I - Anomaly
Chapter I – Anomaly
“An odd, peculiar, or strange condition, situation, quality, etc.”
Date: Friday, October 13, 2006
Location: Sarasota Square Mall, Sarasota, Florida
Age: 35 (Current)
I was ready to leave, but there was nowhere to go.
Rose Centeno sat across from me at one of the many white-painted steel food court tables in the Sarasota Square Mall food court.
The moment of truth was finally upon us.
Rose shifted in her seat with visible discomfort. As well she should after waking me from a deep sleep with a phone call shortly after 7 AM to cancel our lunch date. She also took the liberty of ending our relationship in more words than probably necessary. Her reasons were cryptic and unsatisfying. Rose concluded the brief conversation by casually informing me there would be no reason for us to have further contact.
I felt if Rose was bent on ending our intense, short-lived relationship with reasons I didn’t believe were her own, then she’d have no choice but to do it face to face. She may have considered our lunch date canceled. I did not. Come and see for yourself, she said after I challenged the authenticity of her explanation. She’d also said something about an emergency meeting and the need to bring lunch with her. I then offered some sarcastic quip and hung up. I needed that last word.
Did she genuinely believe I wouldn’t call her bluff? Or did she know I’d come expecting - or wanting - a showdown?
I arrived at the Sarasota Square Mall food court as initially planned and watched Rose from afar like the scorned lover I was. I expected her to meet someone else or retreat into the ‘employees only’ management offices per her earlier excuse. Rose confirmed her lies when she took a lone seat in the food court with her meal and some paperwork in a folder.
That’s when I made my move. I purchased one thin-crust slice of dried out, over ‘heat lamped’ goodness that passed for Sbarro’s mushroom pizza and a small Dr. Pepper. I knew I’d not be eating this meal. It was all for show. When her head was down, I took a seat at the rickety steel table with my meal and some spare change sitting upon a florescent orange serving tray.
Rose looked up from her paperwork. Her milk chocolate brown eyes opened wide with surprise. “Kevin?”
“Hi, lovergirl. How are you?” I asked, putting on the perfect façade. I’d do my best to come across as if nothing was wrong, and I was happy to see her.
Rose looked down at the table. “I don’t think you should call me that. I’m not your lovergirl anymore.”
“Well, that’s why I’m here. You did invite me to come and see for myself, if I’m not mistaken. Here I am. Funny thing, though. You’re eating out here and not in your office at that ‘emergency meeting.’”
Rose’s eyes dashed to the right. This was a telltale sign she was attempting to come up with a lie via the creative side of her brain. “The meeting was canceled.”
“Bullshit! There was no meeting! I told you when we first met that I can spot a lie a mile away!”
Rose ran her fingers through her dark brown hair as she met my gaze directly. “Okay, fine! I just didn’t want to see you. Am I lying now?”
I paused. “No,” I said under my breath.
Rose quickly eyed me up and down. She subtly shook her head with the hint of an eye-roll. I looked down at myself, knowing what her actions were all about. I’d opted to dress in blue jeans, a white-collar shirt, and a black sports jacket. The combination was one Rose once expressed as sexy. Foolishly, I believed the combination might somehow cause Rose to look upon me with more favor.
How wrong I was.
“What do you want?” She asked coldly. I could barely comprehend the condescending tone of her voice. The smile that once used to grace her beautiful face was now pruned with disdain.
“I want to know what the hell happened with us. Everything was fine until a few weeks ago. Then it’s as if you pulled a complete one-eighty on me. Now you act like we’re complete strangers. What happened, Rose? Did I imagine the whole thing?”
“No, you didn’t,” she said begrudgingly. “Things change, Kevin. Dennis’s mother called me a few days ago. She asked me to give him another chance.”
Here it is, I thought bitterly. That cheating bastard’s old bag of a mother emotionally blackmailed her.
Dennis was Rose’s estranged husband. He thought himself a master manipulator. Shortly after he and Rose wed, Dennis cheated on her with his best man’s wife, believing he could somehow get away with it. Assuming Rose told the truth about that, his betrayal occurred a little over six months ago and five months before Rose and I met, although I didn’t know that at the time. Rose led me to believe their estrangement was much longer, with a divorce soon to occur. Divorce eventually became an impending divorce, which ultimately became a recent separation. Funny how lies work that way. They get all muddied as the truth begins to trickle down.
I looked down at the change from my lunch purchase. One quarter, two dimes, and three pennies lay scattered about the surface of the serving tray. I picked up the quarter and began fiddling with it.
“He cheated on you,” I said, pointing out the obvious. I looked up. “What makes you think he won’t do it again?”
“I don’t know. I cheated on him too.”
I felt my jaw drop as my eyebrows rose. “What? That was after the fact!” I slammed the quarter onto the tray. “He’d already moved out and was living with his new girlfriend, yeah?”
“I guess that makes him and me even,” Rose said softly, deliberately not looking up from the tray where the quarter now rested. She did this to avoid eye contact with me. I felt like I was dealing with a fickle high school girl even though Rose was thirty-eight years of age and four years my senior.
“Do you know how absurd that sounds?” I asked. “You said you loved me! What the fuck was that about? Another lie?”
“I only said that to make you feel better,” she said, her voice laced with disdain.
Real pain began to set in. “What?” I whispered. “How could you do such a thing? I haven’t felt about anyone the way I feel about you since…”
Rose looked up at me from the serving tray with a cocked eyebrow. I think she may have been expecting me to say something she’d not take well. “Since who? Don’t say your ex-wife, Kevin. We both know that wouldn’t be true. How did you once describe her to me? As the worst four and a half years of your life?”
I gave Rose a revolted glance. “Well, she did cheat on me, multiple times, all because I didn’t want to share her with other men. Remember? Then there was that thing where she got pregnant so she could tie herself to me for the foreseeable future in some sick effort to financially rape me. Lest you not forget, she totally succeeded! Now I have a little boy whom I barely see while she drains my bank account to fund her swinger lifestyle!”
Rose deliberately rolled her eyes. “No, Kevin. I’ve not forgotten. It’s all you pretty much complain about.”
I tossed my hands up into the air. “What is it with getting lied to from every direction? Huh? I don’t get it!”
Rose ignored the question. “Who are you talking about, if it’s not Marie. I don’t remember you telling me about anyone else besides her.”
I looked away in disgust. “No one. Forget it.”
Rose didn’t know about my long lost love, Becca Saccarelli. No one did, not even my ex-wife. I shouldn’t have gone there. Becca was a door to my past, one slammed shut against my will. Now wasn’t the time to open it.
“Whatever,” Rose whispered as I picked up the quarter again with my thumb pressed firmly against the mint year stamp. I began flipping it over and across my knuckles and then back again. It was a habit I’d picked up in high school when boredom ruled my world. Rose deliberately ignored the trick she once declared as ’the coolest fucking thing I’ve ever seen.’
“So you lied to me when you said you loved me. I really loved you. At least I thought I did,” I said in a hoarse whisper, watching the quarter dance across the back of my fingers. I stopped as I struggled to hold back tears, tears I didn’t want Rose to see. “Did you tell me the truth about anything?”
Her eyes darted to meet mine for a moment as she flashed a weak smile. “I do think you’re an awesome dad.”
Awesome dad, I bitterly repeated in my head. The phrase had been one of her more frequent compliments in a series designed to placate my ego.
Somewhere amid Rose’s seduction, I’d been sufficiently enamored in allowing her to meet my six-year-old son, Spencer. Rose had no kids of her own. She’d often suggested she was never destined to have them believing it was her lot in life to be a mother figure to someone else’s children. She never explicitly suggested mine, although she smiling lovingly at Spencer more than once when she made such declarations, citing what an ‘awesome dad’ I was.
“Anyway, you’ll make someone very happy someday,” she added. “It just won’t be me.” I felt my jaw drop again. A dam of raw pain burst somewhere inside me. The tear streaming silently down my face was the overflow.
“You used me, didn’t you?” I asked in a whisper. “You were all pissed off that Dennis cheated on you, and I was how you got back at him. Tell me I’m wrong.”
“You’re wrong,” she stated flatly, looking off to the right again. Lie.
“I waited three years after my divorce to date again,” I said softly, glaring at her now. “Do you remember why? I know I told you.”
Rose sighed with exasperation as if revisiting my reasons was a significant inconvenience. “Because you didn’t want to use anyone as a ‘rebound.’”
“But you thought doing that to me was somehow okay?” Rose didn’t reply. She looked away. “I didn’t lie to you about anything. You knew my situation. And still, you thought it was somehow okay to just get your anger about Dennis out by basically fucking me for a month?” I scoffed. “I guess you got it all out of your system, huh? What was it you said? You and he are even now?” I chuckled dryly. “I guess you told the truth that time after all.”
“Stop!” She snapped.
“So now it’s okay to go back to him because his mommy played on your guilt?” I asked snidely. “Typical Catholic.”
“You know what, Kevin? Fuck you!”
I pursed my lips with my own contempt now bleeding through. “Truth hurts, doesn’t it, lovergirl?”
Rose gathered her papers and hurridly stuffed them into the folder. She stood up and stared down at me with an angry, twisted look on her face. “Don’t ever contact me again! Do you understand? Don’t call me, don’t email me, don’t come here to see me. Nothing! It’s over! Goodbye!”
Abandoning her half-eaten lunch, Rose stomped away and toward the glass door that led into the mall’s operations office where she worked, where I couldn’t follow.
I watched her go. I watched her walk away.
A recent memory of Rose and I standing on Clearwater Beach popped into my mind. We’d been holding hands, standing in the face of the salty breeze blowing in off the Gulf of Mexico. The lazy, fire orange Florida sun was beginning to set over the water. Rose leaned in and whispered to me that this spot on the beach was her favorite place to go. She then claimed she’d shared it with only one other person. Her ex-husband. And he never ‘appreciated it.’
Rose said ‘ex-husband,’ didn’t she? Only that wasn’t exactly right. There hadn’t yet been a divorce. It was one of the many lies I wouldn’t discover until the end of the relationship grew closer.
Then there was the lovemaking. Sweet Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. What spectacular acts were they? No woman had rocked my world in such a way since…
A long faded memory of the only other woman in my life who reached into me the way Rose had filled my mind. Becca Saccarelli, standing in her parent’s backyard on a chilly September night in 1991. She smiles at me in the pale moonlight as she blows me a kiss and waves goodbye.
I never saw Becca again after that night.
That long-ago memory of her is all I have left. It’s haunted me most of my life.
That was fifteen years ago. I was nineteen, and Becca was only sixteen. She and I were together for a little over one month before her tyrant parents split us apart. Becca and her soul capturing green eyes. How they told me she loved me in ways words never could. It was magic. She was magic. More than that, she’d saved me at a time when no one else could. After Becca was gone, I never thought I’d love another the way I did her. And I didn’t. Not really. Every woman since Becca were all degrees of second best. I accepted this long ago; it was the only way I could finally move on from her.
I looked down at the quarter lying face down on my palm and frowned. There was no lovemaking with Rose, I thought bitterly. After all, lovemaking requires love. Doesn’t it?
I’d have no choice but to remember those days and nights with Rose as straight forward ‘fucking.’ After all, Rose had just declared that love was never part of the equation, right? Why did I not see her deception? Did I know all along and not want to admit it? Or was she that good?
I didn’t know. I’d probably never know.
I continued to sit silently at the table in shock. Tears rolled down my face after Rose disappeared into the mall administrative offices. The memory of her and I standing on Clearwater Beach began to fade away. I dropped the quarter I’d been fiddling with onto the table, buried my hands in my scruffy blonde hair, and flopped over onto the food court table. Its uneven legs provided a loud screeching noise as it jolted out of position. The coins on the lunch tray bounced out of their places. The quarter on the table decided to take the additional measure of sliding over the edge and onto the dirty white tiled floor.
“Dammit,” I muttered. Out of all those coins, it had to be the quarter to fall. It was the only coin worth keeping. I rocked back and forth while listening to the dull chunk of the table’s uneven legs as they struck the floor.
With more effort than I wanted to exude, I leaned over the side of the table to pick up the fallen quarter. As I sat up, I witnessed the most spectacular redheaded women hurriedly walking alongside the food court with another fellow. I thought I’d seen her lingering in the food court earlier while I stood in line at Sbarro’s Pizza, contemplating what to say to Rose.
I chuckled as she and her companion disappeared from sight. Lucky bastard.
My father’s arrogant voice called out of the depths of my psyche, ’You think you’re good enough for her? You stupid fuck up! If you ever got lucky enough to take a crack at that pussy, she’d use you up and throw you away too! Like Rose did. Like your ex-wife did. Like I did!’
The tone of that old bastard’s voice made me shiver. It seemed to call out from the deepest, darkest places of my mind when I was at my lowest. He wasn’t wrong, though. I had an unhealthy habit of choosing women who gaslit me just as he did. I’d then find myself going to every measure imaginable to earn their love and approval, only to fail as miserably as I did with him.
I looked back toward the glass door in which Rose made her retreat. The foreboding big black letters spelling MANAGEMENT meant I couldn’t follow. No matter what little fantasy played out in my head, Rose wouldn’t reappear out that door and fall into my arms at the eleventh hour. She’d never claim she was sorry for breaking my heart and that we’d live happily ever after.
She used me. Rose used me. Jesus Christ! Why does this keep happening to me? Rose used to me make herself feel better while sticking it to her cheating husband. Marie, my ex-wife, all I am to her is a walking ATM machine. At the same time, she uses our son as a pawn to extract from me as much money she can while limiting my interaction with him as often as she’s able. And my father, Charlie? He used me to make himself feel better about his miserable life by beating on me whenever the mood struck him.
What was the point of living anymore? I didn’t have the strength to go through this shit again. I could feel the tidal wave of hurt coming, which would ultimately lead to more depression. Once again, I wasn’t good enough, plain and simple. That rabbit hole of depression seemed to grow more difficult to climb out of each time this happened. I wasn’t sure if I could do it this time.
If Becca and I could’ve run away when we had the opportunity all those years ago, maybe life would have been radically different. Perhaps even better.
I was so ready to leave. Still, there was nowhere to go.
Or was there?
I took the quarter in my hand and used my thumb to flip it into the air. To be or not to be.
The sunlight through the mall’s overhead skylight bounced off the falling coin as I caught it in my hand. I slapped it down on the top of my other hand to gaze at the result. Heads? To be. Tails…
I stared at the coin in sheer disbelief. What I was seeing was impossible.
It’s a fake! It has to be!
I looked up from the table and scoped the activity around me in quick paranoid gestures. People bustled about from kiosk to kiosk in an attempt to decide what bad mall food to eat for lunch.
I looked back down at the quarter. I wasn’t sure why I suddenly felt so paranoid. Was this some sort of practical joke? Would I catch giggling participants mocking my surprise, thus leading to my eventual humiliation?
I stood up and looked around for the closest person. If someone else could verify what I was seeing, then I’d know I wasn’t hallucinating from stress or heartbreak.
The closest kiosk, one specializing in cell phones and cell phone accessories, stood near the center of the food court. A young man sat behind the counter, carelessly flipping through an issue of Rolling Stone. He’d be the one to confirm my find.
I scooped up the rest of the loose change, shoved the coins into my back pocket, and walked carefully toward the kiosk.
“Do you see this?” I asked the scruffy-looking kid sitting behind the kiosk counter. He looked to be nineteen, give or take. Even with his barely shaven face and tousled hair, he attempted to portray himself as a professional salesperson. It was probably the geeky glasses that helped pull off the charade.
His eyes moved away from the magazine and to the coin lying in my palm. After a brief moment, his eyes darted up to meet mine. “It’s a quarter?”
I narrowed my eyes at his sarcasm. “Thanks for stating the obvious, Sherlock. Look closer.”
He adjusted his glasses to compensate for an apparent case of far-sightedness and gave the quarter a closer read. He looked back to me in doubt. His face asked, are you putting me on?
“It’s a novelty coin?” He reached out to take the quarter for closer inspection. Instinctively, I pulled it away. I didn’t want him to have it. I didn’t want anyone to have it.
Beware of strangers who come as friends, as someone once told me.
He jerked his head back as if to say, Well, excuse the piss out of me, friend, and summarily shrugged me off.
Why was I surprised? Of course he thought the coin wasn’t real. What were the odds of casually stumbling across a quarter that shouldn’t yet exist? To wit, a United States Maryland state quarter stamped with the mint year of 2025. Also, how odd was it the coin represented the state of Maryland, the same state in which I’d spent the first two decades of my life.
No, if this coin turned out to be real, it would be a find of epic proportions.
Maybe I didn’t need to leave. There might be somewhere to go after all.
Forget Rose! This thing here? This quarter insisting it comes from the year 2025? This is much more interesting!
“Hey man, is there anything else you need?” The kid said, shattering the assemblage of my thoughts. He held his arms out, suggesting that I should move along if there was no further business to conduct.
“No. Forget it.” I hurried off to a corner seat at the far end of the sparsely crowded food court where I could be alone, where I could gawk in privacy. Closer observation and examination of the quarter revealed no cheap plastic facsimile. It felt real in its texture, its weight, and its edging. As impossible as the situation may be, my gut feeling was resolute. I was holding a real quarter from the year 2025.
I rammed my fingers into my back pocket to withdraw the remaining coins. I wanted to check for additional future-dated money. It came as no surprise they all fell within this year of 2006 or earlier. A check of the remaining bills in my wallet produced the same. This mysterious ‘FutureQuarter’ from 2025? It was the sole exception.
Every thought seemed to come back to the same question. How did this coin find its way into 2006? Could I attempt to trace the quarter to the individual who last used it or lost it? That could mean meeting a bona fide time traveler. Jesus! The questions I would have!
The loose change I carried originated from Sbarro’s Pizza, courtesy of the pimply-faced kid working the cash register. I’d paid for lunch in cash and left the coin change on the serving tray. I stopped to realize the futility of the situation. In all likelihood, the coin probably changed hands tens, hundreds, or thousands of times before today as money changes hands often.
I frowned. Now what?
I glanced up toward the skylight window embedded in the ceiling of the food court. A freak burst of lightning flashed among the puffy white cumulus clouds scattered across the blue Florida sky. I tightened my lips and narrowed my eyes in anticipation of the thunder that typically follows.
Returning to my default composure, I concluded that perhaps somewhere in the adjacent parking lot, a mercury vapor lamp lost control in its final throes of life.
I looked at the quarter again. I didn’t want to believe it could be fake. After my miserable divorce and the heart stomping experience known as Rose Centeno, I really needed some new adventure to embark upon. Something that wasn’t part of the doldrums my life had become over the last few years. Perhaps FutureQuarter was to be the doctor ordered exploration. The prescription? Locate the coin’s original owner. Find out what his story is.
The next obstacle in my quest would be credibility. Who would possibly believe my find or me? How could I prove the quarter was real?
I looked over at the Sbarro’s Pizza kiosk in the center-right of the food court. The hint of an early lunch rush had already begun when I stepped in line behind three other people at Sbarro’s. I sighed as I attempted to remember them in detail. When waiting for service at a fast-food kiosk in a busy mall, how often does one pay detailed attention to other patrons? I’d venture not very often unless one is admiring an attractive member of the opposite sex.
I closed my eyes and attempted to concentrate on the man directly in front of me. He’d been entirely nondescript. Nothing about him stuck out or made him memorable, even in some obscure way. Before Mr. Ordinary was a rather large and poorly dressed slovenly woman. Outside of disgust, I paid her no attention. However, the man standing before Ms. Roomy at the Sbarro’s counter I remembered best. He was tall and skinny, with a notably dark complexion. I’d place him in his mid-thirties. It wasn’t his physical attributes making him so impressive, but instead his unique shirt tie. I’ve always fancied distinctive ties, admiring unique combinations of color, patterns, or designs. The man’s tie was off the chart cool. Either black or dark blue, the tie displayed off-white, grey, or light blue sequences of ones and zeros in sets of eight digits, also known as binary code. When I first gazed upon the tie, I wondered what characters those sequences of binary numbers translated to. Had I been able to see all of the chains, I could have attempted an on-the-fly translation.
I stood up, re-pocketed the loose change, and decided to work my way back to the Sbarro’s kiosk with no idea of what to look for. How much time had passed since my purchase? Twenty minutes? A half an hour?
At present, eight people stood impatiently for service at Sbarro’s. The pimply-faced kid at the cash register processed them as fast as he could. I had my doubts about that kid knowing anything about my unique possession, much less the three people who stood in line before me earlier that morning.
So many people passed through Sbarro’s. Any previous customer conducting business there this morning could be the coin’s previous owner. What if the quarter passed through Sbarro’s last night or yesterday afternoon? I groaned at what should be a simple task. This new adventure quickly turned into a production of a significant percentage. It brought with it the disillusion of reality; I’d find no answers at Sbarro’s.
I glanced around the area one more time, hoping for naught I might spot one or more of the folks who’d been in line before me. Common sense rapidly intruded. Had a stranger walked up to me and asked if I had previously had a future dated coin, chances are I’d walk away and not look back. Well, that might not be entirely accurate. Any average person might react in such a manner, but not I. The kind of curiosity such a random question would invoke might warrant further investigation.
Knowing I was wasting time, I spent another half hour walking around the mall looking for Binary Tie Guy. I knew I’d never find the other two people in line. However, the man wearing a tie that said, ‘look at me, I’m a geek,’ would stand out like a sore thumb.
The search proved fruitless. Binary Tie Guy was long gone.
The next step in my journey would involve the authentication of FutureQuarter. I knew exactly who could make that determination.
David DeMinte is the individual I consult when buying or trading in antique monies. The hobby is one of my guilty pleasures. He runs a small shop off McIntosh Road, DeMinte Coin Exchange, a stone’s throw from the mall, and conveniently on my way home. David deals mostly in coins but keeps his eye open for paper money that occasionally comes his way. Specifically, dollar bills predating 1976 or silver certificates; bills printed with blue serial number ink versus the standard green.
A veteran of the Vietnam War, David is the typical grumpy old guy who tends to talk to himself. He often grumbles under his breath at how clueless his customers can sometimes be. He doesn’t hold back. It’s probably why I like him. David walks with a cane due to a war injury that he’s always more than happy to talk about and often smashes it into the floor while emphasizing whatever point or argument he’s making.
I asked David to verify the 2025 quarter as legitimate. He’d know if it were phony or counterfeit. His demeanor of general irritation morphed into one of intrigue when I showed him the coin. I expected some kind of grunt followed by a dismissal of the quarter as worthless. Instead, he seemed more interested in where I found it. The change in his attitude and questioning line suggested there might be more to the quarter’s existence than meets the eye. I recounted for him the tale of how the quarter came into my possession.
“It’s a fake,” David finally said after examining the coin with a loupe. He punched his cane into the floor in emphasis.
“What makes you say that?”
“Ha! Are you serious, boy? Puttin’ to one side that time travel is impossible, what you have here is a state quarter.” He looked up at me over his bifocals without moving his head. The explanation meant nothing to me.
“So, the U.S. Mint didn’t start printin’ state quarters until 1999. Before that, the obverse of the quarter showed George Washington all the way back to 1932 with the standard eagle design on its ass end.” David paused. He looked out the steel bar protected plate glass window that comprised the front of his shop. “The 1975 and the 1976 quarters were the exceptions. The flip side on those coins had the bi-centennial design. You know, the colonial drummer and the victory torch surrounded by thirteen stars…for the original thirteen colonies.”
I scoffed. “Yeah. Thanks, Dave. I knew that. I passed American history, believe it or not.”
David scoffed in return. He stared me down as he turned the FutureQuarter over to show its reverse side. “See here? This is the Maryland state quarter, showin’ the Liberty Dam.” Sure enough, an engraved replica of the dam and its name proudly protruded from the coin’s reverse side. My heart sank. “Besides, the state quarter program’ll end in 2009 after its ten-year run. They’ll go back to the original design, I reckon’. That’s how these coins become collectibles, boy. And how I make money.” David grinned as he nodded in triumph. “Hold on, I wanna show you somethin’.” David hobbled into his office.
I stared at FutureQuarter and sighed. So close, I thought with crushing disappointment. I felt like crawling into bed and staying there for the foreseeable future. So close. Damn!
David returned with another coin. “This here is a real Maryland state quarter. Sure, they look identical, but they aren’t.”
My heart continued to sink into the quarry of molasses inside my chest. I picked up David’s real quarter in my left hand and my FutureQuarter in the other, so I could hold them up side by side. As if a subconscious magician waved his wand, my despair poofed away in a cloud of smoke. I smiled, reflecting the renewed feeling of purpose. These two coins were nothing alike. The real quarter didn’t have an etching of the Liberty dam. Instead, it was an engraving of the Maryland Statehouse surrounded by White Oak leaf clusters and the nickname, ’The Old Line State.’
“Look again, Dave,” I suggested. I held out both coins with smug satisfaction. “The two designs are completely different.”
David froze in place, his eyes remaining affixed upon FutureQuarter. He didn’t bother to compare the two coins. “You jus’ made my point for me, boy! Whoever created that forgery there went to a great deal trouble to come up with that unique design, not to mention the engraving!” He didn’t bother making eye contact with me. In fact, he looked worried…and covetous.
Does it? I thought. On the contrary, my old friend, I think what we have here is a bona fide coin from another time. Your body language speaks volumes.
David continued without eye contact. “It is a fine piece of work; I’ll give it that. I don’t suppose you’d want to sell it to me?”
Well, well, well. Your élan is showing, David.
“No fucking way, man! Imagine the kind of controversy I could stir up by scanning this and posting it on the Internet. The conspiracy nuts would have a field day with this!”
“Maybe. Maybe not,” David replied with indifference. He made no effort to return the coin to me. His inaction sparked an uncomfortable silence. David knew he should return the quarter after my declination of his offer. My suspicion grew tenfold. David wanted this coin for himself. If he genuinely believed it to be a fake, there’d be no reason for his delay.
“Can I have it back now, David? Please?”
David finally made eye contact. He slid the coin across the counter’s glass casing. “Get rid of it, Kevin. If you get caught with somethin’ like that, you could do time.”
I picked up the coin and pocketed it. “I seriously doubt that.”
“Counterfeitin’ U.S. currency is a federal offense. Fines, jail time, the cost of a shyster to fight the government. From what I know of you, you couldn’t handle time in the big house.”
“I appreciate the concern, but I didn’t counterfeit anything. It was given to me as change. All completely out of my control.”
David stood. His actions made me nervous. He was an exceptionally tall fellow, perhaps a foot taller than I was. If I clocked in at six foot two inches, then David was easily over seven feet tall. Should he want my coin, he could take it from me without much of a fight, especially with that cane as a weapon. I backed away and moved toward the door.
“True. You didn’t. I get that. Possessin’ it with intent to defraud, that is a crime.”
“Defraud? Defraud whom? I don’t intend to do anything with it now, except put it in a safe place with my other collectibles. And maybe do a little research on the Internet,” I said, changing my story. I wasn’t sure where David was going with this. “Maybe there’s more ‘future money’ out there.”
David cringed at the suggestion. I wondered why. He seemed enamored with my future find even if his words said otherwise. He obviously knew something I didn’t and wasn’t going to go out of his way to share.
David sighed, resigning himself to a life without FutureQuarter. “Do whatever you gotta do, boy. If I were you, I’d keep that coin out of sight. I might even destroy it, were I in yer shoes.”
Now I was the one cringing. What an odd thing to say. “Why destroy it?”
“It’d be the best thing to do. It’d be the right thing to do.” David turned and limped into the back of his shop. I could no longer see him. I distinctly heard David pick up the phone as I left his shop. I looked back as I opened my car door. Whom could he suddenly be calling? Was it over FutureQuarter?
I’d get the answers to those questions sooner than I wanted.
Looking back, I regret my decision to involve David. He closed up shop and left town in the days following my visit with FutureQuarter. No one in the rare coin circle has seen or heard from him since.
I drove back to my home in Lakewood Ranch, feeling relieved to be away from David. The showdown with Rose completely slipped my mind. Transporting FutureQuarter to the protection of my closet safe was the top priority. Access to the coin would then only be available with a key and a five-digit combination.
With FutureQuarter secured, I spent an hour online searching the Internet with all kinds of terms. They included ‘money from the future,’ ‘time travel,’ and everything in between. The searches bore no fruit.
In semi-defeat, I flopped down on the sofa in my home office for a power nap. I needed twenty or thirty minutes of uninterrupted sleep to recharge after Rose’s phone call from hell at seven this morning.
I took a deep breath, held it, and sighed it out. Could I prove time travel is possible?
The coin in my safe provided part of the answer, but sometimes answers invite more questions. Merely proving time travel exists would certainly pose other issues. For example, going back in time would most certainly create paradoxes. Everyone knows the primary paradox question: What happens if one goes back in time and kills their parents?
With no parents, the killer is never born. If the killer is never born, how did he go back in time to commit the act? If the killer doesn’t go back in time to kill his parents, then the parents meet, fall in love, and have their future time-traveling murderer.
What would be the repercussions of that?
One answer might state that since the killer’s actions never occurred, the whole thing resets right back to where everything belongs. Parents meet, the child is born, and the cycle begins all over again. Writers know this as ‘The Reset Button.’ It’s a cheap plot device that’s bankrupted the end of many a great tale.
I prefer the alternate timeline theories. For example, what happens to the current timeline if past events are changed? Does it cease to exist? Is the parricidal psychopath who went back in time to kill his parents ever able to come back to the world he left? Does it go on without him? In short, paradoxes such as these should make time travel all but impossible without the multi-universe theory. FutureQuarter, however, suggests differently.
I closed my eyes and waited for the overwhelming fatigue to claim me. The powernap. What a lovely thing in which to indulge after a serious overworking of the brain. Sometimes during those naps, I’d experience the most vivid and intense dreams. Some of them made sense. Some didn’t.
There would be no dream this afternoon.
Whatever I experienced wasn’t a natural phenomenon. For lack of a better description, a broadcast signal appeared inside my head. It was like watching a video quality T.V. signal with my eyes closed. I remember the first images and sounds involved static, the kind one might see while turning an antenna knob to fine-tune a UHF channel.
The static faded into the image of an older man appearing against a white backdrop. He was clearly Irish with his facial features and graying red hair. He wore a white polo shirt with the name ‘MacKenzie’ emblazoned over the left breast pocket.
“Are we locked?” He asked someone off to his right. With a quick nod, he looked toward me but not quite at me. The eye contact was imperfect, similar to a news broadcaster speaking at a camera.
“Hi, Kevin. My name is Detective Connor MacKenzie. We don’t have much time, so I need you to listen to me very carefully. This is going to be hard to accept, what I’m about to tell you. I need you to try your best to keep an open mind and do exactly as I say. You’ll not understand all of it, what I am about to tell you. I’m asking you to trust me. Rest assured, everything you don’t understand will be explained to you later on, so it’ll all make sense, what’s about to happen. My team and I, we’re the ‘good guys,’ and where there are good guys, there are also ‘bad guys.’ Right now, they’re coming for you, those bad guys.
“You’ve stumbled upon an anomaly, a quarter that doesn’t belong in your time index of 2006. How it got there, we’re not exactly sure right now. We’ve been working around the clock, so to speak, to fix this problem. We’d hoped to recover it, the anomaly, without temporal contamination. That means we’d hoped it’d go unnoticed, its unique time stamp, and stay unnoticed until we were able to recover it. Since this wasn’t possible, you’ve consequently become involved in a delicate process that puts your life, and other aspects of it, in danger. When you wake up from this transmission, which you are receiving as a dream, two agents will enter your house. They’ll try to take you into custody. These agents, they’re dangerous, and they’re not your friends. Nor are they there to help you, contrary to whatever they might say. They’re part of a much bigger organization that’s…” He paused as if searching for the right words, “…not very friendly. They have no qualms about it, making you disappear in their effort to recover the anomaly first. I’m sending one of my best men to help you. However, we’ve been unable to determine your exact recovery location. This is why you must allow them to capture you, those bad guys. I need you to go ahead and cooperate with them short of surrendering it, the anomaly. Tell them you’ve hidden it, the coin, someplace off your property, and agree to take them to it. It doesn’t matter where you lead them. What’s important is they make contact with their superiors via the communications device they’re using. It’ll lead us to your location, this transmission, where my associate will contact you and contain the situation. His name is Ryan Capcoseve, FCA #17914011. He’ll address you by the code name we’ve assigned you, ‘Conundrum.’ He’ll then provide further instructions.
“I can not stress enough the importance of it all, what I’ve just told you and what I need you to do. Again, an explanation regarding all the unknown variables is coming forthwith, after Ryan makes contact with you. Good luck, Conundrum. I’ll wake you now. There might be a little discomfort.”
A buzzing sound originating in an echo chamber swallowed my entire consciousness. A little discomfort? Electroshock therapy would be a little discomfort. Whatever MacKenzie did, it involved a searing pain in the lower back of my head as if someone took an ice pick and jammed it up in there. I shrieked back into consciousness and fell off the sofa.
True to MacKenzie’s message, an older man and a younger woman dressed in black suits entered my office. They approximated a scene out of the ‘Men In Black’ movie, although these two weren’t Will Smith and Linda Fiorentino. And I wasn’t laughing.
“Mr. Provance, I’m Special Agent Jonas Buckley. This is Special Agent Samantha Waters.” He motioned toward his partner. “We’re with the United States Department of Homeland Security. I believe you have in your possession property that belongs to the United States government. A misprinted quarter, to be exact.”
There was silence as Buckley waited for me to reply. I stood up. “So, you just walk into my house without knocking?”
Buckley appeared taken aback. “I knocked several times, Mr. Provance. You didn’t answer. We then heard you cry out. Fearing for your safety, we entered the residence.”
Bullshit. Nice try, though.
“Could I see some I.D., please?” I asked. As if on cue, both agents flashed wallet badges with impressive-looking credentials: Jonas Buckley and Samantha Waters, both registered agents with the DHS. In obtaining their credentials, both of their jackets shifted open to reveal Glock 9mm handguns. I felt this was a deliberate move to send me a message. I glanced briefly at Buckley’s Glock. “It’s not here,” I said, making eye contact with Buckley. “I put it in my safe deposit box.”
Buckley stepped back. He gestured toward the front of the house. “Would you please accompany us to that location, sir? It’s a matter of national security.”
I gave Buckley a dumbfounded look. “A misprinted quarter is a matter of national security?”
“Yes, sir,” Buckley replied matter-of-factly. “Would you please accompany us to its location? Your country would very much appreciate your cooperation.”
“Do I have a choice?”
Buckley planted his hand on his hip. His suit jacket pushed back, casually revealing the Glock. “You always have a choice, Mr. Provance. I’m confident you’ll make the correct one.”
“In the best interest of your country,” Waters added.
“Uh-huh,” I said doubtfully. Buckley stood to the side and gestured me to pass.
“We have a car waiting,” Waters said.
Of course, you do. This is the George W. Bush administration; I’m sure the waterboarding supplies in the trunk are standard issue.
In reality, these two were far from legitimate DHS agents and probably didn’t answer to the U.S. government. I couldn’t imagine to whom they answered. Detective MacKenzie’s ‘bad guys’ were perhaps more potent than our current government.
Buckley led me to a gorgeous black Lexus parked in my driveway. Without haste, he sternly stashed me into the backseat, slammed the door shut, and climbed into the driver’s seat. “The location of the safe deposit box, please, Mr. Provance.”
Detective MacKenzie’s suggestion from my ‘dream’ involved finding a way to somehow stall these two until they contacted their superiors. With this in mind, I decided the truth would be my best hope. I’d take Buckley and Waters to a real safe deposit box in my name at a bank on the other side of town. I could think of no other way to buy time without looking like I was making a concerted effort to do so.
“Okay, at the intersection of University Parkway and Lockwood Ridge Road is a local bank called the Sarasota Credit Union. To get there --”
“I know where it is, thank you,” Buckley said, interrupting what would have been a lengthy discourse involving out-of-the-way directions.
In a continued effort to distract Buckley, I attempted several times to engage either agent in conversation. Unfortunately, neither of them displayed much interest in casual banter. Silence was the answer to every question I posed. Their anti-social behavior left me feeling completely helpless and more than nervous.
Not only did Buckley know precisely where he was going, he deliberately took the most direct route. Time began to run out with each passing mile. If Ryan Capcoseve was going to show up, he needed to do so within the next few minutes. Otherwise, my ass was going to have some serious explaining to do when Buckley and Waters found only computer disks in my safe deposit box.
After an eternity, and with only a few miles left until my fate became an inevitability, a robotic chirp filled the air. It emanated from Waters’ direction. She reached into her suit jacket, withdrew a small cell phone like device, and flipped it open. A voice resounded from the apparatus as Waters held it up. “Buckley, Waters. Report.”
Waters answered, “Anomaly located. En route to--”
Complete pandemonium interrupted her reply.
Without warning, another vehicle T-boned into the left side of Buckley’s Lexus. It flew off the road frontend first into a wide shallow ditch. The front of the Lexus folded into the ground as the rear lifted into the air. I waited with my eyes and teeth clenched shut for the Lexus to flip over ass-end first.
Thankfully, it did not.
The rear of the car slammed tires first into the ground. It put the Lexus on all four wheels. Before I could recover from the impact, two bright flashes of intense white light filled the car, followed by the oddest low pitch sound. One flash originated from the driver’s seat, the other from the passenger side. Buckley and Waters fell unconscious where they sat. The left-back door opened as I watched my captors fall prey to whatever happened. Whoever opened the door reached inside the backseat, undid my seatbelt, and yanked me out onto my feet. A man I estimated close to me in age held me up by my arms. Unlike Detective MacKenzie, he wore an open-collar white dress shirt with no surname on either breast pocket.
“I guess so,” I said listlessly, still shaken from the crash.
“Yes or no, please!”
“Yes!” I snapped as I attempted to clear the cobwebs in my head. “Are you Ryan?”
“Capcoseve, Ryan. FCA #17914011. Are you okay?”
“I got my bell rung,” I said. Ryan stared at me as if he didn’t know what the hell I was talking about. “Yeah. I’m fine.”
Ryan reached into the broken driver’s side door window and began going through Buckley’s suit jacket. He pulled something out of the inner jacket pocket and stood back.
“We need to get moving,” Ryan said, pulling me up the ditch’s incline as he briskly walked back toward the road. I understood the reason for the severity of the accident when I reached the road. Ryan drove a tank-sized black Hummer into Buckley’s Lexus. At a glance, it seemed the SUV took little to no damage from the ram job. Ryan pointed to the SUV. “Get in.” Ignoring the pain of my tensed muscles, I climbed into the passenger side of the SUV as Ryan darted back to the driver’s side. He tossed something into the back seat as he embarked. It wasn’t the object he took off Buckley. It was a small handheld device that looked like a futuristic Luger pistol.
“What the hell is that?” I asked. Ryan made a deliberate U-Turn and sped away from the accident he’d caused. Other folks along the road were beginning to take note of what had happened. I had to assume for the moment Ryan didn’t know that Florida law enforcement frowns upon leaving the scene of an accident. Or perhaps he did and simply didn’t care.
Ryan ignored my question. “Where is the anomaly?”
“You mean FutureQuarter?”
“Yes. Do you still have it?”
“It’s back at my house, locked up in my safe.”
“Then that’s where we’re going. I have to get it back to Detective MacKenzie as soon as possible.”
I looked directly at him. “In the future, you mean?”
Ryan sighed. “Something like that.”
“What do you mean ‘something like that’?” I felt entitled to some answers after enduring the last few hours. I made no qualm about letting Ryan know that frustration and I had been constant companions for far too long. “Either it is, or it isn’t. I thought someone, namely you, would be explaining some of what the hell’s been going on since I found that damned quarter!”
“It is,” Ryan said. “The quarter originated from the year 2025. We’re not sure how or why it ended up in 2006. Incidents like this aren’t supposed to happen. The consequences could be disastrous.” Ryan reached into his pocket and withdrew the item he took off Buckley. It looked like a glass rod, about three inches long and as wide as one of those fat elementary school pencils. Light colors swirled hypnotically inside the glass. “This should tell us exactly where and when the unauthorized temporal incursion occurred and, more importantly, who’s responsible.”
“What is that? And what is that phaser looking thing in the back seat?” I asked again.
Ryan held up the glass rod. “This is a data storage device. It looks like glass, but it isn’t. It doesn’t break. It’s a HoloL…holographic technology.”
My head swam. I pressed my hands against the dashboard in a feeble attempt to ward off vertigo. “Ryan, holographic storage hasn’t been invented yet. The last thing I read on the Internet about it suggested it was decades away.”
Ryan belted out in laughter. “The Internet,” he said in wonder. “I haven’t heard about that in the longest time.”
“You’re not from here, are you? And when I say here, I mean 2006.”
“No. I’m not. This car, your Internet, the things I’m seeing, they’re all antiques that no longer exist where I’m from.”
“What about that phaser in the back seat?”
“It’s a weapon. It’s called an Impüls.” The word came out as Im-poolse. “It’s an electromagnetic weapon that renders the target unconscious. In extreme situations, it can kill. We no longer use guns and bullets in my time. They’re archaic.”
“When are you from originally? You must have your own original timeline when you’re not… working.”
“I became involved with the FCA when I was twelve in 2083.”
“So, how old are you now exactly?”
Ryan sighed. He glanced upward to calculate some figures in his head. “Linearly speaking, meaning if you counted the years from my birthday to the current time index in 2095, I should be almost twenty-four. In reality, due to the amount of time I spend in temporal displacement, I’m closer to thirty-two.”
“That’s fucked up,” I said softly.
Ryan shrugged with indifference.
“So what about the dream message from earlier this afternoon? How was that done?”
“This afternoon,” Ryan mused, repeating my words with the hint of a smile. “Detective MacKenzie sent that transmission over two months ago. I was there.”
I knelt over and buried my face in my hands. I felt dizzy and overwhelmed. Open mind or not, the implications behind Ryan’s words were enormous.
Ryan glanced over. “Are you okay? Do you need medical attention?”
“No, no. This is a lot to take in all at once.”
“I understand,” Ryan said with some sympathy. “The message you received was sent from our base, FCA-1. I don’t fully understand the technology that makes it work if that’s what you’re asking about. It takes a broadcast signal and converts it into frequencies the brain can receive while in REM sleep. Do you know what that means?” I nodded. “The tricky part is directing that signal at the intended recipient. The Earth isn’t a stationary object. Compensating for its speed and movement can be problematic.”
I sat in awe of Ryan’s explanation. He also wasn’t asking for directions to my home. He appeared to know precisely where he was going. I wondered how much these FCA people knew about me. More importantly, how much did the ‘bad guys’ know?
After several minutes passed, I managed a new question. “You said FCA-1. What does FCA stand for? Where is this place?”
Ryan sighed again. “You have to understand something, Kevin. Some things I can tell you. Other things, I can’t. Not right now. It is all part of the Temporal Directives. You need to know only what you need to know.”
“Do you do this often?” I asked. “Time travel?”
“Sometimes. Not as often as you might think. We don’t call it ‘time travel.’ We call it temporal displacement. The division of the FCA I work for is the TDI Division, Temporal Displacement Investigations. We’re like detectives that analyze and fix incidents like this one. A lot of what I do is research. There needs to be a very carefully laid out mission plan with every variable accounted for before an authorized portal is opened.”
“Where is this portal?” I asked. Ryan flashed me a witty half-grin but didn’t answer. “You can’t tell me, can you?”
“No. I can’t. Not right now.”
Ryan pulled into my driveway as I was about to protest. Instead, we disembarked in silence. Ryan holstered his Impüls. I led him into the house and promptly retrieved FutureQuarter from the safe in my office. Ryan walked gingerly through the living room. He studied and admired the various objects around him.
“This is so weird,” he said softly. “I feel like I’ve been here before.”
I laughed and met him in the living room. “That would be all but impossible. Anyways, here it is.” I held up the 2025 quarter. Ryan gently took it from me and examined it. When he took the coin from my fingers, I felt as if he were stretching an unseen rubber cord that began with the quarter and ended with the fiber of my being.
“This is it,” he said in approval. “I’ll personally deliver this to Detective MacKenzie. I think we’re done here.”
“What about those clowns pretending to be DHS agents?”
Ryan held up the quarter. “They don’t want you. They want this. They’ll be coming after me now that I have it.”
“And what about me?” I was suddenly alarmed Ryan would leave without answering any of the hundreds of questions I had. “What do I do now? Pretend like none of this ever happened? Do you just leave while I’m left to wonder why all of this happened?”
Ryan frowned. “I wish you hadn’t said that.”
“You’re not going to be able to just walk away from this, are you?”
It was an honest question. I’d have to give an honest answer. “No. I don’t think I can.”
“Yeah. I figured as much. I’m sorry, Kevin. I wish I didn’t have to do this.” Ryan reached into a pouch on the side of his belt. It looked long enough to hold a mini flashlight. He produced a small pen-like object from it. It was too thin to be a flashlight and too long to be a laser pointer. For reasons I couldn’t explain, it gave me the creeps. Dread washed over me at the sight of it.
“What the hell is that?” I whispered.
“This is a Löschen.” (lo-shen). “It can erase short term memories. Between seven and twelve hours. Anything longer and the procedure becomes more complicated…and dangerous.”
I barely heard Ryan’s explanation. My focus was on the long, thin, stainless steel penlight he held. I knew in my heart of hearts I’d seen Ryan’s device before.
“I promise. I won’t tell a soul,” I whispered in panic. I never moved my eyes away from the device he held. Shivers went down my spine. The sight of that thing continued to send chills throughout my body.
In an act of sympathy, Ryan placed his free hand on my shoulder. “I believe you, Kevin. I really do. I’m not concerned about you letting something slip. I’m more concerned about what sitting on this kind of information could do to you. You wouldn’t be able to talk to anyone about what’s happened here today. You’d be carrying around the events of this day with no place to turn your feelings but inward. That’s the real potential for damage to you. With the state of mind you’re in right now, I think it would do you more harm than good.”
A crack in the dam holding my unconscious memories formed. It leaked out a few drops of an incident from my life I’d long forgotten. Flashes of someone holding a Löschen toward me danced around my subconscious. Those flashes revolved around a summer morning in 1989 when I lived in Maryland. I’d gone hiking around the Liberty Reservoir. The area became foggy during my hike. Unnaturally foggy. There were also three people arguing in the distance. I’d called out to them. The next thing I remembered was some old German guy driving me to the hospital. He claimed to have found me passed on one of the reservoir’s jutted landmasses, the small islands that appeared during the summer drought and the lower water levels. All of this happened seventeen years ago. I was never able to remember what happened to me that morning.
(Do you want me, Kev?)
(I want you, Christina. I want to make love to you.)
“It doesn’t work like that, what you’re proposing,” I whispered without taking my eyes off Ryan’s device. I was struggling to concentrate on the here and now…and failing. “Short term memories become long term through repetitive thought. It isn’t a bank or section that can be erased.”
“Yes. That’s true, to a degree,” Ryan said cautiously. “I’m no scientist, but as it was explained to me, the process involves synapses development and how memories are stored. Those synapses can be changed in the short term. It makes memories committed to the long term through repetition seem like a dream. Like most dreams, the brain eventually dismisses them. This all happens long before the subject wakes up from the procedure.”
I was appalled yet simultaneously bewildered in wonder. I nodded at the Löschen, and the Impüls weapon holstered on the other side of his belt. “Where do you get these things? Some future version of Radio Shack? Did we invent them in the future?” Ryan didn’t answer straight away. “What?” I asked with impatience.
“Let’s just say they belong to another culture.”
“No. Not in so many ways. They might appear alien to you as you aren’t familiar with the when I’m from. So many things are different in my time. Using ’alien’ to describe extraterrestrials? No. Not completely.”
“That’s cryptic. You’re saying ‘yes and no.’”
Ryan paused to look off. “Yes. I guess I am.” He held out the Löschen. “I don’t want to have to do this. To be honest, part of me is inclined to believe I shouldn’t. I dunno. That…and something about all this seems so damned familiar.”
“What does that mean?”
Ryan shook his head. “Never mind. Look, I know you’re suffering, and as I said before, your sitting on the events of this morning might not be the best thing for you.”
How the hell does he know I’m suffering? I frowned. Something else was going on here. My deepest instincts told me I needed to go forward with Ryan. I needed to solidify my position so he’d have no choice in the matter.
I held my head down in faux defeat. “Could I ask something of you, before you…you know, have to make a decision about me? It might help me to come to terms with…all of this,” I said, waving my arm around the space between us.
“You can ask. I make no promises.”
“Could I see the quarter again?”
Ryan appeared conflicted. Part of his mission included the security of the captured ‘anomaly.’ Releasing it to anyone but Detective MacKenzie until its safe return would be a calculated risk. “Yeah. I guess so. For a minute. No more.”
“Thank you…so…much,” I said. With apparent caution, Ryan handed me the quarter. I held it, examined it, stroked it, and rubbed my fingers all over it. Ryan watched me closely as if I might attempt to run off with it.
Ryan held out his hand. “Okay. Time’s up.”
“Is it?” I asked. My eyes never left the quarter. “You travel through time. How can time ever truly be up?”
I slid the quarter into my mouth before Ryan could answer. The fingerprint oil I used to grease up the coin made the effort of swallowing it easier. Ryan’s eyes widened in disbelief as his mouth opened just wide enough to inhale in surprise. “I don’t understand, Kevin. Why would you do that? I don’t get it,” he asked calmly. Before I could come up with a snappy answer, Ryan leaped across the distance between us and slammed me against the wall. “Why did you do that?”
“Because it can’t end here, like this,” I said. “Now you have to take me with you. Wherever you go now, I go too. It’s as simple as that.”
I now had somewhere to go. I was ready to leave.