The Thirteenth Traveler
by Dave Ervin
Table of Contents|
chapters: I, II, III, IV,
V, part 1; V, part 2; VI
“I think he wants to spend a moment with his friend.”
Zach’s mother was gray and tight-mouthed. She spoke the words in broken fragments to a small man who must have been Zach’s brother. Travis had met Mrs. Dean once, years ago, but she didn’t seem to remember. All this lady knew was that her son was on his deathbed, and he’d asked her — if grunting and gesturing can be called asking — to leave the room for just one minute.
Travis felt like a jerk. He attempted a meek smile which went unreturned.
“We’re right outside the door,” she said. And she and the small man left.
Zach looked like a skeleton in his hospice bed. A small gathering of friends and family crowded in his home to say their well-wishes and offer him what comfort they could.
Travis sat at the bedside, staring unbelievingly at his friend. How could the same man that saved his life fifteen years ago already be this close to death? Life sure had a way of punching you in the gut.
Travis hadn’t seen Zach since his own wedding in ’05. He remembered them standing on the balcony of the Millstead Event Center, each cradling a glass of champagne. Zach had made the trip three states over to be Travis’s best man, and it meant the world to Travis. They talked about baseball, traded dirty jokes.
Then Travis looked to Zach, tears building in his eyes. “It’s funny,” he said. “Haven’t seen you in what, six, seven years and it’s like we haven’t missed a beat.”
“Soul brothas,” Zach said and offered Travis a fist-pump. Travis returned the gesture with about as much heart as a frozen fish. Zach had already lost a ton of weight. Travis could tell his hair had fallen out in random clumps, despite Zach’s best efforts to conceal it beneath a high and tight military style buzz cut. “You’re sick,” Travis said.
Zach looked uncomfortable. “Nah, man, shut up. We don’t need to talk about that.”
“Dude, it’s your wedding we don’t—“
Zach cleared his throat. He stared into his champagne. Behind the glass doors, inside, the wedding band got the crowd on their feet with a raucous rendition of Shout!
“Cancer,” Zach said. Travis’s free hand went immediately to his friend’s shoulder. “Doc says he’s never seen anything like it. It just showed up and started... eating me alive. Some days I feel great, some days...”
“How long?” Travis asked. “When did you first—“
“I think it happened that night. In the woods.”
The whole evening, the music, the guests, the buzz from the champagne, seemed to retreat behind a wall of white noise. It was the first time in seven years either had mentioned That Night in the Woods to anyone. Even each other. Fifteen years ago they had simply returned to camp; the next day, when they returned to school, they graduated.
Travis moved, Zach got sick. Each had decided to move on, not to think about it, the way you decide not to think about that time you heard voices in your closet or the night you saw something strange and unexplainable shoot through the sky on your way home from work. Some things were just too crazy to think about, no matter how real they may have seemed at the time.
“What the hell happened that night?” Zach said in a hoarse whisper. “I mean... was it even real?” He laughed a little with no real conviction.
Travis took a moment before he spoke. “Yes. It was.” The wind picked up. “I’ve still got the bullet wound,” he said. “And the disk.”
Zach’s eyes shot upward. “Where?”
“In a safe-deposit box.”
Now it was Zach’s turn to pause between words. It was as if their conversation were incendiary. The smallest slip and the whole world would go up in flames. “Have you ever tried it?”
“No,” Travis said, “no I haven’t.”
At that someone peeked their head out the door, some random uncle or cousin. “Hey! You two get in here, we can’t cut the cake without the groom!”
Travis turned to go and Zach grabbed him by the shoulders. “Look,” he said. “Whatever you do, don’t take that disk out. Not yet. You wait, okay?”
Travis nodded. “Okay.”
“There will come a day when this thing gets the best of me. I don’t know what it is, but it has something to do with that night. I’m sure of it. The disk... I don’t think it can heal me or anything like that. I’m not delusional. But maybe... maybe it can give me some sort of answers. Maybe it’ll give me... some peace.”
Travis nodded again, his mouth formed a shape but words escaped him. Finally he said, “I can go get it. Tomorrow, I can—”
“No,” Zach snapped. “The guy was putting it in your hand while he held a gun to your head. For all we know it’s some sort of, I don’t know, death tool. You wait until I call you. It may be sooner rather than later. But the day will come, and we’ll see just exactly what that thing is. Promise me you’ll wait.”
The same random family member was now grabbing Travis by the back of his tux, too drunk to have heard anything. He pulled Travis into the party. Zach swallowed the last of his drink and followed, walking out of the stillness and into the noise.
* * *
That was eight years ago. The one and only conversation since the events of 1998. The men hadn’t told their families or the police, not even their other two buddies on the camp-out. The bandage? Oh, Travis had been bitten in his sleep by a squirrel. That’s what he gets for passing out drunk. What happened to his jacket? Who the hell knows. And as for a doctor, Travis let the wound heal on its own, which it did miraculously fast. Besides, how do you explain a bullet wound with the cleanliness and precision of the one Travis had? Apparently even wounds in the future were soulless, more efficient.
As he sat by his bed, staring at what was left of Zachary Dean, Travis did the math in his head; he was good at that sort of thing. One conversation divided by two people, multiplied by fifteen years equaled at least a seed of doubt as to the validity of the entire story. That Night in the Woods had become as hazy as a recurring childhood nightmare. But being here with Zach, seeing him in spite of his strange, skeletal state had brought it all back. The memories were strong and immediate.
The nurse closed the door, leaving them alone, and Travis gave Zach a warm hug. It was like hugging a broom. Zach blinked and smiled in response. It seemed to take all his strength. He opened his mouth and a dry “Bring it?” cracked from between his sticky lips.
Travis reached in his pocket and produced the black glass disk.
Now that Zach’s time had come at the too soon at the age of 38, Travis felt guilty for the excitement and anticipation rolling through him. He had waited nearly half his life to see what might happen. Would Zach keel over immediately? He thought not. Would the disk blast a blue light into the center of the room, transporting them into some sort of alternate reality? Doubtful. Travis had always believed the disk to be some sort of mind-altering device. A way for the assassin to erase his memory as in Men in Black.
As he handed Zach the disk, he said, “Just in case this is the last time we speak. I love you. You’re my best friend, man. I’m sorry I haven’t been here for you like I should, but—”
Zach took the disk out of Travis’s hand with a fragile scissor-fingered grab. He rolled his eyes. Too sick to talk but not too sick for sarcasm. Zach handled the disk with clumsy, bony fingers. He laid out his hand, the small black disk lying in the center of his meatless palm. Though they had each held it before, neither had laid it in his palm the way Zach just did, the way the assassin had done to Travis. Now Zach held it just so, both men watching, waiting.
Zach played out every imagined scenario in his mind. Maybe the disk would wipe Zach’s memory; maybe it would kill him on the spot. Was there a chance it could miraculously have the power to heal him? And what would Travis do once he found out? Sell it to science? To the tabloids? Could it make him rich? He tried to squash any such thoughts; they just didn’t seem right at the deathbed of his best friend, but there they were.
Zach grunted slightly and Travis realized he was trying, with great difficulty, to close his fingers. Travis laid a gentle hand on Zach’s trembling wrist and, with his other hand, closed Zach’s fingers around the disk. It was an odd thing, mimicking the move a stranger in the woods had made on him in another time.
Travis met Zach’s eyes, pink and sick, but steady with purpose. The disk remained hidden behind his fingers, pressed against his palm.
For a moment nothing happened and Zach was reminded of Geraldo at Al Capone’s vault: a total letdown. Then a small blue light seeped out from between the cracks of Zach’s closed fingers.
Travis gently opened the hand and saw that the disk was displaying some sort of text in a laser-blue light that looked to be inches deep into the glass, though the disk itself was only a quarter-inch thick.
Travis read the reading on the disk out loud. “Zachary Thomas Dean. Human ID 1223647.” He looked at Zach. Human ID. Had the men in the forest been from another time or another place? Or both? Did it matter? Were they coming back?
Travis’s hands went to his head. The room was spinning. The reality of what they held began to hit him. He leaned over slowly and closed Zach’s fingers around the disk again. The light seeped through once more and again Travis read the text out loud: “Birthdate... It’s blinking... Here it is. Birthdate: October 8th, 1977...” Travis blinked. “It’s an identification device. He was trying to ID me before he shot me in the head. But why?”
A strange look crossed over Zach’s eyes, as though he had been hit by some small realization. He looked at Travis and eked out a single word: “Again.”
Travis closed his friend’s fingers around the disk one last time and the blue light flashed. He opened Zach’s fingers and read the words, “Date of Death...” Travis trailed off. Zach looked at him expectantly.
“It’s blinking,” Travis said.
Zach maintained his steady gaze. His eyes said, Just tell me.
The words appeared. Travis felt a lump in his throat as he said, “Date of Death... April 11, 2013... That’s tomorrow.”
Zach smiled. “Well,” he said in his weak, cracked voice, “that sucks.”
Copyright © 2014 by Dave Ervin