The house had a storybook air to it—a short ground floor and a steeply thatched roof—wattle-and-daub, clay, sand, animal dung and straw with an occasional fieldstone for accent with framed dormers peeking through the straw upstairs. Tom remembered seeing something like it in brochures for picturesque vacations; all destinations looked alike in the travel folders.
Valerie Hatt picked up a wicker portmanteau Tom had not noticed at his feet. “Like you said, things happen fast; but we try to keep on top of them. You came without stuff... now you have stuff.” Hefting the bag, she turned her back and headed for the house. “See? Easy.” Explanations were through. Tom followed.
Valerie dumped the case inside the door and threw herself into a kitchen chair. “Hot work, chasing cows. Want a beer, some soda? We’ve got plenty in the fridge.” So saying, she was up again and back with a can of 7-Up and two glasses. Moisture beaded invitingly on the can.
It was cool inside the rough plastered walls. A small fire smoked in a brick and iron stove opposite the door. “You were expecting me.”
“Plagiation, kidnapery. A snatch. It’s the same old story. Lots of our boarders get here that way. Highhanded if you ask me, but nobody ever does.” A breezy, lighthearted laugh.
“Pardon me, but haven’t we met before?” Tom remembered the face. It had belonged to a thin blonde girl in hip-huggers with a flaccid belly. Just a memory with no background sketched in. He had seen her, somewhere. The unconscious mind surveys a street scene, fitting made-up histories to passing faces and shapes—the family groupings that spread out untidily across the landscape of an idle mind.
“Probably, on the Other Side. Finite personalities, infinite universe, if you go for that stuff. Anyway, it’s an explanation. There are all sorts of familiar faces here. We are true to type, you and I. People tend to repeat.” Valerie poured the 7-Up, tongue showing between her lips, her brow wrinkling. “They’re mounting some kind of an operation over there and we—you and I—are but two of the casualties. Well, maybe ‘casualties’ is not the best word. Tim and I have got it pretty good here. Let’s see, we’ve been here for, hmmm...” She searched the ceiling for an answer.
Tom took the glass from her hand and waited. Her eyes had a vague, faraway look. The pause stretched on. Then, after several minutes, she snapped-to and gave him a wide, welcoming smile of many well cared for teeth.
“Two years seems about right. Of course, that’s subjective time—local time as we see it right here. Time moves faster at the village ’cause they’ve been here longer.” She added an emphasis, “Much longer.” She swung around a kitchen chair and straddled it, looking at Tom, her arms draped over the back. “That’s just the way things are here. We do some farming, keep this guest house; and for the kids—well! it’s just great. But...”
She looked wistfully to another room where boings, explosions and hyperactive giggles told of children’s play in progress. “It’s like living in New Zealand. You know, a place that is nice, really great, where you get letters from relatives but nobody ever comes back from. Like dying but with regular mail service.” Valerie got the faraway vacant look again. And again, it went on for many minutes. The reference to New Zealand must mean all and any options had been closed. By someone. She returned with the same disingenuous smile, a smile that suggested that, for her, their conversation was rolling right along. “We don’t want to leave, not really. It would be nice to know we could whenever we wanted to, but we don’t, if you know what I mean...”
There was a cry of offended territoriality from the next room. “Ma...”
“And right on cue.” Valerie rose, in no great hurry, her glass of 7-Up swinging loosely between two fingers. “There’s all sorts of room for them to play; they’re learning the language—they speak it like they were born here. And they get along fine with the kids from the village. No fights aside from the normal dustups.” By the time they reached the children, the problem had solved itself and been forgotten, the two boys seated silently in front of a television screen. Valerie made a self-conscious gesture, tucking a stray lock back under her kerchief. “Beats the city all to hell for raising kids; they don’t even remember any other life.”
Tom and Val joined the children on the sofa. The younger sucked his thumb. Timmy and Skipper squirmed apart on their behinds, creating two grownup-sized availabilities before the family shrine. “The TV, it’s a touch of home. We get all the latest shows on DVDs. Movies, too. No news—nothing happens.” There was a blare of music signaling completeness, then the screen went blank. A click from the video player as with a whirring mechanical sound from within a flashing red light appeared on its front panel. The finale. “Ejection time. And time you two got out and into the sun. Your daddy’s haying down by the South Fork; go and shag those cows to a proper piece of grass.” Tow-headed, bright-eyed and animated, the two tussled, then obeyed and headed after their daddy. An idealized family. However long they had been here, they were country kids now. There was none of the spattered, non-directed energy of cramped quarters. “You should see them in the winter—they’re a handful. But the winters are short and mild...” Valerie’s hand pursued the wayward strand of hair again. Giving up on it, she removed her bandana and shook her hair free. It was thick and irregularly sun-bleached. “We’ve become regular frontiersmen. Plowing, sowing, reaping, doctoring ourselves and the animals. I teach the kids and Tim wrestles with keeping the generator up and running. The coal for the boiler comes from the same place the videos do—wherever. We don’t ask.”
“You said the children were learning the language. Everybody I’ve met so far has been speaking English.”
“Right. But the local lingo is a kind of medieval French. There’s a Provençal village five kilometers upstream and through the woods. Or leagues, versts, miles. Depends on who’s walking. We settled on metric as a friendly trade-off. Weights and measures are pretty unpredictable here.”
“A whole village? From the way you talk, I gather everyone here came from someplace else. How did you get here, like me?”
Valerie held both hands up, palms out. “We don’t talk about that. Neither do they, the folks in the village. The parish priest runs a little school; no frills—reading, writing and some arithmetic. Adaptable folks, these French. They look on being here as a divine dispensation—no wars, no taxes, and business as usual. They have nothing to do with why you and I are here. They popped through six hundred years ago real time, so they’ve done a lot of settling in. And if I read your body language right, you are about to ask where we are. Don’t ask, we’re just where we were before we came. The way I make it is we—you and I—are still where we were, and where we are now came around to meet us. You know—like a stage play where the actors stand still and the scenery rotates to meet them. That’s kind of dumb sounding, but we have a video.”
Valerie retrieved Tom’s soda and a DVD from the kitchen. She carried a serious-looking weapon that hung by a sling from her shoulder. “This is the orientation program for new arrivals. We’re supposed to show it to you. This is a new one and I haven’t seen it yet. Let me know if it’s any good. I have to catch up with the kids and my husband; he tends to wander.” She winked at Tom and patted her gun. “There’s beer and jalapeño dip in the fridge; help yourself to the chips.” Valerie inserted the orientation program into the DVD player. “All ready to go. Just punch ‘play.’ Seeya.”
Tom sat quietly for some minutes, glad of the time to himself. The tanned and confident young woman who had left to chase cows was no product of an overnight makeover, but he could swear she had seen her, thin and listless, dragging a gooey-faced toddler in town just the week before. Thinking, Well, what the hell, he leaned forward to the control panel and pressed the ‘play’ button.
The screen remained blank. A piece of nondescript mood music welled up, suggesting majestic panoramas. Pastoral scenes appeared—mountain valleys awash with morning mists, grazing deer, sun-dappled rippling pools where trout rose to passing flies, and a time-lapse sequence of flowers opening. There was a dissolve to an empty stage, its only furniture a work light on a stand. A man sauntered to stage center. “And so, dear traveler, after many a weary mile, you have at last arrived at this, your destination. You probably have some questions. Well, if you play ball with us, we are prepared to play ball with you.
“Think of the universe as your basic Mom and Pop store. They never have what you want, but since you took the trouble to show up, you make some accommodation and accept something you really don’t want but is probably just as good. It’s all give and take. Ahh, yes... you want answers. Well, that feathery looking tree in the yard is a mimosa. Yep, that’s right, mimosa, just like the drink, but this is a tree—the real thing, too. And around the door? That is honeysuckle. And there is a wisteria bower out back if you’d care to have a look after the showowowooo...” A trap door opened under him and he fell through the floor. This scene must have been shot on a cutaway set, for the camera followed him down, revealing the framing between levels, and caught up with him dressed in a coarsely woven, hooded garment, seated on a slatted bed that hung from the wall by a chain.
The presenter had picked up several days growth of beard and his eyes were made-up to suggest hollowness. Cotton-candy cobwebs had been spun about the set. There was a sound of water dripping in a cavern. “Well, just about the time they yanked the chain on me, you were wondering when I was going to stop the bullshit and get around to business. Well, pardner,” here he threw back the hood, replacing it with a cowboy hat, “...the terrible, the awful, the unspeakable truth is, you are in the calabozo, the slammer, the gray-bar hotel, up the river, in durance vile and here you are going to stay until it pleases us to let you out.”
A mechanical rat, a big key in its back unwinding as it ran, scurried across the screen at his feet. Reaching under the monk’s robe, the narrator drew forth a six-shooter the size of a jackhammer and blew it to pieces with a single shot. It was a bang of nuclear proportions. There was a rain of gears—springs and artificial fur flew past the camera, considerably more than could have reasonably been inside the mechanical rat. He blew across the barrel of the smoking pistol, making the sound of a tugboat whistle. He replaced the gun under his robe, rearranged its folds and sat with hands folded. He looked out from the screen. “‘Whoa!’ you’re saying... ‘I didn’t do anything.’ Well, we never said you did. The truth is, you were a potential embarrassment where you were and instead of blowing you to smithereens, we put you here. Neat, huh?”
There was a ‘pop’ and the screen went blank. A sound effect of wind faded up, suggesting bleakness. It went on that way for perhaps a minute. The wind faded down and he spoke with heavy echo, “You could have been HERE.”
Tom felt a chill down his back. After wading through all his prefatory remarks, the narrator was finally getting to the point. Tom knew he was not going to be happy hearing what the actor had to say from here on in.
“All your dreams, hopes and aspirations have been swept aside because you were standing where the Caballo Apocalíptico was going to put its foot. I’m sorry if you had made plans, but we have canceled them for you. Your clothes will languish uncalled for at the cleaners; your date will be royally pissed off when you don’t show up, be heartbroken and then finally forget you, marry and move to the burbs, have two point seven children and spend weekends passing hotdogs hand to hand at baseball games. Depressing, isn’t it? But that’s life and you see, you were in the way.” The actor relaxed, leaning casually on the pulpit, and thrust his free hand in his coast pocket. The hand came out of the pocket. In it were a half dozen mothballs. He considered the mothballs for a moment then, letting them dribble out onto the floor, leaned forward into the camera. An expansive gesture was called for at this point.
Tom had had enough; this was getting silly. The jalapeño with chips made him thirsty and his can was empty. He got up for another beer. In the kitchen he heard the video talking louder, as though it realized it was losing its audience and had better do something soon or be playing to an empty tent. “But enough about me,” bellowed the announcer from the parlor, “Let’s talk about you.” Then there was silence.
Tom returned with an extra beer, more dip and a dish of carrot sticks and celery hearts. The music swelled to a climax and a voice which was not the narrator’s took over—impersonal, molassesy and transparent—an institutional voice of the species most often heard on commercials for financial services. Tom drowsily stretched out his legs and reached for a beer. Having waited, the video continued, a new announcer talking gibberish with the moist, sincere tone of cultural uplift. “Once upon a time there was the smallest ever imaginable piece of silver foil, part of the factory wrapped cocoonage that accompanied each and every stick of peppermint clove chewing gum on its voyage into the world. That’s just the way things are...” Tom fumbled about on the tabouret by the couch looking for the remote control. He found it and lifted it, poised to zap the set; then remembered there were no other channels. ‘Off’ was the desirable compromise. He pressed ‘Eject.’ There was a whir and the drawer popped out of the deck. The irritating voice was gone. The picture, however, did not fade, and the music went plugging doggedly along, as it documented the miracle of peppermint clove chewing gum.
He must have fallen asleep, soothed by the wordless drama. For how long? Tom woke up with a snap, spilling some beer, but catching the bowl of jalapeño dip between his knees, to find himself gliding precipitously to the floor. He was settling back again when he felt a glowing against his chest. A glowing and an itch. Setting his beer on the tabouret, he reached inside his shirtfront to scratch. The glowing was not an uncomfortable feeling, but it was spreading. He scratched under an arm. Itchy pits were a summertime annoyance, like bugs or heat rash. And it was getting worse. He scratched liberally, accompanied by the music from nowhere. The music played along as endless sticks of gum cascaded down a conveyor belt. The glow had now spread from his belly to his groin and the itching covered both thighs. Tom jumped to his feet and shucked off his shirt. There was a ‘plop,’ as something fell to the floor. Just as abruptly the itching stopped and the glow faded.
“Ahem.” It was from the TV. A cartoon duck paced back and forth across the screen. The duck was looking out at him. “Well, I hope you have had a safe and pleasant trip. By freeing my moonsign, you have uttered one of the secret, immutable names of Myself, the Rider on the Storm.” Tom struggled back into his clothes and sat on the couch, buttoning his shirt. “I am unfortunately, uh... detained. So I fear My plans for you are likewise on hold.”
“You are a duck. Where is the peppermint gum? It at least was educational.”
“Somewhere on this time line, there has been a tampering. The Fata Morgana, I fear, is at some point in the near future going to try to free you from my sign. We have beat her to the punch.” An effect of a page turning across the screen tried to establish itself, but the duck held it off, pecking at the upper corner of the page he occupied. “Ah alas, no more chocolate and peppermint. But My messenger comes and they have served their purpose.”
There was a presence, a hand on his thigh, and Valerie slid onto the couch beside him. Her breath was warm and moist in his ear. She let out a long, close sigh, setting up eddies of appreciative yearning across his body. “Sorry I’m late. Got held up.” Her voice was close and clove scented like the gum in the video. The duck blew a kiss and disappeared diagonally.
“The video. It thinks that I am a messenger.” Tom turned accusingly to Valerie Hatt. “Then I am not the one you were expecting.”
“No, you’re not. But we never know whom to expect. I am as surprised as you are. And you’re very nice, Tom Winkelman.”
He was being tested, that was it. He had died after all and this was the portal to the afterlife where the wheat was to be separated from the chaff, the wanted from the unwanted. He touched his chest. His hand came away sticky and chocolate coated. There was a minty odor.
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