Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Enjoy Chapter Two of The Rapscallion of the Rogue River

Chapter One

Chapter Two

It wasn’t normal, this. Then again, pink balls birthed by pink lightning that can snatch you in the middle of a downpour and send you to another time pretty much made a mockery of normal.

   He’d done this many times. It was far from new for him. Still, it would never be normal.

   The damn ball had been struck by white lightning. As he found out the last time he’d jumped in one so struck, he was likely going to be sent to the ass end of nowhere and would have to find his way back. Not easy at all. Nor safe.

   Jumping through, whether the pink ball had been struck by white lightning or not, you usually didn’t just flash through and be done with it. There were, in his experience, odd stops on the way.

   For him it usually started with his mother. He was suddenly standing next to her and washing dishes. He’d found himself doing this before.

   It was a moment from his past—a cherished one—but it wasn’t a replay. They never were. He could interact with her freshly; and she could interact with him. He had no idea how that worked.

   He gazed up from the coffee cup he discovered he was washing. She looked into his eyes. “Passing through again?”

   She wasn’t surprised anymore by his sudden appearances.

   “Yeah. Sorry,” he grumbled.

   “Why be sorry?” she scolded. “I get to be with you again. How can that ever be bad? How are you doing, Paul?”

   “Oh, the same ol’, same ol’,” he muttered. “I was chasin’ bad guys and got swallowed by a pink ball. Stupid for me to get so close to it.”

   “Well,” she said, leaning in and kissing his cheek, “your dumb mistake means I get to chat with you again for a little bit, maybe have you over for the night like a few visits ago. Are you still forty-four?”

   “For another few weeks. How are things around here?”

   “Well, I just caught seventeen-year-old you smoking marijuana behind the garage, and I was pretty steamed. We had a talk and ...”

   “Oh, I remember, I remember,” he chuckled. His seventeen-year-old cheeks lifted in a sheepish smile. They felt strange without the stubble. “Sorry. Again.”

   “Can you stay for a cup of hot chocolate? You got to last time ...”

   “I never know how long I get to stay.”

   “You say you can ‘feel’ it when you’ve got to go. Do you now?”

   “As a matter of fact ...”

   Yep. It felt like being sucked into a hole from the center of his gut, just under his sternum.

   “Well,” his mom said, and kissed his cheek again after hugging him, “you go get those bad guys, Paul, and I’ll see you soon, all right? I love you, sweetie.”

   “Love you too, Mo—”

   The pink light swallowed him again.

He found himself on his back in his bedroom. His girlfriend was on top of him.

   This didn’t happen when he was seventeen, but fifteen. Tawny was just fourteen.

   She wanted to stay a virgin, so they weren’t technically having sex, and they weren’t completely naked. She was bouncing on top of him like they were going at it full-on, her head thrown back, her eyes closed.

   This wasn’t the first time he’d found himself here, in this specific moment. It was impossible not to find himself in an instant soup of lust.

   But also guilt. He was forty-four years old, for Christ’s sake!

   He must have stopped thrusting back up at her, because she opened her eyes and gazed down at him. “You okay?”

   —And the pink had him again.

   He breathed heavily as he fought to get a handle on his emotions.

   There were usually three to five of these quick vignettes with each jump.

   He waited for the next one, which came moments later.

   He was astride Shirley. She was trotting along the ruins of Highway 101. She nickered when his surroundings settled around him, as though aware of what was happening. He leaned forward and gave her neck a pat. She, too, was used to this.

   This was the year 3724. In the distance, over the Gossam bridge crossing the Rogue River, was Braid, which stood on the ancient ruins of Gold Beach.

   The day was cool, sunny, and breezy, which was typical for these parts during mid-spring. The turquoise sea bashed the ancient concrete sea wall, half crumbled and gone, that was erected in the twenty-first century against global climate change.

   This was his second revisit, as he called these rest stops through time. The original visit brought him to Braid because of the Catalyzer, which he’d more or less stolen clear back in the twenty-ninth century and, more by stupid chance than considered skill, managed to get here, to this time and place, to be tweaked by a scientist friend he’d made in this epoch. He was on his way to talk to her and pay for it. It would eventually help him control these trips and also hopefully spawn them, should he desire it.

   Shirley nickered again just as he felt that sucking sensation under his sternum. He patted her neck again and said, “See ya, girl.”

   The pink surrounded him and the world vanished.

   He expected a fourth stop, but it didn’t happen. He knew it wouldn’t when the familiar sense of sudden drowsiness overcame him.

   It wasn’t unwelcome. He always got great sleep after each trip, and had long ago stopped worrying that the pink ball would deposit him somewhere dangerous or uncomfortable. It never did, which, along with the rest of the damn phenomenon, he couldn’t explain.

   He closed his eyes and wondered where he’d end up, hoping, as he always did, and as he did especially now—the pink ball had been struck by white lightning, after all—that it would be ... there.

He woke to music playing nearby.

Well, I’ve never been to heaven
But I’ve been to Oklahoma
Well, they tell me I was born there
But I really don’t remember
In Oklahoma, not Arizona
What does it matter?
What does it matter?

   He was on his back, hat over his face, his head propped up against a ... log?

   He lifted the hat off and squinted against the sudden sunlight.

   He was outside. In a field. Dry. Warm. Almost hot.

   He sat up. A hundred yards away was the General.

   He glanced around. His ass felt bruised. He had been just feet away from the pink ball when white lightning struck it. He could still smell the ozone. It was a miracle that he was alive.

   When he realized what epoch the pink ball had deposited him in, he smiled past the pain.

   I got back! Finally! FINALLY!

   There was only a dirt path to the store, and the meadow surrounding it glowed a particularly beautiful gold, and the surrounding forest was slightly bluer and smelled of a dozen varieties of wildflowers, a few of which were next to him.

   He had been to this General only one other time. And that time he had fallen in love.

   He got to his feet with a couple pain-filled grunts, took his longcoat off, and wiped his muddy backside. He fingered the stubble under his chin, cursing under his breath, then rubbed his index finger back and forth across his teeth.

   Shaking his head doubtfully, he put his hat back on, took a deep breath, and walked towards the store, doing his best to keep from running.

He opened the screen door cautiously and stepped inside. “Hello?”

   It smelled like freshly ground coffee, cinnamon buns, and scented candles, which were on a display shelf next to him. To his right were the coolers, inside which were rows of sandwiches, burritos, juice drinks, soft drinks, and beer. Ahead was the counter. It wasn’t manned.


   At the entrance to the kitchen she came out. When she saw him a radiant smile exploded across her face.


   She hurried around the counter, untying and throwing her apron to the side. She barreled into his arms and threw hers around his neck and kissed him.

   Her lips felt like heaven, and she smelled like baking bread and cooking grease. He stroked her blonde hair and cursed the ones.

   As long as they chased him, he couldn’t stay here. Not indefinitely, at least. He tried calculating how long he could possibly hang out, knowing the effort was fruitless from the off. It didn’t matter. His brain was too befuddled with joy.

   She quit kissing him long enough to pull back, tears in her eyes. “I’ve missed you! I can’t believe you made it back. I didn’t think you ever would!”

   “Me too,” he managed to get out. “It’s good to see ya, Marne. It really is.”

   She sniffled and laughed and kissed him again and again.

The basics—that is, as far as he could tell:

   This was the General. Check. That was obvious enough.

   The year? Marne told him it was 4624 the first time they met, but it didn’t really mean anything.

   “Is it still early 4624?”

   They were sitting on the porch, sipping iced tea. Marne was next to him. A breeze teased her hair. A bumblebee floated past.

   She shook her head. “4625. June second. You look just like you did the day you had to go.”

   “I look like hell.”

   “After what you’ve been through, you should.”

   “And you, doll ...” He reached for her hand and squeezed it. “... you actually look like you’ve gotten younger. You really do.”

   “My birthday was three weeks ago. I put an extra candle on the cake for you. I made a silent wish you’d return—and look! Here you are!”

   “What are you now—twenty-four? twenty-five?”

   She gave him a reproving grin. “Forty.”

   “You’re bullshittin’ me.”

   “Nope. The big four-oh.”

  “I thought you might be married by now. A bun in the oven. The works.”

   She stared. “Did you really?”

   “I did.”

   “I fell in love with you, Paul Hewson. Do you remember what I told you before those one things came back through that glowing pink ball thingie and you had to run into it?”

   He lifted her hand from the table and kissed it. “You told me you’d never fallen in love before and you weren’t going to again.”

   “Well,” she said, leaning close, “I didn’t, and I won’t.” She studied him. “And how about you? Did you find a fellow time traveler—cute, button-nosed, way too young, adventurous, great sex, all the time-traveling amenities...?

   He kissed her and let his mouth linger for a long time before parting.

   “Does that answer your question?”

   She tasted her lips. “Most assuredly, Mr. Hewson.”

It was the year 4625. June. Whatever that meant. Because it sure as hell didn’t mean what it did anywhen else he traveled.

   He looked up.

   The suns were setting.

   “That’s right,” he said to himself. “Suns. Plural.”

   There was the good ol’ regular sun. But maybe ten degrees of arc higher and to the left a bit was another. It was deep red and tiny—perhaps the apparent size of Venus on a nice, cold fall night. It wasn’t bright enough to affect Sol’s light, just barely bright enough to make its presence known, especially near sunset and just after.

   “It’s called Grandpa,” Marne told him the first time he came here. “Some cultures refer to it as ‘Grandpa Red.’ Others call it ‘Anchor,’ ‘Overseer,’ ‘Blind Eye’—don’t ask why; I have no idea—‘Red Eye,’ and my favorite, ‘Irritated Bung Hole.’ ”

   “You’re kiddin’.”

   She glanced at him. “Apparently it’s true. Some tribe in Indonesia or New Guinea. I’m serious!”

   “ ‘Grandpa,’ ” he said. “I take it Sol rotates around it?”

   “It’s so weird you don’t know about it.”

   “My version of Earth has only Sol in the sky.”

   “That’s so weird,” she laughed. “I can’t imagine that!”

   “What’s the period of rotation?”

   “Fourteen hundred ninety-two years.”

   “As in, ‘Fourteen hundred ninety-two ...’ ”

   “ ‘... Columbus sailed the ocean blue’? Yep. We had a Columbus too. And yeah, he was a butchering son of a bitch, in case yours was as well.”

   “That he was.”

   “Is a year the same on your Earth as here?—three hundred sixty-five days?”

   He nodded.

   “And you have all the planets? You know, Mercury, Venus, blah, blah, Neptune, Pluto, Oregenius ...?”

   He glanced at her, puzzled. “Ore-who?”

   “Oh, Lord ...”

   “We don’t have consecutive planets named Blah and Blah, either.”

   She punched his arm.

   “I think I like ‘Grandpa’ best,” he said, still staring at the red dot.

   They went inside to close up shop, which had been variously busy as the day progressed. An hour ago all three tables in the dining area were full and he helped her cook the burgers and make the salads and top up the customers’ wine. Normally she worked by herself, and yet managed to make it all look easy. She’d glance at him during the rush and smile, and he’d smile back. Or try to.

   “Goddamn ones,” he muttered as he bused plates to the sink.

   The Catalyzer had thrown him his .45. It was now in the back of the kitchen in a bottom cabinet (Marne hated guns). He might need it sooner than later. He made a mental note not to forget where he stowed it.

   How long would he get this time? Another hour? A day? A week? More? When he left, which he would certainly be forced to, how long would it be before he got to come back? The Catalyzer was supposed to help him get back here, but it didn’t, not once, and now it was back at General 2016, along with Shirley! He’d have to wait for the ones, and then hijack the pink ball they came through to escape, and God only knew how long it’d be before he got to come back here, if ever!

   It wasn’t like they knew where he was. They didn’t. But there were billions of those bastards, and so they’d jump in every single ball when they appeared, a phenomena they had some control over, which explained why lightning on the other side eventually—and always—came for them, often within mere hours. But always, goddamnit, not before they found him first.

   It least it always seemed that way to him.

   Sooner or later they’d find him and try to kill him. They’d been doing that for a long time now. He had something they wanted, and if they got it, they could potentially rule the frickin’ multiverse.

   For most people, pink balls were to be avoided at all costs. But not those assholes.

   The pink ball that snatched him up had been struck by white lightning, and indeed, he had been thrown to the ass end of nowhere. To here. That should give him some extra time.

   He sighed.

   Marne appeared at the door and locked it up. Sol was just kissing the tops of the western forest.

   He watched as she walked up to him, enjoying every moment. “Home?” she said.

   “Home,” he sighed.

   She grabbed his arm and gave it a squeeze. “Hey. It’ll be all right. C’mon. Let’s enjoy the time we’ve got. Whaddya say?”

   “I could enjoy it a whole helluva lot more if I knew how much time that was.”

   “I know,” she said soothingly, “I know. Ready?”

   “Oh, yeah. Right. Ready.”

   She spoke to the air. “Gidgit? I’m ready to come home. Bring Paul too.”

   A pretty female voice sounded from nowhere: “Paul! How exciting! Bringing two home ...”

   It wasn’t like stepping into a pink ball. His vision grayed like he was going to faint, and then a moment later it cleared. When it did he saw he was standing in Marne’s foyer. She was still holding his arm.

   “You okay?”

   “You said the last time I was here that some people have trouble not fainting with these things,” he answered, blinking heavily.

   “The newer models are much better. Or so I’ve heard. I don’t get out that much. One day I’ll upgrade mine.”

   She kicked off her shoes and shuffled with a happy but tired sigh into the living room, which was down two stairs and offered a great view of the valley and the General in the meadow at its close end. He followed her after taking his muddy boots off.

   “Gidg? How’s dinner coming along?”

   “Twenty-six minutes, eighteen seconds. You’ll love it.”

   Marne turned to him. “I’ve asked her not to tell me what’s for dinner. It’s always a nice surprise. Come and have a seat and relax. You must be exhausted. Don’t worry about your clothes. We’ll get them washed. Try to relax.” She kissed him.

   “I will,” he murmured, hoping he’d not be forced later into jumping into a pink ball in his underwear.

   She plopped down on the couch; he joined her. She leaned against him.

   “It is so good having you back.”

   He cursed the ones and kissed the top of her head and tried to relax.

Chapter Three