Excerpt from Parallax—from Chapter 17

For those of you following along, here’s another excerpt of the first draft. Enjoy!

While Dr. Stanger worked on building a crude EEG machine, I drove out to Conestoga for more information on the town and its residents. Whatever town square I’d seen was gone now, subsumed into a street grid. Only on the outlying areas were there still farm lands, but the vast majority of the area had been developed. I pulled over, seeing a yellowed sign in the window of a storefront: Historical Society. I fumbled for dimes in my pocket and bought an hour’s worth of parking time, and headed inside. An older lady with curly white hair greeted me.

“Suggested donation is one dollar,” she told me, “but you can see if that’s worth paying after you walk through.” I smiled and put a bill in her metal box. It didn’t appear they had visitors often.

This was an older home; the two rooms in the front were lined with glass cases, filled with pictures and trinkets of earlier times. I asked the greeter where the oldest items were. She pointed me to the next room.

Founded in 1769, the town didn’t expand past 2,000 residents until the 20th Century, when it found itself between an increasingly busy highway and the Susquehana River. It was formally incorporated after the Civil War, and it took in several former slaves, the pictures of whom lined the case as evidence of the progressivism of the town elders. I recalled the tunnels dug for the Underground Railroad; of course people would come here, it was on the escape route. I searched but didn’t find any information on the Railroad. Wouldn’t it have been something a little museum would tout, if they’d brag about being a refuge for ex-slaves?

I worked my way up to the 1880s, and there was a picture of Mr. Rushman’s farm: the house, the stables behind, a small granary, and the long rows for planting. It must have been taken around the turn of the century, because there was a Model T Ford parked at the front of the house, next to the porch. When I’d been in town I hadn’t seen even one car until the 1920s, so where had this car come from? Pushing my face closer down to the glass, I strained to read the typed caption beneath the photo:

ORIGINAL FARM HOUSE OF WILHELM FOLK

Somehow Mr. Rushman had come to acquire the house, I supposed. Maybe Mr. Folk was richer. I guessed it didn’t matter.

Further along, in a glass case at the corner of the once-dining room, was a model of the original layout of the town. I gasped as I laid my eyes on it. It was the view from the trail on the hill, the one I walked up in my first few jumps. Why had I started out here? Was it happenstance? My brain reeled trying to make some sense of everything.

“Can I help explain anything,” asked the woman from behind me. I startled, clapping a hand over my heart. “I’m sorry, young man.”

“No, it’s fine,” I said. “I’ve seen this farm house before.” I pointed at Mr. Rushman’s house on the map.

“You couldn’t possibly have seen that house,” she said, smiling, and walking over to me. “That burned down well before you were born. 1930 or so.”

“Really? How did the fire start?” I hoped I sounded nonchalant.

“Hmm, I’m not sure. I was just a little girl when it happened. Electrical system? A lot of these houses were retrofitted because they were built before electricity.”

That was plausible, certainly, but something about it unsettled me.

“Are you from the area, son?”

“I’m just doing a school project.” I should have thought of an excuse before, I thought. That sounds pathetic.

“Well, if you’d like me to point anything out, I will help if I can.”

“Thanks, Mrs.—” I glanced at her nametag. “Griffith.” I’d heard that name before. The horse I stole. “Are you related to a Lucille Griffith?”

She inhaled sharply and smiled. “Why, she’s my aunt. I’m the daughter of her younger brother, Alexander. “So you are local?”

“Not any more,” I said, hoping I didn’t look like a total fraud. “We moved away some time ago.”

“Well, do let me know if I can help.” I was left alone again, and I studied the miniature model of the town. Where Mr. Van Dorn’s tavern had once stood, the model showed a squat hotel. I scanned the top of the hill but didn’t see my mother’s house. Finally I turned back to the pictures for 1910–1930. And right there, he glowered at me, looking sober and cruel: Dr. Traver. He’d grown a white beard later on in the 20s, but there was no resemblance to anyone as kind as St. Nick. His eyes were narrow slits, his dark overcoat imposing looking. This photo must have been taken in the winter. He had his arm wrapped around a smaller figure, a young woman or girl, and with all my strength I gripped onto the case so I didn’t fall over. He was holding Jacqueline, and the caption underneath this photo was horrible to read:

MAYOR MELVIN TRAVER AND HIS WIFE JACQUELINE,

DECEMBER 26, 1928

I stood there for a time, shaking and attempting to get a hold of myself. Jacqueline looked miserable, beaten down, resigned, certainly not happy to be his bride. Here was something else I needed to prevent, I was certain, from happening.

I thanked Mrs. Griffin and asked when the museum closed.

“Four o’clock sharp,” she said, making it clear that she didn’t intend to wait for me or anybody else to return to browse more.

I drove down the road slowly, trying to orient where I was in relation to the model. The Rushman farm would be my first stop, I decided. Driving into the valley, clogged with traffic, was slow-going, and my mind couldn’t get rid of the image of Jacqueline bound up in Dr. Traver’s arms. Lucas would never have allowed such a thing. If Jacqueline was married to Dr. Traver, who somehow became mayor, and Mr. Van Doren had betrayed the cause, did it mean Lucas had been killed? Maybe in the tavern collapse. There were only two months, give or take, between the events. It must have solidified his hold on the town.

In any case, I had to change events so that this didn’t happen. I might not have asked for the ability to jump time, but if I could do it, then I had to try to make things better for people.

And I had to face it that I was falling in love with Lucas, whatever that meant.

#

The big farm house was gone, surrendered at some cost to a suburban neighborhood that looked a lot like mine, 90 minutes away, but this one didn’t have any sidewalks. It seemed too imposing to walk on the lawns of strangers so I kept to the edge of the street, trying to assess which house was closest to the old spot, based on the where the ground began to rise. Even if the house had burned down, what became of the basement?

I checked around the street, always afraid Dr. Traver or one of his cronies would show up to stop me by force, even though that wasn’t possible. No lights on in the house, and no cars in the driveway, so I hoped that meant the house was empty. I skirted along the side of the house, an uninteresting light blue vinyl siding, until I was in the back yard, which had high evergreen trees planted to run the length of the yard, and I was thankful for some privacy. Maybe there was an unlocked door around here that I could jimmy. I thought darkly that since I’d already abducted someone, breaking and entering probably was small potatoes. One sliding glass door was held in place by a metal bracket, and the rear door that led to a laundry room, was locked shut. So much for that.

Looking for windows, I tripped over something hard in the grass. I felt it with my toe and saw that there was a round piece of concrete under a light layer of grass, kind of like the well caps at some of the older houses in my town. The grass came up easily, in sheets, which I tried to stack so that I could pat them back in place later. I worried the slab would be too heavy for me to move by myself, but I was able to get some leverage on it, and with a thick grating sound, it slid over, revealing a vertical shaft lined with rusty rings, leading down into the blackness. They must have been some kind of ladder.

No time like the present, I thought, and I tested the top ring with most of my weight before I let go of the top of the shaft.

Down in the column, my memories flooded me, of creeping through the tunnels with Lucas, kissing him while on the run from Traver’s thugs. If I were so willing to be back with Lucas, how unlike Sanjay was I? Had I been mean to an old friend because deep inside of me, I was different, too?

I stopped asking myself these questions as my feet hit the ground, and to my shock, I saw, next to the ladder, an old lantern, long since dried out of oil and rusted where it touched the cement. I wasn’t sure if it was the same lantern Lucas and I had used, but I didn’t touch it.

The edge of the light streaming in from the top of the shaft hit the concrete floor in only a narrow sliver. My eyes adjusted a little more to the darkness, and I thought I could make out a door about 20 feet away. A few paces in front of it, I hit a block and nearly lost my balance. Crouching down, I patted it. Wood, rectangular, cold metal bits at the back and on the front. It was a box with a clasp and hinges, I reckoned. Lifting it up, I took it back to the light and opened it.

Inside, a small screwdriver, flashlight, which brought out a burst of laughter from me, and a note. It was in my own handwriting.

Leave the screwdriver and the flashlight in the box here. Go back home. Dr. Stanger has the machine ready. Make a left at the end of the block instead of right, and then take the old highway back to I-195 instead of the Turnpike. —Jac

Was it Jacqueline who left this message? Or me? Or me in her body? If it was Jacqueline, how did a 1980s plastic flashlight get in a box with an old screwdriver, and for that matter, why a screwdriver?

I lifted it out and held it up to the light. I’d assumed it was a regular flathead tool, but looking at it more closely, I could see that the edge of the head was made up on tiny metal rods. I pressed it to my palm, and they flexed, conforming to whatever groove I presented to it. And then something else happened. The handle glowed. Worried I’d done something wrong, I put it back in the box and carried it to the spot where I’d found the thing. The door taunted me, beckoning that I explore what lay beyond, but I reasoned that if I’d gone to such trouble to leave a note for myself, I should listen to it.

I climbed the rungs and was halfway up when my left foot crashed through the bar, which had rusted out. I hung from my hands, bits of metal digging into my skin, and scrabbled against the damp sides of the shaft. I pulled my right leg up high and found the next bar and quickly climbed up the rest of the way. At the top of the column, I saw writing scratched into the surface, warning me about the 32nd rung. I’d need to make that more apparent, I told myself, trying to wrap my head around the mechanics of time paradoxes.

The shaft cover and grass back in place, I dusted off my jeans and walked back to my car. I looked around again, but everything seemed the same, until I got to the end of the road. Turning right would have taken me back the way I’d come, and while I was wondering why my note would say to turn left, I noticed that the older woman from the museum was sitting in the passenger seat of a brown Impala parked along the curb. In the driver’s seat was a middle aged man, talking to her animatedly, but when they noticed me, they stopped talking. His engine raced and he shot across the road toward me. I hammered the gas pedal to the floor and turned left, getting as much speed as I could in my tiny Rabbit. A small sign along the side of the road pointed to the highway, and I turned sharply, nearly tipping over. The driver chasing me was forced to slow down a lot more, giving me some distance. I took a fork in the road, heading deeper into the valley, not wanting to stay in his field of view. My heart launched about in my chest; I nearly wiped out because I was looking in my rear view window and didn’t see a huge pot hole until the last moment. My squat car teetered around as I pulled at the steering wheel. Behind me, the Impala careened along the road, hitting the hole hard, and then he stopped pursuing me because they both bumped their heads on the ceiling.

I made a quick turn and saw another sign for I-195. Finally, on the entrance ramp with no Impala in sight, I relaxed a little. Why were they after me?

Couldn’t I have left a longer note, I wondered.

Photo credit: gnackgnackgnack on Flickr
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