by J. B. Hogan
|part 1 of 2|
Stephen White is a lumpy, likeable guy with a good job, good friends, a pretty girl to long for, and a mostly boring small town life. Boring that is, until from out of the blue he develops a surprising and often terrifying ability to travel in time and space.
Quickly and without warning, he may find himself in the middle of a band of berserking Civil War-era outlaw raiders, lined up for execution with Fyodor Doestoevski in a St. Petersburg Square, or staring down the rifle barrels of modern-day poachers in Africa. Stephen’s adventures take him anywhere, any time.
Through it all, he is precariously balanced between confusion and understanding, between action and passivity. He has no idea what the next journey will hold for him but he is certain that it’s coming, and that it will, as always, catch him off guard. All Stephen can do is ride out this storm to wherever and whenever it may take him. It’s his new world, his new reality; he’s just going to have to get used to it.
On the flight from Kansas City to Tucson, Stephen White’s thoughts kept returning again and again to Lisa Backman, his co-worker at Animatec back in Nevada, Missouri. Lisa and Stephen worked in adjoining cubicles in Animatec’s “bullpen” area where the pack of bright and shiny software engineers, to which Lisa, Stephen, and their best friend Tom Harris all belonged and did their collective work for the startup software company that specialized in animated graphics programs for industry.
In his mind’s eye, Stephen kept envisioning Lisa’s light green eyes, her wavy brown hair and athletic figure — unlike the mostly sedentary Stephen, she ran and exercised every day — and he sighed recalling a form-fitting cotton blouse she had worn just yesterday, Stephen’s last work day before taking off on a week-long vacation with his mother to his Aunt Vivian and Uncle Melvin’s in a retirement community south of Tucson.
Stephen not so secretly adored Lisa and he cringed now thinking of Tom’s repeated ribbings about his, Stephen’s, unrequited affection for the bright and pretty young woman. Stephen fought the regret that wormed its way into his thoughts when he had to face the fact that he had never even been able to get the courage up to do something as simple as invite Lisa out to dinner.
He was staring out the aircraft window, morosely evaluating his miserable lack of a love life, as the smooth-flying 737 began its final approach into Tucson from the east. Stephen looked out and saw what looked like a manufacturing plant of some sort to the north — there were maybe six or seven perfectly square buildings laid out in the undeveloped desert away from town. And more to the northwest, toward town, he could see what looked like a large airbase. Davis-Monthan, or some such place, he remembered his Uncle Melvin telling him in a recent phone call.
Stephen barely spoke on the ride from the airport to Uncle Melvin and Aunt Vivian’s but it didn’t matter as Aunt Viv, as his mother’s younger sister instructed him to call her, kept up a running monologue all the way to the couple’s ticky tacky little house in an old folks’ neighborhood where they lived across I-8 from Green Valley on the way to Nogales. Aunt Viv was particularly concerned about Stephen’s father, David, not coming on the trip with Stephen and his mother.
“I’m concerned about David not coming with you,” she said several times on the way back. “You’d think he’d want to be with his family on a nice vacation like this.”
“He was sorry,” Mrs. White repeated each time Aunt Viv brought it up, “but he had business to take care of at home.”
“Hmph,” Aunt Viv grunted unsympathetically.
Uncle Melvin made drinks practically as soon as they crossed the threshold of the house and while Stephen slumped on a heavy, thickly padded sofa in front of a dark TV nursing a Diet Pepsi, the older people slammed down several gin and tonics and gossiped about old friends back in Missouri. Melvin, filling up yet another round of drinks, noticed Stephen moping on the couch and inquired about his lumpy nephew by marriage.
“Don’t he drink?” Melvin asked his sister-in-law.
“Sakes no,” Mrs. White laughed. “That boy is almost a teetotaler.”
“Would you like something stronger than that soda there, Stephen?” Aunt Viv asked.
“I’m alright,” Stephen said without looking up
“I think he’s got a sweety at work,” Mrs. White said with a sly smile.
“Oh, my,” Aunt Viv said, lifting her shoulders and giggling.
“Mother,” Stephen said emphatically, frowning at her and Aunt Viv.
“Well, you do, don’t you?” Mrs. White grinned. “There’s some girl there, Laurie or Lana or something,” she addressed Melvin and Vivian.
“Lisa,” Stephen grumbled to the front of his shirt.
“Whatever,” his mother said. “He needs a girlfriend. I wish he would be more assertive about it.”
“My God,” Stephen groaned. “Do we have to talk about it here?”
“He still livin’ at home with you?” Uncle Melvin wanted to know. To Stephen it sounded like a full condemnation. Mrs. White rolled her eyes.
“I’m looking for my own apartment,” Stephen explained, without looking at the grownups. “I’m saving up for one.”
“Saving for a damned apartment,” Uncle Melvin laughed heartily. “That’s a good one.”
“Can I get a glass and some ice, Aunt Viv?” Stephen asked, trying to extract himself from the harsh light of attention that had swung his way.
“Of course you can, dear,” Aunt Viv smiled. She hurried off to the kitchen. Uncle Melvin walked over to Stephen.
“You ought to get out tomorrow,” he said. “See the country around here. You can use our little Hyundai. I’ll show you some places to check out.”
“Stephen does like to go caving,” his mother chipped in.
“That right?” Uncle Melvin said doubtfully.
“Yeah,” Stephen admitted. “I do.”
“Well, I don’t know about caving in these parts,” Uncle Melvin said, “but there’s some good rock hunting to be done nearby. It’ll be pretty darned hot for you, but if you get out early, you might like it. Take lots of water and some chow. You’ll be fine. Meanwhile, us old folks can amuse ourselves and you can explore.”
“Does that sound good, son?” Mrs. White asked, as Aunt Vivian returned with a glass full of ice for Stephen.
“Yeah, I guess,” Stephen said, thinking at least he could escape the boredom of hanging with the old people for one day anyway. “Sure.” He took the glass of ice from Aunt Viv. “Thanks,” he told her.
“You’re welcome,” she said sweetly.
“I tell you what I’ll do,” Uncle Melvin said. “After supper I’ll get some maps out and show you where you might find some good rocks in the area and we’ll go get the Hyundai gassed up so you can bug out first thing in the morning. Will that work for you?”
“Sure,” Stephen said, knowing he was repeating what little dialogue he’d managed to work up. “I guess.”
“Good,” Uncle Melvin said, “then it’s settled. Another drink, ladies?”
“Oh, goodness,” Mrs. White said, “I believe I will. They taste so good and cool.”
“Melvin makes the best gin and tonics,” Aunt Viv said proudly. “Everybody up at the Country Club says so.”
“Oh,” Mrs. White said, “I’m sure.”
“You bet I do,” Melvin said, swelling his chest.
Stephen poured the rest of his Diet Pepsi into the glass of ice and took a big swig. All he could think about now was getting away in the morning and being alone. Alone and away from his mother, aunt and uncle, and their boring talk and stupid drinking.
* * *
Uncle Melvin was right about one thing for sure. It was hotter than hades in the desert to the southeast of his and Aunt Vivian’s home. Stephen had managed to get out of the house a little after eight-thirty — a good hour and half late by Uncle Melvin’s calculations — and it was already getting hot by the time he found the first place Melvin had recommended around nine forty-five.
“But it’s a dry heat,” Stephen laughed mirthlessly to himself, repeating a phrase he’d picked up from a poster in his aunt and uncle’s kitchen the night before. “Feel’s like 110 degrees already.” In fact, it was only pushing ninety degrees — temperatures around Tucson seldom got past 105, even at the peak of summer — but compared to Missouri weather, humidity included, it felt extremely hot to Stephen.
Parking the Hyundai at the end of a narrow dirt road that Uncle Melvin had mapped out for him and which he easily found off a paved road running west to east and to the north of a fine looking mountain range, Stephen gathered his water, foodstuffs, buck knife, and couple of digging tools Uncle Melvin had loaned him and walked slowly out into the desert.
Sweating and puffing, Stephen trundled across the desert past scrub brush and prickly pear cactus, across a wide, sandy wash and up the other side, always heading south towards the mountains. It was such a clear, bright day, the mountains looked to Stephen as if they were close enough on the horizon to touch. Tiring and beginning to feel thirsty, he stopped and sat on a rock in a small patch of shade beneath a fair-sized mesquite tree.
He took a big slug of water from the canteen Uncle Melvin had given him and the still cool water felt clean and refreshing. After a few handsful of trail mix, a gift from Aunt Viv who had fussed over him at breakfast like he was preparing to cross the Gobe, Stephen sighed contentedly and looked around his current environment.
There were all kinds of gray rocks nearby, not very interesting, and plenty of sand and lots of noisy insects that Stephen could not identify. After another drink of water, he prepared to continue his walk when he spotted them. Two small, very round rocks.
“Geodes?” he wondered out loud to the desert around him.
They were geodes. Both small but almost perfectly round. Stephen picked them both up quickly.
“So light,” he said to himself, tossing each individually in his hands. “Cool.”
He dug in his bag and found a small rock hammer but doubted that it would work for anything other than digging around in things. Then he spotted a big, orange-red rock just outside the shade of the mesquite. Retrieving the rock, he placed the smaller of the geodes on the larger rock on which he had sat.
“This should work,” he said, aiming the orange-red rock at the little geode. Raising the striking rock above his head, Stephen slammed it hard against the little geode.
“Ow,” he yelled, pulling back his hand. “Son of a gun, that hurt. Oh.”
Looking down, he saw that he had successfully broken the geode open. Not a sharp, right in half break, but he had split it into two pieces.
“Wow,” he exclaimed, looking open-mouthed at the geode’s interior.
It had had a small amount of moisture inside but that dried quickly and the two portions were beautiful. Inside, the rock was swirled in design and multi-colored. The center a deep blue, the outer rings of the swirl in varying degrees of lighter browns and reds. With each passing moment, as the residue of the moisture vanished, the design became more brilliant and impressive.
“Outstanding,” Stephen addressed the little two-part rock. “Outstanding.”
Excited by his first find, Stephen placed the larger geode on the big rock and raised the breaking rock. The first strike was like hitting a baseball with the narrow handle of a slim wood bat in cold weather.
“Ow, ow, son of ...” Stephen yelped. “Damn. You little...”
He rubbed his hands for a minute and considered just hauling the bigger geode back to Uncle Melvin and Aunt Viv’s. But there was no way he was going to do that. He was going to keep his treasures to himself. He shuddered thinking of the fuss they would make over the rocks. Sickening, he thought. He raised the striking rock and swung down. Then again. And again.
“Break you stupid rock,” he addressed the geode. “Break.”
He lifted the striking rock for one more attempt. And this time it worked. The geode broke. Almost exactly in half. A near perfect hit.
“Holy cow,” Stephen said in amazement, looking at the two halves of the bigger geode. “Water. There’s water in there.” And there was water in the geode. In both halves of the break. “This stuff could be millions of years old,” Stephen explained to the empty world around him. “I mean, really old. It could be.”
He considered the water. Thought about tasting it. Thought about how old it might or might not be. Wondered if it was a good idea to try a taste. Wondered about that for another moment. But the water was evaporating fast. He had to make a decision. Quickly.
Giving in to impulse, he stuck a finger into one side of the geode, into the water. He drew the finger to his lips slowly. Tasted the water on it. It tasted very metallic. Very odd. He sucked the end of his finger. Dipped his finger in the water one more time. Repeated the tasting, sucking procedure.
“Huh,” he said out loud, “seems okay. I don’t feel anything. Nothing right away.”
While he pondered his act, the geode water finished evaporating and its design was equal if not superior to the design of the first, smaller one. This geode also had the swirling design but it was more of a greenish blue, a bright color nonetheless, and it had arms reaching out like those of a spiral galaxy. Stephen thought it might be one of the prettiest things he’d ever seen.
“I’m sure glad I broke these open,” he told himself, dropping the four halves of the geodes into his pack. “Maybe there will be more of them out here.”
But after another twenty minutes or so, he’d found no more geodes — in fact had found little in the desert of interest at all. A few dead cacti, some hard scrub wood, lots of sand. Walking slowly, Stephen began to look for a shade tree to take another little rest. Struggling up a sandy rise, he felt a momentary sensation of nausea, followed by a sharp pain above his right eye.
“Ouch,” he said, putting a hand to the offending eye.
For a moment then, he stopped, just before the top of the rise. He waited for the nausea to subside, to see if the head pain would cease. The nausea did pass quickly, but the head pain spread from the right eye across his forehead. Stephen knelt for a moment, held his head in his hands, closed his eyes. The pain was sharp and prolonged, and then it, too, passed.
“Man, what was that?” he asked the still air.
Shaking his head as if to clear it of newly formed cobwebs, Stephen clambered over the top of the rise and stopped. There was something wrong. Where he had seemed to be getting nearer to the mountains, now they had receded far into the distance. Out before him was not the terrain of mesquite, cholla, and scrub bush, but a long expanse of flat, almost lifeless land. Sandy dirt, a few scraggly plants, an occasional tuft of brown or yellow grass.
“What the ...?” he started to say to the new world before him but something made him stop. There was a new sound out on the desert before him. A sound he had not heard all day. The sound of some kind of machine — whether motorcycle or four-wheel vehicle, he could not tell. “Uh, oh.”
Looking around for cover, Stephen saw a patch of scrub bushes that might conceal him. Hustling towards them, he heard the vehicles getting closer and closer. Just as he reached the bushes and dove behind them, three very peculiar looking sand buggy-type machines came roaring out of a wash that Stephen had not noticed and headed straight for his hiding place.
“Over there,” Stephen heard a commanding voice cry out above the sound of the buggies. “Pull up over there.”
Terrified, Stephen took one look at the sand buggy drivers and curled up in a ball behind the scrub bushes, holding his hands over his head as if the act would make him invisible. In a heartbeat, the vehicles were beside the scrub, the occupants — all men — were close enough for Stephen to hear them plainly and practically smell their breath.
Judging from his quick glimpse of the new arrivals, all of whom wore ragged, worn leather clothes from their heads to their feet, Stephen was sure that breath would be plenty foul. Yet close as the men were to him, they did not seem to notice Stephen, to even be aware of his existence. He dared to look up, to peer at them through the bushes.
“I say we dust ’em,” a skinny, particularly vile looking individual with a high-pitched voice said. For the first time Stephen noticed that the men held two captives, each strapped to the back of one of the vehicles.
“We better ask the boss,” another one of the desert rowdies said with a watery slur.
This berserker, as Stephen assumed these rough looking characters must be, was older than the first who had spoken and was missing a few front teeth. If anything he was even scarier than the skinny one.
Copyright © 2006 by J. B. Hogan