PIECES OF DESTINY
It started as a low rumble, then began to roar like the sound of a thousand stampeding elephants. The ground beneath my feet was shaking violently. A flurry of rocks grazed my shoulder, and I hit the ground with a groan, getting a face full of dirt. My flashlight winked out, and the cave began to collapse around me.
Oh, shit. I knew immediately that this one was going to be bad. Very bad.
I’d been well-aware of the risks in exploring caves for years. I’d been an amateur spelunker since I was nine, mostly because of my father, who was into archeology as a hobby. “Don’t ever underestimate the risks below ground,” he used to tell me. “Cave-ins, poison-gas pockets, or just losing your way and getting hopelessly lost… you can’t ever be too careful.” His words came back to haunt me as the rumbling grew even louder.
I fought to open my eyes, coughing as I tried to get my bearings through the thick clouds of dust that filled the air. I must be seeing things, I thought, as several small rock chips glanced off my head. Everything seems bathed in some weird kind of blue glow. But there shouldn’t be any light underground!
“Nice effect,” I said out loud, “but you can turn it off now!” I made an attempt to get back up on my feet, but I felt like a drunken man trying to stand on a capsizing ship. I immediately fell back down and cursed, then tried to lean up on my elbows. Suddenly, there was a crack of thunder, and the rock wall behind me began to collapse. I felt a dull pain on the left side of my head. My face hit the dirt floor for the second time, and I tasted blood.
The unearthly blue glow brightened to an almost-blinding level, and my nostrils stung with a sharp burning smell, like ozone during a lightning storm. I instinctively curled into a ball, trying to protect my head, praying that I’d somehow escape getting crushed by the thousands of pounds of rock above me. I squeezed my eyes tighter, as if that could somehow protect me.
Then, just as quickly as it had started, the roar dissipated into total silence, leaving my ears ringing. For an instant, I felt freezing cold, and I couldn’t breathe. I felt a momentary lurch, as if I was spinning inside a blender, and the ground beneath my feet seemed to evaporate. Then... I blacked out.
I don’t know how long I lay on the cave floor — maybe a few minutes, maybe an hour. I quickly discovered that regaining consciousness wasn’t like it was in the movies. When I came to, I felt a wave of nausea, then immediately rolled to my side and heaved up most of the lunch I had eaten earlier that day. That’s one Big Mac I didn’t need, I thought ruefully, as I wiped my mouth on my sleeve. I sat up in the dark and fumbled clumsily for my flashlight, which was just two feet away from me, half-buried in dirt and gravel. Bracing myself, I hit the switch, and a powerful beam of light shot out.
I didn’t like what I saw.
The narrow tunnel to my right had completely collapsed, burying the only route that led back up to the surface. Gravel, dirt, and large jagged chunks of limestone filled the passage. The cave had become my tomb. I began to hyperventilate, but I fought back the urge to panic.
I had been exploring a small group of caves located in some hills a couple of miles southwest of St. Louis, while visiting my aunt during summer vacation. My father had died of an aneurism back in March, and my mom and I agreed we should spend the summer apart, so we could deal with our grief separately. Both of us together in the same lonely house had proved to be impossible over the last three months; she was off on a Caribbean cruise with her sister.
And now I’m stuck in bum-fuck nowhere, I thought, buried under forty feet of solid rock The air was dank, filled with a fine brown mist of sediment, and I could still smell a faint odor from whatever had been burning minutes before. Gotta stay calm. Keep my breathing steady; try to preserve whatever oxygen is left down here.
I wondered how far I had fallen, or if I had just been fooled into thinking I had fallen by the sudden ground movement. Maybe it had been an earthquake; experts had been predicting a massive quake for Missouri for years, like the one that had bent the Mississippi River for a time and caused it to run backwards. Maybe a pocket of underground gas had exploded. Or maybe a nearby volcano had erupted, just as Mount St. Helens had back in 1980. I shuddered at the thought of St. Louis being buried under ten feet of volcanic ash. But I wouldn’t know for sure until I got outside.
I moved closer to the back of the cave and found my blue nylon backpack, which was submerged in a pile of rubble, mostly chips of granite and dirt. I opened the bag and checked my supplies: the cellphone battery was still good, but the reception indicator flashed “No Service,” which figured, since I was at least thirty feet below the surface.
“Can you hear me now?” I said sarcastically. Piece of crap. I clicked off the power switch and the phone chirped merrily as it shut down. Might as well try to save battery power while I could.
My trusty Maglite, with two D-cells, was scratched and dented, but still seemed to be working okay, and a Bic butane lighter was intact. I shook my thermos bottle, which rattled with broken glass. So much for the Gatorade. I had a couple of sticks of beef jerky, a half-eaten Quaker granola bar, a pack of Necco wafers, a sealed can of Canada Dry ginger ale, a small folding shovel and a pickaxe, a spiral-bound pocket notebook, two ballpoint pens, a pocket knife, a pair of Rayban sunglasses, plus my iPod and earphones. The iPod battery was low; I made a mental note to charge it once I got out of here.
“If we ever get out of here,” I sang aloud, remembering an old Paul McCartney song my dad used to sing back home. My words echoed around the cave, bouncing around as if to taunt me in my rocky prison. My Aunt Olivia, with whom I was staying for the summer, wouldn’t even know I had gone until she got home from work at 6 P.M. I had told her about the cave last night, not long after I arrived for my visit, so she knew I was planning to come down here. I knew her well enough to know that, if I didn’t make it back by dinnertime, she’d enlist her whole neighborhood in a search-and-rescue party. But even though I was half a head taller than she was, I didn’t doubt she’d kick my ass once she got hold of me. I might be better off just staying down here, I mused. Then I could die slowly instead of having Aunt Olivia skin me alive.
I slung the backpack on my shoulder and winced at a momentary stab of pain. Shit. That boulder hit me a lot harder than I thought. I felt something wet and sticky drip down from my forehead, and touched it with my fingertips.
Christ! I was bleeding.
I immediately felt dizzy, and leaned against the cave wall for support. I mentally ran down the list of do’s and don’ts: I probably wasn’t hurt that badly, I thought. It’s just a mild concussion. I could probably survive at least a week or two down here if I had to, if it doesn’t get infected. My hands were shaking, but I knew that was just nerves, not any permanent damage. I probably wasn’t going to bleed to death, assuming I could get back to the surface. But that was a big if.
As if to answer me, I felt a small breeze flutter behind me. A breeze! That meant I at least had a chance of finding another way out. I slid the flashlight under one arm and held my hands out, trying to sense the draft’s direction with my fingertips. I caught a cool wisp of air and followed it to a small hole in the right wall. I had lucked out: this wall wasn’t solid rock, but a mixture of large rock and dirt. After only twenty minutes of digging, I was able to make a passage just wide enough for me to wriggle through. It led to a larger cave, roughly twice as large as the one I left behind. At the very top was a distant shimmer of light, filtered down through rippling waves of dust and silt. I could see I had a long climb up, at least 35 feet. But the wall had a mild slant to it, so I was confident I could make it up if I was careful.
“No guts, no glory,” I muttered. I shoved the flashlight down the front of my jeans, letting the beam point upwards to my escape route. I secured my backpack on my shoulder one last time, took a tentative step up onto the wall, and grabbed a protruding rock and pulled up with all my strength. The stone immediately crumbled away in my hand, sending me sprawling on my back.
“Shit!” I shouted, my cry echoing back at me, as if mocking me for my incompetence. “Use your eyes first,” I remembered my dad telling me. “No sudden movements — keep it slow and steady.” He not only knew how to explore caves, he was an expert free climber, a skill I’d never been able to master. I winced, then unsteadily got back up to my feet, secured my backpack on my shoulders, and tried again. I gingerly got a foothold on a rocky surface that looked solid enough to support me, and pushed up. I was relieved to find the second rock held my weight, and I slowly began to pull myself up, one painful step at a time.
It took me almost ten agonizing minutes to reach the top. Always one to take a dare, I couldn’t resist using my flashlight to look back at the abyss below. Shit, I thought. I can barely see the cave floor from here. I slid the flashlight back in my waistband and peered back up. Almost there! My hands were nearly raw from the effort, and my head was starting to throb again. Gritting my teeth, I reached up and used my fingers to feel for the top shelf, only a foot away from a tantalizing shaft of sunlight that streamed in from above.
Suddenly, another rumble began far below me.
“No, no!” I cried. “Not now!” I was so close!
A dozen small rocks rained down on my face and neck. Disobeying every rule my father taught me, I scampered up the last few feet, ignoring the small stabs of pain as my hands and knees scraped over the jagged rocks. I coughed and wheezed as clouds of dust blossomed up around me, and with a loud cry, I used all my strength to launch myself through the cave opening, then tumbled into an explosion of light. I felt a dull pain in my left shoulder, then rolled along the ground several times, crying out as the flashlight dug into my stomach. I finally came to a stop and lay still on my stomach, panting.
Suddenly, there was a noise from a few yards away.
“Hey!” a voice said. “Ya alright?”
Some feet shuffled closer.
“I think he’s dead,” another voice drawled from nearby. “Looks like a niggra.”
“He ain’t no niggra,” shot back the first voice. “He’s just covered with dirt. Cain’t ya see?”
I stirred, then groaned as I tried to sit up. A thick yellow-brown cloud of dust and dirt evaporated around me, and I opened my eyes only to be momentarily blinded by a blast of sunlight. As I blocked the glare with my fingers, I could just make out the heavily-backlit faces of three teenage boys, about as old as me. They were shirtless, barefoot, and wore ragged cut-off shorts. The sun was scorching — much hotter than I remembered it being when I’d first gone into the cave earlier that morning — and judging by the long shadows nearby, it must be past five o’clock. I must’ve been unconscious a lot longer than I thought. I struggled up to my feet, and one of the boys lent me his hand for support.
“Thanks,” I said, brushing off some of the dirt and mud from my face and body. “Man, I thought I’d bitten the big one for sure.”
“Bitten what?” another asked.
“After that cave-in back there,” I said, nodding my head back towards the opening. Dirt and rocks were still sliding down our side of the hill. “We really should get out of here. That felt like at least a 6.0 quake, maybe even a 7. The whole place might collapse any second. Might be liquefaction.”
One of them laughed. “You’re talkin’ crazy!” he drawled, and the others chortled.
Great, I thought, giving the boy a sideways glance. Now I’m stuck with a buncha Missouri hicks. Although St. Louis was fairly urbanized these days, some of the outlying areas were white-trash ghettos. My Aunt Olivia liked to rail against “those Wal-Mart people,” as she referred to them. I hated being in Missouri; I told my Mom she was sending me to “Misery.” But I had bigger things to worry about at the moment.
“You’re hurt,” one of the boys said, tentatively touching the wound on my forehead.
“Ow!” I said, letting out a hiss between my teeth. “Shit. I hope that thing doesn’t need stitches. Busted up my mouth, too.” I ran my tongue over my bottom lip, which had a big welt on the left side.
“You oughta clean yourself up at the creek,” the taller boy on the left replied.
I gave him an odd glance. He had said “creek” as if it were “crick.”
We half-slid, half-fell as we worked our way down to the trail at the bottom of the hill. My eyes momentarily lost focus, and I had to stop for a moment just to clear my head, then we made our way to a clearing below.
“I been in that cave before,” the boy to my left said, as we headed East to the river bank. “Some say it’s haunted. S’pose to be injun treasure buried around here, too.”
“Native American,” I corrected. “Pinkashaw tribe. I read that, too.”
“I heard they was called Missouris,” the boy to my right insisted. “Just like the state.”
“Naw,” said the first boy, who had shaggy blond hair. “He’s right. Pinkashaws.”
We reached the river bed, and I knelt in the mud and splashed water on my face. Despite the summer day’s heat, the water was ice-cold, and I felt a stab of pain through my mouth and was momentarily overcome with another wave of dizziness.
“Whoa,” I said, grabbing my shirt to dry my face and hands, then recoiling as the throbbing in my forehead momentarily worsened. “That hurts like a mofo.”
“You sure talk funny,” said the blond, eying me curiously.
I glanced at him. “I’m known for my snappy banter,” I said, grinning. Not bad-looking for a hillbilly, I thought. “Gimme a sec.”
I checked my backpack for my cell. “Shit,” I said, patting my pants pockets frantically. “I must’ve dropped my phone back there.”
I got up from the river bank with the idea of running back up the hill, but I’d only taken a few steps when my stomach lurched and I half-fell down to my knees. God, my head hurt!
“Settle down,” the blond said. “I’ll get my ma to tend to ya back home.”
I tried to protest, but two of the boys helped me
back to my feet. I wobbled a bit and had to fight to keep my balance. The third
boy peered at me as if I was a zoo specimen.
“You ain’t from around here, are ya?” he sneered.
“Got that right,” I muttered.
The brown-haired boy stepped close to me. “You a yankee? If ya are, I’ll sooner cut ya dead.”
I gave him a glance. He was skinny, probably a couple of years older than me, but not much taller, and had a pock-marked face, with the beginnings of a patchy moustache on his upper lip, and a small scar on his jaw. Who does this asshole think he is?
“No way,” I said, pushing past him. “My family hates the Yankees. They totally suck this season. I’m more of a San Francisco fan.” OK, that wasn’t quite true. I thought baseball was boring. My Dad was the big Giants fan of our family, but we always watched their games on TV on the weekend as a male-bonding thing. Used to, anyway.
“Don’t mind Jesse,” the blond said. “He don’t mean nothin’.”
“Shut up, Travis,” he growled. “Shows what you know.”
As we approached a narrow wooden foot bridge, I stopped. “Wait a minute,” I said, trying to get my bearings. “Hold up. I thought there was a Texaco station right around here.”
I turned eastward, then south, trying to get my bearings. “Yeah, and there should be a McDonald’s right over there!” I pointed to a distant field, which was filled with scrub-brush and a few scraggly trees but was otherwise empty. The air smelled strange, too. Probably the dust from the cave-in, I thought.
“Ya must’ve hit your head mighty hard back there,” Jesse retorted. “Knocked some of your brains clean out. McDonald’s place is a mile t’ the other side.”
“C’mon, we’ll get you to my ma,” said Travis. “Lemme help ya with that.”
I nodded and slid off my backpack and handed it to him. “Guess I got turned around when I came out of the cave,” I said, more than a little confused. “Maybe I’ll call my aunt from your place.”
We trudged another half mile through a clearing, then made our way to a small farm by a dirt road. The distance wasn’t far, but I was already sweating profusely from the heat and feeling a little nauseous. My head throbbed. I ignored their conversation, mentally running down what kind of explanation I was going to have to give Aunt Olivia. She’s gonna kill me for sure, once she sees the blood. But then I grinned. I knew I could make a play on her sympathy. I’d find a way to calm her down. I was her favorite nephew, after all.
Our group stopped, and I leaned against a white picket fence for support, still feeling dizzy. The blond kid gently led me through the gate and down a short path that led to a small ramshackle house.
“See ya at school tomorrow, Jesse,” he called over his shoulder. “You, too, Frank.”
School? I thought, not certain I had heard him clearly. It was almost July. Maybe they’re going to summer school.
The other two boys trudged away while we made our way up the wooden steps. “That you, Travis?” called out a female voice.
“Yessum,” he answered, holding the door open for me.
I glanced around their living room. It was quaint, filled with what appeared to be hand-made furniture, and on the floor lay a thin blue rug, fringed around the edges. Very retro, I thought, but I guess it was a step up from living in a trailer. The windows had gray lace curtains with a delicate pattern, and there was a large old-fashioned mahogany grandfather clock against the right-hand wall. There was a faint scent of cinnamon in the air. A thin middle-aged woman emerged from a doorway to the right.
“My lord,” she said, drying her hands on an apron. “Who’ve you dragged into my clean living room now, Travis?”
“He’s hurt, Ma,” he said, carefully placing my
backpack down on a nearby table. “Got hit upside the head.”
“I got Blue Cross, if that helps,” I quipped.
She peered at my head wound, lifting my brown bangs out of the way, then inspected my lip with a bony finger, while tsk-tsking and shaking her head, then examined the cut above my left eye. I winced and let out a small hiss of pain.
“You fetch some water and let me tend to your friend, here,” she said, then turned back to me. “What’d you say your name was?”
“Sorry,” I said, sitting down on a hardwood chair. “I’m Jason. Jason Thomas.”
“I’m Travis’ mama, Mrs. Colt,” she said as she patted her apron on my forehead, carefully wiping away some of the dirt and blood. “Thomas, you say?” she remarked, just as her son came back with a bowl of water. “Did you know Olivia Thomas?” she asked, placing the water on a nearby table.
I nodded. “Yeah,” I said, then winced as she poked my wound again with the moist cloth. “My mom sent me out here to...” — I had to stop myself from saying “Misery” — “...uh, here to Missouri to stay with Aunt Olivia. Just for the summer. I’m staying over at her place.”
Both Travis and his mother stared at me. “You... you don’t know?” she asked.
She put her hand to her mouth. “Oh, sweet Jesus,” she said softly, then took my hand in hers and looked me in the eye. “Olivia died three weeks ago. Her farmhouse burned to the ground. She’s with the angels now. I am so very sorry.”
This was not happening. “You people are nuts,” I said, struggling up to my feet. “I just saw her this morning!” I snapped, a little too loudly. “Sure, Aunt Olivia smokes like a chimney, but other than that, she’s just fine.”
They looked at me blankly.
“Look, can you just let me use your phone?” I asked, looking around the room. “I can get her to pick me up in ten minutes. She’ll tell you herself she’s not dead. She’s alive!”
Just then, my eyes fell upon a folded newspaper on a rocking chair next to me. It was the St. Louis Globe-Diplomat, and the headline blared: “Grant Attacks Cold Harbor!” I checked the date at the top of the page, and immediately felt dizzy.
June 3, 1864!
I pulled the newspaper closer. “Lincoln Campaigns in Illinois,” read a smaller headline. “Severe Losses for Union Army,” trumpeted another. “Influenza Outbreak Claims 9 More” headed a column right next to a display ad for “Dr. Benton’s Cooling Salve.” My heart began to pound.
“Tell me this isn’t a current newspaper,” I whispered, quickly flipping through the pages.
“Heavens no,” she said. “That one’s very old. This is today’s,” she said, handing me another.
“Thursday,” I read out loud. “October 13th, 1864.” Oh, shit.
I couldn’t focus on the newspaper anymore. The floor suddenly rushed up to my face with an enormous whoosh, and I descended into blackness.
§ § § § §
I awoke on my back, and I could just make out a gray ceiling in the dim light. I’m still buried in the cave, I thought, trying to make out some detail. I’m delirious. Gotta dig myself out and get some air.
But there was a soft pillow under my head. I sat up, then groaned out loud.
“Travis?” called a voice. “I think that’s the Thomas boy again.”
The door opened, letting in a dim light from the outer hallway, and a gray-haired man sauntered in. He was dressed in a dusty black jacket and a string tie, and carried a stethoscope in one hand and a black leather satchel in the other.
“That’s a pretty bad knock on the head you got there, son,” he said, as he bent over to inspect my wound.
“You’re telling me,” I said, gritting my teeth as I sat up. “Am I going to need stitches?”
“Naw.” He turned up a kerosene lamp on the wall behind me, bathing the room in a flickering yellow glow. “Just a bandage. Keep it clean, an’ you’ll be as good as new in a week or so.” He lit a match, then passed it back and forth as he peered into my eyes. “Eye movement looks fine. Prob’ly no brain injury to speak of. You still getting dizzy?”
“Oh, no,” as the memory hit me again with a sharp jolt. “I’m... I’m in 1864. My aunt...” I fell backwards to the pillow, and the bedsprings squeaked beneath me.
“You’ve had a terrible shock, son,” he said, soothingly. “We all loved Olivia. She was a fine woman.”
“But she’s alive!” I insisted, feeling thoroughly confused. “I just saw her less than two hours ago!”
“What do you think, Earl?” said another voice. A dark-haired man with a bushy black beard appeared over the doctor’s shoulder. “This boy’s been speakin’ in tongues for the better part of an hour. He’s actin’ as crazy as a bag full o’ frogs.” He stared at me with a grim expression.
The doctor bent lower. “So you just arrived in town today?”
I stared back at them. The dull throbbing pain in my head told me this was no dream. I ran my tongue across the blood-blister on the inside of my lower lip, and it stung. I was alive, but I definitely wasn’t in the cave any more. I thought for a moment, then I began to relax as my acting gear kicked in. I had been through enough high school drama classes that I could play along with these yokels. After surviving my role in the freshman class musical as ‘Curly’ in Oklahoma, I could handle dealing with life in 1864 for awhile. Piece of cake. Just a little improv.
“Uh, yessir,” I began. “I, ah, hitched a ride out here to stay with my Aunt Olivia. My mom... she couldn’t take care of me any more.”
OK, that was close to the truth. The two of us had fought almost every day since my father died several months earlier. Our grief counselor told us we should spend some time apart. I kept on talking, my mind racing as I struggled to come up with a reasonable explanation.
“We had some hard times,” I continued. “My dad died of a heart attack back in March. My mom figured Aunt Olivia could take care of me for the time being. I was gonna help her out, in her...” I almost said “apartment,” but quickly corrected myself. “I mean, on her farm. Yeah.”
The grim guy with the beard peered at me and raised an eyebrow. “I figgered you ain’t from around here,” he said. “You some kinda foreigner? With that accent, you must be from a long way’s away.”
I nodded, quickly putting together a story that would pass for the moment. “That’s it,” I said. “I’m from...” I glanced at the can of ginger ale from my backpack, sitting on the bedside table, and caught the brand name. “Uh, I’m from Canada.” I said. “Eh?” I added, hopefully.
“You don’t say,” replied the doctor, slipping his stethoscope inside his vest pocket. “Whereabouts in Canada?”
“Vancouver,” I said quickly. That was close enough to my real home town of Seattle that I felt it wasn’t too far from the truth. I had at least visited Vancouver a dozen times, so I knew a few of the historical landmarks.
The bearded guy nodded. “Fort Vancouver,” he said. “I heard of that. Lotta fur trade up north.”
“That’s a long way from St. Louis,” said a voice behind them.
The three of us turned as Travis walked in. This was the first chance I had to take a good look at my rescuer. He was a little taller than me, and had shaggy blond hair, parted down the middle, with a tangle of loose bangs on his forehead. He had a firm jaw, with a splash of freckles across his cheeks, and his eyes sparkled in the lantern’s warm glow. Judging by his boyish features, I figured him to be maybe 13 or 14, a year or so younger than me, but definitely cute for a hillbilly. He was wearing overalls without a shirt, and I felt a little twinge as I glanced down at his chest and arms, which were tanned and muscular. Whoa — definitely not boyish. Make that hot.
“Yeah,” I answered, trying not to stare, then gingerly felt the bandages the doctor had applied to my head, and a smaller one above my left eye. “Almost two thousand miles,” I said. “Took me a long time to get down here.” I had missed my original flight at Sea-Tac Airport yesterday morning due to a traffic jam, but I decided to omit that little detail.
The doctor sighed. “Well, I’m sorry to tell you, son, but Olivia Thomas is deceased. Died in a fire, not three weeks ago. Terrible thing.”
I stared at him, disbelieving. “Are we talking about the same woman?” I asked. “About five feet tall? Mole on the right cheek? Late forties? Nags incessantly?”
“More like late fifties,” said the doctor. “She said something to me last year about a nephew last year, so I figure you must be him.” He patted my shoulder. “I’m truly sorry for your loss, son.”
“I just can’t… I can’t believe she’s dead,” I said, half in truth, and half trying to cover my earlier outburst.
“You think the boy’s inherited Olivia’s property?” the bearded man asked. But before the doctor could answer, Travis’ mother rushed in.
“Sakes alive!” clucked Mrs. Colt, as she brought in a ceramic cup on a tray, shooing the others away. “This boy is ill! You all hush and leave him be, at least ‘till the morning.” She leaned over and handed me a warm mug. “There’ll be time for conversation at breakfast. You drink this now and hush.”
She wagged her finger at me. “You just hush.” She looked over her shoulder. “Dr. Wells? We’ll send Lemuel to fetch you if Jason here gets feverish.”
I gratefully took the mug from her and took a tentative sip. It tasted a little like milk, but was sweeter, almost like cream. Probably not homogenized, either, I thought. But it must still be drinkable. They looked at me, expectantly.
“I’m feeling better,” I said in a quiet voice. “But I gotta say, this has really been kind of a lower-case day.”
She smiled. “You just set right here and rest until tomorrow. Drink that down. And call if you need anything. My husband and I are in the room down the hall.”
I nodded. “Uh, what about Travis?” I said. The good-looking boy peered around the door, which slowly creaked back open. “Hey. I never did thank you for helping me out today.”
He smiled, and his whole face lit up. “No need,” he replied, pushing the blond locks out of his eyes. “I’ll just sleep out in the barn for tonight.”
“No, no,” I protested, trying to sit up. “I don’t want to put you out...”
“Hush now,” soothed Mrs. Colt. “Travis won’t mind none.”
“No, he won’t,” echoed the bearded man, whom I realized was Mr. Colt. “It’s the Christian thing to do.” He glared at the boy. “Job 31:32 — ‘but no stranger had to spend the night in the street, for my door was always open to the traveler.’”
“Yes, sir,” he said in a small voice. He looked back at me and I nodded my thanks, momentarily embarrassed.
The door closed with a thump and I was suddenly alone. I lay back in the bed and tried to take stock of what had happened to me over the past couple of hours. I heard the living-room clock chime softly in the distance; ten chimes. I glanced at my wristwatch, a black-and-silver Swatch Revitalize that my parents had given me for Christmas. It insisted that the time was 4:12 P.M., on Saturday, June 24th, about four hours after I first entered the cave. That was back in 2006.
I let out a sigh and stared up at the ceiling. But the newspaper said today was Thursday, October 13th, 1864. I could still see the old-fashioned text, permanently seared into my memory as if by a branding iron. I glanced out the window on my left and could just make out a well-worn wooden fence in the moonlight. A faint drizzle of rain left soft streaks against the glass. The wind outside moaned briefly, and I heard a dog bark in the distance.
I touched the bandage on my head. Shit! My wound still hurt like hell, but it was a duller pain than before. Dull or not, the sensation was far too real for me to be dreaming all of this.
I sat up in bed, reached for the warm milk, and took another sip. I set the mug back on the table, then ran my finger across the hardwood bed frame, which was smooth and polished. The room was small and sparse, with just a side table to my right, and a wooden rocking chair nearby. I lifted up the bedcovers and realized with some embarrassment that I was only wearing my underwear. I slid off the bed and tiptoed across the floor, trying not to squeak the floorboards too much. My pants, T-shirt and socks were neatly folded on the table, next to my backpack, and most of the dirt had already been cleaned out. I made a mental note to thank Mrs. Colt before I left.
The walls were rough-hewn planks, painted a dull gray. Two brightly-patterned framed doilies hung on one wall, with the fabric spelling out the words “James” and “Travis,” respectively, in fancy curved letters. A kerosene lantern hung from a hook by the bed, and there was a well-worn red rug on the floor. The mattress and comforter had a musty smell, and nearby was a ceramic bowl on the floor covered with a tin plate. My nose wrinkled at the faint odor of urine, and I winced with the realization that this was the 18th-century version of indoor plumbing. A chamber pot, I thought, remembering a Charles Dickens novel I once read back in junior high.
“Well,” I whispered out loud, “if this was a movie, I’d give the prop department an Oscar.” Either I was really back in time, or else this was some kind of bizarre Mission: Impossible thing where somebody was trying to drive me batty. Or I was in another dimension, a parallel universe, like some bad episode of Twilight Zone. I momentarily whistled out the four-note theme song, then stifled a laugh.
I thought back to every old episode of Star Trek I had ever seen, along with movies like Back to the Future, Butterfly Effect, and Deja Vu. I wasn’t exactly a sci-fi fan, but I knew enough that whenever the characters went back in time, things usually got screwed-up royally. Like what if I accidentally killed my great-great-great grandfather? Then I’d never exist! Or what if I made some scientific discovery too early, like penicillin, or invented the DVD player?
Fat chance of that. Science and history were pretty much at the bottom of my high school priority list, along with girls and politics. I lived and breathed music and drama, which were the center of my universe back in Seattle. But I’m light years away from that world now, I thought, as the enormity of my situation sank in.
Suddenly, I felt a wave of exhaustion, and I sat back on the bed, overwhelmed by it all. Whether or not this was all some kind of nightmare, I had to make the most of it.
“Tomorrow,” I said out loud, yawning as I burrowed under the covers. “Gotta go back to the cave tomorrow. I’ll figure this thing out. I’ll get back home somehow.”
And I let the sleep overtake me, like soothing waves of blackness, pulling me down to the depths of the sea.