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Return Engagements (Book One) PART 3… in which I orient myself

Picking up from Part 2, in which I was being pursued across southern Wisconsin… although I didn’t yet know it.

Now my examinations came to the outer world: July 10, 1963… what’s happening just now? And why would someone bring me here, with this woman as a companion?

The second question was unanswerable, save that there seemed to be no malice involved. The woman seemed to be doing her best to be honest with me. The first question, however, I could answer, not only because I’ve studied history, but because 1963 was just at the beginning of my conscious memories. My recollections were those of a small boy, but I had them nonetheless.

Kennedy’s going to be killed in November, in only four months or so… I started with the easiest pieces… the Cuban missile crisis is over, and it’s generally a simpler time than my own, at least as I recall.

People always think the time of their childhood was simpler, but I was still fairly certain that 1963 was simpler than 2016. Either way, I was about to find out. And that, I decided, was going to be a unique opportunity. I’d have a chance to recalibrate my memories against the real world of 1963.

That presumed I’d get back of course, but again, it seemed I could feel the background of this experience. It seemed clear that I’d be going back home… that when this was over, I’d wake up in my bed back in 2016. On this I would have faith and did have faith.

Just then my companion stirred and opened her eyes.

“Low density,” she said, without lifting herself up to look out the window.

“Yes,” I replied. “Are you feeling any better?”

“Some,” she said, “but this environment of yours is more contrary than I thought.”

That statement, for the first time, sent my mind racing. If she meant what I thought she meant… I looked at her again, wanting to read her face, but she was still grimacing and I gained no confirmation.

“Are you talking about the Earth environment… and maybe the model I used in my book?”

“Yes,” she said. “That’s why we picked you; we read your book.”

Now I was feeling disoriented. I made myself refocus on the road, and to breathe steadily.

“Okay, you’ll have to give me a couple of minutes here… the implications of what you just said are enormous.”

“I understand,” she said quietly, then leaned back into her seat.

I need to stop and walk around a bit, I said to myself, at the next opportunity. Till then, I’ll push it all aside. We’ll get to a suitable place, and then I’ll think about it.

* * * * *

The next opportunity, as it happened, was 20 miles farther, at Janesville, Wisconsin. I found a sort of truck stop and drove to the far end of its parking lot. I stopped the engine and took several deep breaths. I noticed that the woman was awake but content to lean back and rest.

“Okay,” I began, “I’m gonna need some time to process all of this. I’ll take a walk, go into the store to use their bathroom and get some supplies, and then come back. I figure it’ll take 15 or 20 minutes. Okay?”

She nodded, then pointed to the bag sitting next to her feet.

“There’s currency in there.”

I pulled out several 20s and stuffed them into my pocket, then thought about the logistics of leaving a sleeping woman in a car.

“I’m going to lock the doors and take the keys. You just rest. In the highly unlikely event that you have any trouble, just honk the horn” – I pointed to it, in case she didn’t know – “and I’ll run right back.”

Again she nodded her consent. I locked both doors from the outside and walked slowly to the store, allowing myself to process what she had told me, that “we”… they… had brought me here because of my book. This was a true surprise, and there was nothing in my mind to connect with it. And so the statement just “sat there”… and I let it, breathing heavily.

Arriving at the store, I saw a bathroom on the side and decided to give it a try. Thankfully it was clean. The extra few minutes before facing people in the store turned out to be a good idea. I felt a lot better leaving the bathroom than I had walking in.

And to my surprise, looking around the store made me happy. I could tell that I had involuntarily started smiling. The old coffee maker, the old freezer cases with the heavy metal latches, milk in glass bottles… it was all a joyous trip to my long-lost past. An old man walked past.

My God, I thought, this man was probably born in the 1880s, and if I wanted, I could get his impressions of all the events of his lifetime… the arrival of the airplane, the radio, the income tax… I can use this.

I felt energized and able at once.

In the back of the store, I saw a few racks of clothing. I pulled out a pair of pants and a shirt for myself and decided that I needed some clothes for my companion. Having lived with women most of my life, I felt confident guessing her size. Once I had the necessities, I piled everything on the front counter.

“Can I leave this here while I get more?” I asked the lady minding the register.

She smiled and said, “You certainly can, hon,” starting to organize the pile better than I had.

I found some food and some drinks and asked the lady to fill a large cup with water for me. She rang it all up. Altogether it was still less than $20. She gave me my change, we exchanged pleasantries, and I was off to walk the length of the parking lot again.

* * * * *

Again, I was walking, breathing hard, and confronting “we brought you here because of your book.” I loved the book of course. It was more or less the culmination of 40 years’ work, and I thought it was great. But that’s me, the author. And how did it get to people who could bring me to 1963?

And what about the book would cause them to bring me here? I asked myself.

But I thought I knew the answer to this question, even though it went against my mental inertia. It was my ideas on the Earth’s environment and the future’s better environment . That was almost certainly why… and that meant I had been right or close enough to it.

Wow.

But there again, my conscious thoughts paused, and I let them, feeling things sort themselves in the back of my mind.

That’s just fine, I said to myself, the way it needs to be.

A minute later, I reached the car. And while I hadn’t attained any great conclusions, I was ready to deal with the subject calmly. I opened the door, handed her the bags… actually more like placed them on her lap… and sat down, back in the role of the responsible party.

“There’s a dress and some sandals in there,” I said. “I’m going to pull around to the bathroom, and you should go in and change. The clothes you’re wearing are out of place.”

She nodded and I got the car moving.

“And once you’re done, I’d like to head to an interstate highway. On these small roads we have a greater likelihood of trouble from the local police.”

She looked a little uncertain, so I went on.

“The density of people will be only slightly higher, save for short periods when we go through cities. There’s a small city we’ll go through soon, but after that, nothing for a long time.”

“All right,” she said, “you know your world better than I do.”

I let the implications of that statement sit off to the side and said, “Yes, I do think that will be best.”

We pulled up to the bathrooms, I pointed to the ladies’ door, and she half-walked, half-staggered to it. Once she was inside, I pulled to a more discrete spot nearby, a spot from which I’d have a full view of the door.

Comparing her condition from our first interaction to this one, however, I had to conclude that she was no better. That wasn’t a good sign. I needed a lot more information from her, and probably her help.

Soon enough, she emerged, I picked her up and found my way to the major road I was looking for, I-90.

Once back in farmland, I had her hand me some food, then encouraged her to have some. She declined, but I did get her to drink a 7Up, which would at least get some sugar into her system and hopefully some energy with it.

“I very much need you to talk to me,” I said.

“Yes,” she said, “I know… but I’m still feeling badly.”

“Yes, I can see that, but this is a rather extreme situation. You and your companion or companions have somehow pulled me through time to 1963. That’s utterly impossible in my world, and while I’m capable of surviving here, I would like very much to know why.”

“This isn’t time travel,” she half-groaned. “That’s impossible for us too.”

“Then this is mere illusion?”

“No, it’s quite real, but it’s different from time travel.”

“Do you understand that nearly every answer you give me opens new questions?”

“I’m sorry,” she said.

“Look, I can see that you’re suffering, and I’d like to fix it for you… but one way or another, I need some answers.”

I glanced at her again and saw her struggling to form a response. This wasn’t good.

“Don’t respond now. You’re in some difficulty,” I said. There was no point in pushing. “But I’d like you to figure out how you can give me just a five-minute explanation of what’s going on here.”

She nodded.

“Okay, one last question: Will it bother you if I turn on the radio and try to orient myself to the local situation?”

“No bother,” she eked out.

“Okay, then I’ll do that and drive generally westward. You try to sleep and recover some strength.”

If I’d had a blanket I would have thrown it over her, but it was becoming a hot day, so I kept the windows mostly rolled up. I could survive sweating a little; I couldn’t be sure she’d survive a chill.

I turned on the radio and found a channel in Madison. The morning news show was about to start.

Probably the same-old stuff, I thought.

* * * * *

  (Available now on Kindle)

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