Ivy first managed to stop time when her baby was two weeks old.
Baby Willow, asleep on Ivy's chest, legs frogged up under her, stopped breathing. Ivy didn't notice that right away. Ivy was focusing on her meditation, on her own sense of time, waiting for it to pop into clarity at a new angle like an optical illusion; she wasn't listening to Willow breathe. Ivy noticed that she couldn't breathe.
People in stopped time, who'd meditated long enough in just the right way, could move things - they could open doors and pick locks, tidy their houses and trash their neighbors', set fires though not see them burn, turn faucets though not see them flow. A meditator could move plants, too. But not animals, and not people. People had the right textures, Ivy had heard. Reach out and pull a curl and it would bounce back; squeeze a love handle and it would give. But you couldn't move a whole person around. It was probably the reason everything was taking so long to completely fall apart. You couldn't lock your door overnight any more, not really, but you could sleep in front of it, if it opened inward.
Willow wasn't breathing and her heart wasn't beating and she was fine. She just wasn't proceeding through time. Ivy had done it. And she'd done it while she was breathing out, and now her chest had no room to rise under her stationary daughter.
She held on. Meditators didn't have normal physical needs, while they were stopped. She didn't understand all the philosophy behind it, she just knew she wasn't going to need to breathe, supposedly. She held on, looking out the window at a frozen bee halted between two flowers.
Eventually she'd not-breathed long enough to be convinced. It wasn't comfortable, mostly because it involved holding unnaturally still, but she'd gotten used to holding still, trying to master the meditation.
She hadn't liked the idea, at first. There were so many reasons not to want to be one of them. Ivy didn't know who they were, but her whole little town was slathered in graffiti, and there was nothing worth having left in the stores any more, especially paint. People kept dying, and a lot of those people were police, so even if the world hadn't been collapsing in every other way at the same time it would have been hard to figure out who, let alone catch them. Ivy wasn't sure if something about stopping time just made you a criminal, or if it was just a few people with a lot of stopped time on their hands.
Ivy's mother had, when things first started getting bad, spent all her savings on buying MREs a few zip codes away so no one would think their house was the obvious place to look. Looking back, Ivy could barely remember what had spooked them that early on. Maybe just the abstract idea of this being as easy to learn as how to stumble through a conversation in Spanish was enough to give an inkling. So Ivy had a lot of MREs in the basement, and had been eating them whenever the armored truck with the cornmeal and beans and strategic cheese reserve hadn't been by lately. That wouldn't last forever, though.
Ivy tried to get out from under Willow, but she didn't have enough room to scoot her chair. She dreaded, suddenly, letting time go on again. Everything was coming to pieces. Ivy's mother had been missing since Ivy had been in her second trimester. The armored trucks might stop coming at any time.
If Ivy wanted to live a life, she was going to have to do it in stopped time, and every real second that passed was another chance for someone to pry the boards off her windows and come into her house.
Eventually, Ivy managed to squirm out from under Willow. Willow hung in the air, sleeping contentedly, and Ivy wedged cushions from the couch and a spare blanket under the baby till she had a new surface to rest on. Time would start again, if Ivy got herself killed somehow, and - realistically there was no way Willow would live, if that happened, no one else was going to come through for her, and she was two weeks old, but she didn't have to start by falling. And if Ivy needed to restart time on purpose, for some reason, while she was out and about, but she still came home afterwards, this way Willow might still be sleeping then.
It probably said something about her that she thought of the second possibility after the first.
Meditators didn't need to sleep, but Ivy was still exhausted. She wasn't going to get any tireder, not when tiredness was a thing that moved with the sun, but she could sleep, and that was the first thing she did while her baby paused breathlessly on a heap of pillows that had yet to dimple with her weight. Ivy crept into her bed, the one she hadn't slept in since Willow was born because she needed the space her mother's bed afforded to sleep next to the baby. In the perfect silence of her meditation, in the perfect darkness of the boarded-shut windows, Ivy slept.
There was no way to tell how much sleep she'd needed. The clock wouldn't have advanced if she had lain there for a week. A year. Her bladder wouldn't have woken her, though her dreams might have. But eventually, Ivy opened her eyes, and she wasn't tired.
She lay awake, and she wished that was all time-stopping was good for. If all you could do when the world was still was sleep, that would have been so much better. Sleep, and rest, and think. Not everything else.
But that wasn't how it worked for everyone else.
So it wasn't how it worked for her, either.
Which was mostly bad, because most people were everyone else, but it meant that she could use the meditation for more than catching up on sleep around her baby.
Ivy opened her door and stepped out into the world.
Graffiti, everywhere. There hadn't been anything new springing into existence nearby for months - paint was not something anyone bothered to put in an armored truck to send through the towns that were still standing. But there'd been a lot of it accumulating in the early days.
Someone had had a whole artistic career up and down 14th St, once the gas stations ran out of gas and there weren't cars in the way any more, on the walls and the sidewalks and the street, starting at the south end with amateur tags and ending, two minutes' walk north of Ivy's house, with a mural on the asphalt that spanned six blocks and depicted the story of Genesis with really jawdropping loveliness. Ivy had seen it before - she had to walk that way to get water, nowadays - but she hadn't stopped to look at it. She spent as little time outside as possible, and when she went out, she wore her mother's clothes, ill-fitting and layered. When she saw other people they were mostly doing the same thing, which limited how much it could help with not standing out as a target, but better to blend in than to dress like she had last year.
Ivy had plenty of opportunity to stop to look at the art, now. She could see the whole town as an art gallery. The 14th St paintings were the most dramatic but there were projects everywhere. She had been confused before but saw, now that she had the ability herself, how of course once you could stop time you'd want to leave it that way for a while, and of course, if you could do that, you might not be ready to go back to the flow of time before you got bored. And if you were bored, you might - steal a lot of stuff from the hardware store and make a giant dinosaur, apparently.
There was something so peaceful about walking through the town, alone, silent apart from her own footsteps and her own breath. Outdoors, without peeping into anyone's house to see if they were home, it was like everyone was already dead. Like the end of the world had had a little longer to go on, and everyone was starved or suicided, and Ivy was walking among the painted ruins before the plants took it all for scaffolding and the rain washed the crumbs of civilization away.
Her feet didn't tire as she walked. She didn't get hungry, or thirsty; she didn't sweat, or need to. Those privations belonged to the flow of time.
She could stay like this for years, if she liked. She could go back to her baby when she was old enough to be a mother.
At first, Ivy nervously checked on Willow every now and then - she couldn't tell how often "now and then" was exactly, but she wandered farther and farther from home before she anxiously doubled back to make sure nothing had unaccountably befallen the baby. Eventually she no longer felt the need. Willow was right where she left her. Nothing was going to jump out of a shadow and startle Ivy into starting time again while she was miles away from home. Even if she did lose hold of the meditation, she could take it up again before Willow had even finished settling into the pillows under her, and get home then.
Ivy hadn't gone into learning to stop time with a very clear goal, beyond a kind of dread about the prospect of being one of the dwindling number of people who couldn't do it. There were other motivations, of course, things harder to put into words - something about safety, something about having time to metaphorically breathe, something about wanting more of her life to take place in a time when there were still some vestiges of a society even if she couldn't use most of them right now. Once Willow had been born, the utility had become much more obvious.
Fortunately she'd started months before that, practicing when she had nothing else to do. Which was often. The local schools hadn't been in session since October. She had a shortlist of people who might have killed the creepy band conductor, but didn't know who had that much of a grudge against the principal, or the history teacher, or - well, at any rate, school had been closed, and nobody had asked for her textbooks back so sometimes she looked at them a little on her own. The Internet still worked sometimes, but not reliably; same with the electricity. The library had closed - sort of - the librarians were no longer going to work, but the doors had been left propped open, and there were signs saying the books were free for the taking. Still, going there seldom seemed worthwhile to Ivy when she would have had to waddle there, out where anyone might see her and she wouldn't even have a broken window to guess by -
She exhausted the library's remaining ability to interest her after - some long while in paused time. The books weren't well organized any more. She was far from the first person to loiter here for subjective ages, and no librarians were cleaning up the accumulated tornado of misplaced materials. And when she'd finished with her local library; and looked at all the art; and spent as long as she cared to swimming in the reservoir holding her breath forever; and found enough still, soft wild squirrels and owls and rabbits to run her hands along; and looked for art supplies in the wrecks of the stores downtown and used up all the modeling clay she could find on great colorful mounds of tiny sculptures; then. Then she asked herself if she felt old enough.
She didn't. So she left town.
Ivy walked. Bicycles worked fine in stopped time, and for that reason she hadn't laid eyes on one in months. She debated with herself as she ambled up the highway whether she'd take one if she found one. It would make her part of the problem, in a way that the modeling clay didn't - the stores were already abandoned, but a bicycle would have an owner. Of course, they might have stolen it themselves, but she had no way to check.
It was moot. She didn't see any bicycles that weren't being ridden, except for through house windows, protected by that little extra reluctance to break into a home, and in one case, with a sleeping man draped half-over his bike's frame so it couldn't be moved.
The silence was getting to her. She sang to herself, not well, and talked to herself. It worried her a little, that she might be going insane from the isolation.
That was something that happened to people, she knew. Early on, the news still ran, and the stories were about things like all the abortion doctors in three states being murdered in an instant, or synagogues being shot up and covered beam to cornerstone with graffiti, or a rash of murders of single parents whose exes wanted custody, or every uniformed police officer in a county shot with their own gun, or a political assassination tally so long every day they condensed it into a single feature - it had seemed like a lot of murder. Maybe more murder than would have been reasonable to expect, even if anyone who'd seen that post or one of its copies could learn to stop time.
Anyway, some of the news anchors had speculated that it was people staying in stopped time too long, going crazy, committing some murders. But Ivy didn't think so. She didn't want to kill people. She thought that probably lots of folks did want to kill people, and didn't have a way to do it, and then everyone in the world was handed a weapon at the same time, a perfect one, and some of them used it. And some of them used it a lot.
Ivy wondered how many brothers and sisters Willow had.
The city nearest Ivy's hometown wasn't a big city, and that was good. The big cities had seen the worst destruction the soonest. Too many people, too concentrated, too reliant on things being shipped in and out. This city was worse off than Ivy's town, but it wasn't on fire, and only a couple buildings were set off with caution tape.
She pretended, as she walked the streets, that she was considering moving here. Maybe she had a job waiting, she could wash dishes and spend most of her paycheck on living with four other single moms rotating all the kids between them. She could live... there, that looked like a nice house. It was empty. Maybe the owners had fled to Canada in case Canada was better. Ivy didn't expect it was, but she couldn't blame them for optimism.
When she was bored of that pretense she pretended that she was here a hundred years in the future, when everyone who wanted to stop time and run amok had already done it and all the dust had settled, and she was going to raze this place to the ground and build a beautiful futuristic forest of skyscrapers, with robots. She'd fix the street layout so she didn't keep getting turned around in the hilly places. She'd put in a park every two blocks. She'd put in a subway. And aerial gondolas, stretched from building to building, like in Disney World.
Probably she wasn't old enough yet if she was still thinking about Disney World. Had it been even a year? Ivy didn't know. Maybe she was still sixteen. She etched out a little math on a scrap of receipt paper she found in the gutter. It would have taken her... wow, only ten hours to walk here from her home town, so that didn't give her much of a benchmark. Why didn't people walk that distance before? Maybe she'd just forgotten what it was like to be tired and thirsty and have her feet hurt. Or maybe she'd forgotten what it was like to be in a hurry.
She supposed she might never be in a hurry again.
There was one of the armored trucks, paused in the middle of the main drag of the city. The airlock opening in the back was shut, with a guard stationed in front of the outer door so no one could get by even if they forced it. Ivy couldn't see inside this one but she knew how they worked; another National Guardsman would be inside, fetching a ration from the main compartment, and when she let them move on, he'd close the inner door, open the outer one, and maintain a tight hold on the ration till it had been dispensed to whoever still lived here. Ivy looked around and spotted an old man peeping out of a second-story window at the truck. Probably he'd run to meet the Guardsman at the door and then clutch tight his food till he got it wherever they kept things. Or someone else from the family was already at the door, and she just couldn't see because there was cardboard over the downstairs windows.
This couldn't go on. In this moment, Ivy was the one watching; in the next moment, when she'd gone home to get Willow, someone else would have the run of the place. Someone else might decide to ransack the old man's house and do whatever they had to to get past his locks on his rations, and they'd take the food all the way to their cabin in the woods and keep doing that till they had enough to last all year, never mind that the old man could starve.
Ivy was climbing the tree in the old man's front yard to get a better look at him and his home, to imagine what he was like, when she saw, out of the corner of her eye, something moving.
Her first thought was that it had to be part of the tree that she'd moved herself, a branch springing back into place or a leaf she'd dislodged starting to drop before then leaving her sphere of influence. But no, it had been farther away than that - something past that fence -
Ivy clambered down the tree and ran towards the movement. It was tall enough to be hard to climb over, but apparently someone had had that problem before her, and there was a yard chair pulled over and positioned so she could step on its seat, and its back, and then vault the fence. This let her out into a neighbor's backyard, the pool drained and full of trash; she skirted it and came to a stop at the far corner of the pool yard, looking around at the stretch of more yards and more houses. Maybe it had been a leaf after all.
"Hello?" Ivy cried out, voice sounding too high and strained even to herself. She would need to practice before she went home. Didn't want Willow to have some kind of stopped-time-accent when she learned to talk. "Hello? Is someone there?" Better that time.
There was no reply, but there was also - not silence, there was some kind of noise that wasn't just Ivy's own breath - she stopped breathing to listen -
"I don't want to hurt you!" Ivy called, when that wasn't conclusive. "I'm harmless, honest!"
There was motion again, off to her right, and she turned, and there was a man, older than her, maybe eighteen or nineteen, though really nowadays it was impossible to tell by looking. This didn't have to be the first time he'd paused, he could really be a hundred.
"Hello?" Ivy said in a small voice. Her whole adventure fit in between two heartbeats, but it felt like her heart should have been hammering in her chest. She held her breath, once she'd spoken, so she wouldn't have to listen to her own air, when she could be listening to the sound of another person, a moving living person, not a mystery behind a window.
"Hello," he said, marveling. He took a step toward her, then another. "What are the chances..." He was quite close now, and Ivy, frozen like a rabbit, tried to guess whether she needed to adopt the most defensive pose she could and flicker in and back out of time to get rid of him, or if he'd just kind of forgotten how personal space worked. He tilted his head, looking at her, and she decided it was probably the latter.
"I don't know," Ivy said. "Maybe it happens a lot."
"But not so you'd meet people. If we're pausing in the same moment as somebody in China we'll never find them..."
She thought of saying that they might find their Chinese counterpart if they went to China, but of course not everyone was going to stay in the meditation as long as that. Even if someone did, it would be a needle in a haystack to locate them, even if you knew their position to the precision of whether they were in China. Instead she said: "What's your name? I'm Ivy." She could call herself something else but it wasn't likely he could do her any harm with just a first name.
"Aidan," she repeated. She hadn't learned anyone's name in so long. The last time she'd learned someone's name was when Willow had been born and had looked more like a Willow than a Summer. "It's nice to meet you."
"You too," he said, and then there was silence, except it wasn't silence. Ivy had met silence, and silence didn't have another person breathing in it, arm's reach away from her.
"Is this your first time?" she asked him, eventually.
"My first time pausing? No," he said. "I wasn't an early early adopter, but I knew how to do it before it was, uh." He looked at the dilapidated city around them. The pool full of trash, the house across the way burned to a skeleton of cinders, the windows everywhere broken or boarded or both, the - there was a man in the process of bleeding to death, over on the park bench. He looked maybe Middle Eastern, which wasn't good but at least wasn't as personally relevant to Ivy as if someone were going around slitting all the black people's throats. Someone had killed that man, maybe just a second ago, and he wouldn't finish dying until Ivy and Aidan let him.
Quiet, again, and then Ivy said, "It's my first time. I didn't want to start trying until - not that long ago. Do you know how long we've been in this moment? Is there a way to tell?"
"You can count - seconds and minutes, but not really hours, unless you're walking the whole time," said Aidan, shaking his head. "You can sing ninety-nine bottles of beer on the wall, and see how far you get. I don't know a trick for knowing how many days."
"I haven't been walking the whole time," said Ivy. She drifted through the weedy yards toward the dying man on the bench. She sat down beside him. He wasn't, now that she looked closely, sitting fully on the bench. He might have been walking down the sidewalk when he'd been slashed, and then - yes, there in midair there was some blood, spraying that way, and he'd collapsed just so but he wasn't yet seated. Ivy brushed some of his bangs out of his eyes.
"People are monsters," said Aidan, behind her. Ivy'd nearly forgotten he was there.
"Enough are," said Ivy.
Aidan seemed to struggle with what to say, quiet-not-silent ruminating noises drifting over Ivy's shoulder while she tried to guess whether there was any saving the man. She didn't have any medical background at all. She could find something to bandage his neck with, but would that help, or would she just wind up choking him or not stopping the bleeding at all or finding something that wasn't sterile enough and giving him an infection? Would the murderer come back in five minutes and try harder, stab him through the heart?
"I wonder how long there will be anyone left," Ivy said.
"I don't think everyone's going to die," said Aidan, "there's got to be - people in the middle of nowhere, with farms or something. People who nobody has a reason to work that hard to find, even if they're -" He looked at the man. "- racist? I guess?"
"Maybe," said Ivy. "That'd be nice. I guess I'd like to find a place like that, only I don't know if they'd let anybody in who knows how to do this." She could maybe drop off Willow, though. If she found a nice place where she'd be safe.
"What would they do about it?" said Aidan. "You could make them -" He seemed, after a pause, to realize what he was saying. "You wouldn't have to tell them."
"I think it'd maybe take a lot of looking," Ivy said. "The kind you can't even do if you have to eat and sleep still. So they'd be able to guess."
"Maybe," said Aidan. "You're - maybe they'd figure you're harmless anyhow, you look young and stuff -"
"I don't know how long we've been, uh, now," Ivy said, before she realized that had nothing to do with how old she looked. She wouldn't age a day till she let a day go by. "But I'm sixteen."
"- only sixteen," he said. "Really?"
Was he saying she looked older or something? Ivy could imagine having been offended by that a year ago. "Really. I'd be a junior this year, if, you know, school."
"Oh," said Aidan.
Was he going to run off and ignore her for not being old enough to vote? It wasn't like she was going to risk voting even if she made it to eighteen. She didn't even know who the President was at this point. It had taken the Secret Service a while to get someone obscurely far down in the line of succession safely into a secure-enough bunker before they were announced as president. By then she'd stopped paying attention. What a way to get the first female president, and the second, and the third...
"I guess I'm kind of bad at ages," said Aidan. "I wasn't trying to - never mind."
"It's okay," she said. "I'd like to be older. That's why I'm here, I mean now. I want to, you know, grow up. Before the world ends." The acquaintance wasn't long enough for her to tell him about Willow.
"I'm twenty-one," he told her. "Not counting the pausing."
"Huh," she said. "Is that grown up, do you suppose?"
Aidan didn't answer right away. Then he said, "Nah."
"Oh. Well. All the time in the world. Kind of."
"If that's what you want to do is grow up it'll be easier with two people in the same moment," he said.
"Would you do that?" Ivy asked. "Stay with me till I'm - old enough?"
"Yeah," said Aidan.
Aidan had at some point acquired some woodworking skills. Maybe just by being older than her and having had the opportunity before the meditation was all over the internet, maybe he'd once broken into a woodshop and played around with things and happened not to lose any fingers. At any rate, he had a chessboard he'd made himself, squirreled away in the empty house he'd been using. "I found it like this," he assured Ivy while he was setting it up. "I think they packed up and left months ago, maybe even before the downtown fire."
Ivy had been able to see the smoke from home. The arsonist hadn't gone to redo their work after the firefighters put it out, fortunately. A good thing that people didn't hate firefighters the way they hated cops. She hadn't heard of any firefighters being killed. "I haven't been staying anywhere in particular."
"I didn't use to," Aidan said. "I'd just bum around, leave whatever I picked up or made wherever. But eventually I wanted someplace to come back to, you know? It's a nice enough house. And I don't fall asleep while time's passing so I figure it's pretty safe."
"That makes sense. Do you stay in the city?"
"Not always. I went and saw the White House. It's a wreck, obviously, but it's still standing. I went to New York for a while. Once I went to Disney World, it's still closed but there were a bunch of people who coordinated to run some of the rides for each other."
"Do you have a bicycle?" It would be so far to walk.
"I did. I wrecked it a while ago. Had to walk back from Florida. Saw some neat things on the way, though. There was an alligator zoo, it looked like a guy was trying to keep some of the gators alive on pastured chickens."
"That's sweet," Ivy decided.
"I'm not sure he wasn't eating the gators," allowed Aidan.
"Yeah, I saw some signs offering fried gator tail. I guess it could be a marketing gimmick and it's just nuggets." He shrugged. He settled on where he thought the queens and kings should go, whether the bishops or the knights went on the outside - Ivy didn't know if he was right and they couldn't very well look it up online. It was good enough. They both knew how the pieces moved. Ivy turned the board so she could play white, and advanced a pawn.
Aidan won the first game, and Ivy won the second game, and they didn't set up for a third, instead going to a garden Aidan knew about. It was mostly abandoned and had gotten pretty weedy. There were a few people in it. One was looking despairingly at irrigation parts he was digging up with hands covered to the wrists in mulch. Ivy couldn't tell if he was stealing or trying to do maintenance to keep the plants alive. Another was just sitting on a bench overlooking the lotus pond. Her gaze was locked on a dragonfly where it hung in midair, frozen as though trapped in amber.
Aidan knew a lot of places to show her. He seemed to like having someone to bring along when he revisited all the most beautiful ruins and wild places he'd seen, someone to burrow into the library stacks with and come up with book reports to swap, someone to harmonize badly with while they hiked up a mountain.
They talked about - not everything. He didn't ask about her family. She didn't ask about his. They talked about everything except themselves and where they were from. They might as well have sprung fully formed into this still and silent instant. But they talked about everything else.
Aidan never touched her, Ivy noticed. It only occurred to her after some unknowable length of time spent following a river down to the sea to make sandcastles and stopping in every town on the way. He often stood quite close to her, but he never nudged her with an elbow or tapped her on the shoulder. Even when they walked through the halls of an art museum, looking at everything too obscure for anyone to bother stealing while the world came down around their ears, talking in unnecessary whispers out of respect for the solemnity of the dark windowless aisles, he didn't reach out to brush his fingers over her knuckles, or link their pinkies together.
On the beach, they spent what felt like a lifetime's worth of trial and error, demolishing other sandcastles other meditators had left, scooping wet sand by the bucketload, making a castle roofed with a trashbag heaped with more sand still. It was big enough for them to huddle inside. He gave her about an inch, in there, and Ivy closed the distance and leaned on him.
Aidan went perfectly still, and then, ever so carefully, shifted his weight away from her. There wasn't a lot of room; he wound up brushing against the sand wall, and a few grains dribbled down his arm.
"What?" Ivy asked, sitting up straight again.
"It's... you shouldn't," he said.
"We've been hanging out for God knows how long, now," she said. "Can't you tell me?"
Aidan shook his head.
"Maybe later. Maybe when I've grown up enough I'll talk about it." He smiled at her weakly. "I'm probably not even thirty yet."
Ivy probably wasn't even eighteen yet. She was increasingly unsure about seventeen. She might be seventeen. Mothers shouldn't be seventeen, though, she thought. Twenty would be better. "Okay," she murmured. "So that's a no on hugs."
They found a woman standing on a pier, hand over her eyes against the sun, looking out onto the water. Ivy hugged her. The woman didn't hug back, obviously, but she felt warm and real, as though Ivy had just happened to hug someone whose hands were too full to respond.
When Ivy was done with her hug she turned and saw Aidan was looking away, staring into the stalk-eyes of a crab crouched in the shallow part of a wave.
Ivy and Aidan were trying to build a house in the woods out of sticks and rocks. It wasn't working very well, but it was fun. "I guess not many people try this," she remarked. "Or there wouldn't be any branches left."
"Or maybe somebody goes around knocking down houses sometimes," Aidan suggested. "It's not like ours would be hard to push over." It was bigger than the sandcastle but not by very much. They didn't have any nails; Ivy was trying to stick things together with pine sap.
Eventually they had an assembly of wood that stood up, pretty much, even if it was full of gaps that would have let in wind and rain if those could happen in a single instant. Ivy ducked inside.
"I might try to sleep," Ivy said. "That was the first thing I did, when I paused, I went to bed. I haven't since. But what I want is to be older, you know, and most people get older while also sleeping sometimes."
"It took me a while to get the hang of sleeping when I'm not tired at all," Aidan said. "Or, no, at first it was very easy, and then it got harder when I got more - I don't know, interested in being awake, or something? And then I figured out how to nap anyway when I wanted."
Ivy collected a bunch of dead leaves and wrapped them in her hoodie. Her mother's hoodie, that she hadn't changed out of even when it was safe as houses to go out into the street dressed in something that fit and suited her. It wasn't a great pillow, but having conceived of the idea she found she didn't want to hike to town to get a real one, since it would take a lot of rummaging to find a pillow she was willing to take.
"Are you going to nap?" she asked.
"Not right now," said Aidan. "I won't go far. I'll keep an eye out for anybody else in the same moment as us, hm?"
Ivy giggled. It was so unlikely but it was sweet of him to offer. "Thank you." She plopped her head down on the leaf-hoodie and closed her eyes.
Sleeping was hard, but she kept very still, and breathed slowly - it helped that she didn't need to breathe at all.
"Ivy?" said Aidan, softly, or maybe she dreamed it.
Silence, except for Ivy's slow breaths. Sometimes imagining what she might dream about ahead of time helped her fall asleep. She could dream about flying. About taking Willow somewhere safe - on the Moon, why not -
"I wish you'd tell me where you're from," Aidan murmured. "So I could be sure I've never seen you before. I hope I never saw you before."
What a weird thing to say.
Ivy fell asleep.
Ivy didn't think much more about the dreamy memory of what Aidan might or might not have said. They found a canoe by a lake, and Aidan carved them some paddles when none were in evidence, and they paddled around, and swam, and went down into the murk, breaths held as long as they liked in the eternal instant they shared.
When they both felt like they were done down there - especially given that any time they ran into a fish it kind of hurt, as the fish did not get out of the way - they floated in the water, looking up at the blue blue sky.
"Sometimes I think," said Ivy, "that being bored is just being anxious with a different word."
"How do you mean?" Aidan asked.
"I mean... suppose this were a summer camp, this lake and what's around it, and I was here for summer camp. I would have to breathe, obviously, but even apart from that I think it would be different. I'd have a deadline. I remember when I went to camp before, I'd feel like... any time I zoned out and let all afternoon go by, swimming or making friendship bracelets or hanging out with the other kids, any one thing, I'd figure I'd wasted it. Didn't get enough other stuff into the day. So I'd feel like I was bored, after an hour or so. Bop around between all the things there were to do. But now I'm not. I don't know how long we've been here. I don't know how long I'll want to stay. I'm not bored at all, because I don't need to tell myself I'm running out of time."
"I'm a little bored," confessed Aidan. "Sometimes."
"Oh - sorry. You know, we don't have to stay together all the time, if you'd rather - we could meet somewhere, maybe in a library where we can read while we wait, after a while wandering off doing our own thing, if you want -" She tried not to sound too desperate for company. Bored, no, but lonely. Lonely she could be.
"No - it's okay," he said, shaking his head. "I think being bored sometimes is good for me. I should learn how to sit with it. And I want to help you."
"If you say so," Ivy said. She applied herself to trying to figure out how synchronized swimmers moved. Little hand motions, she thought, mostly.
"I'm from Franklin," she said, eventually, into the quiet air above the two of them. Maybe he didn't especially want to know, maybe she'd only dreamed it, but what would it hurt, to tell him?
"Oh," Aidan murmured. "I've never been to Franklin before."
And then, quite unaccountably, he started to sob, and swam for the edge of the lake, leaving her behind.
It took Ivy a while to catch up with him. He was taller, with a longer stride, and he'd taught himself some parkour. But he was the only moving thing in the world, and she never tired, and while she sometimes wondered if he wanted her to leave him alone, she felt like she deserved to hear that in so many words, first, before this vanishingly rare opportunity was gone forever for both of them.
He stopped, eventually, up a water tower covered in a mural of a dragon and a wizard dueling one another. It was done partly in paint and partly in chalk with some outlines Ivy thought were Sharpie, and she tried not to smudge the vulnerable chalk parts on her way up, even though the next rain would certainly do it for her.
He shivered a little but didn't run off again. "I've never been to Franklin," he said. "I've never seen you before this - this moment. That we're in. Never."
"Did... you think you had?" Ivy said uncertainly.
"I don't know," he whispered. "I've - seen - a lot of people. I can't remember them all. It was longer ago for me than for any of them. There was no reason I wouldn't have seen you except if I'd never been near where you live."
Ivy sat down next to him on the water tower. Something still wasn't falling into place for her -
She turned the idea over in her mind, wondering how to say it.
"I have a baby," she said at last. "At home."
Aidan's head snapped up. "I'm not - I didn't, I've never been to Franklin. - and it was only seven months back, real time, that I learned to pause -"
Ivy nodded. She felt strangely calm. Aidan had never touched her. Whatever else had happened, he'd had as long as he needed to grow out of it. "She doesn't look anything like you. She came out even darker than me. But you - might have some babies? On the way."
He didn't meet her eyes. "I didn't know that - people could get pregnant by somebody paused, but. Seems like I might." There were no abortion doctors left for a thousand miles around. Even if there had been not everyone would have availed themselves.
Aidan buried his face in his knees, wrapped his arms around his shins.
"You're older now," said Ivy. "You never touched me. You - you grew up, you've been - helping me - you're my friend." Her only friend. Her friends from school had all scattered to the winds, and it was only Ivy who had nowhere else to go that seemed like it might be better or at least have more people to guard the door. He was her only friend. "Aidan?"
He was holding very still.
He was holding so, so perfectly still.
Ivy lingered a while longer in her meditation, though she had no way to be sure how long. It was still true, however lonely she got, that she was not old enough to be a mother, and that she needed to fit in as much living as she could before the end of the world, and grow to be as good to Willow as she could before it was all over.
But it was much harder to walk and walk and walk, with no one to talk to; to wander and find her way back to a landmark, alone; to circle back to her friend, her only friend in the world, and find him as still and stationary as anyone else. She couldn't even see his face, he was curled in on himself too tightly. No matter how many times she climbed the water tower he was still there, and he still would be, till she let time go on again.
And she couldn't do that up on the water tower, miles away from home.
She wrote him a letter - and then she took it back and ripped it up and wrote him another - and another - and finally by the time she'd written him a fourth draft, she couldn't think of a different way to say everything there was to say, so the fourth draft stayed, folded up and forced into his hand.
She wandered. She waited. She read and drew and sang and swam and built and slept and hiked until she was sick to death of it. And then she went home.
She wriggled her way back under Willow's sleeping form. Put her hand on Willow's still, small back.
And she let go.
Willow wasn't company in quite the same way as a friend who could hold a conversation, but she was company. Ivy felt almost as though Willow had been born all over again, entering Ivy's life after such a hiatus.
She didn't stop pausing. It was much too useful - when the electricity was out for days and she had to do the laundry by hand, when she wanted to sleep and Willow didn't, when the ration shipment was late and she wanted one solid meal to last her through all the things on her to-do list more energy-intensive than lying in bed and nursing. But she didn't stay long. She was ready to be a mother, and even if she cheated sometimes being a mother meant not living at twice the rate of her child. It meant not living in a world that Willow barely intersected.
Being in real time was vulnerable. At any moment someone could come upon her, frozen in place where she was stirring grits or blowing rapsberries on Willow's tummy or cannibalizing an old shirt to patch one she liked more, and break into the house and do whatever they wanted. But she'd had all she could stand of the silent vast world of safety.
Nobody came to her house except the ration delivery. Or, if anyone came, they didn't leave a trace. She changed clothes in paused time. Took showers with Willow parked in a nest of towels on top of the edge of the shower curtain, so anyone who wanted to join her would have to cut it to move it aside, and then at least she'd know.
Being with Willow wasn't like being alone and it wasn't like being with another adult. She stuffed herself with all the baby snuggles she could stand and then some, and talked to Willow like Willow's future self was a pen pal, receiving Ivy's messages in a bottle of memory, because there was no one else to talk to. It was overwhelming and desolate all at once.
She missed her mom. She missed her classmates. She missed never having to eat grits with no butter every day of the week. And she missed Aidan.
Maybe he hadn't even read her letter. Maybe he'd opened his hand and let it blow away and lived a thousand lifetimes meditating on moment upon moment upon moment, safe and silent and solitary.
Ivy tried not to dwell on it, but there wasn't a whole lot to do.
Aidan came the day Willow turned three months old.
When Ivy heard the knock on the door she paused without even thinking about it. It wasn't time for the ration delivery. She hadn't spotted motion out her window. But when she peeked through the peephole, there he was. Just as she remembered him. Maybe with his hair a little longer.
Why? Why now?
Willow was asleep. She was a light sleeper, waking and crying if there was a helicopter overhead or shouting outside or a clatter as Ivy knocked something over. She'd wake up from the knock as soon as time started again, and then Ivy would have to talk to Aidan around a crying baby. Why had he come at all?
He'd either knocked on every door in town or he'd peeped in the window, paused, watching a still-life of Ivy nursing Willow or stirring beans on the stove. Or he'd been by in just the last second, when Ivy had just been washing out a mason jar so she could make pickles the next time the rations had vegetables in.
She went back to the jar and dried it off and set it in the cupboard, thinking. She wanted to see him again, but she worried she'd just yell. Why had he dropped out of their moment, rather than face her - why now, when he could have had all the time he'd wanted to think and then some and found her house the same instant she'd reached it herself?
Finally she opened the door and let the moment go.
Aidan opened his mouth, and Willow whimpered, and Ivy held up a finger at him, wait, and went to collect her baby.
With Willow shushed back to sleep on her shoulder, Ivy returned to Aidan where he was still waiting awkwardly on her doorstep. "Yes?" she said in a low voice, so she wouldn't wake Willow up again.
"I -" he began, looking between Ivy and Willow with a strange, sad look. "I. Found a place to go. For you. And her."
"Where?" Ivy asked softly.
"It's this Mennonite offshoot. They have a - farm - thing, grow most of their own food, they're pretty out of the way and organized with keeping meditators out in mind, and if nobody's come after them yet it doesn't seem likely anyone will... they seem nice. I asked them and they said they'd take you."
Ivy blinked at him. Packing up and moving to a Mennonite farm would be risky, it would have to all be done in real time to bring Willow along. But it would be - people, safe people in a safe place, Willow having more people to talk to. Instead of just waiting for nothing. Waiting for the ration truck to miss a week, miss another week, miss too many weeks in a row.
The Mennonites might not last that long either. In a year, or ten, someone might find them and take all their food, even if they didn't otherwise wish them any harm, hoping to feed some other band of people holding on somewhere.
In a year Willow would be able to walk. In ten, if she wanted, she'd be able to meditate.
Ivy opened her mouth on a yes - and then -
"What about you?"
"- what about me?" asked Aidan.
"Will they take you? Will they let you live there with them?"
"- I didn't ask."
"Aidan, where do you live?"
"I - nowhere in particular really, I wander around, you know." He wasn't looking at her, but his eyes flicked to Willow, asleep on Ivy's shoulder, a couple of times. "It's not important, I don't have a kid to take care of, I can always just go around if I run into a rainstorm or anything."
Ivy just looked at him. As though they were paused together again, had all the timelessness in the world, and she had nothing else to do but hold Willow and wait for a better answer, though the light breeze and the buzz of a fly and the baby's soft breaths in her ear belied the idea.
"I didn't ask about me," he said again, after a - not silence. After a quiet.
"Then," Ivy said, "go back and ask. And I'll start packing."
Aidan did not seem to understand.
"You're my friend," Ivy told him. "So you aren't Willow's father, not specifically. But if anybody on this Earth can forgive you anyway, it's me."
Aidan - flickered in place, like he'd paused and then come straight back after however many hours or years. "Ivy," he said.
"Go ask. Ask them if we can all three live there. And I'll get my things and Willow's together." Ivy smiled at him. "Or I guess you could tell me where it is and you could watch Willow while I talk to them, but..."
"I - I'll go," said Aidan, starting very slightly to smile back. "Back in a - a few minutes. - Ivy?"
"I missed you too. Don't you ever - don't disappear on me like that again," she replied. "Come back soon as you've talked to them. Bye."
And in a blink, he was gone.
Ivy, singing to sleepy Willow, started to drift around her house for the things worth bringing on a journey.