Title to Come, Part 4

[Still not sure what to call this tale I began a little while ago]

Eric glanced over at the source of the noise, and saw the fifty-ish waitress who had served him earlier attempting to rise from the debris of plates, silverware, and food. Coming to her aid was a woman in a business suit, who was soon joined by the young woman who had just asked about Eric’s notebook.

***

The commander shook his head, clearly displeased by Agent Marcel’s report. “Nothing, nothing that happened justified your Injection. You could easily have avoided the entire situation.”

Agent Marcel could no longer hold herself back. “Commander, everyone’s attention in the diner was turned to the waitress. My doing nothing would have been the least conspicuous activity I could have performed.”

“Nobody would have remembered your disinterest.” He placed his hands on the table, and rose slightly from his chair. “But your taking action could have generated any number of possible Temporal Changes. What if a person who would have helped that poor woman, had decided upon seeing you help her, to leave the diner earlier than he’d intended — just in time to be struck by an automobile jumping a curb, leading to his death? And what if that person would have become a doctor, or fire fighter, who would no longer be alive twenty years later to save the life of a person whose impact n history would be felt to this day? You do remember your Temporal Consequences training, agent?”

“Aye, sir.”

“And do you remember at least some of the cases where the seemingly innocent actions of one well-intentioned agent had impacts on the timeline that required one, two, perhaps several additional jumps to undo?”

“But this — ”

“This wasn’t your decision to make, Agent Marcel! The consequences of a timeflux can be catastrophic. We’ve seen what happened when we stopped the 9/11 attacks, or the spread of the Guji Flu — those ‘corrections’ resulted in far worse calamities. Those lessons directly lead to our mission — ” the Commander leaned forward, demanding Agent Marcel’s response.

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Title to Come, Part 3

[If you’ve happened upon this story in progress, you’re invited to review the first and second installments as well]

“Excuse me?” Eric was not aware the young feminine voice had addressed him until he felt a presence hovering over his shoulder. He turned, and saw an inquisitive face staring down at him, eyes sparkling behind round lenses. A slender finger pointed at the table — “Are you a writer?”

Eric glanced in the direction of her finger, and seeing she was pointing at his notebook, turned back towards the young woman. “No.”

“Oh!” She reached a hand towards her mouth. “I’m sorry, it just looked like you were writing in a journal.”

Without looking, Eric picked up the notebook with his thumb and index finger, and smirked. “Sorry to disappoint, but it’s a notebook, not a journal. It’s where I keep my notes, and stuff. Work stuff.”

“Yeah.” The spark of interest in her eyes was extinguishing fast, like an engine running out of fuel. “So… where do you work?”

He laid the notebook down, then pointed to the woman’s left, towards the door of the diner. “At the university, for the moment. On a grant, through the end of the semester.” He pursed his lips — “This isn’t the most comfortable position for a conversation. You want to have a seat?”

“Oh no — really.” Eric felt regret as the friendly stranger began walking away from him. “All — ”

The sound of porcelain crashing onto the linoleum floor of the diner interrupted their conversation.

Title to Come, Part 2

[Still don’t have a title for this story I started the other day. One addition to that first part — it takes place in the year 2036.]

***

Sitting by himself at the next to last booth (his customary booth at the end having been occupied this morning) in the far corner of the Lunt Diner, Eric Thorson retrieved a spiral-bound notebook from his backpack, placed it on the table in front of him, opened to the page where he had left off writing at the library the day before, and, on the far right side of the second line beneath the last line of handwriting, wrote:

November 7, 1990

The grandmotherly waitress walked up to his table. “You want the usual today, Eric?”

He nodded. “Works for me.” She had asked for his name in the spring, after he had been coming here every Wednesday morning for nearly a year. He hadn’t asked for her name, or even bothered to read her name tag; he found comfort in keeping her role in his life anonymous.

Returning attention to his notebook, he wrote in the line under the date:

Interesting thing happened at Tim’s last night — got a job offer. Scott was in town visiting his folks, dropped by the bar. Said he was going to call me later

“Here’s your coffee.” The contents of the white mug sloshed onto the table as the waitress laid it down; she offered to clear the spill, but Eric waved her off, and used his paper napkin to clean the table. He decapitated two thimbles of cream, poured it and a spoonful of sugar into the mug, and after drinking half the mug, resumed writing:

this week. Said his company just obtained a research grant, had room in the budget for three new techs. Also said there were apartments available in his complex. Scott said I’d be a shoo-in, so long as I didn’t blow the interview. Everything went right, I could start in January.

Eric folded the notebook shut, and resumed drinking his coffee.

Title to Come, Part 1

[Today’s as good as any other day to start a new fiction project. Sometime before I’m done, I’ll give it a title.]

Agent Marcel shifted in her seat, not caring to show her unease with the commander’s question. She cleared her throat, and replied.

“Yes, I was aware the incident was not in the client’s report. Nor was any other incident, of any kind. All my client provided was a location, and a range of several months.”

The commander leaned back from his desk, and rubbed his chin. “But you chose this moment for your Injection Opportunity? Potentially drawing the attention of nearly a dozen witnesses?”

Marcel flicked her head back defiantly. “My subject had finished his meal, and I determined the incident would likely cause him to leave. The mission would have failed.”

“You know the protocol, agent. Abort, return, debrief. Let one of our other agents — ”

“Commander, the mission was successful. There’s no reason to go back, jump another agent. We have what the client requested.”

“Yeah.” The commander tapped the tips of his index and middle fingers on the right hand against his thumb, and the holographic image of Agent Marcel’s report shimmered to life again. “But we need more than 43 words, agent. You need to tell me, exactly, what happened during your IO.” With a wave of his left hand, the commander dismissed the report. “You were sitting at the counter?”

Castle

Like most martial arts, fencing is a mano a mano contest — the sport does have team events, but they are composed of a series of individual bouts. Group competitions are rare, but every few months at the club, we have a good game of Castle.

It’s kind of like dodge ball, with weapons. Two teams gather at opposite ends of the floor, each behind a line designating their castle boundary. Fencers can stay inside the safety of their castle, or go outside to battle their foe, but can’t cross the other team’s boundary. Foil target area is in effect, with a catch — if your arm or leg is struck, that off-target blow renders that limb useless. If your weapon arm’s hit, you fence with the other arm; if a leg is hit, you can’t move it. An on-target hit, or losing both arms or both legs, knocks you out. It’s a game of timing, awareness, and teamwork; too much aggression can leave you open to a blindside attack, while an overly cautious approach can imperil your teammates and leave you the sole survivor against three opponents.

The holidays, when schools are on break and workplaces have all but shut down, are a good time to break from the routine of drills and practice at the fencing club. This past Monday we played a half-dozen or so games of Castle, and I felt like a kid in recess. Highlight of the evening for me came when I was left with one teammate, with two remaining on the other side. My teammate traded parries with one of our foes, as I eased into position on her flank. As the other opponent closed in, I reacted instinctively, striking the first and then pivoting to parry the attack of the second, and landing the riposte to end the battle. Bada-bing, baby!

A lot of men my age take up golf to challenge themselves. I choose to get my kicks by stabbing people. I’d be worried, if I weren’t having such a good time.

Over the River 7

Alec’s apprehension was quickly dispelled by a thought — if ‘Todd’ wanted to harm us, he would have done so by now. He relaxed his shoulders, and addressed the dark-haired man sitting in his deceased father-in-law’s chair. “You say you’ve come to learn about our family. What have you learned?”

“You mistake me, Alec. I did not come seeking information; I already knew everything important about the Andersons. What I sought was understanding, more of a feeling than a thought. I came to understand how the Andersons responded to mortality. In the conversations I’ve had and overheard, I’ve felt your family’s fear and sorrow, but also your strength, and determination to enjoy the life that’s been given to them. Their lives are limited — but their love of life seems to have no bounds.”

“Do you consider that admirable?”

“Yes. Because, being who I am, those are sentiments I can never feel.”

A sound of shuffling feet echoed down from the second floor. By the weight and location of the steps, Alec could tell Stella had walked from guest bedroom into the hall bathroom. He had not heard any sound from Grammie Alice’s room for over an hour. Todd rose from his chair — “Now that we’ve had this talk, it’s time for me to depart. Good evening, Alec.”

“Wait.” Alec sat up quickly, and pointed to the stairs leading to the second floor. “Shouldn’t you — ”

“I said goodbye to Alice, and your wife, while you were washing dishes. There’s no need to disturb them.”

Alec sighed, and extended his hand toward Todd. “All right. Then this is goodbye, I guess.”

Todd shook his hand. “Yes.”

“Will we — see you again?” To Alec’s surprise, Todd laughed.

“I believe you’ve figured out that I’ll be seeing all of you again. But, to your question — no, I don’t imagine I’ll attend any further Thanksgiving dinners here.”

“Very well.” Releasing Todd’s hand, Alec stepped back once, then suddenly looked back at Todd. “So, do you know when — ”

Todd lifted his right index finger at Alec, and his eyes seemed to glow with a dark fury. “I cannot see the future, Alec. And it is foolish of you to attempt such insight.”

End of “Over the River”

Over the River 6

Alec took a seat on the sofa, across the room from where Todd was sitting. “My only observation, was there was more to you than meets the eye.”

“Indeed.” Todd shifted in his seat. “And my air of mystery must remain, for knowing the full truth about me would be — overwhelming to you.”

Alec nodded in response.

“You said you didn’t remember my first year at the Anderson Thanksgiving dinner. I, on the other hand, remember it well. Your father-in-law, Jeremiah, had just been diagnosed with cancer.”

Sitting on the sofa across the room, Alec sensed he was being given clues to a mystery he had yet to comprehend. So he waited, hoping Todd would continue to reveal himself.

“The Andersons were very confused, very afraid at that time. It had been over a decade since his sister Miriam had passed. Jeremiah had been so healthy — to hear the cancer had already reached stage four, inoperable, untreatable… six months, maximum.”

“Nobody could understand.”

“But I remember Jerry’s words that evening. We all die. We don’t have any choice. The only choice we have, is how we live our final days. Those words were what drew me to the Anderson family, the quest to create meaning out of senselessness, to defy the chaos so endemic in this world.”

Todd paused, and Alec sensed the older man was waiting for him to catch up. Then Alec’s eyes widened — “Miriam. If it had been over a decade, how could — ” and then he stared back at Todd, as he felt his heart sink into his stomach.

“Don’t be afraid, Alec. I meant what I said earlier about presenting no harm to your family, and I hope my assistance with your niece was proof of my good intent. I know being friends with your family can never be possible. My only wish, is that we come to understand each other, and our purpose in this world.”

Over the River 5

Amanda’s mother comforted her daughter, as her father thanked Todd, who brushed off all attempts to pay back the favor. “Your family’s continued hospitality is the only reward I need.”

Alec had been a spectator during the incident, and followed the entire family as they returned to the house. The sun had descended below the tree line, and Grammie Alice’s sons, daughters, grandchildren, and in-laws across multiple generations soon gathered their coats and left in their cars. Stella and Alec had already agreed to be in charge of clean-up, and Alec spent close to an hour at the kitchen sink, up to his elbows in suds as he cleaned serving bowls, plates, and silverware too delicate for machine washing.

His hands slick and red from being long enclosed in yellow rubber gloves, Alec finally retreated into the living room. Stella had gone up with her mother to rest, the two women weary from a half day of preparation for that afternoon’s feast. Believing that all the day’s guests had departed, Alec expected to watch the evening football game alone for a while, until his wife came down and announced she was ready to leave.

But he was not alone. Sitting in the room’s largest armchair, the one Stella’s father had deemed his throne, was Todd. His eyes beamed delight at Alec’s entry.

“I didn’t want to leave today, without finishing our conversation.” There was a hint of a challenge in Todd’s voice that unsettled Alec.

“I… if I seemed a little too suspicious this afternoon, it was only because I wanted to make sense of the stories I was hearing about you. What you did for my niece this afternoon, went a long way to dismissing — ”

“Please.” Todd blinked, and waved a hand dismissively. “I took no offense at your questioning. I quite enjoyed it, in fact. Rarely do I meet someone, as perceptive as yourself.”

Over the River 4

To Alec’s surprise, Todd seemed neither upset not defensive at the accusation. He pushed his plate forward, and folded his hands on the table. “I’m not accustomed to speaking about myself, as I’d much rather heat what others have to say. But if it would set your mind at ease, then please, ask me any question you’d like. I promise to answer as truthfully as possible.”

“All right. Let’s start at the beginning. Who was — ”

A sharp cry from outside interrupted their conversation. Alec sat up quickly, recognizing the voice of his niece Amanda. Her mother reached the front door before Alec, and the two of them raced into the yard, where children were gathered in a circle. Ignoring the stream of frantic explanations, Alec helped pull the children away to give room for his sister-in-law to attend to Amanda.

“Mom!” Amanda was writhing on the brown grass, her right hand grasping at her left shoulder. “It HURTS so MUCH!”

“Just breathe, dear.” Amanda’s mother helped the girl sit up, her arm lying useless at her side. Alec’s medical knowledge was limited, but he knew his niece’s shoulder was separated. Amanda’s father was soon at their side — “Don’t worry, darling. We’ll get you to a doctor.”

“If I may.” All eyes, young and old, turned in the direction of Todd. “The nearest hospital is twenty minutes away, and who knows how the emergency room will be staffed today. I know how to help your daughter — please, trust me.”

A swift survey by Amanda’s father revealed that none of the adults had medical training, and Grammie Alice knew of no doctors or nurses in the neighborhood. The girl was whimpering, and the car ride to the hospital promised further discomfort, followed by a disheartening wait. The father sighed, and waved Todd over — “You’ve done this before?”

Todd nodded as he stepped forward. “I’m a volunteer on overseas missions, and work with children like your daughter on a regular basis.” Todd knelt down beside Amanda, and encouraged her parents to hold the girl as he took hold of her shoulder.

He brushed hair from Amanda’s forehead. “You are going to feel a sharp pain, but it will go away quickly. I need you to relax your body, as much as possible. Can you do that for me?” Amanda nodded, her face contorted with pain and confusion, as Todd nodded to her parents and then grabbed the girl’s shoulder.

“YEEEEAAAAAH” Amanda’s scream was filled with more agony than anyone in the family had heard before, and the girl shot from her parents’ grasp. She stumbled forward two steps, turned back to Todd — and raised her left arm, crying now in relief rather than pain.

Over the River 3

“I told Alice how I’ve been coming here for Thanksgiving every year for a decade, since the year before Stella and I were married. The first year, it was just her parents and us. Year after, it was the entire family, like it’s been every year since. That’s how I met Stella’s sisters, brother, cousins — and you.” Alec fanned his fingers in Todd’s direction.

The older man wiped his chin with a napkin. “I don’t have a family of my own, Alec. I treasure your family’s hospitality.”

“The Andersons are a wonderful family. And I’ll do anything to make sure they are never harmed, or exploited.”

Todd arched his eyebrows. “Do you consider me a threat?”

“No. Not yet, anyway. For now, you’re a curiosity. I asked Alice today where she knew you from, and she told me you went to college with Gregory. He confirmed this when he arrived, but said that while you had graduated the same year, you had never actually met until these Thanksgiving dinners.”

“Ohio State is a large university, Alec. I’m sure your brother-in-law would have the same experience with thousands of alumni.”

“Certainly. But then Gregory told me how you had worked at the same company as Clarise, and believed she had invited you here initially. So I asked her, and she said yes you had worked together, but no, you’d never actually met there, and she hadn’t been the one to extend you an invitation. Then Norton overheard us, and said the two of you had worked on the campaign for Senator Brown. I was hardly surprised when I pressed for more information, and discovered you never actually worked together at that time.”

Alec leaned back in his chair, and folded his arms across his chest. “I’ve made it a point to ask every adult here today about you, Todd. How everyone knows you. And I’ve found a consistent pattern. You have some type of association with every one of them — a professional society, volunteer organization, a close friend. A shared experience which establishes a bond. And yet, nobody here has had any direct interaction with you outside of this home, this day. And, more significantly, nobody remembers who provided you with the initial invitation to Thanksgiving.” He leaned forward, placing his hands on the table. “We know you, Todd, but don’t know a damn thing about you. And if you don’t mind me saying, I think it’s a little odd.”