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Return Engagements (Book One) PART 1… in which I arrive

It was mid-June of 2016, the night between the 19th and the 20th. It had been a very normal evening. My wife went to bed a little before 10, leaving me at the kitchen table playing with papers. I went through my pre-bed routine, slid between the sheets, kissed her good-night, and rolled over.

And then, within a trivial dream of some sort, I felt something I’d experienced several times before but don’t have a great word for. “The power of the spirit” was what my friends and I used to call it back in the 1970s, and I suppose that’s as good a name as any. This was a strong one, and I could tell that it was affecting my body in real life, not just within the dream. But somehow I remained asleep.

And then I found myself standing in an apartment building’s vestibule. It was a fairly large one as such spaces go, lit with a single bulb in an old-style rosette base. The bulb was an old style too. (I spent years supervising electrical repairs, so I’m used to recognizing such things.)

But before my eyes could move to the next significant image, the heavy front door of the vestibule opened.

A young woman with a pained expression took one step in, tossed me a roll of clothes, and said, “Here. Put these on and come out. And be quick, please.”

She disappeared back out the door. It was then that I realized I was naked.

My mind stayed surprisingly calm as I confirmed to myself that this wasn’t a dream. Whatever this was, it was real. I became aware that I could run sci-fi scenarios through my mind but made a conscious choice not to do so; it would have wasted my time. I’d need a lot more information before I could draw any useful conclusions. And so, unless and until I recognized some kind of threat, I would observe and play along as best I could.

I got myself dressed. What the woman had tossed me were mechanic’s coveralls, with noticeable smudges of oil and grease. The shoes and socks were likewise those of a mechanic. I decided again to accept things as they were and started dressing myself. As I did, I tried to see out through the small windowpanes in the door.

It was dark outside, but I could see the street in front, lit by the blueish glow of mercury-vapor lighting. As I zipped my coveralls I noticed that the tenant mailboxes and the carpeting matched the age of the ceiling fixture. Somehow I sensed that this was Chicago, yet not my Chicago.

As I sat on the steps to the first floor to put on my shoes, I recognized the smell of the place; it was the smell of the old days, a certain mustiness… the smell of apartment buildings back before air conditioning.

Finally, shoes tied, I pulled open the door and walked out, stepping down onto a sidewalk. The woman was waiting. She was 30-ish, blondish, and would have been pretty if she weren’t grimacing so badly.

It was then that I noticed two things about her: first, that she was wearing a pair of coveralls like mine, complete with too-large shoes, and second, that her hair was short and oddly shaggy. Her hair and clothing aside, she looked as though she was normally healthy but had eaten some bad fish.

“I’m sorry to be curt,” she said, trying to restrain her grimace, “but I’m in some distress, and I need you to drive.”

She handed me a set of car keys, which I immediately recognized as the same keys my mom and dad had when I was little. That was a memory that hadn’t passed through my mind in 50 years.

I took the keys, sympathetic for her suffering, but I also needed information. I wasn’t about to dive even deeper without some kind of explanation. I looked her in the eye, saying nothing but conveying my demand, which she understood.

“The car’s across the street,” she groaned, pointing to a 1960s Chevrolet.

It was almost the same as my mom’s when I was small, save that this one was light blue and my mom’s was brown. She turned and took a step toward the street.

“Look around as you walk,” she said. “I’ll explain as we drive.”

It seemed the best she could do, so I accepted it and shifted my gaze to the world in front of me. I followed her toward the street and took in the scene in front of me.

By the time I was two steps into the street, I knew: We were in the early 1960s. Everything I could see said so, and somehow I knew that not just by observation, but by feel. The era had a certain spiritual feel to it, for lack of a better term. Being inside the eras as they slowly changed, you’d never notice it, but dropping from one into another, as I just had, the difference was clear.

As I pulled the driver’s door open and waited for her to get to the passenger side, I turned back to see a newsstand on the corner, with a few Checker Marathon cabs in from of it.

I know this place, I realized. It’s Devon and Broadway.

I turned left to look for the Granada Theater and could see the top of its facade.

I definitely know this place.

In the second or two remaining to me, I turned right again to look at the building I had just exited. It was a dark, old three-story apartment building just east of the alley on the south side of the street. I remembered it from my youth. At least I was oriented.

She got into the car and turned toward me as I dropped myself into the driver’s seat.

“Please get us away from concentrations of people as quickly as you can.” She paused. “And out of Illinois as fast as you can. This car and some money in my bag are stolen.”

I couldn’t help laughing.

Here I am, I thought, in 1960-something… really, truly in 1960-something… and I’m with a strange thief-woman, driving a stolen car!

Sometimes, as Captain Picard used to say, you have to bow to the absurd. And so I did, laughing as I dropped the car into gear and headed west to Ridge Boulevard.

But this woman, whomever she was, was still in pain, and that wasn’t funny. And so I slid myself into the role of “the responsible party,” a place I’d spent most of my life anyway.

“What can I do for you?”

“I need to get away from concentrations of people.”

“Yes, that’s what I’m doing right now. We’re heading directly to the Edens Expressway.”

Does the Edens exist yet? It didn’t really matter. Even if only Highway 41 was there, it would still be the fastest route out of town. Nonetheless, if I was going to be in charge – and I clearly was at the moment – I needed more information.

“What year is this?” I asked.

“It’s July 1963,” she said. “July 10, about an hour before sunrise.”

“What else should I be aware of?”

“I’ll explain as we go,” she said, after a series of grimaces, “but I’ll have to be slow, and I may not get things in the best order.”

“That will be fine,” I said. “And please tell me if I can do anything else to improve your condition. It seems to me that getting you healthy should be a primary concern just now.”

I stole a glance at her as I turned west from Ridge onto Touhy. She still looked troubled, so I decided to give her a travel monologue, assuring her that I was addressing her primary concern.

“We’re heading west on Touhy Avenue. The population is still fairly dense here, but it will start to thin in a mile or so. A few miles after that we’ll be on a fast road, with the population getting less and less dense as we go. We’ll probably be in rural areas within 30 minutes.”

She seemed relieved. And so I drove on, consciously ignoring the fact that I was driving a stolen car and waiting for this strange woman to recover so I could figure out what I had fallen into. I couldn’t even be sure whether this woman was from the future or perhaps not an Earth woman at all.

* * * * *

(Available now on Kindle)

By Paul Rosenberg

P.S. Along with our shift of focus to Parallel Society, I’ve felt my own shifts. One of them has been a change in my attitude toward writing… to have more fun with it, and put it out the easy way rather than the hard way. And so I’ve been working on a series of short novels that have grown out of my self-entertainments: daydreams and so on.

This is the first of what I think will be many, in a style that one of our subscribers has dubbed Psi-fi, which I also thought was fun. Psi is one of those terms that can mean what you’d like it to mean (generally ranging between psychology and paranormal), and it’s also an acronym for the Parallel Society Initiative (PSI).

We’ll run these stories in segments here, and please feel free to share. I’ll also put them up on Kindle as each is ready.

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  • stan

    Best I’ve read from you yet and that’s with some decent competition. Nicely intriguing. Heinlein would approve.

    • Paul Rosenberg

      Thanks, Stan. 🙂

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