Time continued to stand still. You could travel a million light years in any direction and see the same scenes, the mediocrity principle writ eternal. If you came across the universe in your travels you would wonder what had happened here.
It would never be one excited child’s birthday; it would be another’s indefinitely. The high school student who worked hard to get accepted into college would never go; neither would the one who spent their senior year stealing cars and being wasted. The twenty-five year old about to have sex for the first time would remain a virgin in perpetuity, no one would ever know who won the Brazilian general election, and terminal patients who hung on for those few extra seconds would get to live forever.
Whatever you were in the middle of when David died is what you would be in the middle of for eternity. Some people were doing what they loved the most; some were masturbating furiously on the toilet. For a sad few, both of the above were true.
If there was a God, this would have been a good time for them to get involved.
“You’re a good guy and I like spending time with you, but I’m turning thirty this year,” Melissa had said, “and I don’t want to marry you.” David listened to the rest of her breakup soliloquy, most of which he thought made him sound like exactly the kind of person she should want to marry, and spent the next two days being extremely sad and drunk. Once he remembered what had happened, he immediately began helping her change her mind. He estimated that he had a month before she was gone forever.
He started learning the guitar again. He tried to join his local gym, but it turned out that he was already a member, and had been for the last four years at eighty-five dollars a month. He considered using steroids to accelerate his training regime, but he didn’t know where or how to buy them. He explained to his boss that he needed a promotion within the next week in order to save his relationship. His boss sympathized, but there was simply no budget. However, she could offer him additional tasks and responsibilities for no extra pay. Following brief consideration, David accepted.
He phoned his dry cleaners. He took his new duties seriously, and a Senior-Junior analyst has to look the part. The cleaners claimed not to have received the thirty-two dollars that he had physically handed them a few weeks ago, and were threatening to shred three of his best shirts in retaliation if he did not give them thirty-two dollars again. He went on the offensive with a fundamentally witty but poorly worded comparison between their business practices and the historical revisionism of the Former Soviet Union. He expected a violent riposte from his neo-Stalinist dry-cleaners, but there was only silence at the end of the line. There was silence everywhere.
It was in this way that David discovered that the words “fucking Warsaw Pact” could stop the flow of time.
David reasoned that if a month of self-improvement could maybe win back a lost love, six month’s worth packed into the same period could guarantee both her return and everlasting devotion. He stopped time with the arcane obscenities, stole several hundred heads of broccoli and protein shakes from his local Whole Foods, and began bettering himself. He practiced guitar until his fingers were raw, and bench-pressed until he couldn’t feel his arms anymore. He was unable to even turn a doorhandle for the next four weeks, and took the opportunity to catch up on every single season of Breaking Bad. After this temporary but thoroughly enjoyable setback, he continued plucking and lifting until he was ready to take his shot.
“You’re sweet, and strangely stockier than when I saw you last,” said Melissa when he showed up at her front door with a bunch of flowers and a backing track, “But I didn’t leave because you couldn’t play Stairway to Heaven.” David was faintly relieved to hear this, since he had bungled the solo, but he still spent the next week being sadder and drunker than ever before. He used this time to persuade himself that he had to take one more shot.
He left time running for a few more hours whilst he went for the most expensive haircut he had ever got. They cut it far too short, and he had to wait for three weeks-worth of stopped time until it grew back out and he could rejoin stylish society. This was enough time to watch all of both The Sopranos and The Wire.
He read The Female Eunuch, but Melissa did not seem interested in his emails explaining that he now understood the ways that women were sexually repressed by the modern nuclear family. He used the internet to track her down to an organic performance art show on the other side of the city, and paused time for four hours whilst he walked over. However, she refused to believe that this was a chance encounter, and politely but firmly instructed him to leave her alone and never contact her again.
David realized that this was not Groundhog Day. Melissa was not Andie MacDowell, and did not periodically forget all the ways he had fucked up. Being able to stop time is nice, but it doesn’t make people not want to leave you forever.
He decided not to be too upset. He realized that he shouldn’t be wasting his new talents on beautiful accountants who used to make him feel like the luckiest person in the world, and should instead start focusing on his career. He stopped time liberally in order to do a week’s worth of work in a day, hit deadlines and be ruthlessly punctual. He interrupted interminable staff meetings whilst he went and ate a burrito, keeping him fresh and vitalized where others flagged and flopped. He micro-paused discussions whilst he double-checked facts and figures, until he realized that he could simply tell lies and make them true later. His boss noticed his transformation, and found the budget for a tiny raise and a large increase in responsibility.
He traveled the world more efficiently than anyone ever has or will. Each weekend he chose a place of splendor and beauty, flew there, wandered round with the world on pause, and jumped back on the first plane home. He saw every painting in every major gallery in Europe in a single afternoon.
He could answer the question “what did you do today?” suspiciously impressively.
He read more books than he had in the last four years combined, and they were both profoundly mind-enlightening.
He got a lot of value from his monthly subscription services.
He considered telling other people, but couldn’t think who to tell. He explained his situation to his parents, but they were both comfortably into the mid-stages of Alzheimers, and he was reasonably sure they didn’t remember anything anyone had said to them since 1986.
Being able to stop time gave him more time in which to better himself, but also more time in which to contemplate all the ways in which he was much worse than he should be. For all his temporal shenanigans, he was still powered by fundamentally the same brain. He forgot to mail an extremely important form to an office three towns over, and had to make a twenty hour round hike over lunch to get it there himself. He was no more creative than before, making up for this by stealing other people’s ideas while they were helpless and frozen. He was still terrible at chess and he cheated at snap.
Unwarranted fame and fortune might still been fulfilling, but unwarranted bare adequacy was not worth the effort. He gave up guitar and stopped going to the gym. He only kept his membership so that he could go into the women’s changing room and broodily contemplate the showers. He stopped stealing from Whole Foods and started stealing from KFC instead. There wasn’t enough new TV for him so he rewatched whichever DVDs were nearest.
He spent longer and longer between traveling. It was old and adventureless and bored him. He kept time stopped for longer and longer, since at least then no one else could achieve anything either. Eventually he couldn’t remember when he last time run free; he knew he should restart it, but he would do that tomorrow. He never kept track of how long he spent with the universe on hold. He slowly forgot who Melissa was.
Tens of thousands of days later he looked in the mirror and saw wrinkles.
It finally happened one afternoon in June. As had become his habit, David was perusing his local Victoria’s Secret and eating grease and chicken out of a bucket. Distracted by a particularly challenging drumstick and an eye-catching display in the toys section that he had not seen before, he failed to notice a burger oil slick that he had left on the floor during his last visit. He slipped; all of his limbs and pieces of chicken flew into the air. Time seemed to stand even stiller than it already was. He fell to the floor. A small bone from his breakfast lodged itself in his throat, and like so many before him, David choked to death surrounded by women trying on underwear.
Twelve thousand people were being born at the time David died. Two thousand were having heart attacks, fifty-three were striking a homerun. In one sense, David foiled a terrorist attack on Barcelona that was scheduled for the next day.
Everything was potential. From now on, there would be only potential. It was time to add up the final score of the universe.
Equality and justice still mattered in the abstract, but no one would experience them ever again. There’s no such thing as morality without hours for it to exist in. The past retained whatever importance it had before, but the future was moot. There was only time like the present.