by Stephen Paden
The room was silent except for the ticking of the clock that hung on the wall above the bed. An odd place for a clock, perhaps, but it was a constant reminder to Jack that time was something to be relished, and every night he would glance at it before bed and thank God he might have more of it. And every morning, he woke up, got dressed, and looked at it with appreciation. Time was moving forward. Jack was moving forward.
Jack hopped out of bed that Sunday morning, and brushed his teeth. He put on his clothes and called Susan to see if she would be ready by noon for their trip to South Wind. She said that even though she was a woman, and the small details that encompassed being a woman often led other women to run late, she would be ready when he came to pick her up.
Jack and Susan settled in the car, kissed each other, and started their journey to South Wind, eagerly awaiting the joy of a day off together. The sun was shining high in the sky, and with the exception of a few cumulus clouds that hung to the west, the sky was clear.
He glanced at his watch a few times during the uneventful ride through the back roads of Plesher County, and occasionally glanced at Susan, who met his eyes every time with approval and reciprocity.
Jack pulled the car into the bed and breakfast in South Wind, and turned off the car.
“We’re here, babe,” he said.
“We are,” she replied.
Without another word, they got out of the car, took the suitcases from the trunk, and registered with the elderly, plump southern mistress who sat behind the front desk watching re-runs of F-Troop on her black and white television.
“Here for the weekend?” asked woman.
“Longer,” Jack replied. Susan stared at Jack.
“Most people don’t come in from the city and stay long. I suspect they get tired of how slow it is around here, ya know? It’s like my daughter once told me, ‘DisneyLandis fun to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there.’”
Jack smiled while Susan’s eyes never left him. “We aren’t most people.”
The old woman, not knowing exactly what he meant by this, sighed and pushed the registry book towards Jack. He signed them in and she gave him the key to Room 5.
“It’s up the stairs and at the end of the hall.”
Susan broke her silence with a single word: “Perfect.”
They took their suitcases up to the room and closed the door behind them. The old woman told them that dinner would be at 7 p.m., and of course, it was optional. She also reminded them while there were not many patrons in this time of year, it was etiquette to keep the noise level down to a minimum.
Jack went over to the window on the far side of the bed and looked out while Susan sat on the bed and fell back; staring at the ceiling.
“It’s perfect,” he said.
“Perfect,” she replied.
“Did you notice?”
“Notice what?” she asked.
“The walls. Something’s missing.”
Susan scanned the walls and after a minute caught on to what he was suggesting. “No clock?”
“Exactly. Time is different here. Some people say that time is constant and never changes. It goes one way at the same speed, without deviation.”
“Are you saying that it doesn’t?”
“Time is relative. Einstein knew it,” he replied.
“It’s perfect here, isn’t it?”
Susan nodded and ran her fingers through her soft, brown hair and looked around the room.
“We can stop it. We can choose to move forward, or we can find that place in time where we are happy and stop it right there. Live in it forever.”
“Do you really think it’s going to work?”
“It has to.” He said under his breath. He turned from the window crawled over the bed. He stared down into her green eyes and kissed her.
“A few times on the way here, I felt my skin get cold and bumpy. Does that mean it’s almost time?” she asked.
“Almost. I felt it too, but only when we arrived here. I mean, it’s like something changed inside of me.”
“When, then?” she asked.
The old woman knocked on the door quietly. She heard no movement from inside the room, and began to knock harder. Jack answered the door with a welcoming smile.
“Oh, sorry I didn’t hear a peep from you folks. Thought I’d check on ya and let ya know that dinner’s almost ready. Complimentary, ya know? Comes with the room.”
“Thank you very much. Please count on seeing us there.” The old woman smiled back and went downstairs.
“Who was that?” Susan asked as she stretched from her nap on the plush bed.
“Dinner’s almost ready.”
“Good, I’m hungry.”
Jack and Susan freshened up and went down to the dining room. To their surprise, every seat at the table was occupied except for two seats on the far left side, nearest to the head of the table. A stout man rose from the seat at the head of the table and welcomed the two to come and sit next to him. They sat down and looked around the table at the colorful figures.
The head of the table stood again and chimed a salute with his fork against his fine crystal glass. “To travelers.” He said. “The end of the road is sometimes so far from us, that we have to go back to the beginning to find it.” Jack was surprised at the man’s eloquence.
The guests began eating, except for one. The clinking of forks and spoons against the fine china filled the room and soon began to bounce around in Jack’s head.
“These dishes are nice, if I may say so,” he said.
The stout man looked up from his meal and smiled at Jack. “You may! And thank you. It ain’t often we got a full house. We got to celebrate when we do.”
“Yes. And may I also say that the dinner itself is fantastic, isn’t that right Susan?”
Susan didn’t answer at first. Her attention was less on the meal and more on the other patrons, who didn’t have the joyous expression that the man and woman had. They seemed only to be eating the meal, without expression. They did not even seem to be aware of each other.
“I’m sorry, what?” she asked.
“The meal,” he said. “The meal is fine isn’t it dear?”
“Oh yes, fine. In fact, I haven’t had mashed potatoes this good since my grandmother was with us.”
“Thank you, dear,” replied the old woman. “I may not be old enough to be your grandmother, but I’ll take the compliment. Sometimes you just get the recipe right a little early.” The old woman returned to her meal.
“A storm’s comin’,” said the old man. “I reckon it’ll be here aboutmidnight. Such good time for a storm, don’t ya think?” The old man stared at Jack.
“I don’t care for storms,” said Susan.
“You’ll like this one.” Jack said, his eyes fixed on the old man. The old woman looked back and forth at the two and interrupted with, “Let’s have some pie!”
Jack woke from his stare and readily agreed to a helping of peach cobbler. He took a bite, swallowed it and looked at the old man. “You know why we’re here, don’t you?”
The old man looked up at him and smiled in acknowledgement. “Sure is good pie.” He put the fork down and poured himself another glass of whiskey. “Son,” he said after taking a drink, “life is a long road and on that road there’s bumps, holes, you name it. Which part of the road is bothering you? The holes and bumps? Or the road itself?”
“I’ve been diagnosed with cancer.” Jack replied. “So I guess it’s just a hole that I’m in.”
“Cancer? Nah, that’s a bump my friend. Well, maybe a hole. But it’s hardly the biggest part of the road.”
“It’s terminal,” said Jack.
The man nodded and chewed his food, staring at the ceramic duck centerpiece.
“What?” Jack asked.
“Cancer is just a bump on a very long road. Listen, there ain’t any aspect of life that’s bigger than life itself. Just like that tractor out there in the field that’s been broken down for ten years or so. The distributor is shot. But is that broken distributor bigger than what that tractor’s done in all its life?”
“I don’t suppose so,” Jack replied.
“It’s our business,” Susan said.
“And just what is that, dear?” asked the old woman.
“To remain as we are forever.” She replied.
“I see,” said the old man. “I’ll have to think about it over a brandy and my favorite cigar. You smoke cigars, Jack?”
“I have cancer, of course I don’t.” Jack replied.
“Boy, if you’re here to do what I think you’re here to do, then it won’t matter if you have just one.” The old man was getting irritated.
Just then, one of the guests−a younger man than Jack who’d said nothing the entire meal and hadn’t even taken a bite−lifted his head from his daydreaming and began to moan. He tried to mouth words as though he’d forgotten how to speak.
“You’ll have to forgive him. He’s just a little tired from his trip,” said the woman. The man looked over at her; his head shaking like he was inflicted with Parkinson’s disease; an expression of horror creeping over his pale complexion.
“Are you sure he’s okay?” Susan asked. “He looks a bit more than tired. And he hasn’t eaten a bite.”
“Sure, sweetie.” The woman rose from her chair, went over to the young man and then helped him up from his chair and into the bedroom on the first floor.
Susan leaned in to Jack and said, “What was that?”
Jack shrugged off the questions and returned to the conversation with the old man. “Alright. I don’t suppose one’s going to kill me. Susan, would you mind if me and?”
“Would you mind if Sam and I had a few moments alone?”
“This involves me too, Jack.” Jack turned to Susan and with his large brown eyes and pouty lips he convinced her without saying a word. She nodded to the old man and left the table and went upstairs.
Rain gently tapped at the windows and then began to pound the panes. Lightening flashed through the windows followed by rolls of thunder in the distance. “Storm’s here,” said the old woman who seemingly ported in with the last flash of lightning. “Let’s have a look, shall we?”
Jack followed the old man onto the porch. The swing was whipping violently around, clanking against the peeling rails of the porch. The pour became a torrent in a matter of seconds, and showed no signs of letting up. Lightning flashed continuously, illuminating a bumpy green landscape with rolling hills off to the southeast. He started to feel the rain hitting his pant legs as the rain tilted almost horizontally in their direction.
“Shouldn’t we go inside? The rain is sideways−that means tornado,” Jack yelled into the rain and wind.
“Nonsense!” said the old man. “We’re fine. He lit up the cigar with ease despite the wet air whipping against them. He pulled one out of his left breast pocket and handed it to Jack. Jack bit off the end and put it into his mouth; the old man lifting his eerily still flame to the tip. Jack took a heavy drag in and felt his lungs go warm. He exhaled with pleasure.
“It’s good. What kind is it?” Jack asked.
“Who knows? She buys ’em for me at the flea market.” The old man laughed as the rain continued its rage. “Storm like this comes once in a great while.” The old man’s face lost all of its country charm and settled into something between a devil and an angel. “It’s up to you, of course.”
Jack understood. Hell, that’s why he was here.
Could he make her understand? Did she really know what forever meant?
“What are you afraid of? Go out there,” the old man said, pointing at the deluge beyond the porch.
“It’s just water,” said the old man.
“I’m not worried about the water,” Jack said, peering up at the sky from under the porch.
“You needn’t worry about that, son. Go.”
Jack, figuring he had nothing to lose either way, did as the man instructed; handing him the cigar. The cold droplets pounded against his skull as his clothes went from dry to drenched in a matter of seconds. The thunder started to increase as loud snaps banged in succession above Jack’s head. He closed his eyes and tried not to think about the cacophony around him.
He lifted his hands, trying to coax a snarl from the old man for this mockery, but just as he laughed at his own joke, his world became light.
When Jack was a child, he experienced pain for the very first time when he put a knife into the socket of a wall. The piercing vibrations of electricity shooting through his small frame sent him into seizures for a week, and then nightmares for the rest of his childhood. When the bolt of lightning hit him, he became the child with the knife again; his only punishment is that death could not come quick enough to end the searing heat he felt throughout his body−as if every cell in his body was shaking itself apart.
“You ok?” asked the old man.
“Huh? Wait what happened?”
“Now we wait and see if it took,” said the old man.
Jack looked around nervously and saw that the rain had stopped. The old man stood on the porch and smiled.
Jack looked out at the grassland to the left. The lightning periodically revealed what seemed to be hundreds of small mounds in the earth.
“What are those bumps in the ground?”
The man hobbled to the door and then turned to look at the field and said, “Memories.”