San Clemente, California.
May 6 – one year after the Bloomington Blast
Oliver woke with a startle. It took a moment for his eyes to focus on the spinning ceiling fan above. A cool breeze, carrying the scent of freshly cut grass whispered in from an open window to his right, accompanied by the song of a morning sparrow. He turned his head and took in the window-framed view of a violet rosebush in the backyard.
I’m home, he thought. Wait—I’m home?
Oliver slowly sat up, realizing he’d been napping on his leather couch. His ears perked at the TV announcers calling the Padres’ game on the flat screen on the wall. A lazy Sunday afternoon.
How did I get home?
Oliver rubbed his smooth chin and found no trace of a beard. His hair was short, though untidy from his nap.
How long have I been here?
That’s when he noticed her in the corner of his eye.
Audrey stood in the entryway, illuminated by the sun rays that beamed through the open door. She wore the plum button-up dress he’d bought for her thirtieth birthday—a favorite. How it hugged her curves and matched her favorite shade of lipstick. Shortly after her trying it on for the first time, Oliver remembered gingerly unbuttoning the dress, opening it like a present. Nine months later, their daughter Ava was born. Today, Ava stood proudly next to her mother in a flower-print sundress that went down to her knees. How long, slender, and tall she was growing, on her way to becoming a proper young woman. Oliver smiled at them both. They forced a smile back, but their eyes betrayed a deep sadness.
The girls glanced at the television, as if cueing Oliver to do the same. When he did so, he remembered.
I’ve seen this game before.
This is a memory.
This is the day I got the call from the airline.
This is the day they died in the crash.
Oliver looked back to the entryway, only to behold an entirely different scene. His wife and daughter were gone, replaced by a silence that chilled the vacant house. Just a hint of the morning sun peeked through the dusty window. The television was off. All the furniture, even the couch that Oliver sat on, was covered with a thick protective plastic. Oliver was home and it felt every bit the empty shell it had when he’d escaped it a year ago.
Oliver rubbed his chin, surprised to find the matted beard again. “I must have been dreaming,” he told himself. He looked down to find the duffle bag next to his feet—still packed.
What happened to the farmer? What happened to the path less traveled? Was all of that just a dream too?
Oliver guessed he fell asleep in the cab, and the cabbie drove him home as planned. On autopilot, Oliver probably let himself into his house and collapsed from exhaustion onto the couch. End crazy dream. Cue morning light.
I guess I took the road well traveled after all.
Oliver rose from the couch to flip on the light switch—nothing happened. He’d forgotten he’d stopped paying the electric bill. But he remembered he’d kept the water going for the sake of the lawn and the teenage neighbor he’d paid to tend it. Thus, Oliver indulged in the longest cold shower of his life in the upstairs bathroom. Most of the time, he just stood there, staring blankly at the wall, letting the water wash over his head and down his face and spine. He didn’t mind the briskness of it. He wondered if the icy water could wash away his pain and misery. It didn’t.
Afterward Oliver hacked away at his beard and long hair, cutting chunks off with scissors, then erasing the remaining stubble with a fresh razor. This time, when he looked into the medicine cabinet mirror, he recognized the thirty-something face that stared back.
“There you are,” Oliver greeted, allowing a small smile. He opened the cabinet to find some aftershave to splash on. When he closed it, he was startled to see the farmer standing behind him with a grin.
“Mornin’,” greeted the farmer.
Oliver spun around, grabbed the razor, and held it out in front of himself as if it were a dagger. “What the hell?!”
The farmer gave a chuckle. “Hey, I’m just playing with you, Oliver. I don’t mean you any harm.”
“You’re real,” Oliver gasped. “I thought I had dreamt it all, but you’re real!”
“Who’s to say dreams aren’t real?” asked the farmer. “It’s all in one’s head either way.”
Oliver winced as he studied the farmer—something had changed about him. His cowboy hat was missing. Was that all? “What do you want?” asked Oliver. “How did you get in here? What happened last night?”
“It’s Monday,” said the farmer. He casually raised an apple to his mouth and took a crunchy bite. “You’ve been asleep for a whole day. I brought you here to rest. To heal. To grow.” He grimaced as he swallowed. “Things are in motion, Oliver. There are powerful people looking for me, and they’ll want to use you to find me. One of them will be at your door in two minutes. This one, he’s a handful.”
Oliver shook his head and frantically waved his hands. “Wait, wait, why are they looking for you? Who is looking for you? Why am I involved in any of this?”
The farmer put a hand on Oliver’s shoulder as a father would a son. “Because in a moment of need, I reached out—and you reached back.” The farmer’s alarm watch went off again. He frowned. “Already? Listen, Oliver, I need you to understand something.”
“Yes, that would be nice!”
“No matter what happens, no matter how things go down, you must understand that I will never, ever lie to you. I need you to believe that.”
Oliver rolled his eyes. Whatever. This is probably all another dream anyway. “Fine,” he relented. “Sure. I believe you.”
“Good,” the farmer lovingly slapped Oliver’s face. His demeanor shifted back to serious. “Now, be careful with this guy. He’ll get rough with you, and if you don’t keep your wits about, he will kill you.”
Oliver’s eyes widened. “What? Then stay! Turn yourself in! I don’t know what you’ve done but I need you to explain what—how?”
The doorbell rang, grabbing Oliver’s attention.
“You got this, Oliver,” assured the farmer.
“I’ve got what?” When Oliver turned back to the farmer, he was gone.
The doorbell rang again. Oliver closed his eyes.
It’s another dream. This must be another dream. Surely—
Seriously? The man at the front door may kill me?
Don’t open the door. It’s that simple. No one knows you’re here. Just keep quiet, and whoever it is will go away. Simple!
The front door creaked open.
Oliver winced. Had he left the front door unlocked?
“Hello?” a frail voice called into the house.
Oliver froze. The voice sounded familiar, and hardly like that of a man.
“Hello?” the old woman’s voice crowed again.
Oliver searched his mind. “Mrs. Patterson?” he guessed, as he poked his head around the staircase. His petite neighbor of eighty-seven years hobbled into the entryway in her trademark floral muumuu.
“Is anyone here?” asked Mrs. Patterson. Her trembling head moved with the precision of a bird as she scanned the interior.
Oliver breathed a sigh of relief. “Mrs. Patterson, what are you doing here?”
The old lady’s face lit up as she watched her neighbor make his way down the stairs. “Oh, it is you. I thought I heard voices, and I wasn’t sure if you’d returned. Wondered if your house had been broken into.”
Oliver smiled back. And what would she have done if she’d found a burglar? “Always checking up on me,” he thanked. “How did you get in?”
“The door was open,” she replied. “I was a little surprised to find that.” Her beady little eyes framed by horn-rimmed glasses examined the man before her. “Are you okay? You look pale.”
Oliver laughed. “No, it’s nothing, it’s just . . .” I’m going insane, that’s all. “I thought you were someone else.” The farmer was wrong.
“Well give me a hug, you big galoot. It’s good to see you.” The old lady opened her arms wide.
“It’s good to see you too.” Oliver wrapped his arms around the old lady and lovingly squeezed tight.
Oliver gulped as a searing pain shot into this abdomen. His eyes widened. Mrs. Patterson had stabbed him in the stomach with a kitchen knife.
(Copyright 2014. Dave Cravens.)