PIECES OF DESTINY
I grabbed another piece of bacon. “And that’s how I wound up in the cave,” I said as I took a bite, then leaned back in my chair.
1864 or no, these people really knew how to cook. It wasn’t quite a Denny’s “grand slam breakfast,” but it was a heckuva lot better than my mom’s cooking. Don’t get me wrong — back home, my mom’s a great lady, but let’s just say that breakfast wasn’t exactly her forte.
It was early dawn. The kitchen windows were bathed in a pale blue light, but the Colt household started bustling the moment the roosters crowed. Better than an alarm clock, I mused. I glanced at my wristwatch, which insisted the time was 12:30 A.M. Probably at least six hours off. I made a mental note to reset it.
“That’s some story,” said Lemuel, who was a perky 10 year-old. I had learned he was the youngest of the family, but also by far the most talkative. “What does nik mean?” he asked, inbetween mouthfuls.
He pointed. “On your shirt. Is that Chinese?”
I looked down to see the familiar Nike wave logo on my T-shirt. “No,” I said. “It’s the company that made my sneakers. Nye-kee. Came free with the shoes. The head office is in Oregon somewhere, but they make all the stuff overseas in sweatshops. Slave labor.”
“Hush now, Lem,” muttered his brother, Travis. “Pass the grits.” He gave me an inquisitive glance. “So why’d you go down in the cave in the first place? Some kinda treasure hunt?”
I grinned. “Far from it,” I answered. “I got interested in caves from my dad. He was into archeology — one of his things. He worked as a construction engineer, and he used to talk about how his buildings might someday turn into a ‘great ruin,’ like the Egyptian pyramids or something.”
“Your papa from ‘round here?” asked Mrs. Colt, as she placed some hot rolls on the table.
“No — uh, no ma’am,” I said, helping myself to the bread. “He was born in Seattle. My family went on vacations a couple of times to caves and old ruins. We were going to visit the Midwest for vacation this summer anyway, before he... before he died. Thought I'd check out the cave for artifacts and stuff.”
Mr. Colt raised an eyebrow. “That cave’s more’n six miles from Olivia’s place.”
“I got lost when the, uh... wagon dropped me off,” I said quickly, hoping my story would sound believable. “I knew my aunt’s place was somewhere just outside of town, so I started walking and... well, the cave was there, and thought I’d drop in just for laughs.”
“For laughs?” asked Travis.
“It was on the way,” I said nonchalantly. “I mean, I’m not really that into archeology or geology, but I figured, hey, it’s just a little detour, y’know? Pretty cool place — I think it’s part of the Meramec Caverns formation, not too far from here. I’ve seen pictures of it, but never been there before.”
Lemuel giggled. “You talk real fast.”
I winced. Mental note: these people talk slower. They’ve got a whole different pace from the world I knew. Gotta throttle back a gear or two, and try to fit in with the natives. At least, until I can get home.
“Sorry,” I said. That’s just the way we talk... uh, back where I come from.”
“You be mindful of our guests, Lem,” warned Mr. Colt, who glowered at the boy. He turned to me. “Olivia was our neighbor. She kept to herself mostly, but we saw her at church on Sundays. Widow, she was.”
I had to stop myself from doing a spit-take. The Olivia from my time was a die hard lesbian and a political meddler — “a real shit-disturber,” as my dad would say — ready to picket and hand out petitions at a moment’s notice. When I’d come out to my family two years earlier, when I was 13, my mom wondered aloud if I’d inherited the ‘gay gene’ from my father’s side of the family. Olivia hadn’t had a girlfriend in some time, but she was active in some local gay groups. She was loud and boisterous, but somehow, we’d gotten along fine.
I wondered if the Olivia Thomas of 1864 was somehow related to her. “Could be a distant relative,” I muttered, as I shoveled in another bite of eggs and stared off into space.
I cleared my throat and turned back to Mr. Colt. “Um, Aunt Olivia... she was kind of a distant relative. We didn’t see each other very often. But we sent each other email once in awhile.”
The bearded man raised an eyebrow. “Email?”
“Uh, mail, I mean. You know... with a stamp.”
“I got a letter once,” piped up young Lemuel, as he harpooned a piece of ham with his fork.
“Hush, Lem,” said his mother.
“That’s cool,” I said to the little boy, who squirmed in his chair. “You can read and write?”
“’Course,” he replied, scooping a big clump of grits onto his fork. “I’m 10... I ain’t stupid. My big brother James wrote me from the war, four months ago.”
Suddenly a chill descended over the room. “Ah, that’s good,” I said, reaching for a glass of milk. “Is he coming back soon?” I almost asked which side is he fighting on, but I hesitated, since I couldn’t remember if Missouri fought for the North or the South in the Civil War.
There was a heavy silence at the table, a palpable change in the mood. Mrs. Colt froze in mid-step, an empty plate in her hand. Lem stared and blinked at me.
“Uh, you’ll have to show me that sometime,” I continued, trying to break the tension. “The letter, I mean.”
“I got chores to do,” said Travis abruptly, pushing himself back from the kitchen table. He pulled out a pocket watch and flipped open the silver-plated cover, which was dull and scratched, then snapped it shut. “I still got 40 minutes ‘fore school starts.” He headed for the door.
“Aren’t you forgettin’ something?” chided Mrs. Colt.
Travis rolled his eyes but came back, then gave her a quick peck on the cheek. There was something about him. My instincts took over.
“Hey, Travis,” I called, finishing the last of my breakfast and wiping my mouth. “You need some help? I mean, with your chores?”
He gave me a glance, a little surprised.
His mother shook her head. “Jason, you really should get back to bed until Doc Wells comes back to see you,” she chided.
“I’m feeling OK,” I replied, walking over to the blond teen. “It’s all good. I mean, I’ll just be out there for a few minutes.”
“That’s mighty nice of you, Jason,” Mr. Colt said, and gave me the first genuine smile I’d seen since I’d arrived. “But you’re our guest in this house. Wouldn’t be Christian-like to have you workin’ around here.”
“To tell you the truth, Mr. Colt, I could use a little exercise,” I said, as respectfully as I could. “Just for a few minutes. Y’know, stretch my legs. I slept almost 12 hours.”
Travis looked at me expectantly.
His father finally nodded. “Alright,” he said. “Just don’t go exertin’ yourself. And watch that head of yours. Don’t want ya to go bleedin’ all over the barn.”
I followed Travis out the back door. I shivered slightly in the early morning air, as we approached the larger barn on the left. The orange fingers of sunrise were creeping over the horizon, casting amber streaks along the dirt path. I caught a whiff of the pungent aroma of farm animals; there was a large pile of fertilizer outside the barn door, and four or five cows murmured inside.
“Quite a menagerie you have out here,” I said, casually.
“You a city boy?” he said, pushing his blond locks out of his eyes as he grabbed a burlap bag from a pile.
“I guess. My family’s been around Seattle for a long time. We live about ten miles north of downtown.”
He ripped open the feedbag and started pouring it into a tin bucket. “Thought you said you were from Can-a-da,” he said, emphasizing the middle syllable.
Ooops, I thought, mentally smacking myself. Better get my story straight.
“Can-ada,” I corrected. “Vancouver, actually. About three hours away from Seattle.”
He gave me a suspicious stare.
“How ‘bout those Canucks, eh?” I said hopefully, trying my best to approximate a Canadian accent.
Travis shrugged, then dropped the last of the feed into the bucket. I grabbed a second feedbag and tried to rip it open with my hands. It held fast, as if it were sewn with iron.
I cursed under my breath. “Piece of shit,” I said, biting the flap with my teeth. “Damn!” I yelped, as a stabbing pain reminded me of my injury in the cave. I gingerly touched the sore spot on my lip. “My mouth still hurts like crap.”
“Lemme help,” Travis said quietly. He produced a pocket knife and expertly slit the side, then handed the heavy bag to me. “There. Ya think you can handle that now?”
“Sorry. I’m kind of new to this farm thing. Uh, thang.”
He was silent as I poured the feed in the bucket. “There,” I said, when the last of it trickled in. “So, we a-gonna slop tha hawgs and all that?” I added, trying to approximate the Thomas family’s drawl. I had prided myself on having a pretty good ear for accents in my last drama class; I got a B+ on that exam, and the only thing that held me back from an A was my so-so Irish brogue.
Travis glared at me over his shoulder. “You makin’ fun of me?” he said, carrying the two buckets outside.
“No, no,” I said running out to keep up with him. “I jes’ thought... I mean, I just thought I’d try to fit in. Uh... with ya’ll.”
He barely looked up at me. “I seen boys like you before in school,” he said, carefully pouring the bucket into the horse trough. Two of the ponies whinnied in the distance and started to trot over, eager for their breakfast. “You think we’re a buncha hillbillies. Think you’re better’n us.”
Where had this come from? I wondered.
“No, no... you’ve got it all wrong,” I protested. “Really.”
He finished pouring the feed and let the bucket fall to the ground with a clank, then glared at me. “An’ you know what’s worse?” he said, taking a step towards me.
I was momentarily taken aback. Travis had a firm jaw, with a small cleft in his chin. His eyes were a deep shade of blue, and his shaggy blond hair caught the morning sun in just the right light, as if to give him a halo. I saw for the first time that his nose was slightly crooked, as if it had once been broken and never healed quite right, but this small imperfection made him even more handsome, if that was possible.
“Well?” he snapped.
I cleared my head, tried to concentrate, then cleared my throat. “Uh, sorry. No. What’s worse?”
He lowered his voice. “I think you’re a liar. You ain’t from no Can-a-da. That’s a lotta bull.”
“Look, Travis,” I said, running after him as he quickly walked back to the barn. “My name really is Jason Thomas. And I came to Missouri to stay with my Aunt Olivia for the summer. Swear to god.”
Travis shoved a pitchfork in a nearby bale of hay, and began breaking it up. “How you gonna prove it? You might be a runaway... or a deserter.”
“Gimme a sec.” I thought for a minute, then grabbed my wallet. I didn’t have a driver’s license, because I didn’t have my learner’s permit yet, but I did have an ID card for my school. I slipped it out of the plastic holder and handed it to him. “See? It’s even got my picture on it.”
“‘Jason R. Thomas,’” he said, reading out loud. “‘Student I-den-tifiction Card. Garfield High School, Class of 2009.’” He peered closer. “2009? What in tarnation is that?”
“It’s a typo,” I said, quickly grabbing back the card. "They meant, uh, 1867. That’s when I graduate.”
He glared at me. “Thought you were about my age. 15.”
I looked closer at his face. I had previously thought he was at least a couple of years younger than I was, judging by his face, which was boyish and innocent. But his shirtless body under his overalls was a lot more filled-out than my skinny frame, with wide shoulders and strong, muscular arms. A genuine corn-fed farm boy, I thought, eying him from his toes back up to his head. White-blond eyebrows, too. And that meant... whoa.
I shook my head, trying to dissipate Travis’ naked image from my mind’s eye.
“Uh, yeah,” I said nervously, turning away. “I turned 15 just a month ago.”
His eyes narrowed. “I think that was the first honest thing you’ve said since ya got here.”
Travis pushed past me, but I lightly grabbed his shoulder. He spun around, his eyes flashing with anger.
“Look, Travis,” I protested. “Really, I’m not lying to you. At least about the important stuff. I’m not trying to hurt anybody here. I just want to...” I had to stop myself from saying get myself back home. “I just want to figure out what to do next. I mean, with my Aunt Olivia dead and all. And I really appreciate you helping me out at the cave yesterday, and letting me stay here overnight.”
“Fine,” he said, scooping another load of hay into a wheelbarrow. “Just don’t hurt me or my family. Especially my little brother Lem. Leave him alone.”
Is that what this was all about?
“Hey, wait,” I said. “Look, Travis... I don’t know what your family situation is. I’m sorry if I brought up anything painful. We got wars back where I come from, too.”
He angrily slammed the pile of hay onto the wheelbarrow, making a sharp metallic clang. “My big brother James has been gone for dang near six months,” he said. “I know he’s dead, I just know it. My momma and my stepdad... they don’t wanna admit it. But I know it’s true as the day is long.”
I nodded to myself. “So Mr. Colt’s your stepfather,” I said.
“My real daddy died five years ago,” he said in a quiet voice. “Split his head clean open when he was out plowin’, spring of ’59. Took him four days to die.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “My father passed away, too.” It was still hard for me to say that. “Died in a car... I mean, when his wagon crashed.”
“Thought you said his heart gave out.”
I sighed. “Every word I said is true,” I said. Except the stuff I’m leaving out that would make you think I was crazy. “The doctors weren’t sure if my dad had the heart attack first and then the wreck, or vice-versa. Either way, he died.” I tried not to remember how his body had looked at the emergency room.
Travis stared at me. “You oughta at least try to get your story straight.”
“Anyway,” I continued, picking up a long strand of hay and using it to pick my teeth, “so Mr. Colt’s not your biological father. That explains the blond hair. You don’t look a thing like either of your parents.” Totally hot, I thought.
He took a threatening step towards me. “What’re
you tryin’ to say? I’m some kinda inbred hillbilly to you? My folks are ugly?
Like we ain’t as good as city folk from Can-a-da?” He emphasized the
“No, no,” I said, raising my hands in a mock surrender. “I’m just saying...” I looked up again, and I was again distracted when I saw his face. Jesus. He’s even more attractive when he’s angry. “Listen, Travis. I apologize. I meant to say you’re... well, a good-looking guy. Better than anybody I knew back home.”
Travis stabbed the pitchfork in the dirt, where it fell to the ground, then held up his fist as if to deck me. “Don’t ya go thinkin’ I’m some kinda country bumpkin you can make fun of,” he warned. “My momma didn’t raise no fools. You just watch yourself. I got things to do.”
And with that, he pushed past me and rolled the wheelbarrow back to the pen, leaving me alone in the barn. I sighed, then picked up the pitchfork where it lay on the dirt floor, then gently leaned it up against the edge of the barn door, and trudged back to the house.
Jesus, I mused, as I narrowly avoided a puddle.. Well, mom always said I had a way with people.
Just as I approached the back step leading up to the farmhouse, the door flew open and a little cyclone blew past me.
“Yo, Lem,” I called after the little boy. “You know where I can find a...” I wanted to say ‘bathroom,’ but that wasn’t the right word. “….um, a toilet? The facilities? A latrine?”
He stopped and trotted back. “You mean the outhouse?”
I nodded. That was the word. I’d heard it once in summer camp, when we stayed overnight by a lake, and had to use some Porta-Potties. To me, that was really roughing it, being without Internet access or satellite TV for an entire weekend.
“Privy’s right over there.” The boy continued out to the barn, where I heard him holler in the distance to his brother.
I followed his direction and approached a dilapidated 2-door wooden shed topped with a crudely-painted half-moon, located about twenty feet behind the farmhouse. One whiff and I knew I was in the right place. I opened the door on the right and was greeted with a small swarm of flies.
“All the comforts of home,” I muttered.
§ § § § §
Twenty minutes later, the two brothers left for school, joining a couple of friends on the dirt road leading east towards town. Mr. Colt left to “take care of some trouble with the sharecroppers in the back twenty,” whatever that meant, and Mrs. Colt led me down the hallway to Travis’ bedroom and insisted I take a nap.
“I’ll be out by the back porch, workin’ on the laundry,” she said, picking up the ceramic bowl on the floor. “I’ll be gone for a few hours on my errands, but I’ll be back by lunchtime. You rest that head of yours ’til I get back.”
As I lay in bed, I mused over the events of the past 24 hours. My Northwest flight had landed at Lambert-St. Louis Airport around 9 P.M., when my real Aunt Olivia had picked me up in her battered old Celica, and I’d gotten to bed by 11PM, pretty well zonked from the trip. I had awakened at about 8:00 AM, had a cup of tea and a bagel, and then helped my aunt lug an old computer monitor out to her car, so she could give it to charity. She’d be at work until a little after 6 P.M., but was going to bring home dinner from Wendy’s.
And that was the last I saw of her, I thought. I didn’t even get to give her a kiss goodbye.
I wondered what Aunt Olivia and my mother would think if I never came back. It would probably push my mom over the edge. She was already depressed after my dad died; this would really put her in a downward spiral. And my aunt would feel totally responsible.
“But it had nothing to do with you,” I said out loud. My eyes got a little watery.
Wait a minute, I thought, my mind momentarily clearing. None of this has to happen. All I have to do is to get back to the cave! If that accident — a time-warp, a black hole, or whatever the heck it was — if it could happen once, it could happen again. At least, that’s the way it worked on the old Star Trek show.
I leapt up from the bed and grabbed my backpack. I started to bolt out the door, but then stopped and looked back to the ceramic bowl on the ground, and the food tray by the bed. I whipped out my pad and scrawled a note:
Dear Mr. & Mrs. Colt —
Thanks for your hospitality, but I don’t want
a burden to your family. I’m going to try to find
my home another way.
I really appreciate your kindness.
Before I laid it down on my pillow, I made one last addition:
P.S. — Tell Travis I’m sorry about this
And please say goodbye to him and his brother Lem for me.
OK, it wouldn’t win any awards for creativity, but it got the point across. I slung the backpack across my shoulder and continued out to the living room, then reached for the front door.
The grandfather clock behind me chimed 9 A.M.. I remembered to reset my wristwatch, and then opened the door, only to find a dark shadow blocking my exit.
It was a tall man with a full moustache, longish brown hair, and very bushy sideburns, almost a beard, except his chin was clean-shaven. He wore a gray vest and coat, with a silver star pinned on the right side. Twin revolvers were strapped to his waist.
“You that Thomas boy?” he asked. “Olivia’s nephew?”
“That would be me,” I replied.
“I’m Sheriff Baxter, Denton Baxter.”
I shook his hand and tried to stay calm. There’s no way he knows who I really am, I thought. Or what time I’m from.
“We got some questions for you. Official business from Judge Hamilton Shaw at the County seat. He’s waitin’ in his office at the courthouse.”
He gestured towards his horse and buggy, and I reluctantly got in, praying that the man wouldn’t realize how terrified I was.
§ § § § §
It seemed my “beloved Aunt Olivia” was a little more well-off than my real Aunt from 2007. Her property was just down the road, and in fact covered two thousand acres, nearly twice as large as the Colt’s land that adjoined it. Olivia’s property hadn’t been very well-maintained since the death of her husband about ten years before; the once-prosperous farmland was now just a few square miles of dust and weeds. But somehow, it was still worth just under $2200. I got the impression that was a good chunk of change here in 1864.
“House is pret’ near gone,” the sheriff said, as we kicked through the ashes and rubble.
A light wind scattered some of the fragments, bringing with it the stale odor of charred wood and soot. I could see that the fire had started from the right side of the house, by her bedroom. The only thing left standing was a tower of blackened brick from what was left of the chimney. Must’ve been a helluva fire, I thought, examining a few fragments of melted pottery on the ground. It reminded me of a war documentary on Iraq I had just seen on TV before I left my home in Seattle.
“We found her body over here,” the sheriff called, and I shuffled through the blackened chips and and broken glass to what remained of a corner of the house. “What was left of her, anyway. We buried the remains over there by the trees.”
I turned to see three white crosses in the distance, one of them faded and worn. I did some quick guesswork. “Ah,” I said. “One for my uncle, and the other for her dog.”
Baxter nodded. I had seen an old doghouse to the side of the farmhouse, and figured that was her whole family.
“We also found this.” He opened up an envelope and handed it to me. “Picture of her and her kin — her only brother, I guess.”
“That’d be Walter,” I blurted, then mentally slapped myself for mentioning my father’s name. The small sepia-brown tin photograph showed a woman in her 30s, scowling at the camera, with a teenage boy standing beside her. They each had the same prominent nose. I took a chance. “Walt Thomas,” I continued, crossing my fingers. “He was my dad. Aunt Olivia was his sister.” The young man in the photograph really did bear a slight resemblance to the way my father looked in pictures taken in the 1980s.
Sheriff Baxter turned the picture frame over and
showed it to me. “Ain’t no name written down. Can’t ‘member if Walter was his
name or not, but it might’ve been. But Olivia had no local family to speak of.
Far as I’m concerned, you might just be her only heir. Got any identification?”
I nodded. As long as they don’t ask too many questions about it.
“If you’re feelin’ up to it, I think Judge Shaw would be interested in talkin’ to you.” He gave me a look like there was no way I could say no.
We rode the long way back into town in silence, the old wagon bouncing along the dirt road. If I could pull this off without getting arrested, I thought, Mrs. Adams, my old drama teacher, is gonna have to give me an award.
§ § § § §
As it turned out, the Judge was an amiable middle-aged man, balding, with enormous grey sideburns that protruded out several inches from each side of his jaw. I tried not to stare at his bulbous nose, which was crisscrossed with a patchwork of bright red veins. The stench from his cigar filled his chambers, which were located just behind the main county courtroom.
I had taken the precaution of carefully tearing the “2009” off the corner of my student I.D. card during a bathroom break earlier. I also had a laminated Pacific Theaters movie pass that had my name on it (and no date). Other than that, I had nothing else on me, save for $17 in 2007 cash, a few coins, a pen, and my pocket notepad.
“Well, the picture looks like you,” Judge Poole said, examining my school ID, peering at it closely through his eyeglasses. “How’d they get the tintype under the paper like this?” He ran his finger over it, as if trying to figure out how to take it apart.
“Something new they came up with,” I said quickly. I took the card back and slipped it into my left pocket.
“What’s that you got there, son?” the judge asked, eying my pants pocket.
“Just my notebook,” I said, pulling it out half way to give him a glimpse.
“Mind if I take a look at it?”
I shrugged and handed it over, pretty certain there was nothing incriminating in it.
“Call Aunt Olivia at 2 P.M.,” he read, then looked up at me. “You wrote this when?”
“Yesterday morning,” I said truthfully. I had made a note before I went into the cave.
“And that was hours before you found out about what happened,” he mused.
I nodded. “I was supposed to stay with her, and...” I decided to let my acting gear rev up a little. “And, y’know, maybe help out on her farm. I mean, I’m from the city and all, but I figured I could help out a bit to, uh... earn my keep. Sir.”
The judge nodded. “Young people today don’t seem to have a mind t’ helping their elders. They seem more interested goin’ out and havin’ adventures in the war than stayin’ home and makin’ themselves useful. I’ll give this matter some thought.” He handed my notepad back to me. “You say that Olivia Thomas was your father’s sister. Do you have any other living relatives?”
I shook my head. “Only my mom. My grandparents on the Thomas side passed away in...” — I did some quick mental arithmetic — “...back in 1857.”
A wall clock chimed solemnly in the distance. “Well,” he said, “in Missouri, state law only recognizes a blood relative, so that seems to me you’d be the only heir to Mrs. Thomas’ estate. I’ll make some inquiries over to Jefferson City and have the district attorney check the land deeds on file. If nobody makes a claim after 90 days, as far as I’m concerned, the property’s yours.”
Like I’m gonna need that in 2007, I thought. But I had to go along with this for now.
“Thank you kindly, Judge,” I said, trying to approximate his drawl. “I know Aunt Olivia would’ve ‘preciated that.”
“That is,” he said, peering over his glasses and leaning towards me, “if you’re really who you say you are.”
There was an uncomfortable pause.
I looked him right in the eye. “Sir,” I began, in a calm, measured voice, “I’ve been Jason Zachary Thomas for 15 years that I know of. I’m supposed to be staying with my Aunt Olivia Thomas here in St. Louis. And I’m positive I’m her only living relative.” All the truth, minus a few details. I mentally crossed my fingers.
Both the sheriff and the judge gave me the once-over.
“So help you God?” Judge Poole asked finally.
I raised my right hand. “I swear. So help me, God.” I felt like I was on an episode of Boston Legal.
No one spoke for five long seconds. I held my breath, partly in suspense, partly from trying not to inhale the cigar fumes.
The judge took one last puff on his cigar and let out a long stream of blue smoke, hissing like a snake. “That’s good enough for me, son,” he said finally, as he sat back and gave me a broad smile. “You can’t get to be someone in my position without knowin’ when a man’s tellin’ the truth. And you got an honest face, boy.”
“Thanks, Judge,” I said. “I’m... uh, much obliged to you.” He extended his hand, and I shook it, trying not to choke on the blue cloud that hovered around his desk.
“Olivia didn’t have much, after her husband Joshua died six or seven years back,” he said, consulting some paperwork on his desk. “Little less than $800 cash in the bank. Couple of old horses that died in the barn. The farm was almost gone, ‘cept for the sharecroppers. She had to sell off the slaves awhile back, right after Joshua passed away.”
The sheriff turned to me. “The workers told us they didn’t know about the fire until it was too late. They were pretty broken up about it. I think they’ve all moved on now.”
Judge Shaw signed some papers on his desk and handed them to Baxter. “Sheriff, take this young man down to the Federal Bank across the street, and have him fill out the necessary forms for Olivia Thomas’ accounts. By law, he can only withdraw up to eighty dollars, at least until the hearing at the end of the month. That should more than cover your living expenses for a while.” He turned back to me. “Legally, Jason, you can’t own property in Missouri until you’re 18, married, or an Army veteran. But I’ll see to it the property is put in a trust in your name until that time. And you can draw on the interest every few months.”
I nodded, then started to get out of my seat.
“One more thing, son,” the judge said. “We have a more serious problem.”
I sat back down, bracing myself.
“As a minor in the state of Missouri,” he continued, “you need a place to stay, and a temporary guardian to be responsible for you. Can’t have you running around, willy-nilly.”
“My aunt’s property...”
“No proper place for a boy like you to live on,” the judge said, shaking his head. “You could stay in one of the boarding houses here in town, though technically, you might be better off in the city orphanage on the other side of town.”
Uh-oh, I thought. I’ll never be able to get back to the cave if they do that.
“What about the Colt’s place?” I said quickly. “I mean, I’ve only known them for a day, but maybe I could stay there just, uh... for the duration.”
“Only if’n Seth Colt would be willing to be your temporary guardian,” observed the sheriff.
“I could pay them out of the estate money,” I suggested. “Maybe $20 a week?”
Both the judge and the sheriff laughed. Apparently I had no clue as to what anything cost in this bizarre world.
“I think three dollars a week for room and board would be plenty,” he said. “You hang on to that money, because you’ll need it for the months ahead.” He turned to the sheriff. “Mr. Baxter, I’ll prepare the paperwork for the Colts to become this young man’s temporary guardian for the next 90 days. Assuming they’ll agree, of course.”
The sheriff attempted a grin, but on his dour face, it looked more like a wince. “Knowin’ Seth, three dollars a week would more than convince him.”
“Then it’s decided,” the judge said, straightening out the papers on his desk. “I think that’d be for the best, anyway. Our orphanage is a mite overcrowded. Must be at least fifty children too many in that godforsaken place.”
As the sheriff and I made our way out of the office, Judge Shaw called out to me. I turned.
“Olivia was a disagreeable woman,” he said. “Kept mostly to herself. Her neighbors steered clear of her, because of her infernal temper. I knew her years ago, before her husband died. Back then she was cantankerous, but fair-minded.”
I nodded. “Yeah. She always had strong opinions. My dad always thought she was a little wacko — crazy, that is — but we loved her anyway.”
The judge chuckled. “Yep, that was our Olivia. Good luck to ya, son. And I’ll expect to see you back in my courtroom on...” He consulted a calendar book on his desk, and made a note in it. “Friday, October 28th. Just a formality.”
“Got it,” I replied, then followed the sheriff out the door. Of course, there was no way I actually planned to stay here. I’d be back home in 2007 soon enough, but I’d have to put up with this peculiar world for just awhile longer.
§ § § § §
I waited an hour after the sheriff dropped me off back at the Colt farmhouse before making my move. I managed to avoid seeing Mrs. Colt, and luckily, she hadn’t yet made the bed and seen my note. No use getting them upset too early, I thought.
I went through my plan in my head, one more time. There was no way I could possibly survive in this crazy place. I had to get back to the cave, and hope that whatever bizarre circumstances that had led me here would send me back home.
And what if it didn’t work? That was plan B. And I’d figure that out only after I had exhausted every other possibility underground. What other choices did I have?
I went through my backpack one more time to check my supplies, and remembered that my cellphone was still missing. I’d probably dropped it in the dirt outside the cave when I fell the day before. Well, I thought, it’s not as if somebody can run up my long-distance bill here.
The sky was gray and overcast, and the clouds on the western horizon looked menacing. I retraced my steps about half a mile back down the old dirt road that led to the river bank. I looked around to get my bearings. While I had been pretty groggy the day before, I was stone-cold wide awake now. How could I not tell this wasn’t 2007 anymore, I thought. It seemed so obvious now — the smell, the feel, everything about this place was wrong. I checked my watch. It was already 1:10 P.M. Mrs. Colt had probably found my note by now. I felt a pang of guilt, but shook it off.
A small wind whipped up, and I shivered as a few cold drops of rain splattered on my back. I struggled back up the muddy path that led to the hill, which was a lot more difficult than it had been going down. After several frustrating minutes of searching, I finally reached the spot where I’d fallen the day before, when I’d tumbled out of the cave. Parts of my footprints were still visible in the dirt, my sneaker treads standing out from the bare feet of the boys from yesterday.
But where was the opening? All that was there now was a giant heap of mud and debris, fresh enough that it might have slid down the night before.
“Goddammit,” I said, dropping my backpack to the ground. “How the hell am I ever gonna get back inside the cave now?” I yelled, to no one in particular.
“You mean our cave,” said a voice behind me.
I turned to discover Frank and Jesse, the two boys I’d met the day before, along with a third boy I hadn’t seen before.
They began walking towards me, and Frank pulled out a knife. “If ya think you’re gonna git away with goin’ in there alive, ya better think again.”
Special thanks to WBMS for editorial advice.