A spider web fluttered in the sticky, hot summer afternoon breeze, covering the entrance to a tan plastic storage shed, its doors ajar, exposing the once dark and dingy cube, where spiders, centipedes, millipedes, roaches, and prehistoric creatures which vied for a small environmental niche scattered behind, out, above, below weak beams of sunlight cutting through the tree canopy.
The promises of a backyard writer’s shack — molded cardboard form tubes, roll of asphalt roofing, mylar insulation sheets, University of Tennessee stained plastic lampshade — lay piled up, flowing out of the shed like dried lava, caked mud holding the writer’s shack construction pieces together like a old jigsaw puzzle box lost in a flood.
A granddaddy longleg loped across the algae-covered driveway on which the shed sat.
The UPS delivery guy smiled as he, too, loped up the driveway, handing the homeowner a nondescript cardboard box and looking at the shed. “You got your work cut out for you this afternoon, dontcha?”
Like a rubberband that had snapped, Lee was suddenly, suddenly, suddenly!!! pulled back from Mars, back from the latter part of the 21st century and dropped in the middle of 2013.
Lost were the android sheep that he and Shadowgrass had released into the wild moments before, sheep designed to eat Martian soil and convert it to edible protein for Lee, his family, his research team and the consumption-focused tourists.
Lee thanked the delivery man and cut open the box.
Two revolving camping lanterns with 30 LEDs each.
Oh yeah, his yard sculpture project he had abandoned decades ago.
Lee put his left hand on the garage doorframe, leaned to hold his balance and breathed deeply.
He felt the chipping paint through the nerves of his fingers and palm. He wondered how many bacteria were transferring from the doorframe to his body through his sweaty hand.
How many hundreds of thousands?
How many million?
He heard, almost felt rather than sensed through his eardrums, a tune by the Squirrel Nut Zippers playing on a computer system inside the house. Or was that the Cherry Poppin’ Daddies? The Side Street Steppers? Could just as easily be a 1940s big band or its modern equivalent.
He looked at the sky, clouds passing overhead, clouds he hadn’t seen on Mars.
Despite the heat, he felt a chill. He had lost 12 pounds in a week, the same amount he had lost in the previous eight months.
Something wasn’t right.
He stood up and walked over to the 1995 BMW 325i parked under a party tent for cover from dripping mimosa tree sap and black mold.
The distorted reflection in the car’s rear window pane told Lee he was who he thought he was back in 2013.
What about his older and wiser self? What about his son and Martian wife?
He shook his head.
He walked through his memory of history from 2013 to his present time — the first major Martian expeditions, the failures, the successes, the need for constant fundraising to send resupply ships to Mars, salvaging crashed tourist ships for parts, resorting to cannibalism at one point…yep, all the memories were there.
Where was his wife? Which one, for that matter?
Lee walked up steps inside the garage to the door that opened onto a back hallway.
Once inside, he looked down at the torn and tattered vinyl floor pieces covering what was left of a rotten wood subfloor.
Boxes and bags piled one on top of the other almost reached the ceiling.
He held up the cardboard box in his hand. It matched the boxes in the piles.
Was it possible his set of states of energy was caught in some loop?
Time does not exist but could space be warped such that you could travel from one condition to another almost instantaneously which made you feel like you traveled through time? A roller coaster that was really a Möbius strip of some sort?
He tried to open his thoughts to his subnodes on the ISSA NET network but only silence showed itself, tinged by the ringing of tinnitus that he thought he’d left behind many years before.
The woman walking her dog down the street did not seem to sense his presence inside the house.
A cat came wandering down the hall, its head turned sideways, meowing in a low guttural, nasally voice, “rarh.”
Lee felt a buzzing in his pocket. He reached in and pulled out a thin slab. Didn’t they used to call these smartphones?
He shook the slab and nothing happened. He touched the flat surface and images appeared, including a flashing number indicating something wanted his attention.
“On screen.” His voiced command did not change the image. He touched the surface again and the number disappeared, showing a series of boxes that looked like the old voice bubbles full of text that accompanied newspaper cartoons.
The bubbles he could see indicated someone had addressed him and he had responded not more than a few minutes ago.
The smartphone dinged and another bubble appeared, the text showing a response to his response. “Yeah, you’re right. That’s why Rigby danced in the showcase with me, because he wanted to get to know me better.”
A headache seemed to crawl out of Lee’s neck muscles and into his brain stem.
What was the matter with him? What about the lab experiment that he and Guin had planned for later that day? The genetically-modified plants they had nurtured to thrive in Martian sunlight were due to be harvested and analysed within a few hours, coordinated to occur in conjunction with a tourist visit to the greenhouses where every tourist was given the honour of helping the harvest and taking a leaf or stem home as a souvenir.
Lee tried to find a chair to sit on but every surface in the house seemed to be covered with more bags and boxes, envelopes, clothes and books. Lots of books.
He sat on the edge of the sink.
A piece of paper seemed to fly out of the cardboard box in his hand and float to the kitchen floor.
Lee couldn’t read the writing from where he was sitting so he bent down to pick up the paper.
It was a receipt for the lanterns, dated 7/21/2065.
He stood up and searched for a calendar on the kitchen wall. The first day not stricken through with a pen stripe was 8/22/2013.
Was today the 22nd of August in the year 2013?
The phone buzzed again, a new message appearing. “And Jersey hasn’t danced with me in a month. I still owe him lessons at the other studio. He’s been so busy volunteering for charities and mountain biking that we haven’t had time for a lesson. That means we can have our next lesson almost anytime.”
Dance lesson? Why did he need a lesson? He was already the ISSA Antigravity Sphere Dance Champion for the 22nd century.
Wait…what? The 22nd century? He was more confused than ever. He was supposedly in 2013, he had a box shipped to him from the year 2065 and he was a dance champion sometime after the year 2100?
The phone buzzed. He read the next message. “If the song I picked out by the Squirrel Nut Zippers is okay, I’ll go ahead and work out the choreography for the middle and end of our showcase, if the beginning is still okay with you, too?”
Lee pressed a box on the surface which had the word “REPLY” written in it. Several rows of alphabetic letters appeared inside tiny boxes. He pressed the “O” and “K” buttons and remembered to press the “SEND” button afterward.
He heard a roaring sound and realised it was raining outside.
The cat meowed louder, walking in a figure-8 pattern inside and around the outside of Lee’s legs.
There was that roller coaster/Möbius strip shape again.
He placed the box and phone in the sink, then picked up the cat and rubbed its back, causing it to purr. “What is your name, little kitty? You were always a sweet guy, if I remember correctly.” The cat stopped purring and struggled in Lee’s arms, trying to get out. “Oh yeah, the one that didn’t like to be held.” He set the cat down and looked at his feet.
He wore bright socks, mismatched, one with stripes and one with circles.
An old memory came back to him. He was standing with his wife and Guin…but wasn’t Guin his…? He let the thought drift on by, recalling the memory.
Guin stepped closer to him, talking into his ear, his wife feeling ignored and turning to Kross, a dance instructor a few feet away. “I was wearing pink socks earlier tonight but decided not to wear them with these jazz practice shoes.”
They both looked down at Guin’s ankles while Lee’s wife, Karen, struck up a conversation with Kross about the four major spin moves she wanted to master before entering another competition or showcase.
The first time Lee had met Guin was two years before, at a picnic on the local Army base sponsored by the previous dance studio they attended. Her skin was walnut brown and her personality exuded the confidence of a successful college student. She had walked under the picnic pavilion and sat right next to Lee, her white camisole accentuating her dark skin, showing off the Celtic cross tattoo on her left shoulder blade and another tattoo on her lower back.
She had hinted about taking a walk around the woods not far from the pavilion and maybe having her boyfriend and their third-wheel friend coming along to take pictures.
Seated across from him at the picnic table, Lee’s wife wasn’t interested, plus there was a football game between the University of Tennessee and the University of Florida football teams on the portable TV they brought.
Thus, Lee waved off the offer and stayed in the pavilion.
Looking down at Guin’s ankles in his newer memory, though, her ankles were white, her ankle and back tattoos clearly visible, as if she hadn’t been out in the sun for a long time. Just like on Mars…hmm…
Guin shrugged her shoulders and lifted her legs in a kind of marching motion, a habit of hers that Lee imagined went with her nerdy/geeky teenage years, a pretty girl with tomboy tendencies that helped her out.
Like the time, she said the other day, when she was a freshman in the high school marching band and, after practice, the band supervisors had walked away, leaving the band members, cheerleaders and football players to perform their yearly hazing ritual during their orientation cookout at the local park.
Some of the band members had tried to pick up Guin to throw her in the lake but were unsuccessful. Some of the football players were able to pick her up but by the time they tossed her into the water she had given one a black eye, another a bloody cheek and a third a hefty kick in the balls. They respected her strength after that.
Lee looked up from Guin’s ankles to her eyes. She raised her eyebrows and smiled, putting her hands on her hips.
He looked from her eyes to her hips and back up to her eyes. “Did you used to wear contact lenses?”
“Well, yeah, as a matter of fact up until I was thrown in the lake. One of the contact lenses actually spun around to the back of my eye and I haven’t worn any since.”
Karen turned to them and nodded. “Yeah, and I bet that was back when the contact lenses were like pieces of glass.”
Karen nodded and returned to Kross, who was about to kid all of them about their talking too much and not practicing enough but he tossed his head and laughed, the proper satirically pretentious behaviour of a dance floor primadonna, getting the message across the same way.
Lee nodded his head at Guin’s hands on her hips. “Like I said, you’ve lost your saddle bags.”
Karen spoke to both Kross and Guin. “Don’t mind Lee. He’s liable to say whatever’s on his mind.”
“That’s okay. Rigby” — Guin saw Kross’ questioning look — “my boyfriend, or as the state of Alabama calls him, my common law husband. He saw me walking up the stairs in front of him and told me I had a fat ass. I told him I could pick up a lot more dancing if he wanted me to have smaller hips. Or he could deal with it.”
They all laughed.
The cat kept meowing. Lee opened the refrigerator door, found a plastic container of cream cheese, stuck his finger in and wiped a dollop on the Cornish Rex’s thin fur.
He was losing track of which contiguous string of memorable moments was real.
He walked around the house until he found the main bedroom, the bed free of boxes, thank goodness, and crawled under the covers. Within a minute, two cats had curled up under the covers with him.
Lee could just barely hear the phone buzzing in the stainless steel kitchen sink as he fell asleep, a clap of thunder jarring his thoughts briefly.
He might wake up in time to go dancing. Or he might wake up back on Mars. Which century he’d wake up in didn’t seem to matter in his dreams.