March 02, 2005

Five O’Clock

The story for the week appears a little late this time . . . hard on the heels of the current week's story, in fact. I had a few other posts in the works that I wanted to complete first and I had a bit of trouble getting them cranked out, and . . . Well, here we are.

Anyway, speaking of cranking things out, that's pretty much what I did with this story. During my first year here at LeTourneau, I roomed with a great guy named Bryan Durkin (his blog is linked at right: "El Marinero"). Bryan will be shipping off to join the Navy within about a week, but at the moment that's kinda beside the point. Bryan and I got along very well together because we both enjoyed reading (lots of the same books, too), we both loved computer games, similair types of music and movies, and writing. Bryan is an amazing writer and always puts me to shame (in fact, he's already been published in an anthology of short fantasy stories).

During our first semester, we were extremely bored one Saturday afternoon and decided that we would each sit at our computers and write a short story, then trade, edit, and comment on each other's work. Bryan wrote something that would have served as an excerpt of a larger work involving a chase scene on futuristic motorcycles. I wrote the story that appears below the fold. We had a pretty good time, and I often wish that we had written together more often, but it wasn't long before we found other ways to spend Saturday afternoons . . . *insert ominous chord here* . . .

Be that as it may, here is the story that I spat out over the course of a couple of hours. It's probably a bit rough, and almost certainly predictable, but I enjoyed writing it and I hope everyone enjoys reading it.

Five O’Clock

The wind whipped through the area wildly with nothing to impede its progress. Frustrated at finding nothing larger than a mesquite tree or livelier than a horny toad, it viciously began to throw dust devils high in the air. Metal glistened on the horizon and the wind died down once again as if waiting to see what was coming . . .

The black ribbon of highway stretched to the horizon. It seemed to shimmer and weave as light refracted off of the waves of rising heat. That was the only visible sign of the temperature for me, sitting in an air-conditioned car, (the AC was thankfully working for once) and doing at least 85. I hadn’t seen a sign of civilization for nearly an hour, barring telephone poles, connected by tendrils of spidery wire and stretching forever in both directions. The road ahead was as empty as the road behind.

My eyes fell reflexively on the road map at my side, but I tore my gaze away and watched the road. I wasn’t lost. Roads in Texas are supposed to be empty. I pressed the gas pedal in a little bit harder and held it there; time was of the essence. No cruise control, which was kind of a pain, but the foremost thought in my mind was my destination. A quick glance at the dashboard clock told me that it was almost 10:30 in the morning. It’s midmorning, February, and it’s already an oven outside. I shook my head wonderingly, glad that I lived in the Rockies instead of the arid Southwest.

My eyelids started to droop and I reached for the radio: nothing but country music and a whole lot of static. With nothing else to keep myself awake with, I re-reviewed the facts. I applied the word “facts” very loosely, of course. It had all started with this dream, this vivid dream. I’m not much of a dreamer, but night after night it came back to haunt what should have been a peaceful sleep. There was a certain sense of urgency to the dream, but that was hardly what made it stand out. Many dreams are like that. In fact, I couldn’t really understand exactly what caused it to fill my conscious thoughts as surely as it filled the subconscious. Perhaps there was the nagging feeling of truth to it. Every aspect, every detail, every nuance and thought and action was strikingly lifelike; certainly striking enough to spook me.

In my dream, I was running somewhat frantically down a street I had never seen before. This street was in a town I didn’t recognize, in what I felt like was an area I had never visited. I was holding a piece of paper in my hand and as I held it up to look at it I spotted the date and time on my watch: February 29th, 5:00 P.M. I suddenly became aware that the sun was, in fact, setting, and the light was beginning to fail. The piece of paper had a lot of writing on it, but only the words at the top stood out. They formed a name: Norman Viscle. Didn’t spot a surname like that every day. The rest of the words, I believe, were blurred out, but somehow I got the sense of directions or perhaps a number of addresses. As I ran like this, I began to feel two things: first, that I was approaching my destination. Second that I no longer had time to get there before . . . I didn’t know; something bad.

Sure enough, as I sailed around the corner I spotted a man who had apparently just stepped out of one of the doors to the shops and buildings along the street. He stood nearly the length of the entire block away from me, not far from the corner at the next intersection, but suddenly I knew that he was important. He was the key to whatever motivation had brought me here. Even as I watched, he stepped off of the curb, his attention fixed, either on me, or something directly behind me. It didn’t matter what, because whatever it was, it took his concentration off the street he was crossing. He didn’t even see the car that flew around the corner behind him and plowed into him.

Dreams are soundless, but I could easily imagine the tremendous screeching of brakes and squealing of tires that followed. Time slowed down to a tenth of its normal speed. Burnt rubber left angry black streaks in the car’s wake. I could almost hear bones shatter as the car hit the man and his body folded around the shape of the bumper and hood. And then the body was in the air, twisting in unnatural ways, turning over and over and over. It hit the ground loosely some ten feet away, like an odd-shaped, lifeless sack and didn’t move anymore. The car had already stopped and the door opened by the time the body landed. And, predictably (particularly after I had lived through this some dozen times), I woke up.

Dreams are often quite mysterious, usually exceptionally weird, and always nearly incomprehensible in some way or another. Many was the time that I had woken up, often unsure whether to simply chuckle or have myself examined, shaking my head at my latest forays into dream land. This one was no exception. I consider myself to be a levelheaded individual, and I wouldn’t ever let dreams bother me, or so I thought.

This one, however, did.

For two straight weeks I dreamed it. The first time was February 12th, and after nearly a week I realized that this was, in fact, Leap Year. My subconscious might easily have known that and inserted it into the dream, but at the same time, that became just one more unusual fact tugging at the back of my mind. After seeing that rare date approach closer and closer with every night that I dreamed my dream, I . . . wasn’t sure what to think. I became obsessive and preoccupied. I started to lose sleep and become stressed. Slowly, as that fateful day and hour approached, I became more and more convinced that a man would die unless I acted. I don’t believe in fate. I never have. But this . . .

And so I found myself driving down a lonely road somewhere in central Texas at almost 11:00 on Leap-day. The name on the paper had been unusual enough to investigate. There turned out to be only two Norman Viscles listed as living in the United States. Even finding that many surprised me. One lived in Vermont. I knew that, wherever the dream took place, it certainly wasn’t Vermont. Not in February. The other Norman Viscle lived in a small town in Texas. That had to be it. It had to be. If my dream was going to become a reality in just a few days, this would be the place where it happened.

I briefly considered a simple phone call. That idea didn’t last long. “Hello, Mr. Viscle,” I imagined myself saying. “You don’t know me. I’m calling you from Colorado to warn you that you’re going to be run over at 5:00 in the afternoon on Leap-day.” If he managed to trace the call, he’d have me committed or imprisoned. No, if I was serious about this, I would have to go myself. I “arranged” to be called in sick to work for the 29th and went to bed early. I was on the road by 3:00 the next morning. And that was how, eleven hours and two states later, I found myself driving into Abilene with three hours left to find Viscle and save his life.

I pulled out the piece of paper that had his name, phone number, and address written on it. Fortunately, Abilene isn’t huge. I explored most of it before I finally found his house an hour later. I drove down the shady, tree-lined street, wondering what I would say to him face to face. Perhaps I wouldn’t have to say anything. Maybe I would find him at home and make up some excuse for ringing his doorbell. Then I could return to my car and merely keep an eye on him for a few hours. I hoped it would be that simple.

I parked next to the curb right in front of the house. It was a small, yellow, wooden affair, which I suppose was taken care of fairly well . . . considering that its owner was single (an incidental piece of information that turned up in my search for him). There was no car in the driveway, but the door was closed. Not a good sign, not a bad sign. I tried to walk casually up the sidewalk and mostly succeeded. My mind whirred, thinking of something to say as I took the three steps to the porch in a quick double hop and took hold of the handle on the screen door.

I paused there for a second and let my brain take a step back and regard me critically. Was this man standing in Abilene, Texas, with his hand on the handle of a stranger’s screen door, really me? I nearly turned and walked away right there, but I hadn’t come this far to drive back without at least knowing. I pulled the door open. The squeaking and groaning of spring and hinges sounded like a shotgun blast in the heavy silence of the sultry afternoon. This was definitely prime siesta weather. I knocked, and waited. There was movement inside. Slow, shuffling steps approached the door. The knob turned, and the door grudgingly came open with a wrench, loosing little showers of dust all over the porch.

Whatever I may have been expecting of Norman Viscle, I hadn’t expected this. Long, wavy red hair that looked like a cheap dye job, fat bulging out around an apron, mop in one hand, feather duster in the other . . . he was a she? All of this was the first thought that leapt into my head, then reality took over, and so did Viscle’s cleaning lady.

“Norman ain’t here right now.” At least, I think that’s what she said. She spoke around a large wad of chewing gum and through a heavy accent, and most of the speech didn’t really make it out of her mouth. This particular scenario hadn’t occurred to me, for some reason. The thought that he might not be home hadn’t entered my calculations, but I realized that I was lucky that someone was home, at least.

“When will he be back?” I asked, crossing my fingers.

“Five-thirty, maybe six.”

Too late. “Where can I find him?”

“He’ll be getting off of work before long, I reckon.”

“Where does he work?”

“Listen, mister, I don’t believe I know your name. And I sure don’t know whether Norman knows ya. How’s about some I.D. or something?” She obviously enjoyed making the request. Suddenly a boring afternoon had become interesting. I didn’t really have time for her to give me the run-around, so I pulled out my driver’s license.

“Bailey . . . Fitzgerald,” she read haltingly, leaning into the card and squinting. Her eyes flicked suspiciously from the picture up to my face. “That you?”
I nearly rolled my eyes. This was ridiculous. Having Viscle’s cleaning lady play cops and robbers with me was getting old fast. I held my peace and nodded.

“D’you see the picture?”

“Yeah, I saw it. Don’t mean nothin’ though. You can have one o’them printed up fer ya if’n ya know where to go. I knew a feller once that”

“Look, I have important business with Mr. Viscle, and I really need to find him as soon as possible. Could you tell me where he works so I can go?”

Abruptly she seemed to grow tired of the whole thing. “He’ll be down to the Liberty High School, maybe grading papers or getting ready tomorrow’s lesson.”
“Great. Thanks.” I turned on my heel and headed back to my car. About halfway to the street I turned to thank her once more, but she had already retreated to her cleaning and, I had no doubt, soap operas.

The high school wasn’t far - nothing in Abilene is - and I had already seen it on my brief tour of the city. I didn’t have to look far for “him” either. There was his sign, right as I walked in the door: Norman Viscle, Vice-Principal. Fifteen minutes and one more encounter with a gum-chewing female later I emerged, having missed the man by about five minutes.

By now I was growing frustrated and desperate. The secretary knew that he was going to run errands, and no, she didn’t know where and wouldn’t have told me if she had. All of this was communicated in a slow, measured, and surly tone accompanied by a frigid glare. I had wasted precious time to no avail and the woman thought I was a loony and probably some kind of criminal to boot.

At this point I really did not know what I was going to do. It was 3:45 and Viscle was wandering loose and unprotected through town, small comfort to me that my fears were not unfounded after all. I clumped angrily over to the cluster of reserved parking spots to the side and stared at the empty space that had contained Vice-Principal Viscle’s car scant minutes before. I didn’t know what to do and suddenly I just didn’t care. I was a fool and at that moment I was all too painfully aware of it.

I turned to go, aiming a kick at the ground, and suddenly froze. A crumpled piece of paper skittered between my legs, pushed along by a light breeze and I dove for it. It was a list of errands. It didn’t have a name on it, but I knew . . .
I should have already foreseen the events of the next hour as I roared from place to place on the list, missing my quarry every single time. I couldn’t confirm it, but I was certain that I was missing him by a matter of seconds now. He had had a twenty-plus minute head start, but I had to be gaining. Anything else would be inconceivable.

In retrospect I am fully aware that I should have gone directly to the last place on the list and waited. Any thinking person would have done exactly that, but in my state of mind I couldn’t be classified as anything of the sort. I was just so certain at each stop that this one would be the place I found him. At ten to five I walked out of the next to last stop on his list empty-handed. I noticed that I was standing in shade that hadn’t been there when I entered the store . . . The sun was on its way down and I was well on my way to being too late for what, after all of my dreams, felt like the 15th and final time.

I sprinted for my car, started it, and roared out of the parking lot at a very unsafe speed. I could make it; I knew I could make it. And that was when it happened.

The car died. It just . . . died. The needle on the gas gauge was sitting several millimeters below empty. My first instinct was to slump over the steering wheel and start cursing, but I’m not a quitter. The street signs told me that my destination was a mere three blocks away.

I leaped out of the car and I was halfway down the block and picking up speed when a totally overwhelming sense of déjà vu hit me like a flying piano and froze me dead in the middle of the street. This was my dream. I don’t mean that I was dreaming (if only!), I mean that this, this was exactly what I had dreamed. I was running down an empty street. The sun was setting. My watch told me the date and that I had three minutes left. I had a piece of paper in my hand. Everything was falling into place and there was just nothing I could do about any of it.

The sound of the motor brought me back to reality. I only had time for one quick, informative glance to my right before instinct took over. I dashed up to the idling car, dove inside, and peeled out. I had one clear picture of a shocked man framed in the open door of the building, where he had gone in “just for a second.” Nothing was going to stop me now. Norman Viscle would be saved. The clock told me that I had a whole minute to spare! I was going to make it! I was actually going to make it!

Hope flooded through me like a warm mug of hot chocolate downed all at once, and brought with it a sense of relief and euphoria. Nothing would or could stop me. My watch beeped. The clock struck five. I pushed the pedal down farther. I took that last corner in a way that clearly said a life depended on my speed and driving ability.

And Norman Viscle exited the office supply store, stepped off of the sidewalk, and walked right in front of me . . .

Posted by Jared at March 2, 2005 11:59 PM | TrackBack