The rat sat up on its haunches with teeth chattering a staccato warning. Jack pulled the cage out farther to get at the white rat. The chatter grew vicious and the rat hunched back into the corner of the cage with paws up as if to push Jack away.
“Come on, Killer, we’ve done this a billion times before,” Jack said with boredom hanging in the dull words.
He made a quick grab for the rat’s tail and jerked the animal out of the cage by it. The large lab rat hung screeching, and flailing the air with its paws. Jack lowered the animal to brace it against his thigh. It clung to his lab apron and arched its back, screeching fear and life defiance. Urine and feces pumped out of the animal onto the already spotted lab coat. Jack circled the fingers of his left hand around the back of the rat’s neck and gained control of it. “Okay Killer, time for a dose,” he said as he drew the milky fluid of the study compound out of a flask with a large syringe.
Jack held the rat up facing him and slid the balled end of the syringe’s needle down its throat and pushed the plunger down. The milky fluid welled up around the shaft of the needle, seeping out the corners of the animal’s mouth. Jack pulled the needle out. The rat squirmed and twisted, digging the nails of its back feet into Jack’s wrist, shredding thin lines of skin down the narrow groves the sharp claws made.
“Shit,” Jack swore, angry that he’d forgotten to tape his wrist. He dropped the syringe onto the lab cart and pushed the hind feet away. The rat gained leverage, twisted more, and with a quick snap of its jaws bit through Jack’s thumb with its inch long incisors. “Shit!” Jack yelled, and threw Killer back into the cage.
Blood welled from the holes in Jack’s thumb and it began to pound pain with the increasing rhythm of his pulse. Killer stood with paws on the front screen of the cage and chattered at Jack, spraying drops of the milky fluid tinged pink with blood at him. Jack slammed the cage shut and wrapped his thumb in the lab apron, squeezing it to stop the pain. It felt like someone had just driven a nail though his thumb, ending with the smash of the heavy hammer. “Shiiit,” Jack moaned, drawing out the word, matching the growing pain.
The study room’s door swung open and Stanly, the supervisor of Small Animal Toxicology, walked in. He came down the aisle between the rows of cages to Jack and looked down at the red spot growing on the lab apron. “That’s not very sanitary,” he said.
Jack looked at him wondering how he’d ever gotten his college degree.
“Go down to the nurse and have that looked at,” Stanly said, and then added, “Then come and see me at my office. I saw you throw that animal. Something will have to be done about that. We can’t be mistreating these study animals.” Jack stared at the spidery, little man and considered stuffing him into the cage with Killer, but Jack just shook his head and walked away. He liked Killer too much to do that.
The nurse washed the wound and asked the same question she asked Jack every time he had been to see her, “Have you had your tetanus shot?”
Jack gave a nod. “You should have been wearing gloves.”
He didn’t bother telling her that there were only two pair of gloves for the twelve Lab techs in his group, and that you couldn’t handle a rat with them on, anyhow. She was the company President’s daughter.
She stripped the plastic from a bandage and placed it on his thumb. “Done,” she said and marked the book indicating that he had been to see her. A magazine with the hollow face of a model drew her attention back to the desk.
Jack’s thumb throbbed as he walked down the hallway feeling the howls and barks that reverberated through the hall from the beagles in Large Animal Toxicology. The spider monkeys were screeching and banging against their cages that stood in line down the hallway outside of necropsy. The open necropsy doorway framed a moving picture of men and women dressed in green medical uniforms with hair nets and face masks busily running a production line of animal death.
The monkeys were squeezed to the front of their cages and given an injection of sodium pentothal. When they sagged, they were grabbed by workers, who had on thick leather gloves–monkeys could take a finger off with a bite–and they were laid on the necropsy table. Before they had gone fully unconscious, the work began. Scalpels sliced, saws buzzed, organs were removed and put into plastic bags, labeled, and the line went on. The sickly sweet smell of chemicals mingled with odors of the open body cavities overwhelmed the usual stench of animal feces and urine that permeated the building.
Jack didn’t return to Small Animal Toxicology.
The President’s secretary scrutinized his dirty white uniform, ending her critique at his work boots.
Jack felt out of place in the richly furnished front office. He wondered if there were any squashed cockroaches on his boots from the morning’s piles of dead roaches that the janitors had swept up at night. When you stepped on them, the hard bodies would crack and pop, often as loud as toy gun caps.
“May I help you?” the pretty woman lied.
“Yes, I’d like to talk to Doctor Congreive.”
“Do you have an appointment?”
“No,” Jack answered the expected question.
The secretary’s pursed rich-red lips parted reluctantly, but Jack continued before she could speak.
“I’m not here as an employee. I own company stock; the employee retirement plan. I want to talk some stock business with him.”
The secretary’s meet-the-public face soured. She picked up the phone and turned her face away from Jack. After some murmuring, she waved him through the door.
The heavy door opened into a more opulent world than that of the reception office. Doctor Congreive sat behind a large blonde wood desk. Cigar smoke hung above his head highlighted in sun slices from a nearby window blind. To his right were sliding glass doors that looked out into a flower garden; lush color caught in a courtyard square. Jack had never seen it before, nor had he ever heard of it from the employee gossip. Thomas Cogden, Congreive’s son-in-law, and the company’s Vice President, walked past the outside of the glass doors. He carried a bunch of yellow marigolds.
Doctor Congreive made a move to get up, but stopped when he saw Jack. He adjusted the movement and reached across the desk top and pulled a pile of papers to him. He glanced down at them, then back at Jack. “What can I do for you?” he asked, and glanced back down at the papers. “I haven’t much time.”
Jack opened his mouth and suddenly realized he didn’t know why he had come to see this man. With thoughts flailing, he grasped onto the thought that had run through his head a million times while he had worked his way through cage after cage after cage of white rats. Placing his hands on the back of one of the soft office chairs in front of the desk and leaning forward, he asked, “Why do you treat your employees so bad? And why don’t you pay us some decent money? These studies make lots of money–and what about the animals?” he added in an after thought.
Doctor Congreive began swiveling his head.
“My secretary said you wanted to see me on company stock business. I haven’t the time for personnel problems. You obviously know where the Personnel office is. Make your complaints there. That’s why I have those people.” He puffed on the cigar and looked down at the papers, dismissing Jack.
Jack stared at the top of the man’s head through the wisps of smoke. The grey-white hair blurred into a memory of the first time he’d killed off a study of rats. They had been young rats and it hadn’t taken much gas to kill the dozen or so he’d stuffed into the gas chamber each time. He’d quickly filled the large plastic bags and had hauled them down to the incinerator. As he stuffed the heavy bags into the furnace, many of the animals had begun moving. He hadn’t killed them all; only stunned some of them. He heard the tiny squeals quivering the air again and again.
“Well?” Doctor Congreive said, popping Jack’s memory bubble.
Jack shook his head and saw the old man’s black eyes staring at him. “I quit,” Jack said.
Dr. Congreive shrugged and waved him out the door.
Jack unconsciously obeyed and soon found himself back in the lab’s hallways. He stopped for his clothes at the locker-room, but didn’t bother to change. The bright Michigan sun made him close his eyes when he stepped out a side door of the lab. The stench of the lab washed away with a wet-warm breeze. Slipping sunglasses on, Jack opened his eyes and walked to his motorcycle.
He brushed white cherry blossom pedals from the tree above off the seat of his bike. With a pat on the seat, as if patting a woman’s soft butt, he recalled building the bike. When he had bought the sixty-nine Bonnieville Triumph, it had been in boxes. Someone’s home project that had never gotten beyond the dismantling. It had made the price affordable. It had given him many hours of pure wrenching pleasure.
Not much remained factory built on the bike. The frame had been swapped for a low-rider with springs; the large gas tank traded for a teardrop tank; Harley wideglide front forks had been added; swing back handlebars, and a fat-bob back fender under a King seat completed the art work. The retooled engine, with its new Japanese carbs, fired on the first kick. Jack smiled for the first time that day.
The front gate guard watched Jack ride past. Jack, in turn, watched the guard bend over to mark his departure time in the logbook. “Last time,” Jack said to himself.
The credit union that Jack’s employment at the lab had allowed him to join had no customers when he pulled into the parking lot. No more quick runs to the credit union for lunch money, Jack thought as he parked the bike.
As the teller closed his account, Jack wondered what her name was. He didn’t know anyone’s name there. How many times had he been there? As she counted out the money, he wondered about that. It was, no doubt, one of the many flaws in his character, he thought, and shrugged it away. There hadn’t been anyone to say good-bye to at the lab either. The teller pushed the money to Jack. He folded it and stuffed it into a pocket. As he turned to leave, the teller spoke his name. He turned back and she handed over his account statement. She smiled. He wondered as he stepped out the door if there might have been something there for him if he’d have tried.
Jack pulled out of the parking lot and rode back past the lab toward the interstate to reach the trailer park on the other side. A stereo of two sirens wailing together sounded behind him. He threw a look over a shoulder and saw the police cars pull into the lab. He kept riding.
Heat swelled out of the trailer’s door when Jack opened it. The tin building had always reminded him of a hot bun box that his mother had when he was a kid. Camping gear for that weekend’s road trip sat on the plastic-leather couch, and, with a few things added, Jack was ready to leave. The blood smeared lab uniform went into the garbage, and the trailer’s keys were returned to the Park office where he didn’t get his deposit back.
Sirens wailed out on the main road to the trailer park as Jack pulled away from the curb. The park’s manager had probably called the police on him again for one of her crazy reasons, he figured. Her old man had been a biker. She had let Jack know she had it in for bikers. He didn’t care. Trailers in Michigan were like bowling pins for tornadoes. He was glad to be out of the lane before the next strike was thrown.
The bike and rider slipped out a narrow kids’ bicycle path behind the trailer park onto a back road. Cutting across the road into the woods Jack was shortly at a break in the interstate’s parallel fence and onto the interstate traveling west.
The bike shifted up its gears and Jack felt a rush of freedom. Music played in his head: songs that always rode with him. No need for an actual radio. He’d known these songs all his life. Scenery and miles rode by and before nightfall Jack drove out of Michigan, traveling deep into the belly of Indiana.
That night was spent in the woods alongside a small road somewhere in Indiana. Jack’s only companions were pestering mosquitoes and a bottle of Yukon Jack whiskey. With his companions help Jack decided to travel to Baja to see the grey whales he’d read about. He wanted to see free animals migrating down the coast; moving like him.
The days grew along with Jack’s beard and Michigan was forgotten except for the jab of pain when his sore thumb stubbed itself on everything. At a gritty “last stop before the desert” bar, a cold beer was washing the road dust from Jack’s throat.
A trucker, building a defensive line of beer bottles in front of him said to Jack, “Think you’ll make it across the desert on that little two-wheeler?”
Jack contributed a bottle to the man’s defense and shrugged. “Sure. Why not?”
“Gets pretty hot out there. That tiny engine probably burn up.” Jack shook his head.
“That tiny engine has a five quart reservoir of oil. Besides, that’s why I’m waiting for the sun to set.”
The trucker nodded. “Then you’ll freeze you ass off at night. Better take an extra can of gas, too,” he recommended,” and some water.”
Jack helped the man build a respectable line of defense before he rode out dressed in thermals, and with the extra supplies recommended.
A dark, quiet desert world tunneled the Bonnieville’s headlight down the empty road. The stars, like sparkling bits of glass thrown from a cup, shown crisp in the black of the night. A dull, crescent moon perched on the faint line of horizon. An occasional tall cactus loomed out of the blackness when struck by the headlight. The desert, Jack thought, looked like moonscape, but held in itself the ancient world of animal and living planet.
Jack rode in the desert world to the hum of the Bonnieville’s engine mingled with the music that played in his mind. The music felt different to him. It seemed thinner with a primal tinge to it.
Jack rode the night out.
A crack of blue/grey broke over the horizon behind him, twisting the night shapes away. The Bonnieville’s engine gagged for the gas in the gas tank reservoir. Jack twisted the petcock, refeeding the carbs. He rapped a fist on the tank when the engine gagged an air bubble. The trucker was right, he’d have to use the extra gas.
The greying sky burst into a brilliant desert morning. The flat road began to flow up and down small rolling hills.
Jack crested a hill. A man stood on the down side of the peak on Jack’s side of the road. Jack swerved the bike away from the old man. Fine sand on the road slid away traction from the tires. Jack and the bike went down.
Jack hit the concrete hard with his right shoulder and let the bike ride its slide away from him. It slid on a footpeg rooster-tailing sparks behind it until it came to a screeching stop. Jack slid up behind it and laid there for a moment. Jack roared in fury up to his feet. After hitting the kill switch on the bike he turned to explode at the old man who had caused the accident
Sand and scrub with the occasional twisted, spiny cactus were all that filled the landscape. Jack took equal time to stare in each direction for the man. He shook his head and returned to the bike and muscled it up onto its wheels. He pulled it back onto the kickstand while questioning his mind. He was sure he’d seen an old man, but now no one there. The smell of gasoline seeped into his wonder and Jack turned to see the gas can lying at the side of the road gulping out gas into the thirsty sand. Only a mere quarter of the fuel remained when he reached it. He poured the gas into the tank. It wouldn’t take him far.
Jack took off his leather jacket and stripped out of the thermals. He checked himself over for injuries. His shoulder would develop some nice color, the right leg of his jeans was chewed up, but there was nothing real; no road-rash on skin. The bike’s footpeg was bent, but no serious damage. Jack took one more look around for the old man before he kicked the engine over and rode on.
The heavy, cold world of the desert night quickly changed into a very bright and very hot place. Jack made it into the foothills of the mountains before the gas ran out. He spent the rest of the day hoping for traffic and pushing the Triumph up the hills and coasting down. As the sun set on the peaks of the mountains to the west, Jack was about ready to abandon the bike. Astride the bike at the peak of the largest hill he’d climbed, so far, Jack decided to coast down the hill as far as possible and then camp for the night. But the prospects for an acceptable campsite below didn’t look good; nothing but scrub brush, hot sand, and no water.
The sun dropped with Jack below the mountain peaks and in the dimming light Jack switched on the bike’s headlight. The road curved around the hill and in the valley below the headlight’s beam glanced off of a pond of water. As the bike rolled to a stop, Jack stared disbelievingly at the water. He pushed the bike off the road into the sand and sat down to lean against a boulder.
Warmth radiated up from the sand, easing Jack’s tired muscles. Wiggling deeper into the sand to make a form fitting seat, he sat, relaxed, and began to wonder what to do. He would have to abandon the bike and try to walk to the nearest town. In the slim lighting Jack watched a mist begin to rise from the pond. The surrounding scene seemed to float in a strange luminescence. Jack wondered about the pond. It shouldn’t have been there. The ground was all sand, not a place for a pond to form. The mist rose, Jack’s eyes closed, and sleep came.
A low crackling sound began to register in Jack’s sleep-saturated mind. He awoke and instantly recognized the sound as a crackling fire. He breathed in a taste of the smoke before his eyes opened. It was late night. A small campfire was burning six feet in front of him.
Jack turned his eyes away from the firelight to the darkness where he looked until the after image of the fire had flickered from his eyes. The pond shone like a black mirror with reflections of the fire flashing across its surface to lick at the bright sliver of the crescent moon that floated at the far side. Jack followed the curved black wall of darkness that encircled the pond back to the campsite. Murky blackness hid any part of the camp not lighted by the fire and the slim moonlight.
Jack saw no one. “Who’s here?” He called. No answer, but a dark man-shape slid from behind a boulder some twenty feet away. Jack thought the person was old by the stooped posture and slow gait–or was it a crouching predatory walk? Jack watched. The man’s features came into view and Jack saw that he was right. It was an old Indian man. No–maybe he was an Oriental man–Jack couldn’t tell.
He watched the man’s face. It seemed to change in the flickering firelight.
The man turned before reaching the small fire and walked over to a large rock. He unhooked what looked to Jack like a horseshoe from his belt. He held it like a suitcase handle. The old man bent over with the handle and stuck it to the top of the rock, lifted it as if it were a suitcase, and carried it over closer to the fire where he set it across the fire from Jack. Jack’s eyes remained fixed on the man’s face, ignoring this impossible feat of strength. The man’s face was changing–skidding features to different features.
As the man lower himself onto the rock chair, Jack got to his feet. “Who are you?” He said. He watched the man’s face shift into an African face, then it misted into features that Jack couldn’t put to any race he knew. “Who–what are you?” He asked.
An Eskimo face answered with a firm, dry voice, “I am man.”
“A man? You look like–” Jack’s voice cracked–“fifty men.”
A Northern European face looked back at him and acquiesced with a nod.
“Then what are you?” Jack insisted, making a grab for firmness in his voice.
“What I am–can’t really say–words for it?” The man lifted hands palms up. “I will try–an image. I am the desert sand of man.”
Jack shook his head and watched the man’s features turn to a darker skinned Arabian face, but the voice didn’t waver.
The man was cupping his hands–hands, Jack noticed, that didn’t change.
“I am the grains of sand from that rock that is animal man, and, I am the whole desert made up of those sands.” As the man’s face shifted features, the ludicrous thought that it must be hell shaving cheeks and chin that changed shape from moment to moment ran through Jack’s mind. He gurgled a laugh, sounding like thin ice being stepped on. The old man with hands still cupped had stopped talking and was looking at him. The face misted to almost Neanderthal features.
Jack broke for his bike. Yukon Jack whiskey burned as Jack swallowed several gulps of it. He wiped his mouth and turned back to the fire, expecting it to be gone.
The little man sat there looking back at him.
“Shit, shit, shit,” Jack swore as he trudged back to the fire. “Okay. So, Sandy, what are you doing here–if you are really here? For all I know, you might be an acid flash back or something. Or, maybe the heat’s got to me–I don’t know.”
The old man shook his head as it misted into unnamed features. “The question is: Why are you here?” he said. “This is my world.”
Jack shrugged. “I don’t know why I’m here. I just couldn’t stay where I was. I’ve never been able to stay any place too long. And, I couldn’t kill anymore animals.” He shrugged again and slid back down the boulder, settling down into his sand seat. “I’ve just never fit in anywhere. Another one of my faults–I just had to, well…” Jack grimaced, “just run. So here I am in the desert.”
Jack finished off the bottle. The old man nodded slowly. For a moment he looked Vietnamese. “Then, that is why you are here,” the old man said. As his face changed to Tibetan features, the old man got up and walked to Jack’s bike. He place the handle onto the gas tank and pulled a leather pouch from his belt. As if picking up a cloud, the old man grabbed the handle and carried the Triumph over to Jack.
Jack attempted to protest. The tank should have ripped off the bike. And he had spent many long hours trying to get the tank paint job just right, but he couldn’t speak. He couldn’t move.
The old man stood in front of him. Pointing at the handle on the bike he said, “I give you this. That is the handle of time, and this,” he held out the pouch, “is the power of time.” He turned the handle one hundred and eighty degrees and then reached into the bag and took out a pinch of white powder sand. With a flourish, he spread a cloud of it into the luminescent air over Jack. “Remember, time is only in the human mind. Without human vision, there is no time.”
“Whaa,” Jack forced out. He slumped down, wedging between the boulder and sand. He should have been looking at the man’s legs, but all that he saw was the black mirror of the pond’s surface with the fire licking at the glowing ball of a full moon.
With face wedged between rock and sand Jack awoke to the hot desert sun baking the back of his head. Spitting sand and swearing, he pushed himself up and leaned back against the boulder. His head pounded from the exertion. Bleary eyed he looked at the surroundings recalling the events of last night. He shook his head, wondering if they had really happened. A pile of ashes from the campfire sent off a lazy waft of smoke, but the pond was gone.
Jack used the boulder to work his way off of the ground, kicking the empty Yukon Jack bottle as he did. The boulder the old man had used for a seat was still there. Jack turned to look at his bike. The handle was still on the bike’s gas tank. As Jack moved toward it, he saw it had intricate details of a man carved into the dark wood. The two side posts were muscled arms leading up to thick shoulders with an undefined broad human face linking the shoulders together.
The leather pouch sat on the tank between the two arms. Inside the pouch Jack found the white powder he’d seen last night. What was it? What was he supposed to do with it? He didn’t know. He stuffed the pouch into a saddlebag and then tried to pull the handle off of the tank. It wouldn’t budge, but the bike lifted with the effort. Jack stared at it. The handle’s face seemed to smile in the palm of his hand. Jack set the bike down, turned, looked at the campsite, and decided to leave. He took the bike with one hand on the handlebars and the other on the manhandle and easily moved the bike out onto the road.
It was close to mid-day and very hot when Jack spotted a small town resting in a valley below as he crested a hill. He coasted the grade and pulled into a diner’s parking lot.
Inside, he ordered two beers, downed one and handed the bottle back to the waitress, and started the next one. “Two more–and some water, please,” he ordered to her between swallows.
She smiled, “It’s not that hot, is it?”
“It is to me. I’ve been pushing my bike for the last million miles,” Jack said.
“I saw you ride in?” she said, taking the second bottle from him.
“Out of gas; coasted,” Jack replied. He settled back into the seat and looked at the waitress.
She was pretty: long black hair tied back in a working ponytail, a face with sharp features, and crystal blue eyes. Her two front teeth were slightly pushed back. Oddly, it didn’t detract from her looks, but added something unique like a mixture of chocolate and cheese he had once tasted–sweet, sharp, smooth warmth to the tongue. A name tag pinned to her uniform said her name was Mary.
“Mary,” he said, “I’m starving. Bring me the biggest steak you have in the house–rare; just singe the outsides of it.”
She wrote down the order aware that Jack’s eyes were on her. “Coming up,” she said. She took the empty bottles and headed for the kitchen.
Jack continued his observations, enjoying the view from behind.
Returning to the table, she set three beers on it and sat down across from him. “Did I pass inspection?” she asked.
“You know damn well you did,” he said with a sheepish smile.
Her smile flashed. “What’s your name?” she asked before taking a sip of her beer.
“Name’s Jack,” he answered.
“Just Jack Broadson.”
She extended her hand across the table and said, “Mary Wakes, Jack Broadson.”
Jack knew before he took her hand he might not be able to let it go.
Her hand was surprisingly firm and small boned. “So Jack Broadson, what are you and that old motorcycle doing in Waze, Arizona?”
A bell jingled from the kitchen. She raised her hand and pushed a palm at him. “Just a minute. That’s your steak.”
Jack sat there feeling disjointed from reality. Was it this woman? Or was it the old man; the desert? He didn’t know the answer. But, strangely, he also felt a new sense of life curiosity.
She returned, placed the meal in front of him, and resumed her seat. “I’m listening,” she said.
To his surprise, between bites, Jack found himself telling her the whole story from the time he’d left the lab until he pulled into the diner parking lot. He watched her face as he related the strange events of last night, looking for her disbelief, but he saw none.
Pushing the empty plate away, he eased back into the seat and finished off his beer. “Crazy, isn’t it?”
She shook her head, “No, I’ve heard crazier things from people coming out of the desert. Ten years ago I decided that no one knows what really is normal. Want some dessert?”
“What do you have?”
“My specialty, chocolate cheese cake.” She watched him laugh with a question on her face. She waited until the laugh had rambled down into a chuckle and finally a smile, before asking, “Well?”
“Yes, I’d love some.”
The cheese cake was good, but the company was gone. A few shift workers in factory clothes had begun filtering in and Mary went back to work.
Jack watched her work the customers while he listened to the conversations floating in the diner. Two men in the booth behind him were talking of a war in a place he’d never heard of. Had a war broken out in just the couple of weeks that he’d been away from the news? “They’ve been at it for two years,” one man said.
Jack’s eyes returned to Mary and he stopped listening.
Mary stepped in before the other waitress reached the cash register to accept Jack’s money for the meal. “Enjoy the meal?” she asked while touching the key pad to tabulate the bill.
“Sure did, enjoyed the company more, though,” Jack heard himself say.
“Well this company can get out of here around two o’clock if there’s a good reason.”
“I’ll be here,” Jack said and stepped out the door, exchanging the heavy food smells of the diner for the dry air of the desert foothills.
Only another half of a mile of pushing brought Jack to a gas station where he filled the tank and bought five quarts of oil; all at a very high price compared to the last gas stop. Beside the gas station he changed the bike’s oil and cleaned sand out of the carbs while trying not to think of the lady he’d just met. The manhandle on the tank still wouldn’t move. At two thirty Jack tightened the hose clamp on the last carb. He kicked the bike on and once again felt at ease with the engine purring between his legs. He rode up to the diner, noticing its name: “Mary’s Diner.” So, she owns it, he thought as he parked the bike and went in.
Mary came through the kitchen door and said, “I knew you’d come back.”
“Oh, yeah,” Jack replied, suddenly feeling foolish.
Mary had changed from her waitress uniform into jeans and a white blouse. She had combed out her hair.
Jack realized how grubby he must look as he fingered his beard.
The other waitress smiled at Mary as they left.
“What do you want to do?” Jack asked when they reached the Bonnieville.
“Well, I have to stop at home and put something in the crock-pot for my Dad’s supper, but then I want to take a nice long ride on this old motorcycle. How old is it?”
“It’s a sixty-nine.”
“Wow, forty years old. It’s in great shape.”
“I rebuilt it,” Jack said, thinking she must not do very well in the diner business with such bad math skills. It was 1999. The bike was only thirty years old.
The ride to her house was pleasant. She felt good on the back of his bike; natural. He liked it when she moved up close and shouted directions in his ear. They rode back into the hills, moving into trees and the coolness they held. Going off the paved road, they worked their way back into a canyon where an old two story house sat mingled in a grove of scrawny trees. As they pulled up to the house, a large mutt came rushing out of the door and began a frenzied bark and dance of joy.
Mary got off the bike and ruffled the dog’s shaggy head.
The dog turned its attention to Jack. It didn’t hesitate, but came at him with large tongue flapping and slobbering dog spit down Jack’s chest as it stuck its face into Jack’s in greeting. “Okay, you must be all right if Mottly accepts you,” Mary said. “Come on in. You can shower while I put Dad’s supper on.”
Hot water at full blast took the week’s dirt of f of Jack, and the beard was shortened with a pair of hair scissors he found in the medicine cabinet. He changed his clothes and went downstairs to find Mary in the kitchen slicing potatoes.
Mottly lay on the floor gnawing happily on a large bone.
Jack picked up a knife and began peeling the next potato.
Mary looked at him. “I thought so,” she said.
“Where’s your father?” Jack asked.
“He’s in town working a story.”
“Working a story?”
“He edits the local paper and writes a syndicated column. You’ve probably heard of him. Sam Wakes?”
Jack shook his head.
“Nah, I don’t read newspapers much,” he said.
“You look familiar. Ever had your picture in the paper? I’ve got a good memory for faces.” Mary looked closely at him.
“Not me. Besides, I’m not from around here. I’m from Michigan.”
Mary gave him a funny look. “From Michigan?”
“Yeah, I told you that when I was eating lunch.”
“No, you just said you were working up north. You didn’t say where.”
Jack dropped a peeled potato into the colander and shrugged. “So what? What’s wrong with Michigan–besides it being flat, and that winter is nine months of the year, and the summers are like a steam bath, and… .” Jack smiled, “It’s got lots of lakes.”
“What about the accident?” Mary asked as she dropped the potato slices into the crock-pot.
“The nuclear accident. Last year in 2008. They called it a normal aberration, which seems like a contradiction to me. No one got hurt, but it rumpled the grayhairs in Washington. It was all over the news–‘Another Three Mile Island’, they called it.”
“Whoa,” Jack said as he laid down the knife. “Maybe I should go.” He backed away.
“Why? What’s wrong, Jack?”
The last time I looked at the calendar it was 1999. And there has never been a nuclear accident in Michigan as far as I know.”
Mary looked at him quizzically. “It’s 2009, Jack.”
Jack shook his head and moved a step closer to the kitchen door.
“It is, Jack. What are you going to do? Where are you going to go? You can’t run away from time. It’s going to be 2009 any place you go. Come on,” she said with a wave of her hand toward the inside of the house, “I can prove it to you.”
He followed her through the door and through the living room into a den filled with books and newspapers. It was easy to follow her he realized. She was a hook in reality that he could hang onto; something he’d never known before. He could love her, he understood as they sat together on a bench in front of a large computer screen; comfortable closeness. The smell of raw potato mingled with Giorgio perfume as Mary leaned across him to switch on the computer.
The quick zip of electricity followed by the crackle of the screen coming to life brought Jack’s attention back to the year 2009. Mary pulled the top drawer of the desk out revealing a keyboard. She pushed a few buttons and a newspaper heading appeared on the screen.
Under the name AMERICA’S NEWS, Jack read the date: September 23, 2009. He turned away.
It was that crazy old man!” Jack said after a moment. “He did this to me.”
“What’s the date you met that old guy on?” Mary asked.
“September 22, 1999.”
“So over night you jumped ahead ten years–and met me.”
“What’s me meeting you got to do with it?” Jack said. “Wow, ten years, man–ten years! If this is real, how do I get them back?”
Mary turned away. She stood and walked over to a window. She stood there for a moment while Jack rambled on cursing the old man, Michigan, the desert, the world.
He couldn’t accept the situation, so he lost himself in anger. “All I wanted to do was get away from that damn lab!” he yelled.
Mary’s touch, like cold steel on a fevered brow, brought him back. She stood behind him with her hands on his shoulders.
He looked over his shoulder at her. The calm look on her face made him feel foolish.
“Let’s see if there is anything in the newspaper files about something strange happening on your yesterday,” she said.
Jack moved to the window where she’d been standing, not seeing what was beyond the glare of sunlight on the glass. She sat in front of the computer and accessed a search engine. After a few minutes of key touching, she shook her head, “Nothing. Let’s go back to –say, mmmm, the tenth of September, ninety-nine. Let’s use your name as reference.” A few key strokes and she said, “Here it is.”
She paused a moment. “You’re wanted for murder,” she said in a matter of fact tone. It took a second for that to filter through the glare coating the surface of Jack’s mind.
“What?” He quickly returned to the computer screen and saw below a grainy picture of himself:
Research Company President Murdered in His Office
Doctor George Congreive, president of Congreive Research Laboratory, found dead in his office by his secretary. Police say that evidence found at the scene points to the time of death being at about one-forty-five PM today. Dr. Congreive died from a blow to the back of his head that crushed his skull, causing instant death. Police are looking for a disgruntled employee who was the last to see Dr. Congreive alive. A warrant has been issued for the arrest of Jack Broadson. Blood found at the scene matches the blood type of Jack Broadson. DNA matching will be done as soon as possible. The Police want anyone who knows of Jack Broadson’s whereabouts to contact them. He is considered to be dangerous and should not be approached.
Jack stood marble-statue still while violently shaking his head. “Nooo, he was alive when I left. He was smoking his big cigar and ignoring me. No, no, I didn’t do it. I was out of there before one-forty-five. I–” Jack choked and rubbed his hands across his face. “Man, that explains the sirens, but I didn’t kill that old man.”
“Can you prove that?” Mary asked. Jack shook his head.
“How can you prove where you were when–wait, yes! I can.” Jack ran out the door so fast it made Mottly jump up. Mary followed him out the front door to the Bonnieville. Jack rummaged in a saddlebag. “Yeah, here it is.” He held up the Credit Union statement. “See it has the time I closed out my account on it. See,” he held the slip of paper up to her face, “one-forty-three. See, I didn’t do it. It has my signature on it. And the time.”
Mary took the statement from him and looked it over.
“Yes, this should do it. You just have to take it back and give it to the police.” Mary took him by the arm and led him up onto the porch to a porch swing where they sat. “So what are you going to do? Face it. Deal with it, or run?”
“Why not just run. That was ten years ago. I could just disappear. They’ve probably stopped looking for me. I could just… stay here.”
“You sure do swing from end to end. Just a few minutes ago you were mad as hell because you’d lost ten years– ten years you really haven’t lost if you think about it. Now you’re ready to forget the ten years, and a murder charge, and run away. No, Jack you can’t run from this one. This one you have to face–if you want me,” she added in a softer tone.
Jack met her eyes and felt himself slipping through those liquid blue portals. If the eyes are the windows to a person’s soul, then he was touching her soul; kayos joy. He nodded. She was right.
“How do I get back?”
“I think that old man in the desert gave you the way. That thing on your bike,” she said, pointing at the Bonnieville. Didn’t he say that was the handle of time.”
“And that powder, didn’t he say it was the power of time.”
“Yeah,” Jack said,” but if I go, I might not be able to come back.”
She added another smile to the pile that had been growing between them since they’d met. “Why do you want to come back?” she asked.
Jack took her into his arms; she fit perfectly; two live pieces locking together.
Mottly watched them, wagging his big tail, tongue hanging from a big stupid dog grin.
“Do it now Jack. You have to go back.”
“But…” Jack said, his voice trailing off, not wanting to let her go.
She shook her head. “When you come back. Let’s see what can happen then.”
They walked to the Bonnieville.
He took her in his arms again and kissed her. She tasted of raw potato and woman.
“You fit well,” he said.
She laughed. “You fit well too. Now git. Oh, wait.”
“Jack, when you get back to 1999 could you let the rat, Killer, loose–those dogs, and monkeys–do something?”
Jack smiled. He nodded and straddled the bike. “Sure, I will, but I’m not quite sure what to do to get back.”
“Just do what that old guy did.”
Jack pulled the leather pouch out of the saddlebag and placed it on the gas tank.
He kicked the engine on and grabbed the bag before it slid off the vibrating tank. He grabbed the manhandle and thinking of 1999 twisted it one hundred-eighty degrees. He took a pinch of the power, looked at Mary, and with a flick of his wrist spread a white cloud above his head. “I could love you, Mary,” Jack spoke his feelings aloud as she misted away.
As if through a curtain of thick cotton batting, Jack heard Mary’s voice say, “Jack, don’t wait another ten years to come back.”
He was alone in the yard. Mary was gone, but the house was there with a different color of paint. He was tempted to go up and knock on the door, but realized if she were there, she wouldn’t know who he was. He kicked the bike into first and twisted the gas. Letting the clutch out, Jack Broadson headed east. Over his shoulder he called toward the house, “I’ll come back Mary…”
Mary Wakes jumped when she heard a motorcycle’s engine suddenly break the silence outside of her kitchen window. She heard the whisper of a man’s voice say, “I could love you Mary.” Dropping the book she’d been reading, she went to the window in time to see a man riding away on an old motorcycle. He called over his shoulder, ” I’ll come back, Mary, I’ve got time.”
Originally published in Aphelion, 2008.