PIECES OF DESTINY
Friday morning greeted me like a cold punch in the stomach. It was snowing. OK, maybe not exactly a blizzard, but it still seemed worse than what I was used to back in Seattle.
“Billy always said, ‘Missouri winters are a vile mistress,’” said Lem as we trudged down the dirt road to school. The path through the forest was icy, and snow scattered down in light flakes.
“What the hell does that mean?” I asked, wiping a few stray flakes from my cheek.
Lem shrugged. “Got no idea. I think he heard it from Reverend Abrams.”
I was about to respond with what I thought of the good reverend when Travis pulled out a corncob pipe from inside his jacket, then lit a match and inhaled deeply.
“Since when do you smoke?” I said, suppressing a cough from the acrid blue cloud.
Travis took the pipe out of his mouth, then spat. “I do some smokin’ now and then. Ain’t no sin in it.”
“He got it from Billy,” Lem confided. “Billy smoked all of last year.”
I took a strong whiff. That doesn’t smell like tobacco, I thought. In fact, that smells sweet. Almost like...
I skidded to a halt. “Don’t tell me you smoke POT!” I cried, incredulously.
They stopped and stared at me. “Billy smoked hemp all the time,” Travis said, as he took another long puff, then exhaled. “Ain’t no harm in it. We got bales of it up to the ceiling in the storage barn out back. Makes me feel relaxed-like.”
I rolled my eyes. “Great. Now I have to deal with a pot-head.” I turned to the younger boy. “Lem, let me talk to your brother for a minute. Alone.”
He started to object, but Travis snapped, “Just skedaddle on down the road! We’ll be right behind ya. And stay outta mischief, hear?”
The boy sullenly marched ahead of us on the path. Travis struck another match and relit his pipe, which had momentarily gone out. The flame made the snowflakes around him seem to dance and glow.
“So, uh, that was Billy’s pipe,” I said, trying to get the conversation started, as we continued walking down the path.
“What of it? You gonna lecture me about smokin’ now?”
I rolled my eyes. “Hey, it’s your lungs and your brain, not mine. But I’ve got something more important than that. Look, I found this last night in the barn.” I stopped him and handed him the letter.
At first, his eyes seemed cloudy. As he read, his right hand began to shake and he dropped his pipe to the ground, where it continued to smolder in the snow. We stood in silence as a few wisps of smoke slowly rose around us.
“How long you had this?” he mumbled, reading the words over again.
“I found it five minutes before I went to sleep last night,” I said. “It was hidden behind a loose board by the bookshelf up in the hayloft. I couldn’t exactly give it to you at breakfast, with Lem and your folks around, so I figured now was the best time to tell you about it.”
An uncomfortable silence passed.
“That’s it?” I snapped. “Not even a thank you? Well, I hope you’ll at least believe me this time. Or do you think the letter is a lie, too? Screw this shit!” I stormed down the road after Lem, who had almost disappeared over the hill that marked the halfway point to school.
“Hey, hold on!” Travis called, then jogged up to meet me and touched my back.
“Well?” I asked as I whirled around and narrowed my eyes.
“Well... I guess I’m sorry. If that’s what you want me to say.”
His expression seemed truly apologetic, but I wasn’t about to let him off easy.
“Do you get the point, Travis?” I said. “If I’d been lying to you all this time, I’d either have torn this letter up and thrown it away or just never given it to you. You do trust me that it’s real, right?”
“What letter?” piped up Lem from twenty feet away, as he tossed a rock that narrowly missed a crow in a nearby tree.
Travis ignored him, then nodded to me, his expression grave. “I’d know Billy’s handwritin’ anywhere,” he said in a low voice, still staring at the paper.
My temper dissipated when I saw the terrible sadness in his eyes. “Hey,” I said, giving his shoulder a squeeze. “At least now you know why he left and didn’t tell you. He’ll eventually come home.” One way or the other, I thought, remembering some of the faces of the fallen soldiers from the Civil War documentary.
Travis seemed lost in thought as we continued past the rolling hills and trees. Lem continued down the road towards the elementary school, while the two of us stepped onto the high school grounds. One quick glance told me Jed and Eli weren’t around. I was a little nervous they might want a rematch after yesterday’s fight, though it might take them another week or two to recover.
“You sure this is a good idea?” he asked, as we made our way down the hall towards the 9th-grade classroom.
“Sure,” I said. “Like I said at breakfast, we’ll go over the first ten chapters of the novel together, cram all the facts, and I guarantee you’ll be able to pass Twitly’s test. Piece of cake.” My mom and I had seen a road show version of A Tale of Two Cities at the Seattle Musical Theater about three years ago, and I hoped I’d be able to remember enough of the plot and character names to help me fake the answers. The songs weren’t bad — that much I could remember.
Just then, Jesse blew past us down the hall, nearly knocking us down, his laughter echoing down the stone walls.
“Where in tarnation is he goin’ this early?” asked Travis, craning his neck as we reached the classroom doorway. “You know he ain’t up to no good.”
The kerosene lanterns were already lit, and the stove on the back left corner kept the room warm and almost cheery. We walked over to Travis’ row, then sat down and I opened my copy of the Dickens novel and pulled out some folded papers.
“OK,” I said, leaning against a desk, “so here’s my notes on the first few chapters. The story’s divided up between Paris and London, so you have to...”
Travis stared over my shoulder, his eyes wide. I snapped my fingers by his nose a couple of times. “Yo! Earth to Travis. You need to listen to this if you wanna pass the test.”
“Titly,” he said.
“Titly,” he repeated, pointing over my head.
I spun around and gaped. There on the blackboard were written the words:
TITLY BURN IN HELL
along with a crude drawing of two pendulous women’s breasts dangling below, almost like cow’s udders, complete with protruding nipples.
“Jesus!” I cried.
Voices echoed from down the hall. The two of us tore up to the blackboard, filled with panic.
“They’re gonna think we did it!”
“Where’s an eraser?” I asked, frantically searching all around the wall. “Where could he hide them?”
“They’re almost here!” Travis hissed.
Thinking quickly, I grabbed the mechanical roll-down map positioned in front of the blackboard and yanked it down, revealing the standard Mercator diagram of the world. Just big enough to cover up the evidence, I thought with relief.
Travis and I quickly scurried away from the blackboard as the other students began to trickle in. We ignored them while we concentrated on the book.
“Who woulda done such a dang fool thing?” Travis muttered under his breath as he sat back at his desk. “Must’ve been Jesse.”
“Shut up and keep reading my outline,” I said. “If we’re lucky, we’ll make it to lunch and figure out a way to erase the blackboard later.”
After less than ten minutes, the classroom was almost filled. In the meantime, I’d managed to give Travis a crash course on Dickens’ classic.
“You make it sound a lot more interestin’ than the book,” he said, turning over my notes. “Kinda like your other stories.”
“Oh, I got a million of ‘em,” I said, gathering up my books just as Twitly entered the room, wearing his ever-present bow tie and sour expression. The teacher gave me a brief nod as I slid down the aisle and into my seat.
The school bell rang in the distance. Twitly clapped his hands together.
“Alright, everyone,” he said, walking around his desk. “You’ve had an additional day to study the first third of Mr. Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, ‘Recalled to Life.’ I pray you will have used your time wisely, and I expect each one of you at least to pass the test you’re about to take.”
Several of the students grumbled, apparently having forgotten his quiz announcement at the end of yesterday’s class.
“There will be twenty questions,” the man continued, as he reached for the map behind him.
Oh, shit, I thought.
“Each one will count as five points, for a total of 100.” The map snapped up behind him, then rolled around a few times and stopped.
The class was momentarily stunned.
“Are there any questions?” Twitly asked, oblivious to the scrawled graffiti behind him.
Suddenly, the entire room let out an enormous explosion of laughter and howls of mirth, amid cries of bewilderment. Several of the girls screamed and hid their faces. One student — I think his name was Joey — literally fell out of his chair in hysterics. Travis and I couldn’t help but grin.
Twitly looked momentarily puzzled, then turned around to the blackboard. His mouth fell open. He reached into his desk, pulled out an eraser, then raised his voice.
“Edward! Close your mouth and get up here.”
He tossed the boy the eraser. “Clean off that chalkboard. Now.”
Twitly stepped to the front of the class, his face red with anger, then picked up his wooden pointer and glowered. The room grew very quiet.
“Who did this?” he asked.
He slammed the pointer down on his desk, making a sound like a rifle shot. All of us shuddered and froze.
“It will go very badly for all of you if you don’t tell me who’s responsible for this,” he said, walking up and down the rows of students. “Was it you?” he barked at Jacob, who sat in the first seat in the row next to me.
“No, sir,” the boy mumbled, sinking down in his chair.
“How about you?” Twitly said to Zeke, who sat just behind him.
Just out of Twitly’s eye, I saw Jesse James, who was fighting the desperate urge to laugh.
That moron, I thought. He did this. Now he’s going to blow it and get expelled from school and go to jail! All for an idiotic stunt!
Zeke shook his head. “I never even seen it until just now,” he said firmly.
Twitly took two steps down the row. “Mr. James,” he said, in a calm voice. “Do you have anything to say about the writing on the blackboard?”
Jesse began to shake. I wasn’t sure if it was from fear or just a desperate attempt to stifle his laughter.
Jesse’s face was turning red. This is like watching a train wreck, I thought, my mind racing. Before I knew what I was doing, I leapt out of my chair. “I did it!” I cried.
The entire class sucked in their breath.
“Mr. Thomas?” he said, spinning on his heel. “You? Come up to my desk.”
I meekly followed him to the front of the room, where he impatiently tapped the stick against the side of his leg. His eyes were dark and menacing, and his Adam’s apple furiously bobbed up and down as he spoke.
“I warned you before,” he said, his voice slightly higher-pitched than usual. “There are severe punishments for disrespectful pupils at Jefferson High School, Mr. Thomas.”
I nodded. “I apologize. I... I don’t know what got into me.”
“Hold out your hands, please. Palms up.”
I did so, trying not to shake. This was undoubtedly the stupidest thing I’ve done so far, I thought. OK, between that and exploring that cave in the first place.
“Perhaps this will remind you to put your hands to better use in the future,” he said. “Idle hands are the devil’s tools.” With that, he began whipping my hands and wrists unmercifully.
I flinched, instinctively pulling back my right hand.
“Hold still!” he cried. “Or else it will go much worse for you!”
I nodded and held my hands out again and braced myself. I’m not going to cry, I said, jerking again at the next whack, steadying my hands in position. I’m not going to give this jerk the satisfaction.
By the tenth stroke, I winced, then met his eyes. He hesitated, then stopped.
“Go back to your seat,” he said, slightly out of breath. “I’m going to take ten points off from your test as well.” He turned back to the class. “Now, here are the questions.”
He began to scribble on the blackboard. I returned to my desk, wincing and rubbing my hands, which were red and raw. My left palm was actually scratched and bleeding.
I looked over at Travis, who gave me a sympathetic look, then shook his head. I made a helpless gesture, then carefully picked up a pen, dabbed it in the inkwell and began to write.
§ § § § §
Twitly ignored me for the rest of the morning. After we turned in our literature test, he moved on to physics — all fairly basic stuff I had learned back in 8th grade. At noon, the hallway lunch bell clanged and everyone scurried out the door.
“Mr. Thomas!” he called, just before I reached the door. A few other students pushed past me into the hallway. “A word, please.”
I froze, then turned around and walked up to his desk, doing my best to keep my expression a complete blank. “Yes, sir?” A poker face, my father had called it.
Twitly pulled out my test paper, then adjusted his glasses. After a moment, he looked up at me. “You have unusual handwriting, Jason,” he mused, pursing his lips. “Completely different from what was on the blackboard this morning.”
“I apologized for that,” I said, matter-of-factly. “It’s wrong to disrespect a teacher — I know that.”
He leaned back in his chair. “It’s also wrong to lie, isn’t it, Mr. Thomas? Don’t think for a moment you fooled me.”
“Fooled you?” I said, raising my eyebrows in an innocent expression.
Twitly looked up at me and smiled grimly. “You’re covering up for someone. Travis Colt, perhaps?”
“No!” I said sharply. “I swear — Travis had nothing to do with this.”
“Then who did?”
I sighed. “My hand to God, Mr. Twitly, the writing was already there when I walked in the door.”
“Then why lie about it?” he said, laying his pointer across his desk.
“Look, Mr. Twitly — I apologized, I’ve been punished... isn’t that enough?”
The teacher shook his head. “I suspect the person or persons truly responsible will ultimately get their just reward. The Lord has a way of righting wrongs, sooner or later.”
I nodded. “Karma,” I said. “That’s what the Buddhists call it.”
Twitly lightly touched his fingertips together several times, then raised an eyebrow. “Alright, then. Go on to lunch. But in the future, I suggest you be much more cautious about choosing your friends. Karma or not, you may well live to regret it.”
I nodded, then darted out the door and made my way out to the schoolyard, where I met Travis by our usual bench. Dodged that bullet, I thought.
“Why’dya do that for?” he muttered, pushing some stray clumps of melted snow off the table. “Twitly coulda tanned your hide somethin’ fierce.”
“Pants down, I hope,” I said sarcastically, reaching for my sandwich.
“Pure foolishness,” said a voice to my left. I looked up as Faith sidled up to the bench and sat down, smoothing out her dress. “Why, that was almost obscene!”
I started to protest, but she giggled.
“And so very wicked,” she said, grabbing a bite from my apple. “Scandalously amusing.”
“Funniest thing we’ve seen in school all year,” said Jacob, as he slid in on the other side of me. “Dang near split my sides laughin’.”
“The look on Twitly’s face!” said a friend of Faith’s, who I vaguely remembered as Mary-Ann. “Oh, that was surely a sight to see.”
“Absolutely inspired,” added Jacob’s friend, Zeke. “That was somethin’. Most fun we had since I can remember.”
Well, I guess that makes me Mr. Big Shot, I thought. Several students I’d never met before slapped me on the back and congratulated me. As we ate, I glanced around to see if I could spot Jesse. It took me a few minutes, but I eventually caught a glimpse of him standing across the schoolyard, talking to Johnny and another boy I didn’t know. Jesse glanced once or twice in my direction, but otherwise ignored me.
“Now, don’t you forget, Jason,” Faith said, as she finished her meal. “We have our recital tomorrow afternoon for Mother’s social group — noon sharp at my house. You should be there at least a half-hour early so we can rehearse a little. I hope your hands will be up to playing.”
“They’ll be fine,” I said, painfully wiggling my fingers, one of which still had several pink blisters and a nasty red welt. “The pain helps stimulate my artistic temperament.”
“Oh, dear,” she said, gently grasping my left hand, then kissing it. “I’m sure you’ll feel better tomorrow.”
“Looks like Jason’s got hisself a girlfriend,” Jacob said, elbowing Zeke in the ribs.
I gave a wan smile. “Just singing partners,” I said. “It’s all showbiz.”
On our way back to class, Travis nudged me. “Why’d ya stick your neck out for Jesse like that?” he whispered as we walked down the sidewalk. “It’s not like you’re best buddies or nothin’.”
“Later,” I said.
As we entered the classroom, Jesse caught up with me and walked with me back to my seat. “Thanks for what you did this mornin’,” he said, a little out of breath. “I guess I get a little crazy sometimes. Didn’t think about the consequences of my actions, if ya know my meanin’.”
I shrugged. “Yeah. Me, too.”
He glanced around, then leaned forward. “I’m beholdin’ to ya, Jason,” he said in a low voice. “I can’t afford to get in trouble just yet. Friends of the South respect a man who knows how to protect his friends.”
I held up my reddened and bruised hands. “What I could really use is a bandaid,” I muttered, nodding at the sores across my palms.
§ § § § §
“Tooth doesn’t look too bad,” said the dentist, as he clinked through my mouth with what looked like medieval torture devices. “You’re mighty lucky, son.”
Dr. Gibbons was in the same one-story duplex-style building as the main neighborhood physician, Dr. Wells, whom I had met on my first day in St. Louis, after recovering from my injuries after my time-trip in the cave. The office was on the outskirts of the city, just a block from school.
“Are you going to have to do an extraction?” I asked, wondering how they’d knock me out for the surgery. “Maybe a crown?”
The man gave me a curious glance, then gave the tooth a tentative wiggle. “No,” he said at last. “I think if you leave it alone for a couple of weeks, it should heal on its own. Best take care not to chew on it, and I’d stay out of any more fights if I were you. You call on me at once if it starts hurting again, or if you start running a fever.”
“You got anything for the pain?” I wondered if aspirin even existed in 1864.
“I’ll give you some clove oil you can apply to the tooth. If it gets any worse, I could give you a prescription for the apothecary shop down the road,” Gibbons said. “A tincture of opium would be enough to stop the pain and help you sleep, but let’s see how you feel by tomorrow.”
I started to get out of the dentist’s chair, which looked like some kind of weird archaic contraption out of the movie Brazil. The man reached up to stop me.
“I must ask, Jason: who worked on your teeth prior to you living here in St. Louis? Those are some of the most unusual fillings I’ve ever seen. Amazing precision.”
I winced. I hadn’t considered the dentist might figure out that I wasn’t actually from this century. I made another mental note to try to avoid saying or doing anything that drew too much attention to me.
“Uh, I had a dentist back home in, uh, Vancouver, British Columbia,” I said. “It’s... it’s something new they’re trying up there.”
“I’ve never seen work like it,” he said, clearly puzzled.
“So, uh... how much do I owe you for the visit?” I said, trying to change the subject.
“Leave my assistant 50 cents for the examination,” he said, as we walked down the hall and into his lobby. He handed me a small vial filled with green liquid. “That should cover it for now.”
“Thanks, doc,” I said, dropping the coins on the counter and quickly rushing out the door and down the street.
As I scurried down South Broadway, I mulled over how lucky I’d been over the last week. Maybe I’d been wrong to try to tell Travis the truth. If the people of 1864 realized I was really from the future, my life could turn into a living hell. They’d expect me to know everything that was going to happen in the years to come: who was going to win the war, what businesses would succeed, what technologies would start changing the world.
“Or worse,” I muttered to myself, “they’d burn me at the stake.” That was far more likely. Some kid in the Civil War, spouting off about planes, trains and automobiles, let alone computers and movies and MP3 players... they’d lock me in a cage and put me on exhibit in the zoo. Or worse.
I resolved to keep my mouth shut. Gotta fit in, I thought, as I made my way down the St. Louis sidewalk. No more slip-ups. I thought about my backstory: I was an 1864 kid, so that meant I must’ve been born in 1849, in Vancouver. I resolved to keep my cellphone and all my other 2007 artifacts away from prying eyes.
“There you are!” cried a voice. “’Bout damned time you got here, boy! We got work to do!”
Mr. McBillin took me by the arm and dragged me through the entrance into his store. “Now,” he said, rubbing his hands with glee. “We need to get started on those signs you were talkin’ about. ‘McBillin’s Supermarket’ — I like the sound o’ that. You ready? Get yer apron on, and let’s get a move on.”
I sighed. Okay, I thought. Maybe one futuristic innovation wouldn’t cause too many problems.
§ § § § §
“Here ya are, Mas’ Jason,” said the black man as we pulled up to the farmhouse shortly after dusk. Rufus was a part time helper at the store, but the McBillins kept him out of sight in the back room, helping with restocking the inventory and carrying in the heavier items delivered from the alley in back.
“Thanks, Rufus,” I said. “I appreciate the lift.”
He pulled the horses to a stop and waited for me to jump off and grab my books. “Your aunt, Miz Olivia — she was a very good woman. One o’ the few that stuck up for Negroes in this town.” He looked around nervously and dropped his voice. “She was an ab’litionist, y’know.”
I had to think for a moment. “You mean... she was against slavery, right?”
He nodded. “That’s a right dangerous position for a white woman here in Missouri. Most people called her crazy, s’pecially after the war started. Gov’ment done come in and put an end to slavery for the time bein’, not two years ago. But Miz Olivia helped us quite a bit before that. Some o’ my family owe her their very lives, and that’s a fact.”
I looked at him curiously. Maybe there was a lot more to my dearly departed Aunt Olivia than I knew. “How’d she do that?”
Rufus started to speak but then looked up in a panic.
“You there! Jason! ‘Bout time you got home!” Mrs. Colt called, standing on the porch. “Got potatoes on the stove.”
I gave an apologetic look to Rufus and hopped off the wagon. “I’ve got some ground meat for supper,” I said, holding up a bag. “From Jacob the butcher, next door to McBillin’s.”
Rufus clucked the horses and they began to trot away.
“Thanks, Rufus,” I called. “See you tomorrow morning at the store!”
The man waved back as the wagon disappeared around the bend.
“Why you talkin’ to that darky?” asked Mr. Colt with a scowl, as he came out from the side of the house. “Nigra like that’s beneath you. You should show him his place, lest he get uppity.”
“Ground beef,” I said, hoping to distract him by holding up the bag. “Got a great meal for us tonight. Something new.”
Colt’s face brightened. “Why didn’t you say so, boy? Ya best skedaddle into the kitchen and have Sarah get it on the stove! Time’s a-wastin’!”
§ § § § §
“What’d ya call them sandwiches again?” Travis asked, as we trudged back to the barn after dinner.
“Big Macs,” I said. “Or a close approximation. The buns weren’t quite right, but it’s pretty close to what we had back home: ‘Two All-Beef Patties, Special Sauce, Lettuce, Cheese, Pickles, Onion, on a Sesame Seed Bun.’ One of my favorites.”
“I don’t remember no sesame seeds,” he replied, as we opened the barn door and walked inside. “But mama’s pickles were good. I never thought o’ puttin’ ‘em on a sandwich before.”
I grinned. “That’s nothing. If I can figure out how to do it, I’ll see if we can invent pizza tomorrow night.”
As I reached the ladder, I hesitated. Travis looked a little nervous.
“Hey,” I said quietly, giving his shoulder a gentle squeeze. “You wanna... I dunno, hang out up in the hayloft?” I wiggled my eyebrows and grinned. “Y’know, for some wrestling?”
Travis looked away. Apparently, he was still a little freaked-out about seeing the two boys having sex yesterday.
“I really oughta...”
“I know, chores and so on. No problem.” I started to step up the ladder, but Travis stopped me.
“I wanna thank you again for givin’ me Billy’s letter,” he said quietly. “It made me feel a lot better.”
“No problem,” I said.
Travis leaned closer. I could smell his breath, with just a hint of the sweet cooking spices Mrs. Colt had back in the kitchen.
“You must think I’m some kinda natural born fool or somethin’...” he said, his voice trailing off.
I grinned. “Listen, there’s tons of stuff you know that I don’t. I couldn’t have survived over the last week without you. I owe you a lot.”
Travis looked up at me, his eyes shining from the lantern’s reflection. “I know I been kinda ornery to ya lately. Lem’s been houndin’ me about it. Don’t rightly know what got into me lately.” He pulled out the letter from his pocket and stared at it. “’Specially now. You don’t know what this means to me.”
I gently slid my arm around his shoulders. “Hey, it’s no big deal,” I said. “I mean, that’s what friends are for, right?”
Our faces almost touched. Was he going to kiss me?
I closed my eyes for a moment and leaned forward, but he abruptly turned and walked away. “See ya in the mornin’, Jason,” he mumbled. “G’night.”
I watched the barn door close, then sighed. I adjusted my groin, which was hard as a rock. It’d been awhile since I had relieved the pressure, and I definitely couldn’t go another day without letting off some steam. Guess I’ll have to take matters into my own hands.
I had my pants off before I fell into my hayloft bed, and quickly relived the highlights of yesterday afternoon, remembering the vivid details of the two teens on the rock. In less than a minute, I let out a satisfied moan and felt several warm drops spatter up to my chin. I think I just set a new land speed record. I lay back and panted, momentarily exhausted.
One of the cows let out a low bellow, followed by a higher-pitched squeal from her calf.
“Hey,” I called, “can’t a guy take care of himself without an audience? Jesus!”
I cleaned up, turned out the lamp, and was asleep in minutes.
§ § § § §
Hours later, I felt the call of nature. I yawned, slid out of bed and stepped down the ladder, the blanket wrapped precariously around me. The cows were quiet, the mother leaning slightly against the barn wall, her calf curled up contentedly at her feet.
The cold winter air was brisk but still well above freezing. I crept silently across the farmyard, using my flashlight to avoid stepping in any stray horse patties that Lem had missed clearing out earlier that afternoon, and made my way over to the outhouse. As I approached the back of the farmhouse I heard a sound and froze.
There was a sharp cry, then some muffled conversation. A dim light was on in one of the bedrooms — possibly Travis’, but I wasn’t sure.
I waited, partly out of curiosity, partly out of fear that a fight was about to break out. I heard someone sobbing, then the light went out.
I shook my head. Family troubles, I thought to myself, as I opened the outhouse door. It’s none of my business.
Still, I wondered what secrets the old farmhouse held. The Colts weren’t the first family to live there. Mrs. Colt had told me a couple of days earlier at dinner that the place was at least 60 years old, so that dated back at least to the early 1800s.
As I stepped lightly back to the barn, I heard a low moan from the eaves of the house. Ghosts from the 1800s, no doubt, I thought with a shiver. In the right light, this old farm could look pretty creepy. The trees’ shadows cast long fingers down the path that led to the barn. The shutters rattled as a cold wind blew from the east, and the nearby crickets suddenly stopped. I walked a little faster. Cue the theramin music and bring in Freddie Kruger.
I closed the barn door behind me and climbed back up to the hayloft. I tossed and turned for several minutes, desperately hoping for sleep to overtake me. I finally let out a defeated sigh, cursed, then lit a match and fired up the kerosene lamp next to my bed.
Something was bothering me. I’d been troubled about the whole time-travel thing since I’d grabbed back my cellphone from Jed and Eli after my fight the day before.
“What I really oughta do,” I muttered to myself, “is write down everything I know about the mid-1800s.” I’d made a B+ on the American History final a year ago in 8th grade, so this should be a cinch. And history was always boring; this might be enough to make me sleep.
I grabbed my spiral notebook from my backpack and my last working ballpoint pen. After scribbling for several minutes, I looked over the list I had made:
April 1861: War begins at Ft. Sumter.
January 1863: Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.
July 1863: Fall of Vicksburg — turning point of the war.
November 1863: Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.
I got extra points for knowing the first paragraph of Lincoln’s speech. One know-it-all in the class memorized the whole thing.
November 1864: Sherman destroys Atlanta (filmed with great special effects in Gone with the Wind.) Example of the phrase “scorched earth policy.”
April 1865: Lee surrenders at Appomattox. Less than a week later, Lincoln gets assassinated in Washington, D.C.
December 1865: 13th Amendment abolishes slavery.
Not much of a list, I thought as I held it closer to the lamp, trying to remember the finer points of the last week or so of class lectures. I knew there was more, but a lot of that final test had been multiple choice, plus a couple of essays. If I just had access to my old notes, or Wikipedia, or something, I could...
I could what? Change history?
“Bad idea,” I said out loud. I felt an unease at the certainty that anything I tried to do to alter this world might lead to trouble. I resolved to try again to return to the cave over the weekend. Maybe the weather would improve and I might find another entrance, reach the portal, and get back to 2007. The sooner I got out of here, the fewer chances I had of making a mistake and permanently screwing up history.
I sighed. My old life back in Seattle seemed light years away — maybe literally, I thought with a wan smile — but as long as I was alive, there was always the hope I could make the jump back.
I did it once, I thought, as I shoved the paper and my cellphone in the cubbyhole by the bed. I could do it again. I mean, how hard could it be? I yawned and let my head fall back to my pillow, then turned down the lamp.
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