Summers 2J

Gary suddenly rose from the chair behind his desk. “Hold on — be right back.” He walked purposefully to his office door, opening it so swiftly he hit his shoulder. He grunted, stepped back, quickly exited, shutting the door behind him.

Jane Summers put the backpack on the floor again, sat in the chair and leaned forward, rubbing her hands over her scalp. She could feel her brown hair lying in uneven clumps over her head. “Dammit,” she muttered, bringing her fingertips to her temples and rubbing aggressively. “Dammit.”

Scott walked to her chair, stood over her. In the five years he had known her, he had never seen her like this. He knew from experience what Jane was like when she was too frustrated to speak, too headstrong to be reasonable, too giddy to be cautioned, too focused to be distracted. But now, kneading her temples and muttering under her labored breathing, staring down at the floor as if she wanted to tunnel and hide under its surface — she seemed too lost within herself for anyone to find.

Scott did something he had never done before. He put a hand on Jane’s shoulder, and squeezed. “It’s OK. We’ll figure this –”

The door suddenly opened, Gary’s head popping in. “OK, I cleared the room. Let’s go in.”

Jane looked up, confusion on her face. Gary could see her eyes were red. As Jane rose, joined Scott in walking out the office door, Gary explained that he’d asked Rahul and Megs (Jane seemed to relax in recognition of the names) to take a break, so that they could talk to Jane alone in the room.

Jane recognized where they were going — a few feet to the right, down the corridor on the left, then the second door on the right. “The drafting room,” she said as Gary walked into the room where Jane had spent almost all her working hours over the past decade. But as Gary passed the door which was so familiar to her, she saw a sign she didn’t recognize. Blue with white letters — CAD Room.

Summers 2I

Without looking down, Jane Summers lifted the device she had grasped from the inside of her backpack, and held it forward for Gary and Scott to see. It was a flat rectangular object made of plastic and metal, nearly two feet wide and a little over a foot high. One side, more metal than plastic, bore a sticker with the Crasob Engineering logo — that sticker, along with the fact that this side had been face up when she found this device on her coffee table that morning, made her think it was the front, or top side.

Scott chuckled, looked up at Jane. “Since you say you don’t recognize your iPhone anymore, I’m guessing you don’t recognize your laptop either.”

Jane lowered the device (it was heavier than it looked), letting it lie on top of her backpack. She looked plaintively at Gary, who stared back at her from behind his desk with eyes radiating concern. She opened her mouth to speak, but could not think of what to say.

Outside the window, the steady low rumble of car traffic was interrupted by the demonstrative scream of an approaching semi. The windows in Gary’s office rattled as it passed, it’s roar fading as it sped down Milwaukee Avenue.

Gary’s phone rang. He glanced quickly at the phone, punched a button, turned back to Jane. “What . . . what can we do to help?”

Jane Summers exhaled, her cheeks puffing. “This is going to sound strange, but — ” she ran her hands over the top of her head — “I think I need to work. Jump on the board, focus, get my mind off — ” she waved her hands at the two devices, what her friends had called a phone and laptop, whatever that meant — “all this.”

Scott sucked in air through his teeth. “Based on what you’ve said the last few minutes, I’ve gotta feeling you’re not going to like what you’re about to see.”

Summers 2H

Gary blinked, shook his head dismissively as he leaned over his desk. “Gas stations, whatever. But my point is, there’s only a few things you say look different.”

Jane Summers brushed a strand of hair from her face with her hand, and sighed heavily. “Think so. Most everything’s the same as I remember. I mean — ”

Her eyes darted quickly, catching Gary’s gaze and holding it. Her voice became urgent. “I still — I mean, my mother, younger sister . . . ” She relaxed as she saw Gary nod reassuringly. Jane swallowed. “And my father . . . ”

A darkness came over Gary’s face, as if an eletrical circuit had been switched off. Out of the corner of her vision, Jane saw Scott look away. Gary’s voice was soft. “Yes, Jane.”

Jane looked away quickly, resumed pacing around Gary’s office. “All right. I guess the stuff that matters, none of that’s changed.” She looked out the window of Gary’s office, at the traffice passing along Milwaukee Avenue. “But there’s all this other stuff — ” she pointed out the window, scowled — “all these cars, for one thing. And that device I found this morning, what you called a phone. And — ” she turned quickly, looked down, located then raced towards the backpack lying on the floor. “Right after you called me this morning, after I found that thing and you said I had a car.” She picked up the backpack, placed it on a chair, opened a zippered compartment. “Then I couldn’t find my Unirail pass, but did find what looked like a car key — I ran around the apartment, looked for anything else that was different, and like you said — ” she pointed at Gary — “everything was pretty much the same.” She rummaged through the backpack, grabbed something, looked up at Gary and Scott.

“But then I found this, on the coffee table.”

Summers 2G

“That’s why I got here so late this morning.” Jane Summers walked over to her chair, placed the backpack on the floor, lowered herself swiftly into the seat. She exhaled, shoulder-lenth brown hair drooping over her shoulders as she leaned forward, as if a weight were bearing down on her neck. “Couldn’t find my Unirail pass — ” she shrugged — “couldn’t find Unirail — all I saw were dozens of cars on the street, and buses, goddam buses, billowing diesel exhaust.” She swore, shook her head. “Haven’t seen one of those damn things since they were phased out five years ago.”

“Lemme guess.” Jane looked up at Scott’s smirking face. “This ‘Unrail’ thing made buses obsolete?” Jane nodded. “OK, what planet did — ”

“I think we need to change the focus here.” Gary spoke with authority, making it clear he expected both Jane and Scott’s attention. He leaned across his desk in Jane’s direction. “You say you don’t recognize your phone, didn’t know you had a car, and you think there’s some kind of mass transit system that’s suddenly gone away. But — ” he quickly flicked his right index finger, pointing it between Scott and himself — “you remember us.”

Jane stood up abruptly, raised her hands in the air like a football referee. “Exactly! You’re the same, the other people I saw in the office are the same — this office is in the same location, the houses, most of the businesses I saw when I walked here this morning, they’re the same — ”

Most businesses?” The tone of Gary’s question seemed genuine.

Jane frowned. “There was more gas stations than before.”

Summers 2F

Jane Summers stared back at Scott a long moment, silent and tense, all three people in Scott’s office aware that Jane’s response was critically important. She considered telling a safe, comfortable lie, before shaking her head.

“No. Sorry, I don’t remember going to any dealership with you.” She resumed pacing around the office. “I don’t remember buying a car, ever even owning a car — ” she stopped suddenly, threw her hands into the air — “all right, in all honesty, this morning I saw more cars on the road than I’ve ever seen in my life!”

Gary was leaning forward in his chair, hand lying limp on the desk in front of him. He looked as confused as a man being told for the first time that he had a twin separated at birth. The smile on his broad face seemed contrived. “I — don’t understand.”

Jane brought her arms down swiftly, resumed pacing. “Neither do I. All I know that after I saw this –” she pointed the device in her hand at Gary — “thing you’re calling a telephone this morning, and I left my apartment, and then saw all these cars on the road — after that, it didn’t surprise me that much to find the Unirail station was gone.”

“Unirail?” Scott spoke the word with the same amount of disbelief as if he had said unicorn.

“Yeah, Unirail. You know, the electrified transportation grid under the city streets? Construction started fifteen years ago, city’s 90% complete now?” Jane was not surprised, but still disappointed, to see both Gary and Scott shaking their heads with blank stares.

Summers 2E

Jane Summers exhaled, squeezed Gary’s hand firmly, a quick smile down at the seated man confirming her thankfulness.

She released Gary’s hand, walked from behind the desk to the seat where she had been standing. “I guess I should start at the beginning.” She reached down to the floor, retrieved her canvas backpack, placed it on her seat, opened a zipper. “And it started with this thing.” She retrieved the device that had played Eine Kleine Nachtmusik that morning, held it up for Gary and Scott to see.

“Ah, you found your phone!” Gary leaned forward over his desk, pleasure beaming from his face like a happy parent. “Was it in your car?”

The expression that Jane showed on her face as she turned to Gary was not one he had expected. She looked annoyed, concerned. She replied in tones of anger. “That was the second thing odd this morning, you talking about my car. I didn’t believe you at first, but then — ” she reached into the backpack again, pulled out a ring of keys — “this one, the one with the big rubber handle.” She held the key between her thumb and index finger, letting the other keys dangle on the chain beneath. “I recognize the logo, the V and the W — what did they call that company, Volt Wagon?”

Gary leaned back in his chair, the smile on his face evaporating like an ice cube on hot pavement. “Volkswagen.” Jane pointed the key at him. “Yeah, that’s it. They stopped making cars I don’t know, twenty years ago when the market collapsed, are you telling me I bought an antique?”

“Ah, Jane.” Scott was now standing, a condescending look on his face. “You bought that car new, last month. Remember, you and I went to the dealership?”

Summers 2D

Jane Summers smiled contentedly, although briefly, at Gary’s response, before turning in her seat towards Scott. Forehead pointed in the younger man’s direction, she extended her arms shoulder width, fingers pointed in Scott’s direction, the intensity of the stare from behind her glasses causing him to lean back reflexively. She spoke in the voice of an interrogator.

“You know me when I’m off the deep end.  You’ve said before that you could always tell just by looking at me when you’d have to walk carefully around me.”

Scott swallowed. “Yes.” He pointed up at his face. “Your eyes, they give it away every time.”

“Scott . . . look at me.” Her left hand shot back to her face, removed her glasses, threw them on Gary’s desk, the pointed at her face. “At my eyes. Tell me . . . honestly. Scott, I know — at least I think I know, if you’re still the same person I knew yesterday — that you’ll tell it to me straight. And right now, that’s what I really need, more than anything else in the world.”

Scott sat silently, his face a mishmash of confusion, anxiety, and just a dash of fear. Jane leaned forward. “Scott . . . my eyes. Tell me — what do you see?

Scott blinked, shook his head. “No. This isn’t one of those times.”

Jane Summers lowered her hands to her lap as she exhaled and leaned back in her chair. “Thank — thank you.” She looked at Gary. “Both of you. There’s nobody who’s opinion I respect more than you two, and because of what’s happened this morning, I just needed to know — to know that I was in my right mind. Because there’s been times this morning that I wondered if I had suddenly gone nuts, kind of like when I get in one my moods, like you guys have been telling me.”

She rose from her chair, brought her hands to her temples, began pacing around the room. “But this time was different, is different. Because even when I’ve gone off the deep end in the past, there was always a part of me that knew I wasn’t thinking right, was whispering to me to calm down. Problem was, I’d be too deep in whatever emotion I was feeling to listen to anyone, even my own voice of reason. But that voice — it was always there.”

She stopped herself, realized she was standing next to Gary, his broad round face looking up at her. She placed a hand on his shoulder. “This time it’s different — I’m not hearing that voice, warning me that I’m not thinking straight. Even though this time I’m trying to convince myself that I’ve lost it. I’ve been searching myself all morning, asking myself Is this me speaking? And yes, it is . . . it’s me. No matter how weird I’m feeling right now . . . this is me.”

His eyes still locked on hers, Gary reached up a hand, grasped Jane’s firmly. He looked quickly at his desk, retrieved Jane’s glasses, held them up to her. “I think you need to tell us why you’re feeling so weird.”

A Clash of Kings

I’ll admit to being a bit of a snob when it comes to fantasy literature. I can read the good stuff over and over — think I’ve read Lord of the Rings four times, and I’m anxious to pick up the first Thomas Covenant trilogy once more — but I find most of it uninteresting (and I promise, this is the last time I’ll slam Eragon).

Fortunately, the “A Song of Ice and Fire” series from George R.R. Martin demonstrates how much potential this genre has for great storytelling. The characters are complex, the protagonists neither fully heroic nor the adversaries wholly evil. The only flaw I see is that the main characters seem almost too intelligent, too honorable, to survive in the often barbaric world of Westeros. But perhaps this is what makes these novels so appealing, the presence of modern-thinking characters struggling to escape from the nightmare of their medieval world.

Another aspect of the series that I enjoy is the way the supernatural elements are presented. There is a foreboding presence in the north of Westeros, magical and undead, and the author constantly keeps it at the outskirts of his narrative, as mysterious to the reader as it is to the novel’s characters.

I still find Roy Dotrice’s performance as narrator uneven, at times even distracting. He occassionally fails to come out of character when shifting between quotation and narration, and some of his character voices just seem wrong (he makes Davos Seaworth sound like an overzealous participant in Talk Like A Pirate Day). But he is good more often than he is not, and his performance is overall good enough to keep me downloading each book in the series.

Summers 2C

“The Route 20 files.” Scott’s smile melted, like ice cream mistakenly placed under a heat lamp. He pointed behind him with his thumb. “I found them, you’d uploaded them to the Projects drive before you left Friday for once, instead of keeping them on your hard drive.”

Jane Summers brought her hands up to her temples, closed her eyes and rubbed hard with her fingertips. “This is — so weird.”

Gary walked over, laid a hand gently on her arm. “Something tells me you want to say something, but are afraid of how we’ll react.” Jane looked into Gary’s eyes, nodded slowly. “Jane, how long have we known each other?”

Jane shrugged. “I don’t know — since I was a kid. Thirty years?”

“Exactly. I think I’ve heard it all from you before, there’s nothing you could say that would surprise me.” He turned to Scott, his tall body still within the door frame. “Maybe you should — ”

“No, please stay.” She looked at Scott, pointed to one of the two chairs on the other side of Gary’s desk. “I want — what I’ve got to say, I think — the more people I tell it to, the more likely I’m going to believe it myself.”

Gary looked quickly back at Scott. “But you should probably get the door.” Jane’s tone suggested she was more giving an order rather than making a recommendation. Scott shrugged, stepped forward and closed the door behind him. Gary sat in his desk chair, which creaked wearily as he leaned back. He folded his hands behind his head, and continued his reassuring tone. “Why don’t you start, at the beginning.”

Jane cleared her throat. “Not sure where this all started, to be honest.” She shook her head. “Look, there’s one thing we need to get clear on before I start. Honestly, have I ever said anything  . . . and I mean anything . . . which would make you guys think that I was – losing it?”

Scott laughed. “Don’t you have to have it first before losing it?”

Gary brought his right hand forward, pointed his palm at Scott. “Jane, in all honesty, there’s been days when you haven’t been too pleasant to be around, and days when I’ve been glad you’ve left early, and days I’ve been glad to see you go on vacation.  I’ve told you this before — you’re a hothead, and sometimes you’re too honest for your own good.  You can be blunt, rude even, and when you’re in one of your moods you can say some pretty wild things.  Now if that’s what you mean by losing it — ”

“No, not that.  I’m not talking about shooting my mouth off.  I mean, have I ever seriously presented an idea, a concept, that was so bizarre that it left you wondering if I was insane?”

Gary broke eye contact with her, looked down quickly before responding. “Ah . . . I’d have to say no.”

Summers 2B

Gary hurried into his office, his wide hips bouncing off the door frame. Jane Summers was sitting in one of the chairs across from his desk. Her shoulder-length brown hair was dissheveled, looking as if it were resting uncomfortably on the top of her head. Her glasses sat near the end of her nose, the lens mis-aligned with her eyes.

Gary stopped, turned, closed the door to his office. He turned back to Jane, saw her wipe sweat from her brow. He thought about the time. “Did you walk here?”

Jane Summers shook her head. “Ran.”

Gary took a step towards his chair, then changed direction, took a seat next to Jane’s. He put a hand on her shoulder, was relieved when she didn’t flinch or pull away. “Your car break down again?”

Jane’s eyes snapped wide as her head jerked up. “Car! Again, with the car.”

Gary’s mouth opened slowly, in acknowledgement that he needed to respond, but no words came. A knock sounded on the door, and Gary rose. “I need to get this.” He rushed to the door, opening it to reveal a tall man, in his early 20s, a thin moustache under thick glasses.

“Scott!” Jane’s excited voice surprised both men at the door. “You’re here too!”

Scott smiled. “No place I’d rather be.”

“Jane’s having a — ” Gary glanced back at Jane — “rough morning.” He turned back to Scott. “Did you find the Route 20 files?”

Jane rose quickly from her chair, pointed at Gary. “That, too! What are these files you keep talking about?”