PIECES OF DESTINY
There was a chill in the early morning air the next day as we trudged down the long dirt road that led to the school house, which I estimated to be about three miles from the Colt farm. We dodged several narrow puddles on the way, left over from the rains of the night before. A flurry of dead leaves swirled alongside the road, caught in an icy breeze like a mini-cyclone.
“Gonna snow afore too long,” Lem said, as he scampered to keep up with us.
Travis had been strangely silent since breakfast, and had barely paid any attention to me. I worried that maybe he had some regrets about our brief experience the night before in the barn. But he’d seemed so casual, so matter-of-fact about it, as if it wasn’t a big deal. Maybe it bothered him more than he’d let on.
Don’t ever fool around with breeders, as my friend J.D. used to remind me. You’ll just lose your heart, along with 20 minutes of your life you’ll never be able to get back again. J.D. always seemed to have a snappy bit of advice for any situation, as if he were the gay “Dear Abby.”
I pulled my wool coat around me and buttoned the top button. Lem was right: it was noticeably colder than it had been in the last week.
One week, I thought. I’d been stuck in the Missouri of 1864 for six whole days, and it seemed more and more like I’d never see 2007 again. But I’d resolved to make the most of it and just bide my time until a better option came up.
“What I need is a plan,” I muttered out loud.
“What?” Travis said, breaking his silence and eyeing me momentarily.
“Sorry,” I said, stopping to yank my book bag higher on my shoulder. “Just thinking out loud. Uh… so, you all straight on that geography test we’ve got with Twitly this morning?”
Travis shrugged, but said nothing. I fought the urge to stop and find out what was eating him, but I figured now wasn’t the time or place, especially with his ten-year-old brother around. We kept walking at a brisk pace, and I felt a shiver — both from the chill of the early morning, as well as Travis’ frosty attitude.
About forty minutes later, we reached the school and Lem continued on to St. Louis Elementary, which I gathered was another half-mile down the road.
“Listen, Travis,” I began, gently grabbing his shoulder and bringing him to a halt. But before I could get any further, I heard a voice call from the side road.
“You there! Jason!”
I looked up across the schoolyard to see a familiar face. It was an older woman unloading sacks of flour and eggs from a wooden wagon. I recognized her as Mrs. McBillin, whom I had met over the weekend, waving me towards her.
Travis ignored me and continued walking indifferently towards the hallway at the front of the school. He obviously was in no mood to talk, so I jogged over to the woman as she struggled to drag a bulky sack of potatoes off the back of the wagon.
“Let me help you with that,” I said, setting down my book bag and helping her with the burlap bag. It was much heavier than it looked, and I nearly toppled over in my attempt to set it down gently on the sidewalk, next to a wheeled cart.
“Thank you,” she said, catching her breath. “Our regular boy didn’t make it in for mornin’ deliveries today.” She cocked her head. “You have a chance to think about Angus’ offer? To work for us over at the store, that is?”
I had almost forgotten about it. “Uh, sure,” I said, trying to decide how working at the store might fit into my eventual escape plan. “What time would be...”
“Right after school this afternoon would be fine,” she said. “If you could give us even a couple of hours every other weekday, that’d be a blessing. We could certainly use the help.”
I tugged at the last burlap sack and set it down with the others onto the cart. In the distance, I heard the school bell clang in the tower in the main building.
“You got all that OK, Mrs. McBillin?” I asked, hefting my book bag to my shoulder.
She nodded as she took hold of the cart handle. “You get on to class, Jason. We’ll see you later on this afternoon.”
As I turned to go, she touched my arm. “Angus is a mite stubborn about some things,” she said, “but I think you have the right attitude. Just be sure to watch your words with him.”
“Gotcha,” I said with a grin. “No attitude.”
By the time I made it into the classroom, everybody was already seated, and Twitly gave me an annoyed glare. Another bell clanged in the distance.
“One more minute and I would have given you an ‘F’ on this test,” he growled.
“Sorry,” I muttered.
And we’re off to a flying start, I thought.
§ § § § §
As it turned out, I managed to survive the geography test and even got some extra credit by knowing most of the Confederate state capitals as well. Twitly gave me a B+, which was marginally better than I’d been averaging in Geography back at my real school.
“Think you’re so smart, don’tcha?” Johnny muttered, as we took our test papers back to our seats.
I grinned. “Not bad for a Canadian, eh?”
He snarled and returned to his seat, which was thankfully on the other side of the classroom. I leaned forward and tried to catch Travis’ eye, but he seemed to deliberate look away, idly staring at something outside the window.
I sighed. I probably wasn’t going to be in 1864 for much longer anyway. I’d had my quickie with him, but it was pretty obvious Travis had some issues. Definitely not the boyfriend type. Even if we had both been from the same century, it didn’t seem as if we had connected as much as I’d thought.
As I continued to try to come up with a plan, Twitly began lecturing the class, droning on about some Revolutionary War incident. I glanced at the other students, who looked as bored as I did. I tried to remember some of their names, based on comments that Travis and the teacher had made the day before. The brown-haired boy at the head of my row was named Quincy; another boy behind him, dressed in overalls, was Lucius. I didn’t know the dark-haired girl to my left, but the blonde in front of me was Louella, a friend of the Judge’s daughter that I’d met the day before.
Eying the faces of the other teens, I smirked to myself at how radically different they looked from the class of 2007 that I’d left behind. Some of the girls’ hairstyles were festooned with elaborate ribbons and baubles, while half the boys looked like they’d been assaulted with scissors and a bowl. But for some reason, Travis — who at the moment, happened to be sitting in a shaft of sunlight that slanted down from the side window — looked as dazzling as ever. He’d fit in even in an upscale Malibu classroom, I thought, feeling simultaneously envious and more than a little lustful.
As the hours inched by, I dutifully made notes on the history lesson, trying to jog my memory of a class I had had a year before in 8th grade. Suddenly, I noticed my ballpoint had stopped working. “Piece of crap,” I muttered under my breath. I leaned forward to the girl in the desk in front of me. “Hey, uh... Louella,” I whispered, “you got a spare pen?”
She looked back at me with a little shock, then gave me a small smile. “Why, I believe I do,” she said, reaching for a small pocketbook under her chair. She pulled out a steel pen and handed it to me.
“You’re a lifesaver,” I said, smiling.
I took the old-fashioned pen and stared at it. It was a bare wooden stick with a flared metal flange at one end. My desk was equipped with two black inkwells, one on each side. I glanced at a boy on my left, who was writing feverishly, effortlessly dipping in the pen for a refill every three words or so. I duplicated his movements and continued making my notes. The results were readable, but it was a weird experience, almost like scratching the words rather than writing them, and the page was spattered with black blotches, marring where I’d let the pen sit too long on the page.
What I would give for my laptop and Microsoft Word right about now, I mused.
§ § § § §
By lunchtime, my stomach was growling ferociously. The small oak clock on the wall ticked like a metronome, but I could swear its hands were permanently glued at 11:45. A quick glance at my wristwatch confirmed the time, but my hunger pangs insisted it was later. I was feeling drowsy. Aside from being awake since dawn, I felt a little flush from the classroom stove, which made the air warm and humid. I stared down at my paper, on which I had been idly scratching notes, still working out how to best use an 1864 pen.
Suddenly, I was aware of voices being raised. Twitly was barking at an abnormally tall, lumpy boy at the head of the row next to mine.
“Say it again, Edward!” he bellowed. “You know the name of this battle!”
I prodded Louella gently with my pen. “Who’s that?” I whispered.
“That’s Eddie DePeller,” she whispered back. “He’s a mite... slow. Doesn’t understand things too well. Not quite right in the head, if you ask me.”
I glanced towards the boy. From the pained look on his face, and his halting, slow delivery, it was clear he was retarded. Excuse me... mentally challenged. Either way, I was puzzled as to why he was put in a class of normal kids, which made no sense to me. Apparently “special ed” didn’t exist in 1864.
“Stand up!” Twitly roared. He jerked the boy to his feet.
Eddie seemed on the verge of tears. “I don’... I don’...” His voice had a slow drawl, like a record playing at the wrong speed, and he had trouble staying on his feet.
Twitly began shaking him. “You knew the answer just last week!” he cried, pointing towards the Revolutionary War map at the front of the room. “You can’t possibly have forgotten it already!” The teacher slapped him, hard, in the face.
The class tittered. I was a little stunned. I’d never seen a teacher get so abusive in any of my schools before. Back home in Seattle, there’d be about ten lawsuits and news stories if anything like this happened.
“Shut up!” Twitly cried, turning to the rest of us, his voice creeping up an octave. “There will be no lunch unless and until Edward can answer this simple question.” He spun back to the boy. “Now, Edward — please name the battle in which Cornwallis was defeated!”
Eddie looked like a drowning puppy, tears streaming down his face. His mouth opened and closed, but no sounds emerged except for a strangled whimper.
“It was the deciding battle of the entire Revolutionary War!” Twitly said, his face so close to Eddie’s that the boy began leaning backward. The teacher began shaking him violently. “Answer me! ANSWER ME!”
Everyone around me seemed frozen in shock, as if they watching a train careen down a track to a certain wreck. I couldn’t take anymore.
“Stop it!” I cried, leaping up to my feet. “Leave him alone!”
The entire class stopped and stared at me. Eddie’s head turned, his eyes still brimming with tears, his mouth open in a wide “O” of surprise. Twitly’s hand was frozen in mid-air, ready to strike the boy again.
“Can’t you see he’s mentally handicapped?” I said, taking a step forward, my heart pounding in my ears. “You have no right to bully people this way! He’s still a human being! Stop it! Stop it right now!”
Twitly’s face was beet red. He let go of Eddie, who fell back into his chair with a thud. The classroom was utterly silent except for the steady ticking of the clock by the door. Several uncomfortable seconds passed by.
“Mister... Mister Thomas,” he said finally, catching his breath. “You will stay here in this classroom on detention. The rest of you,” he said, nodding to the class, “are dismissed for lunch for the next hour. Go!”
The other students leapt up from their seats, grabbed their lunch sacks in a blur, and made a beeline for the door. I briefly made eye contact with Travis as he walked by; he gave me an odd look, a concerned expression in his eyes.
“You’re gonna get a real whuppin’ now,” muttered one boy as he shoved past me. I recognized him as one of Johnny’s cronies who tried to attack us on the way home the day before. He closed the door behind him, leaving me and the teacher completely alone. The echoes and laughter of the students faded into the distance.
Twitly stood by his desk. “Come here, Mr. Thomas,” he said in a cold voice. “Now!” He picked up his long pointing stick, which I could see would make an excellent whip. Or a switch, as Mr. Colt had called it when he beat Travis several nights ago.
I didn’t care. I walked defiantly up to the front of the classroom, never once breaking eye contact with him.
“Are you going to beat me with that, Mr. Twitly?” I asked, keeping my voice steady.
He started to answer, but I interrupted.
“Because if you do, I just want you to know: you can beat the living crap out of me, even put me in the hospital, but it still won’t make you right. What you were doing to Eddie was totally cruel, like kicking a defenseless dog. Where I come from, they’d fire any teacher who violently attacked a kid in class... and probably toss them in jail, to boot. To attack a kid like Eddie, well... that’s even worse.”
Twitly raised the stick over his head, then stopped, obviously letting my words sink in. I braced myself.
“Sit down, Jason,” he said at last, pointing towards the chair in the front row. I did so, and he leaned back against the desk and let out a long sigh. He let the end of the pointer drop to the floor with a small thunk, then leaned on it like a cane.
“You haven’t been here in St. Louis long enough to know our ways,” he said in a quiet voice. “In my class, discipline is the very backbone of the knowledge we teach.”
“Do you honestly think you can beat the facts of history into a brain-damaged kid?” I said, accusingly. “Sir?” I added, with a note of sarcasm. “I mean... what’s the point?”
What Twitly did next shocked me. His shoulders sagged, then he rubbed his eyes and looked back down at me wearily. “I ask myself that very question every day,” he said, with a touch of sadness. “Edward DePeller could barely speak a complete sentence when I first began teaching him two years ago. His doctors believed him to be a complete idiot and wanted to have him institutionalized. What you don’t know is that his mother begged me to let him attend this school. She insisted that although, as you say, Edward is...” he made a vague hand gesture.
“Mentally disabled,” I said.
“A bit feeble-minded, yes, but he has great potential,” he continued. “He’s below average compared to most of my other students, but has managed to score as high as a C on several tests as recently as last week. I’ve been tutoring Edward on my own time three times a week — twice after school on Monday and Wednesday, and once each Sunday evening. He’s made remarkable progress. But sometimes, his retention is... frustratingly limited.”
I was taken aback. “So you don’t beat him every day?” I said.
“Good Lord, no,” he retorted. “Edward and I had just gone over the Battle of Yorktown yesterday after class. He knows all dates precisely and he can recite most of the facts from memory, when no other students are in the room. In fact, it’s uncanny: I can give him any date in history, and he can tell me the exact day of the calendar on which it took place.”
Realization set in. “Autism,” I said, slowly nodding. “He’s autistic, like a savant. His brain isn’t quite wired the way the rest of ours are, but he’s a genius with numbers. But he has more trouble remembering facts, like history or English.” Like the 1864 version of Rain Man, I thought.
Twitly raised an eyebrow. “I haven’t heard that term for feeble-mindedness before,” he said, “but what you say is indeed very close to the truth.”
So it’s not so much that Twitly a bully, I mused. He’s just a frustrated teacher who let the situation get out of control.
“My hope,” he continued, “is that if I can somehow help students like Edward, perhaps I can keep more of them out of madhouses. Perhaps they can find work, eventually lead useful lives. It’s been the greatest challenge of my teaching career.”
My stomach growled again. “Look, Mr. Twitly, if you’re still going to beat me,” I said, as politely as I could, “can we please get it over with? With all due respect, I’m really starved, and I’m supposed to go to work later on this afternoon at McBillin’s General Store. Sir.”
The man looked me in the eye. “Eat your lunch in here,” he said quietly. “I’ll have Mrs. Green from the kitchen fetch you a glass of milk. For today, there’ll be no punishment. But I’ll thank you not to interrupt my class again. And I expect you to address me with respect.”
I tried not to grin. “Alright,” I said. “And if anybody asks, I’ll tell them that you — how do you guys put it? — ‘slapped the tarnation out of me.’ Does that work for you? Sir?”
Twitly stood up and smoothed out his bowtie. “Yes,” he said finally. “It will have to do. Just heed my warning, Mr. Thomas. I am most certainly not a bully, not in my classroom, or anywhere else. You’ll find I’m more than fair, as long as you obey the rules here. Do we have an understanding?”
I stuck my hand out. “Deal.”
The man took my hand and shook it warily. His grip was moist and shaking slightly, but he seemed somewhat relieved.
§ § § § §
A few of the students stared at me curiously when they returned to the classroom after lunch, but I was otherwise ignored for the rest of the day, which was taken up with more of the history lesson along with some fairly simple mathematics exercises. It’s like living through 7th-grade algebra all over again, I thought, relieved that this would be one test I could easily ace without any studying.
After school, I met up with Travis and we walked down the hall and out to the dirt road. Lem was already waiting for us, gathered with a small crowd of young boys by the courtyard flagpole, poking at something in the dirt. He looked up and grinned.
“Looky here!” he chirped, swinging something black and furry on the end of a rope. “I got me a dead cat!”
I winced. Sure enough, it was the carcass of a dead animal, its eyes staring open, flies buzzing around its head. It was still recognizable as a cat, but only barely.
“Won it at marbles, I did, fair an’ square!” he said. “S’posed to be the luckiest thing in the world.”
“Not for the cat,” I muttered.
Travis was nonplussed. “Mama ain’t gonna let you keep it in the house,” he warned.
I caught a whiff. It smelled sour and musty, like an old moldy cushion that’d been left out in the rain for weeks. The tail was stiff, and stuck out at an odd angle.
“Then maybe I could...” he began.
“And not out in the barn, either,” I said. “No way. Not as long as I’m sleeping in there.”
Lem shrugged. “Maybe in the shed, then, out by the tomato patch. That should be alright, I reckon.”
They started walking, but I held back, looking to the left, on the way into town.
“You comin’?” Travis asked, somewhat impatiently.
“I told Mrs. McBillin that I’d start helping them at the store after school,” I said. “I think I can still be back at the farm by sundown. Tell your mom I’ll try to be home by seven.”
Lem held back a little bit. “Don’tcha wanna look at this?” He swung the cat around his head tentatively, the flies still buzzing. “Ain’t it somethin’?”
“Maybe later,” I said with a slight shudder, then started off to the road that led into town.
§ § § § §
Mr. McBillin proved to be a lot more receptive to my ideas than I had expected. For the first hour or so, I helped his wife bring in barrels of fish from the back of a wagon in the alley behind the store, then I sketched out a new floor plan that would organize the store’s items a little more logically.
“See, the fruits and vegetables could all go over on this side,” I said, using a pencil to indicate the wall on the left. “Eggs and breakables would be over here. Meat stays behind the glass case where it is now. You could even have a few shelves here for fresh bread and rolls.”
“Why in tarnation would we do that?” asked McBillin. “There’s already a bakery less than two blocks away.”
“Convenience,” I said. “People will be more likely to buy a bunch of food items at the same time, instead of having to come here only for meat and vegetables. One-stop shopping.”
“One stop,” he mused. “So they could buy everything under one roof.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Like a supermarket.” Well, more like a very large 7-11, I thought, but at least that’s the general idea.
“Alright,” he said at last. “We could bring in a few bakery items twice a day on consignment. You got any other bright ideas? I’d especially like to hear how we can bring in more customers.”
I thought for a moment. “Advertising,” I said, remembering a business class I’d had less than two months ago, in my previous life at Garfield High back in Seattle. “Put ads in the local newspaper, and post them outside the store, on the wall. Find a few items you can sell at cost, then promote them to bring people in. That’ll get you more customers.”
“At COST?” he thundered. “Now ya tryin’ ta take away all me profits!”
I grinned. “No, no,” I said, as soothingly as I could. “Just get a half-dozen items that will grab people’s attention. Stock up a lot of them, and sell them for exactly what you’re paying for them. You won’t make a dime on them. That’s what a loss-leader is.”
“That makes no bloody sense...” he began.
“But you’ll make loads of money on all the other stuff they buy,” I continued. “Once they come in the store for the sale items, they’re bound to buy more. I bet for every item you break even on, they’ll buy three more things that make you money.”
McBillin frowned. His wife leaned over. “The boy’s making sense, Angus. Maybe you should give it a try.”
“I never heard as big a load of nonsense in my life,” he muttered.
“Mr. McBillin, I swear, all the stores back in my home town do this,” I said, truthfully. “They hook the customers with the cheap sale items, then reel them in like a fish, and they wind up buying more than they planned to. It’s human nature. That’s the way business works.”
His eyes flickered. “Like fishin’,” McBillin mused. “Reelin’ them in.”
“In fact,” I said casually, grabbing an apple from a wicker basket and taking a bite, “I’d put the sale items at the back of the store, and make the customers walk all the way through it to get them. That way, they can’t help but see the rest of what you have to sell.”
McBillin rubbed his chin, his brow wrinkled in thought. “Y’know,” he said at last, “that just might work at that.”
“Try it for a week or two,” I said, pointing to a folded copy of today’s St. Louis Dispatch on the counter. “Put an ad in tomorrow’s paper. I bet business will pick up within two days.”
“The ad’ll cost money,” he mused.
“It’ll pay for itself over time, Mr. McBillin. Just make it as big an ad as you can afford, and feature just the sale items in bold letters. Add a few others at the regular price if you want.”
I looked over his shoulder as he perused some of the other advertisements in the newspaper. Most of them were oddly written, with certain words inexplicably capitalized, and weird typefaces, as if they were made by a crazy geek who went nuts with a new computer. But they looked kind of retro-cool in an odd, 1864 kind of way.
“Alright,” he said, resignedly. “We’ll try a couple of advertisements, then.” He turned to me and shook his finger in my face. “But mind you, boy, if we don’t get any new customers out of it, those ads will be comin’ out of your pay!”
“Just don’t forget I get ten percent if your profits go up for the month,” I reminded him.
He glared at me, then his stern expression slowly dissolved to a smile, then he chuckled. “Are you sure you don’t have some Scot in ya, boy? Because ya certainly know the value of a dollar.”
His wife and I both laughed. It looked like McBillin’s General Store was on its way to becoming “McBillin’s Supermarket.”
§ § § § §
By seven, the sun had already disappeared from the street, and a man came by in a wagon to light the street lamps, bathing the area in a warm yellow light. Mrs. McBillin was kind enough to give me a lift back to the farm in the store wagon.
“You take care now,” she said, as I reached up to grab my book bag and some groceries from behind the seat. She touched my arm gently. “Thank you again for helping us with the store. Angus is a good man, but sometime he’s... well, a mite stubborn when it comes to business.” She smiled warmly. “Thanks to you, I think perhaps we can try some new ideas.”
“There’s a lot more where those came from,” I said, hopping down to the dirt road in front of the Colt farmhouse and pulling down my book bag. “See if you can have a sign painter come by tomorrow afternoon, and I’ll work with him on labeling some of the aisles. This weekend, maybe we can talk about moving the cashier desk to the front of the store.”
She nodded. “We’ll see you tomorrow around four o’clock again. Goodnight, Jason.”
I gave her a brief wave as I walked past the picket fence and up to the front porch, as the wagon creaked down the dirt road. As I trudged up the steps, I noticed an odd reddish glow in the darkness and I stopped in my tracks. Mr. Colt leaned forward, his face momentarily illuminated by a match as he relit his pipe.
“’Bout time ya got here, boy,” he said. “Ya missed supper.”
“I had to work at McBillin’s store.” I held up a brown paper package. “McBillin’s going to let me buy groceries at cost, so I can bring home some food for us once in awhile.”
He snorted, then spat to the side. “We grow pret’ near all we need here. Don’t need much more.”
“I’ll talk to Mrs. Colt about it,” I said. “There’s some stuff we used to eat back home — pizza and hamburgers and stuff — trust me, you’ll love ‘em — and I’ll work it out with Mrs. Colt in the kitchen. And it won’t cost you anything.”
“We’ll see about that.” He leaned back and glared at me as I walked by.
§ § § § §
Mrs. Colt was initially annoyed with me, since I had missed out on veal cutlets and string beans, but she definitely brightened when she saw the canned goods and ham I’d brought with me. She chattered on as she warmed up the leftovers and I told her a little about what had gone on that day, omitting the story about the handicapped boy. After I finished my meal, I stifled a burp and let out a long sigh.
“Man, am I beat,” I said, as I wiped off my mouth and slid my chair back. “Long day.” I looked around. “Is Travis outside?”
Mrs. Colt looked up from the sink, where she had put the last of the dishes in a stack on the counter. “He was out for an hour helping his father feed the livestock, but he should be back in his room by now. Might be asleep already.”
I glanced down the hallway and saw Travis’ door shut. Just as well, I thought. Travis was stubborn enough that I probably should just avoid trying to talk to him until the morning.
I let the back kitchen door close behind me, then lugged my book bag on my shoulder as I approached the barn. The door was open slightly, and a yellow glow flickered from the inside. As I trudged inside, I saw a figure sitting by the cow stall, flipping through a book.
“The Noble Art of Pugilism,” I said, eying the cover. “Good to know you can read.”
Travis looked up, momentarily startled.
“Look,” I began, “I wanted to talk to you about something. We need to talk.”
He scowled and tossed the book aside. “We’re here to learn ya how to fight, not to have no conversation,” he snapped.
That only made me angry. “Fine,” I said, dumping my bag on the ground, then I unbuttoned my shirt and tossed it onto a nearby bale of hay. “Alright. Let’s go, tough guy.”
For the next twenty minutes, we sparred back and forth. “Good one,” Travis said, pulling his head back a split second before my fist flew through the air. “You’re catchin’ on.” He was panting slightly.
Just as I started to reply, his left fist shot out and grazed my jaw. “Ow!” I yelped, jumping backward. “That fucking hurt!” I winced and rubbed my mouth.
Travis stopped. “I was pullin’ my punch,” he said, his voice filled with concern. “I didn’t hit ya that hard. Listen to me: ya gotta start gettin’ used to gettin’ hit. That way, ya won’t get scared when it happens. Even in all the fights I won, I still took a punch now and again. But I was the only one standin’ when it was all over.”
“I think I need a stuntman,” I muttered, clearing my head. I reluctantly raised my fists again.
Travis feinted to the left, then swung hard with his right. I leaned back just in time, and his fist flew harmlessly through the air. Almost in slow motion, I saw my opportunity and socked him in the stomach as hard as I could. Travis let out a loud “oooof” of surprise, then doubled up and fell to the floor.
“Jesus!” I cried, then jumped forward to help him back up.
“I ain’t hurt,” he said, wheezing slightly. “Ya just... just caught me by surprise, that’s all.” He got back up to his feet, then grinned. “I think you’re comin’ along pretty well. Pretty soon, them bullies are gonna be the ones to have ta worry.”
I shook my head, then yawned and sat down on an overturned bucket. “I told you before, Travis — I’m a singer, not a fighter.”
He sat next to me. “Thought you said you were gonna be some kinda actor, like in the theater.”
I shrugged. “I go back and forth. My vocal coach back home, Mrs. Rawlings, says you have to be a decent actor to be a good singer, so the audience really believes the lyrics.”
“Sorry — my singing teacher. My folks paid for lessons twice a week after school for the last few years. A little piano, some music theory, but mainly voice. She actually had a minor hit back in the...” — I stopped myself from saying “the 80s” — “uh, about 20 years ago.”
“A hit?” he said, confused. “You mean she hit somebody?”
“No, no,” I said. “A hit as in a song — a song that everybody knows, one that makes a lot of money. We call that a hit.”
Travis frowned, then held out his hand and closed it into a fist. “This is the only kinda hit ‘round these parts. Ain’t never heard a song I could throw a punch at.”
I laughed. “No, we usually dance to hit songs.”
Travis sniffed. “Dancin’ is stupid,” he said. “Big waste o’ time, if ya ask me. That’s for sissies.”
“Oh, yeah?” I said. “Choreography is hard work — almost as hard as fighting.” I thought for a minute. “Here’s a routine I learned last year. I did it in front of the school and brought the house down.”
“House?” he asked, clearly confused.
“I mean the other kids at school liked it,” I explained. “Got a standing ovation.”
I walked over to the nearby kerosene lantern on the wall, then snapped my fingers to a beat and hummed the intro.
There’s something ’bout me that you ought to know.
I’ve never felt the need to lose control.
Always held on back and played it slow.
But not this time.
Baby, don’t be gentle,
I can handle anything.
take me on a journey.
I’ve been thinking lately,
I could use a little time alone wit’ you.
Let's do something, maybe.
please don’t take your time,
You got me...
Right where you want me.”
I did my bump and grind in time to the beat, spinning around and stopping on a dime, then clapping at the chorus and humming the guitar parts. I even threw in a little moonwalk, sliding across the dusty barn floor, which made Travis laugh.
I danced right around him, occasionally dropping my voice to sing into his ear, then jumped back for some of the more energetic parts of the song.
“Can’t explain it,
How you swept me off my feet,
In slow motion,
My imagination’s running, trying to keep my body still,
Oh, I can hardly stand the thrill.”
As I sang, I let my finger trace an imaginary line from Travis’ chin down to his chest, which was slightly damp with sweat. I hit the falsetto notes expertly, right on pitch, then momentarily dropped down to my knees before hopping up again for the final verse.
Baby, don’t be gentle,
I can handle anything.
Take me on a journey.
I’ve been thinking lately,
I could use a little time alone wit’ you.
Let’s do something, maybe.
Please don’t take your time,
You got me...
Right where you want me.”
I stopped, catching my breath, only a couple of feet away from Travis’ face, frozen in a precise pose.
“That was... uh, very good,” he said, almost shyly.
“You didn’t like it?” I said, catching my breath, then I stood up and dusted off my knees. “Trust me, that routine totally wowed ‘em back home.”
He looked away, slightly embarrassed. “I dunno... I never seen nobody do that before — the way you moved. It made me feel kinda... funny.”
I grinned. “Back where I come from, people do that for a living. I’m a better singer than I am a dancer, but I know a few steps.”
Travis finally turned back to me. He looked a little nervous, and his eyes were very wide.
“Hey,” I said quietly, putting my hand on his shoulder and giving him an affectionate squeeze. “It’s not a big deal.”
There was an uncomfortable silence between us. Travis was having a hard time looking at me. But I was too turned on to stop.
I leaned closer to him. “You want to, uh... you know, ‘wrassle’?” I said in a low voice. “Maybe just for a few minutes?”
Travis seemed to consider it for a moment, then shook his head. “I gotta get back to the farmhouse,” he said, looking away, his voice a little hoarse. “Colt’ll get suspicious if I spend too much time out here.”
I sighed and watched him slip his shirt back on. He buttoned it up, then walked to the barn door and unlatched it.
“You want your book back?” I asked, holding up the boxing guide.
“Naw,” he said. “I practic’ly got it memorized. You keep it. Ya never know — ya might need it someday.”
I turned away. Fine, I thought, as the door closed behind me. If that’s the way he wants it. I flipped through the pages of the book and looked at the line drawings of shirtless athletes in classic boxing positions. Well, it’s not quite internet porn, but at least these guys are pretty hot.
Seconds later, the door creaked open again and Travis peered in. “Tomorrow night,” he said, in a whisper. “You up for some fun then?”
I looked up from the book, my mouth opening slightly in surprise. “Uh... sure,” I said, trying to keep my voice casual. “Yeah, if... if you want to.”
He grinned. “Lookin’ forward to it. G’night.”
The door closed again. One of the sleeping cows nearby stirred, then let out a soft ‘moooo.’
“You can say that again,” I quipped. I guess maybe Travis might be interested after all. I felt my heart give a little leap, already anticipating Tuesday night.
I extinguished the kerosene lamp by the stall and made my way through the darkness over to the back of the barn and wearily crept up the ladder, my book bag weighing heavily on my shoulder. I reached the hayloft, fumbled for a match, and lit the lamp next to my makeshift bed. I stacked the books carefully on the little shelf that had formerly been used by Billy, Travis’ brother.
I glanced up through the rickety barn eaves, where I could just make out the glint of a new moon, shining faintly in the eastern sky. Crickets were merrily chirping in the nearby meadow, while a dog howled in the distance, and a cold wind rattled through narrow gaps in the wooden walls. I was suddenly overcome with a wave of exhaustion and helplessness, and my eyes filled with tears. God, I thought. It looks like the exact same moon I saw in 2007. Will I ever get back home? My memories of life at home in Seattle seemed to be sputtering, like a lantern flame running out of fuel.
As I wearily undressed, I obsessed over my situation: stranded in the wrong century, light years away from all my friends and relatives. I still didn’t have a plan, not even a clue as to what to do next. What tools did I have? Aside from my vague skills as a fledgling actor and singer, what did I have that would help me survive — or even better, get me out of here? I slid my North Face backpack out from under the quilt, unzipped the velcro flap, and dumped out all my worldly possessions onto the bedspread. I felt like James Bond taking stock of the weapons he was going to use on his next top secret mission.
Fat chance of that, I thought, as I thoughtfully arranged each item in a straight line: one small flashlight... but the batteries and bulb were still good. A broken Thermos bottle... worthless. A Bic cigarette lighter... almost full of propane. My spelunking tools were still there, including a small folding shovel, and a small pickaxe. A spare ballpoint pen; I’d have to decide whether to take it back to school or continue to struggle with the old-fashioned metal-tipped ink pens in the classroom. A pair of Rayban Predator sunglasses, which my friend J.D. had given me for Christmas after we saw Men in Black 2. My iPod Touch was still there, along with the broken earbuds, but its battery indicator was on the last click. Even if I had some AC, I thought ruefully, I still don’t have an iPod dock. And I sincerely doubted that McBillin’s General Store would have USB adapters for at least another century or two.
I shoved my fingers deep into the backpack, checking all the little nooks and crannies, and felt a lump in one of the small side pockets. My heart raced as I unzipped it only to find a 3” pocket knife, the deluxe $40 Victorinox Swiss Army model — “with 32 different tools, including pliers, screwdriver, and scissors,” as the enthusiastic salesman at Best Buy had told me when I bought it before my St. Louis trip. That might come in handy, I thought.
But something was still missing. My cellphone! I knew it couldn’t possibly work in 1864, but I still felt a sense of loss. The phone was a very real connection to my life back in 2007. Even though it was just a burner, a cheap Motorola my father had almost tossed out two years earlier, the battery worked fine and it got great reception. More importantly, it still held all my text messages from the last two weeks I was in Seattle, along with a few photos of my family, including one of my father waving goodbye from what was to be his last business trip. If somebody finds the phone, I thought, they’ll wear out the battery for sure. Or even worse, put me over my available minutes, and then Mom will kill me for sure. I grinned at the thought. Reception 150 years in the past was unlikely, but I still clung to the notion that the phone was some kind of connection to my real life.
Gotta get the cell back, I thought, as I yawned and stretched out on the blanket. The cloth felt rough against my skin, but the exhausting events of the day began to evaporate as I fell into much-needed sleep.
excerpt from “Right Where You Want Me”
words & music by Jesse McCartney, Adam Watts, Andy Dodd, and Dory Lobel
©2006 Seven Peaks Music, Inc. (ASCAP)
All rights reserved.
Feedback to the author is welcomed at firstname.lastname@example.org.
New chapters will be posted first to Awesomedude, and then to other sites, including Nifty and others.