NT Franklin has been published in Page and Spine, Fiction on the Web, 101 Words, Friday Flash Fiction, CafeLit, Madswirl, Postcard Shorts, 404 Words, Scarlet Leaf Review, Freedom Fiction, Burrst, Entropy, Alsina Publishing, Fifty-word stories, among others.
Michael did a double take when he saw his wife with his colleague, Buck, sitting together in a cozy café. Their table by the window gave everyone a clear view of two people in love.
“Buck?” Michael said to no one in particular, just before he collided with a light pole and fell to the ground.
“You okay?” a passerby asked as Michael picked himself off the sidewalk.
“Yeah, the pole didn’t move much did it?” he replied. “I should watch where I’m going.”
“Take it easy man,” the passerby said, his voice competing with the city traffic.
Michael crossed the street and stood at a bus stop, trying to look inconspicuous and not to clench his fists too hard. He couldn’t take his eyes away from the scene at the table. Laughing, touching hands, leaning into each other in private discussion. Buck and my wife? Disgusting. I hate his guts. He got that promotion two months ago instead of me. Polly was counting me getting the promotion and the raise that came with it. I should have murdered him with my own hands when he got the promotion over me. With careful planning, I can do this now and get away with it.
Squealing brakes announced the arrival of a bus and broke his concentration. With his view obstructed, he shook his head to clear his thoughts. One passenger got off. With a cloud of exhaust, the bus was gone. And so were Polly and Buck from their table.
Michael scanned the street. Nothing. The café door opened and Polly stepped out as Buck held the door for her. A bit later, Buck had his arm over her shoulder as they ambled down the sidewalk.
Michael paralleled their movements from across the street. Five blocks later, now arm in arm, the two didn’t look like they were planning a surprise party for his birthday, that’s for sure. Without even pausing, they nodded to the doorman at the Astoria Sheraton as they entered the hotel.
I guess she didn’t leave town to visit her mother every week the past two months. How stupid of me. Now how stupid of Buck. He’s a goner.
Michael leaned against a store façade and stared at the hotel for a half hour. As he did, he formulated a plan. Feeling slowly returned to his now unclenched fists and a slight smile crossed his face.
Michael walked with deliberate and determined steps back to his office. At his desk, he set his phone timer for ten minutes and watched it count down the minutes and seconds to zero. He rose and went to Buck’s secretary.
“Buck around? I need to run some numbers by him,” he asked her.
“Sorry, Michael. Buck’s not around this afternoon. He’s working on wooing a new client. Can I give him a message if he calls in?”
“It can wait, I’ll talk to him tomorrow,” Michael replied.
Earlier, Michael would have tasted blood from biting his tongue, but now, he was calm and calculating. He knew Buck had to be removed from the picture.
Back at his desk, a Google search identified an internet café one block away from the office. Manufacturing an excuse to duck out, Michael left the building. In less than ten minutes, he entered a sketchy room lined with cheap chairs in front of computers. He bought an hour’s time and began searching for execution methods. He needed a method that was personal, fast, and with no clean up.
After twenty minutes of searching, he came upon a garrote. It fit the requirements and was untraceable. A thin steel cable, three feet long, attached to wooden handles, was easily assembled on the kitchen table. Michael made mental notes and cleared the browser history before closing the browser.
The clerk at a hardware store on his way home happily sold Michael four feet of 3/32-inch steel cable for cash. With Polly gone, the house was quiet when Michael rooted around and found electrical tape and a ¾-inch dowel. Wiping everything down and wearing gloves, he was as careful as he could be to avoid leaving DNA or fingerprints.
Michael smiled. With the cable wrapped around the three-inch dowel pieces and secured with wraps of electrical tape, it looked just like the photos online. It coiled up in loops and fit inside his jacket pocket with ease. He practiced taking it out and quickly got the knack of having the cable form a loop at the handles for maximum size to slip over a head.
Michael practiced with a zucchini and a potato. Slick, other than the produce on the floor. Eight to twelve seconds to pass out; one minute to ensure death, according to his previous Google search.
But a person has to be more difficult to garrote that a melon. How can I simulate the real thing before I go after Buck? Michael tossed and turned through the night wrestling with this question.
The morning call from Polly was routine, …mother’s fine, be home this afternoon… Michael played his role as well as she played hers. If he was going to get away with murder, he had to plan details perfectly, especially the part about not knowing of his wife’s affair.
Michael left the office at lunchtime. He couldn’t stand looking at Buck, knowing his wife had been with him. Too upset to eat, Michael just walked. When he stopped walking, he was in front of an ancient theater. He peered into the lobby through spaces between the movie posters taped on the inside of the window. Michael saw a small area with a ticket booth and velvet rope on stanchions guiding patrons to doors leading to what must have been the movie theater.
“You a movie buff?” A voice behind Michael made him jump.
“Uh, no. It’s just that I didn’t know this place existed.”
“Well, it does, sort of. I show old movies Saturday and Sunday morning and the church serves a lunch in the lobby at 1pm. Mostly street people come in to be warm, safe, and maybe escape to a better past, for a few hours anyway.”
“Noble,” said Michael. “More people should help others this way.”
“I’m showing “Gone with the Wind” Saturday morning from 8 to 12. I ask for a cash donation, but most don’t pay. Bring a couple cans of soup, help out serving lunch, and we’ll call it even. See you tomorrow?”
“Might just come with an offer like that.”
Michael knew what he was going to do Saturday morning. He returned to the office with renewed vigor and a solidified plan. The afternoon breezed by at his desk.
The evening with Polly was back to their routine, he watched television and she read in bed. The next morning, Michael told Polly he needed to go to the office for a few hours. A side trip to a thrift store outfitted Michael in dingy pants and an oversize overcoat and cheap shoes. At the office, Michael watched the clock. The theater was a twenty-two-minute walk at a slow pace. At 11:15, he went to the office building loading dock where he pulled on the pants over his jeans and put the big overcoat over his jacket, changed shoes, put them into a bag, checked his pocket for the garrote, and headed out the door.
Michael walked down the sidewalk, smiling to himself at how people avoided him. I actually look like a street person.
Michael shuffled into the movie theater lobby, hunched over and avoided eye contact. He offered two badly crumpled one-dollar bills.
“Movie only has about 10 minutes left, you don’t need to pay,” was the reply.
“I only like the ending, so it’s okay,” Michael answered and smiled to himself, knowing he hadn’t been recognized.
The wadded up bills were accepted with a cheery, “Enjoy the ending.”
Once his eyes adjusted to the darkness, he could see the theater was less than one quarter full. About half of those present were obviously street people and a fair few were asleep. Michael slid down the first row of seats he came to, the ones farthest from the screen. He sat directly behind a middle-aged man. Unwashed hair sticking out from under a filthy hat and a dirty jacket. He was disposable.
The five rows in front of them were empty. From the odor, he knew why the person in front of him was given such a wide berth. Perfect.
On screen, Vivian Leigh was hurrying down the stairs calling “Rhett, Rhett, …” when Michael pulled the garrote out of his coat pocket, quickly wrapped it around the neck in front of him and pulled for all he was worth. Michael was surprised how quickly and easily the man was subdued. He struggled for less than the count of three with the steel cable crushing his trachea and both carotenoid arteries simultaneously. By the time the man collapsed, Clark Gable answered “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.” Rhett faded into the mist the same time as did the garroted victim.
Michael tipped the head of the man over so he appeared to be sleeping. He peeled off his overcoat, took off the dingy pants and changed shoes. The unwanted items of clothing were jammed under a seat as he watched the credits roll by. He stood up, smiled at several people still sleeping in their seats, merged into the horde, and exited through the lobby with the others.
Okay, that was easy. Stage one has been completed, now on to Buck. Garroting was quick, quiet, and easy. An office bathroom is a scenario where Buck and I could be alone, but where else?
Michael walked briskly along the sidewalk, noticing how people didn’t avoid him dressed in his weekend casual clothes. Back to the office, open and save some files to have a time stamp on them, and then home to unfaithful Polly. I wonder how she’ll feel when her lover is gone?
Back at the office building entering through the loading dock, Michael hummed loudly waiting for the elevator. He was pulled out of deep thought on how to dispose of Buck by an intense pain in his right side. His knees buckled and he dropped to the floor. Michael looked up to see Buck standing over him with blood dripping off an eight-inch knife.
“What the …”
“Save it Michael. See the blood? It’s black. I sliced your liver and it’s oozing. You have maybe five minutes left. Maybe less.”
Light headed, Michael watched his blood pool on the concrete floor.
“Don’t talk, just listen,” Buck ordered. “You’ve never worked on a Saturday in your life. Why do you think you were passed over for the promotion, huh? Steady, plotting, consistent Michael. Plots and plans but takes too much time and misses out. Just like now. How’d you ever get Polly to marry you anyway?”
Michael tried to sit up but he was too weak.
“Polly called me. Said something was up. You going to work on a Saturday? Ha! I followed you from here and watched you kill that old timer in the movie theater.”
“Buck, help me …”
“By the way, you talk in your sleep. You didn’t know that or plan for that did you? Don’t worry, I’ll take good care of Polly.”
Michael’s eyes rolled back in his head as Buck walked away.
He snuck out of the house around 2 a.m. He tested each step so his wife, MaryAnn, would not hear it creak. He wore a camouflage back pack and camouflage pants and top. It was the dead of winter, unseasonably cold, down to minus one, it said on their outdoor thermometer. He had a plan, as he always did. This time, though, he would march to the finish.
March to his death.
Vic was a decorated United States Marine. He was given the Purple Heart when he threw himself on an I.E.D. – improvised explosive device – and saved the lives of three good buddies in his platoon.
They were in terrible shape. One had his entire hand blown off. Another had his knee blasted and was a bloody mess. A precious knee. They’d all joked about going down on one knee and proposing to Private First Class Ronny Abrams. The last Marine was unhurt except for a deep cut on his face that looked like lipstick.
Women! Vic could not do what he was supposed to do with MaryAnn. Images of the war flashed in front of him, as if Afghanistan, lousy, stinking Afghanistan, was right there in his bedroom.
How the men had talked about their homecoming. They would eat pizza with pepperoni and hot peppers. Guzzle down beer after beer. Such joy they took in naming their favorites: Budweiser, Coors, Rolling Rock, Schlitz. And imagined the beers with big heads on them when they poured them into tall glasses.
Little Richie said, “Me? Never liked beer. Give me a cup of coffee. Set ‘em up on the bar. Cup after cup. You can get a buzz, ya know?”
Vic began to shiver in the cold night. He looked above where the planets and constellations shone as bright as diamonds. He breathed from his mouth as if he were smoking. Such beauty! In the Afghan, they saw the very same stars. Would come out of their warm pup tents and stare at the glorious heavens. “Why, have I never appreciated them before?” he thought. “What a fool I’ve been.”
Of that he had no doubt as he walked quickly to banish the cold and the terrible thoughts running like reindeer through his head.
He banged his hands across his chest, one after the other, to warm himself up. Frostbite. One of the guys in the platoon forgot to wear his gloves and his frostbite spread to the rest of his body. In three months, DeShawn was dead. Stone cold dead. A good man.
Vic was all of 38 years old. In the rec room of their three-bedroom house, behind a glass case, were medals he had won. His 10-year-old daughter, Samantha, enjoyed dusting the case.
“Daddy? You make me so proud!”
The Purple Heart was surprisingly small with a profile of General George Washington. Below that, was a brilliant color purple, the likes of which he had never seen. Purple was the color of royalty in ancient Greece and Rome.
A tall silver statue of Arthur Ashe, swinging a tennis racket lay on the next shelf. Vic was a champion tennis player at his suburban Philadelphia high school. There was even a first place medal for soccer. Such muscled legs and thighs he had.
He told the men in his platoon, “When it came to dances, the girls had to take tickets, as if they were at a bakery.”
What a brilliant future awaited him.
Or did it?
Was it love at first sight?
MaryAnn had big brown eyes and shoulder-length blonde hair. They met at the CVS Pharmacy in the cough drop aisle. He felt like walking straight into her arms and never letting go. If hot soup and mashed potatoes are comfort foods, MaryAnn was a comfort woman.
He grabbed her hand and walked her to the small jewelry aisle. He pointed to a ring with a blue stone.
“Shall we?” he asked.
They each moved out of their family homes and put a down payment on a small bungalow, which would be a “starter home,” as it was called.
Then Vic made the worst decision of his life. He did talk it over with MaryAnn, who said, “If that’s what you really want, darling, then God bless you and do it.”
Basic training was at Parris Island, South Carolina.
Sweat poured off every pore of his body. His clothes stank and so did he. But he loved his country – that’s what they all say – and he would serve proudly and do whatever he was asked to do.
And proudly die for his country.
Such a contrast to his night march now. He walked stiff as a corpse down the sleeping streets. The lights were off in every single house. Darkness mirrored the contents of his heart.
He walked past the house of a former girlfriend, Eileen, whose circadian rhythms were all messed up. The lamp was on in the living room. What was she doing? Reading, he supposed. Or watching Netflix.
Suddenly, her head popped out the door.
“Who goes there?” she said with her breathy voice.
“No one,” he answered. “No one.”
“Get your ass inside my house, mister,” she insisted. She pushed his camouflaged body into her living room.
The brightness shocked him. He began to remember all the fine times they had before he broke up with her.
Had she ever married?
Rings were on her thumb: a gold one – her third finger – bright silver – and a tiny one with a star like a sea shell hugged her ring finger.
She gave him an enormous back-clapping hug to warm him up, patting him up and down, up and down.
“Sit here,” she said, rubbing a place next to her on the furry blue sofa.
“Funny,” she said. “I just heard an owl and stuck my head out the front door.
“Whoo! Whoo! Whoo!” she cooed.
She went into the fridge and brought out a six-pack of Coors Beer.
“Drink it down, love,” she said. “Nothing makes you feel better than Coors, made from high mountain waters and water falls, you can’t find nowhere else ‘cept in the Rockies.”
Vic gave a hearty laugh.
“Nowhere, except on the plains of Afghanistan,” he laughed, as he popped open the cap and guzzled it down.
“Maybe I should have married you, Eileen,” he said, staring at her soft brown curls, baby blue eyes and puckered upper lip.
“As the song goes, ‘You saved my life tonight.’”
“Sweet Elton John,” she whispered. “But not half as sweet as you, you goddamn bugger, you!”
21st Century Shopping by a 20th Century Man
Sometimes I wake up and wonder if I’m living in a science fiction movie or something. I mean what happened to the world we once knew?
I’m standing in line at the grocery store when someone behind me says, “What are you doing, pal?”
“I’m sorry?” I say, and turn around.
A large man in a shiny gray suit, holding a newspaper and a bag of oranges, is, at first glance, not, as I had assumed, talking to me, but talking to himself, it seems. Staring straight ahead. A little bit crazy or something. I try not to stare up at him, but he doesn’t notice me, anyway. Probably part of his illness. But then I notice it: there’s a gray clip on his ear with a blue flash, like something out of an old Star Trek episode) and he’s talking into thin air it seems. I get flustered, turn back around to the sideview of the person in front of me, a girl who’s placing items from her cart onto the conveyer belt while talking on her pink cell phone about Roger and what a great time she had last night, and she’s saying “Oh, you should have been there, Kathy, he was so bombed, we were doing shots of Goldschlager – you know the stuff with the little real gold chips in it ...” while the cashier scans each item past the glowing, all-knowing light imbedded beneath the surface at the end of the conveyer belt ride, and bags up the items – a red tube of Pringles potato chips, three styrofoam containers of Maruchen Instant Lunch with Shrimp, a plastic bag full of pink plastic shavers, a box of McCafe coffee pods, a box of cherry Pop Tarts, and several cardboard boxed microwave Nature’s Way 2 Minute Meals. “Twelve ninety seven,” the cashier says, but the girl keeps on talking without looking at the cashier. The girl unzips her purse and pocketbook and pulls out a green card which she slides into the bottom of the card reader. Still, she is talking to Yvonne, the girl on the other end about Roger and, now, Darrell, “He’s whack, you should see him, girl!”, not once looking at the cashier, who looks about twelve, who glances at her nails and says “Cash back?” and the girl on the phone says, “Hold on, Yvonne, one second,” then gives the cashier a look like How dare you interrupt my conversation, then says, “No. Thank you,” then goes back to her conversation, electronically signs her name on the little screen with her finger, and throws her plastic bags into her plastic cart.
When it’s my turn I put my items on the conveyer belt which pulls them forward toward the bright shiny eye which reads the code – but my items seem out of place in this strange new world – carrots, broccoli, an eggplant, a hunk of steak, a carton of milk. All with the appropriate tags with the appropriate codes on them, until...until the tragedy arises. The cashier lifts the thin plastic bag containing the eggplant.
“What’s this?” she says, her eyes blank.
“What?” I ask.
“It doesn’t have a sticker or a tag. You must have forgotten to put your sticker on the bag. What is it?”
“It’s…” I say, pausing for a moment, thinking she’s joking, that she’ll just start laughing, the camera guys will appear out of nowhere to tell me this was all a setup (like Candid Camera or, what’s the newer show, yeah about ten, twenty years ago, Pranked! I think it was called), that they wanted to see what my reaction was, but the camera men don’t come out, and the girl doesn’t crack the slightest of smiles. Her eyes are dead, serious, and dull. “Well?” she says, huffing, looking at the line growing behind me, gesturing towards it, towards them, the people standing there, many of them having conversations of their own with the air or other people on the ends of their Raspberry, Chocolate or Lime cell phones, when I open my mouth to say...., but then her phone rings and, without skipping a beat, she says “Hey, Jeremy, what’s up? No, just doing the cashier thingy for a little bit...I’ll be off at eight....come pick me up then, okay, pretty please?,” closing her eyes and squinching her lips up in a smile like a baby, then saying, “Cool, peace out. Back at ya.” Then she snaps shut her telecommunication device (me half expecting her to say, “Uhura out,” or something like that) and the smile’s gone and she’s staring at me again with these icy gray eyes, saying, “Well, buddy, what is it, do you see the chaos you’re creating here, or what?”
In the parking lot, when I get safely back to my car, I feel dizzy, take a deep breath, grab onto the bumper of my blue Dodge Neon. It’s some sort of plastic material. Not like when I was a kid, when bumpers were solid, metal. Just feeling the cold plastic beneath my fingers, getting down on the hard asphalt, down on one knee, stroking it, trying to make some sense of it. Then, getting hold of myself, and standing upright again, scanning around the parking lot quickly, an older, frail-looking woman with white hair packing her plastic bags into the trunk of her Miasma, glancing at me for a second with what looks like fear, then back to her task, stacking the bags in her trunk. But they’re not bags like they used to be, they’re plastic, and they don’t stack nicely, neatly. They’re shapeless, hardly any substance to them. She glances again at me quickly, and moves back a step, behind the other side of her car. I smile and wave weakly to show her I’m of no harm, to let her know I was sorry I was looking at her, that she was staring at me, but at least we were seeing each other, or at least trying, and I walk towards the driver side door of my car. I throw my plastic bag onto the passenger seat, turn the key, turn the radio on and hear someone talking, talking (and they call this music now!) in angry sounding rhyme -- not singing, singing sweet sounds, or even words of protest, back like they used to do.
As I drive home I notice them everywhere: a boy with a green backpack riding his bicycle, probably coming home from school, smiling and pedaling and talking on his cell phone; a woman with a fake fur collared jacket, walking her white poodle, and gesturing in the air to a person who can’t see these gestures at the other end of her phone; a young woman driving her car, looking down in her lap, texting; a man in the crosswalk looking down at his device (lucky someone didn’t run the light!). And how many more people staring down at the little screens in their hands like they’re robots, following the commands of their leaders which appear on the small screens, none of them looking ahead, not seeing what is clearly in front of them?
And, as I drive, I wish for a time machine, some sort of black hole to open up in the middle of the road for me and my car to fall into, to take me back to the simpler, saner days, when the world made some kind of sense.
I've Got Your Number
"Boy, what a rotten year! Thank God it’s the end of June. At least school is over until September. I can’t believe all these ‘life clumps’ are happening at the same time--job I hate, Dad dying, and Steve talking separation,” Tess said. She looked over the edge of her menu at Shirley and went on. “You’d think major disasters would come with some space between them, so you could at least have a chance to breathe before the next one clobbers you. Right?” She shook her head in frustration.
Shirley, still studying her menu, said, "I don't know if I should get the eggplant panini or the spinach pie."
"That's your answer to 'right?'"
Shirley put down her menu, looked up, and said "Right, what? I can't decide what I want to order. Should I get the pie or panini?"
"I was telling you what's been going on in my life, Shirley. How tough it's been trying to juggle school, Dad and Steve."
"Oh, you mean how things are? I know, I know. That's the way it is sometimes. You have to just get through it, one minute at a time. That’s what I had to do when Benny was in the hospital and I had my whole house to deal with. It took me three weeks just to—" She broke off to flag down the waitress. "Let’s get our orders in; I’m really hungry.”
Shirley went with the spinach pie and said she wanted her cole slaw without pickle on it. “I’m allergic to pickles,” she explained. "I could choke or turn bright red or even die."
The unimpressed waitress nodded and turned to Tess.
"Are you ready to order, miss?"
"Yes, please. I'll have the tuna melt and iced tea."
“I didn’t know you were allergic to pickles,” said Tess as the waitress left.
“I’m not, but I hate pickles, and if I say I’m allergic, they pay attention. So, what's new with you? Catch me up."
Tess considered grabbing the plastic ketchup bottle and squeezing its contents all over Shirley, followed by the mustard container. Pleased with the resultant red- and yellow-striped picture in her mind, she said, "Well, I'm happy that at least I’ve lost eight pounds just from running around that big old school building all year. When I went shopping for a new dress last week, would you believe I actually fit into a size--"
Shirley said, “Only eight? I’ve lost 15 pounds in four months on my hard-boiled egg and grapefruit diet already. And I’m going to the gym twice a week. Plus, I have to make special meals for Benny, because he still has to be so careful about what he eats.”
“It's wonderful that he's out of the hospital, and he’s going to be okay. I know he tries to help as much as he can. I wish Steve would--"
"Ben can't do much of anything. I have to do all the heavy stuff. It's all on me--the cooking, cleaning, laundry..."
Shirley spotted the waitress approaching with their food. "Oh, don't you dare put that down here, lady! Are you trying to kill me? You want a lawsuit? I told you, NO PICKLE! If I touched that, I could die! Take that thing away!"
The unfazed and unapologetic waitress removed the offending dish and left. Tess added a purple felt hat, with a pickle feather, to the portrait in her head.
"Can you imagine? The nerve of that woman! After I told her no pickle? If she thinks she's getting a tip, she can think again!"
Tess tried to pick up the conversational thread. "How lucky Ben is that you do all that for him. He must really appreciate it. Steve just expects too much of me after a day's work. And he thinks I should be dying to go out with his friends every weekend. But I'm so tired, all I want to do is sleep until Monday morning."
Shirley offered no comment, continuing to eat her pie. Tess soldiered on. “At least Ben does whatever he can around the house. It doesn’t even occur to Steve to do some laundry or a little food shopping. And he's home most of the day, except when he goes to his law classes. So he could help me out a little, don’t you think?”
“I have to keep the pool clean and do all the weeding out back, because Benny’s not supposed to do anything strenuous yet. You know how big our property is, and it’s all on me.”
Shirley sighed and ate another piece of spinach pie before going on. "I can see you don't get to your yard too often, but I guess you don't mind all the weeds. It would drive me crazy, but I just have a thing about being clean and weed-free."
The waitress returned with a pickle-less dish of cole slaw. Tess looked at the slaw, then at Shirley. She enriched her mental portrait by replacing the felt hat with a pile of cole slaw, the pickle set into it at a jaunty angle.
They finished their meal and sat over their beverages. Tess stirred her iced tea. She didn’t expect any meaningful response from Shirley, but plowed ahead anyway.
“Every day after work I spend a couple of hours working on lesson plans, and then it’s time to go to the hospital. I can’t quit my job, because I’m our sole support right now. And I need to go see Dad, because he won’t be here much longer.” Her lower lip quivered as she sipped her tea.
“Yeah, too bad your mother doesn’t go to the hospital any more. I went every day when my mother was sick. No matter what else I had to do, I was there for her. I guess some people just can't handle it, Tess. What about your husband?"
“No help there. When Steve comes with me, he wants to leave as soon as decently possible. He's constantly checking his watch and his phone, or pacing the hallway. It's easier for me when he stays home.”
Shirley waved to the waitress. "Since I lost 15 pounds, I'm rewarding myself with the chocolate pudding,” she told the woman.
"Do you want whipped cream on the pudding, or are you allergic?" the waitress asked with a straight face. Tess revised upward the amount she planned to leave as a tip.
"Do I want whipped cream? Of course! Who eats chocolate pudding without whipped cream?" Shirley laughed.
Tess ordered the same and continued.
“Last Christmas, when I finally had a week off, Steve brought up having a trial separation. Not even three years married, and he was talking about leaving. I told him it would have to wait, because I just couldn't handle it then."
The puddings arrived and Tess went on.
"So then, during my spring break, he says maybe we should have a baby, because it might improve our marriage. Might?! That's one of the worst reasons I ever heard to have a child! I didn't bother to argue, just stayed on my birth control pills."
Shirley finished her dessert. She eyed Tess's untouched pudding as she licked her own spoon clean. “I didn’t know you almost broke up," she said. "My niece, Angela, was married four years, has a little girl, and her husband just up and left. I’d kill Benny if he ever tried something like that!”
“You know, Shirley, I’m thinking…I survived my first school year, and I know Dad will be gone before the next one starts. I’m not having a baby, and I’m not getting any support from Steve. So maybe it’s time to think about that separation he suggested. What do you think?"
"Are you going to eat that pudding? No? Then do you mind if I finish it? I can afford to splurge a little now, with all that weight I lost."
Tess pushed her dessert across the table as she mentally added a nice pudding scarf to her cole-slaw-crowned picture. "I could just take my cat, my clothes and my stamp collection and go back to my mom’s. She's got an empty apartment upstairs at her house.” She sat up straighter and her words tumbled out. "Just me, no pressure on weekends, nobody else to take care of or support, no more negativity...Yes! I could do that! Mom, here I come!"
A look of concern flitted across Shirley’s face. “But she lives out in Suffolk someplace, doesn't she? What about me? Since Margie and Sam moved away, I never see them, and I don't have anyone else to talk to. You'll have to drive all the way back here so we can have lunch together. You have my number, right? "
The waitress came with their bills. Tess got her wallet out and held up a strip of pink paper, assuring Shirley, “Don't worry. I've got your number.” She headed off to pay her bill while Shirley was still putting her coat on. Tess was out of the diner and in her car before Shirley reached the cashier, never noticing the shredded pink bits of paper in the waste receptacle by the exit door.
The Fifth Leland Hardesty
I entered the machine at midnight.
“Still want go through with this, Lee?”
“Then let’s get started.”
Even though I’d spent months preparing for this moment, my thoughts were far from what was about to happen. They were, instead, focused on the ancestor whose journals at first saved my life and then very nearly took it from me.
“Life should be measured in experiences, not the meaningless passage of minutes, hours, and days.”
Leland Hardesty wrote those words in 1957, when he was eighteen years old and about to set out on what he believed would be the first great adventure of his life. Such musings were not typical of my ancestor. He was a deeply practical man who usually measured success in terms of dollars and cents.
When his father died suddenly of a heart attack, a twenty-three-year-old Leland had been forced to assume responsibility for the day-to-day operation of the family’s small business. It was a duty he took on with no small measure of resentment. What awaited him in the world of commerce could only be abject failure, or so he imagined. He could not have been more wrong.
Hardesty Hardware flourished under Leland’s management, and he eventually opened a second store in a nearby town. A year later a third Hardesty Hardware was built in the state capitol.
By the time he was forty, Leland owned a chain of stores and had become a very wealthy man. He married at thirty-five and named his first and only child, a son, after himself. This second Leland Hardesty would go on to run the family business in unspectacular yet profitable fashion. He, too, married at thirty-five and named his firstborn son Leland. This third Leland Hardesty, my grandfather, was no businessman, and Hardesty Hardware hemorrhaged money under his ruinous stewardship. He tried to stanch the bleeding by selling off some of the chain’s smaller and less-profitable stores, all the while continuing to live, and spend, as if the family fortune were not only still intact but growing exponentially. He collected sports cars, antique firearms, race horses, and, until the day he met the local beauty queen who became my grandmother, also collected girlfriends with very expensive tastes. Grandfather Leland married the week he turned thirty-five. My father, the fourth Leland Hardesty, was born just under six months later.
My father had no head for business, and his handling of the family’s affairs -- the Hardesty fortune was by then only a fraction of what it had once been -- proved disastrous. It was he who sold the remaining stores to a national chain and oversaw the quiet demise of Hardesty Hardware. The end of the family business allowed father to focus on more scholarly pursuits, and he eventually found his true calling as a teacher of history.
Father kept faith with one Hardesty custom when he married not long after his thirty-fifth birthday. I was his only child and the fifth Leland Hardesty. Like my father, I embraced the life of a scholar, and soon after receiving my doctorate became an instructor at Tecumseh College, a fine old institution southwest of Irving, Texas. It was the only school out of the dozen or so I applied to willing to take a chance on a young PhD with so unimpressive a résumé.
Tecumseh is where I met Dr. Marcus Lindbloom, the brilliant head of that school’s Physics Institute and one of our country’s most highly regarded authorities on time travel theory. His position at the Institute places him in charge of its best known and most heavily-guarded asset, the Mallett Time Displacement Mechanism, usually referred to by Institute staff as, simply, “the Conveyance”.
Even though he had achieved much in his forty-nine years of life, I found Marcus to be self-effacing about both himself and his family’s deep Texas roots.
“My people settled in this part of the country not long after the Battle of San Jacinto,” he liked to say. “They were mostly farmers, poor as the dirt they struggled to extract a living from. In more than two hundred years they’ve managed to contribute absolutely nothing to our state’s long and storied history.”
When reminded of his own impressive accomplishments, he usually countered with a laconic, “I’ve been lucky. That’s all.”
Marcus invited me to his home at the end of my first week at the college, and over time dinner with his wife, Bethany, and their three children became a pleasant Sunday ritual. It was at one of these dinners that I met Mary Lindbloom, a cousin visiting from Amarillo. By the time Bethany got around to serving desert and coffee, I had fallen in love with Mary.
We were married two months later, a week to the day after I turned twenty-nine. Our five years together were childless, but the prospect of being the final Leland Hardesty mattered little to me when compared to the life I enjoyed with Mary. She was bright, funny, and pretty as a picture, the sort of wife most men dream of but are never lucky enough to find.
Mary’s part-time job at a Dallas law firm supplemented my instructor’s salary just enough to allow us the luxury of dining out once a week and spending the occasional long weekend at a desert resort we were both fond of. Mary was on the way to Dallas when the accident happened. Identifying her body that rainy afternoon was like having my heart ripped from my chest.
Marcus and Bethany did what they could to help me through those first awful weeks without her, but they could not be there all the time. They could not drive away the suffocating emotional pain and loneliness, and they could not prevent me from wandering about the house at all hours like a phantom haunting my own suddenly empty life.
At the same time, in spite of everything he had done for me, I found anger and resentment toward Marcus building up inside me, and I eventually turned on him. It happened a month after Mary’s death. We were alone in the small den I use as an office. Marcus had just commented on how beautiful Mary’s memorial service had been. Something snapped in me and everything I’d been holding back for weeks came rushing out.
“You’re supposed to be my friend, Marcus. What good are you or that damned machine of yours if you can’t use it to bring her back to me?”
I will never forget the look of pain and frustration on his face as I spoke those foolish, hurtful words, words I regretted almost the instant they were uttered.
“The Conveyance doesn’t make me God, Lee. It was never meant to be used to alter history or the fate of any individual.”
“I know that … I … I’m so sorry, Marcus. It’s just that … what am I going to do? I can’t imagine life without her.”
“You’re going to move beyond what’s happened, Lee. It’s the only thing any of us can do.”
He was right, of course, but at that moment getting over Mary’s death seemed impossible.
Night always magnified my suffering. I’d wake at two or three in the morning, unable to sleep and tormented by thoughts of Mary. I tried at first to fill the hours before daybreak by completing the essay I had been writing when two police officers came to our front door with news of the accident, but that effort was probably doomed to failure from the start. The essay and the nightmare born on a rainy Tuesday afternoon were linked forever in my mind; I could not focus on one without summoning the other. So I abandoned the essay and tried to occupy the dreadful pre-dawn hours with reading. I read hungrily, flooding my consciousness with a torrent of words to the exclusion of all else until sunrise brought its modicum of relief.
Then came the night when I woke to find that losing myself in the pages of a book was no longer enough. I went through the house room by room looking for something, anything, to distract me from the pain. I was like a drowning man flailing about for a life preserver. After much fruitless searching, I gave up and sat in the darkened living room with my head in my hands. What I wanted more than anything was what I could never again have: my Mary. I looked around at the home we had both loved, and thought about the joyful chaos of a day five years in the past, the day we moved in. I remembered how the blue kerchief she wore perfectly matched her eyes, how much care she took in arranging and re-arranging each room until it was perfect, and how utterly happy she seemed in everything she did that day. I remembered something else as I sat there in the dark: my grandfather’s vintage Colt Peacemaker. It was said to have belonged to Wyatt Earp and was one of the treasures of Grandfather Leland’s collection of antique firearms. He loved that old pistol and took it to his gun club for target practice at least once a month. Its connection to the legendary lawman had made him something of a local celebrity, a status the vain and foolish old man gloried in. He willed it to my father, who had absolutely no interest in guns but kept it as a remembrance. Father insisted I take it with me when I moved to Texas -- for protection, he said, although he never made it clear what it was supposed to protect me from. The Peacemaker worked perfectly and was still in its original oak and leather case. All I would have to do is load a round into the cylinder, rest the end of the barrel against my temple, and pull the trigger. It would be an easy and quick end to all my grief and despair.
I went up to the attic in a sort of daze and was rummaging around looking for the Colt when I happened on the dust-covered teak chest that held all twenty-four of the first Leland Hardesty’s journals. More out of desperation than curiosity, I opened the chest and took out a volume with “1957” embossed on its cover in faded gold leaf. I sat in semi-darkness reading through the first twenty or so entries, and suddenly it was as if Leland Hardesty were sitting next to me in that clutter of discarded things. The voice that rose from the yellowed pages of his first journal was not that of the self-assured millionaire he would become. It was the voice of a lost young man trying hard to understand himself and his life, and I found myself moved almost to tears by his expressions of doubt and longing. Grandfather’s Colt was forgotten as I carried the teak chest down to the den and arranged the leather-bound journals in date order on my shelves.
Father had presented me with the chest containing all of Leland’s journals on my eighteenth birthday, just as his father had once entrusted them to his care. He urged me to read them and learn about my fabled ancestor. I feigned interest for his sake, but in truth I thought of my family history as a boring irrelevancy, and Leland’s journals languished unread in my bedroom closet for years. When I was awarded the position at Tecumseh and moved to Texas, father saw to it that the journals followed me there.
The twenty-four volumes were a kind of autobiography that that chronicled Leland’s life from his experiences as an eighteen-year-old through age forty-two and the death of his wife. Night after night I retreated to my den and read, and the more I read the more I discovered that the journals that once meant nothing to me had now been transformed into an absorbing portrait of a family icon and the Twentieth century world in which he lived. I discovered something else in those pages: I liked and understood the first Leland Hardesty; liked him, in fact, more than I ever had my father and grandfather.
Leland’s father hoped that his only child would one day seek a career in medicine or the law, but the headstrong young man had other plans. He was determined to see something of the world before embarking on a career, and believed the military offered a sure way to provide both the travel he craved and the adventures he imagined would accompany such travel. And so on the day he turned eighteen he enlisted in the Marine Corps and began his journals as a way of chronicling what he was sure would be a long series of eventful years.
What Leland soon discovered was that a peacetime military offered a lot of hard work, a large measure of tedium, and none of his imagined exploits. Much of the first journal is taken up with the minutiae of life in the military and Leland’s growing distaste for it, but he occasionally took the time to write about some of his fellow Marines. Those portraits often bore early witness to his skill at reading the character of others. One such entry, written late on a Sunday night in February 1957, described “Ozzie”, a Marine he befriended while stationed at Camp Pendleton in California. His new acquaintance was “slender, pale, and withdrawn, with no real friends to speak of. An outsider if there ever was one.” Leland sums him up this way: “He’s a little guy who likes to play around with big ideas. Ozzie wants more than anything to be important, or maybe just to have other people think he’s important. I am sorry for him. I believe he hasn’t got any notion of how he’s going to get where he wants to go in life.”
Ozzie was quick-tempered and certainly not easy to remain friends with, but Leland understood that at the core of his pugnacity lay deep and enduring feelings of insecurity.
Ozzie was given to spouting Marxist philosophy to anyone who cared to listen. Very few did, except for Leland, who was a good listener and not at all offended by the content of the Marine’s rants. He and Ozzie spent a lot of time together before training camp ended and each went on to other posts. Leland never saw or spoke to him again after Camp Pendleton, but had occasion to begin a new series of journal entries on Ozzie one autumn afternoon six years later. The Marine’s name was Lee Harvey Oswald, and until the day Leland closed the cover on the last page of his twenty-fourth and final journal he never wavered in his belief that the sad figure from his days in the Corps was incapable of firing the shots that took the life of a President on a sunny afternoon in Dallas.
The first Leland Hardesty had been a legend in my father’s home. He was the man who turned a small Upstate New York hardware store into a New England chain and a vast fortune. Growing up, I had always thought of him as a kind of bronze statue standing atop a pedestal, the sort of grim figure you are likely to encounter in any number of town squares. Reading the journals turned that lifeless figure into a man of flesh and blood, a loving father and husband, a brilliant businessman, and an especially keen judge of others. Time and again the journals show how Leland’s skill at accurately reading another man’s character helped him succeed in business. His first partner in Hardesty Hardware, for example, was Truman Bethune. Many had written Bethune off as a bankrupt, a failure, and warned Leland against bringing him into his growing business. But Leland believed he saw something in Bethune that others did not, and the passing years proved him right. Hardesty Hardware continued to grow with Truman onboard, and he eventually became nearly as wealthy and successful as Leland himself. That was only one of countless such instances, all carefully detailed in the journals. How, then, could a man who had been right about so many have been utterly wrong about someone with whom he spent countless hours? That was the question that eventually caused me to believe Leland and doubt history’s judgment of Oswald.
Oswald was, Leland argued, tailor-made to be a lightning rod for unseen conspirators. His hunger for importance made him especially vulnerable to the blandishments of men willing to use him for their own evil ends. At the same time, his years in the Soviet Union, along with a failed attempt at renouncing his citizenship, instantly branded him a traitor in the minds of many in Cold War America. If someone had set out to create the perfect fall-guy, Leland insisted, they would probably have come up with Oswald, or someone very much like him.
The journals made me curious about the events of November 22, 1963, a bit of history I had known virtually nothing about. I read scores of books on the assassination, everything from sober, scholarly historical analyses to wildly speculative rants about one farfetched conspiracy theory or another. Some of these books pointed to exculpatory flaws in the case against Oswald, while others declared his guilt to be an unquestionable fact. I was especially interested in the testimony of a man who had been in Dealey Plaza at the time of the assassination and described the sequence of shots: a single shot followed by two shots in very quick succession, too quick to have been fired from a single weapon. Grandfather Leland had owned any number of bolt-action rifles and none was capable of doing what that “ear witness” described. But there were those who questioned even that evidence, attributing it to some sort of acoustical oddity peculiar to Dealey Plaza.
It eventually became clear to me that there was only one way anyone would ever prove Oswald’s innocence or guilt beyond any possibility of doubt: remove him from the day’s deadly equation and observe the result, and that was, of course, impossible. Or was it? The idea that would transform my life forever was born as an answer to that question.
Someone once wrote that a shadow stretches between an idea and its realization, and for days I lived every waking hour within that shadow. I could see only one path out of it and it led straight through the Conveyance. But that solution was also a seemingly insurmountable obstacle. Access to the Conveyance was limited to government-sanctioned “travelers” and my chances of entering the device as one of those were non-existent. I had to find another way.
And so I began a new search, this time for every scrap of information on what was known about the operation of the Conveyance. This was no easy task, since such information, like the device itself, was and continues to be cloaked in secrecy. Even Marcus would never discuss his work outside the walls of the Physics Institute. The simple truth is that I started my search with little hope of success. Still, I kept at it, and in the end I suppose you could say that after failing to find an answer the answer at last found me.
It happened on a night when I woke, as I so often did during that awful time, hours before daybreak. A half-remembered fragment of something I had read troubled my fitful sleep. I dragged myself out of bed and brewed a pot of strong coffee, then took a full mug to my den and began the slow and tedious job of going through the mountain of information I had managed to accumulate on the Conveyance. Just as the first rays of morning sun lit the window behind me, I found what I was looking for. A few sentences I once dismissed as useless now offered me the only hope I would ever have of converting a farfetched notion into reality.
With my pathway out of the shadow now clear, I looked toward the next inescapable step: convincing Marcus to help me.
“You can’t be serious,” Marcus said.
“I’ve never been more serious about anything in my life.”
We were sitting in his Physics Department office. He had listened patiently as I quickly outlined what I had in mind. His only reaction was an occasional nod. Now he got up and closed the door to his office before returning to his desk.
“Now let me see if I’ve got this straight. You want to use the Conveyance to prove that an ancestor whose been dead nearly two hundred years was right about someone he met while he was in the military?”
“Believe me, I know how crazy it sounds. But I need to do this, Marcus. I owe it to Leland.”
“Why? Because of some entries in an old diary?
“No, Marcus. I have to do it because he saved my life.”
“Saved your life?”
“On a night not all that long ago I reached the point where I felt the best thing for me to do was give up, join Mary. And I would have gone through with it, too. Then I happened on Leland’s journals.”
“My God, Lee.”
“Those journals saved me, Marcus. I’m still here only because of the man who wrote them.”
Marcus was silent for a while. He shuffled some papers about on his desk and then looked up at me.
“Let’s say, just for the sake of argument, that you went through with this plan of yours and somehow discovered this… this …”
“This Oswald’s innocence. What then? You could never publish anything about it, or even discuss it publicly without revealing your use of the Conveyance and putting us both in legal jeopardy. So what would be the point?”
“I’d know, Marcus. And I like to think that somehow Leland would, too. That’s enough.”
“This really isn’t worth discussing, Lee, since what you’re proposing is impossible.”
“But it is possible, Marcus. I thought it all through last night. And there’s absolutely no risk involved.”
He looked at me with concern in his pale blue eyes.
“Still not sleeping well?”
“Please, Marcus, let me finish explaining.”
He exhaled loudly.
“Oh, very well. But before you go one let me fill you in on a few things you may have overlooked. First of all, access to the lab where the device is housed is closely monitored. There are only three people at the Institute allowed anywhere near the Conveyance, and all of us have to have a damned good reason for doing so. Then there’s the fact that few of even the most qualified researchers, men and women at the very highest levels of scientific attainment, are ever allowed to become travelers. As an instructor of English with no scientific background whatsoever, you would have no chance of even making it through the initial screening, much less of ever being selected as a traveler.”
“I know all that, Marcus. That’s why I have no intention of ever becoming a traveler, at least not officially. I’ve spent the past week digging up information on that contraption of yours. I couldn’t make heads or tails of what makes the thing work, but I did come across one particularly fascinating detail about its operation.”
“And what would that be?”
“A monthly diagnostic test.”
“You’re referring to the field integrity test.”
“What if you ran that test with someone inside the device? Would it make any difference?”
“If, as you say, you’ve been reading up on the subject, then you know the answer. No, there would be no difference at all, except for the very real possibility that if we were to be caught we’d both wind up in federal prison for the next twenty years. The National Science Agency takes a dim view of people who play games with the Conveyance.”
“They’ll never know, Marcus.”
“Really? Tell me, Lee, just how do you plan on getting past the half dozen heavily-armed gentlemen the Agency has posted around the Institute twenty-four hours a day?”
“I’ll walk in -- with you.”
“I see. You and I will simply stroll in?”
“Another thing I’ve learned over this past week is that observers are sometimes permitted to witness a test.”
“Well, it certainly does seem that you’ve been doing your homework. But there’s something you missed, Lee, something important. These observers you refer to are either visiting physicists or post-doctoral students observing a test as part of their studies. That’s about it for observers.”
“Why couldn’t a trusted faculty member be granted the same observer status as a visitor or a student, especially if they’ve been sponsored by you? I doubt anyone would ever second guess your choice.”
“They certainly might.”
“I doubt it. You’re a very important man around here, Marcus.”
“Even if I were foolish enough to consider going along with this scheme yours, Lee, there are still other factors to be considered.”
“Well, to begin with you’d have to be in near-perfect physical condition. Travel through time is not the joy ride it’s made out to be in books and movies. It’s dangerous. Every cell in the human body is stressed during an event and that can have unpredictable side effects. And then there’s the brevity of the test itself. A diagnostic run lasts only a few hours, certainly not enough time for anyone to travel on foot from the old campus to downtown Dallas and back.”
“You haven’t been listening to me, Marcus. I’ve already explained that I don’t have to be anywhere near Dallas.”
“Then how on earth would you be able to determine anything about what happened that day?”
I went over precisely how I intended to find the truth about Oswald’s guilt or innocence, all the while hoping that the lie didn’t show on my face.
“So you see, Marcus, two or three hours will be more than enough time.”
“I’ll grant that what you describe sounds plausible enough, Lee, but use of the Conveyance is still out of the question. I’ve got post-grads scheduled for the next four tests, and then there’s the visit from Dr. Tanaka the month after that.”
“The one and only. Japan is sending its greatest theoretical physicist to the Institute ostensibly to witness a routine test and nothing more, but that’s just a smokescreen. The Japanese are planning to build a Conveyance near Kyushu and Tanaka has been put in charge of the project. He’s coming here to study the design of our device. So you see why there’s no point in even discussing this notion of yours? The next open date isn’t for another six months.”
“Six months is fine.”
“Now hold on a minute, Lee. I haven’t agreed to anything.”
Marcus got up and walked over to his office window. He stood there for a while looking out at the green expanse of the Tecumseh campus before he spoke again.
“I’ll tell you what. I’ll go ahead and submit your name to the Agency. There’s only the slimmest of chances you’ll be granted observer status, but I’ll give it a try. And if by some miracle you should receive such a clearance, and if in six months you’re still determined to go through with this crazy scheme of yours, we’ll talk about it again. How’s that?”
He turned away from the window and walked back to his desk.
“That’s not much of an offer, Marcus, but I’ll take it.”
“Good. I suspect that six months from today you and I will be sharing a good laugh over all this nonsense.”
“Listen to me, Lee, no one loved Mary more than Bethany and I did, but …”
“Oh, I think there may have been one person who did.”
“Okay, I’ll concede that, but I can’t help feeling that all this foolishness is nothing more than a distraction, a way of avoiding coming to terms with Mary’s death. She’s gone and nothing can ever bring her back. Accept that fact and get on with your life, Lee. I know she would have wanted that.”
“This has nothing at all to do with Mary.”
“Are you sure of that?”
“Exactly when did you add psychiatry to your list of accomplishments, Marcus?”
“I’m only trying to help you see where this idea of yours might be coming from.”
“I’m doing this for Leland. There’s nothing more to it.”
“Fine. Let’s leave it at that for now. We’ll see how you feel in six months. By the way, are you free tomorrow evening?”
“I’m free every evening, Marcus.”
“Then why don’t you drop by around six thirty? Bethany is making goulash.”
Marcus had offered only the slimmest of hopes, but I would not allow myself to doubt, even for an instant, that in exactly six months I’d enter the Conveyance and be ferried back to a fateful November day in nineteen sixty-three.
The weeks after my meeting with Marcus went by quickly. I began each day with an early-morning jog, eventually working my way from a few times around the school’s athletic field to three miles a day on a nearby cross-country trail. I eventually added evening workouts at a local gymnasium and laps in Tecumseh’s pool to my daily routine. The appetite which had all but abandoned me gradually returned, and I regained much of the weight I had shed after Mary’s death.
I prepared for my journey in other ways as well. A good many of my evenings were spent studying archival images of the Tecumseh campus as it was in nineteen sixty-three and poring over scores of old photographs and street maps of the town of Irving. I was especially interested in images of the Paine home, where Oswald spent his final night of freedom. Around the same time, I was able to track down a dealer in antique firearms who had a Mannlicher-Carcano bolt-action rifle for sale. It was very nearly a duplicate of the one Oswald purchased by mail order under the alias Alek Hidell. The man wanted a small fortune for it, but it was absolutely essential to the success of my plan, so I paid the old thief what he asked. I spent weeks teaching myself to disassemble and reassemble the rifle until I was good enough to do it perfectly with a cloth blindfold over my eyes.
One full month ahead of what I was sure would be a journey through time I felt ready. My physical condition was as close to perfect as any 34-year-old man can hope for. Months of intense exercise had left me trim, fit, and deeply tanned by hours of running in the hot Texas sun. I had also become as familiar with the details of the Kennedy assassination as any historian, and not a soul living in nineteen sixty-three could have been more familiar with the layout of the old Tecumseh campus or the streets of nearby Irving. Yes, after five months of preparation I believed I was ready. But I was not, as it turned out, at all prepared for what actually happened.
I woke that cool September morning feeling as if I might be coming down with a cold, and decided to skip my morning run and settle instead for a long swim later in the afternoon. As I was preparing to leave for the college my tablet signaled an incoming message. It was Marcus.
“Is your Holovision set on, Lee?”
“Turn it to the Universal News Signal.”
“Why? What’s happened?”
“Turn it on. I’ll be there in an hour.”
When Marcus arrived I was sitting in the living room staring down at three-dimensional color images of a crashed hypersonic aircraft scattered across an Andean valley. Somewhere in that debris field were the remains of Dr. Yushio Tanaka.
Marcus got a cup of tea from the kitchen before joining me.
“This is tragic, simply tragic,” he said, shaking his head. “He was on his way here from a conference in South America. We spoke only last night about how much he was looking forward to observing tonight’s test of the Conveyance. We were going to meet tomorrow afternoon to talk about a design for the proposed Kyushu device.”
“What happens now?”
“I suppose Japan will go ahead and build it anyway, but without Tanaka to oversee its construction, well, I don’t know. He was irreplaceable, Lee, an extraordinary mind. What a terrible waste.”
We sat in complete silence for a while, Marcus sipping his tea and staring at the image rising from the small silver hemisphere at the room’s center. He got up, shut off the Holovision device, and turned to me.
“Lee, I lied to you. I never had any intention of submitting your name. The Agency knows nothing at all about your request to witness a test of the Conveyance. What’s more, I’ve scheduled post-grads until the end of this year and well into the next.”
It took a moment for the full meaning of his words to sink in. I stared at him in angry disbelief.
“I feel awful about this, Lee, believe me, but try to look at it from my vantage point. I was sure this notion of yours wouldn’t last a week, much less months. I see now that I was wrong, utterly wrong. You couldn’t possibly have worked as hard as you have if you weren’t committed to seeing it through. Well, now this dreadful thing has presented us with an opportunity. What I’m trying to tell you is that, unless you’ve had a last minute change of heart, I’m prepared to help you. Tonight.”
“Tonight? How is that possible? You told me it takes months to arrange.”
“Now and again the Institute will, under extraordinary circumstances, grant a waiver of the usual screening process, especially if someone on the Institute’s staff agrees to act as a sponsor. I stopped by the Security Office on my way over here and spoke to Ralph Beamer. He’s in charge of things over there. I explained my situation and asked him to run your name through the system. He did and granted a waiver. So barring any eleventh-hour glitches, it’s all set for tonight. The Conveyance is always sealed off from the outside world for five hours during a diagnostic run, so only you and I will ever know what happens in the restricted area. And may God help us both if anything goes wrong. Now remove your shirt, Lee.”
He pulled a small silver tube from the pocket of his tweed jacket.
“The latest thing. It helps to stabilize the temporal displacement. The shirt, please, Lee.”
I removed my shirt and Marcus pressed the tube hard against the flesh just above my left collar bone. A dull popping sound was followed by a sharp burning sensation.
“That’s going to itch like the devil for half an hour or so, but don’t touch it. You might want to think about canceling your classes for the day and getting some rest. Also, be sure to drink water, lots of it.”
“Dehydration. It’s one of the more common side-effects of travel in the Conveyance.”
“I didn’t read anything about that.”
“You wouldn’t have. It’s not the sort of thing likely to make it into a magazine article. A certain amount of dehydration is experienced by every traveler. We’re still not sure why. The reaction can be severe, but I wouldn’t worry about that in your case. You have youth and conditioning on your side, so rest and drink plenty of water and you should be fine. Now, Lee, if there are no questions, I have to get going. I’ve got a graduate seminar to teach. Be in my office no later than eleven tonight.”
I didn’t see Marcus again until I walked into his Physics Department office that night. He went over what was about to happen.
“The first set of pulses,” he explained, “will go through the Conveyance at precisely 12:00AM. That begins the process of movement through time, although ‘movement’ probably isn’t a good way to describe what happens. When the process is complete you will not have moved one centimeter in any physical direction, nor will the Conveyance have left the laboratory. A portal will open within the day and year of your destination in the space now occupied by the device. I’ll continue sending pulses through at fifteen-minute intervals as the test progresses. You will have approximately three hours before I initiate the return sequence by sending through a final sequence of pulses. Whatever happens, Lee, you must not fail to be within the area of the time displacement at that point. The area is a three-dimensional box in space approximately three meters in every direction measured from the exact spot where you will find yourself when you arrive at your destination. I can’t stress that enough. There can be no attempt to rescue you if you don’t return tonight. You’ll be marooned in the past until I can figure out some way of getting you back. Do you understand everything I’ve just told you?”
“One other thing, under no circumstances are you to interact with anyone from that time. I can’t stress that enough.”
“I know all about that, Marcus.”
“I’ll need your wedding band, Lee. Nothing metallic is permitted inside the Conveyance.”
He saw the look on my face as I handed it over. The ring had not been off of my finger in more than five years and its absence left a band of white on my tanned flesh.
“Don’t worry. It’ll be safe here in my office. You’ll need to empty your pockets.”
”I did that before I left home.”
“Good. Now let’s go pay a visit to the palace guard.”
The “palace guard” is how Marcus described the heavily armed Federal Science Agency marshals who safeguard the Institute day and night. There are always six of them on duty, two patrolling the building’s perimeter fence, another two at its entrance, and two more immediately outside the laboratory housing the Conveyance. A rapid-response team of thirty or more armed marshals were only minutes away in the event of a security breach.
We left his office and walked toward the north end of the campus. The first of the two fifteen-foot-high fences surrounding the Institute grounds came into view after a while, dark and forbidding in moonlight. Twenty feet of flat, featureless terrain separated the first perimeter fence from the second. The space between them was a kind of no man’s land. Anybody attempting to cross it without first being cleared by the marshals at the entrance would, if luck was with them that day, be taken into custody. The unlucky ones would be shot dead.
“Haven’t we forgotten something?”
“I don’t think so. Why? What’s wrong?”
“This is the one place where you can be sure of never finding one of those things. I’ll let you in on a trade secret, Lee. Travelers are never filmed. They can’t be. Oh, there’s always a preliminary interview and later, after his or her return, there are endless recorded debriefings. But never, ever, is a camera of any kind allowed in or around the device. We learned this from bitter experience, or, rather, the Russians did. About twenty-five years ago, at a device just outside of Kursk, a young physicist named Ivanov came up with what he thought was a way of safely recording an event from beginning to end, using himself as a guinea pig. The digital electronics inside his body-cam somehow distorted the force field within the device and caused a catastrophic anomaly.”
“No one knows for sure, since failures of that sort are generally kept secret by our Russian friends, but bits and pieces of the story eventually leaked out. It seems that Ivanov was sent rocketing uncontrollably through space-time. It took the Russian physicists a week to figure out how to get the event back under control, but in the meantime the poor devil was ricocheting around through time like something inside a pinball machine. Every so often their device would fill with an intense white light and out of that light would emerge the most god-awful screams.”
“Did he ever return?”
“Yes. He was found in the machine one morning with burns over most of his body. Those were treated and healed in time. His mind, on the other hand, that no one was ever able to heal. God only knows what he experienced during the event, but it must have been horrific. They tried everything to stabilize him but it was no use. He had experienced more than any human mind could tolerate and it left him a raving lunatic. He committed suicide about a year later. That was the last time anyone attempted to create a visual record of an event.”
“That’s some horror story, Marcus.”
“I’ll tell you something else, Lee. A couple of decades ago this little adventure of yours wouldn’t have been possible under any circumstances. The original device, the one built in the Nevada desert forty-seven years ago, was big as an airplane hangar and required dozens of technicians to do a simple diagnostic test, many more if you were actually transporting someone. These days a device is slightly larger than a walk-in closet and it can be operated by a single person, although legally there must always be a second person present, just in case. That’s why I was able to convince Ralph to give me the waiver.”
“Just in case of what?”
“The second person is there to prevent a runaway pulse anomaly.”
“Let’s say I start the process, the series of pulses that creates a portal in space-time, and I’m suddenly disabled -- by a seizure or a stroke, for example. The pulses would continue unabated and the portal remain open for as long as it takes someone to discover what has happened and shut down the process. Until that happens, a passageway in time would exist through which, theoretically at least, anyone or anything could pass.”
“Wouldn’t whoever went through need one of the implanted sensors?”
“No. Sensors only help with the accuracy of movement through time, give or take anywhere from a few hours to a whole day.”
“It’s no good to me if I arrive a day late.”
“I can’t offer you a guaranty. No one can. You might try keeping your fingers crossed.”
“Is that your scientific advice?”
“It certainly can’t hurt.”
We arrived at the first perimeter fence. The two marshals stationed at the gate were clad in blue and gold Federal Science Agency uniforms and armed with fearsome-looking automatic weapons. They saw Marcus every day and waved us through with only a cursory glance at my staff identification badge. The men posted at the entrance to the building were slightly more formal, but also waved us through. The final pair of marshals, although they surely knew Marcus as often as any of the others, said nothing when they took our badges and scrutinized them closely. If something were to go wrong, it would be one of these burly, stolid men who would take us into custody at gunpoint.
The taller of the two marshals ran a handheld scanner over my left forearm. It read my birth tag and compared the displayed genotype number with the one the one shown on my badge. The shorter marshal ran a small, flat, blue-lit wand across my face. He inserted it into a slot on a bulky old photonic computer. He said “records” in a surprisingly soft voice and the display flashed twice.
“Extend your hand, please,” he said.
I did and he used a lancet to extract a single drop of blood from the tip of my index finger. He inserted the lancet into a device attached to the computer. He said “genotype identification” and the computer’s display blinked twice.
Moments later he nodded to the other marshal, who returned our badges. The taller marshal entered a long series of numbers and symbols on a pad set into the wall by a pair of massive steel doors. They slid open as quickly and noiselessly as if they weighed no more than a feather.
“All set, Dr. Lindbloom. Have a good evening.”
We entered the lab and the immense doors closed behind us with a barely audible hiss.
“Can we open those things if we need to, Marcus?”
“No. Only our friends out there are able to do that.”
“I feel a little like someone entering a prison cell.”
“Except that, if we’re willing to go back far enough, we have a way out right over there.”
He pointed to the Conveyance, which was at the center of an octagonal glass enclosure one hundred feet away. The enclosure sat on a platform ten feet below where we stood, or exactly at ground level. I had spent the better part of a week learning about the Conveyance, but this was the first time I had seen it. It was smaller than I expected and shaped like a pyramid. The surface of the device was covered with what looked like tens of thousands of tiny lenses.
“Why did the marshal take a blood sample, Marcus?”
“Because birth implants can be faked. They must be absolutely certain you are who you say you are. The facial scan and blood print were run through every database the Institute is connected to, which is pretty much every database in the world.”
“I’d call that an excess of caution, Marcus. After all, I’ve been on the faculty ten years.”
“Don’t take it personally, Lee. They do it to everyone. Had Dr. Tanaka lived, they would have done it to him, too, incredible as that might seem. Anyway, since the FSA, FBI, DHS, and Interpol have all given you a clean bill of health, our friends out there won’t give you another thought. Now, here’s something for you to drink.”
Marcus took a small green container from a drawer beneath a long bank of control panels.
“It’s wretched tasting stuff, I know, but it helps control the dehydration I told you about. Now try and relax. We’ll be starting soon. Any questions?”
“Well, I have a question.”
“You have a question for me?”
“No, not for you, Lee, for myself. Why in heaven’s name am I doing this?”
So there I was at last, sitting on the floor of the Conveyance, having relived in moments all the events that led me to that exact place and time.
Just then a soft whirring sound broke the silence inside the device. It was slowly coming to life around me. The whirring grew steadily louder until I felt it as a gentle vibration throughout my body.
“God speed, Lee,” Marcus said.
I braced myself. This was it. And then the whirring sound stopped, replaced by a silence so absolute it felt as if the universe itself had come to a dead halt. I was sure something had gone wrong, or that Marcus had changed his mind and put an end to what we were doing. I looked over at him. He was standing some thirty meters away and looking down at me through the control room glass, but his face and shoulders -- all I could see from where I sat -- were indistinct, smudged-looking, as if he were a drawing someone had partially erased. I closed my eyes for only a moment, and when I opened them again saw that the walls of the Conveyance, too, were starting to disappear. The device began vibrating again, only more violently now, and a shower of lights like millions of tiny diamonds lit brightly from within started falling all around me. In seconds I was at the center of a glowing cloud. I felt suddenly dizzy, breathless, and every joint and muscle in my body began to ache terribly, as if I were being pulled apart, my flesh expanding in all directions simultaneously, rushing outward to merge with the cloud of brightly lit diamonds. I looked down at my hand and was astonished to see that it had become transparent. Like Marcus, like the walls of the Conveyance itself, I was vanishing. The word “stop” formed in my consciousness like a scream, but that lone syllable never reached my lips because at that very instant the floor of the device vanished and a dark pit opened up beneath me and pulled me down into its limitless depths.
I woke to darkness and the faint scent of rain. Crickets chirped in the tall grass all around me. Somewhere in the distance a car drove by, its wheels making a soft hissing sound on unseen blacktop. The overgrown field where I now found myself would, far into the future, become the site of the Physics Institute. Clearly, the device had worked, but how well? Marcus had said it could be off by as much as a day. Was this the night before or the night after the assassination? I stood and took my first steps into the past.
One overgrown space in the field looked pretty much like the next. It would be difficult, if not impossible, to return to the exact place where I must be when Marcus summoned me home. So I quickly gathered a handful of stones and made a crude circle with them to mark the spot. Then I jogged south toward the center of the old Tecumseh campus.
The first building I came to was the Turner Science Hall. All the upper floors were dark, but at ground level the labs and classrooms were dimly outlined by hallway light. I peered into the first window I came across, looking for one of the crude analog clocks I had seen in scores of photographs of the old campus. I quickly found it and was dismayed to see that the Conveyance had been off by hours. It was already a quarter to three in the morning. The first light that would make my plan impossible to carry out was not far off.
I had to find a way to confirm the date, but there seemed to be no way to do it. It would be decades before Tecumseh went through the first of many expansions that eventually transformed it from a small commuter college into a sprawling academic complex. This mid-Twentieth century version of the school had no dormitories, no stadium or playing fields, no towers reaching into the blue Texas sky, and none of the ubiquitous digital displays that provided an endless stream of information for students and faculty.
I tried seeing the deserted campus through the eyes of someone who was part of that primitive world. Where would such a person look? Then it came to me: a newspaper. Printed newspapers no longer existed where I had come from, but were commonplace in nineteen sixty-three. A recently discarded paper might tell me what I needed to know.
Across the way, two wire mesh trash containers stood like sentries on either side of the library front steps. I ran over and spilled the contents of the first trash container out onto the pavement. No newspaper. The second one gave me what I was looking for. Mixed in with empty soft drink bottles, a partially-eaten hamburger, cigarette butts, plastic cups, and an assortment of crumpled candy bar wrappers was a soiled copy of The Dallas Times Herald. On its front page, next to a photograph of two smiling men, a headline announced, “Plea for Space Plan Kicks Off JFK Tour.” The date shown below the masthead was “Thursday Evening, November 21, 1963”.
A beam of light suddenly lit up the pavement at my feet.
“Hey! You there!”
I dropped the newspaper and stumbled back a couple of steps, freezing as the light moved up my body and came to rest on my face. In all my months of preparation for this day, the possibility of an encounter with campus security had never occurred to me. And it should have. I had no romantic illusions about the innocence of the past in which I now found myself; it was every bit as dangerous as my own time. Leaving the school unguarded after it closed for the day was a risk no sane person would have taken. Now it looked as if I was about to pay a price for my oversight.
The uniformed guard cautiously closed the distance between us, his flashlight beam fixed on my face. I did the only thing I could think of: I turned and ran. I can’t be sure how far or for how long I ran. All I am certain of is that when I finally stopped to catch my breath the campus was nowhere in sight.
The encounter at the school had consumed time, and time was a precious and rapidly diminishing commodity. I looked up street signs and saw that I was at the southern edge of Irving, still a good distance away from my destination, and first light was now closer than ever.
I began making my way toward West Fifth Street, and as I did felt the first twinges of a peculiar heaviness in my legs and a strange thirst burning my throat.
Any interaction could have unknowable and possibly even disastrous consequences. Marcus had made that clear enough. Fortunately, it was hours past midnight and there were very few people out and about. At one point, though, as I was nearing a cross street, a plump, balding man surprised me when he came around a corner hedge holding a small dog on a leash. He smiled, waved hello, and seemed about to say something when I hurried away from him. Not long after that an automobile drove past me and pulled into a driveway farther along the street. The driver must have had the windows rolled down because I clearly heard what he was listening to on the car’s radio. There was no hint of the national mourning that would descend upon the country after the murder in Dallas. Instead, the cool night air came alive with the sound of a woman’s voice rising above a heavy rhythmic drumbeat:
The night we met
I knew I needed you so
And if I had the chance
I’d never let you go.
The words made me think of Mary, who in 1963 had yet to be born, live out her brief life, and die a senseless death. The pain of losing her hit me as it had so many times before. I stood there listening to the music until it ended and the unseen driver turned off the car and disappeared into his home. The sound of the faceless stranger closing his front door, a familiar and intimate sound, brought with it a terrible realization. I had come from a time where that driver, where all the families peacefully asleep in all the homes around me, where every child then being born into the world, were mere dust. The first Leland Hardesty was likely asleep in his bed more than two thousand miles away, perhaps having stayed up long enough to make an entry in a journal I would read two centuries later. I had known all this in an abstract sort of way long before entering the Conveyance, but the experience was something altogether different. Whatever sense of wonder I might have felt at having become a traveler disappeared, replaced by a dreadful feeling of isolation from everyone and everything around me. A cold, visceral truth shook me as I realized that the Conveyance had done much more than ferry me into the past; it had also transformed me into the strangest of intruders: a voyeur in the land of the dead.
I finally reached the intersection of North Belt Line Road and West 5th Street. The Paine home was around the next corner. Ruth, Marina, and Lee were certainly all asleep. Oswald had spent part of a sunny Thursday afternoon playing with his children on the lawn. Ruth saw them when she returned from running errands, and was touched by the sight of the often troubled couple enjoying a happy interlude. They were the last such moments the family was ever to know.
The heavy scent of verbena from a nearby flowerbed followed me until I reached the white ranch house I had studied in scores of photographs. The reality of it made me feel for a moment as if I were inside a dream. But this was no dream. I could feel the damp night air cool on my face, reach out and touch the Paine’s powder-blue station wagon parked only a few feet away, and hear the soft rustling of leaves in the oak that rose from the lawn like a dark sentinel. Months of anticipation were at an end. The time to act had arrived.
After a quick glance up and down West 5th Street, I crept up the driveway toward the garage.
The field was only minutes away. My legs felt weak, ready to give way, and fatigue made staying awake a struggle, but even greater than my exhaustion or the weakness in my legs was the thirst that had become a fire in my throat. The need for water was the only thing keeping me from dropping to the ground and losing myself in sleep. It drove me forward into the field, past my crude marker and toward the center of the campus. Two centuries into the future Marcus would soon be forced to shut down the Conveyance, leaving me stranded in an alien world. But I was beyond caring about that. At that moment relieving an overpowering need for water was all that mattered.
I made my way to the Science Hall like a sleepwalker. There would have been no point in trying the entrance doors, so I staggered from one ground-floor window to the next, trying each and hoping to find one unlocked. I found it at the building’s west end, a window that opened onto a long hallway. There would be water somewhere inside. There had to be. I opened the window, pulled myself over the sill, and dropped heavily onto the tiled floor.
Nothing had ever looked as good to me as the white ceramic fountain that jutted out from a section of wall between two darkened classrooms. My feet made a soft scraping sound as I shuffled over to it. One long drink followed another. I stopped drinking only long enough to glance up at a wall clock. It was now 4:45AM. If things were going as planned, another series of pulses were reaching the field as I stood there. A final series would follow not long after. I had to get back before that happened.
I bent over the fountain, drank again, then let the cold water wash over my face.
“What are you doing in here!?”
The tall, thin guard was perhaps twenty years old and dressed in a gray uniform a half size too big for him. There was fear and uncertainty in his pale blue eyes.
“I work here, young man. I teach English,” I said. Not entirely a lie. I tried hard to put the sound of authority into my weak, hoarse voice as my heart pounded inside me.
“Tell me another one, mister. Teachers went home hours ago. Besides, I know all the people who work here and you ain’t one of them.”
“That’s because I’m new.”
“Hold on now. Didn’t I see you prowling around campus before? Sure, about an hour ago. You’re the creep who emptied the trash cans and ran off,”
He reached for a black box-like device clipped to his belt. He held it close to his face, pushed a button on it and spoke.
“This is Lindbloom. Come in base. Base, come in, this is Lindbloom.”
A stream of static came from the device and then a voice said, “This is base. Go ahead, Bart.”
Others would soon join the guard if I allowed him to continue. I was trespassing, and that meant police and an arrest, followed by questions I could not possibly answer.
There was another burst of static and the guard started to speak into the contraption in his hand, “Base, I’ve got a …”
I ran toward him. An electric jolt of pain ran up my right arm as my fist smashed into his jaw. The black box flew out of his hand as his eyes went blank and he fell backwards, his head striking the tiled floor with a thud. The sound of a sharp crack, like a twig being snapped in two, echoed through the long hallway. The boy lay there motionless, his left leg twisted at an odd angle under him.
My first thought was to run, to get back to the field, but when I looked down at the unconscious guard he moaned softly and I knew he needed help. The box he had spoken into lay only a few feet away. I picked it up and examined its small dials and buttons.
The final series of pulses was now only minutes away. Missing them would mean being marooned in the past, possibly forever, but the unconscious guard at my feet was clearly in need of help. I could not walk away and leave him there. I had to find a way to summon help before returning to the field.
The black box in my hand came to life and a deep voice broke through a rain of static.
“Bart? Bart! You still there? What the hell’s going on?”
There were two silver buttons along the side of the black box. I pressed one of them and spoke.
“Hello? Hello? Is anyone there”
I held down the other button and spoke again.
“This is base. Is that you, Bart?”
“No. Your guard has been injured. Send help to the ground floor of the Science Building as soon as possible.”
“Who is this?”
“Never mind that. Just send help.”
“Identify yourself, goddammit! Who the hell am I talking to?”
“The Science Hall. As soon as possible.”
I put the device down by the unconscious guard. More static-laced words spilled from the contraption. Their echoes followed me as I went through the open window at the end of the hallway and dropped out onto the grass. The strange thirst was already building again, accompanied by a still-growing exhaustion.
I had not gone very far when I heard a car screech to a halt somewhere behind me. They would find the boy now and get him the help he needed -- and also call the local police. I tried quickening my pace, but the encounter in the Science Building, fueled by fear and desperation, had left me drained. All I could do now was drag myself forward one painfully slow step at a time, feeling as if I were slogging through waist-high mud.
A distant wail of sirens accompanied my arrival at the stone marker. I dropped onto the earth and waited. How much time had I lost getting here? Had Marcus already sent through a final series of pulses? I tried to concentrate, to come up with answers, but my thoughts were lost in a fog of exhaustion.
It started drizzling as I lay there, a soft cool mist that I knew would soon become a steady rain. Sometime before noon the sun would break through the clouds, cheering the expectant crowds lining the streets of downtown Dallas and seeming to welcome the young President as his limousine carried him ever closer to the killing ground.
I can’t be sure how much later it was that I saw lights crisscrossing the field to the south. Those lights were searching for me and they were in the hands of the police. I lay there helpless, unable to move. Why had Marcus not sent through the final series of pulses? I prayed silently that the lifeline to my own time had not already been cut.
“We’re wasting our time. The guy’s probably all the way to Dallas by now.”
“I know, but we’re not paid to do our job, not second guess orders. So let’s keep looking, okay?”
The voices were close and getting closer.
“I just meant…”
“I know what you meant. Let’s fan out here. You go over toward that stand of scrub pine.”
A flashlight beam lit up the grass nearby. They would find me now. It was only a matter of seconds.
I waited, resigned to the inevitable, and thought of Mary, of how much I still loved and missed her. The sky, overcast only seconds before, suddenly began filling with stars. I looked up in wonder as more and more brilliant flashes lit up the night. And then the stars were everywhere around me, on my arms, hands, all along my prone body. A familiar pain began working its way through me. It was soon followed by a feeling that my flesh was expanding outward in all directions at once.
“There he is, Sergeant! Over there! Sarge? What the … holy Moses!”
“He’s … he’s on fire! There’s sparks, Sarge, sparks all over him!”
Just before losing consciousness I saw the police officer’s slim figure approach me, a silver flashlight in his hand, and heard his scream of astonishment as he witnessed what surely must have seemed a miracle: a man lying within a shower of tiny diamond-like stars, and that same man looking up at him with a weary, grateful smile an instant before vanishing without a trace into the night air.
I came to in a brightly-lit hospital room. The awful thirst and fatigue were gone. A nurse sat by the room’s only window, intently working on an old tablet.
“I’m hungry,” I said.
The young nurse started and the tablet slipped from her lap onto the floor.
She rushed to the bed and quickly checked a series of small monitors on the wall behind me.
“I’m hungry,” I repeated.
“Now you just lay back and relax. I’ll get the doctor.”
“Marcus? Oh, you mean Dr. Lindbloom. I’m sure he’s around somewhere. He’s been here every day since you were admitted. Now I really must get the doctor.”
She rushed out of the room.
Every day? Hadn’t it been only last night that I entered the Conveyance?
The door opened and a short, husky man in a white lab coat walked in. His full beard and curly hair were both iron-gray. He came up to my bed and smiled down at me. His voice was soft and reassuring.
“I’m Dr. Loomis. How do you feel, Mr. Hardesty?”
“I’m not surprised. We kept you hydrated and fed intravenously until yesterday, but I’m afraid that’s no substitute for real food.”
He turned to the nurse and rattled off some instructions.
“We’ll have to start you on solid food slowly. Five days is a long time to go without …”
“Five days? What do you mean?”
“Just that. You arrived here in a comatose state five days ago, as dehydrated as I’ve ever seen a living human being, and suffering from the initial stages of multiple organ failure. I’ve never come across anything quite like it.”
“He’ll be in to see you in a moment. Are you by any chance an athlete, Mr. Hardesty?”
“No. Why do you ask?”
“Because it was only your superb physical condition that saved you. The average man simply could not have entered this clinic in your condition and survived. Would you like to tell me what happened to you, Mr. Hardesty?”
I lay back on the cool pillow and closed my eyes.
“I’m tired. I want to rest.”
“Very well, then. Perhaps we can chat later. I’ll have Marcus come in for a few minutes, but only a few minutes. I want you to get as much rest as possible, Mr. Hardesty. Nurse Oliver will bring you a small meal in a little while. Would you please ask Marcus to come in, nurse?”
“Certainly, Doctor Loomis.”
Marcus entered the room moments later. He needed a shave and looked as if he hadn’t slept in days. He hurried over to me and put his hand on my forearm.
“That was some nap you took, Lee.”
Doctor Loomis smiled. “You two go ahead and talk. Five minutes. No more. I want my patient to rest, Marcus.”
“I’ll take good care of him, Bill.”
I waited until the doctor and nurse were out of the room before speaking.
“What’s in heaven’s name going on? The doctor said I’ve been here five days.”
“You have. How do you feel?”
“Woozy and confused. What’s this about five days?”
“You were unconscious and barely breathing when I took you out of the Conveyance. You’ve been here ever since. That was Friday. Today is Wednesday.”
“What happened to me?”
“The Conveyance is an engineering miracle, Lee, but it can play havoc with the human body. That’s something the genius who designed it could never have anticipated. You’re about as extreme an example of what it can do to a traveler as I’ve ever seen. Your reaction was completely off the charts.”
“By the way, that so-called miracle of yours was off by hours, Marcus.”
“A time phase dysfunction, a sort of hiccup when the machine skips ahead an hour or more beyond the programmed time.”
“That hiccup could have left me stuck back there for good.”
“But it didn’t. You’re here and you’re going to be alright. That’s all that matters.”
“How much do they know?” I asked, pointing toward the door.
“Nothing at all, at least not officially. When you returned your clothes were wet and filthy, so I got you into a white lab coat and moved you over to one of the consoles before alerting our watchdogs. I told them you’d suffered a seizure of some kind. We got you here to the Loomis Clinic in record time, which probably saved your life. Another fifteen or twenty minutes and you would have … well, let’s not talk about that. Anyway, Lee, as far as the people who run this place are concerned you experienced a petit mal episode. That’s what your chart will show.”
“I don’t understand any of this, Marcus. I was so tired I could barely move and I had the most god-awful thirst, but I certainly didn’t feel as if I were dying.”
“You very well might have. It’s really a miracle you survived.”
He shook his head.
“I blame myself for everything. I should never have helped you go through with it. But you … you seemed so much better, almost like a different person. Bethany saw the change in you, too. All that business over the breakup with Marcia seemed finally …”
“Marcia? What does she have to do with any of this?”
He looked down at me, concern furrowing his brow.
“Maybe we ought to do this another time, Lee.”
“Why on earth would you bring her up?”
Marcia was a woman I dated briefly before meeting Mary.
“I really should get going. The Foundation meets this afternoon and I’ve got all sorts of preparations to make. You know how I am about that particular family obligation. It’s almost a religion with me.”
At first I had no idea what he was talking about, but then something strange happened. A flood of memories suddenly washed over me. It was as if his words had triggered a particularly vivid old dream, one I had thought lost forever until Marcus’ brought it all back in every detail -- only I knew it was no dream. The Lindbloom Foundation was established in 2013. Marcus was one of its officers, and had been for a long time when we first met. One or more members of the Lindbloom family had served on its board since its creation. But I was certain, even as these recollections jolted my consciousness, that there had been no Lindbloom Foundation on the night I stepped into the Conveyance.
I said nothing to Marcus. I needed time alone to try and sort out what was happening.
“I’m tired, Marcus. I think I’ll try and sleep a bit.”
“Good idea. You rest, Lee. I’ll be back in the morning. I’m sure all the cobwebs will have cleared away by then.”
Marcus started walking away, stopped, and returned to the bedside. He reached into his jacket and brought out a small plastic bag. It contained what appeared to be a pink grain of rice.
“Remember this? Bill -- Dr. Loomis -- is a good friend. We go way back. The Foundation paid for most of his medical education and helped to fund this clinic. He took this out of you the night you were admitted and gave it to me. He also saw to the official explanation of what happened to you. So don’t you waste any time worrying about anything. Just get well.”
The plastic bag reminded me of something else.
“Would you please bring my wedding band when you come back in the morning?”
“Yes, my wedding band,” I said, holding up my left hand. “Remember, I gave it to you the night …” My voice died away into a stunned silence. The band of pale flesh on my ring finger was gone; it was as deeply tanned as the rest of my hand.
“What is it, Lee?”
I stared at my hand in disbelief.
“Lee? Do you want me to call Dr. Loomis?”
“No. You go ahead to your meeting. I’m okay.”
The nurse came back, her crisp white uniform rustling with every step. She placed a tray of food on the cart at my bedside and smiled at Marcus.
“Time’s up, Dr. Lindbloom.”
“I was just leaving. Have a good night, Lee. We’ll talk again tomorrow.”
“Why don’t you try sitting on this chair, Mr. Hardesty. Dr. Loomis would like you do a bit of walking, too, if you feel up to it.”
It was only a bowl consommé, a glass of orange juice, and some cherry gelatin, but that simple meal tasted better than anything I could have ordered in the finest gourmet restaurant in the world. Afterward, I walked around the room with the nurse at my side.
“That’s enough for today. Dr. Loomis will be in to see you before he goes off duty. I’ll bring you another glass of juice later this evening if you like. Tomorrow we’ll start you on some real food. How does that sound?”
I got back in bed and fell asleep in minutes. When I woke it was dark outside. The only light in the room came from the panel of monitors on the wall behind me. I had been dreaming about Mary -- a familiar dream, the same one I’d had many times since her death, where I’m searching for her, calling out her name, stopping strangers to ask if they’ve seen her. It always ended the same way: I’d see Mary standing in the distance and run toward her, but before I can reach her she vanishes. This time Mary never appeared, and I ran home hoping to find her there, but it was Marcia who opened our front door. I begged her to let me in, to let me see Mary. She shut the door without a word.
As I lay there sleepily puzzling over the dream, I was jolted by a new torrent of memories. It was like watching a film play out in front of me: meeting Marcia at a faculty party and falling in love with her, followed by years of quarrels and breakups. The breakups were inevitably followed by reconciliations and long weekends at our favorite mountain resort, weekends full of whispered apologies, desperate promises, and love making. I witnessed our final parting and her abrupt disappearance from Tecumseh, and experienced again a feeling of devastation when I learned of her marriage to a wealthy Argentine rancher. What followed were innumerable sleepless nights when I wandered around the home I had bought and furnished for Marcia in anticipation of our marriage. Then came the night when I went in search of my grandfather’s Peacemaker and found instead Leland Hardesty’s journals hidden away in a corner of the attic. It had happened. I relived it all in that hospital room. And yet, all the memories of my time with Mary were still there, too, as vivid as ever. It was as if I’d somehow managed to live two lives simultaneously during the past five years.
A cold surge of panic shot through me. I threw off the covers, jumped out of bed and ran to the window, pulled it open and leaned out into the cool evening air. I closed my eyes and took a long deep breath, trying to calm myself. The scent of verbena from a nearby courtyard flower bed instantly transported me to a night in nineteen sixty-three. I was on my back, inching under the partially raised garage door of the Paine home onto a cold concrete floor. Once inside, I lay still, letting my eyes adjust to the near-darkness and listening for sounds from the adjacent house.
It took me only seconds to find what I already knew was hidden there in the clutter of barrels, cartons, toys, and tools: a rifle wrapped in a green and brown woolen blanket. I carefully removed it from the blanket. Then, as I had done so many times before, I took the firing mechanism apart and put it back together, minus the firing pin, then returned it to its hiding place. A muffled sound came from somewhere inside the house. I froze, waited a few moments, and in the long silence that followed crawled out of the garage and pulled the door shut a fraction of an inch at a time.
After tossing away the pin, I made my way back onto West 5th Street, pausing only long enough for a final backward glance at the house. There, at the living room window, a pale figure stood peering out through parted curtains. It was Oswald. He was wearing a white undershirt and his hair was tousled. I can’t be certain if he saw me or not, but before I ran from the house he looked in my direction and nodded. Was that barely visible nod a greeting, or something else, something directed not at a faceless stranger but inwardly at himself, an acknowledgement and acceptance of the riptide of history that would soon drag him down to his death?
Marcus and Bethany were waiting for me on the day I left the Loomis Clinic. They took me to lunch at a local restaurant and drove me home afterwards. Marcus walked with me to the front door and we chatted for a while about my return to Tecumseh the following Monday.
“I’ll come around later to see how you’re doing, Lee.”
“Don’t bother, Marcus. I’m fine.”
“Yes. You’ve already done more than enough.”
“Well, then I guess I’ll see you at the school in a couple of days.”
I closed the front door and went directly to the den. There, still on my desk, were two of the books I had used in researching the assassination of John Kennedy. My hands trembled as I opened the first one. I read quickly, put it down, and then scanned the pages of the second. There were several more volumes on the same subject sitting on my shelves and stored on my tablet, but I didn’t bother with them. It wouldn’t have mattered where I looked; not a single detail of the event had changed.
History was, I concluded, unalterable, and anyone attempting to change it was on a fool’s errand. As to the first Leland Hardesty, he was a decent man who believed in a friend’s innocence and conducted a spirited defense of that friend within the pages of a journal read by perhaps half a dozen people in all the years of its existence. For reasons I may never fully understand, I had made his obsession my own and resolved to prove him right, even at the cost of deceiving the best friend I’ve ever had. And in the end what had I accomplished? Nothing. I put away the books, turned off the lights, and shut the door.
I went upstairs to my bedroom. It was neat and clean. Bethany had probably seen to that. The whole house, in fact, was spotless and in perfect order, but also somehow different. It didn’t take me long to discover why. The photograph of Mary on my night table was gone, as was the silver music box I’d given her as a gift three Christmases ago. A rosewood cabinet I bought for Mary’s collection of miniature hourglasses was not in its place in a corner of the living room, and in the bedroom closet, where a shoe box once held holographs of vacations at our favorite desert resort, I found instead a cigar box filled with images of Marcia and me at a hotel in the mountains. I looked everywhere. All evidence of my life with Mary had vanished. In its place were reminders of a different life with Marcia. How such a thing could happen was far beyond my understanding. Marcus would no doubt have been able to shed some light on what was going on, but seeking his help also meant confessing the details of my shameful betrayal of his trust, and I was not yet ready to do that.
And so I went back to Tecumseh the following Monday and resumed my old routine: teaching, mentoring a few gifted students, running every day, swimming every other. There were no new episodes like the ones which had shaken me so badly at the Loomis Clinic.
Because I had no other choice -- or because the only other choice was a descent into madness -- I somehow learned to accept the bewildering aftereffects of my voyage through time. Imagine, if you can, the emotional balancing act required to have two separate and distinct memories for every moment of five years of your life. The Christmas holidays, for example: Mary and I stayed at a desert resort during that long weekend. We had a wonderful time and I can recount for you all we did during those three days. But I also recall with equal clarity staying at a ski resort with Marcia during the same three days. How I survived this insanity is perhaps a tribute to the Hardesty clan’s strength of will. I don’t really know. I’m only grateful that whatever personal quality allowed me to live in this way was not tested longer than a few months after my time in the Conveyance.
I became William Beadle’s mentor six weeks after returning to Tecumseh. The young student and I spent one morning a week discussing the progress of his dissertation. We often followed a long work session with lunch in the faculty dining hall, and that is where we wound up one afternoon in late September. I spotted Andy Reyes as we entered. He was sitting alone, as usual, sipping coffee and reading something on his tablet. Andy is an instructor in the English Department. He also moonlights as a stringer for several local news outlets.
“Mind if we join you, Andy?”
“The more the merrier, kid.”
I introduced William, who promptly excused himself and made a beeline for a young woman at a nearby table.
“Looks like your student has other fish to fry. Can’t say I blame him. So how’s the teaching business these days, Lee.”
“Same as always. That one of yours?”
I gestured toward the article on his tablet’s display. Andy tends to be his own harshest critic, often re-reading his work and carrying on about how he might have done a better job.
“I don’t have a story in today’s News Board. Just catching up on what my fellow journalists are doing.”
“Anything worth bothering with?”
“Are you interested in yesterday’s flower show?”
“Well, that’s today’s lead story -- that and two local politicos accusing each other of malfeasance. Roses and recriminations, that’s on the news menu for today. Excuse me, Lee. I need a refill for my coffee. Be right back.”
I glanced down at his tablet. A small captioned image below the flower show story caught my eye. It showed a petite woman standing at a desk littered with paper. She was looking up at the camera and smiling. It looked like … no, it was Mary, my Mary. I picked up the tablet and with a few movements of my trembling fingers zoomed in on the image.
“My God,” I whispered, feeling suddenly light-headed, adrift, disconnected from everything around me. The brief caption said something about her work with the Lindbloom Foundation.
“I’d like my tablet back if you’re done with it.”
Andy was standing behind me. I hadn’t seen or heard him return with his mug of coffee. I put the tablet down and pointed to the image.
“Do you by any chance know when this was taken?”
“Probably yesterday. Why?”
“That’s not possible.”
“Really? And why not? Hey, are you alright? You look pale as Marley’s ghost.”
“Who is she?”
“Mary Young. She’s visiting from Chicago, doing some sort of work for her family’s foundation. Aren’t you pals with her cousin, the time jockey over at the Institute?”
“Her name is ‘Young’?”
“Her married name. Cute little thing, isn’t she? Too bad about her husband.”
“Come on, Lee. Where’ve you been the past year? You really don’t remember?”
“No, Andy, fill me in.”
“Well, if you’d ever bother to come down from that ivory tower of yours you’d know that she was widowed a year ago. I wrote the story myself. She was in town doing some work for the Lindbloom Foundation when her husband decided to drive into Dallas while she was tied up with meetings. There was an accident and …”
“Over by the big solar array?”
“I thought you didn’t know anything about it? Yes, by the big solar array. Anyway, she disappeared for a while, went back to Chicago where her husband’s family is from. My sometimes employer apparently believes her return only merits a tiny photo and a one-line caption. I offered to do a follow-up, you know, a story about the brave young widow picking up the pieces and getting on with her life? Real human interest stuff. The filthy toad refused.”
“No, I don’t believe so. Charles, that was her husband, was quite a bit older and … hey, where are you going!?”
I walked back to my office in a daze. It never occurred to me that my actions might have altered Mary’s life along with my own. I had assumed that death was the one unalterable fact, something no amount of tampering with the past would ever change.
Sitting stunned and motionless in my office, I resolved that no force on Earth was going to keep me from seeing Mary that very day. Her death had left me broken, half-mad, and looking to the obsession of a long-dead relative for my life’s purpose. Scattering her ashes over the desert we both loved so much had been like casting pieces of myself to the winds. Slowly, slowly, with help of some old journals and a trip through time itself, I had finally come to terms with her absence from my life. And now, unbelievably, she was alive. Maybe her husband’s death had paid some debt owed to God or fate. I didn’t understand any of it, and didn’t care if I ever did. Only Mary mattered.
I decided something else as I sat there: the time had at last arrived for Marcus to know the whole truth about my trip into the past. I had put it for far too long. I reached for my tablet and quickly tapped a series of numbers on the screen.
“Lee! Well, this is a coincidence. I was just about to try and get in touch with you.”
Bethany’s plain, dark face filled the small screen.
“Is everything okay, Beth?”
“Fine and dandy. How about joining us for supper tonight? We’re having Stroganoff. I believe that’s your favorite. Seven okay?”
“Of course. Thanks, Beth.”
“By the way, Lee, we’re having Marcus’ cousin over, too. Mary Young. Do you know her?”
My heart began racing.
“Yes … no … I mean, I just read something about her.”
“I saw that, too. Wonderful photo. That woman just never seems to age. It’s all I can do to keep from being consumed with envy. She’s really the nicest person, Lee. I think you’ll like her. See you tonight then?”
I checked the time. Mary was six interminable hours away. During those hours I became a schoolboy preparing for a first date, pacing around my office, then pacing around my home, trying to decide what I would do when I saw her, what I would say, and all the while fighting back a deep sense of unreality, as if I were in a waking dream, a dream from which I did not ever want to wake.
No detail of what I was to wear was too small to fuss over. I finally decided on jeans, a blue cotton shirt, and a pearl gray sweater. Mary had always liked me in that outfit. I used a little of the cologne she’d once told me made her think of holding hands in moonlight.
I arrived at Marcus’ house half an hour early. He opened the door, took me by the forearm and pulled me into the foyer.
“Look, I’m sorry about this, Lee,” he said in a whisper. “I’m afraid Beth insisted on playing matchmaker tonight. I want you to know this was not my idea.”
Bethany walked into the foyer before he could say anything else.
“What are you two plotting?”
“Nothing, dear. Just giving Lee a little fatherly counsel.”
“Where’s Mary?” I asked.
Beth and Marcus shot each other a quick, surprised glance.
“She’s not here yet, Lee. She went to visit someone this afternoon,” Bethany said.
“No, Lee, not a man. A friend – a woman friend of hers.”
“Have you met my cousin before?” Marcus asked, looking puzzled.
“No,” I lied.
“Then you will soon have that privilege. And to help you possess your soul in patience, why not have a glass or two of wine with me?”
Marcus and I retreated to his back porch. We sat sipping a wonderful port and admiring the sunset.
“Tell me about the Foundation, Marcus. How did it get started?”
“Well, you are full of surprises tonight, Lee.”
“We’ve known each other for almost eleven years and this is the first time you’ve expressed even the slightest interest in the Lindbloom Foundation.”
“Tell me about it and then I’ll tell you why I’m asking.”
“Fair enough. What would you like to know?”
“How did it come about?”
“Well, let’s see.” He refilled our glasses. “Family lore says it got started because of the founder’s clumsiness.”
“Yes. It’s really sort of a funny story. Bartholomew Lindbloom worked right here at Tecumseh way back when it was still only a half dozen or so buildings. He was some sort of night watchman, I think. Anyway, young Bart had dreams of playing professional baseball but was apparently more than a little short of the requisite talent. The poor guy’s life was going nowhere on a bobsled. He played bush league ball on weekends and lived at home with his parents, stubbornly refusing to let go of his dreams of athletic glory until he had an accident one night at the school. His ankle was fractured and never healed properly. That’s when he was forced to look elsewhere for a future, so he began taking classes. As it turns out, Bartholomew, God bless him, discovered a gift for engineering and wound up making a fortune designing sophisticated calibration devices, among a good many other things. The old boy had over one hundred patents to his name when he died. Bart also got to fulfill his athletic ambitions -- in a way. His bad leg may have prevented him from playing professional baseball, but it didn’t stop him from using his personal wealth to buy a major league team, which he did at the age of forty-nine. He became a kind of legend in baseball circles for accompanying his team to spring training every year and joining them in their daily workouts and intra-squad games. He did that until he was nearly eighty years old. So you see, that accident of his turned out to have been a blessing, the best thing that ever happened to old Bart. It forced him to find a purpose in life. I think creating the Lindbloom Foundation was his way of giving other lost souls a helping hand. It’s worked, too. We’ve awarded more money in scholarships and grants than just about …”
“It was no accident.”
“He didn’t have an accident.”
“Sure he did. That story has been in our family for generations. Of course, it may have changed a bit in the telling over the years.”
“What happened to your ancestor was no accident.”
“And just how would you know that?”
“Because I was there, Marcus. I caused his so-called accident.”
And so, as we sat together in the gathering darkness, I at last told Marcus everything that happened on that night in nineteen sixty-three. I told him, too, about having no memory of his Foundation or of a breakup with Marcia until he mentioned them at the clinic, and about the sudden flood of dream-like recollections I had experienced. I told him, too, about my marriage to Mary and its tragic end. And I finally confessed how I had all along intended to meddle with past events in order to prove that the first Leland Hardesty had been right about Oswald.
“Lee, the Lindbloom Foundation has been a part of my family for generations. And as to this business with Mary, well, that’s simply preposterous. You’ve never even met her.”
“We were married for five years, Marcus. You and Bethany were at our wedding. But that’s not the whole story. Ever since my trip in that contraption of yours I’ve also had to learn to live with the details of a life with Marcia during those same five years. It’s enough to drive you crazy.”
“Your betrayal of my trust is of no consequence, Lee, but have you any idea what you might have brought about? I mean tampering with history the way you did? You might have altered the future in all sorts of ways that had nothing at all to do with what happened in Dallas.”
“What I tried to doesn’t seem to have done any harm. It certainly didn’t change anything about the assassination.”
“And just how can you be certain of that? Whatever came of your actions in that garage and at the school are fixed parts of our world. No person living today is aware of any other reality, but you … you say that you remember details of a life before your time in the Conveyance?”
“This is incredible, truly incredible.”
“Has anything like this ever happened that you know of?”
“Well, there is a theory, only a theory mind you, known as the Palimpsest Effect. I suppose the best way to explain it is to think of your life before the Conveyance as a scroll, and the writing on that scroll as a chronicle of all your experiences. The Palimpsest Effect occurs when that same scroll is used a second time, only the erasure of the original writing is incomplete.”
“So what happens now?”
“I’m not sure. As I said, it’s only a theory. There’s no known instance of it ever having happened to a traveler. I’d like you to do something for me, Lee.”
“Of course, anything.”
“Write down everything you remember in as much detail as you can before you lose it.”
“Lose it? I’m not sure I understand, Marcus.”
“It’s part of the theory. This is uncharted territory for me, too, but it’s quite likely that you may eventually lose any recollection of the alternate past you’ve told me about. It will simply fade, erase itself.”
Marcus took another sip of wine.
“There is another possibility, Lee, one you can’t ignore, especially regarding this business with Mary.”
“That this previous life you think you remember never happened. That the whole thing is a delusion.”
“Are you trying to tell me I’m nuts?”
“No. Not at all. Look, I don't pretend to understand all the intricacies of the human mind, Lee, but you were unconscious for days. It's possible, I suppose, that your brain continued to function at some level and that it built up a complex delusion over the course of those days. Then, when you woke, your conscious mind accepted that complex delusion as reality. I don't know, but I think it’s possible. The plain truth is that we still don’t fully understand everything that happens to the human mind and body when it undergoes time travel.”
“This is real, Marcus. Believe me.”
“Delusions can seem very real indeed.”
A musical tone sounded throughout the house. Bethany called out from the kitchen, “Would you get that, dear?”
I jumped to my feet, spilling red wine on the porch’s white floorboards. The dark liquid resembled blood and for an instant I was frightened that it would not be Mary at the door, but police officers like the ones who once visited me in another lifetime.
“Stay put, Marcus. I’ll get it.”
I hurried to the front door. My hand gripped the knob as if it were a lifeline. I took a few long, deep breaths and opened the door.
And there she was. Her blond hair was a little longer than I remembered it and she had a tiny scar just above her right brow that had not been there before, but it was Mary, my Mary. She looked at me, surprise lighting up her wonderful face, and smiled. It took all the will power I had, and some I had not thought I possessed, to keep from taking her in my arms.
“Why, it’s Leland Hardesty, isn’t it?” she said, extending her hand. Five years worth of memories were in the touch of that small hand.
Bethany came up behind us.
“Come in, Mary. Do you know Lee Hardesty?”
“Sort of. I saw him once at one of your faculty parties before I moved East with Charles. That was five years ago and I’m certain he never noticed me. He was in the company of a very striking brunette.”
Mary looked up at me.
“It was embarrassing, really, Mr. Hardesty. You two looked as if you couldn’t wait to be alone together.”
It was true. Marcia and I didn’t merely make love; we consumed each other, a physical hunger without any real intimacy or tenderness.
“And just how is your lady friend these days, Mr. Hardesty?”
“I don’t know. I haven’t seen her in quite some time.”
“Well, that might account for how well-rested you look.”
Bethany and Marcus laughed. Mary put a hand on her hip as she spoke, a gesture I knew well and loved. My eyes suddenly welled up with tears.
“Oh, my goodness, Lee, are you alright?” Bethany asked.
“Yes, yes. I’m fine.”
“Just how much wine have you and Marcus had, dear?”
I wiped my eyes and as I did noticed Mary looking at me, her cornflower-blue eyes curious and full of genuine concern.
“I’m so sorry if my stupid attempt at humor upset you, Mr. Hardesty.”
“Please call me ‘Lee’.”
“Of course. If you’ll call me ‘Mary’.”
“Well, Mary, nothing you said or could ever say would do anything but delight me.”
The lovely smile I remembered shone on her face like a sunrise.
“Are we going to stand here forever, or shall we go into supper?” Beth said, putting an arm around Mary’s shoulder and walking ahead of us into the dining room.
We sat across from each other at the dining room table. Bethany and Marcus did their best to get a conversation started, but I was too overcome with wonderment at being with her again to say much of anything. She had been returned to me by a process I could not comprehend, and I was determined never to let her go again.
It was just after ten when Mary said she had Foundation meetings the following morning and must go up to bed. I startled everyone in the room -- including myself -- by crying out, “No!”
Marcus and Bethany exchanged amused looks.
“I’m sorry. I just meant it’s still so early and I thought Mary might like this place in Dallas that makes wonderful Turkish coffee and pastry. They have a fellow there who is a genius on the baglama. I’ve told you about it, haven’t I, Marcus?”
I looked at him, feeling foolish in my desperation.
“Well, yes, I believe you have mentioned the place once or twice, Lee. Sadly, I have to get an early start tomorrow and Beth has papers to grade. However, if you two want to go out for a bit …”
I looked at Mary.
“How about it?”
“I don’t know. I do have those Foundation meetings.”
“I personally guarantee you will make them on time.”
“And just how will you do that?”
“I’ll be out front first thing in the morning to chauffer you.”
She laughed, throwing her head back in another familiar gesture.
“Don’t worry about waking us, dear,” Bethany said. “I’ll probably be up with those silly papers until one or two in the morning.”
Mary loved the café, as I knew she would. It had been a favorite place of ours. We talked and listened to the music until the place closed, then I drove her back. The house was dark except for a porch light. Neither of us made a move to exit the car.
“Mary, I feel a little foolish asking this -- in fact I feel like some damned kid out on a first date -- but would you be offended if I kissed you goodnight?”
“Why, Lee Hardesty!”
Amusement showed on her lovely face, as well as a tenderness I remembered from our years together. I drew her to me and we kissed softly, slowly. It was like returning home after a long, solitary journey.
We spoke with our faces close together, the sweet scent of her breath washing over my face.
“May I confess something to you, Lee?”
“Of course. Anything.”
“I used to dream about you, about you and me together, nearly every night. The dreams began years ago, just after I first saw you at that faculty party. It was as if I were living a separate life at night in those dreams. What I especially hated about them was that what’s-her-name with all the glamour and good looks kept coming between us. What was her name again?”
“I don’t recall.”
“May I see you tomorrow, Mary?”
“Have you forgotten already?”
“You said you’d drive me to the Foundation meeting in the morning.”
And so I did -- I drove her to the meeting the next day and when she was done we spent the afternoon together. We saw each other every day after that. Her work with the Foundation lasted another two weeks, and then it was time for her return to Chicago.
“Do you remember those dreams I told you about the night we met, Lee?”
We were sitting in Marcus’s living room. I had taught classes all morning and rushed over afterwards. Bethany and Marcus were both at the college and their children still in school. Mary’s flight back to Chicago was scheduled for eight that evening.
“The recurring dreams? Yes, I remember.”
“There’s something else that I didn’t tell you about, something very peculiar. The dreams continued even after I married and moved away. After Charles died they became much more vivid. It was so weird, Lee, especially since we didn’t really know each other and the only time I’d ever seen you we were in a room crowded with party guests. Then, and this is the strangest part of the whole thing, after our first evening together the dreams vanished, just like that, after years and years.”
“Why settle for dreams when the real thing is already yours?”
“Are you? Mine, I mean?”
“If you’ll have me.”
“Have I just been proposed to?”
“You certainly have. Forget Chicago, Mary. Stay here with me.”
She reached over and touched my face.
“You know what, Mr. Hardesty? I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Mary went to bed early tonight. I sat beside her for a time watching her sleep, but a stack of papers was waiting for me in the den and I reluctantly got up, careful not to wake her. I gently placed my hand on her growing belly. As if in response, my son moved inside of her.
More than a year has gone by since I entered the Conveyance. I turned thirty-five the day before Mary and I were married, and two months later we learned that she was expecting our child. It has become more difficult these days to summon the details of that first life with Mary. I sometimes find myself wondering if any of it ever really happened, or if the seeming memories are not, as Marcus once suggested, an elaborate delusion.
While my trip into the past changed some lives, it did nothing at all to alter what happened in Dealey Plaza. I have checked innumerable sources in search of the slightest deviation in the sequence of events on November 22, 1963, but nothing has changed. Did Oswald discover my handiwork in time to undo it? That’s possible, since I foolishly tossed the firing pin away rather than taking it with me. It would not have been easy to find, but in morning light perhaps not impossible. And that leads me to a second, even more troubling question: what if Oswald took the rifle that morning without examining it? With no firing pin it would have been harmless as a child’s toy. What then? Who fired the shots that took the President’s life? Had I, after all, managed to prove Oswald’s innocence? I journeyed into the past in search of an answer and had in the end succeeded only in creating new questions.
Marcus, you asked me to write everything down, and I have done exactly that to the best of my recollection. I hope my words help you in your work. As for myself, the only thing that matters is that I am with Mary again, or perhaps with her for the first time: I no longer know or care which is true. Together we will voyage into the future and watch as our son, the sixth Leland Hardesty, day-by-day grows and thrives and lives his own journey through time.
Memory of an Ambulance Attendant
I don’t know why, but I’ve been thinking a lot about a call I ran ten years ago. It was for a twelve-year-old girl who had been sexually assaulted over the course of years. Her parents had been trying to immigrate to the United States to get her away from the situation and get her the help she wouldn’t have in Mexico. As soon as she and her parents received their approval letter to enter the country, they traveled to Santa Ana, California where they have family to stay with and obtain their permanent address. About a week later they were in the emergency room, getting the help their daughter desperately needed.
In the emergency room, I received report from her R.N. while my partner introduced us and secured our patient on the gurney. Her parents were driving separately, so they gave their hugs and see you soons and left. We loaded her into the back of the ambulance and we were off on our two-hour drive from an emergency room in Anaheim to a pediatric psychiatric facility in San Diego.
En route, I ask her the questions that came standard on our run reports, took her blood pressure and pulse. As I was finishing my report I asked her if there was anything I could do to help her get more comfortable.
“Yes,” she replied. “ Can you please lean me back?”
“Absolutely!” I did and settled into a comfortable silence.
After a few minutes, she relaxed and nodded off. I took that time to read through her hospital chart. There was a note stating she hasn’t been able to stay asleep for longer than two to three minutes at a time due to severe nightmares. They have been increasing in severity over the last few months. No child should have PTS, I thought angrily.
I remember having those nightmares haunt me. I was about her age when I was sexually assaulted. I took ten years, but I was finally able to banish them.
Less than two minutes go by and she starts tossing and turning and talking in her sleep, telling someone to stop and get away from her. She woke with a start. I told her everything was okay and she was safe. “You’re in the back of an ambulance,” I say.
I gave a gentle squeeze to her forearm. She began to relax and nods off again.
Less than two minutes later, it happens again. And again and again for the next hour. She would nod off briefly and her nightmare would keep her from sleep.
I ask her if maybe she wants to try listening to music. She nodded. It couldn’t hurt, I thought.
Unfortunately, that was the day for pediatric psych patients. Our last patient was a fourteen-year-old boy who had tried to commit suicide after his parents kicked him out of the house after finding out he was gay. He asked if we could play Lady Gaga because “she’s my queen, girl,” snapping his fingers while telling me this.
Telephone starts filtering through the back and she starts drifting back to sleep. The song ends. She’s still asleep. Good. For the last half hour of the transport, she stays in a deep, uninterrupted sleep. It’s only the shrill sound of the ambulances backup alarm that wakes her up. It doesn’t scare her. She blinks a few times and looks at me with a huge smile on her face.
My partner walks around and opens the back doors, asking if his driving left everything on the shelves. She nodded her head vigorously and giggled.
We find our way to admitting where her parents and the receiving nurse are waiting. I give my report to the nurse and add our patient slept soundly for about thirty minutes. She paused, deciding if what I said was true, then nods in approval. To our left, my partner is helping the girl off our gurney. Mom, Dad and daughter hug, the smile still on her face.
I get my signatures, walk over to them and give my goodbyes. Her parents walk up to me and envelop me in a hug that rivals a Boa Constrictors squeeze, thanking me then letting go.
Their daughter walks up to me and gives me a hug with the same ferocity as her parents. I tell her not to give up and she’s got this. Her smile grew bigger as we turn and go our separate ways.
As my partner and I walk out, I couldn’t help but think that everything was going to be okay after all.
Garrett Prange is a sophomore at Full Sail University and is working on his Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in Creative Writing. He comes from the far northern reaches of the frosty mitten known as Michigan. From the bland white expanses, he developed a passion for the strange, the supernatural, and the fantastical. Currently, he suffers in the swamps of Winter Park, Florida and fondly remembers the distant cold of his home. He channels his excess creative energies into games of the video, tabletop, and board variety, and he firmly believes cats are the familiars of witches and writers.
I’m Told You Were The Best
Edgar Rider has worked as a paraprofessional for two districts and also as a Child Advocate for a domestic violence shelter and was a Playologist for a Children's museum. He has just published his first book Riding Out The Kipling Effect. Other fiction appears in Criterion International and Birmingham Arts Journal.
CHARRED FRIED WORKS
(True Tall Tales or Real Life Fables)
Beginning of The Works
While attending college for the first time,one of many times, I decided to get a job at a burger restaurant. It was a place nicknamed the Works. The walls were aligned with Cola, and Crush memorabilia. There was also a traffic sign with an old gas pump next to it. The place contained everything you could ask for from a burger bar restaurant.The food establishment contained an assortment of items mixed in with experiences - Cottage cheese, Cocaine,Cauliflower, Degradation, Drugs, Disease and Drumsticks. There were certain moments working there the sign should have read Burgers ,beer and broads.The name of the establishment “the Works” would exemplify the salad bar and the melodrama in the back. The benches that people sat on were made out of wood just like the tables. This place had a southwestern feel. Outside on the patio people could play horseshoes.
From a patron’s view, the place looked like a family restaurant but what I would learn during my burger tenure was that this place held dark secrets.
Of course I had not learned what went on behind the scenes not as of yet.. I was in for a wild roller-coaster ride. In some sense of the word, I was living in a real life fable or found myself in a true tall tale. This place blended perfectly the ordinary with the extraordinary.
So what was on the menu. Through the years the menu would change but the basic items stayed the same. As far as hamburgers go you could chose from a Small one, Big One, Great Big One or a double Big one. The smallest one was a quarter of a pound and the biggest was two thirds. All kinds of marinated grilled chicken to choose from Teriyaki, Italian, and Hot and Spicy. For those vegetarians there were also garden burgers. Sometimes we would grill those on the meat side. It didn’t make sense the customer was still getting the burger grease on their veggie burger.
As far as the fried items, you could chose between Onion Rings, Fries, Zucchinis or Mushrooms.
As far as myself, I have been described as skinny and sometimes quiet . The pockmarks on my face have left me under-confident. Some say I mumble when I talk and have a tendency not to look people in the eye. I shortened my name to Ed easier to remember. I don’t believe I ever had a pretension for customer service. I hardly ever smiled and my demeanor could be described as always stoic. But as soon as I got to know people I would brighten up.
My reasoning for applying was simple I figured I love hamburgers so it would be fun to eat them and work with them.
I filled out an application and was hired by the boss ‘Nerdy Jim’ . Nerdy Jim wore coke bottled rim glasses and a pocket protector which he only kept one fancy pen in.
He asked to speak with me on a Saturday afternoon. At the interview, I sat there fidgeting. I kept thinking was I going to be stuck here forever immersed in hamburger training. Immediately thoughts ran through my mind of ‘Cheeseburger College ’ the motion picture. A bad movie from 1986 about an unambitious guy who ends up going to Consistency University. The students go to the school to learn how to become franchise owners. I was afraid that I would end up a burger flipper for the rest of my life. This was not a career choice or would it be.
He sat with me at a table going over my application.
“Yes this will be an excellent job to put on your resume.”
I looked around for some reason I wanted to make a break for it. Maybe this was not the right job for me.
“Gee you will learn a lot from this job.What are you taking in school.”
“Just the basics.”
“Gee that’s good.”
I Iooked for an escape route. Did I really need this job. I kept debating with myself. What should I do.
I hated to admit it but another part of me really liked the food.
In your life don’t you always have to weigh things out.
Jim smiled at me with an inviting but disturbing smile “Don’t talk much do you.”
I squirmed in my seat. I felt like I was in the dentist chair not knowing what to expect. Also the hard bench seats were hard to sit still in for an extended periods of time. I had to reposition myself more comfortable
As he spoke I only remembered random words he was spewing.
I looked down at my paperwork. Going over the details.
Is this guy done yet. So much paperwork and too much time.
I noticed that Jim smiled too much as if he had a permanent smile stuck on his face . And his coke bottle glasses and pocket protector was a dead give away to his nerdy inclinations. .
“C’mon I will introduce you to everyone.” The first crew I would hardly get to know because they all quit fast and furiously so to speak.
“This is Ed. He is a little timid. Go easy on the guy.”
Dwayne was the first shift lead I got to know. He reminded me of an anorexic Trey Montana with a spiffy shift lead polo shirt and shorts that were so tight most people would believe they were reserved for only for guys who reside in Europe.
This was during the time of the first trial of noted athlete Trey Montana and the racial tension was at its worst. He married an Asian woman reportedly snuck up on her found her with another man and killed both with a nine iron. I remember watching the verdict while taking classes at the local college. The black people cheered and the white people shook their heads in disgust. As I made my way to the restroom and entered there were some black people playing craps. “Your throne awaits Marty Smith.” Where I was from that was supposed to be an insult towards whites. I smiled and waved and entered the stall.
At my new job The Works, Dwayne was a character .He would sing songs like ‘It’s Your Burger Do You want Cheese’ while flipping burgers. Not a good song but he was however very good at making conversation. He made people feel like they were the most important person in the world until another person showed up.
Jim took me through the whole place. Showed me the grill where people watched you cook.
He showed me the spray room where they washed off the mats. He introduced me to the bartender.
I learned starting there that Jim would take one of the order taker girls to Costco they would be gone an extra long time. Me and some of the other employees joked we wondered what kind of noises he was making when the van was rocking.
When Jim returned, he would tell us to make fresh beer battered onion rings and zucchini. That may sound good when you see the big buckets filled with beer batter. We would dunk them individually and it didn't matter if you had cuts on your finger as long as you safely applied a band-aid. However the band-aids would fall off into the batter and we just kept going.
"Where are those onion rings ; we got hungry people ?" Nerdy Jim would say with his patented pasted on smile. My manager was a little reluctant to really get his hands “dirty”. He would hold the tray when handed to him as if it contained some natural disaster. He held the end of the tray with the tips of his hands as if it was excruciatingly painful.
Speaking of the rings, Years later we would switch to frozen rings people would complain that they didn't taste the same. I wanted to tell them we are sorry we gave up on our original open sore flavor .
Jim, every once in awhile, would even come out of his office to help us. He smiled at us like he was with us. " I will work the cash register." He told us this a lot of the time and that’s all he ever worked. He would tell us the customer is always right. Why then did it seem like the customers were usually wrong. Sometimes patrons seem to have a sense of enlightenment. because they are paying six dollars for a meal that automatically makes them co-owner. Customers love to complain. They complain that there cheese isn't melted enough. Just because you pay six dollars for a burger fries and cola does not mean you get to rearrange the furniture. People on their cell phones were the worst. They would stand in line phone to ear disgusted if you asked them a question. I would furtherly be enraged after trying to get their order right they would pick it up and complain that it was incorrect. As far as Jim was concerned he would come out ring two orders and go right back into the office. Some team player he turned out to be.
At this time, I had met a friend or a partner in laziness, his name was Mike. He would
say ,"Watch this," he took off his hat, combed his hair slightly parting it sideways trying to
get rid of his impending bald spot. He would smile,showing his two front missing teeth, as if
he had just achieved a major accomplishment.
He was also, from his point of view, an accomplished comedian. He repeatedly told me bad jokes. I must admit, his show stopper was terrible. He would say I am a dyslexic on coke.
Instead of snorting the powder on the table he would blow it off the table. He would then
laugh like he was an interchangeable cross between Delinquent Dave and College Pete who had a cartoon show called Shenanigans. The show consisted of Dave convincing Pete to stop being a goody goody and steal cars and other what not. Dave had a low chuckle Pand Pete had a nervous high pitched one.
During our shift , Mike always wanted to be the order guy. We would become bored of course due to the day to day monotony.
“What Time is it now.” Mike said
6:23” I retorted.
“And Now.” He said smiling showing his two front missing teeth
“Cool. Were making progress.” Mike said rather sarcastic.
This is how the day or night in our case would start. We would sit outside, right after Mike opened his locker and showed me vodka bottles in it. He would mix it with Coca Cola before he got ready to clock in for his night shift. During, the evening a vehicle vaguely resembling a Winnebago would pull up. We sat outside and watched people come out of this van with the word Cosmetology on the side of it. I became suspicious because everyone that came out of it didn't look any different. The owner of the van was named Raphael and had the worst perm I had ever seen on a woman much less a MAN. He was a regular barfly. He sat at the end of the bar watching sports and betting til the end of the evening. He was friends with Gene, the main bartender, Gene hooked everyone up. He was always rubbing his nose and seemed to moving at an always increasing speed. He looked like a cross between the kid from 7 Is Too Many and Tom Cantaloupe . Tom Cantaloupe sang songs like Mike repeatedly would tell me that the van was a place you could readily buy drugs.
Gene the bartender would randomly come over to the food side. He would show his tips would consisted of almost a hundred dollars a night. He would shake our tip jar with only loose change in it and chuckle
“I hate that guy and don’t even know him.”
“Your instincts are well founded.” Mike said chuckling.
The nights we were closing we spent drinking at the bar. We watched more episodes of Delinquent Dave and College Pete . Mike tried to get their mannerisms down. He definitely had their laughs down. But now he had Pete’s twitching and Dave’s stumbling down pat. He started laughing like both but settled on a twisted version of Pete.
We spent most of our time watching music videos and tv shows commentating on what was cool or not. Mike commented on an Zylie Spinner video called Got a new permit The song “ Couldn’t do what I do now. I gotta ne Colt 45 now.. One point of the song, Zylie sings Ain't a lock-in for trouble .“ The music video consisted of Zylie in a courtroom . Zylie is in handcuffs a lawyer shows the judge a document. The judge orders Zylie freed. Loud guitars screech as Zylie exits pulling out the glock. The audience screams in delight. Mike tried to remember the words as he danced around the room to the song. He would carry a loaded handgun into the restaurant strapped in a side holster.. He pulled it out and put the gun back in the holster.” I got a permit for my gun. Cool song.”
Mike was always scheming. One night he said to me, “Dude let’s go to this place to pick up chicks”
As soon as we walked in the door, I knew there was something amiss. The sign of the establishment was called Talk of The Town. It turns out Mike wanted to pick up chicks in a lesbian bar.
“This is the worst idea I ever heard of.” I said looking around. “I don’t think they are going to want anything to do with us.”
Although, the bartender did not hear me she seemed to agree. “You guys do know what kind of a bar this is.”
“Yeah,” Mike retorted, “Watch this.” He went over to a group of girls and asked them to dance. They didn’t reply just shook their heads. I tried to talk to a few of the girls and they looked at me as if I was another species. After a couple of tries, I just gave up. I watched Mike still trying to convince them that they should try a man for a change.
Let’s just put it this way. It was just an unsuccessful night.
We also decided to start making comedy videos. We enrolled in a Public Access channel class to get access to the equipment. I would look into the camera “ Beer is good.” Mike looked into the camera “Cool” is all he said. He then knocked the stacked beer cans down. We watched our bad videos on the television at our workplace, drinking our beers just trying to get through the night.
FERMIN THE VERMIN
After a few months I was no longer the new guy. At about this time a young Hispanic kid started working with us. He was puny and skinny his ears were pointy. We would mess with new employees to see if they had what it takes.He was a nice kid but one day he went missing. we did not hear from him for a week. His mom came in and told us a story about how her son went to a party on the Westside. He started hitting on another guy';s gal one thing led to another and the boyfriend jumped him. soon his friends beat on him as well. In some strange initiation they bit his ear off. I called him Fermin the vermin because face it nothing else rhymes with Fermin.
There was also Sid another dude I started hanging out with. He was a long haired hippy who used the spray room to toke up. He was with me during the Fermin incident. We sat there as loud Barky Doggy played.. We all shared hits off of the bong. Sid laughed at me as I tried to take a hit. “Having fun. You got to hold it like this.” Immediately he gave me an education on where you’re supposed to put your fingers.We left early waving to Fermin it was the last time I ever saw him.
The story of Fermin is told because it was symptomatic of things that just kept happening. Strange occurrences. People in the restaurant industry were literally casualties of a high turnover rate.
Fermin was the first casualty and there would be many others. Ed Verdugo was annoying fry cook nobody liked. He bragged about scoring with lots of girls and thought he was the fastest hamburger flipper. He said he was faster than Rigoberto who went from dishwasher to fastest spatula slinger in the wild Southwest .Verdugo came back several times to the same place and left again frustrated by the atmosphere. Some of us knew we could do better if given a chance.
Several managers came and went there was Rob who had some white supremacist ties. He told us he got out of prison. He told us Mexicans were friendlier than blacks. I wondered what the criteria was to become management material of the Works.There was Cain and Geoff two buddies who came over from another burger joint. Cain was a hipster who constantly quoted lines from films like Retro Vinyl. Geoff would sometimes laugh like a psychotic clown who just got put in a padded cell. The only thing was he did it with such a sense of humor it was somehow non threatening.
Eventually two of the longest staying employees Verdugo and Rigoberto would fade away. I never knew what happened them. Most people would disappear. I wondered how long was I going to be here for. What was my fate going to be some terrible tragedy or just a case of heavy burnout.
TAKEOVER NEW OWNERS
Nerdy Jim sat us all down. "Let me introduce the new owners of the Works".
The new owners names were Roger and Paul. Roger was Hispanic looked like a football guy big torso wearing an Oakland Raiders t-shirt. Paul looked like a hippie with a slight mullet and cheesy moustache.
Jim no longer cared about this place or who the new people were. We all wanted Jim to leave including Jim
Roger looked at all of us.“My name is Roger I am the new owner. There's going to be some changes around here.”
They weren’t kidding and they weren’t just talking about the onion rings This place was about to go from bad to worse. Usually hiring hot chicks from the strip club would be a plus but in this place it was another sign that it was going into the crapper.
.“This is Jim your new manager.” Roger said.
“Nerdy Jim One meet Nerdy Jim 2.” Mike said whispering and laughing toward my direction
“That will be all.” Roger looked at Nerdy Jim 1 and shooed him away.
“Gladly.” He said although he seemed somewhat hurt by the dismissal.
“The way you guys do your onion rings is nasty. All fried items from now one will start out frozen.
Were also going to have combo meals. Make the sale you guys. Make them feel like theya re getting a real deal.” Roger said surveying the room
“ I will be here on Fridays when you really need me.” His somewhat silent partner Saul chimed in.
“Let me tell you about myself. I bought this place along with Saul.” Roger points his index finger at Saul and then back at us “I also own the Monastery.”
“Cool you own a strip club and a monastery.” I yelled out.
“No he owns that place. We are partners in the monastery as well as this place. The Monastery is an outside grill. They cook their food themselves.” Roger says and then changes his though process“What’s so funny.” Roger shakes his head. “I have worked with clowns like you two.” He took two of his fingers and scanned the room and then pointed directly at us. “I got my eyes on the both of you.”
“What’s the deal with Saul. “ Mike asked me completely ignoring Roger. We both thought he was strange he talked to the customers but not to us. Including this situation, Saul always had an attractive dancer accompany him when he visited the Works. Each one seemingly more plastic than the one before.
At this moment, Gene the bartender stood up without being introduced. “My name is Gene. I inherited great genes. My mother was a model and my father was dapper. Put the two together and look at me. I don’t know why I am in this meeting. I work over there in that section.”
There was something about Gene that the girls really liked. It was an instant attraction. It must have been the drugs.
At the meeting Tanya our manager in training was introduced. I saw her almost everyday and the more I talked to her the more I observed what she wanted and what she was there for.
She would change from here provocative outfits into her sleazy work attire. Her hair was pulled back in a ponytail to disguise her impending mullet. Her jeans were slightly ripped for customer appeal.
Tanya looked over smiled at Gene. Tanya would eventually began a torrid affair with Gene. She would invite him in the office while she was doing her “paperwork”. “ Hey Hun,” she called him as I stated before she also said that to everyone else.
Despite how much some us hated each other, as soon as it became busy we were all business. We went to our stations and helped each other out. It was time to get down to business
The order taker after getting the order receipt would pass it off to the cook. The cook prepared some of the food ahead of time. The order would person would call out to the fry station person whether it was wings, fries, onion rings, zucchinis and mushrooms. The cashier already collected
the money from the transactions either cash or credit card. We worked together like a disciplined orchestra
We all had our usual places I was always stuck on fry station, Mike always worked the order station, one of the guys with bragging rights worked the grill. Sometimes the new owner Roger stepped up with his own special spatula. He carried it out of his special briefcase. “Stand back fellas.Get your game face on.”
The closing duties consisted of taking floor mats back to the spray room. We also had to empty the oil grease from the fryers. This consisted of filtering them every night and once or twice a week putting in new grease.
One of us would have to clean the salad bar take all of the food out of the containers and wash the dishes.
We were a well oiled disciplined machine. And at the Works we knew the pressure was on. We were all united in helping each other give the best service possible. We all stood together as a team waiting for the line of hungry customers.
STICK TO THE CHEESE
The new owner Roger said “We are about to shake things up a new manager is coming in and this guy is good.” As soon as I saw Nerdy Jim 2 I knew I hated him. He twisted his handlebar moustache and looked at the grill put his bacon on way to carefully. As if to say look at how much of an expert I am at layering a hamburger. Eventually we grew to hate each other. Sometimes we would literally get into a fight when the customers weren’t looking. Our final showdown consisted of us strangling each other out in the open. Although we hated each other there was one thing we hated more our work place. I hated him even more when he told me Linda Butterfly was a significant artist. She sang songs like ‘You are the sunscreen in my life”. It is painfully obvious why I felt the needed to confront him.
The owner Roger and my manager Jim were staring at a hamburger. Nerdy Jim 2 places the cheese on the burger sideways. He then places the cheese straight on. He reaches for the bacon Roger stops him.
“Start over. Cheese on top. Cheese on top,” says Roger who also owns a strip club as well as this family restaurant.
“I just thought that if you put the bacon on top then the bun wouldn’t stick.” Nerdy Jim 2 questioned pleased with his professionalism.
“That’s what I want. Stick to the cheese. The cheese must stick. Presentation is the key.”
“Yes it is.” Nerdy Jim 2 puts the cheese on top of the bacon it slightly melts. He puts it on a bun. Jim and Roger look at it as if it is a work of art. Jim smiles. “Perfecto.”
I was standing in the corner watching this spectacle. After Roger left, it was just me and Jim standing there.
“You have potential but you just,” He said glaring at me. ” You could be like me management material.” I immediately looked at his short brown shorts white legs with black socks. And also remembered he had t-shirts that said things like Sci-Fi is sexy. No I did not look up to him.
“I don’t want to be in the restaurant business.”
“Couldn’t understand you. Mumble mumble business nothing nevermind.”
“I hate you.” I retorted not being able to think of a more clever comeback.
“Clean the countertop cattleboy.” Nerdy Jim 2 snapped.
My manager and I began strangling each other. We thought for sure we were going to get caught as we looked around no one was there. We continued our angry horseplay. There was only one thing we hated more than each other and that was our job. It was incidents like this that made me realize I needed to get out of my job.
MEETING MR. HAPPY
At my job, I had become friends with, Tanya, the manager in training. It was only logical that we would eventually start hanging out. One day she asked me if I wanted to go to the strip club. This was the first time I ever met a woman who was asking me to go to a gentleman’s establishment. “I don’t know what the big deal is. Why women won’t go to places like that. I would rather watch women dance anyway.” Tanya said twirling her hair
“Okay.” I said of course ready to go.
We entered the Excalibur strip club. Immediately, I noticed a huge poster, of a dancer,with the words now appearing in a movie with Steven Esteban . This was when Steven Esteban,in the nineties, was making action pictures. This particular film was entitled Turbulent Ricochet.
Definition of Turbulent Ricochet : the velocity at which a falling body moves through a medium, as air, when the force of resistance of the medium is equal in magnitude and opposite in direction to the force of gravity.
In the movie, Steve Estoban plays a skydiver who gets caught up in some international intrigue. What I learned from the movie Turbulent Ricochet was that own My life needed a parachute and I needed to eject myself from the dangers of my surroundings. The only thing that was missing was for me to turn to a camera and say in a Estoban manner smile to the camera and say “It’s Turbulent Ricochet dude.”
I looked at the stage and watched this dancer. I could see that this stripper thought she was high class and felt she was too good to be working this particular stage.
We sat at a table. Tanya began prodding me. “Give her a tip. Go get her stud.”
I fumbled through my wallet and picked out a bill. I walked over to the stage with her pointing for me to come over. I slightly slipped , while trying to put the dollar bill between her appendages.
She slapped me hard. “Dude what do you think you are doing? I’m not that kind of stripper.”
I walked back over to the table with Tanya laughing at me. I shrugged my shoulders, “ Should have given her a five.”
“C’mon let’s ditch this place. “ Tanya said still laughing.
We ended up back at her apartment. “I need to get something out of the bedroom.” I immediately became excited and intrigued. Was this my shot. She came back with a bong.
“Ed. Mr Happy. Mr. happy Ed,” She handed me the bong but I politely declined.
“BRB. Be right back.”
I stared into space thinking about my life. I don’t understand why I made such bad choices. Is this all there is. Is this the best I can do, working in a burger joint. suddenly, I heard a voice, a simple calm voice, calling me.
“May I ask you a question.”
I looked at the bong somewhat surprised. “Are you talking to me.”
“Yes just a moment of your time.”
“Your life ,Ed, your life.
“What about it?”
“What are you doing with it?”
“I’m in school.”
“One class a semester.”
“How do you know all of this?”
“I am a talking bong. I know all I see all.”
“So what should I do?”
“Take charge of your life,Ed. If you want to change your life. Get serious. Work hard. Stay in school. Graduate.” Mr. Happy smiled back at me encouraging. How strange that the talking bong was making more sense than myself.
Tanya came back into the room. She paused for a minute as she watched me talking to the inanimate object. I realized I had been talking to myself the whole time. What was I doing here. How was I going to get out of this. These were serious questions I was pondering talking to an inanimate object.
“You and Mr. Happy getting acquainted.” She looked back and smiled. “ You sure you don’t want any.”
I grabbed the bong. “What the hell.”
“Smoke me,” Mr Happy said with a grin. At this particular moment in my life, Mr. Happy made a lot of sense.
YELLOW MAN AND HIS BLUE FATHER
As dead flies give perfume a bad smell,
so a little folly outweighs wisdom and honor.
Mike was growing weary of the hamburger factory. We were hanging out less and less. He called me one day and asked me to go to the doctor. He said “I need to pick you up and we need to talk.” He still chuckled like Pete from Shenanigans but this time his voice seemed a little distorted.
He arrived at my apartment complex. I turned around as I got in his car and was completely in shock discovering he had turned a peculiar shade of yellow
He told me, “I got a condition called Jaundice dude. It is because of my drinking and my father has been diagnosed with tuberculosis.”
He said anyone who was in contact had to go get tested. I had not contacted tuberculosis. I was unsure about the Jaundice situation. Never seen anybody with that condition. After all, I was drinking a lot too his poison was Vodka and my poison was Bud Light
We went to the health clinic. I felt a sharp prick to my finger and that was it.
On the way home, Mike took a sip from his styrofoam cup. I wondered what was in it. He looked down again struggling to put it in the cup holder.
“ Before I drop you back home I gotta make a stop first dude. “ We pulled up in front of the main library. It had five floors. We got in the elevator Mike started humming the song in the elevator.
We ran through the library. Eventually we ended up at a section of books. I became very curious as to what he was searching for.
“Here it is huh huh.” he picked up a book “Gary Updell huh.” He looked at it more thoroughly. “Wrong one.”
I only had one question for Mike,“Who the hell is Gary Updell?”
“My dad’s favorite author. Author of Warlocks of Oakland and Go Horsey Go. I promised him I would get the newest one. Here it is.” He showed it to me ‘Legend of Pigeon Droppings’.He grabbed the book and chuckled running toward the elevator.
On the drive home, Mike was quiet. Suddenly, he laughed and said. “ That movie you loaned me was pretty sweet. I liked the ending of. I liked how they used various japanese weaponry on each other. Shurikens, Stilettos and throwing stars so cool. However, Me and my dad could have done without all the F words..” He paused and reflected for a serious moment. “The only one who got away was Mr. P.”
“Mr. P” I said right back to him and we both laughed.
The next day I went to the clinic. And found out I was fine. No TB.
I didn't see Mike much after that until one day when I walked into the bathroom and he was standing there. He had a knife in his hands and was twirling it around. He laughed and told me his father was dead. He said he looked in his chair and his father wasn't moving. He knew he was dead because he turned a lighter shade of blue.I found it odd that he was chuckling about his father’s death. It seemed like all of us were becoming detached from our surroundings.
“Poke. Poke.” He said illustrating and finally realizing that his father had passed. He continued laughing like Pete which went back and forth between amusing and then became quite disturbing.
Just as I was about to ask a question, he faded into the dark. Never saw him again. Another burger casualty
It was like being in a real life fable or a true tall tale. As he faded away I was reminded of those stories about the troll under the bridge and the Grimm fairy tales. What was Mike trying to teach me .
Sometimes someone else has to be the example in your own life. A warning board if you will.
I realized the Key to my own life is in one word ‘Moderation’.
REASONS FOR SECURITY CAMERAS
The First reason for security cameras was because of the beautiful bartenders. The sign on this restaurant nicknamed the Works should have read Burgers, Beers and Babes. I wasn’t allowed to bartend ,even with my Bartending Academy degree , which declared me a certified mixologist.. The reason they gave me was that my social skills were not up to par. They put the hot girls behind the bar to draw more attention.
Sometimes barflies would get thirsty. The girls would sit at the end of the bar reading a magazine ignoring the patron’s request. The girls would say , “Get it yourself.” The next thing we would notice the patrons would shrug their shoulders walk behind the bar and help themselves. This was only a precursor to management catching on.
The second reason was because those of us working in the kitchen were also goofing around. I started hanging out with a new employee. Me and the rest of the crew affectionately called him Illegal Isaac. We would hang out at the bar after closing and for some reason, the owner trusted me to lock up. We tapped the kegs. And drank every new drink available Mudslides and Margaritas. We turned on wrestling and we would argue about who was better. For a brief moment, I was not happy at my job and saw a bleak future for myself. “The world is coming to an end.” I said
“YES it is.” Illegal Isaac looked at the television perplexed. “ Nice Guy Nathan just became a bad guy.”
We were in shock as the Nice Guy Nathan we knew and loved had turned his back on his friends and fans. At first it was the Really Tough guys, a mediocre tag team with a bland name, but good ole boys fan appeal . Nate used his finishing move he called the Next Week on both of them . He would yell “ See you next week,” and then cause his opponents lights to go out. He then turned his sights on betraying long time fan favorite Eric the Eagle Endell . Suddenly he became a heel named Notorious Nate . We were hooked and couldn’t wait to see who Notorious Nate Norton would take out with his renegade group called. HOS stands for Hostile Override Syndicate . We saw the fans throw their Nate dolls break off the heads. Nate set a couple of dolls on fire.
HOS consisted of two other guys who were 6 foot nine and were real life brothers with tattoos that said sabotage and extinguish on the same places on each others arms.
Suddenly no one knew what happened to Eric the Eagle Endell was no longer on tv . Would he return . Would he come back and save the fans from this new virus . One night the eagle returned at sat high up on the catwalks .We were hooked on the show. What was going to happen next?
At my job , I wondered were we either the bad guys or the good guys? I guess it depends on your perception. I say this mainly because we stole a lot of beer and one could argue we were either getting back at the management or we could appear to be just delinquent bitter employees.
Like that renegade group we would lie and steal but other than that we did our jobs quite well most of the time.
The third reason and most significant was the infamous “Salad Bowl Incident”. We spent our nights arguing with each other and the days arguing with customers.
“Just one question what fence did you jump over to get this job.” I asked illegal Isaac.
“Screw you Barney. Dobie. Goober . Googie ." Illegal Isaac says with a smile.
“What’s your name again. Illegal Francisco or Illegal Fernando.”
“My name is Isaac. Just Isaac. There is no illegal in my name.”
After a moment of silence and battling each other. We turned our attention to more important conversational themes
“What time is it now.”
“Regrettably no progress.”
“What happened to the clock.”
As the customers came in I looked toward Illegal Isaac. “Ready for battle.”
“Ready.” He said with a smile showing his missing front tooth. He grabbed a spatula twirled it around like a gun. I grabbed a pair of tongs twirled them like nunchucks.
The customers came in. It was an angry sea of them with cell phones attached to their ears.
There was one particular customer who was extremely rude. We decided he would be our example. He ordered a salad bowl and acted as if every question we asked was an invasion of his privacy.
Illegal Issac asked him.”Do you want cheese on that?”
“No. No. No.” He answered every question becoming more and more infuriated because he was too busy talking on his cellphone.
He walked over to the cash register and I was more than willing to make an example out of him. He waited for a minute. I said, " You were not nice to my friend. Apologize."
Me and Illegal Issac took a stand. We would not let this customer have his salad. “I will not give you your salad until you apologize.”
“I will not apologize.”
“You were rude.”
“No I wasn’t.”
Illegal Isaac chimed in. “Yes you were.”
We continued the verbal tug of war over a salad bowl. I put the salad bowl on the table he reached for it I grabbed it back.
“I want to speak to the manager.” The customer said reaching the boiling point.
“I am the manager.” I replied even though I really wasn’t
Eventually I relented and gave him his salad feeling confident that I had already worsened his day. It seemed like no coincidence, after these three incidences, that several days later security cameras were installed in every room and every area.
BRAND NEW DAY (BND) and NOT the (SOS)
I told the OHW I would be leaving soon. This was the fourth time I had quit and came back. Of course unbeknownst to me there would be a fifth. My manager was pissed off. He grabbed me by the arm and twisted it back. I said “Get your hands off me Bean Burrito”.
This was not good because he was half Hispanic. He said “What did you call me. “
He twisted my arm further. I was in shock and suddenly soiled myself.
Time now for another definition :A “fartleberry” is where you crap your pants and just a little bit is left over . It was that uncomfortable embarrassing feeling that you just want to leave and go home.
And that feeling of pulling your underwear out was symbolic of the situation I was in. Everything about that place felt uncomfortable. Roger twisted my arm back his face turning angry like a red ogre. "No, no don't call me that racist "steam came out of ears but it seemed like he was getting close to boiling over hitting me with everything he's got .
He noticed my discomfort. The red ogre turned back again into his normal self.
“Did you just shit yourself. Disgusting.” Roger said. “ You want to leave then go. But I’m going to tell you something. Go, but you’ll be back.” I walked away trying to hold the rest in. The red ogre came back again as I walked away he was still shaking his head. “Really disgusting.”
I went out into the world and Got a job as a security guard. I worked the graveyard shift with nobody around. My new boss told me ‘Don’t worry if anything happens will be there in fifteen minutes’. “Fifteen minutes,” I said to myself as I imagined my dead body thrown into a dumpster by the time the police arrived. I spent the graveyard shift wandering in the dark trying to find ways to pass the time.
I quit after two days. This was not for me.
Next. I worked a manual labor job. In the hot desert sun I lifted chairs, tables. I kept thinking to myself is this what I went to school for. Granted I did not have a college degree. But I was a few credits shy of a Associates degree clearly there was something else I could be qualified to do.
Could it be there was even worse things out there. There is an old saying better to stick with the devil you do know then the devil you don’t.
I made a decision and came back to the “Works.” I looked around where were my friends. It seemed like there were all new employees. Illegal Isaac had gone back home to Mexico.
I walked into Roger’s office he looked at me with a victorious grin.“I knew you would come back. They always do. Looks like your friends are gone. Have you heard from Mike. Tanya’s gone. She’s pregnant probably by a customer. ” He looked away from me and began glancing at the security monitors.
“ I know everything that goes on here. Everything. Whether you think I do or not.”
He handed me a new jersey employee t-shirt with the words “The Works” written on it in huge letters.
The truth was I liked my boss he was kind of a cool guy. But the fact remained the same, I hated my job.
Going back to the kitchen. I looked at the empty wall remembering where the clock used to be.
‘More budget cuts’ I said to myself. All of my friends were gone there was really nothing left.
I made a decision. It was time to go. This time for real. I realized sometimes if you really want to start your life over sometimes you just have to walk away. I felt like a person who needed gastric bypass surgery. I needed an outside source to help me and make sure that I would never came back. It became clear that the only reason I came back was due to low self esteem and it was time to end it once and for all..
Ironically , I sat in another burger place called Burger Factory contemplated my situation and realized there was only one way out and that was just to walk away.
I put my keys in a long vanilla envelope enclosed it and sent it through the mail.
The solution was easy make sure they would never hire me back.
Time had passed and I found myself working in another customer service job. No Hollywood ending for me. Just another job. But as I stood waiting for some people to order their Cafe Mocha. I looked up and my old nemesis Nerdy Jim 2 was standing there. By his side was an attractive Vietnamese woman, I immediately wondered what chat room he met her in or what catalog he ordered her out of.
“Hey you. So you got out of that place. Me too I now manage a Burger King.” Nerdy Jim 2 said with a smile as if he made a complete life changing decision.
“Yes well.” Sometimes I must admit I was not clever with the snappy comebacks.
We looked at each other never having much to say anyway. After an awkward moment that could have been considered a staredown, we looked in opposite directions. I watched them walk away glad that I didn’t have to deal with at least certain people anymore.
I went back to my job of making coffee hoping desperately this was a BND a ‘brand new day’ and not the ‘same ol shit’ or SOS for short. I wished for one moment I could have written that on the daily special chalk board and then before anyone noticed it wiped it clean. Yes there would be another episode coming in the near future. But that must be saved for another time.
Sometimes in your life the best you can hope for is that there is something that was missing before at your last job and ever since then you found it ,a new sense of hope, at your current one.
The author is a national and international academic/ESL Instructor. He has been a writer for over thirty years. His latest publications have been two books of nonfiction with Algora Publishing, and fictional publications with combo e-zines and print magazines; Leaves Of Ink, CC&D Magazine and anthology, Short Story Lovers, The Fear Of Monkeys, Frontier Tales, WPIF & Stock Company, and many more.
Once Upon A Time In Nottoway
A Child Is Born
Once upon a time on a tree covered alpine hillside, many long years ago, there was a small serene cottage home nestled comfortably on a grassy ledge, overlooking a shallow ravine, where a crystal creek purled right through it's center. The cozy cottage was owned by the Johanson family, of whom the man was a community doctor. The wife was an humble local accountant, who enjoyed the rich social atmosphere found among the staff who were employed at the local central academy, just down the road eight kilometers away or so, the rich social atmosphere always dominating the scene to every outsider's surprise..To most shocked observers on the outside, the atmosphere at the central academy resembled a soap opera of one sort or another, assuming that they had any knowledge of it to begin with; where everyone put on airs and pretended to be of a strict, elitist moral character, when in reality, very few actually were.
As a matter of fact, the staff and administration at the academy pretended to celebrate personal development, since personal achievement was the justification for the school being located there inside the local community in the first place. An exclusive experience that had commenced, right there from inside that pleasantly tidy cottage, yanked out the truth from among the staff and betrayed the honest feelings of the administration toward personal progress; which also, in turn, explained why nearly every subject taught there was masqueraded as holding opportunity, when in fact, almost none at all did, lending the scenario more toward that of a corrupted extortion intending to separate the students from their hard won financial resources.
You see, the doctor was also an investor; a real-estate investor and general speculator, and everybody all around town knew well of it. Up until now, however, most of his investments failed to produce much of a yield. He would beget a few extra dividends from his rental properties, a few more yields from his product sells, an additional few from his second mortgage investments maybe from time to time..., but such was about it. One day... all of that was to change...., seemingly overnight to everyone's great shock and surprise.
On the other side of the mountain sat the small hamlet town of Goose-Lick, and the doctor had purchased an abandoned auto-repair shop at a dramatic discount, which was an honest trait common to his character... and in time this shop had began to really prosper. This newly found prosperity had been going on for ten years now...., and had increased by the month, so it seemed to both his family and the surrounding community, though the kind doctor was not one to make all of his personal business intentionally known. Instead the gentle doctor was found always living true to his favorite saying, never let your right hand know what your left hand is doing.
Then one day, a really wealthy man from way outside of the province dropped by. Some said that he hailed from the big city of crystal glass mountains and neon lights, where the northern display high up in the midnight sky could be readily viewed on a regular basis. He decided to offer the doctor an extraordinary amount in exchange for the auto-repair shop. Matter of fact, the amount was more than ten times the value that the doctor had paid for the establishment, initially...., but the doctor was very wise. Most of the local population claimed in smug envious condemnation, that they would have been satisfied with the deal right there as it was, so therefore, their tainted conclusion was that doctor suffered from the sin of greed.
The doctor saw opportunity from the out-of-state man's eagerness to own the property, however, so he worked out an agreement where, in addition to the money for the investment, he would also net a ten percent royalty every month from the business profits; and if the business was ever sold, then he would reap ten percent from that transaction and all those future from that time. In addition, the new owner would bear the same sort of royalty obligations as well, as would the new one following him. In this manner, he managed to farm the property out rather than just kill the goose that laid the golden egg, as the locals seemed to begrudgingly suggest that he had some unwritten moral obligation to do. Of course, while the family appreciated the kind attention, the newspapers publishing a front page account of a person's new-found wealth, honestly did not seem to help his personal local relationships out very much.
Ordinarily such prosperity and fortune from a neighbor generated salutations of good luck and happiness from one's coworkers, neighbors and dear friends. Contrary to logic, it was to be observed that something strange in this close knit community had occurred following the announcement of one families' personal progress in the local paper. Instead the sensations that now radiated outward from the locals surrounding were just definitely not the same anymore, so it began to feel within the Johanson household.
At work his accountant wife noticed a smug coldness suddenly emanating from her coworkers, that she never recalled taking notice of before. She couldn't quite explain it, but it was almost as if she as an individual.., suddenly did not exist, like she had now transformed into a ghost on the wall, or something. She was astounded from the realization that all reaction was, as if....she had committed some vile offense of one sort or another. These were all people whom she had known for the duration of her entire life, and the feeling presently was becoming one more of heartbreak and hurt, than cheers of congratulation or salutations. Her response was to just convince herself that the antagonizing atmosphere was only temporary, and to surround herself within a hard shell of self protection, until the ominous cloud had passed.
The problem in this approach was that more than just a few years had passed by now, and the negative atmosphere was still yet alive, well and even thriving. For instance, she was up for a raise in both pay and promotion. To be promoted also meant that she would have received benefits and been placed on a retirement schedule, able to build a really tidy nest egg, so to speak. Her supervisor, the president, also an older man whom she had known all her life and one more whom had suddenly silenced himself toward her.., asked her to step into his personal office for a moment upon receiving her application. He only read the application as he glared down upon her from above antique spectacles that had somehow slid down upon his hooked, glistening nose, with a most sinister sneer that he unsuccessfully attempted to conceal.
“I am reading your application here....and what I see appears to be somewhat sufficient..., but I just do not see the realistic justification for any of it, to speak the truth to you here as we both presently stand in each others company within these four walls ....”
“What do you mean? I do not understand,” she then asked in earnest.
“Well...it's like this...Some times we have to ask ourselves, what are we about around here? Do we support individual people or are we only about our own personal gain? Are we caring and compassionate or do we just want to add more of the nice pie into the plate that we already have sitting before us,” he said to her?
“What,” she snapped in shock and surprise?! “What on earth are you speaking of? Just be out with it, please!”
“Well..it's like this,” he continued to sneer. “Just what does a multimillionaire’s wife need a raise and a promotion for, if not general greed and lack of compassion for others in need?”
“Because I am in line for it and should put in for the job..., that's why,” she snapped! “It's called, self improvement, for crying out loud around here! Is that not what we are all about here as well? Is such not the sole justification for our very salary in the first place? We have the well-fare office for any sort of socialist concerns, for your information here!”
“Personally...,” he continued to sneer, “it's all on that note... that I am going to decline your application for the promotion. You see, a person with access to your kind of wealth does not really need the job anyway. You are not in need of the promotion as a job, nor the raise and extra wealth generated.., so I am going to save it for someone who does in lieu of this revelation in your attitude concerning this matter, as it has been so presented....”
…..Elsewhere on the premises life continued on in such ways that more illustrated the point in conclusion, that maybe...just maybe, the Johanson clan may need to simply remove themselves from their presently oppressive surroundings. True self improvement appears to generate a need for the beneficiaries to make a new life elsewhere in more cases than just a few, so it seems when we make our honest observations. On top of what had already taken place, there were other surrounding examples of obvious corruption that served to reinforce that conclusion....
…..Then there was the local technology repair instructor, for instance...., an elderly, somewhat large individual, with a flowing beard of snow white that appeared more to resemble Santa Clause than anyone else. He even dressed to play Santa Clause from time to time. The gentleman was long since retired from years of fighting wars and various conflicts, but held a casual cheerful demeanor about himself, which everyone really enjoyed being around.
The technology instructor employed an assistant instructor, who always labored diligently by his side, offering his helpful interjections to the best of his professional ability to do so. The assistant could be most pleasant to work around, but also was very confrontational when he felt the need to be so. The quality of his work was extraordinary, however, to say the very least. This man's creative abilities allowed him to design complete computer programs and even moving, working.., nay I should say, even the most delicate of robots..., some even bearing extremely realistic likenesses of the female gender and others, such as the president himself in playful jest...,in the most appealing of ways. Very few could even dare to question his personal contributions or skill here.
The assistant had a dear wife once upon a time back during those days. The wife turned very sour toward him for his long absence from home, at work. In time, she found another man who promised her the moon, the stars and a rainbow caviar, royal serving, on a decorate' silver platter. She took him up on his offer and flew away on a magic carpet with him..., to a land far, far into the beyond. In time, even the glitz that this supposed genie had to offer her, could not keep her there inside his bottle with him.., so she wished herself right back upon the homemade brick door steps of her former husband's modest cottage home.
Her former husband then did the right thing, however..., he told her that he had fitted a new style of souped up motor onto the latest version of the stick sweeper, and told her that the very best thing that she could do right now would be to kick start it, then take a spin around the universe for a while. Even though she only continued to stand there all alone on his doorstep, crying in the rain, he eventually closed the door and simply ignored her from that point onward..., hoping in silence that even the purest of shite would simply just melt away right there in the pouring rain!
The assistant was determined to have a life in-spite of his adversity, so he takes a ride out into the surrounding countryside and finds a glittering fairy princess. In the due course of time, this fairy princess eventually invites him in to abide with her in the emerald fairy castle nestled deep inside the enchanted forest somewhere; so just like any true red blooded man of the Kris-crossed cloth, he did so. The two then lived happily ever after..., for a delightful time, that is.
In time, however, adversity was to rear it's ugly face again. The troll king of the central academy caught wind of the assistant's happy arrangement, from a chirping sparrow floating merrily upon a mid day breeze, then dared to call him into his office for a private consultation. The end result was that the assistant exploded in anger toward the troll king, who dared to question him concerning the perceived morality of his living arrangement... and the kind troll king then terminated his employment status right there on the spot for doing so...; and the jilted assistant never dared return to the premises again....,except when the price in his personal gain for his special expertise...., was very substantial for doing so. Few among those who cherished fortitude blamed him for it.., and we do truly mean that there were just a teeny tiny few.., right from the very bottom of our cheerful hearts.
Most, in-fact, held a great fear that extended beyond all valid reasoning, for the world outside of our little hamlet here, and any evaluations that did not substantiate that invalid fear were held in strict disregard, no matter whom it was who held them out to offer.
The cheerful technology instructor, who had once been employed as a gallant knight that fearlessly rode forward into battle, had a dear fairy wife and some nine fair haired children born unto him. All of the children had been raised up righteously inside the confines of the local cathedral..; learning the golden rule, learning the sacred commandments of ten, how to behave, walk and talk. As his dear wife labored away inside the kitchen at home and in her employment away from the house, a certain troll princess from somewhere way out in the countryside, suddenly appeared inside the literature department right there at the central academy of valid reason held in strict disregard. He was immediately enraptured by her very presence and strangely enough, she by his. While it is a fact that he was enraptured by the slim, well toned curvature of her enticing body, because as do most trolls, she did not have very much to offer directly in the face; she was enraptured more by the steady flow of gold from his past retirement allowance, since well educated mannerism nor kosher personality and appearance...were much to the ex-knight's forte.
The strange thing about this situation was that even though the same informing sparrow chirped every minute of every live long day, the righteous troll king neglected to even acknowledge the situation, preferring instead, to pretend that his staff would never stoop to such a despicable level of conduct when asked anything about it, and even aggressively saying so publicly in words, when he felt that it was in his own best interests to do so. His responsive actions now giving great credibility to the statement that something to be hidden is best done so right there in plain sight....!
…..Then there was the local black smith instructor, who endeavored to assail the ranks of the academic establishment. He was indeed an excellent instructor, who preached the necessity of maintaining a healthy moral character right along with the prized shop skill that he taught. He brazenly chastised the others in all of their shortcomings, even to the point of proudly declaring that all of them deserved their misfortunes by right of their infidelities. His intelligence level was somewhat higher than a majority of the others around him, at least, that such may be deduced by superficial observation. He was aware of this fact in himself, and he arrogantly reasoned that he was totally in control of all, having any future possibility for negative situations under tight, absolutely controlled wraps. He held to a deep dark secret, however, that only he knew of and the individuals thus involved...,so he invalidly reasoned.
You see, he was wed to the doctors' wife's cousin, who told her of all his brazen misdeeds in the neighboring hay barn with the dizzy blond just down the street; the middle of the corn field at late mid-night, with the fat lady who wears the near butch, GI haircut, who owns the florist shop just across from the wedding cake baker and the scented candle stick maker; in the parking lot of the local tobacco ware-house jamboree during the fall farmer's day festival..., with the native lady who wears the long flowing, waist length jet black hair...., and a number of other places much too risque to make mention of here, even in these pages. According to her, there was the secretary right there inside the main office..., very young..., with long hair the color of freshly mined Virginia coal, dressing pleasantly and appearing to be from the gypsy caravans that tended to drift through the small hamlet town during the spring and fall seasons of the yearly cycle.
There were also a number of unchaste fellow instructors whom he enjoyed meeting in secluded corners, including the troll princess who taught literature..., but these were all deep dark secrets that no one dared not even whisper about in public nor even the majority in private....,mainly out of fearing to arouse anger in Santa Clause or his dear wife back home in the North Pole. The sparrow tweeted dark secrets into the kind troll kings' beholding ear....and he must have investigated...and listened very attentively... with a certain tainted eagerness that tended to arouse his quiet interest, we shall deductively figure here.
When the instructor applied for an administrative position to sufficiently upgrade his professional standing and his future retirement position, even though he was way more than just merely qualified in every way..., he was denied the position consistently due to his questionable moral character..., and of course..., an informative note was placed to validate that fact, directly into his personnel file; but not his primary personnel file, mind you, his secondary administrative file held on all institutional personnel, reserved solely by the academy for their own exclusive administrative review, available to any other institution only by written administrative request. This asinine note was the true reason that he remained only a simple black smith instructor …until the very day of his retirement, with his retirement remaining only a meager two thirds of his basic wage...and without any benefits of any kind what-so-ever....
….Then there was the very kind old lady who was employed as an office clerk at the information desk, always being stationed right there just behind the double glass front door of the school; all of the staff called her Mrs. Susie Floozy, which we were shocked to learn was, in-fact, her true name. She may have been somewhat up in age at the time, but she carried a humming motor that just-could-not-stop, even if it wanted to, bless her dear heart. According to the talk, she had taken the entire school administrative staff for a hell benders spin, and a nice portion of the most appealing young bucks there among the student body appeared to nearly always keep her displaying a laughing, happy smile of seemingly perfect contentment. Some had even taken notice of the manner in which the honorable troll king himself suddenly perked up when Mrs. Floozy swanked on passed, him smiling toward her in some sort of silent appeal, always making time to converse with her and not ever hesitating, even for a single moment, to do so in private..., right there inside the administrative coordinators' office, for heavens sake!
Some observers vary daringly went on inside a step farther, even declaring that she had conversed with him right there on top of the oval meeting table itself, justifying this declaration by an additional claim of strange laughing sounds and thrilling slapping noises emanating through the air vents far into the labyrinth of the building complex! She playfully called the troll king, El Mondo, for some reason that no one among the academic staff could ever figure out, causing him to bashfully blush and smile broadly when in public, then quickly attempt to conceal it from the staff and others surrounding him. The odd name just appeared to be a pet nick-name, as far as any of us could ever tell. The name sounded to all of us with a pleasant enough ring, that it should suffice to label him as such from here on out in this narrative.
To speak the honest truth about all of this gossip, Mrs. Floozy actually did bear a tantalizingly fine but firmly curved figure that really justified all of this pleasant attention. She worked out at the local gem on a regular basis; she was a dedicated member of the local aerobics club, the JC's, the Cuannas, the singing Goose-Lick quartet swimming committee, etc. She was also a proud member of the local PTA, but such is another story for a time later on. She bore a pleasantly persuasive personality that caused one to feel compelled to offer her their very best first..., then and only then, would come the offer to all of the others..., that is, if she turned the original offers down. The others could only remain paused to wonder as to the real reason why. Usually a generous gift from her would soon follow or would be graciously offered to persuade or convince one that choosing her for the particular acknowledgment ...was most certainly the perfectly divine move made in their own best interests....
….Mrs Floozy had competition, however. Another dear angel just as tarnished but not nearly as firm or calculating, so therefore always failing to maintain her status position with any sort of majestic grace or debonair, as did Mrs. Susie Floozy. This lady tended to bear lose flab in places that demanded exact firmness, though she was some fifteen years younger than Mrs. Floozy. Her personality could be raspy at times, seemingly at those times when it needed to be most pleasant and appealing. Because of this fact, people tended to anger at her, but held that anger deep inside...,until the most appropriate of times, I should say.
You see, this lady, while she had flab in places that needed to remain perfectly firm, she dragged a really nice caboose ..,that tended to magnetize all of mankind throughout the entire academy administration and the surrounding hamlet neighborhood, compelling them all to over-look her flab and sometimes foul personality.. just for the opportunity to leap inside that beautiful caboose.., for a most pleasant ride to boast about. Here they both could exercise all of their pent up anger and frustration; her toward the job and her own lack of advantage, and they toward her for her unjustified hatefulness and rude antagonism. If the boss ever felt like complaining about her lacking in personal qualities, all that she had to do was give him a timely ride in late night seclusion, around the block a time or three, in that blessed carousel caboose ….and he was guaranteed to remain quite about it and everything else, since it was well known that his little rainbow flower waiting patiently on his return home..., would simply just wilt right there in her dear seat, if she ever knew the real truth.
Her name was Elizabeth, but her co-workers simply called her Broom Lizzie, since she appeared to have a doe fondness from time to time, when the bucks all seemed to turn and run in spite of her very best efforts in trying to appeal; but in fact, the claim was simply rumor and the real truth could never be determined, but the very true fact of her keenly attentive eye could never be held in denial!
All claims aside, however, according to old King Mondo, really early on those dreary Saturday mornings in mid December and January, deep inside mankind's corner next to the time honored wood stove, just near the inside rear of old man Nimvel Harry's general hardware store..., she could certainly smoke the best cabana cigar that he had ever seen such a hooked nosed woman do in all of his live long days, he would boastfully declare. According to him, she would puff on it just like she was mad at the entire world or something and by doing so, she somehow managed to exercise all of her raw demons; the vanilla nectar flavor resulting, causing her to become just as mellow and calm as a glass of pure mountain spring water! Her pronounced aggressiveness almost appeared to demand dedicated satisfaction from time to time, and the only element to induce this fulfillment was the remaining nectar flavor that she appeared to even deeply relish, just judging from the tarrying expression on her face at the conclusion of her blessed performance!
She earned the name, Broom Lizzie, in other ways too, just to be fair about it.... Her poor husband, all broken down from be-drudging years of work and worry so lovingly generated by the affections of his dear wife, now being reduced into a wheel chair for life. Though he was still yet living, he might as well be dead, as far as she were concerned. The pain in his joints forced him to load up on pills of every sort available at the time, for just a slight sensation of relief, true relief only fleeting from his grasp like dust in the dry mid-summer wind. Sadly, he was bound for ever-more to the confines of a wheel chair; though the pills could offer only a slight relief, they robbed him of his ability to jump into that carousel caboose, for gracious sake...and simply speaking, there was no help for him what-so-ever in the end.
She attempted to smoke the cigar most immediately near to him, hoping that just the sight of the act in progress might generate a new found resolve, allowing him to jump into that blissful caboose once more again just for old time's sake, if for nothing else..., but the act was simply of no use to her anymore ….and she had exhausted herself in the care and effort long, long ago. So she commenced to parade the caboose all around town; at first for the simple pleasure in receiving the feeling that comes with the royal treatment.... and of course..., the fulfilling vanilla nectar..., but these days she was only after a most gracious allowance in gold, wrapped solidly in social and professional advancement..., all of this in-spite of her nice appealing reputation and most pleasant appearance, according to those whom she came into daily contact with.
Her dear children ...she had long since ignored; one now a tarnished barrister who seduced her most appealing clients, only living to hex them from their gold and property endowments; another a Priest, who only lived to persuade the nuns and even the alter boys into the Devils' employment; then the last, an outright herb induced purloining villain, who had wasted his life in a forgotten cold stone dungeon somewhere way out in nether-land. She only lived to continue on as though she could care less, seldom thinking a single thought in their behalf. So it was, for all of these happy qualities, that she rightfully earned her loving local name, Broom Lizzie. Matter of fact, she even rudely admitted to all of the claims by readily answering to being called by her local nick-name, just as if it was her honest, birth given name.
Across the narrow two rut road on the other side of the cottage, sat the quaint home of the dear Grandparents. Beside them on the same side of the road was their son, and his wife... and their two children. All of them appeared to love and enjoy the companionship of the other, readily meeting over at the home of the Grandparents for all of the sacred holidays. If their adoration was not genuine, then the display that was made was most definitely of a highly creative nature. On many occasions, their actions suggested the sliver of possibility ..that the honest flow of genuine care and concern was mighty thin, especially after the windfall article was published; but then, no one dared not even speak of it by word of mouth, only doing so instead with their eyes and near telepathic thought.
It was into this small hamlet that on one starlit night in spring, a child was born onto the Johanson estate. There in the comfortable cottage home, in the bedroom closest to the fireplace, was born the gentle babe. The babe was just an average child, but one that was deemed as having a zest for new adventure, since he only smiled and laughed upon being born, the first of his kind ever seen born by the elders. Fear of new experience did not seem to hold him within it's grasp. Unlike any child ever seen born by the others, this child did not shed tears until he hungered, which did not take long following his birthing.
Time passed, the child interacted with the other children and soon formed bonds of friendship that were to be treasured for a life time. It was during this time that his exploration of the surrounding area came into being. In the ponds he viewed the geese swimming with the ducks, and came to see them with personality and mannerism all of their own. Some times they even reminded him of certain specific people, when he imagined that the pond was his church congregation or later on, his class at school.
He saw the chickens pecking around all over the landscape areas of the community in which he lived. The chickens bore another type of personality that identified them as individuals who appeared to converse with one another, even gossip among them selves, becoming really greedy at times, due to the sudden prosperity of their neighbors.
As he made these observations he would walk through the meadows and pastures, observing the multicolored butterflies glinting from wild rose blossom to blossom as he walked along. Many of these creatures appeared to have heads of closely cut hair that glanced his way, nodding merrily as they arose on a spring breeze, to move on from beside him as he passed.
In a small pasture near his home, just across the narrow road running past his house, was a donkey who appeared happy being employed as guard for the sheep. Many times he would walk near to the pasture and the donkey would bray as though he were attempting to speak. Often when he did bray into the wind, holding his head high, a lone visitor would approach from within the backdrop or the skies would begin to cloud and the rains would commence to pour. It was almost as if the donkey were a keeper of knowledge unknown to the average and a keeper of secrets in general, he would think to himself as he played about in the neighborhood and beside the green pasture.
On Sunday morning he was nearly always sitting right there in the seat of his local parish. The building was constructed in the typical grand cathedral style, but in a very conservative manner that betrayed a general lacking of funds with large inflows. Many times the place even appeared to be in need of basic maintenance and no one within could ever figure out how the funds were going to be appropriated, but somehow an anonymous figure always appeared to provide the required financing..., just in the nick of time, every time seemingly just before the rain leaked through the roof or the power went out. According the rumor, the anonymous figure was surly the president of the local central academy, since he took in a salary far greater than any others in the area surrounding. All of this he accomplished less than two kilometers from his farm cottage estate.
Others claimed that it was the child's father who tended to give generously, since he had productive investments there in the small hamlet and in many other places up and down the mountain range. There were the investments in town, such as his rental homes, his storefronts and the like. On the edge of town he had a tree farm, some open farmland scattered throughout the province, and a growing stock account in several surrounding successful engagements; most certainly he was in need of a nice tax write off, they all said among themselves.
On Sunday morning, the child and his family passed through the wide opened wooden doors that generated a very warm radiation, where everyone loved the other, hugging all of them warmly as they all moved up and down the congregation aisle. In the fore aisle sat the local academy president, old King Mondo himself, who would at times, even pretend to act as preacher in his standing, since he automatically received the approval of all without ever having to request it. Before he would commence with the sermon, he would always move through the crowd shaking hands, welcoming, speaking kind words of blessing from the brilliant one above, through himself and unto all of them who gathered about there inside the congregation. He had a way of pinching the boy children on the nerve of their neck base as he walked by, that our child here in observation never particularly liked. The other kids called him Trapper Jack, since by the time he had turned five, he had already begun to master the art of trapping wild animals for meat and fir, making his own contribution to the family table. In time, the name shortened to TJ, for the frugal purpose of conserving both breath and space on the handwritten or printed page.
Two seats down sat Mrs. Susie Floozy, who arose to speak more kind words as the congregation was being seated. She would pass through the crowd, welcoming all warmly, appearing more as a local Grandmother to the others than any thing else, except to the ones present who personally knew better. She would also pause to pay special attention to the dear children, who would race before her with outstretched hands, begging for gifts, which she always seemed to have...;.such as candy, crackerjack toys and dime store novelties. One time the child could recall receiving a strange powder from her that caused small pebbles to transform into large stones or multicolored rubber like sea creatures, when dropped into a water filled aquarium or emptied pickle jar filled with water. One just never knew what gift it was that he would receive from good Mrs. Floozy, so it was said among the kids.
On the other side of the congregation, directly across from Mrs. Floozy, sat Broom Lizzie, who always feared being out done by Mrs. Floozy. She would saunter in among the moving mass, forcing herself to smile, curtsying, appearing as though it were a royal pain to do so; speaking kind words of sanctified blessing as though she had to force them across her hardened, dark lavender painted lips. As she passed, she would carefully eye each and every individual that she chanced to encounter...as though she were in search of something unknown to the observant children. This observation was noticed especially when she encountered the men of the community, and even more so if the men were new arrivals into the hamlet, but yet rumored to be blessed with an ever increasing abundance. Beyond that, she was known by the kids as being a kind lady, though somewhat flaky, who held ice cream parties frequently in her home and allowed the kids freedom like no other adult anywhere else did. Her own kids were very fun to play with and simply just be around as well, thought the kids in the surrounding community. Still however, she could have her unpleasant moods periodically with no justification, even while in their company.
Two seats behind Mrs. Floozy sat the technology instructor, who smiled broadly, appearing even more so like Santa Clause to the kids while he was at church. He arose to greet the adults, but never hesitated to show attention to the kids, always laughing, smiling, as he paused to tell the kids a silly joke or make some sort of senseless logical analysis of one sort or another, declaring aloud that kids understood more legitimate reasoning than adults.
On most Sundays his assistant would saunter in among the church congregation, being very careful to take his proper seat on the side of the congregation opposite of Santa Clause, and somewhat nearer to the front door of the building. His appearance was that of a quiet but strong, very intelligent native individual, speaking freely when encountered but rarely venturing outside his personal area to do so. He was assertive in his opinions, but very careful to avoid Old King Mondo at all costs, even while there at church. While at church, he was polite enough to force himself to nod the word hello to Mondo, but very reserved in making the effort, always being very careful to avoid the necessity of doing so every time that such was possible to do and himself still being able to save face in the process.
On the left hand side of the church congregational hall, sat both of TJ's parent's, his grandparents and his brother somewhere near the center. Directly behind them sat his aunt and uncle and their two girl children, who were every bit as rowdy, if not more so, than their male cousins. During the church services the children would frequently smile at one another from behind their parent's back as they leaned forward to stand or sing from the hymnal, causing a laughing surge to well up that could not be quelled or repressed by even the most grand of efforts, soon exploding into gleeful laughter among them all.....right there in the midst of the services, of all places!
At the rear of the congregational hall sat the black smith instructor. His quiet mustachioed demeanor attempted to conceal a figure underneath that even the kids were never quite certain of. He would smile broadly at the kids who raced about just after the services, but appearing even to the kids, to only quietly acknowledge certain adults present, while attempting to avoid acknowledging some few others.
On his left side sat his dear wife, who appeared to the kids as though she forced herself to dress or had... in some strange sort of way, forced her bargain purchased dress to fit over her obviously growing torso. To the kids, everything about her appeared to be forced, from her slightly off plumb, proper speech, right on down to just her efforts at brushing her hair, her hair appearing as though it desired to simply tangle and just give up on all life, right there on top of her head.
At church the kids called him Senior El Mario, the Donkey Kong man, which made him laugh. The adults later on, somehow managed to pick this name up..., which tended to anger him very noticeably, strangely enough, in a most shocking sort of way..., some certain ones doing so only in private among themselves, neglecting to notice the kids within their midst; but such is a story that we will refrain from discussing while we are here on the church grounds.
To the rear of the right hand congregational hall, all alone seated on the very last pew, sat the dear wife of the good king, Mondo. Her elderly face appearing positively enlightened when among the crowd and congregation, but somewhat sullen and vexed when alone. Most could only marvel as too the reason why, when it appeared so radiantly that every possible pleasure in mortal life loomed right there within her firm grasp! A number made the observation but virtually none dared to make any mention of it, all fearing some sort of terrible retribution, since King Mondo was also very active politically and knew well the master Sultan, who held all of the gatekeeper's keys to the entire province of Cromartie Range.
With only a mere mention, the great Sultan could literally destroy anyone whom he desired to do so. With a single click of a computer button, any person could be bared from employment in any profession, especially one that was sanctioned by the ruling province, which held the very best potential for employment along with the most abundance in quality jobs. Most business enterprises, if not indeed all, were indentured to the provincial system; so either directly or indirectly, they were led by the whims of the provincial authoritarians. The excluding power of the sub-contract, effectively purchasing entire developments before the developers even broke ground, secured the main employers from any possibility of competition arising among enterprising self-employed individuals. This prevailing fact also rendered all of the individuals, no matter what their status-quot, subjective victims to the whims of the system and ultimately, the master Sultan himself; hence indirectly, his most cherished of associations.
If all else failed, the Sultan could charge any estate whom he desired, with outstanding tax debt, justifying it in dozens of ways known only when the procedure was forced into court at the purloined expense of the poor victim, no matter how much it was that the victim was worth. In the end, the fight was most certain to be won by the condemning province, whose investment was then redeemed by a total property and financial account confiscation of all holdings and properties held in trust of the victim. The poor victim, now rendered destitute and void of his belabored estate..., left only to wonder the dark highways and byways in search of new ways to reestablish himself, but in most cases, finding none deemed as legal. Going the illegal route only led one directly into the cold stone floored dungeon, destined only to labor underneath chain and whip on the Sultans landed estate and those of his associates; so it was, in this manner, that many innocents were effectively destroyed indirectly by the great Sultan and King Mondo himself.
There were numerous others as well, both known and unknown by the author, who bore a similar relationship to the Sultan, although depending on the strength of their relationship to the Sultan, could be enemies just as antagonizing to one another, if not much more so than the innocents abroad. It was because of this prevailing reality, that average people tended to tread very lightly, absorbing abuse and simply smiling about it, rather than resisting or even daring to complain. If the great Sultan had been gracious enough to allow them employment and quiet lives, then they were only obliged to be contented with this fact alone, asking nothing more than what was agreed in return for their honorable skilled services rendered. It was a common place saying among the citizens of the province, that they all were to stand honorable and with pride, in service to the province first, the hamlet second and surrounding communities; then in service to one another, with themselves and their own interests in complete sacrifice.
With great pride King Mondo stood before the congregation and commenced the sermon for the day, declaring aloud with smiles and salutations;
“Good morning, dear neighbors, coworkers, friends and family. We have gathered here to day to speak of our personal trials and tribulations, paying our respects to all of those present whom deserve it, those that have passed on and of course..., to the supreme Sultan above. In addition, all must plead in earnest for forgiveness, since we all have sinned. Sin is most surly the scourge of man-kind...Lets pause just for a moment ...to pray in silence as we go along here in our way this morning.....
A pause then prevailed for approximately three minutes, then his voice seemed to thunder from within the silent void.
…..Lets begin by showing our respects to the flags. See the two flags before us, the provincial flag and the flag of the sacred cross? Lets all turn and face the flag of the cross first, saying our cherished verse... Please repeat after me....
I pledge allegiance to the cherished flag of the cross and to the Savior for whose Kingdom it stands. One Savior, crucified, risen, and coming again with life and liberty to all who believe...
…Now lets turn to face the flag of our sacred province;
I pledge allegiance to the precious flag of the iron Maltese cross, to honor and to serve, with determination, resolve and fortitude, until victory shall carry us through the conflagration, or death no less, the most ultimate of altruistic sacrifice....
A pause of approximately three minutes then prevailed...
...Ladies and gentlemen, I do want to repeat now as I do so on every Sunday morning here, that just having the privilege to live in this fine province.., is an honor unto itself. I hate to beat this statement in the ground, but I honestly do feel that all of us take our great freedoms here for granted. Because of this reality, especially among our youth whom are now present...,I am going to repeat those freedoms as a list that I invite all of you to write out as I speak....behold..
Freedom of choice..
Freedom of speech..
Freedom of the written word...
Freedom of choice in employment...
Freedom of individual enterprise..
Freedom of property ownership..
Freedom to publicly criticize authority...
Freedom to peaceably assemble...
Another pause then prevailed for about a single minute.
And dear fellow countrymen.., this list could go on and on, outlining the advantages that we have in these freedoms that have set us apart from the all of the other provinces here on emerald earth..Still there are numerous others that all of us take for granted; such as the fact that we never discriminate on any basis, as such is decreed at present in our constitutional law. Please let it be said so right here, dear ladies and gentlemen now, that I feel that my effort is sufficient in making my point. My point here in making this sermon today is that there are reasons as to why it is, that we have these cherished freedoms.....
...The very first reason that we are allotted these precious freedoms is because we placed the supreme Sultan of the sky first in all of our undertakings; then we all endeavored to follow his commandments.... In review, please allow me to read those sacred commandments to all of you, here and now at this very moment in time...
Thou shalt not steal..
Thou shalt not commit adultery..
Thou shalt not bear false witness..
Thou shalt not fornicate...
Thou shalt abstain from drunkenness...,nay I shall venture to say, even shun the very appearance of all evil itself!
Thou shalt refrain from deceitful designs...
Thou shalt honor no other lord before me...
Thou shalt make no graven image unto me..
A short momentary pause prevailed....
Kids, all of you are commanded to honor thy father and mother, and to do so with new found pride and joy! Next time that your mother tells you to clean up your room, then you are to do so with nothing but joy in your hearts....!
My fellow neighbors and church members..., now on that solemn note...., lets pause for just a moment. When the music sounds and the plate passes your way, you may place your request for forgiveness and those of your mortal heart's desire here into the silk covered prayer box on the alter table, following your generous contribution to the house of the supreme Sultan.....”
The haunting organ music then commenced to sound, the sound played out being very reminiscent of Frederick Magle's Origin. King Mondo now commenced speaking with the organ song looming in the background.
“So it says in the Lambs Book Of Alms, suffer not your gifts unto the house, for as you freely offer thy gifts unto the house, then so shall it freely be given unto you.”
The music ceased when the plates were settled upon the alter and the last member had dropped his request into the box covered of mauve silk, then retaken his former seat.
“My fellow citizens of Cromartie Ridge...it is for these reasons that we are living the quality lives we are today..Yes, we have had many warriors who have battled our battles for us, only to come out victorious...,but the question still remains as to specifically why it was that they were victorious...; because I can tell all of you right here and now, that it was not by their own force or intelligence, it was due to the divine hand of the great supreme Sultan himself, I tell you...!”
As King Mondo spoke, TJ glanced around at a young girl of twelve, noticing her sandy blond head hanging when Mondo mentioned the virtues of honesty and the sin of covetousness...Her father was the one really qualified to hold the position of president at the central academy and the entire province well knew of it...He had the expertise..., the credentials.., everything...., but the proper contacts. King Mondo held that sole attribute, however..., and absolutely nothing else on a president's level...; but just look now who it was that stands so proudly in the position...,looming so forth right there , just like a righteous saint of some sort, before us all..Pretty soon her family along with the girl herself, arose to exit the church building, even doing so at their own potential future career peril. Virtually none among the congregational masses even glanced up to take notice of them leaving....;but I shall declare here aloud, that the purging effects of money and faith combined..., can even make the darkest of sheep lily white once more again, no matter what the nature of their dark transgressions.
A Day At School
The school building was a quiet little wooden box sitting merrily in the edge of a hard wood-stand, right beside a plowed dirt, base ball-field, on the side of the box opposite the woods. Home plate sat within fifty feet from the front door of the old school building and the porch. Class was held here within those walls..., walls and rooms that appeared gargantuan back then, but much later on, seemed no larger than his own bedroom. Here it was that he joyfully interacted with all of his friends from church and the surrounding hamlet community.
During the first grade, TJ sat on the second side row to the left, and the third seat from the front. In this manner, he could grasp every word spoken by the teacher. Matter of fact, he had two excellent teachers, since Mrs. Rouge, who was assistant to Mrs. Daite Blath, was every bit as helpful and encouraging as any teacher who ever stepped through the door in front of him.
The first grade division was the largest sector of the classroom; but the second grade division, which sat to the back side of the class, appeared to have more privileges than the first grade, so it appeared from the perspective of a poor first grader back then. Boy was TJ to become disappointed upon reaching the second grade, since second grade felt like the same material that had been covered in the first grade, with about as much advantage as the first grade. What he did like about the experience, right there inside the wooden box, was when the teachers allowed him complete liberty to go to the library and read any book of his heart's desire. All that was required for him to receive this granted liberty, was that he maintain an A average on all of his work. This included every subject loved with passion as well as all of those hated with an equal vigor.
The really good news in all of this was that if he was to have a problem at school, Mrs. Blath could then promptly address the problem, following church services on Sunday morning, with his Mother and concerned Father. Mrs. Blath was actually the dear wife of old King Mondo, but while at school she preferred to be known and respected as Mrs. Blath. Most of the kids and the local adults simply called her Mrs. Blath without regard, out of ignorance and respect more than anything else, since nearly everyone there in the hamlet under the age of fifty had been educated by her anyway.
He would never forget his first day at the school. His mother had brought him there...He could recall walking up to the front porch of the wooden box and seeing all of his friends from church sitting right there...Three raced up immediately upon seeing him as he walked up, Fish, CL and Crook. All three of them hugged him, saying to him with faces that glowed in radiating joy..
“Welcome to our school. We are so glad to see you here. All of us are going to have a good time. We are reading a really fun story and we have found a place right here, that reminds us of this faraway land that we are reading about in literature class.”
“Wow, I cannot wait,” TJ replied with great joy! “I cannot wait to go to this new land.”
“Well here,” said CL, “we must get passed the wicked witch, who if she catches us, will be certain to eat us all up.”
Instantly TJ's eyes fell upon the local girl who also attended his church, Donna Bonita. To him in all honesty, she did not look anything like a witch at all. In fact, he thought that she had to be the most beautiful girl that he had ever laid eyes on. She seized up an old clothes basket that had been sitting on the front porch of the school building for a while, raising the open end up, running toward the boys with a high pitched, charging yell....
“Come here, my little chickadees,” she pretended to snarl. “You are all mine now, all mine and can never belong to any body else!”
She raced up toward TJ, slamming the open end of the clothes basket over his head and pushing him down, until he was bent all up inside the basket as it sat right there on the ground before them.
“Now ...my little pretty, I am going to cook you and eat you all up,” she pretended to snarl!
CL raced toward the clothes basket, yelling to the others...
“Come on, now, come here everybody now! Lets rescue him and run away to Xanadu Land. She will never catch us there!”
Just across the ball field was a huge stand of woods with an ancient live oak tree that had imposing limbs which arched over, concealing what then felt like a large tract of land underneath the massive drooping arms. Underneath those arms grew brilliantly green leafed vines that held soft lavender flowers shaped like trumpets. Vines of white jasmine and golden honey suckle covered the entire expanse within the majestic enclosure, with not only their enrapturing sight, but also their sweet seductive scent that seemed to float about on the gentle breeze everywhere underneath the limbs and even outside of the limbs, to a limited extent. The vines were so thick that they all hung down like the curtain on a stage, blocking view of the inside from all those on the outside, who dared to try and peek inside.
On the inside of the enclosed expanse grew two or three narrow persimmon trees that produced fruit in the late summer and fall of the year. There were even an abundance of huckleberry bushes that produced huge clusters of berries during the mid-summer and early fall, giving competition among the children with the persimmons. Some small yaupon bushes grew about among the berries and the fruit. These leaves the boys knew produced outstanding smoking material for use inside an acorn hull pipe, especially when mixed with the leaves of jasmine and good dried corn silk. The strange thing was that these fruits grew no where else, anywhere nearby, as far as any of the kids or even most of the adults knew anything about. Just as soon as the boys made their way into the woods, they vanished into the thick veil cover created by the hanging vines. There they all sat scattered within the cover freezing motionless, remaining perfectly quiet as the girl walked into the woods.
“I know that you are all here, my little pretties..,” she said as she walked, glancing to the left and the right. Soon she spotted the area enclosed by the limbs. “So, I now see, that all of you think that you can hide from little ole me, do you....? Oh...by the sweet stars and the gentle sea, I can do what it is that all of you never knew...” She crept up silently, slipping into the vine veil... “as you hide here so quietly in your sweet.... Xanadu,” she screamed as she raced inside upon the boys, who yelled out of shear shock and surprise!
All of them screamed in both ecstatic joy and abrupt surprise, racing from the girl as she chased them again with the clothes basket, only to catch up with the boys and roll around upon the lush ground, all of them enveloped in bubbly laughing joy. Soon they settled down to view the area underneath the veil of vines. To them, the area seemed huge underneath the massive arching limbs of the oak that appeared to sweep the very ground beneath them. A crow soon landed immediately above them, sitting upon the uppermost point inside the veil, still yet high above their heads, so it felt to them. He glanced down as they played about and settled into a quiet curious observation. Donna pointed with her right index finger, directing the bird to the others.
“You see, I put a spell on the last boy that I did not like,” she whispered. “I turned him into a crow.”
The crow made a call, but sat in motionless observation.
“He is speaking to us,” she said.
“Well what is he saying,” asked TJ?
“He says, hello, I see all of you down there. I remember all of you.”
The crow moved his head from side to side, then made another call of a raspy tone.
“What is he saying now,” asked CL?
“He says that we are soon to have company. Lets sit still and see who it is that is walking up,” Donna whispered.
Soon a bush broke from on the outside of the veil. The vines rustled close to the ground and a fat brown bunny slowly moved passed the group of kids.
“Who was he,” asked CL?
“He was a boy that I once knew who loved to listen in on everyone's secret talk, then he would break out into a run, if he thought that he was about to get caught at it.”
“Wow,” gasped Fish! “I wanna be a rabbit. Rabbits have fun, running around and playing all the time.”
“Yea but their lives are not all fun and games. Look who's following in close behind the bunny.” She pointed toward the bush from which the rabbit just appeared. Silently eased a black cat with a white throat, walking in the exact steps of the bunny, who had disappeared into the foliage ahead of the group now.
“Who is that,” asked Fish?
“I think that is Miss Broom Lizzy. Sometimes she will make me angry. If she does not turn herself into a cat, I might do so for her.....I had much rather turn her into a pregnant female dog, though, right now, however....Sometimes, the way that she acts makes me feel like doing this..I know that it is so bad of me to feel this way.”
All of the kids in the group broke into a muffled laughter at the thought.
“That picture would suit her just about right at this time, I must agree as well” snickered TJ.
“We could turn all of them at church into something funny that would suit them well,” laughed CL.
“Except Miss Floozy, she could be our pixie sprite, who follows us around and gives all of us good instruction and advice,” said Donna.
“What about Miss Blath,” asked Crook. “What could we turn her into?”
“She reminds me of a bird.., maybe a blue jay, with the way that she chirps at us all of the time,” laughed Fish.
“I was thinking more of a flower....I don't know what kind...I don't know, but lets look around. There are some flowers on the other side of the oak here,” replied Donna with a smile and a pause as she placed her hands upon her hips.
As the two made their way around the huge ridged trunk of the ancient oak tree, they found a small patch of tulips and petunias, with an iris of lavender standing alone in the exact center of the patch. The iris appeared to reign in majesty above the other flowers by a whole foot or more, dominating the scene.
“There she is is,” pointed Donna as she cried in joy at her discovery. “There is Miss Blath! An iris ruling a class room filled with other flowers. There she is!”
All of the others raced from around the tree to behold the marvelous sight that appeared to leap out before them.
“What do you think that she is teaching them,” asked TJ?
“Why.., of course, she is teaching them how to stand, the proper way to address the others, what clothes to wear and how to present themselves, the proper ways to dress and the right colors to present themselves in. Wouldn't you know it..there really is nothing else that could be taught here in this class room today,” replied Donna.
“What about the shamrocks by the base of the patch there? What is their purpose,” asked CL?
“Why, of course, those are the carpet and the chairs,” replied TJ.
“Don't forget the perfume that everyone is wearing today,” said Fish, with a smile toward Donna. “They all must be taught the proper scents to display and the proper times to do it. Mrs. Blath is really big on that sort of stuff, you know. She is always telling you girls about this kind of information. She calls it etiquette, and tells us of far away schools that teach it and how pristine girls, as she calls them, were all sent there back in the past, a long time ago.”
“Yea..., they sent them there during the summer months, when the hands were working the fields and gardens to the profit of their parents' illustrious estates,” said Donna with a deep sigh.
“I wish that I could have lived back in those days. I would have been really rich and had lots of hands, and a caring door butler as well,” said CL with a twinkle of sudden excitement lingering in his eye.
“She showed us clear pictures of those grand estates back in the past....The mansions with the really big columns that looked more like the Parthenon in Athens or something, than just houses; the really big flower gardens with ponds all surrounded by statues of the Greek gods.., the dutiful servants tending the gardens and the house servants tending the mansion interior.....It must have been wonderful to have lived back then,” said TJ with a sign.
“What happened to all of the mansions and the pretty gardens,” asked CL? “Did we have those around here?”
“Well, according to what Mrs. Blath told us, there was a big war. The Sultan king of all the provinces decided that he wanted the money made by the estates in the enterprising provinces..., all for himself. So he sent his army of knights in to force the people to give him all of their money. A really bad war started because of it, since the people who owned the estates refused to hand the money over. The Sultan told all of the servants, that if they would help him and his army fight, that he would personally give them plenty of land stolen from the estate owners and all of the people's secret riches stored away on it, that they could find. So for this reason, the servants took sides with the Sultan and his huge army of knighted thieves,” Donna informed them.
“Who won the war,” asked Fish with a puzzled look on his face?
“Unfortunately, the Sultan and his army of thieves,” said Donna with a sad look on her face. “That is the reason that no grand estates stand now, cause from that point on, all of our grandparents and parents were forced to pay half of their money or even more that we earn from working, to the greedy Sultan and his army of mean thieves.”
“Well...I am going to have an great estate anyway, when I get grown,” snapped CL. “I will leave and go to another kingdom, then, if this one will not let me have it! The Sultan can just take a hike on a long road, or go down to the grand poo-BA below, for all that I care!”
All of them laughed for a short spell.
“That explains all of these ruins that I find around here, where nothing but the columns are standing and the whole place is covered in honey suckle vines and wild sweet potato,” said Fish with a surprised look on his face. “Tell me more about what happened,” asked Fish to Donna.
“Well, you know, Mrs. Blath told us all about it in class, not too long ago. I asked my Grandfather about it, and he said that it was all true,” replied Donna with her eye brows raised.
“What was true,” asked Fish?
“Mrs. Blath said that the servants took sides against the owners of the luxurious estates, and the great Sultan who lords over the provinces promised them land and all of the riches that they could find or steal. He offered them the freedom to run all over the estates and abuse the owners and their families just as much as they felt like doing. The servants then helped them attack the owners of the estates, burning, stealing and hurting innocent people, while the Sultan and his army of thieves simply looked the other way. Once he felt like he had robbed the people of all their wealth and destroyed their peaceful lives of luxury and plenty, then he and his villainous men passed on through, leaving the innocent only to starve and die among the smoldering ruins and fields,” Donna continued.
“What happened to the servants,” asked CL?
“Grandfather told me that all of them were chased down the mountain range and out toward the sea,” said Donna. “Many of them were hanged because of what they did and the outrageous crimes that they had committed. Grandfather said that a mighty, avenging army of ghosts moved against them in the near future from that time of the war, attacking late one Christmas night, intending to restore honor in the name of those whom had once been innocent victims of the knighted thieves and traitorous servants and to avenge their spilled blood, then disappeared upon soundly defeating all of them. According to Grandfather, the ghosts were the spirits of those valiant warrior innocents whom had fallen in battle against the thieving knights, that were conjured up by the grand warlock, Corvus Rex, who reigned by casting death spells from the old stony hill fort high up on Mason Devil's mountain.
And you know something else? Grandpa said that the servants never received their promises of land or gifts from the Sultan for helping him in battle nor were they able to steal much wealth, since this sort of activity was anticipated by the innocent estate owners ...and all of the real wealth was carefully hidden, long before the army of thieves ever made it to the estates. That is how justice was restored at the expense of those who were unjust, according to Grandpa.”
“Wow,” said fish as he stared outward in surprise! “I wish that I could have been there to have seen it. I would have fought all of them off. The dirty dogs would not have stolen anything from me!”
“What did the servants look like,” asked TJ, with a slight laugh.
“Like short, dirty yellow and faded red gargoyles with long tails. They had very sharp teeth and claws. Some of them had six fingers and toes, according to Grandpa,” said Donna, “and they were really mean and had nasty tempers. I also heard that they liked to live off of people's blood and could go about it in ways where the people were forced to allow them to draw it. According to Grandpa, some people were leeched bone dry because of it.”
“Where are they at now,” asked TJ. “I hope that none of them are around here anywhere.”
“Well, I told you,” sighed Donna, “they had been ran down the mountain and on out toward the sea. So I have been told, many of them still live out toward the sea.”
“Well, I am never leaving Goose-lick hamlet here. This is home and where I am going to stay for ever and ever,” yelled CL, filled with pride and excitement!
“Me too,” replied Fish!
“Me too, but I don't know...probably,” hesitated TJ in making his reply, yet still smiling with joy in his voice!
Donna preferred to simply remain quiet, but then laughed out loud, telling the others that it was about time for class to begin. All of them raced back toward the old wooden box of a school building, yelling with joy as they did so.
The group arrived back at the porch on the wooden box where they went to class. As they crossed the threshold enveloped in cheerful conversation, Mrs. Rouge and Mrs. Blath were inside taking an account of the kids as they entered.
“Come on inside. Come on inside, please get quiet and be very quick about it,” both of them yelled to the kids as they entered. “Come on inside and lets quickly get seated, class, because today we have lots to talk about.”
“What are we going to talk about,” several of the students inquired?
“Today we are going to speak about the history of the province and how it is that we have such a gracious amount of freedom and liberty. No other province anywhere has been blessed such as ours' here, and we are going to talk about it today. So lets all settle down and listen to everything that is being said today, so that we can learn what it means to live in Cromartie Ridge here and how wonderful it is to live in Goose-lick hamlet.”
All of the kids moved into their seats placed into rows, then quickly settled down to listen to the teacher as she spoke. Mrs. Blath then continued on in her speaking.
“Did all of you know that we were once ruled by the evil kingdom of frogs across the deep and wide lake out there? The saying used to be that the sun never set on the world wide kingdom of frogs. But the frogs wanted us to work for them, giving them most of our money and food that we labored from the earth. Our forefathers rebelled against them because of this demand, refusing to give them their hard earned resources and a really big war started because of it.”
“Well who won the war,” asked Crook, sitting next to the front of the class?
“Why, of course, we did,” snapped Mrs. Blath. “Our forefathers won...”
“Were you alive then,” asked Crook?
“No...., it happened a long, long time ago,” replied Mrs. Blath, “but we still need to talk about it for a while.”
“Well what happened,” asked another kid next to Crook?
“Well, the evil frog king sent his agents over here to occupy this province, so that they could take everybody's money and food as they earned it. They wanted to collect it up and send it all back to the king and his court. After the agents arrived, they put out the order telling people that they could not own weapons, they could not even leave their local communities without written permission from an agent. They also told the people that they could not speak out against the king. They could not print anything except what was approved by the frog king. Before they could buy or sell, they had only the choice of going through the agents to do it, and they had to receive a stamp showing that they had paid the same amount again in taxes, if they were buying; and half the value received, if they were selling. Anyone caught buying or selling without the stamps would be sent away to the dungeon and never seen again, all the people presuming that the very worst had happened to him.
Our forefathers were brave, however, so they began to sneak around buying from undocumented sellers and selling to the same people. The prices for the goods were much higher then than normal, but not as high as they were after paying the heavy taxes. They also began to lay back stores of weapons that they hid from the agents, so that they could eventually make war on them when they became better organized inside their communities. In time, they did make war on them, by organizing into platoons, attacking the frog agents, killing them and taking their weapons. Then they could outfit more men to do some more fighting. This is how they organized and fought their war.”
“What happened when it all ended,” asked another kid near the front of the class?
“When it all ended, the great army of frogs surrendered to us, then we made our demands for freedom and told them exactly what freedoms it was that we wanted.
“What freedom was it that we wanted,” all of the kids asked?
“Here,” spoke Mrs Blath, “I'll list them for you..
Freedom of speech...
Freedom of the press...
Freedom of lawful enterprises...
Freedom of religion....
Freedom to assemble...
Freedom of employment with due accountability...”
“What does that mean,” asked another kid from the far right hand side of the classroom?
“What that means,” replied Mrs. Rouge, “is that if you are qualified for the job, then you have a right to secure that position. It also means that you cannot be terminated without verifiable facts supporting the conclusion of doing so being necessary. This requirement is called the employment security due process clause. That is how your parents can get jobs and hold them, allowing all of you your fine comfortable lifestyles, nice toys and good food that you eat. You have freedom from discrimination too, and that means that nobody can harass you or fire you off of your job just because they don't like the place that you are from or the way that you look to them. Some people get harassed and fired from their jobs because they are too old, but it is against the law if they do.”
Mrs. Rouge then took a deep sigh, scanning the papers carefully with her bespectacled eyes as she held them within her hands.
“To summarize here today with our history lesson, class...Our entire history is founded upon the rule of gold out lined in the Lambs' Book Of Alms, that we study every Sunday in church. Do all of you remember it,” asked Mrs. Rouge?
The entire class then replied in unison..
“Always do unto others as you would have them do unto you, because every motivation demands a response in kind and on some level.”
Both teachers then smiled a bright gleaming smile back out toward the class....
“That is so right, dear class..., and all of you have done so very well here today! I am really proud of you all. I hereby assign the grade for class participation today..., as that of an A! You may all go home and tell the good news to your parents...”
All of the kids respond by cheering and clapping their hands in joy to the words of the teacher, following her closing statement.
The passage of time
and the big move
Time continued to march on passed, and the small wooden box of an elementary school was soon to transform into the large brick and iron bar Bastille of high school. TJ did not really wish to attend, since the neighborhood boundaries had been transformed, forcing him outside of his familiar home area. He had family members who had never even bothered to go and all of them were doing well without that experience. If he had been allowed to attend school in his familiar home area, then maybe the experience would not have been all that bad. Being forced to pull four years in a place that one did not wish to go, did not do very much to make a person excited about going.
Luckily for him his Father had sensed his apprehension in being forced to attend in an alien environment. In addition, because of the negative reactions from their neighbors and his mother's coworkers, just because they had really managed to improve their lives financially and socially, his Father rightfully decided that it was time to relocate.
TJ did not know where it was that they were going to go, but he really did enjoy anticipating the new place that he would call home. He hated to leave all of his friends, but even he had noticed that his friends were not quite the same toward him as they once were. His life long friend, Fish, for instance, barely even payed him any attention at all. When Fish was around him, he felt like a ghost in the room, just sitting and observing. CL had relocated himself some forty miles or so away. Little lovely Miss Donna Bonita had moved somewhere far away to live her own nefarious adventures, so he had been told by a number of people there in Goose-lick who knew her family well. Her story would most certainly be a very interesting one all of it's own for another time and place. Crook was now a rising plant manager who had little time for talk or even casual conversation. All that he had time for was working in the apprenticeship school right there inside the local toy factory where his mother was a proud plant manager and supreme authority in the human resources department. He continued to ride back and forth from high school to work with his mother, carrying with him everyone's gracious blessings. The factory was called Pondu Toys And Things. Their motto was that even good old saint Nick himself and his merry band of elves, cannot even make ring what we can make sing!
The position of apprentice there is a much coveted position that only an elitist few can ever manage to acquire. TJ had tried to land a position there himself once. Crook's mother had promised to help him slide inside the network at the close knit facility, but for some reason unknown to him, he never heard from her in regard to it. When he inquired, she simply told him that the company had yet to notify her of their decisions on anything regarding work. As a matter of fact, she claimed, they may even be closing parts of the plant down soon; so if such was the case, then there was no use in hiring to any great extent at the present time nor at any time in the foreseeable future; kudos to his effort in trying, though, she commended to him.
Finally he had gotten around to asking his father where it was that they were moving to. His father told him the name. He told him that the place was really good for business and had loads of opportunity simply for the taking. The original name was Nottoway Meadows. The place was some one hundred eighty or so kilometers from Goose-lick, but there no one knew anything about the newspaper article and Father was certain that the people would welcome all of them with wide opened arms. The place was a step up socially, since nearly everyone there was self employed and relatively well off. Father had given the entire family careful instructions not to tell anyone of their plans. In his mind, the years of negative motivations had just forced the type of response that he was soon to give them....and that was to simply leave without even saying a single word of warning to anyone. Let them all figure out the questions of where and why for themselves, he reasoned; the very last thing that he needed to do was to forewarn any who might silently endeavor to do them harm.
Father had already hinted around to some of his friends in Nottoway that they might be moving soon. He owned a rental home there and had done so for years. Here they were, soon to move into a nice Chattel type home on the edge of town, that had long since been payed off and even had payed for itself several times over by now. The estates surrounding were attractive enough that Father had purchased them long ago, hiring a man to establish a vineyard right there for him on his property. The vineyard would fetch a fine royal profit, paying for itself in less than three years, according to Father's very accurate calculations. At this point in his life, he thought, everything was looking up and going onward much higher still.
The high school in Nottoway was much more conducive to an intellectual atmosphere. The place actually resembled a Parthenon of sorts, with a garden, elaborate gazebo and a classical style of intellectual atmosphere that really appealed to him, just like those ones of such grandeur in the old pictures. The gardens held custom crafted, hand carved marble statues of the Greek and Roman gods, along with several local heroes; such as Captain Malibu Fanning, the chain slayer, from the war with the Sultan and his grand army of ninety thousand thieves.
According to local legend, all of them once marched headlong into the province, reasoning that they would defeat all opposition in a simple matter of days, highly underestimating the resourcefulness of Cromartie Ridge and it's determined people. Captain Malibu had exhausted his ammunition, but yet, still retained a huge store of powder. The army of the Sultan marched forward in several long rows through the hills and expansive wood-stands, he anticipating his ability to force a fight out into the few small open fields, where he was most certain to win. Captain Malibu detected a hint of weakness in this perceived expectation. On the thicket covered high ground ahead of the villainous army, he positioned a scattered platoon of twelve Libras six canon, carefully aimed through the openings in the brush, but deceitfully disguised as sawed logs. His main body of men now taking cover from the far left backside in front of the cannon, their call sign for battle..., being when the guns of black iron belched fire and the roar of thunder commenced to rage.
Since Captain Malibu had no shot, he simply took heavy log chain and crammed nine foot sections into barrel of the great guns, packing all of it in with green Spanish moss gathered from the surrounding trees and soured tobacco, which he had plenty of still in the store house. In some cases, he took the links out of the chain, somehow managed to cut them in two, grind the ends down into points and hammer them while glowing red with heat, into pre-drilled nine pound stone boulders. These points then could be welded onto the chain lengths for additional weight. When the canon thundered, the links fragmented in some few cases, tearing through the columns just like lead shot or even better, declared some soldiers later who observed the events as they occurred. The stones on both ends carried the chains through the columns, tearing down entire legions as they marched; or shattered, forming more flesh ripping shrapnel. The scene was horrifying to behold, according to the history born from tales told and passed on by those whom survived the onslaught. Blood flowed so thickly that it completely covered the newly fallen leaves in the crispy fall air. Even the armor was shredded by the fire and lay aside in bloodied heaps that soon served as more ammunition for the cannon.
When the column retreated backward in the face of the terrible slaughter, the men in hiding opened fire with sawed down scatter guns filled with scrap iron, granite stone crushed into shot size and remolded lead from castaway trinkets, fishing tackle and looted enemy stock piles, firing almost at point blank range and slaying just as many more. Although they were out numbered more than ten to one, Malibu's men nearly slaughtered the army of thieves down to the last man. So the stories go, the few who remained, he and his men stripped bare, taking care to burn them with glowing wrought iron on the most pain inducing areas, then releasing them abroad to spread the news among their own about the punitive horrors of their invading efforts that they had witnessed and experienced.
According to the enemy out-lander accounts, many of the survivors were then summarily executed following the release of a chosen few, some even crucified out of a sheer desire for perverted sadism. Others were sacrificed to Ares, the great ancient god of war by his dozens of suspected followers, so we are told by their propaganda. Malibu could have really cared less what happened to the survivors; the province was his land, the land of his people and these villains were on it and demanding extortion; so they all were rightfully being compelled to go back into the land from which they had originated! All was justified in pure logic that was straight forth and very simple.
In spite of what the enemy accounts are, here in the town of Nottoway Meadows, he is revered in a near Pantheon of demigods. The sacrifices that he made in the name of individual liberty astound all observers, even unto this very day. So for that reason, he is still much revered with statues in private gardens, in-front of restaurants by water fountains, in public buildings and before local court houses, and many other places too numerous to mention.
Father had already taken him around on numerous walks through the school and the surrounding grounds, taking him on rides through the town and allowing him to meet the local people and their families. Matter of fact, the entire family had been taken to a number of community events and special occasions over the course of time; the intent here being to prep the family for the forth coming move.
Finally that anticipated day arrived....and the family spent the day loading a moving van up with their accumulated valuables and riding away into the middle of the night. The house had previously been put up with the property management company that Father was already using, and the manager knew of Father's desire to keep the move a classified secret. According to recycled rumor, it was well after the renter had already moved in that the citizens of Goose-lick had even bothered to notice that the Johanson clan was gone. By that time, the family had adapted well into their new surroundings, the thoughts of Goose-lick and it's tainted citizenry..., now a hazy lingering, but slowly fading memory.
What was really amusing about this move much later on, was when certain individuals, whom had seldom ever even dared to venture out of the small hamlet, now suddenly felt the need to invest in huge tracts of land and build lavish homes in places where it would have made much more sense just to rent. These people never even moved into their new homes or bothered to rent them out, they simply just went to the trouble to build for show and tell among themselves and their associates back there in Goose-lick, obviously, then allowed the house to simply stand empty. In nearly every case, these people were those whom had pretended to be friends who wished Johansons well in the name of future accomplishment, but then turned on them when the Johanson family had really managed to achieve true success! This observed lack of individual motivation and creativity sickened the Johanson family deeply; so for that reason, they all laughed in silence at these tales, but seldom spoke a word in regard to them, even among themselves out of a desire for better quality conversational subject matter.
School had commenced and TJ had really begun to enjoy the interesting people and the new surroundings. Maybe this experience was indeed what he was in need of for a while now..., a new upgrade in general surroundings. Everyone was happy inside their newly acquired environment; Father continued on with his new business enterprise and his investment program, mother found work in a new academy...and received a very substantial raise in doing so. Now she could retire with her full pension being greater than if she had remained in Goose-lick for thirty years, since everything fell on the last five years, as far as determining the retirement value per month. She had came out a really big winner in her little contest with King Ignoramus, in the long run. All of TJ's cousins had moved off into their own directions and were doing very well now, as far as they reported anything back to him or his family about.
He had even managed to meet some new friends since the day of his move. He still occasionally thought about the old ones, but the new ones had their own sort of sophisticated appeal to them. First there was Miss Molly Folly, who was a very fair skinned, petite sort of flaxen haired beauty, with a type of mannerism that offered the appearance of being pleasantly shy and enticingly attractive. This young lady was always very entertaining and filled with bubbly adventurous fun once one got to know her, in an exhilarating sort of way. She traveled with a group of relatively attractive, although somewhat plain girly girls, that all the others surrounding them merrily referred to as the Lollypop Platoon.
Then there was Miss Hazy Daisy, so called because she walked about as though she were caught up inside a misty gloom of some sort and loved wearing dresses with carefully sown pictures of flower petals. She had been accused by the older adults of being strung out on entrancing herbs or living aloof among those around her. Most that knew her well just figured that she was caught up in some sort of dream land, all of her own design or something else of a strange creative nature. She spoke often about carousel camel people looking through kaleidoscope eyes. Sometimes she would see a smiling, fuchsia peach, looking glass sun high up inside a delightful marmalade sky, that would speak to her in a raspy voice of whines and wheezes, instructing her to do little things that at times...just might be somewhat debauched...and not to do certain things that on the surface appeared perfectly harmless; or in-fact, the instruction may be in the exact opposite. At times she was instructed to do really fun things..., then at other times, these instructed activities were not so fun, but never were they boring or non-entertaining.
Then there was the friend that everyone simply called Little Lord Grady. Out of jesting fun, TJ simply called him Shady Grady, since he would talk a nun into leaping from her best pair of pantaloons, if he could get her to stand still and speak with him for just a moment. He was truly the salesman and the negotiator of the group. He had already exercised sound business potential, even though he was only in the ninth grade and just barely sixteen years old. Some claimed that he would sell pristine farmland out at sea, sight unseen or beach front property way out in the golden desert sands; and he probably would do so much quicker if he felt that there was a self serving motive in going to the trouble for it. All in all, he was a warm compassionate person. He could be very down to earth and honest with people that he felt closest to and this quality was what attracted TJ into his company, besides his general gift of intelligence.
On many occasions just after school, he would hang around with his friends in the garden, all of them walking to the back side of the pond to speak of intellectual matters and that far out pondering of young imaginations, unadulterated by ever looming, indenturing responsibility. Grady and Molly, who really were the intellectuals of the group, had reasoned to gather the wine trumpet flowers from their flowing vines, during the late fall when they are filled with seeds. TJ had dropped on into the local general store and purchased a small tin of nutmeg. All of them together had discovered the luscious mauve flesh of the wonderful belladonna rose, the inside of which had by then dried into a nice fragrant crisp. The combination in this blend, they mixed with the dried leaves of jasmine, then carefully packing all of it into their acorn hull pipes that bore long hollow stems of wild rye grass that grew in such abundance throughout the province. This mixture, all of them would alight while packed inside their pipes and smoke lazily through their long grass stems, that served well to cool the smoke into a very pleasantly smooth mist......
…..Daisy claimed that if they only focused their eyes upon the reflective surface of the pond there before them and the graceful unblemished swan gently paddling in the distance..., that the trance gradually induced, in combination with the herbal mixture ingested into the blood stream through the lungs...would transport them deeply into hidden immortal dimensions...; where ancient intellectual knowledge would then be made known unto all men once again...., if only the spirits therein accepted their mortal presence to a degree that the invading mortals were warmly accommodated. In general, according to Daisy, the two realms did not combine nor did one accept the mere presence of the other, so the facts therein betrays the trial to be so anticipated....Could any of them ever be accepted to the level of accommodation? Only the revealing truth locked far away inside the realm of the future, would appear at the appropriately appointed time. Maybe that certain special time would come around in much more enthusiasm..., with just a shy touch of magic mushroom added into the herbal smoking mixture on a later date, all of them began to smile and say while huddled into their gathering groups underneath the arbor.
Again in Erewhon
The truth is, right at first the only experience was basically that of an intense euphoria, only serving to simply make all of them laugh uncontrollably; but as TJ gazed into the far distance across the surface of the pond or into the rose sunset toward the point where the sky met the line of the mountainous horizon..., sometimes he beheld vast cities and gargantuan monumental buildings looming forward in a manner, seemingly..., that beckoned him inward for a much deeper, esoteric metaphysical experience.
The structures appeared strangely translucent, allowing him to behold scenes of mountains, distant rivers and deep meadows far out on the other side of the metropolis. The feeling generated was one of forceful compulsion....,compulsion to explore much deeper in search of experience beyond that of just the average mortal realm.. ; a compulsion of intense euphoria in the thrill of new experience and raw terror combined, like that feeling conjured by one's very first forbidden wanton adventure.
He could not help but inform Daisy of the sights that he beheld, and she informed him that the seraphim who were in control of the immortal dimension, were welcoming him inward into their private abode. The problem lay in making the determination as to whether the nature of the seraphim who were inviting him inward, were ones of positive intentions or negative motivations. The depraved seraphim were masters of lies and deception, claimed Daisy, so they could very easily masquerade themselves as being lords of the positive, when in reality their true intentions were to simply offer bait and destroy.
“How is it that we may make the determination.” he asked Daisy?
“We must allow ourselves to follow the feeling radiating backward into our hearts, from the perceived nature of the experience as it lies immediately before us,” she replied. “If the feeling is one of seductive euphoria and unhesitatingly positive in it's overwhelming nature, and the sights before us stand as all consistently positive, then so it is that the forces in control of the realm into which we are led, may be safely deduced as positive. In that manner, so it is that we shall then move forward, but do so only with extreme caution, calculating our every move via critical deduction and never acting solely on base assumption..., but only in lieu of superior reason and logic,” Daisy purred to the group as she blew the thick aromatic smoke into the hazy mixture of corona, tea and herb already hanging as a blue haze in the air immediately where they stood underneath the arbor. A quick pleasing burst of breeze would hiss in the leaves of the surrounding willows, effectively removing this haze just before her next address to the group.
“As I instruct each and every one of you...., inhale the sacred herbal mixture deeply,” Daisy coached as she drew upon the stem of grass, “gaze upon the refection of light on the surface of the water in combination with the ripple created by the gently swimming swan of the purest natural white....., and allow the feeling from those combinations to reign supreme..., only for a single moment..., while we all make the determination as to whether or not the source of this sensation is positive or negative, inviting or discouraging....or even damning in it's imposing personality!”
For a period of nine days the tarnished trio continued on in their esoteric quest for the perfect metaphysical experience. Many times TJ would pause in the evenings just before sunset, to tempt the invitation all on his own, which Daisy had warned the group not to ever do. According to her, the spirits who ruled the metaphysical realm could exert a much more powerful force upon a single individual's intellect than they could the intellect of three mortal individuals combined. Some hateful spirits even bore the power to cloud clear reasoning and the process of deductive logic, to suit their own purposes, which were to entice, entrap, extort and compel into their own indentured service. All of these thoughts traveled through the mind of TJ as he paused, but the magic allure of the anticipated metaphysical adventure was simply much too great for him to forbear.
He paused there before the pond underneath the arbor of fragrant jasmine and sweet honey suckle, facing the main classical styled building of the school, with the marble statue of Athena sitting right there before it on the other side of the large pond surrounded by the flowing tears of the weeping willow, the face of dear Athena suddenly bearing an expression of delightful approval as he drew deeply upon the grass stem of the pipe. He seated himself upon the stone bench of heavenly suspension, as he now called it, right there inside the shade of the arbor; continuing to gaze upon the approving face of Athena as he drew the vapor of the magic herb deep inside his breast, only to exhale the sweetest misty fumes of dried morning glory seed, belladonna sensation and honey suckle rose'.
As the euphoria settled in upon his mind and he gazed deeply into the reflection on the surface of the water, the sight of blood appeared as if the water and the picture in the reflection itself, suddenly commenced to pour blood, bleeding into the translucent form of massive metropolis streets. Though his eyes still beheld the sight of the ponds reflection behind the city, still the form of the city itself loomed forward. As he gazed deeply into the streets he saw the flutter of a soaring eagles' feathers, indicating that the wind had suddenly picked up. In the distance throughout the streets he heard the distinct flutter of cloth, such as the flapping of a flag in high wind, but could see no sort of flag nor behold the movement of any cloth.
He heard a voice of wind in the distance that appeared near to him, yet then moving away into the beyond, sounding not as a voice riding on the wind, but as a voice which was a part of the very wind itself..., whisper his name. Strangely enough, the name was not the name of TJ or that of any nick-name, but of his genuine birth name. Obviously this spectrum knew amply of him, his past life and well of his present life. The voice continued to beckon him inward, drawing him in toward the very heart of the city..if only he would make that first step forward. Not only did the voice speak his true name, but it told him that it knew of his heart's most mysterious desires, and as it spoke of those seductively shrouded innermost desires in their proper order, he then perceived a sharp crash of thunder immediately following the last statement of the voice on the wind.
As the thunder crashed he beheld the apparition of radiating golden coins in heaps, drenched in glinting neck chains of pearl and untainted golden bead, with amulets of emerald, ruby and the brightest sapphires. He beheld priceless amulets of untarnished, unadulterated ivory and bezoar, all sitting inside a heavy three by four, by four foot, chest of elaborately decorated teak covered by straps of wrought iron..., sitting there completely exposed in the streets' midst for someone's immediate taking. He heard his name whisper again on the blustery wind. His heart began to race uncontrollably, his mouth ran dry, his mind labored to force his body not to move forward, but the force of shear curiosity and the lust for the feel of new thrill, compelled him with ferocious intensity...,to simply just step into the metropolis refection there upon the water. In spite of the fierce battle going on inside himself, he somehow still managed to force himself to remain stationary.
Again he heard the astounding earth shaking crash and rumble of the thunder. He heard the wind increase in it's distant howl, then his ears beheld the voice of wind whisper his name again, but this time, the sound was more distinct. Again the voice went on to say that it's source knew of his heart's most secret desire, both those of the most abandon nature as well as those of the most righteous motivations. As it spoke it's words, a beautiful belly dancer appeared, as if from some unseen sheikh's entertainment chamber. As his eyes consumed her perfect, though still intangible translucent form, she began to assume the splendid figure of a fantastic Persian queen. She strode from nowhere across the city street, coming to pause before the chest overflowing with coins of glittering gold. She gazed into his astounded face, gently calling his name and motioning for him to come unto her. She then eased backward upon the gold, fully laying upon the sparkling coins, amulets and charms inside the very chest itself, with her bared right leg hanging down delightfully across the front side of the chest. In her right hand, she seized a fist full of the golden chains and pearls, gently rubbing them from her knees upward across her inside thighs, belly torso and breasts, as she slowly turned his way gazing directly into his astonished eyes, whispering his name as she did so.
The near magnetic compulsion was almost more than poor TJ could resist..., his heart raced, sweat poured from his throat that gulped impulsively on it's own, then downward all across his chest and stomach, feeling more as bugs crawling than flowing droplets of liquid. The desire on the deepest inside for the thrill and experience of entering deep into her immaculate flesh, only to savor the thrilling sensation of the luscious experience...and his desire in anticipating the feel of immediately possessing the gold, was driving him to a point that was nearly impossible for him to forbear, even though his mind clearly deduced the lack of wisdom in simply moving forward into the vision, let alone in actually taking the first step forward. As the powerful force pulled upon him, he groaned as he continued to back up in resistance, his force exerted from the power of his intellectual wisdom, clashing solidly against the force of the invisible, yet very compelling spectrum, who seemed to stand right there before him, reaching outward to grasp the very threads upon his breast and forcefully pull. Inside he knew very well, that if he dared to make that first step toward the dazzling sight of the forbidden, that then there would exist no chance of ever turning back. He would then be locked deeply inside the heavenly compelling mirage for an eternity....
An abrupt flash of brilliant light, another piercing roll of rumbling thunder and the howl of gusting wind on the distance, once again whispering his name. He now before him beheld a carpet of Persian styled decoration. Upon the carpet midst sat another stunning robed Sumerian maiden. Before her stood a large chalice of crystalline ruby glass and unadulterated gold, with exotic gem in trim, filled with perfect blush wine even to the very brim. She slowly turned his way whispering for him to come, to fly away with her into the perfect place of paradise dreams, to any place of his deepest heart's desires. The wine will never run out, the wind would whisper, the carpet will transport you into the place of your heart's desire, it continued to beckon unto him. The maidens are all yours, to act out all of those secret impulsive desires of passion's most endearing allure.
The lightening flashed again..., the thunder rolled and rumbled. Then in her right hand she held an aged scroll of parchment. The voice on the wind told him that the scroll consisted of all ancient knowledge, especially that lost knowledge of history, wisdom and invention forbidden for men to know by those in power over them, if they were even aware of it at all. In that scroll contained all ancient knowledge of medicine, technology, travel, the truths of life, death and of those most divine worlds beyond, offered freely forth unto the ancients by those immaculate beings who came unto earth from the vast star-lit heavens above.
From the streets before him a splendidly translucent but gradually intensifying carpet of rouge was rolled out upon the streets, toward him at his very feet, by an unseen spectrum hand; the voice on the wind beckoning him forward, the beautiful gypsy motioning him inward, toward her, her granting him permission to savor her flesh for his deepest, most cloaked of carnal pleasures and to posses the gold for his secular endowment. With those gifts, his contentment in body would be assured, the wind told him, and his respect from the others who knew him, guaranteed. What more could a young heart desire than to have his respect and future success sealed?
Before his face he felt the presence of an unseen female figure and enticing lips, breathing the sweetest breath saturated by the alluring plum rose of dried belladonna. The face was close, most immediately before his own face, but yet completely intangible and imperceptible. He felt her hot breath as she spoke her powerful words into his trembling face of intense yearning and terror combined.
“You will move forward, even though you may not even be aware of the fact that you move; you shall transport your self forward by the magnetizing force within you of your own hidden desires, both those of the most righteous and the shockingly abandon. You cannot conquer the battle against your self, neither can you lie to your own,” the intangible face informed him. “Doing so is way outside the possibility of mortal intellect,” she continued to inform him, “though you do posses the power to envision the ability and imagine the gifts in both character and possibility, that the ability to forbear may indeed hold.”
“Gaze about you at present; behold the city streets that now surround you, the cobblestones that run beneath your very feet... Look! The street runs endlessly ahead of you and likewise, endlessly behind. There is no escape for you now. Your dark carnal desires have overwhelmed you, only to draw you inward by the shear force of that desire alone, no matter how much it is that you may choose to lie to yourself or the world surrounding, that you would never suffer to submit! Your only option now is to move forward....to endlessly march forward on the street of well worn stone and dwell among these translucent walls for an indiscernible period of time. There have been many more before you, so indeed you are not alone; some managed to survive but many more were consumed by the perverted hunger of their own lust...,truly you are not alone...,” the voice of wind whispered sharply! “You, dear mortal, are not alone in your weakness to resist the compulsion before you.”
The streets seemed completely empty. There was no one, villain nor saint, to be encountered. TJ simply just continued to move forward. He could do nothing more. As he walked along he observed the many empty shops and restaurants, the party clubs and the coffee houses. Even though there were no one present, still the establishments appeared clean and well stocked, just like the people were anticipated to return. The sound of a distant wind moved from far beyond back toward him as he slowly ambled along. Within that sound of wind he detected the voices of people, the voices of multitudes and individuals, but the mingling of their sounds made their words imperceptible. The sky above seemed a strange mixture of blush and long ribbon like clouds, the two together appearing more like peach marmalade to the eyes of young TJ. The feeling that prevailed, even though no figures could be detected, was that the place was inhabited.....and that he was being watched by unseen eyes everywhere it was that he dared to venture.
In the far distance he heard the psychedelic whine of what sounded as an electric guitar. Other than that, he could not make another determination as to what label to place the sound into. In the distance faces of rouge, apricot, mauve and blush, men, women and young girls, would suddenly appear in the air around him, only to fade just as instant as the sounds of electric guitar continued to whine and change pitch. From the edge of the intangible expanse beyond, he perceived the howl of distant wind when the guitar sound suddenly ceased. Suddenly he heard the abrupt sound of piercing thunder as the electric guitar sound continued with a flash of brilliant light. The pitch of the sound rose and it fell until it jelled into a hexing melody that pulled at the youth with a newly arousing strength all of it's own. Before him now was a brilliant blaze of light and a terrific feeling of moving forward that gave a strange tunnel effect surrounding his body....and the sound rocked with an enticing, hexing, entrancing melody that proved to be more than the youth could ever hope to resist.
The music was strange in another manner, not in it's sound but the feelings that it generated in the heart of the youth. The pull of the music was not only force of shear strength...,but that of a trans- sensual unchaste motivation, like the compelling force of a repressed veiled, impure desire radiating backward into the mind of the youth; the anticipation of a risque magical experience that could be strictly taboo in the secular world, but allowed to flourish without limitations here in the uninhibited world of the marvelous divine. Even though his level of fear was extraordinary, the anticipation of a possible mystical experience superseded that fear, and still by his shear force of will he moved forward, though of that prevailing fact of fear, his mind refused to accept or submit unto.
As a result, his mind deduced illogically that he was not walking forward, but moving without taking a forward step by shear might of a robust outside force. The truth was, in-fact, that he was moving forward solely by the strong forces of his innermost desire, the sounds and sights surrounding him were simply extracting out that which was only repressed from deep within, then transforming it into a force that was visible according to the whim of his unconscious imagination. Still, all was well within his ability to force this power to cease in it's pull, and his body to return back into the world from which he had made his exit. The desire to return simply had to reign superior to those of repressed wanton knowledge and unrestrained indulgence combined with the curious desire for an unearthly engagement.
Strangely enough, he noticed that if he thought of a tune in his mind, the sound of the electric guitar would radiate back to him that specific melody. Right now he was in a really good mood in-spite of his looming fear, and the rocking sound strongly resembled the jamming session of Zeppelins' Highway to Heaven. The lights surrounding him appeared to pass by faster, gaining speed until they moved passed so quickly that they resembled a steady endless running string. Now he was moving forward into a shear tunnel of light, toward a brilliant blaze of radiating light poised at what appeared to be the end of a bedazzling tunnel. All about within the air surrounding him he heard the rocking vibrations of the electric guitar sounds. As the guitar sound gradually began to fade, he heard haunting sounds of deep laughter, then the taunting but cheerful laughter of young girls and children. He struggled to go backward, but the more that he did so, the faster that he moved forward and the more the laughing sounds gave him the feeling of being mocked from all sides. He moved faster and faster toward the brilliant blaze of light, which gave him the terrifying feeling of his figure soon to be consumed, both in mortal body of flesh and eternal breath of soul.
What could he do but just to accept his fate, to simply just give in to the force of the flow like a terrorized swimmer caught up in the undercurrent of a powerful river? The brilliant light became more intense, ever radiant and brilliant as he moved forward ever swiftly and quickly toward it. He felt as if the orb literally hungered for his flesh or the light of his very soul, the very force within his inner being that made him the unique individualist personality that he was. As he moved forward through the tunnel of light, toward the orb appearing to behave with intelligence, he could perceive that he was nearing the end of the tunnel..., moving directly into the very midst of the blinding blaze! As he left the edge of the tunnel exit, only to gaze into the consuming orb before him but then quickly shade his eyes; at the very moment of his suspension within the orb, the brilliant world of radiating light suddenly shattered into thousands of raining multicolored fragments. Each fragment bore every color known to man-kind and even some that were not. He called these fluttering colors not known to man, those of the immortal marmalade. The colors that men knew, he called mortal colors of boring jello.
TJ meets his new friends
Now he had the feeling of suspended animation, with the fragments of colors flying passed him as he seemingly moved or floated in mid-air. When the colors had all rained passed, he found himself neither floating or moving, but sitting in a meadow of glittering bright emerald grass. The feeling was one of warm spring time, with a glowing sun of perfect peach sitting perched proudly up in the sky, the trees surrounding seemingly were those of his familiarity, but upon close inspection, many then appeared not to be. He saw bunnies hopping about with human faces, smiling squirrels leaping from branch to branch and heard song birds chirping seductive tunes of a type unfamiliar to him. The feeling generated was that of both the place being strangely familiar, but then simultaneously, not being familiar at all...or hauntingly one of a hidden dimension that had always surrounded him from the very day of his mortal birth.
The colors surrounding him were brilliantly clear, most radiating in the natural known colors of the rainbow, but some few being colors of which he was not familiar, but yet strangely very natural inside of his present environment. Ahead he caught sight of a rabbit who paused before a tripod supported canvas. The rabbit raised up onto his hind legs, taking hold of a paint board balanced on the left paw and a brush in the other, which he clenched skillfully between the toes. When TJ eased up on him from behind, it appeared that he had nearly completed a portrait of a wooded flower scape and a Papagayo sitting perched comfortably upon a blooming multicolored lily. The rabbit continued to paint, seemingly not yet taking notice of TJ who stood behind, then suddenly he glanced over in his direction taking abrupt sight of him, quickly turning around and nearly collapsing from shock and surprise. He continued holding tightly to the paint board and brush.
“Oh...oh, my, me oh my! What have we here? Who, may I ask.., are you, who stand there just looking over my shoulder like that? Don't you know that doing so is considered ill manners? How dare you,” the rabbit gasped from shock that instantly transformed into anger!
“My name is TJ. What is yours?”
“My name is Ribbit, they all call me Ribbit, since I am a rabbit. Now all of that seems understandable, does it not?”
“Yea...I can see that,” TJ replied.
“Well...well now, what are you doing in a place like this? I have not ever seen you here before,” spoke the rabbit.
“I do not know..I honestly just do not know,” replied TJ, “ The real question is how do I get back home from here?”
“Well now,” replied Ribbit, scratching his head, “From whence did you originate with such a void in proper etiquette?”
“A place called Nottoway,” replied TJ. “ Nottoway Meadows was the old name...It should not be very far from here, to be honest about it.”
“Hmm, now,” replied Ribbit, as he continued to scratch his head. “To be quite honest with you, I have never heard of the place. I cannot recall Grandfather ever speaking of such a place either, just to be honest about it.”
“You haven't,” gasped TJ in shock?
“Never in all of my live long, born days,” Ribbit said. “Matter of fact, I would not even have the faintest idea as to which way to even begin to tell you to go.”
“Wow,” TJ began to sob, “I guess that I will never get back home! I should have listened to hazy Daisy Mae. I should not have played around like I did and violated those stated rules of the outer dimension, by trying to enter inside here all on my own.”
“Hmm, now..., the outer dimension....? Never heard of such,” replied the rabbit, shaking his head from side to side.
TJ continued to sob, whimpering about home, his friend Molly, his family and his mother.
“I guess that I am going to be right here forever, with the likes of you,” he sniveled.
“Well now, that is not so bad, I guess? I have a plenty of food for the likes of us both. I have plenty of shelter out in the hollow log and the brush pile. You do not look too fat to accompany little ole me, now are ye there? See, I have etiquette, I am not above helping one in an obvious state of dire need.... If you'll step just a little closer, I let you in on a secret...”
TJ eased just a bit closer to him as Ribbit continued on in a whisper.
“Plenty of herb grows all around me, man. I can even get you some real lotus, just like that eat by the lotus eaters; you know, those people out on the island where Jason and his men landed who gave him the lotus fruit and they did not ever want to come back into the ship.”
“Wow,” said TJ in surprise and shock! “You have some of that? That stuff must be really good!”
“Good is not the word, it is the very best! It really does strange things too a person, especially a man...or a rabbit.”
“Like....what,” inquired TJ?
“It makes my tender prunes feel as though an invisible ripple is stimulating them non-stop for about an hour, among many other very desirable sensations. One feels this sensation first, before all the others. The final and most extended sensation is one of total fulfilling contentment. There is no hunger in this world, no fear, and time seems to race passed rather than just ease along. The sensation upon moving is one of floating, since the feet are felt to never touch the ground,” the rabbit continued to speak in a strong whisper as he glanced around watchfully.
“Wow,” replied TJ. “You just wait until I tell the others of this when ever I do make it back home from here!”
The rabbit turned briefly and continued to paint as the boy spoke to him.
“What are you painting there,” asked TJ?
“I am painting a large toucan here on a multicolored Iris,” replied Ribbit.
“What ever it is that you can imagine here in Nymphaion, one may manifest into reality, if one can present it clearly first.”
“Nymphaion,” replied TJ? “I've never heard of it.”
“Well we were once called Xanadu, but too many people got the name confused with too many other places that meant way too many different things. What we really needed was a name that spoke more of the situation here on the ground. So they changed the title into this wonderfully descriptive name,” spoke the rabbit.
“I do not understand about the business of imagining things and them becoming reality,” replied the boy.
“Well then, just watch the painting sitting before us! See me put on the last touch here,” asked the rabbit as he painted a dainty pointed green cap onto the toucan's head?
Upon him completing the portrait, the wind appeared to suddenly move the flowers and the iris upon where the toucan was perched. In a single astonishing breath, the toucan opened his wings into a spread and took off in flight from his perch, now circling above the head of TJ and the rabbit, soaring on into the forest depths beyond.
“Wow,” TJ responded in complete astonishment! “ I cannot believe it...! I simply just cannot believe it....How did you do that?”
“Here, every achievement is well within the mind's grasp, dear boy. Your hearts' desire can be reality, if you simply just follow along in the pre-designated process. If you can show it, you can have it, if you first only believe it, sonny!”
“I wish that I knew how to get home,” TJ said.
“Well that, I cannot help you with. I can help you with much, but not that at the present time,” said Ribbit.
“I wish that I just knew which way to start going, and then I would just begin in that direction,” replied TJ.
Ribbit replied, “well...since the sun rises in the West and sets in the East, then we will just walk to the east from here, I suppose, just to start.”
“I thought that the sun rises in the East and sets in the West,” replied TJ. “It sure does in Nottoway.”
“I shall make a very valid guess then, that this is just not Nottoway,” replied Ribbit. “and only one of us is bass ackwards!”
“and it feel like this is the place, to me,” sighed TJ.
“Yes, I can sympathize, being in a strange place and all,” Ribbit replied. “I suppose that I could travel with you, then, like mates on a faraway journey of sorts. I mean, somebody needs to watch over you and keep you out of harms way, do they not?”
“Why, certainly! Two heads trying to figure this puzzle out are much better than one, that much is for sure,” TJ replied.
“Well...we'll head this way,” said Ribbit, now pointing with his right index finger upon taking notice of the sun and the path that it was moving in.
So the two began to move into the Eastern direction, just like the sun there in Nymphaion did. The meadow appeared to be the most intensely lush green of any grass and vegetation that TJ's eyes had ever beheld. There in the forest scattered among the oaks and palm orchids, and the multicolored date palms menagerie, with that in itself being a strange enough phenomenon; TJ's eyes would behold trees that appeared as oaks and polo santo combined, with multiple types of fruits on the trees that are far different from any ever seen by the boy.
“What kinds of trees are those,” asked TJ, pointing toward the strange combo-fruited trees growing scattered about within the timber growth?
“Those have been called the trees of latens sophia. In other words, if one wants to know the answer to a question, then he can bite the fruit and then ask it, and that answer will be revealed back to him, that is, if the great Sultan of the blue ice castle allows it. Here, the great Sultan always has the final say.”
The two walked up toward the tree of latens sophia. TJ stood about in complete awe of the multiple fruits growing, in which the very fruit itself appeared as two separate fruits combined.
“That is very strange,” sighed TJ. “Looks like two fruits all rolled up into one.”
“It is somewhat, I guess. You see, you can bite the fruit on one side, investigate the flavor, then flip it over to investigate an opposite flavor. Isn't that amazing,” Ribbit asked?
“Yes...I should say...and very much so,” replied TJ as he gazed upon the tree in complete awe.
“What type of flavors do they have,” TJ inquired?
“Well just think of a flavor and look up at the fruit.”
“Oh....strawberry ice cream,” he snapped!
“Well now, lets see,” replied Ribbit. “Take a look at that fruit with the strawberry tinge there to it and the dark tinge on the other side..,”
TJ seized one up, then bit the strawberry tinge side....
“Wow...! It's simply divine! Unbelievable....This fruit tastes just like strawberry ice-cream, I should say here.”
“OK...now just flip it over and bite it,” replied Ribbit.
TJ flipped the fruit and bit the dark side..
“Wow...It's simply amazing! If I could bring such a tree home, I would be rich, I tell you! Rich over night! That fruit on the other side tasted of an absolutely perfect chocolate ice-cream!”
“Try another, if you like...There is one just ahead of you, that appears to be a peach and a plum combined. What do you make of that, there sonny? Peach cobbler and plumb pudding,” said Ribbit sarcastically?
“Let me try it..,” replied TJ.
He reached outward to seize up one of the majestic fruits with his right hand.
“I just cannot believe it...! I cannot believe it...! That fruits tastes of a perfect peach cobbler, I should say. Why, I do believe that one could just bite the strawberry ice-cream and the peach cobbler, and have a perfect meal!”
“Now just flip it over and try the plumb pudding,” said Ribbit.
TJ did so, he flipped the fruit and was again astonished into an amazement.
“It does taste like plum pudding, I tell you! It is simply divine...I think that we have found our fortune here, my friend!”
“Well now, just calm down...just calm right on down, now..,” replied Ribbit.
“You said that I could have a flavor of my imagination's desire..,” asked TJ?
“I should say, so I have always been told,” replied Ribbit.
“Well....I have a flavor that I am in search of here, since you mentioned it. What about the perfume box of the fairy princess,” TJ inquired in a near whisper as he quickly glanced around out of a noticeable caution?
“Hmm now, lets see...,” said Ribbit? “Just try this one right there, with it's menagerie of lilacs and blush on one side and dark brown on the other. I honestly feel that such might just be the perfect trick.”
TJ quickly snatched it up with his right hand, biting the dark brown side with a strange possessive hunger..then his face changed expression in a near instant and he began to gag in the same wink, spitting all of it onto the ground before him...
“My word, man, that garbage tastes like it just might be from the nearest hill of dung! What are you trying to do, kill me or something?”
“Just flip it over!...I say..., just flip it on over, for the love of Nymphaion,” cried Ribbit as he collapsed upon the grassy earth, rolling with laughter at the obvious blunder!
“I tell you, I simply cannot see how this trash would be the source of any new knowledge,” roared TJ with what now appeared to be anger. “Even so, I still like the fruit tree and wish that I could take one back home with me.”
Suddenly a whip-like blow struck him from somewhere within the tree, across his face. He glanced up, spying an angry light blue monkey eyeing him with both hands upon his hips and a wooden rod for for a walking cane in his right clinched fist as it sat upon his hips.
“Just who is it that you think that you are, there boy,” rasped the monkey toward TJ?
“What do you mean,” said TJ to the monkey?
“Here you are, a marching about onto someone else's turf like that.., and then you have the gall to just walk up and steal his fruit? How dare you there, boy! I say, there boy, where in the name of Agamemnon are your manners at, in your boot heels or the seat of your pants? I take it that you came into these parts a lookin for trouble, did ya? If you did so, then you certainly have found it” replied the monkey!
“No, No, oh No,” gasped TJ, “you've misunderstood me! I do not want any trouble, I just want to get back home. Which way do I go?”
“Well, I cannot answer that for you now. You'll have to make it to the great crystal glaze castle of cerulean and golden flame combined to find that answer.”
“Who lives there,” asks TJ in astonishment?
“Who lives there, you should ask me? You mean that you came all the way here from where-ever, just to ask me who lives there,” the monkey asked?
“Yes, I don't know these sorts of things. How am I supposed to know, being a foreigner and all?”
“Well on that note, since you have been so kind as to ask, then I shall tell you, right here and now. It is the great Sultan, that's who! And while we are here, rabbit there...”
“The name's Ribbit, mind you...,” he interrupted!
“Well Ribbit then,” the monkey continued, “ you need to instruct the boy there on some manners and what it is that we believe in around here and how it is that we do things in general.”
“I agree, he may need a good dose of manners, I should say,” replied Ribbit. “Maybe if all else fails, then I'll just deliver them right here on the toe of my boot directly into the seat of his pants there!”
“So as I see it, you shall pause to ask me which way it is that you need to go..Well, just keep following due East. Last it was that I heard, there in the mountains to the far east, with the sea at it's back, should sit the extraordinary colossal blue ice mansion. Just the mere sight of it is so astounding and magnificent, that you might even go as far as to simply faint. Beyond that, I really do not know what else to tell you. As you walk along, there may be gifts sitting about here and there, where you can find the answers as to what to do next, if the unseen forces surrounding you agree with offering you assistance, but such is about all that I know to tell you,” replied the monkey. “ I shall tell you this much too..., just watch yourself around here; while all appears very relaxing and pleasant, which in-fact it is so, indeed eyes are a watching you there boy! You cannot go anywhere without some set of eyes knowing exactly where it is that you are...at all times, sonny.”
“We both understand and thank you very much, for your assistance,” quickly snapped the rabbit.
“You both are very welcome,” replied the monkey.
“I apologize for taking your fruit,” said TJ as he and Ribbit slowly walked away.
“No problem..., this time..., no problem, son...No problem indeed, at least, not with me, presently...,” replied the monkey with a broad smile as the two walked away.
Onward toward the blue ice mansion
The boy and the rabbit began to walk along in an eastern direction across the grassy, tree scattered meadow, talking about life, pains of life and it's sweetest of pleasures. The rabbit laughed as the boy spoke, but then abruptly assumed a serious face, clearing his throat repetitively before speaking.
“I guess that now is the proper time to inform you of all our regulations here in Nymphaion,” said Ribbit.
“Yes, they might be handy to know and now is sure just as good a time as any other,” replied TJ with a sigh and a smile.
“Well they all kind of line up kind of like this,” spoke the rabbit:
“Do not lie...
Do not steal...
Do not kill....
Do not discriminate...
Do not fornicate....
Do not commit adultery...
We are also a very free society here in Nymphaion. Here are the blood won freedoms that we hold so dear and would rather suffer death than to ever relinquish...
We have...freedom of the press..
Freedom of Speech...
Freedom of individual enterprise...
Freedom of a check on employers, forcing them to validate their decisions to terminate an individual's employment status-quot. Yet employers are free to hire at their own will.
Freedom of benefits, specifically health and retirement benefits. This rule simply states that every employer must provide benefits, especially health benefits, as part of his business obligations. Doing so keeps Nymphaion a first rate place for it's people to live.”
“Wow...that sounds really nice! I wish that Nottoway had rules like that,” said the boy. “I know of people who get fired from their jobs for no good reason at all, simply because a claim was made against them... and the people making the claim do not even have to produce any supporting facts! That is why my Father is self employed..and the money that one receives versus being a payed employee's ridiculously low salary. I sure do not want to labor back there, in that hostile climate and put up with the outright sanctioned harassment from my coworkers when I get older!
Father even told me that many businesses hire completely incompetent managers and supervisors back in Goose-lick, then bring another person in from a distant province to actually perform the work. This happens because the local company officials are either his friend or family and they don't want to fire him. These people tend to allow the workers to supervise and manage themselves using a program of harassment. It all is really pathetic, I tell you, since really creative, effective employees lose their jobs and have their references and resumes destroyed and ineffective, incompetent employees are allowed to remain. Most of the businesses thrive on extorted public funds, according to Father and do not survive by their own quality production and performance”
The rabbit cleared his throat repetitively, appearing really surprised at the boy's words, but trying hard not to make a comment.
“Let me continue on with our basic beliefs,” said Ribbit with a puzzled sigh. “We believe in a supreme Sultan who rules from the sky. The Sultan came down as a man once, giving us our basic living regulations that I have just given to you. At the mid-stage of the human life span, he then rose back into the heavens to sit at the right hand of the central supreme divine monarch of the celestial universe.
We also have the earthly Sultans who rule our provinces and one superior Sultan who resides over the entire Kingdom of provinces. Matter of fact, we are in search of the superior Sultan, Siegfried El Pulchrea, Lord of the blue glaze castle up in the high mountains. According to our logic, the provincial Sultan gets his authority from the superior Sultan, and both of them receive their authority from the supreme Sultan of the sky; so therefore our rules given and all of those made, originate from the supreme Sultan and all of us are to only listen and obey ...even to the fullest commandment, dear one.”
“Wow...what about foreigners? How are we viewed,” asked the boy?
“Well, as far as you foreigners are concerned, while you are not allowed to cause anyone harm of any type, you may indulge in freedom of the heart's desire in a measure slightly beyond what we as provincial citizens are allowed. Most of these freedoms are of a moralistic nature, however. Some business freedoms do apply in a likewise fashion, as well as tax freedoms,” informed the rabbit to the boy.
As they walked along, TJ suddenly caught sight of a rainbow colored wooden box sitting neatly underneath the umbrella palm trees, with the word open me, written directly on the top. He removed the top, taking note of a large colored layered cake made in green, red, yellow and white layers, with the word temptations written on top in black icing. Beside the cake was a note saying:
Good evening weary travelers,
If you are in search of the superior Sultan, keep following due east until you arrive at the chief Priest's marble henge, then make a direct left. Please eat the high energy cake for your rejuvenation.
TJ hesitatingly seized a part of the cake up in his right hand, glancing back toward the rabbit, who replied to him; “go ahead boy, take of it and eat.” He did so, breaking the cake in half and handing the other piece to the rabbit.
“Yea, I should say that this cake was tempting enough. What do the colors have to do with temptation, I wonder?”
“Well I guess it is that the layers mean, money, wine, and blond haired white women.., I don't know,” replied Ribbit with a sudden laugh.
“Sounds good enough to me, but I do declare that I sure have lots more energy after eating that cake. I wish that I knew what it was that was in it.”
“It is all tough to say, but lets keep moving on just to see where it is that we are, if for no other reason that we can think of.”
TJ replied, “I agree, because I sure am thirsty right now.”
The two kept walking along until they arrived at a marble stone table stand, about waist high. On top of the stand was a note beside a golden chalice filled with blood red wine. TJ picked the note up, reading it aloud to the rabbit.
“Dear Fellow Travelers,
You both have arrived in the world at the time that you did so. You were very curious and have thus ventured inward this far. You both carry your innermost desires deep within you. One day you will fulfill those desires.... and this is the effects that gratification will have upon you.
TJ seized up the chalice and quickly drank half down, offering the other half to the rabbit who finished it. Both suddenly began laughing, glancing around and speaking of the way that they felt as if they had been out at sea for months on end, only to now stand upon dry land. TJ then glanced down upon the note once more again.
You both hath made it thus far, so now it is that you have reached the point of no return. Keep going due east and you shall soon arrive at the sacred henge. You will soon feel the allure of real success, since you hath now reached the near midpoint in your great quest.
“Wow,” said Ribbit, “guess that we must walk a bit more. I am getting just a mite tired, to tell the truth about it all.”
“This meadow, now turning into a forest, is getting kind of far and wide. All that I know to do is to just keep heading due East, until we get to that darned henge. To tell the truth, what is a henge anyway,” asked TJ with a yawn?
“Well...it is a stone temple, with two large flat stones on either side, and two across the top. It can be an alter upon which something is held in great reverence,” replied Ribbit.
“I guess it is that we will just keep on walking East with the now, peach colored sun, directly overhead,” TJ replied.
The two continued on for what felt as though hours had passed. Soon they passed a purple unicorn who could peer forward into the future and backward into the past. They asked him what time it was and were astounded only to find that they both had been in Nymphaion for only a matter of minutes! The unicorn claimed that the effects of the herb laced wine were to quicken the passage of time. He refused to speak information regarding a way out that avoided passage through the blue ice Bastille mansion and the Sultan. According to him, the Sultan had earnestly requested that they visit him, and that request would be honored dutifully. As they continued to walk along, they heard the speech of a small but harsh voice from within the thick brush beside them.
“Keep your toes to the East, thus shall your mind then wonder least,” the voice said. Ahead he heard another voice speak the same words, the source only continuing to remain hidden. Then another voice replied; “Otherwise your body shall become lost and your dear families shall surly pay the cost.”
“Where are you,” asked TJ aloud?
“Who are you,” asked Ribbit?
“Come out, come out now, who ever and where-ever it is that you are,” they both inquired together.
Soon they saw a figure step out, who appeared as a small green gnome. Ahead a small red troll appearing character stepped out, who was about the same size, both carrying walking sticks.
“These two gnomes are from the groups, Pie and Pix. The Pies are the green gnomes and the Pix are the red miniature troll looking ones. Once upon a time in the past, the green gnomes, the Pies, ruled over and owned the red ones or the Pix. It has been nearly two centuries, but there is still much antagonism between the two groups. The Sultan made war against the Pies, forcing them to free the Pix, which they did after much shedding of innocent blood. The Pies then forbade the Pix from entering onto their side of the province and kingdom, banning them by their own self imposed regulations. A hundred years later, the Sultan had to step in and force the two to merge the halves of the kingdom and province. Even so, there are still bitter rivalries between the two, even to this very day,” explained the rabbit.
“I thought that freedom had been guaranteed,” stated the boy.
“Well it was,” explained the rabbit...
“I do not understand,” replied TJ.
“The official explanation is that the Sultan moved against the Pies in a great crusade to end their subjugation and domination of the Pix. The Sultan had to launch a campaign to persuade people to fight on his behalf, so he initiated an information campaign, until he slowly began to get followers to align themselves with his cause.”
“What was the true cause for the war,” asked TJ?
“All of the people here inside the province are well aware of the real cause, but to publicly announce it would only enrage the Pix and government officials. So much time has now passed that it really does not even matter to most people, at least, for the present time it doesn't,” replied Ribbit. “Most folks just want to work, do business and simply go on with life in general.”
“Tell me what happened. What is the real history of the place here,” asked TJ?
“Well, it is like this...back during the day when we won the great war against the world conquering kingdom of chains to the far east, the one across the great dividing pond; the people here demanded their freedom. Our leaders placed in a set of checks and balances to regulate everything. The understanding in general was, however, that in due course of time, no matter what system was established, that authority would discover a way to usurp their way around it. Almost immediately the system began to deteriorate. Within fifty years the first big attack came on our personal freedoms by our own government.”
“What was that,” asked TJ?
“Consolidation of the banks and the currency, since all localities within the province could have their own banks and issue their own currency. The eastern half of the province resisted this consolidation and continued to print their own currency, declaring that the demand to consolidate was an attempt to control prices and force the people into servitude directly with the banks and indirectly, the government, since most of the government officials owned the banks in the first place. This resistance enraged the Sultan, of course, who tried to force this consolidation.
Finally a deep economic depression came about, and the East was prospering immensely due to trade with the other provinces and kingdoms, while the West collapsed. The West claimed that they could not compete with people who used compulsory labor, since doing so was against the law there. So the Sultan demanded that the East pay a sixty percent tax on their produce and exported goods. The East refused, voting instead among themselves to succeed and form their own nation that supported their own free individualist interests. Doing so was in perfect compliance with our provincial constitution, but the Sultan invaded militarily any way by immediately securing all of the military fortifications throughout the eastern side of the province, and done so very quickly to prevent the East from making military logistical preparations for future combat.
Right at first, no one in the West nor any other province would assist in the fight for authoritarian consolidation, so the Sultan changed his approach after about two years into the fight and one that he was losing dearly. Now, according to the Sultan's information minister, the fight was a great crusade against servitude. The Pix were told that they would be allowed twenty hectors of land and a donkey if they would just assist in the great fight against indentured servitude. On that ground, all of them agreed to fight, since they were so very certain that the Sultan and vast army of knights would stand behind them all, to ensure that they could act in any manner imaginable, to the detriment of the enemy. All of the Pix conveniently forgot that the war would end and that the Sultan, with all of his men, would simply just go on back home..
So now just imagine the Pix...here they are with their protectors, whom they categorized as their liberators, now gone...,after they have been looting, burning, stealing, raping and murdering innocents in complete liberty, now having to return back into the very land against which they had once marched...How do you think it was that they were received?”
“I doubt with open arms... I can say that much with a sure certainty,” replied the boy.
“Without a doubt....! Soon the Pie came a marching, forming wicked guerrilla bands that used terror to seek revenge for the wrongs that the Pix had committed and to restore as well as to preserve security. In the end, a great army of ferocious ghosts where called up from within the midst of ancient grave yards, to provide divine retribution for the sins of the Pix against the innocent Pie, soundly defeating them and stomping them down into dust and eternal submission.
Soon following, a great wall between the Pie and the Pix was constructed, only to be slowly removed more than a hundred years later. Now it is is true here in present times, that the two do exist together, but only on very precarious terms.”
“But I thought that this was a kingdom that indorsed individuality and personal choice with the freedom to do so..,” replied TJ.
“Yes, so do most people everywhere. Truth suggests other additional horrible possibilities and a fearful future repression.” replied Ribbit.
“Like what,” asked TJ?
“Back during the days when the wall was coming down, at the same time rules were being put into place that forced all of the shopkeepers and employees to hand over half of their earnings to the Sultan and his legions. Now he could do what he wanted to do before the war began, and what he had so seriously desired to do in the years following. Now the people had no choice but to comply with orders. To justify this extortion, some small benefits were offered to the people in the name of giving assistance to those in need. The overwhelming majority of these so called benefits went to the Pie, who were a divisive element to be manipulated by the Sultan in the midst of the national body; but enough did go back into the coffers of the Pie, so that some sort of backlash would not result against the extortion. All of this was part in an overwhelming stratagem of new conquest, as any wise observer can readily deduce.
Twenty years following, the checks and balances on the large corporate conglomerates were being dismantled. Now the entire province was managed by the large business syndicates, the Sultan and his thieving legions. The people were at the complete mercy of these villains masquerading as saints. One clear morning suddenly, a large provincial bank building that held all of the gold from every kingdom on emerald earth, was destroyed by great soaring eagles who had been baited in and trained to carry fire and brimstone by the Sultan himself and his military commandant. This fire was dropped from the eagle's talons, along with relatively large stones, until it completely destroyed the entire banking structure.
A few years later, in the false name of preventing future attacks, the checks and balances against the Sultan being forced to go through parliament to declare a national emergency were removed. Watchful eyes were imposed throughout the province on every level to spy on individual citizens, just in case they should anticipate any forthcoming negative occurrences and decide to respond to them in the name of true patriotic liberty. So at the present moment, all that the Sultan needs to do is to simply declare a national emergency, and then the people shall lose all constitutional rights, with the legions of knights being free to lord over them in any manner that they deem fit, according to the law of the Shepard, which shall then be the rule. The people will not even have the natural right to dear life anymore once this insidious law is in decree; their only reason for being allowed to live will be to give complete service in labor and body to the ruling Sultan's benefit.”
“You are saying that they will be literal slaves to the Sultan, and that specific title will be the one of all the people here in the province,” replied TJ?
“That is right...that is my prediction for the future of this province. That is also why I have determined to leave it. I am going away into the deep wilderness, I tell you, and go now while it is still possible to get away,” replied Ribbit.
Soon the bushes ahead rustled a bit. Out stepped a green but very pleasant appearing elf gnome. His outward radiance caused TJ to feel that he was compassionate and helpful. Even so, the general feeling as well, was one of great caution. In his right hand he held a six foot staff with a metal cap and a three foot chain running from the cap, bearing a spiked ball on the other end.
“And just where is it that you two think that you are going,” demanded the elf?
“Looking for the henge,” replied TJ.
“I shall inform you right here and now, that as you go looking for the henge, you are walking through Pie land here.”
“Oh yea,” asked the rabbit? “Where are the signs saying so? I don't see any? Who says so?”
“Who says so,” snapped the green gnome? “Why, it is I who says so, that's who! Ignorance of rules is no justifiable excuse for breaking them. I could just order both of you to go away right now or have you carried away in chains and shackles.”
“But how are we supposed to know,” asked TJ? How are we supposed to know what is against the rules and what is not? This is crazy!”
“Well go ask a rule pigeon,” said the gnome. “He will not charge but half a days wage to speak with him, and all that he does is sit on a stool and study the rules. For a substantial fee more, he will go into the Sultans' court and fight for you. If the person that he is fighting pays him more to condemn you, however, then and only then will he turn on you...,unless you up the ante made against you by your opposition, that is. If you don't up the ante for any reason, then the Sultans' adjunct will have you thrown into the dungeon for a few months.., then that will be that..; except that there will be an eternal record of your violation...,then you cannot vote or own property, or even contest any charges made against you in the future made inside the same category in which you were originally charged. You will not be allowed to have a profession or run a business of any sort; and you will be required to check in with the authorities monthly, as well as be forced to submit unto random searches of one's person and living quarters. Other than that, however, you will be O.K.”
“You're crazy, man,” said TJ! “There should be posters up around here, stating that you and whom ever, own this property and all of this. I don't have the time or the patience to go see that fool of a rule pigeon, or what ever it is that you speak of, let alone the money. All that we know is that this road runs long from where-ever right on to where-ever, and at this moment, all that I know is that I must go that way,” he replied, pointing up the two rut dirt road with his arm extended. “According to what it is that I understand, the henge is that way.... Come on, there Ribbit,” said TJ as he glanced back.
“Can I walk with you to the henge,” asked the Pie?
“Why should we allow it,” asked the rabbit?
“Because we are all in search of fortune, just like every being here on emerald earth is. I am in need of it just as much as anyone else. Since you two are headed eastward, then I would presume in the direction of the Sultan, I would also presume that the both of you are in search of fortune as well. I simply just wish to assist in our discovery of it.
“Yes...I guess,” said both the rabbit and the boy. “We need all of the help that we can get.”
So the three made their way down the road, where according to the Pie, the henge was sure to lay. None of them knew exactly what the great henge was, except that the blue ice castle mansion of the Sultan lay to the left of it. So off they went on down the road through the green wood that had replaced the open meadows, walking seemingly for days until suddenly, a small chest fell before them from the sky at their very feet. All of them glanced upward, seeing nothing but clear blue sky.
“What is this,” cried the Pie?
“I don't know, what is that,” cried the rabbit?
“Well lets just have a look and see,” said TJ, as he bent down to pick the chest up. He placed the box in his left palm, then very carefully opened the lid with his right hand, exposing another weathered parchment note.
“Wow..., it's another message,” cried the rabbit!
“Yea, I should say, that it looks like another message,” said the Pie!
“I will open it and give it a read.., so listen..,” said TJ, “and the note says...
Please stop right here and dig in this very spot. You will soon find a leather bag filled with valuables. When you arrive at the henge, give this large bag of valuables to the gatekeeper and he will direct you toward the majestic castle of cerulean glaze, and he will inform you of your additional duties, so pay close attention here. To the right, approximately twelve paces, lie a pick ax and a shovel hidden inside the tall grass and bushes. Dig in the exact spot where this box was found for the valuables. Don't try to cheat the gatekeeper, he has put in an order for this bag and knows well of every item in it that is to be found. Good luck to all of you!
The Nymph's trial
“So....looks like we have our work cut out for us here today,” says TJ, “so now lets look about for the pick and shovel.”
“Twelve paces,” reply the Pie to the rabbit? “That's one, two, three..., hmm now..., ten, eleven....it should be right here,” he said, stomping both feet down in an opening right there before them in the wood.
“No, it's right here,” said Ribbit, as he stooped to pick up the shovel, “and there lies the pick right beside the shovel about nine more steps out.”
The Pie raced up beside him, stooping to grab the pick.
“I guess, now, that we can get to work.”
TJ continued to stand where the box had been found.
“Don't forget to dig right where I am standing. The best thing for us to do is to simply take turns digging. You dig first Ribbit, then I will take the pick and let the Pie rest. Then I will dig and the Pie can take to the pick again, and then you may rest. That way we can get there faster without wearing ourselves out.”
“Sounds like a real winner to me,” said the Pie with a smile and an air of sarcasm.
So the Pie and the rabbit race over to where TJ was standing, and commence to dig with all of their strength. All of them switched out, the hole going wider and deeper with every scrape of the shovel....until they were all in over their head before they even knew it...Then suddenly...,Ribbit hit something with the pick that rang slightly and bound up the pick.
“Here it is, here it is! I have hit something here, fellows,” he screamed, now digging with his paws!
“Let me see there, let me see there,” yelled the Pie as he raced up, pulling upon what appeared to be an aged sheet of leather!
“And boy is this thing really big and heavy,” they both said as they pulled with all of their might, until the bag released, allowing both of them to fall back all of a sudden!
TJ laughed loudly as he raced to where the two lay.
“Wow there, are you both alright?”
“Yea,” said Ribbit, “ I think that we are alright?”
“Let me take a look there,” said TJ, as he walked around to the opened end of the bag, reaching inside and pulling out a nice, single ounce doubloon of pure gold. “Wow,” he said as he reached again into the bag and pulled out one hundred and forty three more solid golden coins. “An ounce of gold is worth over a thousand dollars right now back home, I tell all of you...We are rich, I tell you! Just think what it is that we can do on our own with this marvelous find here!”
Ribbit quickly walked up, looking at the shinny golden treasure there as it lay, shaking his head from side to side in silence as he gazed down upon the pile.
“Just remember now, we were instructed to give it over to the gatekeeper there at the henge. We were also told that he would know if we palmed even a single doubloon of it. You need to make it over to the blue ice castle soon, just to receive the Sultan's blessings ..,with even a faint hope of making it back home. Where was it said that you were from, there boy...? From a technical point of view, we among the average folk here in Nymphaion, really have a very limited use for gold here among ourselves, and personally, I will never leave home to live anywhere else, myself. I don't know about the Pie there, but as for myself, I am here to stay. I am well aware that in other kingdoms the truth is otherwise, in regard to the value of gold. Valuable foreign purchasing power is what makes the Sultan so hungry for gold.”
“ Oh yea?.. All of what you say may be true about this place here, but we sure have lots of use for it back in Nottoway, where it is that I am from. I could make a fine use of it back in my home town and province, just to be honest about it,” said TJ with a sly smile that he appeared to attempt at concealing.
“How do you propose that we carry it all out of here? This stuff is heavy as lead, I tell you,” said Ribbit.
“Well lets divide it into even threes. We could cut the bag up and tie the new bags with strings made from the milkweed fibers growing here and there around here. That way, we could carry it all out, I think,” said the Pie?
“Sounds like a good one to me,” said TJ, who then pulled out his handy Swiss army knife and began to cut the heavily aged and soiled leather bag into three evenly sized sections, laying them out flatly upon the damp earth before the three of them. The rabbit commenced to divide the coins out, carefully placing the even piles into the center of the sections. The Pie then paused before a small milkweed patch nearby and began separating the fibers in the stems, carefully rolling them on the thy of his leg with the flat opened palm of his right hand, which made some really strong string. These he brought back to the rabbit and TJ, who carefully tied the bags up around the coin piles.
“Well...I will cut us all some cane poles and we can place the bags on the ends of them, being careful to carry the poles over our shoulders. These canes will make some fine fishing poles as well, should we ever need them,” said TJ.
So he did so. He walked way out to a nice patch of cane nearby, being careful to cut three fine nine foot poles of cane, then he carried them back to where the bags lay, being careful to place the poles underneath the tightly woven string on the bags. Once these bags were secured onto the ends of the cane poles, they all made their way out of the freshly dug hole and headed on down the two rut dirt road, traveling deeper into the ever darkening forest depths.
As they walked along for a span of time, soon their ears detected the crackle of dried twigs, their eyes beheld nothing but an empty void of leaves and branches gently waving in the cool day time breeze.. All of them froze in hopes of catching a slight move in the area, but their eyes still beheld nothing save the slightly moving leaves in the gentle breeze and maybe the sudden flight of a song bird or two. Then they heard a voice behind them in the opposite direction from whence the movement had came.
“I would suppose that all of you are looking for someone,” boomed a strong feminine voice from behind, startling the entire group. When they abruptly turned, their eyes fell upon the most beautiful bohemian nymph that any one of them had ever beheld.
“Is there anything that I could help you with,” asked the nymph?
“We are looking for the henge,” said TJ, who had now seemingly aged a year, from fifteen into a tall muscular sixteen.
“I can tell you where the henge is, but you must prove that you are worthy of finding it once you are there. Only sophisticated men are allowed to pass through the gatekeeper's gate. You must prove that you know enough about the basics of life, just to pass through and learn of life's more complicated attributes and perilous situations.”
“How must I do that,” asked TJ to the nymph?
“First, I superficially deem you worthy of the test right now. So the task for you is to prove that you are worthy as a sophisticated man, both on your feet and off your feet, in the light of day as well as on the twelfth-stroke of mid night. If I am not perfectly contented with your appeal, then you are not worthy enough to pass through the gate anyway,” replied the nymph, “and I will just withhold any further instruction, only to cast all of you outside into the eternal damning void beyond, where you will be most certain to encounter extreme hardship.”
“I still do not understand,” asked the boy?
“Pause here and allow my talented minstrels to entertain your guests, and please allow me to entertain you as we spend time getting to know one another much better. By tomorrow morning you shall have proven yourself to be ready for any challenge placed before you; or that you are doomed to fail, no matter what it is that you go up against and that you only deserve to simply fade away into nothingness.”
“But the sacred teachings strictly forbid it,” spoke TJ.
“What teachings? The teachings of what land,” asked the nymph?
“The sacred teachings of my own land and even those here in Nymphaion Province,” replied TJ with a slight gasp.
“But this is my land here where it is that we now stand, and only I say what is to go on in my own land. It is I who deems you worthy superficially at this specific moment, but you are only to prove your worth by first light tomorrow morning. I must warn you right now in deep earnest, that you have only this single chance within the previously stated time frame...,to verify your worthiness to endure... So come, follow along and lets proceed forward in our honest endeavor, in which all truth shall then be revealed, with nowhere left to hide.” said she as she gently raised her palms to grasp both of TJ's slightly trembling hands, coaxing him into a cave entrance concealed inside the bushes ahead, the other two hesitatingly following him.
For what felt like hundreds of yards they walked down a long winding dark cave corridor, until the corridor opened up abruptly into an expansive room, that appeared more as a natural palace than a room of stalactites and stalagmites. The room had obviously been chiseled by a very talented stone cutter at some point in time, appearing more now as a Pantheon that incorporated the stalactites and stalagmites into it's elaborate design, than merely just a natural cave. Slowly all of them walked up the stairway until they entered the Pantheon, the very spectacle of the grandeur before them felt to induce a strange intoxicating haze in the eyes of the three, all in and of itself. The sensation puzzled TJ, who could never determine if the feeling derived from the Pantheon mansion itself or the reflective lighting there inside the palace interior; or even from some other source, such as the strangely delicious but very pungent odor of heavy incense that seemingly lingered about within the air throughout the entire Pantheon interior.
Once inside the Pantheon a menagerie of characters were playing games and moving about, some painting portraits and others composing cheerful songs with tall mugs in hand, all of them wishing to invite the two companions of TJ among them, to socialize, sip delightful wine from sliver chalice and to compose both poetry and musical prose; the nymph only requesting that TJ follow her as she walked along. In the back room of the Pantheon was a warm man-made cesspool holding crystal clear indigo water. Three blush robed female attendants wearing strands of rose blossoms alternated with white chrysanthemums were pausing with happy smiles before them, bearing decorated icicle nectar drinks in both hands that extended outward, to assist with taking care of their belongings and encouraging their comfort. Before the pool sat two lounge chairs, with a small table of perfectly unblemished marble between them.
The females attentively separated the two, being careful to crowd around them in order that their clothes may be removed and replaced with a more relaxing robed attire. As he changed his attire, he was instructed by them that these new clothes were functional, both dry or wet, being that the wind passing through would dry them in a matter of minutes. When the women backed off, the two made their way toward the lounge seats, taking their ease and speaking about the wind, the place that they were now in, and TJ's home that he had left so far behind. Every now and then one of them would stand up to dip their right toe into the water, just to test it for the perfectly accommodating temperature.
Soon one of the attendants disappeared, then returned bearing a huge chalice of gold filled with smooth but very strong blush wine. In the center of the wine was a flower of beryl lotus, the combination designed to give enhancement to the both wine and the sensual thrill of the moment. Two golden straws were placed into the chalice, so that both of them could share in the exhilaration of their time together. Behind them formed a quiet violin serenade born from a delightful band of artistic nomads as they both paused to speak and peacefully drink from the straws.
Time strangely had no meaning here within this palace. An hour felt as a moment at times and then as an entire day. The pleasure seemed to be intoxicating and continually alluring, seemingly beckoning him to remain therein for all eternity by causing those hazy thoughts of home to gradually fade away. The two moved from the chairs into the warm cesspool, then back into the chairs. At some time along the way, the robes were forgotten, both being left behind in a casual unorganized pile by the pool side, in absence of any modest hesitation. Soon, but maybe hours later, they both arose from the pool, making their way toward the palace berth chamber.
Once inside TJ was astounded by the majestic canopy bed sitting on legs of brass that were plated in pure gold. The mattress itself was one of goose down, feeling like a cloud in the berth of heaven itself when one's entertaining body lay upon it. On the other side soon glided the nymph, both of them embracing in ways that conjured raw heaves of passion, that felt as though the general feelings would supersede all others ever felt in their level of enlightened pleasure.
The moment felt as though it would never end, but when it did his eyes opened, now beholding the enveloping glow of a tangerine sun through a pane-less veil covered window facing the foot of his elegant bed. The general feeling consuming him was a sensation of him longing that the span of time linger for a perfect infinity. The nymph soon awakening, so it seemed to him, only to warmly embrace him once more again, like the sensation of a cozy gentle breeze passing all over his inviting sweating body.
Time passed as though he had only blinked, finding himself now back outside sitting with the nymph in the minstrels chamber and parlaying in the courtyard with his two companions. The two then asking him how was his experience, and him replying that it was among the very best that he had ever had, being anything but even close to bad! As the three began to make their way out, the assistants retrieved their belongings and the nymph spoke her words of instruction to them all.
“You have certainly passed your test with flying colors.... Congratulation in your delightful conquest, and me in mine to keep our perfect rhythm in it's proper timing, just to pat the divine magister on her right shoulder! Keep following the sun in an Eastward direction.... Watch your step as you pass. The Sultan's knights have taken notice that you are here in their midst. Remember that the knights are supplied by the merchants and tradesmen, who pay handsomely for the knights' sustenance and material supply at years end. This allows the Sultan to save tremendous amounts of revenue, including the twelve percent extra that he builds into the yearly amounts for the materials and food supplies charged to the merchants and Tradesmen. The merchants that you have passed through have warned them of your intentions in meeting the Sultan and have perceived your subconscious suggestions of an individual enterprise endeavor. They highly resent those suggestions, since any effort of enterprise on your part, would force them to compete with you and eventually, the average people on the ground around here... and the knights are determined to stop your advance toward the Bastille glaze mansion, out of fear that you will appeal your case for permission to engage in individual enterprise here in our kingdom.
I must give all of you these following warnings... Please watch how you move through the territory from now on. When you get to the henge, the gatekeeper will speak with you concerning the remainder of your journey. My minstrel assistant will now lead you back out of the corridor and back onto the road into the right direction. You are always and forever welcome right here in my blessed abode. It is my hope that maybe one day you will choose to return here unto me at some point in the future and remain in my company for a greater span of time. If you can continue to prove yourself worthy of the call, then maybe...just maybe..,I will invite you in for an indefinite time span,” she said as she kissed him goodbye with deep passion, directly upon his dry lips.
So the four of them made their way back down the corridor, the three soon finding themselves back out onto the road. TJ now felt really energized in a way that he had never experienced before. He now knew that he could accomplish anything, over coming any obstacle that would ever be placed before him, for some reason that he could not explain. Contrary to what he had been told, the sensation was not one of being negative in the very least, but was one of a positive greater than any he had ever felt before in his life. He would never forget the name of the nymph for the remainder of his mortal life, since she had whispered it so many times into his wanting ears ....Kyria Tisdasos.
War with the Sultan's knights
Just as a precaution, if he felt the need to do so, TJ reasoned that their best move would be to simply walk to the side of the road some ten to thirty meters out, just to remain in good cover. This way, if the knights had a scout on the lookout, which he was sure that they did, the scout just might overlook them as they walked right on passed. All of them were carefully instructed to remain quiet and any who failed to do so caused the others to become extremely irate. After traveling for what felt like several hours, soon out on the road center lay a shinny object that caught everyone's eye. When the Pie eased out onto the road to examine it, the object turned out to be a large golden gem laden crucifix on a silver chain, just like those worn by the pursuing Knights. Evidently one of them had passed through recently and simply dropped it. Most surly he would return to search around for a while, since this charm is very precious to them all.
TJ eased down his rod and the bundle, taking note in his mind of the supplies that he had picked up as they had journeyed about. He was always picking up any item that he felt might be of some possible future service to him and the group. He opened the bundle to find a roll of black stove pipe wire that he had picked up earlier on near the nymph's cave entrance. An idea had now suddenly struck him that he could not resist. He instructed the Pie and the rabbit to help him locate a sharp curve in the road up from the point where the crucifix was discovered. When they found one, Ribbit stood on his shoulders and tied a section of the wire to an oak trunk, at a height estimated to be chest high where a six foot man would sit on a five foot high horse's back. Anywhere from the base of the chest up should work out just fine, he deduced. If he were just a bit too high, that would be perfectly O.K., since the wire technically should always strike a bounding patrol of armored knights directly in the throat or underneath the chin then. By using a two foot section of tree limb, the wire could be tied, then twisted until very taunt and the looped knots then slid down, secured and virtually locked into proper place, which was what TJ wanted for chief effect in holding the wire at a tight maximum. He did not know for certain if they were in the area, but he sure wanted to strike at them first in an offensive move, if they were on patrol attempting to locate him. Doing so was most necessary, if he was to slow down their advance and launch an effective plan of intimidation with very limited supplies.
What would really be nice is if he could secure some weaponry, such as a longbow or a crossbow and some arrows. Of course, a thirty caliber rifle with armor piercing bullets would be much better, but around here, it was highly unlikely that he would ever find such a thing. He would keep his eyes open for one, just the same. They all had just passed around the curve where the wire trap had been placed in and were ahead in the distance by about ninety yards; then suddenly, they heard what sounded like remote thunder and saw a rising cloud of dust far out into the distance beyond them as they traveled. Carefully and quietly the other two were instructed to crouch low while what was appearing to be a search platoon passed.
Sure enough, when the group passed, instantly it could be determined that they were a platoon of well armored knights out on the search; when they thundered around the curve, suddenly the sound was one of five hundred tin cans collapsing into a bent up heap directly onto the ground. The three soon doubled back to investigate from the security of good cover. The scene was one of nine knights who had lost their horses, their helmets and a third of their armor. All of them, but two, were in the process of picking themselves up off of the ground. In anger they pulled their remaining armor off, slinging it to the ground in an apparent rage at their frustrating situation. Their heavy swords and lances they tossed, only keeping their precious side knives. All of them paused before their fallen comrades to examine them, but upon seeing that there was no help for them, they simply walked on down the road in the opposite direction from where it was that TJ and company were headed.
Once the fallen knights were down the road far enough that TJ and the group felt it was safe, they walked out to examine all of the material that the knights tossed by the road side. Most of it was heavy armor and other items that was of no real use to a traveling group like TJ was a part of. As they continued to look around, they found what appeared to be three machetes and canvas sheaths, belts, and to all of their delight and surprise, a crossbow and a quiver filled with heavy arrow bolts. Evidently the knights intended to return to the area and claim these precious items, but when they did, their luck would be out on them again, if TJ could cause it to be so.
As much of these items that could be carried by the three were gathered up, including several thin swords for a dueling styled combat, that were laying about. TJ had even managed to discover a number of new metal files scattered around. These more than likely had tumbled from a knight's supply pack, that he quickly collected upon noticing the potential for use later on in the future. He had come to feel that now he was at war with a real living enemy, who was playing for keeps. He could only shudder as he came to imagine the horrors that all of them had in store, should they ever catch him. He felt like Robin Hood, Sir William Wallace or another one of his heroes from the past.
As he gazed into the faces of the two armored corpses laying there in the road underneath the taunt wire, he experienced a feeling of raw accomplishment that filled his breast with joy and anticipation for the next potential experience. There was a sensation of confidence that came with this spirit of accomplishment as a boost to the general emotion. He smiled broadly as he glared into their frozen light blue faces and glazed eyes. A lump had formed upon the sides of both their necks, indicating that the wire had broken them, probably snapping them like a twig with a pistol shot, just like he had seen deer do when attempting to escape pursuit through a long tall fence line. TJ then motioned to the rabbit, saying;
“Get back up here on my shoulders Ribbit, you son of a black eyed Pix, and lets remove that wire before they come back. They will then know that whom ever committed this act had returned, but they will also have a sensation of apprehension and hesitation, slowing them down and keeping them from following us so religiously.”
After they had collected up the scattered wares, TJ and his companions ambled on back down the road in their former direction, making their way toward the henge. After they had walked for what felt like several more hours, they rounded another sharp curve.
“This appears to be an excellent place for another set up, from what I can tell. I figure that we just might be able to make another strike on the same group that was after us before, since I am nearly certain that they have turned to pursue us in the opposite direction, which sadly for us, would be the correct direction for finding us.”
Under TJ's guidance, both he and Ribbit walked back down the road for about ninety meters and replaced the tight wire across the road once more again. Pie managed to file the narrow swords down into nine inch pieces, filing a needle sharp point on to one end and a point of lesser degree onto the other. When TJ and Ribbit returned, they took the machetes and cut four five foot long wooden poles about two inches in diameter. Three feet of these were shaved flat on one side, the shavings carefully picked up and dis-guarded. On the flattened end was fastened one single spike by pushing it through a hole drilled out that was smaller than the spike, then jamming the other side with a wooden wedge. While Ribbit and TJ prepared these, the Pix began digging one feet by two feet holes about two feet deep, just in the edge of the woods a couple of yards by the roadside, slightly up from where the wire had crossed the road. By the time had passed that the holes had been dug, TJ and Ribbit were back around to help set the rigs into their proper place.
Across the ground a long scratch was made with a machete that was about three inches deep and the length of the five foot poles, going from the holes outward. The poles with the spikes were placed into these scratches, with the spikes sticking straight up. The round end of the poles went directly over the rectangle holes the long way. Once the rigs were snugged into proper place, the scratches were filled in. Dead twigs were placed over the holes and the pole ends. Over these twigs was places leaves and straw from the immediate area in such a way the entire set up was completely concealed. Only two inches or so from the spikes appeared through the leaves and sifted dirt, but the diameters were small enough that these were not even visible, unless one was right up on them and very observant. To be quite honest about it, TJ knew well that most people were not observant enough to take notice. Once the work was done, all of the fresh dirt hauled away from the site and the site camouflaged perfectly, appearing just as it was prior to putting the set in, the trio then continued on in their walk with the remaining articles collected in hand. Right now, all that TJ had on his mind was just making it to the blue ice castle and meeting with the Sultan, so that he could find his way back home. Even so, in-spite of the semi-hostile conditions, the general feeling was one of great adventure experienced and grand accomplishment.
Just as soon as the details of the trap site were cleaned up, the trio moved on, walking forward for what felt like many tiring kilometers. Soon the woods opened up into a vast mountainous plain, with a broad river that ran beside the mountain, on which it was that they now noticed they were walking down the narrowing road. On up ahead in the distance along the river, sat a splendid columned palace with a wall that spanned the bank on the other side of the river and on either side of the bridge. In the center of the wall was a stone door the same width as the bridge toward which the bridge ran directly into. To TJ and the other two, it seemed as if the stone door separated in the center, then drew back into itself. To the right side of the stone door there on the bridge itself, stood a sheltered hutch of carefully stacked flagstone, obviously housing some sort of watchman. The trio then assumed in agreement among themselves, that this just might be the gatekeeper, whom they had heard so many tales of.
It felt as though it took forever just to walk the distance from the two rut road's forest exit, out to the gated door of the bridge and the palace. At long last, they finally found themselves walking across the bridge and over to the stone hutch. The hutch had a window open to the air and inside that window sat a crude appearing troll, hardened by excessive drink, combat duty and rough living in general. He was dressed in standard soldier's attire for this particular place, that being a kilt, body armor, an iron helmet, a short sword and a heavy side knife. In the corner of the hut stood a cross bow and a quiver filled with arrows. He looked up at them as they approached with a hard steely gaze that revealed his general lack of trust in people.
“How do ya do sire? We would like to cross, if doing so is possible.” said the rabbit.
“Where is it that you are intending to go,” asked the gatekeeper?
“To the blue ice castle, to see the great Sultan,” snapped TJ.
“All of you are aware that doing so will demand the Sultan's fee, aren't you,” replied the gatekeeper?
“What is the fee,” asked the Pie, simply just to see what the gatekeeper's reply would be?
“That fee will be only forty eight golden rings, per person,” replied the guard, “and that is just to make it through the gate here. I am here to tell you, that there are more demands that must be met, if you wish to visit the superior Sultan.”
“Isn't forty eight golden rings enough,” snapped the rabbit, “what more is asked of us?”
“Just to speak to the Sultan and receive any measure of his divine gifts and blessings, you must posses a specialized skill that he and his illustrious court holds in value. By possessing this skill, you must then prove to him and his court, beyond all questioning to the contrary, that all of you are truly worthy of his extraordinary generosity.”
“My word, man,” snapped the rabbit, “what kind of hoodie-doodie- do-dottle is this? What kind of blasted skill is it that this, fellow and his cronies so values here, man?”
“Hand me your crossing fees and then we may speak more about it,” snapped the gatekeeper.
The three then dumped the bags filled with golden coins there on the table before the gatekeeper. The gatekeeper carefully examined the coins with a solid bite, then placing a droplet of mercury on each coin, gently rolling it around on them. He then weighed each one in the set of scales there on the table, seeing that the weight was an ounce and smiling back toward them in his approval. Upon completing his examination of the gold, he stepped out of the hutch, walking up to the stone door and pulling on a ancient rolling chain.
“Step right up to the door, and welcome to the palace of dreams. In this blessed place, many great dreams are conceived and astounding wagers made. Since you are wanting to visit the superior Sultan, you must learn a skill to use in his service, proving that you are of a value to him and worthy of remaining in his stay. Since all of you have found the gold, then the skill of treasure finder would be of an immense value to him and his Reginald court.”
“All of us know how to discover treasure,” said TJ. “We do not need any sort of training. Our proof is the treasure that we have already found.”
“Past success or natural talent is simply no longer good enough here nor even recognized any more in the province of Nymphania. One now is in need of an endorsed certification, proving that his level of skill is adequate to a standard and that he has been trained by a certified instructor in an officially endorsed establishment of learning. Don't despair, however, your lucky day is here, since this palace is that endorsed establishment. You need to go no farther, my future friends and comrades...So step right up and see the face of success as it sees all of you!”
“How long is this process going to take,” asked TJ?
“Only twenty and eight days,” smiled the gatekeeper, “but a twenty and eight day period of instruction that you have no choice but to take..., that is...., if you wish to experience the wonderful opportunities offered by the great Sultan and his most generous court.”
“Do the fees include room and board,” wisely inquired the rabbit?
“Only your entry fees and the instructional fees. You must pay for your own room and board, I do regret having to inform you. Like I said, however, please do not despair...., because today is certainly your lucky day! We have loans that we will make to you, payable only when you appear in gracious appeal for service to the great Sultan and his most blessed court.”
Finally before the day ended the gatekeeper had introduced the trio to the teacher who had arrived for work fresh from the forest woodlands and plowed dirt fields. This ridiculous imp could barely even speak in a language perceptible to the three, much less offer them any sort of new knowledge. On the surface, at least, he appeared friendly enough, even though being forced to endure his impish company was much more of an insult to the three than a blessing.
Though they were very bitter about having to go through with it, every one of them managed to pull their time there in the palace, learning the valuable skill of treasure hunter. According to the imp, the tools needed were a treasure sniffing goose and a periwinkle donkey to pack the digging tools in and/or the treasure out, if some was ever to be discovered. If one only starved the goose long enough, since he had been trained to do so previously, he would pause over a store of diamonds, gold or gems hidden somewhere long ago deep inside the ground. All of the revealing signs in the behavior of the goose were carefully explained as they relate to hidden treasure. According to the imp's instruction, the proper food to be given in reward was yellow corn and fresh green grass. The fees for the specially trained goose, the tools of the trade, the donkey and the yellow corn were only the same as that which was paid to the gatekeeper initially..... one hundred forty four rings of pure gold. If one may recall, a single ring is equal to an ounce of pure gold. A ring of pure gold or a coin in the same ounce and quality, was just as good for payment.
When the experience had completed, the trio now had in their envious possession... a goose that they were told had been specially trained, a purple donkey, a couple of fake leather saddlebags that all of them jokingly referred to as pleather (plastic leather), a pick, a shovel and a twelve pound dirty cloth bag of yellow corn. The imp, who continually smiled the entire time, patted all of them on their backs, barely capable of saying that he wished them all well and best of luck with the Sultan. The trio simply could not believe their own experience as they continued to walk along the road toward the far east and the sea. They made a pact among themselves not to ever tell anyone of this horrible extortion once they were all back home among family and friends. They also vowed not to speak of it anymore among themselves, from that day forward, in an effort to simply put what had happened out of their minds.
For what felt like several days they walked, and during that time they were able to converse with their comrades. TJ, out of curiosity, asked the Pie, why it was that he did not attempt to employ himself as gate keeper or some sort of guard, since it seemed like they were always running into either one or the other. The Pie explained that the only ones who were allowed that opportunity were those who served the Sultan either in his military or as his civil servants and tax collectors, but strangely enough, those opportunities seemed to always go to the Pix more than anyone else, who also stood as the divisive manipulative element within the general population's midst. The only logic in this observation was that it all came from the Sultans' allow first service program that was in place to guarantee employment to the Pix at the expense of everyone else, based on the assumption that no-one else ever needed regular pay, like everyone else was indebted to the Pix for some sort of imagined services rendered in the past or the present. For a person to even speak an opinionated word out loud in protest, insulted the sanctioned appeal to emotion and was most certain to invite the wrath of the Pix themselves or the authorities, as well as to invite misfortune upon himself, such as job lose or suit by court of law.
“But I thought that discrimination was illegal,” replied TJ, “is that not what all of you have been told for so many years going now?”
“We are told that constantly,” replied the Pie, “but here, quite often, events as they actually occur, do not match words that are spoken and those events even run in direct contrast to the words. Even the word, as it is written, does not match the events on the ground. Remember our blessed constitution?”
“Freedom of enterprise...Freedom from discrimination, and so on,” replied TJ. “I laugh out loud at times, because somehow strangely enough, all of it seems so familiar to me...”
“Well around here, we all just get used to it,” replied the Pie. “If the Sultan's agent speaks the claim or if we read it out loud....or if we all hear it being hammered into the heads of the children while at school or the adults while they are in congregation....then we just assume the opposite in expectation of reality. What I have observed is that in nine out of ten instances, that assumption in the opposite will wind up being reality, especially if the claim is of something very beneficial to all or positive in general.”
Soon the dismal road that they were traveling upon turned into a huge open field of blue lotus and mulberry belladonna rose. In the far distance loomed the sight of a mountain range with the faint sound of the sea crashing behind it. Seemingly directly from them in the barely perceptible distance, the site of a massive castle would suddenly appear on the summit of a distant mountain, then vanish with the clouds moving to cause the light to shift.
“That is amazing,” spoke TJ. “The way that the castle looms in the distance, then vanishes with the shifting of the light....is simply amazing! It is like a work of pure art in and of itself...”
“It has been said among some,” replied the rabbit, “that the castle can virtually disappear. The fact that it appears then vanishes is also a part of it's unique security system. On most nights it seems to vanish completely. Some times, in the glint of a full moon or a flash of lightening, one may get a quick glimpse of it, but that is about all. I highly suspect that those within the castle already know of our approach, even though we are way out here in the far beyond.”
“To me, the fact that all appears to be constructed of pure ice seems to be more a weakness than a strength. I mean, I am well aware that cerulean ice would make an immaculate construction for all of it's beauty, but the fact that the ice melts and will break up into fragments is a serious weakness. How come it does not melt,” asked TJ?
“According to what all of us have been told by those who labored in the distant past once upon a time to construct the castle, the castle sits on a naturally flattened ledge of sorts up there on top of the mountain. The stone of the mountain from above shades the castle and is also of pure crystal in it's make. This crystal deflects the rays of the sun, thereby rendering the castle immune to the heat and rays, so that the mansion simply sits there in perfect majesty and comfort to it's occupants,” replied the Pie. “Isn't that revelation wonderful?”
Soon the three make their way through the huge field of lotus, finding themselves pausing right there before the winding staircase going up to the door of the blue ice mansion. Before the staircase stood one of the Sultan's guards there on the ground, wielding a long bolt action rifle fitted with a lengthy sharp bayonet.
“Halt, who goes there,” demanded the guard?
“We tarnished three are here to see the Sultan,” snapped TJ.
“Let me pull my paperwork here, where the guests are listed whom the Sultan is expecting to see,” replied the guard as he struggled to find the folded list from within his tangled clothing.
“Ah ha! Here it is,” he yelled in the joy of finding it! He carefully unfolded it, holding it far before himself to read the list.
“What is your name,” asked the guard?
“My name is TJ, this is Ribbit, the rabbit and over here is Pie, the gnome,” he said pointing to his right.
“I don't see your names listed,” he snapped! “Let me call the great Sultan.”
The guard lifted his right hand and a falcon soon dropped from the skies to land upon his arm. Into his beak the guard placed a red colored ribbon..., the falcon disappeared with it. Within ten minutes the falcon returned, bearing a handwritten note. The guard quickly opened the note....
“The great Sultan asks what it is that you want from him and what service is it that you can provide in precedence to that request being fulfilled,” quoth the guard sternly and without visible emotion?
“I need to know the way back home and what we have to offer is the service of treasure finder,” snapped TJ.
The guard proceeds to scribble, fold the note, then hands it back into the beak of the falcon. The falcon flew away, returning with another handwritten note....
“The great Sultan says that this is all good.... You three, may enter into the palace gates.”
“Well wait just a minute here,” snapped TJ. “Just how much is required for this instruction, since it is obvious that the Sultan wants payment?”
“You'll all freely and unhesitatingly offer forth what-so-ever it is that the great Sultan demands for this service that you request of him.... How dare you even dream that you have a right to demand limitations on the great Sultans' desires......! Your haughty attitude is a bloody filthy insult to the majesty of the Sultan himself. I shall tell you this much there, boy..., if the great Sultan desires a labor of the wind and your pathetic donkey, then you'll even give him that much..., and much more as well...;but I cannot even imagine it, personally, the very thought brings me near to the edge of a putrid vomitorium.” raged the guard as the color of his face changed from a paled gray into a flaring mauve! “Even the very sight and smell of ye disgusts me. I entertain absolutely no thoughts otherwise what-so-ever, and cannot imagine anyone else ever daring to do so! Even your very presence before me is a filthy insult, right there as ye three stand before me! Retirez vouz de moi avant,” the guard screamed as they turned and walked away!
Inside the blue ice castle
The three glared down toward the guard in a sudden streak of anger, but very wisely decided to move up the winding stone stairs toward the drawbridge of the castle sitting so high on the hill summit. All three of them had taken turns the entire trip riding the donkey and walking, but still were getting somewhat tired by the time that they had made it up to the massive drawbridge leading into the castle. As they crossed, they gazed down into a vast bottomless chasm of freezing ice and glowing, apparently inflamed stone that combined both ice and fire in a manner defying all logic. Far down below the wind howled and moved in ways that caused TJ to feel a rigid hurricane force is what had kept the ice frozen intact for endless eons. This combination of details did not make sense to TJ, but he did not have time to question what it was that he had noticed or to ponder the subject. All that he had time to do now was focus his gaze directly upon the heavy, wrought iron pull gate looming intimidatingly at the end of the draw bridge, blocking all entrance into the castle foyer.
As he gazed upon the pull gate and through the wrought iron bars, it appeared that a fair of some sort was going on inside, complete with a neat vagabond caravan, the dwarfs, the elephants, more multicolored unicorns and everything else needed to make a fair into a really exciting event. Through the gate bars the three noticed that there were tents erected and small crowds moving in an out underneath the tents. Dwarfs were doing acrobatics and performing neat tricks of balance and precision, while the beautiful bohemian maidens were engaging in illusory presentations for a wagered fee from the observers and acting as talented readers of opened palms or the crystal ball. Between the gate and the approaching three, the Can Can Girls danced a happy colorful high skirted jig just to maintain a lively atmosphere for the pleasure of all present. As the three walked forward, the gate slowly arose, until it was high enough for them to enter on inside. As they moved underneath the pointed spears that made up the gate and moved into the enclosed courtyard garden, a Pix troll dwarf couple approached them.
“How is it that we may help you? Whom is it that you wish to see?”
“Why..., it is the Sultan himself that we all wish to see,” they replied in unison.
“Walk this way,” they said to the three, “just walk right this way and very soon, before the Sultan ye three shall most surly be.”
So they walked through the winding castle corridors, taking note of the fierce weapon displays on the stone walls and the open rooms. All around the castle, both inside and out, appeared to contrast with the known reality in ways that defied all laws of science and logic. In one area was huge room that appeared to lack walls at first glance, being filled with tropical plants, large toucan birds, chirping monkeys and multicolored parakeets who spoke in multiple languages familiar and very unfamiliar; although the walls and ceiling were constructed of perfectly translucent ice that allowed one to view the sky while on the inside, if he were to step outside he could only see the solid stone and dense tile of the roof. When he inquired from the dwarf for an explanation, the response was that the display stood as a demonstration of the power to be found in sacred natural clear quarts crystal, which bend the suns rays in ways that the health giving properties remained, while the destructive heat and radiation were effectively deflected. A healthful balance was what allowed the room and the tropical environment to prosper, even though the settings were contained inside walls of solid ice.
“The apex of wisdom and deduction,” replied the male dwarf troll, “therefore was in knowing exactly how to determine where the point of this perfect balance lay, then being able to apply it into a tangible context.”
Making their way through the tropical garden was a pleasure just in itself. On the other side lay another corridor lit by mounted wall torches and their dancing eternal flames. When the corridor ended, it opened up into a room that appeared as a tropical mountain forest, with a river filled by crocodiles only realized by taking notice of their menacing eyes just on the waters surface. There were also multicolored swans of lavender, sapphire and bright green. Farther down from where they entered, stood a sizable flock of multicolored flamingo. In the center of the river, above the flock of flamingos, was positioned a small white plank bridge. The three and the dwarf made their way across, into the forest toward the mountains in the background. From the very granite of the mountain was carved the throne of the great Sultan, which suddenly loomed out upon them as they rounded the corner concealed by the wood all at once in a manner that startled anyone who dared to make the approach, although it was immediately apparent that the Sultan had full concealed view of everything from the river bridge backward. On each side stood three dozen armored knights wielding pikes, with another three dozen before the Sultan's throne wielding swords and pikes. The very sight was astounding to those whom observed the amazing spectacle for the first time.
The Sultan himself was a huge being, dressed in a fir skin robe of crimson wolf, wearing a pointed hat of the same nature tipped with an orb of snow otter and a band of snow fir that wound around the hat where his forehead was covered. Around his waist went a wide leather belt of sable hue, crafted from the mid-night skin of the free roaming bull. His face was concealed by a flowing beard and mustache of flawless snow white so thick that one could not even get a faint glimpse of his face. Over his eyes were worn shades darkened into a perfect black, like that of freshly dug coal. The three could never determine if the being was mortal or that of an immortal, but the general feeling radiating backward to any observer was that he was at least some measure of an immortal being, in the same fashion as a demigod.
As the three approached, the masses of knights standing before the throne parted, allowing the three to pass inward underneath their raised pikes to stand before the throne in humble bequest.
“I heard your call,” thundered the Sultan! “What then, is your request?”
“I just want to make it back home,” replied TJ.
“Home,” thundered the Sultan, “where is that, pray tell? Is my kingdom here not home enough for the likes of you?”
“Well...certainly..., I have no problem with this place, except that my family is not here to enjoy it with me,” replied TJ.
“So where is home for you, then,” snapped the Sultan?
“Home for me is a wonderful place called Nottoway. There lies the home for me.”
“Oh...,” thundered the Sultan? “What does home look like? Tell me more about this land of Nottoway.”
“Well, my father lives is a place kind of like this...and I just have to get back! I have been gone way too long now.”
“Oh...,” roared the Sultan? “ Do you mean that your father is a Sultan, as am I?”
“No,” replied TJ, “he is not a Sultan, he is just a very successful business man...”
“What...,” roared the Sultan again? “You mean to tell me that your father, who is only a simple merchant..., is just as talented and glorious as am I....? That is a dirty insult, I tell you! You mean that you came all the way here just to insult me like this, son? I cannot believe it!”
“No, No, No,” replied TJ with a nervous shudder! “I mean that my father has done very well for his family, but no, he is not a Sultan by any means.”
“Well...I will provide you the service, but you must pay the fee for doing so...,” roared the Sultan. “Managing a kingdom is way too expensive for a person to just offer huge services for free.”
“What is your fee, then,” asked the three in unison?
“My complete fees are just one hundred, forty four rings of perfect gold, that is all. I need that paid in full, please. I will assign you to two of my best guards who will escort you throughout the grounds around here. You may make use of your new skills that you have learned to earn your way. I must warn you, however, that nothing comes for free in this world. Every...hmm now... three days here..., including room and board, will cost you an additional... one more ring of perfect gold. All of you shall be accommodated well however; I can assure you that much, with all of my personal authority to back it up.”
“I thought that you had received your service payment from the guard at the bridge,” asked TJ?
“What? Payments that I have received...? No payments have been sent to me, I should say,”thundered the Sultan. “I will most certainly have to investigate this claim of my supposed payments! You just commence to do your part and let the past be all passed and for me to make my personal inquiry into, if you really want to make it back home.... Stop complaining and get to work. I want to see what it is that you are capable of. Let it be said right here today, that the force of immediate productive employment shall indeed..., set all of you free in the end!”
So the three, TJ now riding the donkey and the goose following behind, along with the two knights as their escort, made their way from the Sultan's throne back out toward the courtyard gardens. Once inside the gardens, the goose was turned lose and allowed to wonder across the grass and huge winding tulip beds. Once upon a time, long long ago according to the knight, a building extension was positioned where the gardens are presently. The tax collector's station was once very close to the point where they now stood and the goose walked along casually. Suddenly, she rose her head up and down twelve times in a row, then stomped her feet up and down twelve more times. This was the signal for gold, according to the imp of a teacher that trained her and the trio in reading her indications. Indeed, some form of gold was directly underneath the point on which they presently stood.
The rabbit soon walked up with the pick ax and the shovel, commencing almost immediately with the picking while the Pie began to dig with all due caution. When the hole was barely one foot down, they suddenly found four golden rings, to their delighted astonishment. The hole was quickly and very neatly covered, then the search began again, but only in the same general area, with TJ making a map of the area and very meticulously notating upon the map specifically where the find had occurred.
In making use of this technique, TJ was hoping to reveal potential patterns that could lead into more future discoveries. In that manner he could search according to a pattern of possibilities, rather than just at aimless random. He soon uncovered the base for a chimney in the area where the first find was made. The four corner stones uncovered indicated the position of a small shed, which the knight confirmed from old maps that he had came to view over the course of the years. Four more solid gold rings were discovered in the area of the chimney where the other corner opposite that of the first find, had once stood. When the day had ended, both TJ and the team had uncovered twelve golden rings. At eighteen hundred hours sharp, the night guard demanded payment for the first days' accommodation, as it would be so from that day forward. Now the amount in hand was eleven golden rings. Come tomorrow, they would need to discover at least twelve more golden rings to be really effective, he reasoned.
After eighteen hundred hours, the peach colored sun began to creep downward behind the distant horizon. Now the time had arrived for relaxation and entertainment. In the bath house the trio was given a lavish washing by the delicate bohemian maidens and new courtroom dress, soon to take their seats back outside in the garden where the circus performances would commence. Here there would be lots of feasting and boisterous speech from both the dwarf performers and the trio. Out in the far corners of the gardens, even the donkey and the gifted goose was receiving a thorough combing and a good bath. The donkey's hooves were properly trimmed and the gooses claws were properly clipped. This celebration with the belly dancers and the acrobatics would continue on amid the quaffing of fruited punch until the stroke of midnight, where they would immediately cease for the night.
The maidens would then escort the trio into their proper bed chamber for the night. When they awoke, they would all be served the very best in grains, fine corn gruel and cured meats for breakfast. A quick devotion with alms spoken toward the supreme Sultan of the sky would be offered, in a request for his blessings on their efforts, then the search would continue on for the day. To the trio's surprise, they managed to locate twelve more rings, with the knight politely requesting a ring in payment for the accommodation, leaving them with eleven rings more in hand. The total accumulated in hand now coming to twenty and two rings of pure gold. By the close of the seventh day, not only did the trio have a good map of the tropical room as it once was, but they had a total of seventy seven rings accumulated. This grand accomplishment called for a celebration all of it's own among the trio, since it appeared that TJ might be able to go home much sooner than anticipated, in lieu of the happy goose's astonishing success.
The court jester had some unpleasant news on the evening of the seventh day. Since the prices of the festival makers, the food and the gypsy performers had increased, the Sultan was now forced to increase the daily rate of accommodation from one ring of pure gold, into that of two golden rings.
“What,” gasped the trio in sudden shock and rage? “You are aware that the request originally was for payment by the tri-day, and we have been paying by the day, without question.”
“What does he think,” suddenly inquired TJ with rage born out of frustration, toward the jester, “that we can just walk out and pluck gold from the ground for infinity? All of us have just been very lucky, I tell you; very calculating, I must admit, but very, very lucky at the same time!”
“Yea, we have just been very lucky,” replied the rabbit!
“I wish that we could make gold,” snapped the Pie, “we would all be for the better then around here, so it seems.”
“I do honestly understand your frustration. I feel that all of them should be much more understanding about the situation. My job is just to deliver the message, not make the rules. I personally would not even waste my time with trying to profit from the misery of everyone else,” spoke the jester. “That being said, however, everything is still just as everything is., I am sorry to spell it all out like that.”
The days then carried on as usual, except that the daily amount charged for accommodations rose from one ring into two. By the end of the second week, the trio had seventy rings more accumulated. This brought the in hand total to one hundred and forty rings in just two weeks, in-spite of all the excessive accommodation charges. Before the first half of the following morning had passed, four more rings were discovered, which now brought the in-hand amounts up to what was needed for covering TJ's trip back home.
TJ then met with the other two, all of them taking a deep breath upon completing the assigned duties. The very first thing that rabbit done was to feed the goose yellow corn to his hearts delighted contentment. Above all of them, the goose needed his reward first, since without his services, they could have never been so successful. As the goose joyfully plucked the corn from the earth, TJ addressed the other two.
“This great day has finally arrived! We are very happy that we have been so successful. At long last we have the assigned amounts to bring into the coffer of the great Sultan, who shall then surly see all of us back home. All of you have performed nicely and have my greatest applause. I will never forget you for as just as long as I shall live....”
“Well lets all make our way into see the Sultan before he determines that he needs more money for any future services that he is to render,” spoke Ribbit.
“I'll second that,” replied the Pie.
So the three headed off with the nine pounds of pure gold that the Sultan had so harshly demanded of them, just so that TJ could make the trip back home in safety. Soon, while still under the knight's escort, they made it through the tropical garden and back down the corridor, finding themselves once more standing again in the Sultan's court. Before him and on both sides stood the one hundred, forty four knights, who then parted immediately before the Sultan, allowing the trio and the knight to walk forward toward the Sultan sitting haughtily upon his massive throne.
“Sire, we have the golden rings in your requested quantities,” spoke TJ, as he held the straw hat filled with them up high enough for the Sultan to observe. The knight quickly seized them, bringing them before the Sultan and bowing on one knee before him in humble presentation.
“Very well done,” spoke the Sultan, “but I question your honesty in this endeavor. How did average mortals manage to discover pure gold so quickly?”
“We had the tools and the training,” spoke the Pie.
“And we had the gifted goose,” replied the rabbit.
“The goose,” roared the Sultan? “You mean that you had a goose who could find this gold in such astonishing quantities? Why.., I demand that the goose appear immediately before my court for inquiry!”
“Please sire..,do not bother the goose,” pleaded TJ, “he did no harm what so ever, but only had the interest of his comrades in mind before those of his own.”
“I demand that the goose appear before my court immediately....,” screamed the Sultan as he slammed both fists down upon the arms of his throne! “Guards, fetch me the golden goose or I shall order the heads removed from the ones of your ranking in high command first,” roared the Sultan! “I shall have all of you drawn and quartered, if any one of you should fail to satisfy my ambitions and requests!”
“Please,” pleaded TJ.., don't bother the goose. He has done no harm in this sad tale of frustration, tears and woe.”
“All of you standing there before me, cease in your disgusting quibble! I am the Sultan lord of province Nymphaion, and I shall do as I Jim- Do-Dolly please! No mortal anywhere shall ever demand that I do anything otherwise! I could order that you be seized up in chains and thrown into the dungeon, where you would be most certain to suffer dreadfully at the hands of the impish troll Allabites and the violent, blood thirsty, Sodomites. Cease now in your pleading quibble before me or else suffer the horrible consequences of doing otherwise!”
High up near the ceiling, in complete silence soared the divine goose, who swooped down from nowhere upon the Sultan, beating him ferociously with both wings and pulling violently at his hat, his beard and the dark shades, then throwing them all upon the floor of the castle as he flew away. The clothed, seemingly headless torso of the Sultan then arose, as if to attempt at walking away, then collapsed upon the floor in an abrupt instant, tumbling down from the throne into an unorganized heap upon the natural stone floor beside the colossal throne. Everyone there inside the chamber made such a great gasp born out of a sheer astonishment at the spectacle laying before them on the natural flat stone, that it was heard throughout the entire mansion estate.
Home again in Nottoway
Immediately the trio followed the goose as he flew through the corridors back out toward the garden where the gypsies sat underneath their tents in relaxing contemplation. The goose quickly seized up one of the smaller canvases, flying off toward the overhanging mountain sides with it held tightly in his bill. The rabbit, the Pie and TJ quickly seized up all of the others that they could carry along with them in their hands, racing in toward where the goose had flown. As they made their way toward the crystal stones in the heights, they could gaze downward, taking note of the knights as they scrambled about in a strange sort of orderly disorganization, apparently in great search for them, but obviously not in possession of a presumed protocol to address the present emergency. The scene from above appeared to be one of total pandemonium among all of the mansion guests.
Across the crystal quartz, the goose had spread one of the huge tent canvas sheets, carefully weighting it back down on the translucent stone with small granite stone boulders. The Pie assisted him in placing heavier stones for more security to the canvas. The width and length of the canvas was just enough to cover a huge section of the crystal. Now the rabbit and the Pix spread their sheets into a like wise fashion to cover the crystal stone of quartz. The outward pressure of the wind rifling through the ravine caused the canvas to lay plastered flatly upon the crystal stone, as though it had been ironed into it's proper status. The amount of canvas was almost enough to completely cover the entire expanse of quartz, but each of them well knew that he had to make it back down into courtyard, if he was to secure enough canvas to see the job through.
Once they had made it back into the courtyard and cave like corridors of the colossal ice mansion, huge droplets of water fell like a heavy rain had covered the entire earth. In the distance the sound of ice crashing down into a splash shocked the relaxing sound of the falling rain. The knights, so it seemed, rather than continue in their pursuit of the trio, had fled the area upon discovering their new freedom from the repressive spell of the dominating Sultan. In the distance, the loom of cathedral bells ringing in their newly discovered elation covered the area of the entire province, the sound of which was even detected by those in the neighboring provinces. TJ called the goose back into the castle on a sudden whim. Before he left for good he had just one more personal task to complete, he reasoned from amid the confusion observed. He placed the goose back onto the ground, coaxing him to discover just three more rings of gold, only to take them back home with him as a prize to forever remind himself of this greatest adventure experience and to profit just a small bit from property investment, that he reasoned he could grow into a fortune with the addition of some time.
Then suddenly after walking only three dozen yards, the goose bobbed his head up and down and began to pace his feet up and down in place, just passed the marble bust of Plutus The Wolf immediately above the immense door-less archway, which opened into the Sultan's court and vast chamber. On the inside of the room ice fell in continuous fragments and chunks, along with the rain as it melted underneath a now glowing radiant sun of immaculate rose'. As TJ stepped underneath the marble bust, it suddenly dislodged from the melting of the ice securing it, tumbling down in an instant, only to nick TJ in the left temple side of his head, causing him to fall backward unconsciously upon what felt like was the cold porcelain tile floor of the majestic mansion Bastille......
….When he opened his eyes, he was back in the garden by the willow enshrouded pond in Nottoway, underneath the arbor laying face up on the ground just in-front of the concrete bench....; his family and the medics looming over him, the red and blue lights flashing brilliantly in the foreground, the shadows of the dying sun looming behind tree limbs that seemed to reach down and grab at him, like the hands of hungry demons. Directly above his astounded stare, he gazed into the face of his father clenched in what appeared to be anger, his mother frowning near to tears in an apparent heart wrenching disappointment and disapproval....
“How many times have we told you son..., stay away from drugs and all of those wastrels who indulge in it! Do you know how long it has been that you have lain out here today....? Are you aware of the possible danger that you exposed yourself to? Your dear mother and I were worried sick about you, for crying out loud...! We did not even have an idea as to where it was that you might have been! Do you know that....? Have you even paused to consider anyone here but yourself....? I moved from Goose-lick just to get you away from that loser crowd there and into a higher class of life here in Nottoway..., and it really is a shameful, pathetic disgrace, that all you could find to associate with was just a higher class of loser, son...!”
“But Dad.., you just will not believe it...! You will not believe my story, even if I was to tell it to you and introduce the cast of happy characters so involved..... You will just not believe what it was that I did and where it is that I have been to...,” moaned TJ as he moved his aching, intensely throbbing head from side to bruised side.
“Ribbit, Pie and the gifted goose, wherefore art thou now in my moment of extreme need....? Please...help me to tell them all about us, the delightful bohemian maiden in her cave palace and our merry adventures in kinder-land....!”
He then sighed deeply, repeating over and over again in a meaningless rant, until he gradually faded off to sleep.....
“Just where oh where has my poor honky donkey wondered off to now...? The wicked, despotic Shylock of a Sultan has died, I tell you all..! Let the happy bells of liberty ring for all infinity..., the divine gilded goose is with us elves and the evil Sultan is gone forever more! Salutations and cheers to a glorious Elysium future right here in our home land once more again! Dance and merry make for all time ever more, for at long last....we are free, I tell you all...!
Behold, my chains are really gone, so now the entire world may see that time has truly come for mine to just be me...So party on with the long shaft and the drinking cup...right on up until the very break of dawn.. Damn the all of you for being the vain villains that you are! If I cannot be there in body, then I will most certainly be there among you in spirit...and with the best of spirits, I shall tell you all....; so damn the lot of ye for being the arse slathering knaves that all of ye most certainly are to be! I only choose to be the me that is rightfully mine and any who determines not to accept it can just step kindly aside......and into the raging flames of Hades with the lot of ye, I say!”
A. J. PADILLA
MONIKA R. MARTYN
RUTH Z. DEMING