Robert McGinty works and writes in Edinburgh, where he lives with his wife and son. He was a recipient of a 2016 Scottish Book Trust New Writers Award in the Children’s and Young Adult Fiction category. He is currently working on a Young Adult novel called The Dead Men of Pendragon House.
The Family at the End of All Time was written six months after Robert became a father and describes in a fantasy/sci-fi setting the effects of sleep deprivation on a new parent, when time itself has become very plastic and unreliable.
The Family at the End of All Time
Baby was asleep, at last, in his basket.
‘How old is he now, do you think?’ asked Mother.
With intense fascination, she watched the little frowns that passed over Baby’s sleeping face like clouds across a bright day.
Father looked at his wife with a worried expression.
‘What do you mean?’ he asked.
‘We don’t really know, do we?’
He put down his paper.
‘You must be able to work it out,’ he said. ‘We brought him home from hospital…’
He looked up at the ceiling to aid his calculations.
‘When was it now?’
Baby chuckled in his basket from the depths of some abstract dream and Mother instinctively put her hand out to touch him.
‘It really is broken, isn’t it?’ she said.
Father blinked his tired eyes and rubbed the grey bags of skin that hung beneath them.
‘Well, it’s either that or it’s us. The little bugger hasn’t let us sleep since we brought him home.’
You couldn’t see it in the sky or anything—not even with the most powerful telescopes—and it was hard to believe, yet its effects were being felt. People preferred to remain indoors. It was too strange a feeling to come home from work not knowing if it had been five thousand years or five minutes since you had left in the morning. The official recommendation was to stay at home and limit the disorientation.
The youngest family lived in a street on the edge of town, under the shadow of the conical Law which towered up behind their garden like a blunt-headed green giant. All the houses on the street had been built to an exact design and Father sometimes said that he might easily return to the wrong house some evening and mistakenly end up with another wife.
He had been joking then, but now he felt as if something like that had really happened to him, and in his own home. His paternity leave seemed to have lasted about a century already.
The street, usually busy with neighbourhood children and their bikes and games and battles in the daytime, was absolutely deserted. Curtains in house windows up and down the street were drawn, hiding their unmoored inhabitants from view. He let his own curtain fall and turned back to the dingy light of his front room.
Mother was cradling Baby in her lap; Baby had just come off her breast after a long feed and was whimpering gently in the crook of her elbow.
‘Will he ever grow up?’
Mother looked to him, almost challengingly, for an answer.
He had no real answers, of course he did not.
‘In other dimensions, perhaps, he will. It will be a different kind of growth.’
‘Yes, but what will his life look like?’
‘I don’t know. I suppose a lot different from our own lives.’
The woman cuddled the whimpering form closer to her breast.
‘I want him to have the kind of life everyone before him has had. I don’t want him to be different from us.’
‘You don’t know. It might be better.’
In his heart, he didn’t think it would be.
Some nights Baby slept for five hours straight according to the clock, and those nights were good; they could be survived. But on most nights, Baby slept hardly at all—he yowled when he was put down and wanted to be continuously suckled. Those nights were hard to take, and Father was not sure if the time dislocations he felt were the effects of sleep deprivation or the hyper-massive black hole on the edge of the galaxy.
‘Do you think he is aware of what is happening?’
Father was sitting up on his pillows reading his paper, and turned his head to consider Baby suckling at Mother’s breast.
‘Maybe it’s why he can’t sleep,’ said Mother.
Baby always kept up a mumbling commentary while feeding, and they listened together for a few moments as he slurped, grumbled and pulled at the teat in his mouth.
‘I don’t suppose babies have any concept of time anyway,’ said Father.
He flapped the paper in his hand.
‘It says here the hole is expanding and eating local stars at such an enormous rate that the effects might eventually extend to the other dimensions.’
‘How long before it reaches us?’
Father shook his head.
‘Even if they were to put a timescale on it, how would we measure it without reliable time? What does it mean anymore if someone says such and such a thing will happen in ten minutes? What is ten minutes, after all?’
He read more of the reports without really understanding anything about the complex physics involved.
‘Does it mean there will be no more birthdays?’
‘Yes, there will be birthdays. Of course, there must be birthdays.’
He spoke with conviction, without feeling any conviction at all.
‘But if you don’t know how long a year is and you can’t measure a year, how do you decide when to have a birthday?’
‘Maybe we’ll find other ways to mark special events. I don’t know, but there must be birthdays of some sort.’
Baby sighed and spat out Mother’s nipple, causing her to wince. She gathered him up, put his big nodding head over her shoulder and began to burp him.
‘I was looking forward to his birthday parties,’ she said, patting him sadly.
The effects of the hyper-massive black hole, which had suddenly and impossibly belched into life in apparently empty space, pulsed about them, distending and contracting time, distorting the very fabric of linear existence.
Sometimes Father thought Baby had been with them for a thousand years and at others for merely five minutes: he could be surprised all over by the little stranger who smiled and giggled at him as if they were meeting for the very first time.
Sometimes he wondered if they should have had Baby at all; if they should have made another decision in the knowledge of the Event. But when Baby smiled, such a surge of primal and instinctive love thundered through him that his doubts were all swept away.
Baby might not have the life they had enjoyed—the sequential, orderly life of time running forwards, but it would be a life after all. Where there was life, there were always possibilities.
They lived in their house on the edge of the town in the shadow of the Law while time continued to fracture and the hours ebbed and flowed like a tide around them.
Father looked out at the deserted street and saw that the sun was shining.
‘Why are we all hiding?’ he asked. ‘What are we afraid of?’
His wife did not answer but looked at him, surprised at his tone.
‘I want to show Baby the world as it is, before it is gone forever,’ he said positively.
It was as if a heavy weight lifted from his shoulders.
‘What are you suggesting?’ asked Mother.
‘A picnic, on top of the Law,’ he said.
Climbing the steep sides of the Law after days spent inactive in the house was punishing, but they were determined. Father carried Baby in the sling on his front, and Mother carried the backpack with the picnic. By the time they reached the top of the Law they were gasping for breath and sweat was pouring from them.
The view was wonderful from the summit, looking out over the rolling green hills and the wavering canopies of trees to the sparkling river in the distance. The sun was shining brightly over everything and Father could almost convince himself that the roads and houses were trembling in and out of view because of a heat haze; this sleight of hand helped settle his mind.
They spread the waterproof rug and on top of it they arranged the food and drink. Father unbuckled the sling and sat Baby on his knee, the wide-eyed child considering the astonishing world below him from the shade of his floppy sun hat.
They ate and drank and talked to Baby, who talked back in a language neither of them understood. Father was aware that his wife was shifting backwards and forwards, as he must be; he caught glimpses of her as she had looked when they first met and as an older woman he did not yet know. He ignored the effect, keeping vertigo at bay.
‘It’s coming, isn’t it?’ she said at last.
There was a pearly whiteness around them that suffused the air, as if atoms were congealing.
‘Yes,’ he said quietly, and put his arm around her.
A great white pressure weighed on the sun-lit world; the sign that something tremendous and awful was about to happen. The scenery slipped about them as reality lost its anchor in the present. Past and future ran free of constraint.
They did not look at the world; they looked at Baby with their heads together and waited, cradling the child between them as if they could protect him, enjoying the warmth of the sun beating down on their three bodies.
‘Do you see him?’
Father did see him, the man his child would become; the man he already was; the man that looked at him from child’s eyes.
‘I see all of him,’ he said softly, with awe in his voice.
They held each other tightly and Baby played between them while the skies opened and everything happened.
Robert McGinty can be contacted via his Twitter account, @robertmcginty1.