Featured Work: The Thin Man

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The day is August 6th, 1953, and I’m standing in front of the Elevan Manus Machine. My hand trembles as I reach for the controls. My wife Elizabeth stands across the machine from me. She’s giddy. I see it in her smile and her eyes. The sight of her confidence and beauty steel my courage. If this delicate woman standing before me has no fear, how can I?

I turn on the machine.    

Reality quivers around me.

The walls of my basement laboratory shiver. Then she thins, not in dimensions but in opacity. As I watch her, the bravery drains from her face.

“Elizabeth?” I say her name. But she’s gone, like morning mist under sunlight.

I rush around the machine to the spot where she stood. In my haste, my shin should have smashed against the heavy oak case of the Elevan Manus Machine. Instead, I pass through it. Thinking nothing of the phenomenon, I go to the spot where she had been. There is nothing there.

My god, what have I done? I panic, fearing I’ve lost her forever. No. I must calm myself. This is the work of the machine, doing exactly what it is designed to do. I am moving forward through time, perhaps faster than I anticipated. But I can change that. Reverse it even. With the machine working, I am no longer the victim of time. I am the master.

I return to the front of the Elevan Manus and its minimalist control dash. I checked the gauges. Yes. It is working. Faster than I predicted, and accelerating. As exhilarated as I am, I have to have to bring it to a halt and see just how far into the future I’m been propelled.

My hand, still trembling, reaches for the controls. As my fingers pass through the switch and into the casing I realize with sudden horror how ineffectual I’ve become.

My existence is parsed through each second. For every minute that passes by, I experience a second. Each moment has been sliced translucently thin and placed before me on the slide of a microscope. My atoms are spread across each moment of time.

I am a ghost. A phantasm, robbed of my ability to exert force on physical matter.

The dials can’t be right. I’m moving too fast. Too quickly through hours and days. At this rate…

“Elizabeth!” I call out. Where has she gone?

I rush out of the laboratory and up the stairs to the comfortable home my work has afforded us. Even as I move through my familiar domain, I notice changes. I stop, and the carpet in the living rooms grows worn as I stand. I watch the sun fade the wallpaper. The furniture changes. The pictures on the wall move and replace themselves. I see shadowy figures move about. One passes through me.


Everything seems an illusion, and I’m lost inside of it. I need foundation. I need to stop myself. Perception is at the key to time travel. We move through time as we perceive it. If I can focus…

There’s too much motion inside the house. I need fresh air. I move to the front door, reach for the knob and my hand passes through it. I can move through the door wholly. What need do I have for a knob?

I step outside.

It’s winter outside, ice white and feeling as cold as zero Kelvin, the temperature of absence. It’s not death that I sense. Nothing as terrestrial as that. What I feel as soon as I leave the house is the sensation of scientific elimination. I know, if I stand out here much longer, I will be deleted from reality without leaving so much as the trance of a corpse.

I fall backwards through the front door. Warmth returns to my body. My translucence is quelled. I’m relieved to find that I can still breath, so I do, labored and short of oxygen.

I looked up into my house and see another couple has occupied my home. A man and a woman. Unmarried by evidence of the lack of rings, but carnal with each other. I can tell by their touch as they rest on a sofa. Not my sofa, but still my living room. My house, my machine, and my things are still here. I feel trapped within them. I can’t escape. But Elizabeth is gone and none of the things are truly mine anymore. I wash over them like rain against a freshly waxed car. I’m not sure if I’m real anymore.

My stomach is full of sour milk. What was I thinking? Just moments ago I was a brilliant young physicist making quantum leaps towards understanding and controlling the very fabric of space-time. Now I am an observer only. A fool. I stood on the shoulders of giants, I admit it. Doctor Elevan and his partner Mister Manus had left me with all the pieces. I built upon their researched and created my machine and named it after them. If I was half of their genius, I should have foreseen that the effects were irreversible. I can’t stop it from shoving me forward towards humanity’s inevitable demise.

The couple before me, they are an abomination cursed upon my home. Time moves and I’m forced to watch them in their daily routines. He spends most of his day making calculations in front of a small television-typewriter device. Is he a scientist, like I was? If he has ever made progress in his research, it’s indiscernible to me. He spends all his time inside his own mind, never turning knowledge into practical work, construction, invention and innovation. I’ve been compelled into the future only to find the regression of my fellow man.

The woman is lost in his oblivion. She is everywhere around him, but he doesn’t see her. Just as they don’t see me. But I see her beauty, her elegant curves, her silk-smooth motions as she goes about tedious tasks, tasks too menial for her precious hands. What I would give to reach out and feel her palms, and for her to feel mine. He notices nothing of her.

I see they have moved the Elevan Manus machine up from the basement of the house and into the living room. She set it in front of the sofa as if it were a coffee table. It looks rudimentary enough. The genius of it is hidden inside its oak casing. Only a few controls and instrumentations protrude. He sets his television-typewriter on top of it and burns away his time ticking and tapping on the keys. This is another perversion I must witness daily through my microscope slide perspective.

“You dawdle on top of greatness,” I tell him, but he can’t hear me. While he’s on his sofa, fixated on this apparatus, I stand behind him, my mouth just inches from his ear. “You have the tools and the ability to advance my research, but you waste them playing with this god-awful contraption of flashing pictures and beeps. Work! And find a cure for my life.”

She walks into the room and I look to her. She is gorgeous and gracious, her every move an unconscious ballet with the world around her.

“Elizabeth,” I say the name of my estranged wife. I haven’t seen or sensed her since I left the firmament of experiencing life one second per one second. I suspect that she no longer detected that I was present or alive. Her heart surely shattered, and she left our beautiful home to escape the pain.

I’ve retained my youth, but I’ve gone so far into the future, I wonder if Elizabeth is still alive. She’s certainly no longer my youthful bride. This woman however…

Fate and time stole my first love from me, and have brought me another. But first I must escape this existence. I have to stop my acceleration through time. The best I can do now is close my eyes and focus on the last frame of the over speed film reel that is my life. I close my eyes and focus on a moment, a still frame, a single flap of a hummingbird wing.

This woman in my house glides her hand across the marble counter top. Absent mindedly, she runs them to the base of a flower vase. Her fingertips turn upward and climb to the brim of the vase, then up the stocks of the flowers in the vase, then, ever so gently they caress the petals of lilacs.

I don’t want to be this ethereal thing anymore. I need to be human again. I yearn to occupy flesh and to touch the physical world around me. The solution is so close to me. But only diligent, patient, hands-on work with the Elevan Manus machine will save me. I need to take a hold of my work so this awful power can be harnessed and reigned. I’ve come so close to finding the mysteries hidden in the ether, between space and time.

Someone must carry on my work. It’s my only chance of escape from this pseudo-existence. I need these people to find a cure for my life. Why can’t he look past his baffling machine to see the genius in mine?

I’ll show him. If I concentrate, I can capture a moment like a grizzly snatches a trout a brook. If I focus, I can become physical again, if only for an instance. If I can compress my ethereal being into a moment I can move the air around me.

I stand close to the vase of lilacs the woman had touched. I allow seconds and even days to pass around me unnoticed. I see the petal begin to wilt before me. I can’t own each moment. I have to select one and wrangle it into my possession. A petal detaches from the base and before it falls, I find the temporal clutch that disengages the drive train of time. I hold the petal there in mid-air with nothing but my strength of will.

I breathe.

The falling silk petal of the lilac trembles against my breath. Its flight shifts and cuts upward in a soft arc, bellowed by the current of my breath. Instead of falling to the counter-top, it flutters down to the kitchen floor.

If I focus, I’m sure I can do more.

A day passed while I drew my attention to the lilacs. Just how many seconds slipped by me for each moment I managed to strangle to submission? It is futile to mourn a moment if by doing so I allow a million more moments to escape me. I have to make each second count.

The man was back on the sofa with his machine in front of him, resting on top of my machine. I come up behind him. My body passes through the sofa as if it were as solid as fog in the beams of headlights. I crouched next to him. My lips close enough to kiss his ear.

“Set aside this idle nonsense. See the machine beyond yours. Stand on my shoulders and take up my research. Solve the mystery that’s trapped me here,” I tell him. He doesn’t react. “Do it, man! Rise up and do your job as a scientist and rescue me from this prison!”

I bring my wisps of hands and arms around his head. If I could, I’d grasp his head and turn his eyes to the Elevan Manus machine myself, if only my hands could grip terrestrial matter again. I’d grab his head, and if he refused to look at my machine, I’d snap his neck. Nevertheless, my fingers pass through him.

But my breath hadn’t passed through the lilac petal. No. My breath had intercepted it and diverted it from its course down to the counter. I close my eyes, trying to steal another moment out of the cascades of time.

When I open my eyes, the man and his machine are gone. They’d turned off the lights in the house, and night had fallen. I am alone again.

I take the moment in time to examine the dials and gauges on the Elevan Manus. I see by the gauges that fuses have blown, lines have ruptured. It was overloaded went it sent me forward, and now requires significant repairs before it can halt my progression through time.

I cry out, irrationally and emotionally broken. I can’t control myself anymore, can’t stop talking to myself and now I’m howling like a rabid dog in the wild. My vocal cords tear and distort the air passing by. In my own ears, my cry is ragged and deafening. Inside the house? Did I even wake them from their sleep? Did they hear me scream? Did they mistake it for a draft in the aging house? A creak of the wood frame? I am here. I still exist. Why shouldn’t they hear me?

Before I can perceive the rising of the sun, another day has come. The man is back at his place on the sofa. His device is in his lap now. His filthy stinking bare feet are resting on the Elevan Manus Machine. The woman is nowhere to be seen.

The sight of this man’s feet on my machine obsesses me with disgust. I can’t look away. I can’t make this moment of time pass as so many other moments have before. I’m locked in. Focused.

My eyes fix on the screen of his machine, that television-typewriter that has captured his soul just as my machine had captured my soul. I strain and direct all my hate towards the device. A crack develops, starting like pit in a windshield. It crawls outward from the center to the edges of the screen. As the crack grows, it leaves a wake of discoloration on the television screen. The man stands up and spills his coffee. He is quick to pick up his machine off of my machine. The drink beads off the lacquer finish of the Elevan Manus. He evacuates his machine away to the kitchen counter, letting the coffee drip free from it as he goes. He towels it off and swears and inspects the damaged glass. It was too late for his machine. I had killed it. The Elevan Manus, on the other hand, is damaged but ready for repairs and reactivation.

“Come on,” I yell at the man. “Throw your broken toy aside and take up my mantle. Invest in the technology before you. Do my work and free me from this cage.”

The man keeps his back toward my machine as he goes about trying to repair his own. I reexamine the Elevan Manus, now that it was free of obstructions like the inferior machine and the man’s bare feet. The brownish coffee is still pooled on the varnished wood exterior. The sensitive electronics are inside the wooden cask. As long as the fluid stays out, the fragile components inside will be safe. If the fluid leaks into the high voltage equipment inside, it could destroy the entire machine and burn down this house. I kneel down close to the top of the machine. There is a joint where two pieces of wood met. In time-lapsed vision, I see the coffee seep in.

“Towel!” I yelled at the man. What will happen if the machine is destroyed? Will it release me from its influence? Will I be destroyed along with it? I’m not ready to take that risk. “Get a towel and dry this up, immediately. You have no idea what’s at stake!”

When I turn towards the kitchen, more time has passed. A new television-typewriter sits recently unboxed on the kitchen table. The man and woman are nowhere to be seen. I turn back to my machine and the pool of coffee is gone, absorbed into the joint.

“No, you damned fools,” I say and turn back towards the kitchen.

The man and woman are back again, now dressed for the evening. He is in a suit and she wears a fine black dress.

I walk straight through the man and try to rest my palm on the woman’s bare shoulder. I speak into her ear.

“Do something,” I say. “Open his eyes to me and to my work. You. You are attuned to me and to the world around you. You drew me to the vase and the lilacs. You know I’m here, don’t you?”

Her dress features a bow made of thin fabric sewn to the shoulder strap of her dress. As I speak, the bow, just like the petal, flutters and moves.

“Hear me, woman,” I say. “You are my Elizabeth reincarnated. Resurrect my love from its grave. She is gone by now, but you can save me. You can make him carry on my work.”

She turns and looks me in the eyes. She smiles and my heart seems to stop.

“Elizabeth, please,” I say.

She reaches out her hand. It passes through my body, and connects with the man’s hand. She had looked right through me. Her smile belonged not to me, but to the idle idiot who kept me trapped in this hell.

They hold hands and walk out the front door.

Something must be done. I have to put an end to this, regardless of the risks. If this drone of a man can’t be inspired to carry on my work, perhaps he can be connived to destroy it. I have no idea if the machine’s destruction will free me or lead to my own demise. But I can’t stand being in this eternal limbo surrounded by ignorance and sloth. I have a plan, but it must be perfectly executed to work. I have to practice my new ability to interact with the world around me.

I spend seconds of my own time but days of the world’s focusing on a few books resting on a shelf. I target just one volume. I strain and concentrate until it hurts to even keep my eyes open. But I remember the essence of the task. Let time spill by until that single finite moment catches my eye, then grasp it in a strangle-hold.

I do just that, and the book tumbles off the shelf.

The woman stands up from her chair next to the sofa, her eyes wide and searching for whoever pulled the book off the shelf, searching for me. She is alone with me in the house.

“Yes,” I say as she comes over and sees the book lying sprawled spine-up on the carpet. “Come find me.”

She seems to hear a word, or at least a noise. Her head turns, her eyes looking for the source of the sounds like a prey on edge for predators.

“I am here,” say to those startled eyes. “And you just might be my redemption.”

But time continues to flow over rocks and falls. It takes all my strength to slow down a minute to a speed I can actually experience it. When I weaken, it flows over me as if I’m comatose. Before I could capture that second, she was gone, the book was back on its shelf and the man is back on the sofa with his feet resting on my masterpiece. He ticks and taps on the keys of his device, and I let that moment pass me by. It is a worthless moment.

Night comes. I notice the vase has fresh flowers again. These are tulips. It must be spring time. How many months or even years have ticked by since the lilacs? How many years had drawn their lines across the beautiful face of Elizabeth, and now this woman who is her born-again? I disregard the thought and turn to this new vase and newly-birthed flowers.

I watch the tulips turn from white to egg-shell as they begin to die. I reach out mentally and stop Death’s progress as decay creeps across another petal. The inevitable drying, yellowing, and dying cease. I have it. I have this moment.

The vase lifts up off of the counter. My wisps of arms reach out to carry the vase, but it isn’t my physical body doing the work. It’s my mind’s grasp of a moment. I carried the vase and the flowers from the kitchen to the living room. The man wasn’t there. The woman was gone as well. My actions were going unnoticed, for now. With all the care I can muster, I set the vase down on top of the Elevan Manus Machine.

I’m out of breath, out of energy, out of focus. I am thin. My eyes flutter shut involuntarily as if I’m epileptic. My body, as ghostly as it is, gives in to the all too pedestrian restraint of fatigue. I collapse. Time slips by.

And I’m awake again. Who knows how much time has passed. I come to my feet, although they never really rest on the carpet. Over these moments the couple has perceived as years, I’ve become aware of my fictional equivalent. But I’m not just a spirit. I’m not a supernatural specter. I am real and I will shape this world.

I rise, and the couple are here in the living room with me. The couple was coming through the front door, again in fancy evening wear, not the same suit and dress I last saw them in, but similar. Their faces are similar to when I last saw them, but they’ve aged. I look into her eyes and for a moment I imagine the years of pain and sorrow Elizabeth had to endure after my disappearance. Is there a chance she is still alive?

I look to my machine and see that despite the years, a vase of flowers remain on top of it. She must have liked where I decided to place them. Lilacs again. Fragrant and violet and beautiful. I turn to the couple. They are embracing. His fingers lace behind her back; hers lace behind his back. After all this time, still no wedding ring. Still no children. Who are these heathens?

They stagger over into the living room, still wrapped up in each other. They near my machine. If they won’t discover the secrets inside of Elevan Manus, I’ll force them to through pain and violence.

She pushes him back and he lands ass-first on top of my machine. She reaches down and lifts up her dress over her head. Under her dress, she is still as lithe and smooth as ever, as if the years have had no effect. But her beauty is nothing but a distraction to me now, even as she straddles his lap. That they chose the machine on which to consummate their depravity is perfect. If I can’t have her or control him, I will destroy them along with the machine.

I must make this one instant matter. Make it true and make myself real.

I focus all my effort on the glass vase. I have managed to slow time to a one second per one second rate, but if I am to truly open their eyes, I have to stop it entirely. He moans. She writhes. I stop my own blood flowing through my veins. Silence falls as my field of vision narrows on the vase resting next to both of them on top of the Elevan Manus. My vision tunnels black around the lilacs, and in that moment I can reach through it and affect the real world.

The vase shatters. Water splashes out from it, onto his suit and her bare thighs and onto the surface of the machine. Most of the water runs off the side. Some of it pools around the wood joints. It seeps through. Water falls on bare wire, electrodes and diodes inside, but it’s not until the fluid shorts out the massive capacitors that the couple notices.

The man is caught in the electrical current, his palm placed in water. She shoves off of him, saving herself. He convulses. I smile knowing that soon he and the machine will be gone. The woman has found her discarded dress and clutches it against her chest, a poor attempt to hide her shame. The man froths at the mouth.

I have them both where I want them.

She lunges out and grabs his lapel. She leans backwards and pulls. He breaks contact with the machine and the water and the current. He tumbles to the carpet, out of breath but still alive. It doesn’t matter. Destruction of the machine is what matters. The high voltage equipment inside is still smoking and popping.

Can she hear me laugh? Can she sense me next to her?

I watched the short circuit catch the wood on fire. Soon the whole machine will be gone and I will be free from this hell. The machine burns. Time flows on, but at a human’s pace. I am attune to it now. I am present.

The woman comes with a fire extinguisher. She hits the handle and releases a cloud of dust and smoke. I am blinded by the white expectorant and so I close my eyes.

When I open them, the fire is out. The man and woman are gone. My machine is also gone. In its place is an unadorned coffee table and a fresh vase of tulips. Distrusting my eyes, I approached the table only to reassure myself. My machine had been destroyed, cast aside, and replaced. Still I am here and time carries on at its hurried pace.

The couple comes back through the door, another evening out in formal wear at a formal event. One look at them, one look at her, tells me everything I need to know. Decades have passed. She’s white haired and gentle. He is elderly and purposefully firm-footed.

As for me, I hover. I leer around them. My machine is gone but I still remain, no older or younger than I was in 1953. And I understand.

I’ll watch this couple live and die, and be replaced by another couple, and a couple after that. My only way to reach out to any of them is through fear and half-heard noises in the night. I move over to this elderly couple, again embracing and standing face to face. My silent footsteps come right behind the woman.

I tell her, “I’m here. I am eternal and alone and terrible. And I will never leave.”


Joe Prosit is a reluctant human who deals with real life by making up fake lives. When not doing that, he gets away from people by hiking deep into the Great North Woods. You can find more of his writing at www.JoeProsit.com or follow him on Twitter @joeprosit.