By Eric R. Ashley
My wife and toddling children wander about yardsale-ing in the early summer morning when the Appalachian heat and mugginess were still held down by the cool of the passing night, while I typed a list of planned renovations for my ninety-year-old house on the just purchased computer in our living room. Antique floors of tongue and groove oak creakily held up the latest piece of plastica electronica on top of a pressed-board desk. The computer sneers at its surroundings, but shuts up after I point out…
“Look so good when you are ninety, you will not.”
Of course, it came with the dominant word processing program, Wyrd which is my regular platform for rants on my blog, games, short stories, and novels. The list kept growing longer as I thought because the “manor” needed much more help. The house is set far back in a hollow in the Southern Appalachian mountains, and when we bought it, unsafe to walk through. Now you do not have to worry about falling through the floor. So the renovations were coming along, but much more remained to be done.
I sat knocking my teeth repeatedly with a pencil as an aid to thought until the doorbell rang startling me. Most of our neighbors do not know we are back here, hidden in the woods, let alone anyone else. My eyebrows rose, and I tried to think of who it could be, as I reluctantly got up from my planning.
A tall man could be seen in vague outline beyond the lace curtains of the antique nine-paned door, but I opened the door without worry. We lived in a safe county, and besides at two-twenty and over six foot, I’m no midget myself. I figured the man was probably a politician seeking my vote for city council or something.
“Hi.” I said and stopped in shock, my thoughts going right and left and then back again without gaining any traction. My self, my very own image, stared back from me, and leaned against the door frame of my house with a weary right arm. Six foot two-ish, blue chambray shirt, a huge duffle bag, black jeans, hiking boots, and pure blonde hair, sun-bleached with dead level eyes looking into mine scattered my wits into a hundred pieces.
“Hi, yourself.” He said in a deep voice without moving. I stared again, and then did the sane thing. Slamming the door shut, and grabbing an aluminum bat stationed behind the door for emergencies, I breathed out a quick prayer for help. Then with a quiver in my left arm, and the bat held high ready for belting in my right, I jerked the door open. Still he had not moved from his erect posture.
The other me looked into my eyes with calm patience.
“I believe hospitality to the saints is recommended.” He said with an exaggerated slowness.
“Even the devil can quote Scripture to his own ends.” I replied wondering if I was facing some sort of spirit on this Wednesday summer morning. It seemed an odd time to have such a visitation, but any time would seem an odd time I guess since I’ve never had one, at least nothing so visible.
“Yeah, but would the devil be so willing to admit he made mistakes? I’ve made plenty.” He shrugged, winced, and I noted that his muscles seemed considerably more developed than mine. Also his face looked more hard-angles, and the large nose had obviously been broken several times. We shared the massive jaw that made us square-jawed, and frightful if we yawned for then a great, gaping chasm opened up.
“Any that you’re bringing with you?” I looked out onto the porch beyond him, as if some stalker with a rifle might be coming up soon.
He grinned with a crookedness.
“No, don’t think so. I left them a long way back.” He paused. “In another universe.”
I nodded, and put down my baseball bat. I did not think he was a doppleganger cursed to kill his original, or a clone, and the only other explanation I could come up with involved multiple timelines and alternate realities.
I backed up to let him enter, and he grinned at my caution. No invitation would be extended to a potential vampire. Not that I believed in vampires or doppelgangers mind you, but five minutes ago, I did not believe in an alternate divergent of myself from some other reality. This was not the time to take wide sweeping actions based on theory which had just proven itself fundamentally flawed.
He stepped in, walking with a oiled grace that reminded me of a ballerina, and not at all like my own lumbering and thudding style of perambulation. Eyes swept over the whole living room, catching details with a swiftness and sureness, and at the same time I saw my place from a different view. It was rough, but comfortable, a working man’s home with signs of love and play tucked with a companionable neatness into the abundant bookshelves.
“Your wife is out, isn’t she?” He asked turning to me with a fixity of attention and focus that caught my attention. It was like looking into my own soul, but more compassionate, and dreadful eyes than mine stared back.
“And the tykes, as well.”
“Tykes.” He said, and there was a vibrant sadness in his voice. Obviously somewhere he had taken speech classes in abundance to have such a trained voice, but what interested me was the visceral pain washing across his face. A keen look he canted my way as I stood by the fireplace.
“Aye, I have a tyke. A fine little girl, and a wife I‘d happily end my days with. But they are very far away, and I don’t know how to get back to them.” Rubbing his face to cover the tears in his eyes that all of my blood are prone to, he raised his face again, and spoke with chill savagery.
“But I will find a way back to them. If I have to beat down the walls of the universe with my fists.”
And there for a second, I was honestly terrified of him. There is a bloody-minded ruthlessness in my soul, but untried and untested. In him, I saw it purified and exalted by pain and blood. If he set his mind to something, it would happen, or his fingers would be sheared off in the effort of holding the grindstone. Not saying anything, to allow him time to recover, and me time to swallow the lump of fear in my throat, I ushered us with a waving hand from the dim living room into the brightly lit dining room, and across it to the kitchenette.
We sat down at the sunny pinewood table bar, and like me, he drank a lot of Coke ®, and filled a chair to its limits. Two big glasses we drained in silence looking at each other in the kitchenette across the kitchen bar, and then we both went for refills.
“I’m not a time traveller. Not some future you.” He spoke at last as I refilled his glass cup, and then mine. Sitting down I nodded quietly.
“I figured. You look just slightly different. Face is altered.”
“Yeah, well some of that’s cybernetics. Changes the shape of the head a bit, and so on.”
“Cybernetics?” I gasped and choked on my Coke ®. “It’s not before breakfast.”
“You can’t believe six impossible things now.” He finished for me. Looking at me, he nodded to himself.
“Why don’t I tell you a story? You can record it if you like. I think it will help you get your mind around who and what I am.”
I nodded knowing that I needed some time to think. A story would help clear the mind.
“It starts about ten universes ago. Not the start of my story, but it’s a good place to begin. You are familiar, of course, with late twentieth century life. That’s where I started. The American Century, growing up half-expecting to see the Sovs take over America, and then watching them fold their cards with hardly a peep is my history and yours as well, I would wager from the newspaper I read over breakfast.”
I nodded in agreement as he slipped off the duffle bag. The floor creaked under its weight.
“I’ll just cover the last ten worlds because I haven’t yet written it up for my diary. So I can engage in some avian monolithic, whatever that joke was, kill two birds with one stone. You know what I mean.” He finished a bit grouchily.
Indeed I did know what he meant. This stranger in my house, already I had a rapport with him that shocked me with its rapidity and depth, but at the same time it made perfect sense, if his story was true. After all he was me. Then he took out the guns out of his duffle bag, and started to professionally clean them, and I wondered about my previous judgment. I like guns on a philosophic level, but personally, I’m a bit scared of them.
He took a sip, and began to tell me what he chose to share of his story.