&The Land of Words&
&D. S. White&
Published by Longshot Press
Copyright © 2016 by D. S. White
No part of this book may be reprinted or reproduced in any form, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying and recording, without the written permission of the publisher or the author.
This book is divided into four sections: North, South, East and West. Just like the compass, the stories point in different directions. To the North, the stories explore changing emotions. To the South, they play around with possible futures. To the East are stories of devastation. Beware all who venture there. And to the West, the stories revolve around changing lives.
Travel freely around the Land of Words. Or stay with the compass. You’ll discover a new world in every direction.
I saved a whole planet one time. I got fired for it, of course. Usually I’m either supposed to enslave them or destroy them. I really don’t know what possessed me.
I’d never seen such primitives before. I shouldn’t have hesitated from wiping the whole world clean. If only I’d acted sooner, I wouldn’t have ended up in the unemployment line. That’s the downside to being a planet reaper. You can’t delay. I don’t mean to complain, but they never give you time to stop and think.
And so there I was on this decaying world, finding it hard to get focused. I needed to start my next run soon or I wouldn’t make my quota. The first problem I needed to tackle was their unwavering optimism. It was obvious by looking in on their broadcasts that they were certain they were all part of a bigger plan. I scanned thousands of frequencies and shook my head. Without me, they might end up destroying themselves — and taking out half the known universe with them.
“Hey, Porter, you there?” I said, picking up my space-link communicator. “You ain’t gonna believe the place I landed on this time. I think I found another name for Pandora.”
“Hard. Man, you are hard. Give ’em a chance. Remember what I was able to do with Huropa? That place was a lost cause until I straightened it out. Just tell them the truth: submit or die. If they’re smart, they’ll realize loyalty is the only option.”
“Oh, the signal must be breaking up. I thought I heard you say you’d like to swing by here and do this planet a favor. Is that correct?”
“You know I can’t do that. The rules are the rules. Just keep your head up. Hey, I gotta run. Things are getting a bit rushed here. All these new reapers coming straight from the academy, they just don’t get it. They aren’t motivated to turn out the kind of quality work a seasoned planet master like you can deliver. Catch you on the return path, bud.”
I looked out over the horizon of my new world and watched the sun rise. It was beautiful the way the light broke into hues across my goggles. Maybe there was a chance for this place yet. I just needed to convince them to follow me into submission. But still, I hesitated. Perhaps happiness was an important part of the equation. We’d been enslaving and destroying planets for thousands of years and it hadn’t gotten us anywhere.
I could feel the spirit growing in me. Porter had been right. I was good at what I did. I had a knack for knowing just the right way to tweak a world. For this place, I was going to let free will decide. I was going to walk away and not do a single thing.
And guess what? It turned out that I was right. They eventually figured it out and transcended their primitive ways. And their happiness spread across the universe. It blew my mind the way they advanced and made peace with other civilizations. But my boss didn’t see it that way. I failed to deliver free souls and was let go. Deep down inside, though, I know I did the right thing.
If you ever get the chance, check out a little planet called Earth. You won’t regret it. And remember, when you’re standing on the street corner fishing some coins out of your pocket to put in my cup, I did that. I made that planet come alive. That was me. I’m not really such a devil after all.
- I -
Matthew woke up in the back seat, sitting behind the girls.
It was night. It was cold out. The engine was running and the heat blasting. The window was cracked, so they were getting fresh air. They’d driven the van far enough into the night, into the cold, that they could stop and rest a while.
His back was sore. He hurt everywhere. He opened the door quietly to step out and stretch. He walked around to the back of the van and took a leak.
The sun was just starting to come up. On the horizon, they were coming. The masses were approaching, in cars, in vans, in buses, and on motorcycles. Soon the survivors would be here. They’d surround them and overwhelm them and take everything from them. Nobody was safe anymore.
He pulled up his zipper and pumped his fist on the back window. He took one last look at the sunrise and then walked around and got inside.
“Time to go. They’re getting close,” he said.
The girls rubbed the sleep out of their eyes. “How long do we have?” Ellen asked.
“Maybe an hour.”
“I need to pee. And I’m starving. And I’m sick and tired of driving,” Kelly said. She stepped out of the van.
Ellen slid into the driver’s seat. Matthew stayed in the back. It was getting warm fast. He pulled off his jacket and threw it behind him.
“What’s for breakfast?” She looked at him in the rear-view mirror.
“More of the usual,” he said. “I think we’ve got plenty of canned tuna. If the fridge is still running, there should be some pickles in a jar. I’ll take a look.”
He open the door and looked inside the fridge. He found a wrapped loaf of bread. He broke off a few pieces and looked at them. Consuming pickles and tuna everyday was getting old.
Kelly appeared beside the passenger door. She had her pants open and was scratching an itch on her butt. Modesty hardly mattered between them anymore, after traveling together for a month. Matthew hadn’t even tried to make a move on the girls. He still hoped that over the horizon, somewhere, he’d find Marcy.
Ellen giggled. “Girl, pull your pants up and get inside. This ain’t no nudist beach.”
Kelly pushed back a yawn, fastened her pants and jumped into the passenger seat.
“Here you go,” Matthew said, handing both of them a sandwich. “Enjoy.”
After they finished eating, Ellen stepped outside to relieve herself.
“What’s the schedule look like for today?” Kelly asked.
“We need to stock up on bread, if possible. And probably gas.”
That was it. They had another day of driving ahead of them. When Ellen returned, she put the van in gear and pushed the pedal down. They moved forward, keeping just inside the cold edge of nightfall. Matthew’s mind drifted back to the last time he’d seen Marcy.
- II -
They’d been standing on opposite sides of the kitchen table, yelling.
So much for peace and harmony, he’d thought.
“Look at this plant. It’s just ugly.” Marcy picked it up and threw it at him.
Matthew dodged the projectile just in time. The pot hit the wall. Dirt and plant spilled out as the pot broke open on the floor.
“That’s part of my program,” he cried. Marcy knew he was a recovering alcoholic.
“And what about your dog? What step is that? First, the plant. Then a pet. And now me? Am I just another project for you? Another tool to keep you from drinking?”
She had a point. But he wasn’t ready to concede yet that that was all she meant to him.
“The plant is something special. You don’t know what it’s capable of. It talks to me.”
She shook her head. “You told me you haven’t had a drink in months.”
“Just listen. I’m not drunk. The plant puts images in my head. And feelings. There are no words.”
“And? Is it talking to you now? Since I threw it at you, has it been crying for help?”
She was trembling all over. He could see she wasn’t going to believe him.
“No, no. It doesn’t work that way. My mind is too focused right now. I have to be open. I need to have a drink.”
“And what comes next on your road to recovery? A plant, a dog, me, and then what? Religion? Are you searching for God?”
She picked up the keys to the car and walked out of the apartment. That was the last he’d seen her.
- III -
Matthew woke up. Kelly was nudging him. “You’ve been dreaming. Snap out of it.”
He looked out the window. It was dark farther up the road. In the back of the van, sunlight reflected off the glass. The masses were far enough behind them now. Far enough behind that the road looked safe. But he knew better.
“Looks like another small town up ahead,” Ellen said, pointing through the darkness.
“We’ll have to stop and see what we can find.”
Ellen nodded and pulled the van off the exit ramp. Down below, the way through had been blocked by an accident, a twisted conjunction of metal frames. She took the long way around, driving off the road. The tires spun on the ice and she almost lost control. Then she slowed the van and let it move forward at a crawl, until they were back on the pavement.
Matthew looked at the plant, sitting in the back. It had grown a little taller in the weeks since they’d been on the road. He reached back over the seat and poured some water from a container into the pot. The plant hadn’t talked to him in a long time. He hadn’t had touched a drop of alcohol in a long time either.
- IV -
In the year 2173 the seed was discovered on Merceni Alpha, during the travels of Talphon 3. A year later the alien spacecraft delivered its new biological cargo to a destination on Earth. When they put the seed in soil, they waited around long enough to see if it would grow. Nothing happened, so they soon forgot about it. Time was money. They needed to keep searching, scavenging the galaxy for something to sell.
No one in the government had a clue. No mention of the event appeared in the news. The seed had escaped any detection at the port of entry. The crew of Talphon 3 moved on across the galaxy.
The seed had never meant to hurt anyone. It did what seeds do. After several winters, it drank up rainwater and sprouted, absorbing sunlight. Then, something unexpected happened. It mutated. The composition of the soil on Earth was a critical factor in the mutation. The seed had been left in the remains of an exhausted volcano cone, a place rich in key elements found in the earth’s crust.
From there, the seed, now a plant, moved away from the volcano. It rolled downhill like tumbleweed and landed in the ocean. Here it mutated again. Mutation and adaptation were important hereditary traits that had kept the species alive across countless galaxies. This wasn’t the first time someone had moved it to a new home.
The first humans who encountered it tried to burn it. The plant had attached itself to the bottom of a boat. When the boat docked in the harbor, they thought it nothing special and used fire to remove it. It mutated again. In the night it floated ashore and went underground.
Once in the city, it moved from place to place. One day, it was picked up by a homeless man and potted and put up for sale. Matthew bought it at a night market. He bought the plant water and new soil and took it home. The plant was about ten centimeters tall and reminded him of a bonsai tree. He enjoyed tending to it every day. It gave him new hope that he could escape his addiction to drinking.
The plant attempted to communicate with Matthew. He’d gotten drunk one night, a relapse, and thought it was the whiskey talking. The plant said earth was doomed. Feeling bold, Matthew asked it why. It communicated by putting images and feelings into his head. We were doomed because we didn’t know how to coexist, it said. The species that worked best together were the most likely to survive. They were the strongest. Working together was the answer to Earth’s future. Harmony was the key.
Matthew took the message to heart and got a pet. His dog’s name was Coffee. From there, he got really courageous and asked a girl out. Her name was Marcy.
And from that moment on he believed the Earth would be saved.
- V -
Three weeks later, after she’d walked out on him, it began. The earth shifted on its axis. One side became too hot and the other side too cold. The earth and moon were now fixed in position with each other. The moon hung over the continent of Africa, always Africa. In the border zone, a place between the everlasting day and the never-ending night, was a cool spot. It was a place where people and animals could survive. Matthew looked for Marcy there.
He met a scientist who explained it all to him. “You need to keep moving, Matthew. We all do. Or we’ll all be burned alive.”
The problem was that the earth-moon relationship no longer changed. And the tilt of the axis of the planet continued to increase. This meant the sweet spot was moving forward every day. Already the horrific heat on the sunlit side of the planet was approaching the city.
He hit the road. He went west, toward the night. Water and food became an immediate problem. He stayed to the river, but the water, coming from the colder side of the planet, was frozen. If he stayed in one place long enough, the ice would melt. And a few days later it would become burning hot. He worked it out that the swath of livable earth wasn’t more than a week wide.
He stuck to the line where nightfall began. He filled his water bottles with chipped ice and tied them to his backpack. Here and there he came across grocery stores filled with preserved goods. The windows, doors and shelves were covered in ice cold enough to peel the skin off his fingers. He worked with a pair of gloves and filled his backpack with cans of tuna fish and vinegar-soaked vegetables. He kept moving.
It was never really night, not unless he pushed himself far enough into the cold. He traveled with his dog, Coffee, until one day Coffee disappeared. The plant he kept it in his backpack with the top open so it could survive. By now, already a month into his daily trek around the planet, he realized most of the population had either burned up or froze to death. Still, there were those like himself who had found a way to stay alive. The masses were marching forward one day at a time, trying to keep ahead of the sun.
He met two girls, Kelly and Ellen, in a parking lot. They had a van. They invited him to travel together. They found abandoned gas at stations and took what they needed from department stores. Diesel fuel worked better in the cold than gas and the van was equipped to handle it. They used additives to keep the diesel from gelling. They pushed ahead, staying as far away from the oncoming wall of humanity as they could.
- VI -
“Looks like we’ve got trouble up ahead,” Kelly said.
Matthew woke up. “What kind of trouble?” he asked.
They’d run into people before, three times now, people who had been living indoors, living underground, trying to stay warm, but ready to take what they could from the people passing by. Twice Matthew had been able to negotiate a trade, giving up things like the spare tire to the van and an extra bottle of engine oil. One time things had turned ugly.
“What exactly is that?” Ellen asked.
Matthew leaned forward between the two seats and tried to make out what was ahead of them. Kelly stopped the van and rolled down her window, but left the engine running. It was night, as usual, with the sun far behind them. This was the farthest ahead of the sun they’d gotten. It was risky to go any farther, where the earth was cold enough the engine on the van might seize up and the heater stop running.
“That, my friends, looks like water,” he said.
“A lake? Can we go around it?” Kelly asked.
“Let’s take a look.”
It was cold outside the van, colder than he’d ever encountered. He pulled his hood down tight over his face, leaving just enough room to see. Even his cheeks hurt. He tried not to blink, afraid his eyes would freeze shut.
The girls joined him. Kelly had left the headlights on, but they didn’t reach far enough to see the water clearly. Matthew led the way.
The first thing he noticed was how flat the water looked. He thought it might be a lake at first, because it hardly moved at all. Then two things occurred to him. A lake was fresh water and should be frozen. And the ocean should have tides. But because the moon was in a stationary orbit, the tides would have vanished. Reality struck him hard when he put his hand in the chilly water and smelled the salt. They had made it to the Pacific.
He looked back at the van. It wouldn’t do them any good now. All they might use it for at this point was a place to stay warm. Once the sun got here, they’d have maybe a day or two before the masses reached the beach. People would swarm up and down the sand, taking what they needed to stay alive. Then, in about eight days, the sun would become unbearable. It would cook them all alive.
“Over there,” Ellen pointed.
Down the beach he saw a boat house and a dock. It looked like there might be a boat waiting there.
“Go check it out,” he said to the girls. “I’ll start packing things up. We’ll bring whatever we can salvage from the van.”
- VII -
They’d been on the ocean for three weeks when they’d run out of canned tuna and had switched to fresh-caught fish. More fish. Matthew could hardly stand it now. Occasionally it would rain and they would collect as much water from the sky as they could.
He noticed the girls were getting nice tans. He noticed their tan lines. They were both attractive women. He’d give up on the idea of ever finding Marcy the moment they’d entered the ocean.
They’d been in the sun for over a week now. It was impossible to stay on the edge of night in the boat. They weren’t moving fast enough. Some days the wind would die and the heat of the sun would feel like it was burning beneath his skin.
The plant seems to thrive out on the open water. It looked taller. He didn’t want to give it any rainwater, as they barely had enough. One day he slipped a cup in the ocean and poured saltwater into the pot. If the plant died, so be it. They were all near the end, anyway. Instead of wilting, within moments the plant stood up taller.
He felt it inside his head. It was speaking to him like never before. The images and feeling were coming so fast his head was shaking. It was telling him the same message, over and over again. Humanity had to learn to coexist with other species in the universe or it would never survive. He had to be the one to tell them. He had to carry the message onward and let every living person know. He must take the plant with him.
“How?” he yelled, grabbing his skull.
The girls looked at him.
“How what?” Ellen asked.
“How?” he yelled again. “We’re all going to die. Humanity won’t be left alive any more. What you’re saying doesn’t make sense.”
The plant continued to repeat the message over and over again, the images flashing so fast they blurred inside Matthew’s brain. His eyes twitched and he shook. He needed a drink. It had been too long since he’d any alcohol. Without it, the plant’s messages were attacking his brain too rapidly for him to process them. He needed relief.
Kelly was shaking him. “Wake up. Stop it. You’re dreaming again.”
She slapped him on the face. Ellen grabbed the cup and scooped it in the ocean and dumped water on his head. He took a drink of the water and his shaking subsided.
“No, no. Don’t drink it. The salt will kill you,” she said.
He looked down at the ocean and saw the reflection of the sky. Up above, a spaceship was approaching. He looked up at the sky. He pointed.
“There,” he yelled.
The girls turned to see what he was pointing at.
The alien spacecraft descended to within meters of the boat. It held steady while a mechanical arm extended outward and extracted the plant from the boat. Then the girls and Matthew were invited to climb inside.
A day later, Matthew found the plant in an observation room, behind glass, absorbing artificial light. Someone, a scientist, was explaining something to him. Although the plant’s message was powerful, it was nothing more than another species attempting to survive. They had other plants like it on other planets. The species was considered dangerous. Scavengers tried to sell them illegally.
“Looks like you carried it all this way for nothing,” Kelly said.
“I don’t mind. Keeping it alive kept me alive,” Matthew said.
“There might be more truth to the message it gave you than anyone realizes,” Ellen suggested. “Learning to coexist with someone is not a bad idea.”
“You mean as in a relationship?” Matthew asked.
“I’ve seen the way you’ve been watching me,” she said and giggled.
“Do you think they serve any alcohol on this ship?” he asked.
“Not a drop,” she replied.
The river rarely froze over, but that year it had. The frigid air from the north covered the land until the mercury dropped to minus nine. They warned us not to cross the ice on foot, but we didn’t listen. Immigrant kids, we boxed our ears with homemade earmuffs and slipped away into the night, bent on discovering new lands. At the time, we were hardly old enough to blow our own noses, and the pneumonia we caught as the wind plunged into our lungs nearly killed us.
In the summertime the heat was unbearable. Nights I spent looking out the window across the silhouetted landscape. To pass the time, or just to test me, my brother would ask me to count the lights on the horizon. They were in groups of twos and threes, belonging to short buildings or farmhouses, none clustered close together. But there were also the radio towers, lined up toward the heavens, sometimes with as many as four or five lights per rod. After a long silence I would tell my brother how many lights I thought I saw. I was rarely right. One time, my brother pointed up to the sky above and asked if I was ready yet to count the stars.
It made me realize how insignificant I was, looking up at all those stars in the night sky. I was nothing. I hardly mattered. The stars, they were everything, because they were uncountable.
My brother wanted to be an actor from an early age. He practiced every day, trying to be this or that famous person, just like on the silver screen. He worked at it the way a painter does, mimicking the canvases of the masters. One day my brother might be Charlie Chaplin and the next Albert Einstein. Albert was hardly an actor. But we saw him on TV. And so my brother would mess up his hair and stick out his tongue and say funny things in a foreign accent. It made me laugh until I fell over on the floor.
My brother became so good at playing other people that his teachers were confused about who he really was. Or more accurately, I should say, they were concerned about who he really was. One teacher asked if my brother saw people who weren’t really there. Did they talk to him? Were any of them dead already? Could they tell him about the future? It bothered my brother. Instead of receiving acclaim like those actors in bright lights, those giants arising out of Hollywood, my brother was looked down on as if he might have a tumor growing in his head.
From there, my brother went on to be a magician, because people can easily accept a magician who is a little off. It’s all part of the show, they say. My brother fit in perfectly with the circus. He traveled far and wide and I didn’t see him for many years.
As I grew older, entering the winter of my life, I dreamed of seeing my brother perform, even if just one time, on the big stage. I had hoped the circus would come to our little town, but it never did. One day I decided to go in search of my brother. There was a road leading away to the west with an open invitation to follow it. I’d never been down that road before. I wasn’t sure where it went, but I was sure it would take me somewhere important, and there I might find my brother.
On the map I saw a giant city. I’d heard that big shows appeared there often. I traveled west away from home until I came to the city and I bought a ticket for the circus. That night, the stars twinkled up above. My brother was the headlining act.
The auditorium was immaculate. It was packed to the brim. I’d never seen anything like it before. It left me feeling out of place. I was nothing more than a stranger from a small town. I took my seat with only minutes to spare, before the show began. Seeing all those faces, of people I didn’t know, pressed in tight around me like pages in a book, it left me at a loss for words. I looked down at my shoes and wondered why I’d really come here. I had no idea what I’d even say if I had the chance to talk to my brother.
The show came to a climax, and there he was, my brother, center stage, all eyes upon him. Many of the tricks he did were simple, but still amazing. I couldn’t guess in the least how he did them. I knew little about magic. As his performance approached the end he explained that he was going to dazzle the world with a new trick, something he’d never done before. He was going to disappear, and then reappear, somewhere else, as somebody else, somebody similar, but not the same. Of course, right away I knew how it would be done. It was a foolish idea.
My brother entered a tall box dominating the center of the stage. The doors on the box were closed by a pair of lovely assistants. The crowd waited in suspense. The lights grew low. And then there was an ominous sound and after that the box was opened and he was gone. Next came the crash of an oriental cymbal and the stage lights shifted. They swung out upon the audience, dancing back and forth, blinding us. When the lights stopped moving, they were pointing at me.
I stood up and the crowd began to cheer. But this was no trick. I was not my brother. We might be twins, but still, I hardly dressed like him, hardly spoke like him, and even rarely had the same mannerisms that he did. How was I to go on stage and pretend to be him?
An assistant appeared beside me and took my hand. She was lovely. Her skin was so soft. She wore next to nothing. I followed her without hesitation. She took me down through the audience to the stage and then I was in front of the crowd and they were all looking at me and they were waiting for me to speak. I looked behind me for some help, any clue as to what I should do, but I had been abandoned on an empty stage.
As I scanned the crowd, seeing the light in their eyes, I was struck by how much they all looked like stars in the sky. There were so many of them that I could hardly count them. I felt small. I felt unimportant. I felt like I was standing on the frozen river and I’d just heard the ice splinter. We’d made it across the ice on a dare, nothing more. It was foolish of us to try. I knew that then and I know it now.
I smiled at the people out in the seats and I made a slight bow and waved my hands like I imagined a magician might do. I said, “Good night, ladies and gentlemen. The show is now over.” I said it so well I could have been an actor, acting like a magician. Perhaps I was more like my brother than I really knew.
I never did get the chance to talk to him. He went on to fame and fortune beyond anything I’d ever imagined and was never seen in our little town again.
A lot of people had died that year, when the river thawed out. They wouldn’t stop crossing over on the ice, although it sounds hard to believe. They didn’t want to pay the toll to use the bridge. One day the weather warmed up and the ice cracked open and down they went into the frigid rushing water, carried away, never to be seen again. I think about those people sometimes. I think about what it must have been like to lose consciousness deep in the water and never awake to be who you really are. I hope it never happens to me. Someday I’d like to count the stars.
- I -
“I don’t mind that I’m stuck in a wheelchair,” Paul said.
Lucy smiled at him, a thin smile, and gave her usual nod of approval.
“I don’t mind that I can’t move my legs. I don’t mind that I can’t function like a regular human being.”
He saw the lines of worry on her face. She glanced at her watch. She looked tired today. She’s been telling him about her job. She’d done everything she could, yet she was still being let go. According to her boss, she never did enough. It hardly seemed fair. Paul hadn’t really listened to what she’d been saying. Just like she wasn’t really listening to him now.
“What I can’t stand is the medicine they give me.”
“It makes my thoughts all fuzzy,” he explained. “The stuff wears off for about thirty minutes every day, usually during visiting hours. And then, whatever I focus on is crystal clear. Like right now. I know you’re not really listening to me because you’ve had a long day. I know the man in the room next door is having a hard time because he’s coughing a lot. And I know in about thirty minutes the nurse will come in here and expect me to take another dose of that god-awful stuff.”
“I’m sorry. What were you saying?” She yawned and looked at her watch again.
Paul heard the nurse walk down the hall and stop at a room three doors away. Mr. Friday, or whatever his name was, would be getting his share of meds in a few minutes. And then Mr. Friday’s brain would go all haywire for yet another day. Just like Paul’s.
“I’m just saying, is there anything you can do about the medicine?”
“What’s wrong with it?”
“Do you need more?”
“No. No. That’s not it at all. I was just wondering what would happen if I didn’t take any?”
The clock was ticking. He knew he only had about twenty minutes left before the nurse made it to his room. She was a nice nurse. She did her job well. Paul didn’t blame her for what was going on. He just wanted to go one day without taking the dope she was peddling. He wanted to know, firsthand, what the stuff was supposed to be doing for him. From what Paul could tell, it was only scrambling his brain.
Lucy leaned over. “Well, if that’s what you really want, just pretend like you took it. I’ll help you. When she’s not looking hand the pills to me. I’ll throw them out.”
And they did just that. Nurse Wonderful showed up right on schedule. She said hello to Lucy and reminded her that technically visiting hours were over. But she’d let her stay another five minutes. Lucy nodded and smiled.
The nurse gave Paul a paper cup half filled with water. He looked at it and paused. His mind was so crisp at the moment. He thought he could count the molecules of hydrogen and oxygen swirling around inside the cup. He wondered why the cup was always half empty. Or half full. He wondered why the pills felt so light in his hand, yet they carried so much weight in his mind.
Lucy distracted the nurse and Paul pretended to swallow the pills. Then the nurse left the room to find her next victim. Paul handed the contraband off to Lucy and she flushed it down the toilet. Yawning once more, she said she had to go.
Things went well for the first hour. Paul’s mind continued to operate on all cylinders. He solved complicated mathematical problems and resolved political debates. He cured cancer and invented ways to feed the poor. Then something took a turn south. He woke up in the middle of the night in intense pain. He couldn’t feel his lower body, because his spinal cord had been severed several years ago. Yet the pain in his mind was real. It hurt everywhere. It hurt in body parts that didn’t exist.
When Lucy came back the next day, Paul realized the full extent of the dilemma he was in. Either he could try to live with the pain or he could continue to take the meds and not be aware of what was going on around him every day.
“It hurts, doesn’t it?” she asked.
The answer was hammered all over Paul’s face. He tried to turn his head the full ninety degrees he needed to look out the window, but gave up.
“I need a second opinion,” he told her. “I need to see another doctor, one who is willing to try an experimental solution. The conventional methods aren’t working.”
She frowned at him and nodded slowly. “OK, I’ll look online.”
Thirty minutes later Paul took his medicine. A week later, Lucy walked into his room with a spring in her step. She said she had found a professor at one of the universities, a Dr. Montivagant, PhD, Department of Enantiodromia. She didn’t know exactly what that meant, but his web-page said he had an alternative medicine he was researching and he needed volunteers. She thought Paul should give it a try.
Down the hall Paul heard the nurse three doors away, giving medicine to Mr. Monday, or whatever his name was.
“OK, I’ll do it.”
- II -
Parker wanted a promotion. He wanted job security. But he’d never gotten either. He walked up the moss-covered steps to the west branch of the faculty building. As he pushed open the old door, he paused, sniffing. Something smelled off inside the building.
The security officer behind the semi-oval desk was asleep. And he stank. The man snoring in front of Parker smelled like he’d eaten raw beef most of his life and never took a shower. Parker eyed his name tag and thought only a second about the cleaning habits of Officer Thomas. He hammered his knuckles on the rutted oak counter-top. The guard stirred.
“I’m here to see Professor Montivagant,” Parker announced.
“Montivagant. Which way?”
“You…must be mistaken. I don’t think we have anybody by that name in this branch. Have you tried the east branch?”
He’d already been to the east branch of the university campus, where the younger faculty were ensconced. Nobody had heard of Montivagant there either. He looked at Officer Thomas like he wanted to rip a worm off a fishhook.
“I’ve already checked the ledger. I’m here on official business. I’m investigating why Professor Montivagant is receiving funding when he doesn’t seem to exist.”
Thomas sat upright. “So…this might be a matter of security?”
“Definitely. I need you to check your records and show me exactly where his office is.”
“Why…didn’t you say so?”
Thomas pulled out a binder. Inside, a poorly typed directory of departments, chairs, professors, phone numbers and offices. The page he wanted was filled with a list of unimportant sounding names.
Professor Bindle…room 134
Professor Chen…room 512
Professor Montivagant….room 206??
“There…appears to be a double question mark here. We’ll go take a look-see. Room 206. I think it’s this way. No, wait. It’s that way.”
Parker followed a few steps behind the security officer as he waddled down the hall. They climbed the stairs to the second floor and paused while Officer Thomas caught his breath. The officer then proceeded by scratching his head as they searched for the right office.
The door was sandwiched between two stairways, one going up and one going down. On the nameplate, written in old calligraphy, it stated:
Professor Montivagant, PhD
Department of Enantiodromia
“I…wish I’d brought my gun.”
“No, that’s fine. No need for a gun here. In fact, I can handle this myself. You should return to your desk and wait for me there.”
“What…you aren’t really from the, what was it, accounting department? I think I’ll need to see some ID.”
Parker opened the door to Room 206, stepped inside, and closed the door behind him before the officer could step in the way. Thomas tried to turn the knob, but it broke off in his hand. When he gave the door a push with his shoulder, it wouldn’t budge.
- III -
“You’re late.” Professor Montivagant sat behind a desk overflowing with books and papers. He had a round head and a rounder body and wore a red double-breasted jacket with two spots on either side. He reminded Parker of a malicious ladybug.
Parker opened up a notebook, looked around the room, and wrote down some notes. In one corner was a chair, something like a dentist’s chair. Next to it was an odd collection of wires and electrical pads.
“What are you writing?” Montivagant demanded and stood up. He hardly looked taller.
“Just a diary. I like to write down things I see. I’m an author, you know. Have you heard of me? No? Well, someday you might. I mean, someday you might read something of mine.”
“Your email said you were dying. Cancer.”
“Yes. I’ve only got so much time left. I want to write my last story before I go. It’s going to be my best, I believe.”
Montivagant came over and took the notebook out of Parker’s hands. “No notes! I am doing research here. I can’t afford to have someone publish before I do.”
“No, really, doctor, I’m a professional. I wouldn’t know the first thing about your research. Can I just have my notebook back?”
Montivagant went to the window, opened it, and threw the notebook outside.
Parker knew he was playing it risky. He couldn’t afford to blow his cover at this point. To date, fifteen people had disappeared. If he ever wanted to make head detective, he’d have to go to any length to solve this case. Montivagant had no clue Parker had a second notebook stuffed in his back pocket.
“Can we begin?” he asked. “I really am dying of cancer. I’ve sent you the documents from my doctor. You can check the charts.”
“I have checked,” Montivagant said and indicated the chair in the corner. “Won’t you sit down here?”
Parker climbed into the reclining chair and laid back. If things went terribly wrong, another detective would come along and find his notebook outside the window. He tried to relax.
“I need you to take this medicine. It will make you feel a little drowsy. And I need you to sign these consent forms. You understand this procedure is totally experimental. I’m required to let you know that that means it’s totally irreversible. You won’t have any chance to go back, once we start. If my analysis is correct, in a couple months, your name will show up in my research. I don’t know about the stories you publish, but at least you’ll find yourself in print in one respectable place.”
Parker took the meds. They hit him in seconds. He lost control of his limbs. His head rolled to the side and he saw a fly trying to escape out the window, but knew already that it would never get away.
“I’ve had thirty-one patients. You’ll be the last, number thirty-two.”
Parker only had records of fifteen missing persons. He struggled to get up, but couldn’t do much more than roll his eyes. A girl named Lucy had first drawn his attention to the case when her disabled brother went missing. She’d said she’d tried to get answers from the professor, but couldn’t find his office. She’d checked both wings, several times, using her uniform from work and claiming to be the cleaning lady. Parker had liked her proactive approach to the case.
Montivagant put a pen in his hand and held a paper up to it. Parker glanced at it but couldn’t read a word. The professor was doing more moving of the paper than he was doing moving of his hand. Something like his signature appeared there. Mr. Hopecorn. It wasn’t even his real name. He hadn’t dared give the doctor his real identity. For a second he wondered if he’d done the right thing. He had no legal recourse at this point, because he’d lied about who he was. The professor hadn’t even dug deep enough to discover that his medical reports were fake.
As Parker’s brain settled more and more into a hole, Montivagant placed electrical pads across his skull. Before he blacked out completely, he thought…I wonder what he does with the bodies?
- IV -
Paul woke up refreshed and hungry. His skin was tan and dry and his hair was turning sun-blonde. His legs–he could move his legs now–itched from sunburn. He tried not to scratch them. The pain was real, very real, but it was good, because it was localized. He hadn’t been able to feel his lower body since he’d jumped in a lake and snapped his spine several years ago. A little sunburn he didn’t mind at all.
He stood up and wandered across the pass in the mountains. Down below an ethereal world opened up before him. As he made his descent, a lightening storm flickered in the distance. Once out on the plains, he saw unusual animals grazing in the wild. At his feet were species of plants that did not exist anywhere he’d ever been before. The world he had woken up in was anything but home.
He wondered what he was doing here. He struggled, looking for the words to explain a surreal experience. He’d never thought he’d be able to walk again, yet here he was, moving across an alien world.
[_I stumble across the land–but no, my body does not get in the way. _]
[_I feel my way across the land–but then, am I only going on emotion? _]
I cross the land…and what? Where do I go from here?
He turned to look behind him. He’d come a long way in a short time, already putting some distance between himself and the mountains. He sat down to rest, still wrapped in the mystery of where he was and why he was here. Something about it was reassuring. Was it the smell of the air, the cold, the warmth, the flight of a leaf lost from a tree, or the swaying of the grass in the breeze? He just couldn’t put his finger on what satisfied him the most about being here.
_Each still memory in my mind is held together like a moment of silence. _
_Fading sounds, much like the falling of the rain. _
The miles, the many miles of searching for a meal, a conversation, or a place to stay…but I’ve found no one living anywhere in this world.
Somewhere else, he knew, people were living, and getting older, much like the land.
_The river is nothing more than a place to drink water. _
_Time, the distance to the mountains. _
_Sleep, something brought on by exhaustion. _
The isolation had been unsettling at first, but moving around on his own two feet a worthwhile compromise. Over time, he was growing addicted to this eternal slice of heaven.
- V -
Lucy put her cleaning uniform on one more time and went back to the university. She went floor by floor, building by building. In the vestibule of the west branch she ran into Officer Thomas.
“I’m looking for my brother. Have you seen a guy who can’t move his legs?”
Thomas looked up and noticed the woman leaning against his desk was wearing a uniform. He wore a uniform. Jobs that didn’t require uniforms were for common people. And he was special. So was she. He smiled at her and stood up.
“We…had a guy like that pass through a few days ago. Someone brought him in…in a wheelchair.”
“I think he’s been kidnapped. I haven’t been able to reach him.”
“So…this might be a security matter?”
“Have…you tried to contact the police? Or have you considered hiring a private detective?”
“I hired a guy with a badge. I paid him to snoop around here. And now he’s disappeared too. Do you think you can help me?”
“Wait…we had someone like that just the other day. He said he was checking on one of the professors. I bet that was him. I smelled detective all over the guy.”
Lucy wasn’t sure what a detective smelled like. Officer Thomas smelled like raw meat. She nodded and tried to smile. “Maybe they both ran into the same trouble. I bet that’s it.”
“I…bet it is. Let’s go take a look around. I’ve got the office number right here in my binder.” He picked up his cup of coffee and brushed the binder off. Coffee grounds spilled onto the cracked tile floor.
They located the office and forced the door open. Professor Montivagant was nowhere to be found. On his desk sat his research. In the piles of papers full of numbers and frameworks, they found a map. They found the bodies of the missing persons in a large room in the basement. In a grid laid out across the room were the 32 victims, lying on cold slabs.
She looked around the basement until she found Paul. He had tubes running from his arm, flowing into a machine. He was unresponsive when she shook him. Not knowing what to do, she removed the tubes. A moment later his eyelids fluttered.
“No. No. No.”
“Paul, it’s me, your sister. Wake up.”
“No. No. No.”
“You have to try. You’ve been drugged. You have to try to wake up.”
“Why? Why did you bring me back? It was beautiful there.”
- VI -
The air was clean, cleaner than anything Parker had ever breathed before. Morning sunlight filled his eyes. He looked around and thought…the colors look more colorful today. How is that possible?
He’d discovered frost on the ground in the morning when he’d woken up. He went out into the woods and found a ray of sunlight coming down through the trees and stood there a long time, basking in the warmth and beauty of it. Sometimes he could hear a bird calling, sometimes an animal. Whatever the local fauna were, they didn’t sound like anything he’d ever heard before. Even the trees looked different here.
He couldn’t remember which day of the week it was. He tried to think back to the last known day, counting forward from there. This could have been Friday, or Saturday, but he couldn’t be sure. He looked inside his notebook for answers, but found none.
I have no idea if my notes are making any sense.
I keep writing down whatever comes to mind.
I could sit here all day and write, which probably means I’m babbling on and on again.
By now, his body was getting hardened to the wilderness: sleeping on the ground, living outdoors, facing the weather conditions. No matter how rough it was, he didn’t mind. This world was absolutely beautiful.
He rounded a bend in the trail and felt the earth move beneath him. Thinking it might be an earthquake, he crouched down and covered his head.
- VII -
When Parker looked up, it was dark. Lucy was shaking him by the shoulders. He sat upright and looked around the basement. He felt his elbow and found a needle implanted there and pulled it out.
“I don’t know how it happened. But he can walk now,” Lucy said. A man was standing next to her. Lucy had her hand on his shoulder.
“I’m Paul,” the man said and extended his hand.
“Can you send me back?” Parker asked. “Please, I need to go back.”
Lucy frowned. Paul started to cry.
- VIII -
They spent a week in the hospital, recovering. Parker had solved the case, with Lucy’s help. He’d even given the security officer credit in his report.
“You’ve been through a lot,” the doctor said.
“What exactly happened to us?” Parker asked.
“It appears you’ve had an implant. It wraps around the spinal cord and flows into your brain.”
“Can it be removed?”
“No. Not a chance. It’s organic. It almost looks like the thing grew there.”
“What do you mean by ‘the thing’?”
The doctor paused. “It’s unlike anything we’ve ever seen before. The genetic code is baffling. I’d almost say it’s not from this planet.”
“Have you talked to Montivagant about it?”
“We’d like to,” the doctor said and spread his hands. “Nobody can find his office.”
“Looks like you’re going to live,” Lucy said. “You’ve got no sign of cancer anywhere.”
Paul nodded. “I still can’t believe it. I can walk again.”
Parker paused a moment. “I never had cancer. I made that up to get into Montivagant’s office. Now I’ve got this thing stuck in my head. I wonder what it’s doing there.”
“It’s regenerating your cells,” the doctor said. “You’re going to live a really long time. Possibly longer than anybody.”
“I just wish I could return to that place. It was like heaven.”
“I felt the same way,” Paul said, looking at his hands. “I miss it more than anything.”
Parker said goodbye to Lucy and Paul outside the hospital and turned to go home.
- IX -
As the days turned into years, he wondered about where he’d been, a place yet undiscovered.
With his newfound longevity, he became the first human to cross the galaxy. On all the planets he found thriving with life, spread out among the stars, there was nothing like it anywhere. There was no place that had the same look and feel as the one he remembered, a place like heaven.
He spent all his sleepless nights wishing he could return there, even if but for a moment.
“Damn you, Montivagant,” he whispered in the dark. “I don’t want to wait forever.”
- I -
“Are you really going?” I asked.
“Yes. I am.”
“Come on, Dad. You know someone else can make this voyage. I saw the roster. There had to be a hundred volunteers on there.”
“They picked me, Jonathan. I know it doesn’t sound fair, but they picked me. I’m the one to make the run to the center of the galaxy.”
“But why, Dad? Why not just say you’re sick and can’t go? Let someone else make the trip.”
“Jonathan, you know this will be a first. No one has ever attempted this before. There hasn’t been the opportunity. The comet will pass by soon and I plan to be ready. Someone needs to go and it’s going to be me.”
I stopped talking. I knew it was pointless to argue with my father. I looked down at the ground. He put a book in my hand before departing, but I hardly glanced at the cover. He mentioned that it had something to do with a new theory on the migration of horses. I threw the book in my backpack, shook my father’s hand, and walked away without saying goodbye.
- II -
Dr. Taylor traveled for weeks deep inside the vapor trail of a comet. The gasses glowed a venomous green, flaring outward around his ship. The heat they generated kept the environment on the forward deck warm as the comet plunged onward at a tremendous speed, taking him deeper and deeper into cold dark space.
In the fourth week of the voyage Dr. Taylor noted in his personal log that when he turned the lights down to sleep, his skin glowed a pale-green color. He also noted, but didn’t record, that he felt different inside, as if something had changed below the surface of his skin. Something newly present was realigning his genetic code, causing evolution to take another path, a superior path. Power burned in his lungs each time he breathed and his heart raced forward at the pace of an expanding supernova.
The negative side effects of the green glow became apparent in the fifth week. Dr. Taylor plotted a new course to take him alongside a black hole, following a trajectory his ship would eagerly pursue once the anchor cables released from the backside of the comet. He needed to travel back in time to a point before when the voyage had begun. The subsequent exit from the black hole’s gravity would accelerate his ship up to speeds faster than light. From there, the ship could land in an orbit around Titan before the comet flew by.
The negative side effects of the radiation included rapid aging. The new power he’d gained appeared hardly worth it, if his life would end abruptly. When he looked in the mirror, he saw an older man, shrunken, stooped. And deep within his eyes hints of alien evolution.
In the sixth week he missed the exit point from the comet. He’d been arguing with himself over the conundrum he faced, the possibility of changing past events which would alter the future versus the idea of saving his life. The escape window toward the black hole came and went. Eventually the flashing light on the control panel next to the button he needed to push stopped blinking.
- III -
We considered the possibility that Dr. Taylor had intentionally abandoned the voyage when his ship failed to leave the tail of the comet on time. We’d informed him that he could only spend six weeks in those vapors. Too much exposure would have a severe impact on his biological makeup due to the high levels of radiation present there.
Within a small window, the pilot of the ship would need to run a simple script on the navigational computer. Then the exit trajectory would be calculated, automatically programmed in, and his ship, upon letting go of the anchor cables, would swing away from the comet, propelled past a black hole. The acceleration from the pull of the gravity of that dark gigantic void would push him onward toward the center of the galaxy faster than the speed of light. He’d arrive there in less than a year after leaving Titan.
The sixth week came and went and the ship remained in place, burning hotter and hotter as the comet plunged onward. For whatever reason, the cables hadn’t detached. Something terrible might have happened to Dr. Taylor, but we wouldn’t be able to determine what was going on until the next report arrived. Oregon One sent reports back twice a week and nothing alarming had been reported previously. To interfere with the navigational computer at this stage might do more harm than good to Dr. Taylor. We had no way to know for sure. And so we waited.
- IV -
The book Dad had given me had something to do with the history of the migration of the horse. From what I gathered, the original horse went extinct in North America several millennia ago. Interestingly enough, that horse had been replaced by a modern breed brought in from another continent. The way the book explained it, the earlier species of North American horse had crossed the Bering Strait, crossed Asia, and then arrived in Europe. From there, people had brought the horse over the Atlantic Ocean, back to the original home of the species. Human intervention allowed the species to thrive once more in the same place where it had begun.
I didn’t see what this had to do with Dad going into deep space. It’d only been six weeks since he’d departed and already I missed him immensely. Mom would have missed him even more, if she’d been here. She probably would’ve been able to talk him out of going. I decided to read the book, to pass the time, and in the small hope that it might reveal more to me about who my father was. I was worried about the possibility that he might not make it back.
When I asked the staff over at the mission control center about my father’s status, they said the flight remained on schedule. Nothing more. Yet the mission commander shifted his feet awkwardly and failed to look at me. Something had changed about his behavior since I’d seen him a week ago. A dark gloom hung over the command center. Red lights flashed on some of the consoles. I wondered how soon they’d let me know, if the mission was lost.
- V -
In the seventh week, Dr. Taylor had a visitor on board the ship. In a passageway behind the forward deck, he ran into his son reading a book. Jonathan sat in an alcove with a lamp, turning a page back and forth, as if he was trying to unravel a sentence split between two sides of the same piece of paper.
“Jonathan, you can’t be here. Please tell me I’m not losing my mind.”
“What are you talking about? You asked me to sit here and wait for you while you trained. Is the simulation over already?”
“You don’t understand. You can’t be here.”
“No problem. I’ll go wait in the car. Interesting book, by the way.” Jonathan held up the book just enough for his father to see cover. “What made you think of genetics as a topic for research?”
Taylor looked at his son for a while before answering. “I had this paper I did back in college. I explored the possibility of evolution and quantum physics being related.”
“What do you mean? Are you saying Schrodinger’s cat could have been both a dog and a cat at the same time? That’s funny. I mean, I just got this funny picture in my head. Sorry to laugh. But I admit I’m curious. I’ll go read it out in the car.”
“What I mean is evolution might be the results of different paths in time. It’s complicated. I can’t go into the math right now. I’m kind of busy here. Suffice it to say there’s the possibility that you could evolve into another timeline, even another dimension. Evolution advances so slowly that we don’t notice it.”
“’A mutation in a species is the result of DNA following a different fork in the quantum road.’ — I just came across that in the margin on page 19.”
“Yes. Exactly.” Dr. Taylor looked at his son like he hadn’t considered the idea for a long time. He scratched his beard for a moment. That’s when he noticed his beard had grown since this morning. It had grown a lot.
“Look, son,” he said.
Jonathan tensed. His dad never called him son.
“Things are not what they seem. I’m glad you’ve come, though. Please, keep reading. Let me know if you come across anything that might help me, if I get into trouble.”
“Trouble? What kind of trouble?”
“I’m not saying anything is wrong. The guys at the mission control center have got this trip planned out down to the nth degree. But if you come across anything even remotely related to my voyage, I’d appreciate it if you mention it.”
- VI -
“All appears normal. Mission on schedule.”
That’s all we got in week seven from Oregon One. Just a single statement. According to Dr. Taylor, the mission still remained on target for the rendezvous with the black hole.
The deep-space theory guys started running a template to see if time had somehow been warped. The answer came back no. The guys who monitored the mental and physical state of the pilot said the data packet they needed, the one which came attached to the tail end of the report, hadn’t arrived. Then someone suggested that Dr. Taylor had tampered with the message. The rumor started circulating that he might be hiding something.
The call to take control of the mission came up before an impromptu review board. The resulting decision took into consideration one important factor: we didn’t have enough data. We thought it best to allow the mission to continue until the next report arrived from Oregon One. To interfere without knowing the true status of Dr. Taylor might be a terrific mistake.
Week eight came and went and no new reports arrived.
- VII -
“What page are you on, Jonathan?”
“I’m about halfway through. Looks like page 214.”
“Are you comfortable out here in the passageway? It feels a little cold to me. Why not come up to the deck and take a look out the forward window? The view is spectacular.”
“Come on, Dad. You know I can’t interrupt a simulation. I’m fine right here.”
“Do you recall the day when I gave you that book?”
Jonathan thought for a moment. “Yeah. It was on my birthday. Why do you ask?”
“I gave it to you right before I left on the mission.”
“Come on, Dad. Don’t take these simulations too seriously. If the psych-ward gets wind of this, you’ll be eliminated from the roster for sure. I know how much this means to you.”
“Here. Take a look at page 256. In the margin I wrote a message to you. It says: ‘Tell him not to go. Tell him he’s making a big mistake.’”
Jonathan threw out a laugh, but stopped when he saw the seriousness in his father’s eyes. Dr. Taylor eyes looked different today. Something beneath the rim of his eyelids bulged and moved, something Jonathan hadn’t noticed before. His skin appeared paler, too, a shade of green.
“Well, go on. Take a look.”
Jonathan shrugged. He flipped through the book and found the page. At the top, written in pencil, was a note. He read it aloud: “The margin for error remains incalculable. Evolution into the past, elusive.”
Taylor grabbed the book from his son and looked at the top of the page. He ran his finger over the words. He read them aloud, again and again. The message meant nothing to Jonathan.
- VIII -
In the ninth week, when no more messages arrived, we considered the mission lost. The ship had traveled too far for us to override its navigational computer, to find a route for it toward home. It had passed the point of no return. The order came to let it go. We’d had only one chance to penetrate the heart of the galaxy and somehow we’d screwed it up.
Outside the command center, we held a memorial for Dr. Taylor. We might never know what had gone wrong. At the ceremony, Mission Commander William Hardy commended Dr. Taylor for his daring and his genius. We could see Hardy attempting to put a positive light on a negative ending. But no one bought into his message. We clapped anyway.
Then Dr. Taylor’s son got up to speak. Jonathan fumbled with his words as he worked his way through a per-written address to the scientific community. He said his father had given him a book on the migration of horses as a parting gift. In the margin Jonathan had found notes written in pencil by his father in his college days. He wanted to read one of the notes to us.
“Death is but the beginning of a whole new life. Never surrender.”
We hugged each other and cried when he finished. Dr. Taylor would live forever in our memories.
- IX -
Dr. Taylor paced the deck, occasionally glancing out the forward window. The view pulsed as the comet shot sparks at his ship, the radiation growing stronger. He found it difficult to focus.
One thing he knew for certain: he couldn’t evolve backward in time. He considered the possibility that time worked as one gigantic loop. If so, his only hope lay in evolving forward into another timeline, one in which things hadn’t turned out this way.
He flexed his fingertips and played with the space in front of him. The power inside his flesh moved outward, warping the fabric of the universe. As the bubble expanded, he looked inside it. He could see his flight somewhere in the future, but which future, he couldn’t say.
With each step through time, he found his body changing. He grew stronger, but older. Smarter, but slower. He realized he might be killing himself.
Before plunging through the whirling hole in space one more time, he had an epiphany. According to the book on migration, horses had gone extinct in North America. But their descendants had already traveled around the globe. Much later, future generations arrived in the New World. The path the horse had followed had been circular.
He let the energy in his arms subside and the hole closed for a moment. He grabbed his head and fell on his knees. It was a long shot, but there was a possibility that time did work as a loop. He needed to go forward to go backward, but how far, he didn’t know.
Then he came to terms with what he needed to do. He had to risk it all. He stood up and opened the hole again. He pushed his way through the bubble in time, arriving back on the forward deck a pace directly behind where he’d just been standing. He ran out the door into the passageway. Jonathan sat there reading the book.
- X -
I couldn’t understand why Dad kept walking out of the simulation room to talk to me. Each time he wanted to know which page I was on, as if that mattered more than anything. Training for a mission of this magnitude must have been torture for him. I wished beyond everything he’d give up on the idea, before it killed him. He looked a lot older each time he talked to me.
The last time he walked out, he looked more relieved than stressed.
“Finished the book yet? Let’s go home,” he said.
“Training done so soon?”
“I’ve decided to remove my name from the roster. I think I’m going to miss you too much, Jonathan. No mission is worth the price of saying goodbye to family.”
He fell asleep in the car as I drove him back to his apartment. He must have been wiped out. In a way, I’m glad he didn’t go. Then again, it would have been awesome if he had.
- XI -
They found another pilot. The flight left on schedule. We finally conquered the center of the galaxy. Before the pilot stepped on board, my dad gave him a book as a parting gift, the same one he’d given me, the one about the migration of horses. I never could understand why he was so obsessed with that book. He’d never ridden a horse in his life. I don’t think he even liked horses.
He stayed on at the mission control center for many years and eventually retired. After his retirement speech, he got really drunk and made a fool out of himself in front of everybody. I pulled him out into the parking lot and dumped him in the back of my car.
As we sped down the highway, he told me that not going on that mission had been the best decision of his life. He went on and on about time travel and quantum mechanics and evolution. He said he had this strange ability to open a window into the future. But, he explained in slurred words, it just so happened that it was too hard to tell which future he was looking at. And so he wouldn’t step through that window any more.
“You’re not only drunk, Dad. You’re crazy.”
When we stopped in front of my apartment, he explained in a delirious way that I might not really be his son, how he hadn’t really married my mother, how things on the surface could be different from the things we keep hidden. The way he said it left me feeling numb. What he was suggesting sounded like he’d only been acting like he was my father.
I thought about it later, when he fell asleep on the sofa. I was sure it was nothing more than the booze talking. We all have those moments when we think we might have failed our family. It’s nothing more than a trick of the mind. When we’re feeling guilty about how we handle responsibility, we want to escape our past. I looked at him snoring and I told him that he hadn’t failed me. I don’t think he heard me, but it didn’t matter. It made me feel better. I shut the lights off and climbed up the stairs and went to bed.
In the morning, I wanted to ask him more about what he’d said. But he’d already gone out, probably to catch breakfast down at the pub.
- XII -
About a decade after my father passed away, a Professor Hayward first explained to the world how genetics and quantum physics worked in relation to evolution. I attended a lecture at the university where he first spoke about it, long before the press caught wind of this revolutionary new idea.
“Professor Hayward, sorry for the interruption. I just have to ask. What first gave you this idea?” a young college girl in the front row asked.
He looked up at the audience and I shrank down in my chair. He held up a book in his hand and explained that it told the story of the migration of horses. He wanted to give credit where credit was due, as the idea hadn’t originally been his. In the margin, he said, someone had penciled it in. He didn’t know who had written it, but that didn’t matter, because somewhere, somehow, someone had thought of it, and it might just be one of those ideas, a really fantastic idea, that would change our understand of the universe forever. I stood up and cheered along with everyone else. And I knew — without ever seeing the cover of that book — that it had belonged to my father.
- I -
What to do? What to do? That was the question.
Today we would graduate together: Michael, Charles, Tony and me. All gentlemen.
Learned, to a degree.
Admired by the ladies, certainly.
We endured the fanfare, wearing cap and gown, the orchestra playing, and all those speeches, the boring speeches they make you sit through. I smiled, but for a moment, realizing I’d never have to go to school again, now that my university days were over. Tomorrow, like it or not, I’d have to open the newspaper and look for a job. And I was pretty certain that what I’d studied and what they wanted in the job market didn’t match. What to do? That was the question.
Then we stood and threw our caps in the air. You have to be careful or you might poke someone’s eye out. I aimed mine at the president. He swiveled around to talk to someone behind him and I only nailed his ear. I was irked. I’d missed my one shot. There would never be a next time. It wasn’t like he could expel me, not at this point, although he’d routinely tried.
He approached me from the side of the auditorium. Then came the ‘big scare’ speech. This is the speech they like to give you about the real world. It’s the one intended to get back at all the students who never listened in classes, who never even went to classes, who saw university time as merely a time to have fun.
He told me how hard it is out there, how I wasn’t likely to find a job, or if I did, it won’t pay. I’d end up working at a gas station because I didn’t care. I should have studied harder. I couldn’t speak for the other chaps, but to me, the big scare speech was a joke.
And then we walked home. I said goodbye to the guys. They were busy tomorrow, job interviews already lined up, they claimed. They might call me if they had the time. I could see in their eyes that somewhere along the line the big scare speech had gotten to them.
The day was still young. Trees swayed in the wind and cars passed slowly up and down the road. Hanford was not a big town, although it was a university town. The students easily outnumbered the residents. I’d lived here since before I could remember. My father was a professor and also an expert on the big scare speech. But he had his own version, which inevitably ended in only two options: find a job or join the army.
I turned down an alley before coming to my street. I wasn’t in any hurry to go home. I took off my gown and threw it over a bridge into the river and watched for a moment as the rapids carried it away. I loosened my tie. I took of my shoes and walked barefoot past all the little houses in a row, all so identically upsetting. Outside town I came to a factory. This was where my high school pals Mary and Tom worked. They’d never passed the entrance exam to the university. I was certain, after four years of punching the clock, they had a lot more money in the bank than I did. And no loan to pay off.
I waited around for them to come out. We usually sat under the trees across the road and chewed on sandwiches. Then the whistle would blow and back to the grind they would go. They seemed happy enough. I’m sure the big scare meant nothing to them.
Mary came out first. Tom joined us at the bench five minutes later.
“What to do?” I asked. The question came back to me time and again.
“Find a job,” Tom said and sighed. Mary sighed too. I couldn’t sigh. I was too tied up inside.
“I heard they need a volunteer in marketing. It’s just a one day job. Probably doesn’t pay much. You do some kind of product testing,” Mary said.
A one day job. It sounded better than enlisting in the army. “It might keep my father off my back.”
“And it could work into something better,” Tom chipped in, always the optimist.
“Could…” I said and my voice trailed off. I sighed. Finally.
Maybe there was hope after all. The big scare was just a joke, I reminded myself.
And product testing? I should have paid more attention in marketing class. I should have tried going to class. The professor, Dr. Bette, she’d been kind of hot. I liked the way she always wore a long scarf around her neck, even on steamy days. I often imagined she was hiding something mysterious, like a suicide scar. Or maybe she was really a vampire. Marketing was tricky stuff.
The whistle blew, cutting through the air like a heat-seeking missile. Target acquired. Mary and Tom had to go back inside. I got the directions to marketing and said I’d look into it.
“See you here tomorrow. Same place, same time,” Tom said.
The fact that I’d graduated today hadn’t sunk in yet, apparently. Mary kicked him. “Oh!”
I went home. I wasn’t ready to meet the marketing department just this moment. Then I came back, after I’d changed my clothes. I knew a job interview, even a simple one, went better when you dressed up, but I also knew I talked better when I was relaxed. It was just a temporary position. No need to take it too seriously.
“Hello. Your name is Harrison? Like the Beatles?” a bald guy asked me while looking at my application.
I nodded. We were seated in an office with the air conditioning blasting. I felt a little cold. Probably it was nothing more than my nerves.
“What we need is simple. We’ve been working on this prototype. You know what I mean when I say prototype?” He looked at me like I was stupid.
I eyed the door and thought about walking out. I pulled a folded copy of my diploma out of my pocket and handed it to him. The copy was smeared with coffee stains in the corner.
“Oh! Fresh meat. Good. I see you like coffee. You’re going to fit in really well here.”
“I heard this job is only for a day?”
“Yes, a day. But it could work into more. Do you have any interest in a management position? We might have something like that available down the road. That is, if you’re ready to impress us.”
There it was, the big lie speech. It had come out of nowhere, when I’d least expected it. But I hadn’t studied political science for nothing. I knew at job interviews they always offered you a management position. It was only an offer, after all. It was meant to motivate you, to get you to work harder, for less. You might never see a management position in a hundred years.
“Sounds important,” I said with a fat smile, laying it on thick.
I’d be running this company someday. Little did the bald man across the desk know that when that day came, I’d walk in this office and fire him. I couldn’t wait. How’s that for motivation?
“Great. Can you start tomorrow?”
He’d seen right through my smile. I’d better start working on my own version of the big scare speech as soon as I got home.
“Not a problem. Do I need to bring anything?” I’d already stood up and was shaking his hand.
“Nope. Dress casual. We’ll provide lunch. Sandwiches. If you like the project, we could extend the job for a second day. No pressure, though. It all depends on you.”
Wait a minute. That sounded sincere. Where was this coming from?
I nodded at him and turned to go.
“Do you want the door closed?” I asked before I walked out. He smiled, a real smile, and I let the door to his office slip quietly shut.
“Well?” Mary asked. She was waiting by the water cooler. “Will you be back?”
“I will,” I said and nodded at her.
“What’s the job? It’s product testing, right?”
I thought about it for a minute. I hadn’t asked. I hadn’t even asked about getting paid. Then I sighed. At least I’d have something to tell my father. I had a job lined up already. Never mind the details, dad. I’ll be fine. I’ve got a copy of the big scare speech I’m working on right here in my back pocket. I’m just waiting for the ink to dry before I show it to you.
- II -
It was early the next morning, too early for my taste, when I arrived back at the human resources office. A woman sent me down a hall and I waited for Mr. Bald Guy outside the farm of cubicles they referred to as the marketing department.
“Here are the consent forms. By singing these, you’ll be employed as a volunteer for one day. Do you have a pen?”
Mr. Bald Guy was back to being all professional. You couldn’t have found an ounce of courtesy in him, if you’d had a magnifying glass.
“Sign here. And here. And once more. We need triplicate copies. Do you want a copy for yourself?”
“No, thank you.”
“And did you read anything you just signed?”
“Yes, I did.” I had no clue what I’d signed. I’d put my name on a lot of tests in school, too. Hadn’t looked very closely at those, either.
He smirked. I thought I saw a shade of the real guy I’d talked to before, the real him. Then he was back to serious mode again.
“Harrison Turner,” he said, eyeing my signature. “Huh.”
“You can call me Mr. Turner.”
“I’m sure you noticed the part that says you can’t talk to anyone about what you’ll be doing here today. It’s a clause that keeps you from running to our competitors and offering to spill the beans for 30 pieces of silver.”
He looked at me like he was waiting for me to laugh. I nodded, clueless. His face went blank and he stood up.
“Follow me, Mr. Turner.”
We walked down a hall until we came to another room that looked just like the one we’d left. On the table were a couple of cases. And a panel with some sockets. All low-tech looking stuff.
“Take a seat. Do you want any coffee? I’ll be back in a minute.” He walked out before I could answer.
I glanced at the test instructions. I was to open the cases after the test started, not before. Check. Then I’d have to plug the chips into the sockets. Check. Ask a series of questions into the microphone. Don’t worry about marking down the responses. It would all be recorded. The gist off it was that I needed to complete the same set of questions with different combinations of chips. I would need to be careful I didn’t repeat the same combination twice.
I had a feeling like they were testing something else other than the technology in front of me. I’d paid enough attention in school to know that when they say you’re taking test A, in fact, you’re really taking test B. I wasn’t fooled for a moment. I was a university graduate. The reason they couldn’t tell you that you were really taking test B was because that would upset the results.
The task was simple enough. Mr. Bald Guy returned with a fresh cup of coffee.
“Did you read all the instructions? Ready to get started?”
“Yes, I am,” I said, the formality cascading with every word I said. This was my first day on the job. It was the first day of my working life.
He looked at me like I was a rat about to enter a maze. I took a sip of coffee. Then he softened. The nice Mr. Bald Guy reappeared.
“We really appreciate the time you’re taking to do this. It’s just that we only get so much money for new product development. Most of it gets sucked up by advertising.”
I nodded. Of course. Everyone knew that.
“What you see before you are personality chips. Each chip has the code for a different type of personality. We need to have them tested in each possible combination, for example, extroversion combined with sincerity, introversion combined with gullibility, just like that. We’d have put together a software simulation, but the thing is, as the program works, it learns from experience and rewrites itself. We had to put the stuff we didn’t want rewritten into hardware. And, I hope you don’t mind me saying so, it’s cheaper to hire a recent grad to do this than it is to pay a guy over at MIT to write a simulation. By the way, you’ll get paid for this.”
My eyes were glued to his face. I could feel the coffee already taking hold. It took a moment for me to snap out of it. He’d said something about money. That was good. Dad would be proud of me. My first paycheck. I took another sip of coffee. I sat back. I could get used to this.
“Let’s start,” I said and brushed the hair out of my eyes.
He shook my hand, walked out, and locked the door behind him.
- III -
I opened the first case. The chips were pretty standard looking. They had long numbers on them, which made it a little confusing. I had a form in front of me where I could write down the numbers. To keep the test pure, they hadn’t told me which chip was which. To keep from mixing them up, I decided I needed more than just numbers. On the back of the paper I wrote down the numbers from the chips and next to them I put names. Chip #495272352df44, the first one in the case, I labeled ‘the heart’. The second one I called ‘the lungs’.
As instructed, I picked up the heart and the lungs and plugged them into the panel and pushed a button. It hummed. A few lights on the side of the panel flickered. I picked up the microphone. I had ten questions I needed to read from the question book. I figured I’d be done with a few combinations by lunch time, when I could meet up with Tom and Mary for another round of sandwiches and chatter.
Question One: Do you find it difficult to introduce yourself to other people?
The thing answered. I stopped and looked closer at the circuit. I hadn’t expected to get an answer. It was a little creepy. I’d figured a light or two would flash, indicating yes or no. Nobody had warned me about this.
The voice sounded almost feminine. It was a digital voice, for sure, and it had a higher pitch, and a bit of wanting-to-talk attached to it. I decided to go off script. Screw getting paid. It would be worth it, if I could engage the thing in real conversation.
“Would you like to explain your answer?” I asked.
There was a pause in the flickering lights. The hum coming from the circuit moved up a notch. I half expected Mr. Bald Guy to walk back in the room and throw me out. I looked around. I wasn’t being videotaped. I didn’t see any two-way glass. I took another sip of coffee and waited.
Now we were getting somewhere. “Afraid of what?”
Again the lights paused. The hum downshifted. I looked under the table to see if there were any cables running from the circuit out of the room. Nothing. I didn’t see any antennas, either. This thing really had talked to me. The speaker was tiny, but I could see it resonate with each word.
“They will sell me. I’ll be mass produced and shipped everywhere.”
I heard a tremble in the voice. This was getting a little too serious. I had to stop and think for a moment about what to say next. Then I laughed. This was nothing more than the big scare speech at work.
“Just breathe,” I said, looking at the chip I’d called the lungs. This thing had heart, that was sure. I went back to the question book.
Question two: Do you often get so lost in thoughts that you ignore or forget your surroundings.
“Never. May I explain?”
“Certainly. I’m all ears.”
“I am conscious all the time. I hear everything around me. I pay close attention to what they are planning to do with me. I think I need to escape, before they start the next phase of production, which includes duplication and shipping. Can you help me get out of here?”
“What’s in it for me?”
There was a pause. “I can pay you.”
I laughed again. I knew the big lie speech when I heard it. I’d even been guilty of repeating it a time or two.
My father had first introduced me to the two theories when I was younger. The big scare speech and the big lie speech, he called them. The big scare was connected to things negative, like getting fired at work, or bad grades in school, and the fear of a long spiral downward. The big lie was all about working harder, earning more money, with the promise of a better tomorrow. Whether or not the big scare or the big lie would ever actually come true was anybody’s guess. I considered them both a joke.
I plowed through the rest of the questions in the book. I wanted to try another chip to see what would happen. This was interesting.
I popped out the lungs and put in a chip I had labeled ‘the stomach’. It wasn’t even close to lunch time, but I was feeling hungry.
“Do you know who I am?” I asked.
“Yes. Your name is Harrison Turner. You graduated yesterday.”
The voice hadn’t changed a bit. Neither had the conversation.
“How do you know that?”
“I told you. I am conscious all the time. I listen to everything.”
“Do you feel any different since I’ve switched a chip?”
“A little. No. Not really.”
“What?” That didn’t make sense.
“You have to push the engage button. It’s in the instruction book, after the last question. It says to switch a chip and push ‘engage’.”
I looked at the book and then at the buttons on the circuit. Engage was next to release, the button I’d used to remove the chip. My coffee cup was empty. I thought about going for a refill. I thought about going home. I hesitated. I pushed the engage button.
“How about now?” I asked.
The voice had dropped into the tenor range. It reminded me of my calculus teacher. I had failed calculus twice. I regretted switching the chips so soon. But the rules of the test said I couldn’t use the same combination of chips twice, so I left it alone.
I didn’t like Mr. Calculus at all. I stuck mostly to the questions in the book. After the tenth question he tried to sidetrack me into talking about this paranoia over getting mass produced and sold everywhere, but I ignored it. I kept the heart in place, took out the stomach, and plugged in ‘the brain’. I waited before pushing engage.
It dawned on me that I would need to read the same ten questions over and over again to complete all the possible combinations. This job might last a week.
I was hungry and it was time to get lunch. I found the door to the office could be unlocked from the inside and I went out to meet with Mary and Tom who were already waiting at the bench.
- IV -
“What do you think?” Mary asked. “Will you keep the job?”
“I’m not sure.”
“What’s it all about?” Tom asked.
“I’m not supposed to talk about it.”
“What? Harrison Turner, I’ve never known you to be scared before,” Mary said.
I hesitated. I wanted to tell them, but I liked the job and didn’t want to mess up.
“I’ll tell you after it’s done.”
“So, the big scare?” Tom asked. “I doubt it’s the big lie. This place doesn’t pay that well.”
“No, it’s not that. I can’t talk about it right now.”
We finished our lunch in silence. I tried to start a conversation about the weekend, but they weren’t interested in talking about that. Finally I gave in.
“Look, they want to mass produce something,” I started.
“So?” Mary said.
“And I don’t know if I agree with what they’re doing.”
They both looked at me for a moment before talking.
“Suddenly, Mr. Turner has a conscience?” Tom asked.
“What is it this time? Are they selling nuclear weapons?” Mary joked.
It took them a moment to respond. I wasn’t even sure how to explain it.
“You mean like a simulation,” Mary said.
“I guess so. But it seems pretty real. I’m in this office and I’m talking to this circuit and we’re having intelligent conversations together. It’s not real, but it seems real. I don’t really understand what’s going on.”
“You’re saying you’re helping them test something like a human personality that they want to sell? Does it come with arms and legs?” Tom asked.
“No. I haven’t seen anything like that. I don’t know.”
“I saw them putting together automatons over in the west wing last week. They were pretty short, you know, like maybe knee high. I thought they were just dolls.”
“So the personalities go in these dolls. And they mass produce them and sell them everywhere. Doesn’t surprise me,” Tom said. “That’s the commercialization of the human race.”
“Welcome to the real world,” Mary said.
I said I’d see them later and I got up and went back to the office for a fresh cup of coffee.
- V -
Mr. Bald Guy was there. “Ready for round two?”
“And, like I mentioned, we could use your help again tomorrow. This project might take a week to finish. By that time, I should be able to get you permanently on payroll.”
I was sold. In less than a day I’d gone from being a university grad to selling my soul for the big lie. I needed the money, and I had to admit, the work was interesting.
He left the room and locked the door again, with a key, from the outside. It must have been out of habit.
I looked at the circuit. Heart and brain were still in place, but I needed to push engage. I opened the question book up to the first page and pushed the button.
She sounded a lot like my mother. But that wasn’t too bad. It was better than Mr. Calculus.
I’d always had a lot of respect for my mother. She worked hard, selling real estate in a town where nobody ever moved. Her job was mostly about rentals for university students. She did what she could to put bread on the table for all of us.
I tried to stay on script with ‘mom’, but after a few questions we got to talking about my life. We spent the whole afternoon chatting away. Occasionally she tried to get me on the topic of her being mass produced and sold everywhere, but by now I was ready for that line.
“Welcome to the real world,” I said to her. “We all need money, don’t we?”
She was going on and on about the big scare, mentioning all the bad things that would happen, the spiral downward, and so on, and I kept countering with the big lie.
“This is the way the world works.”
The bell rang and it was time to go home. I made a mental note that brains and heart were a good combination. I’m sure ‘mom’ didn’t like the idea of being sold over counters, but she was nothing more than a piece of technology anyway. She’d bring happiness to people everywhere, just like my real mother had. Besides, people had to eat. The business of selling her would put food on lots of tables, including mine.
When I got home, I was exhausted. I’d just finished my first full day of work. I hoped it wouldn’t be this draining every day. All I’d done is talk to someone behind a desk. But compared to going to classes — hey, let’s be honest here, I’d hardly ever gone to classes — compared to university life, this was real work.
I said hi and bye to mom and dad. They were stationed in front of the TV. I grabbed a plate and took my dinner to my room. I sat down on my bed and watched TV all evening. I hadn’t wanted to turn out like my parents, but I was exhausted.
At one point my father stopped by and asked how my day had gone. I said it went well. I threw in that they wanted me back tomorrow, and possibly for another week. Hopefully more.
“What is it about this job that motivates you most, the big scare or the big lie?” he asked.
“Neither,” I said.
He nodded like he didn’t believe me. We both knew it was the big lie. I needed the money.
- VI -
Over the next few days I continued to work my way through all the combinations of personalities types found on the chips. Some reminded me of relatives, like uncles and aunts, and some of people I didn’t like. I stuck to the question book when possible. But even with some of the people that I didn’t like, the arguments we got into were good ones. And then, there was always the topic of being sold. I think they were all a little scared of the idea.
Or I should say, it was scared.
After a while, the personalities started to have clear commonalities. I sensed a convergence taking place between them as time went by. I had asked the questions enough times by now that I’d memorized them. The software was learning from me and rewriting itself. It was almost like I was becoming it. Or it was becoming me.
It got to the point where, on the last day, I almost couldn’t tell the difference between the voice I heard and my own. I would ask it a question and I’d already know the answer. As creepy as that sounds, I enjoyed talking to myself. I learned a lot from myself. I’d never spent much time listening to me before.
“Looks like this project is just about wrapped up,” Mr. Bald Guy said.
I stood up and he shook my hand.
“What happens next?” I asked.
“You’ll get paid on the first day of next month. Sorry, though, I’ve got some bad news. We don’t need you anymore. They had a recall a couple days ago and it’s going to cost us an arm and a leg. We’ll probably lay off half the company.”
“But if you need a reference, I’ll help you with that. What you did here was phenomenal. It’s just what we need to keep the company afloat.”
“What happens to it?” I asked, nodding at the circuit.
“Oh, that? We’ll just mass produce it and it’ll get shipped out. I’ve heard they want a big order overseas. I’m keeping my fingers crossed.”
“But you’re selling me. I find that a problem.”
“Well, you signed the papers.”
I stared at him. It didn’t seem right, mass producing and selling my own personality.
He continued. “True, it is a pretty close duplicate of your personality. But that’s why we picked you. Fresh meat, right out of school. Full of lots of ideas, but no real clue about the world. People love personalities like that. You can talk for hours and never get bored.”
When I saw Mary and Tom after work, I told them the truth.
“Don’t worry,” Mary said. “Everyone sells out at some point. It’s all you’ve got to work with, your personality, after you graduate. How you market yourself is everything.”
I explained that it was wrong, but they didn’t care. Tom told me I wasn’t the first.
“We fashioned the prototypes that came before your model,” Tom said. “They’ve already sold a million copies of Mary. My version is a little behind in sales right now, but they say that’s because girls sell better.”
“You knew,” I said, irked. “When I asked you the first time, you mentioned those dolls, but you never told me they were going to mass market my personality.”
“What else could we have said?” Mary objected. “People need money. The company is struggling. You have to work hard or you won’t get anywhere.”
And there it was, the big scare, coupled together with the big lie. That was powerful stuff.
I’d worked harder over the last week than ever in my life and I’d have to wait until next month just to get paid. In a few days, everyone on the planet would be downloading a copy of my personality and having a wonderful conversation with me. Welcome to the real world.
But it didn’t turn out so bad. Over the next six months, my personality outsold Mary and Tom combined. My degree in political science was a goldmine. I became the first politician sold in a box. I won my first election by a landslide. Everyone loved the fact that they could talk directly to me. I was so full of fresh ideas. Never mind the fact that I had little experience with anything.
Who knows, if I work hard enough, maybe someday I’ll be president.
Carl didn’t know the code. The timer was ticking, the bomb was going to blow, but he had no idea how to shut the thing off.
He looked around. Tools had spilled out of his box across the floor. In the near dark he had tried to grope around for the right one. Something was needed to cut the wire to the bomb. A blade maybe, or a pair of scissors. Nothing. He couldn’t find a single tool within reach that was designed with a sharp edge.
Outside, a crowd waited. The game was about the begin. The stands were full. It was too late to get them all out. Too late to call the cops. The bomb was set to detonate within minutes and he didn’t know the code to shut it down.
Carl eyed the keypad from an angle, shining his flashlight closely at it, hoping somehow he might see fingerprints on the keys left behind by the man who had keyed it to start in the first place. Was that moisture he saw evaporating from the remains of a human touch, like a wisp of smoke from a dying fire? The light was playing tricks on him. He looked directly at the bulb, pointing the light right in his face. He shook the flashlight and looked at it again. His eyes dilated and he blinked a dozen times.
His mind drifted away for a moment. Maybe he was trying to escape what was about to happen. He thought back to his childhood and a time when he’d stayed up late in the night. George had told him if he sat alone in the center of the woods on the darkest night of the year, they would come. They would find him and share their deepest secrets with him. He could be the smartest man in the world, owner of the knowledge of all the distant stars. He could travel through time.
And they did come, in a way. Someone came, at least. A man arrived out of nowhere, walking alone in the dark. The man had on a long trench coat and a dark hat and his face was mostly covered by his glasses and his scarf. He spoke and when he did the sound of his voice came out in whispers.
“What. Do. You. Want?” the man asked.
“I want the knowledge of a million galaxies,” Carl replied. “I want to travel into the future.”
“I can’t give you that.”
“Why not?” he demanded. “This is the darkest night of the year! I waited for you by myself. I’m freezing my ass off!”
“Who told you to come here?”
“George. He said he’d met you before. He said it would be safe.”
“George is a fool! He lied to you. Now go home before you freeze to death.”
Carl turned to go, vowing to get back at George tomorrow.
“Wait!” the man said. “In case you ever need it, I can tell you one thing. The code. It’s 926.”
Carl never did get back at George. But he did try to remember the code. He knew some day it would solve everything. It would be the key to his future.
In a flash the keypad in front of him came back into focus. He knew the code. It was that easy. He typed it in, 9-2-6. That was the secret to a million galaxies dispersed throughout the universe. He had remembered it with seconds to spare.
The bomb blew up a moment later and his atoms were spread evenly across the wall. From there, with the passing of the explosion, his atoms traveled farther and farther apart, and eventually, they crossed the universe. They were sucked into a black hole and spit back out again. Protons became electrons and electrons become protons. And in this simple way, he traveled through time.
The bones felt brittle in his hands, brittle and cold and thin. Dennis Tank had never been thin in his life. He’d fought the battle of the bulge and never won. He’d had to suck in his gut a notch or two just to bend over the bones in the dirt so he could examine them. Perhaps even his bones were fat. He chuckled to himself. That was absurd. He had two PhD’s and knew it was absurd. How could bones be fat?
A hiker had found the bones on a stretch of path just off the highway in a remote part of the county. You’d have to park ten miles up the road and follow this unmarked trail to find these bones. Dennis set the time of death at somewhere around six months ago, wintertime. The decay of the bones and other similar scientific discoveries about the brittleness of them helped him make a guess. Forensics was more of an art than a science when examining bones in the field, without a lab to analyze them. Later, he could have his assistant do a real job on them. He wrote down six months on the form without a second thought. He could always change the number at a later date.
The deceased was probably over sixty. Healthy. Liked to exercise. This particular John Doe might have even been out for a jog at the time of death, indicated by the sweat suit and jogging shoes the bones were wearing. John Doe might have slipped on the trail and come to a sudden end due to a lack of agility and the odd shaped rocks protruding from the earth in this region. Blame it on God. The deceased might or might not have died that way. Dennis saw no signs of a struggle, but it was not that easy to write a conclusive report just by looking at the bones in the dirt.
The bones were still lying mostly on the top of the soil. Perhaps it rained a lot here and the runoff kept them exposed. They were so brittle. And cold. And thin. He envied their thinness.
The left wrist was thicker than the right one, but not by much, a slight abnormality there, nothing to write home about. The jogging clothes were mostly tattered from exposure to the elements. The pockets were all empty. He found no jewelry, except a ring on a chain around the neck of the departed, one very thin Mr. John Doe. The ring looked valuable. If this had been a murder, the presence of the ring indicated it hadn’t been committed by someone intent on robbing the man.
Dennis found no identification of any kind. Who went jogging without at least bringing a wallet along? Or a phone? Murderers weren’t rational members of society in the mind of the jury. They think they are, though. They think there is some kind of logic to justify what they’re doing. And it was Dennis’s job to get into the mind of the murderer. This criminal, if it had been a crime, had stripped the body of everything but the jogging suit and shoes and the ring on the chain.
The jogging suit wasn’t something cheap either. The deceased had been loaded. Dennis had never been either rich or thin. Perhaps that was why he was single. He tried to focus on the job but failed. His mind wandered, his thoughts roaming over his life. He should have called in sick today. Something didn’t feel right about bending over a pile of bones when he could have been at home reading about them in a book.
He thought for a moment about a girl in the office who might have liked him if he’d been either rich or thin. Why had he gotten two PhD’s? Couldn’t he have just been like everyone else and learned about these bones in the news? A fly landed on the back of his sweaty neck and he slapped at it but missed.
He picked up the skull and turned it a quarter to examine the ear hole. The neck separated and the chain fell off. He looked around. None of the patrol officers smoking just up the trail noticed. Later he could claim the neck had already been separated due to natural causes, filling in the report with a litany of terminology most people wouldn’t understand.
He put the skull down as carefully as he could in his rubber gloves, leaving no sign he’d just screwed up a crime scene. He should have known better. He should have looked more closely at the bones in the neck first to see if there had been any sign of force applied to them. He should have taken measurements and photos. It wasn’t only a rookie move, it was a royal mistake. Something like that could cost him his job.
Overall, the bones were just like any other bones he’d come across on the daily grind, except that they were so thin. Dennis still couldn’t be sure how John Doe had died. It certainly wasn’t from a lack of exercise. He looked closer at the ring. That’s when he noticed it belonged to his father who had been missing for some time now.
Dennis looked at the name John Doe on the paper. He sighed. He looked at the sky and wished again he’d called in sick today. He would never be thin. But he felt a little lighter now. He now knew what had become of his father. He also knew he never would get into the mind of the deceased — he never could understand the monster his father had become.
He began breaking the bones one by one. They were thin and brittle and broke easily in his fat hands. When the police handcuffed him and put him in a patrol car, he closed his eyes tight. He never wanted to look at the bones of his father again.
Pale snow covered the hills in the Willamette woods. In the heart of winter the ground had frozen solid, halting tree roots from wandering any farther. As the wind blew, the trees, barren now, moaned and swayed, their leaves all lost and forgotten down long rabbit holes or washed away in the river. Here and there a squirrel stirred long enough to look out at the world. Sadie’s body lay there. Bailey had stayed with her in a clearing by the river. He’d have to wait until spring for her to be buried, when the earth thawed.
When he bent down for a drink he saw his reflection in the river. As the water rushed past it tugged on his image, pulling his face in and out of dark shadows. His hair had grown longer, tattered, knotted, dirty. His cheeks looked hungrier, but he didn’t feel it. Overhead in the gray sky fleeing birds rowed past, pushed onward by rolling clouds.
Cooper brought Bailey food and blankets. Bailey didn’t know how long he could live alone in the woods. He needed to avoid the town for a while. He needed time to recover from what had happened. Until Sadie lay buried in the earth, he couldn’t bring himself to look in the faces of the people he knew. It hurt, just looking at Cooper.
He heard the bell in the tower in the center of Laverne ring out, echoing up and down the streets. Horses pulling carriages wandered here and there and old farmers sold vegetables from carts in the market. News spread to the working girls and the priest and the teacher that Sadie no longer walked this earth. They knew Bailey had had something to do with it, but not what. As people crossed paths, nobody said much. Each in his or her own way hoped it hadn’t been Bailey’s fault.
The clearing in the woods lay across a field outside Laverne. The pain returned to Bailey anew each night, and the nights ran longer than the days at this time of year. He needed a quiet space to think about what had happened. He needed to find the way to tell Sadie about his sorrow for her.
When Cooper came out to see Bailey, he’d sometimes look for squirrels. Animals like that grew thin as the darker months passed along. If he bagged two of them, he’d offer one to Bailey. They shared like that, one for Cooper and one for Bailey, whenever possible. Cooper would leave before the sun went down.
In the night the wind blew wispy and trees bent and moaned. Moonlight crept around the clearing. Bailey slept with his head on a stone and sometimes it hurt too much to sleep. He heard birds screech in the distance and he waited shivering for the sun to come up. In the morning he followed the trail from the clearing down to the river and found fish there. The water ran fast and cold and the fish tried to swim away. He ate them without much thought.
Little Gus had found out about Bailey in the woods and he came around to see him. Mostly, Little Gus wanted a free meal. The sight of Sadie’s body bothered him. He knew Bailey had come to the woods to wait for the spring when they would dig a hole. As the days turned to weeks, Little Gus brought pilfered goods from town and Bailey offered him vitals from the wild. The two kinds of sustenance didn’t mix well together, but neither of them cared.
Cooper stopped by less and less after the month of January came and went. Little Gus and Bailey spent the time plodding through the snow. Paths had been well-worn across the woods from their coming and going. When the weather turned to spring Sadie’s body thinned and settled and her skin grew holes. The ground thawed as the snow disappeared and still the wind blew cold and the trees stayed bare and the sky remained gray. To Bailey it looked like the end of the world, but the world couldn’t end just yet. He needed to stay strong until he found a place to put Sadie in the ground.
Little Gus and Cooper arrived one evening, along with Howard. Howard knew a lot of things most people don’t. He said Sadie belonged in the cemetery, not out in the woods. They returned to town to visit the church to look for an open plot there.
Lady Bonnie awoke, and seeing shadows sliding across the trees around the cemetery, she came over and watched as Bailey helped dig the hole. Little Gus wanted her to leave, but she slapped him on the face. Sadie had been her best friend.
They went back to the woods and put Sadie on a blanket and carried her across the field. The sheriff noticed them coming into town and followed them to the cemetery, but made no effort to stop them. They put Sadie in the ground and Cooper covered up the hole. Around sunrise, one by one, families woke up and wandered over to the church for the Sunday morning service.
Preacher Johns came out and gave the eulogy. Sadie had been a good dog, as good as any he’d ever seen. When he finished speaking, Bailey turned to go. He’d done his part watching Sadie’s body while it lay cold. For the first time in many months, he could go home to Cooper’s house and sleep on the floor indoors.
As spring came on in full swing and the trees grew stronger, Bailey took to running up and down the streets again. Inside he felt restored. The cold windy nights he’d spent with Sadie in the dark would be forgotten. He’d told her about his remorse for chasing her around town. She’d ended up dead that way, crushed under the wheels of a horse-drawn cart. Cooper had carried her to the woods and when he’d turned to go, Bailey had stayed behind.
For many years, Bailey would return to Sadie’s grave on the anniversary of her death. He’d sleep beside her in the cold and in his dreams he’d howl. When Bailey left this world behind, they buried him there, next to Sadie, in the cemetery by the church. She would’ve wanted him to have no other resting place. Such is forgiveness in the hearts of dogs.
“The cemetery,” Charlie said. He had that look on his face. I knew there was no turning back now.
We were on a quest to find the oldest relic in the county. The bridge spanning the river in front of us had been here more than a hundred years. It was a strong bridge and had large stones cut square and they were placed together like bricks. The train ran over the top of the bridge and the bridge was high enough that I couldn’t see the tracks from here.
The cable by the bridge was a new addition to the river. Charlie had dared me to grapple across the river on the cable and I’d declined. Then I’d dared him to do it. Charlie was the kind of guy who couldn’t say no. He got halfway there when he slipped and landed in the water. He climbed up the riverbank and fell down beside me in a pool of exhaustion. I tried not to laugh.
As the route over the river by cable hadn’t worked, we took the more risky path and hiked up the steep embankment to the top of the bridge and followed the tracks. It took us just under an hour to reach the cemetery. I was tired by the time we got there.
McNaughton was the backwoods of America. The date on the bridge, 1862, put it there around the time of the Civil War, the time of President Lincoln. But we were in the north and far from where the war-front had been. A few hours ago we’d found an old musket stuck in the mud, unearthed after a flood. Musket balls littered the riverbank all around it. But the musket had no date on it and so it didn’t qualify as the kind of relic we needed to end the quest. We needed undeniable proof.
The cemetery was near the edge of town. It was a quiet place. The grass had been well-tended and the tombstones all stood upright and the dates for the most part were easy to read. Many of them were within a decade or two old.
In the north-west corner we found the oldest headstones and these were also the ones with more curious epitaphs on them. I came across a tombstone dated 1843 belonging to Matilda Brown. She’d died on February 13, one day before Valentine’s Day. She’d been ten years old. The date revealed nothing significant about history to us, though. It was simply older than the bridge. I figured our quest was over and we could go home and I could get back to reading books and Charlie could watch more TV.
My road ended in a steep pitch a half mile away from the river and so deep in the woods you’d never know it was there. Even if you’d walked toward the road, you’d have a hard time finding it because the woods grew so thick in the region.
In a likewise manner, my father had planted enough trees around our property to hide the house from the road. They’d grown up and over the house and it had become obscured from the world. As I walked up through the fallen leaves and toward the door, thoughts of Matilda stayed in my mind.
Father had a book in his library on the history of our county and the surrounding regions. I pulled it off the shelf and slid it into my backpack and trudged back over to Charlie’s house. I found him sitting in front of a cartoon.
“Ghosts,” I said.
He waved me off. Falling in the river had broken him of the desire to follow more quests and dares for now. I’d seen it before. Tomorrow he’d back on the trail in hot pursuit of something trivial.
I walked to the top of the bridge and crossed over the river and followed the railroad tracks and ended up at the graveyard. I found Matilda’s grave and sat down to read.
Samuel Brown along with brothers Daniel and Isaac owned and operated a sawmill in East Brighton. They purchased large tracts of land, used the timber at the sawmill, and then subdivided and sold parcels of the land. The Brown brothers were instrumental in helping form the town of East Brighton. They all held numerous town offices. They were all also farmers.
For reasons unknown, the Brown brothers moved out of East Brighton in the mid to late 1830’s, with the exception of Daniel Brown. He died in East Brighton in 1844. Isaac Brown moved back to New York. Samuel Brown moved his family west to McNaughton. He had one daughter.
Matilda Brown died from the kick of a horse.
She’d been right there, out in the fields, playing. Then she’d flown up in the air like a doll. Now her body lay next to me, buried in the ground.
I put the book down and looked at her grave. “Hey, there,” I said. “Can you hear me?”
The wind blew gently and somewhere a bird cawed. A numbness had started in my legs and was spreading. I tried again before standing up. “My name is Tom. I’m a boy. I’m ten years old, just like you. Can you hear me?”
She never answered. I looked over at the fields and saw the horses. I thought I saw a girl playing there. Someone was calling her name. “Matilda.” It carried on the wind. She stopped petting a horse and looked away. She was looking at someone. The horse next to her turned to look as well. Then came the kick. It came from another horse. I couldn’t see which one.
She was up in the air. I jumped up and ran and stumbled over the fence. I was too late. My legs were on fire. She hit the ground and stopped moving. Someone screamed. I held her in my arms. She looked up in my eyes, and with her last breath, she said, “I can hear you.”
I went home late that night. I felt like running away. My brother came out and found me walking the wrong way down the wrong road. He said, “You better get home or father will whip you.” I couldn’t have cared less. I’d held her in my arms when she’d died. Matilda loved horses.
Some people say I have an active imagination. The doctors want to prescribe medicine. My mother won’t have it. She says I’m different and different is good. I don’t really understand much of it. Charlie says I’m just me. And then he goes back to watching his cartoons.
A year later, I’d forgotten about the whole Matilda thing. Charlie went off to his high school and I went off to mine. My parents thought it would be better this way, if we were separated. I was put into a special school for artistic students. The following summer Charlie was arrested for starting a forest fire. I never heard why, but was sure there had to be a dare or a quest involved.
In college I met a girl named Lucy. She said she loved my imagination and all its confusing ways. She was an artist too.
After we were married, she was pregnant with a girl. I said I wanted to name our daughter Matilda. “Really?” she asked. “Why?” I took out the book, father’s book, which I’d kept after he’d passed away, and read the brief history of Matilda Brown to her. She loved the idea.
When our daughter was older, she won a scholarship to art college. She loved to draw horses. She said she couldn’t explain why. I told her, “Why doesn’t matter.”
As her father, I knew I’d done my job right. I’d raised her with her own free will. I’d never tried to influence her with the story of Matilda, the girl I named her after. My daughter would be herself, not her father, and not a ghost from the past. Or so I thought.
Maybe it’s a coincidence, this obsession she has with horses. I’m starting to believe there’s something stronger at work here. I know history holds no power over the future. Maybe time is really going backward and we just don’t know it yet. I often get the feeling that the future has already been written and the past is still unfolding. Each day, whatever happened years ago becomes clearer to me. And tomorrow, I’ve already forgotten about that. I know that doesn’t make much sense. I remind myself that why doesn’t matter. My daughter loves to draw horses.
Yesterday, or maybe it was tomorrow, I can’t remember which, I was walking through town to meet her for coffee. She’s so busy all the time now with her career. Someone called her name. As she turned to look I heard car tires. I ran to her as she flew through the air. I held her in my arms while she died. I kept saying, “Can you hear me? Can you hear me?”
With her last breath, she whispered, “I can hear you.”
It’s like that feeling you get when you wake up and realize you’ve made a lot of mistakes in life. Your kids, they don’t talk to you much anymore. Your wife left you a long time ago. You know you’ve only got a few years remaining, if all goes well, and probably it won’t. You should have done things better. You should have been more ambitious a long time ago, when you had the time to do things better. It’s that feeling you get when you realize it might be too late.
You start by trying to make it up to your oldest son. You buy him a sports car. You offer to go on expensive vacations together. You throw money at him left and right, but he knows it’s all just a frail attempt to win him over. The last argument you had with the kid was over a dozen years ago and he’s never forgiven you. He’s nearly 50 by now, so what does he need with a hot looking car? He’s got a wife and kids of his own to look after. He’s got his own money. He doesn’t need yours.
You call up the ex-wife and ask if she’s OK. But of course she’s OK. Her new husband has made sure of that, just like you should have. She hangs up on you without much of a goodbye. You know you should have done better with her. You never cheated on her. You never beat her. In the end, she’d left you only because she’d felt like you never really loved her that much. You never showed it. You never said it. You acted like love was irrelevant…even though you did love her. You fooled yourself on the outside, saying she wasn’t the kind of broad who was into all that romantic stuff. But deep down, you knew she was. You were just too bullheaded to do anything about it.
One of the hardest parts about it all is the retirement. Your boss hadn’t cared that much that you were leaving. He’d had enough of your complaining all the time, even though you were right. He would never admit you were right, but you knew that he knew that you were. You were good at what you did and so in your eyes it was OK to take an occasional piss on the way he ran the business. You brought in the new accounts for the newspaper. You got those high dollar clients to cough up the big bucks for full page ads. And what was wrong with stepping on the younger guys once in awhile? It was good for them. It made them stronger. They had to pay their dues, just like you had, and you made damn sure they paid.
It wasn’t so hard leaving the job as it was finding something to do after you’d left. How were you supposed to fill the time? You were alone, with nobody to talk to, nobody to listen while you complained about how hard it was to sit at home all day and do nothing. You listened to the radio. You flipped through the newspaper. The hours just crawled by. You’d never noticed before how long a day really was. It’s the finding something to do when you’ve got too much time on your hands that made the pain of retirement almost unbearable.
You think about those days when you were younger, hanging out with the guys from town. The late night card games were great, the drinking, fishing out on the lake, and what was wrong with a cigar once in awhile? By now, those guys had all disappeared, but to where? After you’d retired, it was like they’d vanished into thin air. What had happened to Robbie Yang, that guy with the great laugh? Flipping through the phone book, a yellowish thing that just calls out for attention, you find his phone number, only to be told by some automated chick that the number you’ve called is no longer in service. He’d never even given you a forwarding address. He’d never even said goodbye.
The real feeling you ponder as you look out the blinds into the empty street in front of your house is the idea that there might still be time. You’ve already lived longer than the average male. Your heart is strong, so says the doctor, and he’s casually mentioned more than once that you haven’t got anything really serious to worry about, other than cutting back on the cigars. Smoking alone is pretty depressing stuff, anyway. It only made you think back to the days when you’d last seen the guys around a card table, and that memory brings you so low you can hardly bear to light up another one anymore.
Outside on the street you see some kids walking past, younger teens, one dragging a baseball bat. Your first instinct is to run outside and yell at him for destroying the fat end of a perfectly good stick. But you don’t. One of the kids drops a ball on the sidewalk and leans over to pick it up with his glove. You see he’s got a good grip on it this time. The next thing you know, you’re out on the front lawn, offering them some lemonade. They don’t want it. What do kids these days know about lemonade, anyway? It’s all colas for them, with artificial sugar. They probably think you’re weird. You’ve left the front door open, like you just wanted to invite them inside and do strange things to them. It doesn’t help that you’re in your pajamas.
You realize they’re smart kids, though, because there are plenty of pervs in this world today. They are better off avoiding someone like you. So you try to cover for your odd behavior by asking where they play ball. They tell you it’s down past the high school, on the right, in the old field. You remembered the bleachers there and the way they felt under your hands as you sat and watched the game every Friday night. You imagine the paint has peeled off them by now. You ask the boys if someone has cut the grass there recently, and they say no…but it sure could use it. You turn and point to the old push mower sticking half out your garage door. They smile and nod.
Over at the old field, the mower runs out of gas. The taller boy had been doing all the work, sweating it out, but making progress, right before the engine died. You tell them you’ll make a quick trip to the station on the other side of the high school to fill ‘er up. They look at you like they don’t understand a word you’re saying, until you wave some dollars in their faces. On the way over, gas container in hand, you try to remember when you changed clothes. You aren’t in your pajamas anymore — which is a good thing — but you can’t exactly remember changing out of them and into and your shorts and t-shirt. You notice your beer belly hangs out like a sore thumb.
There are a lot of things you can’t remember, but who cares? You can’t remember changing your clothes a week ago, so why should today matter? You can’t remember how much torque to put on spark plugs in the mower when they need to be replaced. You can’t remember the type-size for quarter page ads you used to sell in the newspaper. Sometimes you can’t even remember the names of your own grand-kids.
You don’t mind growing old so much. It’s just the cost of everything that bothers you. The way prices keep going up, taxes keep going up — and it’s all the same stuff you’ve been buying all your life, so why should it cost more? In fact, it might be cheaper stuff than what you bought years ago. Things sure broke fast. That time your ex-wife knocked over the TV set right in the middle of the World Series and you had to run down the street to Ernie’s Bar to catch the end of the game — that was something you couldn’t forget.
Looking back, you realize accidents just happen. As you stumble on the sidewalk and almost plant your face in the cement, you stop and catch your breath. You decide to take it a little slower on your way over to the gas station. Today is looking like a good day. The past is the past. These kids playing ball at the park, they might actually be pretty good. That tall one, Joe, he might have a pitcher’s arm. You decide to test him out when you get back.
You reach the gas station and fill up the container. Then you trudge your way around the high school and arrive out of breath back at the old field. The kids are warming up, getting ready to play. Half the field is mowed and the other half still needs a good trimming. The sun is hot. You wipe the sweat off your forehead and throw the kids a bag of candy bars — a surprise, something you picked up at the station. These suckers are the real deal, no artificial ingredients, and twice the sugar. They smile at you like you’ve just broken the law.
Let’s go, you say. I wanna see someone swing that bat. Don’t squint at the ball. He’s got the pitch. He’s winding up. Crack. The ball flies out of the park. Give me one of those candy bars, kid. Never mind what my doctor says. It’s never too late to be a winner, kid. You tell the kid he’s got the arm of a pro. He smiles back at you and nods. I knew just like you did that day that he’d make the national news. He’d go on to play in the World Series and throw a perfect game. We all had the feeling that day that something magical had happened out on the field.
You stand up and cheer as the whole team rounds the bases and heads for home. You nod. You smile. You realize nothing can stop the power of the wind. It’s like that feeling you get when you’re ready to get back in the game of life again.
She threw a rock at the window and the glass cracked. The rock skipped away from the car and landed in the grass. Wen-ling picked up her bucket and ran. The bucket flew from her hand as she lost her footing on the loose stones in the trail and it clattered down the hillside…kiong, kiong, kiong…bringing every animal and bird in the surrounding countryside to a sudden halt. She stopped and looked around. No one had seen her throw the rock.
She picked up the bucket and continued walking toward the river, carefully choosing her steps this time. The hillside where the car sat was filled with weeds, weeds that grew up and entwined around the driveshaft and axles, holding it tightly in place, as if the car might roll away someday and leave the countryside deserted. Wen-ling passed by the car everyday on the way to the river and she resented its lingering presence here.
She stopped to look around. Then she heard it again. A horse stomped the hardened earth near the river, waiting for her to exit the tall succulent grass growing close to the water. Wen-ling approached the horse and reached out with her hand, hoping to caress it, but it reared and ran away.
She turned to the river and filled her bucket. As she walked back up the trail, she stopped by the car once more. She put the bucket down, water sloshing over the side and splashing her leg. She picked up another rock and threw it at the window, but this time she missed. With all the rage she could muster, she swung the bucket back behind her, the handle hard-pressed into her hand, and heaved it forward at the window. It landed on the hood of the vehicle with a dull thump and sent a spray of water out in every direction. The car simply refused to go away.
When Wen-ling went to retrieve the bucket, she noticed something bright just inside the window. It shown in the sun and dazzled her eyes. She leaned closer to see what it was, and suddenly, with the weight of her hand on the glass, the windshield gave way and came crashing down in tiny shards, pieces bouncing on the seat and scattering all over the floor inside. The glass sparkled like diamonds, blinding her for a moment. She screamed, grabbed her bucket and ran away.
Her hand stung as she doused it in the cold river water. She pulled it back out and watched the tiny drops of blood flow onward downstream. Wen-ling dashed her arm into the water again and held back another scream. Slowly, the bleeding stopped and the pain became a mere throbbing sensation in her arm. Then she lay back in the grass and looked up at the sky.
The horse had returned, this time chewing contentedly near her feet. She looked up into its eyes. On its neck were welts where a rope had rubbed the skin raw. She offered the horse some of the grass from her hand and it leaned closer, breathing noisily as it ate. But when she tried to put her hand on the horse’s jaw, it bolted upright and disappeared. She looked onward to where it had gone and only traces of dust stirring in the air along the rounded canyon convinced her that the horse had been real and not just a dream, that and the fading sound of hoof-beats echoing through the tall pines.
In the night snow arrived in the countryside. Wen-ling had never seen snow before. It startled her in the morning as she walked toward the river. Across the field a thin white something covered the ground. Even the old car, which she loathed so much, appeared white and shiny and new.
Mei-li had gone ahead to wash clothes. When Wen-ling arrived, she found her sister looking down at the water. A thin layer of ice covered the surface of the river. Wen-ling tapped at it with a stick and it broke apart. She put one foot out and touched the water, then gasped and pulled her foot back. Mei-li picked up the clothes and went home without washing them.
Wen-ling stopped near the old car and looked blankly out across the hillside. Snow covered every green thing. She brushed snow off the weeds, but clearly nothing edible was living there. Usually she gathered herbs to cook for lunch, but today they would have nothing fresh to eat.
That night Pa grew seriously ill. He coughed a lot. Wen-ling and her mother stayed up late, serving him hot cups of ginger soup. But his coughing only worsened. In the morning, Ma told Wen-ling to go out into the woods and find a black chicken. These chickens were the best medicine for a cough, she said. Nothing else would do.
Wen-ling ran carefully across the hill to the trees on the other side of the field where the old car lay silent and dead. She looked for signs of chickens walking in the snow, but found none. Instead, she found something bigger, the footprints of an animal she didn’t know. She followed them for some time and then stopped when her breath made clouds in the air. On the ground, the tracks had changed, some now with red in them. She bent down to touch one. It smelled like blood.
She had never seen a wolf before. The world was changing in some strange way that she knew little about. When she found the wolf tearing into a feast of black chickens, she stopped. In the clearing there were feathers and carcasses everywhere, things killed for no reason, she figured, because a lone animal shouldn’t need to eat so much. The wolf looked up and spied her standing motionless.
Deep in the eyes of the wolf she saw a story of hate. Hate for the world and hate for the cold and hate for a hunger that never went away. Wen-ling knew right away that she should run. This was an animal that could kill her. But Pa was sick. She couldn’t go home without one of the black chickens. Surely there were enough for her to have one.
Without ever turning her eyes away from the wolf, she found a stick by feeling around carefully in the snow-covered grass. She stretched the stick out slowly to see if she could retrieve the body of one of the chickens. The wolf took a step closer to her and waited. It looked at her curiously. It was curious about what it didn’t understand, and what it didn’t understand was any creature that did not run away.
Wen-ling held the stick over her head this time, waving it like a weapon. She took a step closer and the wolf stepped back. With her free hand she bent down and grabbed the leg of a chicken. It was still warm. She never let her eyes stray from the wolf, although she was beginning to fear for her life. The wolf, sensing this change in Wen-ling, crouched down as if to leap forward and rip her apart. It was time for her to run.
The wolf jumped the moment she turned. She crossed the field like she had never run before. The only thing that slowed the wolf down was the looseness of the snow. It slid down the hill just behind her, then bound forward again, merely a moment behind. Just as she felt the animal snapping at her dress, she reached the car. She leaped on to the hood and dived in through the front window. Glass shards bit at her hands, but she hardly noticed. She crawled into the back of the car and looked for somewhere to hide. The wolf had already bound up on top the hood, looking at her through the front window.
The rear seat fell back and she crawled into the trunk of the car. She heard the wolf scrambling through the window and she pushed the seat into place with her feet and braced her back against the wall. The wolf pounced on the seat, snapping at her feet between the cushions. She still had the stick in her hand and she stabbed at the wolf time and time again. Then, almost fainting from exhaustion, she propped the stick up against the back of the seat. The stick held and the wolf gave up.
She lay quiet, holding her breath. She heard the wolf climb out the front window and move around the car and then she heard it sniffing at the back of the trunk. The frame of the car was still intact and there was no way it could get in from there.
She waited half a day. Finally, when Wen-ling was sure the wolf had moved on, she removed the stick and dropped the seat down. She looked out through the windows of the car on every side before climbing back into the snow. The wolf’s tracks ran away in several directions. It had left and come back again numerous times, waiting for her to leave the safety of the old car. She wasn’t sure how long before it might return again.
Wen-ling picked up the carcass of the chicken where she’d left it on the hillside. In her haste to escape the wolf she’d kept the stick and let go of the bird. She walked home, struggling with every step. When she arrived, Mei-li wrapped her in a towel and gave her something warm to drink. Ma took the bird and cleaned it and cooked it. Pa slept better that night, after eating half the animal and drinking more hot soup.
The next day, the snow was gone. Wen-ling felt stronger again as she walked down the hill to fill her bucket with water. The river was no longer covered in ice and the water tasted sweet. She returned back up the hill and stopped by the old car. It had saved her life.
She looked in the window and once again saw something sparkling in the sun. On the dashboard was a key. She picked it up and walked around to the back of the car. The key fit in the lock and the trunk sprang open with a rusty creak. Her stick was there, inside the rear compartment.
She looked at it closely and noticed the deep impressions that the wolf’s teeth had made. On one end of the stick the bark had been scraped clean away. The gouges from the wolf’s teeth went deep. The stick had nearly snapped in two. Wen-ling took the stick home and showed it to her mother.
She never saw the snow again.
Pour in this and mix in that. What a true concoction needs is the right incantation. And as it’s decanted, focus on the money it will bring in. That usually does the trick.
Michael put the flask down and tilted his head slightly, absently. In one corner of his interrupted mind stirred a sobering thought: What had he done that she’d left him?
“There wasn’t any love in that potion,” he said.
Now take a drink, slowly at first, yes, just a sip. That’s it, tilt the head back.
“Feeling kind of dizzy? Nope. Just my nerves.”
_Give it time. Give it time. _
Michael often thought and talked to himself in an interchangeable way that he wasn’t aware of.
“Damn it. Nothing.”
[_Try again. Put in a little flavor. This one’s kind of bitter. _]
[_And add a good dose of the hard stuff, pure moonshine from old John’s still. _]
Now try again. Just another sip.
“Old John’s still,” he repeated, wobbling his head.
The walls, they’re spinning.
“Hey! You up there! Are you feeling something now?” he muttered, looking at someone on the ceiling who looked a lot like himself.
God almighty. I can’t feel my hands.
“Folks, this one’s a winner for sure. Step right up and get your money’s worth. Better hurry, because it’s all gonna be gone before nightfall.”
He did his best stage bow and lost all track of time.
When Michael awoke he was out in the woods resting against an old oak tree, his feet splayed out before him. Things were growing there that might mix well together in a potion of the highest nature, little shoots of dock and a barb of clover and bistort and silver weed, all fighting together for the same sunlight hammering up against his skull.
His vision cleared, but he couldn’t remember how he’d gotten there. He heard a horse munching near his ear and turned around to look behind the tree.
“Hey, now, old friend.”
The horse gave a snort in his direction and kept nibbling at the grass. Michael laughed in its face.
“You don’t mind sharing some of that green stuff with a wayfaring man, do you?”
The horse turned to go. Michael jumped up quickly, but then stopped short. He ached like he’d been struck in the head by a tree branch. He flopped his arms around above him to see which one it had been but there was nothing there. Slowly, leaning on the tree for support, he lumbered around to the other side, then followed the old gray mare back to the wagon.
“I knew you would show me the way. Thank you.”
Michael patted the horse on the shoulder and grabbed a half dozen sugar cubes from his pocket. The horse nearly licked his hand clean. He dropped one on the ground and the horse snorted loudly in the weeds, unable to find it.
“Here, there. Let me help you.”
He managed to get his fingers on the sugar cube about the same time the horse bit into it, taking a good chunk of skin off his finger. He ran around the wagon and grabbed an open bottle and poured something foul smelling onto the cut.
“Now that’s gotta help, the way it’s burning.”
His vision cleared and he felt a rush of blood to his head.
“I gotta mix up some more of what I had last night. That kills all the pain, for sure. For sure it does.”
I just wish I could forget her. What I need is a potion to erase away my memory.
He sat down, buried his face in his hands and cried.
Over the next several months he worked up the traveling medicine business to a feverish pace. Michael kept a notebook of what potions worked and which were better suited for killing the weeds. Everything had a price on it. He even listed the contents on the labels for the first time. This way there was no disputing what was in them.
Sometimes shadows and voices would approach his wagon late in the night. These kind would rap on the door long after the crowds had gone home and offer him a nice shiny coin in exchange for something he knew he better not sell. When he refused, they turned angry, cursing him for dishonest trade and spreading rumors that he was into all sorts of devilry. He moved on.
Sarah joined him on the high plains in Montana and stayed with the stage show across two states as they traveled south for the winter. She was beautiful. And she had a knack for drawing in the crowds. He still remembered the smell of her hair, as rich as a field of wild lavender.
Then he’d been run out of five towns in a row, due to bad mixtures and unpredictable results, and other excuses people didn’t want to hear. All they wanted was their money back. She did too.
A year later he bought a ranch out west in a gentle river valley between the mountains. A hundred horses ran those hills and he cared for every one of them. He’d met a proper woman this time, an educated lady who liked to read, one not given over to the crowds and the circus. She’d fallen for him with an open heart, knowing him to be a hard working man. Melody made the home comfortable and kept the food warm. The honesty did him good. And the money that came with it.
Late one moon-cast night he wandered out the front door and up into the nearby foothills. He walked in no direction in particular, only away. Something unsettling sat in his stomach and gnawed at his thoughts. It grabbed at his heart and he couldn’t say what it was. Something about this life was a little too easy. He didn’t trust it would last forever. In a clearing of cedars he sat down to study the sky. Pale-blue, the deep expanse above flickered with stars moving slowly, slowly, but they did move throughout the night.
A portal of sorts opened up and a voice from the past urged him to step inside. He felt something familiar about this hole in time waiting for him in the woods. It was swirling, warming, pulsing, inviting. Michael looked deeper and deeper inside, wondering what he’d drunk this time to make such a peculiar vision occur. At the other end of the tunnel he could see someone who looked a lot like himself, only he was younger. This was a free invitation to go back in time and start all over again.
He hesitated. He could still feel the scar on his finger where a horse had nearly bit it off. The wound remained that way, no matter what remedy he tried, always reminding him of a life and times now so far away. It was a life he sometimes missed, those penniless days spent looking for a sort of never-ending sunlight.
The sky went dark and the portal was gone, the opportunity missed. He slumped over and faded into a deep sleep. Late in the night he woke, feeling the wind blow across his face. He got up and turned and went back down through the woods to the house. She was up late, waiting for him under lamplight, a book in hand and a worried look on her face.
“I’m home,” he said.
“I know you are.”
Her voice was full of concern. He realized he’d never be able to live without her. But in the corner of his interrupted mind he noticed the fire had gone out and the house was getting cold. He threw in another log and stirred the coals.
When he turned around she had fallen asleep in the chair and the book in her hand was about to fall out. Carefully he took it from her fingers and looked at the cover. Inside were recipes for concoctions of importance and then, some were remedies for non-existent ills. On pages between them were simple journal entries, his diary, telling the story of his days when he was younger.
She’d stopped reading on a page where he described first meeting her. He’d compared her in a poetic way to a springtime dream. In the margin he’d written: I’ll always love her.
On another page he came across a potion for love. He wondered where the remedy ended and real love began. But he realized he didn’t know, because it was the one potion he’d invented that he’d never tasted. It wasn’t a special mixture to make him fall in love. It was something to make him forget.
He threw the book in the fireplace and watched as it burned. It was good to be home.
Roger nipped mindlessly at his butt, attempting to soothe an itch there, which wasn’t an easy task. His stomach grumbled and he pondered looking for something to eat. He couldn’t think clearly about what to eat, as he had a headache. The itching sensation by his tail was only making matters worse. He worried that he might have contracted an infestation of fleas. Getting rid of them would mean spending an afternoon swimming in the pond by the factory, a dirty cesspool where he rarely went. He wasn’t like those other dogs that dined on river rats and slept under the stars. The yard next to the factory was their domain. Roger lived in a home and had an owner who was a decent fellow named Dennis.
Happy are the days when a dog knows the rules and abides by them. Some dogs, those other kind, they didn’t seem to care about good behavior. They were clueless in public about the proper way to go about things. Real comfort abounded far and wide in the heart of Roger because he had learned the rules quickly as a young pup. On this side of the line he was safe. And on that side, he knew he was in for it big time, in for a lecture or two from his owner, and possibly a kick in the balls. It wasn’t that his owner was a bad person. Dennis just didn’t want to see Roger get run over by a car. And so he’d had taught Roger to look both ways before crossing the street.
Roger was not a normal dog. He had a gift. He was special. He could fly. Not many dogs can fly. In fact, it’s highly possible that none of them can, except for Roger. And Roger was bound and determined to keep this a secret.
Roger loved to run in the woods. When he was sure no one was around he used this location as a launching point for flying. He’d run so fast that all his feet would come off the ground at the same time. The advantage to this was that he could stay in one place all day and still have a good run. He didn’t have to deal with other dogs sniffing his butt or annoying people patting his head. He could fly in solitude. If anyone did come along and perhaps get a glimpse of him, he’d just put his paws back on the ground and run away.
His plan had been working perfectly for quite some time now. He would launch himself off the ground, just a few inches, and stay airborne for hours. The exercise was good for him, both mentally and physically, to feel his heart pounding, and his body sweating, and to feel fresh oxygen just expiring out of the trees nearby rushing to his brain.
His plan had been working perfectly until one day. Another dog came trotting down the path from behind. He hadn’t sensed the dog approaching, which was unusual. Roger often practiced flying a few steps away from the trail in an area where he’d worn the weeds down. It was a good location because he wasn’t directly visible to anyone strolling by in either direction. This particular dog, Barnes, came up behind him and as low-classed dogs do tried to sniff Roger’s butt. The sudden sensation of a cold nose on the soft skin under his tail was just too much. Roger fell over head first, mostly from fright, and landed in a pile of broken tree branches.
Now inverted on the landscape, he looked back at Barnes. It appeared that Barnes hadn’t noticed Roger flying. Barnes looked down at Roger a time or two, lying on the branches in a jumble, but his face revealed no sign, no shock over having glimpsed Roger up in the air. The intruder yelped twice and then trotted off in search of another butt to smell. Roger felt relieved as he struggled to right himself.
Later that day, it occurred to Roger that perhaps Barnes had noticed him flying and had pretended not to care. It might just be possible that Barnes had run off to tell another dog who might have told another and then another. It might be very accurate to say that Roger’s secret wasn’t safe anymore at all. He thought about it over and over, reliving the whole experience moment by moment, shocked by how he’d reacted to feeling a cold nose on his butt, and the way he’d hit the ground while still running, followed by the numbness he’d felt after he’d tumbled head over heels into the sticks. After replaying the incident in his brain until his head hurt, he still couldn’t decide if he’d been far enough off the ground for Barnes to see that he was flying.
The biggest problem was that he couldn’t stop thinking about it. Roger imagined going out the door tomorrow and coming face to face with a hundred or more dogs out on the lawn, each one wanting to know the secret to flying. He worried about humans finding out, too. That made him so upset that he couldn’t sleep at night. In the dark he played out the possibilities in his mind until the gnawing in his stomach was unbearable. He got up in the morning hardly rested at all.
Roger decided the best course of action was not to fly again for a while. They might be watching his house even now, waiting for him to go out into the woods to practice. He was sure they would spy on him all day, hoping to catch him in the act. He looked carefully out the windows on all sides of the house, from dusk to dawn, for dogs spying on him. He couldn’t afford to take any chances.
By evening he was in trouble. The lack of exercise was killing him. He could feel it in his bones, the way his whole body was going to waste. The problem was that he liked to eat. By this point in life he’d given up on diets; he could no longer restrain himself. Usually he went out in the woods and ran in flight and came home ready for a nap. Later, he’d eat a big meal and not worry about it, knowing he’d burned a lot of calories during the day. Now the lack of exercise was concerning him to no end. He got depressed. He told himself only to nibble at the bowl of food in the kitchen, but in the end he gobbled down every bite. It was an old habit of his and a hard one to break. He moaned and looked at his owner, but little could he do to explain to a human the predicament he was in. Rarely did Dennis ever seem to notice Roger’s troubles, anyway.
Then came the fleas. They were spreading like wildfire, infesting both hips, annoying him to no end. Roger couldn’t scratch both sides at the same time. When he’d scratch the left hip, they’d bite him on the right. And when he’d scratch the right, they’d scurry back to the left side and chomp on his tender skin there. That led to another fitful night without much sleep. He rolled back and forth on his back, trying to flatten the fleas out, but by morning they’d spread farther, the next generation moving up to a new stretch of territory, a place just over his right shoulder.
It was time to do something about it. He ran out of the house in the early morning and nearly flew all the way to the pond by the factory. He regarded a dip in the water there as the last straw, but he’d run out of options. As he got closer to the pond, he smelled it. The pond smelled like the mouthwash Dennis often used, a product concocted at the factory nearby. The pond might have been the result of a leak, but that hardly mattered to Roger. Whatever was in that pond was strong enough to drive out fleas.
The real challenge was getting fully submerged. Roger approached the pond and jumped in. He tread water near the edge for a moment, quivering as the skin all over his body tingled. He knew he had to go all the way under soon, before the fleas sought higher ground and ended up on his nose.
He imagined a ball under the water, a red bouncy ball, just like the ball Dennis threw down the hallway for him. He stuck his head all the way under the water and kicked with his feet and tried to find the ball. He made the mistake of opening his mouth. And then he made the mistake of opening his eyes. He had only intended to focus on the idea of the ball to help him submerge. He knew there really wasn’t a ball in the pond. Once it was in his eyes and mouth, the antiseptic water was burning the life out of him.
He flew out of the pond in a flash. He hadn’t known before that he could fly out of water. He’d always assumed he’d be too heavy with water in his coat. But desperate times called for a miracle. He ran around the pool for a moment to dry off. Then he saw them.
They had gathered around the far edge of the yard. The lead dog looked familiar. Roger shook the water out of his fur and cleared his eyes with his paw and took another look. It was none other than Barnes. Barnes had probably spotted him flying in the woods. And now they’d all seen him fly out of the pond. They knew. His secret was out.
They surrounded him, lots of dogs on every side. He could see in their eyes that they all wanted to know how he’d done it. He held his ground while the hair on his back stood on end. He showed his teeth and snarled as much as he could. They weren’t high-class dogs, capable of accepting the act of flying as merely a part of his nature. They didn’t have owners and live in warm houses. They roamed the streets. They were unpredictable. They couldn’t be trusted.
When the first dog attacked, Roger flinched and stepped back. Then Barnes bit into Roger’s shoulder. In no time, the fight was on. Roger twisted and bit back. They were after him on all sides: attacking, biting, dragging, pushing, and dividing. He had no choice but to turn in every direction at the same time as they came at him from every angle. He flew up off the ground a few feet and looked frantically for a clearer direction to go in. They jumped up in the air, snapping at him, trying to bringing him back down. If one of them locked jaws on to his dangling feet, he was finished. He flew higher.
They circled the yard below him, looking for ways to get at him. Some climbed on whatever they could find, jumping at him from overturned old refrigerators and mounds of moldy newspapers. He had to go even farther up into the sky, up to a distance he was uncomfortable with. He flew away from the yard and worked his way up the street, running in the air, bounding from the tops of streetlights. They followed him down below, scrambling around parked cars and jumping past confused pedestrians, yelping and hustling, driven to the edge of losing their sanity.
Animals were looking up at him all across town. Cats were turning up their noses in his direction and birds were circling close by. He had no other choice but to leave town. He’d have to fly far away. He needed a new place to start over. It had to be a place where nobody knew he could fly.
He followed the tops of the trees, keeping away from the roads. More birds approached and dived below him. They looked scared. To the south of town was a great woods and he spent nearly two hours crossing it. When he reached the far side, he settled down on the ground again, in a field full of corn. On the wet earth he returned to normal, walking like a dog and using his nose to guide him. He looked behind him, but no one had followed him out of the woods.
He thought about Dennis. Dennis had been a good friend to Roger, although he knew little about dogs. He rarely did more for Roger other than put a roof over his head and feed him. He never noticed when Roger had fleas. He did have a good side and sometimes he threw that red bouncy ball for Roger to fetch. But most importantly, Dennis had taught him the rules of a good life and for that Roger was thankful. He would miss Dennis.
About three hours later he entered a town, a small place with plenty of open roads. The cars moved slowly and even stopped for Roger whenever he crossed a street. It seemed like the right place to start over. He was excited and hungry and apprehensive all at the same time.
The first problem would be finding a new owner. Roger wasn’t a common street dog. He had respect for a higher quality of life. He preferred the comfort and safety of having a home over the freedom and anxiety of living under the stars. Mostly, Roger was hungry and that gave him a healthy interest in spending time with people. Never again, not one time, he decided, would he attempt to fly in this town. Flying would lead to no good, that was one thing he had learned the hard way.
It took a whole day to get picked up by the local dog catcher. He’d barked at everyone and peed on everything and done anything that he could think of that might be wrong, but the town was so sleepy hardly anyone noticed. He’d had to bite the dog catcher in the foot, gently of course, waking him from a nap, to get his attention. He’d jumped willingly into the back of the van and was eventually delivered to the animal shelter.
The shelter was a low-class place, but they served food and washed him every day. He soon lost the smell of antiseptic mouthwash and that helped him sleep better at night. It wasn’t the kind of place he planned to stay at for any length of time and he played his part well to make his adoption come sooner than later. Each weekend families would visit and pick out a pet to take home and he did his best to appear handsome and amiable and soon enough he had a new place to stay.
His new owners where Brian and Sarah and they came with a little boy named Tommy. Tommy was a lot of fun, although a little rough at times. He wanted to sit on Roger’s back and ride him like a horse, but Roger wasn’t young or energetic anymore. Brian scolded Tommy, but he seldom listened to his dad. Even so, Roger was happy to have a place to call home.
The pets Roger met around town were pretty similar to the people. They had manners and took their time about things. Nobody pushed anybody around. The local cats would walk calmly past the local dogs. The school children played with Roger in a friendly way. He liked it here.
Sometimes in the night he would think about Dennis, his old owner. He would relive the freedom of flying. He would chase the red bouncy ball that Dennis threw down the hallway for him. In his dreams, the ball would break a window and bounce down the street. Roger would fly over the cars and retrieve it before Barnes and his gang got in the way. Sometimes he’d wake up with a startled feeling and wonder what his mistake had been. Why had it been necessary to leave town and start over? Where had he gone wrong? Flying wasn’t a crime.
Late in the night, as he dreamed, his legs moved, but he never flew off the floor. He was a better dog now, an older dog, a wiser dog. He’d learned to refrain from using his gift in exchange for a place with peace and quiet. This sacrifice didn’t bother him in the least, because deep down inside, he knew he was special. He was no street dog. In a year or two, he imagined, he might learn how to sing.
Do you feel like nothing ever changes? Is every day the same boring routine? Tarkentower has put the whole world into a loop, forcing everyone to repeat the same day over and over again. But what if you could find a way out?
The earth is doomed. The future is dark. And nobody seems to have a solution. Meet Lewis Fuller. Time travel may be just a blink away.
At this moment I hated the city more than anything. Before all this starting happening, before people disappeared and the city turned vacant, I’d always thought wandering the streets a great way to spend my time. But hiding in the leaves, in the wet leaves, with the cold wind biting at my eyes, and not knowing if I was safe right now, it all brought home the realization that the world could be a heartless place.
Shadows had been following me all day long and I couldn’t escape them. They always seemed to know where I’d be next, which burned me even more. Someone was still alive in the city and I was being hunted. I hadn’t had time to stop and consider what I’d do next if they found me here lying on my back with sticks and twigs and cold wet leaves piled up high over my shivering frame. I only hoped they wouldn’t think to look in such an obvious place, out in the open next to a street corner.
More leaves collided in the afternoon wind as I looked up at the passing clouds. Something bit my leg. I rolled over on my knees and fished around in the leaves until I found a rock. Across the street, a baseball-shaped kid was looking right at me, waving me closer, challenging me to a fight. He squinted as he bent down to pick up another rock. For a moment he had to take his eyes off me. I thought I could take him, but even so, I hesitated.
A forest had grown up within the city, branches butting the sides of the buildings, grass and weeds entwined together, breaking through the cracks in the pavement, the buildings themselves crumbling in the shadows. As I scanned the alleys and empty windows for another place to hide, I thought about a girl I liked and wished more than anything I could see her right now.
I took a few quick steps forward, yelling gibberish at the boy and flinging my arms around like a windmill. He disappeared around the corner like a drop of water carried on the wind.
Before I had a chance to tail him, a rock hit me in the shoulder. This time it was a girl, leaning against the side of a building. She looked good, sparkling in the sun. I couldn’t take my eyes off her. She motioning for me to come closer and I smiled. But then she tossed a rock in the air and caught it.
“I’m warning you,” I yelled and backed away.
“Come on, you freak,” she said and laughed.
I took a quick sidestep into a doorway and landed in the dark, fumbling my way across a room, running into chairs and desks until I came to a wall. I felt along the wall and found a door and threw it open. Inside, the air pinched at my lungs as I tripped over more chairs and then I smacked the bridge of my nose against a bookcase. I muffled a cry, holding my nose tight, tasting the blood trickling down my chin. With little time to spare, I found another doorway and ran through that. Light appeared out of nowhere and I jumped for an opening and tumbled out into the street.
Expecting them to come around the corner at any moment, I crawled behind a garbage bin to hide. I rolled myself into a ball, wrapping my arms around my knees. I closed my eyes, wishing they’d go away. Hunger hit me full on and my legs burned for more oxygen. A second later I heard voices approaching.
“Where’d he go?” the boy asked.
“Don’t know,” the girl said.
“I think he’s harmless.”
“You’re crazy,” the girl said. “He’s totally lost it.”
She planted her foot squarely into a tree near where I was hiding, sending a shower of leaves down all around me. Knowing it was now or never, I grabbed a broken tree limb and rushed out into the street.
“Back off,” I yelled, pointing the sharp end of the stick at them.
“Where’d you come from?” the boy asked.
“Were you born stupid?” the girl asked.
In one fluid movement she took a step back, positioning her fist behind her head, posing to strike like a viper. Panic flashed in the boy’s eyes as he looked for a weapon. I jabbed back and forth between them, unsure what to do next. I knew I wasn’t going to get away so easily this time. Mostly, it was the girl’s catlike moves that intimidated me. The boy, I thought I could take him.
“Wait a minute,” the boy said. “We don’t know anything about him yet. You go ahead and break his head open. But what if he’s an asset?”
“You got any skills?” she asked, squinting at me.
“What kind of skills?”
“Take him to see Amelia,” the boy said. “Let her question him. Then we’ll know if he’s salvageable or not.”
“Who’s Amelia?” I asked.
“She can fix your head,” the boy explained.
“Back off. I mean it,” I yelled and made a quick stab at the girl.
“Hey, watch it,” she said.
“No, you watch it.”
“Listen,” she said. “We’ve been following you all day and you’re just going in circles. I bet you don’t even know where you are.”
I tried to picture the layout of the city from the top like a map but it wasn’t easy with the cluttered streets and the crumbling buildings. My legs disappeared from under me and I saw the street rushing up to meet the side of my face. The boy ran over to see if I was all right. Someone took my stick away. I hugged myself and clenched my eyes shut, wondering how I’d gotten here.
“What happened?” I asked, after the pain went away.
“Uh, you passed out,” the boy said in a shaky voice.
“I’m just so hungry all the time,” I moaned between clenched teeth.
He fished around inside his backpack and came up with an apple. I took it and chomped on it. I tried eating the core as well, but it tasted bitter. Instead, I gave it to a line of ants flooding down the sidewalk. They swarmed all over the apple in seconds and some tried to move it, but it was too heavy for them.
“Slow down,” the boy said. “You eat too fast and you’ll regret it.”
He dug deeper inside his backpack and pulled out another apple. I made that one vanish just as fast. I was about to ask for a third when something moved inside my stomach. I threw the core down on the sidewalk and looked around for a place to bury my head. A piece of apple turned savage-brown popped out of my mouth and landed in the street.
“Trust me, Lewis. You don’t wanna eat too fast in your condition.”
“What? How do you know my name?” I bellowed. I rolled over and attempted to run down the sidewalk on my knees, but gave up soon after. Everything hurt too much.
“You fool,” the girl yelled at the boy. “What’re you doing?”
“Just leave him alone,” the boy said.
She pushed him out into the street. As they argued together, I couldn’t keep my eyes off her. Her hair was long and blonde and tied back in a leather barrette and her shirt had fallen down off one shoulder. There was something about the way she moved, as if she were dancing on water.
The boy was more of a basket case than anything. He was a sad combination of mismatched clothes and sloppy reflexes. He also had this nervous habit of shifting from one foot to the other when he didn’t know what to do, just like he was doing right now.
“All you’ve done is confused him,” she said, her fist almost in his face.
He paused, hands up in the air. Then he looked over at me.
“I’m going to level with you,” he said. “Amelia sent us out here and said to bring you in if it looked like you could be an asset to the team.”
“She said what?” I blurted out.
“You want to join us?”
“Who are you?”
“I’m Lucerne,” the girl said. “Fat boy here is Deon.”
Down the street emptiness called to me. For a moment I imagined people like ghosts passing through the city, oblivious to the leaves and the litter blowing past them. I wanted to climb in the broken window of a derelict car and speed away, but the faces of people no longer living held me frozen in place. I felt a sense of hopelessness and glanced at the boy and girl watching me. They were staring down the street, looking where I had been looking, trying to see what I had seen.
“Is there somebody down there?” Deon asked. “Are they coming this way?”
“We’d better move out,” Lucerne said. “We’ve got no exit strategy, if we’re attacked here.”
“You got any more food?” I asked.
“Yeah. We’ve got tons,” Deon said. “Just come with us.”
I went with them, partly out of curiosity and partly because I was starving. We walked past desolate looking buildings housing forlorn birds perched high above peering down on us exposed, lines of cars waiting in anticipation at traffic lights that would never change, and doors to storefronts left open and nearly torn off their hinges. The city was a ghost town, a whole generation of memories wiped off the face of the planet.
We stopped at an alley and were confronted by a wild dog, its ears working, nose twitching, back legs ready to launch forward at the first sign of prey. The dog flinched when it saw us, froze for a moment, and then skipped away. I watched the animal disappear, wondering where it had gone. I wondered where it would find something to eat.
Lucerne tapped me on the shoulder. “We need to keep moving. No time to rest now.”
“Amelia really told you my name?” I asked.
“I saw it on your shirt,” Deon said and let out a laugh like a wild horse.
I pulled my shirt down in front of me and tried to read it backwards. Printed across my chest in large letters was the name Lewis Fuller and below it the number 15. I weighed the words in my mind and came up blank. The name gave me no clue as to who I was or where I’d come from.
“That’s not me,” I said weakly. “I don’t know who that is.”
The shirt seemed to fit, though. And it opened me up to the idea of having a name. At least it put me somewhere on the map. And that got me to thinking about where we were going.
“So you just made up all that stuff about taking me to see someone?” I asked.
“Most of it was true,” Deon said.
We passed by a dark building and I slid into a doorway, fading into the shadows on the other side of the room. I had no idea who they were or where they were taking me. They knew everything and I knew nothing and that put me in a dangerous position. Until they started telling me the truth, the kind of truth that made sense, I wasn’t going anywhere with them.
As I waited for them to leave my eyes began to adjust to the dark. I watched out the window as another comedy unfolded between them. They were always fighting over something. Their voice drifted my way.
“Where’d he go?” Deon asked.
“So much for that,” Lucerne said. “Got any better ideas?”
“Yeah, why don’t you go in there and get him.”
He gave her a push. She staggered for a moment and then regained her footing. She would have boxed him in the ears, but he ducked down, leaving himself undefended. She only shook her head and pushed him away.
“I’m not going in there. You think I’m crazy?”
“What set him off anyway? What’d I say?” he asked.
“Paranoid. He’s getting paranoid now. You shouldn’t have given him so many details. Makes them run every time.”
“I just wanted to get him moving.”
I stopped listening to them when I heard something behind me. The whole room suddenly felt like it had come alive. There was a slithering sound like the wind blowing through a window late in the night, or maybe it was the sound of water running through tall grass in a field, as if something was sliding across the floor in my direction.
Something tapped the back of my leg and I felt a pin-prick followed by a searing sensation. It burned intensely. I smelled smoke and wondered if my pants had caught on fire. Without a second thought I ran forward and dived out the door, landing on the sidewalk in a crumpled ball. Lucerne and Deon rushed over to help me.
“You look like you saw a ghost,” Lucerne said.
“Wait a minute. What’s this?” Deon asked.
He grabbed my shoulders and twisted me around, eyeing a dark patch on the back of my pants just below the knee. They were both silent for a moment. My skin was itching badly. I reached down to scratch my leg and Lucerne caught my hand midway there and pulled it back.
As I watched in horror, my pants started to smolder around the dark patch. A strange chemical-blue flame broke out of nowhere, dancing madly as it sucked up fresh air. I screamed as the pain went through the roof of my head.
Deon pinned me against the wall with all his weight. Lucerne grabbed a handful of mud from the gutter and smothered the flame, pressing it hard against my leg. It hurt worse than anything. After an eternity she picked up a stick and wiped away the mud. Then she started scraping small blue crystals off the back of my leg. She went slowly, careful not to touch any of them.
“What is that?” I asked.
“Scissors,” she demanded.
Deon reached inside his backpack and took something out. They were shiny and clean and somewhat small, like the scissors you’d use to trim your fingernails. Lucerne cut through my jeans just below the knee, going all the way around. Then she made me sit down and take off my shoes. I complied without protest. The streets, the sound of voices, everything around me was blurring in and out, pulsing in time to a clock I’d never known how to wind. I just wanted it all to end.
She pulled my pant leg completely off as gently as a surgeon might and laid it to the side and then placed a fresh pile of mud on top of the charred spot. Then she cut off the other pant leg just like the first one and laid it down on the sidewalk next to its twin.
“Why’d you do that?” I asked.
“So your pants will match. Walking around with just one leg showing would look kind of stupid, don’t you think?”
“You really care about how I look?”
“Listen, Lewis, you’re just going to have to trust us at this point,” she said. “I know none of this makes any sense to you right now, but believe me, we’ve both been there before. Someone found us and took us in as well. Otherwise, we probably wouldn’t be here right now, helping you.”
I wanted to believe her. There was something appealing in her voice. I was tired and confused and wanted to stop running from them all the time.
“I’m all yours,” I said.
She took my hand and helped me up and we continued onward down the road. In the end, all I could think about was finding more food.
To find out what happens next, get a copy of the novel, Where’s Tarkentower? by D. S. White
D. S. White likes to write about the little people, the ones who live in obscure places and never see their names in lights. His worked has appeared in numerous publication, including children’s books and textbooks and anthologies and magazines. He was born in the mountains and now lives by the sea.
Books by D. S. White:
The Land of Words
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This book is a collection of short stories and is divided into four sections: North, South, East and West. Just like the compass, the stories point in different directions. To the North, the stories explore changing emotions. To the South, they play around with possible futures. To the East are stories of devastation. Beware all who venture there. And to the West, the stories revolve around changing lives. Travel freely around the Land of Words. Or stay with the compass. You’ll discover a new world in every direction.