This piece begins about thirty years in the future (mid-2030’s). The protagonist was born in 2004 while Venus was in transit across the sun. Whether that means he was born to good or ill luck remains to be seen.
Part One- Not in a Thousand Years
The Third Street Mission is full up already, not surprising what with the winter fixin’ to start and the plague numbers reaching an all-time high. I trudge over to St. Bart’s on the slim chance that their larder is not yet empty and their beds are not yet full. The walk is long and my left shoe’s had a hole since that pit bull took a decided dislike to me last week, so my toes are cold and wet. The Blessed Sister at the shelter door turns the fella three in front of me away, since they’ve reached the number the fire marshal set, and the dozen or so of us on the wrong side of the door will have to fend for ourselves for the night.
Charlie Neff is one of the others not sleeping inside tonight and we fall into a comfortable stride, shoulder to shoulder, as we leave the church. Charlie’s been out here much longer than I have and he always has a third or fourth backup plan. I hope he’s got something up his sleeve now. He’s also pretty good company. He’s ex-army and can often be counted on for a bawdy but heroic cock and bull story of fighting in the desert or the jungle or some Asian harem. If we only had a bottle of scotch to share and somewhere dry to share it, the night could still be counted in the winning column.
“Say Trav, d’I ever tell you ’bout the time I was assigned as a security patrol ’round them summa-bs what were cappin’ them oil fires in Kuwait and I met me a Saudi princess who was trying to snag herself a G.I. to take her away from the chauvinistic oppression of her homeland and bring her to the land of milk and honey and big ‘ol cheeseburgers?” Charlie asks me with that nearly straight face that he wears when he knows I know he’s yanking my chain.
Despite the fact that Charlie couldn’t have been more than three years old when the first gulf war ended, I answer, “Why no, Charles, I don’t believe you’ve ever told me about that particular portion of your service to our country so, by all means, do tell.”
Charlie checks his watch, his granddaddy’s 1914 Eterna watch, and speeds his pace. Charlie loves that watch- he’d sooner part with the right arm he wears it on than take it off his wrist. He launches into an intricate tale involving A) the thwarting of at least four attempts on the firefighter’s lives and equipment, B) not one, not two, but three Arabian princesses, C) several dozen hand grenades and D) a porcupine. Therefore, the long walk to wherever he is leading me goes much faster than my earlier, solitary trek. As he finishes up his story, we walk up the steps of the physics building at the university. Charlie has often surprised me with his plan B’s (or C through Z as the case may warrant), but I don’t have a clue what kind of connection he would have with anyone in the building we are currently walking the halls of.
“Here it is, 309, Dr. Frankenstein.” He points to a door that clearly reads Temporal Mechanics, Roderick Zaplinski, PhD. The other side of the door contains a waiting room complete with out of date magazines and a none-too-pretty receptionist. There’s nobody else waiting, so the girl takes us right through to a small kitchen area, heats us up some soup and gives us a couple of wavers to sign. I’ve gone the guinea pig route before so I know that all the lawyer scribbling says the same thing (we’ll pay you less than you need for something you don’t understand the value of and if it mucks up your insides, your outsides or your anything else, we won’t pay you nothing more for your troubles). Both Charlie and I sign, sans the studying up, before we get a chance to drip soup on the good doctor’s judicial asylum.
The soup is good and hearty- almost a meal, but the coffee is pretty heinous. Charlie adds about half a cup of sugar to his and swallows it down. I can’t stomach more than a few sips myself, not having Charlie’s sweet tooth. Not wanting to seem ungrateful, I dump the extra in a nearby potted plant. After the food, we get showers- I haven’t had a shower in forever and sixty-three days, so it’s a little slice of divine. Once we’re fed and watered, the girl, who is looking prettier every minute, takes us for a walk further into the building and through a big-ol’ door with some kind of vacuum seal before, presumably, heading back to her post out front.
Man, they’d spent a lot of dough in here. Nearly every bit of space in the large room is filled with something gleaming, blinking or humming- computers and chambers and that sorta thing. And, every space not filled with high-tech gismowhosits contains someone in white coat and spectacles. The place is just lousy with eggheads. I, like most of the planet nowadays, could do without too many scientists in my life, but they did foot the bill for my most recent shower, so I swallow my unease and smile pretty.
A short, bushy-haired white coat with an unfortunate nose comes up to us and orders us to take a seat. Then, glancing to where he had just pointed- a couple of chairs covered in large pile of donut boxes, pizza boxes, a chaotic assortment of broken electrical doodads and a dead ficus, he revises, “Just stand here. It won’t be long,” and returns to his work.
Something about the heat of all those machines and their hum and their whirring makes the room kinda cozy. And, the random-ish-ness of the patternitty of the lights and blinkittys are dizzy-making. So much so that I have to lean over and hold up the very wobblish wall. Charlie tries to help me, but the wall jumps out of his way and so he starts holding down the floor that is in great danger of becoming the ceiling if it’s not careful.
Three of the fellas come over and help Charlie up. They bring his top half across the room, but his feet seem to want to keep holding the floor down so it’s a conflict of interest for Charlie’s legs, who seem to get all longgitty and purplish and I wonder why they didn’t have us lying down if they knew the room was gonna go all persnickety on us. Wait- is that the right use of presneritty? It’s then that my cerebellawhosit catches up with my taste buds and I figure why the coffee tasted so cruditty- it was all jossed-up. I lean there a while, and when I say “a while” that’s because the joss they doctored the coffee with makes time sorta irrelevantitty and I don’t rightly know how longgitty it is.
When that while stops and time restarts, the room gets less cozy, the wall gets less wobblish and my brains stops adding “itty” to all my adjectives. The drugs cease holding onto my cerebellawhosit (I don’t know that word, even when I am sober) and I come to the easy conclusion that I oughtta skedaddle, waver or no waver.
I’m just into the hallway when another door opens revealing Charlie and- holy Hannah! He looks bad. And when I say “bad”, I mean bad- bad bad- really bad- the really bad kinda really bad. Okay, still a few bugs in- no, drugs- drugs in my brain, but he really does look baditty. He’s drooling and stammering and there’s something no good leaking from his left eye, while his right eye’s rotating like it’s in a salad spinner- a salad spinner that’s on a roller coaster and- gol-darnit! They took his granddaddy’s watch. Then Charlie collapses between the two fellas who are steering him and vomits. All the white coats start buzzing around him and Charlie’s dragged down the hall somewhere.
So, hell yeah, I’m leaving before they remember I’m here. Too late. One of the white coats, an old guy with glasses and a look like he might just be the big cheese, orders someone named Clemens to secure me and a guy who looks way too brawny and stupid to be one of the eggheads has me trussed up before I can get my cerebellawhosit to plan my escape route.
Now I’m all but clean- thinking clear, but I’m gagged and strapped to a gurney and they’re rigging up some chamber that’s hooked up to all the gismowhosits and planning on putting little ol’ me inside to see if it microwaves my insides like it did Charlie’s.
“Dr. Zaplinski, I’ve worked out the new matrix factoring in the data from the last attempt. I think I may have fixed the metallic problem,” one of the white coats tells the big cheese, but he waves him off.
“This one’s resistant to the sedative, just run it with the old data. We need for him not to remember what he saw,” the old man answers and throws a few switches like he really is Doc Frankenstein.
“But Professor, I’m almost certain it will work this time. Isn’t a successful test more important than-”
“Yes, yes, fine. Input the new matrix. Just be quick about it,” he snaps.
I’m laying here, listening to the techno-babble as they change the programming and I think about how Charlie looked and how, this time, my number is up for sure and how my foot itches. My foot itching is a weird detail to be focusing on when I’m soon enough going to be a drooling idiot or worse, but it’s what I can’t stop thinking about.
“Two minutes forward again, Doctor?”
My itching foot. My itching foot. I wiggle my toes trying to get some friction. It doesn’t work.
“I’m thinking a longer test would be in order. Set it for 1,000 years. We’ll see how much power that setting requires, so we can start those calculations.”
I wiggle harder and recognize that my legs aren’t bound, so I rub the itchy toe that is sticking outta my shoe with my other foot and bless the pit bull that put the hole there in the first place. If not for him, I’d have never had this distraction from-
Not thinking of it now.
“Setting for 1,000 years before present.”
Thinking of it now.
I’m gonna die and if these guys ain’t crazy, if their plans are successful, I’m gonna die a painful, drooling, leaking-eyed, vomiting death 1,000 years ago. That’s a hell of a sentence.
“No, you imbecile, we’re going to 1,000 years b.p. Do you want to have his corpse as greeting in our new time? Set his ride for 1,000 years forward.”
Scratch that, a painful, drooling, leaking, vomiting death 1,000 years in the future. Still linguistically strange. Doctor Frankenstein wheels me into the big ol’ scary chamber as the machines start rumbling louder.
“Happy trails, my friend,” he says, walks out and pushes the door closed.
I give a good but futile kick in his direction and see my shoe fly free and hit him in the head just before the door closes. At least he’ll have a smarting bruise by the morning. Twenty seconds later the chamber floods with light and that’s it. Stick a fork in me. I’m dead or stupid or flashitty-nashitty . . .
Hungry is an interesting concept. I’ve been hungry. I’ve gone a day or two without a scrap to eat. I can do it just fine. Thirst is interesting, too. I’ve been thirsty before- hot and thirsty like the river Nile wouldn’t quench. This is different. I’m going on day three trudging through thick forestlands in search of civilization. Blistering sunburn? Fine. Desperate hunger? Bring it on. Nile-ish thirst? Who freakin’ cares? Not seeing any sign of the city I started in, not finding anyone, anything at all to show me I’m not the last man on God’s green Earth? That’s the thing making me a tad unstable. Other than that small hitch, I think I’m still all here- still sane, save for the crazy that being hungry and thirsty and sunburned bring, but that’s temporary. I go over things in my head once more. It was a dark and stormy night . . .
I woke, prone in the muck resultant of the ongoing rainstorm, after the flashitty-nashitty (for want of a better name for whatever they did to me in the big ol’ scary chamber, I’m going with my cerebellawhosit’s first terminology). I caught my breath, counted my fingers, my marbles and other important bits to find they were all there. There was no vomit, no wiggly eyeballs, nothing leaking- okay, maybe I wet myself some- all things considered, that was nothing. I was thinking that I’d be myself once I had had a shower. Regrettably, getting cleaned up weren’t the trick of the thing.
I stood up, finding it a might awkward since my hands were still loosely bound, but somehow or other, the thing they’d been bound to, the gurney, had disappeared. I counted that in the plus column and did a comical little dance trying to shake the bindings off because, loose as they were, they were clingy-wet with the rain. My efforts were made more problematical by my fly being open, my pants inching south with each wiggling effort to free my hands. That was a piece of strange. I hadn’t remembered them opening my zipper or taking my buckle.
When I had light to see, I come to find out my button’s gone and my zipper’s not just open, it’s gone- stitching still in, flappy sides there, but not a lick of the metal teeth left behind. As I was pondering that, I noticed the eyelets of my one remaining shoe- the metal eyelets for the laces to go through- they’d gone missing, too. Every bit of metal on me- my buckle, my zipper, the eyelets- my St. John Paul II medal that my Auntie Gillian gave me for my twelfth birthday- all gone. Definitely, a piece of very strange.
Once I’d freed my hands, I hoisted my britches and headed north. And, when I say “north”, I mean I, being a city boy, had no idea which cardinal direction I was walking in, in the dark and the rain, but seeing as it was my only chance of salvation, I’m calling the way I took “north” just for the poetry of the thing. The morning came, the rain stopped, I found some berries I hoped weren’t deadly and I ate. I found a small stream and, cursing my lack of anything watertight to scoop or carry in, laid down on the edge of the bank to drink like a dog from his bowl. After I washed off most of the mud, things seemed better, but that was just day one.
Day Two consisted of trudging, walking, striding, hiking, stepping, clambering, jogging, strutting, strolling, meandering, ambling, rambling, perambulating, wandering, marching and hollering. That is to say, I spent the day trying to get myself somewhere that was anywhere and shouting my fool head off in the hopes that all the nowhere around me was some sort of backwards mirage and civilization was just over the next hill. It wasn’t.
Day Three was spent in denial. There was no way I was there. There was no way I was then. There and Then- no, uh-uh- couldn’t be. I’d dreamed the whole flashitty-nashitty and Doc Frankenstein. Hell, I had to be dreaming the empty woods, too. Or maybe this was my hell. I’d frozen to death back on Earth a few days earlier and my Maker was teaching me my lesson. I should have spent more time contributing to society, working for the common good, joining the whole village to help raise the little critters- er children. Now I get to spend eternity with nobody- just me, the birds and the weird looking squirrels (all black, not one gray one in three days walking the woods). Nobody home but us nuts and woodland creatures.
Then I found Something and there was no way that that Something belonged in my hell or my delusion or whatever else the Then and There I was in could have been other than real reality. There was no way that either my cerebellawhosit or my Maker had planned for me to travel 1,000 years forwards through time to find that particular Something. That Something was half buried in the dirt where I stepped with my roughly shod left foot. I’d used the thick canvas of the restraints that came with me from the twenty-first century to wrap my shoeless foot in hopes of avoiding too many more blisters. It was fairly unsuccessful and that Something was just one of many things that poked my tender little tootsie through one of the gaps in its protection.
That Something was, ironically, a watch- one of those cheap, plastic Swiss jobs that has the numbers all in the wrong places for the jackass who’s too good for exact timing. It was scratched up and the hands, which had big day glow green bull’s-eyes on the ends of them- the hands swung free as I shook it around, obeying gravity instead of the watchmaker’s design. That Something had to be reality- stupid, implausible, meaningless reality. I picked it up, brushed it off and strapped it on. I was being preposterous, but that Something was a link to reason, at least it felt that way and I reckoned I could use all the reasoning I could muster.
I found the watch in mid-afternoon and it is now almost dusk. No further signs of civilization or reason to report- except, now there’s a something on the horizon. It’s hard to make out with the sunset behind it, but I think it might be a building, a house maybe. I look a little bit south (the real one, not the south to my north, that is the north I first began walking in three days earlier- I’d remembered the dawn was east and so I’m now pretty sure it was the real south), I look a hair south and see what looks like a field, one that’s being farmed, one that’s being plowed, right now by someone stooped and slow following an old-fashioned plow pulled by- is that a really big goat? I start running because, “Hey,” civilization. “Hey!” God please speak something like English.
Maybe I’m still too far away or maybe my cerebellawhosit just conjured up the goat plowing farmer and the house because I really need rest and civilization and sanity and a shower. “Hey! Hey! Heeeyyy!” The man’s not looking over at me and I know I’m close enough- I can hear the gigantigoat bleating, complaining that he’s worked enough today. It must be my cerebellawhosit playing tricks- except, “Hey! Hey you!” if it was a psychotic break (maybe all of this since Charlie and I walked into the physics building is), if this is a psychotic break, why would I imagine an old man plowing with a big old goat in a field beside a house that doesn’t look like it has an indoor toilet, let alone a shower. Why would I put myself through this?
“Hey!” I’m only fifty feet from him- the stinkin’ goat hears me. I can see his ears flicking around to listen, but the old farmer is still oblivious. “Hey!” I’m practically shouting in his ear. The goat starts and pulls to the side, trying to turn towards me. The old man finally looks to see what the goat’s seeing and he gives me a broad toothless smile and a salute.
You know that old people smell? Not the chest rub, old paper and peppermint one, the other one- the my liver’s giving out one. That’s what the old deaf farmer smells like. Yeah, he’s deaf. He signs and everything. I never learned any of that but I’m guessing it’s probably different by now anyway.
So farmer Brown, as I’ve taken to thinking of him, he confirmed the date for me. He’s got a diary, which he writes in everyday apparently. The date, mah-8-3037, so if the calendar’s actually continuous, I did skip about 1,000 years in a flashitty-nashitty. I wish I could read more of his writing, but grammar, punctuation, spelling, they’ve all gone by the wayside for him, maybe for everybody, but I’m not sure. His entries look like that gibberish the kids like to write their insta-texties in so their parents and teachers don’t know when they’re writing dirty bits and his letters are different- I think some might be Chinese characters instead.
Brown’s outside feeding the animals- his chickens and the huge goat and I’m inside with a few slices of bitter flatbread and a dearly worshipped cup of water. I keep wondering why he’s not using a horse to plow. Now that I think on it, they are- no- were- they were worried about the horses. They thought that the plague had jumped species to horses. They were putting them down left and right trying to stop it. A cryin’ shame, they were much better than we ever were. I hope some of them survived.
Brown comes in, sees that I’ve eaten all the bread he gave me and serves up something horrific smelling from a pot that’s been simmering in the fireplace. Brown digs into it with relish. It doesn’t look bad, but the thought of putting something that smells that putrid in my mouth sends me outside to give the flatbread back to the dust from whence it came. Brown must have no sense of smell or taste to be able to eat that. After a few minutes, Brown appears in the doorway with more bread and water, which I take gratefully.
The goat wanders up to me, hoping for a bit of my bread. My stomach’s still queasy, so I give him half and wonder again about the horses. Maybe they’re all gone. Maybe a really big goat is the closest thing now. If that’s true, the lack of people makes more sense, if the plague could do in the whole horse species, then most of the people are- no- were doomed, too.
Everyone I ever knew, everyone I ever met, everyone I ever saw- they’re all dead. They’re all long dead, dust in their graves. The only person I ever met who’s alive is Brown, Brown, who’s missing half his senses just the way the few plague survivors are- no- were. Could that same plague still be around? Could Brown be deaf because he was one of the lucky few who survived another pandemic?
It’s getting too hard to think about it. I need to stop or I’ll vomit my second batch of bread in half an hour. The excitement of finding Brown is wearing off and I think I better lay down before I fall down. As soon as I get inside, Brown is ushering me to a small room under some stairs and pushing me down on a cot. I’m half-aware he’s put a really soft, but tremendously stinky blanket over me as I drift off.