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Thursday, October 18, 2012

Doxology

Sometimes the demons just won't leave you alone.

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Doxology


            “Hey!  Hey you!  You can’t park there!  That’s my property!”
            Minnie Klein’s house sat on a small triangle of land caught in the arrowhead intersection between Blaine and South Gary Streets; a little pointed bit of lawn, a tiny garden in front of her front porch surrounded by a short stretch of wire fencing, and an absurdly long, narrow house that ran to the very end of the property.  The back end of the house was wide enough for a door and a window, and past that there was just barely enough space for her to park her own car, an old green Toyota Celica that looked like it had eczema.
            She guarded her tiny space like a lion.  “No Parking” signs were tacked up to the siding, “No Solicitors/No Salespeople” signs at the front and back door, and now there was this man, this intruder, parking his great big boxy Honda Element alongside her house, where the trash cans were.
            She went up to the car at a trot, her face set in a scowl, ready to do battle for territory.  She rapped on the window, and a face turned toward her that made her step back, made her forget the angry demand that she’d been about to make.
            The man was middle-aged, blond, with wide hazel eyes that stared at her with an expression of horrified despair.  Minnie had seen scared people, she’d seen angry people (plenty of those, given her general approach to her fellow humans); she’d never seen anyone remotely like this.  This man’s eyes looked as if he had been gazing into the maw of hell.
            The door opened a little, and the man turned toward her, and the thought, Don’t speak, please, mister, don’t talk to me, went through her head, like a bird fluttering into a room and then out and away.
            But the man spoke anyway.
            “You’ve got to help me,” he said, his voice quiet and strangely flat.  “Help us.  My son… he’s hurt.”
            Minnie looked past the man, and in the passenger seat she saw a boy of about seventeen.  He was shirtless, and his smooth, well-muscled chest was bloodied from a cut that started just below his collarbone.  It went in a winding, loopy curve, down between his nipples, ending just left of his navel.  His breathing was shallow; he seemed to be unconscious.  His head lolled to one side, but Minnie could see the outline of a handsome, clean-cut face, high cheekbones, a straight, narrow nose.  Blood from his injury had trickled down his belly, soaked his jeans.
            But then the boy suddenly opened his eyes, and looked up at Minnie, a desperate plea in eyes glazed with pain.  “Help me,” he whispered, and shifted a little in the seat.  And Minnie saw, around his neck, a thin gold chain, from which hung a crucifix.
            Upside down.
            Then the boy’s head drooped again, and his eyes half closed.  A thin trickle of blood came from the corner of his mouth.
            Minnie backed away, her mouth moving but making no sounds.
            “Please,” the man said.  “Please.  Call 911.  You’ve got to help us.  I think… I think he’s dying.”
            Minnie turned and sprinted up her stairs as fast as her short legs would carry her, flung open her front door, ran to the phone, and punched the three numbers so hard one of her nails broke.
            The 911 operator, a woman whose voice sounded as if she wouldn’t have had her equanimity disturbed if Minnie had said that she’d seen someone with a nuclear weapon, took her information and said that someone would be right out to investigate.
            Minnie went to her living room window, and pushed aside the curtains, peering with one eye out toward her garbage cans and where the man had been parked.
            His car was gone.
            She took an involuntary step back, and her hip collided with a plant stand, sending an African violet in a clay pot crashing to the floor.  Not even turning to look, she ran back out onto her front porch, and looked down South Gary Street, in the direction the Honda Element had been pointed.
            The street was empty.
            She trotted around to the other side of the house, panting with the exertion, and looked down Blaine Street.  It was also empty of cars, but a bicycle was coming toward her, ridden by a girl in her twenties, with flowing black curls coming from under a bright red helmet.
            Minnie watched the girl approaching, a stunned look on her face.  The girl saw Minnie staring, and gave her a wide grin, applied the hand brakes, and scrunched to a halt next to her.
            “Did you… did you see a blue car?” Minnie said, stumbling over the words.  “A blue car, a big one, kind of an SUV-looking thing, squarish?”
            “Nope,” the girl said cheerfully, tilting her head a little to the side.  “Nobody much on the road today.  It’s like everyone’s vanished.”  She laughed.  “Say, lady, speaking of people vanishing – you want to see a magic trick?”
            Minnie stared at her as if she hadn’t understood, and then frowned, and shook her head, her mouth open a little.  “No,” she said hoarsely.
            “No, somehow I didn’t think you would,” the girl said, and winked at her, and pushed off down the street and soon was lost to view.
            Minnie was still standing there, staring down the empty street, when the police and the ambulance arrived five minutes later.
            She was not someone who was ordinarily at a loss for words, but she found it frustratingly difficult to explain to the police what had happened.  The policeman who took her statement was skeptical; the ambulance driver, on the other hand, was clearly pissed, and after a brief sotto voce word with the cop, drove off, giving Minnie a nasty glance in the rear-view mirror.
            “How long were you inside?” the cop said, his starch-pressed sleeve creaking slightly as he set his clipboard into the crook of his elbow.
            “It couldn’t have been more than a minute,” she said.
            “What was the make and model of the car?”
            “It was a blue, whatchamacallum, Honda.  You know, the ones that look like toasters.”
            “Element?”
            “Yeah, I think that’s right.  And the guy, the man driving – he looked really scared, like he’d just seen the devil himself.”  Minnie swallowed.  “And the boy, his son… he had a necklace on, with an upside-down crucifix.”
            The cop’s thick brows drew together, and he gave her an incredulous look.
            “You mean, like the satanic sign?”
            “That’s right.”
            “Well, lots of kids wear that shit nowadays.  Pardon my French.”
            Minnie let the vulgarity go.  She stared the cop right in the eye, even though he was a good foot taller than she was.  “I’ll bet that most of them kids don’t have knife wounds on them.”
            “No, you’re right about that,” the cop admitted.
            “So what are you gonna do about it?”
            “You sure…”   He stopped, and looked down at his clipboard.  “Mrs. Klein, you sure you’re remembering this right?  You weren’t, maybe, dreaming all of this?  Like you’d just woke up from a nap, or something?”
            Minnie drew herself up angrily, and glared up at the cop.  “I didn’t dream this, because I wasn’t asleep.  It happened, just the way I said.”  She huffed a little.  “And it’s Miss Klein.”
            “Well, okay, I’ll file a report.  If the guy’s kid was as bad off as you say, maybe the dad decided not to wait for the ambulance, and tried to drive him to Colville General.”
            Somewhat mollified, Minnie signed the statement on the clipboard, and watched as the cop got back in his car and drove off down South Gary Street.
            She stood there for almost ten minutes, lost in thought, and then she realized that she hadn’t told the cop about the girl on the bicycle.
            That smile of hers, she thought.  That knowing smile.  She knew perfectly well what I was talking about.  I’ll bet she knew where that man had gone.  Maybe she even had something to do with the boy getting hurt.  She looked almost… diabolical.
            Seized with a sudden idea, Minnie turned, and walked back up the stairs and into her house.  In her living room she saw, as if noticing it for the first time, the overturned African violet, but didn’t stop to clean it up.  She went right to the telephone, and dialed a number.
            It was answered by a male voice after two rings.
            “Hello?”
            “Reverend Lohr?  It’s Minnie Klein.”
            “Well, how are you today, Minnie?  It’s nice to hear from you.”
            “I’m shook up, Reverend, and that’s a fact.  I need to ask you a question, and I want a straight answer.”
            Reverend Lohr didn’t respond for a moment, but finally said, “All right, Minnie, I’ll answer if I can.”
            “How can you tell if you’ve seen one of Satan’s minions?”
            Now the pause was longer.  “… I beg your pardon?” he finally said.
            “I said, how can you tell if you’ve seen one of the minions of Satan?  One of them, you know, junior devils.  You talk about ‘em at services sometimes, how we’re to be on the lookout for the minions of Satan.  Well, I’m pretty sure I just saw one, and I want to know what to do about it.”
            “Well,” he said, “maybe you should tell me what happened, all right?”
            Minnie launched into an abbreviated account of her day’s encounter.  “And I think,” she concluded, “that the girl on the bicycle was a demon in disguise.  She looked at me, like… I dare you to do anything about this.  I would have said a prayer, but I was so startled I didn’t have the presence of mind even to think about it until she was long gone.”
            “Well, Minnie, I think it might be a little… premature to conclude that she was a demon in disguise,” Reverend Lohr said.  “She didn’t actually do anything, did she?”
            “No,” Minnie admitted.  “She just asked me if I wanted to see a magic trick.”
            “Maybe she’s just some ill-mannered neighborhood kid, trying to tease you.”
            “She wasn’t a kid.  She was, maybe, twenty-five years old.  And she wasn’t teasing.  I tell you, Reverend, if you’d seen her, you’d know what I mean.  She had the, how did you call it in your sermon a few weeks ago?  The veneer of evil.  It was there, I tell you.”
            Reverend Lohr cleared his throat.  “Well, Minnie, whatever she was, I think you did the right thing to call the police.  And you should remember the boy and his father in your prayers.  And I will, as well.  If you see her again, you be careful.  If…”  He cleared his throat again, in an embarrassed sort of way, “… if she was of the devil, then you should be cautious about speaking to her.  The devil’s own have ways of bewitching you.”
            Minnie seemed gratified that the Reverend, at least, was taking her seriously, and assured him that if she saw the girl again, she’d make sure to protect herself by putting on the armor of Jesus.  The Reverend said that was all right, then, and told her to have a nice day, and that he’d see her next Sunday.

            Minnie called the police four times that afternoon, to find out what they’d discovered about the injured boy and his father.  No one, she was told, had seen or heard anything about anyone matching that description, and Colville General hadn’t had any wounded teenage boy show up in the emergency room.  After the fourth call, the receptionist assured Minnie that if they found out anything more, they would let her know, and that she shouldn’t call them again unless the boy or his father reappeared.
            Minnie hung the phone up in a huff, and decided that all she could do was to say a prayer and leave it in God’s hands.
            Later that afternoon, she went to the grocery store.  It was only three blocks away, and the weather was fine, so she walked, crossing South Gary Street and then turning right onto Day Street.  There were few cars out – the Bicycle Girl’s words came back to her unwilling mind, Nobody much on the road today.  Seems like everyone’s vanished.  She gave a little shiver, and walked faster, even though the sun was shining and a warm breeze was brushing her face.  Something wrong, she thought.  There’s just something wrong about today.  Ever since I saw that guy in the blue car, there’s been something wrong, like looking at a wall where every picture frame is tilted a little bit.
            A few yards ahead of her, an elderly man was walking an apricot-colored miniature poodle on a long leash, and as she approached him, he looked up and smiled at her.  He was tall, stoop-shouldered, and balding, wearing a rather threadbare plaid work shirt and khaki slacks.
            “Afternoon,” he said, affably.
            “How are you today?” Minnie said.  She normally didn’t like to talk to strangers, but there didn’t seem to be much choice but to respond to him in kind.
            “I’m fine, fine,” the man said.  “It’s a beautiful day for a walk.”
            “Yes, it is.”
            “Only I should have brought my sunglasses, it’s a bit bright out for me.  My eyes are a bit wonky, you know.”
            Minnie looked up at the man’s eyes – and only then noticed that the pupils weren’t round – they were slits, like a lizard’s eyes, like a goat’s eyes.
            Minnie came to a sudden halt; it felt like her feet wouldn’t move.  “I…” she began, and then her brain seemed to stop as suddenly as her feet had.  She not only couldn’t form words, she couldn’t form a coherent thought.
            “Don’t be put off,” the old man said, still smiling at her.  “It’s a hereditary condition.  My father was like this, too.  Makes us sun-sensitive, you know – we’re far more comfortable at night.  Sorry I startled you.”
            Minnie still didn’t respond, just stood there staring at the man, her mouth hanging open a little.
            “My, I’m so sorry to have upset you.  I sometimes forget that people who aren’t used to me can be alarmed by my appearance.  Anyway, my apologies for disturbing you.  Have a nice walk.”
            He passed her, and the poodle sniffed briefly at her leg, and then they went off down Day Street.  The man began humming a tune, slightly off key, and it wasn’t until he turned the corner that Minnie realized that the music was to the Doxology: “Praise God, from whom all blessings flow, praise Him all creatures here below…”
            Minnie walked the rest of the way to the grocery store, moving like an automaton, and returned home with her eggs and half-gallon of milk and can of coffee with hardly any awareness of what she was doing.
            Once the groceries were put away, she called Reverend Lohr again.
            “Reverend,” she said, “it’s Minnie Klein again.”
            “Well, Minnie,” the Reverend said, his cheerfulness at receiving another call from her seeming a little forced.  “What can I do for you?”  His voice became suddenly serious.  “You didn’t… didn’t see the girl again, did you?  Or that man or his son?”
            “No.”
            “Oh, good,” the Reverend said, obviously relieved.
            “I saw another one.  A different one.  Another minion of Satan.”
            Long pause.  “You did?”
            “Yes.  It was an old man this time, walking a poodle.  He did the same as the girl.  He just came up to me, like there was nothing in the world amiss.  Then he smiled at me, and when I looked at him…  he had eyes like a snake.  You know, weird pupils, like slits.”
            “Maybe it was just a birth defect,” Reverend Lohr suggested.
            “That’s what he said.”
            Well, then…” Reverend Lohr began, and then stopped, seeming hopeful that Minnie would fill in the rest of the sentence on her own.
            “I know what these people are,” she said, stubbornly.  “And now, I’m beginning to think that man in the car might have been a minion, too.  Not just the girl on the bicycle.  And I’m sure about the old man.”
            “What… what makes you think these people are minions of Satan?”
            “What else could they be?”
            “Well, they could just be ordinary people.”
            “Snake’s eyes, Reverend!  Magic tricks!  And an upside-down crucifix!  That’s a satanic sign, I know it is, I read about it.”
            “It’s just… well, the police didn’t find any sign of the boy, did they?  Did they check with the hospital?  And the girl on the bicycle, and the old man with the dog… they didn’t threaten you, or anything, right?”
            Minnie snorted impatiently.  “No, Reverend.  The boy didn’t show up at the hospital, and no one threatened me.  I just know what I saw.  I know what I felt. 
            “I’m not doubting you, Minnie, it’s just that… it’s just that you’d think that demons would be a little more direct if they were attacking you.”
            “Cutting up a boy is mighty direct, Reverend!” Minnie said.  “That was horrible.  That poor child looked half dead.”  She paused.  “Unless he was a demon, too.  Maybe both the man and his son were.  Maybe they were visions sent by the Evil One.  You told us that that happens, in one of your sermons.”
            “Well, yes, but… why you?  Why would the devil trouble you?”
            “He’s always trying to trip up the Righteous,” Minnie said.  “That’s what you said.”
            “I’m sure that’s true, but it just seems an odd way to go about it.”
            “The old man was humming the Doxology as he was walking away.”
            “That’s a strange thing for a demon to hum.”
            “Didn’t Jesus say that the devil can quote scripture for his own purpose?”
            “I think that was Shakespeare.”
            “Oh.  Well, still.  I know what I saw, Reverend.”
            “I’m sure you do, Minnie.  But I don’t know what I can do about it.”  He paused.  “I’ll say a prayer for you,” he added, a little lamely.
            “Well, that’s all to the good.  But I think I might call the police if it happens again.”
            “Maybe that’s a good idea.”
            “Thank you, Reverend.  See you next Sunday.”
            “Good bye, Minnie.”

            The evening passed, and the night, without anything else odd happening.
            The next morning, Minnie got up early, and was vacuuming her living room carpet – she was perturbed to notice that she hadn’t gotten all of the potting soil off the rug from the African violet mishap the previous day – when the front doorbell rang.  She shut off the vacuum, and went to the door and opened it.
            Standing on the front porch was a smiling woman in her forties, and next to her a girl of about twelve in a Girl Scouts uniform.
            “Would you like to buy some Girl Scout cookies?” the girl asked, in a nervous voice.
            Minnie scowled at them, and pointed to her sign.  “No salespeople,” she said.
            The mother’s smile dimmed a little.  “But, ma’am, it’s for Girl Scouts.  It’s a good cause.”
            “Doesn’t matter,” Minnie said.  “It’s my property, and I don’t want any salespeople coming here uninvited.  Even kids.  Especially kids.”  Her brows drew together with irritation.  “And I don’t want any cookies.  And I definitely don’t want to stand here discussing this.  It’s my property, and it’s my right to invite who I want and keep out who I don’t want.”
            The woman’s smile vanished entirely.  “Well, okay, ma’am, I’m… I’m sorry we disturbed you.  We’ll leave.”  She held up her hands, in a gesture of acquiescence – and Minnie saw, on the palm of her left hand, a small, fine tattoo, of an inverted star.
            Minnie froze, her shock as complete as when she’d noticed the old man’s eyes the previous day – but she forced herself to react.  She drew a deep breath, her chest swelling with the effort.  “Demon!” Minnie shouted, at the top of her voice.  “Demons, both of you!  Get off my property this instant, and leave me alone!”
            The woman looked at her, eyes wide with what seemed like honest astonishment at Minnie’s outburst.  The little girl gave a terrified whimper.  The woman took a step back, and her left foot went off the top stair.  She lost her balance, and with a little cry of dismay, fell over backwards and tumbled down the cement stairs and into the garden.
            The girl shrieked, and ran down toward her mother, who lay sprawled, face down, across the wire fencing that ran around Minnie’s little square of flower garden.  “Mom?” the girl cried, and tried to lift her mother’s body up.  The child looked up at Minnie, eyes wide with horror, and said, “Please, you’ve got to help my mom!”
            Minnie ran down the stairs, and knelt beside the woman and partially lifted her up – and then recoiled in terror.
            The low fence around her garden was supported by metal stakes, and the angled tops of the stakes had impaled the woman through both hands, and into her right side.  The girl was still staring at Minnie, but her expression had changed from one of shock to one of reproach.  Then the mother groaned, and turned her head around toward Minnie – and with an effort pulled one hand free of the stake that pierced it.  Blood splattered on the leaves of the petunias and snapdragons, crimson onto green.  The woman reached toward Minnie with a hand slick with blood, and said, in a thick, slurry voice, “Why?  Why did you forsake me?”
            And Minnie collapsed to the sidewalk in a dead faint.
            When she came to – it could have been seconds, minutes, an hour later, there was no way to tell – the girl and her mother were gone, and there was no trace of blood on the metal stakes, or on the sidewalk.

            “Reverend Lohr?”
            “Hello, Minnie.”  Reverend Lohr’s voice sounded guarded.  “How are you, today?”
            “Well, frankly, Reverend, I’m pissed.  Pardon the expression.”
            “About what?”
            “The demons are back, and don’t be trying to tell me they’re not demons because they are.  This time it was a Girl Scout and her mother.  I told ‘em to get off my property, and then the mother fell and kinda skewered herself on my garden fence.  And it was just like, you know, the Lord’s wounds.  Through the hands and into the side.”
            “Not through the feet?”
            “Not that I saw.  Maybe she forgot about that part.”
            “I see.”
            “Now don’t you be ‘I see-ing’ me, and I mean no disrespect, Reverend.  I’m being besieged by the Dark Emissaries of Satan, and you need to help me.”
            “Did you call an ambulance after the woman hurt herself?”
            “No.  I fainted.  And when I came to, she and her daughter were both gone.  And so was the blood.”  She humphed a little.  “I haven’t fainted in years.  The Good Lord knows, I’m not the fainting type.  But it was just so dreadful.  And Reverend, I just am not going to sit around here and let the servants of Lucifer trouble me day in, day out.”
            There was a long pause, and finally Reverend Lohr said, “But, Minnie.  Have they hurt you or threatened you in any way?”
            “No, but they’ve come on my property three times and interrupted what should have been a nice walk to the store once, and I’ll be damned if it’s going to continue.”  She cleared her throat.  “Pardon the expression,” she said again.
            “I can understand that you must be upset…” the Reverend began, but there was a knock on the door, and Minnie looked up.  Through the curtains on the front door, she could see a curly-haired boy of college age, with an earnest, open face.  He was peering into the house, his expression curious.
            “Oh, hell,” Minnie said.  “They’re back.”
            “They are?”
            “Yes.  It’s a kid now.  He just knocked on the door.”
            “A kid?”
            “Yeah.  Looks like he’s twenty or so.  He wants to come in.”
            There was another pause, and Reverend Lohr said tentatively, “Does he look dangerous?”
            “No,” Minnie admitted.  “He’s got curly hair and kind of a baby face.  He looks like my sister’s grandson, a little.”
            “Maybe he’s just a kid.”
            “I don’t know about that,” Minnie said doubtfully.  “Everyone I’ve seen in the last couple of days has been a minion of the Evil One.  I can’t afford to take any chances.”
            “No, I suppose not.”
            The boy knocked again, and shaded his eyes, and he saw Minnie looking at him, and smiled.  He mimed using the telephone, and then shrugged his shoulders.
            “I think he wants to use the telephone,” Minnie said.
            “Maybe he had car trouble.”
            “You just don’t believe me, do you, Reverend?” Minnie said, her voice rising in irritation.  “I thought if anyone would…”
            “It’s not that I don’t believe you,” he said.  “It’s just that there might be some other explanation.  And remember our Lord’s story of the Good Samaritan.  He praised the Samaritan who helped the poor man who had fallen to thieves.  What if this boy is someone who needs help?”
            Minnie looked up at the boy, who was still looking in through the window in the front door.  When his eyes met Minnie’s, he smiled in a charming sort of way.
            “Oh, all right, Reverend, but be it on your head if he’s a demon.”  She brightened.  “Maybe I should have him talk to you.”
            Reverend Lohr cleared his throat.  “Well, all right, I suppose.  Although I don’t know what I could say to him.”
            “Hang on, Reverend.”  Minnie set the phone down, and went to the front door, and opened it.
            The boy was tall and slim, and was wearing a Syracuse University sweatshirt and running shorts.  He had a scraped knee, and an apologetic expression.
            “Hi,” he said.  “I wonder if I might use your phone.  I just had a little accident with my bicycle, and I need to call my father to come pick me up.”
            “I’m on the phone myself, which you interrupted,” Minnie said.  “But I’m talking to my minister.  If you’ll talk to him, I’ll let you use the phone after.”
            The boy’s smile faltered a little.  “Talk to him?”
            “Yes.  To assure him, and me, that you’re not a demon from hell.”
            The boy’s eyebrows flew up.  “A demon?”
            “Yes.”  Minnie picked up the phone handset and held it out to him.  “Here.  You talk to Reverend Lohr.”
            The boy, looking mortified, took the handset from her, and held it to his ear, and said, “Um… hello?”
            All she could hear was the boy’s side of the conversation; Reverend Lohr’s voice was nothing but a tinny creak from the phone’s speakers.
            “Yes, I just happened to have a little accident on my bicycle in front of her house.”
            “I don’t know, I didn’t do anything but knock on her door.”
            “I’ve never seen her before in my life.”
            “I’m not sure.”
            As the one-sided conversation proceeded, Minnie glanced through the front door that the boy had left open, and saw, out in the middle of Blaine Street, an object that at first she couldn’t identify.  Then she realized what it was.  It was the remains of a bicycle – melted, fused, twisted almost beyond recognition.  A bit of handlebar stuck up from the scalded metal, still with a charred plastic handgrip attached.  One wheel, its rubber tire nearly liquefied, lay a little bit away, tilted against the sidewalk.
            Minnie stared, and then slowly turned toward the boy, who was still standing there, holding the telephone in one hand.
            And once again, their eyes met, and he smiled at her, and gave a noncommittal little shrug.

            A half-hour later, Minnie was strapped, unconscious, to a gurney in the back of an ambulance, on the way to Colville General Hospital.
            “Who called it in?” one of the paramedics said to his partner, as he pulled the door shut behind him.
            “She was talking to her minister on the phone, I guess, and had some kind of seizure.  He called 911.”
            “An epileptic, you think?”
            “Doesn’t present like epilepsy,” he said.  “She’s just plain unconscious now.  Vitals are all in the normal range.”
            The driver started up the siren, and pulled out onto Blaine Street, his red lights flashing.
            “It’s a blessing she was talking to someone on the phone when it happened,” the first paramedic said.
            The second paramedic nodded, and then grinned.  “Praise the Lord, eh?”
            The first paramedic chuckled.  “Exactly what I was thinking,” he said.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Lock & Key - excerpt from a work in progress

Here's the beginning of my latest novel, entitled "Lock & Key."  A brain-bending yarn involving Vikings, a beautiful Scottish lass from the 10th century, some crazy ultra-religious people in Kentucky, a hapless bookstore owner from Seattle, a missing key, a homicidal physicist, and a temporal paradox that wipes out the entire human race.  And after that, it gets complicated.

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            Darren Ault woke up in pitch darkness, which was a little odd, because he was quite certain that he was dead.
            He reached up, tentatively, and felt his face for gunshot wounds.  Finding none, he sat up, blinking, and began to move his hands around.  This was done with considerable trepidation.  He was understandably curious about his surroundings, but at the same time, the problem with darkness is that anything could be in it with you, and you’d never know until it was too late.  As far as he knew, he could be sitting in a tiger’s lair, the tiger’s dark-adapted eyes already sizing him up and deciding which parts of him would be the tenderest.  He could be in a basement, at the mercy of the gangs that his mother had repeatedly warned him about during his childhood in the Capitol Hill area of Seattle.  Worse still, his high school chum Lee McCaskill could still be there, somewhere, maybe wearing night-vision goggles, with the neat little pistol aimed at his forehead, just like it had been only minutes ago.
            It would have been fairly clear to most people that these hypotheses about what might be there in the dark were mutually exclusive.  It was not to Darren.  Darren was the type of person who was perfectly capable of keeping several mutually exclusive fears in his brain simultaneously, and being equally afraid of them all.  But it was also apparent that whatever horrors might await him in the dark, he couldn’t just sit where he was forever.  For one thing, the floor seemed to be made of tile, and was hard, uncomfortable, and cold.  And for another, he was (much to his own surprise) beginning to be more curious than afraid.
            This was largely because however impossible it seemed, Darren had evidently survived being shot in the head, not only without dying, but without injury.  He had felt the bullet strike his forehead – the sensation had been pressure rather than pain, and over in a flash – but now there was not so much as a scratch on him, much less the kind of wound that a point-blank gunshot to the head would cause.
            Honestly, he should have been dead, and missing a considerable portion of the top of his skull.
            “Wait,” he said aloud.  “Maybe I am dead.  Maybe I’m a ghost.”  That explanation immediately made sense to him, but it raised a host of new fears, all of which crowded about him in the darkness, vying for his attention.  “I’m dead,” he repeated, as if trying the idea out.  “I’m a ghost.”  He squinted, but still could make out nothing in the dark.  Were ghosts able to see?  He thought they were, but who really knew about ghosts?  To be propelled into the afterlife, but to find oneself unable to see, would seriously suck.  Maybe that’s why ghosts bump around so much, he thought.  They run into things.
            Darren got to his feet, a bit stiffly, and took one step forward.  There was a whirring noise, and a loud click, and the lights came on.
            He gave a feeble little scream and whirled around, but there was no one there, or at least no one that he could see.  More likely, it was some sort of motion-activated lighting.  The light came from overhead.  It had that pale, glassy look that fluorescents give off, but the ceilings were so impossibly high that he couldn’t see the fixtures.
            He looked around, and recognized his surroundings instantaneously.  He was between two long rows of shelves, lined with books.  Only one sort of place looked like this; as improbable as it seemed, he was in a library.  This was peculiar, but preferable to tigers, gangs, or an armed Lee McCaskill, and he gave a little shudder and a sigh of relief.  It still didn’t remove the possibility that he was a ghost, but at least he could see, and he reasoned, philosophically, that there were worse places to haunt than a library.  At least he could count on its being quiet.
            He went up to the row of shelves on his right.  The shelves were the typical metal affairs you find in an average library, but there were several odd differences.  First, the shelves were far taller than ordinary; he looked up, squinting, and could not see the tops.  They receded upwards to the vanishing point, merging with the diffuse light coming from overhead.  Second, the books were all of uniform height and coloration – bound in what looked like crimson naugahyde -- and all of the ones he could see had the same legend, printed on the spine:  RICHARD PRESTON THATCHER, born 18 March 1832, Scarborough, England.
            In smaller print, beneath this, was a seemingly random series of numbers and letters.
            Darren reached out, and selected the book that was at the end of the shelf on his eye level, and opened it up to a random page.  Each page had a date; this one was July 19, 1858.  He read:
            “… and feeling the need to finish the job that he had left incomplete because of falling ill with the flu the previous week, he skipped the Sunday church services, and taking a ladder, went up onto his roof to continue replacing shingles that had been torn off in the storm the previous month…”
            He flipped ahead a few pages.  An entry for May 2, 1860 said:
            “… he overslept that day, and his wife was unhappy with him.  He ate breakfast, finishing at a little before ten o’clock, then went out and fed the chickens.  His wife had already milked the cows, and she told him that she was angry about his oversleeping…”
            He went ahead a few more pages.  More trivia about country life.  If this was a novel, it was a singularly dull one; no dialogue, no apparent plot, just a list of the daily occurrences in the life of some country farmer in 19th century England.
            He flipped to the last page.  It only had a few lines.
            “The doctor, Andrew Smithfield (TYH149087-1011) came to attend to him, but was unable to bring down his fever.  He became unconscious at 3:02 in the afternoon on September 29, 1864, and died without ever regaining consciousness.  His wife and all of his children, as well as Dr. Smithfield, were there.”
            And below that final paragraph was the following:
            END TRACKING CODE ZCV781540-4891 (ALTERNATE)
            Darren closed the book, frowning in complete incomprehension, and put it back on the shelf.  Then he looked around a little, hoping that something would appear that would make sense of this place.
            And that was when he noticed a third odd thing about the shelves.  In between each of the sets of shelves was a handle with a black plastic grip, sticking out of a slot.  Above and below the slot were arrows, one pointing up, one pointing down.  Darren was not normally someone who was given to messing with things for no good reason – it never seemed to end well – but today was not a normal day.  He reached out one hand, and pulled downward on the lever.
            There was a groaning noise, as some large machine underneath the floor kicked into action, and the shelves began to descend into the floor, bringing new ones downward from the heights.  Darren understood immediately; the shelves were on some kind of vertical conveyor belt, so that the upper ones could be accessed without a ladder.  You simply pulled on the handle, and the shelves came to you.
            He let the shelves descend for nearly a minute, curious to see if there was an end – or at least a change – to all of these rows and rows of identical books.  It didn’t appear that there was.  But suddenly he saw that some of the books rumbling by did have a minor difference; running down the spine of several shelves’ worth was a gold stripe.
            He released the lever, and with a grating noise, the shelves stopped moving.  He leaned forward, and looked at the gold-striped volumes.  The spines still had the same legend – the name Richard Preston Thatcher, with a set of numbers – but there was that little strip of gold foil pressed into the spine.  He pulled the last of the gold-embossed books from the shelf, and opened it to the last page.  The date was July 19, 1858.  He read:
            “… and feeling the need to finish the job that he had left incomplete because of falling ill with the flu the previous week, he skipped the Sunday church services, and taking a ladder, went up onto his roof to continue replacing shingles that had been torn off in the storm the previous month.  He had only been working for five minutes when he caught the toe of his shoe on a loose shingle, lost his balance, and fell off the roof.  He broke his neck and died instantaneously.”
            This was followed by:
            END TRACKING CODE ZCV781540-8103 (ACTUAL)
            There was a slight noise behind him, and Darren whirled around, once again giving a little shriek.  The book tumbled from his fingers, and landed upside down on the floor.
            Standing a few feet away from him was a young man, perhaps twenty-five years old.  He had straight, white-blond hair that fell lankly across his forehead, partly obscuring his eyes, which were large, long-lashed, and pale blue.  His face was narrow and clean-shaven, and he had a black stud in his right nostril, and three rings in his left ear.  He wore an overlarge black t-shirt with a drawing of a kitten with enormous eyes, one of which had a bright blue teardrop suspended below it.  The overall effect gave him the appearance of an emo elf.
            “Who the hell are you?” the elf said.
            “Darren Ault,” Darren said.  “Where am I?”
            The elf ignored the question.  “How did you get here?”
            “I don’t know.  Lee killed me, and then I was here.  Is this heaven?”
            The elf scowled.  “Don’t be ridiculous,” he said.
            “Hell?”
            “You don’t seem the type that would ever do much of anything that would merit hell,” the elf observed.
            “Well, then, where am I?”
            “You’re in the Library.”
            “Okay, I can see that.  What kind of library?”
            The elf didn’t answer, just turned and began to walk quickly down the aisle.  Darren heard him mutter, “I’m going to kick some ass in security over this,” as he walked.
            Darren had always hated to put anyone out, and however inadvertently, his presence seemed to be causing the elf a considerable level of distress.  “Look,” he said, and began to follow, jogging to catch up.  “I’m sorry.  I’ll leave if you can tell me how.”
            “You can’t,” the elf said, without turning.  “It’s not that simple.”
            “Who are you?” Darren said, a little louder than he generally spoke.  This brought the elf to a halt.  He turned, and faced Darren, his bright blue eyes rolling upwards a little, in disdain, and he gave a harsh little sigh.
            “I really don’t have time for this,” he said.  “The idiots up in security seem to have fucked up big time, and I’ve got to make sure that it’s not worse than it seems.”  He looked Darren up and down.  “And it seems pretty bad already.  But three questions.  I’ll give you three questions.  Then you need to shut up, stay out of the way, and let me do my job.”
            Darren swallowed.  “What is this place?”
            “It’s a library.”
            “I know that.  You told me that.  What kind of library?”  Darren put up one hand.  “And that only counts as one question.”
            The elf sighed again.  “Fine.  It’s the Library of Timelines.  And no, I’m not going to explain what that means, because it would take too long.  Next question.”
            “Who are you?”
            “My name is Fischer.  I’m the Head Librarian.  Although on days like this, I wish I had listened to my father and gone into manufacturing.”
            “Okay, Mr. Fischer.  And last… Why am I here?  I’m sure I should be dead.  I got shot point-blank in the forehead.”
            “Drop the ‘Mr.’ crap.  It’s just Fischer.  And I don’t know why you’re here.  That’s one of the many things I’ve got to find out.”  He reached up and rubbed his eyes with an angry little gesture, and brushed his hair back.  It immediately fell forward again.  “Just as soon as I twist off a few heads in security.  And put some coffee on.”  He turned, and began to walk away down the hall.  Darren trotted after him again.  Just as they reached the end of the aisle, and Fischer turned right and headed toward what appeared to be an office, he muttered, “Jesus, days like this just make me want to puke.”

            Fischer pushed the door open with what seemed like unnecessary force, and Darren followed him in.  The office was a mess – there was an old-fashioned mahogany desk in the middle, home to a telephone, a computer, and a number of untidy piles of paper; a filing cabinet stood with one drawer open because it was stuffed so full of file folders that it wouldn’t close; and a number of cardboard boxes sat on the floor, some with their lids askew, seemingly filled with more papers and manila folders.  Fischer swiveled the desk chair around, and a large ginger tomcat vacated the chair with an aggrieved meow, then jumped up onto the desk and began to wash himself, only giving one momentary glance about the room to see if everyone appreciated how little the disturbance had bothered his equanimity.
            Fischer didn’t so much sit down as to drape himself over the chair, and reached over and tapped a few of the keys on the computer.  There was a chiming noise as the computer started to rouse itself from sleep.  He then reached over, picked up the telephone, and punched in three numbers.
            “Maggie?” he said, after a brief pause.  “Can you get down here?  We got a problem.”  There was another brief pause, and Fischer rolled his eyes.  “Yeah, I know, but the filing will have to wait.  We got a problem.  A big problem.  One I’m gonna have to talk to Anbeinder about.”  Another pause.  “Well, of course it’s because there’s been a breach.  Why else would I want to talk to Anbeinder?  I don’t talk to him for the stimulating conversation.”  He sighed.  “Look, just get down here and see for yourself.  And did you put the coffee on?”  Only a moment’s pause this time.  “Good.  Can you bring me a cup?”
            Fischer hung the phone up, and began to type in commands on the computer.  Darren, finding himself ignored, looked around the office.  There was a calendar, tacked crookedly to the wall on the other side of the room, depicting a scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark, but Darren noted with a frown that the calendar was open to the page for February 1982.  A series of post-it notes were affixed to the wall next to where Darren was sitting.  These had various scrawls, most of them either too far away to read without being obvious about it, and some in a handwriting so bad as to be nearly indecipherable.  He noted that one of the nearer ones read, “Fix linear time sequencing, First Battle of Bull Run, possible divergence,” and almost asked Fischer what that meant, but the librarian was scowling so darkly at the computer screen that Darren didn’t dare interrupt him.
            Darren’s eyes dropped to the desk, and he noted that in the midst of the piles of paper, barely visible, was a nameplate.  It read, “Archibald Fischer.  Head Librarian.”
            Darren looked at the Librarian in some amazement, and spoke before he could stop himself.
            Archibald?  Your first name is Archibald?” he asked, the incredulity clear in his voice.
            Fischer looked up, his lips tightening and his scowl deepening even further.  “I told you.  My name is Fischer.  Just plain Fischer.  Now shut up and let me do my job, before I send you to the north wing, where we keep the records for medieval China, and have you spend the afternoon doing a little light reading.”  He looked back down, muttering, “My parents couldn’t name me for my other grandfather.  No.  Jim wasn’t aristocratic enough.  Fuck.”
            The door opened, and a woman came in, carrying a cup of coffee. The woman looked to be in that indeterminate age between fifty and sixty-five.  Everything about her was round – her face, her body, the severe bun into which her hair was fixed, even her glasses.  But far from seeming like a rotund Mrs. Claus figure, there was a grim cut to the lines of her face that gave her more the look of a guard from a women’s prison.  Darren was intimidated by most people, but this woman had a presence which radiated intimidation.  It was hard to imagine not being intimidated by her.
            The ginger tom, on the other hand, seemed to immediately recognize a kindred spirit, and jumped down off the desk, and began to twine around her legs.  The woman gave a chilly little smile of recognition, said, in a voice with a rolling Scottish accent, “Now, don’t make me spill this coffee, Ivan, there’s a good puss.”  She set the coffee down on the desk.
            Fischer looked up, and gestured toward Darren.  The woman turned, as if noticing his presence for the first time, and scanned him from head to toe.  “See what I mean, Maggie?” Fischer said.
            “Where’d you find him?”
            “19th century Britain.  He just sort of appeared there, claiming that he was dead.”
            “Curious.  His appearance didn’t set off the security alarms?”
            “Not that I know of.  Of course, they could all be napping up there, as usual.  I haven’t checked it out yet.  I just happened to blunder into him.  I was heading to my office this morning, and saw the light was on, and went to investigate.  Lucky he appeared where he did.  If he’d suddenly popped into existence over in the southeast corner of ancient Peru, or somewhere like that, he might have wandered for days before anyone knew he was here.”
            “And he just materialized?” Maggie said.
            “Actually,” interrupted Darren, “I was shot in the head, and then I materialized.”
            The two of them simultaneously turned their heads and glared at him, but didn’t respond.  Darren flushed, and said, “Sorry,” in a small voice, and the two turned back toward each other. 
            “Anyway,” Fischer said, “he says he doesn’t know how he got here.  Either he doesn’t remember, or he’s lying.”
            Maggie turned and looked at him appraisingly, one thin eyebrow raised slightly.  “He hasn’t the look of a spy.”
            “I’m not a spy!” Darren exclaimed, once again unable to keep himself from speaking.  “Look, Maggie, I don’t care what he says, I wasn’t spying!”
            Now both of the woman’s eyebrows went up.  “The Librarian calls me Maggie.  You call me Mrs. Carmichael.”
            Darren said, “Sorry,” again, and subsided into silence.
            Fischer drummed his long fingers on the desk, and then took a sip of his coffee.  “I think the problem here is threefold.  First, how do we fix whatever monumental fuckup got him here in the first place?  Second, how do we get him back where he belongs?  And third, does he already know more than he should?”
            “The answer to the third question is probably yes, but I don’t know what we can do about it.  And honestly, Fischer, maybe you should find out more of his story.  It could be relevant that he seems so insistent that he’s dead.”
            “Maybe.  If he’s telling the truth.  I wonder if Anbeinder still has those torture devices he swiped when he took that vacation in 16th century Spain?  They may come in handy.”
            Darren’s eyes widened.  “Now, wait a minute,” he gulped out.  They turned and looked at him.  “I am telling the truth, I swear.  My friend, Lee McCaskill, shot me in the forehead.  I have no idea why.  He was over at my apartment, and seemed upset about something.  I asked what was wrong, and he said, ‘it’s nothing that this won’t fix,’ and pulled out a pistol and shot me in the head.  And I woke up here.  That’s really all I know.”
            Maggie looked at Fischer.  “Have you checked the database records?”
            “I was in the process of doing that when you got here.”  He looked over at Darren.  “Full name?”
            “Darren Michael Ault.”
            Fischer typed into the computer.  Maggie went around the desk, and peered over his shoulder, frowning through her thick glasses.  With a little more trepidation, Darren rose, and joined them.  He half expected them to order him to sit down again, but they didn’t, and when he looked at the screen, he saw a list of several entries for “Ault, Darren Michael,” followed by a string of numbers and letters, similar to what he’d seen in the books.
            “When and where were you born?”
            “Seattle, Washington, September 16, 1984.”
            Fischer typed that in.  Within seconds, the screen blinked, and the message, “NO VALID ACTUAL TRACK CODE.  ACCESS ALTERNATE TRACKS?” appeared.
            Both Maggie and Fischer made small noises of surprise.
            “What?  What does that mean?” Darren squeaked.
            “Well, on its simplest level, it means that you don’t exist,” Fischer said.  “Which makes it kind of perplexing that you’re here, ruining my morning.”
            “Try the murderer, his alleged friend,” Maggie suggested.
            “What was the name of the guy who shot you?” Fischer asked, without looking up.
            “Lee McCaskill.”
            “Middle name?  Do you know birthplace or birthdate?”
            “I think his middle name is Allen or Alan.  I don’t know his birthdate, but he was born in Spokane, Washington.”
            Fischer typed in the information.  There were more entries for Lee Allen McCaskill than there had been for Darren Michael Ault, but the birthplace information narrowed it down to one.  Fischer clicked on the entry.
            Once again, the message, “NO VALID ACTUAL TRACK CODE.  ACCESS ALTERNATE TRACKS?” appeared.
            “Uh-oh,” Fischer said.
            Maggie looked over at Darren.  “Who is the current president of the United States?” she asked.
            “Barack Obama,” Darren said.
            “Of course,” Maggie said.  “The gentleman with the two cute little girls.  Middle name’s Hussein, Fischer, I remember that horrid woman making such a big deal out of it, what’s her name?  Oh, yes, Ann Coulter.”
            Fischer typed in the information.
            “NO VALID ACTUAL TRACK CODE.  ACCESS ALTERNATE TRACKS?”
            “Okay, this is bad,” Fischer said.  He looked up at Maggie, his large blue eyes wide.
            He looked back down, and typed in “Britney Spears,” and after a few clicks, once again got the same message.
            “Shit,” Fischer said, his voice awestruck, and, Darren thought, more than a little frightened.
            “What?  What’s happened?” Darren said.
            Fischer swiveled his chair around, and for the first time, looked Darren in the face.  “Well,” he said, “it’s a bit premature to make this conclusion, only having a sample size of four, but given that it’s hard to imagine an event that would include yourself, your murderer friend, President Obama, and Britney Spears that didn’t include everyone else in the world, I’m going to hazard a guess.  This McCaskill character who shot you seems to have generated some sort of temporal paradox.”
            “What’s that?”
            Fischer leaned back in his chair, and closed his eyes, and didn’t respond.
            “It means,” Maggie said quietly, “that somehow what your friend did made the entire population of the earth cease to exist.”