Free Extreme Fiction

Somewhen

    The store was empty. The silence made me lonely. I decided to call Anne to see if she wanted to have a drink with me after work. I looked at the clock and saw that there were ten minutes left until midnight. I picked up the phone behind the counter. Let's see, where was she at this time of night? At work? Was Anne still waiting tables when I closed the store? No, wait a second. She hadn't worked as a waitress for years. Where did she work these days? Why couldn't I remember something as simple as that?
    I sensed a movement from behind me. My first thought: they've had fourteen hours to buy a bottle. Why is there always some idiot who has to wait until the last possible moment before coming in? Then it dawned on me that I hadn't heard the beep of the electric eye. No one could use the front entrance without crossing the beam. I turned. I prepared myself against panic in case I saw a revolver or shotgun pointed at my kidneys.
    A man looked at me through eyes worn deep into his skull from age.
    "May I help you, sir?"
    "You may. There's something about me that frightens you, isn't there Chris?"
    A plastic nameplate hung from the pocket of my liquor store jacket: CHRIS. Anyone who looked at me knew my name, but, yes, he was right. He was like any of the gray, shriveled men that stumbled through the entrance of the liquor store every day, yet a sensation of deja vu swept through me so strong it was almost a chill. I found myself asking, "You're going to tell me you're from the future, aren't you?" 
    "I'm going to tell you I'm you."
    "I'm going to have to ask you to leave."
    "You're doing just fine, Chris," the old man said. "You're not going to panic. Just relax and listen to what we have to say."
    "We?"
    A second man stepped out of thin air. This man looked like the older man's son, or my father, but I knew the truth. He was also me with a stomach too big to be called a beer gut anymore, a pale Chris Crawford with uncombed hair and glasses that needed wiping. "We can all tell him," this new Chris Crawford said. "You can see he's not going to panic."
    "No. So far, the only one who panicked was you." 
    "Look, fellas, this is all very interesting, but I have to get the store closed by midnight so if you'll excuse me..." I don't know why I said that. I was frightened by that time. I looked at the clock. The hands indicated that it was ten minutes until midnight, the same as it did when I first decided to make the call to Anne. I still wore my liquor store jacket with the nameplate on the pocket. I smiled and took it off, set it on a shelf stocked four by six with fifths of Black Velvet. That was behind me now, part of a life I'd lived up until that moment but now past. "One of you is going to explain..."
    "I will," the older Chris Crawford said.
    "We both will," the younger Chris added.
    That's me all right, I thought. Out loud I said, "You realize, of course, that this is all very impossible."
    "If only that were so."
    The lobby filled with Chris Crawfords. A Chris Crawford that looked a lot like me shot a look of sincere sympathy my way as he picked up and examined a pint of Tia Maria. "That's one good thing about travelling around with these bozos," he said in exactly the way I'd say it. "I don't have to work in this damned liquor store anymore."
    A gray-haired Chris Crawford looked around with a puzzled expression on his face. "I don't remember any of this at all." He had the emaciated look of someone who didn't eat regular meals. He liked to sniff at his sleeves. It depressed me to look at him. 
    I felt someone's hand on my shoulder. I turned to see the oldest Chris Crawford, the one who first appeared in the store. "If only I could explain it to you in one sentence. A group of corporate scientists tried to figure out a shortcut between the stars, but they came up with a way to criss-cross back and forth through time instead. The head of that corporation mass-produced the machines and sold them to the general public to finance her own private utopia in the Mesozoic age. It became a fad very soon for people to visit themselves in their own pasts, then more than a fad after the hysteria began."
    It swept over me at that moment, a memory of Anne so vivid and real it was as if a chunk of my past had snapped loose to wash over me ten years later. The spring before Anne and I graduated from high school, four of us drove into the brushlands just outside of town to drink beer and avoid getting spotted by the police. We left the other couple in the car and strolled, hand-in-hand, to a nearby grassy knoll. The moon was out and full and beautiful, but a cold May wind swirled between the trees. "Wish we had a blanket," Anne said.
    "Want to sit on my pea-coat?" I asked, slipping it off.
    "I've got to find Anne," I blurted out to the other Chris Crawfords in the room.
    One rather seedy Chris Crawford pulled a pint of vodka off of one of the shelves and took a long first swallow. "Anne? Anne who? Anne Cranston?"
    "No, not Anne Cranston." Anne Cranston was my fourth grade teacher. "Anne...What do you mean, Anne who?" Anne Malone, my closest friend, the person I loved most in this world. I remembered that night in the brushlands, how warm her body felt pressed against mine. For the first and last time, Anne allowed me to do more than just kiss her. Every few seconds, a gust of wind whistled down from the trees to leave us with goosebumps and chattering teeth.
    "I think we'd better get back," Anne whispered in my ear.
    First, "No Anne, not yet," then "Come on, just a few more seconds," to "All right, let's go."
    "The mega-dimensions of time are very complex," the eldest Chris Crawford said, pulling me free from my past with Anne. "No one was ever able to completely figure it all out. There was no time before people, buildings, entire cities disappeared as if they'd never been."
    "Hysteria," I said.
    "Right. This is a hard thing to explain. Everyone in this room is a Chris Crawford, yes, but not every Chris Crawford in this room has the same past or the same future. Do you understand?"
    Yes I did understand, and that scared me most of all. That nonsense he just spewed at me made perfect sense, was the only possible answer. Strange images fluttered through my mind, thoughts spoken with my mind's voice yet still not my thoughts. Memories slipped away from me and popped like champagne bubbles, gone forever, and Anne...Anne!
    I ran for the entrance of the the store before any of myselves could grab me. In twelve different ways I heard, "Stop! Don't go out there!" I was halfway down the block before I turned to see them watching me from behind the picture window of the liquor store. I saw one of them pull the key from my liquor store jacket to lock the entrance after me. 
    So long, suckers, I thought.
    The population of Ione was roughly six hundred people, maybe a third of them living in Ione proper. The liquor store where I worked was six blocks from where I lived in a basement apartment, four blocks from where Anne lived with her parents as she did when I first met her our senior year. I'd find her at her parent's house. I would.
    Outside the liquor store the world was real with real trees and houses, mailboxes and fire hydrants. As I ran I figured in my head exactly how I was going to explain all of this to Anne so that she would understand my confusion and fear. She would soothe me in that gentle, caring way she had. I could see that now, now that I was out on the sidewalk in the real world.
    I pretended not to notice the fact that the sidewalks filled with people. I had never seen more people on Main Street besides on the night the town Christmas tree was decorated. On the corner of Second and Main, there was a different house than the one that been there that morning, different architecture, from a different era entirely than the Bramson place. Ted Bramson and I used to hide shoplifted candy bars under the front porch of that house. I once proposed to Pam Bramson on the front lawn of that house. Even at eleven, which is how old we both were, Pam was sensitive enough about my feelings not to laugh openly in my face. As I looked at the new house my memories of Ted and Pam Bramson drifted away like wisps of sweet smoke. I could barely remember Pam's lovely eleven-year old smile, and that was something I'd hoped to keep with me until the day I died. 
    Car headlights, streetlights, and the stars shimmered as if they all prepared to go out at once,which reminded me of the time Anne and I split a "hit" of LSD and watched ants crawl in the bright summer sun. Was it possible that this was nothing more than a drug hallucination, a madness I could somehow climb back out of to reality?
    Anne and I shared the same drama class in high school. Her parents had moved to Ione from Seatrailia to get away from what Mrs. Malone called, "the crippling influence of the city". Anne and I took long walks together and talked about astrology, about what a childhood in Seatrailia was like. I lied shamelessly about my own childhood, glamorizing out of all proportion each trauma and adventure. I developed a crush on her that she wouldn't stand for because she said it ruined our relationship, which it did. At graduation, we cried in each other's arms because we were afraid our unique love was only a high school thing, something we would grow out of by the end of the summer.
    A strange, shrill sound whined in the air, like the baying of a baby wolf, like nothing I'd ever heard. It was one of the two Ione police cars, its bright yellow light swirling. By the time the police car had passed out of sight, somehow, its siren no longer sounded unusual but, instead, like the siren I'd heard from infancy. 
    I wanted to see Anne's green Plymouth parked in the driveway at her parent's house. It wasn't there. I ran up three flights of stairs and knocked on the front door. A man answered, not Anne's father or anyone I'd even seen before. He had buck teeth, wore a filthy undershirt, and looked like he hadn't shaved in days.
    "Yeah?"
    "Anne? Is Anne here?"
    We both heard the scream, high and trembling, a scream that faded to a whimper, then a whisper, than nothing, like a volume control turned down, then off. "No Anne here."
    "Her family's lived in this house for the last eleven years."
    "No Anne here. Sorry."
    "Right." 
    I remembered the last time I'd seen Anne. She came to pick me up after work. She'd been travelling, and we had a lot to catch up on. We went to my apartment and talked and laughed until our throats were hoarse and it was six-thirty in the morning. She went on and on about this man from Whitefish she'd fallen in love with. I felt glad because Anne glowed when she was happy and in love, but I also felt afraid because it was possible she might move to Whitefish and out of my life. Anne assured me that, "It's way too early to be thinking about something like that, Chris." Yet, even as she said it, I saw clouds in her eyes as rich and white as fantasies of other places.
    We hugged, and I looked at her, and I'm so glad that I did because that's the image I now carried in my mind's eye, corn-blond hair frizzled into a permanent, a nose so perfect I couldn't imagine her ever using it to sneeze. I told her I'd call her within a week, but then I got busy with other things and...
    I sprinted back for the liquor store.
    The scream that man and I had heard was the first of many, screams of terror, not pain. Two people screamed at once, performing a macabre duet. I heard the crunch of metal, car slamming into car. I saw a man under a streetlight crying on the shoulder of his indentical twin. Fires broke out to the north and west of me. Flames licked at pink clouds. Hysteria burning back through time. 
    In one heart-stopping moment, night turned to midday. The sun glowed high in the sky leaving only a sliver of shadow. The streets were jammed with people and cars. A zeppelin floated silently overhead. Four people wore protective uniforms as if they expected the neighborhood to be eaten away by radiation. Clouds twisted and jerked, manipulated by eccentric winds. Then, midnight again.
    A mob pounded on the windows of the liquor store, windows luckily too thick to be broken easily, people frantically needing the familiar unreality of drunkenness. I saw the Chris Crawfords huddled inside away from the window. They saw me coming and whooped with delight. Yes, I'd go back in time with my other selves. I'd find Anne eventually, if not two years ago then certainly ten years ago when Anne played Ophelia to my Polonius in the senior play.
    I pushed against the entrance of the liquor store just as one of the Chris Crawfords unlocked the door. We worked in perfect tandem so that no one could get in behind me.
    "Everyone back in the womb," the eldest Chris said. "We've wasted too much time here as it is." The invisible portal to the time machine was in the aisle between the rums and tequilas. The Chris Crawfords lined up and, one by one, stepped into nothingness. The eldest Chris and I were the last in line. I heard shattering glass. The people outside had finally managed to break the picture window. My turn. My right foot disappeared. I felt the need to tell the old man about Anne and me. Our lives were so intertwined after ten years, to lose her would be to lose a substantial part of myself. I was a loner by nature. I had so few friends, and none like her. I needed Anne.
    Before I could say a word, the eldest Chris looked at me with an understanding the went beyond blood and genes. I felt proud that I might one day grow old to become him.
    "Don't worry," he told me. "We'll find her."

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