Tarrytown, New York — September 22, 2001
I was late.
No. I was really late. Forty minutes past when I thought I should leave from home, and that was the last time I even dared to look at my watch.
“So what happens if I’m not here on time?” I’d asked him once.
“There will be consequences.”
That was all he’d tell me. And I believed him because he didn’t joke around. Not about this.
To make things worse, all of nature seemed to be punishing me already. Summer was clearly giving way to Fall with this storm… abrupt and pounding. Wild wind was tearing leaves from trees and whirling them in vortexes across the road. Cold rain was pelting down and striking my face so hard it felt like tiny knives were slicing my cheeks. My pant legs were soaked and the spray from the rear wheel of my bike was kicking up under the back of my slicker and soaking my butt.
Great! I thought. I’m going to change clothes and look like I peed myself.
Heck, I might anyway.
I had no idea what “consequences” meant to the old man. And it’s not like any of the others had told me much. They kept saying the same damn thing; they had their reasons and that I’d understand… eventually. But right now I was cursing them. For real.
The sky lit up with sheet lightning. Just as I turned around the fence posts at the front gate, there was another flash. My back wheel slipped across mud and my right foot flew sideways and straight into a puddle. Crap!
And there he was, holding up an oil lantern, peering out into the storm. I waved, hoping he could see me across the expanse of field and driveway.
“Like that’s gonna make a difference,” I said out loud. He didn’t care when you got to his place. Only when you left.
“Sorry, I can’t believe it,” I yelled as I was skidding to a stop. I heaved my bike against the heavy wooden post by the porch but he was just glowering. He flung open the door and retreated inside.
“I’m sorry,” I repeated. “Am I too late?”
It was Teabag, his mongrel dog, who spoke for him.
Teabag shook off the rain and lead me inside. The Postmaster jerked his head towards the pile of clothes neatly arranged on a chair. Dress pants. A plain white shirt. A simple, black blazer and dress shoes. Something from this past century. I knew I didn’t have time to figure it out.
He put down the lantern and was closing the huge oak door when there was a brilliant explosion of lightning. A thunder crack split the air and then rattled the walls and windows throughout the rambling old house.
Nearly a direct strike.
“Holy…” I exclaimed, jumping forward. My mind raced, wondering if lightning would mess it up, but since being late was my fault, I didn’t want to ask. Still, I had an urge to run over to the old mahogany stairs and take shelter while I was changing clothes. But that probably had less to do with the storm and more to do with how afraid I was of what was going to happen if—or once—I stepped onto the stone in the Great Room.
Would I even make it through?
Thomas had said something about Drifters getting caught halfway. I figured he was just enough of a jerk to make up something like that to scare me. At the moment, however, I’d never been so terrified.
The Postmaster returned from the Great Room and snatched the owl statue. When he opened it, I could see my quartz crystal waiting for me.
“Is it gonna work?” I asked. “Is it even worth it?”
He looked wild-eyed. He started trembling and pursed his lips together. His eyes shot up to the grandfather clock that stood closest to the entrance.
“In four more minutes it won’t matter, for all I know,” he said. He thrust out his hand again. “Take it, for God’s sake.”
I was pulling up my pants while hopping towards the living room. Once I grabbed the crystal, we both felt the building lurch and creak, and I shuddered from the black kind of darkness and cold that emanated from it. My stomach turned.
He moved to the Great Room with surprising swiftness and I only stopped to pull up the plain cotton socks. I tried to step into both shoes almost simultaneously. It didn’t work. I fell sideways onto an armchair but the old man was too busy to notice.
Teabag toddled up and had a sniff of a large plastic tub the Postmaster had set near the steps. He snorted disdainfully and looked up at his master who was presently occupying himself with strips of gauze and bandage tape, setting them down beside bottles of disinfectant and iodine. I froze from nerves when I saw that.
“Move!” he yelled, desperate to be heard over the storm outside and the growing rumble in the ground.
I snatched the jacket and looked back at the trail of my strewn clothes and slicker. As soaked as they were I was longing to put them back on again, trying to tell myself that I could and I would be back.
“The others should know to look for you, if you can find them,” the Postmaster said, now pointing me towards the field.
“Wait!” I said, stopping in my tracks just beyond the reach of his fingers. “What do you mean, ‘If I can find them?’”
“We’ve only got seconds here,” he urged me. “Go, just go.”
“I know,” he said, finally pushing me towards the outer ring of rose rock. “Wits about you.”
I went to step onto the cut of quartz when I got thrown back by a shock. It was like I’d bounced on a hard rubber wall of air, kind of like a force field, I guessed. But worse, for that split second I saw myself, inside the field. I had blood all over one arm and something black on my face.
“Oh, dear God,” he said, looking like he had felt the same shock.
“You’re trying to come back… before you’ve even left.”
“Is it too late?” I asked, scared to think I’d screwed up this badly and terrified of what I’d seen.
“Go, just go!” he shouted. “If you’re coming back it means you went.”
I tried but the shock felt worse. I saw myself again and this time my face was contorted, like I was in real pain.
“Jump!” he yelled.
Teabag was barking madly. The quartz field was vibrating so quickly it sounded like a grizzly bear roaring. I was terrified, but I knew I had to make this right. I squinted and took a running leap. The shock wasn’t quite as bad when I passed through it, and I managed to shuffle to a stop before I stumbled over the far side of the quartz.
I knelt down and grabbed my crystal, pressing it into my chest. It was like being jerked backward at the end of a whip that was already being cracked. The Drift arcs were spinning madly around me already. The electric crackle made me feel sick. And then…
I know it worked because everything froze.
For that one extraordinary moment, the air and the vortex were still. I could see every vein of light in the orbs around me. I could even see Teabag and the Postmaster suspended in the powdery world beyond.
I know it worked because I could sense the coming of that deafening noise… the distant hiss that got closer and closer, growing with such speed until it imploded into me like a reverse sonic boom. This time, it felt like every cell of me was being compressed into a single spec, rolling my outsides in and then back out again.
The next thing I knew, I was throwing up into the grass of a ditch.
I felt horrible. Until I realized that I was alive. That was a good thing. I was trying to tell myself this was positive, even as the sudden heave was beginning to happen all through me. Oh gosh, not again!
My stomach felt gross and my mouth and nose were worse. I instantly longed to be home… so badly. I wanted to lie down but I had no idea where I was. There was the putrid smell of my own gack, complicated by the putrid smell of tar. My fingers dug into the pitch-black soil; coarse and grainy. I just turned my head a bit.
The tar was from a road. The grass in the ditch looked like it went for miles. A marsh, or something. Must be. The humidity here was thick and encompassing.
Somewhere tropical. But where? And when?
I heard a sound getting louder. It couldn’t be another Drift. Not right away, please. Honestly, I hadn’t done anything here yet.
No. Something else. I knew I had to get up and I pushed on one knee trying to stand. Not so successful. No balance, yet.
There was a horn blast. Something deep and big.
I spun around.
A wide, pale yellow automobile with a massive chrome front bumper looked ominously close. The horn, again.
The auto swerved and two guys in white uniforms leaned out the windows.
“Get off the road ya’ drunkin’ idiot!”
I stepped backward, just as the monstrous vehicle swerved again to stop from going into the ditch. Unfortunately, I wasn’t so lucky. I landed back on my hip with my hand sliding into my own puke.
“Gross!” I said, freezing in place, not wanting to slip on it any more.
There were shrieks of laughter from the big car. The guys were waving brown beer bottles in their hands as they veered back and forth down this long road to nowhere.
I rolled to all fours and used the grass and the ditch water to clean my hand. I wanted to wash out my mouth but there was such a strong smell of sulphur. What was worse? Death by diseased water or a foul mouth? I decided to just keep on spitting instead as I stood, my knees trembling.
The others. Where were they?
I couldn’t see anybody. But when I looked where the car was headed, I got to feeling sick all over, in a very different way. A long way off on the horizon, there were big metal masts from gigantic military ships. I knew I recognized the look of them. I just couldn’t put it together right away.
I felt so alone and scared. I was shaking and then I started to cry. I couldn’t help it. I’d blown it. I’d been late and now I had no idea what I was supposed to be doing or even any idea of where I was.
“No, no, no,” I said, stomping my feet. “Come on, Liam. Get a grip.”
There were times when it was okay to cry and times when it wouldn’t do you any good. This was a time to try and take charge.
I knew I hadn’t been ripped apart in the Drift. That was one excellent thing.
“Just figure it out,” I told myself. “If the drunk soldiers in white uniforms had beer in the car, then it probably wasn’t just an old car. It’s probably a new car in an old time.” That made sense.
“Military ships… that means a port,” I continued. “The soil isn’t East coast. Tropical and … it’s probably…”
I smelled the ocean suddenly, and my mind flashed to places in the Pacific. I’d never been to any of them, but I had a horrible suspicion.
Another sound. A car?
I turned around. There was a truck way off in the distance but that wasn’t where the noise was coming from. No. It was higher pitched and coming from higher up. A plane. Or actually…
It came to me all at once.
I knew it all now. We’d seen it dozens of times on TV. But this was real.
This was a Sunday morning. I was in Hawaii. Close to Pearl Harbor.
And I was very, very late.