a ten dollar bill in her hand. “This is for lunch. Have— have a nice day.”
If she calls after him, he doesn’t know. He’s already driving away.
There’s a woman in the alleyway. Which is only unusual because he was looking when she appeared out of thin air.
“Hello, Hazel.” The woman smiles. “I’d like to offer you a job.”
Hazel blinks. The woman has no guards, no weapons in sight. Her confidence and ease in this situation only furthers his unsettlement, which begs him to retreat home to safety. But he spies the briefcase in her hand — the same briefcase that the person in the office carried — and she exudes the same uncanny out-of-time displacement as the first. They must be connected somehow.
“Who are you?” Hazel asks, taking a step back.
“Well, I’m the Handler. I am the head of the Commission: an organization intended to keep everything in this timeline working the way it’s supposed to.” She must notice his speechlessness, because she continues, “We make “corrections,” as we like to call them, by…” almost comically, she draws a line across her neck with her finger, “to certain people that prove to be, well, problematic to the timeline.”
“And I suppose you tell all these ‘corrections’ that you’re there to offer them a job?”
The Handler laughs. “Of course not, dearie. I’ve seen you. You would be a great asset to the Commission.”
Hazel eyes the woman— the Handler, if she is to be believed. He could probably take her if he needed to. Her grin only widens, as if she can tell exactly what he is thinking.
“Well then... why me?” Hazel questions, trying to stall for time. What kind of storybook bullshit is he supposed to be believing? He needs to think.
The woman smirks, “Only a truly desperate person would notice one of our agents.”
Sounds like a cop-out. “And why should I believe anything you say? Who’s to say this isn’t all one giant trick?”
“You’re stalling,” the Handler sings, and her certainty in the midst of his confusion only infuriates him more.
“ANSWER ME!” his hand slams down on the wall next to her, his breathing suddenly harsh. She simply pats his shoulder in mock-sympathy.
“Dear, if I wanted you dead,” she says, pulling something out of her bag. Hazel tenses, but she only pulls out a tube of lipstick and begins applying it, “you’d be dead already.” The Handler smiles once more, her hand — intentionally? unintentionally? — drifting to where a gun holster would be. If he didn’t believe her ability to kill him before, he most definitely believes her now. This lady could one-hundred-percent end him, and no one would know or care.
What can he lose? She already revealed her secret to him, so she has to know that if she lets him go there’s a chance he could blab to someone. If even one person believes him, her entire operation could collapse. His options are literally to kill or be killed.
“Okay,” Hazel steps back, lowering his hand from the wall.
The Handler smiles as if she knew what his answer would be all along. “Wonderful! Grab this,” she instructs, holding out the briefcase. All his anger dissipates, replaced with some anxious feeling as he realizes the full extent of his decision. Her breath is hot in his ear, and she grins. “You won’t regret it for one moment.”
Hazel pulls into the Griddy’s parking lot. Agnes hasn’t had as much business as usual since the shootout — that’s another thing to feel guilty for.
Agnes is at the counter, just like the first time he came in. He asked her once why she’s the only one ever at the counter and she responded that they do have other employees, but only part-time and she usually works at the counter anyway, because she likes greeting the customers.
He can pinpoint the exact moment when she finishes taking someone’s order, looks up, and spots him still standing in the doorway.
Hazel breathes slowly, in and out, in the same way he does after using the briefcases. Somehow, this nervous anticipation causes just as much nausea as literally breaking the laws of physics.
Agnes finishes ringing up the last customer in line and walks over to Hazel. She must sense his change in mood, because she tacitly steps outside to the small forest area behind the store — the same area Hazel ran off from yesterday. Hazel follows right behind.
“I was worried, after you ran off like that,” she starts, and her worry is another thing to feel guilty for. Still, she doesn’t try to push. He’s grateful for that.
Someday, if this all works out, he’ll tell her the whole story. For now, he can only give as a tiny bit, just enough for her to understand.
“I’ve done some… really bad things. Whatever you can imagine, it’s worse. It all caught up to me in that moment and now that I’ve really had time to think about everything… I guess what I’m saying is, you remember you said you might retire soon?”
“Well, of course.”
“Do you have room for two?”
Agnes smiles. “Hazel, all I wanted in my life was to help other people. Seeing you come here, the way you’ve brightened up these past few days just from what I’ve seen when you come in and order a donut… It made my day. Of course I have room for two.”
Hazel exhales, and his life seems to stretch forth in front of him. So many endless possibilities — all filled with Agnes and everything they could ever do together. All the world and all of time seems so incredibly vast — they could go anywhere . Without thinking, he sweeps Agnes up into a hug.
“Oh, Hazel…” Agnes voices, smile and worry in her voice, “Are you sure about this?”
This plan could go wrong in about a trillion different ways: the Apocalypse is still in three days and Cha-Cha could find them and kill them with the rest of the Commission before then, or Hazel and Agnes could end up unable to stand each other after spending more time together and the whole plan could fall apart. But for the first time in his life — so long, and now so painfully short — he has reason to try.
“Yeah. I’m sure.”