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.
“You’re coming over to my grandma’s house tomorrow night and that’s that,” Tom Harris decisively told his friend Stephen White.
The two young software engineers were taking a short break in the snack bar just outside the “bullpen” area where their work cubicles were situated at the small startup computer animated graphics company Animatec located in the little town of Nevada in west central Missouri.
“I don’t know,” Stephen said unenthusiastically.
“Don’t pretend you already have plans,” Tom laughed. “I know better. Besides, you love Grandma’s glese. We had it before a couple of times, remember? You raved about it.”
“Yeah,” Stephen said, recalling that the dish was a kind of large dumpling covered in a creamy, rich, white gravy. “It was good. Great.”
“Then it’s settled,” Tom pronounced. “Want me to pick you up?”
“No, no,” Stephen said, “I know where your grandma lives.”
“Up by Smelter Hill,” Tom reminded his friend.
“I know, I know,” Stephen reiterated. “I said I knew where she lives.”
“Good,” Tom said, “I didn’t want you to have an excuse for not showing up.”
“Is, uh,” Stephen hemmed and hawed, “uh, Lisa coming?”
“No,” Tom answered with a knowing smile, “she has a date with some fancy beau she met from up in KC.”
“Oh,” Stephen said, trying not to show his disappointment.
It was an open secret between him and Tom and really among all of the people at Animatec that Stephen had a crush on the lovely Lisa Backman who occupied the cubicle next to Stephen’s at work. Stephen knew that an overweight dorky nerd like himself had no chance whatsoever with a woman like Lisa but he couldn’t help himself. She was so pretty, with sparkling light green eyes, wavy brown hair, a tight little bottom and flat tummy from working out all the time to keep herself buff to the max, all that and the fact that she also had beautiful, full, round breasts — at least that’s how they looked in her stylish and tight blouses — all that conspired to make her the oh so desirable object of Stephen’s unrequited love.
“Be there about six or so,” Tom told Stephen, shaking his head at the far away look in his friend’s eyes, “we’ll have a drink or something before we eat. And talk about something other than work — or Lisa Backman.”
“Uh, oh, uh, sure,” Stephen said, dragging himself back to reality from the mental image he had conjured of Lisa. “Six or so.”
“Be there,” Tom said with a laugh, “or be square.”
* * *
“The glese is almost ready, boys,” Tom’s grandmother called from the door to her kitchen. “Is the table all set?”
“Yes, grandma,” Tom answered her. “I set everything out just like you told me.”
“Alright,” his grandma said, “it’ll just be another minute or two. You boys can sit at the table if you want.”
“What kind of food is glese?” Stephen asked Tom as they stood up from where they had been sitting out in the living room. “I forgot.”
“Russian,” Tom answered, “some kind of old country meal.”
“You mean from Russia Russian?” Stephen wondered.
“Yeah, grandma’s mom and dad came from the Ukraine or somewhere like that.”
“How’d she end up in Nevada?”
“I don’t know exactly,” Tom said, as he and Stephen reached the dining room table and stood beside it waiting for Tom’s grandma, “but when they came to the U.S. they somehow ended up in what they call the South Russian Bottom up in Lincoln, Nebraska. Grandma met Grandpa Barton up there and they got married and moved down here to Nevada. Grandpa worked for years on the railroad.”
“I never knew him,” Stephen said.
“No,” Tom confirmed. “He passed away quite a few years ago.”
“I noticed there were a bunch of books on the coffee table by Russian writers,” Stephen commented, “is she big on that.”
“I think grandpa was,” Tom said, “she just left them out like when he was still here.”
“I see,” Stephen said.
“Okay, boys,” Tom’s grandmother said, coming out of the kitchen with a tray on which were three big soup bowls full of the creamy glese. “Sit down.”
“Smells great, grandma,” Tom said.
“Looks great, too,” Stephen added.
“Everyone has something to drink?” Grandmother Barton asked.
“Yes, ma’am,” the boys answered, lifting glasses of ice water for inspection.
“Good,” Grandmother Barton said. “Now help yourself to some bread and there’s veggies, too. Corn, peas, help yourselves.”
“Thank you, grandma,” Tom said, taking a slice of thick, dark bread from a nearby platter. Stephen did the same.
From the first bite, Stephen’s taste buds were overwhelmed by the extremely rich concoction. Glese had something of the taste of southern biscuits and gravy, relatively bland but with the creamy, buttery richness of a dairy sauce on cooked bread. He could taste salt and pepper in the dish and something else, maybe oregano. Whatever the recipe, the final result was an extremely satisfying meal, albeit one that was so rich it nearly left him lightheaded when he had wolfed it all down.
“Would you like more, Stephen?” Mrs. Barton asked, when the young man finished scraping his bowl with the large spoon he had used for eating the heavy meal.
“No, ma’am,” Stephen declined, “I’m so full, I think I’m going to bust.”
“Let us help you clean up, grandma,” Tom offered.
“No, no,” Grandma Barton said, “you boys go on back in the living room and visit some more. I’ll take care of all this.”
‘Thank you, Mrs. Barton,” Stephen said. “It was a wonderful meal.”
“It was great, grandma,” Tom added. “Really.”
“Thank you, boys,” Mrs. Barton said. “Now go on. I’ll do this.”
Back out in the living room, Stephen and Tom sat down on opposite ends of a big, comfortable couch. Stephen leaned back, took a deep breath and then involuntarily belched — very loudly.
“You okay?” Tom asked with a laugh.
“Yeah,” Stephen said, “just really full, that’s all. That glese is really good but it’s really a meal. And super rich.”
“Very rich,” Tom agreed.
After several minutes where the two young men just sat there on the couch quietly lost in their own thoughts, Stephen began to feel an odd sensation coming over him. He fidgeted in his seat and belched softly several times. Tom looked over at him quizzically.
“You okay, man?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” Stephen answered. “I’m feeling lightheaded all of a sudden. Kind of dizzy. Kind of tired.”
“Here, here,” Tom said, “I’ll sit on the recliner. You stretch out for a minute. Maybe you just need a quick nap or something.”
Tom stood beside the couch until Stephen put his feet up on it, then he sat down in a nearby chair. Just then Grandmother Barton came into the room.
“Is something wrong, Tommy?” she asked, drying her hands with a kitchen towel.
“Stephen’s feeling a little woozy, grandma,” Tom explained. “I think maybe he overate.”
“Oh, dear,” Mrs. Barton said, “I feel terrible. Let me get him a bicarbonate, maybe that will help.”
“It’s okay, Mrs. Barton,” Stephen said weakly, “I’m just feeling a little tired.”
In fact, Stephen was feeling very weak. He could feel the energy ebbing from his body like a slowly withdrawing tide. His eyelids felt very heavy and he closed them just to rest a moment. As he drifted off, he could hear Tom and Grandmother Barton fussing over him but he was too tired to reassure them or to stop himself from fading out. A moment later, he drifted completely off.
* * *
When Stephen opened his eyes, at first he couldn’t tell where he was. It was cold and damp and the light was poor. As his eyes adjusted to what light there was he began to make out the surroundings. It was definitely not Grandma Barton’s living room and he was not lying on her couch. In fact, he was sitting up and on a small bed or cot. The smelly mattress seemed to be made of straw or something because it made a scrunching sound when he moved around on it.
The room itself was rectangular, maybe twenty feet long and eight to ten wide. There was a window high up to his left but it appeared to be covered with something that blocked most of the outside illumination. Up high on the opposite wall was some kind of artificial light source that sputtered and spewed and did very little else. Stephen couldn’t tell if it was a lamp or some odd kind of candle. To the back left was a rudimentary sink and toilet and a bare table. Directly across from him was an empty chair. To his right from the chair was a big wooden door with metal hinges and locks.
“This is a jail,” he said out loud to the empty room. “I’m in a cell. I’m in prison. What the...”
Just as he was about to leap up and start crying out for help, a rattling at the door stopped him cold.
“Oh, Lord,” he whispered, “somebody’s coming.”
Stephen curled up on one end of the bed and tried to make himself very small and hopefully unseen. After the clanking of heavy keys, the door swung open and a tall, emaciated, wild-bearded man with equally wild eyes and a shock of unkempt hair was pushed into the room by what looked like a military guard. Stephen cringed in his seat, but the guard didn’t seem to notice him.
After exchanging words in some language Stephen didn’t know but thought might be East European of some sort, the guard left the bearded man in the room and walked back out to the corridor beyond the cell. The guard slammed the door shut, causing a terrifying clang, and then locked it from the outside.
As the echo of the slammed door faded, the tall man walked to the toilet facilities and, after groaning and moaning several times, came back and sat down in the chair directly across the room from Stephen. The man put his head in his hands and wept softly, quietly to himself.
After a full moment, in which Stephen held his breath for fear of being heard and thereby possibly seen, the man looked up — directly at Stephen. Stephen stared back at the man intently. Slowly, the man pulled back in his chair, a surprised look on his face.
“Oh, God,” Stephen exhaled.
“Aha!” the man exclaimed, causing Stephen to nearly leap up from his seat on the bed. “Aha! There you are.”
‘W...what?” Stephen said through gritted teeth. “You can see me?”
“Why wouldn’t I see you?” the man declared. “I’m looking right at you.”
“I didn’t know you would be able to see me,” Stephen said, not really comprehending what was happening or what he himself was even talking about, nor how or why he was now able to understand the man’s language and apparently speak in it.
“I sensed you were there,” the man said directly to him. “You’ve been hiding from me, haven’t you?”
“No, no,” Stephen cried. “No I haven’t. I just got here.”
“I knew you were there,” the man repeated.
“Where?” Stephen asked. “Where am I?”
“It’s alright,” the man told him. “What does it matter? You’re here now. At last.”
“Yes,” the man said, the look of near-madness in his eyes causing Stephen to involuntarily recoil on the bed.
“W... who, who do you think I am?” Stephen ventured to ask.
“Who are you?” the man said. “I don’t know. What is your name?”
“Stefan,” the man said, instantly converting Stephen’s name into his, the other man’s, language.
“Yes,” Stephen shrugged his shoulders, “I guess.”
“What is your father’s name?” the man asked.
“Uh, his name is, uh, David.”
“Stefan Davidovich,” the tall man stated plainly, while extending a raw, bony hand to Stephen. “Good to know you.” Stephen shook the man’s hand. It was cold and clammy and Stephen extracted his own from it as fast as he could.
“Who are you?” he asked the man.
“Who am I?” the man said, almost laughing. “What a question. I am Nikolai Pavlovich Grigoriev. How can you not know that when I have been expecting you for so long?”
Stephen wanted to ask this strange apparition of a man why he had been expecting him at all, much less ‘for so long,’ and who exactly he thought he, Stephen, actually was. Instead he asked what he hoped would be a simpler question.
“Where are we?”
“You are strangely uninformed, Stefan Davidovich,” the prisoner Grigoriev said, “especially for a guardian spirit.”
“You think I’m your guardian spirit?” Stephen almost laughed.
“Of course,” Grigoriev replied seriously. “What else could you be?”
Stephen didn’t have an answer for that. He chose to reiterate his question. “Where are we?”
Obviously,” Grigoriev explained as if to a child, “this is the famous and infamous Peter-and-Paul fortress. The Tsar’s personally built prison.”
“Then... then,” Stephen began, “we are...”
Copyright © 2006 by J. B. Hogan