They’d made a promise to wait out death together, the sort of passion project concocted by girls who scorned trinkets like “best friend” pendants and bead bracelets spelling out their names. No, for them, the matter was serious. They’d run away from home. No, they’d stay exactly where they were and outrun time. They stood on the beach that evening before summer break, before Amina would fly back to Egypt and Parul to India, to their grandparents, to their cousins who’d ask about Dubai, about shopping malls and camel teeth, about American toys and Italian cars, and the girls would shake their heads and want to say, “You’re all so dumb, you just don’t see at all.”
Like how they had seen, that moment on the shoreline before summer, history and future unfurling. The weight of water, the places it would go. The time it took to assemble a beach out of grains of glass and powdered shells. The time it would take to press sand back into stone. Parul had got Amina into the reading of geology—“It’s like palmistry, but for the earth, and there’s science behind it,” she’d said. And so, Amina had whispered on the beach, “I’m thinking about Tethys,” and Parul had squeezed her hand.
Where to begin and end with the Tethys Ocean? How landmasses waxed out of water to touch, to cut off currents, to reroute whales, which had once been cows. They’d wondered if the Gulf would close entirely, if the desert would green. They’d wondered if whales would one day sprout wings. They wondered if the weight of the Himalayas could hold down Parul’s continent, if the Great Rift could divert the Nile, if future humans would take future whales to the Moon, to Europa, to the outer depths as reminders of home.
All this they’d recall in an instant, as their cousins’ questions spilled their lips, remembering the sea as a frozen puzzle of green and pink, the sun stuck between red and gold, the outgoing wave pinned beneath their feet for such a languorous instant before they lost balance together, before they picked each other up out of that uncoordinated tangle of teenaged limbs, before betrayals and reconciliations and lives they could not have expected. Remembering the only other person they could tolerate on such a long journey into the unknown.
“I want off this planet,” Amina had said.
“I want to live forever,” Parul had said.
“Don’t start without me,” Amina had said.
“I’d never leave you behind,” Parul had said.
They’d said so many things, always echoing. In her nineties, Amina has forgotten the details of their wild plan, only that it involved diving helmets and a bomb-shelter, possibly a seed vault. She wonders where Parul has gotten to. Outside, twilight. Outside, snow. Inside, while she waits, her body slows down, the way it had used to when they were young.
They’d met in detention, sent from their respective classes for “not paying attention,” though this was not true—far from it. Amina sat in the back of the room, tall and broad-shouldered, but hunched because it seemed like that was what was expected of thirteen-year-old girls who outgrew boys, who’d outgrow their fathers. Back then she’d thought of herself as a brown paper bag, as useful, as interchangeable. She shrank as Parul entered, the other girl a wisp of a creature with skin so pale she had a special note from the doctor warning that if she spent longer than twenty minutes in the sun, she would blister and peel. Amina had seen it once before—Parul’s cheeks and neck sloughing like shaggy onions, black curls tied back so the school nurse could apply cold cream and chide her for neglect.
The girl flung herself into a seat by the window and pulled down the blinds, plunging them in gloom. Amina pretended not to watch her make adjustments so she could peer through the slivered slats at the school’s concrete-paved playground, the scaffolding of an office complex coming up behind their parking lot. When Parul eventually turned to consider Amina, she frowned, as if trying to place her face.
“Are you the one who’s always falling asleep with her eyes open?” she said.
Amina froze at the presumption, then leaned forward and asked in a low voice, “Aren’t you the one who keeps fainting?”
It nearly ended right there, in petulant conclusion that they shared nothing in common. Amina retreated into herself, a habit she’d cultivated to compensate for more trials than she believed any girl should have to face—no friends, no confidence, no real skills to make up for a lack of inborn grace. She was an only child of older parents, serious and studious orthopedists. They believed Amina had it in her to be just like them, despite every round of detention, every display of disinterest, every mumbled protest.
And so, withdrawal—an apathy so visceral it slowed Amina’s very body down to a state of limbo—muscles stilled, blood sluggish, breath no more than a fog in the lungs, consciousness operating at half-speed, quarter-speed, till her very perception of time shifted into something between sleep and dream. In this state, clouds moved like whitewater rapids, birds were shooting stars. People blurred into swarms, their tirades and giggles no more than bass notes, irrelevant.
To outsiders, it was as if Amina had turned to stone. Thick in the head, they must have thought. Freakish. Amina expected Parul, trapped in that room with her, to be off-put by her trance-like state, relishing the thought as her eyes crept inexorably across the room to study the other girl. She spent entire classroom periods watching her classmates flutter like insects caught in webs. Only she knew how to escape.
And there Parul sat, crisp and still as the surface of a mirror, the only other person Amina would ever know who could bend time as she wished, whose face thawed into a smile that took an hour to snake to the corners of her eyes.
When the bell struck, it seemed like the sound had to tunnel across a continent to reach them, a moan that rose in pitch as the girls’ breaths contracted, as their muscles regained tension, and the clock ticked faster and faster until they hit realtime again, when the bell, at last, screamed to a halt.
“That felt like five minutes,” Parul said, bright-eyed with anticipation.
Amina colored and nodded. Her only secret, exposed.
During lunch the next day, Parul found Amina before she could disappear into the library and marched her outside, insistent on sharing how they’d discovered their talents.
“I can’t believe it,” Parul kept saying. “I can’t believe I’m not alone.” Amina couldn’t wrench herself away. Parul nattered at Amina the most personal details, that she hated her parents sometimes, that her parents hated each other all the time, that school was intolerable and she’d read all her classroom books already and was just so bored. That boredom did it for her, boredom taught her how to slow.
“Do you ever shut up?” Amina finally said. She pulled herself out of Parul’s grasp.
Parul considered for a moment. “Only if something interesting happens.” She seized Amina’s arm again. It was in the hospital, Parul continued, when she first did it. Waiting for a baby brother who’d never arrive.
Amina relented, drawn to the idea of this chirruping girl in the face of tragedy. She allowed Parul to lead her around the school, past the senior students’ classrooms and to the walls of the compound, where they dipped in and out of the meager shade of hardscrabble topiary.
“I was seven. I didn’t really understand what was happening, so I just lost interest,” Parul said, waving a hand as if family deaths occurred all the time. She’d felt herself slowing down, like clockwork unwinding. The waiting room had turned hive-like, doctors and nurses frothing past, their lives so urgent, their patients so critical that no one even noticed how still Parul had gone. “I just drifted, you know? It was a way to be there, but also not be there.”
In the end, what had pulled Parul out of her first trance was the oddness of her father’s body vibrating the chair beside her. She’d reeled reluctantly out of slowtime into a shock of awareness—her father was crying. “I panicked,” she said, her grip on Amina’s arm suddenly faltering. “Have you ever gone the other way? Faster than you should?”
Amina shook her head.
It was like falling, Parul said, unstoppable. Every muscle contracting so fast her body felt aflame as the world froze around her. An infinity of time to study her father, unreachable to her in this electrified state, his shoulders a crest that would not collapse for an age, the sob lodged inside whistle-shrill, louder than anything she’d ever heard. “I could have shouted, ‘Papa, what’s wrong,’ a hundred times and he wouldn’t have noticed.”
“I’ve never felt like that,” Amina breathed out.
“Quicktime,” Parul said in a quiet voice. “I don’t recommend it.”
Amina glanced at her wrist watch. They’d circled the school’s walls twice and ended up in the stairwell leading to the gym. “How slow can you actually go?” she said to Parul, not wanting to accept their kinship without a test.
Parul traced the slant of an afternoon shadow on the wall and retreated into the back of the stairwell. “Once, I put on sunglasses and watched the sun drop from the sky like honey.” She settled onto the floor, patting out a seat beside her. Amina edged closer. “My skin chapped so much my mother wouldn’t let me out of the house for a week.” She sighed as Amina sat down. “I bet it must be fun for you, doing it outdoors, watching a tree sprout from the earth.”
“Trees take years to grow,” Amina said. They both had their eyes on her watch, the second hand running circles like a bug in a bottle.
“What else would you do with your time?” Parul said.
For decades, Amina would not know the answer to the question. For the moment, she shrugged like it didn’t matter to her. Parul rattled off all the things she wanted to see—elephants skittering like squirrels, tortoises galloping, whales flickering in the deeps like silverfish. “Did you know that a mouse’s heart beats the same number of times during its life as a sperm whale’s, only much, much faster?”
Amina shook her head. But then she said, “Do you think a mouse feels days like months, and a whale feels months like days?”
Parul pursed her lips and nodded. They’d forget who proposed ditching class that afternoon, but they placed Amina’s watch on the floor and then started counting, “One, two, three,” their eyes shifting away from the watch hands because they already knew what a second felt like, how moments fell like beads down a silk thread, how easy it was to find the space between and hang there, too slow for afterthoughts to creep in and ruin everything.
The gym teacher found them some hours later, Parul cross-legged, Amina’s limbs out-flung like fallen brooms, the girls’ heads drooped toward each other, doll-eyed, hardly breathing. The witch twins, they’d later be called, and others at school would cleave space around the two as they walked, arms brushing, snickering at jokes no one else understood. That day, as frantic calls were made to their parents, the girls revived in the nurse’s room, turned their heads slowly to find each other, reached out across the stretcher beds with shaking fingers, and whispered, as one, “Eleven.”
To read this story in its entirety, please purchase a copy of Issue #18, which will be released in December 2023, or become a subscriber to the magazine.