The first time Dylan Stephenson stitched time was when he accidentally spilled coffee on a customer. The customer—or, rather, the client—hadn’t responded well.
“We call all customers ‘clients,’ actually,” his store manager had told him on his first day as a newly minted barista with this particular ubiquitous coffee chain, and Dylan had wisely kept his ensuing impulse to roll his eyes purely in his head.
The days and months had passed in a pleasant, if boring, blur, mainly because this wasn’t Dylan’s first rodeo as a coffee drink wrangler. He allowed himself to barista on autopilot, giving himself over to the work with a practiced hand, saving his mental energy for his creative pursuits of guitar and writing in the evenings. And if the pay wasn’t so low he would likely say he enjoyed it more. At fifteen bucks an hour, an unthinkably high hourly wage back east, he was surviving, but barely more than that. After his breakup with Evelyn back home in Philadelphia, Dylan had needed a fresh start, and he’d always wanted to get back to the west coast after his failed stint of two semesters at Reed College nearly a decade prior.
Dylan had meant to journal about his travels while on the road, but he found himself taking photos for Instagrab and Facenote instead. He had been saving up for a ring for Evelyn when she had broken up with him, and he didn’t have any words left in him after that. He saw the trip west as an opportunity to recreate himself after a personal apocalypse; Dylan liked the poetry in that outlook enough to write it down in his journal on a break driving up the coast from northern California to Oregon. A nearby raven had cried out a “cawww!” from the surrounding forest right after he dropped his pen, and Dylan had accepted it as a sign that he was on the right path.
His 1998 Ford Escort, already on its last legs, hadn’t survived the trip across the country. The car engine died just as he crawled in evening traffic along I-5 entering the Portland city limits. Dylan had patted the drivers side door in gratitude for its final gift of getting him back to the “Best Coast,” as a surly tow truck operator with a massive beard had loaded it onto the truck bed. Dylan ended up donating the car to a nonprofit for a tax write-off, crashing with his friend Peter Jacobs on his couch for a few days while he had applied to every coffee shop in the city. The ubiquitous coffee chain had called him the day after he applied, a victory for any elder Millennial peering over the cliff of possible-to-likely financial ruin. He took the job, and moved into the studio three months later.
On the day Dylan stitched time, the “client”—a young woman, with long blonde locks and startling blue eyes peering at a bedazzled smartphone behind fake studded sunglasses—had ordered a triple frappuccino with extra whip, placing the order with a tone of impertinence reserved for members of royalty issuing commands to their subjects. An annoying order, but nothing too difficult (unlike the annual rainbow unicorn coffees, which caused every barista in the store to visibly shudder). It was irritating but standard, requiring him to brew the three shots of espresso at the espresso machine longer than his Store Manager, Aria, preferred.
Dylan got the drink made, walking over to the whip station, but on his way one of the new baristas, Jared, bumped into him while carrying a jug of milk to the other side of the drink station. Dylan put his hands out to catch himself, and felt his hands let go of the nearly-completed drink, sending the plastic cup with its hot espresso shot-infused coffee hurtling through the air and onto the client’s torso, spilling across her cleavage and staining her lavender blouse a dark brown.
The woman shrieked on impact, dropping her phone onto the floor.
She turned her birds-blue eyes onto Dylan, who felt paralyzed as her gaze seared him with sudden, unabashed hatred.
“You!” she cried, pointing an accusatory finger at him, and Dylan could see the delicately painted nails had sparkles on them. “I am going to fucking end you for that, you piece of shit!” she cried, shaking with rage.
“I–I–I’m sorry–” said Dylan, stammering, his body still frozen with shock as he watched the client before him screech like a madwoman, promising to get him fired, to sue him, to destroy his life.
I need this job, he thought, as he watched Aria step in to comfort the woman and offer her a coupon for five free drinks, in compensation for the mistake.
I can’t go back to Philadelphia, he thought, his mind rapidly subsumed with panic. I can’t go back and live with my parents! He was almost thirty, he couldn’t return to his childhood bedroom for a third time. Being on the west coast was the only thing he had; this job was the only thing he had. He had nothing else. Dylan thought of the mountains, the deserts that had been his only companion on his trip west. He thought of his dead car, his dead relationship, his dead future. He recalled the sound of the raven calling from the trees as he had finished writing in his journal:
—this is what’s required to survive–to recreate oneself after experiencing a personal apocalypse—
“Cawww,” the raven had cried in its piercing warble. Cawww!
Everything froze, the client’s mouth gaping open in a frozen frown, her manicured fingers still jabbing in the air towards him. Aria stood frozen in front of him, her hands gesturing upwards, completely still as a statue. Dylan swallowed, the sound audible in the sudden quiet. He looked about, even more shocked than before. One of the other baristas, Pauline, stood frozen as she poured steamed milk from the frother into a cup, the liquid frozen in mid-air as a solid arch of white.
“What the fu—” Dylan began, when he was interrupted by a voice from behind him:
“Congratulations, Dylan Stephenson! You’ve almost stitched your first nick.”
Dylan startled and whirled about, feeling his mouth gape open as a woman walked up to the counter, moving about the figures of the frozen client and his also-frozen boss. She had close-cropped red hair and dark green eyes that gleamed with intelligence and hidden mirth. Clad simply in a dark blue blouse and jeans, she walked around his frozen boss and the previously screeching client, leaning her hip against the counter and crossing her arms, smiling at him. Dylan noticed there was a smattering of freckles across her cheeks and over her nose, and when he finally dragged his eyes to hers once more, he felt himself blush at her amused expression. He moved his mouth to speak, to fill the shocking silence surrounding them, but no words emerged, and his tongue felt heavy in his mouth. He chanced a glance about him and yes, everyone in the store was still frozen: the old man in the corner had a stale croissant shoved halfway in his mouth, the crumbs frozen as they hung suspended halfway to the table where he sat. The front door of the store was halfway open, the people who had opened it stuck in mid-gait. The whole thing was so strange that Dylan could barely process it at all.
“I know everything about you, Dylan,” said the woman, and he dragged his eyes back to hers. “I know about Evelyn back in Philly, such a shame. Sorry to hear about that, but you’re here now, and that’s what you actually wanted, after all. ‘West Coast, Best Coast,’ isn’t that the saying? I know you need this job, too, but don’t worry, because you’re about to get another offer for something better. If you’re interested, that is.”
“Who–who the hell are you?” he asked, too shaken to be embarrassed about how his voice trembled.
“My name is Owen,” she replied, and Dylan felt blinked.
“Isn’t that…a guy’s name?” he asked. Owen narrowed her eyes at him.
“Could you be any less woke right now, Dylan?” she asked, her scorn readily apparent.
“Ah–oh, right,” he said, feeling like an idiot as he felt his face flush even further. He nodded towards her.
“Nice to meet you, then, Owen,” he continued, trying to salvage the conversation but feeling tongue-tied at the situation. Owen looked at him with a knowing gaze, like she was pitying him. She sighed.
“Yes, yes, nice to meet you too, all is forgiven,” she replied, waving a hand dismissively in the air.
“So, just to save you some time,” she continued, “let me say that first of all, this has an explanation, and all of this is fixable. In fact, I’m going to let you fix it yourself, and I’ll help you if you need me to, but I think you have this down.”
She gestured to the frozen store about them, with its frozen people, its objects hovering in mid-air. Dylan swallowed and cleared his throat.
“Is–is this where you tell me I’m a ‘wizard’ or something?” he asked, uttering a stilted laugh.
Owen shook her head.
Dylan blinked at that. “So…I’m a witch, then? Or something?” he asked, his heart stuttering in his chest at the prospect. Owen rolled her eyes.
“Nope,” she replied. “They don’t use this kind of magic, anyway, they can’t. You and I are special, Dylan. Though what we do is not without its own challenges, so don’t get comfortable before you’ve even begun.”
“I’m not comfortable with any of this, I gotta say,” he said, and Owen huffed out a laugh, smirking at him.
“Good! That’s good,” she replied. “That means you won’t make nearly as many mistakes, starting out.”
“So…what am I, then?” he asked cautiously.
“Oh, you need an announcement, then? A grand declaration of fact? I would have practiced for this, if I’d known, Dylan!” she replied with another laugh. “I’ll do my best, though.”
She moved backwards until she was right behind the counter, raising her arms wide, hands splayed up towards the ceiling.
Dylan blinked at her, his mouth having turned dry, his limbs feeling like lead. Owen let her hands drop, crossing her arms and sighing.
“Yeah, I know, it sounds really anticlimactic when I say it like that,” she said ruefully. “It’s the truth, though, so now you know. Welcome to the fold, and all that jazz.”
“A…a mage?” he asked. “Isn’t that the same as a wizard?”
“First of all, no such thing as wizards,” she replied. “Were you even listening? Second of all, a mage is like a wizard, but mages only work with one particular kind of magic. You and I happen to work with magic governing time.”
“H-how? How is this possible?” he whispered. “I–I never sought out any of that sort of–of power, or whatever it is. I never read occult books, or anything–”
“It’s not about you seeking it out,” Owen replied. “It seeks you out. We found you, because we followed threads of time that showed you were attuned to the same kind of magic we are.”
She raised a hand to stop him from interrupting her further. “I’ll explain everything, later, Dylan, down to the last detail,” she said.
“The–the what?” he asked.
“You panicked, before,” she said, “and you caused a tear in spacetime, right here in this cafe. We call it a ‘nick,’ a small scratch in the fabric of time. Us time mages stitch these tears up, wherever they happen, make sure reality doesn’t get torn apart, that sort of thing. It’s a thankless job, but someone has to do it.”
“I–” he said, but Owen grabbed his hand, startling him.
“We are running out of time, Dylan,” she said, her tone urgent. “We’re time mages, but that doesn’t mean we have full control. Look around you.”
Dylan looked about, and he felt his eyes grow wide as he saw that everything had begun to move again! The milk that Pauline was pouring behind the counter had begun to flow into the pitcher below, slowly but he could see the movement of the liquid as it sloshed into the container. The client and his boss were beginning to slowly move their limbs again, their mouths moving silently, not yet forming speech.
“What’s happening?” he said.
“If we allow a ‘nick,’ a tear in spacetime, to exist too long without mending it, we can no longer alter the timeline and undo the event,” she replied. “You need to stitch up the nick, now, Dylan. You can undo this event, undo all of it.”
“How?” he asked. “How the hell do I–I can’t even see the tear! I don’t see anything to mend!”
“You don’t need to see it,” she replied. “You can feel it. Reach out, feel the tear. See it stitched up, like with a needle and thread. Just try, Dylan.”
Dylan sighed, closed his eyes, feeling a twinge of madness beginning to unfurl in his brain. This was definitely the craziest thing that had ever happened to him, but he couldn’t focus on that right now. He reached out, tried to feel anything out of the ordinary. All he heard was the silence of the space around him, a dissonant ringing in his ears, like when he was alone in a quiet room, and then, towards the middle of the floor—there!
He could see the crack, an outline of stuttering darkness swirling about a void, like an entrance to the heart of a black hole. The tear shifted, as if it was reacting to his awareness of it. Dylan felt bile rise in his throat, dimly horrified, but he choked it down, determination rising in his heart. He clenched his hand in his apron.
“That’s right, you have it now,” said Owen calmly, and she squeezed his hand. “You have the nick. Now, stitch it up, Dylan. Imagine it closing, project that future onto the tear.”
Dylan swallowed, felt his eyebrows draw taught against his face. He raised his other hand towards the tear, imagining a giant needle and thread moving across it. The tear shuddered, and he felt the building lurch towards it. He ground his teeth, pressing the will of his mind harder on the tear.
“Close, damn you!” he cried. “Stitch up, c’mon! Do it!”
He pressed his mind onto the abnormality, moving the imagined needle and thread faster, imagining the thread as a current of light pulling the torn edges closed, and he uttered a gasp as he felt the nick stitched completely, feeling the entire building shudder from the impact before the tear disappeared.
“Holy shit,” he gasped, bending over, suddenly feeling faint. “Holy shit.”
“Yes! You did it!” said Owen, clasping him on the shoulder. “I knew you could do it, Dylan, you rocked!”
Dylan looked up and surveyed their surroundings. Everyone was frozen again.
“Oh, I figured you would need a few moments to get over your first stitch, so I froze everyone,” said Owen, shrugging. “Don’t worry, I’ll unfreeze them when I leave. You coming with?”
Dylan looked at her.
“Asking the important questions, I see,” she replied, nodding. “Yeah, my group will pay you. Not handsomely, but compared to being a barista you’ll be living like a king. Also, we’ll teach you how to use your abilities, how to hone them further.”
She crossed her arms.
“There aren’t many people like us, Dylan,” she said, “not in the whole wide world, and there’s a lot of bad stuff on the horizon for the next year. Stuff that doesn’t need to happen, if we have any say in it. There’s a lot of events for us to stitch, in these nicks of time. What do you say, Dylan? You in?”
“Yes,” he whispered, grinning. “Hell, yes!”
He undid his green apron and draped it across a chair. Owen smiled and took his hand, and as they walked out of the cafe, she snapped her fingers. He looked back and saw the store had unfrozen, the customers and staff milling about. Dylan turned and couldn’t keep from smiling as he walked along, heading into a new kind of life.
Meanwhile, back in the cafe, a certain blonde client stared at her phone from behind fake bedazzled sunglasses as she waited to place her order.
“Miss, are you alright?” said one of the baristas from behind the counter.
“Excuse me?” she asked scornfully. The barista gestured to the front of her shirt.
The client looked down and felt her eyes widen: her lavender blouse was stained with coffee!