PIECES OF DESTINY
The more I thought about it, the madder I got. How could Travis possibly think I was a liar? I tossed and turned for most of the night, pulling the blankets tight in a desperate attempt to keep out the cold. Sleep seemed to be as far away as my home back in Seattle — impossible to reach, and nothing but a fading memory at this point.
My insomnia wasn’t helped by one of the cows across the barn, who bellowed out noises that sounded like the anguished cries of an alien creature from a low-budget sci-fi movie.
“Hey, toots, can you please hold it down to a mild roar?” I mumbled, as I slid another pillow over my head to help muffle down the noise. I must’ve finally drifted off to sleep, because some time later, I heard Mrs. Colt call up to me.
“Travis! I’m ‘fraid I need your help down here. Looks like Matilda’s ‘bout ready to drop her calf.”
I sat up, trying to decipher what she’d said. Calf? As in a baby cow?
“What do you need me to do?” I called, quickly pulling on my pants and a shirt as I approached the hayloft railing. “I don’t exactly know anything about giving birth.”
“She’s done this before,” she called. “I’ll boil some water on the stove and have Lem bring in some fresh hay and a shovel. This can get a bit messy.”
I peered down over the ledge to the barn floor, which was now brightly illuminated by two kerosene lanterns. “What do I do if she gets cranky, Mrs. C?” I called as the woman hurried towards the front gate.
“Just pet her head and talk to her nice and low,” she called over her shoulder as she walked briskly towards the farmhouse. “Keep her calm. I’ll be right back.”
“I’m not so good as a cow whisperer,” I retorted as I hopped down off the ladder. The animal looked at me with an almost human expression of worry and discomfort in her eyes. I approached her warily.
“Hey,” I said in a quiet voice close to her ear, petting the rough coat on her forehead and letting my other hand slip soothingly through her fur. “I know how you feel. OK, maybe not exactly, but I’m kinda having a lousy day myself.”
I felt something warm trickling on my leg and looked down to see a stream of blood puddling down my bare foot to the floor, along with a smell almost beyond description.
I shuddered. “Okay, this is now officially a really lousy day.”
I’d seen TV specials on animals giving birth on a few Bravo TV specials, and I vaguely remembered some 7th grade biology lessons. The real thing appeared to be a lot messier, but I dutifully held the cow’s head and continued talking to her in a soothing voice. Minutes after Mrs. Colt returned, the cow gave a shudder, then opened up its eyes very wide and let out what sounded like a scream, roughly an octave above middle C. A cloud of steam belched out from her mouth into the cold barn air.
“It’s comin’ out now,” Mrs. Colt said from the side, reaching underneath and pulling gently. “‘Bout time.”
I took a quick glance in back, then saw far more than I ever wanted to see. I felt a little woozy. The cow let out a long sigh, and I petted her head again. “Hey,” I said, as reassuringly as I could. “You did great, Matilda. It’s all over now.”
“I think there’s one more,” Mrs. Colt said, setting the calf aside on a soft pile of hay, then sloshing her hands in the bucket. “’Fraid she’s not quite done yet.”
Matilda made another startled expression. I held her head and she seemed momentarily grateful, then closed her eyes and grunted. I heard a thud onto the barn floor, along with a faint bleating of a small animal, roughly the size of a dog. It swayed unsteadily on its feet as Mrs. Colt washed the blood off.
“Two of ‘em, Mama!” Lem said excitedly as he trotted up alongside us with a towel.
“Don’t you get any of this blood on your clean clothes, now,” Mrs. Colt warned, “else you’ll have to take a bath before school.”
Ten minutes later, the calves were eagerly enjoying their breakfast and Matilda seemed no worse for wear, the only casualty being my appetite. After I’d washed off and changed my clothes, I told the Colts I thought I’d try to get to school early. It was just as well; Twitly had dropped some hints that there might be a test today on the first half of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, which I had seen as a British mini-series on cable a couple of years ago, but I still hadn’t made it through the book.
Travis gave me an annoyed look as I left the kitchen, trying not to let the door slam behind me. Good, I thought as I trudged away from the farmhouse. Serves the asshole right. I might think about forgiving him for calling me a liar if he begged me enough. In fact, I could think of quite a few ways he could get back in my good graces. My groin throbbed at the thought, but I put those aside for the moment and continued down the Old Country Road, thumbing through the Dickens novel as I walked. At 15, I was horny all the time, but sex was the last thing I had time to think about at the moment.
The Missouri countryside was bleak and damp, and I glimpsed some ugly clouds through the trees, a warning that the first snows were probably on their way. I pulled my bulky wool coat tighter and made a mental note to buy a cap and maybe even a scarf from McBillin’s store when I went in for work later on that afternoon.
Just then, a few drops of rain spattered my face. And add a raincoat and umbrella to the list, I mused, quickening my pace as I went around the bend that led to the school grounds. My stomach grumbled. I’d made a strategic mistake in not having breakfast with the Colts just because I was pissed off at Travis. I knew the school had a makeshift lunchroom at the back of the building where some of the students had breakfast — no doubt some miserable kind of oatmeal swill and milk, along with hard rolls.
What I wouldn’t give for a Mocha Grande and an Egg McMuffin right about now, I thought ruefully.
I kept up a brisk pace as I strode down the tree-lined road, turning the pages and wiping off the occasional raindrops. The book was old and musty — published in July of 1862, according to the title page — but I figured once I got to class I could get to my desk early and speed-read for another half hour or so, enough to skim through the assigned chapters and fake my way through the test.
I made it to the front of the school just after 8:00AM, surprised to see there were already a dozen or more students milling around the flagpole, some strolling down the corridor that led to the lunchroom out back. Just as my foot reached the top step, I saw a crowd of older boys in a circle, talking animatedly.
“What in tarnation is it?” one asked.
“I dunno,” the other said. “But ya press over here and dang if it don’t light up! Must have some kinda fire inside somehow.”
I stopped dead in my tracks, then slowly turned and peered over one of the boy’s shoulders.
It was my cellphone.
“HEY!” I shouted. “That’s mine!”
They looked up at me, startled. “No ‘taint,” insisted the boy, who drew the phone back, holding it close to his chest as though it was a piece of gold. “I done found it fair and square.”
I took a step forward. “Don’t tell me — you found it in the mud outside Marsen’s Cave. Right?”
The boy narrowed his eyes. “And what if I did? It’s mine now.”
I tossed my book bag to the ground, shaking with fury. “Listen to me. That’s my phone. Hand it over and I’ll show you my name inside it.”
“Who are you, anyway?” he asked, giving me a suspicious look. “You that new boy with the Colts?”
“Yeahm Jason Thomas. Look, just give me five seconds, and I’ll prove it’s mine.”
I knew the phone had four or five JPEG stills of me and my friends in it, along with the only photo I had of my late father. The phone’s camera was broken — that was one of the reasons my father had tossed it — but it still held a few stills I’d downloaded weeks ago from my laptop.
The boy defiantly slipped the phone in his pocket, then grinned and held out his hands. “You want it? Then yer gonna have to take it away from me.”
“Asshole,” I muttered. “I oughta call Sheriff Baxter and have him throw your ass in jail.”
“Baxter ain’t here now,” said another boy, apparently one of his cronies. “It’s just you and us.”
The other onlookers took a step back. I heard cries of “Fight! Fight!” in the background.
I gulped. Alright, I thought. Now’s my chance to try out some of Travis’ boxing lessons. I slipped off my wool jacket, laid it on my schoolbooks, then balled up my fists and took a boxing stance that I remembered from Travis’ lessons.
“Hit me with your best shot, tough guy,” I said, trying to keep my voice from shaking. “I’ll kick your ass from here to Kansas City.”
He slowly nodded, then raised his fists. I gave him a quick once-over. My opponent was a good half a foot taller than I was and probably outweighed me by at least 20 or 30 pounds. He was even bigger than Travis, probably at least 17. His face was littered with acne, and his angry sneer revealed an ugly gap among his lower teeth. Clearly, this was a guy who had kicked his share of asses before.
Back home in Seattle, I almost never got into fights, at least nothing physical. Once, I let my temper get the best of me and shoved a kid into a swing set in fifth grade, and got sent home from school for an “anger management” lecture by my parents. Two years after that, I had gotten so mad at my best female friend, Linda Rosselini, that I’d kicked her in the shin — not hard enough to hurt her, mind you, but enough to show her I was really pissed off. Linda responded by dumping a cup of yogurt over my head in the lunchroom. We eventually made up, and I quickly realized it’s a major faux pas for a boy to fight a girl, even if you’re gay: if you win, people will say you’re a bully, and if you lose, they’ll call you a wimp since a girl beat you up. You gotta know when to hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em.
But I didn’t have that option this time. We warily circled each other while the crowd of onlookers pelted us with jeers and insults, like an 1864 version of a World Wrestling grudge match.
“You show that damn Yankee, Jed,” called one of the crowd.
“I’m Canadian,” I said, not taking my eyes off my opponent, trying to decide second-by-second if I should throw the first punch or let him swing and then try to clobber him after I dodged it. “We’re neutral.”
“Jew boy!” called another.
I glanced up at the crowd. It was Johnny Younger, the angry, shrimpy kid from the fight I’d had three days before. “Nice to see you, too, Johnny,” I barked. “But I told you before, I’m Presbyterian, you moron!”
At that precise moment, Jed took a swing but I leaned back at just the right moment, his knuckles swishing harmlessly through the air, missing my chin by inches. Almost by instinct, I slammed my right fist down into his unprotected abdomen with all my strength, leaning into the punch and letting my weight carry me through. He groaned and staggered back.
“There’s more where that came from, pea-brain,” I cried, my adrenalin surging. “Bring it on!”
Jed coughed once, then regained his stance, his face red. “You got lucky. But you’re gonna pay for that now.”
Before I could come up with a snappy retort, he was suddenly on me, battering me once in the face, then smashing again in my stomach. I almost fell backwards, then quickly jumped up and danced around the circle of onlookers.
“You’re gonna have to do better than that, asshole,” I wheezed, trying not to let the pain show. “This is your last chance. Just give me my phone back, and I’ll try not to rearrange your face too badly. Not that you wouldn’t look a lot better with some major plastic surgery.”
“You gonna talk or fight?” he said, taking another couple of swings, while I deftly ducked and weaved out of the way.
“Stand still, ya horn-toad!”
“Like this?” I asked, coming to an abrupt halt.
He blinked, then I shot forward and belted him as hard as I could in the mouth. He let out a cry of rage and held his face.
“OWWW!” he screamed. “I think you done busted one of my teeth out!” He spat, and a tear of blood trickled down his chin.
“Good. One down, thirty-one to go. Sorry — make that thirty,” I said, remembering he was already missing at least one tooth.
My mind was racing. If I was lucky, I could tire the guy out just by staying one step ahead of him. No doubt the teachers or the principal would be showing up any minute, and they’d break up the fight.
Jed now looked like a wild bull. His nostrils momentarily flared, letting out a steady steam of breath in the cold winter air, and I flashed back to the cow I’d seen giving birth only two hours earlier.
Suddenly, two arms grabbed me from behind, the hands clamped tightly behind my neck.
“What the hell?” I cried, trying to look around.
It was Jed’s cohort, who had me locked in a strong Full Nelson. I was paralyzed, my head twisting from side to side as I tried to wriggle away, like a helpless insect snared in a spider’s web.
“That’s it,” Jed called. “You hold him still, Eli, and stop him from dancin’ around!”
“Hey, that’s not fair!” I cried. “Lemme go, you jerkwad!”
Jed took a step forward and leaned into my face. His breath smelled worse than Matilda’s, and I got a closer look at his ragged complexion, which had enough pockmarks to resemble the dark side of the moon. He wiped a puddle of blood off his lower lip.
“You’re gonna wish you never seen my face, you hooligan,” he said in a low voice.
“I may be a hooligan, but at least I’m not a thief!” I spat back at him.
His fist shot forward and hit me square in the nose. My head snapped back and I saw a momentary flash of white, leaving me momentarily stunned.
“Hold him up, Eli!” he called, raising his fist for another punch. “I’m gonna teach this boy a lesson he ain’t soon gonna forget.”
Another punch, and I tasted blood in my mouth. Then another, more of a slap.
I sagged in the other boy’s arms, my head lolling to the side. He punched again, this time in my chest. I lurched forward, fighting the urge to pass out. A few of the onlookers laughed.
My eyes cleared for a moment. I’d seen a hundred action movies with guys like Daniel Craig and Matt Damon. What would they do in a situation like this? Probably ask for a stunt double, a frappuccino, and a nap in their trailer, I thought.
“Stop,” I said, gasping for breath. “Jed, listen to me. You don’t even know what that thing is in your pocket. Only I know how to use it. If you just give me one second, I can prove it’s mine. I swear to god.”
Jed stopped, cocked his head, then pulled the phone out of his overalls. Once glance told me it looked pretty clean, given that it’d been buried in mud for the last week. He turned it around in his hands, examining it from every angle.
“Ain’t no name on it anywhere,” he said, opening and closing it. “Unless your name’s... Mo-to-ro-la. What kinda name is that, anyway? Chinese?”
“My name’s on the screen,” I croaked, trying to catch my breath. “It’s in the main menu. Just hand it over and I’ll show you.”
He put it back in his pocket. “And let you dance away with it? My momma didn’t raise no fools.”
“I’ll... I’ll pay you for it,” I said, suddenly remembering the cash I still had in my wallet. “It’s worth a dollar to me.”
Jed raised an eyebrow. “You got that much on ya? Eli, grab his money.”
“Back right pocket,” I said, while the other boy deftly reached for my wallet. The instant he took his right arm off me, I remembered a Jackie Chan movie I had seen several years before. This might actually work.
As he flipped open my wallet, he let out a low whistle. “Why, I do believe we got ourselves a rich boy! Must be eight, nine dollars here!”
“Eleven fifty,” I said, trying to decide which direction to move. “Plus a Visa charge card that won’t do you any good.”
“Charge what?” Jed said, as he and Eli eagerly flipped through the bills.
With that, I let out a war cry, then lifted my right foot up and stomped the heel of my boot down as hard as I could on Eli’s toes. He shrieked at the top of his lungs and fell back in the dirt, causing the crowd to scurry out of the way.
Jed looked up, startled. I kicked him in the groin as hard as I could. He doubled up, screaming in agony. As he fell to his knees, I belted him in the face — again, again, and again. On the third punch, I felt his nose crack under my fist and he squealed even louder, clutching his face as a torrent of blood erupted down his face.
“I’ll take that,” I said, pulling the wallet out of his hands as he fell backwards. “And this, too,” I said, yanking the phone out of his pants pocket. He rolled over on his side, and I kicked him in the ass. “That one’s no extra change.”
The crowd let out a buzz of admiration.
“That ain’t fair,” cried Eli, still lying on his back and cradling his left leg, sobbing with pain. “I think you done broke my dang foot!”
“Yeah,” I said, slipping my wallet back into my pocket as I reached for my coat. “Like two against one is fair, right?”
“He got ya there, Eli,” called a voice.
I turned to see Travis and Lem, beaming from the crowd.
“Jesus. It’s about time you got here,” I said. “I sure could’ve used some help about five minutes ago.”
Travis laughed as he handed me my books from the ground. “Looks like ya did pretty good by yourself.”
“I learned it all from Jackie Chan,” I said with shrug. “Twin Dragons. Got some major kick-ass action. Great movie.”
I made a helpless gesture. “It’s kinda like a stage play, only... I’ll explain later.”
As we made our way through the crowd, a few onlookers slapped me on the back. “Never seen anybody fight like that before!” one said. “Jed had it comin’ to him,” said another. “Thought you were gonna turn tail and run, but done you licked him good!”
“You were just wonderful!” gushed a female voice.
I turned to see Faith, dressed in a pink dress and a white sweater. She gave me a kiss on the cheek. Johnny scowled over her shoulder, then gave me a reluctant nod.
“So that’s how they fight in Can-Ay-da, huh?” He gave me a wary eye, but I could see he was both surprised and impressed.
“More like Hong Kong,” I said with a grin, then wiped my mouth. “Ow!” I grimaced, feeling a jolt of pain on my lower right jaw, along with the sharp tang of blood. “Shit. I think I have a loose tooth.”
Great, I thought, gingerly feeling one of my side molars. Well, I always wanted caps anyway. I’d need them just to make sure my teeth looked good on TV if I ever got to sing on American Idol. Granted, I wasn’t the best-looking guy around, but I wasn’t quite as geeky as Clay Aiken. And I was at least as good voice-wise, according to my singing coach back in Seattle.
“That thing really yours?” asked Lem, pointing to the phone, which was half-sticking out of my pants.
“Yeah,” I said, flipping it open. “Lemme show you.”
I hit a couple of buttons and displayed a picture of me and Dad from last summer. I held it to Travis and Lem, who peered at it curiously.
“This is some kinda picture box?”
“Something like that. That’s me and my dad, when we went on a ski vacation to Lake Roosevelt. And here’s my name.” I clicked back to the main menu showed him the display. “See?”
“‘Jason Thomas,’” Lem read out loud. “That’s you, I guess. ‘206-802-9922.’ What’s all them numbers mean?”
“It’s my phone number... it’s...” I made a vague gesture, then gave up. “It’s complicated. I’ll explain some other time.”
In the distance, the school warning bell rang.
“We gotta git movin’,” Travis said, gently pushing me forward, then turned to his brother. “Lem, you run on down to school, now.”
I checked the display. The phone still had a 90% charge, probably because it’d been in sleep mode for six days. I killed the power and turned it off. I still wasn’t sure why I needed the phone; but if nothing else, it was concrete evidence that I really was from the future. And at least it gave me some pictures I could look at to help me remember my old life.
And if I leave it here in 1864, I mused, the people here might take it apart, figure it out, and invent faster-than-light travel in a couple more years. The next thing you know, Captain Kirk will be fighting World War I and screw everything up. I’d seen enough sci-fi movies to know that anything could happen when you messed around with time travel.
Travis looked over my shoulder and I turned to see Jed and Eli in the distance, staggering up to their feet. Jed let out a sob when Eli tried to touch his nose. The school principal, Mrs. Weeks, ran up and began scolding them.
“You think they’ll leave me alone now?” I said, as we made our way down the crowded hallway to the 9th grade classrooms.
Travis shrugged. “Ya never know. Them two are bad apples. You best watch out for ‘em — ‘specially Jed. Folks say his daddy’s in jail back in Arkansas for killin’ a man.”
“Thanks for the important safety tip,” I said. “With luck, maybe Jed’ll be in an adjoining cell by the end of the year, sharing a bunk with Bubba as his husband. C’mon, let’s get to class before Twitly kills us.”
“As long as Twitly goes to jail, it might be worth it,” Travis said with a grin.
§ § § § §
Between the schoolyard fight and my singing performance in class on Monday, I was suddenly the most popular kid in the entire 9th grade. A dozen teens I hadn’t previously met sat with me and Travis at the lunch table, and I regaled them with the highlights of several action films that had inspired me to kick some ass that morning.
“So this guy swung on a rope right through a window when it done exploded?” asked my new friend Jacob, thoroughly caught up with my story.
“No, no,” I said, trying hard not to chew on my sore tooth. “McClane had to swing off the top of the building when the roof exploded because of the bombs planted by terrorists. He actually used a fire hose — that’s normally used to put out fires — and swung down from the top of a 40-story building and smashed right through a glass window by shooting it out with a handgun. Incredible stunt work. And he did it all in his bare feet.”
The kids murmured with appreciation.
I left out the climax in Die Hard where the shrapnel also took out a helicopter, since that would be a little too hard to explain to my current audience, along with the police cars, the computer-controlled bank vault timer and so on. Call it the “1864 rewrite.”
“That’s some story,” said Travis, taking a sip of water from a wooden cup. “Jason’s got a lotta stories.” He rolled his eyes knowingly.
“Do tell,” said Zeke, a tall, black-haired boy who was apparently Jacob’s best friend.
I glared at Travis. “Hey, what I told you last night is true, lamebrain. How else do you explain this thing?” I said, waving the phone under his nose.
He shrugged. “That’s just some kinda picture-box. Ain’t nothin’ special ‘bout it.”
“Yeah, well... you just let me know where you can buy plastic and lithium batteries in 1864.”
Before he could respond, there was a clatter of hooves about a hundred yards away, as a buggy pulled up to the curb by the schoolyard.
Uh-oh, I thought, looking up to see a familiar face in the distance. Sheriff Baxter again.
I began rehearsing my speech as to how I didn’t start the fight, and hoped I could afford a good defense attorney. With my luck, I’d spend the rest of my life paying off the settlement — that’s assuming Jed and Eli could invent the personal-injury lawsuit a hundred years early.
Baxter yelled something unintelligible, and several teachers came running out of the main school office to find out what the disturbance was all about.
“I bet somebody’s in big trouble,” Zeke said, staring at the melee.
“The sheriff looks powerful angry,” added Jacob.
“Shit,” I muttered. “Baxter probably wants to drag me off to the county orphanage now.”
“Naw,” said Travis, as we jogged up to get a better look. “I think he’s yellin’ at Jesse.”
“Ya got no damned proof!” yelled a voice. Sure enough, it was Jesse James, glowering, while the sheriff shook him by his shoulders.
“There’s two Union soldiers dead and a whole wagon full o’ weapons and artillery gone missin’ last night,” Baxter snapped, his face reddened with anger. “General Lyon seems to think Quantrill’s Raiders were behind it. Ain’t that so?”
“I don’t know nothin’ ‘bout any of that,” Jesse protested, looking away. “Why, I ain’t even seen Quantrill in over a year. Newspaper says they’re all split up, maybe gone back to Texas.”
“That man’s a bloody murderer and you know it,” the sheriff snarled. “Them bushwackers killed two hundred innocent men and boys in the Lawrence Massacre a year ago August.”
Jesse eyed the man coolly. “Some people say Quantrill’s a hero.”
The sheriff eyes flickered for a moment, then decided to change the subject. “Where you been since Tuesday, son?”
“Livin’ at my sister’s house,” he said with a shrug. “My family wants me to stay in school, get some book-learnin’.”
Baxter pulled Jesse’s face closer. “You listen to me, you foolish boy — if you see hide or hair of that old gang of yours, you best tell ‘em to stay clean out of St. Louis. This is my town. You give me one excuse, just one, and I’ll see to it you get clamped in irons down at the Camp Jackson prison faster than you can whistle ‘Dixie.’ They already got a whole bunch o’ you Rebel scum, and take me at my word: they’re gonna rot in there for the next hundred years. That’s unless they hang by the neck first, the traitorous bastards.”
The boy almost yawned with indifference. “I told ya before: I been here in school the whole time. Got a whole classroom full o’ witnesses. Besides,” he added thoughtfully, “seems to me that whether somebody’s a traitor or not rightly depends on which side you’re on... don’t it, sheriff?”
Baxter raised a hand as if to strike Jesse, but Twitly’s voice called out.
“Mr. Baxter,” he said, stepping forward. “I’ll let you know if Mr. James gives us any trouble.” He turned to Jesse. “I think we can be certain that he’ll not get into any mischief. He’ll be my responsibility as long as he attends this school and completes all his lessons.”
The man slowly let his hand drop. “Just you let me or my deputies know, Mr. Twitly. I’d appreciate the opportunity to get this hoodlum behind bars.” The sheriff turned back to Jesse. “By the way, son — you happen to see your brother Frank anytime recent? We got a few questions we’d like to ask.”
Jesse shrugged. “He ain’t livin’ with us. Frank’s of age, and I ain’t his keeper. Far as I know, why, he ain’t even in the state.”
I thought back to the cave, that fateful Friday night only six days earlier. It had been Frank and Jesse James who’d led me to Marsen’s Cave, its secret entrance marked by the “Q” carved on the tree. The mark of Quantrill’s Raiders?
Jesse glanced up at the crowd and looked askance when he recognized my face, about ten feet behind Baxter’s. I shook my head then lightly touched my lips with my index finger and pantomimed a “shhh.” Jesse gave me an imperceptible nod. I saw no reason to get either of the James brothers in trouble, since they had actually helped me — OK, after I gave them a cash bribe — and maybe they might help me again, once I could figure out how to dig through the mudslide that currently blocked the cave entrance. I was still convinced that was my only chance to get back to 2007, through the time tunnel or doorway or whatever it was.
Baxter let out a snort, then stepped back up on his wagon. “You best watch yourself, Jesse,” he warned. “I’m keepin’ my eye on you. There are people in this world who’d like nothing better than to see you and the rest of your gang at the bad end of a rope.”
Jesse grinned. “I reckon I feel safer already, knowin’ you’re watchin’ out for me, Sheriff.”
The man cracked his whip and the wagon clattered down the street. Just as the sheriff’s back disappeared over the hill, Twitly herded us together and marched us silently down the hallway back to class.
“Didn’t you say you saw Frank and Jesse the other night?” whispered Travis.
I nodded as we turned the corner with the rest of the class. “Yeah, back at the cave. They mentioned Quantrill, too.”
Travis sniffed. “I think you’re tellin’ stories again. You’re as big a fibber as Jesse.”
“I AM NOT A LIAR!” I bellowed, my voice ringing down the hallway.
“Mr. Thomas! Mr. Colt!”
I felt myself being dragged by the scruff of my neck. Twitly shoved us both up against the brick wall.
“You know the rules, gentlemen. Absolutely no talking in the hallways on the way to class! That’ll be a half-hour detention for both of you after school.”
“But I can’t!” I protested. “I’ve gotta go to work this afternoon at McBillin’s store!”
“Let’s make it an hour, just for that tone of voice,” he retorted. “ I will not tolerate disrespect from my students.”
I started to object, then thought better of it and snapped my mouth shut.
Twitly crooked his finger at me and leaned closer. “And there’s also the matter of two of our 12th grade students who just had to go to Doctor Wells for a badly broken nose and three injured toes, respectively. We have very strict rules about fighting on school grounds.”
I started to say something about getting an attorney, but Travis gently nudged the back of my leg and I stayed silent.
“Yes sir,” Travis said quickly. “We heard about that fight this morning but didn’t get here until just after it was all over. Too bad there weren’t any teachers around to stop it.”
Twitly gave him a steely-eyed glare and raised an eyebrow. “Yes. It was unfortunate that our staff didn’t see who else was involved. We have no tolerance for ruffians breaking rules here at Jefferson High.”
My jaw tightened. “We’ll remember that. Sir.”
Travis kept a wary eye on both of us all the way back to class, where we returned to the world of Charles Dickens and the London and Paris of 1789. Definitely the best of times, and the worst of times.
§ § § § §
“Colt’s gonna tan my hide when I get home,” Travis muttered as we trudged wearily down the dirt road.
The shadows were already long and the late afternoon sun hung low, like a bronzed penny on the distant horizon. My wristwatch told me it was already well past 5PM. Twitly had originally said he was only going to keep us in detention until 4:30, but he’d decided to have us write ten pages each of “I will obey the rules of Jefferson High” and “No fighting is allowed on school property,” repeated fifty times on each page, which took us another half hour. My hand ached from the endless repetition of manually scratching out the words on lined paper, dipping the steel-tipped pen into the inkwell every other word. I sighed and longed for the days of cut-and-paste.
“I told you a hundred times: I’ll explain to Colt it was all my fault,” I said, still feeling the bruise on my jaw. “Shit!” I cried, sucking in my breath.
“How’s the tooth?” Travis asked, momentarily concerned. “Still bleedin’?”
“Hurts like a mofo,” I said, gingerly wiggling the molar with my tongue. “Is there a dentist around here? Maybe I can have him take a look at it tomorrow.”
“Doc Gibbons. He’s in the same building as Doctor Wells, not two blocks from the school. Had him pull one of my baby teeth once, back when I was eight. Kept it under my pillow for a week, but I never got nothin’ for it.”
I stopped Travis. “Lemme take a look at your teeth.”
He gave me a curious look, then opened his mouth.
“Jesus,” I said, incredulous. “Damn near perfect teeth. No cavities. I bet that’s because there’s no soft drinks in this century.”
“What’s that? I heard o’ hard liquor.”
“It’s a drink anybody can buy — flavored soda water with sugar, caffeine, and artificial flavors, like Coca-Cola. Tastes great, but it rots your teeth. People love it back home.”
“They carry that at McBillin’s store?”
I stopped dead in my tracks. “Shit!” I yelled, slapping my forehead. “I totally forgot about working today! McBillin’s gonna kill me!”
Travis stopped me from turning around and heading back into town. “By the time you get there, they’ll practic’ly be closin’. Ain’t no point, if ya ask me.”
I sighed, then sadly nodded my head. I’d have to give my excuses to the Scotsman tomorrow. Maybe things wouldn’t be as hectic at the store today, after yesterday’s madhouse after the ad. And there was a good chance McBillin would cool off once he added up the pile of profits they made over the last couple of days.
“I guess I can make it up to them over the weekend,” I mused. “We still gotta put up some new signs, rearrange the back shelves, and...”
“Shhhh!” Travis hissed, skidding to a halt and glancing towards the woods. “What was that? Sounds like somethin’s hurt, some kinda animal.”
To our right was a large forest, the trees billowing slightly in the cold wintry air, their limbs rippling in waves. To the left was a dense clump of dead tree trunks and bushes that led down to a path, strewn with leaves and rocks. The sounds seemed to be coming from farther down the hill.
“Could be dangerous,” I said. “Lions, tigers and bears — oh, my.”
“Ain’t none of them varmints out here in these woods,” Travis answered in a low voice. “Saw a coyote once, but it was stone-cold dead, lyin’ by the railroad tracks ‘bout a mile yonder. Looked like a pile of rancid meat.” He shuddered at the memory.
We cautiously made our way down the hill, the twigs and bushes scraping against our legs, and the sounds grew louder. Something was moaning — and it definitely sounded human.
Travis and I crept over to a small outcropping and peered over the edge. What we saw made my jaw drop.
Less than fifty feet away were two teenage boys, stark naked, their clothes strewn haphazardly in a heap nearby. One was bent over, face down on a rock, his head resting on his forearm. The other was positioned behind him, standing up and leaning forward. There was no question what they were doing.
“Fuck,” I whispered, stunned.
“I said hold still!” the first boy cried. “I’ve almost got it in.”
“Then get a move on,” whimpered the other. “Get it over with.”
The other one spat, then thrust forward and gave a satisfied sigh. “That’s it. This ain’t gonna take long.”
The boy on the rock let out a yelp, then began to gasp. They began to settle into a slow rhythm, their bodies slapping together like a metronome.
Travis and I were too shocked to move.
“Whoa,” I said with a gulp. “Jesus... this is like watching live porno.”
This was the first time in my life I’d actually seen two guys do it — well, except for an occasional porno on the net, plus that one weekend I had with Luke in March back home in Seattle. The last afternoon we were together, he somehow convinced me to let him fuck me, but I did it only with great reluctance. Luke was huge — well, as endowed as some of the porn stars I’d seen on the net, anyway — but he eased me into it, clearly having a lot of experience with this sort of thing. It was tough for the first few minutes, but Luke knew every button to push and was patient, passionate, and enthusiastic. By the time we’d finished, I got into it so much I had the biggest orgasm of my life; I’m amazed the neighbors didn’t call the police from all the noise we made. Afterwards, he and I couldn’t do anything but just lie there for ten minutes, thoroughly spent, exhausted but exhilarated. It was a hundred times better than anything I’d ever expected. It was as if a door to a whole new world opened up, and after that weekend, I felt like I knew what my life as a gay guy was going to be like from then on.
I guess if I had to lose my virginity to somebody, I could’ve done a lot worse than Luke Martin — a cute blond with the body of a gymnast and the dazzling smile of an Abercrombie & Fitch model. Luke always knew the right things to say: he was funny, he paid attention to me, and he made me feel as though I was the most fascinating person he’d ever met. How could I not fall head over heels in love? But the experience had left me feeling utterly lost and empty, especially the next day when he completely ignored me, both on the phone and in school. One moment, I was sure Luke and I would be together for the next couple of years at least; the next, I found out I was just the latest in a long line of conquests — guys and girls. Luke was insatiable, irresistible, and completely incorrigible.
“Luke Martin treats everybody as if they were his personal receptacle,” explained my best friend, J.D., after I’d tearfully disclosed the intimate details of my close encounters of the Luke kind. As much as I hated Luke for using me, I had to admit he’d been the subject of my fantasies every single night afterwards, and probably would be for years to come. Sure, he broke my heart into about seventeen pieces. But I gained something positive from the experience, and I’d vowed to be a lot more careful from then on.
I stared at the boys going at it. The one on top was panting, grunting with each thrust, clearly overcome with lust. His back was strong and muscular, and despite the cool weather, there were beads of sweat trickling down his skin. I guessed he was at least 17 or 18, a little taller than Travis, but every bit as powerfully built, almost like a bodybuilder. His hair was dark brown, but I couldn’t quite make out his face from this distance. The boy on the bottom was smaller, but clearly enjoying every minute of it. Every so often, the top boy leaned down and kissed him, then used his hands to caress his body, causing him to let out little squeaks of pleasure.
“You know these guys?” I whispered. “They go to Jefferson High?”
Travis shook his head, then turned away. “I don’t know either of ‘em. C’mon... we gotta get outta here.”
“Wait!” I said, unable to take my eyes off the stallions on the rocks. My underarms felt damp, my heart was racing, and my pants felt much too tight. Who knew guys were having sex like this during the Civil War, I thought. And here I thought gay pride didn’t happen until at least 1969. My groin began to twitch.
The young men below continued to writhe and contort. The guy on top began to quicken his pace, bucking his hips faster and faster, then reached down and began to massage the other’s erection. They began to groan in unison. The sexual energy radiating from their bodies almost made me dizzy.
“Jesus, this is so hot,” I whispered, my mouth suddenly feeling very dry.
“It’s nasty,” said Travis, taking me by the shoulder and dragging me back towards the hill.
“What do you mean?” I snapped, a little too loudly, pulling away and crouching back behind the rocks.
“Shhhhhhh!” he hissed. “Let’s get back up to the road. Mama’s gonna have dinner on the table in fifteen minutes.”
Travis’ footsteps scurried back up the path behind me as I stood up to get a better view. Below, the two boys were building to a climax. They pistoned together in unison like some kind of amazing sexual machine, their bodies grinding in perfect sync, their voices moaning together. I was stiff as a board.
“I’m almost done, Johnny!” the taller boy cried.
My mouth fell open. The boy on the bottom turned his face, then cried out and pointed in my direction.
It was Johnny Younger!
I fell back behind the rocks and frantically stumbled up the path, desperately ripping up pieces of shrubbery on the way, clawing at the dirt as fast as I could, finally gaining speed as the ground flattened out.
In the distance behind me, I thought I heard another voice cry out. That would be the money shot, I thought.
As I scurried back to the dirt road, I saw Travis about a hundred feet away and quickly caught up with him.
“Why you in such a dang-fool hurry?” he called.
“Just shut up and run!” I yelled. We ran east for another mile on Old Country Road towards the general direction of the Colt farm.
“Since when are you so all-fired up to get home for dinner?” he said, as we finally slowed our pace.
“Watching hot sex makes me hungry,” I said, wheezing as I took a furtive glance over my shoulder. Maybe the other boys won’t come after me, I thought.Still, we had a good ten-minute head start on them, and I doubted they’d want to get close to the Colt farm, knowing Mr. Colt’s penchant for firearms. Chances are, Johnny didn’t get a good look at me, anyway, since I’d been partly hidden by shadow. In fact, the more I thought of it, I wasn’t 100% sure it was him at all. Johnny was a common name, after all.
Travis stayed silent. A sudden breeze rattled the leaves and sent a shiver down my spine.
“So what’s the big deal?” I said, trying to sound nonchalant. “I mean... you’ve seen animals mating before, right?”
Travis wouldn’t look at me. “I been on a farm all my life,” he said. “I seen pret’ near everything animals do, since I was three years old.”
“Well,” I said, trying to sound casual, “I’m just saying, there’s nothing wrong with... well, what those guys were doing back there. I mean, as long as you love the person. And you use protection.”
I started to explain about condoms and safe sex, but then remembered AIDS wouldn’t exist for another century. “Well, you know... there’s diseases and stuff — syphilis, gonorrhea, crabs. Those are sexually transmitted diseases that’ve been around since like ancient Egypt. They taught us about all this last year in Natural Science 201.”
He sniffed and nodded towards the road behind us. “Ain’t nothin’ natural ‘bout that.”
I sighed. “Listen, Travis. Where I come from, what two people do together... it’s all good. They aren’t hurting anybody. They’re making love. It’s their business.”
He stopped dead in his tracks. “There ain’t no love in that,” he said, almost angrily. “It ain’t right, and it ain’t natural. They ain’t makin’ babies.”
I started to argue, but he started walking faster. “Move it along,” he called over his shoulder. “Rain’s comin’ in again.”
I stared as he disappeared around the bend where the path grew narrower, less than two miles away from the Colt farm. “You comin’ or not?” he called in a louder voice, as he continued walking away.
I felt a couple of cold raindrops splash against the back of my neck. I turned back to the road behind me and felt a pang.
Maybe next time you guys oughta try fooling around indoors, I thought. And keep the door locked.
I buttoned the top button of my coat, then turned towards the Colt farm and reluctantly followed Travis through the forest clearing.
A freeze-frame of the scene I’d just witnessed flashed before my eyes, and I couldn’t help but smile a little. Well, at least I have a new late-night fantasy to try out in the next few days.
§ § § § §
Travis practically acted like I didn’t exist for the rest of the walk home. He refused to respond when I tried again to talk about what we’d seen down the hill. Since he already thought I was a liar, it was clear to me that Travis was not only stupid, but bigoted as well. My friend J.D. had a whole theory about “self-hating gays,” with that old joke about Denial not just being a river in Egypt.
“I once met a guy who I swear was only gay when he was in the middle of having sex,” J.D. once told me in an unguarded moment. “The moment he was done — ‘slam, bam, thank you, sir’ — suddenly he was as straight as an arrow, with the wife, the 2.5 kids, the dog, the station wagon, the whole thing. Couldn’t wait to get away from me, like I was Kryptonite.” J.D. shook his head sadly. “Guys like this are what I call ‘homo-schizos’: deny, deny, deny. The idea of being gay scares them so badly, it’s like a light switch they can just turn off — click! — just like that. They turn it on only when they need something they can’t get from their wives or girlfriends. Take my advice: stay away from these jerks. If they hate part of themselves, they’re eventually gonna wind up hating you, too, honey. Because they just can’t handle it.”
Well, what did you expect? I asked myself two hours later, as I got ready to climb into my hayloft bed. Gay sex wouldn’t be legal for another hundred years — maybe longer, in the case of Texas and Georgia and a few other third-world countries — and gay marriage was still years away, at least for every state. Hell, the word “gay” wouldn’t even exist for half a century. How could I expect some confused 1864 churchgoing kid to realize what we knew in my time: that people are different everywhere and you had to have tolerance and respect for them, even if you didn’t exactly gravitate in that direction.
Maybe the immediate problem was to at least convince Travis that I was telling the truth. If I could somehow make him believe I really was from the future, maybe I could eventually make him see that two guys making love wasn’t necessarily a big deal. And that sex was as natural and easy as you wanted it to be. I knew I could make him understand.
But why? Just so I could have sex with him? Clearly, I had ulterior motives here. And maybe it wasn’t fair to Travis. After all, I had already accepted that I was gay; it might take Travis years to figure out what he wanted out of life — and whether he was straight or gay for that matter, or somewhere in-between. It wasn’t fair to push him into a relationship he couldn’t handle. Or even worse, for me to use him just so I could get my rocks off.
Like Luke did to me.
The realization hit me hard.
Jesus. That’s the last thing I’d ever want to do to Travis.
“No,” I whispered out loud, as I sat on the bed and pulled up the blankets, the rough threads tickling my neck. I was determined that he was going to have to come to me. I wasn’t going to force him to do anything. If it happens, great; if not, I’ll just let it go. There’s plenty of guys back in 2007 who’ll want to go out with me someday. But Travis was gonna have to make up his mind first as to who he is. Until then, he was off limits.
As I lay back, the kerosene lantern flickering beside me, I gazed up at the dark walls and ceiling in the upper part of the barn, watching the amber light as it scattered across the wooden boards. My jaw still hurt like shit, but at least the tooth felt a little better. I pulled down the blanket and looked at my bare chest and stomach, which had a bunch of black and blue marks, like a relief map of Hawaii. My right hand hurt like hell, too, with scrapes on the knuckles where I’d socked Jed that morning. Better than a broken nose and some busted toes, I thought, feeling more than a little triumphant. That’s sure as shit something I never would’ve tried back in Seattle.
I yawned, then reached up to pull my copy of A Tale of Two Cities down off the shelf. Out of the corner of my eye, I spotted a cockeyed wooden slat on the barn wall just below the far right side of the shelf. Curious, I unhooked the lantern above my head and brought it down closer, then tentatively nudged the board. The wood creaked backwards a little bit, so I pushed a little harder. It opened to reveal a small compartment. The dim yellow light flickered on a folded piece of school parchment, written in very neat handwriting:
January 10th, 1864
I am leaving this behind so’s you will no what has happend to me. I am fed up with the Union in our great state of Missouri, and am gone to do what I always said I would: I am gone down to the Tennessee border by the morning train and I am enlisting in the righteous Confederate army.
I am sorry I could not tell you in person, but I reckoned you would fight me like the blazes, so this way is best. Mama won’t approve, neither, but as I am now 17 years of age, I am sure they will take me. Say goodbye to Lem for me. I hope to see battel soon, and we are surly fighting on God’s side.
As long as there is a blue sky above, I will see you again, so don’t you worry none. When the War Between the States is over, I will do everything I can to come home and get you away from Colt. For now, protekt Ma and Lem as best you can.
Travis, you will always be in my heart, every day that I live. I promise I will write again soon as I reach the Army base in Clarksville, and will send home what money I can.
There were several cross-outs, misspellings, and scrawls in the letter, so it was clearly written in a hurry. I knew Travis’ brother had slept up here in the hayloft long before I arrived, so it figured that he’d have a secret stash where he kept his private possessions. But why didn’t he tell Travis about it? Why not just mail the letter on the way out of town? Maybe he left in a hurry, or somehow forgot to give him some clues where the letter was hidden up here in the barn.
But what about the letters that had already arrived? Lem had shown me one of Billy’s letters postmarked from two months earlier. The handwriting was cruder than what was on this paper, but that figured, given that Billy was probably writing on the battlefield somewhere, dodging bullets and cannonballs while crouching in a foxhole. Still, at least this letter would finally answer Travis’ question on why Billy never said goodbye when he left.
Let’s see him try to say I’m lying about this, I thought smugly. Even if Travis and I never wind up having any kind of relationship — and it would be crazy for me to even try, since I probably wouldn’t be stuck here in 1864 for much longer — at least he’d know I’d never lie to him. Just being friends with him would be enough for now.
I looked back at the letter. You’ll always be in my heart, every day that I live.
I thought about all the young soldiers that went off to war in my world, some never to return home. At least they had email, telephones, and iPods where they were in the Middle East. I remembered a grim fact from my 8th grade American History class last year: more Americans died in the Civil War than World War I, World War II, and Vietnam combined — more than 600,000 people. That terrible number stuck in my head after we had to write a report on the Ken Burns PBS documentary. I vividly remembered the montage of some of the faces of the soldiers, some of which weren’t much older than I was right now.
Maybe Billy would be one of the lucky ones.
“Keep your head down, Bill,” I whispered to the letter. I carefully folded it back up and returned it to its hiding place. I settled back on my bed and turned the lantern down until the hayloft was enveloped in black velvet, the night soothing and peaceful, blotting out all the exhausting events of the day until they were only a distant roar.
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