In which Rada Ni Drako, intergalactic babysitter, buys some frazzled parents a little time. . .
“Rachel, I hate to impose,” Panpit Khan’s voice said from Rada’s “cell phone.” “But is there any possible way you could mind Sita and Robin Wednesday week? I’ve been asked to give an interview to Threads and Trends magazine, and I can’t be in London and here at the same time.”
Rachel grinned up at the dark ceiling in her quarters. “I believe that I can, Panpit, unless someone decides to invade or your dear spouse finds something for me to do.”
“I’ll make sure that he doesn’t! Thank you, and I’ll ring back with the details,” Panpit said. She sounded relieved. Rachel understood: Rahoul had filled her ears with laments about trying to find sitters for the two energetic, creative, and intelligent nine-year-olds.
“How do you keep up with them?” he’d asked one morning at breakfast.
“I redirect them before they can get ahead of me, sir,” she’d explained. The trick was to distract them before anything exciting began.
She’d barely set down her satchel when Robin announced, “Aunt Rachel, I want to go to a time shop.”
“You mean you want to buy a clock?” She could just see Robin tearing apart a giant antique grandfather clock or similar device.
“No, I mean a time shop. Where Mama goes to buy time. She said she’d asked you to come over to buy some time.”
Rachel smiled, shaking her head. “Ah, Robin, that’s a figure of speech. She meant that she could get more done if I stopped by.”
Sita swallowed her mouthful of beans-on-toast. “How do you buy time, Aunt Rachel?”
Usually with either explosives or blackmail, depending on which causes less mess, Rachel mused. Firearms also work, if you are in confined spaces. That’s probably not what Panpit wanted her teaching the twins, however. “You go to a time sale. I’ll explain after you finish your tea, provided you don’t choke or bolt your food,” she warned as Robin started cramming his entire sandwich into his mouth.
As Robin washed and Sita dried, Rachel nursed a mug of tea and explained, “If you need to buy time, you go to a time sale.”
“How do you do that?” Robin demanded.
“You hire someone who can take you there, and there are not very many people who can. They also can help you decide which sale is the best one to go to, depending on if you need a little time or a lot. Although you can’t buy huge amounts of time. That causes problems. And don’t splash, please.”
Sita dried a plate and stacked it with focused precision exactly two centimeters from the edge of the counter. “What’s a time shop look like, Aunt Rachel?”
“Oh, the ones I’ve been to look like long, half-round, grey-black-purple-white tubes. The curved top sheds rain and snow,” she filled in before either child could ask. “They’re pretty ugly outside, truth be told. But the insides are marvelous.”
“Are they?” Sita asked.
“Oh yes,” and Rachel sipped more tea before continuing. “You walk in through a wood, glass, and brass door that says ‘Time Shop,’ and a little chime sounds. It smells homey but also a little wild inside, sometimes with a bit of spice like incense. And the first thing you see are two walls covered in rows and rows of wooden shelves, with little glass peep windows and brass knobs on the front. The go from knee-high almost up to the top of the ceiling, and stretch waaaaay back in the shop.
“Each of those drawers has a little bit of time in it, but you are not allowed to help yourself.”
“Why not?” Robin frowned. “Is it because time is hard to catch? Mum says that time flies.”
“It can be, yes, but that time is kept in a separate area. That’s the most valuable time, and only very experienced timekeepers are permitted to go after it. No, the problem is that most people don’t know exactly how much time they need. Have you ever started your schoolwork and discovered that you can’t get it finished before bedtime?”
They knew better than to fib, and Robin and Sita both nodded. Rachel got up and helped put the dry dishes away before sitting down again. “How about finishing much earlier than you think?”
“Oh yes, I get my class work done before anyone else in my form!”
Sita gave her brother a look that had to have come from her father. “And then he has to redo half of it.”
“No I do not!”
Rachel got up and grabbed them by the scruffs of their necks. “Do I need to settle this little difference of opinion?”
“Um, no Aunt Rachel,” Robin whispered, eyes wide.
“No, ma’am,” Sita agreed.
After giving them a little shake Rachel let them go and poured herself more tea. She’d never applied physical discipline to them other than a rare swat to the rump with her hand, but the threat worked beautifully. I do wonder what tales they’ve overheard from Rahoul. Or maybe it’s from all those pirate stories they read. Rahoul had informed her that pirates were now cool.
“As I was saying, people don’t know exactly how much time they need. So they go to the timekeepers, who can measure the precise amount of time. Then the timekeeper goes to the drawers and uses a shiny little silver scoop to dip out some time into a covered pouch. Next he weighs it, and may add a pinch or tap out just a wee bit if he’s gotten a little extra.”
Sita’s forehead wrinkled. “But Aunt Rachel how can he do that if the time is in the drawers?”
“Oh, the timekeepers have a little of the most common flavors of time at their big counter, so they are ready,” she assured them. “Then the timekeeper pours the time into a special bag and ties a strong bit of twine around the top, to make sure the time stays in until the new owner gets it home or to work.”
Robin, chore finished, sat down at the table and planted his elbows on the top. “What kind of time do most people buy? I’d buy play time, or test time. I bet Da would get nap time.”
I bet he would, as ragged as you can run him, Rachel thought very far behind her mental shields. The children were not active telepaths, except with each other, but there was no need to be leaking. “Oddly enough, Robin, most people ask for vacation time, or time with their families. But the timekeepers sell more business time than anything.”
“Business time? You mean people pay to spend more of the day at work?” Sita sounded doubtful.
“No. People pay to have their work done earlier, or to make certain that a parcel arrives exactly when it is supposed to.” She gave them a sideways look. “Not that either of you have ever wished you could have gone back and finished Monday’s project on Friday, instead of rushing on Sunday afternoon, I’m sure.”
Sita looked stricken. “How’d you know?” she whispered.
“Because your Da and Mum never, ever have to rush to finish something at the last-minute,” and Rachel winked her good eye. “And there is not a sign at my office saying that ‘if it were not for the last minute, nothing would get done.’ No, nothing like that. Because grown-ups always get everything completed early.” The twins giggled at her grave tone and serious expression. “So people buy more business time than they do holiday time.”
Robin got one of those thoughtful expressions on his face. He seemed to be mulling over something. “Aunt Rachel, can you buy more life time? For you or for someone else?”
The question struck close to the marrow and Rachel hid a shiver. “There are occasions when you can buy more life time, but it’s not always a good idea, and the cost can be so high that only a crazy person would want to try. And the timekeepers know that, and they ask a lot of questions about why you want that special time. They may make you leave and come back after you think about it. In most cases, people decide that life time is not a good buy, and they choose to do something else.”
“What does life time look like?”
You never ask the easy ones, do you Robin? “It can be bright and sparkling, dancing like light on water, and taste as sweet as sweet can be. Some life time is not as sweet, because it’s complex and rich, with more shadows and contrasts.” She locked eyes with him. “But some purchased life is dark, and bitter, so bitter that you wish you’d never bought it. That’s why the timekeepers are so careful about letting people buy life time.” Rachel looked away. “Only mad people want that, but some do. Some people also like aubergines and liver in Brussels sprout sauce, too,”
“Eeewwww!” Robin pulled a face and Sita pretended to gag. They’d decided two weeks ago that Brussels sprouts were icky, or so Rahoul had complained. Before that it had been the fat off beef roasts that they refused to eat.
Rachel glanced at the kitchen clock. “Speaking of eeeewwww, I understand that you have homework that you need to do.”
“It’s just a little.”
“We can do it later.”
She folded her arms and patted her foot. “Since we can only get ice-lollies if your homework is finished, I guess I’ll do my work and eat your ices.”
They grabbed up their school satchels and scattered a flurry of papers and books over the table. Rachel retreated to the living room to read some journals she’d been trying to ignore.
Alma T.C. Boykin © 2014 All Rights Reserved. Reproduction without permission expressly prohibited.