Time Vortex '75

In 2005, we received word of our Aunt Mary's death from the Burshire County Sheriff. My brothers, sisters and I fell into a state of shock. Officials spent a full week digging through the County computer database before finding us, her next of kin. It came as a surprise, since for twenty years, we thought she was already dead.

For me, the news ushered in a flood of trauma.

Thirty years earlier, I was kidnapped at the age of seven by a bearded man acquainted with Aunt Mary. We only knew of his connection with her because we often saw him with her during family functions. Mary, from what I remembered, carried herself like a wisp. She parted her long brown hair down the middle. Aesthetically, she belonged on an early seventies album cover, or in some old film reel footage from Haight-Ashbury or Woodstock. She held her thin lips together like someone with a secret. The man with the big black beard approached me in his Oldsmobile cutlass one wintry day after school. His beard hid his face well enough, giving him an appearance like a more slender Bluto. I recall the massive yellow tinted ray bans across his nose. They, along with his beard, defined his face. They're all I remembered of him for twenty years.

On that wintry day, he pulled up beside me and urged me to get in. Quick, he said, it is an emergency, or something along those lines. He told me that my parents needed me to go with him. I didn't remember his voice, but I recalled a room with wood paneling, and a grey window with steady rain patter outside, and a big wood panel television running a soap opera like General Hospital or One Life to Live. The man gave me chocolate milk. I got sleepy. I recalled disorientation, but not fear. The man came in and out of the place, but when he stayed indoors with me, he sat in the corner of the room and watched me, silent, impassive.

What I remembered right after that, is the police barged through the apartment and grabbed me. They yanked me so quickly up off the floor that I got whiplash. I believed then that the men with guns were punishing me for being somewhere I was not supposed to be, so I cried and cried. I remember how rough they were and how they scooped me up and ran me out and placed me in a police car; how I felt I had committed a crime and how I continued to cry all the way to the police station.

In the weeks after the kidnapping, my parents never sat down with me about it. Who was Aunt Mary's companion? Did she know about what he had done? I was too young and too afraid to know how to push them on the issue. As far as they were concerned, it was all behind us and I needed to start living my life like a normal kid. I remember raised voices night after night from the front room through my locked bedroom door. Soon after that, my parents disavowed Aunt Mary and refused to discuss the event with me or my brothers and sisters. We were locked out and hidden away from the incident, and the hope was, I sensed, that it would just go away.

Only it didn't.

I began to have night terrors. They got so bad that I woke up screaming for at least a year. In most of the nightmares, there was the same expressionless face, almost totally hidden by that black void of a beard. He stood poised in every nightmare like a department store figurine, and he watched me from the far corner of a room, or through a window, and every time, I could not move a muscle.

At a certain age, I'd had enough of secrets. I pushed back and confronted my parents about that weird, scary day. In response, they told me, unambiguously, that Aunt Mary and her friend went to prison and died. They did not know why it happened, or exactly when, but they told me they agonized during the entire week I was gone and were so relieved when they got me back.

I was gone a full week? Absurd. I was only gone for a single afternoon.

I remember the last time I saw my parents. They gathered their bags for a trip and I harangued them through the house, following them from room to room, yelling at them like any petulant teenager. I raged at them for keeping me in a state of fear by not telling me anything about my kidnapping. They held a unified front against me, though. They looked briefly disappointed at my outbursts and only shrugged their shoulders apologetically. They were both diplomats, and they chose not to engage me. They did, however, promise me that they'd ring me from Belgium and talk with me 'when I calmed down.'

A day later, their plane hovered somewhere over the Atlantic, en route to Luxembourg, when a late flight path alteration, low visibility and pilot error sent it to a watery grave.

In the years that followed, I sought out the police report and found nothing. I searched every available database I could find, and found nothing. I even suspected my own late parents of having their friends at the local P.D. sweep the case under the rug, to avoid embarrassment on the family and on us. I wouldn't put it past them.

Now, twenty years after their death, we all reeled from the news about Aunt Mary from Burshire County. As it turns out, she lived longer than our parents. Her last name had changed. She must have married at some point, but for some time, she'd obviously lived as a hermit. Her cabin, they told us, sat some ways back from the eight-lane Freeway north of the City. We - meaning my brothers, sisters and I - all decided to visit this place, the place she called home. We sprung to action and rented a truck for the purposes of taking items back with us. We'd start by surveying the place for a quick sale, then itemize it and haul any of the larger items away by ourselves. We might have just as easily hired someone else to do all the work, but curiosity struck us.

For me, mere curiosity would not have been enough. I felt as if the earth had slid out from underneath me, and that I was falling. I was normally neurotic and overprotective. Therapy took me only so far as to understand the nature of the problem, but as my therapist said, I had to devise ways to solve the problem myself. All my therapists, after a while, chalked my issues up to 'indistinct childhood trauma,' but I dismissed them all in turn. By telling me the one thing in my life that would always remain a mystery was the answer to my problems, they only contributed to my frustration.

My wife, Ellen, was over eight months along. As her due date loomed, my nightmares returned. Any other circumstance would not have pulled me from her and my unborn son, but something compelled me to go make peace with Aunt Mary's ghost before I became a father. There were things I felt the need to put to rest first, before at last embarking on a new chapter, with fatherhood and all that came with it. Thoughts of losing her or the child plagued me. I couldn't leave Ellen alone for a moment without freaking out.

For the first time in twenty years, I felt within reach of a heretofore unknown piece of a family puzzle. As I saw it, the link to our Aunt Mary, from my parents, was a severed cord keeping me in the dark. A part of my youth stayed locked and held me back in a state of perpetual, fearful, neurosis. I determined to confront it head-on, in hopes of unearthing something useful, something that might allow me to move on with my life.

Even if Aunt Mary's cabin turned up as barren, stark and unreliable as my memories, an unfinished part of me still hoped for closure. However irrational, I had to confront it. I took some extra time off from work, on top of my paternity leave, and set out for Burshire County with my siblings. Ellen supported my endeavor, but I left our house feeling anxious and afraid.

We all drove up in a caravan - my brother and I in my Nissan Altima, and the rest of them crammed together in the U haul.

The small cabin stood, essentially by itself, just four miles east of Stinson, somewhere in a stretch of redwood forest outside of town. It wasn't hard to find. I programmed the GPS on the dash and we set out past rows of technology suites on either side of the freeway, toward the northern wilderness. Someone on the satellite radio droned on about the latest tech fad. I thought about switching over to my iPod, something meditative like jazz or even electronica, but my brother, a gadget freak, slapped my hand away. I placed my cell phone on the dash, expecting it to light up any moment with an urgent call from Ellen. I'd then have to turn back around, apologize to my brother, speed through the bridge's Fast-pass lane, and swift Ellen safely to the hospital. No such call came, though, and we continued north. The technology program ended, and some debate on the Iraq War ensued.

Our caravan reached the exit close to sundown. We passed a modern road flanked by condos, but soon those grew sparse, and at last we finally found ourselves at a large gate at the edge of a wood. There was a tall fence flanking the gate, and past the fence, a deep, impassable ravine choked with brush that seemed to stretch on in both directions. We parked and got out. I pulled out the key given to us from the County and struggled briefly with the rusted Masterlock and chain. A very small hiking path lay behind the gate; it was our only way in. It was clear to all of us that no vehicle would fit through the gate, nor could any car or person traverse the ravine.

We argued for a few minutes about what to do, and at the end it was determined that we needed to leave our cars by the gate, stick together, and walk toward the place to process its remains. After a quarter mile of walking through brush and weed, our phone signals all went out. I immediately began to panic, but I kept it to myself. What if Ellen had called? What if the baby came early? What if she needed me?

Grey light filtered through the trees overhead, and the light around us dimmed. We walked in shade and silence.

At last, we saw the cabin. Redwoods and thickets of poison oak had swallowed it whole. Ancient cobwebs draped the exterior like a sheet of thin gauze. The front door was a block of wood nailed hastily to a hinge, and the screen door was in tatters.

"She lived here?" mused my older sister. "That's awful."

The smell of natural gas hit us the moment we stepped in the door. Clutter and the smell of decay made it difficult to breathe. The interior lay in shambles. We made out an old fashioned rocking chair, a long, deep couch covered in plastic, and several alcoves housing piles of mismatched porcelain animals. My younger sister got the light switch, and its dull amber cast provided us with just enough light to avoid tripping. I promised myself that I would give it fifteen or twenty minutes, then head back to the gate and immediately call Ellen. A far off song played in my head for no reason.

We opened a window to let the cool forest air drift in. Stacks of newspapers lay all about the room. Some of them were quite old and mashed against the corner and some were stuffed inside a burnt orifice that must have once been a fireplace.

"Oh, shit." said my brother, looking over at me. "Oh, shit, Tom, that's him. Fuck."

He grabbed the framed picture with both hands and detached it from the wall, holding it out in front of him like a trophy. It was a portrait, photographed in a gauzy, rustic style. Two people lay together there, in front of an ocean at sunset. A cypress tree was artfully framed behind them. Our Aunt Mary, looking young and beautiful, had her arms around a shirtless bearded man. She looked shy and frail, just as I'd remembered from my youth.

"That's them, right? That's the guy that nabbed you?" my brother asked, though he already knew the answer.

Seeing the picture turned my stomach. Something about the the weird sensual pose of the portrait knocked me back. It got even harder to breathe.

"That's enough," I said. "John, put it down."

"What, do you remember something?"

He placed the picture hastily back on the wall. It mocked me still: two smiling faces, even his, through the black beard. They smiled and hugged and grabbed children off the streets, I thought. If I saw them now, I'd hurt them.

"Just give me a moment." I bent forward, my hands on my knees. The room was spinning. "Just give me a second, John, god dammit."

He touched my arm, and then wandered into the kitchen with my other brother. I could hear low murmuring and the clatter of dishes.

My sisters spoke from another room in the back of the cabin. I heard them pulling out trash bags and speaking excitedly to each other. The light in the front room, where I now found myself alone, dimmed. I felt dizzy. I gazed over at the picture on the wall, of the two lovers at sunset. I smelled food. The voices from the other room got muffled, like a door had been shut. It almost sounded like singing. It was singing.

I jumped out of my skin as I recognized the sound of the music. It was loud. I recognized it as a song called "Far Away" by Carole King.

Traveling around sure gets me down and lonely
Nothing else to do but close my mind

"Who fucking did that?!" I yelled. The room throbbed. I felt as if I swam through the air. I wandered to the back room, awash in the jingly piano and sad, insistent vocals. The amber light shifted as I walked, like a row of candles being snuffed out, one after another. Neither of my sisters were there. I was alone. A pale and ghostly light shone through a single window in the far wall.

Everything spun for a second, then I felt two consecutive sensations: a hot flash, followed by the sudden vertigo of hanging upside down. The light through the window spun and grew bright. I felt then like a jagged sundial on the edge of a turning world. I looked down to steady myself, and saw my shoes, framed by light streaming in through the window. The light changed, then slowed, then stopped. I found my footing. I still stood in the room, but it was bare, and clean, and bright. Through the window, a man peered in at me. I saw thick glasses and a beard, then he lumbered out of view.

I inhaled quickly, then backed away into a bright, new room. Mustard yellow and avacado green designs splashed the walls and shag carpet. The brick fireplace at one end of the room nursed a weakening fire. The music grew louder. It spun out from a phono player at the end of the room where newspapers once stood in dusty piles.

A young woman - not either of my sisters - sat in a brown leather chair, knitting. She saw me and immediately leaped up screaming, and tossed her knitting needles into the air.

The front door swung open and the man from outside rushed in at me. Thick cuts of firewood dropped from his arms and spilled out all over the carpet.

"What the shit?" he moaned. "Who are you, man?"

The lady - impossibly, my Aunt Mary - kept screaming, even as she backed away into the kitchen. I stayed
fixed on the front door. No trace of my siblings anywhere.

"You stay right there!" he said. He picked up a piece of firewood with a sharp edge and yelled past me. "What the fuck do you gotta say about this, huh?!"

"I don't know 'im! I swear I don't know!" she cried, desperately, from the kitchen.

I made a gesture to move around him, but he stopped me.

"No, no, no! I'm takin' care of you." the man yelled at me. "Then I'm taking care of you, woman!" he screamed over my shoulder. He headed straight for me, still yelling.

For those few moments, my muscles seized, but my paralysis loosened in time for me to tear past him. His hands brushed past my my neck but I wrenched myself out of the way. The mournful music from the phono played on, even as I ran from the cabin.

You're so far away
Doesn't anybody stay in one place anymore?
It would be so fine to see your face at my door

His yelling continued as I ran into the woods, further and further from the cabin and toward the car. I ran down the only trail I saw. I didn't look back. From there, I'd drive back down the freeway and call Ellen and try to reach my family, and make it home and try to work things out from there. The trail looked less and less like the one I'd just been on.

Distant yelling continued from several hundred yards behind me.

I heard him yell,

"I got my gun, you son of a bitch! You gonna get tired, man! I got my gun!"

There was a clearing ahead, past a small raised path that cut through the ravine. The daylight rose up around me where dusk should have been. Bushes no longer flanked the path. No gate, and no wall in sight, and the ravine looked newly dug cleared of brush. A car was still parked there, only it wasn't the U Haul or my Altima. Instead, it was a startlingly familiar blue Oldsmobile Cutlass. Aside from some dried mud near the undercarriage, it was in great condition.

I heard nothing behind me, so I stopped and wiped my forehead with my shirt. I whipped out my phone to call the police, but the device felt wrong. The buttons and screen were blackened and fused together into a burnt plastic mess. It was unrecognizable. Same with my wallet.

The car's windows all hung open. I peered inside. The ignition key poked out from the big metal steering column. I opened the door and got in. I spotted a wad of money and piles of loose coins in the side door ashtray. I trembled at the odd, familiar odor of cigar smoke and fruit candy as I sat down.

Through the slanted front windshield, I spotted a figure trudging across the ravine toward me and the vehicle, a small dark shape in his hand. That was enough for me to start the car and wheel it quickly onto the road. I gunned it anxiously, my heart hammering in my chest, glancing through the rear mirror every two seconds. I caught some dark lines down my neck, and some kind of grey ash on my temples. I stopped looking at my face through the mirror long enough to see a figure standing in the clearing, about a hundred yards behind me. He looked as if he aimed a gun. I sped up and almost hit the edge of the ravine, which continued on to my right, but I kept my feet off the brakes and got the wheel under control and righted myself just in time. I fumbled instinctively for automatic window buttons, but found hand cranks instead and jerked them all up.

I was too far away for him to reach, and further away with each second. I didn't allow myself even a moment to reflect on my situation, and how insane and disoriented I felt at my core. The earth no longer spun as it did in the cabin, but the light streaming through the windows felt foreign, as if from a distant sun on an alien landscape. I glanced at the melted plastic blob beside me in the long front seat. Something was wrong on the road. None of the condos passed me now. It was only woods and pasture. I felt sure I was completely lost. Nothing felt right, in fact, but I kept driving.

The sign for US 101 came into view. The overpass was gone, but a turnoff still branched out on the freeway. I guided the Olds onto a two lane stretch of raised asphalt. Again, that unsteady sensation hit me again, a feeling like I was an asteroid drifting perilously far from a center of gravity somewhere, mere moments from becoming completely unhinged and spiraling into the dark corner of some galaxy. I felt this membrane of sanity beginning to stretch, like a stick pushing hard a latex glove.

There were plenty of cars out around me, and they were all vintage, all belonged on obscure used lots or vintage car shows. I couldn't tell right away from the drivers and car passengers, but as I neared the first exit - which I was determined to take - I saw that the hairstyles and sleeves visible all around me were all too consistently off from what I knew to be right.

I grabbed the exit and immediately saw a Mobil Lubricants station on the right with an accompanying sign, and a row of phone booths out in front of it. Across the street stood a coffee shop with a slanted roof and a chunky brick facade. There were two phone booths set up against its side as well. I saw at least a few dozen cars. I recognized some Monte Carlos, a red Chevy and a cream colored Datsun, all in great condition.

The pungent odor of gasoline hit me once I stepped out from the car. I was anxious to leave the fruity cigar scent far behind me, but first, I grabbed a dollar and some coins from the car door and stuffed it in my pocket. A stocky forty-something man with leathery skin and a comb-over passed me on the sidewalk. He slung a cream-colored suit over his shoulder. A cigarette dangled from his mouth. Both of his white shirtsleeves had been rolled up to his elbows.

I felt idiotic as I asked,

"Sir, what's the year?"

He stopped and turned to face me. His eyes flicked up at me, then back to the ground, and he inhaled deeply on his cigarette. The noises of the distant freeway shook the air like a series of increasingly guttural monster trucks.

"You nut." he said. "You gone bananas? Get out of my face. Go clean yourself up, you bum. Don't bother me."

He looked disgusted. I noticed that my hands were filthy with the same ash I'd noticed on my face. He backed away from me, holding his coat in front of him like a shield. I waved him off and headed for the Pacific Telephone booth in front of the coffee shop.

I stepped inside. Ten cents for a call. The doors of the booth swiveled shut, blotting out the freeway noise. The man with the coat still stood out near the main road, staring in at me.

One look at the phone book, and I felt sick.

Three wavy lines were splashed onto the page and went from bright yellow, to mustard yellow, to brown. Below, the old Yellow Pages logo with the phone handset graphic just above it. Above, a bell logo on the right side with the words Pacific Telephone, followed by the words San Rafael. Yellow Pages 1975. 

I picked up the receiver and dropped in ten cents, and dialed Ellen's number. I heard a series of clicks, then three tones, and an operator's error message. You have dialed an incorrect number. I hung up.

I burst out of the booth and walked into the coffee shop. Tony Bennett or Vic Damone played overhead; I couldn't tell. Heavy smoke drifted past the amber lights hanging over the bar. Every table was occupied. I smelled cigarettes and old spice. I saw men with briefcases, mostly, and a few older women with their husbands. Almost everyone under forty wore suits and work clothes. The deafening chatter made me dizzy, but I made it to the bar.

I asked the server for a coffee. She could well have been eighty. Her perfume hung thick between us and overpowered even the cigarette smoke that danced around in eddies around the red stools. I went to the bathroom and wiped my face with some paper towels. The ash on my face looked like a fine dust or dirt. It wiped off quickly with some soap and water. Caked blood ran down from my ears and onto my neck. Why the hell were my ears bleeding? I wiped it off, too. Someone in the stall rustled a newspaper and coughed uncontrollably. Whoever it was, he smoked in there.

I headed back out and found a tiny mug of black coffee waiting for me. I needed something stronger. I ordered a hot plate of breakfast, and it arrived, salty and full of lard. I never remembered food tasting that way After eating, I sat, feeling bit sick and exposed at the counter. The music played all around, faint but unmistakably Sinatra. Two men took the stools to my right.

I pulled out what was left of my cell phone and spun it slowly in my hands. I brought it up to my face, peering at it for any evidence of what it used to be. I was hoping for something, anything. I thought, cell phones haven't been invented yet, and laughed a little bit inside. A series of emotions ran through me, one after the other. I suddenly felt Godlike, superior to all these people around me. I knew their future. But what did it matter? My superiority faded and I felt naked and alone again. What if anything I said just got me locked away? I needed to get some focus, and fast, because whenever I let my mind wander, I began to feel unglued, unhinged. I didn't dare dwell on Ellen too long, either, or my siblings, or where they might be, or if I'd ever see them again. Dammit, I was doing it, dwelling on things out of my control. Therapy taught me to try to focus, so I tried. I got my act together, still rotating the charred shape in my hands like a meditation stone, and thought it out.

I knew how this would play out. After a while, if I didn't wake up, or come to my senses, I'd wonder if I was an amnesiac who dreamed a life in the future. I had no physical evidence, or nothing that wasn't either charred beyond recognition or burned to a crisp. I could take the tags or dates on my clothing and show it to anyone who would take the time to look, and they'd see tags with a misprinted year. There was no internet to corroborate most of what I said. Maybe there were ways to stay sane, or to prove to others where I was from, but honestly, I wasn't clever enough to think of them. I'd spent all morning running from something far worse than anything around me now. I only just caught my breath. Maybe if I just laid low for a while, my mind could stop racing and I'd think of something.

I leaned forward and sipped from the mug, listening to the men beside me discuss politics.

"How the heck are ya? You hear he pulled 'em out?"

"Saigon's GONE, man. We lost it. Ford's an idiot. He pardoned Tricky Dick, now what, he'll pardon hussy Hanoi Jane?"

The guy farthest from me laughed. I heard the rustle of a newspaper.

"Here's the skinney, Stan. He's signing the Tax Reduction thingamabob, he's doing it to-day, I think."

"I know, I know." the guy next to me grumbled. "Well, I'll tell you. I don't give a good goddamn. I'll say it again, Ford's an idiot."

"Wait until you see President Bush." I remarked almost under my breath. I said it casually, but regretted saying it the second I spoke.

"What's that?" the guy next to me asked. He turned to look at me. Like almost everyone else, he was smoking. I noticed a bright paisley tie under his suit coat, and a chunky wristwatch on his left hand. He tapped his cigarette against the ashtray and looked at me, waiting for an answer.

Who did I think I was? I hadn't come to grips with my situation, hadn't grasped the enormity of what was all around me. I'd fled from being shot and faced with evidence of the current year, I wilted. I had just stopped running and sat in a coffee shop that should not by any rights or rules exist, and yet here it was. They smoked and discussed the topics of the day. They grumbled about politics.

As far as I knew, this was an ordinary weekday morning for everyone around me, even if it was most extraordinary for me. To them, I was an insane outsider, just words away from the back of a Streets of San Francisco-era police car or worse, a padded room in an unregulated seventies-era institution. Shutup Tom, I yelled inwardly. Shut the fuck up. Don't say a word to anybody about shit you know. You cannot sound sane, no matter how you put it. SHUT. UP.

"Sorry, no, don't mind me." I laughed nervously. "You wouldn't know. Bush is just some guy where I'm from who thinks he's President. If he ever goes places, we're in trouble."

"Oh, ok." he replied, satisfied. He didn't really care, anyway. He shifted his focus. "We got some delusional maroons running the show, don't we?"

His partner replied, "But we got their number, right?"

"That's right, Ken. We got their number, alright." They both laughed.

That gave me an idea. I gulped down the last of the coffee and left the fifty cents on the counter. I asked the two men for directions, as casually as possible, and they happily obliged. I asked them to write the directions down on a piece of paper so I wouldn't forget, and walked out just as Van Morrison's 'Moondance' began to play.

While driving there, I took the time to try and still my heart, and think, and take everything in. The signs that passed me were impossible to ignore. I couldn't help grinning like an idiot at other people in cars, or at bus stops. Some of them looked back at me blankly. They must have wondered what I was smoking.

I marveled at how similar everything looked, apart from the cars, which were mostly beat up vintage fifties and sixties cars: Chevy Bel Airs, Studebaker pickups, and plenty of models like mine. Lots of litter - bottles, newspapers, cans - lay smashed against curbs. Signs and ads by the side of the road struck me the most. They felt hokey to me. I saw the Marlboro man, and plenty of big local affiliate ads on benches with black and white photos of journalists with giant sideburns and glasses. I saw a giant billboard with a still-young Mick Jagger looming out. So many thoughts came to me about things I could see, and hear, and do, and change, but focus was really my only friend. I had to seize it, or it would dissipate, and leave me forever.

Forty minutes and a few wrong turns later, I arrived at the Department of Motor Vehicles. Something occurred to me as I walked inside and looked around: I felt immediately comfortable there because it hadn't really changed in thirty years. The color schemes were wildly different, and smoke filled the air, but it otherwise looked the same as any modern DMV I'd ever had the misfortune to visit.

I didn't wait very long. They gave me a form to fill out. Within minutes, using just the license and VIN number from the Blue Oldsmobile, I had a name and address.

His name was John Blackburn. It was him. It had to be him:  the one who took me. He owned the blue Oldsmobile. I expected the cabin address beneath his name, but I saw a completely different San Francisco address there. I knew the block and knew the area, near Hyde and Golden Gate. I committed myself to going then, to stretching that sanity membrane to its limit and heading into the city of my birth. I needed to see if it was the place I remember from the age of five. I needed to know that this world still connected to mine, but I couldn't bring myself to see my parents, or scare my brothers and sisters. It had to be something oblique.. and all that aside, it was the great mystery of my life. I simply had to know.

I stopped at the Shell service station and used a few more dollars from the car to fill the tank.  All the pumps read 'full service,' so I sat bemused as the uniformed service station attendant filled me up. After that, I sped down the freeway toward the city, amazed at all the undeveloped land on either side of the narrow stretch.

The Golden Gate toll taker asked me for seventy five cents. I laughed at him and handed him my last dollar from the door ashtray. I told him to keep the change.

The city, as I wove my way toward it's heart, filled quickly with umbrellas, and children getting off from school. The air grew increasingly blustery and grey. I could not bear to look on some streets. None of the storefronts were the same. I saw camera stores, liquor stores, tailors, and corner coffee shops at every intersection.

I thought of Ellen more and more. That song I heard in the cabin when everything went to hell, "So Far Away" refused to jump from my brain. I wanted desperately to race toward my neighborhood, jump out of the car and run into our home and grab Ellen and kiss her, but I knew it wouldn't work. Our building didn't yet exist. She was still a small girl in Colorado. She had yet to grow up and move out and pursue her dreams.

Traffic on Van Ness got worse. The second I turned onto Austin, toward Hyde, the sight of the street stopped me cold. I put on the brakes and studied the road and the buildings that flanked it. Yes. This was the street where he nabbed me. Kids spilled out from Redding Elementary at that very moment, further down toward Hyde. On my end of the street, where I stopped, it was almost empty. Almost.

A boy, about seven, wandered right past me on the sidewalk. He had on the blue ball cap his father gave him that one day he crashed his bike. His puffy jacket hadn't yet torn on a fence, and it looked like new. He stopped briefly, and saw me watching him. I froze. My mouth hung open. I must have looked like a mess then, gazing out a fogged driver side window. I don't know why I rolled the window down. I shouldn't have.
It's just that I knew him, the boy. 

Shut up, said the voice again. Don't say a word.

I knew what day it was all of a sudden, and I had to speak. My voice choked on the words as they came out.

"Run." I said. "Go." I could hardly breathe, watching the boy. "Don't stop anywhere, for anyone. Run home."

He looked terrified, and kept walking. I slammed on the gas, and peeled away.

The house where I lost a week of my young life was far from the imposing dungeon I imagined it to be in my nightmares. Instead, it was an innocuous, almost pretty little square flat. I didn't bother parking the car. I left it on a red curb, right in front of the gate, and fumbled with each key before one gave, and let me in.

The smell was the worst. The whole apartment stank of stale cigar smoke. I sighed loudly, and covered my mouth, holding back tears.  There, I saw the television; wood panel surfacing; a table with a bowl of some kind of fruit candy; the alcove in the kitchen where he sat and watched me; an open window that faced the interior courtyard. I remembered being there.

I wanted to burn the place down. Ramifications and repercussions had no bearing. I went to the kitchen to find cooking oil, matches, anything. I hoped I'd get got a good stream of gas flooding the apartment, then find a candle, or something flammable, and get out. Unfortunately, John Blackburn's place was cluttered and useless.

I knew better; I really did, but it didn't matter any more. The festering seeds deep inside that always grew back, that never seemed to die; I had to wrest them out and baptize them with fire. I held back tears and rifled through drawers in this familiar apartment, determined to kill it at the root.

I had stolen John Blackburn's car. On that day - this day - he must have driven south, as I did.  He must have traced the same lines in the freeway, as I did, heading down toward his house, away from Aunt Mary's. He must have taken the same roads, but his routes were calculating, malevolent, whereas mine were borne of instinct and desperation. This time, he was not on the street to snatch that boy away.

What would stop him from trying again? The answer was nothing would. The thin membrane of sanity keeping me together finally snapped.

In response, I thrashed his place. I knocked over the coffee table and watched its glass top shatter along the carpet. I ran to the darkness of the back room, not even realizing what I was doing. I yanked the thick comforter off the window and a thick, diagonal slant of light poured in, hitting the bed. I yanked the sheets off and tossed the window. I was a madman.

The rain came faster now out the window, steady and soft like footfalls. I saw a note with scribblings by the bed. It read:

1:30 pm, Redding, M-Th
hot coco
flunitrazipan .75 g

There were pills in the drawer, I knew; pills he gave me. I knew, because I suddenly remembered what happened. All of it.

Just then, the apartment door opened.

John Blackburn stood in his living room, arms at his sides. He must have taken a cab, or gotten a ride. He looked dazed. He didn't see me just yet, and placed his hands against his head. They trembled. His arms were scratched and blood covered the tops of his hands. His eyes must have wandered from the couch, to the kitchen, and lastly to the bedroom, before he saw me.

"What the SHIT?" he yelled.

I didn't give him a chance to keep talking. The path I seared from the bedroom to Blackburn was faster than he anticipated. He barely had time to reach in his coat pocket as I came at him, full throttle. I raised my arm and smashed into him, hurling him against the wall. His big glasses went flying off his face. He grabbed for his pockets again and again, but I kept hold of both his arms. The gun clattered out of his coat and rolled onto the carpet. He lunged for it.

I wailed on him. I pushed him back from the floor and against the wall. I boxed his ears and kneed him in the ribs. He struggled, panting and muttering, 'Who are you? Who are you, man? How'd you get here? Who are you?' His arms got more and more tired, and soon he just gave up.

"How'd you know bout my HOUSE, man?" he asked. He closed his eyes and covered his nose, and I reached back, grabbed the gun and shoved it into the small of my back.

"You were going to take a kid here today. You and Mary?"

"Mary don't know anything!" he responded, opening one eye.

He tried to reach around and pull me off, but he wasn't fast enough. I pinned his arms again. I watched him eye the carpet for the gun, and when he noticed it was gone, his survival instinct kicked in and he stopped struggling.

A cocoon of calm descended around me. I reasoned it out. He'd kill Mary - if he hadn't already. He'd try to nab me tomorrow, or the next day. Or he'd go for one of my brothers or sisters. He'd never change.

No way was I going to kill anybody, though.

"The whole family knows about you." I said. "All of us. We all know what you wanna do. See, we're watching you. If you do anything, anything at all..." An idea came to me. "In fact, little Thomas, his parents are diplomats. They've go the cops on you. If you do anything, you're dead."

His eyes went wild. He was freaking out. A hundred little realizations must have flooded his little bubble of safety at once, and it was all too much for him.

"In fact," I continued, standing up. "If you don't get out of Mary's life, if you touch her or her family, we're gonna make your life hell.'

I'd never threatened another person's life before. I felt no remorse. I was lost in time, an unanticipated variable anticipating no consequences. I placed the gun back in my belt, and before walking to the front door, I knocked over his television.

All the way back up through the city, the sights of the decade that passed me on the road were no longer of any consequence. In the dark dusk of twilight, it looked as if I could be any decade, any time. I noticed more neon signs, perhaps, but apart from that, it could have been 2005.

All I could think of was whether I'd done the right thing. Had I gone too far with John? Had I not gone far enough? What if he moved and tried it in another place? People like him are beyond rehabilitation. They never change. But all that known, I understood something vital. Yes, I felt like a God in this distant decade, and I commanded knowledge of the future. I was not God, though, was I? I wasn't God and I couldn't save the world all at once. I could only save what I could save, no more and no less.

Halfway on my trip, I tossed the gun out the window into a field.

All the rest of the way up, my mind continued to work over the problem again and again. Had I done enough? Maybe not that day, but if I ever made it back to Ellen, and the remaining days of my own life, I'd sure as hell try. I felt... different, somehow. More solid. I no longer struggled to focus. For most of my drive, I rehearsed what I'd say to young Aunt Mary again and again until the words flowed smoothly. If she was still there, she'd see me and call the police unless I could quickly convince her not to.

I almost missed the exit in the gloom, but caught it at the last moment and headed back up the road toward the clearing and the ravine. I stumbled a few times on the way, but light soon twinkled thick foliage, and I knew I was there.

Mary stood by the front door of the cabin, smoking a cigarette from a swollen lip. She dashed inside when she saw me. I knew I only had a few moments to explain before she called the police.

"Mary! John's not coming back. He won't hurt you again."

"Who are you!"

"I'm a friend of the family. John's been up to some bad stuff. I came to look in on you. I'm sorry if I scared you! I'm sorry if he hurt you. But like I said, he's... he's not coming back."

I stood by the screen and watched as the door went slightly ajar. The door chain was still holding fast. Young Mary peered out at me. One of her eyes had begun to swell. Her right writ was wrapped in gauze, and the blood already soaked through. John had really done a number on her.

"What's your name? Who are you?" she asked, meekly. She was still terrified.

"Tom." I answered. There was no point in lying to her. "Listen, Mary.. go to them. See your family. They didn't even want you to know I was here. Just talk to them about John. Tell them what he was doing. They need to hear it from you."

She began to cry uncontrollably.

I begin to feel dizzy.

"I'm not..." I hesitated, rubbing my temples. "I'm... I'm leaving soon, I think. I'm not coming in. I just wanted you to know. He's not going to hurt you again."

The dizziness finally consumed me fully, and the feeling of heat ensued. The sun ran around the sundial again, and my stomach lurched.


It took me many years to remember what I did.

My life was simple at first.

My brother and sisters and I used to hate my parents. They sheltered us. One distinct memory I have is being yelled at by a scary guy in a big car, one day, while walking home from school. He told me to run and go home. At some point after that, something seemed to change for our parents. Our Aunt Mary came to visit more and more often. She came bringing sunlight and gratitude to our big, drafty house. Mom and Dad retired from government service when we were teenagers, and began to spend more time with us.

There was a time, Aunt Mary used to say to us, when she didn't have room to be happy about anything. Her life was miserable and grey and one day, someone came along and changed it. She'd never say who, or how, but it was around that time that I started to have dreams. Not all bad dreams, but dreams of another life, something far beyond my years. I'd wake and be so happy to have the life I did. Even on the worst days, I'd remember some horrible figure from the dream, someone with a dark beard, and I'd wake and know he wasn't real. He never touched me.

When I first met Ellen, I felt as if we'd met before. I saw her in my dreams, perhaps. I imagined us together so easily, like we'd already been a couple, like we'd already conceived a child. "It was fate," we used to joke, then laugh. She kept me grounded. When we were away from each other, I felt at ease knowing she was somewhere in the world, thinking of me.

I always thought we'd have a boy. When we conceived, it did not surprise either of us that it was a boy.

The day he was born, and the first time I looked into his eyes, something changed me forever. I somehow knew, in those moments, that I had done it all for him.

What had I done?

When little Oliver was old enough, I told him stories to put him to sleep. I told him a tale about another man, a man who knew me so well that he lived my life before I did, and put it right for me, and for him.

What that man felt, and what he did, and experienced, were for me, a memory of a dream within a dream. It is all part of me, all inside me, but no longer me. I find that my soul, the sum parts of the events of my life, in fact, are an endless mirror, each distant reflection coming more into focus with each year.


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