Excerpt From “January’s Thaw” by J. Conrad Guest

A man approached me in 1992 to tell his story — his name was Joe January, and he was a private investigator from the South Bronx circa 1940. A twenty-first century Philip Marlowe, January can best be described as an indignant Humphrey Bogart. That encounter resulted in January’s Paradigm. One Hot January and January’s Thaw conclude the January saga. Combined, they paint a profile of a man out of place out of time. Set against the backdrop of an alternate reality in which we are living in a timeline created by time travelers from the future, January’s tale is compelling, and I couldn’t be more pleased he chose me to tell it. I think I’ve managed to remain true to his story as well as his voice. —J. Conrad Guest

Fellow Michigan writer Rachael Perry and author of How to Fly writes of January’s Thaw, “Great books strive to entertain, enrich and do nothing less than change the world. In January’s Thaw, J. Conrad Guest gives us an unforgettable adventure seen through the cracked lens of our broken present and an all-too-possible, what-if past. Full of intrigue, romance and scathing social commentary, it is both an ambitious novel and an exciting, page-turning imaginative quest for that which is beautiful and true.”

EXCERPT:

Weary from consternation as well as the day’s events, which included a six-hour bout with airsickness, I climbed the stairs to my third story office and was surprised to find the door unlocked; a light shown through the frosted glass that identified the tenant as Joe January, Private Investigator.

Inside, Lindy was finishing the Chinese she’d ordered from around the corner.

“Lindy …”

When I didn’t go on, she said, “You said yesterday you hoped to be back in New York today.”

“I should’ve called you when we landed at Teterboro.”

“When I didn’t hear from you, I figured either you were okay and you thought it unnecessary to call, or something had come up and I should make myself available.”

The formality of this discussion was beginning to annoy me. I’d been gone for only a day and a half, but somehow it seemed much longer, and Lindy, despite the accusatory tone in her voice, was a sight for sore eyes. What I said was, “It’s good to be home.”

I hung my hat from the coat tree by the door and took a step, takeout in hand, toward the couch.

“Joe …” she said tentatively, her voice suddenly warmer, and I stopped. When I didn’t come to her rescue she went on.

“You look tired. You probably don’t want to drive home. That couch can’t be comfortable. Why don’t you stay at my place? I’ll drive and you can eat on the way.”

On the ride to Lindy’s place I filled her in on the high-lights of the day, primarily of our flight from the hotel to the track, leaving out the details—I was convinced she wouldn’t have believed me anyway. When she asked about Melissa’s brother, I told her that he had been a victim of mistaken identity but didn’t add that I thought it likely he was dead. I explained that I’d hoped the case was closed but thought it unlikely, and that I expected yet to hear from the MacIntyres, probably in the next day or two. That was the clinical part of our reunion.

Later, I undressed her slowly, gently touching her in those places I knew would bring, for both Lindy and me, the desired response.

I made love to her then, slowly, gently, but more passionately than I ever had before. Being an emotional coward, it was perhaps the best I could do in terms of an apology.

Maybe it’s because of the many years since that long ago night that today I surmise some part of me at some level knew I was about to lose Lindy.

“Lindy,” I said afterward, needing to come clean. “About the other night … Ginger—”

“Shhh,” she said, and covered my mouth with her hand.

I wanted to be angry at Lindy for not allowing me to make this confession—perhaps she feared it was a preface to my breaking it off with her—yet angry at myself for taking so long to admit to myself what she’d come to mean to me, and angry at her again for being so forgiving of my transgressions against her. I heard, and not for the first time, Melissa’s accusation: She sees in you what I see.

But Lindy was laughing softly in that melodious way that was hers and hers alone. Resting on my right elbow, I watched with fascination as her bare breasts, their nipples still erect, shook with her laughter.

“What?” I asked, surprised that my mention of Ginger had elicited laughter instead of tears or anger.

“I didn’t tell you this,” she said, her preface wresting my attention.

She was looking up at me in that way that was hers alone. Where my eyes once rested I now placed a hand; Lindy sighed softly and closed her eyes. Her tongue, moist and rough, darted out to wet her lips and I thought she would forgo the story she had not quite begun; but I was mistaken: the evening was yet young and the night long. She took a breath and continued, even as I felt her nipple stiffen between my thumb and forefinger.

“When I was talking to Ginger about Lance, she asked me how many medals he had.” Her eyes fluttered open and she laughed again, but not before I noted her quickened heartbeat. “It was the first time I could recall Ginger ever asking about someone else’s jewelry.”

“Lance would be offended,” I said. “In the service they refer to medals as decorations.”

“I know that, Joe. But a woman’s jewelry amounts to pretty much the same thing, doesn’t it—decoration?”

I laughed, and a moment later Lindy joined me. I rolled onto my back and after our laughter subsided Lindy covered my mouth again, but this time she covered it with her mouth.

***

I spent that night with Lindy, a rarity for me, as I preferred instead the distance that spending the night alone provides. I’m glad now that I stayed, no matter that my initial reason was one of convenience.

In the morning, after our shared shower, we made love to the sound of softly falling rain outside the bedroom window. In the afterglow neither of us told the other that we loved them.

I doubt that Lindy couldn’t have known how I felt about her. Perhaps in knowing, she didn’t need my reassurance; still, I regret not telling her, if not for her sake then for my own—to hear myself say the words, especially now, after discovering these many years later that she carried my child.

***

Click here for an interview with: J. Conrad Guest, Author of “January’s Thaw”

 

Excerpt From “Exchange” by Dale Cozort

Exchange, by Dale R. Cozort is an outstanding new science fiction adventure.  A series of Exchanges swaps town-sized realities with dangerous places and other times. Such  Exchanges have become ‘routine catastrophes,’  creating a new frontier — a wild, dangerous place that people can go to start a new life if they’re brave enough and/or crazy enough. Sharon Mack wants no part this frontier, but when her anarchist ex-husband takes their seven-year-old daughter into the alternate reality she has no choice but to follow, fighting her way through threatening animals, a brutal street gang, escaped convicts, and the “Church of the Second Chance” to rescue her daughter before the Exchange ends.

Excerpt:

Sharon stood at the top of a knoll. She stared across the EZ into Bear Country. Wind stirred a vast grassy sea marked with islands of trees. There was no sign of human impact to the landscape except for ruts ripped in the soil by trucks; ugly, alien slashes through thick savanna grass.

I shouldn’t have stopped.

Tracking the convoy kept her mind and body distanced from the pain and despair that threatened to overwhelm her. Stopping gave a foothold to the pain of her bruised jaw and rope-burned wrists and ankles. Pain she could deal with, but Anthony or maybe Sister West’s collection of loonies had Bethany.

Bethany, her fixed smile hiding what? Terror? Bewilderment?

A flicker in her peripheral vision startled her. She reached for the gun on her belt—Elroy’s heavy .45, retrieved from her car. A grasshopper-sized green and yellow bat hopped from a grass stem and fluttered away.

Nothing.

As she studied the horizon, details jumped into focus. In the distance, hairy, elephant-like mastodons tested the breeze with questing trunks while green monkeys scrambled between their bulky forms. Nearer, a prairie dog, big as a raccoon, stood at attention next to its burrow—watching her with suspicion. June’s hot late-afternoon sun made her squint through her sunglasses.

“You have to keep moving if you don’t want someone sneaking up behind you.”

The calm but unfamiliar voice was close. Reflex sent her hand streaking toward her belt, but he was quicker—he smoothly plucked her gun from its holster. Spinning, she turned toward the voice, acutely aware of her empty hand.

The man was tall, well over six feet, and husky. He had deeply tanned skin; his head was topped with blond hair mussed by the wind. His khaki pants and polo shirt were unwrinkled and clean, and he appeared cool in spite of the heat of the day. He smiled sheepishly—showing white, even teeth set in a square jaw.

“Childish of me to sneak up on you and take your gun. However, you looked like you were out to kill someone. I wanted to make sure it wasn’t me.”

Sharon blinked to see if he’d vanish as suddenly as he’d appeared. She moved back a step, then her anger boiled.

“I’m extremely tired of people sneaking up behind me,” she said. “If you’re real, I’m probably going to kill you.”

The man stepped toward her.

“So you are in the mood to kill someone, which is why I grabbed your gun. I’ll give it back if you promise not to shoot me.”

“I’ll think about it. Who are you?”

“My name is Leo, and who are you?”

“Sharon. To sneak up on me, you must move like a ghost—except you leave a trail.”

“Sorry about that.”

“Sneaking up on me or leaving a trail?”

“A little of both.”

“What are you doing out here?”

Leo smiled. “Good question. Wandering about in another timeline? Risky. We could get eaten by a sabertooth or we could stay out too long and get stranded. They say Exchanges last two weeks, but who really knows? Sooner or later, the Exchange will reverse itself and Rockport will disappear. Like getting off on the wrong floor and having the elevator door shut behind you, except that the elevator never comes back. Just you and me. Well, not quite. You and me and whoever made the ruts.”

“Like Adam and Eve.” Sharon intended the comment to come out sarcastic, but she heard a wistfulness in her voice that made her cringe. She hastily added, “The elevator does come back. There have been a couple hundred Exchanges.”

“But they never happen twice in the same place and only rarely even close together.”

Leo slowly extended the grip of her pistol—she grabbed it. He hurried along the ruts Sharon had been following, speaking over his shoulder.

“I can’t help but think of the Exchange fifty miles west of here, the one where the prison came back, but the guards were murdered and the prisoners were missing.”

Sharon hesitated for a second and then followed him.

“You still haven’t told me what you’re doing out here.”

“That makes us even. What are you doing out here?”

“I started out in a jeep—swerved to miss a badger. Hit a stump and broke the radiator.”

“But you kept going,” Leo said. “Determined. Well, Sharon, I think you’re trying to catch someone who stole something important. Money? Jewelry? Heirloom? What’s important enough to risk your life for?”

“How do you—”

“What’s with the bruise on your cheek?”

“Whiskey bottle.”

“Ah. And you have rope marks on your wrists, plus shallow cut marks,” Leo said. “Someone clubbed you, tied you up and robbed you of something. But what could it be? Money’s worthless here and it’s too soon for food to be as valuable as gold. And you don’t seem the type to worry over jewelry.”

“My daughter. My seven-year-old daughter.”

Leo stopped abruptly and turned to face her.

“One of the people who made these ruts took her?”

“My ex-husband. Anthony.”

“Why?”

Sharon turned so that the tall man couldn’t see the tears on her cheeks.

“He wants to live out here. He thinks the cult will help him.”

“Cult? Sister West and her flock?”

Sharon nodded. “A bunch of them got arrested for kidnapping and murder a few years ago.”

“I heard about that.”

“Anthony was a member until they kicked him out. He says he still has friends there who’ll help him.”

“Friends in Sister West’s flock, huh?”

“I think Sister West plans to stay over here,” she said.

“That wouldn’t surprise me.”

“It should surprise you.” Sharon brushed a grasshopper-sized mosquito off her arm. “They couldn’t survive out here.”

“It would be a tough life if you weren’t prepared. What will you do if you catch up with them?”

Sharon sighed. “I don’t know. Grab my daughter and bring her back. If they’re guarding her too well, I’ll go back for help.”

Leo nodded. “Did you ask the Marines to help?”

“I didn’t bother,” Sharon said. “They have bigger problems on their plate.”

Leo nodded. “Their mission is to protect Rockport—enforce quarantine and get the city back to the world in one piece, if possible. I imagine chasing down a stray girl doesn’t weigh much on their scale. So, you’re out here alone. Brave. Stupid, but brave.”

“I can take care of myself.”

“Like you did when you went up against the whiskey bottle?”

“He won’t find me so easy to surprise next time,” she said. “I have a black belt.”

Leo stopped and smiled down at her. “A martial artist. How interesting. Going to use your black belt against a bear?”

He turned and walked quickly.

Sharon hurried to catch up. “The plan is to stay out of the way of bears. Or shoot them.”

“Well at least shooting one might make it mad. A karate chop wouldn’t even do that.”

“So what’s your plan to stop a bear?”

“Play dead and hope he’s not hungry.” Leo stopped and scanned the horizon. “Hold up. I hear something. Sounds like horses.”

“Are there any over here?”

“Yeah, a species of mustangs that died out at the end of the ice age back in the World. They’re close. Almost on top of us.”

He crouched in the grass and tugged her to join him. A dozen men on horseback abruptly appeared over a low hill. They wore the tattered remnants of orange jumpsuits.

“Convicts! So much for Adam and Eve.”

Leo frowned. “Two years without women. I’m sure they’d be happy to be Adam to your Eve. I hope you know how to use that gun.”

“If they try anything, they’ll find out.”

The convicts rode up, deploying in a semicircle.

A wiry man with a pockmarked face said, “What have we here? Strays from the flock?”

The man glanced at Leo, froze and stared. His face turned pale under the dirt. He talked quietly to his buddies. A short, balding convict shook his head.

Sharon heard a fragment of the reply, “…don’t care who he is. I haven’t had a woman in years.” She eased the pistol from her belt.

Not a man. Just a target.

The balding convict spurred his horse and approached at a gallop. He raised a stone-tipped spear. The others eyed Leo and stayed put. Sharon raised the pistol, thumbed the hammer back, and aimed at the center of the man’s chest.

“I’ll shoot.”

He grinned and kept coming. Sharon hesitated. The sight wavered.

No choice. Do it.

She fired. The pistol jerked against her hand and the bullet’s crack echoed in the still landscape. Above his paunchy stomach, a red stain blossomed on the man’s tattered shirt. The spear dropped at Sharon’s feet. The convict fell with one foot still in the stirrup, spooking his horse, and the animal ran off, dragging his unconscious rider. Sharon caught a glimpse of a rifle tattoo on the convict’s flailing forearm—AK. She shuddered when his head bounced off a rock outcropping and turned away, only to find the convicts’ semicircle had dissolved into chaos. Another convict fell off his bucking horse, which kicked him in the chest with both hind feet when he started to get up. The man flew backward and twitched in the grass.

When the remaining convicts got their horses under control, the man with the pockmarked face spoke to Leo.

“Don’t imagine you’d sell the bitch?”

“You can’t afford her,” Leo said.

Sharon stared at her companion. A strange, eager expression faded from his face as she watched.

“Let us just get what’s left of Joe and catch the horse that ran off. Then we’ll be on our way.”

“Good idea.”

While Sharon and Leo watched, the convicts hauled up the bodies and arranged them on horses. They rode off, several looking over shoulders to stare or gesture at Sharon and Leo.

Sharon kept her pistol pointed warily toward them until they disappeared over a hill.

“They didn’t seem like the kind of men to give up that easily,” she said. “He was an AK. I think they all were.”

“Aryan Kings? Probably. They’re in most prisons and a lot of cities in the Midwest.”

“Not people to run away from a fight.”

Leo grinned. “Maybe you scared them off. Only three of them had guns and who knows if those guns had ammunition. Could be a lot of things.”

“I don’t think so,” Sharon said. “I think you scared them.”

Leo smiled. “You had the gun.”

“I had the gun but they weren’t afraid of me. Who are you?”

“Leo.”

“That’s not enough.”

“No, it probably isn’t. You just shot a man. Are you okay?” Leo peered down at her.

“I haven’t had a chance to think about it yet.”

Sharon turned away, then felt nauseated. She fell to her knees

Leo rested a strong, callused hand on her shoulder. The touch felt right, desperately needed.

Don’t trust him! Don’t let him see you’re weak!

She stood up too soon and swayed, knees locked, dizzy but trying to look strong. It took a minute, but the sickness passed. While scanning the horizon for more trouble, she unconsciously replaced the spent cartridge in the pistol.

“Sorry,” she said.

“I understand. Taking a life is no trivial thing.”

“Anthony—”

“You won’t kill him. It won’t come to that,” Leo said. “Follow me.”

He veered off to the right of the ruts they’d been following. Sharon stopped. “Where are you going?”

“I think one of Sister West’s trucks broke down and they pushed it this way to hide it. If there’s nothing seriously wrong, maybe I can get it going.”

Sharon tried to spot a trail in the knee-high grass.

“I don’t see anything,” she said.

Leo nodded. “They hid the trail. I almost missed it myself.”

They trudged several hundred yards before Sharon spotted the truck hidden in a gully with branches piled over it. Leo opened the hood and poked around. He pulled open the driver’s side door and turned the key. The truck started.

He grinned at Sharon.

“Battery cable worked loose. They reinforced the suspension but didn’t tighten the battery cables. So, walk or ride, your choice.”

Sharon shook her head. “Good set of choices there.” She climbed in.

Leo drove back to the ruts they’d been following and swung onto the trail. Sharon looked out at the Bear Country prairie and forced her body to relax—pushing pain and worry to the back of her mind. She watched the little dramas of life around her. A tiny brown bat landed on the mirror outside her window. It glared at its reflection in the mirror, raised its wings, hissed, and flew away. A bird swooped on the bat. Sharon didn’t see if it got away. Half a dozen birds flew over the truck, darting and snapping at insects and small bats disturbed by their passage.

They drove for nearly an hour before the truck crested a hill and nearly hit a sabertooth cat feeding on a buffalo calf. The cat backed off, hissing and baring large blade-like teeth. It crouched, then charged the truck, but stopped before making contact. Leo slowed, but kept edging forward. Sharon took out her cell phone and took a picture as the sabertooth backed off. The cat came back once they were past. After growling disapproval, it went back to feeding.

“I’m glad we’re in this truck. I wouldn’t want to meet that beast on foot.”

He grinned. “I agree.”

His grin faded when Sharon pulled out her pistol and pointed it at his head.

“Too bad your ride ends now—before you drive me into Sister West’s compound to deliver me to them.”

Leo chuckled. “I knew finding the truck was too obvious, but I don’t want to be on foot out here at night. I didn’t think you bought it. Which is why I switched guns with you. The one you have is empty.”

Sharon frowned at the unfamiliar weapon. She shifted her aim a couple of inches from his head and pulled the trigger. The hammer clicked on an empty chamber. Sharon stared at the gun, then at Leo. All the anger, frustration, and pain of the day was in her voice.

“If the mind games don’t stop right now, I’ll tear off one of your arms and beat you to death with it. Let’s start with a full name; who are you?”

Leo laughed. “I have the gun and you’re making threats. I like that.”

He stopped the truck and shifted in his seat to face her. He held out a hand for a handshake.

“My name’s Leo West.”

***

Dale Cozort lives in a college town near Chicago with his wife, daughter, three cats and a lot of books. Dale is a computer programmer and teacher as well as a long-time science fiction fan. He has a huge and diverse range of interests, ranging from computers and history to martial arts. He loves animals and did a stint as a foster home for orphan Samoyeds. You can find Dale at his website: http://dalecozort.com/index.htm or at Stairway Press: http://www.stairwaypress.com/bookstore/exchange/

Click here for an interview with: Dale Cozort, Author of “Exchange

Click here to read a fascinating article: Three Things Television Tells Us About The Future of Writing by Dale Cozort


Excerpt From “January’s Thaw” by J. Conrad Guest

Many people obsess over their past, but no one more than I. Perchance it’s because, as a man out of time, I left behind so much of it unlived. If that makes little sense, consider that I’m a time traveler.

Although the backdrop for my story is time travel and alternate realities, the underlying theme is a more human one—of love lost, another love found only to be lost, and of a decision, the result of a single regret brought about by the realization that my self-professed courage to never risk my heart to love was instead cowardice, to rectify a wrong in a life filled with myriad regrets. You may judge me, as it is man’s nature to judge others, or discount my story as the ravings of a lunatic mind or simply the fiction of an overactive imagination—but before you do, I ask that you read the words that follow and then ask yourself if you would have acted any differently.

Excerpt:

I stooped to brush several grass clippings from the simple marble marker:

Lindy Parquette Roberts
Wife, Loving Mother
November 11, 1918-March 10, 1986

Beneath the sunshine of a late spring morning the moment seemed surreal. Only two days ago Lindy had been alive to me—beautiful, young, vibrant; now, beneath this close-cropped sod were her remains, ravaged by a disease that before yesterday I’d never even heard of. Dead at the age of sixty-eight.

I couldn’t begin to imagine what she must’ve looked like at the end, how she aged, after I disappeared. Was it arrogant of me to think she’d have been happier with me than John Roberts? Perhaps it was at that.

“I’m sorry,” I whispered to the marker, as if what lay beneath could hear me; the marble was cool to my touch despite the late morning sun, and I wondered if its chill might be representative of Lindy’s reaction to my presence, this clumsy attempt at apology. “I’m sorry I abandoned you as I did, but I’m most sorry for never having told you that I loved you.”

Wife, Loving Mother.

I felt the sting of tears, and I wondered what the marker might read, whether the lone adjective might be juxtaposed to a more prominent place had I not been suddenly thrust a century away from her.

“I’d like to think I could’ve made a difference,” I said, for Lindy’s benefit as well as my own. “But through hindsight we see ever so much more clearly.”

I sighed.

“Maybe it means nothing to you now, Lindy, but I promise that I will, somehow, make a difference.”

I touched fingers to my mouth, laid them on the marble, and told her again that I loved her.

A moment later I stood and made my way toward Ecstasy, who sat on the grass near the cemetery path. She offered her hand to me, an invitation to assist her to stand. I took it but instead sat down next to her. I listened a moment to the sounds of the city traffic that, moments ago, I hadn’t heard but now seemed to intrude upon our privacy.

“Thanks,” I said, “for giving me a moment alone.”

She gave my hand a gentle squeeze, perhaps uncertain how to respond.

No, I thought, she knows precisely how to respond; such simple acknowledgement says more than any number of words.

I was grateful for the tenderness of her simple gesture, as well as for the warmth that flowed from her touch. It was so like the warmth I’d gotten from Lindy two days ago—two days that had spanned a century; for me a lost opportunity of a lifetime, for her, perhaps a lifetime lost. Warmth I’d denied until it was too late.

“Strange,” I added, “but it’s difficult for me to reconcile the finality of that marker with the fact that she still lives in her own time.”

Ecstasy smiled, and I looked at her hair, spun gold that shone brilliantly in a variety of shades and textures that would surely drive mad an artist trying to duplicate them with the colors on his palette.

“In time that will be all that remains of all of us,” she said.

I nodded. “A name, three words and two dates.”

Ecstasy was too polite to ask so I told her: “‘Wife, Loving Mother.’” I sighed. “She even had her maiden name chiseled into the stone.”

And then, looking back toward Lindy’s grave: “I wonder where John Roberts lays.”

“Ah, Joe,” she said. “Don’t blame yourself for her un­happiness.”

“How can I not?”

“You can’t hold yourself accountable for the choices she made.”

“Choices she made subsequent to my abandonment of her, no doubt limited by the child with which I’d left her.”

“But your abandonment, as you call it, wasn’t your choice, and you can’t know how it would’ve turned out had you stayed.”

“That doesn’t assuage my guilt and regret.”

I looked at Ecstasy. A part of me despised her for the role she played in our tryst the other night, even as I detested myself for my weakness—and I wondered if I had reviled every woman I’d ever encountered over the years, and whether my hatred of my mother was why I’d treated them so callously.

But there was too much compassion in the blue of Ecstasy’s eyes and so I banished my resentment, sighed, looked away—a feeble attempt to create an illusion of dis­tance—and said:

“I’m not a hundred miles away from her, Ecstasy, or a thousand or ten thousand. Those distances I could surmount. But I’m a hundred years removed from her, helpless to find my way back to her, and now robbed of any chance to even repent.”

“One can always repent.”

“Little good that does her—now, then, and every moment in between.”

“Perhaps not, but you have a chance to live differently from this moment forward.”

“To give meaning to her unhappiness?”

“To do otherwise would be disrespectful to your memory of her.”

“Why doesn’t that make me feel better?”

“In time it will.”

I lay on my back, held up my left hand, watched it clench into a fist, let it drop to the ground beside me.

“I can’t even be sure she cares that I cared enough to visit.”

“She cares.”

“How can you be so sure?”

“Why wouldn’t she?”

My fist relented, its fingers now lay splayed flat; the grass felt cool against my palm. I could say nothing to contest Ecstasy’s wisdom. I’d found little comfort in visiting Lindy’s grave. Not that I’d expected to; but I derived much from the notion Ecstasy might be right.

“Come on,” I said, getting to my feet. “It’s warm here, under the sun, and you wanted to get over to Connie’s apartment to pack her things.”

I extended my hand and Ecstasy took it. She stood, and I embraced her and thanked her again. She said nothing as she returned my embrace. I held on to her tightly, as if my life depended on her, as indeed it did. I couldn’t hope to survive in this twenty-first century New York without a job, without money, a place to stay. Without her. I wondered if she was truly aware of my predicament, if she as yet believed that I’d come, literally, from out of the past, whether she could em­pathize, put herself in my place.

A moment later I found the courage to let her go and we slowly made our way toward the cemetery gate.

Leaving the cemetery seemed, somehow, therapeutic for me, as if I were leaving something behind, closing the door on a hundred years of lost living, although I was certain I was in no way finished with my grieving. It would be a long time before I realized I would never be quite done with that.

***

In 1992, a man approached J. Conrad Guest to tell his story. His name was Joe January. A private investigator from the South Bronx, circa 1940, January can best be described as an indignant Humphrey Bogart. That encounter resulted in January’s Paradigm. Current Entertainment Monthly in Ann Arbor, Michigan, wrote of January’s Paradigm, “Personal identity—the slipperiness and the malleability of it—makes up the major theme of the story … (readers) will not be able to put it down.” One Hot January and January’s Thaw are companion novels to January’s Paradigm, although they need not be read sequentially. Combined, they paint a profile of a man out of place out of time.

J. Conrad Guest is the author of Backstop: A Baseball Love Story in Nine Innings, also available from Second Wind Publishing. For a peek into J. Conrad’s literary world, please visit www.jconradguest.com.

Click here to read Chapter 1 of: January’s Thaw by J. Conrad Guest

Click here for an interview with: J. Conrad Guest, Author of “January’s Thaw”

Lone Wolf by Dellani Oakes

The year is 3032 and mankind has expanded far beyond Earth’s galaxy. Matilda Dulac is a member of the Galactic Mining Guild. With her lover, Marc Slatterly, she works in a small mining ship in deep space. Their well ordered life if suddenly thrown into chaos when one miner arrives with a load of Trimagnite, a highly toxic liquid ore. Enter the Lone Wolf. Wil VanLipsig, known as the Lone Wolf, arrives to take the Trigmagnite off their hands. Is it a coincidence for him to show up on Marc’s ship years after Marc thought he’d killed Wil? Or is this the beginning of something far more insidious? Lone Wolf is the first book in a new science fiction series by Dellani Oakes.


Excerpt:

Their eyes met over the glow of the candle. He started to speak once or twice, but each time he stopped before doing so. Matilda sat placidly, waiting for him to make the first move. She had a feeling she knew what he was trying to say, but couldn’t quite put into words. A playful smile tugged at her lips.

Wil blushed, his gaze dropping to his lap uncomfortably. He couldn’t remember a time he’d felt so awkward in a woman’s company. Probably not since he was a kid. Suddenly, it was very important to him that she say yes to what he wanted to ask.

“I was going to try to be subtle and charming.”  He grinned at her shyly. “But it’s been so long since I tried to be either, I can’t remember how.” He pressed his lips together and the candlelight played along his scar. “This usually isn’t a problem for me. I guess I got used to being irresistible.”

Matilda reached out, tracing the line of his scar with her finger. The skin was warm and silky. He held her fingers to his lips.

“It’s all right, you know,” she said softly. “You don’t have to be subtle with me. You were about to invite me to your room, weren’t you?”

He nodded sightly, looking embarrassed.

“But you weren’t sure what the answer would be.”

He looked even more uncomfortable, silent. The table developed interesting dimensions. He stared at them.

“Where are you staying?”

Trying to speak, he stammered.

“We can’t go to your room if you don’t show me.”

Wil stood awkwardly, nearly knocking the table over. He pointed to a luxurious hotel near the hostel.

“I’m—over there.”

Taking his hand, she tugged pointedly so he’d follow. “Show me,” she whispered throatily. Leaning toward him, the top of her breasts brushed his bare chest. “I want you to show me everything.”

Gulping, Wil followed her eagerly, like a puppy until he caught up with her. Sweeping her into his arms, he carried her quickly to his room. Only after the door was locked behind him, did he kiss her for the first time.

Wil brushed his lips lightly across hers, barely touching.  His tongue flickered between them, teeth nipping playfully as he explored her mouth.  Holding only her cheeks between calloused hands, he caressed her throat, licking the base.  He hadn’t even kissed her mouth and already she was his.

Hungry for his mouth, Matilda brought his face to hers, demanding that he kiss her.  Lips parted, she brought him closer, sure of what she wanted.  Laughing throatily, Wil complied, giving generously, taking hungrily.

He held her gently, his full lips leaving a blazing trail upon her skin. He held her tantalizingly close, their bodies not quite touching. The heat from him set her on fire as the intensity of his kisses increased. Still he held her carefully, treating her as if she were made of spun glass. Somehow, this contrast of passion and tenderness made his touch even more erotic.

After several minutes just kissing her, he took off her bikini top. For the space of three breaths, he gazed at her breasts without touching them. Admiring the firm, fullness, he took one nipple into his mouth, suckling blissfully. Sighing happily, he moved to the other, treating each like the greatest of gifts.

Matilda moaned as his hands moved along her body, pulling her so close to him, she could feel the beating of his heart. His touch was still consciously delicate. She sensed a tension in him, his body fighting with itself for control. Marc had always held her the same way, afraid he’d crush a delicate flower.

Nearly mad with desire, Matilda decided she’d had enough standing around and kissing. She wanted action and now. Shoving his shoulders hard, she pushed him on his back. Wil sprawled on the bed as she removed his shorts and her bikini bottoms. He laughed, glad she had finally decided to take control.

“I admire a woman who knows what she wants,” he chuckled as she made her desires clear. Still laughing, he complied.

Matilda had never been so aggressive in bed. Something about Wil encouraged her to assert herself. She pulled him close, demanding his all. He gave it to her freely, unconditionally, something he had never given to any other woman.

For the first time in Wil’s adult life, a woman left him so breathless, he couldn’t even speak her name. But that was all right, because she couldn’t say his either. He kissed her softly, holding her close, stroking her hair. His fingers played along her spine, sending a thrill dancing down her back.

He wanted to speak, but couldn’t find the words to express how he was feeling. After sex dialogue had never been his strong suite. Anything he said at this point would be trite, or worse yet, silly. Instead, he kissed and fondled her, expressing himself more eloquently than words.

***

An adopted Floridian who fell in love with its culture-both modern and historical-Dellani is a happily married mother of four, substitute teacher and former English teacher. When she isn’t being one of the above, she is an avid writer, spending every possible moment immersed in her other worlds. “Indian Summer” is her only historical romance, but she also has written a series of futuristic romance novels, contemporary romances and short stories. Dellani’s interests include reading, going to the beach, listening to all kinds of music and cooking.

Click here for an interview with: Dellani Oakes

Click here to read the first chapter of: Lone Wolf

Click here for an interview with: Wil VanLipsig from Lone Wolf by Dellani Oakes

One Hot January by J. Conrad Guest

In One Hot January, Joe January, an emotionally aloof private investigator from the South Bronx, gets more than he bargains for when he uncovers this seemingly impossible plot of time travel and alternate realities by grudgingly agreeing to help a pretty young woman locate her missing father. Her father, a Professor of Archeology from Columbia College, must prevent the secret location of Hitler’s body, which lies in a cryogenic state awaiting a cure for cancer, from falling into the wrong hands. By the end of the novel, January is thrust one hundred years into the future, where he must survive on a century-old sagacity as he endeavors to find his way back to his own time and the woman he loves but lacked the courage to tell. The tale concludes in January’s Thaw, to be released later this year.

Excerpt:

I stood on the brake pedal. The front brakes bit harder than the rear brakes; a high-pitched squeal sounded as the tires fought against the car’s forward momentum. I heard Melissa’s quick inhalation of air and her single syllable exclamation “Oh! ” underscore Lance’s “Jee-sus, Joe, what are you doing?” as he braced himself against the dashboard.

The rear tires lost traction amid blue smoke and the back end of the Ford started to pass me on the right. I allowed the car to come around ninety degrees before correcting into the skid. A moment later the Ford came to a halt in a position perpendicular to the flow of traffic.

Through the windshield I watched traffic in the southbound lane flow past. In the rearview mirror I saw Melissa’s surprised face. A ragged line of bright red streaked her right cheek; she had been applying lipstick when I’d locked the brakes. Beyond her face, through the rear window, I could see the Mapes Gates of Columbia College, and beyond them, University Hall. Grunting my amusement at the irony, I glanced at Lance, who looked somewhat shaken.

“What’s the matter, Lance?” I asked. “You look like you’re about to lose your breakfast.”

“Huh?”

Ignoring Lance’s question, I looked to my left to find the surprised face of the bespectacled driver of the Packard staring at me over the steering wheel he still clutched. Due to the Packard’s close proximity I was unable to open my door.

“Huh,” I grunted in contempt, suddenly aware of the many different uses of the three-letter interjection Lance had used but a moment ago. Had he intended interrogation, or had his response been simply reflex, an expression of surprise the result of shock?

“Hold this,” I said, handing my hat to Lance.

“Where are you going?” Lance asked dumbly, the color drained from his face.

“To make an acquaintance,” I said, hauling my bulk through the window frame.

I stepped one leg out, then the other, landing lightly on the Packard’s bumper. From there I bounded down onto the brick that was Broadway and made my way around to the driver’s side of the Packard. Flinging open its door, I reached in, grabbed the still startled driver by the lapels of his cheap tweed suit, and shook him violently several times. The last of the repetitions partially dislodged the pince-nez from the bridge of the nose it spanned. The blue eyes, now just inches from my own, swam beneath water that wasn’t tears. One eye, the left, focused its terror on me while the other, due to a weakness of its tendon an optometrist would diagnose as strabismus, seemed to focus furtively on some distant object behind and to my left. I resisted the urge to turn around to see what it was that held that other eye’s interest.

“Now that I have your attention,” I rasped, “maybe you’d like to tell me just what it is you’re doing tailing us.”

The great eyes blinked; yet the pools of water still threatened to spill over their levees.

“I haff no idea vat you are talking a-bout.” The man spoke, his high tenor surprising me, in a carefully metered pace that betrayed an uncertainty of the English language and I felt my stomach sink. We had yet to leave New York and already my worst fears were confirmed.

The man’s a Nazi! I concluded.

“Shit!” I said. An image of the man whose lapels I still firmly held dressed in the black of the German Gestapo flashed before my eyes.

And to think I was concerned over the likelihood that he was an agent of our own government. Dammit!

“You always make a point of enjoying a cup of coffee while reading The Wall Street in front of my office on 59th before following me uptown?”

“I haff no idea—”

“Yeah, yeah,” I broke in, giving him another violent shaking. The action provided a release for my slightly trembling hands, the result of my surging adrenaline. “I’ve already heard that.”

I snorted aloud and a new strategy began to take shape. I released my grip and fussed over the rumpled lapels.

“Obviously you’re a tourist,” I said, righting the glasses that still teetered precariously near the end of his nose.

“Ja, a tourist,” the German answered with a slow nod.

I watched the conspiratorial gaze that had been residing in the right eye make its way none too stealthily to the good eye. In the vacancy left behind, I thought I detected a certain nonchalance that surely was intended to disarm me.

“Ja,” I mimicked. “Well, being a local maybe I can help you find whatever landmark it is you’re looking for, Herr Tourist.”

“Land-mark?” the big German enunciated carefully. Neither eye looked like it comprehended what I was talking about.

“Ja,” I repeated. “You know ¼ sightseeing.” I watched the light come on in the cerulean of the left eye and the thin lips parted in a good-natured smile to reveal a good-sized gap between the two front teeth.

“Ja, sight-seeing,” the stranger acknowledged with a nod, and his smile broadened.

“Ja,” I repeated a third time with a nod of my own. “What would you like to see?” The smile inverted itself. Neither eye met my penetrating gaze. “The Statue of Liberty?”

Silence.

I nodded. “I see. Been there already. Well how about the Empire State Building, then?” Like all native New Yorkers, I slurred into one syllable the second and third words of the proper name that identifies New York’s most famous landmark. The stranger brought one eye to bear on me while the other stared off into the distance. I wondered if any object it might focus on would register an image for the German. “No? Well what about Columbia College? You seen that yet, Herr Pal?”

“Co-lum-bia Col-lege?” The German enunciated each syllable carefully, uncertainly.

“Great!” I said, allowing my own manufactured smile to break out. “I know just where Columbia College is. Why don’t you slide on over and I’ll have you there in no time.”

“Nein. I do not vish to ¼ trouble you. I vill find land-mark.”

“Oh, it’s no trouble at all,” I said with finality. “Now scootch.”

I stared hard at the one blue eye and saw it consider several alternatives, discarding each of them in turn. With a nod, the German, resigned to his one and only option, the one that had been forced upon him, relinquished his place behind the wheel of the Packard, and I hauled myself in beside him.

Firing the ignition, I stuck my head out the window and called to Lance, “Go ahead and park the car, Lance. We’ll be back in a few minutes.”

“But, where are you …?” I heard Lance call back as I brought my head back inside the Packard, just in time to see my unwilling passenger fumbling with the catch on the glove compartment. With catlike quickness I grabbed the German by his wrist.

“I don’t believe you’ll be needing that tour guidebook for this one,” I said.

With that, I dropped the Packard’s automatic transmission into reverse, glanced over my right shoulder, and backed up the few feet I needed to steer clear of the Ford. A moment later, with the Packard in drive, I slowly accelerated past my own car, giving a wave to Lance and Melissa, and on up Broadway.

“You know,” I said as the automatic transmission smoothly shifted from first to second gear, “you rubbernecks would get around our city a whole lot easier if you just kept in mind that the Avenues”—I glanced over at the German’s profile, a mask of contrived sincerity on my face— “you know avenues—Park Avenue, 5th Avenue. Avenues?”

“Ja, avenues.”

“Right, avenues. The Avenues in New York all run north and south, along the length of the island. Now the Streets,” I continued patiently. “The Streets all run east-west. Now if more of you tourists understood that concept—that the Avenues run north-south while the Streets run east-west ¼ well, you’d all have a helluva lot easier time finding landmarks and such and you wouldn’t have to pester us locals. You understand what I’m saying, Herr Rubberneck?”

“Ja.”

“Ja.” I noted our speed had crept up to thirty miles per hour.

“Now take Broadway for instance—the street we’re on now? It’s not a Street, so it doesn’t run east-west. It runs north-south—like an Avenue. But it’s not really an Avenue, I mean like Park Avenue, see? But avenue is another name for a broad roadway. Which is where Broadway derives its name.”

Our speed had risen to thirty-five miles per hour by now, well above the limit for the city. I kept a close lookout for any police cars that might be patrolling.

“So you see, Broadway really is an avenue, which is why it traverses the island in a more or less north-south direction. Just a little something for you to keep in mind while touring the sights here in our fair city, ja?”

“Ja.”

Even from his profile I could tell the German was more than a little edgy.

The speedometer now registered forty miles per hour. The traffic light at West 135th Street was red. I sailed right on through it—as I had the red at 125th Street.

“Oh, what am I thinking?” I said, pressing the palm of my right hand against my forehead. “You know I got so carried away with my advice, I didn’t realize we just passed Columbia College twenty or so blocks back.”

With a glance into the rearview mirror, I slammed the gear selector into reverse. The Packard came to a stop in a hurry and filled up with smoke, as much from the tires as from the transmission. Reverse was stripped out but that was no problem; I had allowed the Packard to do a tight one-hundred-eighty-degree spin in the middle of Broadway so we’d be facing south. Pale as a ghost and staring straight ahead, the German clutched the dashboard as I crossed into the southbound lane and drove back down Broadway.

“Well here we are, Mac, none the worse for wear,” I said once I’d finished parking the Packard in front of Columbia, just a few yards from where we’d started our little jaunt.

Nose-to-tail with the car in front, the German would effectively be dead in the water. With no reverse, he would have no choice but to wait until the car in front was moved before he could continue his pursuit, and by then we’d be miles away.

“Sorry about all the confusion,” I said. “I guess I’m just not used to driving one of these new automatic transmissions. Although,” I added as an afterthought, “I’ve got a buddy who tells me they’re turning them out like hotcakes in Detroit.” 

***

J. Conrad Guest’s writing credentials include January’s Paradigm, first published in 1998 by Minerva Press, London, England. Backstop: A Baseball Love Story in Nine Innings,  available from Second Wind Publishing, was adopted by the Illinois Institute of Technology as required reading for their spring 2011 course Baseball: America’s Literary Pastime. Several of Guest’s short stories and non-fiction pieces have appeared on Internet publications, including Cezanne’s Carrot, Saucy Vox, River Walk Journal, 63 Channels, The Writers Post Journal and Redbridge Review. Blood and Thunder: Musings on the Art of Medicine published in November 2005 Mother’s Day: Coming to Terms with the Cruelty of Parkinson’s, a memoir chronicling his mother’s battle against Parkinson’s. 

See also:
Interview with J. Conrad Guest, author of One Hot January
Interview with Joe January, hero of One Hot January by J. Conrad Guest
Chapter One – One Hot January by J. Conrad Guest

Click here to buy: One Hot January

Healey’s Cave by Aaron Lazar

Sam Moore’s little brother vanished fifty years ago. No body. No answers. What Sam has is a boatload of guilt, since he failed to accompany Billy on his final, fateful bike ride. 

While digging in his garden, Sam discovers a green marble with a startling secret—it whisks him back to his childhood, connecting him to Billy. Thrust back and forth through time, Sam struggles to unlock the secret of his brother’s fate. 

When the FBI investigates remains found nearby, Sam learns of a serial killer with a grisly fifty-year record. Sam’s certain it’s Billy’s killer. But what’s worse, his grandson fits the profile of the murdered boys. Will the killer return to Sam’s town to claim his final kill? Can Sam untangle the truth in time to save him?

Excerpt:

Chapter 1 

Sam Moore was free. Free from the tether of the alarm clock, pushy pharmaceutical reps, runny noses, and waiting rooms packed with patients. On the first day of retirement, at the age of 62, he was ready for a change.

He stood behind the barn and looked toward the garden. It lured him with a peculiar intensity he’d never been able to explain to Rachel. The pull was visceral, infused with a strong lust for the land. Cirrus clouds skated across the sky, racing eastward. The cool May breeze ruffled his hair, caressing him.

He should be happy. But a familiar sense of melancholy washed through him. It was always there, ever present. It retreated occasionally, when he was busy caring for patients. But as soon as he stopped — to take a breath, to look out the window, or to eat his lunch — that undercurrent of sadness, born of loss, returned.

It had been this way for fifty years. Fifty years of longing for the truth, of missing his baby brother.

Where are you, buddy?

A flurry of starlings swooped past him. Their trickling waterfall calls resonated, frightening the goldfinches feasting at the thistle feeder. He watched the birds settle on the branches of the black walnut tree. Their blue-black plumage glistened in the sunlight.

The breeze rose, stirring the leaves in the cottonwoods.

Is it a sign?

Sam shot a glance toward the house, embarrassed to have such thoughts. He was glad Rachel couldn’t hear the crazy ideas that populated his mind.

Was Billy dead or alive? Snuffed out on his eleventh birthday, or whisked away by a kidnapper? Was he living somewhere? In Alaska? Canada? Forced to change his name as a child, brainwashed to forget his life as a Moore? Did he have grandchildren, like Sam? Or…

Sam’s heart blackened. He hated this part.

If Billy were kidnapped, he would’ve tried to come home once he gained access to a car. He had been old enough when he disappeared to remember what town he grew up in. So…if he hadn’t returned, he must be gone. Gone for good.

Sam sighed again and pushed back his thick gray hair. Two starlings lit on the birdfeeder and pecked at the seeds. The wooden feeder was flanked on both ends with suet holders, and Sam’s hands were greasy from the peanut-flavored cakes he’d slid into the receptacles earlier. A woodpecker hung upside down, poking at the treat.

As he watched the birds, he realized it would be harder now to ignore the questions plaguing him about Billy’s fate. He’d have time on his hands. Lots of time. Aside from tending to Rachel’s needs and babysitting the boys, he’d have hours to imagine the best and the worst. He’d just have to keep busy.

Squaring his shoulders, he walked into the barn and yanked on the starter cord of the rototiller. It coughed, belched black smoke, and stalled. He nudged the choke back and tried again. The engine roared to life. Sliding the choke all the way back, he shifted the tiller into reverse, and backed out of the barn.

Sam guided the tiller toward the garden. The wet grass needed mowing, though it had been cut four days ago. May had been festooned with rainstorms, a real record breaker. The knobby tires dug into the ground as he passed the bearded iris bed behind the wooden fence bordering the cutting garden. Saffron, cranberry, pristine white, and pale lavender-blue petals clamored for attention beside the Japanese Kerria, whose tiny orange flowers glowed on the branches.

His mind drifted to patients and the young doctor who’d taken over the practice.

 I wonder how Garcia’s doing?

He’d dreamed about retirement for the past forty years. And here he was, on his first day of freedom, about to embark on a full day of gardening until he dropped into the lovely sleep born of physical exhaustion — and his first thought was about Garcia.

Doctor Andrea Garcia had worked by his side since she graduated from the University of Rochester Medical School. She was good. She’d take excellent care of his patients.

But would she remember to test Jenny Boyd for strep?

The annoying voice hissed inside his head.

Forget about it. It’s not your job. Not anymore.

It was hard to sever himself from a practice that flourished for forty years. Forty years of growing this “limb” that became such a part of him, and everyone expected him to simply chop it off. Just like that! It wasn’t going to be easy.

He stopped and looked at the cloudless sky. The strong sun shone through pure azure, although it was just eight o’clock in the morning. Leaves rustled in the whispery willow and sugar maples that dotted the grounds. He smiled, drank in the scent of honeysuckle perfuming the air, and propelled the tiller forward.

The jungle was off to his left. He’d hacked away at the bamboo-like shoots for weeks. The official name of the rapacious weed was Japanese Knotweed, a rapid-spreading invader that killed everything in its shadow. Last year’s stalks were dry and crisp. They stood twelve feet high, crackling in the breeze. He imagined them taunting him, calling to him.

You can’t stop us. We’re taking over.

In the past few weeks, he’d removed half of the patch that stretched over five thousand square feet, but there was a lot left to clear. Yesterday’s bonfire had been impressive. Fueled with dried knotweed, dead apple tree limbs, and bundles of crispy weeds, it roared into an inferno, inciting stares from passersby. The coals were still warm when Sam added more branches to the pile that morning.

He reached the vegetable garden near the above ground pool and set the tiller in motion between the wide rows of sugarsnap peas and asparagus. Rachel and he had feasted on purple-tipped asparagus for the past few weeks.

Asparagus on buttered toast. Mmmm.

His stomach growled. He’d skipped breakfast and bolted outdoors before the sun had crested over the hill.

Sam muscled the machine around the row of peas and started on the other side. The soil churned like butter. Baby beets grew thick within the long row. He smiled again, pleased with the result. He’d defied Upstate New York conventions and had boldly planted the beets at the same time as the peas. It was on March 27th, a rare, eighty-degree day, perfect for the first till.

Normally, the beets went in during the first week in May. This year, he pushed it ahead and hit pay dirt when they flourished in the cold, wet weather of April. The thick greens were five inches tall now. He and Rachel would enjoy sweet buttered beets by the fourth of July.

Sam reached the end of the row and followed the expanse of the Swiss chard, lettuce, and dill. A few volunteer potato plants from last season pushed through the dirt. They towered over the others, ungainly and unexpected. He considered yanking them in the interest of neatness, but couldn’t do it. They’d survived the winter. They’d earned the right to grow.

Lila trotted out of the woods. Her sleek, white body moved with feline fluidity. She meowed twice, raising her tail in greeting.

Sam switched off the tiller and leaned down to pat her. She pushed her head against his hand and turned in small circles as he made a fuss over her.

“Whatsa matter, Lila? Are you hungry? Where’d you go last night, girl?”

She purred and placed her delicate paws on his knees as he squatted beside her. He stroked the smooth fur on her neck and scrubbed his fingers behind her ears.

“That’s a good girl. Good kitty.”

When Lila was satisfied, she abruptly terminated the liaison and trotted toward the house. Sam restarted the tiller, finished working the soil between the corn and potatoes, then headed over to the knotweed patch.

He was ready to dig today. Although the job of clearing wasn’t yet complete, he ached to set tine to soil and stir it up. It would allow him to smooth out the area, rake it, and eventually mow the knotweed to death.

He maneuvered the tiller over the lawn to the knotweed jungle and slowly worked the soil. The weed colony was founded when he and Rachel owned horses, years ago. When her multiple sclerosis worsened and she needed the wheelchair, the animals were sold, and the knotweed multiplied, infesting the edge of the woods. By the time Sam retired, it had grown expansively, creating “the jungle.” Sam was obsessed with ridding the landscape of the infectious weeds. Listed first on his retirement list, he planned to turn the area into a lush lawn, opening it to the line of heirloom apple trees edging the woods.

Something sparkled from the earth. Sam leaned down and poked at the soil, uncovering a clear glass bottle. He lifted it to his eyes, brushed off the dirt, and read, “Bayer Aspirin” in raised letters running down the side of the tiny vessel. He pocketed it. Rachel would want to clean it and add it to her collection. Such treasures frequently popped out of the earth around the house and barn. Long ago, it was common practice to bury trash before the introduction of garbage trucks. Since the house was built in 1815, Sam anticipated an abundance of finds.

He continued tilling until he connected with the tough, woody root of a knotweed plant. The tiller bounced as it tried to unearth the root. Eventually, after coming at it from several directions, it popped out of the ground. The offender was ten inches long, knobby, and misshapen. It resembled a piece of wood. Pink shoots of baby knotweed sprouted from the chunk. He threw it into the wheelbarrow. After letting it dry in the sun for a few days, he’d burn it.

Another object flashed from the dirt. Sam backed up the tiller and dug with his fingers until they closed around a small marble. He picked it up, rubbed it on his jeans, and held it to the light.

The sphere was small and partially opaque. A cat’s eye. He turned it in his fingers. Light sparkled through glass the color of lichen, a muted, pale green overlaying swirls of deeper green within. He smiled, put it in his pocket, and continued until hunger drove him in for lunch with Rachel.

Chapter Two

         

“Want some more, Sam?”

He wiped the napkin across his lips and pushed back from the kitchen table.

“Thanks, but I’m stuffed. How ‘bout you? There’s a little asparagus left. I could make you another piece of toast.”

Rachel smiled and patted his hand as he walked past her wheelchair with his dirty dishes.

“No, I’m fine.” She paused, then said. “Stop that, now.”

He looked over his shoulder.

“Huh?”

She motioned toward the sink.

“I’ll do the dishes. I’m not helpless, you know.”

He rinsed the dishes and smiled.

“I know, but now that I’m retired, I want to pitch in more.”

A look of surprise crossed her face, followed by a frown. Sam returned to the table to collect the glasses and pan of asparagus.

“What? What’s wrong?”

She brushed aside her graying bangs.

“Much as I love you, Sammy, I have to admit I’ve been… dreading this day.”
His eyes widened and he dropped into the chair.

“What? Dreading it? Dreading my retirement?”

Laughing, she answered, “Don’t sound so hurt, honey. It’s just that I don’t want you to mess up my system. You know, I’ve got everything organized and if you start helping out, I’ll have nothing to keep me busy all day.”

Her voice fell at the end of the sentence. Sam reached for her hand.

“Really? I thought you could use the help.”

She shook her head. Tears welled in her rich brown eyes.

“Since my legs got bad, I’ve needed things to keep me busy. To keep my mind off this rotten illness. The way you fixed the house is perfect. I can reach almost everything, now. I keep to my schedule every day. It makes me feel useful, Sam. I need that.”

He digested her words as memories of their past flashed unbidden across his mind. The diagnosis came when their children were born, over thirty years ago. Sam brought Rachel to the best neurologists in the country, but as the symptoms clarified and worsened, he knew before they did. Multiple sclerosis. It progressed slowly over the decades, relapsing and remitting as it ran its curious and elusive course. The exacerbations were periods of unusual exhaustion, facial and limb numbness, and weakness in the legs accompanied by frequent bouts of depression and anxiety. Six months ago, Rachel’s legs gave out. She’d tried a cane for a while, but fell three times. Finally, and with much angst, she accepted the small scooter Sam purchased for her. She swapped between a lightweight wheel chair and the electric scooter, depending on the circumstance.

Sam looked into Rachel’s eyes. They were still beautiful, after all these years. He leaned over and ran his rough fingertips along the soft down of her cheek.

“Okay, honey. Don’t worry. I’ve got plenty to keep me busy outside, anyway.”

She brushed at her eyes and squeezed his hand, flashing him a familiar look of affection.

“Thanks, Sam.” Husky with emotion, her voice shook. Changing the subject, she put her dishes in her lap and wheeled to the sink. “Are you working on those nasty weeds today?”

He nodded. “Uh huh. It’s slow going. And I have to mow again.”

The thought of the cool blue air called to him. He felt the pull of the garden as he fidgeted in his chair. His hands ached to be in the soil again. There was weeding, mowing, planting, mulching, and clearing to be done. It was a powerful force.

“Well, then, you’d better get out there. That lawn won’t mow itself.”

Sam walked back into the sunlight, refastening the Velcro on his back brace. It was a simple arrangement. Stretchy straps worked like suspenders, and the wide, nylon brace was worn low on his back. He repositioned it, took a deep breath, and started toward the knotweed colony.

As he headed out, a memory flashed through him. It was brief, but palpable. He was twelve years old. Billy was eleven. They walked barefoot along the hot pavement after a spring rain. The tar was deliciously soft and warm beneath their feet. Rain puddles sizzled and misted on the road. The boys laughed, then raced home to dinner. Steak, corn on the cob, baked potatoes, and salad. Billy’s favorite.

May thirtieth. Billy turns sixty-one today.

The little baby brother who slept in the bottom bunk, who breathed hot, sweet breath on his face when they hid in the closet beneath the stairs, who offered his sticky, warm hand during scary movies, and who mysteriously disappeared on his eleventh birthday — would be sixty-one today.

He closed his eyes and let the wind blow across his face. The breeze lifted his hair. Sam felt the cool soft touch of the air on his leathery skin. He pictured his baby brother communicating with him from Heaven. He’d often imagined it, and was comforted by the thought.

Happy birthday, buddy.

He opened his eyes, sighed, and ambled toward the stone campfire. Sitting down on the old iron bench, he wondered for the millionth time what happened to his brother.

Sam reached into his pocket and fingered the green marble. It reminded him of the marbles they played with as children. He closed his eyes again as he rolled it in his hand.

The smooth glass slid between his fingers, warming his hand, then grew almost hot to his touch. Surprised, Sam plucked it from his pocket and inspected it. The strong overhead light glinted on the surface. It seemed to glow from within. He cupped his hands around it, puzzled by the intensity of the heat.

Instantly, Sam was blinded by a green flash that forced his eyes closed. Shimmering, ghostly images danced before his mind’s eye. The sound of children playing reverberated in the air. In seconds, he was transported to another realm, wrapped in a rolling cloud of effervescent, green swirls.

Chapter Three

 

An orange school bus trundled along the country lane and stopped at the corner, red lights flashing. Black smoke spewed from the tailpipe. Two boys disembarked, the doors whooshed shut, and the bus lumbered down the road.

Sam floated in the air, hovering over the two boys. They skipped along the road with lunchboxes banging at their sides. His lungs constricted when he realized the younger boy was Billy. He tried to get a look at the other boy, then reeled in shock.

It’s me.

There was his old Beatles lunchbox. And his Dodgers cap. And his little brother. Right there. Close enough to touch.

The boys turned and waved at the kids on the bus. Several faces peered through the windows. Bruce McDonald. Harvey Allen. Doug Smythe. Renée Snell.

Doug, the youngest, stuck out his tongue. Renée fluttered her fingers daintily. Young Sam’s young heart quivered in response and Sam felt it in his adult body, as if he were actually experiencing it.

Harvey and Bruce, Sam’s best friends, waved goodbye. As the bus pulled away, Harvey rubbed his knuckles hard against Bruce’s crew cut.

Noogies for the nerd.

Sam remained suspended, observing his childhood self and Billy as they bounced down the road, but with each breath he linked to the young boy beneath him… feeling his small chest rise and fall, sensing the energy pulse through his slim arms and legs.

The wild sense of disbelief was curbed by the loss of control and tempered by the sensations rushing through him as he experienced the emotions of his twelve-year-old self. Reeling with puppy love for Renée, the memories crystallized. She’d offered him a fireball today on the way home. He’d blushed furiously, and accepted. He’d done well on his English test and couldn’t wait to show his mother the A on his paper.

Thoughts flooded his brain as the connection to his past sizzled and popped into clarity. It was Friday. Excited about the backyard sleepover scheduled in his yard tonight, he’d invited Harvey and Bruce. As the thoughts gelled, Sam whooshed into his young body.

The boys tripped down the lane, laughing and chucking rocks into wheat fields lining the road.

They slowed when they approached the Healeys’ house. It glowered from the roadside with unpainted clapboards sagging away from a rotting frame. Dirt smeared the cracked windows. Mr. Healey rocked on the porch. Back and forth. Back and forth. He stared at the boys through slitted gray eyes. Sam’s heartbeat quickened.

A car roared behind them. Manfred Healey squealed to a stop in his old Chevy behind Sam and Billy, honking the horn. The boys skittered beyond the driveway. Manfred peeled out and swiveled into the gravel drive, screaming at them.

“Vermin! Outta my way.”

The boys ran for their lives, tearing up the road in their Keds until they reached the safety of home. Sam put his arm around Billy’s shoulders after they’d stampeded up the porch steps.

“We made it,” he panted.

Billy’s hazel eyes crinkled with unspoken words of relief, bathing in the bond of brotherhood and shared fears.

The vision clouded. Swirled. Misted over. As Sam lost touch with the past, he heard the thoughts of another.

Little bastards!

The ferocity of the words nearly jolted him out of the reverie. Or trance. Or whatever it was.

It came again. Smoldering. Pure hatred hammered against his brain as the thoughts screamed through his head.

Sons of bitches!

***

Sam’s back ached and his joints had stiffened. He opened his eyes and stretched his arms as the harsh tones of the voice resonated in his brain.

The sun had traveled far across the sky since lunch. Surprised, he looked at his watch. It was two o’clock.

Two o’clock? What happened?

He’d been sitting on the bench for an hour and a half, clutching the marble in his hand. It was warm from his skin, but not hot. Or glowing. He looked at it, shook his head, and dropped it back into his jeans pocket.

“I’m losing it,” he said aloud.

A chickadee landed on the black walnut tree and chirruped.

Chickadeedeedeedeedee.

Sam unfastened the back strap, shifted on the bench, and massaged his back. It throbbed from yanking the tiller around all morning. He sighed long and loud.

It must have been a dream. I’m not used to so much physical labor.

Nodding as he convinced himself, he theorized he must’ve dozed as he sat in the cool, fresh air.

But the memory was authentic. The kids on the bus, the Healey boy. They’d all been real. Harvey Allen and Bruce MacDonald were his boyhood pals. Together with Billy, they’d hung out together and often included Doug Smythe, who was a year younger than Billy.

Sam laced his hands behind his head and thought about his childhood friends. Doug inherited his folks’ house and lived about a mile away. He’d always been a little annoying, constantly trying to hang out with the older kids. Still exasperating in the present day, Doug was cocky and had become progressively overbearing as he aged.

Harvey, tall and athletic, was a straight shooter and honest to a fault. After joining the Marines at graduation, Harvey had returned eight years later to Conaroga to open a family restaurant. It still thrived. He lived with his family halfway between Doug and Sam’s house.

Chuckling to himself, Sam thought about Bruce. The nerd. Small, klutzy, and smart as a whip. He attended elementary school with Sam, then was shipped off to a private boy’s school in New Hampshire. He graduated first in his class and had been welcomed to Harvard. There, he served in the ROTC, and after graduation he worked his way up the political ladder until he was elected to the Senate thirty-six years later. Bruce had sprouted and reached a respectable height of five-foot-eleven by the time he graduated high school. Today, he was jockeying for a presidential nomination in the Republican party.

He glanced toward the house as a flash of guilt trickled through him. Renée was his first love. She’d mesmerized him in the sixth grade. He remembered watching her in fifth period social studies. She sat right in front of him, with her soft pink button-down sweater and her smooth yellow sundress. He’d absorbed every detail of her appearance, every day. Every nuance of her motions, her words, her expressions. Even down to the part in her hair. He’d lost his voice each time he saw her; becoming a stuttering lunatic.

That is – until Billy disappeared.

The sadness returned.

Sam stood and massaged his back again, remembering the black time in his life. When Billy left, he simply died inside. He’d dried up, evaporated, almost blown away. They made him talk to a psychiatrist, who put him in an institution. The guy smelled like disinfectant mouthwash and powdered hand soap. It hadn’t helped, and the nutcases with whom he’d been surrounded made him feel even crazier. The doctors at the institute tried to convince Sam that Billy’s disappearance wasn’t his fault. But he’d known better.

He lost interest in girls for a long, long time. Throwing himself into his studies, he’d graduated with honors and progressed to Med School at the University of Rochester. Years later, Sam finally started his own practice and met Rachel. She waltzed into his office to apply for the secretarial position, and landed the job immediately. Sam remembered her from high school, but the woman who’d appeared in his office had been radically different. Poised, elegant, soft, and appealing, she breathed warm, sweet life into him. He re-awakened, and married her within the year.

In spite of Rachel’s affection and friendship, however, Sam never completely regained his balance after losing Billy. Even now, fifty years later, it ate away at him.

He crossed his arms and stared into the woods. Fighting the melancholy that threatened to break through, he sighed.

The dream had seemed so real. Billy was alive. Alive!

He sighed again.

Billy, little buddy, where are you?.

Billy, little buddy, where are you?

***

Aaron Paul Lazar writes to soothe his soul. The author of LeGarde Mysteries and Moore Mysteries enjoys the Genesee Valley countryside in upstate New York, where his characters embrace life, play with their dogs and grandkids, grow sumptuous gardens, and chase bad guys. Visit his websites at www.legardemysteries.com and www.mooremysteries.com and watch for his upcoming release, FIRESONG, coming Winter, 2010.

 

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