When I awoke, I was naked and there was a boy asleep in my arms. He was naked too.
Oh my God, I'm going to jail.
I looked down my chest, trying to see the boy's face under his blond hair.
I did not recognize him.
If I pull away, he's gonna wake up and scream his head off.
Looking around, I saw a white stone room with a high domed ceiling. Diffused light slanted down across the bed from two large open spaces. The bed was of some synthetic foam, silky and pliable. A wide archway led out of the room into a corridor, with tree branches and sky visible beyond.
How the Hell did I end up here? I musta been real drunk to-
The boy was awake. Bright eyes the color of a Caribbean seascape were looking up at me from a relaxed face.
"Hi," he said.
"Hi." I tried to sound casual.
"Where are we?" he asked, looking about.
"I don't know. I just woke up myself."
"Oh." He thought for a little bit then asked, "What's the last thing you remember?"
My memory seemed as treacherous as a clouded cliff. I clung to the nearest bit of solidity.
"Washing my car," I said.
He looked thoughtful for a while then said, "I don't remember anything at all."
"There's got to be something," I said, "even if it's just your first day at school?"
"No." He looked alarmed for the first time.
I pulled him closer, looking to calm him, and suddenly became aware of our nakedness all over again. I jumped back, off the bed, my bits jangling. The floor was smooth stone, warm rather than cold. As I gained my balance, I hid my crotch with my hands and looked about for something more practical to cover with.
The room was bare.
"What's wrong with you?" asked the boy.
"Besides the fact that I'm butt naked in a strange place with a ten-year old kid I never met before?"
"Don't be uptight," said the boy.
"Sorry," I said sarcastically, "I guess I'm just not used to being naked in public."
"This nudity thing is really bothering you, isn't it?" He sat up.
"And it isn't bothering you?" I asked.
"I usually sleep naked."
"With strange men?"
"Well, no," he admitted. "Still, I figure we've got more important things to worry about."
"Yeah," I muttered, "like being arrested." I looked up, searching for an escape route, despite the wide open doorway.
"I doubt it," said the boy. "I don't think there's a cop around for a thousand miles."
"What makes you say that?"
He shrugged. "Just a feeling about this place. It's so quiet, like we're the only two people left in the world."
Then he vaulted off the bed, landing like a dancer at my side. I contemplated the idea of living the rest of my life alone with just this boy.
Well, at least he seems like interesting company.
He slapped me on my butt. When I uncovered my front to protect my rear he shook his head and chuckled.
"Weirdo," he said. "C'mon lets go check this place out." He rushed through the archway.
"Wait," I said, teeth clenched as I tried to yell and be quiet at the same time. I followed him with awkward steps, my two hands divided front and back. "We don't know if it's safe."
I eventually found him in an open-ended courtyard, at the edge of shallow pool of clear water cut into the stone. At the far end, the pool became a natural lake, spreading out a fair distance, with large broad-brimmed trees on the far shore.
From what I could see, the building was quite spread out, built into one slope of a valley. It seemed very Mediterranean, with fluted columns, gently curved arcades and date palms all around.
Standing like a sculpture as he took in the view, the boy seemed an innate part of the blending of nature and artistry around me.
"We really are alone," said the boy, blinking at the sun.
"Let's take a look around some more first before we decide that," I said.
We wandered within the complex, avoiding the woods around us even though they did not seem particularly threatening. There were no doors anywhere. The rooms were all large, high and bright. Many had designs etched into the walls and floors. Bulls, lotuses and intersecting wavy lines were the most common.
One wide hall in particular amazed us. There were stairs cut into its side walls which led to a surrounding mezzanine. Through the middle ran a stream, spilling from a gurgling waterfall at one boulder-strewn, tree-filled end and disappearing into a low tunnel at the other. Large pink-streaked fish nonchalantly flitted from rock to rock at the pebbled bottom. A closer look at the upstream wall revealed that it was actually the mountain face.
"Somebody put a lot of work into this place," I said. I immediately regretted breaking the churchlike quiet.
"Yeah," said the boy, "but why?"
By afternoon, we had worked our way in silence to the top of the hill. Beyond, to the north, a featureless prairie rippled to the horizon. East, the valley opened up into a beach lined bay and the sea. A small river led back to the lake which dominated the middle of the valley, feeding off numerous small streams. One such stream tumbled right through the forest-shrouded citadel below us. We could see scattered goats hopping up and down the incline, but they kept away from us. Our hill was actually--like the opposite slope--a spur of a lone snow-topped mountain which peaked at the back end of the valley.
"I see great potential for boredom here," said the boy.
That pulled me away from my wonder at the beauty below.
"Boredom? We got hills, rivers, a lake, an ocean, forests. Not to mention a mysterious deserted mansion."
"But nothing else. And no people. What exactly are we supposed to do here?"
"Find a way to make clothes?" I replied. I still had not found anything to wear.
"In any case," said the boy, "I don't think this place is abandoned."
"You just said yourself there were no people."
"It's not the same thing."
Hunger drove us into the trees soon after. Fruits were everywhere: a mix of familiar fare like peaches and avocado--which squirted vivid flavor at every bite--as well as stranger things--which I avoided. The boy picked something I thought might be a guava and bit into it.
"It's good," he said after chewing a while, and shoved the rest at me.
The word Eden flashed briefly in my mind, and then I accepted it. He was right about the fruit.
"Well, kid, I think whoever brought us here wants us to stay alive. For now, at any rate."
"You're going to have to name me," said the boy, looking serious all of a sudden.
"Okay," I said. "What kinda name you want?"
"Just give me a few that seem to fit and I'll tell you which ones I like."
"Hmm." I watched him over, head to toe. He was slim, but not frail; small, but not weak. He was clearly intelligent, but not overbearing. "Peter," I said.
"I don't feel like a Peter."
"Not a Will, either."
"Peter, Willy, Dick?" He narrowed his eyes. "You're giving me all names of male organs. You're still hung up on being naked aren't you?"
"Oh shit, sorry, kid. I'm not some kinda pervert or nothing. I swear."
"Oh, I know that," he said. "You're just inescapably caught up in the repressed sexual morality that pervades the modern mode of thought."
"Freud explained it all quite well."
I had heard of Freud. "I thought Freud was all weird shit about how boys want to have sex with their mothers?"
"I've got it!" said the boy, ignoring me.
"It's like a 'Dick' or a 'Peter', but bigger and more manly."
"That's the name you want?"
The boy jumped onto a boulder and shouted to the treetops, "Bow to me," he said and then put his hands on his slim hips, swinging his boyhood at the world, "for I am the mighty Johnson!"
I found a sudden fascination in the red berry-like things on the bush next to me and turned away from him.
A bee pestered some of the blossoms then flew off.
We had seen other animals in the forest. Mostly birds, which we could hear calling to each other, but also squirrels, rabbits and even a deer which had scampered off the moment we spied it. Grasshoppers, lizards, butterflies...
No serpents, though.
"Man, I need a whiskey," I said.
"You know," said Johnson, "you never told me your name."
It was like an axe blow to the head.
I don't know who I am.
Amazing. I had spent all day thinking of myself as guardian to the amnesiac boy and my thoughts had never strayed to the problem of my own memory.
"You don't know either, do you?" asked Johnson.
"Great! We can call you Wang."
"No! You're not calling me Wang."
"You're not a racist, are you?" he asked.
"No. You can call me Lee or Chang or any other Chinese name that isn't another word for cock."
"I swear," I said, retreating to my honor.
Which is how I came to be known as Hung.
We ate a hurried dinner at nightfall and took to the citadel, wary of what darkness would bring to the forest. There had been time for a brief look around the woods, but we found nothing except wildlife. Johnson made sure to bring back extra fruit for breakfast. I was able to grab some banana leaves, so I had a makeshift skirt by the time Johnson and I were back in our room--the only one with a bed. He, however, refused to be restricted by 'itchy leaves'.
The last thing Johnson said to me as we fell asleep was, "Tomorrow, we'll make fire."
Gathering dry wood from beneath the trees was simple. Igniting the pile proved a bit harder. We had stacked them in a cone in the middle of one courtyard which had a central pit that seemed custom-made for barbecue. Johnson carried heavy bundles for such a small kid.
For half an hour, I scratched a pointed stick up and down a groove we had carved with stones in a small log. The only result was a sore arm.
"I don't see why you're so set on this fire," I said to Johnson. "We got all the food we could ever want."
"Fire is always useful," he said, not offering to take a try. "Suppose we need to drive off a lion or something?"
That earned my vote. I bent to it again and sometime in the afternoon smoke curled, flames grew, and we soon had a blaze.
"Alright, Hung!" shouted the boy and he punched me in the arm. He danced and leapt round the fire, whooping and shouting, his lithe form silhouetted against the flames. His fourth time around, he grabbed my hand and pulled me with him. Even though my memories were fractured, I knew the sense of accomplishment that filled me watching those climbing flames was greater than I had felt in a long time.
Almost before we had realized it, however, our pet fire had burnt itself out in a flurry of crackling and left nothing but a few charred sticks behind.
"Does this mean I have to start from scratch every time?" I asked in frustration. Keeping one constant fire going seemed impractical.
"Don't worry," said Johnson, patting my shoulder, "you'll get better at it."
On the morning of the third day, we found a Japanese samurai helmet. At least, that's what Johnson claimed it was. The thing was full of angles and had polished horns on the front. The boy made me dig a great big hole in the ground where it had been lying, but we found nothing else. By afternoon the thing had disappeared from our bedroom and neither of us could imagine how.
Lying in the grass of a small slope on the fourth night, we lost count of the shooting stars, there were so many.
"How did you know about Freud?" I asked Johnson.
"What do you mean?"
"Well, when we met, you talked about Freud. And you told me you were eleven and that you always slept naked. There's lots of things you know like that, but you still say you don't remember anything. It doesn't fit."
"There's a difference between knowing something and remembering something," said Johnson. "For instance, I don't remember what city I lived in, but I know what a city is. I don't remember what my father looks like or what car he drives, but I know I have a father and that he drives a car."
Someone's managed to erase his past without damaging his personality. What kind of game are they playing with us?
"Is your memory as messed up as mine?" Johnson asked.
"Probably," I said. "I get flashes sometimes--faces and pieces of songs and things like that--but I don't remember details about myself, like what job I had. But I know my favorite color is red."
Out of the corner of my eye I caught sight of what looked like a metallic dog walking in some bushes. When I looked over there carefully, I saw nothing.
By day five I was thoroughly frustrated with having nothing to do. It was not quite the boredom Johnson had predicted. The valley was fascinating, but the thrill of exploring the beach and forest faded against the inability to understand what we were doing there and not having any way to investigate. It began to gnaw constantly at me. This was no vacation, where I could disengage my mind for a few weeks, secure in the knowledge that real life waited beyond.
I sat on a rock, pitching stones into a stream. Just at that moment Johnson was off by himself on some project that had caught his imagination. He had informed me that I would be in the way.
The boy was the best thing about the place. He was a constant source of diversion and activity. I was sure I would be well on the way to insanity without his laughter and stimulation.
It occurred to me that in a typical deserted isle scenario, I would be too busy surviving to have these thoughts. But I had no worry about food, safety, shelter or weather. The rain only fell in short pleasant showers and the temperature never dropped, even at night.
The valley was murdering my spirit with its benevolence.
Am I being ungrateful?
There seemed to be no way out, either. There was the sea to the east and endless plains on the other three sides.
Just then, the boy slipped out of the trees downstream from me and stole along the bank. He was swaddled in banana leaves, like oversized armor on his slim form, and he carried a gnarled spear with a fresh white point.
I could not see what he was stalking, but he evidently had a clear sight on his prey, for he soon grunted and tossed the spear into the bushes.
A cry of frustration: he had missed.
He caught sight of me and wandered over after recovering his weapon.
We stood in silence for a while then he said, "You don't thing I should be doing this."
"I don't know, kid," I said. "It's just that there seems to be something blasphemous about hunting in this place. Like-"
"Look, I'm not about to turn vegetarian just because the animals are mystically cute. I'm hungry and I like meat."
We had meat on the seventh day--a rabbit. Johnson had speared it in the flank and then brained it with a large rock. (It was my idea of a fire-hardened spear-tip that had made the kill possible. Johnson had been shocked when it was I who suggested it, being used as he was to his status as the brains of the outfit.)
I skinned the varmint with a sharp flat stone, cleaned it, and cooked it on a spit over my fire.
Even without salt, the first bite was divine, but Johnson was already chattering on about evaporating off sea water from shallow trays.
On the ninth day I yelled at him for the first time.
It had become his practice to rip my skirt off on occasion and run around with it like a trophy. Johnson still wore nothing himself. (His banana leaf armor was only for protection and camouflage when hunting).
He came upon me while I was tying a package of meat in banana leaves with vines. I was wearing my latest reinforced loin wrap (in truth modeled on Johnson's hunting gear), which he promptly tugged at, tearing it.
"Goddammit, you little shit!" I inspected the damage. "Why don't you go play with your fucking stick somewhere and leave me alone? I need this thing to walk across those plains out there."
"I can't take this place no more, kid. I can't wait for whoever put us here to decide what they want from us and I sure as hell can't putter around with my brain in neutral while they do."
"You were just gonna go off without me?"
It was the first time I had seen him hurt.
"It's safer if you stay here and I didn't know how to tell you-"
His eyes went from wet bewilderment to clear-eyed anger in an instant.
"Fuck you," he said. "The only chance we've got is to stick together. You want to go explore? Fine, but we've got to do it together."
"You think I like this place either? You think this is fun and games and nothing else for me? 'Yippee, no school!?' You think that's it? All I can think about is that I don't know who I am and where I'm supposed to be--where my place is. It's all I can do to keep busy so's my brain doesn't short circuit thinking about it."
"I'm sorry, Johns-"
"Don't call me that! That's not my name."
"You're just a dumb piece of shit. Get lost. Leave me alone."
There was no way I could catch him. He knew the rooftops too well.
I slept alone in the bedroom and left at dawn the next day, without seeing Johnson.
Two days out, the twelfth since we had arrived, I turned back from the plains. I did not need to. There was enough in the way of berry bushes and small game and hidden streams for me to live on. The weather stayed clear, too.
There was no end to the waist high grass. The mountain had lost half its height behind me, but there was nothing else on the horizon. Still, it was not that empty skyline that made me halt.
I missed the boy. Wherever I was, I knew I'd rather have him next to me. He was the only friend I had. What kind of sense did it make to leave him?
And how lonely must he be back there?
I walked back into the citadel on the fourteenth day. There was a flat clay bowl of salt and a rack with strips of dried meat, but no sign of Johnson himself.
I went to bed and did not sleep at all.
On the sixteenth day, Johnson walked up to my campfire as if we had never parted and sat down on his haunches.
"So what'd you find?" he asked, taking a bit of goat meat off the fire.
"Nothing," I said, unable to meet his face. "A whole lot of nothing."
"I watched you kill the goat yesterday."
"You got him in the end, but you're the klutziest hunter I've ever seen."
He was flashing the usual Johnson grin, but his eyes seemed aged, darker on the inside.
"Johnson..." I walked over to him and knelt.
"I made out pretty okay while you were off," he said, pretending I was not right next to him. "I couldn't get a fire going, but I didn't need it for anything so that wasn't a prob-"
I took his hands. He froze, looking at the fire.
"I wish I'd never left," I told him. "You were right about everything."
I tried to hold him and he backed away.
"I was a total dickhead to leave you like that. I'm sorry."
Again he resisted my hug.
"I'm never leaving you again."
"You're lying," he said, his voice scary in its flatness.
"I'm not." I pulled him to me.
"You're lying," he cried, as he lost the fight to push me away.
"I'm not." I hugged him, his tears burning my chest. "I'm not never leaving you again."
He wept against me while I stroked his hair.
Eighteen days after we arrived, I tripped on a broomstick. It was not buried in the ground or anything--just lying there on the grass. It was obviously used, but not old. Johnson and I puzzled over it for a while and then the thing vanished silently right before us.
Things popping up like that had become a regular occurrence in the valley. One day, a door painted cherry red; another day, a marble statue of a cyclops with a trident; next, some kind of heavy plastic brick with writing across its top that said, "The Pride of Africa: Hyperpower Tyranny since the Fall of the West - Fareed Santiago". The most spectacular object to pass through was a mud-splattered battle tank with Chinese insignia. I had to physically restrain Johnson from trying to get inside to the fire controls. I did not want the machine to disappear with the boy still in it.
On the nineteenth day we built a raft for the lake. It was crude--small logs lashed together with strong vines. I wanted to use poles to push it along. Johnson wanted a sail. When it became obvious that the lake was too deep for poles, we killed three goats and strung their patched-together hides on a triangular mast. Their meat we stripped and salted for later. It occurred to me then that I could make goatskin clothes, but I had become so comfortable with my nakedness that I did not bother.
The next morning, we launched. We had no idea how to handle the craft and the wind soon punished us for our ignorance, pointing us straight at an outcropping of hostile rocks. Luckily, I still had my pole and I was able to stave off disaster.
Near the western shore (which we could easily have walked to from the citadel if we had wanted to do things the easy way), I anchored the raft with the pole. Johnson shoved me overboard from behind, before jumping after me with a laugh. He took my hand and led me in the sweet meditation of lying on the lake bottom as we held our breaths and drifted.
Later, when we were sitting on the raft, tired, I stared east across the water, out beyond the lake.
Johnson said, "I can't believe you."
"You're wondering if you could use this raft to cross the sea."
"No I wasn't."
But I was.
Art proved to be my refuge.
Johnson was piling small, river-smoothed boulders in some strange pattern on the twenty- first day. Knowing his practical bent, I asked him what he was building.
"Nothing," he replied. "Just gonna make a statue."
"What you're doing there doesn't look like a man."
"Well, I'm not making a statue of a man so much as the idea of a man."
I wandered off indoors while I puzzled that statement out. I had resisted asking for clarification, not wanting to appear dumb in front of the boy.
Not a man, but the idea of a man.
I stared at a blank white wall. Such emptiness usually inspired a sense of anticipation and potency in me. This time, it made me angry. It mocked me.
I stomped off at once, grabbed an armful of leaves and returned with savage intent. Each swipe of each leaf left a wet stain on the stone. Seven times I re-armed myself from the forest and continued my assault.
What I achieved was debatable. Covered in green scratches, the whiteness seemed caged, rather than destroyed. Still, it was enough to give me peace.
From that day I 'painted' walls. Sometimes, a floor. (Johnson kept making vague comments about Michelangelo ignoring the ceilings of his chapels, but explaining that I could not reach the ceilings only made him giggle.) Each new project calmed me more. Soon, I was no longer fighting the blankness, but working with it to extract some kind of harmony.
I needed more than green. On the twenty-sixth day, Johnson suggested making paint. He helped me pulverize rocks and blend the powder with different types of clay and pigments from flowers, fruits and even sap.
I scooped out watermelon halves for mixing bowls.
Johnson picked one up, decided it would make a wonderful helmet and proceeded to crash onto walls, trees and even me, wearing it down over his eyes.
"Idiot," I said, as I grabbed it off him. "Why don't you make yourself useful and get me some more melons?"
He returned after a long while. I just stared at him in disbelief. Johnson had split a melon lengthwise, cleaned out one half, cut two holes for his legs and was wearing the thing like underwear, held up by vine suspenders.
"Whatd'you think, Hung?" he asked, twirling so I could see properly.
I did not know what to think.
I had made progress with the paint mixing by the next day. Johnson helped quite a bit with suggestion of what combinations would be useful. Round about lunchtime, he disappeared for a while. When he returned, he was wearing watermelon briefs again. (He had thrown the first one away after just an hour the day before, saying that it chafed his legs.)
Something in his devious grin made me look closer.
"Are you insane?" I asked, in shock.
He had not bothered to scoop the melon half this time before forcing himself into it.
"This is amazing," he said. "It feels all squooshy and wet. You should try it."
"I'd rather wear a bear trap on my balls."
I spent the twenty-eighth day trying out my new paints on an inside wall. When I took a break to eat, I found Johnson by a stream. He had dammed it with rocks and mud, flooding the course into a long pool.
"What is the point of this?" I asked.
"Why does it need to have a point?"
"You just felt like blocking up the river?"
"Yeah," he shrugged. "You don't approve?"
"It's just that it seems like mankind can't leave well enough alone. You know, kidnapping and memory stealing aside, we've a perfect setup here and yet you have this urge to go fiddling with it."
"I agree with you." Johnson surveyed his project. "I think Man is inherently unsatisfied with the world. Whether this means he's damaging nature, I don't know. What I do know is that as long as it's fun I'm gonna keep doing it."
On day twenty nine, Johnson wove vines crosswise and ended up with a creditable imitation of a hammock which he hung between two date palms and which promptly shredded when he sat in it.
He built a new one over the next three days. It held his weight this time, but failed when I took a turn in it.
Johnson did not attempt a new one. He kept weaving, but only to make hunting nets. He wanted to capture one of the wily mountain goats alive for a pet.
When he told me this he made sure to add, "And don't give me none of your wishy-washy jive about how this is another symptom of me wanting to control nature to its detriment."
I said nothing.
The nets proved no match for furious goats.
I cleaned his cuts with warm water and told him, "I guess nature can take care of itself."
We discovered the hidden room on the thirty-third day. I was helping Johnson place boulders for a precarious sculpture he was composing in the main hall.
"It's gonna topple, if I put this there," I yelled from the mezzanine, where I was lowering rocks.
"The balance will hold," he replied from the main floor. "I know the center of gravity."
"And I'm telling you it's lopsided."
"Just put the rock down, Hung."
The whole structure leaned under the added weight and then crashed down. I ran down the stairs to make sure Johnson was alright. He was. I said, "Center of gravity expert, huh?"
"Oh shut up," he said. "It would have been perfectly okay if you'd lowered it carefully instead of dropping it like a sack of-"
That was when we realized we had knocked in the wall. There was a room inside. With pictures.
"Holy crap," said Johnson when we entered.
The left wall showed a picture of Johnson's face, looking terrified and with a scream on his lips. The middle wall was a red Ford Mustang convertible that seemed to be careening down a city street. And on the third wall was me. I had half-dazed, half-murderous eyes.
"Any of this seem familiar to you?" I asked.
"No, but I'm starting to get the impression someone doesn't like us too much."
The picture surface was smoother than glass and would not hold paint. We ended up cannibalizing Johnson's sculpture and sealing the chamber off.
By about the thirty-ninth day, life had settled. We could not shake the uncertainty of our existence or the images of the secret room, but they settled into the background.
When night fell, we sat together on the lake bank or the bay, or on a balcony and watched an endless maze of meteors criss-cross the sky.
We tried not to dwell on the fact that there had been no moon in all our time there and that we recognized no constellations.
We hunted, cooked, and found entertainment in each other's little projects.
We were satisfied that the valley itself was safe. In the house, we always slept in the bedroom, but more and more often we ended up on some soft spot outside, in the open air.
Sometime about the forty-fifth day, I painted the sunrise on the bay, only the sea was black, the emergent sun was blue and the rays were petal-like pastels.
"Hmm," Johnson grunted, walking through the room. "Well, that's something new."
I was relieved when he was gone without further comment, knowing what a harsh critic he could be. Then his head popped back in for an instant.
"I think you're on to something, though."
I felt as if I could walk on the treetops.
Fifty days or so after our arrival, we contemplated suicide. Not that we were despondent. Far from it. We were sitting atop the hill, looking out from the valley at the grass sea rolling in the evening air. A feeling of peace enveloped us.
"You think anything could hurt us?" Johnson wondered.
"Well that mama goat roughed you up pretty good, if I remember correctly." I ruffled his always neat hair.
"No." He brushed my hand away with his usual annoyance. "I mean really hurt us."
"You're thinking that since they obviously took a lot of trouble keeping us alive here then maybe they'd protect us from getting damaged?"
"Suppose we're in some kind of alien zoo and they're letting us run around, but not do anything really dangerous?"
"And if we did get sick or something, they'd take us to the vet?" I half joked.
"Suppose I just jumped off a cliff?" Johnson asked.
"Would they catch you, you mean?"
"Yeah, something like that. I bet that'd bring them crawling out from whatever rock they're hiding under."
"I could set you on fire..."
Not a man, but the idea of a man.
Dread gripped me as I rocked upright from sleep.
Please, no. I couldn't bear it.
I looked at Johnson, asleep next to me. Almost afraid he would evaporate at my touch, I brushed his hair away from his brow.
Not a boy, but the idea of a boy.
All this time--more than two months in the valley together. Could he be just another cog of this world I was trapped in? He had chosen to stay in the valley when I left. Suppose he was just a part of it? I remembered how that first day he had seemed so at home here. Also, his memory loss was so much more complete than mine. His knowledge was like something programmed, not learned.
Of course, none of that actually meant anything.
The next day, I decided not to mention my fears to Johnson. How would I start? 'Listen kid, you're not really here. You're just a terribly good robot or a hallucination I'm having- '
Maybe I should tell him. He'd kick me in the shins and set me right.
I was alone in the main hall, throwing paint in frustration at the picture room wall when our captors finally showed up. They were tall and shapeless under hooded purple and white robes. Their faces glowed with a harsh paleness.
"Mitchell Ross," called the one on the right as I turned to face them.
I replied without thinking. "My name is Hung, there's no Mitch-"
"We are here for the execution of your sentence," said the other one.
"Who the Hell are you two?" said Johnson from door.
The boy was covered in blue and black paint--body art was his latest project.
"We are the Architects of Judgment."
"Whose judgment?" Johnson asked, walking to my side.
"Judgment knows no master," said Architect number one.
"You the ones that brought us here?" I asked.
"We are the arbiters of your case, yes." Architect number two this time.
"What is all this about?"
Johnson held my hand. I could feel him stiffen with anger.
Number One produced a tapered metal rod from his robe and waved it at the broken wall.
A city of crowded skyscrapers shimmered to life. It did not seem like an image on the wall, but rather as if the wall had fallen out of existence and we were looking on the city itself through a portal.
"This is your world. New York, in the time you call Nineteen Sixty-five. It is the beginning of the fall of man."
Johnson and I looked at each other and shrugged. None of this seemed familiar.
"It is here," continued Number One, "that the bonds of society begin to break. People become anonymous faces and the single most important asset of humanity is lost: the ability to feel for each other."
"So, this valley we're in now is the future?" I asked.
"No. We are outside of time. Here past and future have no meaning. It is the duty of the Architects to observe the stream and correct the flow for the cause of justice."
"What's that got to do with me?" I asked.
"You are the product of your age," said Number Two. "A substance abuser, lost in your loneliness, unable to connect in a world where you are ungrounded. Moments after the instant from whence we took you, you will drunkenly pilot your conveyance into a wall."
In the view window Johnson and I watched a red convertible fly through an intersection, swerve from a garbage truck and slam into the side of a building, pinning a small familiar shape there.
"The casualty is Trent Halley," Number One said.
There was no mistaking the boy coughing blood unto his chest as he died in agony. It was Johnson. I let go of his hand, but he held onto mine.
"After the death," Number Two said to me, "you will feel little in the way of real remorse. The child was a stranger, after all. An unknown. His death will have no meaning to you."
"So you've brought us here to save me?" asked Johnson.
Trent. The dead boy's name is Trent, not Johnson.
"Preventing your death is not our business."
"What?" I said. "Then what's the point of all this?"
"We do not interfere in the physical events of the stream. They are set. We simply bring justice to those who do evil."
"You're gonna go punish everyone who ever did anything bad?" I asked. "That'll take you forever."
"Time holds no limits for us."
Johnson spoke. "If you're not planning to save me, then why kidnap us?"
Number Two said, "We have arranged for you both to experience this environment co- temporally. The hindrance of your past and the trappings of society were removed to allow deeper interaction. Now that Mitchell Ross has bonded with his victim, his remorse shall be sharper and more fitting. His own feelings will-"
"'has bonded'?" I yelled. "You piece of shit. What kind of dry, soulless talk is that? I love him. And now you're telling me that you're going to put me right back into life to lose him?
"Yes," said Number Two. "Justice will be served."
Johnson ran to the second Architect and hugged him, his hands lost in the folds of the robe. "Please, Mister," he said, "don't kill me. Please."
The Architect pushed the clinging boy away. I could not blame the Johnson for his desperation. He was going to a certain, awful death.
"You are mistaken, child," said Architect Number Two. We are not the cause of your death. You should thank us, for we shall exact justice for your-"
"Hung," Johnson yelled, turning to me, "they're lying! It's all a load-"
Number One flicked his controller at Johnson and the boy simply vanished.
"What have you done with him, you-"
Then he pointed the metal rod at me and everything went white.
A sensation of mad speed.
Heavy eyes. Heavy hands.
Hard leather under my grip.
No! Red car. 1964 Ford Mustang.
I had no control of my body.
Got to remember. The switch back has messed up my mind- No. I do remember.
I remembered everything with sunlit clarity--The Architects, the boy, the valley and, of course, the impending smash-up. My thoughts were drowning in an alcohol haze, however.
It's not the switching back. It's this body. I'm drunk and I can't control what I'm doing.
My hands refused to move. The world seemed to lumber by in my heightened awareness.
I was going to slam into a boy at eighty miles per hour. The garbage truck eased into my slow motion vision.
Already I was making the instinctive turn away from the truck.
You turn, he dies.
The urge for self-preservation was too strong. I kept the car turning away from the truck. And towards the boy.
You turn, he dies!
The garbage truck was almost all I could see now.
The Architects, I knew, would have given me no time to change history. But all I needed was a piece of the truck. I had to hope that they underestimated me. That I had more time than they figured. One inch of contact with the truck and the equation would change.
Donít turn! Don't turn!
My hands eased on the wheel, my booze-soaked nerves finally getting through to my muscles. The turn went slack. I got my inch.
Will that be enough?
The car leapt the sidewalk. I caught a flash of Johnson's horrified face and then I plowed into the brick wall and catapulted through the windscreen.
The doctors told me the scars were unavoidable.
"There's good work being done in cosmetic surgery, though," Doctor Howard told me before I left Baptist Medical Center. "It'll be expensive, but you should look into it."
I watched the reflected web work of fine red lines in a candy store window.
Six days since I limped out of the hospital on my cane.
Trent tugged on my arm. "Come on, Pretty Boy," he said, dragging me through the door. "You can admire your face later."
Eighteen days since the miracle.
I'm buying chocolate ice-cream for a boy who should be dead.
Trent had only a bruised face. He had spent two days unconscious, but showed no effects from it. I watched him licking his lips as the clerk piled toppings on his cone. He wore glasses here in the real world. Horrid, horn-rimmed goggles, really. They hid the intelligence of his eyes.
This was our first outing since the accident. His parents had already come to accept our curious friendship. They figured it was due to the ties of shared trauma.
We walked into Central Park, taking a quiet lane. Ice-cream never tasted so good.
"Got all your memories now?" the boy asked.
"Yeah. From the valley and from before too."
"Me too. I'm even used to being called Trent instead of Johnson." He took a swipe at his ice-cream. "Actually I like it. Feels good to be me again."
"I know what you mean." I reached over and wiped a dribble of milky brown from his chin. "Well, mostly."
"What do you mean? You don't like realizing you're a mechanic?"
I laughed. "No, not that," I told him. "I love cars. I wouldn't want to do anything else."
"That's what Dad says too." Trent's father owned his own garage. "So what's the problem?" he asked.
The problem is I want a drink so bad I could guzzle a bottle of aftershave right now.
I slurped hard at the ice-cream.
"There's no problem," I said. "It's just that things in my life need sorting out."
Trent nodded. He knew exactly what I meant. He had heard his mother refer to me as the 'pinheaded, shit-brained, drunken slob' that had nearly killed her darling son the first time he had asked to visit me in the hospital.
"You'll make it," said Trent pushing up his glasses. "I don't think you'll have a problem staying off- Oh shit!"
The Architects were standing before us.
Number One and Number Two: Piss and Shit.
We had wandered into a wooded area and there was no one else in sight.
"What do you two jokers want?" I hid Trent behind me. "Pissed off that I escaped your justice?"
Number two grunted. "That you changed your fate is irrelevant. It simply means that since you have committed no crime, we now have no interest in punishing you."
"Then what do you want with us?" asked Trent.
I pushed him further back. "Shhh."
"We are here for what you have stolen from us," said Number One.
"I thought you didn't interfere in physical events of the timestream," I mocked him.
"They lied," said Trent. "That's what I was telling you back before they zapped me. When I grabbed their controller it explained the whole thing to me."
"When did you get your hands on their controller?" I asked.
"When I pretended to beg for my life. I felt around in the guy's robe and he had a control stick too. It works telepathically and it talked to me. They didn't even have a security check or anything for it."
"That," said Number Two, "shall be rectified as soon as we have it again."
"You mean you still have it?" I asked Trent, amazed at the kid's moxie.
"I ordered it to send itself to me in our time. I figured I could use it to save myself, but you crashed the car before I could do anything with it."
"We could not locate it at first," said Number One, "given that it exists, like us, outside of time. But now that we have you both before us, in a location where you cannot summon aid, we demand the return of our property." He leveled his own techno-wand at us, the tip glowing. "Where is it?"
"Right here," said Trent, pulling a metal cylinder from his pocket. He flicked it and it telescoped into the smooth needle of the time controller.
"Keep this for me, Mitch," said Trent, handing me his ice-cream.
Holding the silver rod in both hands like an offering, he walked over to Architect Number One, who had lowered his weapon with a smug smile. There was a little flicker as Trent cocked his foot back and then he punted the man right where his balls would be.
"Aaaargh!" The purple-robed figure doubled over.
No security there either. Figures.
The controller fell from Number One's grip. Number Two dived for it, but I flicked it away with my cane and he sprawled on the ground, grasping at grass. I let Trent pull me aside and he pointed the controller at the Architects. They vanished.
I was still holding Trent's ice-cream. He took it from me.
"Thanks," he said.
I picked up the other metal rod and found it easy to control. I folded it up and dropped it in my pocket. As we left the woods, I said, "You know, kid, those future world yahoos almost certainly saved your life and they definitely saved my soul and on top of that they're the reason we're here eating ice-cream together."
"Yeah," said Trent, "but they're still a couple of meddling pricks on a power trip."
"Where did you send them?"
"They're gonna be administering justice to velociraptors for a while."
We walked on. I looked over at Trent. He finished the last of his cone like a wolf cub with his first piece of meat.
Should I ask him?
'Well, why not?' I reasoned. After all, this boy and I had spent half a lifetime with each other on another world. Together, we had defeated cosmic super-beings and even death.
"What's a velociraptor?" I asked.
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