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.