(Note: TIME LOST is the third volume in a story called “313”. The first volume, MISSING TIME, and second volume TIME SPENT, are available for purchase through any eReader, digitally through Smashwords.com, or in paperback through CreateSpace.com or Amazon.com. I highly recommend you read them before attempting to read the following. Links can be found in my SUPER HANDY LINKS PAGE!)
“Here we go,” said the portly man in the brown suit, sitting across from him at the kitchen table. He produced a series of brochures from his file folder, which he laid out across the table. “Term Life, Whole Life, Accidental Death.”
He slid the brochures across the table. Carl only stared, his hands exploring the cool, green-flecked smoothness of the Formica tabletop.
“Carl?” a woman’s voice said.
Carl looked up at her. “Hm?”
“You look like you drifted off somewhere,” she said.
Carl knew her, recognized her, from a long time ago and a different…
“Ellen,” he said. “My wife, Ellen…”
She smiled, her lips upturned quizzically. “You really were gone, weren’t you?” She placed a cool hand on his. It felt wonderful, her touch. “He’s been going over the policies.”
“Policies?” Carl said, looking at the portly man with the brochures. “Oh.”
The portly man took a pen from his shirt pocket and clicked it, sliding some papers over to him. “Here you go, just need your signature.”
Carl took the pen and signed the page. The man turned two pages and pointed to another line, where he signed again, and then to a third, where he signed again. Carl hardly looked at his hand as his fingers scrawled his name. He was glancing up at the window, where the light rapidly disappeared.
“The sun’s gone dark,” Carl said.
Ellen stood and walked over to the kitchen window. “Hm. Must be a storm, those clouds moved in fast.”
“You two have made an excellent decision,” the portly man said, standing. “You never know what’s going to happen in the future.”
“The future?” Carl said, looking up at him. “But this isn’t the future.” He looked around at the kitchen, the table, the floor…Ellen… “This is the past.”
The portly man cleared his throat. “Well, it’s good to be prepared.” He held out a hand. Carl stood and took it, shaking gently. The portly man noted his absent look and withdrew his hand. “I’ll show myself out. Pleasure meeting you, ma’am.”
Ellen nodded. “Thank you.” She walked over to Carl and put a hand on his shoulder. “Are you all right?”
“This isn’t right,” Carl said. He followed the portly man through the tiny living room to the front door. As he opened the door for the man, Carl looked outside as the first fat drops of water began to spatter against the screen. “It didn’t rain that night. This night. There was no storm.”
“Ah, you take care now, Mr. Macklin,” the portly man said, clearly unnerved by Carl’s strange comments. He edged his way past Carl and pushed open the screen door, stepping out into the rain.
Carl stepped out after him, lifting his face to the storm and allowing the drops to strike his cheeks and forehead.
“Carl, what are you doing?” Ellen called.
“Some things are bleeding through,” Carl said. “Elements…leaking through the cracks in time. I can see them now.”
The portly man turned back. “Maybe you should get back inside, Mr. Macklin. You don’t seem well.”
Carl stepped forward and took him by the elbow, startling the man. “When I was a boy, my brother died in Vietnam.”
“I used to watch the news to see if they said anything about him, but they never did. They talked about the enemy a lot though, the Viet Cong.”
“But I was just a kid, you know? I didn’t know what that meant. I imagined my brother fighting monsters, ape soldiers with guns in the trees. When he died, I thought the monsters had gotten him. That they might come for me.”
The man nodded.
Carl looked out into the trees and looked back at him. “And now they have.”
“What?” the man said.
“They’re out there,” Carl said. “They’re all around me.”
“Who’s out there?” the man said, trying in vain to pull his arm away.
Carl released his arm and lifted his hands up, one hand near his shoulder and the other out in front of him, as if holding an invisible rifle.
“The Kong,” he said.
Ellen came to him and put her arms around him. “Come on, Carl, let’s get you back inside.” The portly man took the opportunity to dart away, running to his car and jumping inside. The car pulled away into the rain as Ellen pulled at Carl’s arm.
“You’re going to leave me, Ellen,” Carl said. “Not today, but eventually, you’re going to leave me.”
“What are you talking about, Carl?” she said. “Where are you right now?”
“I’m in Hell,” he said. The rain came harder now, soaking through his clothes. “I’m in Hell, and I’m all alone.”
Lightning filled the sky, leaping from cloud to cloud and illuminating the dense trees. Ellen was gone, and Carl stood waist deep in dark water, his rain slicker sticking to his skin in the tropical heat.
His hands held something very like an M1 Carbine before him. Strange, jagged edges surrounded the metal casing, and a rough place pressed against his shoulder as he scanned the trees in the dark.
He looked to his left, where his and Ellen’s house had been, and found only a tiny, dilapidated shack. A tiny candle burned in one window.
The call of the apes sounded through the trees. c-c-ca-ah-ah-ahhhhhh!
Carl looked up and around and saw nothing. He backed carefully toward the shack until he felt his lower half emerging from the water, backing up the steps to the door. He lowered his left hand and found the doorknob. With a turn, the door creaked open, turning inward. Carl crept inside, closing the door behind him.
“Who are you?”
Carl spun, rifle raised, but it was only a child. The shack was small, only one room, and sparsely furnished. There was a tiny bed in one corner, a small table against the front wall, and one rickety chair.
“I’m sorry,” Carl said. “They’re out there. The Kong. We need to be quiet.” He licked the thumb and forefinger of his right hand and reached out to pinch the candle’s wick, putting it out. A tiny trail of smoke rose where once the flame had burned. There was a single bottle of clear liquid standing on the table next to the candle. Carl pulled the cork and sniffed its contents. Some type of grain alcohol he suspected. Might be useful for medicinal purposes. He returned bottle and cork to their places.
Carl moved to the corner on the other side of the table and sat on the floor, hoping he was out of sight of the window. The boy came and sat on the other side of him. He was small, perhaps ten years of age, wearing a ragged white shirt and filthy jeans. His feet were bare and his exposed skin was dirty, like he’d been playing in the mud. His straw blond hair was plastered to his head with moisture.
“Where are your parents?” Carl whispered.
The boy shrugged.
“Is this your home?” Carl asked.
The boy shrugged.
Carl leaned his head against the wall and waited, the rifle held tightly in his lap. The calls were closer now. He heard branches creaking in the rain just outside the shack.
“Are you the fortune teller?” asked the boy.
Carl looked down at him, eyes narrowed. “Where did you hear that?”
“They’re looking for the fortune teller, they said.” The boy’s eyes looked up with a mixture of admiration and fear. “Are you him?”
Carl was silent. He had heard that name, he was sure, but it was a long time ago. Another life.
“Can you see my future?” asked the boy.
Carl’s breath rose and fell, his pulse quickening. He felt like he was remembering something. Something he had forgotten from long ago. He could see something, if he tried, something more than these strange cracks that had taken him to his kitchen with Ellen and the insurance salesman. He could see paths in the air, timelines leading off ahead of him in all directions. These were the outcomes of every possible action he could take, and he could see dozens of them, hundreds if he tried. Carl closed his eyes. He didn’t want to see these things. They reminded him of something. They reminded him of the old life, where he had failed and the world had fallen apart.
“What do you see?”
Carl opened his eyes. He could see dozens of scenarios, and in all of them the same thing happened. The boy cried out for help, and the Kong came. He looked down at the boy.
“Why?” he asked in a faint voice. “Why would you do that?”
“They say you’re here because you killed people. Children.” The boy’s voice cracked as he added, “Is it true?”
Carl’s breath quickened. In all of the possible futures, the boy cried out soon, and the Kong surrounded the shack. He couldn’t fight them all off.
“Is it true?” the boy asked again.
“I don’t-” Images flooded Carl’s mind. Becca, her face a ruined mess on the pavement of the bridge. Zachary, his head split open. Tyler, so peaceful he could have been sleeping. Brandon, racing into the sky with no means of return. He had killed them all, or tried to, anyway. “Yes,” he said. “Yes, it’s true.”
The boy sucked air into his lungs, preparing to scream, and that’s when Carl’s hands closed on his throat. He held the boy against the wall, squeezing as the sounds of the ape calls passed by the shack, then receded into the distance.
Carl went on squeezing for some time before releasing the boy. His body sagged to the floor, eyes open in fear. Carl stood, lifting his rifle from the floor. He opened the door to the shack and stepped out into the rain, leaving the boy’s body behind.
He made his way through the jungle, creeping in silence from tree to tree, watching and listening for the calls of the Kong for what seemed like hours.
Lightning filled the sky, leaping from cloud to cloud and illuminating the dense trees. The call of the apes sounded through the trees. c-c-ca-ah-ah-ahhhhhh! Carl found himself approaching another tiny shack. One candle burned in the window.
Carl turned the doorknob and edged inside, closing the door behind him.
“Who are you?”
Carl turned, finding a boy identical to the one he had met before. He gawked for a moment before laying his rifle on the table. He sat in the rickety chair and gazed into the flame.
“Are you the fortune teller?”
Carl nodded. “I am.”
“They say you killed children. Is it true?”
Carl’s pulse quickened. “I’m in Hell, and I’m all alone…” He leaned forward and with one breath, blew out the candle.
“…and I deserve it.”
THE FORTUNE TELLER
“You see everything but yourself.”
Carl sagged against the tree, head and shoulders slumped, rain patting against the hood of his rain slicker and dripping off the edges. His rifle was slung across his back, the strap pressing down on his right shoulder, already tired from the endless hacking of the plants in the bush. The machete sank lower in his grip, almost to the tips of his fingers. He could drop it, he knew. He could drop it into the dank collected water at his ankles, sink to the base of the tree and wait for the inevitable moment when the ape soldiers discovered him.
His mind reached out, and he saw that future in front of him, clear as day. He saw himself seated at the base of the tree, looking down at the ripples the heavy raindrops made in the water around him. Furred legs dropped from the trees to splash down in front of him. He looked up into the faces of the Kong, three of them, fur lined with streaks of red paint. More swung from the treetops above, looking down on him. They gazed at him from under their helmets and chattered at one another, barking strange, ape laughter at their fallen foe. Then, the lead solder raised his rifle, and all went dark.
Carl could see nothing beyond that.
“So that’s it, then,” said a voice.
Carl started, raising his right arm. The machete slipped free of his fingertips and splashed into the water at his feet. Carl fumbled at the strap of his rifle, but even as he did he realized that this was not the enemy. This was something very different.
A man stood before him. He was young, compared to Carl, around twenty, wearing military fatigues. Without a helmet to cover his head, his close-cropped red hair stood out strangely against all the dark green surrounding them.
“Terry?” Carl said. “Terry, is that you?”
“Who do you see when you look at me?” asked the man.
“My brother,” Carl said. “My brother Terry. Terence.”
“Then I guess that’s me,” Terence said.
Terence smiled. “I knew you needed help, so I came. Does it matter how far?”
Carl wasn’t sure how to answer that.
“So,” Terence said, sidling up next to him and looking him in the eye. “Is this it?”
“Is what it?”
“This,” Terence said, waving a hand at him, up and down. “Is this the place where you finally give up?”
Carl looked down at his boots, submerged in the dark water.
“Is this the place where you die, little brother?”
His hands gripped a black steering wheel. Something grew in the space in front of him. Carl had time to look forward at the dash and windshield and note that he was sitting in the driver’s seat of his old school bus before he saw it. It was like a shimmering hole in the air, and it spread out before him without warning, enveloping the front of the bus.
“Not again,” Carl said, looking around at the passenger section and completely neglecting to hit the brakes. The front of the bus crossed the threshold, and he was the first one across. He caught a glimpse of his students, sitting in the same places they had before.
Tyler, seated directly behind him, pointed ahead. “What are you doing? Look forward!”
Carl’s eyes snapped forward, facing the strange place ahead, which was not a place at all: the void between dimensions. Had Tyler been wearing a brown cloth over his eyes? Had he been alone on the seat, or had some strange image rode the bus next to him?
He saw an infinity of space stretched out in front of him. The bus sailed through strange places, places Carl knew. He realized with a chill that he knew them like the back of his hand, had driven them for hours in a time now lost.
Roads through time and space stretched out in front of them.
Carl’s eyes opened. He lay on his back on a cold, hard surface. Above him, a cylindrical white surface turned, light shining in his eyes.
“What just happened?” he said. “What’s happening?”
“Try to lie still, Mr. Macklin,” a voice said. “We’re almost finished.”
“Terry?” called Carl.
“Stay still, Mr. -“
“Let me out!” Carl banged on the white surface above him. “Let me out of here!”
“Shut it down. Okay, we’re pulling you out sir, calm down.”
The lights went dark. A white glow still came from somewhere near Carl’s feet but he could see next to nothing inside the white tube.
“Carl, I’m right here,” a voice said. “Everything’s okay.”
“Let me out,” Carl repeated.
There was a thrum as the hard surface on which he lay began to vibrate and slide in the direction of Carl’s feet. He understood where he was now: inside one of those hospital machines that take a full scan. MRI? CAT?
As soon as his head cleared the opening, Carl struggled to a sitting position and swung his feet over the side. He was wearing a hospital gown and no pants, he realized. His feet withdrew from the cold sensation of the linoleum floor.
Ellen was standing there beside the machine. It was her voice he had heard. She took his hands in his. “Are you all right?”
“I was on the bus,” he said. “I was on the school bus, but it wasn’t the school bus then.”
She put one hand to his face, stroking his temple soothingly. “No, dear, you’re at the hospital. You’ve been having these…they’re doing some tests, that’s all.”
“I was in the jungle,” he said, more firmly this time. His eyes wandered the room as he spoke. “I was in the jungle, surrounded by Kong soldiers. Terry was there. Then I was in the bus, but it wasn’t the bus back then. It was something that hasn’t happened yet.”
Two men in lab coats entered.
“Mr. Macklin, do you know who I am?” The older man asked.
“Doctor Evans,” Carl said, reading his nametag.
“That’s right,” he said. “Can you tell me what happened in there?”
Carl considered. They’d never believe the truth: that he was flashing back and forth in time, had perhaps been doing so for some time, and had only now become able to see it.
“I’m sorry,” he said softly, gripping Ellen’s hand. “I must have fallen asleep, had some kind of a nightmare.”
“A nightmare,” the doctor said. “So do you know where you are now?”
“I’m in the hospital. I’m here with my wife, Ellen.”
The doctors poked and prodded him for a bit before asking if he was up to trying another scan. Carl knew this must be part of his past but he had no memory of this day. He didn’t know why he was in the hospital or what reason the doctors had to subject him to scans. Nevertheless, he thought it wise to go along with them and not to reveal anything they might consider a sign of mental illness, such as his knowledge that he had been bounced back in time from a hellish prison created for him by an evil all-powerful being. That in mind, he decided to cooperate and lay back down on the bench.
The doctors and Ellen returned to the control station and after a few moments the bench slid back inside the machine. Carl was required to lie still and be silent while the machine rotated around him. He used the opportunity to consider what was happening to him.
First, was he really in the past? He had no memory of these occurrences, and he couldn’t shake the feeling that though Ellen was here, this was not something that had ever happened to them. He had conjectured previously that the cracks in time were causing temporal fractures, like chunks of different times floating around each other. But that was before Gwendolyn arrived, promising to tear down spacetime and rebuild it in her image. If she had done that, why would the cracks in time persist? Shouldn’t their pasts have been obliterated along with everything else?
The scan completed without further difficulty. After he had been withdrawn from the machine and his clothes returned to him, Carl and Ellen were ushered back to a consulting room to wait for the doctors to return. A short while later, Doctor Evans entered.
“Well, the good news is everything looks completely normal. No injury, no unusual activity.”
Carl stayed silent and simply nodded.
“Oh thank goodness,” Ellen said.
“Well we still want to be really careful, blackouts are nothing to mess around with.” The doctor put a hand on Carl’s shoulder.
“I don’t think I had a blackout,” Carl said, shaking his head. He’d never suffered blackouts in his life. “My mind probably wandered…”
“Carl you nearly hit someone,” Ellen said, tears forming in her eyes. “It’s been happening a lot, these…spells. One minute you’re there and the next…”
In another time? Carl thought. He shook his head. “I’m sure it’s nothing serious…”
“We’ll know more what next steps to take when we get your blood work back,” the doctor said. “Until then I want you to take it easy. No drinking or drugs of any kind, no operating a motor vehicle for right now. Okay?”
“I understand,” Carl said, eager to acquiesce to any instruction that would get him out of this place and home. “Thank you, Doctor.”
Doctor Evans shook his hand. “You be careful now, Mr. Macklin, I mean it.”
“You can count on…” Carl’s voice trailed away. Something was happening. He could feel it in his head, he was seeing something behind the man, a shape winding away behind him.
It’s his past, Carl realized. I’m seeing his past.
Roads sprang to life in front of him. In some of them, he accidentally said something about what he was seeing and the doctors had him hospitalized. Carl clamped his mouth shut. He took Ellen’s hand and ushered her from the room.
“Carl, what is it? Is it happening again?”
In very few possible futures did he manage to get her out of the hospital and into the car without her calling for the doctor. The ones where he did manage it depended on his silence. Carl shook his head and kept her moving.
Everyone he looked at now had wormlike past shapes winding away. Their histories were filling his mind. This is impossible, he thought, I didn’t have my power in this time. This shouldn’t be happening.
As he reached the automatic doors to the hospital parking lot and they slid open, his eyes widened. Something altogether new was revealing itself before him, and for a moment he didn’t know what it was or how to understand what he was seeing. Carl stopped cold.
Strange bubbles meandered the parking lot ahead of him, huge, undulating shapes that rolled across his path, colliding and rolling off one another. He shifted to his right as one passed by, and Ellen reacted.
“What is it, Carl? It’s happening again, isn’t it?”
Carl shook his head, mouth open. He peered into the bubble as it wandered past, and inside he saw his father and mother, wearing black and sitting side by side, with him in the middle, only a child. His mother was weeping, his father staring stolidly ahead.
“Terry’s funeral,” Carl said.
“I knew it.” Ellen turned to look for a doctor or someone who could help.
Carl looked forward at another of the bubbles. Inside it, he was a prisoner again, sitting in his lab coat on the floor with Kevin Lloyd kneeling in front of him.
Carl pulled Ellen’s arm and edged them both around it, moving more quickly for the car.
“I can see them, the fractures in time!” He shouted back to her. “I can see them now!”
As he faced forward again, another bubble appeared, too quick to evade.
Inside it –
–Carl fell face forward into dark water. He lifted himself up and leaned back on his legs, letting the sights and sounds of the deep jungle fill his senses.
Directly in front of him was the tiny cabin, lone candle burning in the window.
“Here again,” said Carl.
“And where else would you be, little brother?”
Carl climbed to his feet. He spotted his twisted M1 lying in the marsh grass and picked it up by the strap, slinging it over his shoulder. He turned to face the speaker, and found his brother Terence looking just as he had before, strange and pale, wearing the fatigues of a war that was over long ago. Carl knew that underneath the voluminous deep green rain slicker he was wearing fatigues much like his brother, though he had never worn such clothes and had no idea from whence they had come. Created along with the rest of this place, he imagined.
Created by Gwendolyn and her Army of the Lost.
Had she created this shade of Terence as well? Created it and left it here to torment him? Carl wasn’t sure.
“I was with Ellen,” Carl said, shaking wet mud from his hands. The rain had apparently stopped but it had done nothing to cool the place, and nothing was ever dry. Hot mud clung to him, and the slicker stuck to his body like foil, baking his torso. “I was in the past. I was…but before that…”
Carl tried to remember. “I was on the bus again, with all the others. But it wasn’t the past, it wasn’t the first time we were all together, it was…”
“What was it?” Terry asked.
“It was the future,” Carl breathed. “That’s what it was. I was in the future, and we were all together again.”
Terence was silent.
Carl cocked his head to the side. “Are you part of this, Terry? Are you part of her plan?”
“There’s only one plan, little brother,” Terence said, “and we’re all part of it.”
Despite himself, a dry laugh escaped Carl’s throat. “Now you sound like…”
Terence raised an eyebrow. “Who?”
“No one. Someone I knew.”
“One of the people you killed?”
Carl unslung the rifle and trained it on Terence. “How do you… Terry, how do you know that?”
“Easy, little brother,” Terry lifted his arms and held his hands wide, looking left and right. “Look where you are. You said it yourself.”
Carl reached out with his power, examining all possible futures. This “ghost”, or whatever it was, posed no threat to him. But in all the futures he saw, they were coming for him. They were always coming for him
“I don’t know what it is, really,” said Carl, “but I called it Hell. I can’t get out. I can’t get out no matter what I do. I’ve tried everything.”
“You sure about that?” Terence put his hands down. “Are you real sure?”
Calls echoed distantly through the trees. The Kong. Carl looked up at the trees and into the timestream.
Terence looked up to the treetops. “You must have done something pretty bad to end up in a place like this. Bad bad.”
Carl’s gaze returned to his brother and he lowered the weapon.
“You don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to.”
Wet mud clung to his boots and made a loud splortch as Carl pulled his feet free and trudged to the cabin.
This time the presence of the boy was no surprise at all. Carl wasn’t sure how many times he had killed this boy, but it was enough that he knew the entire sequence of events by heart. He entered the cabin, the boy asked him about his past, the boy prepared to scream, and Carl strangled him.
“Who are you?” the boy asked.
Carl sat in one of the rickety chairs next to the table and blew out the candle. The boy came and sat in the chair across from him.
“Well, little brother,” said Terence’s voice from the corner opposite. “Do you know the answer to the question?”
Carl looked up. He could just barely make out the outline of Terence’s legs, standing in the corner. A bit of light glinted off his eyes, but the rest of him was cloaked in shadow.
“You’ve never been here before,” Carl said. “Why are you here?”
The boy’s head swiveled, eyes darting between Carl and the dark corner of the shack. “Who are you talking to?” he asked nervously.
“I told you. You needed help, and I came.” Terence stepped forward and sat on the edge of the tiny bed. His body made no impression in the mattress and he burdened the rusty bedsprings not a bit.
“No one can help me,” Carl said.
“Is that right?”
The boy leaned forward. “Are you the fortune teller?”
Carl looked back at the boy’s face, smudged with dirt and wearing a look of fearful wonder. “I am.”
“They say you killed people. Children. Is it true?”
Ca-ca-ca-ah-ah-ahhhh! The ape calls moved closer.
“Is that true, little brother?” Terence asked. “Did you do that?”
“I had to do it,” Carl said. “The whole world was in danger. I didn’t have a choice.”
The boy’s eyes widened.
Terence tilted his head to the right, drawing each word out carefully. “And did it work? Did you save the world?”
Carl could not face him, either of them. “No,” he said, eyes downcast.
The calls of the Kong sounded again, this time just outside. Carl looked up. It sounded as though they were swinging through branches just above the cabin itself.
The boy opened his mouth and filled his lungs with air.
Carl overturned the table, lunging forward. His hands closed around the boy’s throat and he pulled him to the floor. He leaned over the boy’s small form, crushing his windpipe with all his strength.
“Don’t do this, little brother.”
“You don’t understand,” Carl rasped, tears coming to his eyes. “I have no choice. In every future, he calls for help and they come…he calls for help and they come, and they come and they kill me. Every single one.”
The boy’s eyes rolled back in his head. His arms and legs thrashed weakly, but his efforts were insufficient to move Carl.
“I have no choice,” Carl said again, closing his eyes so he didn’t have to see the boy’s bulging eyes. “I have no choice. No choice.”
The sounds of the Kong faded into the distance. Carl was motionless for some time, but finally he let go and sagged backward to the floor.
“Whole world at stake,” Terence whispered.
Carl said nothing, just sat on the floorboards and breathed.
Terence knelt next to him and shook his head, lines of sorrow etched onto his face. “You do need help, little brother. More than you know.”
Something passed through the far wall, like the leading edge of a giant bubble. Carl recognized it immediately as one of the fractures in time, but didn’t react. The bubble washed over Terence and he vanished from sight. Inside the bubble, Carl could see in the inside of the school bus. More, he could see through the bus’s windshield to the myriad roads stretching away through the void into infinity ahead of it. The bubble crested over his face-
-and instantly Carl’s mind expanded, his senses reaching down each road to the worlds beyond. He knew where each one led, could see the strange futures that waited for all of them should they continue down each path.
Carl gripped the steering wheel so hard his fingers turned pale.
His mind had seen these worlds before, these possible futures should he take each road, but now it filled with other knowledge, knowledge of the pasts of every world and all the different timelines that branched from every one. The last time this had happened it hurt terribly, but now it was effortless and almost pleasant. Carl’s brain no longer had the human limits that had held him back before. His mind’s potential was limitless.
He swerved to the left as a road almost took them into a land of apelike men with wooden towers. He swerved right to avoid a world where alien sky-ships invaded Earth.
And now Carl was aware of something else happening. At each turn, at each branch in the road, a passenger in the bus vanished. Carl had no idea how he knew this, except that his expanded mind was aware of many things he had no business knowing, but know it he did. They were disappearing, one by one, into the void, to another destiny. This had been his plan. Carl knew this, without understanding why or where they were going.
With each turn, his mind revealed to him a new destiny, a new part of his plan.
Carl drove into the night, growing more and more confident that he would soon find the road home.
His plan was working.
A shimmering barrier passed through the front of the bus. Wait, Carl thought, I don’t understand what’s happening in this time yet! Why are we back on the bus? What is the plan? How do I-
-find the others?
Carl’s head snapped up, as if from a light doze. Fluorescent lights shone down on him from above. He was in the hospital again, but this time he was seated in a chair, in a hallway outside one of the rooms. The antiseptic odor of cleaning fluid drifted up to him from the polished tile floor.
His fatigues and rain slicker had vanished, to be replaced by ordinary civilian garb: a pair of jeans and a buttoned-up short sleeve shirt. On his right wrist was a watch. Its feel was familiar to him; like most people his age, Carl had never gotten over the habit of wearing a wristwatch when the younger generation moved on to checking the time on their cell phones. Carl pushed his old wire-rimmed glasses up on his nose and looked about for some more precise sign of where he was or why he was here.
A voice came from the room behind him: Ellen’s voice. Carl craned his neck about to locate her and realized instantly where and when he was. He knew this day, had tried for years to forget it.
“We’ve been making some changes to the house,” Ellen was saying. “When you’re feeling well, you can come for a visit.”
She sat beside a hospital bed with the guard rails down. In her hands, she held the left hand of the patient who lay in the bed, an older man with white hair. He had been a bulldog of a man in his youth, with a square chin and short, thick nose. Now his skin had shrunken away and turned sallow, leaving him a pale, hollow-eyed bag of bones.
The old man saw Carl looking in through the blinds and lifted his right hand and held it up, neither waving nor beckoning, but reaching out as though he imagined he might somehow touch Carl through the glass.
Carl turned around and stared forward.
He heard the sound of the chair’s feet scraping the hospital floor, and soon Ellen appeared at the door, looking down on him. Ellen was older too now, older than she had been in the last time jump. There were traces of gray in her hair. The day of her leaving him was soon now, Carl knew. Very soon.
“Carl? He wants to see you.”
“No,” said Carl.
She came and sat down next to him, taking his hand in hers. He pulled it away, feeling strange at the notion of hands which had touched his father’s hands in sympathy so soon touching his own.
“Don’t do this, Carl.”
“I’m not doing anything,” he said. “After all the years of…after the way he’s treated me, you want me to go in at the last minute and let him make it seem like it was all okay. I won’t do it.”
“Do you remember what you told me about your brother?” she asked.
As if he could ever forget.
“You didn’t say good bye to him,” she said. “You don’t want that to happen again, not with your father.
“How do you know what I want?” he asked in a harsh voice.
“What does that mean?”
“It doesn’t matter what I do,” Carl said. “In the end, nothing matters at all. I end up alone.”
“What do you mean?”
“You know what I mean,” he said. “You probably already started planning it, didn’t you? Probably already made arrangements! Why are you even here?”
She sat for a moment, scrutinizing his face in silence, then she stood. “I don’t know what this is all…You been acting so…” She stopped and took a breath. “I’m going to get a coffee.” She walked a few steps away, then turned and marched back up to him. “Carl Macklin, if you’re angry over something that happened between you and your father, I understand that, but don’t take it out on me!”
She stormed off down the hall and disappeared out of sight before Carl could react. He stood, mouth agape, reaching out to an empty hall.
“You’re going to lose her too.”
Carl turned. His father had somehow climbed out of bed and was leaning against the doorframe, hospital gown sagging against his skeletal form.
“Dad, you shouldn’t be out of bed.” Carl took hold of him and supported him as he walked back to the bed. He sat his father down on the bed, then reached down to lift his legs on to the mattress. He reached down to pull the sheet over him, but his father waved it off.
“It’s hot here,” he whispered. “Always hot.”
Looking at his withered body, Carl had no idea how the man could be anything but freezing, but he nodded and left the sheet where it was.
“You’re going to lose her, son.”
“That’s none of your business,” Carl said.
His father’s right hand squeezed Carl’s forearm. He had no strength at all. Carl could easily have pulled away, but he found himself leaning down, allowing his father to pull him face to face.
“You’re going to lose her, just like your mother.”
Carl shook his head. “Mom left you, Dad, not me.”
“No…” His father struggled to find the breath to allow him to get out more words. “Not what I…not what I…you…so weak. Not like your brother.”
Carl felt his face go red. He yanked his arm away from his father’s shriveled fingers and stepped back. “I have to go.”
“Always knew…nothing but a screwup. Can’t get anything right.”
Carl turned away from him, his eyes stinging.
“Goodbye, Dad,” he choked the words out through a tightening throat. He walked to the door.
“Don’t lose her…like your mother…like I lost your mother.”
“Your brother…better than us. Always worried…you’d be just…like…”
Frank Macklin continued to stare at him with hollow, rheumy eyes, but he said no more.
The fracture in time must have come from behind him, because the next thing Carl knew he was standing in the sweltering jungle, leaning against a tree. The hospital, Ellen, his father…all were gone, relics of a past life.
“It’s your life,” Terence said. “All of it, past, present, future: all of it is yours. You make it whatever you want it to be.”
Terence was standing just ahead of him, in the middle of a copse of tall trees. The sun had come out, for a change, but it was red and angry, nothing like the sun Carl had always known. Its light was hot and penetrating, and standing in it for even a few moments sapped his strength and made him feel dazed and unsteady. Carl quickly moved to stand under the trees. Even the shade here was hot and sticky, but preferable to the direct light. He slapped at the mosquitoes and flies, which had gathered to feast on his salt-crusted skin and the warm blood within.
“You can’t be that naive,” Carl said. “You think I chose this?”
Terence directed a look of pity at him. “Oh, Carl…do you really think you didn’t?”
“I’m not the one who left his family to go off to war!” Carl shouted. “I’m not the one who died and left his little brother all alone!”
He made sure the rifle strap was secure over his shoulder and trudged away, heading through the jungle to what he knew was a repeated meme: another cabin, another boy, another murder, another escape. Replay, song on repeat.
Suddenly, Terence was ahead of him again, under another copse of trees, or maybe the same one, knowing this place.
“I don’t understand you, little brother. Didn’t you learn anything? You saw the message and everything.”
Carl stopped in his tracks. He turned to face Terence, brow furrowing. “Message?”
“Didn’t you meet someone with a message for you? Someone like me, who came to help you?”
“You mean Zachary,” Carl said with a cold edge to his voice. This was the second time the ghost of his brother had called that particular person to mind.
Terence shrugged. “Did you see the message or not?”
Carl swiped at the flies again, considering. “I saw something. It told me about Gwendolyn. She had used the fractures in time to invade our pasts and change them.”
“No, no.” Terence frowned. “Why would your message be about someone else or the things they’ve done? You didn’t pay attention at all.”
“I know what I saw.”
From somewhere, Terence produced a shiny bit of metal. He held it up, his hand just shy of the red sunlight. “Do you remember this?”
Carl recognized it immediately.
“It’s the plane,” he said. “The toy plane you…” His voice caught. “The plane you broke.”
“And glued back together. Now do you remember?”
Carl nodded. “It was part of what I saw. You’re saying that was the message?”
Terence was silent. He lowered his hand, and where the plane disappeared to Carl could not say.
“But I already knew all that. What’s the point?”
“Purpose is like deep water,” Terence said, “but a wise man will draw it out.”
Carl emitted a growl. “I’ve had enough riddles.” He walked away.
Soon, night fell, and Carl was again approaching the tiny cabin, a single candle burning in the window.
“Don’t do it, little brother.”
Carl stopped, his hand just short of the rusted door handle. He turned around to see Terence standing in the water, bathed in moonlight.
“Howcome you only stand out here when the moon is out?”
Terence looked up. “The moon’s okay. But that other thing is no sun, and I don’t want it looking down on me.”
Carl splashed into the water and slapped a hand forward, determined once and for all to find out if this was a ghost, a shade, or-
His hand struck Terence’s chest with a smack.
“You’re real…” Carl breathed.
“I’m real to you. And you need to listen to me.”
Carl turned, but Terence now stood between him and the door.
“If you had known I fixed your toy plane, would you have said goodbye to me?”
Carl unslung the rifle and pointed at him. “Move.”
Terence raised his hands. “I’m here to help you.”
“No one can help me. Now move.”
“The wise man draws out purpose. If you say no one can help you, then no one can, and I’m wasting my time. Everyone who’s ever known you has wasted their time since you were born. Is that what you want?”
Carl lowered the rifle. “What do you want from me? I told you, I have no choice.”
Terence held the toy plane up again. “Would you have said goodbye?”
“Yes, all right. What does it matter?”
“And would you be the same person now, if you had?”
“Maybe,” Carl said. “I don’t know.”
Calls sounded in the jungle.
“They’re coming!” Carl raised the rifle again. “Please, Terry. Just move.”
Terence stepped aside.
Carl walked to the door and put his hand on the knob.
“How did you get to this place?” Terence asked from behind him. “This place you can’t escape from?”
Carl rested his forehead against the door. “She made it.”
“The one you tried to save the world from. The one you failed to stop.”
“Why did she put you here?”
Carl breathed in and out, considering. “To punish me.”
“Wrong,” Terence said.
Carl turned to face him. The calls were getting nearer.
“You think you’re being punished for your sins,” Terence said. “You think you deserve to be here. But she doesn’t care what you’ve done. You said it yourself, she changed your past to her liking, to make it easier to defeat you.”
Carl’s eyes narrowed.
“She made this place, and everything in it, to keep you prisoner. She’s afraid of you. But she knows you, and she made this place to hold you.”
“Too well,” Carl said. “I can’t get out.”
Terence laughed. “You see so much, Carl. You see the future, the past. You see time all around you. You see everything but yourself.” He tossed the toy plane and Carl dropped the rifle to catch it.
“With each choice you make, you decide the person you’re going to be. The man who didn’t say goodbye, the man who hated his father, the man who lost his wife, the man who killed children to save the world. This place was designed to hold you, and as long as you’re that man, it will hold you.”
Carl turned the plane over in his fingers, its wings glinting in the moonlight.
“How do I…” he began-
-but Terence was no longer there. He was inside the bus again.
On he drove, and with each world his mind expanded further, grasping not only the twists of time and space but also the complexities of his plan, the history of the fate of every one of his passengers. They were vanishing and coming together, disappearing and joining together as pieces in the final gambit.
The secrets of the universe poured themselves into Carl’s brain, and with each new expansion his mind became more adroit at directing him through the rift. He applied just the right nudge to the brakes to avoid a world where an intelligent yellow light energy waited to infuse any biological being.
(Another passenger disappeared.)
His grip on the wheel kept them from straying too far into a world where thought was as easy to hear as speech.
Carl could see every road in front of them. He knew every possible future. He knew exactly where each one of them needed to be for the plan to work, and it was working. There was only one future he couldn’t see, one destiny his mind never knew.
“Hey man,” a voice said from beside him. Sound of a fist rapping on plastic. “Hey!”
Carl looked up. He was sitting in a molded plastic booth, holding a plastic replica of an actual M1 Carbine (similar though not exactly like the twisted metal weapon he had wielded in the jungle). A giant video screen loomed in front of him with the words GAME OVER blinking a garish lightshow in his face. A young man in his twenties was standing next to the video game. Carl released the mounted “rifle” in front of the screen and turned.
“What?” he said.
“Um, dude, your game ended like five minutes ago.”
“I remember this,” Carl said.
“Man, there’s other people waiting to play the game. Can you step out, please?”
Carl looked up at the man, whose nametag read ROGER.
“General Manager,” read Carl aloud.
“Yeah, I’m the manager, sir. Can you step out and talk to me over here for a minute?”
Carl’s eyes searched the man’s face, but he wasn’t really seeing him at all. He stepped up and out of the game, but stood still, thinking.
This is the day.
“You okay, sir?” Roger asked. “Are you having some kind of ‘Nam flashback or something?”
Somewhere, his wife was attempting to cash a check. She was discovering that all their money was gone, in the most unpleasant way possible.
“I wanted to buy light bulbs. I screamed at her. I called her a liar.”
Then she would return home to wait for him. She’d open the mail, and find out he’d been keeping an awful secret from her. He had done so many things wrong, made so many bad choices. There had been so many bad days before this one, so many…but this was the worst of them all.
This is the day I lose my wife for good.
“The woman at the bank, she said,” Carl said, grasping the younger man’s shoulders. “SHE’S AT THE BANK.”
“You’re kinda freakin’ me-“
Carl shoved Roger the General Manager out of his way and ran. He slammed open the door and ran into the parking lot. Carl ran like he hadn’t run in almost 30 years, chest puffing and shins screaming. He ran as if all the devils in hell were right on his tail.
The tires on his little Chevy screamed and squealed, leaving black marks on the lot as he peeled out of the parking lot. Cars honked as he ignored all traffic and roared out of the parking lot and onto the road, headed home.
Those who witnessed the whole thing could only stand and scratch their heads, wondering what to make of it all, before returning to the video games that had served to fulfill such a need in Carl’s heart once. No matter what the games threw at you, there was always a way to win, a road to victory, if only you made the right choice.
Carl knew better than to run headlong into a bank in the post-oh-eight world. After the crash and the subsequent collapse of the housing market, as banks began repossessing homes and more and more people were on the street, this bank like many others had put up bulletproof glass and hired additional security. It wouldn’t do to go charging in huffing and puffing.
This meant Carl had to sit at the wheel and calm himself.
After several moments, he climbed out and wiped sweat from his brow, then walked into the bank and looked about.
“Can I help you sir?” asked a young woman with light brown skin and a professional looking grey skirt and jacket over a simple blue blouse.
“I’m looking for…”
He spotted Ellen. She was standing in line at the teller windows on the far side of the lobby. As Carl saw her, another woman had just stepped away from the teller and Ellen was walking up to take her turn.
Carl had no time for propriety. “Ellen!” He sprinted across the lobby and grasped at Ellen’s elbow.
“Oh my god!” she started, staring at him. “Carl, you scared the life out of me! What are you doing here?”
A security guard stepped forward. “Is everything okay here?”
“Everything’s fine,” Carl said.
“This is my husband,” Ellen explained. “What is it?”
“I need to speak to you,” Carl said. “Outside.”
“Please,” Carl said.
Once they were seated together in her car, Ellen demanded an explanation for his behavior. Carl told her everything. He started with his brother’s death and how it had affected him, how he and his father had been estranged and had never made peace, even in his father’s emaciated final days battling cancer in the hospital. He told her about how he regretted the times he hadn’t appreciated her or had put up a wall and resisted talking to her. These were things she already knew, yet on he talked in the late afternoon. He told her about his many years laboring underpaid at the plant and how it made him feel, and how it had all ended. He told her about the plant closing, about the layoffs happening in shifts, how he had been selected in the very first round of layoffs. Still he had not gotten to anything that was his fault or for which she’d be angry, but at last it all spilled out. He confessed his secrets: the lies, the pretense of going to work, the days at the arcade, and his voice went soft, his face red with shame.
He did not tell her anything that had happened after this day: the bus crash, the powers, the fractures in time, the murders. Most of all, he did not tell her of the evil goddess from before the dawn of time whom he had failed to stop, and who had consigned him to a prison world from which there was no escape.
After he had finished, they sat for a long time, holding each other quietly in the hot little car, people passing into and out of the bank and looking at them strangely. Eventually, Ellen spoke.
“I’ve been keeping a secret too,” she said.
Carl didn’t understand. “What?” He gazed at her as if he had never seen her before.
This didn’t happen before. She never said this.
“I didn’t know you had lost your job,” she said, looking down, “but I knew something was wrong…something’s been wrong for a long time.” Tears trickled from the corners of her eyes and her voice trembled. “A long time.”
Carl took her face in his hands, wiping away her tears. “What is it?”
“I’m pregnant,” she said.
His mouth dropped. “You…but…” They had tried many times to get pregnant, through her twenties and thirties, with no success. Now, with Ellen in her mid-forties… “Is that possible?”
She laughed through her tears. “It’s possible, Carl. I haven’t been through menopause yet. I saw a doctor, and it’s possible.”
“Isn’t it dangerous?” Carl asked.
“He said there are risks, but there have been advances…it’s not a hundred percent, but…there’s chance we could….”
Past her face, through the window, Carl saw the front wave of a bubble approaching. Inside it, he could see the door to the cabin in the jungle.
He kissed Ellen then, long and deep, and put his arms around her, clinging to her like a life raft. When he finally released her, he took her hands.
“Listen to me,” he said. “No matter what happens, I promise you and the baby will be safe. I promise.“
“I love you, Ellen.” A waterfall of tears filled his mouth as he spoke. “I love you so much.”
The wave passed over them, and Carl put his hand to the rusty doorknob, turning it.
His eyes took a moment to adjust from the light from which he had stepped, albeit in a different time on another world, to the dim candlelight. Once his irises had contracted and his vision cleared, he made out the shape of the boy standing in the center of the room, dressed in rags, his face smudged with dirt. Carl closed the door behind him.
“Who are you?” the boy asked.
Carl took a knee in front of him. “I won’t hurt you, I promise.”
“Are you the fortune teller?”
In every future, the boy screamed for help. In every future, the Kong surrounded him.
“You can’t control him.” Terence stood in the corner, barely visible. “You can’t control them.”
Carl closed his eyes, shutting out the terrible futures lying in wait.
The boy would call for help. Terence was right; there was no way he could change that.
Maybe, though…just maybe…
I can change why.
“I need your help,” he said, eyes clamped shut.
“My help?” the boy asked, perplexed. “With what?”
“My friends…my students. I was supposed to watch out for them. I was responsible for them…and I let them down. Now they’re in trouble. They need my help to survive.”
The boy was quiet.
“Not only that…but the one who made this place…the one who did all this to me and them…if I don’t get them out and stop her, my wife and my…my baby…my whole world will be lost. May already be lost.”
“Please,” Carl said, tears squeezing through the corners of his closed lids. “Please, will you help me?”
The calls grew closer. The boy looked toward the window, silently pondering his words, then looked back.
“What can I do?”
Carl opened his eyes and was dazzled as new futures sprang to life before him.
“I have a plan,” he said.
A cry rang out from the tiny cabin beneath them. The Kong soldiers immediately stopped in mid-swing and dropped from the vines, surrounding the cabin. Six of them made up the patrol, led by a huge gorilla with twin rifles, one held in his hand and one slung over his back. He unslung the second rifle and held both forward, nodding to his troops.
One of the apes moved forward and kicked the door in, advancing inside. The others followed from all directions, clustering inside the cabin to find…
“Wherrre fortune tellerrr?” the lead ape growled.
Glass shattered as something was thrown in through the window. A bottle of clear liquid with a bit of burning fabric stuffed into its neck broke apart at their feet and the liquid ignited instantly. The blaze spread out across the floor, consuming their feet and setting fire to their furry legs. The apes howled in pain. Flames leapt up the walls in an instant, consuming the ancient cabin.
At that moment, the front wall was torn apart by automatic weapons fire.
The apes were too confused to fire back, too desperate to find a way out to stop from running into the path of the shells. Ablaze and maddened with pain, they were ripped apart by the gunfire without really ever knowing what had happened.
Given a chance, they might have had time to overturn the bed and find the place where Carl had pulled loose several floorboards so he and the boy could slip away under the cabin. If the boy had been on their side, he could have warned them, but he wasn’t on their side anymore. He was safely outside behind the line of fire.
Once the Kong were lured inside, their fate was sealed.
The fortune teller had escaped.
Carl sat in a small patch of grass, watching the blaze and smiling long into the night. The boy sat with him for a time. Carl knew that. He had seen the firelight play across the blond boy’s dirt-streaked cheeks.
“Thank you,” Carl said. “Thank you.”
The second thank you was lost in a mumble as he drifted off to sleep, for the first time in what seemed like years, his body sagging against a tree and his breath coming in long snores that frightened away even the hardiest of the mosquitoes. When he woke to the morning light of the red sun, the boy was gone.
Hundreds of new paths stretched out before him.
Carl stood, and trudged along one of the new paths, and became aware that his future found him at the edge of the jungle, leaving behind the strange trap Gwendolyn had made for him.
He stopped for a moment and looked back.
“Terry?” he called.
The jungle made no reply.
“Thank you,” he said to no one. “I’m going to find them. I know in the future I have a plan to stop Gwendolyn. I think the time fractures have something to do with it. Maybe whatever we do recreates the past, the one Gwendolyn destroyed when she…did whatever she did to the universe. This time, maybe we can make it better. I don’t know, but we can stop her. We can lock her out where she can never hurt anyone again.”
He felt suddenly foolish for announcing this to the empty trees.
“I can save everyone. I know I can.”
He turned to go-
-and was struck by another time bubble. He found himself at the driver’s seat of the bus, still maneuvering his way between worlds.
Finally he saw it: one road ahead led to the bridge!
The other side of the anomaly they had entered was closing fast, though. Carl gunned the gas, sending the bus hurtling for the bridge.
Carl saw the future in front of him clear as day. He had angled the bus just right. He would not emerge on the bridge, but rather facing the opposite way, landing away from the river. Carl slammed the brakes and gripped the steering wheel as he felt the tires make contact with the asphalt. He did not open the doors and throw himself free. Not this time, even though he was the only one left. That was the old Carl, he thought.
The bus lurched and swerved. He turned into the skid, trying to keep the bus from swerving out of control, but the bus bounced from the impact, and there was nothing he could do to prevent it turning over onto its side.
The bus landed on the driver’s side, and Carl was slammed to his left as the bus slid over the road, windows shattering.
Finally, it came to a stop. Carl lay there for a moment before unbuckling himself and allowing his body to sag against the side of the bus. Tiny fragments of glass had embedded themselves in his cheek. Carl propped himself up and picked them out, dropping them to the ground. He became aware of a presence.
SHE was there.
Carl stood, amazed he had broken nothing in the crash. He turned, and there she was.
Gwendolyn did nothing to hide her true aspect. She was a pulsing cloud of red energy in the form of a woman, her eyes piercing red stars glowing in the night.
Carl brushed bits of glass from his clothes and said nothing.
“WHAT HAVE YOU DONE?”
He considered. What had he done? Part of him wasn’t sure.
“I did what I always wanted to do,” he found himself saying. “I saved the world. I saved these kids.” He gestured to the empty bus. “I saved everyone…and there’s nothing you can do about it.”
Her eyes flared but she said nothing for several moments. At last she spoke.
A red hand plunged into his chest and ripped through his breastplate like it was tissue paper. She tore something free and held it in front of him, squeezing the meat through her fingers and spattering the side of the bus with his blood.
Carl’s knees hit hard as he fell. His face struck the concrete through one of the broken windows-
-and Carl stumbled forward into daylight on the edge of the jungle.
He reached a hand up, probing his chest. Nothing was wrong. His heart and rib cage were exactly where they should be.
Carl stood still for a moment, pondering what he had seen. Then he looked forward and watched the paths spread out before him, examining each outcome.
No matter what happens, I promise you and the baby will be safe. I promise.
He took a long breath, checked to make sure his rifle was slung securely across his back, and began the long road toward the school bus.
NEXT: THE BLIND BARD
“We’re only dancing for our lives.”
(c)opyright 2014 by J. David Clarke
All Rights Reserved