By Michael Fowler
Wheatley caught his first glimpse of the family as he finished mucking out his goat barn. The four of them, all wearing red hoodies, were slowly treading down the narrow road, really a paved path, that ran past his barn and slightly downhill to the nearest house, the unoccupied Miles place. Instead of going straight back home to get out of his overalls and filthy boots and clean up, he tramped over the short distance to the road to say hello.
“Hey there folks,” he called out from behind the split-rail fence that kept his animals from panicking the sparse traffic. From where he stood the family was no more than ten yards distant. “Didn’t expect to run into anyone out here except goats. Nice day, wouldn’t you agree?”
At the first sound of an interloper, the four halted as one unit and turned to stare at him. The tallest and largest of them, the patriarch Wheatley presumed, tapped an extremely hairy finger on a circular device he wore on his wrist like a watch, though keeping time could hardly have been its primary function. In contact with the man’s hirsute finger, the dial turned from black to a rotating disc of rainbow colors, or so it appeared to Wheatley, and emitted a voice too rapid and soft for him to understand. The tapper continued to stare dead on at him, as did the other three, who by their sizes were likely the matriarch and two teenage children.
Suddenly the tall stranger opened wide his circular mouth, revealing a red cavity without lips, tongue or teeth, and emitted a sound like a tire spinning in gravel. At once the peculiar fellow shook his head as if to nullify that emission, tinkered anew with the wristwatch-like instrument, studied its face, and tried once more.
“Howdy neighbor,” he said, though the words sounded shaky and choppy like a satellite broadcast breaking up.
One of the two children now got in on the act, opening his or her cavern of a mouth and emitting a sound like polar ice cracking.
The father erupted explosively, sounding now like drum kits falling down stairs, and the youngster fell silent.
“I’m Wheatley,” said Wheatley, glancing around to see if anyone else was in on this. He saw no one. “My wife Mary is up a ways at the house.” He pointed toward his home, a modest old farmhouse miniaturized by distance squatting in a vast field of tame goats and wild blueberry bushes.
“We are…here now,” the man said. He shook his head as if to correct himself, and tried again. “I am Luke,” he announced. He indicated the other adult and said, “This is Kate.” Pointing to the kids he added, “This is Little Luke and this is Hassie.”
“Uh huh,” said Wheatley, to whom the smell of a rat was suddenly overpowering. “And I’m Deputy Fife. Are you new to the area?
“Yes,” said Luke.
“Did you come from a long way off?”
“Will you be staying at the Miles place?”
“Staying for a while?”
At length Wheatley decided that, unlike most of the people who resided in the area’s old farmhouses, they weren’t farmers or livestock keepers, and not commuters either, He made a guess. “Are you schoolteachers?” he asked. The Mileses, man and wife, had both taught at the local junior high not far down the road.
“Yes,” said Luke, but again shook his head in denial and corrected himself. “We are speech therapists.”
“And Buckeye fans?” Wheatley once more hazarded, basing his conjecture on the red hoodies.
“Will the two young ones attend the school? We have two grandkids there, Libby fourteen and Bobby fifteen.”
“I’m sure they’ll all become fast friends.”
“Yes. Will you please take me to Home Depot now?”
“First tell me you like homemade blueberry cobbler,” said Wheatley. “When my wife hears there’s a new family come to live in the Miles place, she’ll be calling with some. And don’t you worry, it’s delicious.”
Wheatley picked Luke up at the Miles place in his wife’s old car, a pickup, rather than his own finer SUV, in case his passenger became savage along the way. The other family members remained indoors, adjusting to their new quarters, he imagined. Luke still wore his red hoodie and the odd wristwatch. He had also tied a white shopping apron with a capacious front pocket around his waist. Clearly, he planned to load up at the Depot.
After he figured out how to fold himself into the passenger seat of the car, Luke leaned over and passed the back of his wrist over the entirety of Wheatley’s seated form, as if conducting an airline body scan by means of his watch. That accomplished, he focused on Wheatley’s throat, and whenever Wheatley spoke pressed the face of the watch to his bobbing Adam’s apple. Wheatley wished he wouldn’t do that, but took it like a good neighbor. As a speech therapist, the fellow was probably monitoring his vocal patterns. Perhaps later he would give Wheatley some pointers on articulation, with useful instruction on fricatives and glottal stops.
“Re-lax,” said Luke in a friendly way, perhaps noticing Wheatley’s discomfort. “My multi-way wrist-visitor won’t harm you.”
“So, you have some home repair in mind?” Wheatley got around to asking, while wishing the multi-way whatever would simply disappear. The trip to Home Depot from their neck of the woods was about five miles. They’d be there in twenty minutes.
“Well now,” said Wheatley, “no one’s set foot in that house that I know of for going on six months. Probably several hatches in there need battening.”
“Fixing up your car then?” asked Wheatley. “They got some good automotive tool sets at Home Depot. You know, I didn’t see your car when you arrived. Hope it’s not stalled out on a back road somewhere. The Miles kept theirs in their barn. Yours in the barn?”
“You were on foot when I first saw you,” said Wheatley. “But I’m sure you didn’t walk all the way from where you came from. Someone drop you off?”
To Wheatley’s immense relief, Luke now lowered his hand and the multi-way wrist-visitor stopped chafing his throat. Luke had evidently concluded his reading.
“If you don’t mind my asking, Luke,” said Wheatley, feeling more confident now, “where’d you come from and how’d you get here?”
“Our home is a whitewashed cabin in the pines, with a stone chimney smoking on the roof. We have traveled a long trail of sorrow,” said Luke.
“I realize you take me for an incorrigible hick,” said Wheatley, “but I don’t play the banjo or eat squirrel and I’m serious.”
“A solar system in the Tan Cheek Galaxy, roughly six light years from here. We took a wrong turn in the tunnel.”
“The tunnel?” asked Wheatley. “And what were you driving in the tunnel?”
“There is no vehicle,” said Luke. “The tunnel is a projection through the space-time continuum. You point it where you want to go and arrive there in seconds. You use a navigator to dial one up, like this one.”
Luke took from his apron pocket a wallet-size black box with a minute steering wheel affixed to the top and held it out for viewing. Wheatley was glad he didn’t touch it to his flesh this time. “Ours is now in disrepair, or we should have returned home already. Like an idiot, I made the mistake of letting Little Luke drive. He not only steered us here by accident, he broke the damn thing. We were headed to…oh, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that the tunnel is offline now.”
“Well, if you want my advice,” said Wheatley after due consideration, “Home Depot doesn’t stock much in the way of precision navigational items. We should try Radio Shack. We have one out here that hasn’t closed down yet, and it’s just a bit farther along.”
After Wheatley pulled into a parking spot outside Radio Shack, Luke turned to him and said, “I would like to borrow money now. Several twenties should do.”
“I’m low on cash, take my credit card,” said Wheatley in a friendly rural way. He handed the card over. “Just don’t let them sell you an entertainment center.”
Before he got out of the car, Luke held the multi-way wrist-visitor up to Wheatley and this time shot him in the face with it. An intense flash from the device, as if from an old-time camera, momentarily blinded him. After blinking, Wheatley found that he was painlessly and even pleasantly paralyzed.
“Won’t be a minute,” said Luke, and left carrying the broken navigator, its little steering wheel wobbling.
When he returned in under ten minutes, Wheatley sat behind the wheel enjoying an ice cream cone, his paralysis having quickly worn off.
“Care for one?” asked Wheatley, and pointed the now diminished cone at Luke, mimicking the way that Luke had aimed his device at him. “Pity I can’t shoot you with this. Did you think I was going to run off?”
“Pardon me, I have anxieties,” said Luke, and handed Wheatley his credit card and the purchase receipt.
“Twenty-six dollars,” said Wheatley, staring at the slip of paper. He gave a low whistle. “I hope it was well spent.”
“It was,” said Luke, patting the small bulge in his shopping apron. “The clerk tried to overcharge me though. My proximity to the card reader registered a false transaction of nearly a thousand dollars. But I had this nullified, as you can see on the receipt.”
“That was the entertainment center he wanted you to buy. Glad you caught it. Put your seat belt on and let’s get out of here.”
“Seat belt?” asked Luke.
“I forgot to mention it to you before. You have to wear a seat belt in this state.”
As they walked into the strip club that was his destination, Wheatley guided his companion to a table close to the stage. Luke had fiddled with the navigator and the Radio Shack parts in the car, but Wheatley sensed that nothing had gone right for the poor guy. He wasn’t sure exactly what the problem was, except the diminutive machine still wasn’t working. Some major cheering up was in order.
“Do you like beer?” asked Wheatley, motioning with his hand for Luke to seat himself at the open table in front of them.
“Yes,” said Luke, balancing himself on a tall stool.
“Like live country and western music?”
“This is the place for you.”
“Any ideas on fixing the navigator?” Wheatley signaled to a waitress.
Luke was silent. The waitress swiftly brought over two beers.
The band started to cover the Dwight Yoakum song “A Thousand Miles from Nowhere,” and Luke began to tear up.
“Oh my heavens, oh my heavens,” said Luke. “That song is so sad, and so true.” He laid his head on the table, his forehead cushioned by a cocktail napkin.
As he sobbed, one of the dancers, clothed now in a tight dress and sparkly high heels, came up to the table and brushed her hip against Luke’s dangling arm.
“Like a dance, ugly?” she asked teasingly. The hood of Luke’s hoodie had fallen from his head, and in the half-light of the club he appeared to both the woman and Wheatley, neither of whom had seen his visage clearly before, uncommonly like a scarecrow, an unhappy one too.
“Yes,” said Luke. He stopped crying and sat up hopefully. “Yes, yes. I know how to do it!”
“He means no, miss,” Wheatley told the dancer. “He has work to accomplish.” She shrugged and left them.
“The sooner I get this done, the prouder my family will be of me,” said Luke. He spread out on the table the parts of the disassembled navigator and the new Radio Shack innards and rapidly began to poke them together.
“Do you happen to have a Phillips screwdriver?” he asked Wheatley, who was now on his third beer.
Wheatley handed over his Swiss army knife and the task was quickly dispatched. The little black wallet was whole again, and with a hairy fingertip Luke tapped the tiny steering wheel on top, making the part waggle. Satisfied, he then paid a wrist-visit to his wife Kate on his colorful multi-way wrist-visitor. As Wheatley leaned in to listen over the pummeling sounds of the band, Luke told Kate that he had dialed up a new tunnel, one that would take them home, right in the backyard of the Miles place. Yes, he would hold while she checked for it. While holding, he looked around the club as if confident of success, or of the girl in the tight dress returning. Then Kate came back on and his look changed to one of despair. “I thought I did,” he told her. “I’m sure of it. But you don’t see any sign of a tunnel? It should be there, right in the backyard by the trash bin. Look again. No, I don’t know what that music is.” He signed off.
“OK,” said Wheatley. “We better get home and see what’s up.”
“Yes,” said Luke. “But one more beer first. I think the brunette’s going to dance again.”
Wheatley returned home to find his wife Mary out of sorts.
“While you and her husband went shopping, I drove over in the SUV to take the woman and her daughter some blueberry cobbler. Who are these people? Why are they so strange? Those two stood staring at me in the kitchen like I had stepped off the Moon. And such faces! Like scarecrows! Are you sure they don’t have some disease? I don’t think either of them has any eyebrows or a single hair on her head. It’s hard to tell with those hoodies they wear. They laid my cobbler aside without even tasting it and insisted I come out front. When I did they had me sit cross-legged on the porch with them and stare into the sun so we could ‘immanentize the eschaton.’ Do you know what it means, to ‘immanentize the eschaton’? I don’t.”
“I think they’re struggling with our language,” said Wheatley. “Even though they claim to be speech therapists.”
“When I finally drove away, I looked back and caught them taking my cobbler around to the trash bin,” said Mary. “And that’s not the worst of it. After throwing out my good food they strolled over to the fence and started gobbling up fresh goat droppings. I stopped the car and watched them. Popped them straight in their mouths like canapes.”
“That explains the man’s halitosis,” said Wheatley. “Did the kids meet them?”
“They were at school when I called, but right now Bobby’s out playing in the field somewhere, maybe with Little Luke, and Libby’s in her room watching TV with Hassie. I hope the girls are eating the popcorn I made them and not goat droppings.”
Little Luke had taken refuge in a dusty upstairs bedroom when the rustic woman had come to call bearing her pan of burned fruit. Now with her gone, he started out the front door to go exploring. Kate told him that his father had called to say he set up a return tunnel in the rear yard, but she couldn’t find it. She asked him to keep a lookout if he was going abroad, and to wrist-visit her and his dad right away if he found anything. Sometimes these tunnels were tricky and hard to pin down, like the funnel of a windstorm, or more likely it wasn’t there at all, she opined. She added that the family needed a new navigator after her son’s shenanigans, and her husband wasn’t good at repairing things. Then too, he drank.
Little Luke told his mother “fine” and kept going. He had noticed the school down the road a half a mile or so and around a slight bend, with a sign out front that read Sycamore Junior High School. Though his knowledge of the local language was accelerating rapidly, he was uncertain as to what a junior high school might be. He had watched from an upstairs window as young people filed out of the building and boarded long yellow vehicles that pulled out onto the road, their academic lives apparently at an end. A few of these former students rode off on bicycles or walked away, however, and one of them, a youth in a gray jacket, had begun sauntering up the road toward him. After gauging his progress for a minute or two and seeing him draw ever closer to the Miles house, he decided to go out and meet him.
Neither gave a sign that he was aware of the other’s approach until they halted on the road facing each other, leaving four or five feet between them.
“You from around here?” asked Bobby.
“No,” said Little Luke.
“Going to be living in the Miles place?”
“Going to my school?”
“Wanna see my house?”
“Like blueberry cobbler?”
“Wanna see my pet goat?”
“Let’s you and me fight,” said Bobby.
Bobby was one of the largest ninth graders in the county, almost six feet and 190 pounds, but so clumsy and so unsparingly composed of suet that he inspired fear in no one. His tiny eyes seemed to float in a mask of fat, and his forearms, when bare, sagged like the thighs of a septuagenarian. This was the first fight he had ever challenged anyone to.
“Gonna take you down, kung fu farmer,” taunted Little Luke, who in keeping with his wormlike appearance had mastered the strategy of doubling up and writhing when under attack. This would be a fine chance to display his moves, and his spirit ran high.
“I’m gonna tear you apart, Goth,” Bobby rejoined. He led Little Luke off the road and over the goat fence to a wide patch of well-chewed grass. After carefully inspecting the spot for droppings, he threw his books to the ground and grabbed his opponent around the chest. The fight was on. Little Luke successfully squirmed out of Bobby’s hold, and the grappling pair fell over as one. They rubbed fallen leaves and grass in each other’s face and then fell apart, gasping for air as they lay on their backs. In seconds, the fight was completed.
“Wanna see something cool?” asked Bobby.
“What is it?” asked Little Luke.
“A hole in the world,” said Bobby.
“A hole in the world?” asked Little Luke. “What’s that?”
“It’s this place where, if you throw something into it, like a crabapple or a tree branch, why it just vanishes. It’s over there by the creek.” Bobby waved his hand in a vague direction. “I found it on my way home for lunch today. It’s all I could think before school let out. Nellybelle my goat must have walked into it because now I can’t find her.”
“Show me,” said Little Luke. “If you’re lying, I’m gonna whup your ass.”
The two walked toward the hole in the world that Bobby had described, causing goats to scatter before them. They entered some trees and walked over hoof-trodden ground to where a shallow creek glistened. Bobby indicated a space above the water, below a thick fallen tree that spanned the shallow stream from a height of about six feet, that shimmered and steamed like a mirage on a sunny road. When they stepped right up next to it the image changed. The mist cleared and what Bobby saw reminded him, as it had when he made the discovery at lunchtime, of a lighted tunnel in a mountain his family had driven through on the way to a Carolina beach last summer.
“What do you think it is?” asked Bobby. “I might just walk in there and look for my goat.” He threw a large wet stone into the image, and both watched it vanish soundlessly. Though it appeared to be a hardened tunnel, the formation had somehow absorbed the rock like a cloud.
“I need to call my dad,” said Little Luke. “And stop throwing crap in there. It goes straight into my bedroom.”
Little Luke established a quick contact on his multi-way wrist-visitor, turning his back on Bobby for privacy, and when finished turned to face him again. “My dad’s almost here,” he said. “And you stay put. If your goat’s in there, it’ll be fine. I’ll find it and send it back before we go.”
This left Little Luke with quite a bit of explaining to do, but Bobby had already heard and seen enough and started home. He walked with Little Luke out of the trees, and both spied Hassie heading out by herself into the field before them, coming from the direction of Bobby’s house. Bobby was shy around girls he didn’t know, and hurried his pace to go around her. A moment later, Bobby observed Luke climb out of his mother’s pickup where the road bordered the field by the Miles place, and the truck then rumble on toward home, his father at the wheel. Bobby was almost running when he arrived at his doorstep. What was going on with everyone?
After supper and before nightfall, Bobby stepped outside and walked back to the creek. At table his family had declared that the weird family would have made good or at least interesting friends and neighbors if only they had stayed on, and he agreed. They had all missed out on seeing the family’s departure, since the four hoodie-wearers had accomplished that unobserved. They seemed to have left nothing at all behind.
Now Bobby wanted to see if Nellybelle had returned, and what if anything had become of the hole in the world. He didn’t stray over the scene of his fight with Little Luke, but he already missed his sparring partner. That kid, with his scrawny body and scarecrow face, made him feel good about himself. He had in fact written a note to Little Luke and enclosed it in an envelope, hoping to drop it in the tunnel if nothing else. It said: When I meet you again I’m going to whup your ass. He had signed it, Bobby.
When he came to the creek and the fallen tree, he found the hole gone. There was no trace of the shimmering mirage or the lighted tunnel within, and the creek and surrounding area were as usual. But Nellybelle stood nearby, and on the ground beneath her grinding jaws lay a chewed-up envelope similar to the one he held. He picked it up and opened it, and read the intact part: meet again I’m going to whup your ass. It was signed, Little
Bobby fed his fresh envelope to Nellybelle and headed back home, his friend’s letter folded in his pants pocket.
About the Author: Michael Fowler is a former humor writer walking a new road.
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