"Are you crazy?" she asked, her usually melodic voice laden with scorn.
"I might be, but it happened anyway."
"Cute." Her voice was still sarcastic, but her eyes smiled at him over the rims of her reading glasses. He noticed her ruby lips and felt a sudden frisson of desire.
"And it was half an hour, like before?" She laid her book face down and sat up against the headboard, giving him her full attention.
"Only twenty minutes this time."
"Maybe you should see a shrink."
"No thanks - I married one."
"Other than me." Only half teasing, she looked at him searchingly.
"You're the one I married. Unless you want to start a little - you know -" he waved his hand airily, "threesome."
"That would be nice. Who's the other guy?"
"Guy?" Jason didn't like the way this conversation was going. "Does he have to be human?"
"Aren't those the rules?"
"I'm not sure, I lost my rulebook." He playfully poked at her ribs and she batted his hand aside.
"Then we'll have to look it up on the Internet. It'll be under 'Everything you wanted to know about kinky sex but were afraid to ask, dot com.'"
Jason chuckled. He positioned himself more comfortably and began to rub her feet.
"Don't do that for more than an hour," she sighed, purring with pleasure.
"I do what I want, when I want."
"Says the rulebook."
"- Which you lost."
"It got lost in a time portal." He worked at keeping a straight face.
"During the twenty minutes?"
She opened one eye. "You know I think you're crazy as a loon, don't you?"
"Is that a technical term?" He bent down to bite her big toe. She moved her foot away and giggled.
"I use it with all my patients."
"Do they know you're married to a nutcase?"
"I try to keep my personal life to myself. That's in my rulebook." She lazily twirled her fingers through his chest hair, then slowly walked them down to his flat stomach.
"The one with Freud's picture on the cover?" He was definitely interested now.
"The one with Carly Simon's picture on the cover." Her busy fingers played with his pajama bottom ties.
"You've got it, bud. If you don't like it you can kiss my-"
The doorbell rang. It never rang this late. Just when things were getting interesting! "Are we expecting someone?" he asked.
"The guy who stole your twenty minutes...," she suggested, giving him an arch look.
"I'm never telling you anything again."
The doorbell rang once more, a long ring. There was an insistence about it.
"Hold your horses - I'm coming!" he shouted. He threw on his robe and bounded down the stairs to the foyer, slowing to knot it at the waist before peering through the lead-channeled glass that decorated the front door.
There were two men on the front step, both wearing black ties and old-fashioned fedoras. One was of medium height; the other was on the short side. The sight of this pair reminded him of movies about Eliot Ness and Al Capone. He looked down at their hands to see if they carried machine guns, but they were holding only pens and notepads. No violence seemed imminent: If this were a movie, it wouldn't get good reviews.
Making sure the brass safety bar-lock was in place, he opened the door a crack. "Can I help you?"
"Are you Jason Sanford?" said the shorter man.
"We're from the government."
And we're here to help, Jason thought. "What department?" He'd worked with the government before, and these guys didn't seem like anyone he'd ever dealt with. And why were they on his doorstep, in the middle of the night?
The two men exchanged a look. Then the shorter one said, "Drug Enforcement Agency."
Drug enforcement - here? The concept was a paradox; in this neighborhood, homes sold for two hundred fifty thousand and up. Everyone in the area was in business, retired, or in government. Most residents attended Neighborhood Watch meetings the first Wednesday of every month; it was the politically correct thing to do. This definitely was the last place for drug enforcement minions and their sort.
Still, it wouldn't do to piss off the government. He reluctantly unbolted the door and opened it, motioning the two men inside. His rational mind said he was doing the right thing, but his gut indicated otherwise.
There was an annoying quality to the agents, perhaps due to normal bureaucratic stiffness. They moved like androids and sat down in unison on the sofa. Neither man removed his hat. They seemed to need compliance from each other before either one initiated speech. Danielle, who had come downstairs during Jason's exchange with the men at the door, gave him a questioning look. Sitting across from the pair, Jason felt like one of the Three Stooges.
"We have a problem, and we hoped you would be willing to help," said the taller man.
"Okay, shoot," said Jason.
"Please - no guns," blurted the shorter man.
Jason snorted at the quip, but neither man looked amused.
"I mean, go on," said Jason impatiently. Who were these guys?
"Something passed through your neighborhood the other day, and we were wondering if you witnessed it."
"What kind of something?" asked Jason.
The two men looked at each other, then turned toward him and stared silently.
Jason repeated his question. He hadn't had assertiveness training for nothing.
"We ... uh ... don't exactly know how to phrase it."
"Why don't you just shoot from the hip?" suggested Danielle, who was perched inquisitively on the arm of Jason's chair.
"We said no guns!" The fiery reprimand came from the taller man.
Danielle muttered to Jason, "I thought they were joking." The look on her face was like that of a sideshow patron confronting a pair of two-headed wolfmen. She stood up and stalked to the adjoining chair.
"No," stated the shorter man. "We never joke about guns."
Apparently, these agents had acute hearing as well as a shortage of manners. Jason threw Danielle an apologetic smile.
"Why don't you just tell us what you saw," said the taller man, "and we'll decide if it's what we're looking for."
Stalling, Jason rubbed his chin thoughtfully. These two had a secret. They wanted information from him, but they didn't want to share what they had locked away in their government pea-brains. This could be a long night.
"Tell us what we want to know and we'll leave," prompted the shorter man, subtly implying the opposite: If they weren't told what they wanted to hear, they would never leave.
A physics teacher, Jason was not used to hearing profanities escape his own lips, but this occasion begged for them. He stood up, feeling his face redden. "You go to hell! When I say it's time for you to leave, you will leave. Or have you forgotten whose house this is?"
As if directed by an unseen commander, the two men rose in unison. They took a step toward Jason, again in unison, and Jason felt a quick surge of adrenaline. His hands fisted involuntarily, and he suddenly was grateful for his daily regimen of push-ups, sit-ups, and curls and presses with twenty-pound dumbbells. Standing his ground now, he was face to face with the two men, close enough to see their clenched teeth and smell the stench of their breath.
"I don't know what you guys had for breakfast, but I suggest next time you accept the complimentary breath mints," he ground out, trying to keep pace with Clint Eastwood. Go ahead - make me puke!
The two men looked at each other, then the taller man put his hand on Jason's shoulder. Jason swatted it off. When the man raised his hand to Jason's shoulder again, Jason punched him in the stomach as hard as he could. Instead of meeting solid flesh, Jason's arm sank into the man's torso to the elbow, his hand reaching beyond the man's back. The government man's body had all the resistance of ether.
Behind him, Jason heard Danielle gasp. He stared at his arm, unbelieving. "What the-?" he began. Eyes wide and jaw gaping, he stumbled back a step.
Then both men vanished.
They didn't turn and walk out the door. They didn't plunge under the sofa. They didn't beam up to the Starship Enterprise. They simply vanished. Jason heard a thump and turned to see Danielle, crumpled on the floor.
She came back to consciousness with Jason's arm under her head, which felt to her as if someone had used it for a kettle drum. Wincing at the slivers of light that seemed to dart from the nearby floor lamp directly into her brain, she said softly, "Who the hell were those guys?" The tension in her face made Jason suddenly realize how she would look in twenty years.
"I don't know - do you believe me now?" Jason went from awkwardly kneeling to sitting beside her on the thick beige carpet.
"You mean about the missing time?" She lifted her head to look at him.
"And the sphere of light ... was that part of this?" She looked disconcerted, with a look on her face that said scientists with credentials weren't supposed to believe in such gobbledygook.
"I think somehow it was," Jason mused. "Obviously I don't know anything for certain - I'm just a high school physics teacher."
"Aren't physics teachers allowed to wonder about weirdoes knocking on their door in the middle of the night?"
"High school physics teachers aren't supposed to think about things that defy scientific explanation. Remember what they did to Copernicus?"
"They had him under house arrest." Danielle managed a weak smile. Nothing could keep Jason's sense of the ridiculous at bay for long.
"Do you remember why?"
"He dared claim the Earth was not the center of the solar system."
"Of the universe," he corrected
"They believed that then?" she asked, playing the straight man.
"Egocentric, don't you think?" He added, "Those were the good old days."
"Times were simpler. Everything fit together nice and neat. If a square peg didn't fit into a round hole, you whittled it down until it would. Now we have men dressed in black knocking on your door late at night, after experiencing a time-lapse and having a strange sphere of light follow you home." As he spoke, he helped Danielle to her feet and over to the sofa. "I don't know what it all means, but I still think science will have an explanation someday - the same way they had an explanation that the Earth was not the center of the universe. Or solar system. I don't think any of this fits outside science. I just think science hasn't grown big enough yet to encompass it all - like Quantum Theory." He stopped, realizing that he'd slipped into teacher mode.
She squinted at him. "I have a terrible headache. Let's not talk about any of that Stephen Hawking stuff right now, okay?"
"I'm sorry, hon," he said. "I don't know what I was thinking."
"You were thinking too much - as usual."
"Touché," he said, and headed toward the bathroom to get her pain relief.
"Tell me about the sphere again," she said, after washing down the aspirins.
"I told you already."
"Tell me again."
"Oh, ye of little faith! Fine."
He had driven home especially late one evening last week. The school was having a science fair, and he had offered to help his students with their projects. One kid stood out, with a high voltage step-up system using four dry-cell batteries in series, a buzzer, a capacitor in parallel, and an automotive coil. The thing emitted inch-long sparks that resembled miniature lightning strikes, but the buzzer kept quitting after just a few seconds. Jason had wanted to work with the student, partly because he thought he was a good kid, and partly because he enjoyed the project. Jason stayed on to grade a few papers after the boy went home, and it was dark by the time he finally left.
He was halfway home when he realized something strange was happening. Pulling over to the side of the road, he was stunned at what he saw directly over his car: an intensely bright light, hanging in the inky sky like a prop on a stage. At first he thought it was just a particularly brilliant star; but after looking at it for several minutes, he realized that it was actually a small sphere of light a few hundred feet above him. He wasn't sure of this until he resumed driving and found the thing following him overhead. When he got home it was still overhead, now just above the maple tree in the front yard, and he watched with fascination as it moved hither and yon like some unknown oceanic life form darting through the hidden depths of the sea.
When he finally tore himself away from the awesome display and went inside the house, he had to turn on the light; Danielle had gone to bed early, he thought. But the clock hanging above the kitchen stove showed that it was after nine. How was this possible? He'd left the high school at 8:20, and it was only a twenty-minute drive home.
The clock must be broken, he thought. But his watch read 8:40. Not again! His mind flashed back to the previous occasion, about a year ago, when he'd come home a half hour late and found his watch to be exactly a half hour slow. Since then, he'd decided there must be an explanation that he was simply overlooking. But a year ago, there'd been no sparkling ball of light hovering overhead and no reason to believe the event had anything to do with the paranormal. If not for the ball of light above him this time, he would have put the time loss down to a memory glitch. Didn't men sometimes begin their decline into senility by the age of forty-five? Something else to look forward to, along with eating soft food and wearing diapers.
After Jason finished his retelling of the story, Danielle got up carefully and walked over to the front window. When she looked out, there was nothing unusual: no strangers in black hats, no time warps, no ball of light hovering overhead. She let the curtain drop. Maybe they were both crazy. It had been easier to think Jason a couple of slices of tomato short of a salad before the two men - or whatever they were - knocked on the front door. Now it was as if her reality had been shaken to its very core, and nothing remained of the old paradigm; there weren't any new truths to replace it. When she regrouped, she would have to reclaim her skepticism. Skepticism was the solid foundation underlying her strength; without it she might as well remove her bones and become as soft and insubstantial as an amoeba.
In the kitchen, she took a blue icepack out of the refrigerator and held it to her forehead. Jason came up behind her and put his arms around her waist. "I'm sorry," he said softly.
"About what? You didn't do anything."
"Maybe I did."
"I told you about the sphere - about my lost time." He drew her closer, putting his cheek against hers. "Maybe that's what drew those...men...to us."
"Don't be superstitious. You're a science teacher - think about what you're saying. Anyway," she said as she put the icepack back in the freezer, "I'm going to bed now. Are you coming?"
He took the hand she offered him and followed her up the stairs. But there wasn't much sleep to be had that night; by the next morning they had tossed and turned so much that the sheets were a bundle of knotted laundry in the middle of the bed.
Jason had already eaten breakfast when Danielle appeared in the kitchen, dressed casually in an oversized sweater and loose slacks. Her eyes had dark circles under them, and she looked paler than she usually did without makeup. She had no clients that day and would be staying home, trying to catch up on her sleep. They made small talk, each avoiding any discussion of what had happened the night before.
Danielle kissed him good-bye at the door, her fierce hug the only clue that she was still traumatized. He patted her reassuringly and set off for work, looking forward to a relatively normal day. But he drove only a block and a half before a rusty garbage truck cut him off, coming to a halt with a loud groaning of brakes. Slamming out of the car, he marched around the truck's cab to the driver's side, only to find the shorter of the two mysteriously vanished men from last night. Jason began to feel disoriented, as if he were having a waking nightmare: He was inside a Salvador Dali painting, walking down one set of stairs and up another on an impossible angle to the first. But he knew he was awake - the battered garbage truck reeked of rotting waste. He tried to breathe through his mouth.
"Jason, we've got to talk," the man said pleasantly. He acted as if they were the best of friends, having a good ol' boy chat right there by the stinky garbage truck.
"Do I know you?" asked Jason. For a mere physics teacher, he was finding a lot of inner courage.
"We didn't get to finish our talk last night."
"I believe you left without notice."
"What did you expect, a left turn signal?"
How about that? A ghost with a sense of humor. "It would be nice to have a little warning!" Jason flared. "My wife fainted - woke up with a bad headache."
"Ah, poor dear. She's home alone today, I take it?"
This required some thought. A soft answer isn't appropriate when the question may be a threat. "She's wherever she wants to be - and none of your damned business, thank you very much!"
"Not much of a thank-you, if you ask me. But I thought you should know: There are others; I'm not alone. We can reappear as easily as we can disappear. We could reappear right in the middle of your bathroom - where, I believe, your lovely and talented missus is currently in the midst of a nice hot shower."
Jason stepped closer, feeling the satisfying swell of his biceps and triceps, pumped from this morning's highly motivated workout. Normally he did one set of each of four muscle strengthening exercises - this morning he'd done three. "You mess with her," he gritted out, "and you'll get a lot more than you bargained for." His hands fisted at his side, and he felt his face tighten with rage.
The Ghost-guy laughed dismissively. "You think you're special because you do thirty pushups every morning. You really don't get it, do you?" He sneered, "This isn't a game. I want answers. If I don't get them - and I will - there will be hell to pay. Whether you or the missus pays won't matter to me. We always get what we come for."
"Speaking of getting what you come for, where do you come from?" Jason squinted his eyes against the sunlight that filtered through an island of fir trees nearby.
"You don't need to know that," the mystery man said. "We don't have you on the list." He seemed so real; Jason wondered how his fist could have gone through him as though he were made of air.
"You don't need to know that either."
Need to know. Wasn't that intelligence jargon? Jason thought he'd heard it in a movie. Something about Condors, starring Robert Redford. He eyed the strange character and decided to try diplomacy.
"What was this important question again? The one worth threatening me for?" he asked.
"Something happened, and you were there. We want to know what you saw. Is that clear enough?" The ghost-guy looked impatient, as if he was running out of time.
"You mean the watch thing?"
"We know you saw it."
"Don't play games with me!" The man waved away Jason's evasive response.
Jason thought of punching him again, for all the good that would do. "I had some missing time and my watch stopped. Is that what you're talking about?"
"Do you know what caused it?" The Ghost-guy really came alive now, obviously alerted by the phrase missing time.
"No - why don't you tell me?" He'd be damned if he'd give any more information until he was given some himself.
"Did - you - see - anything?" the Ghost-guy ground out, spittle appearing at one corner of his mouth. "You'd think physics teachers would be more cooperative. How'd you ever make it through college?"
"I found my degree in a Cracker Jack box."
"Funny," the Ghost-guy said, but he didn't look amused. "Talk, funny man. You've got five minutes. Then I go for the wife." Jason had the feeling that the man wasn't serious; but the feeling could be wrong - no use playing around with dangerous assumptions.
"Do that and you're dead." Two could play the same game. A gust of wind blew through the island of trees and the shiver of leaves made Jason shudder as well, as icy swirls of mingled hatred and terror crawled up and down his spine.
It took a full minute for Ghost-guy's laughter to stop. Jason thought: I'm glad someone finds me amusing.
"Ever see one of these?" asked the black-garbed Ghost-guy as he reached across the passenger seat and retrieved a glowing sphere the size of a grapefruit. It's light was so bright that Jason had to cover his eyes, and he could feel heat radiating from it.
"No - what the heck is it?" He was getting interested now: the science teacher in him.
A probe. There was certainly nothing in Modern Science magazine about something like this. Jason had never seen or heard of anything capable of emitting such energy without a connection to a power source. "What kind of probe?" A swarm of birds circled overhead and landed in one of the nearby trees, then proceeded to chirp so insistently it seemed they were vying for Jason's attention.
"If I tell you a secret, will you promise to keep it to yourself?" asked Ghost-guy, with a coy smile.
"What is this, twenty questions? Why should I keep any secret of yours?"
Ghost-guy rubbed his chin and thought about this. "Maybe it's a matter of national security."
"So now you're the great American hero? Oh, that's right, you did say you worked for the DEA. Though you forgot to say which planet's DEA. Where are you from: Venus, or ... maybe one of Jupiter's moons?"
"Ho ho!" And the Ghost-guy slapped his thigh. Jason was surprised to hear the sound of palm meeting flesh instead of the non-sound of ethereal non-substance meeting illusory dream-stuff. "I'm from here. I work for your government. Your taxes pay my salary."
"Lucky me. I'll call my accountant in the morning to make sure I'm paying enough."
"You doubt me?"
"Moi? How'd you disappear? Some kind of magic trick? Put it this way: Can you give me any reason I shouldn't doubt you?"
"How about this?" said the magic man, with a flourish of his hand, and Danielle suddenly appeared next to the garbage truck. Her hair was wet, and she was wrapped in nothing but a large towel, which she clutched tightly. Jason was afraid she was going to faint again. Jason was afraid he was going to faint. Then he did.
The place he woke up in was not the real world. Jason was in a bubble filled with blue light and echoing with surreal musical instrumentation in the periphery of his hearing, like the faint crackle of a police radio heard at a distance. He was Tinkerbell and this was Never-Never Land and pixie dust was all around.
The Ghost-guy was there, dressed in black as always, surrounded by the bluish glow. He had a smile on his face that would have made the Cheshire cat envious; his eyeteeth twinkled in the perverse lighting.
Jason tried to move his lips to speak, but his face felt frozen and instead of sound, a kind of thought-sound seemed to emanate from him. "Where the hell am I?" he thought-spoke, and he heard what sounded like shouting in a tunnel, and the echoes reverberated, and the continuous fibrillation of his telepathic voice confused him with waves of mental scintillation. He felt an instant headache. When he tried to put his hand to his head, he found that while he could see his hands, those appendages were as useful as limbs on another continent. He was here, yet he was nowhere.
He looked to his left and there was Danielle, naked in the blue light, the towel crumpled at her feet. The ground where the towel lay was a misty place, with no defining beginning or end. Jason was sure he was dreaming.
Ghost guy thought-said, "So you're a physics teacher." Even in telepathy, people reiterate the obvious.
"Duh," Jason thought-said, and he heard that strange echo in his head again.
"And you have questions," Ghost-guy thought at him.
"As in where are we, and how did we get here?" Jason thought back and again heard his own voice as if through a tunnel. "And are you sure this isn't a dream?"
Slowly Ghost-guy's mouth lifted at the corners and his teeth glowed white. "No dream."
"Then how?" Either Jason ran out of mental energy, or he couldn't think of an appropriate end to the question. He glanced at Danielle; she seemed frozen in space and time as if she had turned into a beautiful work of art. She might have been on display at the famed Metropolitan Museum of Art. People would come to see her from all over the world, Jason thought, then realized his thoughts were potentially intruded upon.
"What do you mean, 'How did this happen?'" thought Ghost-guy incredulously. "Didn't you ever hear of Stephen Hawking?"
"Sure. I teach his theories - well watered down, of course, so the kids can understand them."
"Then you know about parallel universes, wormholes and space-time vortexes, the Ten Dimensional Theory. Then there are light cones, dark matter, time dilation - how about the Grand Unified Theory?" His gaze was piercing now, and Jason felt as if he were being grilled by a professor, though he didn't remember signing up for this course.
"Well, yeah," he admitted. "I've heard of those things. But they're just theories - and the Grand Unified Theory hasn't been discovered yet."
"THEY'RE NOT JUST THEORIES!" thought-shouted Ghost-guy, looking personally offended.
"Is this a sore subject with you?" thought-asked Jason. "Because if it is, maybe we can talk about it some other time, when you're calm."
"Ha!" thought Ghost-guy. "There are no other times in this reality."
"Then you'll have to explain it to me," thought Jason.
Ghost-guy sighed. "Space and time are one. In the beginning, there was a singularity. You remember that from college physics, don't you? It exploded into the space-time we have now. Except now doesn't exist; it's the illusion. There was no explosion. There is no past and no future. All past, present, and future events coexist simultaneously. Space, which is fifteen billion light years across, is still an infinitely small singularity - billions of times smaller than a proton - and it still contains all mass and all time. The future expanded universe, which is fifteen billion light years across, coexists with the singularity with which it began because all time is simultaneous. And another thing ..." Ghost-guy began to flicker and fade like a TV channel with bad reception.
Jason heard a familiar buzzing in his ears. He opened his eyes; he was in bed, Danielle was lying next to him, and the alarm clock was going off.
He sat up, sweat beading on his face. As he wiped his forehead, the front door slammed shut.
"Did you hear that?" he asked Danielle, wondering if she was right and he was going crazy. Maybe he needed professional help.
She let out a muffled groan as she slowly stretched. "What?"
"Someone just left. And I had this ... well, I think it was a dream, and ..." He pulled the covers off; she was naked and a large white towel was bunched up at the foot of the bed, by her feet.
Then he noticed that it was 10:30 A.M. They should have gotten up hours ago - what were they still doing in bed?
"Look at the time!"
"Did you forget to set the alarm?" Danielle asked sleepily.
He sat on the edge of the bed and picked up the alarm clock. Looking down, he was surprised to find himself completely dressed. The alarm had been set and turned off. He told her so.
"You dreamed that too. You just forgot to set it." Danielle was sternly in denial, like one of her patients.
"Then how to you explain this?" He pointed to his clothes. "And how do you explain you?" She looked down at herself, her face tightening at the realization that she wasn't wearing a nightgown. "And that?" He pointed to the white towel bunched at her feet.
Danielle reached for her robe and quickly drew it on. Taking a deep breath, she forcibly exhaled through pursed lips. "I don't know what's going on here," she said crisply, "but I think it has more to do with you than with nocturnal spirits."
"What about those two guys who came to our door last night - the ones who disappeared?"
"That was quite a trick, I'll admit. I wonder how they did it? Who were they, and why would they want to fool us like that?" Her brow knitted, she shook her head. "There is something strange going on, but I believe it's human deception, not the paranormal." She turned to confront him. "Have you angered someone at work? Is there someone with a grudge against you, someone who would want to play tricks on you - maybe to get even for a perceived wrong?"
"No, it's nothing like that," Jason protested.
"Then I don't get it. But you'd better get moving; you're already late. I wonder why the school hasn't called? Did they call and we slept through it?"
"I doubt that."
Danielle followed his gaze to the princess phone lying useless on the floor, its cord ripped from the outlet. She put her hand to her mouth and whispered, "Oh my." Jason stood with his arms crossed, shaking his head, knowing. Her face drained and she sank back down on the bed.
"It wasn't a dream," he said firmly, then turned and strode out of the bedroom.
Jason slammed the door behind him. The sun was high in the sky, and motorists drove briskly to and fro on the suburban streets. The thought that he was absent from work gnawed at him, but he resolutely put his guilty feelings under the crazy-quilt of his conscious mind as he pounded the pavement, lost in confusion and dread.
Somewhere behind him, Danielle was wondering and worrying too. Somewhere in front of him was a high school physics class doing homework or reading silently, while a substitute teacher sat as confused as Jason was, but for different reasons.
Somewhere the universe still made sense; but not in Jason's or Danielle's version, and certainly not here or now.
Things had gone astray. Nature had become discombobulated, and disarray was the result. Newton's laws were trashed (was that the significance of the garbage truck: a metaphor?) and the law of chaos was exercising its vice-like grip. Somewhere in the distance, a radio played "'There must be some way out of here,' said the joker to the thief...."
If he dropped an apple now, would it go up or sideways instead of down? If this had happened to Isaac Newton, would the world be a different place - a place resembling the story of Alice and her white rabbit, not the nuts and bolts place he believed he'd lived in all along?
What if nothing were true? What if everything were a construct of mind and could be shaped and unshaped at the will of the user of this Grand Unified Interface? A computer program of mind; a Twilight Zonian group-thought manifestation; a Gestalt?
He felt sick to his stomach, and he knew the feeling was both hunger for food and the need to throw up: one more in what might be a long string of paradoxes.
The word "string" made him think of string theory: a string of energy radiating at different frequencies creating the various subatomic particles of the known universe; which were nothing of themselves, but a manifestation of some kind of cosmic energy. Or was it cosmic humor?
Descending deeper and deeper into his mental patterns of twisted thinking, he jumped when a hand reached out and snagged his shirt from behind.
Somehow Danielle had managed to get dressed and catch up with him in a matter of minutes. As he turned sharply, Jason saw that her face was a map of stress: worry lines and tightened planes - the muscles and veins of her neck stuck out like an Olympic athlete's, pumped from recent death-defying training. He briefly wondered if those new vitamins she was taking were black market steroids, the kind body builders allegedly guzzle.
She had dressed hastily, in a baggy gray sweatshirt and sweatpants, with no bra. A sheen of sweat blanketed her skin. "We've got to do something, Jason!" she pleaded. From her tone, he knew she was no longer playing the role of debunker; he sensed fear, raw and powerful. It made his skin crawl to know that she - his goddess of unsinkableness - was scared out of her wits. As she grasped his arm, he could feel her body trembling with waves of immutable energy.
"I know. But what can we do?" He needed an answer, and she was his only hope. Who else could he lean on when the paranormal jumped in front of him uninvited? He couldn't go to the police: They would either laugh at him or have him committed to one of those rubber-lined facilities. There were no agencies in the government he could report the Unholy Strange to; and even if there were such an agency, he wasn't sure he would dare call them. Contrary to what we see on television, the FBI has no interest in things that go bump in the night.
"What can we do?" he asked again, though he knew he was just filling the silence. His question didn't have an answer.
"I don't know," she said despairingly. She stood before him disheveled, her auburn hair blowing in the wind, strands of it flowing across her face. For a moment, Jason forgot their dilemma; the only thing he could think of was how beautiful she was and how much he loved her and why he had married her. He bent to kiss her, but she pushed him away. "This is serious," she said. "Don't you think you should call your school?" Spooks notwithstanding, they still had to eat and pay the bills.
"Yeah, right," he mumbled. "We'd better go home and make the call."
She pulled a cell phone out of her sweatpants pocket and handed it to him. "Here, take this. Besides, our house phone is broken, remember?"
"You think of everything."
"That's why you married me."
"It's not the only reason."
"Show me," she said, teasing him with her eyes.
"Let me make the call, then we'll go home and I will."
The world seemed to settle back into its rightful place. The wind rustled the tops of the trees, brown and golden leaves floated down around them, the sun rode high in the sky, billowy clouds blew in from the west, and they walked homeward as he talked on the cell phone, letting his free hand move around and then under her elastic waistband, tasting smooth flesh with his fingers.
When they got home, they found the front door wide open and were stunned at what they saw inside. The house was dark, as if some mystical vacuum cleaner had sucked all photons out. That wasn't the worst part; in the middle of the living room, like some gizmo from the halls of a Science Fiction Hell, was a spherical object five feet in diameter, floating with no obvious means of support. The sphere gave off an irritating hum and seemed to shimmer as it hung there. Strange lights emanated from the sphere and trailed away from it slowly, flowing like a surreal Dance of the Sugar-plum Fairies. The lights appeared to float through the walls, which were as black as a starless night.
They stepped over the threshold. There were four men in the room; each was dressed in a black jumpsuit and had a shaved head and a single earring in his left ear. The men looked so alike, they could have been quadruplets. Each man had a chrome tubular device the size of a hairbrush in his hand, and each seemed to be searching for something with his device. Jason was reminded of Geiger counters and radiation testing.
"What are you doing here?" he demanded. One of the men put his forefinger over his lips; a pair of headphones was connected to the device in his hand. The four men continued with their pursuit as though unchallenged.
"I demand to know what's going on here!" shouted Jason. At that, two of the men rushed at him, each grabbing an arm, and hustled him outside. He jerked free, feeling his face redden with rage. Danielle walked out on her own. "What the hell do they think they're doing?" he asked, straightening his rumpled sleeves.
"Maybe they lost something," she quipped, seeming determined to take what had happened in stride.
"Yeah, like their marbles."
"Do you think we should call the police?"
"They probably are the police."
Danielle turned to look back into the house. "They're not like any cops I've ever seen."
"And what's that thing?" he asked, pointing at the sphere. "It's just hanging there - I've never seen anything like it. I've never read about anything like it, and I'm a science teacher. This can't be happening."
"Don't psychobabble me!" he snapped.
He put his arm around her. "Me too." He looked through the door; the strange object had diminished in size. It was now about three feet in diameter and quickly shrinking. The whirring sound it made was becoming higher in pitch. The lights emanating from it increased in number and speed, and the object began to spin. Soon the whole living room looked like a laser lightshow.
With an abrupt sucking sound and a loud bang, it was gone. Now there were no lights, no sound - just darkness, like a black hole had swallowed their house and replaced it. The four mystery men walked out the front door. "You can go in now," announced one of them. Gee thanks, thought Jason. You're letting us back into our own house. How kind.
"Who are you guys, and what was that about?" he asked.
"Sorry." The mystery man patted Jason on the arm as he passed. Then the four men got into a white van; in seconds they were gone.
"Where are we going now?" she asked as he pulled her toward the car.
"I have a friend. He has access to records," said Jason.
"See who these bozos are."
"How are you going to do that?" She was wide-eyed, her face full of questions.
"Their license plate number." He was vibrating, exuberant in his excitement.
"Oh," she sighed. Exhilaration failed to reflect in her face.
The sun was high in the sky; for the moment the wind had settled, and the flurry of falling leaves slowed. There were no shadows. Jason looked up at the blinding sky as if he expected a sign. There was none.
The sun had not gone nova, the daytime moon was not creeping closer nor turning red, there were no angels on horseback warning of an imminent apocalypse, and the birds chirped happily as if they too thought this just an ordinary day.
Animals can detect changes, but maybe they can't detect things that come from other dimensions or times or universes - or from the imagination. Jason remembered reading about the famous Hill case: Aliens from outer space allegedly had abducted a man and woman, and under hypnosis their stories were virtually identical. The doctor performing the hypnosis claimed that the Hills had shared the same waking dream. He did not believe in the possibility of alien abduction, and therefore he had felt it necessary to interject another implausible theory - as if replacing one unlikely explanation with another made it more credible.
Jason half expected to look up at the sky and see swarms of flying saucers darting around, like the attack from Mars depicted in Orson Wells' War of the Worlds. But there were no alien ships anywhere. The absence of anomalies was disturbing. Maybe they should warm up that padded room for him now, fit him for that white jacket.
Maybe in a few minutes the alarm would go off and he would awake from this fantasy.
Maybe the moon was made of Swiss cheese.
Frank Padukah's face was as angular and hard as his name. He had been the police officer at Lincoln High until they privatized that position. Now he sat in his swivel chair at a desk; his large, muscled frame seemed to make a mockery of the term "computer nerd." Yet there he was, day after day, punching keys with his powerful fingers. Although this had been a fallback position after some mixed-up seventeen-year-old had fired a bullet into his gut, he was getting quite good at what he did.
Jason heard the tapping of keys, but his attention was on the building across the street. It was so close that if the windows had been operable, he could have jumped across effortlessly. He saw various cardboard cubicles - mock offices for people who probably spent the better part of their waking hours trying to earn their keep. Sixty hours a week in a dollhouse. He wondered what they were doing and what kind of commodity they could produce with only a computer, keyboard, and mouse.
"Got it!" Frank said with satisfaction. It took Jason a moment to remember what he'd come here for. "License plate number LK9379 belongs to Bubba's Used Cars."
Bubba. The name was so opposite Frank's granite face, hearing it flow from those hardened lips made Jason chuckle. What the heck was a guy from Bubba's Used Cars doing harassing him and Danielle? And what about all that stage magic? Was this a prelude to one of those idiotic television shows where people get lost on an island or out at sea? Candid Friggin Camera?
"Bubba?" Jason said, gesturing with his palms up to accentuate his puzzlement.
"Beats me," said Frank, shrugging. In the red brick building across the alley, women in power outfits and men in dark blue suits and ties scurried about doing God-knew-what. "Here," Frank said, as he handed Jason a telephone directory. "Look it up."
Bubba's Used Cars was on 3rd and Lawrence, not more than a few blocks' walking distance. "Let's go," Jason said to Danielle.
"Let me go with you," said Frank, strapping on his shoulder holster. "You might need backup." Ever the cop.
"Good idea," said Jason, and Danielle nodded in agreement.
It wasn't quite raining, but the fine mist left cold impressions. Traffic was heavy, and the mix of exhaust fumes and high humidity made each breath a chore. When they got to 3rd and Lawrence, Bubba's was there, big as day. The large glass picture window separating used car salesmen from the outside world went floor to ceiling, putting everyone on display inside and out. Danielle saw him first. "Isn't that one of the guys who disappeared?" she asked, nudging Jason.
"Sure is." As Jason answered, Ghost-guy made eye contact with him from behind the transparent shield, and Jason dared a grin. Ghost-guy looked at Frank, then back at Jason, and mouthed the word Wow, as if the sight of a man wearing a gun impressed him.
Jason was the first in the door. He headed straight for Ghost-guy, who was lost in conversation with a middle-aged woman. From its tone, you would have thought they were talking about dinner and a movie.
"What do you think you're doing?" asked Jason.
Saying, "Excuse me a moment," to his prospective customer, Ghost-guy took Jason aside.
"This isn't how we do things in the business world," he said sternly. "You're going to have to practice some self-restraint."
"Self-restraint?" Jason said, feeling his vocal chords tighten. "How am I supposed to have self-restraint after what you did? Where was your self-restraint?"
Ghost-guy turned to his customer, who now wore curiosity mixed with disdain on her well-preserved face. He gently put his hand on her shoulder. "Could you excuse me for a moment?" he whispered intimately. "My brother-in-law is having problems at home. It'll just be a minute." He flashed warm eyes, and she responded with a nod.
"Jason, we have a deviation from acceptable behavior here," said Ghost-guy.
"I think we had a deviation long ago - like the first time I met you," said Jason. "And it hasn't stopped yet. What were you doing in my house? What were those men doing? What was that thing suspended in the middle of my living room? You have a lot of nerve, mister, whoever you are!"
Ghost-guy turned to the large windows and stared out into the parking lot, where an elderly salesman with white hair and bent back was showing a young couple a red convertible sports car.
"Jason . . . you think you know everything," said Ghost-guy softly. "The universe is made of many parts; and surprisingly to you, I'm sure, there's much of it that is kept secret and has always been kept secret. Just because you're some kind of hotshot physics teacher doesn't mean you have to know it all. There are things going on here that defy explanation." He fixed Jason with his eyes. "Do you understand what I'm saying?"
"You're saying America isn't a free country. You said you worked for the government."
"Yes - you did."
"I don't remember."
"Selective amnesia?" Jason laughed scornfully.
"Jason..." It was a reprimand.
"I want to know what's going on here!"
"I'm trying to sell that woman a used car," said Ghost-guy, his face tightening perceptibly.
"You know what I'm talking about."
"I know you're avoiding the issue."
"You're the one avoiding the issue," said Jason.
"We can talk later," said Ghost-guy. He glanced at his potential customer, who was looking at her watch.
"Yeah, right," said Jason with disgust. He scanned for Danielle and was surprised to find her attention was on a shiny blue pickup on the salesroom floor. A young man in a dark suit and striped blue and white tie stood next to her and seemed to be enjoying her company as they talked about, Jason hoped, the qualities of the vehicle she had taken an interest in. The young man couldn't have been much older than a high school senior. Had Danielle suddenly taken an interest in younger men?
"Before I leave, may I show you one of our new vehicles?" smirked Ghost-guy, the pompous ass.
"I won't be leaving. You broke into my house twice - now I own you. It's the law."
"You wouldn't say that if you knew who I worked for," he said smugly.
"Who would that be?"
"You don't need to know."
"Then why mention it? What's your point?"
"I have to be going," said Ghost-guy, turning and hurrying away. Jason looked around for Frank and saw the lawman sitting in a black sports car with the top down, a silly grin on his face.
Jason clinched his jaw. It's not going to be that easy, fella. Ghost-guy had resumed dialogue with the woman and flinched when he found Jason directly behind him. "I told you, I'm not leaving," Jason insisted. "Not now, not ever. I might bring my mattress down here and sleep on your floor." Assertiveness training had never taught this particular technique, but it hadn't denounced it either.
"Please forgive the intrusion," Ghost-guy said to his customer, who was showing definite signs of annoyance. To Jason he said, "Alright, have a seat over there, and I'll be with you shortly."
Fifteen or twenty minutes passed before Ghost-guy was through with his transaction. His customer was last seen storming from Bubba's with an I-just-ate-a-lemon look on her face. Apparently you can't make everyone happy all the time. Some days you can't make anyone happy.
"What do you want, Jason? Make it quick - I have a business to run."
"Who are you? Why all the interest in me? What the hell were you doing in my house? How did you get in? Are you some kind of magician?"
"I told you, need-to-know."
"Jason, if I told you more, both our lives would be in danger."
"I can't prove it. To prove it I'd have to explain, and I can't explain."
"How about if I take a sabbatical and just hang around here for a while - would that help your business?"
"Jason, I'm warning you."
"And I'm warning you! Tell me what I want to know. What are you doing in my life?"
It seemed the threat was potent enough to take Ghost-guy out of his game. Whoever he was, and whoever he worked for, he depended on his used car sales as a source of income. That was good: Jason had leverage. There was the chance that Ghost-guy might decide to have him killed, but Jason had a feeling that murder wasn't part of the plan. Yet, somehow they had become connected, and Jason had no intention of giving up his search for an explanation.
"I tell you what," said Ghost-guy. "I'll come over tonight and explain what I can. It's not much, and I guarantee you won't like any of it."
"You'll come alone?" asked Jason.
"Make it seven. We watch Discovery at six."
"You've got it."
Jason gave Frank and Danielle the signal that it was time to leave. They reluctantly left their dream cars and started out with him. On an impulse, Jason turned and glanced back. Ghost-guy's eyes met his, giving Jason an ominous chill. In his mind's eye, he saw dark clouds forming on the horizon of his inner world.
They were all in the living room, around the mahogany coffee table set with a plate of chocolate chip cookies and three cups of steaming brew. Jason and Danielle sat on the beige sofa, holding pillows on their laps to support their cups. Charlie "Bubba" Rosner, alias "Ghost-guy," sat in the overstuffed chair opposite them. Dressed in a blue sweatshirt and jeans, he looked less spooky now and much more like a tennis partner who had dropped in for a friendly match.
Charlie sipped his coffee, then picked up a third chocolate chip cookie and took a bite.
Stress was written across Danielle's face. Her eyes were wide, and a nervous twitch in her right leg gave her emotions away as if they had been printed on a freeway billboard.
"How did you do it?" Jason asked. They'd been sitting there in near silence for too long, and this wasn't a social call. The refreshments were there only to break the ice.
"The magic tricks. Make my punch go through you - make yourself disappear - make Danielle appear. All of it. I just don't understand."
"It's a long story," said Charlie, seemingly comfortable enough to stay all night and avoid telling it. He picked up another chocolate chip cookie and shoved it into his mouth.
"If you're talking, I'm listening."
"There are things I can't tell you," Charlie said, after swallowing his reward. B.F. Skinner would have spun in his grave, seeing positive reinforcement given before the deed earning it had been performed.
"You said that earlier," Jason said shortly. "Cut to the chase."
"We never meant to harm either of you. I want you to know that."
"Then why the threats?"
Charlie sighed. "There is information the public can't have under any circumstances. If they did, there'd be hell to pay. You wouldn't like the outcome." He picked up another chocolate chip cookie and moved it around in his hand as if he were trying to find a new way to stick it in his mouth.
"How do you know?"
"There've been studies."
"By the government?"
"Of course, but contracted out to the best minds. Trust me, if I could tell you I would. We never meant to hurt you, but if it became necessary..."
"If it became necessary . . . what?" prodded Jason.
"Then they would."
"You don't need to know." He stuffed the cookie into his mouth.
"Okay, forget that," said Jason. "Just tell me this: How did you do it? You know, Danielle suddenly appearing out of nowhere. That blue space where everything was strange. Was that some kind of hypnosis?"
Charlie picked up another cookie, took a large bite, chewed happily, and with his mouth full said, "I want you to know I could go to prison for this."
"That's nice," said Danielle. Sarcasm warped the meaning of her words.
"You don't care?" said Charlie.
"Stop wasting time and just tell us," said Jason. The curtains were fluttering - a window was open, and a breeze was spilling through the breach like an unseen spirit. Jason felt a sudden chill.
"Fine: There's a machine. It's pretty simple - fits on your head and has a bunch of wires coming out of it. It was an experiment. You don't need to know names and places or the science behind it, and I'm not going to tell you. I'm one of many. We use the mind as an interface device." He reached for another cookie, but Danielle managed to snag the plate before he could nab one.
"Interface? With what?" she prodded.
"This is the sticky part . . ." began Charlie.
"Oh, do go on," said Jason, his voice caustic.
"Okay, fine," said Charlie, releasing a lung full of air through pursed lips. "We interface with reality."
Jason and Danielle looked at each other as if Charlie were the world's craziest madman and they had discovered him in the Oval Office pretending to be the President. Someone call the Secret Service, ASAP.
"Really," nodded Charlie, as if now his fear focused on being disbelieved rather than on disclosing highly classified information and winding up dead in some alley. He looked longingly at the plate of cookies in Danielle's lap as he gulped his lukewarm coffee.
"How could you do that?" asked Jason.
"I'm surprised you don't get it. You're the science teacher - you claim you know about Quantum theory. Yet, you don't seem to believe in it."
"It's not a religion. I don't have to believe. In science, theories have to be proven; we don't take anything on faith."
"Neither do they," said Charlie, shaking his head. A slow smile formed on his lips, as if this was a private joke these two primates couldn't possibly understand. "They've proven this stuff every step of the way. Particle accelerators. Mathematical equations. Measurements in space, tests performed by the astronauts. NASA was involved, of course, but I didn't say that and you didn't hear it. If you repeat it, we're all screwed."
"Not a word," said Jason as he sipped his coffee. His eyes stared at nothing as he digested this new information.
"So this reality interface . . ." he mused, ". . . what exactly can you do with it? How does it work?"
"It electronically enhances brain waves."
"That's all? You wouldn't think-"
"You'd be surprised," said Charlie. "There's more to brain waves than anyone in the public sector has guessed. Brain waves do more than tell us what mood you're in or what breakfast cereal you prefer. They do more than monitor the external world; brain waves interface with it. There's a process of co-creation going on, and it's not just happening to a chosen few. Everyone is involved, but very few people are aware of it. The mind-matter connection predicted by such great minds as Stephen Hawking and Michio Kaku isn't a theoretical equation with no objective reality. It's real, provable, demonstrable, and our top scientists work with it in secret daily." He put his empty cup on the table and sat back. "The public will never know, because those in the upper echelons of the scientific community believe this knowledge would have a destabilizing effect on society, and millions if not billions would die in the subsequent crisis if the truth were told.
"Not that I'm worried about you talking about any of this," Charlie continued. "If you did, people would just think you were nuts." He looked as if he enjoyed putting them in their place.
"And if I told them what you did?" suggested Danielle, absently putting down the half-empty plate of cookies.
"Do you have any witnesses?" Charlie snagged a cookie and eagerly assaulted it.
"There's Jason," she said.
"He's your husband," Charlie said after stopping to chew and swallow. "Of course he'd lie to make you look sane - to protect your image. You'd each be ostracized from your profession, and you'd eventually die in poverty and shame. Hey, I don't make the rules. It's been done before. Don't delude yourself into thinking you're somehow immune to it. Many fine people have made that mistake and lost." He leaned forward earnestly. "I seriously don't want to see that happen to you two. You're a nice couple. Why don't you try to forget all of this and get back to your lives? You had wonderful lives before, and you can have wonderful lives again."
Danielle looked distraught; her left eye began to twitch. She got up and closed the window, and the curtains fell straight. "My God," she breathed as she sat down again.
"Yes, God's in the equations too," said Charlie.
Charlie didn't want to tell them more, but they finally pried it out of him. "The theories and equations hold that God is the complex array of all combined forces of mind - the Master Mind, as it were - and each of us is like a microchip in a larger circuit, the combination of which is The Supreme Being," Charlie said.
"If you say so," said Jason, with a sardonic smile. He was uneasy with such references to God; he'd grown up in a traditional Christian household and felt that this definition was somehow blasphemy. In fact, he wasn't completely sure that all of this, including Charlie's tricks, wasn't a manifestation of some demon.
"What were you and your men looking for ... and why the interest in us?" asked Danielle. Charlie looked her up and down, and she tugged self-consciously at the hem of her skirt. He glanced at the cookie plate, then back to Danielle. She closed her eyes to slits, and he turned away. "A probe from another realm entered this reality and went into your house by mistake. That's why Jason experienced what he called 'missing time,'" Charlie said. "Our men wanted to make sure the probe was no longer in this universe, and that involved a thorough search of your house. If the probe had still been here, there was no telling what kind of damage it could inflict - including but not limited to the destruction of this planet and its neighbors, and possibly the entire construct. So you see," said Charlie importantly, "why we felt it was a matter of national security."
"Why do you still have an enhanced mind-matter interface, even though you're no longer hooked up to the machines?" asked Jason.
Charlie looked longingly at the cookies, then gave it up as a lost cause. "It came as a surprise to my handlers," he said. "They never expected that by enhancing brain waves once, our brains would take over and run enhanced brain waves on their own. No one knows how long this residual effect will last, but it happened to everyone in the project." He gazed absentmindedly. Beyond the curtain the world had again cycled into the shadow.
"Where did we go that time I turned up naked with the towel at my feet?" asked Danielle.
"That was another dimension," said Charlie, letting out a sigh. There were deep circles under his eyes, and his face suddenly looked colorless. "I really can't go into it. That would violate extremely sensitive agreements, and I can't explain how."
Without another word to either of them, he leaped to his feet and dashed out of the door, looking as if he had managed to gain five pounds by eating two pounds of chocolate chip cookies. That must be another one of those Quantum physics anomalies, they both thought.
They never saw or heard from him again.
That night, after Charlie left so precipitously, Jason took off his Timex and gave it to Danielle. Danielle put it on the television, where it remains - a reminder of the time when something strange came into their lives and ate most of their chocolate chip cookies. If asked about that event today, both would swear it never happened.
Now that you know, I advise you to forget it too.
I would like to thank John Mortonson for allowing Missing Time to be published on the UFOINFO site. John has obviously spent a lot of time on this story and it is worthy of being published in print form as was originally intended.
John tells me he is hoping to have a full length novel published - "The Taken" which is about alien abductions.