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Face Value

By Michael Young All Rights Reserved ©

Adventure / Fantasy

Chapter 1

Face Value

By Michael Young


“If any man objects to these two young people being joined in marriage, speak now, or forever hold…”

I burst through the double doors and into the crowded room.  “Iobject!” I wanted to scream, but realized that no sound could escape his mouth. I dashed frantically down the aisle toward the well-dressed couple, and the room drew a collective gasp.  In one hand, I grasped a large leather-bound book in one hand and an object in my hand that they probably took as a weapon.  However, I had not come here to kill, only to reclaim what was rightfully mine.

  As I approached the altar, the man standing before it recognized me. “Brother?” he gasped, “Face?  What are you doing?”

  He held out his hand to impede my progress.  I regretted that I could not give a few words of consolation to my brother, but I had a deed to do and only a few precious moments more.  Quickly, I brushed him aside and gazed into the eyes of the woman next to him.  Such pretty eyes.  Eyes that would once again be mine.

  He took her hand as she began to tremble, “What—“

  I did not let her finish.  With a faint smile, I tore open the book in front of her eyes, and a beam of brilliant light erupted from the pages.  Her eyes and mouth gaped open as the beam held her firm.

 “Remember me!” I cried. 

  The woman’s head dipped ever so slightly and a faint smile graced her angelic face.  Satisfied, I released shut the book and painfully watched as the woman of my dreams fell roughly to the floor as limp as if she had been drowned.

The congregation members tried to move, but an inexplicable, icy fear had settled upon them as thick and heavy as a blinding fog. This fear bound them to their seats so that they could only watch as I turned around and paced silently back out the double doors.

As the doors drew themselves closed behind me, I could hear a woman’s voice, racked with anguish, carrying over the ensuing commotion. “Face, come back to me! Don’t leave me!”

Pain stricken, I swiveled about. “It’s your choice now, sweetheart.  You must either choose to save Face, or choose to live the life of Fame.”

Part 1: Treasure the Present

Chapter 1: The Night Ride of Face and Fame

  With a final cry of elation, I coasted in and halted my motorcycle next to my brother’s. He gave a slight wave as we both took off our helmets.

Exhausted and slightly dejected, my brother Fred and I were about to pack up and go home for the evening.  It had been a day of intense racing, facing off against some of the best guys in school. I had come very close, but had not managed to emerge victorious out of any of the races.

The cool night air that had refreshed me was beginning to take on a biting chill and nothing sounded better to me than a nice warm bed and a steaming mug of cocoa.  However, a burning desire still lingered in the back of my mind.

 I can’t let the summer end like this.  It’s almost time for me to leave home and I might not get another chance for ages.

  The moon shone full above our heads, awaking that werewolf inside me-the creature who just had to win. Suddenly, an idea crossed my mind.  “Hey Fred,” I called over to my brother, “are you beat yet?”

  Fred turned around slowly while running his fingers through his dark hair, massaging his scalp. “Not really.  I was kind of disappointed that it had to end this way.  That lucky son of a gun should be put away for his own good, if you ask me.”

  The last race had been won only by a lucky and dangerous stunt on the part of the victor.  Must have been someone without a mother at home to worry about him.

  Frank shrugged and got back to packing up his gear, but I still was not satisfied. “Hey, what do you say to another quick round at the canyon, just you and me?  One of us has to win racing one on one—no funny business.  What do you say?”

  He stood there his eyes locked on me for a good minute as if he was contemplating something difficult.  He glanced back towards the canyon and then  inside the pocket of his leather jacket.  Finally, he took a deep breath and sighed.  “Alright, Frankie, but we got to make it quick, because I have to meet someone tonight.”

  His words piqued my curiosity. “Meet someone?  Like what kind of someone?”

  He chose his words carefully. “Um, no one.  Just a, uh, some …girl.”

  Fred’s shyness startled me.  He was not one to be bashful about bragging about a new sweetheart he had picked up. “What kind of girl, bro?”

  “Well, just a girl. How many different kinds of girls do you know?”

  Fred’s cheeks were genuinely turning red.  I was going to milk this for all it was worth.  “Plenty, Fred,” I chuckled a little under my breath. “What is this, a date?  Studying for a history exam with Lorraine again?  Come on, bro.  Just tell me.”

  Seeing that I wasn’t going to let up, he shook his head and threw up his hands.  “Alright.  Truth is, I don’t know exactly who I’m meeting.”

  My interest level shot through the roof, “You mean, somebody set you up on a blind date?”

  “No,” he replied hastily, “not exactly.  You see, somebody left this with a note in my bedroom.”

  He reached deep into his jacket pocket and produced a shiny, golden locket in the form of an intricately carved mask, the king that hangs over a stage in a theater.  The locket took on a luminous quality in the moonlight and immediately I felt my cheeks become warm and my blood turn icy. 

  Fred the lady-killer strikes again.

  “Something else isn’t it?” he continued in awe, “It came with a note.  I’m supposed to meet the person who gave this to me at ten o’clock tonight in front of the fountain at Eden Park downtown.  I can’t imagine who would have given it to me.”

  I stood there, my jaw slightly agape, with the funny feeling gnawing at the pit of my stomach that I had seen that locket somewhere before.  I glanced at my watch, “Well, it’s only eight fifteen,” I mumbled, “if we get going right away, we could be back by nine, which would give you just enough time to get back to the park by ten.”

  Fred stood there silent in the shadows, still torn.  “Aw, I don’t know Frank,” he said, “couldn’t we settle this some other time?  I mean, the mountain isn’t going anywhere, and neither are we.  Couldn’t we just call it a night?”

  “Fred, I don’t know when we’ll get another chance,” I stared into my brother’s face pleadingly, “School starts next week and you know how busy junior and senior years are.  Most of the guys are parking their bikes in their garages for good now.  Come on, we won’t stay long.  I’ll just race you to the Blob.”

  The Blob was a huge rock formation half way down the canyon, which we affectionately named due to its huge misshapen appearance.  The proposition seemed to soften Fred, and finally he relented, “Okay, but just as long we are back by ten.”

  He reached into his pocket and gazed at the locket one more time, “I’ll see you at the base,” he called softly before strapping back on his helmet, saddling up his faithful iron steed, and rocketing off towards the beginning of the trail

Not wanting to be outdone, I too, slammed on my helmet, leapt aboard my bike, and launched off after him.

The landscape became a blur as I raced down the trail past the “Danger: Falling Rocks” sign, past the entrance to the canyon, and almost past my brother who was still speeding down the trail just in front of him.  My older brother had a head start, which I quickly made up for with a few well-placed maneuvers through the jagged rocks dotting the terrain.  Soon we rode neck and neck: Frank and Fred, the daring duo.  Our loose jackets flared out wildly as the wind whipped frantically through our hair. Just so that we could keep the competitive banter alive during the races, Fred and I had installed headsets in our helmets.

 Stealing a glance over at me Fred yelled, “No sweat, eh, Face?”

“My pulse hasn’t even risen, Fame,” I replied with mock derision.

The nicknames came as second nature.  Our parents hadn’t meant to turn our initials into words, but there it was. “My adrenaline hasn’t even started to trickle…”

I was cut off short by a low outcropping of rock that I had to duck in order to keep from bashing my skull.  The blood rushed to my face.

This isn’t going anywhere!

  Try as I might, I couldn’t shake my pursuer.  His bike and mine wove in and out of the formations of rock like a needle guiding thread. The race continued at this maddening pace until, finally, I caught a glimpse of our target in the distance: The Blob. 

I’ve got to try something bold or there are no guarantees

Hey,” I called out to Fred, “did you know I have my pilot’s license?”

Fred cocked his head to one side and yelled back, “No. Why do you bring it up?” 

  Before I could answer, I showed him.  I located a sharply-inclined ramp that provided a vital, but dangerous shortcut and launched myself into the air. The rush of elation hit me hard and I had the terrible urge to throw up my hands and sound a war whoop. 

Resisting the urge, I kept both hands gripping the bike until I finished my triumphant flight  and my tires made jolting contact with the dusty earth.  “Yeah! A perfect flight, with only a little turbulence.”

  It wasn’t until I heard a strange whirring noise behind me, like the spinning of an airplane propeller that I glanced to see if my brother had followed.  A brilliant, eerie luminance filled the starry night and temporarily stole my vision.  Disoriented, I blinked furiously to try to restore my vision.  I cut the throttle and tried to regain control of my vehicle, but before I could manage it, my front tire skipped on a large stone and I flew from the bike. 

  I skidded to a halt and lay on the ground wallowing in agony.  My entire left side was one huge welt of road rash, and I knew I must have cracked a rib or two because of the sharp stabs of pain that occurred when I breathed.  I tasted blood from the corners of my mouth and removed my helmet to wipe it off with my sleeve.  Just then a flurry of panic swept my thoughts.

Fred!  Where is he?

  As I turned around, the world took on a slow motion feel to it.  My blood turned to lead in my veins as I watched my brother take the ramp after me.

 Fred! No!  How did he get so far behind!  You weren’t supposed to do that!

  Despite my mental protestations, I lay helpless as I saw my brother fall short, smash brutally against the opposite wall, and plummet to the depths below.

  In an instant, the wind escaped my lungs as surely as if I had been at the receiving end of sledgehammer blow.  Numbly, my heart wrestled with my brain to comprehend the event I had just witnessed.  Suddenly, the scrapes and bruises on my arms became the least of my worries as a tortured cry escaped my chest and my heart broke in two.

  The cry echoed off into the silence, and in despair, I sunk to my knees, threw my head in my hands, and wept.

After that, all I remember was the shame.  The dreadful feeling that this was my fault.  I should have  let my brother run off on his little romantic escapade.

 He’d probably still be around.  We’d both have lovely families and I’d take my children over to see their Uncle Frank.  My own selfishness robbed all those years from me in a single night. 

The police came in and searched for the body the next week, Even though they eventually came up with Fred’s battered remains, strangely, his motorcycle never showed up.  They took my account of the story, but, mostly, they wrote it off as if I was crazy.

“What do you want us to believe, son?  That aliens attacked your brother?  Be reasonable.  You and I both know it was just bad circumstances combined with poor judgment and a little bad luck.  Your brother shouldn’t have been doing what he was doing, and neither should have you…”

Nobody’s words really ever brought me comfort.  That is, until Christine Daely entered my life.  She and I first hit it off at a meeting of the Drama Club of which she was president.  I admit, I joined the club mostly to get the chance to be near her, but I soon found theater interesting enough.

From the beginning, we seemed meant for each other.  I found it so easy to talk to her about the subjects that were most important to me. While others offered hollow apologies and shallow advice, she offered me genuine sympathy and undying support.  We dated through high school and college, then finally married and started a family. 

However, despite my happy life, I couldn’t truly let go of the memory of that fateful night and the feelings that it invoked. Every year on the anniversary of the accident, I made it a tradition to hike the trail to the accident site to pay my respects to Frank.

 I figured 2010 would be as uneventful as any other year.  That year, however, I learned firsthand that certain things are best left buried in the past. 

Chapter 2: A Little Rain on My Parade

“Frankie! You’re forgetting something!”

I turned around to met the gaze of my beautiful wife. “Oh,” I mumbled, “you’ll have to excuse me,” I continued with a smirk, “but I’ve forgotten what it is that I’ve forgotten.”

My wife, Christine, didn’t have time to remind me.  A cherubic face with curly blond ringlets poked out from behind her. Annie.

  “Daa-ady.  You promised that you’d take me on the bumper cars one more time, you silly goose.”

I suffer from motion sickness and another round on the bumper cars sounded like a headache waiting to happen. However, one more look at those pleading, brown eyes convinced me. 

  “Alright daughter-of-a-silly goose, one more time.” My wife looked at me appreciatively and smiled.

  “Yippee!  Thanks daddy!  I want a blue car with big steering wheel and I want to drive and want to run into a lot of people and-“

  “Whoa, baby, slow down.  You’re too young to work up your blood pressure like that.”

  Annie wrinkled her brow and looked up quizzically at me. “Huh?”

  “Never mind sweetie, just take my hand, and I’ll get you a nice Porsche with cruise control.”

  Realizing that I’d better quit while I was ahead, I took my  her hand without waiting for a response and led her carefully through the crowd toward the bumper cars.  Luckily, the line wasn’t long and I quickly selected a shiny, blue car for my daughter and me.  However, as we were about to sit down, Annie let out a horrible shriek. “Daddy, daddy, daddy!  It’s a spider!  Oh, smash it please, oh please.”

  I swept the eight-legged beast off the seat, and Annie immediately calmed down and I hoisted her into the seat next to me.  “Phew.  Thanks Daddy.  That was close.”

  I chuckled and smiled a little. 

Maybe this wouldn’t be so bad after all.

  “Daddy, why didn’t mommy come on this ride?” Annie asked sweetly.

  “It’s probably not good for the baby,” I replied

  The corners of Annie’s mouth turned up in a smirk, “And she’s probably too big for the seatbelts.”

  I furrowed my brow, but she just giggled. “Isn’t a new baby brother worth mommy not going on the bumper cars?”

  Annie stopped giggling. “I guess so, silly goose.”

  The ride attendant called all clear, and the cars around us came alive like a swarm of ants. I eased on the gas pedal and our car came to life.  It didn’t take long before the namesake bumping began.

“Whee! Daddy this is fun!”

  A red car full of teenagers blindsided us hard from the right, and I felt my stomach churn with the impact. “Yes, sweetie…loads of fun.”

  I tried to focus on my daughter’s ecstatic face to take my mind off the motion.  However, by following that philosophy, I found myself stuck in traffic and wedged into obscure corners of the track by competing cars.

How much longer can this last? 

My daughter unbuckled her seat belt and was trying to get out while the cars were still moving.. “Annie!  What are you doing?”

  “Daddy!  Look at that!  It’s soooo cool!” she yelled back, frantically pointing her finger towards a small game booth outside the track. It contained a simple ring toss game and gave out odd-looking stuffed animals as prizes.

Definitely not something that I would jump out of a car for. 

“Daddy, I want that blue one!”

  “Honey, sit down!” I grabbed her and after a few seconds of struggle, I managed to secure her.  Just then, the same bright red car full of teenagers rear-ended us. 

“Annie, what on earth was that?  You could have been flung from the car!  Run over!  What-“

I could feel the blood rushing to my face, and stopped myself before saying something regretful.  Annie stared at me, her mouth slightly agape. “Daddy, you’re too young to work up your blood pressure like that.”

The comment melted me, “Annie, I’m sorry.  I was just worried about you.  Daddy was once in really bad car accident and Uncle Fred didn’t make it.  I just want to keep my little girl from getting smooshed.”

Annie smiled, “It’s okay daddy.  Now keep driving please.  The ride’s almost over.” 

Here we go again.

The second round was not nearly as bad as the first.  As long as I stayed away from the raucous teens, the rest of the crowd treated me relatively mildly.  At last the booth attendant stopped the ride, and our car came to gliding stop.  Annie clapped her hands together . “Let’s go on that one aga--” 

Annie caught herself and continued, “Uh, oops, sorry daddy.  You only promised me once. Oh, well, I wanted to go play that toss game, anyway.”

  “And win that big blue stuffed thing?”  I guessed.

  “Wow, daddy,” she replied, “you’re awfully smart for a grownup.”  I chuckled and took her by the hand.  I maneuvered us through the jovial crowd until we stood in front of the ring toss booth.

  “Step right up, folks!” the man behind the booth bellowed, “only three dollars for three rings!  Get the ring on the peg twice in a row to win one of our fabulous prizes!  Step right this way…”

  I didn’t have to ask what Annie was thinking.  She had “please daddy” written all over her face.  I nodded and handed over a dollar.  The attendant, a large, beefy man with thinning red hair and glasses handed over three rings.  I glanced down at Annie reassuringly and asked, “Doesn’t daddy get a kiss for good luck?”

  I knelt down and she pasted a kiss on my clean-shaven face. “Good luck daddy.  Don’t miss, pretty please.”

  How hard can this be?  I’ve played this game at parties ever since Kindergarten.  Keep your eye on the peg. Right on the peg. 

  I focused my eyes on my target and gently tossed the ring through the air.  However, instead of the satisfying swoosh of victory, I heard only a sigh of defeat from my daughter.  “Daaaddy, come on!  Mommy could do it!”

  Yeah, she probably could.

I took a deep breath and sent the second ring flying and this time the projectile found its target, much to the delight of my daughter, “Yea Daddy!  Now just one more!”

  Encouraged, I set my sights once more on the prize.  However, before I could toss the last ring, the group of rowdy teens from the bumper cars appeared behind me and started yelling taunts, “Hey batter batter…swing batter batter…hey, don’t mess up now…no pressure, huh? Don’t make the little princess cry now…”

  They laughed hysterically after each taunt as if each one of them had a future in standup comedy.

 Ignore them. They’re just punk kids.  It doesn’t matter.

  I wanted to nail the last shot and show them all, but I just could not bring myself to do it.  I closed my eyes and thought,

 Okay, on three.  One…two…

  A small stab of pain on the back of my head gave me my second rude awakening of the afternoon.  I turned around to locate the cause, and found that the teens were throwing small rocks into the crowd I where I was standing.  “C’mon, old man!  You throw as bad as you drive!”

  That does it.

 I swiveled around abruptly; ready to punch the kid into next week, only to run directly into my wife who was carrying two large swirls of cotton candy.  The remaining ring flew out of my hand and landed neatly on the peg.  Annie cheered and I sighed in relief as I helped my wife to her feet. 

  “Honey, I’m so glad I found you.  I went to buy some cotton candy and the line stretched out forever.  I’ll tell you.”  She gazed at the large pink swaths at her feet and then shrugged her shoulders, “Well, so much for that,” she said.  She then turned to Annie and smiled, “Did Daddy win you something sweetheart?”

  Annie beamed and replied, “Sure did!  But you know, I told him he needed Mommy to do it!”

  Christine raised an eyebrow and I leaned in close and whispered, “Just nod and smile.”

  Although still puzzled, she did as she was told.  By this time the booth attendant had ushered off the troublemaking teens and had made his way back to the booth.  He flashed me a bright, cheesy grin and bellowed robustly, “Congratulations, sir!  Which one can I get for you?”

  “The blue one on the right will do just fine,” I replied.

  “Excellent choice sir!” he boomed, “Enjoy the rest of the day!”

  I nodded politely as the attendant whisked the odd looking creature from its place on the shelf and handed it to my daughter who squealed with delight.  “Thanks daddy!”

  I stopped and stared at the creature for a moment, and tried to identify what species it could have belonged to.  It was short and squat with elongated ears and black, beady eyes, which squinted slightly.  Its arms and legs were pudgy and its neck was almost nonexistent.  Two spindly, humorously small wings protruded out of its back and a stubby tail from its backside. The creature was dressed all over in clothing reminiscent to a genie of the lamp complete with robe, turban, and golden bracelets. After a good minute or so, I gave up trying to classify it. 

  My wife placed a hand on my shoulder and asked, “Dear, do you want to leave now?  Annie and I are getting tired and you said that you wanted to hike up the canyon –today being what it is.  If you don’t leave soon, you won’t have much sunlight for the way up.”

  I nodded, “That’s fine.  I’d like to get a good start on it.  I’ll let you and Annie have a little girl’s night out.  I’ll try not to stay up there too long though.”

  “Alright,” she agreed as she took Annie’s hand, “let’s go.”

  As I watched my wife disappear into the crowd, I couldn’t help but think how much I loved her.  After seven years of marriage, we were still in love.  She had become my best friend to fill the hole left when my brother died in front of me. She had lifted me out of deep depression and had shown me that I could be happy again. I would be careful tonight at the canyon.

  Not wanting to lose sight of the two most important people in my life, I followed at a brisk pace.  The three of us reached the parking lot together and I helped Christine by buckling Annie in the back seat of our white Mercury Cougar.  I took the driver’s seat and we coasted out of the park. 

I drove north on the freeway until I glimpsed the sign signaling that the exit  I wanted was next.  I pulled the Cougar to the base of the trail and killed the engine.  My wife and I then removed my hiking gear from the trunk.

  I suited up with the thick-soled leather boots, a satchel with supplies, and a heavy college sweatshirt to keep me from the frigid night air.  I then embraced and kissed my wife and daughter.

 “Goodbye dear, I’ll be back by midnight.  I have the flash light, the first aid kit, and the cell phone.”

“Great,” she replied, “as long as you haven’t forgotten anything. It’s a dangerous trip…”

Suddenly her countenance fell. She stepped in closer and gently ran her hands through my hair. “Just take care of yourself, okay? I’ll miss you.  Every time you take this trip, I’m on edge the whole night wondering if you’ll be safe.  The canyon can be so dangerous at night. You know that better than anyone.  It always takes you a few days to get over this.”

Her deep blue eyes locked into mine. “Don’t go Frank.  The trail isn’t going anywhere.”

My insides churned at the thought of leaving my wife alone with her worries tonight and my hardened resolve faltered for a few seconds. Softly, I caressed the side of her smooth face, “Honey, this is a trip that I have to make. I am directly responsible for all this heartache and pain to my entire family.  I can’t live with myself without paying my penance.  I’m so sorry that I have to leave you two, but I promise that I’ll try to return as soon as possible.”

I embraced Christine and Annie one last time, waved farewell, and started on foot towards the trail.  A strange, foreboding sadness came over me as I trekked on in silence.  Not even the birds seemed to enjoy this canyon anymore.

I glanced at my watch: 6:45.  If I hurried, I could reach the designated area by 8:45 and still make it back home by midnight.

Maybe Christine will let Annie stay up and wait for me.  That would make me feel much better.

It would be a long and lonely journey with only my thoughts, my memories, and regret to keep me company, but even so it was a journey I felt that I had to make despite my reservations.  Even though riding down the canyon in a motorcycle or jeep would have made this a much easier trip, I didn’t even consider taking one.  I had sworn that off with this canyon long ago.


  I reached the summit in record time.  My luminous watch dial only showed 8:27 as I reached the hole that seemed to form a gaping maw in the mountainside. 

Why doesn’t this ever get easier? 

  I sat down next to the hole, slowly slipped the backpack off my shoulder, and began sorting through the contents.  I retrieved the smooth, polished stone from where I had stored it and stood while raising it over the chasm. “This is for you Fame. I miss you,”

 I lobbed the stone over the side and let the crisp mountain breeze carry it down to its resting place. 

  The deed was done, but, since I had made good time, I decided to stick around for a few moments longer.  Morosely, I retrieved my flashlight from the pack and flicked the switch.  The powerful beam barely penetrated the blackness below.

  A horrible screech erupted behind me and me a step backwards.  I whirled around to see a strange-looking bird whiz past me, barely missing my head.  I calmed my nerves and watched the bird fly off in the other direction, realizing that all was not well.  I had knocked over my precious pack and it had fallen to a small ledge a few feet down the chasm.  I cursed my luck, took a few steps closer to the side, and shined my flashlight beam onto the ledge. 

  A little precarious. I don’t want to die here too. 

  I was just about to leave without it, when my flashlight beam reflected a small golden object down on the platform.  Intrigued, and mourning the loss of my pack, I decided to play mountain man.  I found a small foothold on the side and started lowering myself down the face of the canyon. 

  What I would do for a safety line.

The journey progressed nicely until I reached a smooth portion of the wall.  Losing my grip on the wall, I slid a little so that going up wasn’t feasible and going down looked even worse.  “Man,” I mumbled, “how do I always get caught in these lose-lose situations?”

  I clung motionless to the wall for a good five minutes muttering prayers until I decided that I wasn’t getting any stronger and the rock wasn’t eroding fast enough to make me a new foothold.

 I decided to take the proverbial leap of faith. My muscles taut as towlines, I braced for the pain and let myself slide down the wall to the platform below.  Frantically, I tried to catch any nook to slow my decent. Unfortunately,  I picked up a little too much speed and came crashing down for a very rough landing, painfully twisting my ankle.

 Wincing, I sank to my knees and felt glad to be alive, though in pain.  Slowly, I dragged myself over to the pack and withdrew the cell phone.  I wasn’t going to make the trip back up by myself. 

  Before dialing, I bent down and focused my attention on the glinting object in the dirt.  As I picked it up, my eyes became saucer sized and my jaw nearly scraped the ground.  Suddenly, this whole daring romp had become worth the risk.  I picked up the golden chain and handled it my fingers for a moment before undoing the clasp of the locket.

Its fine workmanship had been tarnished slightly from lying in the dirt all of those years, but I could still distinguish most of its features.  Just as I had remembered it, it resembled a drama masks,  its mouth turned up in an eternal grin.

What a strange gift to hand off to a secret admirer.  I was half expecting a little cupid with flowing ribbons.  Must have been a really interesting girl he was going to meet.  There must be some reason that she gave Fred this particular locket.

As the clasp fell away, I realized that the locket did not contain the traditional picture, but only three short words done in fine calligraphy.


  I read the words carefully over and over again.  Something disturbing began to brew at the back of my mind, like an itch that lies just out of reach. The words should have had more significance to me, but they didn’t. 

  Oh, well.  I’ll show it to Christine when I get home.  Maybe she can oil up my rusty memory. 

  My stomach tightened as she imagined her reaction, which would probably involve a bittersweet mixture of hugging, crying, and punching his arm.

  He sighed as he dialed her number.  Maybe she was right. Maybe this should be his last year.

Chapter 3: Photographs and Memories

  I called Christine and she had managed to arrange a party of my co-workers to come help me out of my rut who got me home about one thirty AM.  Christine ran outdoors and caught me in a tremendous bear hug as soon as I limped out of our Cougar. 

  “Don’t scare me like that!” she scolded tearfully, pounding my shoulder blades, “I thought this time, you missed your brother so much you decided to jump off after him!”

  “I’m okay, dear.  This was the last time.  I’ll find some other way to remember Fred next year.” I flashed her one of my award-winning smiles and she melted into my chest suppressing deep sobs. 

After a few moments, her crying ceased and she began to breathe normally.  Slowly, I loosened my grip and she looked up. 

  “I guess I should explain. While I was there, I saw something shiny near the spot where he feel. You know how I am with shiny stuff. I let my treasure hunting instinct get the best of me.” I reached into my pocket and produced the locket. “Take a look at this!”

  As the beam of the front porch light caught the locket, Christine’s hands flew to her mouth. 

 “Honey, what’s the matter?”  I asked holding her shoulders. 

She gingerly shook her head and regained her composure. “Oh, nothing.  Just nothing.  I was just startled, that’s all.  It’s lovely.”

  I didn’t believe for a second that she was telling me everything, but, seeing her state of mind, I let her get away with it.

 “Well, honey, would you like something to eat?  I could warm something up.” She spoke quickly and fidgeted with her hands.

  “No, that’s okay.  You go upstairs and lie down.  You’ve had a long day, and so have I.  I’ll join you in a moment.”

  She drew in one last deep breath. “Okay, don’t be too long.  I missed you.”

The corners of my mouth turned up in a grin and slid my arm around her waist, “I missed you too.”

  I pecked her playfully on the cheek as we entered the house.  She proceeded upstairs and I took a right into our study right off the entryway.  Without looking, I reached my hand inside the darkened entryway and flicked on the light switch, which lit a lamp that rested on the top of my large oak desk.  I settled into a blue swivel chair, and slid open a drawer on near the base of the desk.  Carefully, I rummaged through the memorabilia inside until I located what I was looking for.

The old, leather cover still bore the title in shiny, gold lettering: Steele County Scorpions Class of 1989.

I opened the book and flipped through the pages, pausing to reminisce on a few pages that brought back especially poignant memories: the talent show where Fred and I had sung a duet, the school’s production of “Camelot” where my brother played Lancelot and I played as King Arthur.  I lingered for a few moments on the junior personalities page, and chuckled to see my brother’s name listed under both “best looking” and “most likely to succeed”.

If I were ever to win an award, it would probably be “the most likely to be cold in someone’s shadow”.

I stopped longer on a particularly special page.  It displayed, in full color, the senior prom court outfitted in their fancy attire.  In the center of the page, Christine and I sat on matching thrones, arrayed in a crown, cape and scepter.  Looking back, it was all a bit corny, but that didn’t bother me so much. 

I had worn the tuxedo that my brother had purchased when he had been invited to a prom the previous year.  A shiny, white limousine had arrived to pick us up from the ritzy, Italian restaurant where we dined before we continued on to the dance. We had waited hand in hand for the announcement of the prom court and afterwards had danced all night in other’s arms.  So captivated were we, that people flippantly asked me later why they hadn’t seen us at prom.

At the bottom she had signed a lengthy message in her delicate penmanship that ended with “to the Face that captivated my heart, love always”.  I chuckled at her bit of word play.  My full name is Franklin Allen Christopher Edison.  My friends called me Face. 

Moving on from the page, I moved on to my real purpose in referring to the yearbook.  It was a long shot, but I had to see if any of the girls that Fred had dated had worn a matching locket. The first one had seemed to be only part of a familiar phrase, and so it stood to reason that the girl who had given it to him that day might have the other half.

The search took much longer than I had expected. I had forgotten Fred had had so many girlfriends. At last, I stopped trying when I realized that the number of possible candidates exceed my fingers and toes.

Quickly, I turned off the desk light and slipped out of the room and up the stairs in a few bounds and got ready for bed.

However, before settling down, I remembered to retrieve the locket from my pants pocket, and deposit it in my sock drawer for safekeeping.

Sleep took no prisoners that night.  My head had scarcely grazed the pillow than I found myself deep in the sea of my subconscious having the strangest dreams about endless bumper cars with Annie. For a few hours I slept soundly, not even tossing and turning as I usually do. 

However, sometime during the night, the happy-go-lucky dreams turned into nightmares.  I found myself riding my motorcycle again, racing around corners and making jumps at breakneck speed.  Once again, I raced down that familiar canyon, but this time, my opponents were not my brother and our high school chums, but a legion of blue creatures, like the one I won from the ring toss booth.  They swarmed all around me coming dangerously close, weaving in and out of my path.  I screamed at them, “What are you doing?  What do you want from me?”

  There screams mixed with crazy laughter. “To be or not to be! To be or not to be!”

  The corners of my vision blurred and the landscape contorted in front of me.  I tried to yell out for help, but as I did I found myself soaring out over the edge of the cliff and then plunging to the depths below.  I lost grip of my bike, and the spiraled all the way down, drowned in a dark sea of confusion.  My body braced for impact on the jagged stones.

  Breathless and sweaty, I bolted upright in bed to profound silence.  Amazingly, I didn’t wake my sleeping wife.  I rubbed my eyes and stared into the darkened room as I let my eyes adjust.  Something felt wrong- out of place.  I cast my eyes about the room until they locked on to my sock drawer.  A strange glow emitted from it and when I looked at it directly, a strange tingling feeling emanated throughout my body.  It started in my chest and spread down my spine until its touch reached the tips of my fingers and toes.

  Not sure if I was still dreaming, I crept out of bed and tiptoed over to the sock drawer.  As I did, the tingling sensation heightened its grip on my body, and I snapped into full alertness.  With trembling hands, I reached towards the drawer and slid it open.

  A great shaft of purple light erupted from the top of my drawer and sent out soft, glowing sparks.  The sparks flew up to the ceiling and then floated to the floor, where they disappeared.  The ones that landed on me left a warm fuzzy sensation where they landed.  “Wow, I wonder what kind of detergent she used on those.”

Searching for the source of the sparks, I peeked over the edge, like a young child peering down the banister on Christmas morning. As my head rounded the top, I immediately felt the tingling overcome my senses so that I could feel nothing else. 

I reached into the drawer, and immediately felt my hands close around the chain of the locket that I had placed there.  Suddenly, an incredible force yanked my body towards the light and into the drawer.  A sensation of incredible speed overtook me and my body hurtled down a beam of pure energy.

 I gazed in awe as stars and planets exploded into view across the horizon and then sailed off far behind me.  Entire galaxies passed in front of me, assaulting my senses with massive amounts of visual information.  My mind reeling, I felt that my simple brain might explode at the sheer magnitude of the journey on this cosmic roller coaster.

However, just as quickly as the journey began, it halted. Darkness once again became my companion, and I lay prostrate on a cold, damp surface.  My eyes stared out into the darkness and, a ghostly writing faded into view.  The letters refused to hold their form at first, but after a few moments, I was able to focus enough to grasp their meaning. 

To be or not to be?

My breath caught in my throat. 

 What kind of question is that?  Why is my subconscious quoting Hamlet?

I tried to blink a few times and make it go away, but the words still appeared when I closed my eyes.  The words shifted as in an unseen breeze and then materialized again.

Well, which on will it be?

What’s with all the questions? What the heck, being sounds much better than not being…

Feebly, I rose to my knees and drew in a long, steady breath for an answer, “To be!” I yelled with all the strength I could muster.

Immediately, an unseen force knocked me again to my face.

 Is this death? Do we get a chance to choose whether to exist or not?  Is this heaven or hell?

The questions tormented me for what seemed like hours, but when I finally came to, a jovial voice called to my from out of the darkness.  I didn’t comprehend the babbling at first, and I still didn’t as I lifted my head to find the source. To my complete astonishment, my eyes met the face from out of my nightmares: one of the little, blue men fluttering over me on his tiny wings, his mouth wide open in a toothy grin. 

Groggily, I stared into his face and the words slowly took on meaning.

“Welcome to Trezzlepeg’s Bazaar of Wonders.  How can I help you?”

Chapter 4: A Bazaar Encounter

Incredulous, I stared at the strange creature for minutes before venturing to speak, “What did you say?”

The creature smirked, “I said, welcome to my Bazaar.  Allow me to make the first introduction.  My name is Cornelius C. Trezzlepeg’s, and you must be in need of some serious help or you wouldn’t be here.”

I stood, rubbing my sore head, “I don’t understand,” I muttered, “I don’t need help.  If there was anything I needed, it was a good night’s sleep, and now thanks to you, the chances seem rather slim.”

Trezzlepeg chuckled as he waddled over and patted me gently on the back, “Trust me, friend,” he continued, “you wouldn’t be here, if you hadn’t called me.”

For a second, my vision blurred and my voice rose to a shout, “Why on earth would I call you at three o’clock in the morning!  I’ve had one of the most stressful days of my life, and you’re telling me that I brought this upon myself!  I don’t believe that.”

The creature held up his hand, “It’s okay if you don’t understand.  You may have not consciously called me, but you were in such distress that you sent a call for help, that I heard and answered.  That is why you are here.”

I shook my head, “You are right about one thing--I don’t understand. Why bring me here if I need help?  Shopping causes more headaches than it solves..  Honestly, I can’t stand it, especially the middle of the night variety.”

Trezzlepeg sighed.  “I won’t hold your ignorance against you.  Here, come this way and I’ll paint you a clearer picture.”

He beckoned me with his outstretched hand.  Hesitantly, I followed him down the darkened corridor in silence.  Finally, a pinprick of light appeared in the distance. 

It’s the light at the end of the tunnel.  Maybe this is heaven.  Though my friend isn’t what I’d call a traditional angel.

We continued at a leisurely pace until the light enveloped us.  We passed through it, and the dark road vanished to reveal an antiquated room covered with trinkets and clutter.  Huge isles of aging objects ranging from priceless treasures to worthless junk extended in all directions.  On every inch of free wall space hung a vivid tapestry, or ornate rug.  A musty smell like the scent of an ancient library permeated the entire shop.  Four large signs, fastened on the wall in each of the cardinal directions, announced the sections of the shop in bold golden lettering:

Relics, Creatures, Essences, and Library.

 A small fifth sign hung over a grandiose wooden door fastened with a gargantuan padlock behind the main counter: Forbidden Antiquities.

A bright overhead light illuminated the small central room, in which I stood, but the other aisles lay shrouded in darkness.  I could detect no other sound or motion anywhere, and felt almost like I stumbled onto the surface of an alien planet. 

Trezzlepeg looked on with amusement for a few minutes, obviously enjoying my reaction to his shop.  Finally, he waddled over to take his place behind the counter, his bulbous belly jiggling in a deep chuckle.  “Ho, ho, do you like it?  It’s simple to navigate once you get the hang of it.”

 Trezzlepeg spread his arms as to display his shop.  “We’re having a special today on relics, a two for one deal,” he said,  “The trick is finding the one that’s right for your desires, so we better get started.”

Still skeptical, I sauntered over to one of the nearest shelves and removed an object from the many that lay there.  The object appeared to be a small pair of glasses, completely ordinary looking, except for a small ruby fastened to the bridge.  A parchment leaflet hung from a string, and as I looked around, I realized that most of the objects came with similar leaflets.. 

Insatiably curious, I carefully pried open the coarse paper.  As I did, a small puff of smoke rose from within accompanied with a small sound like a gust of autumn wind.  As I had seen before, the smoke swirled wildly and then formed itself into letters.

Rose colored glasses.  When worn the wearer perceives only the pleasing attributes of any person, creature, or object viewed through them.

Astonished, I shut the leaflet and replaced the glasses to their place on the shelf.  I then realized that the shelf contained many pairs of glasses, each with a different colored jewel adorning it. 

I searched other leaflets for their contents and settled on one whose jewel  shifted color every few seconds:

Pathos glasses.  While worn, the viewer perceives the innermost thoughts and feelings of any creature viewed through them. 

Is such a thing possible?  If I could own such a thing, I’d rule the world! I’d be a superhero.

Suddenly, I wanted them more than anything in the world.  I held them up longingly in front of my face, wanting desperately to see if this relic could deliver.

Trezzlepeg waddled up next to me and flashed a toothy grim. “I see you have found something you like!”

The little creature clasped his hands in glee, “Yes,” he continued with a nod, “Those specs are versatile!  Some can hunt down pests and others gaze into the future.  If you like them, try them on!”

Trembling, I finally raised the last pair over my eyes.  Instantly the spectacles formed to my face and disappeared, a sensation that both intrigued and frightened me. 

I gazed around to see if I could locate another specimen to try out my goggles on.  I didn’t relish the thought of finding out Trezzlepeg’s inner feelings just yet, so I didn’t turn to him. 

I didn’t expect to see anyone else browsing the aisles of the shop, and was surprised when I glimpsed another human figure approaching me from a few aisles down.  I stepped towards him and when he was close enough I stole a glance in his direction.  Instantly, information assaulted my brain--Intense feelings of hate, resentment, and greed.

 Who is this guy?  His mind is like a psycho ward.

To make things even more interesting, the man stepped out the shadows and his eyes locked with mine.  He was an enormous man with darkened skin and long ebony hair tied back in a braid down the length of his back.  A gold-plated breastplate and matching gauntlets adorned his body, all finely crafted and etched with inscriptions and ornaments.  Fierce scars mingled with intricate paintings on the surface of his skin complimenting mammoth muscles that I could see rippling on the bare portions of his arms and legs. 

Despite his impressive appearance,  a particular battle mark stood forefront from the rest: An intricately crafted tattoo of a phoenix adored his arm from the wrist to past his elbow.  The paint used to create the creature was much brighter and vibrant than any normal paint..  It flashed and flickered on his arm as if it would rise from the arm at the slightest provocation.

His black eyes shone like live coals as they met mine and for an instant, the man’s face drew back in horror as if he recognized me. I felt a pain shoot up my air and a I leapt back in fear.

 With a final scowl, the golden man leapt from the aisle combining the grace of a gazelle with the might of a grizzly bear and disappeared into the shadows. 

I gawked in the direction of the golden man’s escape. Trezzlepeg broke the awkward silence after only a few moments. “Don’t be worried about him.  His name is Mercos and he’s a regular.  His home world is ravaged by intense civil war, and he is probably looking for something to give him the upper hand?  Must have thought you looked like something from his world that he wouldn’t want to meet in a dark alley.”

Neither Trezzlepeg’s words nor his laughter brought me comfort. I had never seen that man before, and yet the pain and fear he felt when looked at me had been more exquisite and intense than anything I had ever felt.  I tried to shake it off, but the images would haunt me for days.

 I ripped the invisible lenses off my face and returned them to the shelf. “Did you say his home world?  You mean another world besides Earth?”

Trezzlepeg nodded, “There are countless worlds in this universe, my friend,” he replied, “I believe that his one is called Gyemenos.”

He shrugged and motioned me on, “That doesn’t really matter.  Step this way.  There is still much to see, but don’t worry about time.  It doesn’t pass here.  That way, we could stay here until you lose your mind and you could still return to your bed for a good night’s sleep when you are done.”

This news was the best I had heard all day. With a new sense of resolve, I quickened my pace after the squat figure. 

This was just a taste. What if this experience turns out to be a full seven-course meal? If this is a dream, I might as well never wake up. 

As we walked, I glanced down at my arm. An ugly, red mark stood out against my skin, as if I had been branded with the mark of the phoenix.

Chapter 5:  The Grand Tour

Anxious to see what else the bazaar could offer me, I followed Trezzlepeg at a brisk pace.  We passed by a handful of shelves filled with strange relics until we reached a sign that announced a new section: Essences.

 Trezzlepeg withdrew a small set of panpipes and blew a short series of notes. The door to the area swung open and he led me inside. No shelves graced this area of the shop.  Instead, large tanks full of colored gases, stuck up in rows across the whole room.

An elastic rubber tube, led from each transparent tank, and a small plaque was affixed to the bottom of each.  I was unable to decipher the writing on the plaques, but was content to watch and learn.

Abruptly, Trezzlepeg swiveled about and stretched out his hand.  His palm contained a small metal sphere a little larger than a pea.  “Take this, and put it in your ear.”

I wasn’t convinced I could trust him, but I obeyed.  I didn’t notice anything different.

“What’s supposed to happen?” I asked, a little frustration creeping into my voice, “do I have x-ray vision, or fire breath?  Immunity to earwax?”

“Nothing so cliché,” he replied with a chuckle. “That tiny device is one of my best universal translators.  It allows you to comprehend any known language.  It has implanted itself in your brain and will be there for the rest of your life. Take a look at the labels and you’ll see what I mean.”

Brimming with anticipation, I glanced down at the metal labels.  Incredibly, the symbols had warped to form English characters that I could understand.  Each tank was labeled with the name of an emotion:

Love, hate, envy, fear, sorrow, joy, anxiety, peace, anger…

The list went on and on.  Apart from the different names, each tank’s tumultuous contents were a different, vibrant color.  Each tank let off an intense glow that cast strange fragments of color around the room, like light passing through a stained glass window.  The colors included everything from warm, yellows, reds, and oranges, to cool blues, greens and even dull blacks and grays. 

My blue guide placed his hand on the tank nearest to him that read “fear”.  The ebony contents swirled and tumbled wildly.  Trezzlepeg then grinned and explained, “These tanks contain the oil that greases the gears of my bazaar.”  He gestured in a wide sweeping motion as if to flaunt the vastness of his collection. “Each colored tank contains a different emotional ‘essence’.  All living things release these essences.  However, they are normally invisible and undetectable to the unaided senses.  Any living thing exposed to certain doses of any of these essences begins to experience that emotion.”

Trezzlepeg sensed my confusion and tried to clarify, “For instance, how do you think a wild animal senses that his prey is afraid of him?  This is because the predator’s senses recognize the essence of fear emitted from his prey.  Do you know why yawns seem to be contagious?  They are.  When a person yawns, he releases the essence of fatigue, which spreads to the people around him.  With the proper technology, these essences can be collected, stored, and then put to practical use.

What practical use? Love potions?  Laughing gas? .

“What kind of practical uses?”

Trezzlepeg grinned broadly, exposing rows of his slightly yellowed teeth, “The stuff of dreams, my friend.  Almost anything you can imagine.  Just think, if a person could create a weapon with fear as the ammunition and then use it to demoralize your opponents before you ever launch an attack? What if you could create a pill with the power to make a person happy, or courageous, or even jealous?  Entire governments have been built and entire wars fought solely with the power of emotions. Essence warfare has almost replaced chemical and biological warfare on some planets.”

Trezzlepeg seemed pleased that he had me so enthralled, and he leaned in closer.  “This stuff comes at a very high price.  It’s hard to come by certain ones, and their shelf lives vary. Love kept unshared dwindles with time, while pent up anger and fear grows more potent.  Time also softens the feelings of anxiety, pain, sorrow.”

Trezzlepeg closed his eyes and shook his head, “Emotions are volatile things.  They are always changing and being replaced by new ones.  Waxing and waning from moment to moment, as unpredictable as moonlight on water.  I must constantly replace my stock to meet demand.”

Once again, I gathered up the courage to venture a question. “How do you manage to collect this stuff if it’s so hard to detect?  You have some sort of device?”

“I was hoping you’d ask.” He indicated a table with a thin, shimmering piece of fabric laid out on it.

 “Impressive, TP, very impressive…”

The rotund creature furrowed his brow, “TP?  Is that supposed to stand for my name?”

 My cheeks darkened a few shades, “Yeah, sorry.  I’m used to giving people nicknames.  Most of my friends call me Face.”

Trezzlepeg’s pudgy features softened and he sighed, “I suppose you can call me that.  Trezzlepeg is a mouthful, but on one condition: I get to call you Face, or any other nickname that springs to mind.”

Trezzlepeg raised his arms like a circus ringleader. “This lab was built to study the essences and how they react to each other.  Through study, we’ve found that by mixing different essences, we can come up with useful “cocktails” that further enhance their effectiveness.  Certain essences compliment each other’s effects such as hate and fear, while other opposites, such as courage and cowardice, cancel each other out.  Very useful to know if you’re fighting a war with this stuff.  And why not?  There’s a nearly endless supply.  The trick is getting what you want when you want.  If someone-“

I cut him off in mid sentence, “You still haven’t told me how you collect this stuff.”

His face crinkled and his eyes went blank for a moment. “So sorry.  I get carried away so easily.”

He reached down and grasped the edge of the material between his pudgy fingers. The fabric could better be described as a membrane of some sort.  It reminded me of skin tissue from skin grafts that I had seen on TV, with its elaborate, system of minute tubes, reminiscent of blood vessels.  Mild waves of heat radiated from the material and I could see liquid coursing through the tubes.

Trezzlepeg hovered back to my side, “Do you like it?” he whispered, “I admit, it’s strange looking.  It’s a synthetic membrane that we produce here in the lab.  It’s a complicated process, but to keep this short, it has the power to absorb essences.  It’s extremely pliable, and can be folded easily to increase surface area.  The membrane collects the essence which can then be extracted in extreme heat.  We usually attach it to the inner lining of clothes so that it is as unobtrusive as possible.  Even now, my robe is lined with the stuff.”

I winced, “You mean, you are collecting my essences?”

“Yes.  I have a small regulator on my wrist to tell me what sorts I’ve collected and how much more the material can contain.  I empty it when business is slow.”  He glanced down quickly at his wrist and shook his head, “You certainly are uptight tonight.”

“Doesn’t that stuff feel strange against your skin?” I wondered.

“Not at all,” he replied, “the stuff you see on the table is a preliminary stage.  You can treat the material with chemicals to feel like almost anything at all.  Though, you can always tell what fabric it’s in because the stuff glows in the dark.”

I wish I had had a little vial of sunshine after my mom died. We all could have used that. 

I studied the features of the material for a few more minutes, hopelessly lost in thought.  Trezzlepeg rapped the table with his hand, “Time to go my human friend.  We still have a few things yet to explore.  You can come back later if you want.”

Satisfied, I arose and followed Trezzlepeg.  With a little ditty from the panpipes, the door swung open.  We exited and made our away back through the maze of tanks and back into the main corridor. 

We walked in silence and Trezzlepeg carried a bright torch, which burned blue in the darkness and cut a path through the dim corridors.  I paused every few shelves to gawk at some of the other customers I saw meandering down the cluttered aisles.  Most of them appeared humanoid, but almost all had some odd traits.  Some boasted tails; others were covered in excessive fur or scales.  Many flaunted natural skin and hair color exotic even by 21st century standards.  As I passed through one aisle, I almost stepped on an entire bunch of tiny bald men who all had a single elongated eyebrow.  I was tempted to stop them and ask, “Is your name Dopey?  Or perhaps Sleepy or Happy?”

However, one look at their stern faces, and I’m sure they should have all been named Grumpy.  I quickly jumped aside and watched their parade pass by, before catching up with my tour guide. 

The two of us continued back down the corridor from whence we came, but halfway through our trek back, Trezzlepeg abruptly reached into the pitch-blackness and revealed a shortcut to the library.  He led me in and motioned for me to take a seat in one of the comfortable-looking stuffed armchairs that dotted the room. 

The shelves were back, but this time, they were chock full of hardbound books of all shapes and sizes.  In the middle of the room sat a gigantic globe picturing a world that I didn’t recognize. The configuration of the entire room seemed centered around the globe, because the majority of the armchairs formed a wide ring around it.  I took my seat in the nearest intricately patterned arm chair, and gazed about to see if I could locate a title I could recognize. No such luck.

Trezzlepeg fluttered to the center of the room right next to the globe and commenced speaking still accompanied by his exaggerated gestures, “Welcome to my intergalactic library.  After I’m done explaining a few things, feel free to look around.”

I nodded contently and he continued, “You may have held the idea that a library is only a place for books.  My library contains millions of volumes: the greatest works of authors and playwrights from countless planets.  Have a look. I think this one is from your planet,”

He grabbed a thick, green hardback from the shelf and tossed it in my direction.  An end table ejected from the floor in front of me and caught the book on its surface.  I brushed the dust from the cover and read the title etched on the surface, “War and Peace” by Leo Tolstoy.

Trezzlepeg wasted no time. “However, a civilization’s writings are not the only thing worth saving.  In order to fully paint an accurate picture of a culture, one requires records of their music, their art, and even their very thoughts.  Of course, a two-dimensional book allows a very flat and limited way of getting inside the author’s head, but what if we could take it one step further?  I can, and maybe it could be better explained if I just show you.”

The blue creature took off down the shelves, and returned a few seconds later with another volume, which he also tossed in front of me.  “Go ahead.  Look inside.  I think you should also be familiar with this work.”

Again, I brushed the thick coating of dust from the cover and read the inscription: “Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address”

Strange, the address was only a few minutes long.  Why so many pages?

With great anticipation, I carefully lifted the cover to reveal the contents.  To my surprise, that did not include pages and writing.  The interior of the book swam with patches of luminescent color moving in and out and on top of each other, but never exceeding the boundaries of the book.  A garbled noise, like a sound of too many people taking at once in a crowded room, sprang from the book.  With trembling hands, I reached into the depths of the colorful vortex until I could feel myself being drawn in..  The colors expanded rapidly to fill my field of vision and the sound intensified until I was completely swallowed. 

The next thing I knew, I stood in a crowd among many people all dressed in their Sunday best. All the women were clothed in long old-fashioned dresses and many of the men had donned suits, vests and hats.  Sprinkled in with the crowd, I noticed men dressed in military uniform from two different factions.  Some of them wore blue and the others gray.  A widespread feeling of reverence attended the scene and no one spoke in full voice.  In the front of the crowd, an important looking man with jet-black hair and a stovepipe top hat walked up to a podium and the crowd went silent.  The speaker removed his hat, and then reverently began to speak, “Four score and seven years ago, our fathers…”

My heart pounded in my chest. Is this what I think it is?  How is this possible?

I looked down at my feet, and realized that my pajamas had been replaced with an old style suit, dress shirt, and bow tie. 

What is going on? How am I here?

The man at the podium, who I recognized as the 16th President United States’, continued speaking for only a few minutes, before he closed his address.  In accordance to the solemn nature of the occasion, no one applauded. 

I gazed intently at the face of the man who I’d only seen gracing the front of the five-dollar bill.  Relentlessly, I fought my way through the crowd until I could see into his eyes, but as my eyes finally locked into mine, I felt myself being pulled upwards and back out the book from whence I came.  The colors of the scene blurred into blackness, and suddenly I found myself back in the library clutching the sides of the armchair for dear life. 

“What was that?” I demanded breathlessly.  Trezzlepeg’s eyes widened, “That, was a memory.  A memory of a man who witnessed Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address on earth many years ago.  I tried to pick something that you would recognize.”

“You mean, you can record people’s thoughts in books?”

“Yes Face, I can.  The brain works very well at creating an accurate picture of a person’s life, which it buries deep in the subconscious.  I’ve recorded entire lifetimes within the pages of these Books of Remembrance.  With these special books, I can record any thought or memory from a living brain and store it away for later viewing. If a picture is worth a thousand words, as people on Earth say, then this book is worth millions.”

Makes journal writing with pen and paper seem quite a waste of time. 

Trezzlepeg produced a brand new book without a title from under one of the armchairs and held it open in my direction.  “Since you have been such an attentive guest, would you like to try one of your own?  I’ll you have to do is press your hand against a page and your brain will do the rest.”

Once again, he gently offered the book to me.  I took it, still a bit confused how it worked, “What will the book record?  Anything that I want it to, or is it just random stuff?”

“That white book has enough space to record one day in your life,” Trezzlepeg explained, “others can record weeks, months, years, and some don’t even record days.  They are designed to record music, art, or entertainment.  Simply think of the events of that day you want recorded, and the brain will take it away in moments.”

So, which day do I want to keep forever?

It didn’t take me long to decide.  Mentally, I pictured my wife’s face staring at me across the altar as the priest read us our vows.  I placed my hand on the blank pages and let my thoughts slip away. 

Gradually, my brain did take over, and the events of that wonderful day unfolded in front of my eyes.  I saw myself leap out of bed after a long nervous night of thinking and wondering.  I saw my mother and Christine’s mother bustling about the house making last minute preparations.  I saw myself suit up in my tuxedo and then link arms with my sweetheart to walk her down the aisle.  I watched the reception afterwards; where my Uncle Robert initiated a wedding cake fight, much to my mother’s dismay, and finally I watched Christine and I dance all alone in the middle of the dance floor. 

The day closed with me snuggled next to her, a broad smile across my face.  I watched my own eyes close, and as they did, I found that my consciousness had returned to the library.  I collapsed back into the armchair, letting the thick stuffing take me in.  The memories filled me with a warmth that lingered like the tingle after a bubble bath.

“I’m guessing you liked that?” Trezzlepeg smirked.

I nodded, and released a contented sigh, my mind still high off the experience. “Very much, TP.  I could live that day a million times and still enjoy it.”

He grinned back warmly, “Glad to hear it.  I’ll let you keep that one as a new customer incentive, but don’t get used to handouts.”

I don’t care.  This is about all I need.  I’ll have to show it to Christine. 

“TP, I was just wondering.  Is there any way when I’m in these books that I could change what happened?  You know, use one of your gadgets to make things turn out differently?”

Trezzlepeg frowned, causing deep creases to appear in his forehead.  He remained silent for almost an entire minute, “Changing the past is a very powerful thing, Face.  Are you sure that’s something you want to toy with?  The materials required to undertake such a task are expensive, and it’s very hard to reverse any unwanted effects you cause.”

“I don’t care what the cost is!  Anything would be better than living with the guilt that I have been living with for the past ten years.  I am responsible for my brother’s death. I challenged him to race and pushed him beyond his limits.  It’s like I pushed his bike off that cliff myself!”

Trezzlepeg hovered over to my side and placed a hand on my arm.  He spoke softly, “I’m sorry, Face.  If there is one thing I’ve learned through my dealings here, it’s that at some time or another, we all lose something very precious.  Sometimes it’s a prize possession, sometimes it’s a person we love.  Myself, I don’t have any kinsman remaining.  My race died out a long time ago and I remain to carry on my race’s merchant tradition.  This sadness is why you have come to me, but before you make your decision, I want to show you one last section of my library.”

 I just know he’s going to say, “Sign on the dotted line” soon.

“Thanks,” I mumbled, “as long as it’s our last stop.”

Trezzlepeg had already started sauntering down the hall and he called back to me, “Come along.  It’s nothing too terrifying.”

He led me through the back corridors of the library until we entered a new section filled with blue bound books.  As I observed them, I realized that most contained titles like textbooks from my high school/college years while some seemed completely foreign: Organic Chemistry, Differential Calculus, Galactic History and Law…

 “This kinda looks like a school, TP.  I thought you said it wouldn’t be scary.”

My guide shook his head, “No, but you are going to learn a lesson.  The books you saw in the other room were record books. They presented the facts are they were recorded and let you draw your own conclusions.  These however, contain a much more efficient style of learning.  These books give back.  Whatever knowledge and experience has been recorded in these books, can be transferred into your mind with the touch of the hand.”

I nodded and he continued, “Have you ever wanted to learn calculus and never could quite bring yourself to sit down and plough trough it?”

Again, I nodded, “I guess I only got up to Trigonometry in high school, and I didn’t take much math in college.” 

“Then,” Trezzlepeg announced, “come take the ultimate shortcut.”

He flipped open the book and revealed an interior spinning around with numbers and formulas in constant motion, as if they had never been fastened to the page.  I brought my hand down on the page, and immediately, my brain surged with information.  It was as if a tiny architect was rummaging around renovating my gray matter, tearing down old rooms, repairing the ones that were already there, and constructing new ones.  I leapt from my chair, “I know calculus!”

Trezzlepeg beamed, “Yes, you do.  I’m sure it is an exhilarating feeling.  However, at the moment, there is something of greater importance that you must learn.”

Trezzlepeg browsed the nearest shelves quickly and then selected another blue volume ornamented with fancy, golden trim. Bold, embossed lettering leapt out from the cover.

 Time Travel: What to Know Before You Go

“I’ve already made up my mind, TP.  Nothing you say, or anything contained in that book could possibly change my mind.  I’m mean, what could be worse than living with the shame of bringing down my family?  It wasn’t just my brother who suffered.  My mom lost her fight with cancer not long after Fred died. The downward spiral didn’t start until after the accident.”

Trezzlepeg hung his head, “You have no idea, my friend.  You must at least read this book.  Do it as a favor to yourself, alright?”

With slightly offended pride, I slipped the book out of his hands and opened it.  The pages glowed in strange random patterns like static from a television screen.  Wanting to get this over with, I jammed my hand onto the surface and again felt the tingling sensation invade my head. 

However, this time the feeling did not produce the exhilarating rush of discovery, but instead assaulted my brain with frightfully disturbing thoughts and images.  Thousands of shocking stories about time travelers, whose alterations of time had ruined their lives, families or even the course of entire nations.  I realized that the shop that I stood in now, held many of the few known time altering devices in the galaxy, and that such devices where considered both extremely valuable and dangerous.  Most devices were built with limited capabilities to prevent serious tampering with history, although others gave almost limitless control.

The barrage of information continued to pound for a few moments longer, before loosing its death grip on my mind.  Exhausted, I collapsed to the floor and lay motionless, and gasping for a good breath. 

Trezzlepeg spoke sternly, “Did that clear up anything for you?”

Silently, I searched my mind, rummaging through my feelings.

No!  It won’t change anything.  I’m not an idiot, and I’m only changing one thing.  What could be wrong about trying to put my family back together?

But as much as I tried to reassure myself that all was well, I couldn’t rid myself of the terrible feeling in my gut. No matter the outcome, I was no longer ignorant.

Trezzlepeg said nothing, letting me wrestle with myself.  Finally, I burst out, “I don’t care about stupid consequences.  I just want my brother back!”

Trezzlepeg fluttered to the ground and paused solemnly. “As you wish.”

He turned and started to exit the room back towards the main corridor, but then added as an afterthought, “I don’t need to remind you that you must accept full responsibility for your actions.  There are no refunds and I can’t guarantee that if things don’t turn out your way that I can reverse them.  One last chance, are you sure you want to do this?”

I nodded, firm in my resolve.

 Immediately, Trezzlepeg reverted to his normal, carefree, countenance.  He shrugged his shoulders as he started off down the hall, “Just thought I would ask.  I always do, though I don’t know why I bother.  The concept is so wonderful that almost no one passes it up.  I get thousands of inquiries, ‘Send me here, or take me back there one more time.’  I always tell them, ‘I can get you almost anything that your heart desires--for a price.’”

What kind of price? All this time he’s been showing off the goods and not telling me what the price of admission is.

I followed Trezzlepeg into the next room, picturing my brother’s grinning face, my family sewn back together.

I’m finally getting a chance to make things right. I’m going to save Fred.

Chapter 6:  A Disillusioned Host

My fingers dug into my scalp, trying to lessen the dull throbbing pounding through my skull.  The sheer amount of information I’ve been given had left my brain as tired as my body.  If I hadn’t already gotten a few hours of rest, I might have passed out on the spot. 

How large is this blasted shop? I feel like we’ve been walking for miles…

Walking steadily, the two of us found our way back to the central hub of the bazaar, and Trezzlepeg reclaimed his position behind the counter.  He leaned on his elbows to finally make his sales pitch, “Let’s face it, Face. Now that we have pinpointed the source of the problem, it’s time we did something to fix it.”

A conniving grin crawled across his pudgy face, like a detective about to crack open a murder mystery, “But, first, we must discuss the matter of payment.”

I don’t get this guy.  One minute he’s preaching to me about “danger this” and “risks and that” and now since he can’t talk me out it, he wants my wallet.  I don’t think he’s really concerned about my safety…

Correct me if I’m wrong,” I said, “but I don’t suppose you take Visa, MasterCard, personal checks, or these little slips of green paper with dead presidents on the front do you?  It would be almost a shame if you did, because I left them all in my other pajamas.”

Trezzlepeg let out a thunderous laugh, “You are a witty one, Face, and for one of your species, remarkably observant.  You’re right.  The objects in my shop cannot be bought with your kind of money.”

“What else could I give you?”

The blue salesman stroked his chin understandingly, “Here we work on the barter system.  If you want something from my shop, you simply give me something that I need.  Since my shop deals in such a wide variety of things that could include almost anything: a rare artifact, an exotic beast, or an especially poignant memory to add to my collection.  And of course, you could always work as my errand boy to replenish my supply of essences.”

My heart sank.  I couldn’t imagine in my wildest dreams that I could ever come up with anything on that list. 

Sensing my despair, Trezzlepeg hoisted himself over the counter and back over the side, “Why so glum?  It’s really not as bad as you are imagining.  Most of the relics that I acquire appear to be only ordinary objects with little or no significance.  But somehow, certain things are different, changed in a fundamental way to make them unique from all the other junk we sift through in our lives.  Most of the time, its environment and the circumstances in which it has been used in change the object.  I have a pair of shoes that were worn by a man who possessed great empathy. Over the years, his feelings, his attitude, his very personality became encased in those shoes. When a person wears those shoes, he gains the power to empathize with anyone.  You probably have things in your home that contain unimaginable powers.”

“No.  I can’t imagine that anything I have would possibly…”

I thrust my hands into the pockets of my blue, striped pajamas, and realized that I still had my brother’s locket stashed away there.  For no reason at all, I decided to take it out to show Trezzlepeg.  “Unless this does me any good,” I huffed as I dangled the locket out in front of me.

Much to my bewilderment, Trezzlepeg’s eyes grew wider than I had ever seen them and his jaw contorted in a shocked grimace.  Reacting with the speed of a leopard pouncing on its prey, he lunged towards me and snatched the locket from my outstretched hands. 

“Where did you get this?” Trezzlepeg thundered in disbelief, “Do you realize what this is?  The power contained within it?  The very power to alter what lives and dies at your very fingertips?”

Shocked, I vigorously nodded in disbelief, “You must be mistaken, old timer.  My brother got that locket from some secret admirer of his.  It’s an ordinary piece of jewelry that should have belonged to him.”

Trezzlepeg shook his head, even more vigorously, “I almost certain that I’m not mistaken.  I’d gladly give my right leg and left wing for it.  That…”

He stopped short, as if another intriguing thought had entered his mind.  He brought himself down on the counter and propped up his chin in one hand. “That is,” he continued, “if you had the other one too.”

The other one? 

I didn’t know there was another one.  I don’t even know who gave Fred this one.  It’s only got a few words inside, and they don’t make a huge amount of sense to me.”

I approached the counter and popped open the locket so that Trezzlepeg could read the incorruption.  He only needed a few moments to confirm his suspicions.

“Yes, I’m sure of it now.  This locket is part of a two-part set.  Alone, they are nearly powerless, but together, they are unimaginably powerful. Doubtless, the person who gave this to your brother was unaware of their potential.  Even though you’ve only got one, I’d give you a handsome price for it.”

I shook my head, “No.  This locket is one of the only things I have left in connection with my brother. At least before I give it to you, I want to find out who gave it to him and why.”

Trezzlepeg’s eyes narrowed in frustration, “Face!” he blurted, “you really have no way of figuring that out!  If those lockets fall into the hands of an evil person, the capacity for destruction and pain is enormous!  What if someone else has the other half and is now searching for this one?  You could be in grave danger!”

“Then, I think I’ll conduct a little search of my own.  If they are as important as you say they are, I will hand them both over in time, but not before I understand why my brother ended up with one.  I guess it would be in your best interests to cooperate.”

It feels good to be the one with the bargaining chip.

 “I guess the customer is always right.  So which harebrained quest do you wish to embark on first?  Do you want to search for the locket, or would you rather rescue your brother?  Either way, I’ll supply the necessary goods, but you must also supply me with a small down payment.”

“I think,” I replied, “that the jewelry hunt can wait.  Fred has been lying six feet under for far too long, and as for the down payment, what did you have in mind?”

Trezzlepeg rubbed his hands together, “Oh, nothing much.  My supply off fear essence is running terribly low these days.  If you could stock me back up, we could get you on your way.”

My eyes rolled to the back of my head, “Is that all?  I thought maybe that I’d have to catch the Loch Ness Monster or something. Remember, I still don’t have a great idea how all this stuff works.”

“You do have a point, but you’ll find that this task can be absurdly simple when you put your mind to it.  And by the way, we already have the Loch Ness Monster.  Try scouting the Himalayas for the Abominable Snowman. “

I crossed my arms and cocked my head to the side, “So, how do I start.  Do I get a crash course or something?”

Trezzlepeg nodded, “I guess you could say ‘or something’.”

Trezzlepeg disappeared behind the counter and reappeared a moment later with an object in each hand. In his right, he held a perfectly normal looking wristwatch, while the other grasped a pristine, transparent crystal ball.  Deftly, he swung his arms around and gently placed both objects on the table in front of him.  I took a minute step closer so that I could examine them better.  At a closer glance, I found that watch was not a customary timepiece, but instead appeared to be a regulator  like the one Trezzlepeg had shown me before with different multi-colored displays on its face.  A few words appeared at bottom of the display: Essence of Fear-0%.

“It’s pretty self explanatory,” Trezzlepeg began, ”The lining of the sphere is calibrated to collect fear when exposed to it.  In turn, the watch regulates the level of fear in the ball.  All I need you to do is fill the crystal ball.” 

I picked up the ball and handled it in my hands, and gave me surprisingly low resistance.  Then, I picked up the watch and fastened it to my wrist. 

Merlin meets James Bond.  Very classy.

“Well,” I said, shrugging my shoulders, “when do I start?  How do I start?  I can’t just hide in dark alleyways shouting “boo” as passersby can I?”

Trezzlepeg wagged his head disapprovingly, “You have so little imagination.  You always just ask the questions and hope that someone can spot you with the answer!  Think!  What makes the people who you are closest to afraid?”

I paused for a moment to reflect.

“The people at work are pretty high strung.  I guess I could play some sort of prank on them.”

 Trezzlepeg appeared to take to the idea. “Something doesn’t have to be real to be frightening.  I could give you an illusion.  I might have something like that in my pranks section…”

With a flick of his wrist, an intricately knitted rug in the middle of the room, “Step on it, if you will, and we’ll get there much faster.”

  Incredulously, I gazed at the rug at my feet, “Don’t tell me you’ve chartered a magic carpet?”

  He chuckled, “not quite.  It’s even better.  It’s a teleporter.  With it, I can leap to any corner of my shop instantly.”

  My jaw clenched, “You mean we could have been using this thing the entire time, and you made us walk?”

  Trezzlepeg haughtily shot his nose to the air, “Walking is a much more scenic route. Come on, step on the rug.”

  I stepped forward onto the rug, and found myself in a room alive with motion and dizzy with color.  Instead of decorative tapestries adorning the walls, vividly styled masks of distorted faces hung there.  Random bursts of laughter echoed from every direction accompanied by colorful flying sparks that shot every which way like malfunctioning fireworks.  As I walked in, I had to duck to avoid sparks flying for me.

  “Don’t waste your energy, Face,” Trezzlepeg scolded, “they’re harmless.”

  A bright blue spark zoomed past me, painfully singeing the hair on my arms. I held up my arm, “You call that harmless?  It nearly took my arm off, and it hurt like crazy!”

  “That’s because you are letting it.  Don’t think of them as dangerous. The whole mind over matter spiel.”

I followed Trezzlepeg like his shadow down the aisles, still jumping at every little glimmer of light.  He chuckled every time, but otherwise remained silent until about seven or eight rows down where he abruptly spun around and snagged a daisy from a bouquet resting on a table with only two legs.  With all the flair of a master magician, he twirled around and deposited it in the chest pocket of my pajamas. 

  “It’s just your color,” he quipped, “try it out sometime, they really are entertaining.”

  I thought he might give me instructions; however, instead he sauntered off down the aisle.  As I pursued, I took the time to study the zany contents of the shelves around me.  Each of the objects bore a flashy label, which announced the entertaining effects of the articles.

  One shelf boasted a smorgasbord of smells bottled up in clear flasks, while another shelve flaunted a collection of sounds, ranging from dragon roars to train whistles pent up in boxes.

  Eventually, we reached the other wall and Trezzlepeg came to a halt.  I realized that the entire time, the flying sparks must have been slamming into me, and I hadn’t noticed.  The thought brought with a small swelling of pride in my chest.

  I took my place next to Trezzlepeg and cast my eyes over the contents of our current isle.  Compared to the other isles, the wares on this one appeared rather bland: only dull colored robes, simple wooden masks, and ordinary looking walking sticks of various sizes. 

  “I see that you think that we have come to the wrong aisle, but I promise you that you are mistaken,” he leaned in closer and whispered, one hand cupping his mouth. “Illusion provides for some of the best pranks.  Allow me to demonstrate.”

  In an instant, Trezzlepeg snatched up the brown staff nearest him with a flourish and gave it a twirl.  The air in front of him shimmered like the surface of a lake and became hazy for a few seconds, until, instantaneously, the haze disappeared and was replaced by the massive figure of a ferocious lion that roared and bore his terrible fangs. 

  My joints froze and my muscles locked in terror as the lion bounded towards me, ready to tear me in two.  I had only enough time to raise my hands in feeble defense before the lion pounced on me.  Desperately, I clamped my eyes shut and braced myself for the impact, but the impact never came.  The king of beasts soared right through me as if I had been no more than a ghost, and continued on prancing down the hallway until TP twirled his staff again and banished the monster back into oblivion. 

  I collapsed to the floor shaking uncontrollably, “W…w…wow.”

  “Like it?  I guess I could set you up with one of those with the image of your choosing.”

  Still breathing heavily, I arose and brushed myself off. “Can you make it so that I can change my own appearance? That would be perfect to fool the guys at the office.”

  “Watch closely, if you will, as I demonstrate the ultimate masquerade.”

  This time he retrieved both a dull colored cloak and a wooden mask for the wall, and displayed them in his arms.  “These two little oddities I affectionately call a ‘body bag’ and a ‘face lift’.  You simply don the gear, picture a person in your head, and you become them, at least in the visual sense.  If you wanted to impersonate a body builder, you’d better have the muscles to back it up, because though you may look like you have perfect pectorals and bulging biceps, you’ll only actually be as strong as what lies beneath.  Like so…”

  The salesman quickly slipped on the robe and mask, which instantaneously melted seamlessly into his face and figure.  The boundaries of his frame blurred for a moment, and the next snapped back into perfect clarity.  The squat, turbaned salesperson I knew disappeared and in his place stood a hulking blond haired Goliath clad in a green tunic.  Dark stubble coated his checks and wild strands of hair flew from his scalp in random directions.  With every breath, a low growl pursed his lips.

  I felt my pulse quicken, but I suppressed it, reassuring myself that the giant in front of me was really a short, fat bald dude that I could take down with a well-placed backhand.

  The giant Trezzlepeg raised one hand and spoke, “Come on.  Take me down.”

  The voice, however, did not match anything close to what I had expected.  The bodybuilder still sounded exactly like Trezzlepeg.  I had half expected the man to tell me “I’ll be back” in a thick, Austrian accent.  The Trezzlepeg/Goliath shrugged and blushed sheepishly, “Oh, I forgot.  It’s a three part gig,” said Trezzlepeg. 

  And with that he maneuvered his beefy hands through the articles on the shelves and plucked out a small trinket that looked like a football mouth guard.  With a single, enormous bite, he threw the object in the air and chomped down on it hard, catching it between his pearly whites.  Then, he straightened back up with a grin and swiveled around to face me again while assuming a fighting stance. “I’d say that that completes the ensemble.”

  The voice came out much more appropriately this time, deep and imposing.  The giant cocked his head to one side and beckoned me with a few fingers, “Come on.  Give it all you got.  Remember, I’m all in your head.”

  Semi-confidently, I drew air in deeply and then exhaled in a slow, steady stream.  I focused my eyes on my target and then lowered my head, ready to dash.  Suddenly, I leapt forward with a resounding mock war cry, kicking my heels as fast as my weary feet would let me and dove straight into the belly of the beast. 

  To my complete satisfaction, the towering oaf crumpled like a pile of dead leaves under my blow, however, the momentum of the impact sent us both spiraling out of control and into the shelves behind us.  Wooden masks and robes rained down on our heads.  We remained still until the avalanche ceased, and I helped the regular-looking Trezzlepeg. 

Trezzlepeg beamed, “See, you are fearless, boy!  That was amazing!  The few other times I’ve tried that, the participants took a much different approach:  They ran right back to the lobby.”

  I glanced around nervously at the piles of fallen merchandise, hoping that this accident would not come off my tab, “Will this be alright?  I mean, I hope we didn’t break too much.”

  Once again the little man shrugged it off. “Don’t worry about it.  It’s easily replaced.  This stuff is pretty resilient, and if not, I can always purchase more from some of the planets that have figured out how to construct such stuff. That little display of yours was worth it.  The look on your face, Face…”

  I nodded in silence as Trezzlepeg fell to the ground in a hysterical fit of laughter. 

  Once he recovered, he rummaged through the pile and tossed me a robe, mask, and mouthpiece. “You are letting me have all of this?” I inquired.

  “Uh-huh.  I’m sure that you will agree that it will probably come in handy when trying to scare people.  Just go around and show up as someone who nobody would expect.  The directions are attached if you’re still sketchy on how they function.”

  Hm, I’ll just show up at my dad’s house as Fred stopping by for a cup of sugar.  Yeah, that would be a hoot. 

  Like a contented puppy, Trezzlepeg stretched his arms and legs and then placed his hands and his hips, “Ready to go?  I think you have what you need.  If you can’t scare people with that stuff, I’d quit your day job and join the circus.”

  With a short blast on his pan pipes that reminded me remarkably of how my mother used to whistle to call us for dinner, the rug that served as our transport rocketed along the floor from out of nowhere to come to rest beneath our feet.  With a short skip and a hop, we both landed on the rug and instantly found ourselves back in the main lobby.


  With an enormous yawn, I stretched my arms out as far as they would go. Sensing my fatigue, Trezzlepeg, rushed up to me and placed a pudgy hand on my elbow.

“I’ll give you a bag for your stuff and you’ll probably want to start back.  Sound like a feasible plan?”

  I nodded, “Sounds good.  After confronting a giant, killer sparks, an alien warrior, Abraham Lincoln, a lion, and my tormented feelings all in one sitting, the trip back doesn’t seem that daunting.”

  “That’s the ticket,” cried Trezzlepeg as he produced a small satchel and began tossing my newly acquired merchandise into it.  Amazingly, all of the articles made their way in, and the bag didn’t appear the slightest bit full.  As Trezzlepeg handed the bag over, I glanced at the tag hanging from one of its drawstrings, and everything came into perfect focus. 

  Trezzlepeg’s Amazing Never-ending Other-space pouches.  Unlimited cargo space all within a neat streamlined package.  Thought recognition provides for effortless object retrieval.  Model 272-A

I ought to get one of these for the garbage and one of these for the laundry. 

  Defiantly, I turned and faced the darkness, ready to embark on the homeward journey, when a thought raced across my mind. “How exactly do I get out? I don’t see any glowing exit signs.”

  Trezzlepeg scratched his head and took his time in replying,

“Use this.  It’s a communicator.  Whenever you wish to come back, speak into it and I’ll open up a gate somewhere close by. But remember this: I was only able to lock on to you and bring you here so easily in the first place because you had that locket on.  A powerful object like that is easy to trace.  If for some reason you don’t have it on, it could become difficult for me to follow you.  I don’t usually get customers from Earth and so I’m not very good at getting people from there here.”

He tossed me the sleek metal object that slightly resembled the walkie-talkies that I had received on my twelfth birthday.  However, it only contained one large speaker and one bright red button. 

Satisfied, I nodded in thanks and waved farewell to the strange little man. 

  I held my breath and pressed the red button on the communicator.  As before, a strange force swept me from my feet and flung me like a cosmic Frisbee across the heavens.  The planets whirred by me once again so quickly that most of them I only perceived as blurs of color.  At last the great blue sphere that I recognized as home loomed into view. 

Man, it’s good to see you.

As I awoke I realized that the blinding speed had ceased and that I stood back in the darkness of my bedroom, my hand still extended in the now darkened sock drawer.  Suddenly, my cheeks flushed, and I felt utterly foolish. 

Wow.  I must have had a worse fall than I thought back there in the canyon. That was the most amazing dream I’ve had in my entire life. It’d make a great topic for the Sci-Fi Channel.

As I swaggered back to my bed, I tried to rationalize the night’s events away in my mind, and I might have done it too, had not a single thing pulled out the foundation of doubt from under me.  I tripped over something in the darkness and landed to the floor with a grunt.  I reached over to examine it, and realized I’d tripped over a bag tied closed with two drawstrings.

 Hesitantly, I reached into the bag, still desperately wanting to write off the whole experience as an elaborate hallucination, and found the proof I needed: a crystal ball, a dull smiling mask, a small plastic mouth guard, and a dull brown robe. 

Frantically, I stuffed the contents back in the back and practically leaped back under the covers.

Maybe, I’m still dreaming and I’ll really wake up in the morning.  And if not, I guess I know what I have to do.

I sighed wearily as I stared at the ceiling for answers before I let sleep claim me again.

Either way, I’ll finally get a good night’s sleep. 

Chapter 7:  The Face of Fear

A blaring alarm snatched me out of sleep only a few hours later.  With the blind rage of a bear prematurely aroused from hibernation, I rolled over and smashed my fist down on the clock

I lay back and tried again to fall asleep, but could not.  Today was Saturday, and I should have been given the privilege of sleeping in, however, the alarm had still sounded at the usual time.  Next to me, my wife stirred and rose groggily, “Honey, did the alarm go off?”

“Yes,” I said, “I didn’t set it. Did you?”

She smiled sleepily, “Yeah, I’m taking Bonnie and Mami to go check out the garage sales and we wanted to get an early start.”

  I moaned and glanced at the glowing red digits: 6:31. “Alright,” I grunted, ”but I’m going back to sleep.”

  Christine grinned, “Suit yourself. Do you want me to look for anything special for you--a new tie or something?”

  I yanked the covers back around me, “You could get us a new alarm clock,” I groaned, “I think I busted this one.”

She let out a playful chuckle and then pecked me on the cheek, “Bye, sweetheart.  Hopefully we can spend some quality time after I get back.  I never get to see you as much as I’d like to.”

I rolled over and stroked her hair, “Yeah, I know.  I love these days off.  We’ll have to go out to dinner or something.”

Christine blushed, “I would love that.  But do you think that you can still fit into that old suit of yours?  I mean, not saying you’re fat but…”

She didn’t get to finish her remark because I took the opportunity to cream her with my pillow.  She took this as a challenge and returned fire with a feathery barrage of her own.  I shot up my hands to block the assault and rolled frantically to the side, tumbling from the bed. 

But this didn’t stop her. While I lay stunned on the floor she launched another offensive.  The fuzzy projectiles became a blur as my wife brought them down rapid-fire and finally I held up my arms in truce.  In good form, my wife agreed to a cease-fire and towered over me with crossed arms, “What does that make it, hon? 4 to 3 this month?”

Still reeling, I stuck out my lip like a wounded puppy and whimpered a little  “Yep,” I sighed, “but that’s okay, because last month, I almost had a shutout.”

Christine shook her head, “When are you going to learn that you can’t beat my mastery of pillow-itsu?  What do you think that I do when you are at the office all day?”

“I don’t know,” I muttered as I managed to rise, “but today, because I’m not going anywhere, maybe I’ll get to find out.”

I gathered her in my arms and kissed her.  After a few seconds, I released her and smiled as she glanced down at her watch, “Oh, I’ve got to go.  I promised Mami that I’d pick her up in five minutes, and I haven’t even brushed my teeth yet.”

She quickly tossed the pillows back on the bed and made for the door. “I love you.  Bye.”

“Love you, too.” I replied, “Bye.”

I waited until she left the room and then leapt back onto the mattress and smothered my own head with a pillow.  She and I had had our rough times, but for the present, everything was going splendidly.

Desperately in need of a little more sleep, I tried to escape back into dreamland. I dozed off for another ten or fifteen minutes, and then sluggishly rolled out of bed.  While on my knees, I offered a silent prayer for strength that day, and then stumbled down the stairs in my pajamas. 

Starting to feel more alert, I made a mug of hot cocoa then slumped into a chair by the dinner table.  As I cast my eyes about the room I noticed the light blinking on our answering machine, and sauntered over to it.  Then, I pressed the button and let the automated voice take over, “One new message.”

The machine clicked softly and the familiar voice of Larry, my boss at the advertising firm I worked for, come over the speaker,

“Hey, Frank.  It’s Larry.  Just calling to tell you that you might consider stopping by the office tomorrow.  The big wigs in marketing have pushed our deadline up a few days.  We’ve got guys scrambling all over the place trying to throw something together.  If you get a chance…”

I didn’t let Larry finish his speech.  Frustrated, I punched the button for silence and then slumped into my chair. 

After a few minutes of solitude, I closed my drowsy eyes and lost myself in thought. For the few minutes, I considered the cloak, mask, and mouth guard resting under my bed upstairs, and then Larry’s request to join him at the office.  Like a bolt of lightning, the connection snapped into my head, and a brilliant plan came alive. 

With burning excitement, I leapt up and bounded up the stairs.  Once in my room, I snatched the required materials from beneath my bed, and slipped on the mask, robe and mouthpiece.  However, before I formed the thought of who to impersonate, I remembered something important. I was supposed to be watching Annie.

For the moment, I chose to impersonate myself as a I found Annie in the living room watching Saturday morning cartoons propped up on a pillow much too close to the TV.  The volume was turned up too loud and was accented every few seconds with a burst of laughter from the six-year-old.  I snuck up next to her and dropped to my knees.  There, I whispered in her ear, “Hey, sweetie.  How would you like to go play at Audrey’s house?”

She rolled over and her face puckered up in a grimace, “Aw, dad, I just started this show and I really want to finish it.  It’s my favorite…please?”

Thinking quickly, I replied, “Ah, we’ll stay until the next commercial and then we’ll run you over quickly so that you can watch the rest at her house. Is that okay?”

The curly topped beauty drew in a deep breath and then let it out in an overdramatic sigh, “I guess so, Daddy.  You better call her first to make sure she’s watching the same show.”

With that in mind, I jogged over to the nearest phone and punched in the familiar number.  Audrey’s mom picked up after only a few rings, and I conveyed  Annie’s concerns about making sure that she wouldn’t miss her favorite show, and she assured me it was no problem.

The cartoon in the living room lapsed into a commercial break. With the style of a star quarterback I dashed into in the living room, scooped Annie up, and made a break out the front door.  In record time, I had us both buckled in our second car, and speeding off down the road.  I took a left at the first intersection and then wove in and out of a few more side streets before coming to a screeching halt in front of Audrey’s house. 

Much to my chagrin, I realized that I had not even taken time to change Annie out of her pajamas. I kissed her and took her out. 

Before I could so much call “goodbye” after her, she had already bolted up the walk and up to the front door where Audrey’s mom stood waiting.  She waved the all clear, and I waved back before heading on down the street.  Feeling a sense of urgency, I pushed the speed limit as I cruised off the main drag and off into downtown.  My office building stood near the old city hall and right across the street from my favorite hamburger joint in town where I stopped every day after work for a milkshake. 

As I pulled into the parking lot and killed the engine, I ran over the plan in my mind.  Nothing scared my co-workers more than surprise inspections and slashed deadlines, and I was about to give them both. 

I leaned back in my chair and pictured the face of the CEO of the company, and felt myself change to an old man with a thick, white mustache, gold-rimmed bifocals, and a sharp, gray business suit.  It took me a full minute staring into the rearview mirror to fully comprehend the incredible transformation.  The feeling was eerie, I still felt like I was in my late twenties, in my pajamas lounging in the front seat of my junky car. 

After a few seconds longer I stuck out my tongue at the face in the mirror to try out my new face, and in the process revealed two rows of slightly yellowed, awful-looking teeth. 

In very little time, I became bored with making faces into the mirror and exited. I strode up to the front door as if I owned the place, which people would believe I did. 

The automatic doors opened to reveal the startled face of the receptionist who immediately turned from her computer and rose from her swivel chair, “Sir,  this is an unexpected honor!  To what do we owe this visit?”

Our company had offices all over the United States, and a visit from the CEO was sure to cause a stir.  I mustered up my best severe look and replied.

“I wish to speak to your branch manager.  I’ve been getting reports that this branch has been tarnishing the image of this company that I’ve worked so hard to build!  I want him in the back office pronto!”

The receptionist’s eyes widened and for a moment she seemed at a loss for words, “I’ll get him right away, sir.” She jumped from her chair and disappeared back into the maze of cubicles.  I took a seat in one of the leather chairs along the walls, leaned back, and crossed my legs.

A minute later, the receptionist returned with my boss, Larry, a burly, brown-haired man in his early forties. Without delay, the befuddled Larry, stepped forward and vigorously shook my hand. 

“Sir, this is indeed an honor.  If you step this way into my office, I’m sure we can rectify any concerns that you may have.”

He motioned with one hand into the technological labyrinth behind us. I furrowed my brows and followed as he led the way into the back.  As we made our way through, I scanned the cubicles where many of the workers, were trying to catch a glimpse.

Keeping up the facade, I shook my head, and sighed at each one that I passed.  Passing one cubicle, I caught a man playing reclining back in his chair playing solitaire on his computer.  With mock rage, I stopped cold and ranted, “What do you think you are doing?  It’s layabouts like you that keep us from making our deadlines!  Get your feet off the desk and get back to work!”

The cowering man did as he was told.  Immediately, he swung his feet off the desk, closed solitaire and began typing furiously.  I smirked inwardly as the watch vibrated on my wrist.


Walking the rest of the way in silence, we finally reached our destination at the end of the hall, and Larry opened the door in front of me.  “Right this way, sir.  Take a seat and make yourself comfortable.  Can I get anything for you to drink?”

I shook my head as I sat down in silence.  In turn, Larry shut the door, and took his place on the other side of his slick mahogany desk.  Unlike most of the office, his desk was immaculately organized.  In fact, the office seemed remarkably free of decoration except for a few small portraits on the wall and a small, flowering plant in the far corner.

 I folded my arms across my chest while Larry squirmed in his chair.  The other man spoke first as I glanced down at the watch,

“Mr. President, I’m pleased that you could join us this morning.  I know you have many pressing matters to attend to.  If I may be so bold to ask, is there a particular item of business that you wish to discuss?”

I nodded slowly, and I could see the first signs of perspiration forming along the rim of his brow, “Yes, Mr. Boman.  I have come to discuss some particular issues.  Industry reports from last quarter indicated that our production in this sector is down some 20% and I have come to investigate why.  But from the little bit I’ve seen of this operation, the evidence is self-explanatory”

Larry tried to break in an explanation, but I kept on ranting, “I have been in contact with a certain employee over the last few months, who has been telling me what happenings here.  The deadlines you set for your employees are ridiculous!  If all of your people were on task and on the ball, we could have twice as much output in half the time from this pitiful excuse for an advertising company!  The majority of your workers have a chronic problem with procrastination, and then only finish their projects at the last minutes with shoddy results!  It’s no wonder sales are suffering!  I built up this company from next to nothing and I will not see it disgraced!  I want the example to be set straight from the top.  Either I see a marked improvement in production and morale around here, or I will find myself a new manager. Is that clear?”

My withering tirade left Larry completely speechless, cornered like rat in a den of rattlesnakes.  I watched as he feebly tried to regain his wits and offered, “Sir, I’m sure I can make some considerable changes in the near future.  I’ll make doubly sure that we’ll lead the market in sales within the next quarter.  I’m terribly sorry for letting this continue so long.  I…”

I silenced him with a curt wave of my hand.  Then I headed for the door handle without a backward glance. 

I slammed the door, leaving Larry in shocked silence.  With a stirring of fear in my stomach, I felt something catch as I tried to walk away.  I tried to move forward, but something was impeding my progress.

  Anxious to leave, and annoyed at my predicament, I braced myself and lunged forward with all my might.  That was a big mistake. 

I had shut the end of my special robe in the doorway, and by hurtling forward, had torn it off me.  The light brown cloth reappeared in a heap beside the doorway, a large gash splitting it from end to end.  However, the mask and mouth guard stayed in place to create a bizarre illusion: my head continued to appear like a seventy-year-old man while the rest of me had returned to its original form, pajamas and all. 

Mortified at the idea of being discovered, I snatched the remains of the robe and dashed  down the aisles towards the green, glowing exit sign. 

Advertising CEO runs from local business in his pajamas…I can see the tabloids now. 

My pulse pounded as I maneuvered my way back, knocking my startled co-workers out of my way at every turn.  Some of them turned and pointed, while others yelled after me, but I did not pay attention.  I stormed through the last few cubicles and the lobby accidentally overturning an entire cart full of papers which flew out wildly in all directions.  Finally, I whizzed past the black-haired receptionist and tore out the front door like a madman.  I spotted my car out in front, ripped open the front door, leapt in, jammed the keys in the ignition and sped off down the road at what felt like supersonic speeds. 

After I was safely out of sight, I pulled over to the side of the road to assess the damage.  I removed the mask and mouth guard so that I could not longer be recognized as the CEO. 

 I spread the torn cloak out in front of me and mentally cursed my loss.  There was so much more I had wanted to do with it.  However, as I touched the two torn sides together, the fabric instantaneously fused back together into one piece.  I gasped at the sudden twist of luck, and smirked.  “TP, old timer.  You sure know how to keep the customers coming back for more.”

I reclined in my seat for a few minutes to let my pulse and breathing return to normal, and let my mind drift off.

I wonder if Larry saw me running from the office.  If he did he probably didn’t believe it.  It would hurt his pride too much to think that a seventy-year-old man in his pajamas had told him off.

After a few minutes meditation, I returned my seat to the forward upright position and remembered to glance at my watch.  There my eyes met with the magic number: Essence of Fear: 100%

I first glanced about to see if anyone was paying attention, and then stealthily removed the communicator from my pajama pocket. Without a second thought, I punched the red button.

To my delight, the communicator crackled with a bit of static and then after a few seconds that wily voice that I had come to recognize last night, burst over the speaker,

“Are you done already?” the shopkeeper asked, “I was expecting you to take longer to get the hang of it-maybe a week or so.  But now I gather that you must be one of those super imaginative, resourceful types.”

“It’s okay, TP, you don’t have to butter me up.  I’m fat enough as it is.  Just please tell me how I can get back to your shop-pronto.”

Trezzlepeg knew better than to ruffle his customer’s feathers, “Okay, if that’s what you would like.  Wait about thirty seconds and then open the glove compartment.”

“Okay, thanks.  I’ll guess I’ll see you in a second.  Uh, over and out, whatever, I’m supposed to say.”

With that I depressed the red button a second time and the device went silent. 

This was a task much easier said than done.  It is amazing how long your mind can stretch thirty seconds if the anticipation is great enough.  I stared unblinking at the compartment like a child waiting to unwrap his first Christmas present.  I counted off the seconds silently in my brain: …twenty two, twenty three, twenty four…

Somewhere around thirty-two, my left eye twitched with a sudden spark of light from the glove box.  It started out as one, and then quickly multiplied in dozens, much like the ones that cascaded from my sock drawer the previous night.  With great anticipation, I grasped the handle of the box, and yanked it open.

This time the glowing light didn’t wait for me to come to it.  The light shot out and engulfed me. My body tossed and turned, and hurtled from side to side like a roller coaster gone out of control.  This time, no planets and galaxies whizzed past me, only oppressive, suffocating, blackness. 

My movement screeched to an abrupt halt, and I found myself lying face flat on the cool, damp surface.

 I succeeded in standing, and began a brisk jog into the blackness, “TP, where are you?  Where’s the bazaar?” I cried out as I ran into the darkness.

But before any other ideas could strike me, something else did.  Something wooden and very solid.  Blindsided, I fell to the floor, certain that if I could see, yellow birds would be circling about my head. I came within an inch of unconsciousness. A familiar voice snapped me out of it. 

“Greetings, Face.  Are you ready to go save your brother now?”

The lights immediately rekindled and I realized that I now lay face down on the rug in the middle of Trezzlepeg’s shop.

Still in a great deal of pain, I rubbed my throbbing forehead, where I could feel that a lump was already forming, “It was different this time,” I observed, “why was it so different?”

“I thought you might like the shortcut a little better.  I usually take visitors along the scenic route the first time through, and then after that only if they really want to go that way.  Besides the back door is closer to the section of my shop where we need to be.”

The jolly, blue man brushed himself off and struck up a vigorous pace down an alleyway, “Come, this way.  It’s not too far!  Unless, of course, you’d like to lick your wounds for a few more minutes.”

I ignored him and fell in place alongside him.  True to his word, in little time we reached our destination: a shiny, silver door with intricate engravings on the surface which read: 

Beyond these doors lies the Confluence of Time.  Travelers beware: the current of time moves swiftly and unpredictably, and few are there who can  master its navigation.  Each simple disturbance on these waters forms ripples whose effects expand through countless generations.  If you choose to meddle with time, you must let time meddle with you.

The temperature in the room seemed to drop about ten degrees, and I tried not to think about the words.

Through these doors is the life Fred never had.  I have to take that chance.

Chapter 8: An Unbearably Strange Companion

As I stared at the inscription, Trezzlepeg hovered over and tapped me on the shoulder, “It takes a few minutes for me to get everything prepared, but after that, I think we can safely send you on your way.”

The little man gestured to a corridor over to his right, “First things first.  We need to give you a Shadow.  Right this way.”

As if explanations had become suddenly obsolete, Trezzlepeg started fluttering down the aisle. “Wait!” I called after him, “What do you mean?  I’ve already got a shadow--it follows me everywhere.”

 “Just follow me and you’ll see.”

After a few minutes, we passed under the sign announcing “Creatures” and my ears picked up the faint sounds of growling, squawking, and creatures rustling around in their cages.  As we ventured farther in, the scuffling sounds were accompanied with the unearthly stench of too many animals in a confined space. 

Finally, we reached a small wooden door and steeped inside.  The room was fully illuminated and my eyes took a few seconds to get used to the change in light.  When they did, I gasped in amazement.  The room stretched only a few dozen feet in length, but to indeterminate height.  The entire perimeter of the room was stacked high with transparent cages, each containing a marvelous creature.  I drank it all in, and for a moment forgot about my insane quest to rescue my brother. 

Excitedly, I ran over to the first cage and peered in. Petite, feathered creatures about the color of dead leaves, darted rapidly from one side of the cage to the other, but made no sound in the process. Amazed, I glanced around for a label, and found one in bold lettering near the bottom with a name and description:

Wild Snipes.  Smal,l elusive birds native of the planet Earth.  Considered a rare prize by humans, but almost never seen in the wild, due to their camouflage and incredible speed. 

“I thought these were just a myth!” I exclaimed, “My dad took me snipe hunting on a camping trip when I was little and we didn’t actually find a thing.  Afterwards, everyone had a good laugh at my expense.”

Trezzlepeg then gestured over to a small platform in the middle of the room.  As we placed our feet on it, railings and a computer control panel ejected from the floor.  Trezzlepeg took out the familiar panpipes and guided the platform skyward at a leisurely pace, “Within this tower, my staff and I have gathered some of the most amazing creatures of the universe.  Allow me to showcase some of our finer specimens.  Off to our left we have the Crimson Tip Unicorn, capable of ejecting lethal venom through the tip of its horn.”

I stared in awe at the creature out of fairytales, and wondered if such things crept around my own planet, just out of the sight of man.  Trezzlepeg, however, did not stop to let me gaze long, but instead continued our accent.

“Over here you’ll see the green-bellied basilisk, and here the gigantic wooly mammoth!  Up to your left there’s a small bunch of blue mountain trolls, and there…”  The little man droned on and on naming off exotic species at a dizzying rate, and I just sat back and enjoyed the ride.  Any one of these animals would be the prize collection of any zoo anywhere on earth, and some creatures looked so cute and cuddly that I almost wished I could take one home as a pet, house train it, and give an endearing name like Fido or Spot. 

However, as we traveled higher, the creatures became more and more menacing.  Gargantuan lizards, that I could only take as cousins of the T Rex and Triceratops, gazed back at me with gleaming eyes.  They roared at us with unearthly fury and gnashed their jaws, unveiling their carnivorous teeth.  Apparently, life in captivity had made these natives restless.  I cringed as we passed a black arachnid with red dots the size of a small car.

 “TP, what are those?”

One of the creatures let out an earsplitting shriek and turned his grotesque face to peer deep into my eyes, and I noticed that both eyes glowed softly like dark rubies.  Its jaws twisted in a wicked grin.

“Those, Face, are gargoyles.  Extremely cunning and malicious.  Able to drive their victims crazy with their screeches before striking with their claws.  Several of my best men gave their lives to acquire these few specimens.”

He turned and looked me gravely in the face, “If you ever see one, you have two choices: Pray if you are religious, and run if you are not.”

I shuddered, the image of the gargoyle’s hideous face still fresh in my mind.

“Can we hurry up?” I pleaded, “If I’m subject to much more of this, I won’t get a peaceful night’s sleep for the rest of my life.”

 “As you wish, Face, but first, I must show you one more thing.  It’s the crown jewel of my collection!”

“Okay,” I said, folding my arms. “but just one more, all right?

The blue man grinned, “Excellent! You won’t be sorry, my friend.”

He blew a shrill blast from his pipes, and the platform shot up at a dizzying rate.  My stomach heaved within me and nausea hit full force.

Just give me a bumper car.

In a matter of seconds, we reached the summit of the tower, and came to an abrupt, yet gentle, stop.  The tower had widened as we ascended and I could see only blackness in all directions.  Trezzlepeg stared into the darkness and once again brought the panpipes to his lips.  A few mournful notes, just barely audible, escaped from the pipes and then wandered off to be lost in the void. After a full minute, he stopped playing, and returned the pipes to his pocket.  I started to speak, but Trezzlepeg cut me off with finger to his lips, “It’s coming. Just be patient.”

A tiny buzzing noise echoed in the distance, and I sensed a tiny speck of light zooming towards us, just barely visible.  As it got closer, the buzzing noise intensified, though it never grew unbearable.  It took the form of a tiny, flying insect and then finally into a dragonfly.  The insect glided over to us and lighted on Trezzlepeg’s outstretched hand. 

I stared at the bug incredulously, “That’s your crown jewel!  I could smash that thing with a flyswatter!  What the catch?”

TP chuckled deeply, “you have such a limited way of thinking.  Its apparent frailty is one of its greatest strengths.  As I have said before, just watch and learn.  You’ll see that a mere flyswatter would prove futile against this beast.”

Almost reverently, Trezzlepeg clasped his hands around the dragonfly and blew a steady stream of warm air into hands, while muttering some strange, imperceptible words.  Then, suddenly, he cast the insect into the air where it disappeared in a flash of light. 

“I’m still not convin-“

I never got time to finish my protest. A thunderous roar, like the collision of two freight trains, cut me off.  One look and I forgot all about my queasy stomach.  Out of nowhere, the harmless dragonfly had dropped the final three letters of his name and had morphed into the beast out of every child’s nightmare.

 The immense scaly beast dwarfed even the most immense animals I had ever seen.  Its dark scales gleamed as torrents of flame expelled from his nostrils and the beating of its wings drove up a whirlwind around us.  Sharpened spikes protruded from its back in an incredible number, glinting menacingly in the firelight.  I cowered to the floor, futilely shielding my face from the wind and flame with my hands, while Trezzlepeg remained unfazed. 

“Beautiful isn’t she?” he shouted over the din, “an extremely rare find.  Maybe one of only a handful left in existence.  The rest of them have been systematically hunted down and destroyed out of fear before they could reach maturity. Pity.”

I rolled my eyes, failing to see the pity in the situation, “What’s keeping it from smashing us to pieces?” I asked in terror.

“Nothing,” said Trezzlepeg.

I might have fainted in shock had he had not immediately admended his statement. “Just kidding. Actually I have complete control over him with a sort of telepathy.  Don’t worry, she won’t harm you.”

I nodded and gripped the handrails tighter.

“I guess she’s just too much for you.  Have it your way.”

With another note on his special pipes, the dragon reverted back into its fly form and flew off into the distance.  I stood up and brushed myself off.

“I’ve had enough of that for today,” I stated, “getting this Shadow is starting to sound like a pleasant idea right now.”

Trezzlepeg nodded and initiated our decent.  Though the flight up had taken nearly ten minutes, the flight down took less than a minute. 

Our craft touched down and we both departed.  Trezzlepeg spoke first on our landing, “Now that you’ve had a crash course on amazing creatures, I think it’s time we found you a fitting Shadow.”

Feeling like a dumb sheep before the sheepherder, I blindly followed Trezzlepeg through a door I had not noticed before.  Inside, saucer-sized lamps cast circles of light onto the darkened floor, revealing a dozen or more granite pedestals on which sat transparent cages.  In each of the cages, sat a miniature creature.  Some resembled humanoids with wings, some birds, and some bats.  Trezzlepeg hovered over to the nearest cage in the center of all the others and placed his hand on it.  Strangely, this cage was empty.

Always a few steps ahead of me, Trezzlepeg tapped the empty cage and spoke, “All the little creatures you see in these cages are Shadows.  They aren’t all this small, but they are all specialized in a certain task and are given to people to assist them.  The one in this cage will aid you in your trip back in time.  He’s also quick with his hands, so he’s also handy when scratching an itch or playing fetch.  Just look at him go in there!” Trezzlepeg chuckled, his head lolling back and forth as if watching a miniature tennis match.

I failed to see both the humor and the creature that was supposed to accompany me.  I stepped over to the cage and peered in from different angles, squinting and blinking. Wild thoughts of a singing cricket on my shoulder popped into my head, and I caught myself humming the tune to “When You Wish Upon a Star” from “Pinocchio.”

 “Is there supposed to be something in there, because right now it seems to me to be as empty as my wallet the week before payday.”

Trezzlepeg whirled around startled, “Oh, how foolish of me.  I selected this particular Shadow because of its capability to be invisible.  You’d draw too much attention to yourself otherwise.  I just don’t give these to many humans these days.”

 “Surely, with all your gadgets you can give me something so that I can see this thing.  If not, I’d go crazy for wondering what it’s doing and what it looks like, and that be distracting to my mission.”

Trezzlepeg rubbed his chin with his stubby fingers and seemed to ponder this tidbit for a minute.  After some silent contemplation he offered, “I guess it wouldn’t harm anything.  But be warned, he’s a little strange looking, and only you will be able to see him.”

Trezzlepeg disappeared, and for a few minutes, I waited patiently, but as the time wore on, my curiosity got the best of me and opened the latch on the front of the glass cage.  I peeked inside, and whispered, “Hello, is anything really in here?”

The answer came not as a voice, at first, but by a small pressure on my shoulder, like a pair of tiny feet landing from flight. I stiffened, not daring to move to swipe it off.  “No,” a low, ominous voice rumbled, “there is nothing in there.”

Unconsciously, my teeth began to rattle within my head, as I attempted to speak, “Who…what…what are you?”

A low rumbling chuckle emanated from the unseen beast and directly into my ear, “You’ll find out soon enough.  Just sit tight, or I may have to make a hobby of nibbling on your ear.”

I detected the faintest bit of humor in its voice, but  held my peace.  Trezzlepeg reappeared out of the darkness and rushed over to my side.  I could feel the creature shuffling about on my shoulder and beads of sweat trickled at the back of my neck.  Sensing my distress, Trezzlepeg jogged over and swept the Shadow off my shoulder

“I’m so sorry,” he rattled off quickly running circles around me as if he could not shake the momentum that he had gathered while running, “I can see that this little Shadow has not been behaving himself, as usual.”

I huffed at the understatement, “You could call it that.  Did you find something?”

“Yes, yes,” Trezzlepeg said. “I managed to scrape up an extra pair of these goggles from my stock in the back room.  It took me a bit to dig them out, but here they are!”

He tossed me a pair of dusty, tattered goggles that might have passed for an old World War II relic. 

By the sound of its voice, it’s probably a little gremlin or something  I will want to look at it most of the time.

Nothing could prepare me for the sight that actually met my eyes as I slid the goggles on.  The animal now perched on Trezzlepeg’s shoulder did not resemble Jiminy Cricket, Tinkerbell, or a gremlin.  In fact, the Shadow looked most like a panda bear, a tiny bear with huge bushy eyebrows, stubby bat-like wings and a brilliant crimson jewel fastened to his forehead. 

Andrus wrinkled his eyebrows as if sizing me up, and then broke out in a enormous grin. 

“Pleased to make your acquaintance, Face,” Andrus spoke, his voice like that of a kindly British gentleman, “I apologize for my gruff introduction.  The only time I can act imposing is before people know what I actually look like.  Besides, it has been a while since I have served a human master.”

The winged bear sprung from Trezzlepeg’s shoulder  and glided in a perfect figure-eight loop before landing on my own shoulder.  This time I barely noticed his touch.  He walked up to my ear and spoke in voice that was quiet and low.

“My name is Andrus.  But I don’t really care what you call me.  I’ll be your guide in case anything goes wrong that you can’t handle while we go back in time.  Just in case you were wondering, no one else can see me or hear me now.  Just you.  If I ever become too bothersome, just take off the goggles and I’ll let that be a signal that I shouldn’t bother you.  Any questions?”

My mind tried in vain to accept what my ears and mind were telling me.  “Um…just…uh…what does that jewel do?  Can it shoot lasers in case we run into time bandits?”

“Let’s pray we don’t run into scum like that, because this little jewel of mine won’t be able to do a thing.  Its-“

Trezzlepeg cut in with a short blast from his pipes and the familiar rug shuffled under his feet, “I think we can fill him in the rest of the details latter.  I would like to see you on your way as soon as possible so that we can attend to the other tasks at hand.”

For once I had to agree with him.  I shut my mouth and followed onto the rug and instantly found myself back in front of the great, ornate door of time.  Trezzlepeg grinned, as he pulled the handle and revealed with a sweeping gesture the turbulent sea within.

The void beyond the door swam with colors and patterns all contorting and flowing over each other at a rapid pace.  For fleeting moments, I thought I glimpsed objects that I recognized: houses, animals, books, chairs, and even an occasional face, but the glimpses came and went too quickly for me to make any firm connections.  Starting to breathe heavier, I glanced back at Trezzlepeg, “What’s the drill? How does it work?”

“It’s simple,” he answered, “think of the very day that you wish to return to, and you’ll wake up in your bed the morning of that day as if you were supposed to.  You have 24 hours to play out events however you see fit, and then you will immediately be returned to the present.”

He went silent for a few moments and deep furrows became evident in his pudgy face, “All I can do now is wish you good luck and caution you not to look back.  You might not like what you see.  Be careful how you toy with the ebb and flow of time.”

I nodded to thank him for his advice, and passed a furtive glance at my shoulder to make sure Andrus still resided there. Andrus sat down and slid next to my ear, “Now or never, Face.  Don’t worry about it.”

Already rock solid in my determination, I then pivoted around to face the swirling chaos.  My brother’s face burning clearly in my mind, and Trezzlepeg’s voice ringing in my ears, I stepped forward and into the vortex.

Here I come, Fred.  Here I come.

Part II: Remember the Past

Chapter 9:  The Breakfast of Champions

The inside of my head rattled with the piercing wail of an alarm clock. Frantically, I tried to swat at the contraption in hopes that I could silence it, but I kept missing.  As if the alarm clock was trying to spite me, it rattled dangerously close to the edge of the dresser and plunged to the ground, landing with a thud.  Despite my hopes that the fall might have broken the clock, the awful jangling continued as loud as ever.  Now I would have to roll out of bed to silence it. 

Out of habit, I flung my arm to the side in order to nudge my wife who sometimes slept through the alarm, “Honey, it’s time to…”

I realized that no one occupied the space next to me.  I flailed my arms and inadvertently took a dive to the floor and took an armful of blankets and sheets with me.

Did Christine buy me a new clock? Because if she did, I’m going to break that one too, once I get my hands on it.  What I’d do for a nice big mallet right now just like in the cartoons.

Determined to beat the cogs out of the stupid clock, I rose to my elbows and crawled forward towards the other side of the bed where the alarm clock had landed.  I had almost attained my goal when suddenly, the door flew open, and in stepped a face from my past. 

“Hey there, big bro.  Havin’ a little trouble this morning?  Stay up too late last night reading?”

A sly grim roamed up Fred’s cheeks.  He was already dressed for riding in his blue Levi’s, plain shirt, boots and leather jacket.

But then the early morning fogginess dissolved from my brain and memories of Trezzlepeg, and time travel flooded in.  I remembered where I was and how I got there, and the shock silenced me for a good minute.

With shocking force, dozens of memories of our childhood burst onto center stage in my mind.  On impulse, I leapt to my feet and tackled Fred in an enormous bear hug.  “Fred!”

The younger man stumbled back, taken off guard by this unwarranted display of affection.  Tears sprang to my eyes, but I pushed them back as I came to my senses.  While for me it had been many long years since I had seen his face, he had probably seen me the night before. 

“Whoa,” Fred said, “did Frankie have bad dreams last night?  You okay?”

Gradually I released my grip and shook my head.  

However, before my mind could stretch itself to come up with a crazy excuse, Fred cut in, “Remember,” he mumbled as he shrugged, “I can always lend you my old teddy bear if it gets to be too much of a problem.”

His eyes scanned the room for the alarm clock and with natural poise, Fred balanced the clock on the toe of his boot, launched into the air and slammed it down, finally silencing its awful racket. 

I could only sit and gawk, wondering why my brother hadn’t tried out for more sports. “By the way,” Fred began again, “we better get an early start so that we can hit the canyon by eight or nine. Sound good?”

I nodded, still gazing at him trying to convince myself that he was real. Fred wasted no time in getting out the door and towards the kitchen. 

“See you at breakfast,” he called back.

But before he could disappear, I called after him, “Fred, what day is it?”

Fred wrinkled his forehead and replied, “Saturday.  August 23.  Why?”

Not even considering sharing my actual train of thought, I shrugged him off, “Oh, nothing.  Just wondering.”

I sat on the bed breathing hard, and tried to get a handle on myself.  I might have sat there all day, had Andrus not intervened. “Hey, Face,” the tiny voice began, “You might want to stop your childish indecision, and start trying to come up with a plan.”

Painfully, I lifted my bloodshot eyes off the bed and glared at the tiny flying fuzzball that now hovered over me.  I had half a mind to retrieve the alarm clock and take a potshot at him, but decided it would not be worth the effort.

After a few seconds, I stood and began dressing.  Miraculously, I remembered all of the contents of my dressers correctly, which made the task much easier. 

As I passed the closet I caught sight of myself in the rectangular mirror that hung on the wall, and jumped back.  Even though I should have anticipated it, the sight of my eighteen-year-old self still took me by surprise.  My face had been much thinner then, my hair a bit longer, and my stubble considerably shorter.  I ran my hand up and down the smooth sides of my cheeks and wished that I could wake up looking this way on occasion. 

 I had been so happy then, so well groomed and well kept.  However, after the accident and the period of depression that followed, I had let many of these things fall by the wayside.

After staring for a full minute, I managed to pry myself away from the mirror, and finish dressing.  All the while Andrus hovered over my shoulder, “So what do you plan to do?  I hope you didn’t just jump into this without a plan.  Especially because you have to be extremely cautious in what you say and do.  The slightest alteration of time can have enormous rippling effects!  If I were you…”

Becoming increasingly annoyed, I cut him off with a wave as I plopped down on the bed to pull on my boots.

“You are not me and for your information, I do have a bit of a plan.”

Andrus glided over so that he hung in the air not three inches from my face, “And what would that be? Knocking you brother over the head and stuffing him in a closet all day?”

I shook my head in defiance, “No, it’s much better than that.  Give me a moment.  Aren’t you supposed to be helping me?  All you’ve done is complain.”

Andrus folded his arms across his chest, “I’m just along in case you decide to do anything rash.  I’m handy if you get caught in a pinch, so I suggest you treat me nicely.”

I threw up my hands, “I’d do my best. ‘Til then-truce, okay?”

I held out the index finger of my right hand and Andrus studied it for a few moments before finally giving in.  He smiled, grasped the tip of my finger, and shook it vigorously, “Truce,” he muttered.  Then, he glanced down and after locating a level spot on the mattress, flitted down and sat next to me, “So let’s hear it.  What’s the master plan?”

I stretched my arms over my head and sighed, “I figured that I could let him go on his date tonight.  He was perfectly fine until I challenged him to that race.  If I don’t challenge him, he won’t be in that canyon and won’t die.”

Andrus nodded, but I could still sense his reservations by the drooping of his bushy brows, “That might work, but it still leaves plenty of holes wherein things could still go wrong.  If you end up racing again today, and you don’t execute every move just as you did the first time, there is always the chance that something will go wrong anyway.”

Andrus drew his mouth together in a tight line and nervously scratched his furry scalp, “How did your brother come to fall?  Did you see what his mistake was?”

I wracked my mind for a concrete answer, but could not produce one, “I don’t know. I was far ahead when he lost control.  There was this flash of light and a loud bang, and then next thing I know, I glanced back and watched him flying through the air and into the pit.”

Frustrated, I rested my head in my hands, and searched the dusty corners of my brain for the missing piece.  Andrus’s gentlemanly voice broke the silence, “Face, something is not right here,” Andrus’s nose twitched. “I smell a proverbial rat, and a big one at that.  From my limited experience, motorcycles do not just explode in mid-air. Was there anyone who had a grudge against your brother?  Because, from my angle, I suspect foul play.”

  My heart jumped in chest.  I had only toyed with this thought once or twice. “No. I can’t think of anyone who didn’t like him. He was so likeable.”

Andrus hovered back into the air and thoughtfully stroked his chin, “That is curious indeed.  It doesn’t sound like a likely alternative, but we should keep an eye out.” 

I nodded and was about to continue when the bedroom door creaked open again and Fred poked his head in the door, “Hey, Frank, are you ready yet?  Mom made us breakfast and if you don’t hurry it’s gonna be colder than Montana in the winter.”

“Yeah, I’m coming.”

His brown haired head disappeared from sight, and heard his footsteps fade off down the hallway.

I stood up and swept Andrus onto my shoulder, “I guess that means we can head out.  All we can do is be cautious.”

The two of us had almost reached the kitchen when, instead of turning right into the dining room, I turned left to the garage where we stored our bikes.  I would be a few minutes late to breakfast, but I hoped that my time would be well spent

I snuck through the door, yanked on a chain attached to a light bulb on the ceiling.  Andrus whispered, “So, I’m guessing we’re here to check on the bikes?”

“Yeah,” I said, “I guess you are smarter than the average bear.”

Andrus, who completely missed my allusion, huffed at what he took to be an insult, “I’ll have you know that my education far surpasses…”

“Shh, we don’t want to make too much noise and disturb breakfast.  Just put a sock in it and help my look for anything suspicious.”

I navigated through the labyrinth of sleds, car parts and yard tools, and eventually reached the far side where our two bikes stood.  I began a careful scrutiny of the exterior of Fred’s bike.

Fred treasured the bike as one of his most prize possessions, and constantly doted over it, tinkering with it and shining the cherry red exterior.  Although I considered myself the better rider, Fred definitely took the prize for the better caretaker.  My trusty, but slightly worse for wear Honda sat on the other side of his, taking the backseat to the newer, flashier vehicle.

My eyes and hands grazed every inch of the shiny Mitsubishi.  I checked every system, the motor, the fuel tank, the exhaust, the steering, the brakes, anything that could go haywire in order to cause such a freak accident.  Andrus fluttered around the exterior as well, poking and prodding, sticking his tiny hands around to investigate the crevices that I could not.  However, five minutes of scrutiny, we both turned up empty handed. 

“Well,” Andrus began, “I guess that rules out sabotage, at least for now.”

I nodded and paced the enclosed space slowly, “I guess so, but if someone wanted to sabotage Fred’s bike, they still could do so before the races.  I think it would be best if you came along today and acted as a lookout for any suspicious activity from the other racers.”

“Agreed. I shall keep all three eyes on it.”

Before I could ask about the third eye, the seriousness on his face, suddenly melted away replaced by a jovial grin, “By the way, your breakfast is getting colder by the minute.  Why don’t we get in there before it’s not completely like Montana in the winter?”

I liked this idea, and steered myself back through the maze of debris and back out the door, switching off the light as I exited.  Discretely as possible, I slunk back to the kitchen.

If my mind hadn’t been so occupied with other pressing thoughts, I would have remembered to brace myself before entering the room. 

As I propped the door open wide, the face of my mother, who I had not seen since I placed flowers in her coffin came into my view.  I all but choked down a gasp, and rushed forward to take her in arms. “Mom…I…”

She released me slightly and her soft brown eyes registered genuine concern from behind her glasses, “Frank, whatever is the matter?  You like you’ve just got cut from callbacks at a play.”

Oh, mom…uh, I’m fine.  Just had a rough night and all.  You know, bad dreams and an upset stomach.”

I marveled at the lameness of my excuse, however, they seemed to buy it so I simply pulled up a chair and poured myself a glass of orange juice.

“So, what did you cook for the big day?” I said trying to change the subject.

Without a word, she wandered over to the stove and retrieved a skillet that lay there.  With simple grace she whisked a ham and cheese omelet and two strips of bacon from the pan and on to a plate in front of me.  I smiled and thanked her, very grateful for the chance to be fed by my mother one last time. 

“I know these are your favorite boys, so eat up.  There’s plenty more where that came from.”

The rest of my brothers and sisters were still sleeping in, so only my mom, Fred, and I sat around the table.  However, I couldn’t help but feel as if I dined in the company of angels as I sat and conversed with two ghosts  How much this one day would change everything.

More than ever, I truly appreciated the gentle kindness and sacrifice that my mother showed us, and marveled at her quiet beauty. Was I really so blind in my youth that I didn’t notice before?  She didn’t have to wake up in the wee hours of the morning to make us such a fine breakfast…

Fred mostly stayed quiet, preferring stuffing his stomach to making conversation.

“So Frank, do you have any idea who you’d like to ask to prom this year?’

Even though I  knew the answer, the question took me off guard and my face reddened.

 I don’t think I had mentioned Christine to her yet.  Is this the right time?

Thankfully, I didn’t get a chance to answer, because Fred beat me to it, “Hey, why don’t you take Theresa to the prom?” he offered with a slap on the back, “That would probably make her year.”

I sighed at my brother’s suggestion, and recalled his many attempts to hook me up with various girls during my high school years.  Theresa was a girl who I had met in my science class my freshman year, and who I know had a taken a liking to me.  I had always found her nice, and we often spent fun times together, but she had never measured up to Christine in my eyes.

 At least I already know how this one turns out.

I shrugged and replied, “I don’t know.  I still have plenty of time to decide.  To tell you the truth, I was thinking about asking Christine Daely.”

The reaction from the two others at the table varied quite largely.  My mother, who had a bite of omelet in her mouth, nodded approvingly, while Fred turned rigid as if an arrow had just pierced his heart.  I glanced over at his face, which had gone surprisingly cold, and I could almost detect the faintest gleam of jealously seething in his eye. 

He spoke first, his voice level and flat, “Christine, eh?  She’s quite a looker. Hope you get to her before some other lucky guy does.”

He lost himself again in attacking his bacon and eggs.  My mom finished chewing and offered, “Christine is a nice young lady,” chimed my mom, “she’d be a good choice.”

I was about to reply, when a tiny voice wafted up from under the table, “Psst.  Face, could you pass me some bacon or something down here?  I’m starving.  Time travel takes a lot of a bear.”

Still confused by Fred’s icy reaction, I glanced down to see Andrus under the table looking like a tiny puppy begging for table scraps. I nodded subtly and broke off a thin portion of bacon from a strip on my plate.  Very carefully, as not to be seen, I slumped in my chair and handed down the small strip to Andrus.

Andrus gobbled the bacon up as if he hadn’t touched a morsel of food for months, “Thanks, Face.  If you happen to spill a crumb or two more on the floor, I would greatly appreciate it.”

We ate for next few minutes of the meal in near silence, with only the sound of forks scrapping plates and the mechanical chewing of food to keep our ears occupied.  I wanted to say something, anything.  Thousands of questions and flooded my brain, but in the magnitude of the moment, I only managed to muster a few meager “pass the salt” and “more toast please” remarks. 

The way my brother had clammed up after I mentioned Christine bothered me.  Besides, I figured that silence was best in the situation so that I didn’t incriminate myself by saying something that wasn’t supposed to be said in that timeframe. 

Finally, Fred rose, stretching his muscles like a lazy feline, “Well, Frank.  I guess it’s time to hit the highway.  I need to fetch something from my room, and then I’ll meet you back in the garage.”

I nodded, “Sure,” I replied, “I guess I still need to brush my teeth anyway.”

Without another word, Fred bolted out the door, and towards our room, leaving me alone with our mother.  I knew that I had to go and my heart melted, wishing I could stay just a few more moments in her presence. 

 “Bye, mom.  Thanks for the breakfast.  I’ll keep an eye on Fred for you.  I’ll be sure he doesn’t do anything stupid.”

The words just rolled off my tongue without thought, and I realized that they were the exact words I had said many years ago, the first time I had lived this morning. 

My mother smiled and held me tight for a second, “Thank you son.  Just come home to us safe.  You know how nervous it makes me every time you boys go out riding.”

She did not know how well founded her fears actually were.  I wanted the moment to linger, but was interrupted by Fred’s return.  I started out the door after him and towards the garage.  But before I disappeared out of sight out my mother, I turned back and added, “I love you mom.”

My mother’s face brightened and registered slight shock.  These were words that I had not applied liberally at my age.  Slowly she turned around and gazed back at me, “I love you too, son.”

And with that I painfully continued down the hall, out the front door and into the garage, my mother’s face firm in my mind,

As I walked out towards the garage behind Fred, I unconsciously rubbed my head.  A voice that was not my own entered my brain, but I could not make it out at first.

Hello, is anyone there?  Who are you?

This time the voice responded and I understood, Yes, I’m here.  I’m sorry to have frightened you.  The translator that Trezzlepeg gave me allows me to speak any language, even the language of thought.  I’ve always found telepathy fascinating and I thought it might be easier so that you didn’t have to look like you were talking to thin air.  People might start to talk about you.

  Infuriated, my mind made the connection. Andrus.

  Why didn’t you tell me you could do that?  You scared me half, no, more like three fourths to death! 

  Andrus flew back, well out of range, Hey, uh, truce…remember?  We’ve got to work together.  I’m sorry…I just haven’t been out and able to use my powers in such a long time.

I sighed and ran my fingers through my hair.

Okay bear, this is fine when other people are around, but don’t do it too much until I get used to it.

For the moment I brushed the mind reading bear aside, and scurried out to the garage where I found Fred waiting, “Ready to go, Face?” he chimed, his stiffness from earlier seemingly forgotten, “Man, this is going to be awesome.  We’re going to clean up today.  I can feel it.”

Something about his words awoke a dormant competitive spirit deep within me. “Oh, yeah, we will.  That is, if you think you can keep up with me.  Otherwise, I’ll smoke the competition, and you can clean up the ashes.”

I didn’t see any harm in a little good-natured banter like we used to.  Besides, he’d gone through the day the first time without incident, and so it seemed okay to challenge him now. 

Fred smirked with a little slyness of his own, “Well, Frank, maybe today is the day that I’ll force you to face the music and accept defeat.”

Adrenaline began to seep into my veins, and we quickly saddled our bikes and sped down our street and out of sight like two bandits making their getaway from a bank robbery.  In near perfect sync, we coasted through the side streets and took the freeway towards the canyon. 

This shouldn’t be so hard, I said to Andrew. Since I’ve already done this race, it should actually be easier than before.

I had no way of knowing that I was dead wrong.

Chapter 10: A Race Against Time

After thirty minutes, I glimpsed the sign, and like perfectly trained fighter pilots holding formation, we slowed our bikes together and swept though the exit.  Majestic mountains rose out of the earth in the horizon, and in very little time I began to make out a collection of other bikes in the distance, parked beside the entrance. 

Fred and I closed in on the pack, cut off our engines, and disembarked.  Curiously, I glanced around the crowd.

 I wonder who I can still remember…

To my delight, several of the other riders popped of their helmets, and I recognized them some of my high school friends. A tall, strong man with short, brown hair,  rushed over and slapped me a high five.

 “Hey, Face!” he exclaimed, “You ready to lose today?  I just tuned up this bad boy, and the only thing it’s gonna smoke now is the competition.”

He gestured over to his impressive looking red and white Kawasaki, its new paint job glistening in the morning sun. 

 I suppressed my jealousy, and replied with a slap on the back, “Go ahead, and try Matt.  Just don’t let the Surgeon General catch you.”

He smiled back and moved on to greet the next person. I did the same, glancing around in hopes of finding some old friend with which to strike up a conversation. I located a few, and milled about in the next few minutes exchanging small talk.

All the while, Andrus kept himself entertained by buzzing around the biker’s heads and grazing their ears with his fuzzy paws, which caused most of them to swat around their heads as if shooing off a fly.  I rolled my eyes at Andrus’s antics and decided not feed him more attention than he was already getting.

Finally, I ended up back with Fred who was making last minute preparations.  As I approached, he glanced up, his eyes narrowed, “Hey Frank,” he began hesitantly, “word is there’s this new guy over there, a real strong silent type.  Nobody knows where he’s from.  Looks like a real piece of work.”

He shot out his index finger to left.  Uneasily, I swiveled around to see what Fred was pointing at.  I almost wished that I hadn’t. 

The sight that met my eyes caused my stomach to churn uncomfortably.  An enormous stranger dressed entirely in black leathers, paced nonchalantly by his equally enormous black and gold motorcycle a short way from where I stood.  Black slanted shades obscured his eyes, and his dark helmet disguised the rest of his head. His whole ensemble reminded me uncannily of some of the sci-fi villains that I had seen on Mystery Science Theater 3000 late at night. 

I half expected him to be toting a menacing firearm,  but could not see any.  His presence turned my adrenaline-enhanced excitement, to bitter apprehension. 

A thought crept into my mind as stealthily as a spider creeping up through a crack in the floorboards. 

I’ve seen this man before, but it wasn’t here the last time I did this.  I don’t think he is supposed to be here. 

I whirled back around and grabbed Fred by the shoulders, “Fred,” I began breathlessly, “Are you sure no one has seen him before?”

Fred’s eyebrows shot up in surprise and his eyes opened just a little wider, “No.  Nobody knows who he is.  Probably one of those wandering biker gang freaks looking for a good ride.  He’s certainly not from around here.  His bike doesn’t even have any markings.”

Feeling slightly embarrassed at my second outburst of the morning, I released my grip on Fred and stepped back a few paces, racking my brain for possible connections. 

“Is something wrong, Frank?” asked Fred, watching me pace, “you don’t quite seem yourself today.  It’s like somebody’s dumped a scoopful of sand in your jeans this morning.  Don’t worry about that guy.  He’ll probably run with us this time, ride off into the sunset, and never be seen around here again.”

I nodded, only half convinced, and headed over to my own bike to collect my thoughts.  Frantically, I scanned about for Andrus, but could not locate him.  I called out to him in my mind.

 Andrus, come here, Something strange going on.

Thankfully, Andrus didn’t waste time in his response, Really? Just let me finish letting the air of this guy’s tires, and I’ll be right there. 

I snorted and closed my eyes. Andrus!  We don’t have time for that now!  Are you trying to get more people killed?  There is this creepy-looking guy over there, and I don’t think he is supposed to be here.  He looks familiar in a bad way. 

At that moment, Andrus reappeared, “Alright, I can finish the deed later.  Where is this guy?”

As unobtrusively as possible, I gestured with my head in the direction of the mysterious man.  Andrus’s head followed and he took a good couple of seconds before commenting, “Does look kind odd,” he sighed, “but I’m not sure.  Are you sure your memory is not just failing you?  Could you just have missed him the first time?”

I answered his question with a resolute shake of my head, “No way,” I mumbled. “That guy was not, here before.”

Without a word, Andrus launched off in the direction of the strange man.  My head cocked and swirled as I traced Andrus’s zigzagging path around the man and his bike.  Then, just as quickly as he had gone, Andrus bolted back toward me like an angry hornet. His face contorted in uneasiness.

“Wow,” he whispered anxiously, “I don’t like the looks of him either, but I can’t seem to pin down what makes me feel that way.  I think I’ll keep an eye on him if you don’t mind.”

I nodded vigorously. This was one of the best ideas I had heard all day, “Not just one, if you can help it.”

At least if Andrus could keep track of him, I could focus more on the race to come without being distracted.  At this point, a booming voice interrupted our conversation, “All right boys, let’s get this thing started!”

Suddenly, a searing pain shot through my arm, and I clasped a hand over it.  Panicking, I sloughed off my jacket and examined the spot. It was the section of my arm that with the phoenix tattoo that had mysteriously appeared on my arm.  It felt as though it might be melting the skin around it.

I observed it for a few seconds and it didn’t appear that it was doing any damage to my skin. Not wanting to cause a scene, I replaced my coat and bit my lip against the pain.

In a moment, a dozen heads swiveled about to the source of the voice, which I recognized, as the race organizer Casey. “Okay, listen up. Today’s races will be held in single elimination style.  Only the top dogs of each race will continue onto the next round.  No exceptions.  We’ll run the first two rounds, stop for lunch and then run the last two rounds.  The winner takes home both the cup and certificate for thirty big ones at Ciaponi’s, courtesy of Matt.”

“Thanks guys for the warm reception,” Matt called above the racket, “But don’t get your hopes up just yet.  I’ve got every intention at taking that dough back.”

The crowd rippled with light laughter as everyone saddled their bikes, and lined up in preparation in front of the starting mark.  I slid on my helmet, and followed suit, lining my bike up next to my brother.  Almost in unison, a chorus of rumbling engines coughed into life, shattering the morning silence. 

I took several deep breaths to calm my nerves and glanced once over at my brother, and then back to the mysterious rider.  Both glances gave me the shivers.  Pinhead-sized beads of sweat trickled down the back of my neck and I could feel the moisture evaporating from my mouth. 

To reassure myself, I glanced over at my brother, who flashed me a thumbs-up sign as he brought his own bike to bay.  I returned the gesture and forced myself to focus on the trail in front of me. 

However, before I could stew much longer, a red-haired man stepped to the end of the line, his flare gun pointed to the sky.  I recognized this as the signal to get in ready position.

“On my mark!” the boy yelled, “On your mark…get set…GO!”

The red plume from the flare gun rocketed into the morning air, standing out against the sky. Every bike shot forward as if expelled from a rifle.  In turn, I slammed the accelerator to full and sped off in pursuit of the pack. 

My old tactics returning, I weaved in and out of the riders, handling the rugged terrain as if sailing across the cool waters in a motorboat.  Opponents had learned to fear my aggressive style, and some simply swerved out of my way to let me through, rather than struggle in what could turn out to be a death match.  About five minutes into the race, my nerves settled and I began to relax.

Wanting to keep Fred in sight, just in case, I glanced about in locate his position.  I hadn’t passed him up yet, so I knew that he still must have been a bit ahead of me.  He had recently done some tune up work on his bike, and the extra ‘umph’ that this had afforded him was already paying off. 

My heart raced and I gunned the accelerator in an attempt to bring my brother in sight.  To my relief, he came into view only a few seconds later, a few hundred feet in front of me.  The good news was that he seemed to be doing well.  The bad news was that he had picked up a tailgater: the black rider. 

Andrus!  Where are you? 

My concentration lapsed, and my bike smashed hard into a ridge in the road, sending me airborne for a few anxious seconds. I braced for impact, as my tires once again hit the dust. 

My shocks ate up most of the impact, and as I landed, I received the answer to my desperate plea, Face!  I’m cruising along like a banshee next to this guy.  He hasn’t tried anything yet, but he hasn’t let your brother alone either. 

Andrus!  I know this guy is up to no good.

Andrus’s voice went silent and I pushed my bike for all it was worth, trying to coax just a bit more thunder from it. 

Up ahead, the road forked and I saw my chance to catch up with the two.  I hung back waiting for them to decide, before gunning my engine in the opposite direction.  Fred took the lower fork, a longer, but considerably easier trail.  This left me with the shorter, but more complicated course.  With any luck, I could flip some fancy maneuvers and cut them off where the two paths merged farther down the course. 

Rapidly, I raced up the steep slope, cutting corners close in attempt to shave seconds off my time. I focused on the road ahead, Andrus, has anything changed?

His response came quickly, No, they have been almost parallel for the last twenty minutes.  Apparently Fred only thinks he’s dealing with a tough customer. I wouldn’t bet the farm on it.

Yeah, I wouldn’t bet even a week’s allowance on that.

However, as I rounded the next turn, the situation immediately changed from bad to dire.  As I rounded the turn, I caught sight of Fred and his pursuer on the trail below, still locked in a dead heat.

 Panic swelled up in my chest when I realized that they would be upon the same jump where Fred was supposed to met his end. 

It was then I pulled the craziest stunt off my entire motorcycling career.  I saw a dip in the trail, and reacted before I had a chance to talk myself out of it.  I yanked the handlebars and sent my bike rocketing off the edge in an insane attempt to cut them off. 

For the first few seconds, I felt like Superman.  For the remainder of the trip down the rocky slope, I felt like a sad attempt at the next Evel Kinevel.  My bike thundered down the steep labyrinth of jagged rocks out of control, picking up speed as I descended. 

Frantically, I jerked the handlebars left and right in an insane attempt to steer. I managed to shortchange my inevitable crash until I came within a stone’s throw of my targets.  My bike’s front tire slammed into a jagged stone, which launched me from my bike like some insane roller coaster gone wrong.  My bike flipped multiple somersaults before careening into a large boulder and blossoming into flame. I tried to scream as I soared into the air, but the impact robbed me of breath. 

Colors blurred inside my head, as I mentally prepared myself for the brutal impact.  I only had time for one more thought to cross my mind.

This is interesting.  If I die in the past, that will cause a bit more than a ripple in time!  What will happen to Annie?  To Christine?  I’m sorry everyone, I tried…

An overwhelming wave of sadness pounded over me, as I pondered my grim failure for what I thought would be my final moments.  I clamped my eyes shut, not bearing to witness my own demise. 

However, just before my body could bash against the rocks below, an invisible force snatched me from air and hoisted me aloft, as easily as a strong wind might toss origami in the air.  I shot up for a few seconds, before leveling off and again hurtling towards the rocks below.  My eyes widened.

Terrified, I flailed my arms about. and to my pleasant surprise, I heard a voice.

I am trying to help you, but I’m liable to drop you if you keep wiggling about!  Just hold still…and maybe we can catch up with tall, dark, and ugly in time. 

My flailing arms quickly transformed into arms clasped in gratitude, Andrus!  How on earth…

He cut me off before I could conjure up the appropriate babble,

Save your breath.  I can explain later if you really want me to.  Just be grateful that you aren’t a professional wrestler or something because I probably couldn’t have pulled this off.

It was then that I realized that I could feel two small furry paws clutching my back.  I wanted to shout in relief and elation, but instead followed Andrus’s advice and remained silent.  I glimpsed our targets in the distance, which now looked like little more than ants in a maze.  Seeing that we weren’t closing in fast enough, I almost protested, but Andrus was one track ahead of my train of thought.

Hang on.

My mind had barely registered the words, when immediately my ride accelerated from leisurely flight to an intense thrill ride.  My insides lurched about within me and I had to try hard to suppress the urge to heave my breakfast into the air.

The two tiny riders ahead of me zoomed in rapidly as if I had just placed my eyes in front of a powerful telescope, until we flew in close enough to smell their exhaust.  My mind whirled at the thought that the entire trip had taken only a few seconds. 

The two riders still rode side by side neither one conceding an inch, looking like a bandit and a sheriff both fleeing from the scene of a bank robbery. 

Andrus!  What’s the plan now?  Won’t they freak out when the see me soaring through the air on invisible wings?  They’d at least hit me up for cheating somehow.

Andrus let out  a faint chuckle, Don’t worry, as long as I am holding you, they can’t see you either.  You are small enough that I can extend my invisibility onto you. We just need to make this trip together now, that’s all.

Satisfied, I nodded and lowered my head to face the oncoming trail.  Once again, the rocky terrain whizzed by me, and I closed my eyes, imagining myself still saddled atop my bike.

The illusion didn’t last long.  Andrus suddenly jerked me awake with a sharp twist upward to avoid slamming me into some high boulders. 

Face!  You have to keep your eyes open!

 After almost the entire race, the man in black broke from his position next to Fred and slammed to the side with massive force, knocking Fred’s bike almost out of control.  Fred careened precariously from one side to another and was almost thrown from his ride.  Over the noise of the bikes, I could hear him yelling at the maniac in front of him, but could not make out the words.

My body tensed for action, as I thought we might have to halt another attempt when the black suited man came back for more, but to our mutual surprise, the man did not attempt a second pass.  Instead, he jammed a button on the side of his handlebars and a loud buzzing sound, like jet engines, filled the air.

The mysterious rider threw off his jacket and shot me a venomous backward glance time.  As his coat flew away, leaving his arms bare, my breath caught in my chest as I recognized the phoenix that climbed the man’s arm.  Before I had to the time to react he and his bike disappeared in a flash of brilliant light.

My hands flew over my face. Andrus, what’s going on?  Where did he go? I think I know who he is!

Andrus responded by releasing his grip on me, causing me to smash into the ground.  I didn’t have to time to brace myself for impact, and I rolled several times before coming to a stop.  I yelled at Andrus,  zooming out of sight, What the heck was that?  Didn’t you hear me?  I think I know who he is!

His reply came swiftly, Yes, I heard you, and yes, I saw his markings too.  I guess is should have told you to tuck and roll, but I’ve got a hunch that needs to be acted on immediately.

I leapt to my feet and dashed after my brother and Andrus. Realizing that my pursuit was futile, I dropped to my knees.  Questions surged through my mind, and my stomach tightened.  I raised my eyes and Andrus’s actions became clear.  The incredible events unfolded before my eyes as if in slow motion.

Fred’s bike shot off the ramp and hung in the air. At the same time, a tiny white blur shot towards Fred’s bike.  The bike erupted in a massive explosion pinning me to the earth.

This time, I was unable to stifle a scream.  My voice rang across the canyon, my agony echoing through every crack.  “Not again!”

 Feeling sick, I scanned the early morning sky in a vain hope that my eyes had been fooling me, that I might have been scammed by some elaborate hallucination, but the only thing that met my eyes was deep, crystal, empty, blue.

Wracked with anguish, I wrung my hands, and dropped to my knees. 

I whirled around, only to run into Andrus fluttering above the ground only inches from my nose, arms folded across his chest and looking pleased with himself.  He hung in the air in silence, before gesturing impatiently to his load, which he had dropped at my feet. 

I wiped the tears from my clouded eyes with the back of my sleeve, and gazed down at what Andrus had dropped in front of me. At first I could only make out a shapeless mass, but the details returned as I continued to blink to clear my eyesight.  Suddenly, my brain made the connection and my eyes grew round. The object Andrus had dropped at my feet was none other than my younger brother, unconscious, but breathing. 

  “I believe,” Andrus muttered quietly, “I’ve found someone you were looking for.”

  My heart swelled with joy, and if I could have embraced Andrus without crushing him, I probably would have.  I leapt to my feet, and punched the air with a war whoop.  “Andrus, what does all of this mean?  Could something like this have happened the first time that I lived this day?  What if…”

  Andrus lighted on my shoulder and placed one paw on my head, “Shh,” he said, “I don’t know the answers.  What happened today was very strange. I can tell you this: if I hadn’t snatched your brother when I did, he would have followed that madman to wherever he was headed.  The flash of light you saw was a portal of some type, an illegal one.  This is the first time, I’ve ever chanced to see one personally.”

Could Fred’s death not be my fault?

I had seen the explosion, and had seen him fall.  My brother had been dead, and now I would give him a second chance at the life he never had. 

Chapter 11: Bright Eyes, Sharp Claws

My vigil over my brother did not last long.  Already, a small crowd of the other bikers had pulled over and were surrounding us.  The world around me became a flurry of frantic questions, grasping arms, and jumbled thoughts.

“Woah!  What was that…Is he all right?  Did you hear that explosion?  Somebody call an ambulance!”

Overwhelmed, I swung my arms wide to clear the crowd, “Hey!” I yelled above the crowd, “he’ll be fine, it’s just a little bump.  You guys go on and finish the race.”

The crowd made little effort to return to their bikes.  A dozen or more incredulous faces stared at me, perhaps wondering if I had received a major head wound myself.  One guy took off back down the road, yelling that he was going for help.

Andrus, now would be a good time to a make a move, cause this might be hard to explain when the police get here.

Andrus circled the scene before returning to my shoulder. There’s no other way out so I guess I’ve got no choice but a one-way trip for two via airmail.  Hold on, Face.  This might be a little rougher than last time.

Without a second to blink, Andrus snatched us both from the ground.  The entire scene around the crash shrunk into little more than a speck on the distant ground.  My hair whipped violently back and my eyes moistened as Andrus shot through the skies like a supersonic jet. 

Andrus settled into a comfortable cruising speed and I ventured to speak

Do you have any more aces up your sleeve? We might need one to explain what happened to our bikes.  Though, I don’t think we really have to worry about the other witnesses, because I doubt the police would believe their story if they told them. 

Andrus nodded. You’re right.  You are also right that I do have a few trump cards in my hand.  I am a shadow that’s been specifically trained for the whole time travel thing, and all the odd occurrences that come about when people try to tamper with time.  Bet that race wasn’t exactly what you had in mind…was it?

Yeah, thanks for the save.  I’m beginning to see why Trezzlepeg was so insistent that I take you along. 

You see? I’m just along to sweep up behind you.  I’ve done it so many times before.  Just think if Trezzlepeg just sent people off tramping through the flow of time, barging in wherever they pleased without any guidance?  The consequences could be staggering. You might end up with people starting wars, changing the courses of entire nations, by accident!  I know it sounds far-fetched, but believe me, it has happened!

So what are we going to do with him once he comes around?  Will he remember all this? 

Andrus paused for a moment.  With a blow like that, I doubt he will remember much.  We’ll see when he comes to.  But just in case, I’ve cooked up another trick.  Trezzlepeg sent me with a memory erasing device in case of emergency and I think we could convince him that he stayed home because he was sick.  The most important thing is that we try to let him live out the rest of his day as normally as possible.  Did you do anything the first time you lived today besides that race?  It might be very important.

I mulled over my memory of the day, No, I didn’t…but Fred did.  Or he was going to.  He had a date tonight, set up by a  secret admirer.  He was supposed to meet her at the park later tonight, but he never got the chance. 

Andrus replied, the more I think about it, the more this situation seems to me like the work of an illegal time traveler.  Someone who has found a way to breach time.  Did you notice how that guy didn’t have a Shadow with him?  That enough is enough to make me pretty confident that he is the equivalent of an illegal time immigrant.  Perhaps, this person was the same one who did your brother in the first time, and if that’s so, I know what we should do. But before we can, we need to get Fred to a safe place. 

What did they want with my brother, and how did they know that I was trying to get him back?  And what’s worse, what’s keeping them from simply killing him another way after I save him?

We reached the city outskirts and flew high over the housetops as not to attract attention.  We could probably be back to my house in a matter of minutes. You know, I wouldn’t really worry about it.  I can assure you, Fred will be okay. That is- if we can get him through this day.

The realization struck like a bolt of lightning.

 I remember who that guy is!  I saw him in Trezzlepeg’s shop just yesterday!  This huge man walked in with this shining phoenix tattoo on his arm, took one look at me and bolted off. After that I noticed that I have a strange phoenix tattoo of my own. Trezzlepeg wrote him off as one of his strange regulars. I’d never seen him before that, and so I am doubly confused what he wants with my family. 

Andrus almost released his grip in surprise, That does thicken the plot, doesn’t it?  Then, we’ll just have to run a little background check with Trezzlepeg. Whis man’s actions are nothing short of an atrocity, but now that he’s lost the element of surprise we can keep an eye on him.  I think-

The remainder of Andrus’s sentence was drowned out by a sky-rending screech.  It wasn’t like a jet or even like any animal I had heard before, and I couldn’t contain my curiosity to glance behind me.  I immediately wished that I hadn’t. 

The scary thing was not what I did see, it was I didn’t see: anything.  Both Andrus and I scanned the horizon intently for the next couple of minutes, but both turned up without anything unusual.  Andrus…do you have any idea what that was?

Andrus’s words trembled, Yes, I think so.  But I don’t see how it could be so.  They don’t belong in this world.

Droplets of chilling sweat trickled at the back of my neck, They?  What are they?

Gargoyles.  They are known for their stealth, and so I’m not surprised that we can’t see them.  They usually give their prey a warning screech just to get the goose bumps going.

Another chilling shriek split the sky, I don’t suppose that living gargoyles are exactly a common sight in this part of the universe for that matter!  I’d bet that that mister phoenix sent these goons after us to finish us his botched job.

Andrus picked up speed and I could see my house approaching in the distance, They will have the advantage in the air, so whatever we do, we need to land as soon as possible.  Gargoyles may be dangerous and cunning, but sometimes they aren’t that bright when out of their usual environment. Now, we need some place on the ground to hide.

There’s a scrap yard a mile or two east of town.  There are not many people there, and it would probably give us something to work with.  Lots of good places to hide.

Andrus changed his course to the east.  Remember, Face.  That could be used to both teams’ advantage. 

Just then, one of our pursuers let out another ear splitting wail.  As the sound hit my ears, dark waves of terror flooded over me. My entire body shook involuntarily and I barely stifled a scream, Andrus, what’s happening to me?

Andrus grasped his paw tighter in an attempt to steady my flailing body, It’s a cruel trick that makes them so effective.  The gargoyles have glands that store up essences for use on their prey.  They literally turn your own emotions into your worst enemy.  Hold on tight and close your eyes.  They have to be pretty close to use that trick, so I’m going to have to really cruise. 

Andrus coaxed a little more power into his already breakneck speed.  In a matter of only a few seconds, the gargantuan pile of scrap metal and rusting vehicles loomed in front of us.  Taking Andrus’s advice, I clamped my eyes shut and forced my hand over my mouth to keep myself from being sick.  Each second felt like hours as a shot though the darkness, closer and closer to the semi-safe haven of junkyard. 

Face, open your eyes and brace yourself.  We are going to hit.

Andrus obviously needed some work on his timing, because no sooner had the warning been issued that my legs impacted the ground with knee-buckling force.

My eyes slammed open as dual stabs of pain shot up both of my knees, and I turned multiple somersaults. However, I did not waste even a moment brushing myself off, but instead hobbled madly over to the shelter of the nearest hollowed wreck of an old Buick Skyhawk.  I leapt inside an open window, and dropped to the floor. 

Andrus, where’s Fred?  You didn’t drop him like that too, did you?

I caught a glimpse of Andrus as he popped up from a nearby wreck before returning to his hiding place.

I’m over here.  Get down Face; Fred is fine. I decided to put a little space between us to throw them off, and give us a better tactical position.  I admit the landing was a little rougher than planned, but right now, I think we better concentrate on other things.

Andrus went silent, as our worse fears were confirmed.  Three stone beasts swooped out of the air like angels of death, landing only a dozen feet from where Fred and Andrus were hiding.  In the dimness of the late morning, their glowing eyes pierced the darkness, each shining like stars. Aach beast’s eyes shone a different color, the two smaller ones boasting blue and green eyes respectively, while the largest one owned a set of crimson ones.  All three beasts shifted about the wrecks, barely visible except for their eyes, their mouths twisted in chilling grins. 

But the final touch to the nightmare came when the leader opened his mouth to communicate with his comrades.  The jumbled mess that sprung from the creature’s mouth could only be described as an awful mix of hisses, growls, and shrieking.  Mortified, I slammed my hands in defense of my ears. Andrus!  What are they saying?

I don’t think you really want to know, but you really need to.  The red one is the leader and he is ordering his cronies to spread out.  Apparently, if they find us, we are to be disposed off with ‘no mercy’.

At the words ‘no mercy’, my stomach twisted into a knot to make a Scoutmaster proud.  So what are our options?  How do you dispose of a gargoyle before they dispose of you?  You said that they weren’t very bright.

I don’t really know. I’ve never played hide and seek with gargoyles.  But don’t worry, I’ll think of something…

Try as I might, Andrus’s words did nothing to cease my worrying, and I slid a little deeper behind the wreck, letting only the very top of my eyes above the edge.

The two creatures that I termed ‘green’ and ‘blue’ took off in two separate directions in hopes of flushing us out.  The larger red beast, however, remained behind to scout for us.  The creature slipped in and out of the rubble with amazing ease, examining each wreck, and then smashing each wreck with a stroke from its massive claws. 

A hail of twisted metal rained down as each scrap slammed against other mountains of scrap and triggered avalanches.  Shrapnel crashed down uncomfortably close to me, pinning me to hiding place.  If I ventured away, I would surely be blindsided by shrapnel but if I stayed, the beast would eventually find me.  There was nothing I could do but hang tight, pray silently, and hope against hope that Andrus had formulated a brilliant plan. 

By his lack of communication, I figured that he was probably hard at work, and that somehow he’d be able to create a diversion, but my hopes were quickly dashed when a metal shard hit pile of cars just above my hiding place. 

An old Cadillac from the top of the stack teetered precariously before suddenly crashing directly on top of my wreck.  I reacting swiftly and leapt for the nearest open window, but to my dismay, only made half of the journey.  With pulverizing force, the roof of the wreck caved in and pinned me halfway in, halfway out. 

A muffled scream burst from my lips.  My stomach seized with panic as Red abruptly halted his rampage and sharply swiveled his head around, his eyes connecting with mine.  The sound had not been loud, but it had been enough for the ruthless hunter.

His gaze held mine, and pangs of dread clutched  my heart.  The beast started towards me at a calculated pace, savoring his victory.  With each deliberate step, my heart pounded louder and louder, until finally, the beast thrust its grotesque face in front of mine.  His mouth crawled up the sides of his face in a taunting grin, his blazing eyes pulsing brighter, perfectly in sync with his mouth.  The grin reached its apex, and the creature hissed in drawn out but understandable English, “Well, human, nice try, but I’m afraid that I must do away with you.  My master, will be most pleased.”

The beast erupted in maniacal laughter expelling noxious breath into my nostrils, and assaulting my eardrums.  Finally, my tormented stomach could not take the abuse any more.  The entire contents of my stmoach exploded onto the laughing gargoyle’s face. 

As my breakfast coated the gargoyle, his crimson eyes flickered and he shot back.  Then to my astonishment the beast’s form shivered as if he had been made of gelatin and formed a puddle on the ground.  In a matter of seconds the entire creature, right down to his red, blinking eyes disappeared into the earth.

Still confined to my metal prison, I could only gawk at the remarkable turn of events. However, I couldn’t to celebrate yet.  There were still two more out there. 

Andrus!  Are you still there?  I got one!  But I think his shrieking will warn the other two.  And to top it all off, I’m stuck in here and losing feeling in my legs!  You don’t think that you could lend me a hand …paw?

Both of Red’s buddies, Green and Blue, shot through the sky over my head and dropped only a stone’s throw away.  They circled about, wildly searching for their fallen brother-in-arms. Their eyes locked onto me at the same moment, glowing brighter for a second.  These two underlings, however, did not exhibit the careful haughtiness of their leader.  Instead of taunting me, they wasted no time slinking over to my prison.

Both positioned themselves directly over me and raised their claws.Feeling completely helpless to prevent my own doom, I writhed back and forth in a desperate attempt to free myself, but to no avail. I clamped my eyes shut and heaved my entire weight into breaking loose, causing great beads of sweat to trickle my neck. 

I opened my eyes just in time to see Andrus a few yards above us wielding the remains of an old Volkswagen.  When both gargoyles had wandered into his cleverly-placed trap, he let the wreck fly with astounding force.

Caught completely off guard, the twin monsters had no more than a millisecond to react, and their reflexes still needed honing.  The wreck smashed down on them. The roar of metal on metal filled the air for a few moments and then fell silent.

Incredulously, I glanced at the rubble, then to Andrus, who was floating triumphantly above me. “Woah!” I yelled my voice resounding through the empty yard, “that was close!  I’m never going to complain about my boss’s bad breath again!”

 “Andrus!” I called, “how long were you up there?  If you had been there two seconds later, you’d be talking to a human scratching post right now.”

Andrus swooped down to my eye level, obviously proud of his handiwork, “Sorry about that.  I had to make sure that Fred was safe.  I heard the screech from their leader and figured the other two would come running back to you.  When I saw you there, I figured that you would be the perfect distraction while I delivered death from above.”

 I cocked an eyebrow, “So, I was bait?”

Andrus drew back, now taking the defensive, “No, I didn’t say that…it was just that…”

However, Andrus’s sentence was cut short by a gargoyle claw which thrust out from the wreckage.  It sliced the air behind us with a supersonic crack.  Andrus shot back as if he stung by an angry hornet.

Don’t do this again!  At least you could tell me where you are going?  I’m still trapped here, if you didn’t notice!

My ranting fell on deaf ears.  The old van was already rocking back and forth wildly as if it might fly off the handle at any moment.  Panic welled up in my chest, and I writhed and squirmed, but the seconds ticked on without any sign of Andrus

.  With a final massive heave, the beast tossed his metal burden from off his back, sending it soaring atop another mountain of rubbish a good stone’s throw away. Then, with a maniacal shriek, the awful apparition arose to its feet and stretched its battered wings, his green eyes blazing in the low light.

The green eyed gargoyle trudged toward me, limping with one wing drooping uselessly at his side.  Its expression was a bitter mixture of anguish and anger, and I knew that it intended to offer me a taste.  My legs throbbed with pain, and I felt my eyelids droop.

However, my pool of luck had not yet run dry.  My eyes popped open at shriek from the gargoyle.  Andrus had returned, buzzing a furious path towards the creature’s head brandishing a large, black box. He slammed across the creature’s brow.  Enraged and confused, Green took furious swipes at his invisible attacker, and probably would have caught him with a lucky swipe if not for his wounded sluggishness. 

Face!  Watch and learn!

Suddenly, Andrus cracked open the black box directly above the creature sending a stream of dark liquid showering down.  Green shrieked and melted until only a puddle remained. 

Andrus discarded the broken halves of the box, and fluttered over to wrest me free from my metal prison.  Without a word, Andrus thrust one minute paw under the wreck and lifted it, leaving my broken body suspended halfway out of the wreckage.  My relief at being rescued a second time faded as I realized that I could barely feel my legs.  “Andrus!” I cried, “How did you do that?”

Andrus wasted no time, attempting to free my while he lectured, “Something that you reminded me of when you dispatched the red one with the contents of your stomach.  You see, because they are creatures are stone-like, the gargoyle’s skin is susceptible to acid. The acid in your stomach worked wonders, as did the acid in the old car battery.” 

I listened listlessly as he rambled on about gargoyles until finally I could take my imprisonment no more, “Andrus!” I yelled in deep pain, “you can save the lecture for later!  I think the first order of business should be to get this metal monstrosity off my back!”

I wanted to continue ranting, but another wave of nausea overcame me, and I was content to let Andrus pry me loose. 

Andrus worked in silence, and took only a minute or so in prying me from the twisted frame of the crushed window.  At last, I could feel myself slide from the hold of the metal jaws.  Every movement from my lower body sent riveting pain jabbing through me.  I winced as each new breath brought new pain. 

Seeing my sorry condition, Andrus crept beside my right ear and whispered, “Face, it’s going to be okay, just relax.  I’ve contacted Trezzlepeg and he is sending help.  This is difficult, but I guess he believes that you are that valuable.  Close your eyes.”

He didn’t need to tell me twice.

Chapter 12: Unexpected Company

As I awoke, I became aware of several blurry figures standing above me, talking in hushed voices.  I could only catch a few words, but not enough to make sense of what there were saying. 

My body was now free of the awful pain that it had experienced in what had seemed only moments earlier.  I blinked my eyes furiously to clear the mist from them, but could not until a hand reached out of the fog and grasped me on the shoulder, “Face!  Face!” a woman’s concerned voice called, “Can you hear me?  You should be feeling better, and you need to leave here at once! ”

The woman’s voice seemed distant and distorted as if only an echo carried down by the wind. 

I tried to croak out a response, but my throat scraped in protest.  I attempted to sit up with more success.

Slowly, as if smoke vapors were taking form, the woman’s face came into focus.  At first, I mistook the woman for Christine; she had the same fair features, similar facial structure, and even the same blue eyes.  However, to my amazement, I realized that those radiant eyes stared back at my from behind a pane of thick glass.  The woman wore a heavy helmet with a clear visor reminiscent of astronauts, and the rest of her body was completely encased in a bulky orange suit covered with displays and blinking lights.

I nearly leapt back and then saw a man in a blue suit next to her. He too seemed to be scrutinizing my every move.  In between them hovered Andrus, looking pleased with himself. 

I worked my jaw up and down noiselessly for a few seconds before managing, “Uh, thanks.  To whom do I owe this honor?”

The blue suited man stepped in and replied, “Hello Face.  Trezzlepeg has told us about you.  My name is Tomas, and this is my wife Samot.  We are both skilled physicians, and I guess you can say that I’m here because I owe that little blue windbag a large favor,”

He turned and gestured to the Samot, “He saved my wife from certain death, and he called us up because he had found himself in a bind.  Apparently he likes you Face, and I had no qualms about visiting earth, because it’s a place I’ve only heard about in stories.”

“In stories?  Then where are you from?  You are human aren’t you?”

They both nodded, “I guess you could say that,” Samot replied in a smooth tone, “Our ancient ancestors originated from earth, but none of our kind has been back for generations.  It’s just too far away now, and it’s already overrun by your breed of humans.”

Samot paced about, her eyes suddenly distant and melancholy, he voice losing its proud, distinctive airs, “Many of our people would gladly return, but I’m afraid that most of them are just too attached to the old ways.  To make matters worse, our entire planet is at war.  If only…”

Tomas cut her off with a glance, “Dearest, we don’t have the time.  If these people want to study our history, I’m sure Trezzlepeg will oblige them.  We must leave this place and so must Face.  Apparently, the only way Mercos and his followers can travel in time is if someone opens the door for them.  As long as you are here, the door is wide open.  Come, we must hurry.”

“So it was that man who I saw in Trezzlepeg’s shop!” I yelled as Samot helped me to my feet. “He was responsible for all this!”

  Tomas nodded, “Yes, this and much more.  He is a warrior of unmatched cunning and cruelty, and also from our planet.  I don’t envy you. It appears that he has placed a death brand on you.”

  “What? Do you mean the phoenix tattoo?”

  “Exactly. He will not stop until he kills you, or you kill him. Impossible to remove.”

  “Thanks for the cheery prognosis, doc.”

  Tomas shook off the comment and pointed off into the horizon, “Samot and I must go, immediately.  I’m not sure if Trezzlepeg can get you back before the day is over, but if not, you should be safe with Andrus until then.  Try to mop up here as best you can.  I’m sure that bear will help you.”

  Andrus drew up his mouth in a defiant scowl at being referred to as ‘that bear’ but held his tongue.

A soft hiss permeated the air and both of the suited strangers lifted a few feet from the ground and hovered.  Together, the couple faced us, drew their left hands about their hearts and then let their hands fly out to the side in a sweeping motion, in what I assumed that this was a farewell gesture.

“Until we meet again,” called Tomas, and with no more than a blur, they both disappeared, leaving me alone with Andrus. 

Man, all my college courses in cultural diversity could have never prepared me for this weekend.  Could this get any stranger?

“Yes, it could,” replied Andrus, who had already retrieved Fred from his hiding place, “but I think that our primary concern is getting this guy back to normal.  Those two fixed up his bruises, but we need to fix his memory, so that he doesn’t go berserk when he wakes up.  We have plenty of time on our hands because the medicine they put in him should keep him out cold for the next few hours.”

“Easier said than done.  We can make him forget, but how will we put things back right to where they were supposed to be?  We can’t exactly show back up at the race track trying to get things back to normal!”

Andrus shook his head disapprovingly, “Tsk, tsk, always the unbeliever.  I’ve already removed his memory of the last couple hours with that string by using that string, and all we have to do is replace it with new memories.  Even though you are living this day over again, you still remember the first time very clearly.  Do you see where I am going?”

I shrugged in defeat, “I must admit that you have completely lost me on that one.”

Andrus sighed and continued, “Well, we’ll channel your memories into him using me as the conduit.  It’s another little skill that I’ve picked up over the years that makes me very useful as a Shadow.  By knowing the language of the mind, I am able to control it.”

The idea still sounded pretty far-fetched to me, but after the events of the past few days, my doubting Thomas act was slowly losing its potency.  “I guess, it’s worth a shot. What do I have to do?”

Andrus fluttered over and grasped the tip of my index finger with one tiny paw, “Hold on tight and think of the first time that you lived today, and I will hold on both ends to channel the memories through.”

I knelt next to my unconscious brother and watched as Andrus took his other paw and placed it on my brother’s head. Oh, and Face.  It might not be such a good idea to send over the memory of his accident.”

I nodded and began to let the memories flow. However, I obeyed Andrus’s warning, and only let the more pleasant ones pass through.  I had to concentrate with all my might not to let my mind wander on to gargoyles and mysterious cyclists who vanished into thin air.  I let him remember a few races and then jerked my hand away, severing the connection. 

I breathed deeply and glanced over at Andrus,  who lay a foot or two away from me on the dirt and asked, “What do we do next?  I guess we could just go home, and say we decided to come home early, because someone made off with our bikes while we had them lined up during lunch break.”

For once Andrus agreed with me, “I guess it’s as good as any plan, but you really won’t have to do much explaining.  Trezzlepeg sent you back with the utmost care.  He has already arranged two new bikes placed in your garage, and sent some of his workers to take care of the witnesses so that they won’t remember the incident.  No harm done to anyone and everyone’s happy.  He doesn’t usually do this for just anyone, but if he’s treating you so well, I trust there must be an excellent reason.”

A solid lump gathered in the back of my throat, growing until I felt like I was unsuccessfully trying to swallow softball. 

Why is the locket so important?  He doesn’t know where the other one is, so why is he going through all this trouble?

Andrus rounded both Fred and me and once again hoisted us skyward, leaving the dim, depressing rubble of the junkyard behind. Fred remained in blissful slumber and Andrus and I kept our thoughts to ourselves…as much as was possible. 

We landed on the lawn beside our garage, and I noticed that the house was empty.  Both cars were missing, which usually meant that mom was out running errands.  As I approached the front door, my pulse pounded in my ears. The door was an inch ajar. 

Huh, maybe mom forgot to lock up before she went out…

But my meticulous mother never forgot to lock up.  She would rather eat her pancakes with motor oil before she’d leave things out of order before she left.  Andrus…we might still have trouble.”  I called, gesturing nervously with left hand toward the entrance.  Fly in before me and play spy, will you?

Andrus fluttered over, in no big hurry, “Face, I don’t think there is any way more monsters could have gotten in.  Trezzlepeg has got scouts all over the area with the best resources.  Nothing gets by them.  Noth-“

A scuffling sound from within cut Andrus short of his point.  Slightly embarrassed, Andrus did as he was told and slipped between the gap in the doorway, leaving the Fred propped up on the porch beside me. 

A few anxious minutes passed, and the sweat from my brow turned cold against my skin.  I wanted to call out to Andrus, say anything, just to hear a word or two of assurance, but my poor mind only jumbled its thoughts together.

I leaned back against the porch and shut my eyes to try to drive out the aching in my tired joints and muscles.

When another five minutes passed without signal, I mustered up the nerve, and decided that I would follow in after him. My heart leapt as I laid my hand on the doorknob.

Andrus came bursting back through the door at that exact moment.  His face betrayed no true fear, only puzzlement. 

“Well,” I hissed through clenched teeth, “is there something in there?”

Andrus nodded, “Yes,” he began, “but it’s not a something.  It’s a someone--a woman, and she doesn’t look particularly like one of Mercos’ cronies, though I guess you can never really be sure, can you?”

The news took me by surprise, and it took several seconds before I could sort out my thoughts well enough to muster a reply, “But if she isn’t one of his people, than who is she?  I don’t remember getting robbed today.”

Andrus shrugged, “I admit that I’m usually pretty good at answering questions, but now I’m as confused as you.  She was upstairs when I left, and she it looked like she was carrying something in a little box.”

This piqued my interest, “What kind of box?”

Andrus cocked an eyebrow, “I’m not certain. A jewelry box, perhaps?”

My mind relaxed a few notches, and I drew in a deep breath.  All notions of sinister monsters and armor-clad warriors melted away.  After another deep breath, I reached for the doorknob again, “Cover me.  I’m going to find out who this lady thinks she is breaking into my home.  If we don’t act quickly, she’ll get the chance to escape.” 

  Andrus voiced his agreement, and aided my entry by noiselessly propping open the door and then silently shutting it after I stepped in.  True to my first suspicions, the house appeared empty and silent. 

There were no signs of attempted robbery or search, as if the intruder had simply stopped by for a glass of milk.  Remembering Fred on the front porch, I gestured back towards the front door, Andrus, would you mind locking Fred in my parent’s bedroom so that he’ll be safe?  It’s down the hall to the right.

  Soundlessly, Andrus followed through with astonishing efficiency, toting Fred from outside, down the hall, and into my bedroom.  I nodded with satisfaction as I heard the click of the lock on the bedroom door falling into place. 

  Within moments, Andrus returned to my shoulder.

  I didn’t want to prematurely blow our cover, and so I gestured to Andrus to go on ahead up the stairs as I waited below with a baseball bat, which I had fetched from the hallway closet near the entrance.  After only a moment or two, he returned signaling to the affirmative,

She is still up there in one of the bedrooms.  She’s got a small pad of paper and is writing something, but I still can’t figure out what’s in that box. 

  Does she have anything else with her?  Any weapons?

Andrus furrowed his brow, I don’t think so.  I didn’t see any weapons, but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t there.  She’s carrying a small backpack with her, and that could contain anything.

“All right,” I whispered back.  “I’m going up.  Follow me.”  Nervously, I gripped the railing and slunk up the narrow flight.

As I approached the top, I could make out scuffling noises coming from our bedroom. With the caution of a secret agent behind enemy lines, I shuffled over to the door and peered in. Inside, a slender woman, dressed in deep shades of blue crouched over my brother’s bed, her back towards me. Trying to determine what she was up to, I simply waited calmly, watching for the right moment to act. 

I didn’t have to wait long.  Apparently finished with her task, the woman headed for the window and opened slid open the pane.  On impulse, I dashed into the room brandishing the bat and lunged at the woman as she made her way out the window, “Stop!” I yelled after her, “what are you doing in my house?”

The comment passed right over her.  With amazing ease, the woman slid down a rope she had placed at the window, yanking it down after her to throw off pursuit. 

Desperately, I dropped the bat and groped for the rope, but instead fell to the bedroom floor as it slipped through my expectant hands.  I burst out of the room, bounded down the stairs, and almost tore through the front door.  Frantically, I cast my eyes about the street to see where she had gone, but to my dismay found no sign of the mysterious intruder.  Andrus! I cried out, where did she go?

Uh…I’m not sure.  I thought you had things under control.  I’m still trying to figure out this note that she left.

I could feel the blood rising in my cheeks, but instead of lashing out, I channeled my anger into my feet.  I took off down the street like an Olympic runner in the direction that I suspected the intruder might have gone.  Adrenaline surged through me and my legs pounded the pavement.  However, after a few moments of unrestrained pursuit, I realized the futility of the task, and grudgingly slowed to a stop. With a sigh of defeat and frustration, I sauntered back towards my house.  Nagging thoughts pulled at my brain and twisted my stomach. 

All the way back, I brooded over the now bleak looking situation. I might as well see what’s one that note, and in the box.  Knowing my luck the note probably says that they have my family held hostage and they want the locket in the box, or they’ll feed ‘em to the fishes.  It would figure by the way that today is going.

I thrust my hand into my pocket to retrieve the precious jewelry, only to find my pocket empty.  At first I panicked, but then relaxed as a calming thought struck me, I don’t have yet, because it will be years before I will ever lay my hands on it.  If I just knew where it came from…

When I arrived back at my brother’s room, I found Andrus pacing across my brother’s bed where the assailant had left a brief note, written in fine calligraphy.  As Andrus paced, he mumbled to himself, seemingly lost in thought.  I entered cautiously, still wary of danger, but, at seeing Andrus so nonchalant, loosened up a bit.  I took my place behind Andrus and inquired slightly impatiently, “Well, Mr. Sherlock Shadow, what have we figured out?”

Andrus, who had previously been so wrapped up in his work that he had been unaware of my presence, leapt into the air with a soft yell and whirled about to face me his claws drawn for action. However, he shied away a moment later, when he released his company was not an enemy.  Flustered, he fluttered back to the surface of the bed and lay there causally with his head propped up by one paw, “Eh, oh, it’s you.  Sorry I snapped at you.  Just trying to be on my guard that’s all.”

I shrugged it off and replied, “Don’t mention it.  I’m really more concerned about what’s on that note and what is in that box.  Any interesting leads on who that person was and what she wanted?”

Andrus scratched his head in puzzlement, “I think it best that you should just observe for yourself.”

Taking his advice, I knelt beside the bed and peered down at the strange piece of paper and the box next to it.  My eyes were drawn to paper and I read the carefully written contents with growing interest.  To my astonishment, the words did not pose a threat, but were the ones of someone with a gentle hand, and even a gentler heart.

Whenever I see your handsome face,

It’s burned upon my memory

My heart goes on a wild race

There’s no place I’d rather be.

  I paused.  The words stirred something deep within mind, however, for all my effort, I could not think of where I had heard them before.

Your fame has spread from ear to ear

Until, at last, it came to me

And thrilled my heart with tale so sweet

Of a man who follows chivalry

Your kind words, your charming smile

Now hold me captive to your spell

My tender heart is yours to take

I know that you will keep it well

If thou would want

That we should meet

And make this blessed day complete

Come before the clock strikes ten

To the park called Eve by men

Come to the fountain pure and clear

And I will surely meet you there.

As I finished, I set the page down, and stewed over its cryptic contents.  It was obviously meant for my brother.  He had said something about getting asked on a blind date, and I assumed that this was the same note that he had found all of those years ago. The timing made sense, because this was about the time we would have returned home for a lunch break. 

“Andrus,” I began, “I’m beginning to think that that lady wasn’t hired by Mercos.  This must have occurred the first time through this day, without my knowledge.  The note was probably meant for Fred from one of his many admirers, though I still can’t imagine how that girl would know we were all gone.”

Andrus furrowed his brow, “Are you sure?” he mumbled, “it could be a ruse.  You still don’t know what is in that box.”

I tilted my head towards the box and instantly the proverbial light bulb came on inside my head, “Actually,” I replied, “I think that I do, and it’s very important to this whole ordeal.”

  “Humph,” Andrus scoffed, “I don’t see how that could be so.  It’s probably just a trinket little Ms. Intruder is using to impress your brother.”

  Eager to prove Andrus wrong, I snapped the box from the bed, and cupped it in my open hand.  Then, with the other hand, I pried open the lid, and saw what I had expected to see: the gleaming face of a smiling drama mask on velvet padding.  I dropped to one knee to give Andrus a better look.

  “Andrus, I think you lost that bet.  This is the genuine article.”

   Andrus studied the fine features of the locket, his eyes wide. I set the box on the floor and he pried open the clasp that held the locket together.  As I suspected, the same words stared back at us from inside.


  Satisfied, Andrus replaced the clasp and glanced up at me.

  “Face, this is really something,” he began in hushed tones, “I never expected in my lifetime to behold this locket with my own eyes.  I only wish I could take it with me.  The most pressing question now, however, is how that woman got a hold of it.  It’s been missing for many years.”

  I shrugged, “Yeah, and if she has the matching one as well.  This girl seems like the hopeless romantic type.”

   “Yes.  I think the best course of action…”

  A blinding flash of light burst from the center of the room, cutting off Andrus in mid sentence.  Thankfully, the light slowly paled and the transparent figure of Trezzlepeg melted into view.

“Face, Andrus, I apologize for my interruption, but you must return immediately. The situation has quickly escalated. I know I promised you an entire day, Face, and I will make it up to you, but unless you come back immediately, I’m certain that you will all lose your lives before the day is out.  Dispense with any unfinished business and get back through this portal.  It will only stay open for the next fifteen minutes, after which I will have no way of getting you back early.”

  I opened my mouth to protest, and the hazy image disappeared. I searched Andrus’s face for assurance, “Don’t feel too bad that he didn’t respond to you. It was a recording.  As much as I would like to stick around and find out about your brother’s love life, I think we should follow his advice and scram.”

  My face reddened. “But we can’t leave!” I protested, “that girl might have the other locket, and we’ve got to get our hands on it before the other side does!  There has to be some way to make him see!”

  Andrus darted about me nervously, muttering to himself, “We don’t have much time to decide, do we?  I’m under the impression that Trezzlepeg knows something that we do not, and that should listen.  Death isn’t a good alternative to returning early, and that locket isn’t going to do us any good if we can’t return it to Trezzlepeg.”

  I collapsed on my brother’s bed and Andrus buzzed over my head like a giant dragonfly, “Face, can we postpone the pity party and get something done in the next fifteen minutes?  It might be a good plan to get Fred in his bed so that he sees this stuff when he wakes up.  Replace the note and the locket while I get Fred from the other room.”

  I didn’t have any better plans, and so I followed Andrus’s plan.  Working swiftly, I straightened the bedclothes, placed the locket in its box on the nightstand, and then placed the note by the box. 

  My task completed, I stood up and gazed over the strange objects one last time, a strange sense of regret seeping into my mind like the drip from a broken faucet.

  I wish I could have known who she was.

  Then, a smile crept across my face as a strange thought happened upon my mind, Who know, maybe I’ll get to.  Thanks to Trezzlepeg, a certain motorcycle accident won’t be cutting your date short, will it?  Maybe I’ll be greeted by an new sister in law when I return.

  Andrus rushed back into the room carrying Fred, a frantic gleam in his eye. He lay Fred on his bed, propping his head up with a pillow.  Even now, Fred had begun to show the first signs of conscienceless, stirring in his sleep.  I fell to the floor beside him, feeling his neck to check that his pulse was still beating strong. 

 I clasped my slumbering brother on the shoulder and leaned in next to his ear.  I whispered, figuring that he might be able to hear, “See ya Fred.  I can’t wait to see what it’s like in the future.  Have a blast on your date tonight, but don’t do anything I wouldn’t do…”

Fred made no reply, and Andrus tugged at my ear urgently, signaling that it was time to depart. With one last glance at my brother, I swiveled around to face the glowing portal, its ominous light beckoning me ever forward to embrace my new destiny. 

Andrus flew in first, and vanished immediately.  I inhaled deeply and stepped through the gate, and let the light embrace me. 

Goodbye cruel past.  Here’s to a brighter future.

Part III: Defend the Future

Chapter 13: The Unfamiliar Fields of Home

  Conscienceless trickled back to me, like a dripping faucet in a silent room, and memories blurred together like a watercolor painting. I felt my world start to spin and then I was falling and suddenly I hit the floor.

  I finally managed to open my eyes, and surveyed my surroundings.  The portal had not sent me back to the shop as I had suspected, but back to my bedroom.  A little embarrassed and aching, I flung off the bedclothes and propped myself back on the bed to see if the ruckus had disturbed my wife. 

  She wasn’t there.

  I rose to my feet and shuddered.  I was wearing only boxer shorts.  Puzzled, I brought the covers in around myself to compensate, and glanced over at the red dial of the clock: 6:02.

  Did the alarm go off?  We were supposed to have a pillow fight.

   I switched on a dim lamp next to my bed, and wandered over to my drawers to fetch something to put on. I couldn’t find the pajamas I was looking for.  At last, I settled on a pair of gray sweats and an old T-shirt.  More annoyed than worried, I shut off the lamp and exited my bedroom.

  Where did those pajamas go?  They were a present for our last anniversary

  Andrus, could you fly upstairs and see…

  I caught myself in mid sentence.  My mind was silent and Andrus was nowhere to be seen. 

  He could be ornery at times.  Besides, he’s probably busy with all sorts of stuff to do, guiding other travelers.  If he’s not too busy I could try to get him to help me find the other locket. That’s what I’ll do.  I’ll spend a day or so figuring out how things have changed, and then I’ll get back to Trezzlepeg…

My train of thought derailed as I entered the living room.  Things had changed drastically.  The room was in a shambles, with piles of trash and clutter strewn about as if a gale had blown through the room.  Books lay discarded on the floor, the couches were dusty and unkempt and even a bowl of macaroni and cheese lay unfinished in front of the TV.  Pictures lay in their broken frames, some still hanging on the walls in obscure angles, and some lying on the floor in piles of shattered glass. 

It didn’t make sense from any perspective.  Dumbfounded, I gazed at the room until my eyes grew sore. 

This isn’t my home.  Where is my family?

I held my breath and picked up the bowl of crusty macaroni, intending to dump it in the sink when a  pressing thought came to mind.


Desperate to confirm her safety, I took the stairs faster than ever, and headed for my little girl’s bedroom.  Reaching the unrecognizable hallway, I caught myself standing in front of Annie’s closed bedroom door.  My heart throbbed as I slid my hand over the knob, and wondered whether I could take the answer I behind the door. 

  Trying to calm my jittery nerves, I drew in a breath and rubbed my aching eyes, Of course she is in there.  Why wouldn’t she be?

  With trembling fingers I twisted the knob to the right, and let the door fall open.  I stepped into the dark room and tripped on an object just inside the doorway and tumbled to the ground.  Not too badly hurt, I rose to my knees and flicked on the light to find out what had caused my fall. 

  To my amazement, it was not a doll or stuffed animal that Annie had left out, but a well-worn soccer ball.

  Why is this in here?  My little girl doesn’t play soccer.  She doesn’t even like sports that much.

As I whirled around an even more shocking scene met my eyes.  Annie’s room had transformed from a wonderland of pinks, pastels, and stuffed animals to a roughhouse of action figures; sportswear, and discarded building toys.  My jaw went slack as I rummaged around the room searching for any sign of my precious child. Even after a rigorous search, I could find nothing that hinted that a little girl had ever lived there.

Everything in the room was chaos except for the perfectly made bed.  Lying on the navy blue comforter near the center of the bed lay an ornate oval picture frame.  Puzzled, I knelt beside the bed and cupped the picture in one hand.

The black and white photo depicted a little boy about the same age as Annie in a baseball cap swinging through the air on a swing set.  The bottom of the frame bore the intricate inscription:

In loving memory of Andrew Lewis Edison 1995-2001

The frame fell from my hands.  In shock, I fell back onto the cluttered floor. What?  Who is Andrew Edison? My son, or my nephew even?  I don’t have a son, especially a dead one!

As I stared back at the ivory white carnation, I realized the terrible reality of the situation.  Something was very wrong, and that something was probably all my fault.

I glanced again at the tender, youthful face of the boy in the picture.  For a fleeting moment, it was as if Annie was staring back.  I shook off the vision as quickly as it came to me.  It was true, that the boy resembled my daughter, but so many things were different: the dark hair, the dark eyes. They were not my traits, nor Christine’s. 

I could not bear to stay in the strange room any longer.  I rose painfully to my feet, switched off the light, and exited, slamming the door behind me.  Now doubly determined, I marched down the hall to the next doorway.

Annie must be here.  I’ll search every room in the house.  She must have a different bedroom for some reason.

I continued my mission though the house switching on every light as I passed, and swinging open every door as I passed with such force that I might have ripped them off their hinges, all the while frantically calling her name.

With every unsuccessful attempt my blood boiled more and more and my voice grew increasingly desperate.  Each room of the upstairs stood in the same general state of disarray as the living room. The furniture remained dusty, and old clothes lay flung about the ground like dingy fall leaves thrown from their trees by a strong wind. Not a single room revealed signs of a bedroom of any sort. 

Defeated and painfully hoarse, I slunk to the floor and burst into tears. What is going on?  This isn’t my home! 

Having no one to provide me with the answers, I escaped into a fitful sleep.

When I awoke, I became aware of a strange buzzing noise, which filled my skull, as if an insect had found its home in my skull.  Slowly, I managed to bring myself first to my knees and then to my feet. I arose and stretched to relieve my aching muscles, and a familiar pang grabbed at my stomach like an incessant itch.  Despite my confusion and fear, I needed food. The nap had steadied my nerves slightly, and now I was ready to start putting together the pieces of this complex puzzle of my own making. 

I made my way down the stairs to the kitchen, grumbling internally, Well, I hope that had enough sense to leave some decent food in the refrigerator. 

If I thought that the living room was a mess, the kitchen looked like a cross between a flea market and a mad scientist’s laboratory. Both food and dishes lay strewn about in fabulous disarray on every corner of the counter and table.  The stench alone nearly sent me scrambling for shelter. 

In dismay, I glanced about for some semblance of familiarity, but could find little.  The sink had been laden with towers of dishes and the dishwasher did not look like it had seen use in an embarrassingly long time. 

However, amid the disaster that had become my kitchen, I noticed one familiar thing: the blinking light of the answering machine. 

  I stumbled over to the light and pressed the play button.  The machine clicked and whirred into life and I took a seat on one of the chairs nearest me. I attempted to relax, but my uneasiness gave away to outright panic.

 “Hey, Fred, this is Tom.  Missed you at work yesterday. Business is really picking up and the employees are behind on their pay.  I know you’re having a hard time now, but I would appreciate if you would stop by the restaurant and help my straighten things out.  Hang in there, and I’ll hopefully see you tomorrow. Bye.”

  I nearly fell from my chair.  I work at a restaurant?  What happened to my job?

  I shot over to phone to glance at the caller I.D. in hope that I could at least determine where to call back.  As my eyes fixed upon the readout, they widened.  The display read “County Hamburgers”, a diner just down the street.

  Horror welled up in my chest, and I groped for the phone to demand and explanation when the second message interrupted me and commanded my attention.  My brother Fred’s voice broke the silence.

“Hi Face!  Hey, brother, I’m really worried about you.  You really haven’t been yourself since the accident.  It really was a huge blow to us all.  If it’s okay with you, my wife and I want to come over and bring you lunch.  We can come around noon, if that works out for you.  Just call if something else comes up.  Bye, bro.”

My heart flooded with a bittersweet joy.  I had succeeded in saving my brother, but at what cost?  My life from what little I could put together was nothing but a shambles.  A deceased son, a wrecked house, a bum job, and something about an accident…the pieces swirled about in the vast ocean of my mind constantly shifting about and blending together as if tossed about in a whirlwind. 

The machine clicked and announced that no messages remained.  I returned to the table with the phone in hand intent on filling in some gray areas.  However, before my finger could strike the first key, I noticed something peculiar apart from the junk on the kitchen table.

An assortment of brightly-colored pills laid strewn about the surface of the table next to an open bottle.  To the right of the open bottle lay a sheet of notebook paper covered with meticulously written characters.  Curiously, I plucked up the bottle and scrutinized the label.  I recognized the pills as the sleeping pills, which I kept around to deal with my frequent bouts of insomnia. 

With trembling hands, I reluctantly slid my eyes onto the note under the pills.

Dear Family,

I never imagined it would come to this, and I’m sorry.  I can’t bear the burden of my existence any longer.  Since the accident, nothing else has mattered.  I can’t work, can’t think, can barely eat…I’m miserable.  To lose both Theresa and Andrew in such a terrible manner was unbearable.  They were my life

 Without them, I am a man without a soul.  I’m sorry to all those who I will leave behind for I know this too will present an awful sadness.  But don’t mourn for me.  I have gone on to a better place, a place where where I might reunite with my sweetheart and my son.  I love you all.  I go now to face my fate. Until we meet again.  Farewell. 


  I abruptly lost my appetite, and if I had had anything in my stomach, it would have left. Incredulously, I tore the page from the table and tore it into confetti.  The words stood as bitter proof of the new life that I had inherited, and I could not bear to look at them. What little control I thought I had on the situation quickly flew from me.

  Theresa…my sweetheart?  My son?  I don’t have a son!  Where is Christine?

  I slunk back in my chair as the wires made connections in my head.  For some inexplicable reason, in this version of reality, I had not married Christine, had not had a daughter named Annie, had never gotten a job working for an advertising company, had lost my family in a horrendous accident, and was about to commit suicide.

  But even more frustrating was that Trezzlepeg had warned me, and in my pride, the warnings had bounced off me like hailstones on a tin roof. 

   I sat, staring out into space, when a thought broke through the darkness.  Trezzlepeg, the communicator.  What if they are still with me?  Maybe he has some sort of satisfaction guarantee.

I rose from the floor and shot toward my darkened bedroom.  I halted in the doorway and flicked on the lights.  I gazed at the empty bed, where Christine should have been sleeping this morning.  I shut my eyes and imagined the gentle contours of her face, the playful twinkle of her eyes, the freckles that peppered her nose.

  Please let the communicator be here.

Barely daring to hope, I started rummaging through my drawers, flinging socks and underwear every which direction, and succeeded only in making a mess.  Next, I ripped off the bedclothes, but once again, my search turned up nothing. Finally, I thrust my hands under the bed and was met with success.  I snatched the communicator and turned it over in my hands. 

  However, my momentary elation at finding the communicator, faded to darkness, as I surveyed its condition.  It had obviously taken a hit, possibly when I had fallen out of the bed and now bore a deep dent.

  I tossed it from hand to hand, dreading testing the red button, but decided that it was my only choice.  Nervously, I drew in my breath and pressed the button. At first, the unit flickered to life, but after only a second or two, the hum of operation gave away first to static and then to silence. 

 I grunted and repeatedly jammed my index finger on the red button with building frustration.  Despite my efforts, I could not raise even a spark of life, no matter how violently I pushed.

  I sank back onto the mattress in defeat, tossing the busted apparatus to the side.  It fit in with the rest of this miserable day.  Sighing deeply, I gazed longingly into the empty space above me.  I guess Trezzlepeg is lucky that I won’t ever have the chance to wring his bloated, blue neck.

  I rolled over, buried my face in a pillow, and continued fuming at my misfortune, All I was trying to do was make things right. Don’t I even get points for good intentions?

  I stewed in silence over the immense injustice of it all, sinking into a mire of self-pity.  They always said they road to Hell was paved with good intentions. Now I’ve got proof.

More than anything, I prayed in my heart that Christine hadn’t found someone else, but as I mulled it over in my mind, I knew it was hopeless.  Christine was too beautiful, too talented, to have remained single.  During high school, she could have made a fortune by charging her many admirers to have her give them the time of day. 

 If it’s not me, I just hope it’s not someone I know. That would be the worst thing of all. 

I leapt from my bed, and almost out the door.  I had to keep my mind occupied with other things, or I would drive myself mad.  My personal pity party was rapidly falling out of control, threatening to become a riot.

I glanced over at the clock: 8:15.  It was still a few hours before noon and that would give me time to tidy up the house a little before Fred and his wife arrived.  Purposefully, I marched down the hall and into the living room, where I took up the work of clearing away the debris from the floor and re-hanging the falling pictures. 

 Much to my relief, tidying up took up most of the morning, and so I was able to focus most of my conscious effort on that.  Restoring the house was no easy task.  In the next few hours it felt like I dusted more furniture, vacuumed and mopped more floors, scrubbed more dishes, and rearranged more clutter than I had in my entire lifetime.  By the end of my efforts, my back ached and my hands were as wrinkled as prunes from dishwater. My house, however, had regained some appearance of order.

Having worked up a mighty appetite, I returned to the now much more sanitary kitchen to catch a snack to tide over until my brother came.  Much to my surprise, a survey of the refrigerator revealed a bit of salvageable food: the remains of a pepperoni pizza and a carton of juice. 

I grabbed the few remaining pieces and shoved them into my mouth, almost engulfing an entire slice in one attempt.  Having downed the pizza, I removed the carton of juice and drank deeply from the carton.

The quality of the food wasn’t exactly five star, but did provide some comfort  Satisfied, I returned to the living room in hopes that the TV carried some decent channels. 

However, a knock at the door interrupted me before I reached my destination.  I shot a glance at the wall clock: 12:15. 

My heart raced as if it was pumping for two, and my fingers began to tremble. That’s Fred.  It has to be…

Slowly, I pivoted around to face the front door

 And his wife.

The knocking on the door grew more persistent. Probably the lady that left him the locket. I gulped and took another tenuous step.  I wonder if she is someone I know.

I stood frozen in my place as if someone had sewn the soles of my feet to the floor. I wonder if they met in high school…or after.

The knocking swelled, and sweat trickled down my back, Nah, it’s probably some pretty girl he picked up in college.

Sensing my brother’s growing impatience, I stepped forward and grasped the doorknob, hesitating just a moment. Are things still the same between us?

I turned the knob. The door fell away slowly as if in slow motion, “Sorry, I was late,” I mumbled, “I was upstairs taking a…”

The scene that met my eyes slammed into me like a battering ram to the gut and drove all words away.  A smiling Fred stood on the porch, and I could tell by the tender way he grasped her hand that his wife was none other than my beloved Christine.

Chapter 14: A Languishing Luncheon


I barely stifled the exclamation before it escaped my lips.  My eyes darted about in disbelief, rejecting the impossible scene. I glanced over them and was baffled by their fine appearance.  Fred could have passed for a department store model with his well-tailored clothes, stylish sunglasses and fine leather jacket, and Christine was dressed no less impressively in enchanting blue, knee length skirt, designer blouse and a tasteful pearl necklace with matching earrings.  Each was carrying a basket that I assumed held our lunch. 

I stumbled back and furiously blinked my eyes, as if trying to get rid of a mirage. But try as I might, my eyes were eventually drawn to the intricate ring that adorned Christine’s left hand, a simple, yet stylish gold and diamond band with far more carats than I have ever given her.

Fred removed his glasses and wrinkled his brow, “Face, are you alright?  You look like you just got hit by a car!”

It was then that I realized how strange I looked cowering in the doorway in front of my younger brother.  I quickly regained some composure and replied, “Yeah, I’m okay.  I just haven’t got enough sleep lately.  Must be the medication.”

I chuckled nervously as I tried to put on a friendly face, though the sickening dread never left my stomach, “Come in,” I gestured forward with my hands, “you can set your coats on the rack.”

They stepped in, removed their coats, and embraced me.  As Christine’s arms came round me for just a moment, I let out an anguished sob.  I tried to cover it up, but couldn’t.

Man, if only I had been run over by a car.  That would have been much kinder.

Christine jumped back, startled by my sudden outburst.  She glanced knowingly at Fred and then at back at me, “Frank, I’m so sorry.  I know you haven’t been yourself since the accident.  Let’s go set up our stuff in the kitchen and we can talk more about it there.”

I nodded and followed somberly.  This was one meal where I’m sure that I would have to try my hardest just to muster up an appetite. 

As we went, Fred walked up and clasped his arm around me, “I’m glad to see you in one piece Frank.  We’ve been really worried and all.  How is the job hunt going?”

Job hunt?  This is new.

I turned to look him in the eyes, but could not bring myself to do it.  Instead I shrugged, as if I knew full well what was going on.

“Oh, not too bad,” I improvised. “I’ve got a company that I’m going in to interview with next week. They are just getting off the ground and they need someone to do their take over their advertising department.”

Fred nodded, “Excellent.  You know, if that doesn’t turn out, I’ve got another proposition for you.”

He glanced at me, but didn’t wait for a response, “I put in a good word with the head of my department about your situation, and he says that he might have a position you can take over.  I guess in light of my recent success he just couldn’t say no. Would you be interested?”

The fringe of haughtiness in my little brother’s voice surprised me. Is this the same kid I knew in high school?

 “Sure.  That’d be great.  Why don’t you tell him I’d definitely give it a look?  It’s probably better than any prospects I have now.”

I made a motion as if flipping a burger.  Fred flashed his bright-as-headlights grin and rapped me smartly on the back, “That’s the spirit!  Why don’t we talk about it a little more over lunch?”

I seized the opportunity to change the subject, “Yeah, lets…by the way, what is for lunch?”

Just as I thought Fred’s grin couldn’t get any brighter, he turned up the charm even higher, “Oh, you know Christine.  She wouldn’t settle for sandwiches and lemonade. She’s cooked up some of her scrumptious fried chicken with fresh biscuits and pasta salad with coconut cake for desert.  She said that’s your favorite.”

I fell silent as my blood burned in my veins, She still knows me…you pompous, wife-stealing…

I was glad that Fred, unlike Andrus, could not read minds. 

 I go through all the trouble to save you and this is how you repay me!  You shouldn’t even exist!  If I could just get the communicator to work I’d…

Seeing the futility in this line of thinking, I followed Fred into the kitchen where Christine was staring out into space, deep in thought. Fred spoke first, breaking her spell, “Hon, you okay?  Why haven’t you started unpacking yet?”

Christine jumped suddenly., “Oh, sorry,” she grinned and her cheeks darkened to an enchanting shade of rose, “I was just thinking how nice the weather was today, and how pleasant it would be if we would take this lunch down to Eve Park and make a picnic out of it.”

She smiled ever so slightly and batted her eyes at Fred, “And besides, we haven’t been to our spot in ages.”

I furrowed my brow.  I recognized the park as a pretty one on the outskirts of town to which I had only been a handful of times.  However, I had no idea what “their spot” was, and the very sound of it turned my insides green.

Fred bobbed his head, stroked his hand over his chin, and turned to me, seemingly pleased with the idea, “Hey, it sounds dandy to me, but I guess it all depends on whether you feel up to it Frank.  What do you say?”

It took all the effort of my being not to screw up my face, spit, and call the whole thing off.  I was about to, but as my eyes swept from face to face and to the newly mopped floor, I could not say no to the eager expectancy that radiated from Christine’s blue eyes.

Instead I shrugged and answered nonchalantly, “Yeah, I guess I little fresh air never hurt anybody.  Sounds peachy.  Do you want to take my car, or yours?”

“I’ll drive.  It’s the least I can do since you guys brought me lunch.”

Fred was already heading for the door, “Alright.  I’m going to grab my cell phone from the car and I’ll meet you two out there.”

He walked off briskly, leaving Christine with the basket of lunch.  I expected her to roll her eyes, but she did the opposite.  Gently, she scooped up the basket and sauntered to the door humming a ditty under her breath as if she had caught a bad case of spring fever. I found myself staring at her. 

She is so perfect for me. What am I if we are not one?  Nothing, that’s what.

I caught hold of my stomach as it performed a flip that would make an Olympic judge proud, Does this mean that the only reason she married me, was that Fred died?  But why?  We are so perfect for each other.

Christine glanced back to see if I was coming along and our eyes met for an excruciating moment.  In that moment an old memory stirred within me, and I realized that once again, I was King Arthur, and, true to the age-old fable, my Guenievere had been stolen away by the gallant Lancelot.  But this time, the curtain wouldn’t fall and all would not be restored to its proper form.  This was not the fantasy world of the high school stage.  This was real.  Terrifyingly real.

Christine’s gaze held for a second longer, and she leaned forward slightly.  I wanted so much to take her in my arms, kiss her sweetly, and cry into her shoulder like I always did when I was sad, but instead, broke the gaze and cast my eyes to the floor.

“Frank,” said Christine, “are you coming?”

It was while staring glumly at my feet that I realized that all ten toes where open to the air.  I gradually brought my head up, but not enough to meet her eyes again, “Oh, yes.  Just meet me out in the car.  I need to throw some socks and shoes on.  The car keys are in the basket by the front door.  You can get it started if you’d like.”

She smiled that intoxicating smile once again and left with a nod, leaving me alone to stew. 

I made my way up to my room and  as I rummaged around the drawer for a sock, I realized that there was something unusual inside. It felt tubular, like a scroll, but wasn’t any longer than a pencil.  Intrigued, I removed the object and examined it in my hands.  It was indeed a scroll, made of crisp, new looking, tan parchment, wrapped neatly with a red ribbon.  I picked furiously at the ribbon until it come undone in my hands.  The scroll fell away and I beheld familiar handwriting,


Good to see you in one piece, if not a little worse for wear.  You are probably confused, but I’ll try to explain as much as I can.  I transported you from this location before, and so I was able to open another gate for a short time using the same coordinates.  However, you were not around when I did, and so I left you this message.

As you have probably figured out, by saving your brother, you have altered history significantly.  Through events, which are unclear, the lockets are out of your hands.  I need to contact you in person again very soon, and so I have provided you with another communicator.  I delivered it to the place where you transported to my shop last.  I’m not exactly sure where that was, but you should remember, right?

Come as quickly as you can. There are sinister forces at work, the likes of what you have never known.  It is imperative that those lockets make it to a safe place.

Most respectively,


Frustrated by Trezzlepeg’s complacence to my pain, I crumpled the scroll and cursed my luck.  I had missed my first chance, but I would not miss the second one. I wracked my mind as slipped on a pair of white tube socks. 

My car…I transported from my car. I’ll just go back to my car reach inside the glove box, and that will be that.

But even as the words ran through my head, something inside me urged me to go along with my brother and Christine first.  I still needed answers, and the more answers I had, the more I could tell Trezzlepeg when I saw him.  Slightly annoyed, I tossed the crumpled paper in the garbage can.  Dejected, I slunk out of my bedroom, walking like a child pacing the long hall to the principal’s office.

I was reminded of the task at hand as a car horn sounded from outside, so I slipped on a pair of tennis shoes from my closet, and trotted out the front door where Fred had already taken the front seat and started the car.  Leisurely, he rolled down the window, seeming unperturbed by my tardiness, “Do you mind if I drive, bro?  I’m feeling the need for speed today.”

At once I knew he must have been joking.  My old Cougar wasn’t a terrible car, but it didn’t nearly compare to his sleek silver Jaguar.  However, since I knew I’d inevitably break into several fits of road rage if I drove, I took the back seat.

Not surprisingly, we didn’t say much on the way up to the park. Fred turned on some soft music on the radio, and cruised my car towards the edge of town.  I was content to have only the picnic basket as company.

As we reached the familiar park, we passed a large, ornate fountain, which shot out streams of pure water in every which direction.  Seeing the fountain, my brother slammed on the breaks, flinging me roughly into the seat in front of me. 

I cried out, but Fred merely killed the engine and glanced back without so much as an apology, “All rightly, everybody out.  This is the place.”

And what a pleasant place it was.  A circle of hanging willows encompassed the central fountain, and a grassy field stretched on for what seemed like miles after that.  Farther in the distance, a solitary group of amber-colored horses grazed leisurely in the field.  The park was nearly free of visitors, except for a few people having a picnic under one of the towering, shady trees.

As I stepped out of the car, a tender breeze ran through my hair, and I paused to take in the beauty of the scene.  The two others exited as well, retrieving both the basket and the blanket themselves.  Fred turned to me, spreading his arms, “Isn’t this grand?  I’m glad Christine suggested we come.”

I nodded politely.  Under different circumstances, I would have agreed, but instead remained silent.  Fred didn’t seem to notice my somber mood, “Well, you’re the guest,” said Fred, “where would you like to eat?”

I glanced about for a suitable location. Spotting a shady spot near the fountain I pointed and said, “That seems like a nice place by the fountain.  Why don’t we try over there?”

Fred glanced back at Christine and grinned, “Sounds like a great choice.”

  Fred took Christine’s free arm and we set out towards the designated spot. Frank pointed towards the fountain. “Hey, Frank, did you know there’s supposedly a network of tunnels under the town that starts at this fountain and goes all over the city?”

 “They are supposed to date back to Prohibition when people were smuggling alcohol underground,” Christine added. “People think it’s an old wives’ tale, but we don’t see any harm in trying to figure it out.”

Christine lay out the checkered blanket near the fountain, laughing and talking with Fred.

Reluctantly, I took a seat and reached for a plate. A third wheel is a terrible thing to be.  Why did they even bring me along?

However, my reluctance quickly melted away as I eyed the cuisine. Christine had already started unpacking the scrumptious-looking fried chicken and pasta salad, and from somewhere deep within me, the beast of hunger arose, demanding to be fed. 

Greedily, I snatched the nearest chicken breast, spooned on a generous portion of the pasta salad, and helped myself to a handful of the flaky biscuits.  I topped it off with a generous glass of her homemade lemonade, and dug into the grub.  Perhaps my manners left something to be desired, but at the point, nothing more mattered than chicken, pasta, and lemonade. 

Fred and Christine munched leisurely while I went back for seconds.  I raised a second glass of the cool lemonade to my lips. When I finished, I lay back and clasped my fingers together behind my head. 

“Hey, Face,” Christine said. “Did you go off and join the army without us knowing?”

I shot up, feeling my recently meal churn in my stomach. “What do you mean?” I asked, wondering if this were some other strange twist of fate I was going to learn about.

Christine pointed to my arm. “That tattoo you have on your arm.  I’ve never seen it before. It looks like something you’d get in the military.”

My mind reeled for an explaination. The truth just wouldn’t do. Or would it?

I shrugged. “No, it’s just a brand from an alien warlord. I think he wants to kill me.”

Fred and Christine exchanged a befuddled glance. After a few seconds of silence, Fred moved to break the awkwardness. “What a feast, Christine!” Fred cried, “I hate to say it, but I think you even outdo your mother’s cooking.”

Christine shied away bashfully, “Thanks.  Perhaps.  But I must say-nothing beats your mother’s home cooking.  Do you think she’ll do those cheese rolls for Thanksgiving again this year?”

The lemonade escaped my lips as if from a cannon. Mom’s alive?

I wracked my mind, and realized in a terrible instant that it was true, but could not even to grasp why. Both Fred and Christine stood gawking at me, concerned, “Frank, you okay?” Christine queried, “Personally, I thought the lemonade was excellent, but you’re entitled to your own opinion.”

I struggled to regain breath, hacking and coughing until my chest ached. Mom…this changes everything.

 “Oh, no.  The lemonade was lovely.  Just went down the wrong tube.”

I was anxious to make everything appear as normal as possible, I quickly added, “I always do look forward to her pies as well.  She makes a mean coconut cream.”

They both nodded, but then Fred drew back and gazed longingly into the horizon, as if vainly trying to remember some long forgotten age.  After a few moments, he spoke, his voice soft and contemplative, “I hope we are going to be able to be home for Thanksgiving this year.  I think my contract has me down on location in Tahiti on Thanksgiving, and I don’t know whether I’ll be done in time to make it back.  My director wants to get this one out by the Holidays and were going to have to drive hard.”

His big money smile quickly sunk, “That would be a crying shame.  I haven’t missed Thanksgiving at home for years.  Everyone is getting so old.  What’s going to happen when they all just aren’t around anymore?  I’ll feel terrible that I missed even one.”

I didn’t have the heart, or the nerve to tell him that we both should have missed countless Holidays as a family. 

“Oh, well,” he crooned, “this one is projected to be a smash at the box office.  I’ll make it up to you guys by flying all of us to Hollywood to watch the premiere.  Won’t that be something?  My first major break!”

I smiled and answered halfheartedly, “That’s great Frank.  I don’t think you’ve told me about this one.  Could you fill me in?”

Apparently, he didn’t catch the edge of sarcasm in my voice and dove in headfirst without barely stopping to catch his breath, “I’m not really supposed to talk much about it, but I guess since you’re family. It all starts like this: There’s this guy who’s going around living his normal life, and then suddenly he stumbles on this secret doorway to another world.  There he meets this funny little man who says he can let him go back in time to change a single day in his life.  The guy did something really stupid when he was younger, I won’t spoil it for you, but so he goes back to correct it, and he’s successful.  But…here’s the clincher, when he gets back, his whole life is all screwed up because he messed with the past.  Then, he…”

Fred crumpled his face as if his stomach was giving him troubles, “Well, I can’t spoil the end, but it all turns out okay.  It’s going to be a real blockbuster show.”

Can you sue for plagiary of your life story?

 “What do mom and dad think about all this?”

Fred laughed, Christine withdrew the coconut cake from the picnic basket, and all three of us indulged on the decadent dessert,

“I called them last night, and they seem to approve.  We didn’t get to talk to long because they were turning in early for the night.  Mom is doing well, and Dad is taking her on a cruise of the Bahamas for their anniversary.  I guess the doctors determined that the disease is in complete recession, and she can be out and about again.  Good news.”

I don’t understand. What is the missing link here?  Why didn’t the disease do her in?

 “Yeah,” I replied, “it seems like she was sick for ages.  When did we find out that she had it?”

Fred scratched his head and then his chin, “You’re right.  It’s been so long…oh yeah, I remember.  It was sometime during my junior year.  I remember the first time dad rushed into my room during the middle of the night.  Mom was…we’ll I’d never seen her that sick.  Don’t you remember that night?”

I did remember.  Dad had woken Fred and me in the wee hours of the morning and had asked us to watch the children.  All he had said is that he was taking mother to the hospital.  At first the doctors called it a minor infection and said that she was going to be home in a day or two.  However, those days turned into weeks and months, and only rarely did our mother ever return home.

I swallowed and nodded gravely, “I do.  I almost wish that I didn’t, but I’m glad that she’s doing better.  Sometimes I wonder how she made it.”

Christine slid her arm around Fred’s waist and moved in closer, “I’m just glad that you both did.  I was worried about both of you for a while.  I remember that she always told me how happy it made her to watch those tapes of you two acting together.  You remember that?  We all used to go in together to visit almost every night after we got out of rehearsal.”

Fred winced as if the memory left a bittersweet taste lingering in his mouth, “Yes,” he said flatly, “those were interesting times.”

Then, Fred’s eyes locked mine, and they told more of a story than an entire library.  I had not just given Christine to him by default.  There had been an heated conflict.  Pain and resentment lingered in his eyes, and my face flushed and heart pounded. 

The potent emotional reaction within me surprised even myself, but before any of my thoughts formed themselves into words, Christine broke in, apparently sensing the invisible tension, “Are you two done with your cake?  If you are, why don’t we head over to the fountain?  We could show Frank that cool thing with the fountain.”

 “Grand idea!” exclaimed Fred, his tension forgotten. “Let’s fold the blanket up and we’ll go have a look.”

I bit my lip and added, “Yes, let’s. Maybe with my help, we’ll finally crack this case.”

I turned to Christine and flashed a grin to melt ice cubes, “By the way, thanks for the meal.  I haven’t eaten so well in a long time.”

 Christine blushed noticeably and her eyes gleamed with wit, “It was nothing.  You’ve been without the commodity of a good home-cooked meal in a while and I thought you might need the chance to stuff your face.”

I nodded and chuckled at the pun, and wondered if she had meant it.  My doubts vanished with another glance at those sparkling blue eyes.  It was comforting to know that she still remembered my nickname.

The meal now safely tucked away in our bellies, the three of us rose, stretching our sore muscles.  Christine busied herself with repacking the basket, while Fred and I refolded the blanket.  Glancing about, Fred placed the blanket and basket on the ground next to each other, “Doesn’t look like anyone is around,” he muttered, “so we’ll just pick them up on the way back.”

Fred gestured broadly with his arm toward the fountain, “This way Frank!  It’s on the other side of the fountain.”

He slid his hand into Christine’s and pulled her playfully towards the fountain, leaving me alone with no one but my thoughts for company. Everything inside told me that I really didn’t want to play their little game, but not wanting to be rude, I decided to go along. 

I let my mind wander to returning to Trezzlepeg’s bazaar. If only I could undo this, things would be all right again.

But I can’t just kill off my brother again, especially not at my mother’s expense.  Somehow the two are connected-my mother lived because my brother did.

I ruffled my fingers violently through my hair, almost wanting to yank it out in frustration.

I rushed over to the edge of the fountain and peered into the rippling water.  The Face that stared back at me was not the Face who stared back at me just a few days before.  That Face had a family, a future, a hope, but the Face that stared back now shone as a picture of despair.  His cheeks were sunken and his hair tattered.  His shoulders slumped and his stubble sat unshaven. No vibrancy shone behind his hollow eyes.  This Face was no long a true Face at all-this Face was merely a mask.

Chapter 15: The Fountain of Youth

“Frank!” Fred’s voice broke me out of my aquatic staring match. “Are you coming?”

I thrust my hand into the water, scattering the vision of my tormented face.

 “I’ll be right there.”

I followed Fred’s voice around to the other side of the fountain, and found him and Christine huddled near the ground.  Fred beckoned with his hand for me to join him.  The sides of the fountain were ornately carved with a garden scene complete with figures of creatures, birds, and trees, and, in the section of which we were huddled around, a man and a woman at the base of an apple tree partially concealed by bushes.  It didn’t take a Biblical scholar to recognized the Garden of Eden. 

Christine laughed in delight, “Look there, Frank!” she pointed between the two figures, “can you see it?  I can’t believe that it’s still there!”

At first I didn’t see anything unusual, but as I leaned in more closely, I could just barely make out the light etchings of a few letters between the figures, FE + CD

Fred’s initials were conveniently engraved on the side of Adam, while Christine’s where on the side of Eve. 

Trying to make a little more sense of it all, I stared at the mural for a few seconds more.  I was about to look away, when I noticed another strange engraving.  Around the side of the tree on the side where Eve stood, a long slender serpent peeked its head from around the trunk.  Directly above the serpent’s head, just barely visible, was what looked like another set of initials.  Unfortunately, either time or man had not treated this set as well and it was no longer readable. 

The happy couple, however, did not share my unpleasant mood.  In fact, Fred was almost glossy-eyed in his trip down memory lane, “We went looking for the secret of the fountain on our first date.  You see, she left me this note…”

Fred suddenly stopped and glanced at Christine, “Is it all right if I tell this story?”

She nodded and Fred continued, “Anyway, I found this note on my bed during a lunch break for one of our races, and with the note was this locket. It was shaped like a theater mask and there was a note that told me to meet her at this fountain. I rode my bike out here and found another note attached to the fountain which told me that if I wanted to know who I was supposed to meet I would need to retrieve the other locket from the top of the fountain to prove myself.  I had nothing better to do, so I decided to play along.  I sloshed into the fountain and made my way up the center.”

My heart smoldered in my chest as his story unfolded.  Every word confirmed my darkest suspicions. 

Fred leapt to his feet, gesturing wildly in an attempt to reenact the ordeal, “It was pretty slow going, because I kept losing my footing, and the wind was blowing pretty good, but somehow I managed.”

I shot a glance up at the fountain.  The fountain was large as far as fountains go. Each of its sides was adorned with smaller carvings of cherubim, satyrs, unicorns and other mythical creatures. A main spout jetting out from a large stone bowl at the top spilled out into a network of dozens of smaller stone bowls around it in all directions.  Spread out as the bowls were, they still made for pretty decent footholds.

Almost as if it were meant to be climbed.

Fred continued flapping his lips, “When I finally reached the top, I found the strangest thing: there’s a figurine of a woman’s head up there that spouts out water from the mouth, and around the woman’s neck was a golden locket similar to the one I had found in my bedroom, only that this one was frowning, instead of grinning. So, I undid the clasp and opened it up, and sure enough, it too contained just three words.  At that moment, I suspected who this mystery person was, but it wasn’t until I turned around and saw Christine standing there at the bottom of the fountain that my suspicions were confirmed.”

Christine shrugged, and her cheeks colored with a pleasant rosy hue, “They were the perfect gift,” she admitted shyly, “we had been studying Hamlet in Drama class-I’m sure you remember that. I had found these upstairs in our attic just a few weeks before.  My mom thinks they might have been her grandmother’s but she wasn’t really sure, so she let me have them.  I remembered how much Fred enjoyed Hamlet.”

Christine’s countenance grew secretive.  She leaned in closer as if ready to disclose the location of a bounteous gold mine, “That’s when we found…” Suddenly, Fred’s arm flew to Christine’s shoulder, cutting her off abruptly.

“…that it was time to go home,” he added hastily, shooting Christine a warning glance, “and so I took her home and kissed her goodnight.  The end.”

For a full minute, the only audible noise was the endless trickling of the fountain.  I gazed about at both of my companions, but neither one would meet my gaze.

 “That’s a nice story you two.  You’ll have to excuse me for a moment though.  I left my…” I groped mentally for the right word, “…Frisbee in the car, and I’d like to toss it around for a bit if that is okay.”

The excuse was horrible as far as excuses go, but Fred ate it up “Sure, a little exercise.”

As I approached the car, I turned back momentarily to gaze at the fountain that had brought them together, one last time, when a voice crept into my head unbidden.

 “Frank, aren’t you forgetting something?”

They were words from my past that had been spoken to me by Christine, when she was still my wife. 

The lockets.

I cupped my hands over my mouth and trotted back to where Fred and Christine were still huddling around the fountain.  I stood a ways off and yelled to them, “Fred,” I shouted, “just out of curiosity, what did you two do with those two lockets once you got them?”

Fred shrugged and cocked his head to one side, “Funny you should ask…Christine and I just donated them to the time capsule at City Hall this morning.”

He stuck out his lips and leaned in closer to Christine in an attempt to seem sappy, “That way, in thirty years when they open it up, we can celebrate how long our love has endured.”

Enraged at my compounded misfortune, I bolted for the car, not daring to glance behind.  I fumbled for the handle, and nearly tore the door off the hinges.  Once inside, I slammed the door and fumbled again for the keys. However, I quickly realized that Fred still had them, and thus I was helpless to go anywhere. Emotionally exhausted, I melted back into the chair and let a few tears glide down my cheeks. My entire concept of being able to find the lockets quickly and set everything straight was shattered in an instant.

A horrible realization of my own feelings washed over me.

I was happier when he was gone.  I don’t understand what I did wrong in trying to put things right. Everyone, especially me, was supposed to be happier now. There must be another path to take.

I glanced over, and swiftly remembered that there was, or at least that there probably was such a path.  Working swiftly, I opened the glove compartment, revealing the communicator.  With sudden elation, I snatched it and was about to jam my index finger into the red button when something else caught my attention.

A newspaper lay out on the seat beside me, opened to a middle section, which sported a large portrait of the mayor on a podium outside city hall.  The section heralded ‘Mayor to Dedicate Historic Time Capsule’ in large, bold print. I placed the communicator aside and scanned the article for information,

Mayor to Dedicate Historic Time Capsule

  Citizens will see history in the making today, as Mayor Scott Graff dedicates a time capsule in honor of 120 years since the founding of our city. For the past few weeks, local residents have made tax-deductible donations to the capsule of which are accepted by a special committee at the time of donation, based on their relevancy to our city and its citizens.

The festivities will begin at 1:30 in old downtown with a parade, which will continue to, all the way to the lawn of City Hall.  There, the Mayor will deliver a short speech about 2 o’clock, followed immediately by the burial of the capsule.  Due to increased security measures, the capsule will be buried in an undisclosed location on City Hall grounds.

Hopefully, I shot a glance at my left wrist, but was met with disappointment: 2:37.  I let the article drop to the floor, wishing that I could wipe the cheesy grin off the mayor’s face. 

Now even firmer in my resolve, I retrieved the communicator and pressed the red button without a second thought.

Chapter 16: Written in the Stars

The trip took even shorter than before.  The galaxies swirled past my head almost too quickly for my eyes to comprehend, and soon I found myself on my back, watching the firelight dart across the ceiling.  The patterns enthralled my senses, having a hypnotic effect. For the moment, I lost sight of what troubled me. 

Suddenly, my vision clouded as a blue mass came between the ceiling and me. I blinked my eyes in an attempt to get rid of it, but instead of leaving, the blue mass became clearer and clearer until I could recognize the bloated face of Trezzlepeg. 

“Good morning, gallant time traveler!” he cried, “no time for sleep!  We have much to do. Those lockets aren’t finding themselves.”

Groggily, I rose to my feet and brushed the dust from my clothes. “Enough talk, you big, blue bellows,” I grumbled, “I don’t need a lecture or a sermon.  I’ve died inside a thousand times already.  I just want to know what I need to do, and what tools I need to do it.”

Trezzlepeg grunted, “I guess if you want to be so pessimistic about it.  You should just be happy to be alive.  Those gargoyles nearly tore you to pieces. It could have easily been worse--you could have inadvertently caused your own death by saving your brother.  I’ve had that happen before.”

Trezzlepeg grinned stupidly in an attempt to lighten the mood. Luckily for him, I resisted the urge to punch him in the face. “Enough!” I cried, the blood rushing to my face, “I only wish I were dead.  You and your stupid time traveling garbage ruined my life, and I don’t intend to leave it that way.  I need answers and I need them now!”

Trezzlepeg folded his arms in resignation, “I’m listening, Socrates…spill the deepest desires of your heart for all I care, but don’t ever claim that I didn’t properly caution you.”

Before, I could speak, he motioned down the hallway, “On second thought, let’s go somewhere a little more comfortable first.”

I nodded my head slightly and followed him deeper into the shop, still keeping my distance.  We walked along in silence for what seemed like ten or fifteen minutes, letting my angry adrenaline rush subside. 

At a seemingly unimportant spot, Trezzlepeg called a halt. With the flair of a professional performer, Trezzlepeg produced his panpipes miraculously from midair, and produced a flourish of notes.  A sound like a foghorn, called from the distance and the shape of a small gondola shot towards us, eventually stopping for us to get in.  The boat had been crafted out of fine lumber and been painted with an intricate tapestry of colors.

As soon as we had both taken seats, he raised the pipes to his lips once again and blew one long, steady note.  What happened next defied all expectation. The craft, begrudgingly at first, started to rise off the ground, and climbed towards the ceiling.  However, when we reached what should have been the ceiling, we continued to rise until we leveled off high above the hallways in a starry field, and began to build up momentum like a train picking up speed.  Soon, the boat cut through the space like fire tearing through dry underbrush, causing the stars to blur.  Surprisingly, the movement was still gentle enough as to not make me sick to my stomach.

I gazed out in amazement, comforted by the beauty that surrounded us.  “Are we still in the shop?” I asked softly.

Trezzlepeg gazed into the grand vastness around us and then glanced back, “Yes, but I’m not sure how this pathway came to be. It was simply here when I took charge, and I’ve taken a liking for it.”

I crinkled my forehead and chanced a question, “Took charge?  There was someone before you?”

Surprisingly, the glee washed from his face, replaced by a deep etched frown of disgust as if the remark had conjured up a sour taste in his mouth.  He drew in the clean air and let it out in a sigh, “Yes, there was someone before me, but I don’t like to talk about him much.  This job may have its perks, the foremost being immortality, but it’s insanely lonely.  The last Shopkeeper just left one day.  He went downstairs and never came back without telling anyone where he was going.  Then I awake in the middle of the night by a bright light, and told by a strange man that I have to come with him.  Naturally, I thought that I was dreaming and so I complied.  I went with the man, and I ended up here.  He fed me a bunch of lines about being a ‘chosen one’ and being ‘highly privileged’, but I didn’t believe him for a second.  I did not choose this profession, and lately it has become like a prison to me.”

His shoulders drooped, coughed, just barely audible, and leaned against the side of the boat, “I guess there is no use complaining about it.  I can’t get out.  The last Shopkeeper could roam about at will, but I’m sealed in here so tight, that it would take the armies of a million worlds to free me.”

His words hit a switch deep inside me, and immediately I was filled with sympathy for the pathetic creature.

“Trezzlepeg,” I said, “Why can’t you just go the same way I do?”

Trezzlepeg swiveled his pudgy neck back around to look at me.  He smiled, knowingly, like a middle school math teacher about ready to explain a problem with an obvious solution, “Ah,” he replied, “because I’m the only one who can open the door out, and that has to be done from within my shop.  The people in charge have made it so that I can’t open the door and go through it too.  I guess that’s life.”

  Once again he leaned forward on his bulgy elbows and spoke, his voice taking a slightly caustic edge, “Don’t talk to me about hardships until you’ve been through what I’ve been through.  At least you still have a home."

His words were truly humbling, and I held my tongue for the remainder of the ride.  We glided along for a few minutes more, when Trezzlepeg gestured off to the side at a small orange glow in the distance, “There’s our destination.  Hold on.”

He retrieved the pipes from wherever he held them, and broke out with a shrill note that descended gradually until it bottomed out, outside the range of my hearing, and as he did, the craft made it swift decent towards the light.  The craft picked up considerable speed and turbulence, and I clutched the sides tight, attempting not to lose my balance.  I clutched my hand desperately over my mouth, and closed my eyes trying to keep the nausea at bay,

However, before my queasiness became too strong, the craft descended back into the recognizable shop and reduced its speed.  We had returned to the spacious library.  The boat hovered about for a few moments as if it had had a mind of its own and it was trying to locate a suitable landing ground, but finally it came to rest about a foot off the ground next to a ring of plush armchairs of assorted colors.  Without warning, Trezzlepeg disembarked first, unwittingly sending me flying off the side of the boat.  Thankfully, I landed with a thud right on the plush cushions of one of the nearest armchairs.  My impact sent up swirling clouds of dust however, the suddenness of my exit had left me almost too startled to sneeze.

Seeing the commotion he had caused, Trezzlepeg bumbled over to my side his face wrinkled in a worried grimace, “Face!  I’m sorry about that.  I usually ride with much larger customers.  At least nothing is broken.  You’ll need to be in one piece to face the task ahead of you.”

I raised an eyebrow in inquiry, “What sort of task might you have in mind?  Tell me anything, just as it involves me eventually getting my life back.”

 “First things first.  Before I can get you anything else in the way of time travel, we need to retrieve those lockets.  After recent incidents, I’m convinced that Mercos wants to get his hands on them, and personally I don’t think it’s to give to a sweetheart.  His planet is at war, and more than likely he wants them to help his side turn the tide in his favor.”

Trezzlepeg, who up to this point had been standing, blew a short toot on his panpipes towards the ring of chairs.  Amazingly, a fluffy blue one near the edge responded to the toot and scampered towards him like an obedient pup to its master.  Obviously pleased with his choice, he sunk his husky frame into the padding and patted the arm as one would  faithful hound.  He raised his feet a short distance of the ground and with another quick whistle, a matching footrest came trotting in to catch them.  Comfortably positioned, he smiled smugly back in my direction and gloated, “Mighty handy little contraptions.  No one can tell whether to call them pets or furniture.”

Trezzlepeg snapped his fingers and immediately the back of the chair conformed to massage his back .

 If this is prison, sign me up.

The chair distracted Trezzlepeg for a minute or two, and it might have lasted for hours had I not cut in just as he was about to doze off, “TP, don’t you think there are more important matters than your aches and pains?  You said this task was important…”

His head shot up from its mindless stupor, “Oh, yes…uh, where were we…ah…yes: the lockets.”

He snapped off the chair and once again his tone became grave, “Face, I need you to go back to your world and retrieve those lockets.  The lives of many might be at stake here.  Though I’m not sure of Mercos’s true intentions, we have already seen that he doesn’t play fair or nice, and that doesn’t make me eager to find out.”

I leaned forward slightly and told him where Fred and Christine had put the lockets. “How am I supposed to retrieve them from the time capsule?  There is no way of knowing where it is, and it won’t be retrieved for thirty years!  I don’t suppose you have a gadget that will magically get us out of all of this.”

TP stroked his chin, and squinted ever so slightly, “Yes and no.  Let me explain.  Time travel is right out.  From tracking you around, we have come to the conclusion that Mercos is ‘riding the coattails’ of our time travel.  Whatever he is using only lets him get through when someone opens the door.  I can’t risk another onslaught.”

I sank back dejectedly in my chair, almost wishing that it would swallow me, Then,” I moaned, “what other choices do we have?”

His hand moved from his chain to his head, “First, I have a confession to make: I have been monitoring your activities, or should I say, I’ve had a friend of yours trace your steps, and have discovered a plethora of useful information.”

Seeing my puzzled look, he reached into his pocket and retrieved a pair of spectacles, “Here, put these back on, and maybe you will see what I mean.”

.  As I slid the glassed on my face, Andrus reappeared over Trezzlepeg’s shoulder.  The Shadow waved a paw, and shrugged his shoulders. My mouth responded before my mind could begin to engage, “Andrus!  You’re still around!  I was worried that I wouldn’t get a chance to update you on what I’ve learned, but I see that you’ve already educated yourself.”

I turned back to Trezzlepeg with a hint of fire in my eyes, “Why did you think you needed to spy on me?  Do you think that I would try to run away?”

Trezzlepeg stood his ground, “Of course not,” he said calmly, “you and I both know that that would be futile.  The reason, I will keep to myself.”

Tired of arguing, I waved him off with my hand, “Enough.  Spill it already. I’d like to get started before the next Ice Age.”

TP nodded curtly and began, “Yes.  The information that I am referring to concerns the capsule. According to the clipping that you read, no one knows where on City Hall grounds that the capsule is buried, correct?”

I fidgeted in my chair, “Right it said that it was buried in an undisclosed location.  You think they were hiding military secrets.”

Trezzlepeg chuckled, softly, “Yes, but I think that I have a way to discover where.  Andrus, if you please.”

Andrus retrieved a small object off a nearby shelf, and placed it in Trezzlepeg’s pudgy fingers.  Trezzlepeg smirked, as his eyes brightened with the anticipation of showing off a new toy, “This is a Recronoscope.  A very useful trinket.  When you set the dial and look through the lens on the top, it allows you to see past events that happened at the place where you point it.  We can search around the grounds with this scope and see where they buried it.  That way, you can steal back at night and uncover the loot.  What do you say?”

My eyes wandered from Andrus to Trezzlepeg.

 “Fine,” I said glumly, “I’ll try it, but don’t expect quick results.  I’ll have to be discrete about my actions, or people might start asking questions.”

Obviously, Trezzlepeg had had some time to think this plan through, because he didn’t miss a beat, “Already taken care of.  I’m sending one of those disguise kits with you, as well as Andrus, and another specialized Shadow to make your work a bit easier.”

To this, Andrus crinkled his nose, “Do you think me not up to the task?” he murmured harshly, “surely the two of us can handle this alone.”

Trezzlepeg shook his head, “We’ve wasted enough time already.  Anything that can get the lockets back into our hands even a moment sooner is worth doing.  You don’t realize the full danger we are facing here, so I suggest you engage you wings and shut your trap.”

Andrus buzzed of behind one of the chairs and out of sight, his pride obviously wounded.  Trezzlepeg glanced about indifferently, “I need to retrieve that other Shadow for you, Face, so stick around and wait for me to come back.  You are free to sample any of the volumes on the shelves if you get bored.”

Trezzlepeg tossed me the Recronoscope, and blew a series on his panpipes, recalling the gondola.  With surprising grace for his ungainly girth, he embarked and was soon nothing more than a speck against the horizon.

After watching him go, I took a moment to study the strange object in my hands. It resembled a magnifying glass, plated in gold, and was fitted with a series of dials.  As I fiddled with it, I discovered that each dial could manipulate a the year, month, day, hour, and even minutes and seconds.

This intriguing device held my attention for a while, but as the seconds droned on into minutes, and one minute into fifteen, I began to lose interest.  I decided to take Trezzlepeg’s suggestion of losing myself in one of the numerous volumes that snaked about the walls.

With a yawn, I sauntered over to the nearest shelf.  My eyes lighted over the smorgasbord of titles:

Rare Intergalactic Lifeforms

The Bridge of Arahamel

1001 Recipes from the Planet Bocaj

Combat with Lasers: A Complete Course

The Battle of the Blue Wizard

I continued along the line and my eyes finally fell on a volume that stood out from the rest. It was a light, almost leafy green, strewn with gold embroidery along the spine.  At once, I was drawn to the handsome book.  As I peered in closer, I was able to make out the gold lettering along the spine: The Book of Gyem

I had never heard the title before, yet it enticed me.  With trembling fingers, I stretched out my hand and slipped the book from the shelf.

The cover was similarly adorned with gold trim, with the striking title emblazoned across the cover.  With the steady hand of a surgeon, I swiped my hand across the cover to remove the dust on the ancient cover.

Freed from the dust, the gold trim glittered came to life in the ambient candlelight.  Curious, I placed on hand under the cover and lifted it away.

But before I could glimpse the first page, a torrent of sparkling, purple mist leapt from the pages and engulfed me in a twinkling cloud.  The mist swirled around me, invading my lungs and obscuring my vision.  Suddenly, a wave of drowsiness swept over me.  My eyes dropped like window shades, and my muscles grew limp and lifeless.  Helpless to resist, I dropped to the wooden floor and drifted into deep slumber.

Chapter 17: What Dreams May Come


The word drifted out from the darkness of my unbroken sleep. “Face!  Can you hear me now?” The feminine voice sounded vaguely familiar, and I called out in my mind,

Christine!  Is that you? What happened to me?

“I’m sorry to disappoint you,” answered the voice, “but I am not Christine. Luckily, you are not dead, as I first supposed.  I was afraid that I gave you a little too much of that stuff.”

  My mind swelled with anger, What was that stuff?  Where you trying to drug me?

  The voice didn’t answer right away, but when it did, it spoke with a little more hesitancy than before, “That stuff was a bit of concentrated sleeping essence.  It’s not dangerous, except in massive doses. First, I used a bit of curiosity to make you want to check out this book, and then a bit of sleeping essence to send you off to dreamland. I am sorry for giving you so much. I had forgotten how susceptible humans are to that stuff.”

  Who are you? I pleaded, Why have you done this to me?

  The voice answered right away, “I am called Oriona, a Shadow that can only move and communicate among dreams.  I possess no physical form. I can only take form, when a person’s subconscious gives it to me. That is why I had to put you to sleep in such a manner.”

  That still doesn’t explain why you need to talk to me.  Did Trezzlepeg send you?

Oriona chuckled, “By Orion’s Belt, no.  I could never be one of his puppets, locked up in cages.  He has a savage streak in him as long as the Milky Way.  He’s excellent at covering it with the customers, though. Who could blame him?  He was the last hope for continuing his race, and now since he trapped here, it has all but died out.  He is a bitter soul , and the shop is suffering for it.  He hasn’t kept up with all the lower passages and things have gotten out of hand.  That’s why I need to talk to you: for your good, as well as his. I need for you to deliver a message that he probably won’t take well, but that he needs to hear: I have located Xiaphius.”

Her statement had about as much of an effect on me as trying to explain calculus to a three-year-old. I’m afraid that you have got me right confused.  Zae-fee-who?

The voice sighed from the darkness,

“Let me explain…”
  I cut in abruptly,

I think it would be easier if you showed yourself first.  I don’t care for talking to the darkness of the backs of my eyelids.


“As you wish.”

Then, out of the blackness, a woman’s face took form, ghostly and pale.  However, when I recognized the face, my stomach turned a knot.  This strange entity had chosen to take the face of none other than my sweet Christine, looking beaten and sickly.

I cried into the darkness,

Please, anything but that!  Can’t you take the form of someone else?

The head bobbed slowly up and down, and melted once again to blackness,

“I figured that you would want to see her.  You cried out for her.”

I cried out for her, I retorted angrily, because she is no longer mine, and I want her back.  But seeing her reminds me that she isn’t mine and I can’t stand to think of her with anyone else.  It is driving me mad.

The voice chuckled once again,

“What do you know of madness?  You’ve lived in darkness for a while, but I’ve lived in darkness for eternity.  Only then can you say that you are mad.”

Her face reappeared, this time as Samot, the woman who had patched me up after my scuffle with the gargoyles. 

The face was a remarkable likeness, but once again it was drawn and pale.  All at once, a twinge of pity for the poor creature began gnawing at my heart.  I tried to reach out to her in consolation, but then realized that I could not move my arms.

“If this form is acceptable, I shall continue to explain.  Xiaphius is my master, and was the master of the Bazaar until he became imprisoned by a pair of lockets shaped like an owls that he wore about his neck.  He came by these extraordinary lockets as a young man, and found that by wearing them, he became the master of all wisdom. With his trove of knowledge, he gained unthinkable power and prestige. It seemed to everyone else that he could do no wrong, but as time passed, and he was made master of the shop, I found that the locket had a side he did not reveal to anyone.

“I found him up late at night, at the stage between awake and asleep talking to them.  He would hold it up to his ear as if listening and then would rant and rave in a furious stupor. It just kept getting worse, until one day when he was walking in the lower levels, the lockets glowed and spoke in a language I did not understand. Then, both Xiaphius and the lockets vanished.  With Xiaphius gone, Trezzlepeg was stuck with having to run the shop against his wishes.  To this day, he holds a terrible grudge against him, because he thinks that Xiaphius left on purpose, leaving him with the job.”

So, what does this all have to do with me?  Why do you even confront me like this?

“Because, Trezzlepeg is dangerous.  He is consumed by wanting to escape-so consumed that his judgment has been clouded.  Why else do you think he wants the lockets so bad?  It’s not the sentimental value!”

Maybe I could understand better if I know exactly what they do.  All he would tell me is that they had extreme destructive power.

The face in front of me smiled knowingly, her eyes grim and haunting, “I see that he has purposely kept you in the dark, but I can’t leave you like that. The two lockets were made by an ancient civilization, the Gyemen.  Though beautiful on the outside, each locket is really a prison for something that should never be unleashed.  During the early years of the Gyemen, a certain number of men where endowed with great powers by the king, each having a different power, depending on what he was to govern.  One gave the user great physical strength, another great wisdom, another power over the skies, and so and so forth.  However, with these, he also forged a second set with the opposite power of each in the first set.  This way, he was able to keep his governors in check.  He and his queen carried the two most powerful: the power to bring either growth and life, or death and destruction. 

This system worked for a while, but the power of these lockets began to consume their bearers. Each one of Bearers, as there were called, fought with the others in hopes of obtaining more lockets, and soon the land broke out in all out war. 

Many Bearers obtained the locket that was supposed to keep them in check. Seeing the bleak situation, Gyem, the king, sealed every Bearer inside a locket.  At first, he thought to destroy them, but did not wish to cause more bloodshed. So he banished each locket, including his own, to a different corner of the Universe.”

Are you saying that the lockets that Trezzlepeg is looking for, are the ultimate ones?  My brother was wearing that King’s locket when he died?

The face was fading, becoming more blurry around the edges, like the picture of an out of focus camera,

“Yes, but only a few people know of their coming to Earth. They had been missing so long, that most dismissed the story as legend, and those who did believe it, rumored that they had been destroyed.  Yet, since you have finally alerted him to his whereabouts, he will spare any expense to have that kind of power in his possession.  He is…”

However, I did not catch the remainder of her sentence.  A booming voice drowned her words, “Face, wake up!  Trezzlepeg is on his way back!”

My eyes flew open to see Andrus three inches from my eyes.  Startled, I leapt to my feet, “We need to go. Trezzlepeg is back.”

Sure enough, a gondola with a small blue bulge atop it was rapidly approaching from the other end of the room. Gliding lightly through the air, the boat came towards us and stopped beside me, hovering a foot above the floor.  As he approached, I could make out a colorful bird perched on his shoulder.  Its body resembled a chicken, with black and green feathers. Its heads were a different story.  Both resembled parrots with crooked beaks and the same glistening feathers.  Though its body was stubby, its neck was uncommonly long so that each head kept a considerable distance from the other. 

 “Come,” Trezzlepeg said. “The preparations are in order.  The sooner we can get you back down there, the greater advantage you will have.  This is Relyt, a very useful shadow.  I’ll let him explain his powers when you reach your destination.”

No sooner had my feet hit the floor of the boat that it shot off.  Just barely keeping my balance, I managed to take a seat and then grab the sides. 

At first, I thought to deliver the message that Oriona had told me deliver to Trezzlepeg, however, even as I opened my mouth to do so, a hard knot formed in my stomach.  As I thought over the situation, I realized that one critical piece of information was missing.

She didn’t finish her message.  She was about to tell me but didn’t get a chance to say what Trezzlepeg wanted with the lockets.  Maybe I should hold off for a bit, just in case she wasn’t done.

As the stars melted by, my nerves settled slightly. Soon, the gondola hovered in front of one of the exits to the shop. With a gesture from Trezzlepeg, we disembarked and waited in front of the vast darkness before us.  Relyt, swooped off the Shopkeeper’s shoulder and landed on mine.  Its weight barely registered.

I reached up and brushed my index finger along one of the bird’s glistening feathers.  They felt as smooth and as sleek as they looked, however, as I drew back my hand, a chalky green residue remained on my fingers.  Startled, I checked the portion of the bird’s feathers that I had felt and met with another surprise.  The area, which I had touched, had faded away. Horrified, I cried out and flung the bird from my shoulders.  From the boat Trezzlepeg laughed, “I was waiting for you to do that!  The look on your face alone was worth framing in bronze!”

I gestured the bird back to my shoulder and continued down the dark hallway.  This seemed to catch Trezzlepeg’s attention, as he had not quite finished his ranting, “Face, come back!  I’m not finished yet!  Don’t you want an explanation?”

I did not glance back, “Not really. I manage best with on the job training, thank you very much.”

Clenching my jaw, I broke into a trot and let the darkness engulf me, not waiting for any more comments.

This time the trip lasted less than a fraction of a second.  With a brilliant flash of light, I found myself back in the passenger seat of my old car, no longer alone.  Andrus, hovered over the dashboard and the parrot/chicken creature occupied the driver’s seat.  Blinking, I glanced anxiously at my watch: 2:27.  Not even a minute had passed since I had first depressed the large red button on what seemed like much earlier that afternoon. 

As if swimming in a dream state, the whole world around me seemed to crawl in slow motion.  I stared out the window, dazed by the strangeness of my situation.  However, some unknown force did not let me gawk long, as a familiar voice broke me from stupor, “Frank!  Are you coming back?  I’m ready for some Frisbee!”

Once again, my hands shot to my pockets, but once again they came up empty.  Frank still had my keys, and I was out of luck.  Or so I thought.  Just as I was about to abandon the car and stake out on foot, Andrus buzzed up in front of my face, dangling a familiar item.

“I believe you are looking for these?  I’d give you a lift myself, but you seem eager to bring the wheels along.”

Mentally thanking my  luck, I snatched the keys from his paws, “How?  They were in Fred’s pocket…”

Andrus raised a paw with mock modesty,

“‘It was nothing.  I’m pretty light in the paws.  I suggest we get going before your brother gets too curious.”

I shooed the bird into the backseat, jammed the keys into the ignition, and slammed the accelerator.  I glanced back only momentarily to see Fred frantically flailing his arms, running after the car.  Though I felt a twinge of guilt leaving him stranded, I was in no mood for sympathy. 

Leaving the painful afternoon behind me, I kept on the gas, and made my way towards City Hall.  With any luck, I would only have to set the device back a few minutes to track the hiding place.

“So, what exactly does our fine feathered friend do?”

Andrus replied with a grin, “The bird is used for stealth.  You saw what happened when you touched it, didn’t you?  One head has the power to make you invisible, and the other has the power to make you visible again. It’s usually invisible in its native form, so to be seen its feathers produce this powder that allows you to see it. The powder rubbed off when you touched it.”

I nodded and returned my attention to the road. Andrus was not finished yet, “By the way, you’re lucky that I didn’t decide to leave all our equipment back there  It’s there in the back seat with the bird.”

“Why doesn’t it talk?” I asked, gesturing to Relyt, “I thought Trezzlepeg said it was a Shadow.”

Andrus shrugged, “Yes…and no.  Though it is mute, it is very skilled at smoke signals.  Just watch.”

Andrus disappeared into the back seat and whispered a few words, which I could not make out, and suddenly a wispy cloud of smoke curled into my peripheral vision from the back seat.  Curious, I turned the car into a parking lot.  The smoke curled before my eyes and formed hazy letters.

“Welcome Face- it’s a pleasure to be working with you.”

Strangely, as my eyes finished with each word, it melted back into muddled smoke.  Not exactly sure how to respond, I warily glanced back at the bird and flashed a thumbs-up.  Oddly, the bird grinned back with an almost human-like quality to his features.  As I gawked at it, Relyt twisted its head to the side, and I caught a glimpse of a glint of gold around the feathers of its neck. However, before I could figure out what it had there, the bird returned its neck to the normal position.

As I approached City Hall, I could see that the crowd had not diminished, and so there was no way to park directly in front of the building.  This forced me to turn onto a side street, on which I found a parking space a few blocks down. Before disembarking, Andrus tossed me the brown gunnysack from the back seat.  Inside it I found both the shiny Recronoscope and the disguise that Trezzlepeg had sent for me to wear.  At first its presence baffled me, “Why,” I asked Andrus, “do I need this, if the bird can make me invisible?”

Andrus scowled, “Just put it on and think of a good one.  The bird can only make you invisible for limited periods of time.  Call it an extra precaution.”

Grudgingly, I did as I was told and slipped the robe over my shoulders and the mask over my face.  Then, I let my mind wander…

I’ll just be the first person who pops into my head.

As I let my mind off like a feather in the wind, it eventually made a selection and the robe and mask changed my features to match.  Andrus surveyed the choice and cocked a bushy eyebrow,

“Hmm…that’s an interesting choice, gauging that you barely know the man.  Are you sure?”

I rolled my eyes. 

“Yes. Just be glad that I didn’t appear in the space suit that he was wearing when he met me.  For some reason, it didn’t copy that.  I’m still wearing jeans and I T-shirt.”

Strangely, my mind had first jumped to the doctor from another planet, Tomas, as a good selection.  I was satisfied that no one around here would recognize him.

“Okay, Andrus.  Have the bird work its wonders, and let’s be on our way.”

Obediently, he landed atop the bird’s right head,

“Just pull here,” he said “and you’ll be invisible in no time.”

I squinted my eyes and nearly choked with amusement, “Are you sure about that?  I mean this isn’t just another one of those practical jokes that you and Trezzlepeg are so fond of?”

Andrus shook his head, his face all innocence, “No, no, it’s perfectly safe.  If you lose an eye or anything else, I’m sure it can be replaced.”

Reluctantly, I stretched out my hand until I had my fingers curled about the bird’s neck like a python ready to squeeze the life out of its prey.  There, I hesitated, still not confident of my decision to trust him.

“Come on,” Andrus roared, “who is the expert on strange creatures-you or me?  Just give it a yank!”

Seeing no other choice, I shut my eyes and yanked as hard I could muster.  Immediately, the bird let out an ear-rending squawk, as if I was indeed wringing its neck, and expelled a fine mist from out its beak. A white powder blanketed everything inside the car, and rendered everything it covered invisible..

My eyes bulged out in disbelief.  He hadn’t been joking,

“That’s amazing!  How long does it last?”

I glanced about and realized that I could not see Andrus either,

We had better talk like this for a while.  I don’t want innocent bystanders overhearing and thinking that they hear voices.  It will save them the therapy.  Each dose lasts about thirty minutes and the bird has to wait about forty-five minutes between doses.

As the dust settled on interior of the car, an unfamiliar odor hit my nostrils.  It was sweet yet, old and musty, like fruit that has been laying to long out in the sun.  Figuring that it must have come from the mist, I tried not to worry about it,

So we’ll have to find a place to hang low in between, I guess.  How am I supposed to know where you are anyway?  Or the bird for that matter?

Suddenly, the door, or what was left that I could see of it, popped open,

I’ll stay close; don’t worry about me. As for the bird, it stays undercover in the car.  We'll come back if we need to.  Come on.  I’d like to get as much done on this first dose as possible. 

As I hoisted myself out the car, I realized an opportunity and seized it,

I had the bird sit on the sack, so that it’s still visible. Pick it up and hang on. I think it would be better if I took you over the crowd as opposed to going through it.

No sooner had my fingers closed in around the sack, than I was propelled into the air by Andrus’s deceivingly strong paws.  With a pang of elation and nausea, I soared over the celebrating crowd, and, within seconds, we were circling above City Hall scouting out a suitable landing space. . Terrified that I might drop it, or that it would be seen flying through the air, I stuffed the sack under my shirt.

Locating a secluded corner behind the building, Andrus dove towards the ground without warning, climbing to a dizzying speed.  He still managed to put me down on the back lawn under a tree as gently as an autumn leaf guided to the ground by an easy breeze.

I shot a glance at my watch: about 2:55.  That left us about a half hour of invisibility.  Not wasting a second, Andrus yanked the sack out from under my shirt and rummaged through it until he located the shiny Recronoscope.  Impatiently, he thrust into my hands.

Set the dials.

I hesitated, Wait a second.  Why are you so anxious?  It’s not like we are in danger of gargoyles chasing us about this time. Besides, I’ve never used this thing before.  Please give me a second to see how it works.

I fiddled with the dials until they registered today’s date.  Then I set the dial, which read ‘hour’ to 2 o’clock and left the minutes and seconds on zero.  After turning the device over in my hands a few times, I located a small lever, which was labeled with several settings.


-Pause Time

-Half Time

-Real Time

-Double Time

Eagerly, I first turned the lever to the slot marked ‘Pause Time’.  Instantly, the clear lens became clouded with a flurry of motion and color.  I gazed into the lens and saw people, mostly unrecognizable, but once in a while, I caught a glimpse of a familiar face: the mayor, a neighbor, or a friend.  But as quickly as each face passed into my vision, it passed from it again, becoming lost in the sea of color.

Finally, the colors settled and a scene appeared in the glass.  As I peered through the glass, I saw only the same grassy area where we now stood, nothing more.  However, on a hunch, I peered around the corner towards the lawn and the glass revealed a much different scene.  A great crowd of townspeople around the large temporary stage in front of City Hall, and in the center of the stage standing behind a wooden podium was Mayor Graff, his arms extended triumphantly towards the heavens.  Beside him lay a bulky wooden box of some sort, which I assumed to be the time capsule.  Everything seemed exactly as it should be, except that everything and everyone appeared frozen in space as if the whole scene had been paused by some great remote control.

The proverbial light bulb gleamed above my head.

I think I understand. Now if I try the other way.

My ‘eureka’ moment was interrupted by a stern command,

Switch it to the other mode. You won’t get anywhere on that one.

I rolled my eyes in frustration.

I had almost forgotten that you were there. I just was about to anyway.

Following through with my claim, I pulled the lever down to ‘Real Time’.  All at once, the picture in the glass burst into a flurry of motion.  The crowd came alive, waving their arms and yelling in approval, though no sound came through. 

The scene unfolded in real time, every second being counted off by the spin of the dials.  The mayor continued with his speech, gesturing and waving his arms as if involved in a complicated game of charades.  However, my attention was held not by the mayor, but by the box at his right.  Slinking in closer, hiding the scope beneath my shirt, I was able to get an even closer look.  Moving swiftly, I set up camp behind a tree near the platform, and once again took out the scope. 

The time capsule was an elaborate oak chest with gold trim and a shiny finish.  For minutes, the box lay where it had been placed, untouched, with no indication that it was the cause of all the celebration.  My gaze fixed upon the box, and I lay in wait, like a patient predator waiting to pounce on its prey.  At first, I held my eyes open in a trance-like vigil, however, the longer I stared, the thirstier my eyes became, and I was forced to blink.  Just as my eyelids were closing, I felt an incessant tap on my shoulder,

What do you see?  Have they taken the capsule away yet?

I had no idea how long Andrus had been with me, but since he had outlived his usefulness for now, I had been content by his absence.  I brushed my hand to the side in an attempt to shoo him away.

Did you take grouch pills this morning, Andrus, or is this just a bad hair day?  Can’t you see that I’m concentrating?

Or at least, I had been concentrating.  As I looked back to the stage, the chest had vanished.  Frantically, I hit the lever back to ‘pause time’ and checked the time: 2:24 and 36 seconds.  Thankfully, I would only have to set the device back a few seconds,

Andrus, don’t do that again!  I missed it. 

The reply was swift and gruff,  I shall try…Lord Franklin. 

But then as if a cloud had suddenly blanketed the sun, all the enmity faded from his voice and his tone reverted from surly to serious,

It’s just that something isn’t right. I don’t know exactly what, but I often do have a sense for such things.  You know that better than anyone.

I tried to brush his words off as indulgent pessimism, however something inside me nudged me to trust his hunch.  He had certainly had more experience with danger.

I’m sure it’s nothing. You’re so used to things going wrong that when something actually goes right, you get uneasy.

After glancing about to convince myself that nothing posed a threat, I returned to work.  With jittery hands, I turned the dial back a few moments, pointed the scope towards the place where the capsule had lain, and set the lever to ‘half time’. 

  As I peered through the glass this time, the seconds ticked by agonizingly slowly.  This time I struck the jackpot.  Right in the middle of the mayor’s speech, the beautiful wooden chest dropped through the platform through a secret panel.  Once the chest was through, the panel slipped seamlessly back into place.

Reacting impulsively, I stashed the scope into my shirt and dove towards the section of platform.  However, as I reached it, I was not able to make the designation portion of the tile slip away.  In quiet frustration, I pounded on the platform with both fists, pounding out a beat that would make any percussionist proud. 

Unfortunately, my impeccable sense of rhythm did not convince the door to open.  I ran the scene in the scope again, double-checking to make sure that I had not selected the wrong tile.  I had not.  My firsts smarting from the effort, I fell back in defeat. 

As I was about to roll over and try again, a strange grinding noise filled my ears.  Startled, I looked up to see that the tile had miraculously fallen away. 

Andrus did you do that?

No I didn’t do anything.  Not besides laugh at you beating your fists into stubs.  I don’t feel right about going in there. 

The side of the passage had been fashioned with ladder rungs. As I gazed down I could see no bottom.  With fear gnawing at my insides,  I lowered myself into the hole.

I guess those tale tales had some truth to them. 

Andrus, who did not seem to share in my adventurous attitude, tugged urgently at my shoulder.

Face, what are you doing?  This smells like a trap to me.  Believe me, it’s one of those times where it’s so obvious that they might as well hang up neon signs pointing the way to the ambush point. 

I halted my decent.

All right. If you are so scared why don’t you go down and scout ahead for us?  We are both still invisible. You’re too paranoid.  Besides, it was you who suggested that we hurry up.

Defeated by my impeccable reasoning, Andrus clamed up and I felt the rush of air as he shot down the hole like an angry hornet.

Not wanting to attract any additional attention, I slid the tile back in place, leaving only the faintest traces of sunlight to trickle through the cracks.  There I hung, periodically glancing at my wristwatch.  It was now well into three o’clock and the sweat began to accumulate on my brow, not only for the strain of hanging there, but also for a nervous tremor, which had gripped my stomach. 

What if Andrus is right, and they have guards?  Or worse.

I didn’t want to think about alternatives.  The sand in the hourglass was falling, and soon we would both need to renew our powers of invisibility.  For a few tenuous moments, I hung there, listening to only the beat of my own pulse, the noise from the crowd had all but nonexistent.  At last, I could take the strain no longer.  Either Andrus had discovered the lost city of Atlantis or he had gotten himself eaten by some subterranean creature.  In either case, I decided that he had probably lost track of time and needed back up.

Taking a deep swallow and gritting my teeth in determination, I flew down the remaining rungs until my feet landed soundly on the rough floor below, sending up a wispy cloud of dust that danced in the faint light.  The tunnel was almost completely shrouded in darkness, except for the light of a few faint torches, which hung from slots in the wall every few yards. 

Strange that they haven’t upgraded to electricity...

A faint, musty odor curled up from the floor and lingered in my nostrils.  The air hung oppressive and stagnant like a fog and every breath felt like I was trying to glean air from a whirling sandstorm. The stone, which made the walls, though crumbling and dirt-encrusted, played strange tricks with the firelight. This place felt more like a crypt. Tenuously, I inched along the dusty path expecting to be jumped by a rotting zombie or an ancient mummy any second.  Gathering my wits, I called out to Andrus,

Taking larger strides, I made my way down the hallway, trying desperately not to make a sound.  All the while, I cried out to Andrus, but still received no response. 

As I continued on the path, I came to a curve in the road of which I could not see around, and a new smell met my nostrils, wet and musty.  Holding my breath, I sped around the corner, and peered into pitch darkness. 

Thinking quickly, I tried to rip one of the torches from its post in order to light me way, however, this proved a futile effort as each was firmly secured in its place.

I bit my lip, nearly drawing blood.

Mustering up all the courage I possessed and muttering a quiet plea to the heavens, I crawled around the corner, keeping low to the floor, trying very hard not to damage the precious Recronoscope.  The coarse sand dug at my hands and lodged itself up my fingernails, and my knees began to ache in protest, but not daring to turn back, I pressed forward through the darkness.  As I went, I noticed that the sand under my fingers had been flattened out in wide swath.

Like someone was dragging something heavy.

No sooner had I registered the thought than I suddenly stumbled over something in the darkness.  Frantically, a gasp leaped from my lips, I whirled about and lashed into the darkness at any invisible opponent that might be stalking me.  Despite my valiant attempts, the blows swiped only air and the cavern remained as silent as before. 

Badly shaken, but unharmed I stooped back to the floor and stretched out my hand to identify the object that had caused my fall.  However, as my hand made the connection, I recoiled in terror.  My fingers had closed around another human hand.  This hand was a not warm and inviting hand, instead a clammy, lifeless hand, unmoving in the darkness. 

I stretched my hand back to reassure myself that I hadn’t been imagining things and this time grabbed a full head of hair, matted with dust and still moist with a sticky substance.

My hand jerked back instantly. I cried out and inched back, not daring to alert the terrible creatures that might still be lurking in the shadows.

What’s a dead man doing down here? This place is a crypt! I just hope that it does not have any vacancy.

As I floundered back through the darkness, my request was granted, though not in a desirable fashion.  The back of my head impacted an outcropping of stone which jetted out from the wall, and the lights which passed in front of my vision rivaled that of Times Square on New Year’s Eve.  Struggling not to black out, I called out in my mind.

Andrus! Where are you?

However, I finally lost the conflict, and lost consciousness.

I awoke to the sound of my name, barely audible, echoing through the corridor.

“Face! Are you there?”

For a moment, I could not muster the strength to reply.  If I had had any vision, I’m sure it would have been swimming.  I strained my ears, now more accustomed to the silence, to recognize the voice before calling back.

It could be a trap, I told myself, now sounding as paranoid as Andrus.

A voice inside my head. Indeed, it could have been, but this time it’s not. 

Andrus’s voice betrayed more concern than I thought possible,

Thanks to that, I think I can find where you are now.  Don’t go anywhere, and I’ll be there in a few seconds. 

Wincing with pain, I sat up and shook the sand from my hair,

Don’t worry.  At this point I don’t think I’ll risk another matching lump on my head.  Just be quick about it.  I think there is a dead person back here, and something tells me he’s not a pharaoh.

Andrus made no attempt to mask the alarm in his voice, A dead person?  Are you sure?  I didn’t see any on my way through…

Just hurry up and bring some light. The corpse here isn’t great company.

Thankfully, I didn’t have to wait long.  As my pupils contracted in the dimness, a minute spark rounded the corner, a firefly buzzing through the blackness.  At first, I shielded my eyes as they adjusted once again to the light.  As my vision cleared, a recognized Andrus, carrying a torch.

Overwhelmed with relief, I started to dash towards him, but halted as the light fell upon the macabre scene on the floor.  The person lying there was a man, pale as snow and clothed in what was once a green business suit, now caked with dirt.  He lay in an unnatural position, strangely sideways as if he had been wrung like a rag and then tossed aside.  Beneath him the sand congealed into a brownish red paste.

Feeling suddenly ill. I clamped my eyes shut, “Andrus”, I muttered breathlessly, “what happened here?”

Andrus shook his head, “I cannot even begin to fathom.  I flew all the way up and down the tunnel, and I didn’t see so much as a rat.  Whatever it was that did him in, worked swiftly and silently.”

I bit my lip,

“B-but why?” I queried weakly.

As soon as I had asked the question, I immediately felt stupid for asking it.  I knew very well why.  The question had become how.

Andrus cleared his throat, “I guess there is only one way to find out.  More than likely this guy was tagged for courier duty and was simply in the way when someone or something attempted made a grab for the capsule, but that’s just a hunch.  Get out the scope.”

With trembling fingers, I brought up the miraculously unharmed scope to my eyes, set the time to the time that the capsule had disappeared beneath the platform, and flicked the lever to ‘double time’.  Then, Andrus drew in closer as we both peered into the flawless glass, terrified at what we might see, but too entranced to look away. 

Chapter 18: Fountains and Fowl Play

The eerie scene unfolded in the glass before our expectant eyes.  After a few seconds of staring at nothing, the man in the green business suit appeared.  He dragged the heavy chest behind him, groaning and sweating from the strain.  He trudged straight down the hallway in which we now stood, and made it about halfway before the torches dimmed, all at once. 

Startled, he turned to run, but then, as if caught in an invisible hand, he was lifted suddenly the ground.  He was thrown to the floor with bone crunching force.  He lay motionless, his limbs contorted and every light blinked out.

Not wanting to believe the awful events that I had just witnessed, I replayed the scene in the scope a half a dozen times, each time searching for a glimpse of the attacker, and seeing only shadows.  Finally admitting defeat, I dropped the Recronoscope to the floor and Andrus and I stared at each other in silence for a good full minute. I spoke in hushed tones, “Andrus what does this mean?  What if whatever killed this man is still in here?”

Andrus’s reply sent icicles up my back, “That’s exactly what it means.  Though I didn’t bump into anything, that doesn’t mean it wasn’t there.  I don’t know about you, but I feel like making ourselves scarce.”

Andrus shot off like a jet back towards the entrance, leaving me in darkness.  Knowing that that direction was a bad idea, I called after him, Andrus!  We can’t go back that way!  There is no way we can come back up through the platform without attracting attention.  That’s probably what they-whoever they are-want us to do.  Can’t we go the other way?

Andrus returned and glanced towards the alternative direction. I suppose we could, though that way still makes me nervous.  I followed it to the end and it eventually comes back up through another hole in a park, but it’s a pretty lengthy trip. I’d have to fly you down there.

I cringed at the thought of hurtling through the darkness at the mercy of my Shadow, but seeing no feasible alternative, I gave in, Okay, just don’t mind if I lose my lunch on the way.  Don’t make it a rougher ride than you have to.

He grabbed  my neck in his paw like a mother dog picking up a puppy and started our flight down the corridor, picking up speed, “Don’t worry…you’ve caught me on a good day.  I’m not in the mood for tricks.”

The light from the torches whizzed by me. I thought I heard strange noises, but tried my best to ignore them as merely figments of my imagination.  Thankfully, Andrus’s superior navigating skills saved me from splatting against the walls like a bug on a windshield. 

After a few minutes, I could make out the end of the hallway.  Andrus suddenly jerked to a stop, dropping me onto the cold dust of the floor.  Startled, I tumbled over my heels and came to rest face down in the dirt.  More winded than annoyed, I scrambled to my feet, holding my aching stomach.  I glanced about to see what had caused the turbulence of my flight.  Seeing nothing out of the ordinary, if anything in the cavern could be called ordinary, I whirled about to confront Andrus, What was that for?  I thought you said that you would give me a smooth ride.

Andrus scratched his head, grinning sheepishly, Sorry.  It’s just that I thought I smelled something.

My cheeks caught fire, You smelled something?  What kind of half-wit excuse is that?

Andrus waved his paw in annoyance at my naïveté, A good one.  It was something I shouldn’t be here, but I can’t quite place it.  I apologize for the landing, but when my instincts start talking, I don’t sit around to ask questions. 

I sniffed the air to validate Andrus’s claim.  The first deep sniff yielded nothing but a nose full of dust and a coughing fit that took a whole minute to shake off.

After recovering, I sniffed again lightly and realized that I did smell something, barely perceptible over the grime of the tunnel.  A strange sweetness hung the dusty air. The smell brought back a memory from earlier that day.  I groped for an answer, but the shock from my fall had made dizzy and I couldn’t clear my head enough to make the connection. It’s fine.  Let’s just get out of this stinking dungeon or whatever it is. 

Much to my relief, as I approached the end of the tunnel, I discovered a ladder leading upwards.  Near the top, a few rays of light crept from the ceiling which appeared to be sealed off.  Bursting with relief, I dashed towards the ladder and shimmied up the rungs as if escaping a burning building. When I reached the top, the origin of the smell suddenly popped into my head.  It was that bird, his invisible powder. But how could that be? We left him locked up in the car.

As if a dam had burst, dark thoughts flooded into my head, terror welled up in my chest, and a nervous chill rattled my bones. Andrus!  I called frantically in my mind, we need to get back to the car!

Furiously, I banged at the roof above the ladder willing with all my might for the obstacle that blocked the path to move, but to no avail. 

Seeing my distress, Andrus hovered to my shoulder, I hear you, he whispered soothingly, but first you need to calm down.  The racket you are making surely isn’t helping our stealth any.  Let me do it.  There’s a tiny switch that you have to flip.

Working swiftly, he fiddled with the roof, and after a few failed attempts, managed to locate the dime-sized switch, which clicked in his tiny hands.  The switch fell into place and with a sharp grating of stone against stone, the obstacle slid away from the top of the tunnel replaced by blazing sunlight.  My hands flew to my eyes, which had grown accustomed to the dark. 

After letting my eyes adjust to my new surroundings, I realized that I was peering out at ground level at a grass field.  I firmly grasped two handfuls of grass and hoisted myself out, followed by Andrus.  Once out on firm ground, a quick survey of the surroundings assured me of our location.  The park, which Andrus had spoken of, was none other than Eve Park, and we had just emerged from under the fountain.  A shot a glance back to figure out where we had come out from, however, the entrance to the tunnel had already closed itself again.  Worried that someone might have seen our strange appearance, I whirled about again, but fortunately found the park to be completely deserted.  For a moment, a glimmer of satisfaction replaced some of the fear.

Fred and Christine must have found a new way home…serves him right, though he’ll probably try to commit me to a mental institution now.  Who knows?  Maybe by this time this is over, I’ll go and commit myself.

Anxious to return to the car, I summoned Andrus, who was now studying the place where we had exited the tunnel.  Andrus, let’s head back to the car first.  I have a feeling we’ll want to be invisible if we decide to go exploring again.  We can come back, but first I want to make sure everything is fine.

Apparently not in the mood to argue, he complied and grasped my arm in preparation to hoist me into the heavens.  However, a split second before he could take off, I cut him off, actually speaking for the first time in a while, “Andrus, do you think that  Mercos is doing all of this?  I don’t know how that could be, but at the same time, I don’t see how it could be anyone but him.  Nothing is adding up.”

Andrus sighed, his eyebrows furrowing into his forehead farther than I thought possible, “Anything is possible Face.  I’ve seen stranger things.  For all we know, it could be the work of a disgruntled ghost or something.  A family curse…”

He paused, letting the silence punctuate his words. “I’ve never actually seen anything as outlandish as that, but it could happen, I guess.”

He chuckled, trying to lighten the somber mood, but his laughter could not mask the awful trepidation in his voice.  For a moment, it looked as if he might tremble, however, he suddenly regained his composure, swallowing his doubts and getting back to business, “Might as well get going.  We have wasted enough time already.  You still have the Recronoscope, don’t you?”

I patted the most bulky area of my shirt to signal the affirmative, and no sooner had I done so, than we were both airborne.  Sailing with his usual gut-wrenching style, Andrus made excellent time as we soared back towards city hall.  However, our progress was slowed on a couple occasions when, out of habit, he stopped and surveyed the skies in every direction to make sure that we were not being followed.  I did not complain, as each stop gave me a chance to catch my breath. 

Finally, I spotted the festivities below and Andrus began his swift decent, seeming both graceful and pell-mell all at once.  Taking the landing much gentler than last time, he placed me down by my car.  I approached warily, and even from a distance, I could tell something was out of place. 

As I glanced into the back seat, I realized the problem: Relyt had disappeared. The first dose of its invisibility spray had worn off, and so I should have been able to see him if he had been present, but just to make sure, I opened the doors and felt through every inch of the back seat.  Then as I started towards the front, I discovered a strange set of smoky letters that lingered in the air.  The message was short, and to the point, and as before, just as my eyes glanced over each letter, the smoke dissipated back into gibberish.

Danger… Fountain…Phoenix

At the word Phoenix, my heart writhed within me.  The last time I had seen the sign of the Phoenix was on the arm of a strange man, clad in gold armor, a man who had made himself my enemy, and then again on the new tattoo on my arm.  My deepest fears had been realized.  Mercos had taken the bird, and had used it for his own evil designs, which included murder. My insides groaned, “Andrus, what do you make of it?  Does this mean what I think it means?”

Andrus nodded his eyes dark and determined, “Yes, there can be no mistaking it.  The bird left us this warning message, and we would do best to heed it.  Though we may have lost our trump card, don’t think for a second that I don’t hide other aces up my sleeves.  We must return to the fountain immediately, find out where the enemy went from there with the Recronoscope, and then pursue.  Once you are there, I will fly to procure reinforcements while you make chase.  With any luck, we will be able to head them off before they are able to get away with the lockets.”

My brain whirled with questions, “You think that it is wise,” I speculated, “to let me chase after them by myself, unarmed and unprotected?”

Andrus grinned smugly, “Wiser than you know…seeing as you won’t be unprotected for a moment.  Slip this on.”

Gingerly, he tossed me a palm-sized gray rectangular box.  Curious, I lifted off the lid, and gasped in amazement, “Andrus!  Where did you get these?”

In my hands lay a pair of beautiful golden lockets, not the ones of the theater masks, but beautiful and powerful looking just the same.  These lockets were intricately crafted to look like a lamb and a lion respectively.  As I picked them up and dangled them in front of my face, a soft glowing energy rippled across my skin, as if I was about to be struck by lightning.  There was no mistaking it.  These were no ordinary lockets.  These were objects of immense power. 

At first, Andrus offered no answer to my question, “If you will open them both at the same time, they’ll activate for you and you will be rendered almost invulnerable to attack.  Say the words in the lion locket, and you’ll be endowed with strength, or say the words from the lamb locket and all those around you will be smitten with weakness.  But be careful not to overuse it.  Sometimes these things have strange side effects.”

Incredulous of what I was seeing, I let the lockets hang on their golden chains, suspended in midair in front of my face like a hypnotist’s charm.

Unexpectedly, my hands began to tremble with anticipation, “Where did you get these?” I demanded.

Andrus, slightly taken aback, glanced about furtively, “It’s best you don’t know.  I’ve been saving them for a long while in case of such an emergency.  All I can say is that I had them hidden well back here in the car, so as not to let them fall in the wrong possession.  We must be off.”

Sharing Andrus’s sense of urgency, I slipped the golden lockets over my neck.  They filled my entire body with tingling energy.  I gestured to Andrus, and a second later, we both soared towards the clouds.

The flight back to the fountain was about as terrifyingly turbulent as the first.  Not interested in acrobatics, Andrus shot a direct, bullet-like path towards our destination.  Desperately, I grasped the lockets to keep them from slipping from my neck.  In record time, we were hovering back over the fountain. 

With the grace of a falcon, Andrus dove towards the ground, dropped me in a dense patch of grass a few yards away from the fountain, and promptly shot back up towards the heavens, becoming no more than a black speck against the horizon in a matter of seconds. 

I felt like a boxer, who has seen one too many jabs to the jaw, and so it took me a few seconds to react.  Unconsciously, my hand leapt to my neck to make sure that the lockets had survived the crash landing intact.  They had, and at first, I was tempted to try them on in order to test their powers. However, as soon as I had gathered my wits I decided that the best course of action was to take out the Recronoscope to try to find out where my enemies had gone.  Amazingly, it too had remained completely intact through the rough landing.

I wager that Trezzlepeg doesn’t need to hand out warrantees with his wares. You could probably take a bazooka to this thing and it wouldn’t even chip the glass.  Now if only I could get my sunglasses to do the same. 

Feeling the crunch for time, I trotted over to the fountain, and located the panel from where we had arisen from the ground.  Setting the time back to when the man in the green suit had met his end, I switched the device to real time. 

At first nothing happened, but as I watched the lens like a child riveted to a suspenseful movie, the same stone from where Andrus and I had exited, slid away and the time capsule popped out.  What happened next quickened my pulse. 

In front of the hole, I saw large patches of grass flatten one by one as if being trodden under by a massive foot.  However, the glass could not show whoever, or whatever was making them.  The footsteps curved around the other side of the fountain, and stopped in front of the panel depicting Adam, Eve, and the Serpent.  Suddenly, the flow of water from the top of the fountain ceased and, within seconds the whole fountain was completely dried up.  For a few moments, I could detect no movement, until, like the first panel, another panel slid away, revealing a passage into blackness. 

With Herculean strength, the unseen person hefted the capsule into the air and disappeared into the depths. Finally, the stone grated back into place and all returned to stillness. 

Though the Recronoscope had provided a wealth of insight, it had also generated as many questions as answers.  I knew which way my target went, but I still had no idea as to how to open the secret passage to follow him.  Getting down on hands and knees, I peered in closer at the panel that had slid away just minutes before.  The scene appeared just as I had left it that afternoon, with “FE+CD” engraved over Adam and Eve and the intelligible writing over the serpent. 

Trying out my options, I poked and prodded every little detail, looking for a secret switch or a hidden lever.  At last, I was rewarded with a minor discovery: the apples on the tree that Eve had been eating from clicked in when depressed and remained in that position until pressed again.  Working excitedly, I quickly attempted various patterns, everything from pressing every third one in a row to attempting to make circles and triangles.  However, each attempt did nothing to budge the stone panel in front of me, and each failed attempt only added to my frustration.  Fed up with trying to guess, I fell onto my back exhausted in both body and mind. 

 I’m dying for a Rubix cube or something right now.  At least in that one, you know what you are trying to achieve.

There, as I stared up at the cottony cloud formations forming in the crisp afternoon sky, a thought struck me.  It was something that Christine had alluded to that very afternoon, something that Fred had tried to cover up. 

However, as I mulled it over in my mind, the possibility seemed less and less far-fetched.  What else would Fred want to hide so badly?  I can’t think of anything else that secret. 

There was only one way I could settle my thoughts.  On a hunch, I retrieved the Recronoscope from the patch of grass where I had left it and flipped the dials to the date that had burned in my memory with painful clarity for years.  Relying on Fred’s account for reference, I allotted about twenty minutes of leeway time, set the time of day to 10:20 PM, stepped back to take in a broader view, and punched the lever into real time.

Almost immediately, Fred and Christine flooded the lens both lounging by that part of the fountain.  Fred was still dressed in his biking leathers, though he had apparently changed his shirt, which looked spotless and new.  Otherwise he had made very little attempt to look suave, as his hair remained unkempt and his stubble unshaven. 

Christine seemed not to care.  On the other hand Christine appeared absolutely radiant.  She wore an attractive blue skirt, the kind which matched the intoxicating color of her eyes, had curled her hair and applied just a shade of makeup, all topped off by the alluring way that the moonlight played of her fair skin.  Her very countenance seemed to glow with the aura of angel.

Staring longingly into the glass, I gathered that my assumptions about time had been correct, and so I caught them carving their initials into the stone side of the fountain.  I leaned in closer to observe their actions and was inadvertently rewarded with a front row shot of a tender kiss.  Hot blood leapt to my face, and I almost flung the scope into the fountain, silently thanking goodness that the lens didn’t allow me to hear the tender mush they were spouting to each other.  Summoning up all my willpower, I gritted my teeth and forced myself to watch the lens.

It’s not real, I told myself, this is some twisted reality…it didn’t really happen…my wife is kissing a dead man…a ghost.

However, my exercise of self-control was soon rewarded, as the show progressed into something that I could stomach. Somehow, as Fred was carving the initials, his hand slipped and punched in one of the apples on the tree.  I

Immediately, he paused from his carving and began punching in apples, just as I had done.  Giggling playfully, the punching game escalated into an all out contest.  Granted, they appeared to be having no more success that I, but they surely were having a much more enjoyable time failing.  The game arrived nowhere for a minute or so, until Christine happened upon a discovery that I had not: not only the apples on the tree where able to be pressed down, but also the one’s held by Adam, Eve, and the Serpent.  After a bit more experimentation, she thought to press all three down at the same time.  This time, her efforts yielded results.  Both she and Frank leapt back and both sets of eyes grew to half-dollar size as the water suddenly drained from the fountain.

At first, neither stirred, but after a few moments, the grimaces of fear rose into grins of curiosity.  Fred rose first and peered into the bowl of fountain, which until moments ago had been brimming with water.  Something there captured his attention and held his gaze for a good thirty seconds.  Similarly intrigued, both Christine and I sauntered over to his side and peered down into the dry fountain.  There we made a startling discovery.  On the bottom of the fountain appeared a faint brown writing, barely decipherable in the dim light.  Just beneath the writing I could make out a clear container about the size of a ring box.  The box appeared to contain a dozen or so pea-sized glass beads.  I leaned in closer, and letters came into focus: “Climb the stairs and then feed the lady.”

I scratched my head.  The message made little sense to me, however, to Fred the instructions seemed clear.  Without wasting a second, he snatched up the box of beads, glanced towards the top bowl of the fountain, and he immediately bounded towards the first stepping stone.  Christine grabbed his arm in protest, but then she promptly let go after what I guessed where a few condoling words and another light peck on the lips. 

Wanting to follow, but not wanting to drench my clothes, I switched the scope to pause mode. I hunched down and located the three special apples

Let’s see if this still works after all those years. It might have taken me years to do this without Fred.  At least I can thank him for something.

Using both hands, I pressed them all at the same instant and was rewarded with a satisfying click and an exhilarating rush of sound as the water drained from the fountain.  Expectantly, I arose and gazed into the now thirsty bowl.  Just as I had expected, the burnt amber writing still graced the bottom, along with box of glass beads. 

My heart pounded with the thrill of discovery, however, it still baffled me why the writing could not be seen through the clear water of the fountain.  On a hunch, I drew back my head and spit onto the letters.  My effort produced an instant answer, as the letters dissolved from view where my spit landed. 

Intriguing.  It’s sort of a cousin of invisible ink, but yet even more sneaky.

Ready to continue, I started to raise the Recronoscope to my eye, but on second thought, set it down on the edge of the fountain. 

I think I’ll try playing Sherlock Holmes myself this time.

Leaving the scope on the edge, I snatched up the box of beads and hoisted myself onto the first step-like bowl.  Climbing swiftly without the flowing water, I soon reached the top, and knelt in front of the woman’s-head sculpture, which my brother had described.  The sculpture portrayed a young woman with gentle features, high cheekbones and long hair, which cascaded down her back. 

She was beautiful except for the wrenching expression of sadness written in her features.  Her eyes seemed ready to expel a fountain of tears and her mouth stood agape in a silent moan.  As I examined the face closer, I discovered two tiny spouts, one in the corner of each eye, and a chilling thought struck me.  This melancholy maiden perpetually supplied the fountain with the water from her tears. 

But who is she supposed to be?  It’s downright creepy.

I didn’t pause to let my mind speculate instead, I knelt in front of the statue, peered into its moaning mouth, and popped open the box of glass beads. 

If that message means what I think it means, all I have to do is…

I removed a single bead from the box and deposited it in the woman’s open mouth.  The bead rolled for a second, dropped out of sight, and triggered a sharp clicking noise from the depths of the fountain, Elementary my dear Watson.

 Suddenly, the entire fountain shook with the dull grating of stone against stone.  Nervously I clung to the sculpture until the shaking subsided and then promptly worked my way down the series of bowls until my feet were safely planted back on solid ground.  No sooner had my foot left the last bowl that the stone lady resumed her continual lament and fountain filled once again with water.  Startled, I leapt back from the scene to realize that everything returned to its normal position, everything, that is, except for the panel portraying Adam and Eve.  The panel had vanished, and in its place, stood a gaping dungeon-like entrance.  My mouth became as dry as the fountain had been just moments earlier, and I gazed into the hole with a bittersweet mixture of emotions.  The thrill of discovery was blended with the terror of unknown, and  garnished with vulnerability.

It was then that I remembered the lockets, which hung about my neck.  Carefully, I slipped the both lockets off my neck and studied them in the palm of my hand.  For a moment, I stood struck immobile by their remarkable craftsmanship, They’re incredible. No one on earth could equal their lifelike quality.

Suddenly trembling with delight, I undid the clasp on the lion locket.  The inscription jumped at my eyes like newly kindled flame: “In Like a Lion”.

Bristling with excitement, I undid the second clasp as well revealing a second inscription: “Out Like a Lamb”.

As soon as the second clasp fell away, a burst of brilliant light accompanied by a bone rattling roar rent the air around me.  I attempted to raise my hands against the sensory onslaught, but it lasted only a few brief seconds before fading back into nothingness. 

Strangely unaffected by the blast, I stared at the pair of lockets, which now hovered and glowed in front of my face.  My hand flew to my mouth as I realized that they had taken on a lifelike quality: their faces moved with the motions of breathing and expression, their eyes blinked and moved from side to side, and their fur bristled and swayed in the light breeze-all this while still appearing to be made out of gold. 

“Who are you?” I asked.

Both faces finally took form, the lion taking on an air of stern defiance, while the lamb a one of serene patience.  The lion spoke first, his voice growling like sandpaper on glass, “Who we are is not important.  We are subject to the will of the locket and to you.  Put us about your neck and we shall lend our unimaginable power to you.”

 “What do you mean, ‘the will of the locket’?” I asked. “Can’t you think for yourselves?”

The lion’s face curled in a snarl, and the lamb answered this time. “Barely.  We are prisoners, though I can’t say that we didn’t deserve it.  I am simply content that we have been awakened again.  It’s been some years since the last occasion.”

The lion growled, “Enough talk.  Either slip us on, or throw us into the fountain.  Do anything but wait around.  I’ve done nothing but wait around for years, and I don’t mean to squander even one second now that I’m awake.”

I did as I was told and slid both lockets over my head and around my neck.  Immediately, they slipped under my shirt and onto my chest, melding in so that I could no longer feel their presence against my skin.  Having tucked the lockets away securely, I turned my focus back towards the dark entrance to the underground.

 In my mind’s eye, the dark entrance transformed into the massive fanged maw of an enormous sea creature, just waiting for me to wander close enough for it to snatch me in its jaws.  Shaking with fright and grasping the lockets for reassurance, I lowered one foot into the gap and winced, half expecting it to be amputated at once. However, nothing happened, and I was able to muster up the courage to lower myself to the next rung.

My future is down there.  If I don’t do this, I will not have anything to live for.  There is no if. I must either face the dragon or die trying.

My confidence building, I took one last longing glance back up at the sunlight, placed the Recronoscope on the side of the fountain for Andrus to find, and then plunged down the ladder, letting the darkness envelope me.

I’m coming, Christine. You may not know or even want it yet, but I’m coming back to you. You’ll see.

Chapter 19: A Wrenching Rendezvous

The darkness oozed over me like maple syrup as the entrance shut fast behind me.  My eyes gasped for light in the dim corridor, lit with only half as many torches as the previous tunnel.  In many ways, this passage resembled the one I had just left: the same rotting stone walls, the grainy floor, and, most of all, the musty crypt-like smell.  However, one feature set this hall apart: a series of vivid paintings on the walls.  All about the entrance area, snippets of bright green and bold magenta pranced across the walls in a mosaic of graffiti.

 As I leaned in closer, to my surprise, I recognized the handwriting.  The frenzied writing belonged to Fred and Christine.  I was sure of it.  Years of comparing notes with Fred, and reading love notes from Christine, made me almost an indisputable authority. After a bit of squinting and adjusting to the light, I figured that most of the messages held little or no meaning, but were rather the naïve scribbling of two infatuated lovebirds.  In my scrutiny of the wall, I glimpsed more romantic graffiti than I would care to admit. 

So they have been here, and often I would expect.  I just wonder how they were able to keep it a secret for so long.

Suddenly, a deep rooted pain wrenched inside of me, a wound which had lain dormant for a long while, We never shared anything like this.

Abruptly interrupting my pity, a growl rose from under my shirt, “Are you just going to stare at scribbles all day?  I hunger for action!  Why don’t you at least try my powers?  If you wish to navigate this tunnel quickly, I can empower your legs run like a bounding cheetah or leaping gazelle.  All you have to do is say the words.”

Nervously, I felt for the locket under my shirt, Andrus said there might be side effects, though I doubt Leo here is willing to admit it.

However, as I glazed off into the dank and dismal corridors of the path in front of me, rationalizations slowly materialized in my mind like ice on a windshield.  The trek ahead would prove ominous, and soon, the dread of plodding along in the dark as defenseless as a worm on the end of a fisherman’s hook overcame my sense of good judgment.  Letting my eyelids drape closed, I gripped my chest and whispered the appointed words as I had been instructed by Andrus, “In like a lion.”

No sooner had the last syllable rolled from my mouth, than an ear-shattering roar filled the silent space. For a split second, the cavern shone as every torch blazed with the intensity of a bonfire.  Every muscle surged with energy, a constant, intense, heat.  Around me, the air glowed with a faint halo. 

At first, I felt as if all my particles would become so excited that I was in danger of evaporating; however, after the first few seconds, I grew accustomed to my newfound invigoration. My legs and arms danced with life, each individual finger trembling with excitement and, almost without thinking about it, I shot off down the dark hallway in a charge.

With barely time for conscious thought, my nimble feet sent me barreling into the darkness, which provided me with some small measure of comfort.  If anything had planned to lay in wait and pounce on me, it would have to have had the response time of a lightning bolt, if it ever saw me at all. 

A minute or so of blurry, high speed travel had worn on when I began to notice, a strange sound, almost like the sound of a human voice, but somehow different, underwater sounding, “Fraghnk.”

At first, I ignored the sound, dismissing it as my overactive imagination.  However, the voice refused to be quieted, “Frendgk, qwvihicklkely.”

Not knowing the voice to be friend or foe, I only pushed harder along the tunnel.  It wasn’t until the voice snapped into clear focus that it halted me in my tracks.

“Frank!  Fred!  Quickly.”

Abruptly, I gouged my heels into the ground, immediately stopping my rapid advance.  Frantically surveying the area, I found myself to be alone. 

That’s Christine’s voice. But why is she here?

Not stopping to think, I attempted to resume my dash, but to my disappointment, I had returned to my normal strength.  Not stopping to ask questions, I dashed forward with my normal strength.  After the explosive energy of the locket, my own dash felt like crawling.

Desperately, I attempted to renew the power of the locket, “In like a Lion!” I cried.

Fueled by fear and uncertainty, I sprinted ahead with boldness, however, my legs remained as frail as before.  Suddenly enraged, I screamed at the locket,

“Do as I say!  I need to catch them, before they kill anyone else or maybe you’d like to spend the next thousand years underground buried in sand!”

The lion remained silent.  Instead, the gentle voice of the sheep spoke up, “You’ll just going to have to be patient.  You’ve used up all of your energy for now.  You’re going to have to wait a few minutes before he’s ready to give you another boost again.”

The blood burned like lava in my face, “A few minutes!  I don’t have a few minutes!  Christine is in trouble and Mercos probably already has those lockets!  I need the power now!”

As I bolted forward, the craving for the lion’s power overwhelmed my will power.  I finally glided off the serene river of sanity and plunged off the waterfall of madness.  I lashed out at the air, screaming, ranting, and kicking wildly.  .  Finally, my head bashed against the wall, hitting with the force of a battering ram, abruptly ending my tantrum. 

Hazy shapes passed before my vision, and I felt myself drifting from consciousness.  However, I just managed to cling on, staring up at the ceiling and willing myself to stay awake, like a traveler trapped in a blizzard.  As I lay there, the towering rage that had engulfed me just seconds before drained from my body, as did blood from a gash near my right temple.  Alone in the dark sea of sand and stone, bitter guilt and fear rushed in to take the place of madness.

What was that? I’m so stupid.

I could not recall even once in my life, being so consumed by anger, even under extreme duress. 

I couldn’t find the word for what had brought my insides to a boil, until, I looked down.  The lion’s face had slipped out from under my shirt during my tirade, and now sat there grinning devilishly, looking like a mad scientist.  “It was you.”

The lion chucked with a low rumble that mimicked distant thunder. “Of course it was. Do you think I get my power for free?”

I nodded, biting my lip and tasting iron, “I had assumed so, but I guess I’m too naïve for you.  Why don’t you enlighten me, oh great one.”

“I thought you would be clever enough to put the pieces together,” he scoffed, “but I guess, you’ve taken one too many blows to the head.  So, since I’m in a charitable mood today, I will enlighten you, though you don’t deserve it.”

“Go on,” I muttered weakly slipping the lion back beneath my shirt, “I’m going to continue on now, without your help.”

He’s crankier than Andrus…

If the lion was offended by my words, he made no attempt to show it, “Fine.  Go on.  But listen while you go.  Each of the lockets does not posses unlimited power.  We all need nourishment, fuel for the lack of a better word.  We no longer eat, but that doesn’t mean we don’t feed.  We need essences, emotions, to use our powers, and to make sure we don’t ever go hungry, we are all built in with a sort of guarantee.  In addition to my primary power, I also posses the power to incite anger in anyone when I’m about to run out of fuel.  Allowing you to run like the west wind, used up all of my power, and I guess you can figure out the rest.”

 “So you just threw me into a frenzy without warning?” I asked, agitation rising in my voice.” That just about knocked me out cold.  You could have killed me!”

“Who,” the lion snarled, “do you think should pay the price?  You reaped the benefits and so you need to pay for them.  Anyway, it’s over now, and I’m full and ready to empower you in an instant.  Just say the words.  You’ll find that sometimes anger can be directed in a powerful way by itself.”

In disgust, I promptly ended our conversation.  I had heard enough.  Internally, I resolved to let the lion lie dormant under my shirt unless I found myself in a dire situation.

As I trudged on, I soon came to a dramatic change in the tunnel.  A new section, much cleaner looking, lay in front of me.  The sand floors had been done away with, replaced with the same bluish stone that formed the walls.  Along the sides, light trickles of moisture meandered down the walls.  Approaching the passageway, a nervous longing came over me, Where’s Andrus when I need him?  What I would do for reinforcements right now.

Gazing into the darkness behind me, I couldn’t shake the sneaking suspicion that I was being followed, and this time around, I couldn’t have Andrus fly back to make sure.

Attempting to clear my head, I closed my eyes and let Christine’s angelic face flood my memories.  I imagined her voice calling for me to fall into her embrace and begging for me to stay there.  Longing for her, I stretched out my arms towards the tunnel ahead and tore off down it as fast as my legs would carry me. 

On the stone floors, each individual step echoed like gunshots.  If anyone was waiting anywhere nearby, they now knew I was coming. 

I plodded onward uninterrupted until my stride was immediately cut short by a disturbing sight: a strange trail of color scattered in drops and splatters. Blood. 

Incredulous, I stopped and knelt over the crimson stains.  The trail was still fresh from the looks of it.  The spatters were flung at various angles landing both on the floor and the walls, causing some of the moisture to drip red. 

The breath caught in my throat as if an invisible hand were wrapping its fingers around it.  The blood could belong to anyone.  Though I tried not to jump to conclusions, I could not help my overactive imagination from taking center stage,

What if it’s Christine’s blood and she’s dying?  Or another hapless city official caught in the crossfire. Yes, that’s probably it, but then again, if Christine is here, Fred probably is too. In that case, it could be his.

Suddenly, the clapping of another pair of footsteps resounded through the hall, still distant, but approaching.

My legs kicked in before my brain, and I bolted off down the path lending the clamor of my rhythmic stride to that of my pursuer.  At first the two strides beat opposite each other, like dueling drummers in a subway tunnel, until at last, my pursuer matched my step and our strides beat as one.  Desperately, I glanced back over my shoulder to catch a glimpse of my pursuer, but saw nothing.

Seriously wondering if the darkness had finally driven me insane, screeched to a stop and listened to see if the other set of footsteps followed suit.  The other footsteps continued for a few seconds, but then too fell silent.  There, locked in a breathless standstill, I considered running back myself, in hopes that my pursuer was in fact part of the reinforcements from Andrus.

However, as I waited there, listening intently to the silence, I decided that the behavior of my pursuer better resembled that of a hunter playing mind games with his prey, and so I ran, having no desire to end up a crumpled heap on the cold stone.  As soon as my feet resumed striking the paving stones, my follower quickly picked up the pace to once again match mine. 

Now genuinely frightened, I pumped my legs against the pavement with the rhythm of pistons.  However, as a tore deeper into the tunnel, the water from the walls poured onto the floor with constantly increasing speed, coating the blue stones with a thin layer of liquid.  My feet fought for traction against the slick surface as I floundered about, trying to keep track of the quickly vanishing trail of blood.

I stamped and sloshed through the frigid water, spraying torrents in every which direction, throwing up an obscuring mist in front of my vision.  All at once, one foot caught in pothole created by the absence of a floor stone while the other foot lost traction of the floor, planting myself face first onto the floor.  Water rushed into my vision, and for a moment, I lost all sense of direction as my legs tumbled over my head towards the ceiling.  I hit the floor with a bone-jarring thud, causing my vision to blur. 

Forcing myself to my knees, I chanced a backward glance, I saw, to my horror, a shapeless mass of color swiftly advancing on me from the distance.  Clawing into the ground, I managed to scramble away blindly, not daring to look back again.  Fortunately, the tunnel finally split ahead into two separate paths, both equally ominous-looking.  Hoping to lose whatever was following me, I didn’t pause to weigh my options as to which direction to go. 

After a short distance, this tunnel broke off into another branch, which I followed to the left.  This in turn broke into a series of other paths.  I zigzagged from path to path leaving my pursuer to guess at the path that I had taken.

The winding tunnels, however, had left me in a difficult situation.  The dampness had erased all but the tiniest traces of the blood, and so I no longer had any indication of which way I needed to follow in order to pursue the lockets.  I continued through the darkness, making a steady pace, and constantly vigilant for any traces of crimson on the floor or walls. 

What if Christine isn’t down here at all?  What if I’m running blindly through this lab rat maze, just inches away from the end where they’ve set the mousetrap.

At once, my legs buckled out from under me and panic welled up so tightly in my chest, that I had to clasp my hands over my mouth to prevent a scream. I looked up in despair. The tunnel in front of me cut off sharply in a dead end.

The cavern at once opened into a more spacious, dome shaped room half choked with jagged boulders impeding any further progress.  The room ahead was free of the dampness of the previous tunnels, and was lit by a meager torch, which shone dimly from the left wall.

 I advanced to the nearest boulder and lost myself behind it.  Heaving with all my might, I attempted to pry it even an inch from its position and was unable to budge it even the smallest distance.

My head rested against the gigantic boulder, and I let my eyelids close.  Once again conjuring up images of Christine, I began to drift off into a stupor.  Longingly, I caressed the finger where my wedding band had been just the day before. 

Finally, I let the hand drop onto my heart and onto the locket. Suddenly, my eyes flew open with a flash of inspiration.

Of course!  How could I forget?  I have all the strength that I could ever wish. That is, if I want to chance the consequences.

Gradually, I raised my frigid, sopping-wet body from the boulder and reached inside my shirt for the lion locket. Where there should have been two lockets, only a single locket remained.  Terrified, I yanked the remaining locket from my neck, hoping against chance, that I still had the lion, and was aptly rewarded.  The lion had remained securely around my neck; however the lamb was nowhere to be found.

Incredulous, I broke my rule of silence and screamed at the lion, “Why didn’t you tell me that the lamb was missing?”

The lion gazed off indifferently, “Why should I?  I’m not in charge of him…you are.  Besides, I don’t really need him now that I’ve been activated.  It just wasn’t really that important.”

At that instant, the devil on my shoulder tempted me to grind the obstinate locket into a fine powder with a boulder.  However, as I sat there, huffing and puffing, I came to the realization that I really needed its help if I was ever going to manage the path ahead.  Drawing in a deep breath, I attempted a calm response, “Listen,” I muttered through clenched teeth, “I hate to admit it, but need your help again.  I could just as soon leave you down here with your friend the lamb if you give me any trouble, so you had best cooperate. I don’t want to die from the side effect this time, so try to tone it down.”

The lion scoffed scornfully, “You wouldn’t dare leave me down here.  That would be nothing short of suicide.  Your pursuers would undoubtedly pick me up, and I would be forced to serve a new master.  I don’t play favorites.” 

Annoyed, I curtly wagged my head back and forth, “Then why do you think the lamb was expendable? What makes you so sure that someone would pick you up?  I could hide you.”

To this, the lion only chuckled, “Oh, I’m deadly sure.  We lockets have a precious little to do most of the time, and would do anything to be borne again.  On the same token, every living being craves our power. They are drawn to it, even if they don’t know what they are being drawn to.  Even you are becoming dependent on it.  You couldn’t cast me off if you wanted to.”

I almost flung the lion off as far as I could throw him, just to prove him wrong.  However, a frail voice interrupted my thoughts.  “Frank, Frank…”

Though just barely audible, Christine’s gentle pleading cut through stone and rubble. Craning my ears to locate the direction of the source, I realized that the voice seeped from behind the center of the mound of rubble.  Suddenly panicked at the thought that Christine might be crushed under the jagged stones, I leapt towards the direction of her voice and called in a husky tone, “Christine!  Where are you?  Are you hurt?”

Almost pressing my ears into the stone, I heard nothing.  Frantically, I tore for the locket, shouted the designated words and immediately flung the first stone aside.  Glowing like a live wire, I cast aside each stone as if it had been no more than a pebble, and soon I developed a steady rhythm, each stone banging and splintering like mortar fire around me.  Jagged shards of stone flew about like shrapnel from an explosion, cutting and biting into my skin.

Hang on, Christine, please hang on.

Working rapidly with the aid of the locket, I quickly cleared an arm span sized gap through the avalanche of boulders.

Those muscle men at the Olympics couldn’t hold a candle to me…maybe not even a spark…

Peering through the gap into the darkness, I could make out little. As I ducked in farther, however, two vague, shapeless forms came into view.  Still trembling with gargantuan strength, I dropped on all fours and thrust myself through the gap.  Straining to see in the barely existent light, I shuffled over to one of the forms and placed my hand its head.  To my surprise, I discovered that the person lying before me was not Christine, but a man.  I withdrew my hand, and took away wet, warm, stickiness.  I whispered frantically into the man’s ear, “Are you alright?  Can you hear me?”

The man stirred just barely, and muttered, his voice as prickly as a sea urchin, “Face, how? Where did you come from? Go back.”

At that instant, I realized that this man was no stranger, “Fred!” I gasped, “what happened?  Where is Christine?”

Just barely hanging on, he managed to croak out a few words, “Over there…” he gasped, his lungs laboring heavily for air, “you left, we came back down here, we were attacked…I don’t even know is she is still alive.”

Suddenly, he burst into wracking sobs, hacking and coughing as if the chamber had been filled with smoke, “You can’t stay here,” he groaned through his tears, “they’ll come back. I’m such a fool.”

He punctuated his words with another wrenching sob, and the rest of his words were drowned out.  His hair was matted and clotted with dried blood..  Tearing frantically at my shirt, I ripped a section off and applied it over the site of his head wound in an attempt to halt the blood flow.  Despite my efforts, the section slowly became soaked.  Unable to take the strain any longer, I knelt close to his ear and whispered, “I’m going to check on Christine.  I’ve already sent for help. So just hang on.”

He might have protested had he more strength, but at this point, he couldn’t even muster up a reply.  A grapefruit sized lump welled up in my throat, the animosity I had held earlier for him  melting clean away.

Again, he remained silent, and I turned my attention to Christine.  Fearing the worst, I scrambled over to the other shape in the darkness and gently took her head in my hands.  Not wanting to make my presence known to anyone who might have be laying in wait, I leaned in closer and whispered with the urgency of a man hanging by a branch off the side of a cliff, “Christine!  Can you hear me?  It’s Frank!  Oh, please wake up. I’m going to get you out of here.”

Waiting for a response, I realized that my hand was collecting more sticky wetness from the side of her head as well.  As before I ripped another section of my shirt and wrapped it around the area of the wound.  Again, I attempted to arouse her back into consciousness; nevertheless, she remained silent and lifeless.  Desperately, I grasped her now icy hand, “You can’t do this to me,” I pleaded, “you need to wake up. Help is on the way. You need to tell me who did this. Christine!”

Despite all my pleading, she stirred no more than rag doll.  Falling into the depths of panic, I leaned over and kissed her blood-streaked forehead.

As, I gazed into the darkness, my eyes ached for a chance to see her face just one last time.  Gently, I slipped my hand along her pale cheek and leaned in closer, “Christine, I need you to wake up,” I murmured, both gentleness and strain creeping into my voice, “I’m going to get you both out of here, and then I am going to make things right, the way things should have been.  I never should have messed things.  I thought that would finally fill this emptiness I’ve fought to fill for all these years, but instead, it’s only left me more broken, empty and miserable than I ever was before.  I know you probably don’t understand.”

I winced with the thought of the curly blonde-haired elf that at once been my daughter, “If you could only see our life together Christine, you’d fight to live.  I don’t know what’s going on, but we can’t fix anything if you don’t wake up.  Please Christine, do it for me.”

I paused, and added on a second thought, “Do it for Annie, wherever she is.”

The whisper hung in the air, unanswered and unheeded.  Christine barely stirred, though I could tell that she was still breathing, though very weakly.  Not daring to admit defeat, threw my hands to the ceiling and pleaded more vehemently as one pleads for his own life before a jury, “Oh, please, let them live!  They don’t need to be a part of this!  It isn’t fair!  I started this, and I should be the one to pay, not them.  I don’t know if Trezzlepeg will fix this one.”

Sensing the utter helpless of my situation, I collapsed into my own hands, I guess possessing all the power of the cosmos won’t do me any good now. I don’t even have the strength to save the ones I care about…

“When will this nightmare ever end?”

From behind me, a growling voice replied from out of the darkness, “Don’t cry too hard Tomas. Your nightmare ends now and here your eternal sleep begins.”

Chapter 20: The Phoenix in the Lion’s Den


The name resounded through my head.  My pursuer had me mistaken for someone else, doubtless because I had forgotten to take off my disguise.

As I stood, a sharp metal point found its home in the hollow of my back, “So good to see you, Tomas,” the voice spat, dripping with sarcasm, “It really has been too long since our days at the Academy.  It’s a pity our reunion couldn’t have been a more cordial one.”

I turned to my head to the side in attempt to get a glimpse of my attacker, and was rewarded with a painful, sensation in my back which began as a tingling and then swelled into an uncomfortable burning.  Suddenly, I screamed in pain as the sensation spread from my back to the ends of my fingers and toes.  My arms shook uncontrollably as I only partially stifled a scream.

The villainous voice chuckled, his voice rumbling and crackling like live embers, “How does it feel to taste fear, Tomas?  How does it feel to be the one in pain?  Well, it’s about time you learned, because some of us have already lived with it for years and that just isn’t fair now, is it?”

If his breath had been flame, my hair would have been singed from my head.  Breathless and confused, I was about to whirl about and counterattack with my super strength, when I realized that the effects had worn off.  Paralyzed with terror and questions, my mind reeled about for answers.

The voice continued its terrible gloating, “I knew you would come, Tomas.  The bait was irresistible.  You just can’t help tramping after someone who needs help, even if that means tramping off to your own destruction.  It is a pity you didn’t acquire that knack sooner or you might have been there for me.”

Not wanting to blow my cover, I remained silent, soaking up his gloating with apparent indifference.  “Nothing to say, oh noble one?” the voice hissed, “You are lucky that I’m letting you live so long.  It would much more efficient just to get it over with now, but I’d much rather like to wait for your friend Face to arrive.  I would just love to see the look on his face when he realizes that he has failed, so I think I will prolong your life a few precious moments longer.”

My mind burst alive with panic.  How does he know my name?  What does he mean that I’ve failed?

“Don’t try anything stupid. Thanks to your little feathered friend, my guards are well, shall we say,out of sight.  You move an inch, and I assure you that I will not wait for Face, no matter how much the thought disappoints me.”

Sweat trickled down the back of my neck there as I stood, trapped in the deadly limbo for what seemed like an lifetime and a half trying desperately in my mind to put the pieces together

With every second that ticked away, my hopes for Fred and Christine’s survival waned until I had almost given up hope.  Dropping my eyelids, my life flashed before me in my mind’s eye.  I felt the arms of my wife encircle me, felt the breeze through my hair as I raced triumphantly through the canyons, swelled with joy at the birth of my baby girl, laughed, cried, and then drifted into peace, all within the tiniest fraction of a second.  I was ready to die.

Just then, my eyes flew fully open at the sound of advancing footsteps.  Suddenly my back went as rigid as a beanpole and the blood in my veins froze.  “It looks as if your time is up, doctor,” the voice said, “any last words?”

As I was about to break my oath of silence and spew forth a final noble speech, another voice from behind stepped in and took the honor, “Yes,” the voice stated level and low, “take two of these and call me in the morning.”

Two blinding pulses of light illuminated the chamber, and at once, the sharp object fell from my back.  Time slowed, and  I whirled about, rage billowing in my heart, and suddenly let loose on my attacker with bestial fury.

I saw no more than a blur of gold and brown, as I channeled all the pent up rage from the past few days, magnified by the locket’s strange powers.  My firsts landed in a steady rhythm like a mighty piston.  Then as if we had been suddenly suspended in water, the flurry of motion screeched to a near halt for a spilt second, and I beheld the face of both my attacker and my savior. 

As I had been dreading, Mercos’ twisted face stared back at me. His golden armor glittered in the new light, projected by the real Tomas, who stood  brandishing a pointed staff in the entryway.  As before, Mercos’s muscled arms were bare, flaunting the fiery image of the phoenix. 

All this details blurred together as I glimpsed the jewelry about his neck: the ultimate lockets, which governed life and death now glowing.  To my surprise, next to them, lay two other lockets, both carved like owls.

Acting on impulse, I thrust out my hand and yanked with all my strength at the nearest locket, and by some crazy stroke of luck chance, the gold chain by which the locket hung snapped of and I was flung sprawling backwards.

 All at once, time snapped back into its proper frame.  The next second, the locket-induced rage drained from my body and my head slammed into a rough boulder.  I retained just enough consciousness to witness the coming carnage.  Quickly, I concealed the stolen locket into my pants pocket.

Though a few seconds after being ambushed, Mercos appeared miraculously unscathed.  In fact, the onslaught appeared to have merely stunned him, and now he returned to his full capacity and stood ready to unleash his wrath, seemingly unaware of his loss of a locket.  “Fools!” Mercos roared with fury, “you like to play with words?  Then, I have a few words for you!”

He thrust a mighty hand towards both Tomas and me, and spoke, “Not to be!”

A bolt of destruction leapt from his fingertips, crackling like lightning, and blossoming in every color of the spectrum. The bolt slammed into Tomas and snuffed him out as if he had been evaporating water.  The foundations of the tunnel shook under the strain sending a torrential shower of rocks on our heads. 

Then, suddenly, a second bolt of destruction leapt from his other hand hurling directly towards me.  Desperately shielding my face with my bruised hands, I silently bid farewell to the world.

The end never came.  Inches from my face, the bolt dispersed leaving me frightened, but unharmed.  Gripped with fear, I could neither move nor speak for several seconds.

“Begone! I said begone!” Mercos raged, his eyes glowing with savage resolve, “Why can’t I destroy you, pitiful dog?”

Furious, the gigantic warrior slammed the wall with his mighty fist, raining even more dirty hail upon our heads.  Then without another word, a hideous, high-pitched shriek burst from his lips, nearly shattering my grip on consciousness.  The intricate phoenix on Mercos’ arm flared with new light, cruel and terrible. The phoenix on my own arm grew unbearably hot.

“If I can’t destroy you with this.., Face,” he spat, “then, at least let my minions take care of it.”

At once, the room exploded with motion as no less than a dozen gargoyles leapt into view.  Unlike the ones I had encountered in the garbage dump, each gargoyle’s skin glowed deep crimson and was painted to give the appearance of rippling flames.  Each creature’s eyes and talons shone like polished obsidian. Like sparks flickering about a bonfire, they leapt and danced about their master, grimacing and laughing cruelly.  From deep in their throats rumbled a crude but terrifying chant”

Fire, fire, spark and ire

Hunt and burn

And never tire

Black as pitch

Gray as Ash

All consume

All hopes dash

Crimson as the phoenix feather

Strike with fear

One, together

If we fall

One or all

Rise again

With blazing call

Fire, fire, spark and ire

Hunt and burn

And never tire

Mercos grinned wickedly. “Entrancing, aren’t they?  The Phoegoyles are the pride of my army.”

At the mention of themselves, each of the Phoegoyles halted its dance and bellowed its approval, their breath searing my face like wind from a blazing furnace.  “However,” he continued, “I believe that now the well of your luck runs dry.  These Phoegoyles will have no trouble taking care of you, but just to make sure... ”

Mercos shot an accusing finger at me, as if sealing my fate for a serious crime.  Wielding his sharp-pointed scepter with the other hand, he flung a fiery bolt from the end completely engulfing me in crimson light, and rendering my muscles useless.  An icy chill set in to both muscle and bone, and my whole body fell limp like a windup toy at the end of his winding.

 Taking the signal from their master, the Phoegoyles advanced slowly on my position.  Wincing from the pain of my aching muscles, I wriggled and floundered about.

 Andrus, where are you? Reinforcements won’t be worth the dirt under my fingernails if I die before you arrive…

“Mercos!” I cried, “What do you want of me?  I’ve done nothing more than try to save my brother who was lost in an accident.  I’ve done nothing to you, but if you insist on killing me, I promise you that you’ll curse the day. I have powerful friends.”

My remarks sent the Phoegoyles into a frenzy of amusement.  Their master, however, was not amused.  He sniffed, “Don’t try that tough talk on me,” he seethed, “like it or not, you are in my way., a pest that needs prompt extermination.”

Mercos snapped his fingers and the grotesque creatures continued their advance, nearly unhindered by my diversion.  Thinking quickly, seeing no sign of aid, I blurted out, “Please, Mercos, don’t I even get any last words?  As I recall, mine were cut short by that other unfortunate fellow.”

The warrior made no attempt at slowing the plodding advance of his minions, who seemed to be holding off, relishing the moment of their strike. 

“I don’t see why you deserve them.  I never gave that chance to your brother, who by the way, has been quite a nuisance.  It seems that once was just not enough. It is not often that I have to kill a man more than once to keep him down.  Let’s just hope that’s not a trait that runs in the family.”

Already the Phoegoyles had surrounded me, huddling around me in a broken circle, their sweltering breath stinging like a swarm of angry wasps on my exposed face.  Desperately, I cried, “In like a lion! In like a lion!”

To my horror, the words hung dead in the air and produced no more effect than giving the monstrous creatures something else to cackle at. 

Then, suddenly stopping, their leader, the largest and most heavily decorated of the lot raised a single terrible razor-like talon.  Each of his followers took suit one by one until a terrible crown of daggers encircled my head.  Each terrible beast drew in a horrible crackling breath, and, for a terrible moment, silence hung in the air.

In that great and horrible second, the only thought in my mind pertained to the cruel irony of the situation.

I closed my eyes, relishing my final moments, when, like an angelic decree issuing from the heavens, a women’s voice burst from the doorway, “Go out like a lamb, you filthy snake.”

Immediately, the cavern flooded with a warm white light, Unable to react before the light grabbed them, each hideous Phoegoyle dropped to the floor, and flailed about, seemingly no stronger than a newborn kitten.  Mercos, equally caught off guard,  crumpled to the ground wriggling like a snake. 

Muttering a silent prayer of thanks, I attempted to identify my last-minute savoir.  Good going Andrus. Your timing could not have been more impeccable if you had staged that on purpose…

As if not wishing to miss taking a bow for his actions, Andrus suddenly came into view in front of my gaze.  Never was I ever so happy to see him. “Andrus!” I cried, “what’s going on?  You must have found that locket. That was a stroke of genius.”

Andrus nodded curtly, “Yes, thank you.  Now, we need to leave before the effects wear off.”

I scoffed, unable to move, “That is not exactly in my power at the moment.  The lion locket seems to be out of order and I’m not going anywhere.”

Andrus nodded rapidly, vibrating madly like a hummingbird, “Don’t worry about that, Face!  Samot here can transport you to safety and we can talk about everything later!  Just trust her, and we’ll mop up things here.”

As if on cue, the doctor, Samot appeared in my view, hovering over me with a long, golden rod with a clear, diamond shaped stone on the end of it.  Gently, she stooped over, and I could sense the anguish in her gaze, “Face,” she said, “I’m going to touch you with the end of this, and it will transport you to safety.  Don’t worry about the others. I’ve already sent them.”

Her voice trailed off into nothingness, and a single crystalline tear glided down her smooth cheek landing on the front panel of her helmet.  Viciously biting her lip, she stretched out the staff towards me, but just before it could connect with my skin, a desperate, last minute thought graced my brain, “Andrus!  Get the other locket from Mercos while he is out!  I’ve the got the other one here.”

Startled a bit by my outburst, Samot leapt back a bit.  However, her features quickly melted into a benevolent, yet pained smile, “Don’t worry, Face,” she crooned.

The staff came down on my chest, and immediately, I was embraced by a warm, comforting glow of ivory light.  Immediately, I felt as if my body had been placed on the back of an invisible bird, which was bearing me into the clouds and away from pain and filthiness. “Don’t worry, Face. Don’t worry.”

Part IV: Far From Home

Chapter 21: Where Are You Now?

My eyes fluttered open to the glare of bright overhead light, glaring down at me like an ever-unblinking eye.  Lazily I wiggled my arm, finding that I had once again regained control of my muscles.  Gradually, I coaxed my muscles to lift me to an upright position.  The room about me was bare of any decoration or furniture except the bed, which I had been laid on.  The floors and the walls had been painted a dull forest green and only extended a few feet in every direction.  The air clung to my nostrils, heavy and overly sterilized. 

Where I am?

I shook my head, trying to dislodge the cobwebs that had gathered there.  Tossing the sheets aside, I swung my feet over the side of the bed, and planted my bare feet on the cold tile of the floor.  Glancing down at my chest, I realized that my attire had been changed, replaced with a dingy, white, one piece, jumpsuit.  Immediately, my hand flew to my neck,

The locket!

To my relief, I found that both lockets still hung about my neck.  My heart racing faster, I dropped back to the bed.  Suddenly, the cobwebs flew from my mind in an instant, allowing the memories to pour through, The cave...the

Frantically, I dashed to the wall, madly searching for a door.  Incredibly, each of the walls showed no sign of yielding to a door.  Panic swelled inside me, like a rat trapped in a cage, and I threw myself against the nearest wall, pounding and kicking, “Christine,  Fred,  Andrus, get me out of here!”

My mind raged recalling he evil laughter of the Phoegoyles.  I yelled and screamed, until my throat grew so horse that I couldn’t make a sound.  Once again exhausted, I collapsed against the wall in despair. 

The room once again became saturated with silence.  Then, out of the silence, a tiny, jovial voice drifted into my ears.  It was neither commanding nor powerful in tone, yet with every word, life seemed to return to my weary bones. 

“You really shouldn’t carry on so,” said an unfamiliar voice. “Your friends are quite safe.  I kept them alive while you had me in your possession.  Your outburst just now did no more good than to give your lungs a good workout and your face a good cleaning.”

I glanced down in disbelief at the lockets, which hung, about my neck.  The voice had not come from the lion.  The smiling mask locket, which before had been lifeless its features fixed in a never-ending grin, was now animated and lively.  Its features changed every second, seemingly breathing in and out the musty air, all the while keeping an expression of unrestrained joy about its features.  Its eyes glowed like polished pearls, seeming somehow to skip the layers and skip right to the core.  Shocked into the silence for a few moments, I gazed at this token of marvelous beauty, and at once all doubt and fear fled from my mind.  Finally, I mustered up the courage to speak.

“ saved them?  But how?  I never commanded you to do anything.  Is that how I survived getting torched when Mercos tried to kill me?”

The locket chuckled mirthfully as a baby’s laugh, its eyes pulsing brighter with every syllable, “I see that for all that you have sought us you don’t really know much about us.  Unlike most lockets, you don’t have to command me in all things.  I simply perceived the need from your thoughts, and acted.  So as a result, both your friends and you are safe.  And I am much more contented.. being away from that awful creature of hatred.  His very touch disturbed me greatly though I doubt my companion minded much.”

Trying hard to digest all this new information, I furrowed my brow, slipped off the locket into the palm of my hand, and inquired, “Your companion?  You mean the other locket?”

The locket bobbed up and down slightly as if nodding, “Yes.  That is correct.  Though we are much more than mere lockets I can assure you that.”

I rubbed my chin in thought, was met with a sandpapery surface, and released that I had neglected to shave the previous morning, “I guess I shouldn’t just call you ‘locket’ then.  Do you have a name that you would prefer?”

The locket blinked, her eye shining like searchlights, “Well, my proper name was Ezradamus, but I hear that humans don’t often use such drawn out names.  Shorter names just don’t have the depth in description that longer names do, however, if it pleases you, you may call me Ezra.”

I grinned broadly, nodding in approval, “And what is your companion called?  I don’t suppose he’d like being called locket either.”

Ezra drew his lips together, “You’re quite right, Face.  He is not as merry as I and will quickly take offense if you should so much as breathe wrong in his presence.  His full name is Morgetmelchior, though he might tolerate it if you called him Melchior.”

Since she had already revealed her power over my thoughts, I did not think it odd that she already knew my name.

“Well, Ezra,” I muttered politely, “I seem to be in sort of a bind, being stuck in this room and all, especially not knowing where exactly this room is.  You don’t happen to have any advice, do you?”

Ezra smiled knowingly, “Go back and lie down for a bit.  The extra sleep will do you well.  It might be sometime before they decide what is to be done with you.”

I popped up my eyebrows quizzically, “Who do you mean by ‘they’?”

The locket’s clenched her eyes and mouth shut, trying to stifle its amusement, “I am a hasty one, and not the greatest host either.  Just go to bed, and I’ll explain it all when you wake up.  Suffice it to say that you are quite far from home.”

Far from home.

The words mulled over in my mind like a hamster in a wheel.  The farthest I had ever been from home had been to visit my cousins in California during my childhood summers.  The word ‘far’ held a degree of ambiguity to me.  It was the same word used to describe the next town over, and the also the countries on the other side of the world.  It caused a faint shudder of delight and fear that originated in my spine and then crawled up to the tips of my hair.

If the locket could perceive my thoughts, it made no indication. Deciding that I really was exhausted, I followed Ezra’s advice and slunk back between the brittle sheets. Placing the locket against my chest, I slipped my eyelids closed and once again let sleep overtake me.

My slumber, however, turned out to be anything but peaceful.  Fiery visions of crimson, cackling demons still danced in my head. Near them lay the wounded figures of Fred and Christine, aching and helpless.  The flames swelled and roared around them, threatening to swallow them up in an instant. 

Suddenly, a new face popped into my view.  Samot hung over me, her eyes misted over with sadness.  However, when she spoke, the voice did not match that of the kindly doctor, but that of another familiar voice from out of my dreams, pale and pained. 

“Hello, Face,” the voice whispered, “it hasn’t been that long, but I am grateful for another meeting with you. It is I, Oriona.  I hope you do not mind the form that I chose to take.”

At once remembering my bizarre encounter with the shadow, I hastily replied, “Yes, I remember you.  Your form is fine, I suppose. I did not expect to meet you again, but I guess I shall count myself lucky.  So much has taken place in such a short time.  You come bearing advice, I presume?” 

The ghostly face nodded gravely. “Yes, but very little because time is short.  I have entered many dreams since last we met, including those of him who is an enemy to both of us.  His desires with the lockets are unspeakably cruel.  It is a stroke of the greatest fortune that you managed to take that one back when you did.”

The lines sank even deeper into the face’s brow, “However, you can’t just keep it as a souvenir any more.  No, it is much too dangerous for that.  It is not safe in the hands of anyone, not Mercos, not Trezzlepeg, not even yourself.”

My mind balked at the thought, automatically swinging to the defensive, “What do you mean they’re not safe?  Those lockets are my ticket to getting my life back in order.  Couldn’t Trezzlepeg lock them up good and tight in some vault?  Until then, I don’t see why it won’t be safe with me.  Gyem didn’t destroy them, so why should I?”

Oriona’s features hardened to almost a statue-like quality, “You speak out of ignorance. You still think you are dealing with a trinket, mortal?  The power in the two combined is enough to swat entire galaxies aside with a simple flick of a finger!  Had I a body...I would seek them both out and dispose of them immediately.  The problem is that you can’t just cast them off like a trinket. That’s been tried...and been failed.  That is why I have come to you.”

“Then what I am supposed to do with it?  If I can’t even trust myself, then what can I trust?”

Oriona shook her head solemnly, “Only the hope that you can dispose of them beyond the reach of ever being found again, and there is only one way that I can come up with: you must give them to the Wanderer.”

My mind’s eye drew nothing but blanks, “Who?  Remember, I’m not quite well versed in all the matters of galactic importance.  A few days ago I had no idea there were other inhabited planets.”

Her reply was swift, “I don’t have time to give you a full explanation. You must take this question to Gyem. I think he is the only one who would clearly remember all the details.”

Her voice trailed off, waning with each word, “You could have asked my master as well had he not been under the Enemy’s control,” she sighed, “he looks a bit strange these days though I’ve finally think I’ve found him.”

Prepared to blurt out a question, I was met instead with obscuring mists in front of my vision.  Oriona’s face melted away as my eyelids fluttered open to greet a similar face.  The face of the real Samot stared down at me through her glass screen.  To my surprise, her face shared the same ghostly paleness of her dreamlike counterpart.

She spoke first, her voice grazing through the air like fingers of sunlight on a cloudy day, “Welcome back, Face.  I’m sorry if you have found the accommodations to be less than hospitable.  You are the first Earthside human we have accommodated for decades, at least since the start of the War anyhow.  Sit up and follow me to where you can change into some more comfortable clothes.  You are feeling better, are you not?”

Lethargically, I stretched my muscles and found everything to be in working condition, if not a bit stiff.  I nodded, “Yes, thank you.  I’ve taken some close scraps in my younger days, but I can’t say I’ve ever tasted death as close as that.  It was good timing on your part.  I would have hated being cheated out of a chance to say goodbye to everyone.”

She offered one gloved hand, which I gladly took.  As Samot helped me to my feet, I couldn’t help notice the anguish etched into her features.  Her pained gazed locked into mine for a second, as her grasp on my hand held firm.  Releasing the carelessness of my comments and fearing the worst, I ventured a few words, my voice faltering under strain, “I am sorry, about Tomas.  I didn’t mean to offend you.  From what I could tell, he must have been a valiant man, and I owe him my life.  I only wish...”

Samot released my hand and sighed, a deep moaning like breeze through willow branches, “Yes, I am very proud of Tomas.  Had he not come when he did all of us would have perished.  He always wanted to go saving someone else and I guess he fulfilled that wish whether or not I was ready for him to.”

She bowed her head and I held my peace, not wanting my words to drive the dagger of her grief in any deeper.  At last, she motioned for me to follow,

“There are pressing matters at hand.  I’m to escort you directly to Gyem, as long as you feel up to the trip.” 

I nodded my head vigorously, being suddenly filled to overflowing with expectations and wild fantasies of exploring a new world. My excitement, however, was quelled a notch as my mind suddenly sprung to thoughts of Fred and Christine, “As long as you can tell me something about my companions,” I pleaded, “I won’t be able to concentrate on anything until I can be sure they are okay.”

Samot remained expressionless, “Yes,” she replied, “we can see them before we go.  But we must be quick about it.  Every second squandered stacks the odds against us.

With that, she once again motioned for me to follow, and stepped right through the wall, melting in as if she had been molded out of hot wax.  Eager to follow, I stepped forward and marched into the wall, trusting that Samot wasn’t trying to poke fun at my inexperience.  Apparently she wasn’t in the mood for jokes, and I melted through the wall as if it had been no more than mist. 

My eyes clouded momentarily as we passed through and were met with brilliant sunlight.  We had emerged on a narrow catwalk looking over a broad expanse of stairs and passageways below.  The distant walls were of a lavender transparent material, which allowed sunlight to filter in from overhead.  I glanced beyond the walls to get a glimpse of the surrounding territory; however, the entire expanse as far as the eye could catch was entirely shrouded by curling mists.  Off in the distance, a vague structure peaked out from the top of mists, glinting and glimmering green in the sunlight. 

If the scenery had been surprising, even more intriguing were the sounds that filled the expectant air.  At one moment, the tender languishing tone of a cello sighed, and then next a sprightly flute burst into life.  Snatches of lilting voices chortling, sobbing, yelling, pleading, and rejoicing echoed off each shimmering wall the sounds rippling along like water down a windowpane. 

Seemingly unaffected by the wonderfully live surroundings, Samot continued her even stride across the catwalk and around a corner leaving my alone.  I was about to pursue when I was planted in place by a hauntingly beautiful melody.  It was the voice of a woman, both strikingly clear, and hauntingly beautiful at the same time, enveloping the air with its mournful tone.  In all my years as a musician, and all the years since, I have never heard its equal. 

Where are you now?

Can’t somebody say?

I’m roving and reaching

Imploring, beseeching

Waiting in silence

For your face to shine through

Why did you go?

How I wish that I knew.

My tears, they are pouring

And softly imploring

Just merely adoring

The memory of you.

Goosebumps formed over every inch of my skin, and, tears sprang to my eyes:

Samot said that they’re both alive and healthy. There’s nothing to be sad about.  Besides, this will all be over soon and things will get back to normal.

Suddenly realizing that I had fallen behind and was going to make Samot late, I wiped the tears from my eyes, and jogged in pursuit.  Catching up, I tapped her shoulder smiling apologetically.  Apparently she hadn’t even noticed my absence, “Excuse me, Samot,” I gasped, releasing how out of shape I had become, “but this is all so very new and different to me.  Couldn’t you explain at least where we are?”

She turned and a vague smile pursed her lips, “I guess that wouldn’t hurt anything as long as we walk while we go.  As anxious as you are, I am even more anxious to bring this to his Excellency with all possible speed.”

She motioned down the catwalk towards what appeared to be an elevator, “Come this way.  I’ll explain on the way down to the port.”

  At the end of the walkway sat what looked like an elevator in a transparent lavender tube.  Samot approached the door, it immediately swung open, and she beckoned me to follow.  Without hesitation, I entered the elevator.  Once inside, the door automatically closed behind us, and at first it seemed to me as we were going nowhere fast.  However, Samot broke the silence by humming a series of notes, first climaxing in the upper register before slipping into a deep, rumbling vibrato, and the craft leapt suddenly into life as if it had been a wild beast that had sat on the wrong end of a spear. 

  My stomach heaved into my ears, and I struggled to maintain my balance, flailing like a cubby clown on spindly stilts.  Fortunately, I eventually managed to steady myself, much to Samot’s amusement.  As I glanced up at her, I detected the first glimmer of mirth in her eyes since the horrible incident in the cave,   “I’m sorry if this is a little much for you,” she explained, chuckling under her breath, “but since we have so little time, I told it to double time us to the dock.”

  I nodded tenuously, still clutching at my stomach, “This is nothing really, but now that we are underway, I would at least like to have some idea of where we are.”

  She dipped her head in agreement, glancing out at the swiftly flying surroundings, “I guess I’m must seem about as friendly as a dust mite today. I apologize.  It’s a lot to cram into the short time we have here, but I’ll give it to as straight as I can.  This tower is known as the Citadel of Song.  Here, every note and rhythm that takes life in this world finds its way back here.  That’s why we sometimes call it a Confluence.  There are all many different kinds of Confluences in this world, though we don’t know exactly why they exist.  Most people come here to study and to relax, but in your case, we brought you here to heal.”

  I scratched my chin, intrigued by the concept.   “What happens to all the songs after they come here?  Are they lost?”

  Samot shook her head, “No.  They are stored.  The keeper of the Confluence stores them in his memory, and they are passed down through the generations.  Sometimes he has been known to give songs away in little packages, but that’s only if he really likes you.”

  At once a grin crept across my cheeks and I felt a great desire to sit at the feet of this man, and swap a song or two.

  Gulping, I clutched a hand around the locket about my neck.  Suddenly my thoughts took a 180 degree spin, “What about Fred and Christine?  Aren’t we going to see them before we go?”

  Before she could answer my question, the elevator slowed gradually to a smooth halt, and the door slid open revealing a spacious room bustling with activity.  Hundreds of suit-clad humans scurried about tending to the needs of three enormous white birds.  The birds closely resembled gigantic albatrosses, each with the wingspan about the length of a football field.  Their ivory feathers glistened and played in the sunlight as each stood nearly still, swaying only slightly for breathing.  On each of the bird’s backs lay an oblong, metal cabin, apparently for housing passengers. 

  I stood there in awe as Samot stepped of the elevator, “We’re flying on those?  They’re amazing…” My voice trailed off as I realized the inadequacy of my words.

  “Yes,” she replied, “we often don’t use these birds much anymore in preference to our machines, however, these birds provide the only way into Gyem’s palace, and so we pardon the technological regression.”

  At last breaking my trance, I slowly crept out of the elevator and down into the docking area.  As I entered the room, I suddenly realized that my presence had literally sucked the noise out of the room.  All around me gazes turned like a forest of inquisitive trees, their eyes brimming with wonder, almost reverence.  I wasn’t sure whether it was the jewelry about my neck or my absence of a suit, a trait that I shared with no person in the entire hangar.  All at once, I felt completely naked, as if I was marching in front of a firing squad. I managed to laugh nervously,

  “Samot, where are Fred and Christine?” I asked, trying to purge my jitters by occupying my mind with other matters.

  At once Samot took my arm, and yanked me towards the nearest bird, “They are already aboard.  Hurry, I can’t help their prying eyes, but I can get you quickly out of sight.”

  Briskly she dragged me to the side of the nearest bird where a ramp had already been lowered.  Then, suddenly, she halted and pivoted about to meet my gaze her lips pursed together and her brow furrowed, “I should warn you, Face.  They are both not quite well yet. They still might require some time to get over their condition.”

  The way she pronounced “condition” you might have though she was a judge pronouncing the death sentence.    What on earth does she mean by “condition?” A heart condition, a sleep condition, a skin condition…what?

  However, before I could importune her for an explanation, she had already dashed half way up the ramp.  Seeing no alternative, but to follow, I dashed up behind her.  At the summit, I was quickly ushered into the cabin, and then into a plush seat near the rear.  The cabin was lavishly decorated with intricate tapestries adorning the walls and plush carpeting.

  As I sat down, I realized that I recognized the people sitting across from me.  Both Fred and Christine wore the same dull, white pullover and equally dull expressions on their faces.  My heart leapt with sweet relief, “Fred,  Christi-”

  However, my heart quickly careened back into despair.  Their faces registered no more recognition than if I had been no more than a blank mannequin in an endless sea of faces. 

  Standing at about arm’s length, Fred cordially extended his hand, “Good day,” he said, firmly grasping my hand, his voice hollow and distant “you seem rather familiar.  Have we met?”

  His grasp wrested not only my hand, but the air from my lungs as well as I fought back the urge to firmly grasp him by both shoulders and throttle him violently back into his senses.  Instead, I replied evenly, groping for breath, “Yes, Fred, we have.”

  It was all that I could say to keep from losing my cool.  I shifted my gaze to Christine, hoping against all odds that she had not been so stricken. “Christine, do you...”

  But the sound died at my lips.  One look into her pale blue eyes confirmed my worst fears: she too appeared as vacant as a playground on a rainy day.  She grinned blankly, never seeming to focus her eyes on any one thing.

  Suddenly a white-hot anger flared in my cheeks and I swiveled about to face Samot, “This,” I snapped, my cheeks flaring like fans in frustration, “this is what you call a condition?  What’s the matter with them?  They look like they’ve been brainwashed.  They’re vegetables!”

  Samot didn’t react immediately.  Instead, she just stared off into the distance her eyes glistening slightly.  At once, her gaze squelched my anger, leaving only the ashes of shame. 

  It was now my turn to fall silent.  My insides turned into a ball of tangled yarn. “Samot...I...I’m,”

  She quickly cut me off with a curt wave of her hand, “I know,” she muttered, “don’t worry about it.  I should have warned you better.  Our doctors are not sure what they can do for them, but there remains hope.  After we meet with Gyem, I’m to take them to the Green Tower, Girhadras: Garden of Healing.  Until then, there isn’t much either you or I can do.  I’m sorry.”

  The knots in my stomach loosened, replaced with only a bitter emptiness.  I turned my gaze back to my brother and Christine to find them still standing ghostly still, their features seemingly fixed as if chiseled out of stone. 

  Someone finally invented a fate worse than death, I mused silently.

  Slowly and deliberately, I approached Christine, intent on one last attempt to call her back, not wanting to believe Samot’s bleak prognosis.  Gently taking her hands, I stared into her eyes once so peaceful and serene, but know turbulent and misted over.  The calm sea had become a swirling whirlpool.  Swallowing hard and wiping the perspiration from my brow, I leaned in and whispered, “Christine.  I know you are in there somewhere.  You’re lost and I’ve come to find you.  I want our life back...I want our little Annie to call me daddy again. I want you to come back.  I love you!  And that’s why I know you can hear me.”

  Despite my pleading, her face remained blank as ever.

  Suddenly, I felt a hand on my shoulder.  I turned and met Samot’s understanding gaze.  She nodded her face grim, and I couldn’t help but do a double take between the woman in front of me and the woman behind me.  The resemblance was so uncanny that I longed to believe that it was really Christine behind that glass and metal prison and that the woman in front of me was the imposter.  However, my fantasy was shattered as Samot spoke,

  “It’s hard trying to let go, Face.  Let’s just hope that you don’t have to.  I’m going to have put them back in their beds.  We still need to run a few tests, and you need to get into you seat for takeoff.  Go through those doors and take any seat on the edge.  I’ll try and come back after these two are taken care off.”

  And that was that.  I tried to protest, but my arms had gone limp and lifeless at my side.  I watched in resignation as Samot took each by the arm and led them through the double doors to our right and out of sight.  Following orders like a drone, I paced through the back double doors and slumped into the nearest available seat.  The corridor was void of lighting and, as far as could tell, was empty.  Reclining in my seat, I struggled for control with my many emotions, but decided instead that a bit of sleep would do me better than anything else.  So, I shut my eyes, and pictured home, as I had known it.  Then, for just a moment, I felt just as if I was there despite all the distance that separated us.

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