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How “Best” Is Defined
The next several stories I put up here will be previously unpublished. I might get around to publishing them more broadly and I might not. Either way, you’ll get to see them here. This first one is from a submission to Dean Wesley Smith’s Cave Creek anthology. Although he accepted another story I sent, he rejected this one and said it seemed like part of a longer story. As it turned out, this story at least infomedmy novel, The Portals.
How “Best” Is Defined
Wearing the light, airy dress and the white leather thong sandals she liked to wear for Mitch’s little day trips and weekend explorations, Millie Greyson leaned against the white four by four post on the left corner of the porch. A light breeze moved east to west, causing her dress to tickle her shins a little. Her arms were crossed over her chest, and not only against the unusual cool of the morning.
It wasn’t supposed to get this cold in the desert, was it? At least that’s what Mitch told her when he announced almost a year ago he wanted to move to Reno. It was a major move, halfway across the country.
But it made perfect sense, he said. It would be almost like back in the pioneer days, he said, when men would move to better their situation and send for their wives later.
Then he grinned that grin.
Other than his startlingly blue eyes, that grin was the best feature on her husband’s face. And that was not a low hurdle. His face was jam-packed with good features. So when he flashed that grin, she really had no defense. He said, “We’re a team, see. I’ll drive out and find us a place to live, and in the meantime you can get the house ready to sell and get it on the market. And it won’t be long, Millie. Somebody’ll snatch this place up in half a heartbeat.”
And she had agreed. Really, there was nothing left to talk about at that point anyway.
They’d been over all of it in the weeks preceding his departure. And for Mitch, “all of it” consisted of only three points, which he would count off on his splayed fingers at a moment’s notice: One, their only child, a daughter who seemingly wanted nothing to do with them beyond tuition for college, had graduated from Purdue. Two, Mitch had retired from Grumman Indiana so he was “free at last.” And three—well, really there was no three. For three, he would touch the tip of his ring finger and then grin. That meant it was simply time to go. And once Mitch had decided it was time to go, there was no changing his mind.
She didn’t really want to change his mind anyway. She looked forward to escaping the wet, frigid Indiana winters and the hot, humid summers. And from what she’d heard, there were very few tornados in the west either. Besides, the few times she’d put her foot down during their thirty-two years of marriage, she hated herself for erasing that beautiful grin.
But he wasn’t only good looking. He was as caring as he was handsome. He never forgot their anniversary, or even the anniversary of their first date or their first kiss. He never forgot her birthday either. In fact, he’d turned that into a seven-day annual event. Every year he bought her seven gifts and gave her one each day, each better than the last.
His shoulders were still broad, though they were maybe a little more rounded than they were all those years ago. And his waist was a little thicker than it used to be. But he was still all man, and he still cared enough to want to show off for her. Still, he wasn’t as young as he used to be, so she kept watch over him.
She frowned again as he hefted the two plastic former milk containers into the back floorboard of the pink and white ’57 Chevy. He had a perfectly good, practically new four wheel drive Ford F-150 parked alongside the garage. He could even load the water containers on the floorboard of the truck without having to stoop.
She finally said, “Mitch, are you sure you don’t want to take the pickup?”
Still bent forward as he placed the containers on the floorboard of the Chevy, he straightened and grinned that grin. His polo shirt with the tiny alligator on the left breast matched his eyes and was separated from the darker blue of his jeans by a wide, brown-leather belt. “I’m sure. I told you, no off-roading this time. Besides, the Chevy is a lot more romantic, isn’t it?” He paused, then grinned that grin and wiggled his eyebrows. “It even has a back seat.”
Millie laughed in spite of herself. “Mind your manners, you old buzzard.” She hesitated, then said, “Are you sure there will be no hiking? Maybe I should repack and include jeans and sneakers.”
He closed the door on the car and turned to her, that grin still in place. “Nope, no hiking.”
He said that despite the fact he was wearing his brown lace-up “combat” boots. But then, he always wore those. He’d probably wear them with his pajamas if she’d let him.
“We’re just going window shopping this time.”
Window shopping. That’s what he called it when they just drove and looked. “We won’t have time for all of that anyway.” He arched his eyebrows. “Unless you want to maybe stay longer?”
“No, up and back with an overnight in a good hotel is fine with me.”
As he started across the yard, he grinned again. “So are we about out of here or what?”
She tapped a pink duffel with the toe of her right shoe and grinned back at him. “Here’s mine. I guess we’re just waiting on my old man.”
He laughed and leapt up on the porch, foregoing the stairs, then caught her around the waist just as she tried to spin away. “I’ll show you who’s an old man. C’mere, you.” Grinning. Eyebrows wiggling.
She laughed and pushed at his hands, then gave him a quick peck on the lips and leaned her head back. “Go get packed, Mr. Man.”
“Oh, all right,” he said, feigning disappointment, then swung the screen door wide and stepped through. “If I have to.” He laughed at he went down the hall.
She followed him. “Do you need help with—”
But as she reached the bedroom door, he straightened from the floor of the closet and was holding a black duffel out in front of him. “Tada!” He grinned. “I packed yesterday while you were at the grocery. Let’s go.”
She barely had enough time to turn sideways before he strode past her.
The trip was long—almost 5 hours one way—and Mitch didn’t like to talk when he was driving.
So when they were in the car and on the road at last, Millie lapsed into her own thoughts. At first, she considered the contraption they were riding in. The Chevy was a solid-steel tank, unlike the new pickup sitting idle back at the house. And true enough, the car was “solid,” as Mitch said.
But it didn’t have airbags or shoulder belts and the dashboard was metal and the windows probably weren’t even safety glass and how far from the back bumper was the gas tank mounted anyway? The whole thing was much more of a death trap than a conveyance. And on top of everything else, one annoying coiled spring pressed constantly against the right cheek of her backside.
But Mitch liked the car, so Millie didn’t say anything. She glanced over at him. He really was a romantic.
When she was through complaining in her own mind about the car and then admiring her husband, she glanced out the passenger side window. It really was beautiful here, in an austere kind of way. What appeared from the road to be flat land was actually crisscrossed with gullies and washes and arroyos, and the whole place looked as if it had been the scene of a rock fight among giants. And apparently some of them had chosen to throw spiny cactuses and those tall, gangly looking Joshua Trees.
Back in the day, Mitch had said Indiana was always either “all green” or “all white,” depending on the season. But really, she had to admit he was right.
But when they’d first moved out here, all Millie could see where browns and tans, and she made a point of telling him that.
Mitch only laughed and said that was the direct effect of air conditioning on the eyes. “You can only see browns and tans when you’re being air-conditioned.”
And as it turned out, he was right about that too. When they started hiking and getting out in the desert and she started looking more closely, she saw reds and greens and blues and every color in between. And she slowly fell in love with the desert.
This is the place that even taught her finally what the songwriter meant when he spoke of “purple mountains’ majesty.” And the sunrises! And the sunsets! Finally she understood what the old western cowboy philosopher Wes Crowley had meant when he said, “If you see the sun rise and the sun set, it’s a good day. What happens in between is up to you.”
Unlike Millie, Mitch was from the west originally. He used to tell people he was “born in New Mexico, seasoned in Texas, and baked in Arizona,” so he was “done.” Then he’d grin that infectious grin and they’d all crack up.
And whereas Millie had always been a homebody, Mitch was more of an explorer. Once they’d settled into their new house—a transition for which Mitch generously allotted two months—he insisted they take either a day trip or a two-day trip twice a month to visit the local ghost towns and other points of interest. Well, regional, not local. Hence the occasional overnight stays.
In addition to suggesting the trips, Mitch always planned whatever activities they would engage in when they got there. Sometimes they’d hike. Sometimes he would stop the truck just long enough to get Millie to pose in front of some broken-down old something. Then he’d snap a picture of her with his expensive Nikon and they’d jump back into the truck and head off to the next location. The broken-down old somethings ranged from an old windmill alongside a stone stock tank to adobe ruins to a former frontier jail or whatever else caught his attention.
Sometimes he even had her pose at the entrance of an old gold or silver mine. Millie was nervous around them. There were almost always massive bits of rusted old machinery about, and for some reason the gaping maw of a mine gave her the willies. But she was always careful to pose outside the mine, usually pointing with one hand toward the entrance, so she was never in any real danger.
Mitch, on the other hand, had an affinity for those gaping holes in the ground for some reason. Hence the current “window shopping” trip to the small mining community of Cave Creek.
Well, it had started out as a mining community in the late 1880s. Today, it was a modern town with all the amenities, and more of a bedroom community for affluent types who worked in Las Vegas. That and a tourist destination. When Mitch had first suggested the trip, Millie looked up the town online and she was duly impressed.
The town had all the requisite fast-food joints, but it also had several good restaurants, a top-rated 18-hole golf course, and several lounges. At least a few of those had live bands that catered to their mostly middle-aged clientele. Millie could hardly wait to see whether she could talk Mitch into taking her dancing.
But the bonus that really pushed Cave Creek over the top was a particularly attractive sparkling jewel: the 5-star Golden Dream Hotel. Well, and casino, naturally, but Millie wasn’t concerned about that. It was Nevada, after all, though neither she nor Mitch were gamblers. So she agreed to the trip if they could make it an overnighter and stay in the Golden Dream.
Mitch had that patented grin loaded up and ready, and he’d quickly agreed. “Already booked it. Top floor, plus it overlooks Main Street. Look slightly to the right you can watch the sun come up, and slightly to the left you can watch it head off to bed.”
Yes, her Mitch was quite the guy.
Soon after they turned off the highway onto the smaller road that would take them to Cave Creek, a sign with reflective black letters on a white background read Cave Creek: 30 miles.
On her side of the car Millie had admired the scenery, worked three crossword puzzles to their conclusion, and admired the scenery some more. She’d also squeezed in a short nap or two. She was awakened from the latest of those by the motion of the car, slowing, turning, and then jostling a bit as it rattled over a cattle guard and then bumped down onto the much older asphalt surface.
She looked out through the windshield. Now the road was only two lanes, yellow stripes flashing and disappearing under the car as Mitch accelerated. Scrub mesquite and creosote and the stately clumps of yellow grass grew right up to the edge. Here and there small sandbars had blown across.
Through the passenger side window again, the brown and tan dirt and sand was punctuated with rocks and the green spike balls and tall yellow stems of yucca, topped with depleted, empty bells.
She turned back to the windshield view. The surface was still asphalt, but much older asphalt. More of a blue-grey than black. It was pitted only occasionally with potholes, but it often bulged with black tar patches, and narrow black tar lines continually crisscrossed it in odd spider web patterns that were meant to fill cracks.
When she’d first moved to the desert she’d found the tar patches amusing. Anytime her window was down in the summer, which wasn’t very often, she could hear the tar bubbles popping under the tires. The people back home would never believe it.
Mitch noticed she was awake and glanced over at her, complete with a grin, of course. “Hey you,” he said. “Welcome back. According to the sign back there, we should have only about 28 miles to go. So a half-hour from now you’ll get to check out the Golden Dome.”
She glanced at him, smiled. “Golden Dream.”
Her smile broadened. “It’s the Golden Dream Hotel, not Golden Dome.”
He chuckled and nodded. “Oh, right! Golden Dream. As in dreaming of gold.” He paused. “Y’know, unlike a lot of the mines in Nevada, which were all about silver, most of the ones near Cave Creek were gold mines.” As he spoke, he pressed the gas pedal a little harder. “And the prospectors did most of their work with picks and shovels.” He glanced at her. “Can you believe that? And not the really high-grade steel picks and shovels we have now, but—”
“Thank you, professor.” She smiled again, then reached across the seat and patted him on the thigh.
He grinned again. “Sorry. I’m just excited.” He gestured toward the windshield with his right hand. “I mean it’s all right up there! Just another—” He glanced at the odometer. ”I make it 18 miles.”
As she turned her head to look through the windshield again, she said, “I know you’re excited, dear. And it’s all ri—” Her eyes grew wide. “Mitch! What’s that?”
Directly ahead of them was a shiny chrome—something. Hovering a few feet off the ground and closing fast.
Mitch’s knuckles went white on the steering wheel as he jerked it hard to the right. The car flew across the jagged asphalt shoulder, then up over a mound of dirt with a family of yuccas growing out of it. Pain fired through both wrists and both elbows and up into his shoulders.
In a strange kind of frame-by-frame motion, Millie saw the yuccas plainly. Three young toddler yucca plants seemed to hold hands, forming an arc on the slope of the mound in front of two larger ones. Both of those stood about four feet tall, their bells trembling in the wind. Or with fear?
Slightly to the left, an elderly, old-man yucca seemed to lean on a cane as if trying to flee the scene.
But he was too late. The yuccas all died an instant later as the ’57 Chevy plowed through them and went airborne.
The car rolled over in mid-air, Millie screaming and Mitch cursing. He yelled, “Oh Go—” and the car crashed hard to the ground with a screeching rending of metal. It slid another forty feet on its roof, the windshield shattering and the roof scooping sand and dirt in on the occupants. It finally came to rest up against another mound of dirt and sand with a tired old corkscrew mesquite growing out of it.
The wind quickly wafted away the dust cloud.
In the distance—a distance that was growing larger by the second—a jackrabbit startled by the sound kicked up silent puffs of dust as he made long, stretched-out leaps in the direction of Reno.
Overhead, a small murder of five crows arced in a large, lazy circle, then slowly rode updrafts away to the west.
Higher up, vultures circled even more lazily but more tightly, sensing there might be a meal in their future.
On the ground, silence.
Heat and silence.
After a few minutes, a small family of seven prairie dogs looked on. Four from two holes in a mound only ten feet away on the right, two more with a young one peeking tentatively around them from a smaller mound some fifteen feet away on the left.
For a moment, Mitch looked down on the scene, noticed the four pups on the right, the expression on their tiny, pointed faces. Did they wonder where the shiny, multicolored mass had come from? Had it simply dropped out of the sky? Was it yet another a warning from this harsh land where warnings were the norm?
Mitch returned to his body.
He strained, tried to reach for Millie. His fingers moved, barely, but nothing else would. His left side was crushed against the steering wheel. And his right was crushed by the back of the heavy bench seat.
“Millie?” The sound was a raspy croak. His throat wasn’t working right either. “Mill?”
But she was asleep. She was all right.
He tried to move his fingers again.
Jesus. Seriously? He was actually being pinched to death, a thought he found ridiculously funny.
He grinned and closed his eyes, wondering what would happen next.
Not more than a hundred feet away, Miles Jensen, attorney at law, and Jessica Strickland, his secretary and love interest, were exploring the area around an old mine. Jessica was dressed appropriately in jeans with no belt, lightweight tan hiking boots, a blue t-shirt and an unbuttoned lightweight blue denim shirt.
The mine itself was a simple shaft, a black hole in the ground maybe 15 feet in diameter. It dropped away almost vertically and seemed to go on forever. The remains of a shelter that had stood over it at one time lay in weathered and rotted eight-by-eight supports and heavy planks all around. Most were at least partially covered by sand. On one nearby support, a mountain-boomer lizard about eight inches long, common in these parts, did warning pushups.
Miles, probably in an effort to impress Jessica, was inappropriately dressed in the same kind of three-piece suit he wore in the office. He smiled at her. “I’ll bet there are bad gas pockets down there. Probably why it was abandoned.”
She nodded, still eyeing the hole. “Or maybe because there was no gol—” She jerked her head up and gaped.
Way out here, almost 20 miles from town as the crow flies, the serenity of the desert had just been shattered by the violent, heart-rending screech of metal being shredded and glass being shattered.
And before her was a—a frame?
It was a vision similar to the heat mirages that appeared often out here, but this one had a kind of form despite its shimmering, heat-wave-like edges. It was a good eight feet across and about that tall but with a rounded top, like the arch leading from the living room into the kitchen at Miles’ adobe-look house on the golf course in Cave Creek.
That sight was odd enough by itself.
But through it an old pink car with what looked almost like a white Nike swish on the side had just dropped out of the air, landed on its roof, and plowed into a sand hill with a mesquite growing out of it. A massive dust cloud billowed up through the sound, already wafting away in the wind as it rose.
And in the instant before the car landed she thought she saw at least one person inside. A woman, upside down, her shoulder and the side of her head smashed hard against the passenger window.
Well of course there would be people inside. At least two. The woman was a passenger, so there must have been a driver too.
She looked at Miles, her eyes wide. “Jesus! Did you see that?”
And she stepped back from the mine shaft and circled behind Miles and started toward the frame.
He grabbed for her arm, managed only to catch the sleeve of her shirt. “Wait!”
She spun around. “What?” Then pointed, her right arm extended behind her. “Those people need us, Miles!” She turned away again. “They’ve been in an awful—”
And the frame and everything she’d seen through it disappeared.
There was only silence and the heat. The sand hill, the twisted old mesquite. Creosote. Yucca stakes and clumps of dry yellow grass marching away into the distance toward the blue-grey mountains across the valley.
She turned back to Miles, her eyes wide, her right arm still suspended in mid-air and pointing behind her. “Miles, I swear! I swear to you, I saw—”
His eyes were wide too as he gaped past her. “I know! A car crash, right?” Then he took both her shoulders in his hands. “I saw it too, but there’s nothing we can do. It’s—it happened in a different time.” He gestured past her with his chin. “Right over there at the base of that old mesquite, but in a different time.”
She frowned up at him. “What? How?”
“I’ve never seen one before, but people in town talk about portals or slips. They’re kind of passageways between dimensions or something. From one time to another. Maybe even from one timeline to another. And if you go through one—a portal, I mean—there’s a good chance you won’t be able to come back.”
She stared at him, then jerked away and leaned toward him slightly. “What? That’s impossible. You’re crazy!” As she moved toward the shaft, she turned her left hand over, touched a small imbedded button on her palm, then raised her left hand to the side of her face. She pressed the tip of her middle finger just below her left ear. “I’m calling for help.”
She looked up. “No, Miles! You do whatever you want, but I’m going to help those people!”
He crossed his arms over his chest and watched her, shaking his head slightly. The mayor would not be pleased.
He glanced at her proximity to the open shaft. Maybe—But no. He loved her, and he was sure she would come to feel the same. Then again…. He started toward her, said, “Jessie, please don’t—”
But it was too late. Jessica glanced at him. Into the open air she said, “We need help! An ambulance! There’s been a car crash!”
“Yes, I said a car crash!”
“Okay. That’s fine. Think whatever you like about me, but I know what I saw! Please just send a damn ambulance!”
“Okay, good. Thank you. We’re about—I don’t know—maybe 20 miles east of town? And then maybe a hundred yards or so off the road to the north.” She glanced at Miles. “Yes, one of us can meet you on the road.”
“All right. But please hurry!”
She took her palm away from her face, closed her hand to end the call. “Miles, I had to. We can’t just abandon those people.” To appease him, she added, “No matter what time they’re from.”
He only nodded and released a quiet sigh. No, the mayor would definitely not be pleased. He would never get on the city council now.
Jessica looked at Miles. “We’ll have to split up for a little while. Would you walk down to the road please? An ambulance is on its way. I told them one of us would meet them there.”
He extended one hand toward her. “Sure. But you come with me, all right?”
She shook her head. “No, I want to stay right here. I’ll watch for the portal or slip or whatever you called it. Maybe it’ll come back.”
“I won’t go through, I promise.”
But what if the people are still alive? What if they’re screaming for help? What if the car bursts into flames?
She shook her head to clear the thoughts. “I won’t go through. I’ll wait right here. I promise, Miles. Please.”
Unable to think of anything else to say, Miles nodded. “All right. I’ll walk down to the stupid road.” He pointed at her. “But you don’t move, all right? You’re about where you were when you first saw the slip, so if it comes back you should be able to see it again. But no matter what, you stay right there. Okay?”
Frustration bled into her voice. “Yes, all right? Yes. I said I promise. Just go! If you aren’t there to flag them down, they might go on past.”
He held up both hands. “I’m going.” As he turned away, he said, “Just don’t move.”
Jessica turned and stared at the twisted old mesquite on the rock-strewn sand hill. It was pretty much in a direct line through the portal or slip or whatever when the car landed and slammed up against it.
The little hill was maybe thirty feet across, maybe half that deep from front to back, and about three or four feet higher than the surface of the ground around it.
She looked more closely at the front of the slope. It was difficult to tell for sure in the bright, harsh, early afternoon light, but just above the bottom of the slope on either side, maybe six or seven feet apart, were what looked like two gouges, each about six inches across.
Of course there were a few small clumps of the stiff yellow grass growing in them now, and the ever-present rocks and tiny bits of branches broken off the mesquite above. But she was sure those were gouges. They proceeded maybe halfway up the hill. And on this side of them in another time, a car lay upside down with people in it.
Was that where the headlights hit? She thought the headlight on the side of the car she could see was surrounded by a cowling. Something had flashed in the sun, so it was probably chrome.
That made sense. And as the headlight cowlings dug the gouges farther up the hill, the front of the roof of the car came to rest at the base of the hill, finally stopping the forward momentum.
She looked more closely between and below the gouges at the base of the slope.
Well, there was no sharp line from where the leading edge of the roof had hit the slope, but then that would have been filled in long ago, right? Probably by runoff from the very next rain.
She turned to look toward the road. She couldn’t see it on a direct line to the south from here, but Miles was almost there.
She glanced back to the southwest. There the narrow blue line of asphalt appeared again, heading up a low rise, beyond which lay Cave Creek and the mountains that abutted it on the west.
She realized her fists were clenched. She just wished the damn ambulance would hurry.
And as if the idea gave birth to the reality, the hovering ambulance came over the rise. It was only a mile distant, maybe two. She glanced south again at Miles’ receding back. As she watched, he stopped walking. He had reached the road. Good.
She turned back to look at the mesquite on the low hill, squeezed her fists more tightly, attempting to will the shimmering frame back into existence.
It didn’t come.
After a very long several seconds, the rising and falling wail of the siren from the ambulance sliced through the heat of the day.
Jessica looked to the south again and could only barely believe her eyes.
Why weren’t they coming? Why hadn’t Miles just pointed them in the right direction, then followed on foot as the ambulance hovered its way over to her?
But they weren’t coming. Not yet.
The ambulance was there, but it had set down—apparently on the road—and the door had opened.
Someone, a heavy-set man in an outfit similar to Miles’ suit—stepped out and walked toward Miles. His arms were extended to the side, and he seemed angry.
They were talking? Talking? Jesus H. Christ!
The man stopped in front of Miles and Miles gestured too, his arms also out to his sides. Then finally he turned and pointed back in her direction.
The other man said something else, then turned curtly, returned to the ambulance, climbed aboard and closed the door. Hard. Jessica could hear it slam all the way from out here.
And the ambulance hovered again.
Jessica held her breath.
But as Miles turned and started walking back toward her, the ambulance started toward her too.
When it arrived a few seconds later, the ambulance settled to the north of the mine shaft. The door opened, but this time a tall, good looking blond-haired man in a blue ball cap with a red cross on the front stepped down. He was dressed in jeans with a wide black leather belt, heavy black lace-up boots, and the standard-issue short-sleeved light-blue shirt with a red cross on the left breast pocket. He was carrying a rectangular black case of some sort. He glanced around, then started toward Jessica.
Two others, a man and a woman, both with brown hair, both dressed the same and both carrying similar cases, stepped down too. But as the blond man walked toward Jessica, the other two remained near the ambulance.
The blond man moved with a certain amount of confidence. “Miss, you say you saw a portal?”
She canted her head, staring at him. “I saw a car crash! Like I said when I called!”
“Yes, I know. But you saw it through a portal, is that right?”
“Jesus! Yes, okay, whatever! I saw it through a goddamn portal, okay?”
He raised both hands in front of his chest and smiled. In a smooth baritone, he said, “It’s all right, Miss. Calm down, okay?” He leaned slightly forward and, more quietly, said, “Otherwise they’ll want me to sedate you, okay? We’ll get to the crash, but we can’t do anything until the portal appears again.” He straightened, removing himself from her personal space.
She frowned and all but whispered, “You know about these things?”
He nodded. Despite the blond hair, his eyes were a warm chocolate brown. They bore into her. Still speaking quietly, he said, “They’re all over the place out here. All around the town. We seem to be the epicenter of a circle about 60 miles in diameter.”
He nodded. “The farthest one we’ve seen on this side was maybe two, three hundred yards short of the highway out there. And that’s 30 miles from town.”
“Wow.” And in her peripheral vision, something shimmered. A great noise rose up.
She jerked around to the right and pointed. “There! See?”
Through the portal, the car had just come to rest against the small hill. The sounds of shredding metal and crushing glass were fading. The mesquite tree trembled slightly with the impact. The dust cloud was still rising and being blown away by the wind.
The blond man looked, then yelled over his shoulder, “Billy! Marie! Let’s go!”
But they were already on their way.
From the direction of the ambulance, someone else yelled in a gruff voice, “Don’t go through there!”
Jessica wanted to see who yelled such a thing, but she couldn’t tear her gaze away from the scene through the portal.
To her right, Miles said, “Are you okay?”
She ignored him.
In the other world or whatever, the blond man had reached the car. Thin wisps of whitish smoke was rising from what Jessica assumed was the gas tank.
The man knelt, opened the case he was carrying, and took a device from the top compartment. Still on his right knee, he swiveled toward the car, leaned in and ran the device along the seams around the crushed door.
A moment later, he stood, pried on the bottom of the door—which was now the top—and it fell at his feet. He gripped one side of it and flopped it over on itself, then knelt again, reached into the car, and began working his way backward.
He laid a woman in a light, airy dress and one white leather thong sandal gently on the ground to his right, then glanced over his right shoulder as Billy and Marie arrived. “Take her, quick!”
As they bent to the task, lifted the woman and ran with her toward the portal, the blond man turned to the car again, got on his hands and knees and moved deeper inside.
He yelled a swear word. Apparently he was having more trouble getting the driver out.
And as Billy and Marie raced through the portal, there was a quiet whump! and the car exploded into a massive ball of red and yellow flames.
In surreal stop-action, the white Nike swish disengaged itself from the car and whipped end over end toward Jessica. As a scream rose in her gut and she fell backward, the shimmering portal disappeared.
Miles was on one knee, bending over her. “Jessie! Are you all right?”
“Are you okay?”
She rolled her head right, saw his left knee, followed it up over his suitcoat, which was still neatly buttoned, to his silly, boyish face. “Miles?”
“Yes, it’s Miles. Are you okay?”
“I’m fine. What hap—” Then she remembered. She jerked her head to the left and frowned. “Where’s the ambulance?”
“Gone. Headed back to town. You passed out or something. There was an explosion and there was something coming toward us but the portal closed in time so—” He shrugged.
“The blond man?”
“Jim Spencer. His name was Jim Spencer.” He shook his head.
“He was killed?”
“Apparently so. I don’t see how he could have—”
She sat up. “We’ll have to wait.”
She got to her feet and subconsciously slapped at the back of her jeans to knock away any dirt. “We have to wait.” She looked up at him. “For the portal to open again, Miles. We have to wait and see whether—”
“There’s no need for that, sweetheart. Besides, I have to get you back into town, get you checked out. I’ve already called for a taxi.” He grinned. “Y’know, the way it sounded I think we’ll even have the same driver who dropped—”
Her eyes wide, she hit him in the chest with both palms. “Are you fucking insane? We have to save Spencer!”
“Now honey, we can’t—”
“Jesus, Miles! I’m not your honey and I’m not your sweetheart! I’m your fucking secretary! How can you not get that through your head? We’ve worked together what, three years?”
He frowned. “But I thought—”
“No, Miles, you obviously didn’t! I can be your friend, maybe, but—” She stopped and gestured toward him with one hand. “Seriously, we’re out here stomping around the desert and you’re in a fucking three-piece suit? Did you think that would impress me, or what? Grow up, Miles! Get a fucking clue! For a lover, I have to have a man!”
He only stared at her.
For a moment, she felt a sense of remorse. “I’m sorry, Miles, but that’s just the way things are.” Then she turned away.
“Where are you going?”
Without stopping or looking back, she said, “To the road. You said the taxi’s coming, right? When we get back to town, I’ll get my Fidget and come back out.”
He laughed bitterly. “You really think I’ll still share my taxi with you? You’re fired!”
She stopped. Jessica wasn’t normally a mean woman. In fact, she prided herself on her ability to deal with assholes without having to have the last word. But she was fired? That was way over the top.
She grinned. “Tell you what, Miles, let’s both walk down to the road. We’ll both plead our case to the driver and let him decide which of us he wants to take back into town.” She paused as Miles went pale. “Now, would you like to share my taxi?”
Back in Cave Creek, Jessica asked the taxi driver to drop Miles first. He was more than happy to do so. And he wore the same goofy grin most men donned when she spoke to them.
When they arrived at her house, she gave him a ten-dollar tip for his trouble, then smiled and said thanks.
As she stepped out of the taxi, she patted her left jeans pocket. Yes, she had the key for her Fidget, a small, two-seat hover car.
She went straight to it, got in, started it and headed back out into the desert.
At Cave Creek Regional, a tiny, ten-bed hospital but one that had all the modern equipment due to its likely clientele, Marie Delacroix had remained behind in the ICU when Billy Severn and the mayor left. She only wished Jim Spencer was still here to walk away with them, though she had no doubt he’d have stayed with the woman himself.
The woman from the wreck lay on her back in the bed, only inches away, the white sheet pulled up to cover her breasts, her left hand in Marie’s right. The woman’s long hair, more gray than brown, splayed up over the pillow. The doctor said she had suffered massive internal injuries. He and a team of two other doctors had done all they could for the woman during the course of an intense, three-hour operation. Now it was out of his hands. The rest really was up to her. Her body would heal itself—with time—or it wouldn’t.
In the meantime, for a while at least, Marie would wait at her bedside. Before he left, the mayor had given her a specific set of instructions.
The woman, the victim of the accident, was obviously from a past time. But it would be better not to divulge that to her. So if the woman had any mental fog at all—or even if she didn’t, for that matter—Marie was to avoid discussing the accident itself or the portal or even the mode of her transportation to the hospital. It would be better to convince her that any thoughts she had in that regard were only a misdirected fantasy, perhaps stemming from something she’d read.
Marie was to tell the woman she’d been on her way to Cave Creek alone in a hovercraft for some undetermined purpose. And could she tell Marie what that purpose was?
And her hovercraft had crashed for some unexplained reason. Did she have any idea why that might have happened?
And her identification apparently went down with the hovercraft and was destroyed. So could she remember who she was or where she was from?
And finally, she was thrown clear before the hovercraft burst into flames. In fact, she had been saved only by the quick actions of a medical team that happened to be passing on their way back from a conference in Las Vegas. And of course she was welcome. And that was all she needed to know for now. Period.
Did Marie understand that?
Yes. She understood better than the mayor realized. Better, even, than he would want her to understand.
It all seemed very shifty and dishonest, and as Marie sat next to the bed and held the woman’s hand, she felt bad for her.
There had been someone else in the car. Her husband, perhaps. Or a sister or a friend. After all, Jim Spencer had pulled her out of the passenger side. And if she could remember who else was in the car, then damn it, she should be allowed to remember. She should be allowed to mourn.
If she wanted to, once she realized the full import of what had happened, she even deserved to be allowed to return to the other side if she wanted to.
Well, in a few days. Or maybe a week or two. Sometime after the fire on the other side had time to abate. Sometime after she wouldn’t have to look at or smell the charred remains of whoever else was in that car with Jim Spencer.
Oh, it would all work out for the best, no matter how “best” was defined. But it would be a rough few days. Or a rough week or two.
Maybe a mental fog would be better.
Or maybe it would be better if she never woke up at all.