Suddenly. A few seconds bolted off.
A furtive glance to the right, to the left, and Charles Argus was a prisoner of the time loop again.* * *
The alarm sounded at six. Charles Argus’s arm thrashed about under the covers, popped out, whipped the air and swooped down on the machine. The ringing stopped, the nightmares faded away: the large, silent parking lots where the beef and pork carcasses were lined up, peaceful and hung on chrome hooks, slowly vanished within the mesh of fear.
He knew that he could do nothing to halt the course of time. The cycles are indestructible. However, like every morning, he hesitated ... “And if I don’t get up? And if I head calmly to the airport? And if I go out naked in the street? And if ... And if ...”
Charles Argus got out of bed. He had breakfast. Left the building. Turned up his coat collar thinking he was performing a cinematic gesture. A rehearsal in a way, he thought, smiling. When’s the final scene?
On the moped the fresh air lashing his face did little to wake him. Then the butcher shop window ripped open his eyelids. Height of horrors. Charles Argus could not stand red, raw meat.
When his father had found him this job, he could not refuse. He had been looking for something for months already and the claws of marginalization were beginning to drag him toward the public benches and soup kitchens. He told himself that for a little while red meat would be preferable to misery. But what he could not have imagined (who could have?) what would happen next. Time skid. The endless loop.
At least his job as delivery boy allowed him, as much as possible, to avoid the sight of meat. He took his moped and transported the steaks and carved up rabbits to their destinations in opaque plastic bags. Restaurant managers, the disabled, the shut-ins. But the air wafted the carnal aroma to his nose and the forms of fragmented animals took shape under the plastic, arousing the awful taste of red meat on his carpet of taste buds, on the mucous membranes of his nose and the roof of his palate.
Time folds back on itself like that — Schlak! — without a word. It’s one day, one hour, one second and Charles Argus is a prisoner. With no exit.
He delivered his plastic bags all day long, went back home, exhausted and disgusted, ate, went to bed, strolled along the large, silent parking lots between the pork and beef carcasses, hoping that the hooks would not break, that the meat would not tear off and that he would not have to continue his way trampling on a meat floor, red and white, forever. Then the alarm sounded and he got up, had breakfast and went to the butcher shop where the animal bags were waiting for him. A perfect loop.
But a time loop always has a knot. And Charles Argus finds it every Monday. On that morning the alarm does not sound and his nightmares go on until nine or ten o’clock. The rest of the morning is spent between the kitchen and the bathroom. Elegantly dressed, closely shaved, smelling good, Charles Argus leaves his house around eleven and takes the bus to go to see Miss Fonck. Helen Fonck is the only friend, the only confidante, of Charles Argus. The only good thing that came out of his job at the butcher shop.
They had lunch together every Monday, his day off. Miss Fonck did not work, anymore. She had lost her legs on a railroad track. Twice a week Charles Argus brought her a rabbit, a chicken and some quail. Since learning of Argus’s aversion to raw red meat, Miss Fonck no longer ordered pieces of beef.
From their first encounter they were open with each other. And by now they knew each other’s past.
They ate together every Monday and talked. They also made love. Neither one of them had ever had any other sexual experiences. As far as Helen Fonck was concerned, her infirmity was surely the cause. As for Charles Argus, prisoner of a time loop, his sexual relations were stuck in a knot of time. His only day off during the week. Monday with Helen Fonck.
He was twenty years old; she was forty. She was her lover’s age when the metal wheels crushed her thighs. And Charles Argus could not help seeing there another cycle. Time had hounded him since birth.
* * *
“And if you live here with me?”
“You know very well that that’s impossible, Helen. Time is blocked. I can’t do anything about it. No one can do anything.”
“What you’re saying is stupid, Charles. Time is not blocked. You don’t love me enough, that’s all.”
“You can’t understand. You can’t understand. It’s impossible for you to perceive the cycles that are my own.”
“You have to quit this job that you hate. You have to, Charles, you’ll see. Everything will return to normal after that.”
“Nothing is impossible. You only have to want it. Try, for me. Once, just once. To prove that you love me ... I mean, don’t you see that this job is driving you crazy?”
* * *
The handlebars of the moped seemed to be welded to the rest of the machine. A program was registered in the gas pump, wheels, spark plugs and exhaust pipe: “Take a rabbit to Mrs. Berton.” And the machine obeyed. Charles Argus’s body obeyed. The knuckles were white on the rubber grips. And all of a sudden the moped took a side street. Elastic time stretches out. Charles Argus has just modified the normal trajectory of this day. “I love you, Helen,” he murmured while heading for his apartment. “May God forgive me for this insane act.”
He neared his home. A smile twisted on his face. Time was still stretching out. Was it really going to snap?
He parked his moped in front of his building, took the bag off the handlebars and whistled as he climbed to the second floor. The intense euphoria was forcing him to announce his presence. He laughed, whistled, sang, drummed the rail, knocked on the door of his apartment. Time cracks. Helen was right. So, it’s possible ... then the neighbour’s door opened.
“Well, Mister Argus, what’s going on with you?”
His neighbour stepped onto the landing, scantily dressed in a half-open bathrobe, revealing her nipples and the top of her pubis. Charles Argus went up to her.
“You know, the other day, what we were talking about, and well ...”
* * *
Charlotte Sfax was busy in the bathroom. “Honey, the bath is almost ready.”
Lazily stretched out on the bed, naked, Charles Argus contemplated the lipstick marks scattered over his body.
“Time has snapped,” he yelled, beating his chest.
“What’d you say?”
He did not answer. He got up. A nice bath and everything would definitively be back to normal. The great time-cleaning.
Then his eyes fell on Smouth, Charlotte Sfax’s dog, a grotesque French boxer who had not stopped observing them during their lovemaking. Smouth slowly came up to him. He growled almost unnoticeably.
“Hey, what’s up with you? You jealous?” he murmured before getting out of bed in a burst of nervous laughter.
The boxer chose this instant to jump at his throat.
Charles Argus found himself stretched out on the bed with his hands around the animal’s neck. And he was squeezing hard. Very hard. Euphoria had changed into ecstasy. He drew his strength from the very fabric of time. And the vertebrae cracked.
“What’s going on, dear? What’s that noise?”
“Nothing ... nothing, I slipped on the carpet and I ...”
“Bonehead, come on!”
Charles Argus contemplated the boxer’s lifeless body. In a daze he pushed it with his hand. All excitement had disappeared. He felt his muscles relax. It’s not possible, he told himself, I didn’t really ...
But the evidence was there and fear leapt upon Charles Argus like a harpy. He took the dog’s body, trembling, and went to the garbage chute. She mustn’t see this, he thought. I know that it’s impossible to exit the loop. What a tragedy!
The rear end of the body easily entered the chute, but the head would not go. He forced it. The bones cracked.
“Charles, the bath is ready. Are you coming?”
“I’ll be right there. In a second. I’m finishing my smoke.”
The dog’s head was stuck now. Charles Argus could not even get it out. He broke a front paw, leaned over the head and, using it as a lever, managed to loosen the animal. He was about to run away with the corpse, overcome by panic, when he saw the bag. He had no problem slipping the rabbit into the garbage chute and at the very moment when he dropped the bag containing the remains of the dog, Charlotte Sfax entered the room.
“Well, what are you doing?”
“Nothing ... nothing, I’m just thinking that I have to deliver this ... rabbit before noon. I have to leave, Charlotte.”
She came up to him rubbing her breasts and her crotch. He knew; he felt that a new loop was forming. His pants got tight. Charlotte knelt down. Her tongue came out.
And they rolled on top of each other. With hands full. With mouths full. Crushing the plastic bag. The corpse of Smouth.
Charles Argus left his apartment. He had just vomited. Just finished carving up the dog. The “rabbit” for Mrs. Berton. Everything had to return to normal. It’s impossible to break the time loop. You can only intensify it with other loops, imprison yourself deeper. Mrs. Berton would eat the dog and he would make Charlotte believe that Smouth ran away, that he had seen him in the area but could not catch him.
* * *
Charles Argus got up, delivered the plastic bags with animal contents, went to bed, dreamed of parking lots full of meat, had lunch every Monday with Helen Fonck, sometimes (less and less) made love to her, regularly wallowed in vice with Charlotte Sfax and killed a dog every week.
Time is incorruptible.
Jacques Barbéri is a French author of more than fifteen novels and numerous short stories. Thrillers, science fiction, fantasy or the fringes of literature — nothing is off limits to his perpetually mutating imagination. He is also a musician (with the group Palo Alto), screenplay writer and translator.
Michael Shreve is a writer and translator currently living in Paris, France. His publications include works by John Antoine Nau, André Laurie and Marcel Schwob among others.