a matter of time
The kernel of this story has been rattling around in my head for years. A couple of months ago, I started writing it, but was stuck after the first few paragraphs. I’d had an idea, but it wasn’t yet a story. I think I made the transition. What do you think?
A Matter of Time
Isabella said it was a terrible idea, but I went ahead anyway. Her wisdom and foresight became evident at sundown when Chester shied at a rattlesnake, stepped in a hole, and broke his leg. I rose from where I were throwed, slapped dust from my clothes and considered my poor animal. On the ground, eyes rolled up, good legs scrambling in the dirt, he whinnied in pain, muscles on his flank twitching and jumping.
It pained me. He had been an obedient horse, and I had nothing to ease his suffering. I could not bear to hear his torture, so I loosed the tie strap, gathered what little food was in the saddlebags and set off toward home. When Chester’s cries no longer echoed in my ears, I stopped and took stock.
The day had burned down to coals, leaving only an orange-red band on the western horizon. But a half moon rose in a clear sky—plenty of light for walking. Bedding down was an uncomfortable possibility—uncomfortable because even in high summer under the crystal sky the temperature would drop. I had no bedding. Tomorrow would be hard—all day in the sun.
Or I could start walking now. Home by midmorning, Isabella wondering where her fool husband had gotten off to this time. I grimaced, seeing her scolding face.
Walk now or walk later.
I set off. Exertion would keep me warm in the night, and my daytime travel would be in the morning before the proper heat. At a nice, even pace, I fell into a waking dream. A zephyr shushed the low scrub and an occasional owl hooted in search of a meal. Alone beneath the heavenly vault, I imagined myself separated from time and space. This confession will no doubt surprise people of my acquaintance, for I have never been one to philosophize or daydream, but I relate only what happened.
I came to myself as I started up a slight rise, crunching on gravel. At this unexpected sensation, I stopped. Gravel? Was I in a stream bed? A glance revealed me to be on a gravel covered embankment on top of which….
I squinted in the meager light, unsure of what I saw. Black. As black as a moonless night sky, a flat strip of something topped the rise. I had never seen the like. Scrambling to the top, I stood on the edge of that strip. It extended to my right and left, disappearing into the distance. Hesitantly, I touched the substance with the toe of my boot. Hard and unyielding, it didn’t move at my touch. I stepped on the surface.
Down the middle of the strip someone had painted white lines, but the paint was unfamiliar. It glowed in the moonlight, reflecting unlike any other paint I knew of. The lines were straight and even, extending the ribbon’s length, but spaced out like a bunch of dashes. And on each side of the Ribbon an unbroken strip of the same paint stretched to the horizon. The amount of paint on that ribbon even only along the ribbon’s length in my view was enormous.
I was flummoxed. Who had put this flat black ribbon here and how had I never seen it before? What purpose did it serve?
I could not keep my eyes open. It occurred to me that Mari had been right—stopping in Page would have been an excellent idea. I glanced at the clock on the dash—1:45 am and Kanab still a half hour away. With stars sprinkled in a night sky, a half moon, and an economics podcast my only companions, my head was heavy, nodding seemingly of its own accord. Ten minutes ago, a truck passing in the other direction had kept me alert for all of thirty seconds.
I reached to rub my eyes, and a man appeared on the roadway ahead. Adrenaline fueled panic drove my foot on the brake, slamming the pedal to the floor. Tires screeching, the car hurtled toward the man. Time slowed then strobe-flickered.
With a vicious twist, I yanked the steering wheel to avoid him, only to send the car into a spin. Out of control, I spun once, twice. By some miracle I stayed on the road and missed the man ending up in the opposite lane facing back toward him. In my headlights, he raised a flat brimmed black hat, shielding his eyes from my headlights’ glare. He hadn’t budged from where I’d first seen him.
Lean, with a long beard, the man stared open-mouthed at my car. Where it was visible, his face was deeply tanned. He must have wandered away from a reenactment camp. Dressed in straight legged gray trousers that looked like canvas, he wore a black wrinkled coat over a gray rumpled shirt. Boots, suspenders and that old beat up hat completed his outfit.
Furious now, the adrenaline bolus had to go somewhere, I threw open the door, heedless of any oncoming traffic and stormed at the man who remained rooted. “What the hell were you thinking?” I admit to my chagrin that it came out as a scream.
A low hum interrupted my wonderings. Off to my left, light glinted along the ribbon. It grew brighter with the increasing noise until I had to squint. It was as bright as the sun at noon, but white and gave off no heat. With a horrible screech, the light wobbled from side to side on the ribbon and then spun. There were two lights now, and they were attached to a box. The box spun on the ribbon and came to a halt with its lights glaring in my face. An acrid, evil cloud enveloped me and set me to coughing. Even shielding my face from the light, I could not ascertain the nature of the box or what it was doing.
A man emerged from the light and screamed an obscenity at me. Pudgy, balding and red-faced, he vented his spleen at my audacity to be alive and standing before him. He wore blue pants of a material I had never seen and a loose, green, collared shirt. Flummoxed by this whole experience and not yet convinced this was not a nightmare and I was really at home in bed, I laughed out loud at his antics. Oddly, this calmed the man, and he ran a hand across his head then gripped his neck.
“What are you doing in the middle of the road at night?” He asked.
His question anchored me in reality; this was no dream. In an attempt to banish questions swirling in my head, I focused on his words. This was a road. Huh, I thought and looked back along the ribbon the way he had come. It made sense. Flat and rock hard, the material beneath my feet would indeed make a decent road. But it seemed extravagant for the wilderness. At the thought, questions spun back into my head, leaving me dizzy and confused. Nowhere I was familiar with had a road such as I stood upon, but as Isabella never tires of telling me—I am not an educated man. Somewhere on earth was a country with these roads. I would worry about how I traveled here later. “Where am I?”
At this the man nodded as if I had confirmed a thought. “Had too much of a good time tonight? You’re just outside of Kanab, Utah. C’mon let’s get you in my car. I didn’t know there were any pioneer reenactments right now. But we’ll get you sobered up and back to your group.” He extended an arm towards the box with the lights.
My mind had blanked at the words Kanab Utah. Where was that? I had never heard tell of any place with those names. “Not an educated man,” Isabella’s voice rang in my head again. Still. I surveyed the landscape yet again, spotting familiar landmarks even in the scant heavenly light. I knew this place. I had traipsed all over this ground in the last two years. I was fifteen miles from home. Behind the man, outside the box’s glaring lights, Johnson’s ridge shouldered into the sky. Around the base of that ridge, home beckoned. The man opened a door in his box. Lights glowed within and a voice droned. With caution, I crept toward the opening. Whoever was within kept up a steady stream of words. I glanced into the interior, a sharp eye out for the other stranger. His voice grew in volume at my approach. Inside, the box was not large—two seats up front and a bench in back. Both were empty. Then it struck me. The voice was coming from the front. A tingle skittered down my back. The box itself was speaking.
I leaped back away from the box, striking the back of my head.
“Oh, for cryin’ out loud.” I’d heard that some of these pioneer reenactors liked to immerse themselves in their parts, but this was ridiculous. We were in the middle of nowhere at two in the morning. Who was he trying to impress with his whole I’m-from-the-past-and-never-seen-a-car act?
“Just get in the car, I growled. Or not. At this point, I don’t care. I’m leaving.” The man’s head swiveled between me and the open door. “Fine,” I said and moved to shut the door. I didn’t have the time or energy to indulge his fantasy. He was none the worse for our encounter. He could wander off back to where he came from.
Before I could move the door, the man laid a hand on it. “I will accompany you in your box,” he said and slid into the front seat.
I rolled my eyes. What a dweeb.
Back in the driver’s seat, I started toward home once more. As we accelerated, the man stiffened, white knuckle gripping the seat’s edges, his eyes all whites. The seat belt warning chimed. “You need to put your seat belt on,” I said, sharply. Apparently frozen with fear, the man made no move to comply.
The seat belt warning sounded again and again, becoming more insistent. I clamped my jaw against the annoyance. It would stop eventually, and if this guy didn’t care about his life, I wasn’t going to insist. Eventually, the warning fell silent. I relaxed. Maybe if I could get him talking, he’d break character. “What’s your name?”
The man released one side of his seat and ran his sleeve across his forehead, then grabbed the seat again. “Lemuel,” he said. “Lemuel Parker.”
I puffed out my cheeks in frustration. There was zero chance his actual name was “Lemuel.” He was still deep in character. It was interesting that he chose that name, though. Faintly, hovering in the back of my mind, a bell was ringing. The surname was familiar. I had Parkers from my mom’s side all along my line. “Where are you from?”
He shifted in his seat, settling in, losing some of his stiffness. Even as frustrated as I was, I had to admire his tenacity. Maybe his troupe or camp or whatever it was had a challenge to see who could stay in character the longest, though how anyone would know he hadn’t cheated was beyond me.
“I was born in Ohio.” He turned his head, looking out the window. “Kirtland, Ohio.”
In my head the bell rang louder. One of mom’s people was from there. Scoffing, I shook my head. Fatigue must be fogging my brain. “Well, Lemuel, when we get to town, where can I drop you?”
At his blank stare, I tried again. “Where do you want me to take you when we get to town?” His puzzlement remained. “Where are you staying while you’re here?”
“I live here.” he said.
“You live in Kanab?” The town wasn’t that large. I didn’t know everyone by any means, but Lemuel was distinctive enough I was certain I hadn’t seen him. Unless he was new. “How long have you lived here?”
He shook his head. “Isabella and I have lived here going on a year, but I do not know this Kanab.”
We topped a rise, and the town’s lights spread, twinkling before us. The man’s eyes widened and he gripped the seat again. “What are those lights?” In awe, he leaned forward blinking rapidly as if the lights were apparitions.
I sighed. At first I’d thought he was drunk, but there was no alcohol on his breath. High on something else then. That’s what I concluded. Mari wouldn’t like it, but we’d put him in a spare bedroom for the night. Everything would be clearer in the morning.
I awoke from the strangest dream. Or was I awake? The bed I lay in had none of the feeling of our straw tick mattress. It was soft and firm at the same time, like lying on a cloud. And the bedding was luxurious, fine cotton. My eyes flew open. If this was a dream, it was like none I had ever experienced. I was in a room alone. It contained the bed I was on, a wooden chest of drawers, and next to the bed a table with a metal sculpture on it. Over the bed light shone through a set of curtains. The room was the size of my home. I was in a palace then. I recalled my conversation of the night before. This Kanab place must be a mighty kingdom if a commoner like me could be afforded such luxury.
I swung my feet from the bed into a soft carpet. Morning duty called, but I had no idea where the outbuilding might be. To my right, a door stood open into a small room. Curious, I pushed the door open. In this room tiles made up the floor. At the far end, a tub grew from the tiles. At one end pipes erupted from the wall. A curious china construction sat next to the tub. In form, it resembled the seat in an outhouse. I puzzled over this contraption until it struck me. I had read about these. One or two fancy hotels in the east had installed these water closets. Because I was not certain how to make use of it, I resisted the urge for a time, but in the end succumbed. It was evident where to deposit the waste, but once I had done so, it sat in the water. I recalled reading there was a means to remove the waste. A gleaming metal lever looked likely. I pressed. Water in the bowl disappeared from the bottom carrying the waste with it. With no action on my part, the bowl again filled with water.
I had heard about this. Plumbing. This mansion I had awakened in was plumbed. My attention turned to the basin next to the Water Closet. A pipe arched from the back of the basin, another lever connected to it. I pushed the lever up and water gushed from the pipe. After a moment, it steamed. Could that be hot? With trepidation, I touched the water and snatched my hand back with a yelp. It was scalding.
The door from the room with the bed opened easily and admitted the smell of sizzling bacon. Turning left into a hallway, I followed my nose and emerged into another enormous room. Covered with a cloth, a table set for a meal occupied the center. More windows opposite me gave a view of more of the same kind of road I had stumbled across last night and more of the boxes in which I had ridden. As I stared, a box glided silently along the road and disappeared.
“Oh, you’re awake,” a woman bustled into the room. Tall, slender with russet hair tied back and dressed in the same type of blue pants the man had sported last night and a flowing red shirt, she had the tanned skin of a day laborer. If he had to guess, she had not yet seen thirty years. She carried a platter of bacon and pancakes. After setting them on the table, she turned and touched the wall. Lights flared overhead. From what I could make out through slitted eyes, globes of some unknown substance attached to the ceiling glowed. “Lemuel is it?” I nodded. “I’m Mari. Don, my husband the one who picked you up last night will be out soon. Do you eat pancakes and bacon?”
“Yes, Ma’am, I do, and I thank you kindly for your hospitality.”
At this response, she gave me a curious look. Music sounded. I searched for its source, but it seemed to come from the woman herself. She inserted a hand in a pocket and withdrew a small, thin silver brick from which the music played. After glancing at the brick’s surface, she touched it and lifted it to her ear.
“Hello,” she said. I glanced about the room, supposing that another person had entered, surprising her.
After a moment of silence, she spoke, “It’s been two weeks,” she said, still with the brick to her ear, “and now you’re telling me not until Thursday?”
Confused now, I said, “I do not understand. What is happening Thursday?”
Her face twisted in annoyance, and she waved a hand at me. “Well,” she said, “if that’s the best you can do.”
My head whirled. She was addressing me with meaningless words. At a loss as to how to respond to her observation, I attempted once more to answer her. “I do not know what you expect of me, but be assured I will do my best.”
At this she turned away from me. “I’m sorry someone interrupted me. Would you say that again?”
The custom of facing away from a person with whom one is conversing was unknown to me. I assumed it was not rudeness, but merely a custom in her land, and endeavored to comply with her request. “I do not know what you expect of me,” I repeated, raising my voice in case her need for repetition indicated a loss of hearing, “but be assured—“
I gaped in astonishment as Mari stormed from the room after throwing a glance over her shoulder filled with animosity. I had offended, but was mystified as to how. My attention then turned to the food on the table before me and I endeavored to set aside any guilt for my offense. Don and Mari I decided must be among the wealthiest people in the district. They had water brought into their home from some source heated by unknown means. And they had set for me their finest china, gleaming utensils fashioned of an unknown metal and a sparkling crystal container for beverages. Along with the steaming pancakes and crisp bacon, a carafe of orange liquid was set out together with an oddly shaped translucent container with the word Milk printed on a piece of paper stuck to its side.
Curious, I reached for the carafe and immediately drew my hand back in shock. It was cold, so cold I was afraid I might damage my skin. What sort of miracle was this? Where in mid summer in this desert had they found ice sufficient to keep liquids this cold? My assessment of their wealth increased again.
And yet again when I poured the liquid and tasted it. Oranges! They could afford enough oranges to squeeze this much juice and offer it to a stranger? Oranges were costly and to obtain enough simply for juicing was an outrageous extravagance.
After discovering the miracle of their maple syrup, I ate with gusto, it having been many hours since my last meal. Mari re entered the room. When she opened the door strange music drifted in with her. My first instinct was to crane my neck to see who was playing, but I was reminded of the voice from the box last night. By some magic, in the absence of any musicians, the music appeared in the air.
“I’m sorry about that,” Mari said. “That was our contractor. We had this house built and only moved in a month ago, but already we’ve had issues with our electrical. It’s 2020. You’d think by now they’d be able to do wiring right the first time.”
Puzzled yet again, I attempted to make sense of her words. Something in her statement raised the hairs on the back of my head. “Excuse me, Ma’am. When you said just now ‘it’s 2020’ what did you mean? What’s 2020?”
She chuckled then when I failed to laugh with her she frowned. “I meant the year of course—two thousand and twenty.”
Hands gripping the table I steadied myself against the whirling room. That was not possible. The year was 1857.
Frantically, I rooted through old journals. My mom had tasked me with transcribing these and I had always intended to, but never seemed to find the time. I had only agreed to her assignment after hearing her recount one of the stories. One of our ancestors had recorded a dream he’d had. A dream in which he traveled to the future.
There. Sometime in the past I’d attached a sticky note to it so I could locate it again. The sticky note marked the story’s beginning. Here in a few pages of spidery handwriting the journal’s author described a dream in which he had traveled to the year…2020. A descendant of his had discovered him in the middle of the night and taken him home. Hand trembling with trepidation, I turned to the front of the book. “The Journal of Lemuel Parker.”
I burst into the dining room. Seated at the table his face drained of blood, Lemuel shook his head in denial. “No,” He said. “No, that cannot be.”
“It is,” I said brandishing the journal. From his demeanor, I guessed what he and Mari had been talking about. “It’s all here in your handwriting.” I gave him the journal. “That’s yours, right? That’s your handwriting and everything?”
Eyes glassy and unseeing, he accepted the journal and paged through it.
“What’s going on, Don?” She gestured at Lemuel. “Who is he and what is this journal?”
I passed a hand across my head. “This is going to sound crazy, but…” I was right it did sound crazy and I didn’t know how Mari would accept it.
“What’s going to sound crazy?” Mari said. “Don, tell me what this is all about.”
“Lemuel here is my great, great grandfather. In 1857 while homesteading in this area he recorded in his journal having a dream in which he traveled into the future to the year 2020 and met his descendant Don Parker and his wife, Mari.” Lemuel had finished reading his story. He sat head bowed over the words.
“Only it wasn’t a dream. Lemuel here really did travel to the future and is now seated at our table.”
With narrowed eyes, Mari considered me. Her eyes flicked to Lemuel and back to me. She grinned. “Okay, that’s pretty funny. A bit elaborate for you, I admit, but still amusing.” She took a seat across from Lemuel. “So who is this guy and what’s he doing in our house?”
Hours later, Mari had come around and our visitor from the past was settling in.
“So how does he return to his own time?” Mari asked. We were seated in the living room while I tried to explain to Lemuel about televisions, mobile phones, computers, the internet and a host of other to him outlandish aspects of the modern world.
“It’s all in the story,” I said. “On August 7th at ten am he’s down the street at Hamblin Park standing at home plate in the ball field. He disappears and wakes up a mile from his house on the day he left. He doesn’t write his experience until a few years after his travel, by which time he has begun to think of it as a dream.“
Mari smiled. “August 7th, two days from now.” She turned to Lemuel. “What do you want to do in the meantime. “
I nodded at the journal lying open on the coffee table in front of Lemuel. “That’s the best part. We have his trip all planned out.”
I did not need to wait years. It felt like a dream already. Endless food of a quality and variety I had in fact only dreamed of. Transportation to vast distances at speeds I had never imagined. Comfort and ease that exceeded the mind of anyone from my time. For some unknown reason, Don waxed nostalgic about the world I came from. “Purer,” he called it. “Closer to nature” and “Without the complications of modern life.” I did not understand this last reference. As near as I could tell those complications involved what of the many varieties of food to pluck from their magic boxes, how much and what type of entertainment to consume and how to occupy all their leisure time.
On the morning of my planned departure, Don and Mari sat me down.
“We want to say,” Don began his eyes brimming with tears, “because we won’t have another chance, how grateful we are to you for all the sacrifices you made for us.”
Mari nodded along with him. “You and Isabella coming out here in the wilderness hacking a living out of unforgiving land so that we could build a better life for ourselves…” she paused and laid a hand on mine. “We can’t thank you enough.”
Outside, beyond their green, well-watered lawn, the sun baked a parched land. Already the temperature was rising, but in this house chilled air flowed over my exposed skin and the remains of a hot breakfast prepared effortlessly in an instant cooled on the table. A world’s knowledge lay in the brick Don toyed with in his hand. “You’re not an educated man,” Isabella’s voice rang in my head.
“Well, Don said as he stood, “time for you to go. We don’t know exactly how this works so you’d better be there early and at the right spot.” He chuckled, “you wouldn’t want to miss that boat.”
I rose while in my mind sorrow struggled with anticipation. Would I not? I took his extended hand.
“You know we’d accompany you, but the journal,” he pointed at the tattered book open on the table, “says you’re alone.”
I nodded. I knew what the book said. In the past two days I had poured over my words, not just the story of my journey here, but of the rest of the life that lay in my future and these peoples’ past—a boy born to Isabella a year from now, Isabella’s death at the birth. A failed farm and a string of failed businesses. Two loveless marriages after Isabella. Then, at the end, a note appended in a different hand “Thrown from a horse and killed.” He’d been fifty. It was interesting that I had already begun thinking of the man from the journal as someone else.
“Thank you for your generous hospitality,” I said. And I meant it. They had been kind to me. Too kind. “You are not an educated man.” These people had educated me. Funny thing about education—once your eyes have been opened, no matter how hard you try, you cannot close them again. Weighed down with sadness now that the moment had come, I shook Don’s hand and hugged Mari. I supposed it would be painless, but I was not certain.
I left the house on my way to the park. At the corner I paused. To my left the park’s grass glowed a vibrant green in the sun. I turned right. Mounting a hill beyond Don and Mari’s home, I settled in the shade of a boulder.
Now that I thought of it, it must be painless. How could there be pain in simply ceasing to be? I considered the possibility that I might be mistaken, that the key was not the location, but something inside me. Shrugging off the concern, I stared at Don and Mari’s home then consulted a time keeping device I had stumbled across and had kept. At precisely ten am their home disappeared. I blinked to ensure I saw aright. Where their home had been was nothing but hard packed desert. I rose into the sun and indulged in a leisurely stretch, working the kinks out from my wait. I was not in a hurry. I had nothing but time.