Excerpt from Parallax: from Chapter 22

I hoped my memory of how to find his house wasn’t fuzzy, but if I was right, we had quite a ways to go before we’d show up at the white row home. As the sun prepared to set, I sniffed around an abandoned strip of train cargo cars. Judging from the height of the weeds and the rusty state of the tracks here, no trains had passed through here for a long while.

I slept in fits, as Pie was tied to a crumbling handle on the open cargo door. The wood was rotted in places and my nose stuffed up from the smell of mold and old urine, but I’d become so exhausted I couldn’t keep myself awake, and I hoped the horse would alert me if I were in any danger.

People came to me in my dreams, people I missed, which seemed like everyone. I’d come no closer to figuring out how to help my mother, well, either mother. Dr. Stanger’s life was ruined, with his colleagues figuring him for a crackpot. I supposed Jeannine and Sanjay were all right, but they weren’t particularly happy, and then there was an entire town terrorized by a fake prophet who was fully capable of destroying whatever got in his way. I woke up with no more answers, except a sense that if I kept moving forward I would find a way to help someone. I had my own future intelligence as proof.

Light broke and I fed pie the last of my provisions in the sack, figuring that she needed sustenance more than I did. The train tracks crossed a gravel road, and as it seemed familiar, I switched off and we trotted along. An hour later, there was the house, looking a little better tended than the last time I was here.

I knocked on the door. “Mr. Hartle? It’s Jaqueline.” I waited, hearing only birds and bugs. I held my face up to the window at the side of the door and saw an interior empty of anyone. Walking down the front steps I remembered the garage at the rear of the house. I crept inside.

He was bent over the engine of the car I’d been building with Lucas, and he jumped when he heard me come in.

“Geez, girl, you should announce yourself,”

“I didn’t know you were back here. I tried finding you in your house,” I said, not intending to defend myself.

“Well, you put me to this project,” he said. He stood up and looked me over. “There’s a bit of bread and butter over there on the table. You need to eat something.”

Instead of following his directions I walked over to him to see what he was doing. It appeared he was souping up the engine.

“Is this another car to the one I was working on with Lucas?”

“Why don’t you listen to a thing I say?” Without waiting for an answer, he shook his head and kept talking. “I sure hope my future children aren’t as headstrong as you. But at least you have a brain between those ears.”

Without realizing it, I started smiling.

“Just what are you grinning at, girl? Wipe that smirk off your face and get me that wrench from over there.”

I handed him the tool, and asked him to bring me up to date, the way he’d wanted to the last time I’d seen him. He begged off, telling me there would be time for that as soon as he had the new engine in place, and I sensed that he was lying about something. I didn’t accuse him of holding back because it was at that moment that I noticed the ham radio in the far corner.

“Does the radio work,” I asked.

“Of course it works,” he said. “Why would I have a radio that didn’t work? Do I look like Mama’s fool?”

“And then some,” I said in a mutter.

“What was that?”

“Nothing. I’m going to look at the radio.”

“Look at it all you like.”

If I didn’t ask his permission to use it, I presumed he couldn’t deny me. I sat down and put on the heavy earphones. I cranked the dials and heard a lot of static, rolling in waves. Where would Lucas be on the dial? I took a guess, answered with more noise. Another attempt, and nothing. Come on, come on. You can figure this out.

I turned the dial, changed the megahertz, and heard his voice, rattling off a short, repeating message:

“I fell for you already, but I can do it twice.”

I laughed, then acknowledged that he was telling me when he’d be at his radio. I dropped the earphones.

“Mr. Hartle, what time is it,” I called out.

“Why, do manners take too much time for you? Don’t shout across the garage, young lady!”

In all of this mess, why did I have to need the assistance of a cranky man?

I stood up, walked over to the car where he stood half-inside.

“Pardon me, but do you know what time it is,” I asked in my most pitch-perfect singsong.

“Why yes,” he said with his head next to the engine block. He straightened up and pulled a pocket watch from his soiled vest. Grubby fingers pushed a spring and the face snapped open, revealing a fresh mother of pearl watch that reflected back all of the miserable light in the building. “It’s one forty.”

I nodded. “Nice watch.”

“Thank you,” he said, pocketing it. “Okay, I think this is a go. I’m parched. Come inside with me so I can feed you.” He pulled shut the folding engine and padlocked the door to the garage as we exited.

Inside, Jackson Hartle lived in an orderly world. Mugs in his kitchen cabinets were lined up so all the handles faced the same direction. His breakfast table was worn but polished to a high shine, not a scuff mark in sight. I glanced at the corners of the room because that’s where my mother told me a house showed whether it was actually clean or just picked up before the company came over for a visit. The tile way brighter and less fatigued there, but free of dirt.

“Do I pass inspection,” he asked, raising an eyebrow. I hadn’t realized I’d been that obvious. I apologized. He opened his ice box and pulled out a block of cheese, which he sliced up on the counter.

“I was in the Navy in the Great War,” he said. “Enlisted a few months before the whole brouhaha started and I have now peeled potatoes for America’s finest. Never made it out of that damn mess.”

“What mess was that?”

“The mess hall, kid. You don’t know hard work, do you?”

I thought about chasing chickens around a poop-covered coop, just one day in the life of Edgar MacComb. One morning, in fact.

“Not like you do, sir,” I said. He harrumphed at me in response. He put a cheese sandwich in front of me with a glass of milk. The milk was unlike anything I’d tasted from the grocery store, rich, almost nutty in flavor.

“I suppose it’s not your fault,” he said, sitting down. He sipped at a glass of water.

“I appreciate that.”

“Now don’t go getting smart with me,” he said, and he poked me on my solar plexus. His eyes were a milky coffee color, but they fired at me as he detailed my visit to him about a year before now. I’d knocked on his door a few months ago, checking for strange reactions from anyone on the street, and nothing about our initial conversation sat well with him, but because I was such a young thing, and wearing men’s trousers, he let me in, mostly out of worry for my mental health.

“For the first five minutes of your story I considered calling the funny farm to fetch you. I’d seen enough men turn into lunatics at sea.”

“I’m glad you kept listening.”

“Darn tootin’ you are.”

I wondered what it had been like for my mother to grow up with this man as her father. My own Dad was about as unlike him as a person could be. Had she actively sought someone different? I’d never thought about my Mom as a regular adult before, someone who had a life before I came along. I blushed, and Jackson noticed. I realized he’d continued talking to me.

“Speaking of listening, you’re not paying attention to me, girl.”

“You know, you’re not that much older than me, so you can stop calling me girl anytime.”

He stood up, brushed off his trousers. “Now I really know you’re from another time. I’m your grandfather, Jacqueline, or least I will be, someday.”

“Yes sir.” I needed his help, and I’d been disrespectful. And it seemed I didn’t tell him I had his same name; he thought I was female in that life, too. “I’m sorry.”

“It’s all right,” he said, softening. “According to you, we need to get in the car now.”

“According to me?”

He nodded. “Well, then we should go,” I said, remembering that I wanted to find Lucas on the radio. “My timing so far has been pretty accurate.”

“I suppose you do take after me,” he said, leading me out the back door.

#

I unsaddled Pie and let her out in a fenced area behind Jackson’s garage. She moseyed over to a slab of hay and paid me no more attention. I met Jackson at the car, which he was fueling from a small can. I sat down at the radio and he waved me away.

“You put one in here, remember?”

“Right!” I was smarter than I gave myself credit for. I jumped over the side and into the driver’s seat.

“Just what is it you think you’re doing,” he asked me.

“Oh, I’m driving,” I said, snatching a pair of goggles out of his hand.

“Women sure have changed in your generation.”

“You’re darn tootin’,” I said, and he clambered into the car. I pushed the ignition button and the engine he’d carefully expanded growled awake, sputtering out dark smoke from the tailpipe. I cut into gear and we popped out of the garage before we’d be overcome from the exhaust. I sized up all of the features I’d inserted into the dashboard—the same set of knobs, buttons, and dials that had confounded me the last time I’d been behind the wheel.

“So, where to,” I asked.

Jackson didn’t speak, instead choosing to point to two black cars that lurched for us from down the street.

“Away from them,” he said.

I floored it, aiming at the road out of town. The sound of our tires on the rough ground was deafening.

Jackson whipped his head around to see how close they were to us. I saw the needle on the odometer stretch to 62 miles per hour, far faster than this car should have been able to speed. At once the cars flicked on their sirens, which wailed at us painfully. We had been running from them for all of ten seconds, but it seemed much longer.

He pulled himself back around and faced forward.

“You didn’t tell me everything, you know.” He shouted so I could hear him.

“What didn’t I tell you?”

He looked at me and yelled again.

“They have guns.”

“They always have guns. Weren’t you in the Navy?”

“I told you,” he said, pointing out potholes for me to avoid, “I peeled potatoes.”

“All the World War I vets in the country and I have to find the guy who was stuck in the kitchen.”

Jackson frowned at me. “What do you mean, World War I?”

“Nothing, I don’t mean anything.”

I pulled out a knob and large tacks released from the trunk of our car, bouncing along the pavement and flattening the tires on the two cars after us. I turned around for a second to make sure they’d stopped chasing us. One man opened a door and tried to take a shot at us, missing by a wide margin.

“Don’t tell me there’s another world war,” screamed Jackson, as we pulled away and out of town.

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