To Remember

0

Sadie took a deep breath, praying she didn’t make a complete fool of herself. She had searched out Cassandra Rosenthol through the coffee shop windows before entering so she wouldn’t stand in the middle of the shop looking around like a dope. She only had one chance to make a good impression. She approached the table and said, “Hi! I’m Sadie Bloom from the Eastdale Express,” and held out her hand.

Cassandra stopped her work coloring an abstract design of swirls. She shook Sadie’s hand with a smile. “You remind me of my friend Alyssa Green. Something about your glasses and blue eyes. We sat next to each other in Spanish class. One Thursday in December when we were freshman, Senora Sanchez—” She shook her head. “Sit down, please.”

Sadie sat, setting her backpack by her feet and digging out her notebook. She opened the recording app on her phone. “Do you mind if I record this?”

“That’s fine.”

After a few more arrangements, Sadie thought she was ready. She hadn’t done many interviews and she wanted to get this one right. It could be a big story, at least for her school paper. Cassandra was special. “My newspaper advisor Mr. Jones told me you used to go to Eastdale.”

“Graduated almost 16 years ago.”

“And you have a superpower.”

“He would say that. My brain just works differently, that’s all.”

“You have photographic memory.”

“Not quite. I have vivid personal memories. I can tell you what I ate for lunch on the first day of second term in eighth grade, but I couldn’t tell you more than a half-dozen words I learned in Spanish class the year after. I can recall every day since I turned 10, but don’t ask me what year George Washington crossed the Delaware. I have a horrible memory for numbers.”

Sadie wrote as quickly as she could but was still writing for too long after Cassandra finished. Sadie hated that awkward silence. And she realized suddenly Cassandra would always remember how slowly she wrote and if she asked any stupid questions. “How does it work?”

“Scientifically, go ask the neurologist. As far as I’m concerned, it just does. When I saw you, you reminded me of Alyssa. The association brought a flood of memories, like a movie playing alongside the present moment. I was back in Spanish class with her. If I let it, one memory brings another, and I can spend an hour enveloped in them. It’s like when YouTube keeps playing one more video unless you press pause. And it’s not always easy to press pause.” She lifted her coloring book. “This helps focus me.”

“Is it nice being able to remember everything?”

“Say I’m with Alyssa in Spanish class. Joel’s there, too, right behind me. I’m not a good student, I’m too distracted, and I’m always saying the wrong thing. I remember trying to answer Senora’s question. I’m even more awkward in another language. Joel calls me chica loca, whispers it just loud enough for me to hear it. That reminds me of him laughing with his friends at me in the hallway. I remember putting my science notebook, black, in my backpack and seeing them all looking at me. And that flows into him tripping me in the cafeteria. I almost don’t catch myself, and I want to cry, but I don’t, and the tears stay hidden, almost ready to burst out all lunch period. And at the spring dance he comes and asks me for a dance, but when I’m in his arms, all embarrassed and hopeful and terrified he’ll find me ugly, I see his friends’ faces and I know it’s all a joke. Then I start crying. I remember exactly how it felt, crying there in the middle of everybody.”

Sadie realized she hadn’t written any notes. She had never talked with an adult who remembered what it was like being a teenager, really remembered. She didn’t even look at her notes for the next question.

“There must be happy memories, too, right?”

“Oh, of course. But associations don’t always move in one direction. Sad memories can lead to happy ones, and good memories to bad. I don’t control them. So when I see Joel, sometimes I’m stuck on the dance floor, crying.”

“Do you still see Joel?”

“Every day.”

Sadie imagined reliving her worst days continually. “Don’t you want to get even with him?”

“Sometimes. More often than I should. Are you religious, Sadie?”

“Sure. I believe there’s a god.”

Cassandra shook her head. “That’s not quite what I mean. When you remember everything, you become cynical, bitter. People are horrible, and time doesn’t erase anything. But my God taught me to forgive.”

“How?”

Cassandra laughed. “I don’t know. It’s very, very hard some days. But he doesn’t forget and he forgives me.”

“And that’s what you do when you see Joel?”

“Yes, Sadie. Every day. Sometimes every ten minutes. Because I married him.”

Sadie looked at her, then scribbled out all her prepared questions and turned to a fresh page. “That’s the story. That’s the superpower. Tell me more. Please.”

Welcome to Broccoli World!

1

“You’re lying.”

“No, I’m not.”

“There’s no such place!”

“Yes, there is.”

“No way. You’re a liar. Liar! Liar!”

Julia sighed. The second graders had only just started their lunches and she already needed to quiet them down.

“Brock, Aiden, inside voices, please.”

“Miss Hulbert,” Brock whined (she was pretty sure he only spoke in whines), “tell Aiden to stop lying.”

“I’m just telling him about my fall break,” Aiden said.

“There’s no place called Broccoli World!” Brock yelled. “You’re just tricking me. He’s being mean, Miss Hulbert. Tell him to stop being mean.”

“I’m not being mean,” Aiden said.

Aiden was a sweet kid with worn, out-of-style clothes. Julia saw his parents more than most at school events, looking tired but happy. “Is Broccoli World one of the stories you’ve been writing, Aiden?”

“No. Everyone went on vacation last week. I went to Broccoli World.”

“I went to Disney World,” Brock said importantly. “We go every year.”

“I’m sure you do.” Julia returned her attention to Aiden. “I’ve never heard of Broccoli World.”

“That’s because it’s in Minnesota.”

“I see.”

“It’s just starting up, too. My dad really likes broccoli, that’s how he heard about it. Broccoli’s like his favorite vegetable. I like it, too, even without dip. It makes you feel big and important, like you’re a giant chewing up trees.”

“Broccoli’s gross,” Brock said. “My mom never makes me eat broccoli.”

Julia ignored him. “But what is Broccoli World? A museum?”

“Yeah, there’s a museum. It was boring. Too much to read and mostly a lot of black and white pictures, like of Chinese people farming and stuff. Did you know China grows the most broccoli in the world? But there’s a big indoor play area with slides and rope bridges and lots of tunnels, in this giant, like three-story tall, broccoli. The best section’s up in the floret—that’s what you call the forest-y part. There’s a big ball pit and lots of springy floor. And next to that’s this thing like a botanical garden, with all three types of broccoli in it dyed or painted or something all kinds of colors to make shapes and characters, like Minions and Groot and My Little Ponies.” He made a face. “My sister loved that.

“There’s a hotel, too, and the carpet’s all green and trippy. Dad says it was like watching Fantasia the way some people did back then, whatever that means. Dad made us try some of the chocolate-covered florets. Not good.

“But the indoor waterpark was awesome. There was a lazy river dyed yellow to look like cheese and it had one of those big funnel slides, but the funnel was done up like a toilet. It was hilarious! I thought it was because sometimes kids try to dispose of their broccoli, but Mom said something about it helping with constipation. Anyway, it was great. I rode it like a hundred times. When Dad said it was time to go home, I was really mad. It ended up being a pretty cool place.”

“Yeah, well, I saw Darth Vader,” Brock said.

“Everyone’s been to Disney World,” Aiden said. “I’m the only one who’s been to Broccoli World.”

“You’ve never been to Disney World,” Brock said. “You told me so last week.”

“So?”

“Well, it’s really cool. Way better than Broccoli World.”

“Brock,” Julia said sharply, seeing the look in Aiden’s face. He was fighting back tears. “Take your tray and go sit over there. And no more talking. Now.”

With a huff and a sneer, Brock did what he was told.

Julia sat next to Aiden. “Now, Aiden, tell me the truth. Is there really a Broccoli World?”

“Miss Hulbert, there’s all kinds of crazy places out there. There’s a museum about Ramen Noodles in Japan and a place called Dollywood. Why can’t there be a Broccoli World?”

“Aiden, no one likes broccoli that much.”

“No one should like spam, either, but there’s still a museum for that.”

“It’s okay if you didn’t go anywhere special during break. I didn’t go anywhere.”

“My dad’s really good at making up stories. He does it all the time when we’re taking a walk or driving around. It makes life great.”

“You’re not too bad at it either. But you can’t lie to your friends.”

“Brock’s not my friend.

“You know what I mean.”

“Okay, Miss Hulbert.” He smiled at her. “I’m going to bring one of my pictures in from Broccoli World in tomorrow.”

“Aiden….”

“Just for fun, okay?”

And, she had to admit the next day when he showed her the picture of them at the entrance to Broccoli World, all smiling, Aiden had a quite a talent for Photoshop for a second grader.

The Sorrow

0

Once a year they brought the Sorrow from her hermitage in the hills so that she could speak to them and remind them of the world that had once been, to speak from the affliction that science had cured. They gathered in the stadium by the tens of thousands, talking and eating hot dogs until, small and lonely, she walked across the field to a stage placed in the center. A chair sat on the stage, which she sometimes used. The people grew quiet and waited for her to climb the steps.

Some years she sat and stared at them, saying nothing, sullen and strange, with eyes unlike any they now possessed. One year, early on, the Sorrow had wept with full-bodied convulsions. She had just been informed of the death of her mother upon her return to civilization. The footage of this occasion was shown in high school science classes and parodied in commercials. Most years she spoke a little of what she felt; the crowd listened as they might to the reading of an old and important document.

The Sorrow was old now. Her hair had once been blonde. Her face, magnified on the Jumbotron, was wrinkled. It was her eyes the people studied. They fascinated, entranced, confused. They were windows into an alien landscape, a glimpse of something enormous and captivating and almost repulsive.

Today she gained the stage and did not sit. She looked at the rows of murmuring spectators and turned slowly to take them all in. Water hovered over her pupils. It slid down the creased cheeks. This was new. It was not a convulsion, not an angry explosion (as it had been in many of her appearances), but silent streams flowing from the orbs.

The people waited for her to speak, enthralled by her expression. She looked up at her own face on the screen and turned away. She found the chair and sat, head bowed. Long minutes passed before she looked up and began to speak.

“I had planned what I was going to say to you, but I did not expect….” She shuddered and breathed deeply. “I do not know if you can understand what I want to say. You have removed sorrow. You have eliminated the sense of loss. But you have become what you took away. I look at you and see the hole. That is why I weep. You are missing. You are pretend people. I envied you. For years, I hated you. I was afflicted and you were at peace. I wept and you laughed. I suffered the night and you played in the sun.”

In earlier years, this might have been spoken with bitter rage. Now she spoke softly, with that strange timbre that denoted an emotion they did not comprehend. “Do you ever think of sickness or tragedy or death? Do you consider God? Can you consider him? My God wept. What can that mean? He suffered. It says that he must suffer, that that was his way to bring man to God, the plan set in motion since before the beginning of the world. Can you understand such talk? Tears brought God to me. They brought me to God. But you? What are you? Can you have anything to do with him? How can you possibly taste him? Will there be a new heaven and earth for you, when you have no tears to wipe away?

“I fear you are lost. I fear you are without hope. And it hurts. I wish you knew how it hurts.”

She began to cry again, softly but deeply, and she did not speak again but wept for a long time, her face in her hands.

The next day, everyone said it was the best Sorrowing they had ever seen.

Fog Cancellation

0

“Hudson, school’s been cancelled.”

Hudson walked out of his room with his Pokemon shirt half on and no pants. “Why?”

“There’s fog today.”

“That’s dumb,” he said, putting his arm through the sleeve. “Chase and me were going to be captains at kickball today.

“At least you have an extra day to practice your spelling words.”

“Mom!” he said angrily.

“Don’t yell at me, young man.”

“I wasn’t yelling. I’m just mad. It makes me so mad. I never get to be captain ’cause Donnie and Cliff always hog it. Except today. Who cares about fog? It’s dumb.”

“It’s not dumb,” his mother said. “The school’s concerned about your safety.”

Hudson made a face and slammed the door to his room.

A moment later, his mom was standing in the doorway. “Come here.”

Hudson studied his Pokemon Encyclopedia. “Why?”

“Come here. Now.”

Hudson sighed, bookmarked his place and came, staring at her defiantly.

“Put your shoes on.”

“What?”

“You heard me. Get some pants on, and then go put your shoes on.”

“I don’t wan–”

“Now.”

He finished dressing and then walked downstairs to the front door and slid his flip-flops on. His mother called down from upstairs. “Your real shoes. Not your flip-flops.”

Growling, Hudson kicked off the flip-flops and put on his gym shoes. His mother came down the stairs with a rope in her hand. “Arms up.” He obeyed and she tied the rope around his waist.

“I’m not going outside, mom.”

“You said it was dumb,” she said. “Time to go outside.”

“I don’t want to go. I was reading.”

She knelt down to his level and looked him in the face. He looked away. “Everyone goes into the fog sometime. It’s your turn. I want you to go to the end of the block. Then you can come back. Out you go.”

She flipped on the porch light, unlocked the front door and walked out with him. (In her flip-flops, he noticed). She held the coil of rope and tied it to a post. “You’re a big boy. Go on. It’s just fog.”

The dull white wall waited at the first step. He could not see beyond. “Fine.” He walked down the steps. He could no longer see his house or his feet. When he put his arm in front of him, he could not see his hand.

“Keep going,” his mother said. She sounded three houses down.

“I am!” he shouted.

It was different from being in the dark, this fog. It seemed he should be able to see. Sometimes, he thought he did. That black shape was their minivan. The sidewalk started just beyond it.

Something–someone–was standing there, waiting for him.

“Who are you?” he asked.

“My mom sent me out. She’s trying to make me mad.”

Hudson stepped closer. The boy was about his height. He could not see him clearly. “I just have to go to the corner.”

“Lucky. Can I come with you?”

“Sure.”  

They started walking together.

“It’s not that bad,” Hudson said. “You just have to go slow.”

“Where do you think the houses go?”

“What do you mean? They’re there. You just can’t see them.”

“That isn’t how this works. If you walk across the street, you might end up in another state when the fog lifts. Another country. MY dad told me. And my aunt said she saw her dead husband in the fog. She talked to him.”

Hudson said nothing. His aunt had said something like that, too. He had forgotten it until now. “It shouldn’t be long to the corner,” he said, half to himself.

“Why not?” asked the boy.

“My house is halfway down the block.”

“So?” The boy grabbed his hand. “Come with me. Let’s explore.”

“I–I have to get home. My mom’s waiting.”

“How long?” the boy asked.

“What do you mean?”

“How long has it been? An hour? A day?”

“We just left my house.” But when he tried to recall the time, he was not sure. He may have walked for ten minutes already, or twenty.

“We can go anywhere, do anything,” the boy said. “As long as we have the fog. Come on. Let’s have fun. You ever been to the ocean? The fog rolls in there all the time.”

Hudson stopped. Something stopped him. He reached down and found the rope around his waist. “I need to go home.”

The boy tugged his arm. “Come on. She’ll just yell at you. She’ll never find you until you want her to.”

“No,” Hudson said. He was really scared now, but did not want to cry in front of this boy. He was sure the boy would hear him cry even if the boy could see him.

“Coward! Dork!”

“My mom tied a rope. I have to go back.”

“I’ll cut you loose. I have a knife.”

Hudson heard the blade. He heard almost nothing in the thick wet air, but he heard the slide of metal as he opened the knife. “No!”

“Come on. Don’t be a baby.”

Hudson grabbed the line of the rope and began to follow it back, walking fast.

“Where are you going?”

Hudson did not answer.

“Hey, come back here.”

Hudson began to run, pulling himself along the rope as fast as he could. He stumbled over the uneven ground. It seemed to be rock, or sand, or sometimes a hill of loose dirt. The boy called for him, very near, but he didn’t look back. Even if he did, he knew he wouldn’t see the boy, not until the knife cut him free.

He fell as his foot found the first step. He scrambled up the next two and was on the little front porch where his mom waited, the porch light struggling against the fog. She wrapped him in her arms and he cried a little, hoping she didn’t notice.

“Don’t worry,” she said. “It was just your imagination. I’m here for you. I’m here.”

Future’s Shadow

0

“All purchases are nonrefundable,” John recited as he processed the timeshadow application. “If you wish to proceed, sign your name on the pad.” The young man, Quentin according to his application, did so. “Follow me.”

John led Quentin down the hallway to Prep Room 5. Quentin was 19; John had been just a little younger when he timeshadowed for the first and only time.

Motioning Quentin to sit in one of the two dozen chairs, he said, “We’ll watch a short video that explains the process followed by a short safety presentation. And yes, you are required by law to watch them.” John pressed a few buttons on the podium at the side of the room. The lights dimmed and the video began.

He sat in the back and waited patiently. He had memorized the videos years ago. They’d been updated a few times, but he could still recite the words effortlessly. He had been a shadow tech for nearly fifteen years. The title had sounded cool straight out of high school. In truth it was like calling the kids who manned rollercoasters over summer breaks Thrillmasters.

Usually, he ran orientations for at least a half dozen at a time, but he was filling in for Ethan tonight. Third shift was usually dead, especially between two and four.

The lights rose. John returned to the front. “Any questions?”

“I heard that someone died while shadowing last week.”

“He died of causes unrelated to shadowing. Heart attack, actually. I saw the pictures. His girth was rather unfortunate.”

“Did he know he was going to die? Did he see it? I heard he was a regular.”

“I don’t know.” John smiled thinly. “But if you’re trying to figure out whether I’m a free will or predestination guy, let’s just say I’m both.”

Quentin jumped to his feet. “Guess I’ll find out for myself. Let’s do this.”

After a few more corridors, they entered Shadow Bay 27. The cocoon was sleek and white, a vast improvement over the ugly coffins John had first helped insert clients into. He opened the hatch, Quentin settled into the foam cushioning, and John checked the diagnostic readout. “You’ve paid for five minutes, three years from today, is that correct?”

“Yep. That’s it.”

John punched a few more buttons. It was mindless work; the computer did everything. It just needed a human to hit Accept a half-dozen times. “You’re not claustrophobic, are you?”

“Not yet,” Quentin joked.

“When I shut the door, your consciousness will be transported to the date selected. We are not allowed to draw you back until the totality of your purchased time has elapsed, except in the case of an emergency. As the video explained, events in the time you are shadowing cannot affect you physically, so stay calm. Are you ready to proceed?”

“Beam me up, Captain!”

John shut the hatch and sat at the room’s control panel. For a longer shadow, he would have returned to the main control room.

Five minutes was probably all Quentin could afford. An half hour was an extravagance, or a shadow two decades in the future. What Quentin hoped to see, John did not know. People came for all kinds of reasons. But John could guess. When he’d shadowed at that age, questions had surrounded him. Which college should he choose? What major? Would he and Kristin still be together? Shadowing let you see your future world. People almost always came to alleviate anxiety, to find direction, to escape the present for a hopefully brighter future.

It was not always brighter. That is what gave timeshadowing its deep appeal. No one had proved, yet, whether seeing your future changed it, made it happen, or simply showed it. In the beginning, lots of people had shadowed hoping to get rich by betting on some sporting event. Some had. But how many people taking the same opportunity did it take to change the odds? Studies were inconclusive, and each person had his own belief. Some swore that everything happened exactly as they had seen; others, that their abhorrence to what they had seen had allowed them to change it.

The ambiguity didn’t bother John. What he had seen in his five minutes was that he would still be working at TimeHop four years out of high school. Here he was, fifteen years after, when everyone else had gone on to bigger and better things. But he understood now why he was here. Had the shadow shown him that? Or had he used the shadow to discover a new future that looked the same as the old? He didn’t know. Honestly, he didn’t think it mattered.

At five minutes, John opened the hatch. Cold air drifted out and Quentin’s open eyes refocused. His face was white. John had seen that expression before. He helped Quentin out. Quentin remained quiet.

“If you’re willing, we’d like you to fill out a comment card. Your email will allow us to follow up with you for research purposes, if you choose. Returning a comment card will get you ten percent off at the gift shop.”

Quentin nodded distractedly. John, having said all required of him, said softly, “Was it dark?”

Quentin jerked. “Yes.”

“It happens sometimes.”

“Does it mean—I read that—”

“Yes.” John reached into his pocket, retrieved a card, and handed it to Quentin. “This isn’t associated with TimeHop, but if you want to talk, please come.”

Quentin took the card.

“Please,” John said. “There’s something more solid than what people find here, something more certain than the future.”

Quentin studied the card and nodded. “I’ll…think about it. Which way out?”

John led him to the gift shop exit, praying that Quentin would come to service Sunday morning as so many others had.

~~

This story was written in response to a prompt from Nathan Marchand. The prompt was simply, “Write something with time travel.” As usual I decided to do something a bit different with the request.

The Longing

0

Henry knocked and entered at Alice’s voice. She was usually a neat young woman, but today the bed sheets were in disarray, the drawers of her dresser hung open, and the contents of the bookshelf were spread across every surface.

“Don’t you say anything,” she said sharply as he shut the door. “Not even the twitch of a smile.”

“Of course.”

She paced the room, and her hand skimmed the wall as she walked back and forth, back and forth. “I had to send for someone.”

“You have girl friends.”

She spat, an action Henry had never seen from her. “Five minutes of their jabbering and I would tear out their hair.”

Henry raised an eyebrow. “When the longing came on me, I went to the mountains. Maybe you should do the same.”

“You are a man. You’re expected to do foolhardy things.”

Henry leaned against the door and folded his arms, keeping his distance. “I remember feeling I could wrestle a bear. That I wanted to wrestle one. I hiked for two days without sleep, trying to find one.”

Alice sat for a moment on the edge of her bed, picking at the quilt. Abruptly she stood and began to pace again. She laughed a bit wildly. “It doesn’t feel like it’ll ever end. I want to tear something apart or eat a cow or climb on the roof and jump off. I’m half-convinced I’ll fly. I’m going to do something incredibly stupid if I leave this room.”

“You wouldn’t be the first.”

“I remember when you returned. I was only, what, seven or eight? I thought a fairy had bewitched you. You were different. You frightened me at first, did you know that?”

“I suspected as much. I was different. The world was different.”

Alice came close, changing her path, and hesitated before him. “Why haven’t you gone after her, Henry?”

“She’s coming to me.”

“You keep saying that.” She returned to her track. “It’s been ten years, at least. Is she on the other side of the world? How do you know she’s coming?”

“Many things can separate the Bound. Your brother had to navigate occupied territory to reach Doreen.”

Alice picked books off the floor and stacked them on the table, rearranging the stacks every time she added a new book. “His longing came a month after yours. He left and found Doreen within the year. She’s waiting for you, Henry, somewhere. Tell me why.”

Henry sighed. “This is why you called me.”

She began to push books off the table, one by one. She spoke over the thuds. “Soon–very soon, I think–I’ll know. I’ll understand what you understand, what everyone who has survived the longing understands. I’ll sense that person out there I’m bound to. Do I wait for him? Or do I go to him? I want him to find me. You can’t understand, probably. You’re too logical, too practical. I need to be found. But what if he doesn’t come? What if he’s too passive? What if he doesn’t want me? It happens. What if he’s a coward, he’s afraid of the dangers, of the journey, of who I might be? I’m not especially pretty, I know that, but I think I’m passable. If you squint. I’m passable, aren’t I?” She frowned, deeply worried about her appearance in a way Henry had never known.

“More than passable.”

“You have to say that. You’re Joseph’s old friend. Will you leave me when the one bound to me comes? You won’t have to watch out for me anymore. Is that why you remain, for the sake of my brother?”

“She’s coming to me,” Henry said.

Alice smacked the table with both hands. “No! Lies! She’s dead, isn’t she? If you had gone to her at first…but you hesitated. I know you did. And now you don’t feel her. And there’ll never be another. That’s what you’re hiding. I know it. You’re hiding something, something you never tell anyone. I see it. Is she dead?”

“Don’t go on like this,” Henry said soothingly. “She isn’t dead.”

Alice began to shake. She folded her arms around herself and her whole body trembled. She glared at him. “I’m going to burst,” she whispered. “I want to rip your head off.”

“Soon,” Henry said solemnly.

“I need to do something, anything. I’m going to die.”

“It’ll be over soon,” he murmured.

“Don’t! Don’t stay calm! Yell at me, beat me, shout and scream! Do something!”

“Do something,” he told her. “It’s all right.”

She shook and then flipped the table and flung the mattress off the bed and raised the chair above her head and smashed it against the floor until it splintered.

She sank to the ground, crying. She sobbed until it lessened bit by bit.

“Alice,” Henry said, kneeling. “Are you all right?”

She sat on her knees, her long hair covering her face. She raised her head. In her eyes was a strange mixture of hope and fear. She stared at him. “Oh.” She moaned. “Oh, Henry….”

He nodded, white-faced. “I’ll leave you until you’re ready. I….” He shook his head and stood.

She nodded vaguely. As he opened the door, she spoke. “You weren’t lying. You waited.”

“I’ll see you soon, Alice.” With a trembling hand, he shut the door.

An Old Barn

0

On County Road 7, about three miles south of Clearwater, on the right side of the road just past 1000 East, there is a barn. To be accurate, it is no longer quite a barn. The roof collapsed long ago. Two of the walls have fallen in. Mostly it is splintered wood and debris.

It stood once. Even then its wood was aged and faded. Inside was dark and dusty and smelled of the remembrance of livestock and hay. Shafts of sunlight sometimes pierced through cracks and holes unto narrow passages of rough ground, shimmering on ropes tied onto a slat at one end and frayed at the other, on misshapen metal in corners and hanging from posts.

Before that, even, it might have been different. But how is one to know? Goats and pigs and chickens in the stalls, maybe. A small tractor parked inside, or a workshop in a corner. Daily chores, probably. Was there once a boy hiding away in the loft with sullen thoughts? Or was it with bright daydreams? Let’s say a man visited in early morning or on all mornings. Was he struggling, striving, or thriving? He had a face, most likely. Was it worried, carefree, or just tired? Imagine an accident there or a muttered conversation or a rendezvous or a workaday repetition of actions or a thing that happened because such things happened at such a time. Whichever seems pleasing. Or none at all. How is one to know?

Now cars pass daily in a steady stream. They see the fallen heap, possibly, the rotten boards and sagging remnant. If they do not, who can blame them? It is a pile of trash along a busy road, and it is not their destination.

It needs removed. Finish the demolition, gather the pieces, and dump it somewhere. What was is no longer.

Perhaps in a year or two on County Road 7 south of Clearwater just past 1000 East there’ll stand a solid brown residence, two stories tall with a three-car garage and a swimming pool out back. No one will ask what was there before. No one will wonder and no one will care. And a driver, if he notices the new house, can comment on the well-kept landscaping. Neither boy nor man will enter his thoughts, neither livestock nor machinery, neither whiff of manure nor snatch of yesterday. He will continue on, unimpeded.

Then, one day, when the bypass is finally completed, he may cease to travel the road at all.

Choose Wisely

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The crystal blade waited for him.

Andros did not know if this were dream or reality. He climbed the steps of the platform. The sword emitted a faint glow, the only light in the cavern except for a gray haze as if the moon looked in through a window far, far above. The sword sat upon an altar. It called to him. He lifted it. In his hand, it seemed to become an extension of his body. He swung it. It cut the air with a silver whisper.

“You have been chosen.”

Andros turned. Below, a hooded figure waited. “Who are you?” he asked.

“I am the Doorkeeper. You could not have come here unless the sword had chosen you. You must have many questions, but time is short. The space between realms is thin here, and you are needed. Beyond the door you will find your people are in great need. Go to them.”

“Which door?”

“The door that was hidden and is now revealed.”

“Which one?”

“The door that was not there before. The magic one.”

“But which one?”

The Doorkeeper looked over his shoulder. Twelve doors stood unsupported in a line behind him. “Oh bother.” He rubbed his shadowed face. “There was only suppose to be the one.” He reached into one of his voluminous sleeves and pulled out a scroll. He opened it and ran his fingers down the rows.  “Let’s see…the farmboy on the seventh day of the seventh month…. Are you an orphan?”

“No,” Andros answered.

“How many brothers and sisters?”

“I’m the youngest of three. My two brothers died in the king’s war.”

“Youngest…here we are…wait…maybe…. Are you of royal blood?”

Andros frowned. “No.”

“…not yet aware of…. Yes. Here it is. The metal one is yours.” The robed figure examined the doors. “That one, third from the end. Now, enter through it–and begin your quest!”

Andros stepped toward the door then stopped. “But what of the other doors?”

“They don’t concern you.”

“Where do they lead?”

“Other lands. Other planets. Other spaces. None of your concern.” He drew himself up. “Now enter your destiny!”

“Are there other people behind those doors?”

“What? Yes, of course. What else would there be? Well, for except this one.” The Doorkeeper tapped a rune-covered stone set in a rough frame. “This one leads to a mostly dead world. Just some mutant scavengers and lots of nasty creatures. That one needs brought to life. The Wellspring needs unplugged.”

Andros stared at the runes, considering solemnly. “I will go and unplug it.”

“No, no, no!” The Doorkeeper waved his arms. “That’s not your quest. Yours is behind this door. It’s a nice solid door. Behind it is a harrowing journey. You’ll learn how little separates you from your worst enemy. And other such lessons. Very edifying. Now go, go on! We’ve wasted enough time.” He pointed and declared, “Go, young savior!”

“But what about the dead world?”

“Someone will come along.”

“Are you certain?”

“Fairly certain.”

“Fairly certain?”

The Doorkeeper shrugged. “Prophecy’s more an art than a science. And sometimes the Wrong One wins.”

“Which is most urgent?” Andros demanded.

“Oh, your door, definitely. Ominous rumblings. Sign and portents everywhere. It’s all quite on the brink.”

“And the other doors?”

“What other doors?” the Doorkeeper asked innocently.

“Are any of their fates in the balance?”

“Well….”

“Yes?”

“That airlock there? Yeah, the real future-y one. It’s getting a tad desperate. The sun’ll go supernova soon, and the insane wildcard is pretty darn close to unlocking the secret to harnessing cosmic power. But that’s not really your kind of place. You’d be very fish out of water.”

“Is there a man destined for that quest?”

“Oh, yeah, absolutely.”

“Where is he?”

“He’ll be around.”

“When?”

“Um, soon? I’m not sure exactly, to be honest. Last I knew, there’d been some drinking and some dice and this woman…. He’s just a little sidetracked. He’ll come around.”

“I’ll go in his place.”

The Doorkeeper pushed back his hood, revealing a pale bald bespectacled head. “No. Absolutely not. What is it with you? Just go through the door already! We’re way past mysterious beginnings. Look, I know you’re trying to be heroic. That’s why you were chosen. But you weren’t supposed to see the other doors, right? You aren’t even supposed to know other worlds exist. That’s not your place.”

“Why not? Can I not aid them?”

“Why not?” The man gripped his scalp, exasperated. “Do you want to see the backlog we have here?” He pulled out a scroll, then another, then a thin rectangular disk, then a crystal, then a tapestry that floated in the air. “Here you go. All the upcoming cataclysms, upheavals, and end-of-an-age events. The ones we know about, anyway. You want to save them all? Do you?” He softened suddenly. “Look, you have a lot ahead of you. Raising that army and discovering your latent abilities is going to take all your concentration. You can’t afford to be distracted by an invasion of undying sentient avians in some corner of the cosmos you didn’t know existed five minutes ago. You need to focus on what you’ve been given. Slay your own dragon. Understand?”

Andros looked him in the eye. Slowly, he nodded. “I understand. My path is my own.”

“Yes! Yes! Now you’ve got it.”

Suddenly, they heard footsteps. A man in strange, disheveled clothes stumbled in, supported by a tall, half-clad woman. “We must have made a wrong turn,” he muttered. “Oh, my head.”

“Maybe if we–”

“I just need to lie down. I shouldn’t have had that seventh glass. That, that’s my room, I’m certain.”

They opened the metal door and walked through. The portal blinked out of existence.

The Doorkeeper and Andros stared at the empty space.

“Well,” the Doorkeeper said slowly, putting his arm around Andros, “let me give you a quick history of the hyperdrive….”

Images of Light

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They came not in ships but in beams of light. Creatures of many eyes, their forms wavered insubstantial before us. They did not speak but when one of their eyes, a film of colored photons, a mere hologram projected across the expanse of space, touched us, we saw–landscapes and constellations, caves of crystal and deserts of blue sand, twisted plants and writhing phosphorescence.

They were like Ezekiel’s vision, appalling and fascinating and unearthly.

They must be advanced, to have come so far, to have seen such things. They peered at us patiently and we turned our efforts to teaching them our language, certain we could not comprehend theirs. We began with the alphabet. We showed them A and they touched us–a mountain peak against an orange sky, a violet streak of sunset stretched against calm waters. We spoke the sound, ah, and they stared at us.

We continued with B. The touch came, the shiver of light upon flesh–a single cloud in a green-tinged sky, a creature fat and lazy nursing its young, two rocks stacked one upon another. We spoke the sound, bee, and their many eyes stared unblinkingly.

Through all 26 symbols we continued, our wide smiles and exaggerated gestures veiling our dwindling confidence. We could not help but think these celestial beings were like children on the first day of school who looked uncomprehendingly at the big bold letters that ran the border of the room and at the hieroglyphs of their own name printed and taped onto their desk and understood nothing.

But, no, the aliens were processing our feeble language in their condescension, we told ourselves. Or, at worst, they struggled to imitate a method of verbalization so foreign to their own, like Americans learning the Bushmen’s clicks.

We signed to them to speak in their own tongue, or if they had no tongue (for we had yet to locate their mouths), then in their own way, whether by whistle or gesture or an intricate Morse code of blinks and winks.

They stared at us with hundreds of eyes, and made no sound we could detect, even with our instruments, and no patterns we could determine by man or machine.

In all our striving they answered or asked (we could not tell) image after image–a torn body, a hole in soft sand, a bird (or something like it) upon the water, their people harvesting crystals with crude tools, a sky full of stars, a great mob of aliens like a soup of eyes, the closing of the eyes and the reopening like birth or revelation or morning, our own forms as seen by them, and so on. Perhaps these were their speech, and not merely images of their experiences, but with what meaning, we did not know.

Then, realizing that we must show what our language was, just as they had attempted to show us theirs, we led them to the library. Here were words, millions of words, so that they could not be taken as unique creations but as plentiful and purposeful. We opened book after book before them, pointing out the letters and the words, showing how they repeated, speaking them out in repetition as to infants, hoping to form a Rosetta stone for these advanced beings. We found the word book and pointed to the book. We found man and chair and alien and did the same.

After long hours, when we pointed to the word, all we were shown in return was an image of the letters themselves: b-o-o-k and m-a-n and c-h-a-i-r.

With the setting of the sun and the rising of the moon, the visitors’ forms shifted and shook. The connection (the innate ability?) that brought them weakened.

They were aliens and had seen much. They could insinuate a hundred associations with a powerful remembrance but they could not say one thing definite, which we all understood the same.

And so they faded away, and my brain is full of wonders and vision, but what can I say? I know nothing for sure. I have tried here to record what I saw, to put into language what was merely sight. I am left with dreams but nothing to grasp, with possibilities but not a single fact. They came from the stars in beams of light that shone with brilliancy and cast nothing but shadows.

In Search of Flying Squirrels

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“Does everyone have an axe?”

It was not a question Tony had expected to hear when he agreed to visit his fiancee’s aunt and uncle over the weekend. Last time he had held an axe was at a Renaissance Festival.

“I think I have another in the garage,” said Joy’s uncle Paul. He ran off to fetch it.

The older man who had been invited to lead this expedition, Ronny, looked at the trees bordering the lawn. “So you’ve never seen any flying squirrels ’round here?”

Joy’s cousin Eric answered. “Not that I know of.”

Paul returned and handed Tony the axe. Then Ronny led the five of them, Tony, Joy, Paul, Eric, and Eric’s friend Chris into the woods. Joy’s aunt had decided to stay home and cook dinner.

“What we’re looking for is any tree with a hole in it,” Ronny said over the crunching of dead leaves. “Like this here.”

He stopped before a big, smooth-barked tree. Tony had never been able to name different trees. Halfway up was a dark hole. Ronny gripped his axe tight, pulled back, and hammered the trunk with the blunt side of the head. The wooden shock rang out three times. Ronny studied the hole. “It’ll come jumping out after a few whacks if it’s in there. You gotta watch carefully and see where it goes. I’ve followed one halfway up a mountain before I snagged it.”

Chris raised the net he carried triumphantly. He’d never been flying squirrel hunting before. None of them had.

Ronny stomped deeper into the forest, examining each tree. “Here’s another. Someone else try.”

Paul knocked the trunk four times. He’d been the one who’d invited Ronny.

“No luck,” Ronny said. “These are exactly the type of trees you’ll find them in. I bet we find one. Just takes some time. Fan out.”

Tony started forward uncertainly, Joy following him. The land sloped downward. Soon, when Tony looked back, he could not see the house. The cool autumn air gave a crispness to the woods. There was little undergrowth, just trees rising from the orange and brown carpet of leaves. The branches above were bare, with an ashen sky enveloping them.

“How about this one?” Joy said.

Tony looked up. It seemed a good specimen. “Just smack it, huh?”

“I guess.”

Tony swung the metal head hard against the trunk, feeling the impact in his arms, two, three, four, five times. Nothing. He looked at Joy, shrugged, and continued on.

It was silent except for the swish of their feet and the occasional thud-thud resounding through the woods. Tony could see the others wandering slowly downward, tiny amid the trees and expanse of land, drawn forward by the expectation of a grey rodent shooting out of a hole.

Eventually, the several groups meandered back into a loose formation. Ronny led, smacking away now and then, staring upward and shaking his head.

At the slope’s bottom was a dry stream that etched a deep path through the flat land. Tony remembered his grandparents’ cabin. They had sold it when he was eight or nine. He used to follow the creek, wading in and out of the water, trying to jump across at the narrowest sections or crawl across a fallen log. He jumped down into the streambed, where water had uncovered smoothed rocks. He followed it as the others continued on, Joy talking with her cousin.

Tony had left his phone back at the house. He didn’t know how long they’d been out. Most of the others were walking up the opposite slope now. He climbed out of the stream and angled toward them.

He ascended the height still some distance from them. Nearby was a beaten trail and two junk cars rusting peacefully like lost relics. Tony beat a tree and watched the hole, not expecting much. He didn’t hear the others pounding often.

By the time he reached them, they had reached the edge of someone’s property. Tony could see the back of a house and hear a car on a road somewhere beyond. “These woods are perfect for flying squirrels,” Ronny was saying. “Sometimes it’s like that, you strike out, but it’s the right kinda trees.”

Paul pointed the way back to his house, and they started the return journey. The wind was rising a bit, and Tony was getting hungry.

“Sorry we didn’t find any squirrels,” Joy said. She smiled a bit, like she didn’t think there were any.

Tony just nodded. He didn’t want to talk. It was quiet in the forest. He let Joy go ahead and he followed, surrounded by trees and leaves and slow hills, and hoped the way back was not too short.